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Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
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Dark horse
 
Meaning: An unknown quantity; a person/thing whose qualities are untried.
Example: Never having been previously seeded in the Wimbledon Cup, young Agassiz was the dark horse of the tennis match.
Origin: This expression goes back to Benjamin Disraeli who, apart from finding time to regularly become Prime Minister, also found time to write a novel called, "The Young Duke". In the book, there is a description of a horse race in which the two favourites cannot make the running. In the meanwhile, "a dark horse" rushed past the grandstand in a sweeping triumph.

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Dead as a door nail
 
Meaning: Actual or apparent total lack of life.
Example: You might as well junk that car, the engine is dead as a door nail.
Origin: Nails were once hand tooled and costly. When an aging cabin or barn was torn down the valuable nails would be salvaged so he could reuse them in later construction.

When building a door however, carpenters often drove the nail through then bent it over the other end so it couldn't work its way out during the repeated opening and closing of the door. When it came time to salvage the building, these door nails were considered useless, or "dead" because of the bend.

Alternative: Medieval doors were studded with heavy nails - Doornails, one of which was used as a knocker. This nail was clearly very unresponsive and dead to the constant assault, hence the saying.

Alternative: This may also be an example of an alliterative (the use of like consonants in neighboring words to create a sort of rhyme).

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Dead ringer
 
Meaning: To look like someone else.
Example: She told me I was dead ringer for the Joe-kster. Is that good?
Origin: The definition of ringer, from which this phrase comes, is "substituted racehorse."

Unscrupulous racehorse owners have a fast horse and a slow horse that are nearly identical in appearance. They run the slow horse until the betting odds reached the desired level, then they substitute the ringer, who can run much faster. Dead in this case means abrupt or exact, like in dead stop, or dead shot.

Alternative: Gangsters with contracts on their lives might hire a person who looked similar to them, a ringer, to appear in a public places. The lookalike would often be convincing enough to fool the contracted killers, you can guess the part about dead.

Alternative: Refers to a ringer in the game of horse shoes. A perfect toss, with the horse shoe landing perfectly around the pin, is called a ringer. A ringer usually makes a ringing sound when the shoe hits the post. You can get a ringer if the shoe encompasses the post, but doesn't hit the post and doesn't make a ringing sound, hence a “dead ringer.” A throw that results in a dead ringer is a perfect and precise throw exactly on the post, analogous to a perfect lookalike match.

Alternative: Before we knew what a coma even was, people that were thought to be dead were buried and then sometimes awakened. So when they buried them they put a rod into the ground with a string attached to a bell at the top of the rod. If the person awakened they rang they pulled the string and the bell rang at the top of the rod. There were always men on duty in the graveyard with shovels in case they ever heard a “Dead Ringer”. They would shout out, “We have a Dead Ringer!” and dig them back up. Thanks to Kurtis L. Bubier, Cedar Pines Park California.

Best alternate: A "dead ringer" is someone who can't cut it in the Joe-kster's handbell choir!

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Debug
 
Meaning: Bug: An unexpected defect, fault, flaw, or imperfection. Debug: What computer programmers do to track down errors in computer programs - they debug their programs.
Example: Trying to debug his C computer program for a memory leak proved to be much easier for Little Johnny than debugging his windshield.
Origin: On September 9, 1945, operators looking for the cause of a malfunction in Harvard University's Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator discovered a moth trapped in a relay. The operators taped the moth to the computer log with the entry: “First actual case of bug being found”. Although Thomas Edison had earlier coined the term 'bug' as early as 1878 for system flaws, this was the origin of the terms 'debug' and “debugging a computer program”.

Use of the word “bug” as a term for “fault” may have been used as early as the 14th century to mean “an object of dread” derived from the Welsh word “bwg” for “hobgoblin”. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary cites it as meaning “an unexpected defect, fault, flaw or imperfection” with origins reaching back as far as 1622 (certainly not referring to computers as we know them today).

Picture of the “World’s First Computer Bug
World’s First Computer Bug” in a Sudoku Puzzle
Computer Bug Removal

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December
 
Meaning: The twelfth month of the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
Example:
Origin: The month “December” came from the Latin word for “tenth” since it was the tenth month of the Roman year. December in the Julian calendar had 29 days prior to 45 BC, and 31 days as of 45 BC.

The Julian calendar was in general use in Europe and Northern Africa from the times of the Roman Empire until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII started the Gregorian calendar.

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Deep Six
 
Meaning: To remove something incriminating in a secretive manner.
Example: She deep-sixed last term's report card with a failing mark in Math.
Origin: Whereas one might “86” an unneeded internal memo, one would “deep-six” an incriminating one. The term may have derived from navigation in earlier centuries, where anything more than 6 fathoms (36 feet / 11m) deep under water was unlikely to be recovered.

Alternative: This term relates to burial at sea - that 6 fathoms was the legal minimum depth for the body to be immersed.

See aslo: Trivia Section

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Devil to pay
 
Meaning: To have a great deal of difficulty to access something.
Example:
Origin: This phrase has nothing to do with the Devil or money. It is part of a longer saying, "The devil to pay, and no pitch hot". The "devil" is the heavy wooden beam used to support the big guns on sailing ships. It was also known as the Gunwale and was a very difficult place to get at for maintenance with the tar (pitch) needed to regularly seal (pay) the gaps in the ship's sides. From this difficulty comes another related saying "Between the devil and the deep blue sea", the devil here again being the wooden beam.

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Devil's Advocate
 
Meaning: To present an alternative opinion - someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, for the sake of debate
Example: How to Play Devil's Advocate
Origin: This phrase comes from the Roman Catholic Church. When deciding if someone should be sainted, a devil's advocate is always appointed to give an alternative view.

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Dicey situation
 
Meaning: Risky, potentially dangerous.
Example: Bush put himself in a dicey situation by entering Iraq.
Origin: Many betting games of chance, like craps, are played with dice. The phrase refers to the risk and uncertainty of those games.

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Dick Head
 
Meaning: Ever wonder where the term 'Dick head' came from?
Origin: Further Reference: Dick head

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Dirt poor
 
Meaning: Reference to poor people.
Example: Some consider the poor people of America to be very hard done by when in fact most live like kings compared to the dirt poor people of the Medieval Ages.
Origin: In the 1500s, the floor of the common people's houses was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying, "dirt poor."

Further Reference: The 1500s

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Do something gingerly
 
Meaning: To do something with caution.
Example:
Origin: "Ginger" has nothing to do with the vegetable "ginger" but probably has an origin in the Old French word 'genzor', the comparative form of 'gent,' meaning 'delicate.' There are other theories, including one that it comes from the Icelandic by way of Swedish but no one accepts the vegetable origin.

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Dog days
 
Meaning: The days in high summer when it's too hot even for dogs
Example:
Origin: In mid summer the dog-star Sirius rises with the Sun. The Romans believed that the star also gave out heat and was thus partly responsible for the hottest time of the year, hence Dog-days.

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Dog in a manger
 
Meaning: To be a spoilsport; to be unwilling to let others benefit when self benefit is not possible.
Example:
Origin: In Aesop's fables, a dog occupies an ox's manger. The manger is full of hay, for which the dog has no use; never-the-less he refuses to let the ox get at its fodder.

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Dog watch
 
Meaning: Method to ensure that the same men do not do the same watch every day.
Example:
Origin: The dog-watch was the pair of two hour afternoon shifts put into the normal sequence of four hourly stints in order to ensure that the same men did not do the same watch every day. In this way they dodged around or the shifts were docked.

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Dog's breakfast
 
Meaning: A mess, vomit.
Example: I tried my hand at oil painting but the results ended up looking like a dog's breakfast.
Origin: Dogs are known to eat vomit. Further, dog food prepared by humans tends to be a random mix of different things together and actually often looks somewhat like vomit. The phrase is a reference to the appearance of what dogs eat.

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Donkey's years
 
Meaning: A long while; a lengthy period.
Example:
Origin: This expression comes from the original parallel between "a long time" being likened to being as "long as donkey's ears". A slurring of pronunciation resulted in the present form, first recorded in 1916.

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Don't count your chickens before they hatch
 
Meaning: Don't count on profits before you earn them or have them in hand.
Example:
Origin: Aesop once wrote about a woman carrying a basket of eggs. In her mind she figured how much she would get for the chickens when the eggs hatched and exactly how she would spend the money. She got so excited, she dropped her basket. Every egg smashed. Today we use this fable to warn people not be confident of getting a result, realizing an ambition, or making a profit before it actually happens.

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Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
 
Meaning: Do not be critical of a gift.
Example: Okay, so the '70 Gremlin grandma gave you is not your idea of a babe magnet, but it was free - so don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
Origin: Horses have gum lines that recede with age. Hence older horses have longer teeth than young horses.

To "look a horse in the mouth" is to examine the horse's mouth closely to determine its age (and therefore its usefulness and/or worth). To immediately judge a gift based on its worth or usefulness rather than the "thought" behind it considered rude, and ungrateful (it is a gift after all, and didn't cost the receiver anything).

The phrase is apparently quite old, a Latin version of it appeared in a work by St. Jerome in 420 AD, and it also exists in many languages. An Early english version (1510 AD) appears in John Standbridge's "Vulgari Standbrigi": "A gyuen hors may not (be) loked in the tethe."

An older horse's teeth would be ground down from all the chewing. If the teeth were ground down, the animal would be less likely to be able to ingest enough food. In the wild, for many older herbivores death comes from malnutrition due to this inability to chew enough food. A person would look in the horse's mouth to see the amount of wear, and the subsequent age.

Apparently, there are also several other things that happen. One is that younger horses actually have more teeth. Another is that there is a certain age range (like 6-10 years) where the teeth actually have some circular bands. After this age range, the bands are worn away.

Hence you can tell a lot about a horse from inspection of the teeth.

Related phrase: "Long in the tooth".

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Don't poke the bear
 
Meaning: Don't annoy someone who's already irritated; try not to aggravate someone who's easily angered.
Example: If you don't want to hear your father shout, don't poke the bear.
Origin: Thanks to Pamela Walker.

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Don't pull my leg
 
Meaning: A request to have someone stop playing a joe-ks; to stop telling lies/fibs and to tell the truth.
Example: Gwen wanted to hear the truth from him, so she asked him to stop pulling her leg.
Origin: The modern version of this expression conjures a sense of good humour about the whole concept, but its origins were not of good humour. The origin is found in a Scottish rhyme in which "draw" is used in the sense of "pull" rather than the word itself:
"He preached, and at last drew the auld body's leg,
Sae the Kirk got the gatherins o' our Aunty Meg."

The suggestion in the rhyme is that Aunty Meg was hung for a crime and, at the end, the preacher pulled on her legs to ensure that she was dead. The American usage suggests more of a feeling of trickery and deception.

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Don't throw the baby out with the bath water
 
Meaning: Don't throw away good, tried methods (which have worked for a long time) when you come up with doing something in a new way.
Example: Management was eager to implement their 32nd Mission Statement and drastic company change - they were ready to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Origin: In the 1500s, most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children - last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Further Reference: The 1500s

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Dot your 'i's and cross your 't's
 
Meaning: Complete the job paying attention to the details.
Example: Your instructor is a tough grader, be sure to dot your 'i's and cross your 't's on your research.
Origin: When writing, many people complete a word before returning to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's. Someone in a rush might neglect to complete the task. The phrase has been extended to any job, not just writing.

Crossing the T has also become a naval term. A naval engagement fought in the Surigao Straight during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which is in the Philippines, illustrates crossing the T. That battle (Leyte Gulf) marked the end of the Japanese navy.

It was also the strangest naval battle in the war. Both sides were totally confused as to the disposition of enemy forces and both commanders made mistakes that seriously jeopardized their objectives. Admirals Kincaid and Halsey had the advantage of numbers and luck and won out.

Warships of the era had guns mounted in turrets distributed over the ship. Their ability to fire in the direction the ship is pointed is limited to the front most turrets, rendering the remaining guns useless for firing forward. However when firing perpendicular to the ship, all turrets can be rotated and used.

The Japanese ships were caught in a single file line. The United States ships were positioned at the head of the line in a T fashion. This formation is known as crossing the T in military circles.

Having crossed the T, the U.S. ships could point all the ship's guns towards the Japanese ships making it easy to fire on them. The Japanese ships had the considerable disadvantage of having to fire straight ahead.

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Doubting Thomas
 
Meaning: Requiring physical proof before believing in something.
Example: Harry's a real doubting Thomas - he never listens to any good advice from his wife.
Origin: Saint Thomas was one of the Twelve Apostles of Christ. He is best known for requiring physical proof of Jesus' Resurrection before he could believe it, hence the phrase “Doubting Thomas.” When Jesus reappeared and had Thomas touch his wounds, Thomas became the first person to explicitly acknowledge Jesus' divinity, saying “My Lord and my God.”

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Down in the mouth
 
Meaning: To be depressed or sad.
Example: I've been feeling a bit down in the mouth lately. I realize that I haven't received any real bad joe-ks for at least 10 minutes.
Origin: In all cultures and throughout history sad persons have had the corners of their mouth turned down in what is the recognized symbol of sadness, the frown. "Down in the mouth" refers to the down turned corners of the mouth.

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Down the hatch
 
Meaning: Drink or eat.
Example: Enough talk, let's put some food down the hatch.
Origin: Here's a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch for transport below deck. The freight appears to be consumed by the ship.

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Down to the gnat's ass
 
Meaning: Extremely thorough, specified or completed to a high level of detail.
Example: Felix cleaned his apartment right down to the gnat's ass.
Origin: Gnats are very small flying insects, as such they have extremely small backsides. Anything specified to a level as fine as a gnat's ass is indeed very detailed.

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Down to the short strokes
 
Meaning: Approaching the end of a long process.
Example: Building a house is a long ordeal. Just when you think you are down to the short strokes, something unexpected comes up.
Origin: When a golfer begins at the tee, he hits the ball towards the green by driving, or using a long stroke. When the ball is on the green, he must get the ball in the hole by putting - or taking "short" strokes.

A painter begins on a clean canvas using large and broad strokes of the brush. As the painting progresses the brush strokes become shorter and finer as detail is filled into the painting.

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Down to the wire
 
Meaning: Undecided until the end, at the last minute
Example: We almost missed our flight, it came right down to the wire. The traffic on the way to the Vancouver airport was gross, and we had to run to our gate.
Origin: This phrase refers to races where the winner is determined by whoever crosses the finish line first. Think of horse racing and foot races. A string is stretched across the finish to help the judges see clearly who crosses first in a close race. That string is called the wire or tape, the winner is the one who breaks the wire first.

The "wire" is actually string, tape, or paper and not a metal wire at all. No need to be concerned about those horses tripping and getting themselves caught in the wire. Hence "down to the wire" means the event is not decided until the very end of the event.

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Dragging your feet
 
Meaning: Not keeping up with everyone else in something you're doing.
Example: I should have washed my car but I dragged my feet about it all day.
Origin: One of the earliset references to this phrase can be found in the Ninth Book of Homer's Odysseys (George Chapman, 1857): "But, dragging them to fleet, I wrapt in sure bands both their hands and feet, and cast them under hatches, and away commanded all the rest without least stay..."

Alternative: The Battle with the Slum, "Justice to the Boy" by Jacob A. Riis (1902): "And justice to Jacob is being evolved. Not yet without obstruction and dragging of feet."

Alternative: A Happy Boy, Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction by Björnstjerne Björnson (1917): “Be quick now!” said the grandfather up on the slope. And Marit rose and walked up after him with dragging feet."

Alternative: The skeleton (originally called tobogganing) was invented in St. Moritz, Switzerland in the late 19th Century. Used in the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympic Games, steering was accomplished by shifting weight or dragging the feet.

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Draw the line
 
Meaning: Define a threshold that can't be crossed without action or retaliation.
Example: You can leave your pet skunk outside, but I draw the line at bringing it inside the house.
Origin: Comes from one of the Psalms which contains a reference about "drawing a line in the sand" meaning to "proceed no further." It has been shortened to "draw the line."

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Dressed to a tea
 
Meaning: Well dressed with attention to detail.
Example: Beware any salesman that is dressed to a tea, smiles too much, and talks fast.
Origin: A short way of saying "dressed for a tea" or "dressed to go to a tea". In the Victorian era, high tea was a formal affair. All proper people dressed in appropriate attire.

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Dressed to the nines
 
Meaning: Dressed flamboyantly, dressed well.
Example: New years eve is the one day of the year when people like to go out dressed to the nines.
Origin: Common lore has it that a tailor making a high quality suit uses more fabric. The best suits are made from nine yards of fabric.

This may seem like a lot but a proper suit does indeed take nine yards of fabric. This is because a god suit has all the fabric cut in the same direction with the warp, or long strands of thread, parallel with the vertical line of the suit. This causes a great amount of waste in suit making, but if you want to go "dressed to the nines", you must pay for such waste.

Alternative: The meaning is drawn from the phrase "the whole nine yards" which has come to mean a complete high quality job without cutting corners.;

Alternative: This saying originated in Shakespeare's time and is connected with the price a person had to pay for theater tickets depending on where their seats were located. The farthest seats were one pence and the ones closest to the stage were nine pence. If you sat in the expensive seats you would feel obliged to dress up so as not to look out of place with the other wealthy patrons.

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Drive carefully
 
Meaning: Drive carefully!
Example: All teenage drivers get irritated with their parents constantly reminding them to drive carefully.
Origin: Norwegian "farvel" means "travel well (safe)". A modern version would be "drive carefully".

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Drive someone doolally
 
Meaning: To drive someone mad.
Example: His walk across the Sahara Desert was enough to drive him doolally - next time he planned to use Rent-A-Camel.
Origin: After a tour of duty, British troops in India were sent back to Britain for redeployment. Troopships were the means of transport and the troops were sent to the appropriate port to await the arrival of the ship. There they had to wait, often for weeks, in the heat and humidity. They were nearly driven mad by boredom. The port was called Deolali which became Anglicised and used as a term of semi-abuse.

Alternative: A large "lunatic asylum" in Deolali may have played a role in the evolution of the phrase.

Alternative: "Deo" in Urdu means "Devil", and "Lal" means "Red".

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Drop a dime
 
Meaning: Make a phone call.
Example: Don't be such a stranger. Drop a dime some time.
Origin: This is a good phrase to discuss with anyone born after 1970. Pay phones cost 35 cents today, but they really did cost 10 cents at one time. The dime was dropped into the slot of the pay phone.

Along similar lines is "to spend a penny" which in the U.K. means to use the toilet. The penny refers to the price of admission to a public pay toilet.

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Drop the hammer
 
Meaning: To kill someone.
Example: During the Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka trial, the big question was not his guilt but if the jury would drop the hammer and call for the death penalty.
Origin: The "hammer" is the hammer of a gun. When the gun is cocked, the hammer has been pulled back. Pulling the trigger drops the hammer onto the cartridge, firing the gun.

Popularized by the seemingly tireless stream of police dramas on television.

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Drum up support
 
Meaning: Obtain, summon support or interest; recruiting.
Example:
Origin: A military term which described the custom of recruiting parties marching into town and announcing their arrival with fife and drum. Their duty was described as Drumming up recruits.

Alternative: To make a meal or a drink - from tramps' slang derived from the Romany 'drom' (highway), where tramps would normally take their refreshment.

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Ducking in and out of traffic

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Ducks in a row
 
Meaning: To have things in order.
Example: If you don't get your ducks in a row, you will be replaced.
Origin: Baby ducklings swim in a straight line behind the mother duck. If the ducklings stray to far, the mother duck will get them back in line, that is get her ducks in a row.

Alternative: Contrary to popular belief this phrase has nothing to do with little yellow ducklings following their Mother duck all in a straight line. Landlubbers use the phrase to mean "get your business organized", but sailors know that this expression comes from the boatbuilding trade. Unbeknownst to a lot of people, a "duck" is a great big thing, bigger than your car that is so heavy that it has to be moved with a crane, and has jaws that open to make it a giant vise. The U.S. Navy (when building a new ship) lines up a number of ducks with a laser bean so that they are absolutely straight in a line; then the beginning piece of the new boat (the keel) is clamped in. The ducks hold the keel perfectly straight so the ship will be absolutely square athwart and fore-an-aft when it is being constructed. And so the first thing that is done in shipbuilding is to "get your ducks in a row".  Thanks to Byron Burson.

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Dunce
 
Meaning: Someone considered out of step.
Example:
Origin: The word dunce derives unfairly from Duns Scotus, a brilliant thirteenth-century Scottish philosopher who, along with his followers (who were called “Duns men”), resisted the thinking within the Renaissance that swept the Middle Ages. As unfair as the sight of a child in a conical dunce cap, Scotus was ridiculed for being different and for daring to express his own thoughts.

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Dutch treat
 
Meaning: Those invited to pay for themselves.
Example:
Origin: "Dutch Treat", "I'm a Dutchman" and "Dutch courage" come from the 17th century when the Dutch were hated military and commercial rivals of the English.

Examples: "Dutch reckoning" - a bill that is presented without any details, and which only gets bigger if you question it;
       "Dutch widow" - a prostitute;
       "Dutch auction" - one in which the prices go down instead of up;
       "Dutch courage: - temporary bravery induced by alcohol;
       "Dutch metal" - an alloy of copper and zinc used as a substitute for gold foil;
       "Dutch comfort" or "Dutch consolation" - where somebody might say "thank God it is no worse!";
       "Dutch concert" - each musician plays a different tune;
       "Dutch uncle" - someone who criticises or rebukes you with the frankness of a relative.

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Dyed in the wool
 
Meaning: An individual with fixed, dedicated, committed, uncompromising, deep felt beliefs.
Example: Jean Chretien was a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal. Why not, with all the patronage money to made in federal politics?
Origin: The phrase relates to the medieval method of adding dye to raw wool rather than to spun wool or finished cloth. The final colour was much more long lasting and deeply ingrained than dyeing at later stages of manufacture. If something is dyed-in-the-wool, it's unlikely to change.


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