Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
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Raining cats and dogs
 
Meaning: A very hard rain.
Example: We decided to cancel our trip, it was raining cats and dogs that day.
Origin: When the bubonic plague was rampant in London, humans where apparently not the only victims of the plague. Cats and dogs were also afflicted, many died in the streets. After a particularly hard rain, street gutters could be awash in the bodies of cats and dogs.

Another theory suggests that thunder and lightning represent a cat and dog fight.

Yet another traces the origin of the phrase to ideas in ancient mythology that cats could influence the weather, and that dogs were a symbol of the wind.

This phrase goes back many hundreds of years to the Dark Ages. The cat was thought by sailors to have a lot to do with storms. Witches that were believed to ride in the storms were often pictured as black cats.

Dogs and wolves were symbols of winds and the Norse storm god Odin was frequently shown surrounded by dogs and wolves. In the phrase "raining cats and dogs", cats symbolize the rain and dogs represent the wind of the storm.

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Raise the roof
 
Meaning: To shout very loudly.
Example: If you scratch that car, your father will raise the roof.
Origin: In my early childhood when I was misbehaving my grandmother told me that if my granddad knew what I was doing he would "raise the roof". My grandfather was a very handy guy indeed, and in my mind I imagined him using jacks or something to literally raise the roof off the house.

That reprimand was completely lost on me. I asked my grandmother why he was going to raise the roof. She told me it was just a figure of speech - a comical suggestion that someone will explode in anger thus raising the roof.

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Raisin Pay

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Read between the lines
 
Meaning: Listen to what is implied, not what is explicitly stated.
Example: If your girlfriend told you that you are a good friend, you need to read between the lines. It's over.
Origin: Early in the days of sending secret messages people would write in substances that would only be revealed on plain paper with the use of a re-agent. For instance, lemon juice is normally transparent on paper, but when heated (say over a candle flame) it becomes discolored. Many people will probably remember the "Secret Agent" pens, which had a writing tip at one end and a revealer at the other.

Obviously a courier delivering a blank piece of paper was a bit of a give-away, so the author of the message would write a seemingly innocuous letter in ink and then write the secret message in the spaces in between. The recipient would then have to treat the letter and read between the lines of the letter to get to the real message.

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Reading the riot act
 
Meaning: To complain or lecture loudly and with angry emotion.
Example: Upset about his neighbour's loud music at 3:00 A.M., Smith knocked on the door and proceeded to read the riot act to them.
Origin: "Reading the riot act" used to be a literal event. Bobbies in Britain used to read a prescribed proclamation, known as the Riot Act (1714), before they could break up or arrest a crowd. The Riot Act made it unlawful for a dozen or more people to gather for "riotous or illegal purposes" and was used in a fashion similar to the Miranda Rights in the U.S.

The Bobbies would approach the crowd, read the Riot Act aloud: "Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons assembled immediately to disperse themselves and peacefully to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business." If the crowd didn't disperse, they were arrested.

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Recovery room

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Red carpet
 
Meaning: Someone regarded as important.
Example:
Origin: Jahangir, Mughal emperor from 1605 to 1627, once paid a visit to his brother-in-law on New Year’s Day. To celebrate the event, his brother-in-law carpeted the road between his house and the palace with gold brocades and rich velvets, so that the royal entourage would not have to touch the ground. Today we say “Roll out the red carpet” or “the red-carpet treatment” to indicate the conferring of honor and prestige.

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Red herring
 
Meaning: A false trail; something that provides a false or misleading clue.
Example: The hounds followed the scent of the red herring rather than that of the fox.
Origin: This phrase refers to smoked herring. In many parts of 19th century Britain, such fish have a very strong smell and were usually known, not as kippers, but as red herrings. Because of their smell, they were good at masking other smells. As a result, they could easily cover the scent of a fox. A red herring pulled across the trail could divert the hounds onto a false path. Thus, by analogy, the phrase came to be used to describe any false trail.

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Red letter day
 
Meaning: A holiday, cause for celebration.
Example: When world hunger is solved it will be a red letter day.
Origin: Calendars typically have holidays marked in red ink. All other days are in black ink. Hence "red letter days" are cause for celebration.

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Red light district
 
Meaning: A district in which houses of prostitution are numerous.
Example: Like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, George makes his annual visit to the red light district in Amsterdam.
Origin: The phrase "red light" district is no doubt because of the fact that at least in the most famous of these, Amsterdam, they do in fact have red lights in the windows. This to let prospective customers know that it is a house of prostitution.

The term originated around 1900 and seems to have come about from visiting railroaders leaving their lanterns on the porch of the cat house while conducting business inside.

Red lanterns where required equipment for all railroad crew members, with the possible exception of the engineer. Prior to 1900, a train would likely have an engineer, conductor, fireman, and two or more brakemen (brakes being manually applied on a car by car basis). They were used for signaling as well as lighting, since red light does not affect night vision as much as white.

A train being brought into a yard would have its crew surrounding it, most carrying red lanterns to signal the engineer that all was well. They would then use these same lanterns to illuminate their path to wherever they chose to go.

And the question is why did the railroaders leave the lanterns on the porch? Apparently to indicate to other prospective visitors that the venue was in use.

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Red tape
 
Meaning: Pointless bureaucratic procedures and obstruction. Excessive regulation or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic, hindering or preventing action or decision-making.
Example: He attempted to cut the red tape surrounding the criminal proceedings which had so far lasted three years and not accomplished anything, except for fattening several lawyers' pockets.
Origin: This phrase is first recorded in the 16th century, when Henry VIII besieged Pope Clement VII with ~ 85 petitions for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The pile of documents were rolled and stacked in their original condition, each one sealed and bound with the obligatory red tape, as was the custom. Actual red tape originated as an antifraud measure, similar to wax seals in ancient times. The goal was to ensure that a document received by its intended recipient was the exact same one sent by its author(s). Anyone seeking to alter an official document would have to break the wax seal and untie the red tape. Official Vatican documents were also bound in red cloth tape.

The tradition continued through to the 17th and 18th century. Although Charles Dickens is believed to have used the phrase before Thomas Carlyle, the English practice of binding documents and official papers with red tape was popularized in the writings of Carlyle protesting against ’official inertia’ with expressions like “Little other than a red tape Talking-machine”, and “unhappy Bag of Parliamentary Eloquence”. To this day, most barristers’ briefs are tied in a pink-coloured ribbon known as “pink tape” or “legal tape”. Government briefs are usually bound with white tape, introduced as an economy measure to save the expense of dyeing the tape red.

During World War II, newspapers published a series of articles called the “Society of Red Tape Cutters”, intending to commend those indiviudals who kept bureaucracy (i.e. red tape) from deterring the war effort. Recipients for the award included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Since then, other groups have taken the same name, including a 'Society of Red Tape Cutters' in Northfield, Illinois - volunteers who help senior citizens get government services.

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Right as rain
 
Meaning: Completely correct, proper, sound and healthy.
Example: On the witness stand she appeared to be right as rain, but then she is an actress by profession.
Origin: This one is likely alliterative. The "R"'s in Right and Rain sound good together. This comes from the idea of rainwater being pure and wholesome (before the days of pollution and acid rain). The reference is to the value and goodness of rain which is critical to crops and farming.

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Ring of truth
 
Meaning: To be correct, to be true.
Example: I believe some of what Paul Martin says, but the part about reducing taxes doesn't seem to have even the slightest ring of truth to it.
Origin: The origin of this phrase becomes obvious when you realize the original usage was to say that something did or did not "ring true".

A bell that rings true is one the rings at the correct note. Something that rings true is correct.

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Ring the changes
 
Meaning: Swopping things around, such as frequently rearranging the furniture in a room.
Example: The Joe-kster likes to ring the changes with his handbell group.
Origin: "Changes" here come from bell ringing where it is possible to make many variations in the order in which the bells are rung - such variations are the changes. In a 12 bell tower, to ring all possible changes would take nearly 40 years.

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Rings a bell
 
Meaning: To sound familiar; to call something to mind; to stir a vague memory.
Example: I don't remember meeting him, but the name Joe-kster rings a bell.
Origin: Bells such as the type used in churches are large and loud. Their sound can be heard from a great distance. Bells sound a single, clear note so their sound is distinctive and not easily confused.

Before electric sirens and amplification systems, bells were a valuable means of signaling people and alerting of important events.

Further, accurate timepieces were not always as available as they are today. Bells were used to signal people of the start of events such as a church session, the start of school, or a celebration. The bells acted as a reminder of the start of the event for people who had an out of synch timepiece or no timepiece. Someone would literally ring a bell as a reminder.

As an aside bells were later used on clocks to mark the hour. A large clock usually in the town square could be heard throughout the town. This clock acted as a master time reference for the town. The hourly bell ringing gave people an opportunity to synchronize their respective timepieces, and early watches required frequent adjustment.

Alternative: There are many bells that ring to remind or instruct us to do things: doorbell (open the door), telephone bell (pick up the phone), school bell (come to class), toaster bell (take out the toast), and the clothes dryer bell (take out the clothes). So, if something such as a face, a name, a number, or a date "rings a bell," it causes you to remember something.

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Roll with the punches
 
Meaning: Weather through tough times, try to minimize the trouble.
Example: Sometimes in life you just have to roll with punches, even when the punches feel like they are coming from Mike Tyson.
Origin: Rolling with the punches is a technique used in boxing. The objective is to avoid receiving a direct hit with solid contact.

The technique is to move away from the punch in an attempt to avoid the blow or at least create a glancing blow. A glancing blow being preferable to a direct hit.

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Room to swing a cat
 
Meaning: A confined space.
Example: This bedroom doesn't even have enough room to swing a cat.
Origin: This colorful phrase evokes strange images of feline cruelty. In fact it has nothing to do with cats, but the real story is at least as cruel.

The "cat" is a cat-of-nine-tails, a type of whip used to discipline sailors on old sailing ships. The cat-of-nine-tails has one handle to which is attached nine thin strips of leather, each perhaps three feet long. The cat-of-nine-tails would be used to administer lashings that would sting and leave welts on the recipient.

The whippings would take place on the deck, because below deck there was not enough ceiling height to swing a cat-of-nine-tails.

Interestingly, the Disney cartoon character Mickey Mouse once gave a graphic illustration with some comic relief to this phrase. In the 1920's "Steamboat Willie" was release as Mickey Mouse's first cartoon. There is a scene in the cartoon in which Mickey is on a boat. He proceeds to pick up a cat and swing it around by the tail. Apparently this particular boat had enough room to swing a cat.

Alternative: The phrase has been traced back to the century before the cat o'nine tails was invented. The correct explanation appears to be in some doubt, but most likely DOES refer to an actual cat. Thanks to Carolyn Grinberg.

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Round robin
 
Meaning: Repeatedly taking successive turns in the same order.
Example: Everyone in this family will take round robin turns putting out the trash, everyone that is except me.
Origin: "Round robin" originated in the British nautical tradition. Sailors wishing to mutiny would sign their names in a circle so the leader could not be identified.

The "round" part of the phrase is clear. The "robin" less so.

This may just be alliteration. Alliteration is two or more neighboring words in a phrase that start with the same letter and is constructed largely because it sounds good. It is a type of rhyme

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Round the bend
 
Meaning: Someone that is a little mad.
Example:
Origin: The 'bend' is the curve always placed in the entrance drive of Victorian mental hospitals. Straight drives were the characteristic of stately homes and bent ones of asylums to screen the inmates from view and vise versa.

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Rub it in
 
Meaning: Do or say something intended to make one feel worse.
Example: I know I paid too much for the car, you don't have to rub it in.
Origin: Short version of "Rub salt in the wound". Salt in an open wound causes it to sting.

Alternative: Refers to the action of rubbing a fluid onto an object to make the fluid penetrate. As in rubbing a lotion into skin.

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Rube Goldberg contraption
 
Meaning: Using over-elaborate devices for simple tasks.
Example:
Origin: In the U.S., a "Rube Goldberg contraption" refers to Mr. Goldberg's cartoons that illustrated fanciful, over-elaborate devices for doing something simple.

Related phrase: Heath Robinson Solution.

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Rule of thumb
 
Meaning: A basic rule that is usually but not always correct.
Example: As a rule of thumb, plant tomato seeds three inches deep.
Origin: Based on the use of one's thumb as a rough measurement tool. Generally correct for course measures.

Most old English measures of distance were based on the body measurements of the king - the length of the foot, inch (thumb tip to first knuckle), cubit (elbow-to-fingertip), and yard (nose-to-fingertip).

Alternative: This term may stem from the ancient use of the last joing of the thumb as a measuring device for roughly one inch.

Alternative: Old English law (and potentially early American law) declared that it was okay for a man to beat his wife but had to use a stick no larger in diameter than his thumb.

Alternative: Brewmasters of old often tested the temperature of a batch of beer by dipping a thumb in the brew - their long experience telling them how well the beer was brewing.

There is no truth to the rumor that this law was an early start to the women's rights movement.

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Run the gamut
 
Meaning: To go through the entire spectrum of emotional possibilities.
Example: She ran through the gamut through her entire pregnancy.
Origin: Gamut is the first word of a medieval Italian mnemonic used to help remember the musical scale. Gamma was the first note followed by ut, re, mi, fa, so, la and si. Gamma and ut became combined to describe the whole range.

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Run the gauntlet
 
Meaning: Going through something while being exposed to risk.
Example:
Origin: An old military punishment in Sweden was to send the victim, stripped to the waist, through a double line of men, each armed with a stick with which to beat him as he passed. Its first English form was gantlope from the Swedish gata, "passage or lane" and lope or lopp, "a leap or chase", but the word changed a little over the centuries into gauntlet. The punishment itself came into use in the Royal Navy in 1661 but was abolished in 1813.


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