Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
~ T ~

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Take a dive
 
Meaning: To intentionally fail in competition, to throw a game.
Example: All good salesmen learn to take a dive when playing golf with customers.
Origin: Boxers (e.g. prize fighters) who have been bribed to throw a bout but wishing to make it look as if the opponent won legitimately would dive to the mat after being hit. This was to create the illusion of a legitimate knock out.

This is a good strategy when playing golf with the boss.

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Take a powder
 
Meaning: To quit, leave, or stop doing something.
Example: Rain won't slow down a real golfer, but when the lightning hits the smart ones take a powder.
Origin: The powder in this case is the type woman use on their face. Women used the phrase when in public to indicate their desire to "powder their noses", or go to the ladies' room to freshen their make-up or use the facilities.

"Take a powder" was uttered in many 1920's era films to women accompanying successful men to restaurants and clubs. The most common usage was when the tough-guy didn't want any women around to hear the ensuing conversation. "Taking a powder" was a polite excuse to leave the room.

Alternative: This phrase hails from the early days of medical science, before Modern manufacturing techniques, when most medications came in the form of powders that were mixed with water and drunk. Many early medications contained Opium based drugs (such as Morphine) and tended to induce sleep. Hence the association of "taking a powder" with sleep or rest.

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Take another tack
 
Meaning: Try a different strategy.
Example:
Origin: Sailing ships could not move directly into the wind but had to tack - zigzag back and forth with the wind first on one side, then on the other. If a skipper approaching harbor found that his vessel couldn't make the harbor mouth on the starboard tack, he was obviously on the wrong tack, and would have to take the other (port) tack.

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Take by storm
 
Meaning: To make a big impression; become famous or popular virtually overnight.
Example: The Beatles took America by storm on their 1965 North America tour.
Origin: This expression dates back to the days when soldiers took fortified enemy positions by storming them.

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Take someone down a peg
 
Meaning: To humble someone who is self-important and conceited.
Example:
Origin: Ship's flags were raised or lowered by pegs - the higher the position of the flags, the greater the honour. So to take someone down a peg came to mean to lower the esteem in which that person is held.

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Take the day off
 
Meaning: Take the day off work with pay.
Example: All work no play? Not for my company - every Friday I tell my employees to take the day off.
Origin: Fav saying of the joe-kster... is there really a history to this one?

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Take the guilt off the gingerbread
 
Meaning: To show something up as worth far less than first thought.
Example:
Origin: Gingerbread is a cake mixed with treacle and flavoured with ginger. It was coated with a golden leaf and, as such, was often sold at country fairs up to the middle of the 19th century. I guess that sometimes the cake was less than perfect; when the gilt was removed, all was revealed.

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Takes the cake
 
Meaning: Coming first in some, often trivial, activity.
Example:
Origin: Slaves (in the days of slavery in the USA) used to hold competitions to see which couple could produce the most elegant walk. The best promenaders won a prize, almost always a cake. The extravagant walk required for this type of competition came to be called a Cakewalk and this gave rise to the old fashioned expression "it's a cakewalk". However the meaning later came to emphasise the trivial nature of the competition and began to imply that the effort needed was minor and of little account. In consequence the modern saying "it's a piece of cake" could well be based on these old customs.

Alternative: In ancient Greek timesn a "cake" was a toasted cereal bound together with honey. It was given to the most vigilant man on night watch. Aristotle is quoted as having written in "The Knights": "if you surpass him in impudence, then we take the cake".

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Tar arns

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Terminal illness

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The balloon goes up
 
Meaning: Impending trouble.
Example:
Origin: This phrase relates to the use of observation balloons in the first World War. The sight of such a balloon going up nearly always resulted in a barrage of shells following soon after. The expression was re-inforced during WWII when the hoisting of barrage balloons was part of the preparations for an air raid.

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The big cheese
 
Meaning: An important person.
Example:
Origin: In 1802, a cheese maker delivered a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese to President Thomas Jefferson. Citizens declared it the “big cheese,” referring to both the wheel and its important recipient.

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The bottom line
 
Meaning: The end result or conclusion.
Example: I don't want to hear about how this is a great place to work. I just want the bottom line. How much does the job pay?
Origin: This might seem like a reference to the shape of ones pants, but it is not that interesting.

A reference to the standard accounting reports. These include the Income Statement, Balance Sheet, and Statement of Cash Flows. In each of these multi-line reports, a variety of financial figures are provided. Some are positive and some are negative. But "the bottom line" of each report provides the net of all the figures.

In that sense the bottom line of each report is generally the most important indicator of the financial position. Anyone wanting the quick story would look first to the bottom line of each report.

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The buck stops here
 
Meaning: To take responsibility for something.
Example: When it comes to the origin of phrases, the buck stops here.
Origin: Some card games use a marker called a buck. Players take turns acting as dealer with the buck marking the current dealer. When the buck is passed to the next player, the responsibility for dealing is passed. Stopping the buck is to accept responsibility for dealing.

This phrase was popularized by president Harry Truman who kept a sign with the phrase inscribed on his desk and is a rebuttal to the older phrase "Pass the buck".

The media interpreted Harry's sign to mean he was accepting responsibility, but he may well have had something else in mind. Truman was a poker player. He knew exactly what the "buck" was - it was the marker that identifies the person who calls the game, or in essence, sets the rules. Truman may have been saying that he was in charge and would set the rules - a bit different than just accepting responsibility.

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The cold shoulder
 
Meaning: An unfriendly reception.
Example: I asked my friends to loan me money, but my idea was met with the cold shoulder.
Origin: In England, a welcome or important visitor would be served a delicious hot meal. A guest "who had outstayed his welcome, or an ordinary traveler" would get a cold shoulder of mutton.

Alternative: The shoulder of beef is a less desirable cut. Serving a cold piece of beef shoulder to your guests is a not so subtle message that they are not welcome in your home.

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The Fifth Beatle
 
Meaning: Reference to the four Beatles + an unknown fifth person.
Example:
Origin: The Fifth Beatle moniker was not given to Brian Epstein by Murray the K, though Epstein is always in the list of deserving honorees (along with Pete Best, George Martin, and even Billy Preston, the only musician ever given individual credit on a Beatles disk). It was Murray who was dubbed the Fifth Beatle by George Harrison on the train ride from New York to the band's first concert in Washington D.C. Murray was the last in line as the group made its way through the train cars, and a cop tried to stop him from following. Harrison turned as said, "It's alright. He's the fifth Beatle." Thanks to Peter Altschuler.

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The pen is mightier than the sword
 
Meaning: Solve problems more effectively with words than by violence.
Example: Martin Luther espoused that the pen is mightier than the sword when dealing with your enemies.
Origin: This phrase was first used in 1839 by Edward George Bulwer Lytton, an English novelist. He wrote, "Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword." Its use is to convey that you can solve problems or achieve your purpose better and more effectively through communication with words than by violence with weapons.

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The proof is in the pudding
 
Meaning: The end result or finished product is determines success or failure. The true value or quality of something can only be judged when it's put to use - the results are what counts.
Example: Go ahead - talk all you want about your wonderful recipe and its fine ingredients, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding.
Origin: This is an abbreviated version of the term "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". To the British, pudding means the same as dessert in the US. The point of the term is that one cannot determine how good a dessert will be during preparation or based on appearance. How good a dessert will be can only be determined by the final taste.

Alternative: According to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the phrase dates back to at least 1615 when Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote. In this comic novel, the phrase is stated as, "The proof of the pudding is the eating."

A 1682 version from Bileau's Le Lutrin reads, "The proof of th' pudding's seen i' the eating."

A page of pudding definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary also cites the author Boileau (Bileau) as the first to use the phrase. It seems likely that the phrase dates back to the 1600s, though the identity of its author is disputed.

Today the phrase is sometimes shortened to "proof of the pudding" or "proof in pudding." 2010 potential shortened phrase: "Proofpudding"? Not...

Alternative: “To the British, pudding means the same as dessert in the US.” Actually a pudding is a sub class of deserts. A pudding must contain fruit. A desert does not need to. Thanks to Steve Isherwood

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The smoking lamp is out
 
Meaning: No smoking.
Example: Toronto is a strange place. In restaurants and bars the smoking lamp is out, but in the cannabis buyers club you can smoke all you like.
Origin: The smoking lamp probably came into use during the 16th Century when seamen began smoking on board vessels. The lamp was used to light the smoke before matches were invented.

The smoking lamp was also a safety measure. It was devised mainly to keep the fire hazard away from highly combustible woodwork and gunpowder.

Most navies established regulations restricting smoking to certain areas on board. Usually, the lamp was located in the forecastle or the area directly surrounding the galley indicting that smoking was permitted in this area.

Even after the invention of matches in the 1830s, the lamp was an item of convenience to the smoker. When particularly hazardous operations or work required that smoking be curtailed, the unlighted lamp relayed the message.

"The smoking lamp is lighted" or "the smoking lamp is out" were expressions indicating that smoking was permitted or forbidden. The smoking lamp has survived only as a figure of speech. When the officer of the deck says "the smoking lamp is out" before drills, refueling or taking ammunition, that is the Navy's way of saying "cease smoking."

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The third degree
 
Meaning: Lengthy and pointed questioning.
Example: When I come home late my wife gives me the third degree.
Origin: "The third degree" evokes images of lengthy police interrogation under bright lights, rubber hoses, and without the benefits of counsel.

This phrase origin can be found within the Masonic Lodge. Within the lodge there are 3 degrees; the Entered Apprentice, the Fellowcraft and the Master Mason. To become a Third-Degree or Master Mason, the highest rank, one must submit to questioning. The Mason's questioning for the third-degree was known to be an intense ordeal, frightening and unpleasant. Additionally, it is more physically challenging that the first two degrees. The term has come to be used for any long an arduous questioning or interrogation.

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The whole nine yards
 
Meaning: A complete job, quality, without cutting corners.
Example: My new car has air conditioning, power windows, power locks - the whole nine yards.
Origin: Interestingly, this seems to be one of the most disputed phrase origins. Many possible explanations, yet no consensus on the true origin. Take your pick.

This phrase has also been attributed to WW2 fighter planes. Nine yards was the exact length of a belt of 50-caliber ammunition for the Corsair fighter. If a target was shot at with the entire band, it was said to have been given "the whole nine yards".

Alternative: 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 good 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 "the whole nine yards", you must pay for such waste.

Related phrase: "Dressed to the nines".

The phrase certainly applies to the preparation of a full set of men's clothing. To fully understand this, you need to know what constituted a "full set of clothing" for a man in the 17th and 18th Centuries where the phrase can first be traced.

The items of clothing for a man were a Westkit (waistcoat), Breeches (pants) and a Great Coat. The material requirements to tailor these garments (even with a minimal amount of waste) is nine yards of material (45" width in the 1800s). A Westkit requires 1.5 yards, Breeches requires 2.0 yards and the Coat requires 5.5 yards for a total of 9.0 yards. These amounts can be confirmed with many museums, historians or period re-enactors.

The reason that the Coats required so much material was that they went from shoulder down to the back of the knee in length, and then the lower portion of the coat was full and pleated, almost like a dress. The pattern for the coat below the waist is almost a full circle

Alternative: "The whole nine yards" refers to the amount of fabric in a proper Scottish kilt. Nine yards of fabric seemed positively way too much for a skirt, The kilt, much like the suit, must have the fabric oriented in the proper direction. The plaid (or Tartan) has to be matched perfectly, so it doesn't look crooked. This alone takes a huge amount of cloth. The nine yards is the area of the fabric the tailor starts with, much of which ends up as scrap. Additionally, a kilt does not simply wrap around the waist. It also includes fabric that is worn up and over the shoulder. Old style kilts were used as blankets, toweling, or whatever else came to mind. There is a tale about one man using his to escape from a window of his lady-friend's bedchamber when her husband came home early.

Alternative: Old style concrete mixers, or coal bins, held nine yards.

Alternative: Many old sailing ships had three masts, the fore, main, and mizzen. Each mast held three square sails. The horizontal stays that support the square sails are called yards. Hence the ships had nine yards.

Depending on the sailing conditions, more or less sails would be raised. In the best conditions peak speed could be achieved by raising all nine main sails - the whole nine yards.

Alternative: The expression The Whole Nine Yards originated in the 2nd World War. The .50 caliber machine gun, that was fired by the door gunners, the tail gunners and the belly gunners on the big bomber planes, used ammunition that was linked together on 27 foot belts. Twenty seven feet = 9 yards, hence “I gave ’em the whole nine yards.”  Thanks to Bill Tilley.

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The world is your oyster
 
Meaning: You have the ability to achieve anything you want.
Example: Finish graduate school and the world is your oyster.
Origin: Webster has a definition for oyster that is a bit obscure and certainly fits the phrase: Oyster - something that is or can be readily made to serve one's personal ends.

Oysters produce pearls, objects of great value. Once you have the oyster, it gives up the pearl without much of a fight. Getting the pearl requires the oyster to be opened. But despite the hardness of the oyster shell, they can be opened with ease. Oyster shells are held closed by a single muscle called the adductor. Oysters are shucked (opened) using a thin knife to cut the adductor muscle. Once the adductor is cut, the shell falls open.

If the world is your oyster, then it is a place where you can get something of great value with ease.

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The writing is on the wall
 
Meaning: One can see the inevitable result of circumstances.
Example: Graffiti artists know their works by the handwriting on the walls.
Origin: In a Babylonian legend, evil King Belshazzar drank from a sacred vessel, looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. According to one version, a mysterious hand appeared after this act of sacrilege and, to the astonishment of the king, wrote 4 strange words on the banquet room wall. Only the Hebrew prophet (Daniel) could interpet the mysterious message. He boldly told the ruler that they spelled disaster for him and for his nation. Soon afterward, Belshazzar was defeated and slain. During the Middle Ages, the scene was a popular subject for tapestries and paintings.

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Three sheets to the wind
 
Meaning: Very drunk, highly intoxicated.
Example: The groom made it to the alter, but he was three sheets to the wind.
Origin: The phrase comes from 18th-19th century English Naval terminology, and is first recorded in Richard Henry Dana's 'Two Years Before the Mast' (1840). The original phrase was "three Sheets in the wind" and referred to the erratic behavior of a ship that has lost control of all of its sails.

In nautical terminology sheets are the ropes that adjust the position of the sails relative to the wind.

The speed and direction of a sailing ship is controlled by the number of sails raised on each mast, the angle of the sails to the wind (trim of the sails), and the position of the rudder. If the sheets used to control the sails are to break or are have been released, the sheet is said to be "in the wind".

One can imagine a sail thrashing wildly in a strong wind with its sheet (the control ropes) blowing about. It would be very difficult to regain control of such a sail.

Prior to the 1810's it was common for ships to have three masts, (fore, main, and mizzen). If the sheets on all three masts are "in the wind", the ship loses all steering control.

The ship's lack of control is likened to that of a stumbling drunk.

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Three squares
 
Meaning: Three nutritious meals per day.
Example: The Air Force and Navy give you three squares and a bunk, but the Army makes no guarantees.
Origin: This is an extension of the related phrase "Square meal" and means to have three square meals per day. It is popularly used in the U.S. military.

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Throw a monkey wrench into the works
 
Meaning: To interfere with a smoothly running operation; to upset something in progress.
Example: George's 50-year old wife threw a monkey wrench into his retirement plans - she announced that she was pregnant.
Origin: In 1856 a tool was invented by a man named Monk, called a Monk’s wrench. Later the name was changed to "monkey wrench". The sliding jaw of the tool reminded people of a monkey, and the nickname stuck. This American saying presents the image of someone throwing a monkey wrench into machinery that’s working perfectly and "gumming up the works."

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Throw me a bone
 
Meaning: To give someone a tiny piece of encouragement, response, reaction, or help - especially when seeking a positive response from others in authority or command. The giver is in a position of dominance or authority, and the (bone) recipient is seeking help, approval, agreement, or some other positive response. It's based on the idea of throwing a bone to a hungry dog to chew on (a small concession) instead of some meat (which the dog would prefer). The metaphor also alludes to the sense that a bone provides temporary satisfaction and distraction, and so is a tactical or stalling concession, and better than nothing.
Example: The New England Patriots might have lost the 2012 Super Bowl, but throw me a bone - Tom Brady is one of the youngest and most talented of all NFL quarterbacks - they'll be winning it soon!
Origin: Not found in recent reference books, 'throw me a bone' or 'throw a bone' appears to be an American expression, used around the end of the 20th century. This expression was used in Austin Powers' 1997 movie 'International Man of Mystery' in a scene in which Dr. Evil is trying to think of schemes. But because he has been frozen for years, his ideas have either already happened or are no longer relevant (and so attract little enthusiasm, which fits the expression's meaning very well). From a a forum posting on wordreference.com: "... In Argentina we use that expression very often. 'Tirame un hueso', literally meaning 'throw me a bone', is not pityful (pitying) at all." (Nessuno, Mar 2006)

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Throw someone to the wolves
 
Meaning: Abandon someone; sacrifice someone to save yourself.
Example: Hitler threw his forces to the wolves by attempting to siege Leningrad in 1942.
Origin: In the Victorian days, it was popular for printmakers to depict sleighs drawn by horses at full gallop, being chased by packs of wolves. Traditionally, if the wolves got too close, one of the passengers was to be thrown out to lighten the sleigh, in hopes that the rest of the passengers could escape while the animals devoured the victim. Although no one's sure if this really happened, it resulted in a "durable" metaphor.

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Thumbs up
 
Meaning: To give approval.
Example: If Siskel gave the movie two thumbs up, it is probably pretty good.
Origin: The phrase comes from the thumbs up hand gesture. It is attributed to the ancient Romans and the Gladiators who fought in the Coliseum.

When one Gladiator had emerged victorious in a fight, the spectators would get to decide if the loser should live or die. If they felt the loser had fought bravely enough, his life would be spared, otherwise he would be killed.

The spectators signaled their vote with a "thumbs up" for life and thumbs down for death.

In truth the thumbs down was not as we do it today, but instead a forward and downward thumb motion as if stabbing it into the ground. The thumb symbolized the weapon of the victor and hence the motions showed how the weapon should be used on the loser.

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Tie one on
 
Meaning: To get drunk.
Example: After another rough day at the factory, Katy & Tina decided to tie one on at the local brewery.
Origin: Eric Partridge suggests that this phrase is drived from 'hang one on', around 1935, originating in the United States and later adapted in Canada. A hangover - or 'the morning after' is related to having been 'hung' or 'tied one on'. ("The Wordsworth Book of Euphemism" by Judith S. Neaman and Carole G. Silver (Wordsworth Reference, New York, 1983, 1990)

Alternative: "Tie one on" dates back to the 1800's US wild west where a cowboy would have to tie up his horse to a hitching post before he could go into the saloon (to presumably get drunk).

Alternative: British slang phrase "tie a bun on," also meaning "to get drunk."

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Tie the knot
 
Meaning: To get married.
Example: I understand you want a baby, but don't you think you should tie the knot first. In fact maybe you should get a girlfriend first.
Origin: Some marriage ceremonies actually tie together the wrists of the bride and groom. Webster defines "tie" as "to unite in marriage".

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Tied to her apron strings
 
Meaning: A man who is dominated by his wife.
Example: Sir Dennis Thatcher was tied to Margaret Thatcher's apron strings throughout the years that she was the British Prime Minister.
Origin: In England during the 18th century, if a man married a woman with property, he didn't get title to it, but could use it while she was alive (Apron-String tenure). A man tied to his wife's apron strings was in no position to argue. Hence, the phrase came to stand for any abnormal submission to a wife or mother.

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Tilting at windmills
 
Meaning: To combat imaginary foes or ward off nonexistent dangers; to be full of fanciful notions or visionary schemes.
Example:
Origin: Advising his squire Sancho Panza that 30 or 40 windmills were "monstrous giants," Don Quixote spurred his steed Rosinante forward, his lance extended to "do good service" and "sweep so evil a breed off the face of the earth." Attacking a windmill, his lance got caught in one of its sails, which lifted the valiant knight into the air and smashed him to the ground, leaving him with nothing but injuries for his effort. This was arguably the most absurd of the Quixotic adventure of Don Quixote, hero of Cervante's great satirical novel Don Quixote (1605-15). The book was meant to satirize the age's romantic tales of chivalry that filled its hero's mind.

Similar phrases: tilt at windmills, to have windmills in your head, battling windmills

Thanks to Anna Plat.

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Tit for tat
 
Meaning: To reciprocate in kind.
Example: In most political campaigns, once the mud slinging starts, it becomes a game of tit for tat.
Origin: Derived from the German phrase "Dir fur Dat", or this for that.

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To be fed up
 
Meaning: To be lethargic, bored, uninterested in the world.
Example:
Origin: In the ancient sport of falconry, trained hawks are driven by appetite: one which has 'fed up' wants merely to sit still and digest its meal (i.e. totally unresponsive).

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To badger someon
 
Meaning: A person that is being harried or annoyed incessantly.
Example:
Origin: This comes from the cruel "sport" of badger baiting. The unfortunate animal was placed in an upturned barrel and dogs were then released to drag it out. When the animals emerged the badger was separated from the hounds and then put back into the barrel to start all over again until the inevitable occurred.

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To be beside yourself
 
Meaning: Under great emotional stress.
Example: After being unexpectedly laid off from his job, Robin was beside himself but was hopeful that his skills would help him get an even better position.
Origin: The ancient Greeks believed that when a person was under intense pressure, the soul literally left the body and was beside itself.

The word "ecstasy" has a similar meaning - its Greek root means "to stand out of."

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To bring home the bacon
 
Meaning: To triumphantly achieve some plan or object, perhaps by winning a prize or race.
Example:
Origin: There are two possible origins to this saying. The first goes back several hundred years to the village of Dunmow in Essex where, it is said, in 1104 AD, at the Dunmow Flitch Trials, a noble woman offered a prize of a side of bacon, known locally as a flitch, to any man from anywhere in England who could honestly say that he had had complete marital harmony for the preceding year and a day. In over 500 years there were only eight winners. The prize was re-established in the mid 19th century (1858) but ceased to be offered with the closure of the local bacon factory in the 1980s.

An alternative explanation comes from the ancient sport of catching a greased pig at country fairs - the winner kept the pig.

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To bring the cat to water
 
Meaning: To pull off something difficult.
Example:
Origin: Spanish origin.

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To chance your arm
 
Meaning: To chance your arm is to risk something.
Example:
Origin: This was firstly of military origin. Badges of rank, such as stripes, were worn on the arm. If the wearer offended against Military regulations then there was a risk of being demoted with consequent loss of some or all badges - hence such offences "chanced the wearer's arm".

An alternative explanation comes from Ireland. A couple of centuries ago two families had a feud. One eventually took refuge in St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. They then wished to make peace, but were afraid for their lives if they ventured out; in consequence they cut a hole in one of the Cathedral's doors and put out an arm - the worst that could have happened was that an arm was lost. The hole is present to this day. Sadly, the feud took place in 1492 and the saying is first recorded only in the 1880s!

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To close ranks
 
Meaning: To present a united front.
Example: Mel Gibson did a masterful job of closing ranks in every one of his blood and gore movies.
Origin: In old-time European armies, soldiers were aligned side by side, in neat rows, or ranks, on the battlefield. When the enemy attacked, officers would order the troops to close ranks - to move the rows close together - so that the enemy faced a seemingly impregnable mass of men.

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To egg on
 
Meaning: To urge someone to continue doing something that is, perhaps, a little dubious.
Example: Little Johnny egged on his classmates to make faces at the teacher behind her back.
Origin: "Egg" derives from the old English eggian which means "to spur" or "to incite".

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To fall foul
 
Meaning: To be on bad terms with them.
Example:
Origin: When one ship impedes the progress of another; it falls foul of it. A foul anchor is when its own rope becomes entangled with itself.

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To feather one's nest
 
Meaning: To provide for one's comfort; especially, for comfort in later life by amassing wealth.
Example: Politicians today are more concerned with feathering their pension nest than paying attention to ruinning the country.
Origin: It is the practice of many birds, after building their nests, to pluck down from their breasts to provide a soft lining that will be comfortable during the long hours of setting upon the eggs.  Thanks to Katie Cutie.

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To fork out
 
Meaning: To pay over money due for goods or services.
Example:
Origin: This phrase comes from the old thieves' use of the word fork to describe the fingers. A similar analogy is used in the phrase "fingers were made before forks".

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To get fired
 
Meaning: To get rid of unwanted people.
Example: Simon got fired yesterday - seems his boss didn't want to hear anything negative about the company.
Origin: Clans of long ago that wanted to get rid of their unwanted people without killing them would burn their houses down - hence the phrase "to get fired".

Alternative: Item 6 of the Laws of Mendip Miners states, "If any man do pick or steale any lead or ore to the value of xiiid,the Lord or his Officer may arrest all his lead and Oare House or hearthes with his Grooves and Workes and keep them in forfeit... and shall take the person that hath soe affeended and bring him where his house or worke and all his tooles and instruments are... and put him into his house orworke and set fire in all together about him and banish him..." Fired indeed!

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To go haywire
 
Meaning: To behave wildly; go out of control.
Example:
Origin: Wire, properly only intended to bale up hay, (i.e. haywire) was used, instead, by many farmers to make their boundary fences. The wire rusted quickly with the result that the properties were unkempt and had an appearance of being out of control.

Alternative: Wire, when correctly used to bundle up hay, would writhe and wriggle when cut to eventually release the hay.

Alternative: The disorder and chaos present in a farm yard when the used lengths of wire were left dumped on the ground.

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To go the whole hog
 
Meaning: To do something thoroughly, completely.
Example:
Origin: A 1779 poem by William Cowper concerns debate by Muslim divines about which parts of the pig were forbidden as food by the Prophet. Unable to reach a decision, each wished to declare that their own favourite portion was acceptable. As individual tastes differed it meant that the whole hog was acceptable. "Thus conscience freed from every clog, Mohametans eat up the hog."

Alternative: In Ireland a shilling and in America a 10c piece were both known as a hog and if one spent the money all at once the whole hog was gone.

Alternative: In Virginia, butchers asked their customers if they wished to purchase the whole hog or only part of the animal. The phrase was widely used during Andrew Jackson's 1828 Presidential campaign.

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To harp on
 
Meaning: To continuously carry on a discussion with a theme that has lost its relevance and interest to others involved in that discussion.
Example:
Origin: Its origin is self-evident when it's realized that the original saying was: "To harp forever on the same string."

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To have a field day
 
Meaning: Easy achievement of a task.
Example:
Origin: This phrase is a military term for a day of manoeuvres in open fields or country, often in front of the commanding officer or even higher rank; a day of great effort and inspection. When these days are successful the units can be seen to be well prepared and turned out. In the U.S. Navy it is also applied to a day devoted to cleaning ship prior to inspection.

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To have a gammy leg
 
Meaning: A deformed or lame leg.
Example:
Origin: This phrase comes from the Celtic cam or kam meaning "crooked". Its use is said to be relatively modern in spite of the age of its origin.

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To have cold feet
 
Meaning: To have doubts; to be afraid of a course of action.
Example:
Origin: An old Italian (Lombard) proverb - the expression signifies "to be without means or resources"; if someone is very poor then the chances of affording shoes are remote and the person therefore has cold feet.

Alternative: In an 1862 novel by Fritz Reuter, a card player backs out of a game on the grounds that his feet are cold. One can imagine that he was fearful of losing all and his cold feet were as good an excuse as he could think of to help him get out of the game.

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To have one’s cake and eat it too
 
Meaning: You can’t have it both ways - you must make a difficult choice between two options.
Example: He works so hard at work to pay for his new house that he never has any time to stay home and enjoy it.
Origin: This phrase is easier to understand if it is read as, “You can’t eat your cake, and have it too“. From the fact that you can enjoy a cake by possessing it and not eating it, or by eating it and therefore no longer possessing it. Once you’ve eaten your cake, you won’t have it any more - one excludes the other. Thanks to Colin Hedges, E. Wenatchee, Washington.

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To hedge one's bets
 
Meaning: To support more than one outcome or person; to put in cross bets.
Example:
Origin: Hedge was used to imply inferiority, perhaps because hedges are low in height (i.e. 'hedge-priest' for a poor, impecunious priest). An 1811 dictionary states: "Hedge. To make a hedge; to secure a bet or wager, laid on one side, by taking odds on the other, so that, let what will happen, a certain gain is secured, or hedged in, by the persons who takes this precaution".

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To hell in a hand basket
 
Meaning: Situation falling apart, not going as planned or desired.
Example: I ran into a bus, I wrecked my car and three people are suing me. My life is going to hell in a hand basket.
Origin: This one is likely alliterative. The "H"'s in "to hell in a hand basket" sound good together.

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To knock (or beat) the tar out of
 
Meaning: To beat, whip, or belabor without mercy.
Example: Jack didn't have a good first soccer game - he tried to knock the tar out of the ball instead of learning to kick it with his feet.
Origin: The expression may have been brought to this country by some Scottish or north-of-England sheepherder who may have used it in a literal sense. Many centuries ago it was learned that a sore on a sheep, as from an accidental cut in shearing, could be protected against the festering bites of flies if smeared with tar. However, when tar once gets embedded into a sheep's wool, its removal is difficult. Thus, used in a literal sense, to beat a sheep's side for the removal of tar.  Thanks to Katie Cutie.

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To know beans
 
Meaning: Usually used in the negative: one who doesn't know beans is appallingly ignorant or is wholly unacquainted with the subject under discussion.
Example: One would think that the weather man knows what he's talking about, but judging from today's downpour, I think he knows beans.
Origin: Perhaps arose from some dispute over the cowpea, which, despite the name, is more nearly related to the bean than to the pea and which is often called either the black-eyed bean or the black-eyed pea. Perhaps came from Boston, where it would be a mark of the sheerest ignorance not to know that Boston baked beans, to be fit to eat, must be made of that variety of small white bean known as "pea bean." Perhaps arose from the British phrase, "to know how many beans make five" - a silly saying that probably got started several centuries ago by having children learn to count using beans. When a child got far enough advanced to know how many beans made five, he was very intelligent and well informed.  Thanks to Katie Cutie.

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To lark about
 
Meaning: To play around, frolic; to go on a spree.
Example: Having plenty of time on his hands, Gregg took time to lark about the area, exploring the nearby wildlife habitat.
Origin: This expression comes from the Middle English 'laik' (to play) and the Old English 'lac' (a contest). To Skylark is a modern extension.

See also “To Skylark“

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To play hookey
 
Meaning: To take absence from school; to play truant.
Example:
Origin: This saying is recorded as 'Hooky' (i.e. no 'e') in mid-19th century U.S., to play truant. In Brewer, it's spelt 'hookey' and a suggested origin is 'from the idea "to hook" something is to make off with it'.

Alternative: The "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997), notes the following. “There is no widely accepted explanation for the word ‘hookey’ or ‘hooky.’ An Americanism that arose in the late 19th century, when compulsory attendance laws became the rule in public schools, ‘hooky’ may be a compression of the older expression ‘hook it,’ ‘to escape or make off,’ formed by dropping the ‘t’ in the phrase. Or it could be related to the old slang word ‘hook,’ meaning ‘to steal,’: kids stealing a day off from school. ‘Hooky’ has so often been associated with going fishing that it may even owe its life to ‘getting off the hook’ the way a fish can. School is often insufferable as a hook to school children, and many kids squirming in their seats all day look like they are on a hook.”

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To reheat cabbage
 
Meaning: To rekindle an old flame.
Example:
Origin: Italian origin.

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To rule out
 
Meaning: 1. To make impossible (especially beforehand); 2. To include or exclude by determining judicially or in agreement with set rules; 3. To dismiss from consideration or a contest; 4. To eliminate as a serious diagnostic consideration.
Example: 1. During the Dyslexia assessment process, examiners look for evidence of the disorder and rule out other factors that could be causing the student’s reading and language problems. 2. The Joe-kster refuses to rule out a third Guinness World Record.
Origin: The Oxford dictionary defines 'rule' as "one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere." From a medical perspective, a broken leg requires a known (and fixed) set of theoretical 'rules' to follow for treatment. For undetermined ailments, a Doctor makes a list of probable and improbable causes to determine the most effective methods of treatment. Subsequent tests attempt to further rule out, or eliminate misleading symptoms, trying to pinpoint a unique cause for the patient's ailment (i.e. ruling out the major causes of chest pain, such as myocardial infarction & pulmonary embolism) in a one-stop diagnosis.

Alternative: To 'refuse' to rule out simply refers to going against normal perceived expectations.

See also: Rule Of Thumb

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To run amok
 
Meaning: To behave in a wild, uncontrolled manner.
Example: Politicians regularly run amok in regular sessions - their table banging is quite childish at times.
Origin: The Malay word for "a person who has gone crazy" is moq. The first English sailors to visit Malaysia associated the word with the occasional insane people they saw there.

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To save one's bacon
 
Meaning: A situation that has been rescued.
Example:
Origin: This has little to do with the bacon that was brought home above: rather the word here could derive from Baec which is Old Dutch and Anglo-Saxon for "back". However, like many sayings, there are other suggestions as to the origin. The most likely of these is that, in the early 17th century "bacon" was thieves' slang for "escape".

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To seize the moon by the teeth
 
Meaning: To attempt the impossible.
Example:
Origin: French origin. Francois Rabelais made use of it. Nowadays, people tend to say 'décrocher la lune', which means 'take the moon down'.

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To shoot the crow
 
Meaning: I am going to leave.
Example: They're looking for us - looks like it's time to shoot the crow.
Origin: In Tobias Dantzig's "Number and the Language of Science", Dantzig tells the story of a crow who had built its nest in the watch-tower on a squire's estate. The squire was determined to shoot the crow, but the crow was too canny - whenever the squire or his men would enter the tower, the crow would fly away until the coast was clear. The squire tried sending two men went into the barn. One stayed hidden in the tower and one came out again. However, the crow was too smart and wouldn't return until the second man also came out. The experiment was tried on successive days - unsuccessfully - until finally five men went in and only four came out. The crow seemed to think that all the men had come out, and returned to the watch-tower. The squire was finally rid of the crow. The story seems to demonstrate that crows (or at least the crow in the story) have a sense of "one", "two", "three", and "many". When five men went in and four came out, the crows saw "many" go in and "many" go out and thought they were safe. Early twentieth century anthropologists found that the numeric systems of some African, South American, Oceanic and Australian cultures were also limited like the crows. In the case of the Australian Aborigines, they had numbers for "one" through "six", and "many".

Related phrase: "To shoot the craw".

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To skin a cat
 
Meaning: A technique for doing something.
Example: My neighbor kept trying to tell me how to cut down the tree to the point of irritation. When I told him there was many ways to skin a cat he finally got the message.
Origin: The full phrase is "to skin a catfish".

This refers to removing the very tough skin from the delicate flesh of a catfish. There are many ways to skin a catfish and all were initially developed through trial and error in attempt to find the best way to remove the skin without tearing the edible flesh into smaller bits and chunks. Like most fish, an intact one-piece half-fish fillet of catfish is most desirable for cooking (battered, breaded, and pan fried). To obtain such catfish fillets, takes knack and technique.

One way to skin a catfish is to slice the belly, de-gut it and place it belly-down on a wooden cutting board. Stick an ice-pick through the top of its head into the cutting board (essentially nailing its head to the board).

Make a cut with a very sharp knife, below the ice-pick, over the spine, just below the head of the fish. This cut must go just through the skin, not into the flesh.

With the aid of the knife, separate the skin from the flesh on the body side of the cut and pull the skin toward the tail. If done properly, the skin should peel off cleanly from the flesh and separate the tail from the flesh also.

Chop the fish head off and you have two intact fillets connected by a ribcage.

Alternative: This refers to the phrase, “There is more than one way to skin a cat”. When I was a young fellow, 60 years ago, I learned the meaning of this saying from some old timers who were once mule drivers. They were called “Mule Skinners”. When bulldozers came along (ie Caterpillar), the operators were called “Cat Skinners”. The dozer could be operated either by use of foot pedals or hand levers. Therefore there was “More than one way to skin a cat” (ie Caterpillar) Thanks to Gary Weston.

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To skylark
 
Meaning: To play around, frolic; to go on a spree.
Example: Young sailors like to skylark in the ship’s tall rigging.
Origin: In the 18th and 19th centuries young boys were employed by the Royal Navy, like all boys they loved “larking about” often in the uppermost parts of the rigging of a sailing ship. The very highest sails were called “sky-sails” so by extension (and because of the coincidence of the bird’s name) they were said to “sky-lark”. Thanks to Eric Petrie, Somerset, United Kingdom.

See also “To Lark About“

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To take aback
 
Meaning: To be suddenly taken unawares or to have "the wind taken out of one's sails."
Example:
Origin: This phrase is one from a nautical background. A sudden change of wind could catch a ship's sails on the wrong side, flattening them back against the mast and bringing the ship to a standstill, or even driving her backwards.

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To talk gibberish
 
Meaning: To speak unintelligibly or in a meaningless way.
Example:
Origin: "Gibberish" comes Geber, the name of an Arabian alchemist in the 11th century. He invented a strange terminology so that his works could not be understood by others; more importantly, he could not be accused of heresy, which was punishable by death. Gibberish in its modern sense was known in 1811.

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To the bitter end
 
Meaning: To the very end - often an unpleasant one.
Example:
Origin: On a sailing ship the last piece of a hauling or anchor rope was made fast to the bits (or cleats) near deck level. When the rope was nearing its end it had a coloured rag on it to indicate that it was coming to a finish and could be let out no further. When the final part was reached it had come to the "bitter end".

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To undermine
 
Meaning: To weaken, usually secretly and gradually.
Example: During World War II, the French Resistance did everything they could to undermine their German captors.
Origin: In the 14th century, it was common practice for besiegers to tunnel under the foundations of a castle, either to enter it or to weaken the walls. The tunnels were called "mines," and the damaged walls were considered "undermined." By the 15th century, any underhanded method used to defeat an enemy had become known as "undermining."

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To wreak havock
 
Meaning: To cause confusion and possibly death to one's enemies.
Example:
Origin: This expression started out as "Cry Havock", an old military cry derived from the old French havot meaning "plunder". The cry was very common in the 14th and 15th centuries but was banned, on pain of death, in the ninth year of Richard II's reign. The expression is used in a number of Shakespearean plays.

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Toe the line
 
Meaning: Follow the group, don't disagree, do what others are doing.
Example: Your lifestyle has gone on for too long. It is time for you to toe the line - get a wife, a job, some kids, and be miserable just like everyone else.
Origin: Many mistakenly think the phrase is "tow the line", thus obscuring the meaning.

This term comes from military line-ups for inspection. Soldiers are expected to line up, that is put their toes on a line, and submit to the inspection.

Alternative: The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called "oakum" and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, is a series of parallel lines a half foot or so apart, running the length of the deck.

Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters - that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.

Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship's boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time.

Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment. From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to "toe the line."

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Tongue in cheek
 
Meaning: To pretend to be serious while joking
Example: Leslie Nielsen does all his movies tongue in cheek
Origin: Comes from the practice of biting your tongue causing pain in an effort to suppress laughter or a smile. If you bite your tongue with your side teeth you have put your tongue in your cheek.

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Top dog
 
Meaning: Coming out on top of things.
Example:
Origin: In dog fights, the winner comes out on top.

Alternative: Sawing logs was often done in a pit with one man in the pit and the other above, both working the saw. The one above was known as the top dog and the other as the bottom dog.

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Top drawer
 
Meaning: The best quality.
Example: The Joe-kster places all of his latest and greatest groaners in the top drawer.
Origin: Traditionally, the top drawer of a dresser is the place where jewelry and other valuables are kept.

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Topsy turvy
 
Meaning: To flip over or be upside down.
Example: The car rolled over and ended up topsy turvy.
Origin: Turvy is an old word that has fallen out of common usage meaning "to invert".

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Touch and go
 
Meaning: A risky, precarious situation.
Example: Wally made a touch and go landing at the Boundary Bay airport after coming through severe cross-winds.
Origin: In the days of stagecoaches, drivers were often intensely competitive, seeking to charge past one another, on narrow roads, at grave danger to life and limb. If the vehicle's wheels became entangled, both would be wrecked. If they were lucky, the wheels would only touch and the coaches could still go on.

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Trench mouth
 
Meaning: A disease created from eating from/in unsanitary conditions.
Example: Malnutrition and trench mouth are serious problems facing much of the populace in third world countries.
Origin: In the 1500s, most people did not have pewter plates, but had 'trenchers' - a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale paysan bread which was so old and hard that they could use them for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed, and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy, moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth."

Further Reference: The 1500s

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Truncate

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Turkey shoot
 
Meaning: Very easy to accomplish.
Example: The negotiation on my new car turned into a turkey shoot, and I was the turkey.
Origin: Originally a turkey shoot was a contest in which muzzle loaded guns were used to shoot turkeys. Turkeys are very easy to shoot. They are large and move slowly. Despite the fact the are birds, turkeys don't fly very well.

Turkeys are not very intelligent animals. In modern turkey farms, the birds sometimes forget to drink and die of dehydration, despite the fact that a water supply is tied to their bodies. They sometimes die of heart attacks when scared by load noises.

Today the term turkey shoot continues to be used for shooting contests, usually held around Thanksgiving. In the modern turkey shoots, targets are substituted for turkeys. Often a turkey is awarded as a prize to the winner.

The phrase was further popularized by the Marianas Turkey Shoot, the name given to an aerial battle fought with Navy aircraft in World War II that took place in the Marianas Islands.

By the time of the invasion of the Marianas, the Japanese Army and Navy had lost most of their best pilots to combat attrition and did not have the huge manpower reserves enjoyed by the US. In addition, the Japanese were forced to disperse their forces while the U.S. hammered the island(s) being invaded with all necessary and available forces.

The battle was quite one-sided with U.S. flyers shooting down over 400 Japanese aircraft while losing something like 20 in combat.

Some American pilots lingered in the battle area too long because of all the tempting targets and were actually forced to ditch their aircraft at sea on the way back to their carriers. Even with dozens of aircraft lost in this manner, the engagement was considered a decisive victory for the Americans.

Japanese carrier aircraft were no longer a threat to the U.S. Navy at sea. Only land-based kamikaze attacks would threaten again.

The U.S. sent over 500 first-line fighter aircraft into the battle while the Japanese had a hodgepodge force of less capable types with inexperienced crews.

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Turncoat
 
Meaning: A person who shifts allegiance from one loyalty or ideal to another, betraying or deserting an original cause by switching to the opposing side or party.
Example: Seeking to erase or minimize his former role in Nazi Germany, Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian Nazi, turned turncoat while holding the highest post at the UN.
Origin: Someone who changes sides during a war is called a “turncoat” because of the actions of a former Duke of Saxony who found himself and his land uncomfortably situated directly in the middle of a war between the French and the Saxons. He quickly had a reversible coat made for himself, one side blue for the Saxons and the other side white for the French. Then, depending on who was occupying his land, he could wear the appropriate colour of allegiance.

Alternate: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary website, the English word “turncoat” traces it origins back to 1557, and referred to persons who turned their coats inside out to hide the badge of their party or leader.

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Two shakes of a lamb’s tail
 
Meaning: To do something quickly.
Example: After much procrastination, Rita told her son to clean his room in two shakes of a lamb's tail.
Origin: Farmers know that lamb's tails shake very rapidly while the lamb is sucking on its mother's teat or a bottle, whereas foals, calves and piglets don't. A British vet calculated the speed of shaking to be about 300 wags per minute, so only 'two shakes' of a lamb's tail is quite fast, as far as speed goes. But if speed is of importance, wouldn't one shake be quicker than two? The earliest general use of this phrase is from around 1840, most likely originating in the UK and spreading around the world quickly - especially to Australia and America.

Nuclear engineers and astrophysicists use "shake" to mean 10 nanoseconds (10 nanoseconds is ten to the power of negative eight), but it's doubtful that anyone's seen a lamb moving their tail in 20 nanoseconds!

see also Video Clip of a Lamb's Tail Shake



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24-Jun-2017