Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
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A bird in the bush

A bitter pill to swallow
Meaning: An experience that's difficult or painful to accept.
Example: Losing the entire valley to the forest fire was a bitter pill to swallow.
Origin: This phrase refers to taking medicine in the days before doctors had any way to make pills more palatable. The bark of the cinchona tree was used to fight malaria, but the quinine in it was extremely bitter. Widely employed in the era before coated medication, cinchona pellets caused any disagreeable thing to be termed a bitter pill to swallow.


A little bird told me
Meaning: An implied secret or private source of knowledge.
Example: A little bird told me that we're moving.
Origin: This phrase was used by Shakespeare and Swift, and dates back to at least the 16th Century. Used today, this expression sometimes refers to news that is somewhat unexpected.

: Biblical origin, found in Ecclesiastes 10:20 includes "for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter", reinforcing the idea of the noiseless flight of a bird.

: All the birds of the air were summoned to King Solomon but the Lapwing did not appear. Later the Lapwing explained that he had been with the Queen of Sheba and that she had indicated that she intended to visit Solomon. The King began to make preparations for the visit; in the meanwhile the Lapwing flew to the Queen and told her that the King had a great desire to see her. As history records, such a meeting did take place, but the role of the Lapwing is less clear.

: Arabic version - A rare bird, the Hoopoe, was missing. Another bird was sent to find it and bring it back to Solomon. On return, the Hoopoe said that it had been with the Queen of Sheba and that she was planning to visit. Same theme, but only one journey.

: The phrase could have come from Pope Gregory's alleged dictation of the chant melodies from a dove that landed on his shoulder. Thanks to Ed Adams & Nicholas Patterson.


A watched pot never boils
Meaning: When waiting anxiously or impatiently for something to happen, it seems to take much longer.
Example: Marvin in a hurry for his breakfast, watched each second of the 7 minutes to boil the eggs... time just ran too slowly for his impatience that morning!
Origin: If you put a fire under a pot of water, it will eventually boil, of course. But if you just stand there and watch the pot, it will seem to take forever for the boiling bubbles to first appear. Anxiety and impatience do not speed things up - they make them seem longer.

: While living in England, it was explained to me that tea should always be made with hot, but not boiling, water. One needed to pay close attention to the pot in order to heat it without boiling. This of course makes the meaning closer to "a stitch in time saves nine," a warning to take particular care with something. Thanks to Carla Laureano.


Above board
Meaning: Legal, out in the open, activities not concealed.
Example: Martha Stewart sated that all of her stock deals were above board. At least all that you know about.
Origin: Early trading ships would hide illegal cargo below the ship's deck. Legal cargo could be placed in plain view on deck, or above the boards of the deck.

Alternative: In card playing, 'board' is an old word for table. To drop your hand below the table could be interpreted as trying to cheat - by swapping cards. But if all play was above board, this was impossible.


Ace up your sleeve
Meaning: A surprise or secret advantage, especially something tricky that is kept hidden until needed.
Origin: In the 1500s, most people didn’t have pockets in their clothes, so they kept things in their sleeves. Later on, magicians hid objects, even small live animals, up their sleeves and then pulled them out unexpectedly to surprise their audiences. In the 1800s dishonest card players secretly slipped a winning card, often an ace, up their sleeves and pulled it out when nobody was looking.


Achilles' heel
Meaning: A weak or vulnerable spot.
Example: Playoffs show a different side of weaker teams as they constantly try to find the Achilles' heel in their opponent's defense.
Origin: Achilles was the hero in Homer's Iliad, son of the king Peleus and the sea-goddess Thetis, great-grandson of Zeus. Achilles was fearless in battle, because his mother had dipped him in the river Styx as a baby, making him invulnerable. However, she had held him by the heel and had neglected to get the heel wet, creating one vulnerable spot. Apollo learned of the secret and whispered it to Paris, who then deliberately aimed an arrow at the heel, causing the death of the hero.  Thanks to Katie Cutie.


Acid test
Meaning: Any test that produces undeniable results.
Example: When something passes the acid test it indicates that it is genuine and can be relied on, as "good as gold".
Origin: The phrase "acid test" is connected indirectly to fool's gold. The term was born in the gold rush years of the mid-1800s. Since gold reacts differently to acid than do other metals, an acid test was done to determine whether the metal a miner found was in fact gold. Unlike most metals, gold is particularly resistant to digestion with almost all types of acid. Application of acid to a substance suspected of being gold, if not resulting in digestion, could therefore confirm the presence of gold. Thus, by extension, any test of character or quality came to be considered an "acid test".


Add some fire to the curry
Meaning: Adding more spice to an already 'spicy' situation.
Example: Steady on, mate - don't get your knickers in a knot - that's just gonna add some fire to the curry!
Origin: In 1390 King Richard II summoned cooks and philosophers to produce the first English cookery book, “The Forme of Cury.” The book contained 196 recipes, but none of those recipes had anything in common with Indian Curries or Indian cuisine. “Cury” was the Old English word meaning cuisine based on French “cuire” - “to cook, boil, or grill.” After the cook book, Cury became a popular part of English vocabulary, and the term Cury became associated with stew in the United Kingdom.

The “Curry” in the “Chicken Topperfield plus Currypowder” Recipe by Stephana Malcom in 1791 is reflective of typical Indian Curries. To "add some fire to the curry" is most likely related to Indian immigrants who liked to add even more Curry to their food (which was often thought of by English people as hot enough in its original form). Inspiration from Trudi Firth.


Albatross around your neck
Meaning: Burdened by stigma or shame from a past deed.
Example: Your choice - you can put that job firing behind you, or wear it like an albatross around your neck.
Origin: From Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner". An albatross, a symbol of good luck, landed on the ship and was killed by the captain while the ship was becalmed. The killing was thought to be the reason for a prolonged becalming. The Captain was forced to wear the albatross as a reminder of the wrong he had done.


All of a sudden
Meaning: A sudden occurrence of an unexpected event.
Example: We were listening to the national anthem when all of a sudden 4 jets flew by to assist with opening of the game ceremony.
Origin: "Sudden" came to us from Old French (OED), and its ultimate source is the Latin subire, meaning to come or go stealthily. It entered English in about 1300 as an adjective (spelled soden, sodeyne, sodein, swdan - the spelling wasn't established until after 1700). Beginning in the 1400s (OED) "sudden" was also used as an adverb, the way we use "suddenly" today. In the 1500s people began using "sudden" as a noun. A "sudden" was an unexpected occurrence. So people spoke of events that happened at, in, of, or upon "the sudden" or "a sudden." The historical progression of this phrase was "of the sudden" ... "of a sudden" ... "all of a sudden." - "at the sodeyne" (1559) vs. "at a sudden" (1560) - "in the Sodeyne" (1559) vs. "in a sodaine" (1560) - "of the suddeyne" (1570) vs. "of a sodaine" (1596) - "upon the soden" (1558) vs. "vpon a sodayne" (1565) The use of "sudden" was extended to phrases that required the indefinite article "a," like these: "upon suche a sodeyn" (1572); "upon a very great sudden" (1575); and "with such a sodaine" (1582). "All of a sudden" first appeared in 1681.  Thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), & Marie Glover.


All over but the shouting
Meaning: A situation in which victory is clear before a final decision is reached.
Example: B.C. voters feel left out in Canadian voting. Even before the polls are closed in B.C., the election results are already known - it's all over but the shouting.
Origin: For centuries, in England it was common practice to call an assembly of townspeople and decide matters with a simple voice vote - rather than hold formal elections - to decide local issues. The assemblies themselves were known as "shoutings," and when the outcome of an issue was known before the meeting, the situation was described as all over but the shouting.


All right
Meaning: Everything is fine.
Origin: How did the word 'okay' come to mean “all right”? The word 'okay' (or O.K.) is American and surfaced for the first time in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839. It was a comedic use of “All Correct” and was deliberately misspelled as “Oll Korrect,” which when abbreviated became the letters O.K. The abbreviation caught on around Boston and New York, and became a slogan for President martin Van Buren's campaign for re-election.


All wet
Meaning: To be incorrect, to be wrong.
Example: The idea that man could live on bread alone turned out to be all wet. Man needs beer.
Origin: Most people consider the state of being in wet clothing to be uncomfortable or undesirable. Witness that most people like to seek shelter from the rain. Hence being all wet is to be in a bad state. Not where one wants to correctly be.


An old chestnut
Meaning: A joe-k that is old and well known.
Example: You won't find "old chestnuts @ - only chess nuts!
Origin: The origin here goes back to a melodrama by William Diamond. The play, first produced in 1816, has one of the characters forever repeating the same joe-k, albeit with minor changes. The joe-k concerns a cork tree. On one occasion another character, Pablo, fed up with the same joe-k says; "A Chestnut. I have heard you tell the joe-k 27 times and I'm sure it was a Chestnut!" The quotation was used in real life by the American actor William Warren who, at the time, was playing the part of Pablo. He was at a dinner party when one of the guests started off on a well worn joe-k. Warren interrupted with the quotation, much to the amusement of the other guests. As a result the expression entered into the wider language.


Annus horribilis
Meaning: A horrible year.
Example: What do Elizabeth II and Tiger Woods have in common? They both described their closing year as an “annus horribilis”.
Origin: Cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as being in use as early as 1985, this phrase is most noted for its use by Elizabeth II, in her speech to the Guildhall on 24 November, 1992, marking the 40th anniversary of her Accession, in which she described the closing year: “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.”

Alternative: This phrase may allude to John Dryden's poem “Annus Mirabilis” about the events of 1666. The “sympathetic correspondent” was later revealed to be her former assistant private secretary, Sir Edward Ford.


Apple of your eye
Meaning: Someone who is very special to you.
Example: Wifey continues to be the apple of the Joe-kster's eye.
Origin: Sight has always been regarded as something special; this same appreciation applied equally to the pupil. In ancient times the pupil was supposed to be round and solid like a ball (i.e. like an apple). By extension the phrase was then applied to anything or anyone being especially precious.

Alternative: In the various retellings of The Judgment of Paris, Eris (the Goddess of Discord) crashed one of Zeus' parties with a Golden Apple addressed to the most beautiful goddess. Three goddesses claimed the apple as theirs'; Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to decide which of them the apple was intended for and, rather than get involved himself, he bestowed this duty upon the mortal Paris. Paris was noted for his fairness in all things and being impartial in the decision. He awarded the Golden Apple to Aphrodite who, in his eyes, was the most beautiful.   Thanks to Shelia Clark.


Apple pie bed
Meaning: A practical joe-k type bed in which the bottom sheet is folded back upon itself, thereby making it impossible for the occupant to stretch out his or her legs.
Origin: The phrase is an Anglicised version of the French "nappé pliè" - a folded sheet. Apple pie order; probably from the same origin as "apple pie bed" (i.e. a folded sheet in French). Such sheets are neat and tidy.


Armed to the teeth
Meaning: To be heavily armed.
Example: Don't even think about going into Chicago's housing projects unless you are armed to the teeth.
Origin: This is a pirate phrase originating in Port Royal Jamaica in the 1600's. Having only single shot black powder weapons and cutlesses, they would carry many of these weapons at once to keep up the fight. In addition they carried a knife in their teeth for maximum arms capability.


At large
Meaning: An indication that a prisoner has escaped and is free.
Example: In the movie "Escape From Alcatraz," three prisoners managed to escape Alcatraz and were at large, never to be heard from again.
Origin: This phrase refers to a French phrase "prendre la large" meaning to stand out to sea so as to be free to move. "Large" also has another nautical meaning as in 'By and Large'.


At Loose Ends
Meaning: There's not much of anything to be done; life is a little dull and boring.
Example: If you're @ loose ends, spend some value-added time @!
Origin: The ends here are those of rigging ropes on a sailing ship. There were many such ropes associated with the sails and the ends were tightly bound to prevent them unravelling. When there was little else to do the Captain would order his men to check the ropes and repair any of those with loose ends.


At the double
Meaning: An indication of urgency and speed.
Example: Sailor, get to your station on the double.
Origin: "Double" was the old nautical name for the rapid drumbeat summoning all hands to action stations.


At the drop of a hat
Meaning: Something that happens suddenly, almost without warning.
Origin: This expression comes from the American West, where the signal for a fight was often just the drop of a hat.

: Irish origin, based on the saying, "He's ready to fight at the drop of a hat", followed by "Roll up your sleeves", or "Take off your coat" (i.e. clothing is involved in the start of fights).

: During the days of fairground boxing competitions, the public were invited to try their skill against the resident pugilist. In those days all men wore hats. In order to indicate willingness to enter the fray a man in the crowd would throw his hat into the ring. Since he was then bare-headed, he was easily identified as he made his way up to the ring.


At the end of my rope
Meaning: To have run out of patience, or out of s.
Example: I am at the end of my rope with this job - I quit.
Origin: This evolved from the phrase "at the end of my tether". Such as a dog or a horse might be tied or tethered.

The old phrase meant to convey a sense of self restraint, while the new suggests that one has reached or exceeded one's defined boundaries.


At the eleventh hour
Meaning: To raise a problem, issue, or solution right before an important deadline.
Example: I had given up after trying for days to get tickets to a sold out show, then at the eleventh hour a friend calls to tell me she has tickets.
Origin: On a 12-hour clock, the hours of 12 noon and 12 midnight seem to hold special significance. De-marking the transition from morning to afternoon and the end of the day, they are often used as deadlines (high noon; the stroke of midnight).

To come at "the eleventh hour" implies that it comes in the last hour before the deadline. The choice of "the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" as the time to end WW1 was quite apt.


Axe to grind
Meaning: Something to gain for yourself for a selfish reason; flattery or trickery used to get a favor from another person.
Origin: This saying comes allegedly from the U.S. diplomat Benjamin Franklin. He told the story of the young man who wanted his axe ground. The smith agreed to do it provided the man turn the grindstone himself. He soon tired and gave up having bitten off more than he could chew. This story was published early in Franklin's career in an article entitled "Too much for your whistle", but the actual phrase does not seem to have been used until about 20 years later, in another story called "Who'll turn the Grindstone?", written by Charles Minter. This story was clearly based on Franklin's tale, and did include the phrase "... that man has an ax to grind".

: In the early 1800s, a man wrote a story in a newspaper about how, when he was a boy, a man used flattery to trick him into sharpening the man’s ax. The boy turned the heavy grindstone while the man held the ax against it because the man said that boy was a great ax grinder, smart and strong. The man didn’t pay the boy or even thank him. Instead he scolded him for wasting time and being late for school. After that, people started using the expression "have an ax to grind" when they meant that anyone was seeing a particular goal solely for himself by flattering or tricking another person. People say that they don’t have an ax to grind to show that they are honest and aren’t trying to trick you into doing anything for them.

: Axes were a commonplace weapon for soldiers, many centuries ago, and a man seen to be grinding the blade of his axe, demonstrated in the most visible way possible that he was cruising for some aggro....If a man had an axe to grind, it meant he had a resentment he was intending to manifest quite openly....he was spoiling - and preparing - for a fight, in no uncertain terms!  Thanks to Alex Parker.

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