Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
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Had your chips
Meaning: Someone's luck has run out and they are close to failure.
Origin: "Chips" refer to gaming chips or tokens. Someone who loses their chips could well be ruined.

Alternative: In the old naval dockyards, the off cuts of pieces of timber (chips) were regarded as legitimate perks for the workers. They took them home and used them; some say that even the woodwork of whole houses was so built. This privilege could be revoked by the foreman or boss, in which case the individual had had his chips.


Hair of the dog that bit you
Meaning: Using something from A as an antidote to solve B's problems caused by A.
Origin: "Hair of the dog" is part of a longer expression "the hair of the dog that bit you". Medieval doctors believed if a rabid dog bit you, your chance of recovery was better if a hair was plucked from the dog and placed on your wound - used as an antidote against the bad effects of the bite. By extension, another drink or two after a drinking binge would be the cure for a hangover.


Half cocked
Meaning: To be less than fully prepared.
Example: Before you go in half cocked demanding a raise, you better think through what you are going to say.
Origin: "Cocked" refers to the action of cocking a gun. Interestingly the term cocking a gun comes from flintlock muskets of 17th century, the hammer was very ornate and resembled a rooster (a cock).

The phrase was originally "going off half cocked".

The half cock position of the cock on a flint or cap lock weapon was a "safe" position to which the cock was drawn to permit access to the priming pan (flint lock) or to permit capping (cap lock). The cock could be placed in the half cock position while, hopefully, not risking having the weapon go off accidentally.

Pulling the trigger of a flintlock at "half cock" will not fire the weapon. The hammer, which contains the flint, will not strike the frizzen with sufficient force to produce a spark and the primer charge in the pan will not be ignited.

The loading process of a flintlock is quite involved.
1. Draw the hammer to the "half cock" position
2. Prime the pan
3. Close the pan
4. Charge the weapon (i.e. pour the powder into the barrel)
5. Load the ball/bullet
6. Drive the ball home
7. Draw the hammer to "full cock" position

Particularly in the heat of battle, it was easy to forget the last step and continue with the platoon, change position (with the loaded gun in "safe" mode), shoulder the weapon to be fired, and pull the trigger with the result being that nothing happens. Embarrassing and potentially dangerous.


Ham actor
Meaning: An inferior actor with, perhaps, lots of gesticulations but little else.
Origin: 19th century make-up was removed with ham fat.

Alternative: a touring troupe of American actors in the mid 1800s, known as Ham's actors from the name of their leader, was the basis of this phrase.

Alternative: From the popular minstrel song "The Hamfat Man", about an inept actor.

Alternative: A play on the word "amateur".

Alternative: Ddown-at-heel actors had played Hamlet in better days.


Hang by a thread
Meaning: To be in a very precarious situation; perilous position.
Example: Joel was just about at the top of his climb up the ice cliff when one of his ice pick axe handles broke - he was hanging on by a thread, waiting for a rescue team.
Origin: This phrase comes from the story of the flatterer Damocles, who was invited by the tyrant Dionysius to experience the luxury he so envied and praised. When Damocles sat down to a sumptuous feast, he discovered a sword suspended over his head by a single hair. Fear that the sword would fall and kill him prevented him from enjoying the banquet.


Hanky panky
Meaning: Implied underhand dealing or cheating.
Origin: The expression has been compared with Hocus Pocus, the start of a mock Latin phrase used by conjurers with the object of distracting the audience from any slight-of-hand. Our word 'Hoax' is probably derived from mock-Latin, and Hanky panky possibly a variant.


Happy as a clam
Meaning: To be very satisfied.
Example: A cold beer, some peace and quite, and I am happy as a clam.
Origin: Clams like to lay in mud. Claim diggers wade through the muddy water and use a specialized metal rake - a hand-held clam rake at the end of a pole - to rake up clams from the mud and sand. They look something like a heavy-duty garden rake that has netting on the back to comb through the mud looking for the clams. The clams get caught in the netting.  Thanks to Tom Romalewski.

Clam diggers are only able to catch clams at low tide. If the tide is high, the water is too deep to wade into and clams were safe (happy) from their hunters.

The phrase was originally "Happy as a clam at high tide."


Hard lines
Meaning: Bad luck; hardship.
Example: For future cyclists, following Lance Armstrong's lead is a hard line to follow.
Origin: In Psalm 16.6: 'The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage', referring to lines marking out the boundaries of the speaker's land and home. Hence, 'lines' came to mean one's position in life. As an extension, 'hard lines' related to bad fortune.


Hard up
Meaning: Out of cash, 'financially challenged'.
Origin: In sailing ship days, when a vessel was forced by stress of weather to turn away from the wind, then the helm was put hard up to windward to alter course. By analogy, someone is hard up if they have to weather a financial storm.


Hat trick
Meaning: The accomplishment of three successes or wins.
Example: Wayne Gretzky scored an NHL record fifty hat trick during his 1979-99 career.
Origin: "Hat trick" originated from the English game of Cricket. The term originally referred to a bowler retiring three consecutive batsman with three consecutive balls.

This is roughly equivalent to a pitcher in baseball striking out three consecutive batters using only three pitches to each! This was considered quite an accomplishment and was traditionally rewarded with a hat.

The term is now used for other sports, always referring to an accomplishment of three. A popular use today is three goals by a single player in one game of hockey or soccer.

Alternative: Comes from the days when it was common for men (and women for that manner) to wear hats to social events, and in Canada a hockey game is a social event. If a player scored three goals in one game, appreciative fans would throw their hats onto the ice.


Haul someone over the coals
Meaning: To severely reprimand someone.
Origin: In the Middle Ages, suspected heretics were literally hauled over a bed of burning coals. If they survived they were considered innocent, and guilty if they did not.


Have a screw loose
Meaning: Something is wrong with a person or mechanism.
Origin: This phrase comes from the cotton industry and dates back as far as the 1780s, when the industrial revolution made mass production of textiles possible for the first time. Huge mills sprang up to take advantage of the new technology (and cheap labour), but it was difficult to keep all the machines running properly. Any machine that broke down or produced defective cloth was said to have "a screw loose" somewhere.


Head over heels
Meaning: A figurative term used to describe the feeling of falling in love.
Origin: This started out as "Per caputque pedesque" around 60 BC, when Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus in his poem Carmina told of someone that he would like to see go "over head and heels" into mud. Usage over several centuries rearranged the words slightly but retained the image. The expression came into English the same way, but had become inverted by 1771 when Herbert Lawrence in The Contemplative Man wrote about someone receiving: Such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels. Thanks to Max Cryer.


Heath Robinson solution
Meaning: Something characterized by apparent muddle.
Origin: This expression comes from a famous English cartoonist whose 'trademark' style was one of drawing of pieces of apparatus, designed to perform simple tasks, in an overly complex way. These drawings contained a jumble of badly assembled bits and pieces, often joined up by scraps of string or rope to produce an over complex solution to the task in hand. He was a great draughtsman and eccentric and his name is remembered in the above phrase.

Related phrase: Rube Goldberg Contraption.


Heavy dew


Hell bent for leather
Meaning: To go all out, willing to do whatever is required to achieve ones objective.
Example: The Indy cars rounded turn one, hell bent for leather.
Origin: This is a combination of two separate phrases with similar meanings. "Hell bent" meaning to do everything possible to achieve a goal. And "Hell for leather" meaning to do something with vigor or (especially travel) at full speed.

To have a bent is to be determined, as in bent on doing something. Hell is often used in terms associated with high speed and determination (e.g.. "go like hell", "running like hell"). "Hell bent" means to be highly or stubbornly determined.

"Hell for leather" is more literal. In this case "leather" refers to the bridal and saddle on a horse. To ride very quickly is rough on the bridal, stirrups, and saddle and is literally "hell for leather".

"Hell bent for leather" then is to ride very fast and very determined.

Alternative: Much like any professional athlete, a horse can be seriously injured or killed if pushed beyond its capabilities; particularly in speed or endurance. A horse that did survive such a run in reasonable health would often become vicious and could not be broken a second time. In either case, the horse was no longer usable; its final destiny to be skinned for leather. As such, one who urged a horse to such extremes of performance was 'hell-bent' on obtaining the resulting leather.   Thanks to Shelia Clark.


Hell's half acre
Meaning: A long and frustrating trip.
Example: I looked all over hell's half acre trying to find a left handed monkey wrench.
Origin: Hell's half acre is a lava flow about 15 miles west of Idaho Falls, Idaho. It is 4.5 miles of rough, irregular terrain that is very difficult to navigate. It is so named because its cracks, holes, and crags give the area an otherworldly, surreal, and perhaps hellish appearance. A search of Hell's half acre would indeed be a long and difficult task.

Many of the scenes in the 1997 film "Starship Troopers" (based on Robert Heinlein's novel of the same name) in which the characters were on an alien planet, were filmed at Hell's half acre.

What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhinocerous? Elephino.


Hem and haw
Meaning: Sounds made in clearing the throat when we are about to speak.
Origin: When a speaker constantly makes them without speaking he is usually hesitating out of uncertainty, which suggested the phrase. Said the first writer to record the idea in 1469: "He wold have gotyn it aweye by humys and by hays but I would not so be answered.

Related modern saying: To "Um & Ah".


Meaning: Someone knowledgeable about popular music.
Origin: "Hep" goes back to hip (from which "hippie" comes) which, in turn, derives from the west African Wolof word 'hipi', meaning "to open one's eyes". "Cat" is also derived from the same source since hipi-kat in Wolof means "one who has opened his eyes".


Here I raise my Ebenezer
Meaning: For Christians to remember to rely on the Lord; to remind God's people how He delivered Israel in their time of trouble.
Example: Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Origin: This phrase is the beginning of the second verse of Robert Robinson's hymn, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (1758) (see above Example). In the Bible, 1 Samuel Chapters 4 through 7, a series of battles occurs between the Israelites and the Philistines. In an attempt to defeat the Philistines, the Israelites took the ark of the covenant into battle as a sort of good luck charm. To their anguish, the Philistines captured the ark and took it back to their pagan temple. God then sent plagues upon the Philistines and caused the idol of their god Dagon to fall over on its face. Fearing God, the Philistines sent the ark back to the Israelites. Samuel offered sacrifices to God so that when the Philistines approached, God "thundered with a great thunder". In the confusion that followed, the Israelites soundly defeated the Philistines.

As a reminder of the great victory God gave to Israel, Samuel took a great stone and raised it as a memorial. As he raised it, he called the name of it Ebenezer (or stone of help). Whenever the Israelites looked at the stone, they would remember how God had helped them. The exact site of the stone is unknown today.


Here today, gone tomorrow
Meaning: Fleeting; lacking premanence.
Example: His novel attracted a great deal of attention but quickly went out of print - here today and gone tomorrow.
Origin: This phrase originally alluded to the briefness of the human lifespan, and was first recorded in John Calvin's 'Life and Conversion of a Christian Man' (1549): "This proverb that man is here today and gone tomorrow."


High on the hog
Meaning: Extravagantly.
Example: If you choose to live high on the hog, you will be low in the wallet.
Origin: The best meat is on the upper portion of the pig. Rich people have always been afforded this luxury while the servants, slaves and poor have always had to eat pig's feet, chitterlings, cracklings - low on the hog.


Hit the books
Meaning: Study school assignments carefully; prepare for classes by reading and doing homework.
Example: 'How many times have I told you, Johnny! Make sure you spend @ least 2 hours @ before you hit the books!
Origin: This idiom says that when you really study hard, you "hit" the books. Why hit? Hit has many meanings. Among them are to come into contact with something forcefully ("The bomb hit its target") and to achieve something you desire ("He hit upon the right formula").


Hit the nail on the head
Meaning: To do or say the most fitting thing; to cut through extraneous details and come right to the point.
Example: When the interviewer asked him what two plus two was, Jared hit the nail right on the head by answering, "What do you want it to be?"
Origin: This 16th century expression relates to hitting a nail properly (squarely on the head), and alludes to communicating effectively, or being to the point. On the other hand, a bad hit (which bends the nail) is like rambling which fails to get to the crux of the matter at hand.


Hit the sack
Meaning: To go to bed, to retire for the evening to sleep.
Example: Man, am I bushed, I'm going to hit the sack.
Origin: Although fallen out of common usage, one definition of a sack is a bed. Early mattresses were often made from a cloth sack stuffed with hay, hair, or some other form of padding.

In fact "sack out" is defined as "to go to bed, to go to sleep".


Meaning: To associate with someone; to keep their company.
Origin: The expression is a corruption of the now defunct hab-nab in turn a shortening of old English habbe (hit) and nabbe (miss). This took on the implication of give & take and this giving and taking (of drinks) is one of the hallmarks of hob-nobbing.

In 1811 it was "Will you Hob or Nob with me?" If the party so questioned replied "nob" they were deemed to have agreed to have a drink of wine with the proposer and had to choose red or white wine. The 1811 suggested origin goes back to the days of good queen Bess when great chimneys were in fashion. On each corner of the hearth or grate was a small projection called the hob. In winter beer was placed upon the hob to warm and cold beer was set upon a small table, said to have been called the nob and so the question "will you hob or nob with me?" appears to be an invitation to warm or cold beer.


Hobson's choice
Meaning: There is no choice at all.
Origin: This expression goes back to 1631, to a man named Hobson who ran a livery stable in Cambridge and was well known in his day. Milton, who was a student in Cambridge at the time, mentions him in two epitaphs. Hobson was renowned for the fact he would only let out his horses in strict rotation - there was no choice at all.


Hog wash
Meaning: An incorrect statement, nonsense.
Example: In court today, the allegations of wrongful dismissal where dismissed as hog wash.
Origin: Pigs are not particularly clean animals. They live in their own feces, sleep in it, roll in it, and play in it.

Pigs don’t sweat. To cool themselves they urinate to create mud then lay in it.

If one were to give a hog a bath what would be left when you were done (the “hog wash”) would be water and feces.

Alternative: When one washed up after dinner, the plates were rinsed into a bucket, and that “wash” was fed to the hogs. Thanks to Ron Wright


Hold a candle to the Devil
Meaning: To aid or countenance that which is wrong.
Origin: An allusion is to the Roman Catholic practice of burning candles before the images of saints.


Hold your feet to the fire
Meaning: To hold one accountable for a commitment, make good on a promise.
Example: You made a fair bet with me on the Superbowl and I am going to hold your feet to the fire for payment.
Origin: Pertains to torture used during the Crusade's. As a method for extracting confession for heresy, non-believers were positioned in a manner that allowed the inquisitor to apply flames to the feet of the accused. This was done until the accused confessed or died.

As ridiculous as that method of obtaining a confession seems by today's standards, consider a modern parallel - plea bargaining. The accused is offered the choice between a reduced sentence in exchange for a confession, or prosecution with the risk of more severe penalty (possibly death).


Holding a wake
Meaning: A gathering of family & friends after a related person's funeral service.
Example: Phoebe refused to hold a wake for her recently deceased husband as she considered the practice useless in light of her grief.
Origin: In the 1500s, lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock drinkers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days, and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up.

Further Reference: The 1500s


Horse of a different colour
Meaning: Unlike the subject at hand.
Example: Bush and Blaire are both credible, but Bush is a horse of a different colour.
Origin: Horses are registered at birth and the registration includes a record of their colour. When a horse trades hands due to sale, the registration is also transferred. Sometimes the colour recorded on the registration may not match the actual colour of the horse leading one to suspect the horse is not the one in the registration.

Horses sometimes change colour as they age, just as some people's hair changes colour. More likely the horse is not the one represented on the registration but is actually an entirely different horse.


Horse Play
Meaning: To behave boisterously.
Example: To celebrate Ryan's wedding, his friends' horse play at his stag left everyone in the town laughing: they dressed him up in a bridal gown and paraded him throughout the streets!
Origin: English Morris dancers were often accompanied by players riding wooden hobby horses. These horses were expected to perform many antics and move about uncontrollably.


Horse sense
Meaning: Common sense, able to stand the test of reasonableness.
Example: If you're going to spend your time working anyway, it only makes horse sense to get a high paying job.
Origin: Horses are intelligent animals. They demonstrate the ability act sensibly and to avoid situations that might cause them harm such as taking a fall, hence good common sense.


Hunky dory
Meaning: To be okay, everything is good.
Example: If you would only pay the bills on time, everything would be hunky dory.
Origin: Huncho-dori was a major street in Yokohama that was frequented by American sailors on leave during WW1. To be in Huncho-dori was to be enjoying leisure activities, and having a good time.

Alternative: The archaic English word "hunk" meant "goal" and is probably derived from the Dutch "honk" also meaning "goal". To have reached one's goal is to be satisfied and happy.


Hurts like the dickens
Meaning: To hurt a lot, to be painful.
Example: It hurts like the dickens that Therese's old computer won't bring up properly!
Origin: Dickens in this case is a euphemism for "devil".

Hence the phrase is really "hurts like the devil" which is also a common phrase. Dickens was likely considered more polite than "devil" in Victorian times, and may have been a superstitious alternative.

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