Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
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I don't give a fig
Meaning: Complete lack of concern about an event.
Origin: This phrase comes from the Spanish Fico (Fig) which gave its name to a traditional gesture of contempt made by placing the thumb between the first and second fingers. The gesture was common in Shakespeare's time and was known as The Fig of Spain. The modern-day equivalent is the "V" sign.


I don't give a jot
Meaning: Someone who doesn't care about what is going on.
Example: Henry came up with an alternative saying for 'I Don't Give A Jot' when he told his boss in French, 'Je Ne Give A Pas.'
Origin: 'Jot' in this expression refers to the letter Iota, which is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet and came to imply the least of anything. The same occurred with the Hebrew 'yod' which later came to be translated as 'Jot'.


Icing on the cake
Meaning: An additional benefit to something already good.
Example: After the gorgeous sunrise, the rainbow is just icing on the cake.
Origin: This mid-1900s expression alludes to the sweet, creamy coating used to enhance a cake.


If Genghis Khan, why can't I?


If the shoe fits, wear it
Meaning: If something applies to you, accept it.
Example: Cinderella's shoe fit, so she wore it.
Origin: This expression is from the 18th century term "if the cap fits, put it on," which refered specifically to fool's caps.


I'll give you that to boot
Meaning: Giving something as well.
Origin: The saying has nothing to do with footwear, but rather Anglo Saxon English where the word "Bot" meant "advantage" or "profit". "To boot" survives in modern English only in this single phrase, other uses having died out in the 19th century.


I'm all in
Meaning: One who is exhausted, depressed or broke.
Example: Today's skeptical investors are all in - they're played out and no longer putting their money into the stock market.
Origin: According to 'The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang', the term "all in" originated at a poker-playing card table. If you were "all in," you were broke (i.e. out of money), because you had already put all of your money in the pot, and you couldn't play anymore.

Alternative: Eric Partridge's 'Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English' states that "all in" originated on the floors of stock exchanges in the mid-19th century. If the market was "all in," it was down or depressed; if it was "all out," it was rising or inflated. By extension, the term "all in" was used in the early 20th century to mean "exhausted" or "used up" - in reference to people or animals who were verging on collapse.


Origin: Ingvar Kamprad was born in 1926 and raised on a farm called Elmtaryd, near the Swedish village of Agunnaryd. At an early age, he bought matches in bulk from Stockholm and sold them at a fair price, and a good profit. He reinvested his profits and expanded to fresh fish, seeds, Christmas tree ornaments, and ballpoint pens. In 1943, at age 17, Kamprad's father financially rewarded him for doing well in school, and he spent it by forming his own company - naming it IKEA, an acronym made up of his own initials, the name of the family's farm, and the village of his birth:
I(ngvar) K(amprad) E(lmtaryd) A(gunnaryd).
Bicycle transportation was no longer practical for his products (which now also included picture frames, watches, and jewellery), so Kamprad transformed IKEA into a mail-order operation. By 1948 he also sold furniture produced by local artisans. So successful was his low-priced, sturdy furniture that by 1951 he dropped all his other products and concentrated on inexpensive but stylish home furnishings. In early 2004, Swedish business magazine 'Veckans Affarer' reported that he had surpassed Bill Gates as the world's wealthiest person. IKEA is now one of the largest, most successful privately held companies in the world, with over 200 stores in 31 countries, employing over 75,000 people and generating over 12 billion in sales annually.


In a jiffy
Meaning: To do something in a very short period of time.
Example: I'll do it in a jiffy.
Origin: A jiffy is the unit of time it takes light to travel a centimetre in a vacuum: 0.0000000000033357 seconds, or (3.3357x10^-11) seconds, or (3.3357 times 10 to the power of minus 11) seconds. It's quite doubtful that if someone says they'll 'do something in a jiffy' that they'll accomplish the task!

See also 'Jiffy Sudoku Puzzle' @


In a nutshell
Meaning: In a few words, or very briefly explained.
Example: Why write a long article when you could say it in a nutshell - in one phrase?
Origin: "The Iliad in a nutshell. Pliny tells us that Cicero asserts that the whole Iliad was written on a piece of parchment which might be put into a nutshell. Lalanne describes, in his Curiosités Bibliographiques, an edition of Rochefoucault’s Maxims, published by Didot in 1829, on pages one inch square, each page containing 26 lines, and each line 44 letters. Charles Toppan, of New York, engraved on a plate one-eighth of an inch square 12,000 letters. The Iliad contains 501,930 letters, and would therefore occupy 42 such plates engraved on both sides. Huet has proved by experiment that a parchment 27 by 21 centimètres would contain the entire Iliad, and such a parchment would go into a common-sized nut; but Mr. Toppan’s engraving would get the whole Iliad into half that size. George P. Marsh says, in his Lectures, he has seen the entire Arabic Koran in a parchment roll four inches wide and half an inch in diameter. (See ILIAD.) 1 To lie in a nutshell. To be explained in a few words; to be capable of easy solution." From E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898

Alternative: Nutshells, being the "hard exterior within which the kernel of a nut is enclosed" (Oxford English Dictionary), don't get very big since nuts themselves are generally fairly small. Nutshells themselves were first used as metaphors for something very small back in 1602, when Shakespeare had Hamlet declare, "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count my selfe a King of infinite space." Anything that could fit "in a nutshell" would have to be very small, and by the 18th century all the major writers were cramming things into nutshells. Word Detective


In a pickle
Meaning: In a dilemma.
Origin: This expression is from the old Dutch phrase “de pikel zitten,” which means to sit in a salt solution used for preserving pickles - sure to be an uncomfortable situation.


In a pig's eye
Meaning: Not true, a lie, a misperception, false.
Example: Bill is a hard worker only in a pig's eye.
Origin: This is an example of rhyming slang. "Pig's eye" is a rhyme for "lie".


In cahoots with
Meaning: Questionable collaboration. Secret partnership.
Example: Computer delegates to the Comdex Convention were surprised to hear that Microsoft was in cahoots with Novell in an open source "Bandit Project" to gain advantage for Microsoft's new Vista operating system.
Origin: The term 'cahoots' derives from the French 'cahute' (cabin) and is first recorded around 1820. American fur trappers on the frontier probably borrowed the word from French trappers there. Trappers living together in a cahute or cahoot were often partners, giving rise to the expression 'in cahoots with.'


In fine fettle
Meaning: Being in good shape or humour; to be prepared for anything.
Origin: This phrase goes back to the old English "fetel" or "girdle" and links in with the biblical concept of preparation by "girding up the loins".


In high cotton
Meaning: To be wealthy.
Example: If we can pull this one off, we'll be in high cotton.
Origin: This came from the old south where cotton was one of the few cash crops when this country was first settled. High cotton is a reference to the tallest healthiest plants, which produced the most cotton. To be "in high cotton" is to have a valuable, bumper crop.

Building on this, a landowner or worker who had to defecate while in the fields would do so in the field and use some of the cotton for wiping. In the old south, these workers were slaves.

Given a choice anyone would prefer to wipe with the biggest, whitest, fluffiest tufts of cotton which are produced by the tallest, healthiest plants - that is, the high cotton. Since these were also the most valuable plants, one would only wipe with the "high cotton" if they had a very good crop. Otherwise they would seek out less healthy, less valuable samples for wiping.

The complete and original phrase was "sh__ing in high cotton and wiping with the highest, whitest bolls".


In hock
Meaning: Broke; have all of your belongings in a pawn shop.
Origin: In an Old West gambling card game called "faro," the last card to be played was called the hocketty card. It was said to be in hocketty or in hock. When a player bet on a card that ended up in hock, he was himself in hock, at risk of losing his bets.


In jug
Meaning: In prison.
Example: Alfonso was thrown in the jug for his outspoken reviews about the communist government.
Origin: The Scottish 'Jougs' was an iron ring fastened to a wall and used as a pillory. The name in turn derived from the Old French Joug (yoke).

Alternative: The Mexican-Spanish word juzgado (prison), simplified by early English speaking settlers to 'jug'.

The Scottish version outdates the Mexican version.


In like Flynn
Meaning: To be accepted by the group without question, to have a sure thing.
Example: Don't worry about being accepted as a member at the country club. If you pay the membership fee you will be in like Flynn.
Origin: "In Like Flynn" comes from Errol Flynn's acquittal on statutory rape charges. Wildly popular, Flynn was a phenomenally successful movie star of the 30's and 40's. His defining role was in "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Other notable roles include: "Captain Blood", "They Died with Their Boots On", and "The Sun Also Rises."

Flynn was involved in a sensational trial, in which he was accused of having sex with two underage girls on a boat. When Flynn was found not guilty, the phrase "In like Flynn" became a part of the popular vocabulary. The phrase suggests that his acquittal was based on his popularity and celebrity. Thus, if you were sure to get some action, you too were going to be "in like Flynn."

Alternative: "In Like Flint" is the title of one of the James Bond parody movies starring James Coburn and is an obvious play on the original expression. The other movie in the series was called "Our man Flint". Derek Flint (played by Coburn) was also irresistible to the ladies.

Alternative: It's much more likely the origin comes from the 1888 poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, "Casey at the Bat." Flynn, as the poem goes, was hugging third when Casey came to bat. It was a sure thing that he would be in - although the poem ends with Casey striking out.  Thanks to Eric Ode.


In the bag
Meaning: All is certain - the outcome is beyond doubt; Assured of success.
Example: The hockey team was winning by five goals at the start of the the third period - they thought they had the game in the bag, but the other team came on to win in overtime.
Origin: This is derived from the House of Commons, along with "On the nod" and "Toe the line". "In the bag" means: a bag of petitions behind the Speaker.

Alternative: The bag is one which holds birds and other small game which have been shot and are on their way home to the cooking pot.

Alternative: Originated in Great Britain. A bag was placed under the Speaker's chair in the House of Commons. If there was a petition placed "in the bag," then it must be raised on that day. Another idea is similar to the phrase, "all wrapped up." In allusion to merchandise, success was assured and merely awaited delivery. When paper bags replaced wrapping paper for the holding of groceries or the like, the later saying succeeded the older. Thanks to Katie Cutie.


In the black
Meaning: To be making money.
Example: Live below your means and you will always be running in the black.
Origin: Standard practice for accounting is to record positive numbers in black ink and negative numbers in red ink. Operating "in the black" is to record positive numbers, that is to say earnings.

Related phrase: "In the red".


In the cart
Meaning: Implied retribution if a certain deed is carried out.
Origin: This phrase goes back to the days when criminals were publicly punished. Some were hung, many others were placed in the stocks or the pillory - most being transported to their place of punishment in a cart.


In the doghouse
Meaning: In disgrace or dislike; facing punishment.
Example: Billy was sent to the doghouse for not spending enough time @ - Bad Boy!
Origin: The old custom of banishing a bad dog outside to its doghouse.

Alternative: The story of Peter Pan - in which Mr. Darling treats the beloved pet dog badly and his children fly off with Peter Pan. Mr. Darling feels so guilty that he lives in the doghouse until his children return home.

Alternative: This expression is a railroad term dating back to the era of steam locomotives. The railroad unions mandated that a head-end (front of the train) brakeman be so positioned. However, there was no room for another person in the engine cab (which housed the engineer and fireman). The railroads then built a small windowed shelter on top of the engine tender (where the coal and water was stored) behind the engine. It was called a doghouse since it was small, cramped, smoky, cold and generally miserable. Thus, the expression 'he's in the doghouse' referred to the brakeman in his uncomfortable moving shack. Thanks to Jim Younger.


In the doldrums
Meaning: To be depressed or unmotivated.
Example: I'd like to provide a good example, but I'm feeling in the doldrums.
Origin: Doldrums is the name of a place in the ocean that is located near the equator and is characterized by unstable trade winds. A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums can be stranded due to lack of wind.


In the limelight
Meaning: To be prominent or important.
Example: Premier Gord Campbell was used to being in the limelight until the NDP sucked his mellon dry.
Origin: Before the days of electricity, lime was used as a source of illumination in Victorian theaters since the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen on the surface of lime produced a very bright light. Beams of this light were used to shine on the stage, but not all the stage could be lit up at once - hence some actors were in the limelight and others not.


In the nick of time
Meaning: Without a second to spare.
Origin: Even into the 18th century, some businessmen kept track of transactions and time by carving notches (nicks) on a "tally stick." Someone arriving just before the next nick was carved would arrive in time to save the next day's interest - in the nick of time.


In the pink
Meaning: In good health and ready to go.
Example: I've been training for the marathon and I'm feeling in the pink.
Origin: In traditional English fox hunting, hunters wore scarlet colored jackets called pinks. If you are wearing your pink, you are ready to go hunting.

Alternative: Refers to the rosy color in ones cheeks when in good health.


In the red
Meaning: To be losing money.
Example: Putting kids through college is sure to put you in the red.
Origin: Standard practice for accounting is to record positive numbers in black ink and negative numbers in red ink. Operating "in the red" is to record negative numbers, that is to say losses.

No doubt red ink was chosen because it is a clear contrast for black and is not easily mistaken. However there is a bit more history to the red ink.

In medieval times the church, being the only center of literacy and learning in the west, maintained meticulous accounting records. Ink was rare and expensive. When monasteries and far-flung churches had little money and they could not afford ink, domesticated animals were bled to provide a substitute in the dipping wells. As a result, poor financial records were usually written "in the red."

Related phrase: "In the black".


In the same camp
Meaning: To be in the same acquaintance, surrounding or point of view.
Example: I am broadly in the same camp as my friend, because I feel that I voted the wrong way.
Origin: Early origins of the phrase come from Byzantium and the Arabs in the fourth century. "camp" referred to the names of towns and cities in Britain after the Roman occupation. Mavia, the founder of an Arab national Church, considered she was in the same camp as the persecuted orthodox majority of the empire.
Source: Rome and the Arabs: 'Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century' by Irfan Shahid, University of Chicago Press

Related term: "Campmate"


Irons in the fire
Meaning: Having or pursuing multiple opportunities simultaneously.
Example: I have been out of work for 6 months, but I have a number of irons in the fire.
Origin: Blacksmiths traditionally worked iron into shape by hammering. The iron being worked would be heated in the fire until it was red-hot and malleable. The Smith removes the iron from the fire and shapes it with repeated blows from a hammer. They need to work quickly before the iron cools. Once the iron is cool, it becomes brittle and cannot be hammered.

Once removed from the fire, the iron cools quickly. It takes longer to heat the iron to red-hot than it takes for it to cool. Blacksmiths work more efficiently by having multiple pieces of iron in the fire heating simultaneously. In that way, the Smith can always have a piece of iron red-hot and ready for hammering. The cooled piece would be returned to the fire if it needed more hammering.

Alternative: Refers to the number of irons (think pressed shirts here) a colonial woman kept hot in the fire at one time on washing day. Irons in those days were of course not powered by electricity, they were heated by fire. Irons made from iron took a long time to heat up in the fireplace so women would often have several to speed up their ironing chores.


It takes two fools to argue
Meaning: A wise man never argues with a fool - he knows there's no sense in it.
Example: Arguing with a 2-year old accomplishes nothing - it takes two fools to have an argument.
Origin: It always takes two fools to argue - two wise men will not argue. One wise man will not argue with a fool, therefore it takes two fools to argue. Ask yourself, "How important is it to take a stand on this issue?" "Will it leave a lasting effect on my life?" If not, perhaps it would be best not to continue the stand in this situation. Remember, you may not win on an issue, but you will save your serenity and dignity, and you will not be damaging the relationship.


It's a doozy
Meaning: Very impressive, an extraordinary example, big accomplishment.
Example: Watch out for that first step, it's a Doozy.
Origin: The Deusenburg automobile in its day was one of the biggest and most impressive cars on the road. Doozy is short for Deusenburg.


It's a gas
Meaning: This is fun! That's hilarious! It's a wonderful situation.
Example: Richard Rodrigues had a gas setting a Guinness World Record for the world's longest rollercoaster marathon after 401 hours, 8,000 rides covering 6,300 miles in 2007.
Origin: Scientist Humphrey Davy introduced nitrous oxide to the public (primarily the British upper class) as a recreational drug at “laughing gas parties” in 1799, 36 years before it was used medically. Davy's noted that some people, in a state of induced euphoria by the gas, got the giggles, erupted in laughter, felt stuporous, dreamy and sedated. At Davy's parties, the audience was amused by watching the user's “nitrous oxide capers,” which included stumbling around, slurred speech and falling down - thus earning its nickname: “laughing gas.” (

Gasoline made its debut in the late 19th century when scientists coined it (from 'gas' plus the Latin 'oleum: 'oil' and ine) to describe the colourless liquid obtained by the fractional distillation of petroleum. 'Gas' itself was coined nearly three centruies earlier by Dutch physician and chemist Jean Baptist van Helmont. Van Helmont thought that he had discovered an occult principle contained in all bodies and named his discovery 'gas' from the German 'chaos'. He had little understanding of the nature of gases, and no one knows exactly what sense of the word 'chaos' he had in mind when he coined 'gas' from it. But despite all this chaos, he was cooking with gas for his invention has become part of almost every language. (Word And Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson)

Alternative: A 'gas' was a joke in Anglo-Irish slang. James Joyce uses it in 'Dubliners', published in 1914. By the 1950s in the USA, it had taken on the meaning of anything pleasing or exciting.

Alternative: During the U.S. 'Roaring Twenties', Nitrous (laughing gas) became popular, and “That's a gas” was born as a phrase describing a wild, fun, enjoyable, hilarious event.

Alternative: It's a derivation from the British slang expression (first attested in Dickens), “All is gas and gaiters.”

Alternative: Nitrous oxide - commonly given by dentists in the era, which would fit in with similar slang such as “a knockout”, “it knocks me out”, “it sends me”, “it's a solid sender” - putting one in an ecstatic state.

Alternative: It's jazz musicians' slang - something excellent was “a gasser”, used pretty much the same way "a gas" was used in the 1960s/1970s.

Alternative: A gasser is a remarkable person, top notch.


It’s a long road without a turn
Meaning: Be kind to others or before too long they will have an opportunity to pay you back for your injustice.
Origin: Thanks to Fred Pepper.


It's all fiddlesticks
Meaning: It's all nonsense.
Origin: In 1811 "Fiddlestick's end" meant "nothing". The ancient fiddlestick (violin bow) ended in a point, hence, metaphorically, used to express a thing terminating in nothing.

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