Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
~ K ~


Kangaroo court
Meaning: A mock court, independent of regular legal procedure, set up by inmates (or others) to try a fellow prisoner for some alleged offense. Sometimes these are set up merely for amusement, as diversions against the tedium of imprisonment, and are then nothing but travesties of the legal process.
Example: Instead of being given a fair trial, the foreigner was 'tried' in a kangaroo court.
Origin: Coincides closely with the California gold rush of 1849. Perhaps in humorous allusion to the early purpose of such courts, to try "jumpers" who, resorting to desperate measures, seized the mining claims of others. These improvised courts were as irregular as in today's jails, and perhaps they were sometimes equally unfair.  Thanks to Katie Cutie.


Katy bar the door
Meaning: Quickly lock the door before something unwanted gets in (or out).
Example: When the intranet police come to your office, it's Katy bar the door.
Origin: From a book of poems called "King's Tragedy" by D. G. Rossetti published in 1881. It tells of an attempt by one Catherine to save the life of Scotland's James I by throwing her arm across a doorway to bar his enemies;

The phrase was further popularized in a 1980s Miller Lite Beer commercial featuring ex-baseball player Bob Eucker.


Keep danger at bay
Meaning: Having protective powers.
Origin: In ancient times the bay tree was regarded as having great protective powers. This was due to the fact that it never seemed to be struck by lightning. Both Greeks and Romans wore its leaves as protection during thunder storms in an effort to keep the lightning "at bay". During the great plague of London many citizens did the same, in the hope that they would be spared the disease, but it didn't help.


Keep it under your hat
Meaning: Keep a secret.
Example: Michael Jackson told the little boys to keep it under their hat.
Origin: Back when men wore hats regularly, it wasn't unusual for them to put important things inside. To keep something under your hat was to keep it out of sight and shown to no one.

More probably, hats are worn on the head. "Keep it under your hat" is just a sly way of saying keep it in your head, to yourself.

Alternative: Dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Church decreed that women were to keep their heads covered in public. During these times, women were discouraged from, and often punished for, expressing their opinions in public, particularly in regards to business or politics. A woman was, of course, free to formulate such opinions and express them freely within the privacy of their own homes but, in public, they were to keep these opinions to themselves; or, if the woman was married and deemed it important, she could whisper it to her husband. Hence, her opinion was restricted to the confines of her hat.   Thanks to Shelia Clark.


Keep It Up
Meaning: Encouragement to have someone continue with a difficult task.
Example: Karla's professor encouraged her to keep up her good work after performing her first viola concert on stage.
Origin: This expression comes from shuttlecock. The shuttle, naturally, had (has!) to be kept up in the air for the game to continue.


Keep your fingers crossed
Meaning: A superstition thought to avert evil & bring good luck.
Example: Fans in the Amsterdam pub kept their fingers crossed , hoping that their football team would carry on to the Euro Cup finals.
Origin: Long thought as a method to avert evil, the sign of the cross is American in origin, used by blacks in the 17th Century. The sign was also thought to bring good luck. Among school children, a lie told with the fingers crossed 'doesn't count'.


Keep your pants on
Meaning: Calm down, be patient.
Example: I will be off the telephone in a minute, so keep your pants on.
Origin: Appears to suggest that one should calm down because romance is not imminent. This phrase is actually a derivation of "keep your shirt on". It is an interesting example of how phrases can adapt to obscure the origin.


Keep your pecker up
Meaning: Screw up your courage or keep a stiff upper lip.
Origin: NB: This is NOT an X-rated phrase! Pecker here refers not to the penis (as many believe), but to the lip. Pecker has been slang for lip, corresponding to the beak (or pecker) of a bird, since the 19th Century. The first recorded use of the phrase is British (1853): "Keep up your pecker, old fellow."

Alternative: This phrase refers to a gamecock's bill - the bird's bill (or pecker) sinking lower toward the ground as he grows more tired and near defeat.


Keep your shirt on
Meaning: Calm down, be patient.
Example: Just keep your shirt on, dinner is almost ready.
Origin: Before modern manufacturing techniques, shirts, and all clothes for that matter, required a lot of labor to make. They were more expensive than they are today.   Someone thinking of starting a fight might take off his shirt to prevent damage. Telling someone to "keep his shirt on" was equivalent to telling him "I don't want to fight".

This phrase has been twisted into the equivalent "Keep your pants on".

Alternative: In addition to fights, a man would often remove his shirt in preparation for a laborious task.   Thanks to Shelia Clark.


Keeping up with the Jones's
Meaning: Maintaining an appearance of affluence and wealth for the benefit of others.
Example: In this world people don't respect you for accumulating wealth, they respect you for spending it. Most people who seem rich have very little wealth, they spend it all keeping up with the Jones's.
Origin: Jones is an extremely common surname in the United States and in this phrase is meant to be a generic term for the neighbors. The phrase makes much more sense when you say "keeping up with the neighbors".

It is a common practice in suburbia for neighbors to be fiercely competitive, and to continually try to have the nicest of everything in the neighborhood.

"Keeping up with the Joneses" was the title of a comic strip that ran in many U.S. newspapers from 1914 to 1958 by Arthur R. ("Pop") Morand. The strip chronicled his experiences living in suburbia.


Kick the bucket
Meaning: To die or stop working.
Example: My old car finally kicked the bucket.
Origin: Pigs to be slaughtered are bled, that is the blood is drained from the body. One way this is accomplished is to hang the pig upside down from a bar (by one foot) that used to be known as a "buchet," a French word for it. The pig's throat was cut or opened with a sharp spike (See "bleed like a stuck pig"), and it would rapidly be bled. In its death throes, it would always, always kick the buchet.

Alternative: Refers to an inverted bucket that a person who is being hung might stand on. When the bucket is kicked out, the person is hung and dies.


King of the hill
Meaning: To be the best at something.
Example: Tell me who is the king of the hill around here, so I will know who to brown nose to.
Origin: This goes back to battlefields of long ago. All sides fought to conquer the high ground, the hills. This was often the best vantage point and the point of most advantage. Whichever unit won or took the hill was likely winning.


Kiss of death
Meaning: Something that is a precursor to failure, that will lead to future failure.
Example: Even a hint by Greenspan that interest rates may rise is like a kiss of death to the stock market.
Origin: From the fabled Mafia practice. A kiss from the Don meant curtains for the receiver.

No doubt popularized in this country by Mafia movies, but the practice goes back much, much further, at least to Roman days. And let's not forget Judas kissing Jesus's cheek to identify him to the guards.


Kit and caboodle
Meaning: The whole thing
Example: His new job has all the perks, corner office, fat salary, pretty secretary... the whole kit and caboodle.
Origin: Kit and caboodle is a phrase that evolved over time. Most recently from the earlier phrase "kit and boodle".

Boodle (or Buddle) is an old word, and probably evolved from the Dutch "boedel" meaning a crowd or bunch. "The whole boodle" was heard as long ago as the early 19th century.

Kit is also a time honored word with many meanings, one of which is a collection of tools or possessions that a person might carry with them. "The whole kit" was used by 1785.

Caboodle is essentially a nonsense word, and is perhaps a contraction or rhyme of "kit and boodle".

Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" contains it: "Of course it might happen that the hull (whole) kit and boodle might start and run, if any big fighting came first-off."

There you have it, the whole kit and caboodle.


Kitchen cabinet
Meaning: A group of unofficial, personal advisers to an elected official.
Example: B.C. Premier's Gordon Campbell's kitchen cabinet at home looks more organized than this government's kitchen cabinet recommendations - especially in light of the public's reaction to his failed attempts at privatization of government crown corporations.
Origin: Dating from 1832, the original kitchen cabinet consisted of 3 friends of President Andrew Jackson who met with him frequently for private political discussions. They entered by the back door (perhaps through the kitchen) so as to avoid observation. This group of advisers were believed to have had more influence than Jackson's official Cabinet.


Knock off work
Meaning: Leave work for the day.
Origin: This phrase originated in the days of slave gallerys. To keep the oarsmen rowing in unison, a drummer beat time rhythmically on a block of wood. When it was time to rest or change shifts, he would give a special knock, signifying that they could knock off.


Knock on wood
Meaning: An expression said when knocking on wood in order to keep from having bad luck.
Example: I am sure that your tax returns will not be audited, knock on wood.
Origin: One theory is that it originated in the middle ages when there were in circulation, pieces of the Holy Rood or Cross on which Jesus was crucified. To touch one of these was supposed to bring good luck hence touch wood for good luck.

Alternative: The Druids, who worshipped trees, especially Oaks, wore a piece of Oak around their neck to ward off evil spirits. Hence touch wood for good luck.

Alternative: You knock on wood because of those wily Wood Sprites. In medieval times, people believed in mischievous creatures known as sprites. Sprites are actually spirits or ghosts who were reputed to enjoy causing trouble and wreaking havoc in the lives of the living. Among the most mischievous were wood sprites.

If you were to mention something good, the wood sprites would try to foul it up. The thought was that if you knocked on the wood when you said these things, the wood sprites would not be able to hear you because of the knocking sound. Hence they would leave you alone.


Knocked into a cocked hat
Meaning: The situation after someone has been beaten in a battle of skills.
Origin: During the early days of sailing, a ship's position was charted by marking three plotting lines on a map. The ship should be at the junction of all three but, since navigation was in its infancy, the lines often produced a little triangle. The ship was reckoned to then be in the middle of the triangle. The triangle itself was known as a cocked hat after its resemblance to the common three-cornered hat of the times. On this basis the expression originally is said to have implied a sense of uncertainty - of not knowing where you were.

Alternative: In certain forms of the game of nine-pin bowling, three pins were set up in a triangular shape. The rest were set up around and the object was to knock these down and leave the three standing. The three reminded people of a three-cornered or cocked hat.

Alternative: The cocked hat of the 18th century was merely the 16th century Puritan hat with the brim rolled up or cocked into a triangular shape. This was a dramatic change which later took on the inference of defeat.


Knows which side her bread is buttered
Meaning: A person or place that has the potential to enrich.
Example: When her boss says jump, she says "how high", only because she knows where her bread is buttered.
Origin: This phrase is a reference to a Yiddish folk tale of the Wise men of Chelm.

In the tale, Chelm was a city in Poland where the people were incredibly stupid. One day someone dropped a piece of bread; it landed butter side up! Experience and Murphy's law tells us bread always falls buttered side down, the wise men of Chelm gathered to ponder why the bread landed buttered side up.

After a week the verdict was that the bread had been buttered on the wrong side.

Alternative: Dry bread can be pretty boring to eat. Bread is much tastier with some kind of spread - butter, jam, etc. Hence the person or place that provides your spread can enrich the bread eating experience.


Knuckle down
Meaning: To apply oneself diligently.
Example: After receiving poor marks on his first report card, Jason was told to knuckle down and start studying more at home.
Origin: In the game of marbles, the knuckle has to be placed down on the ground when playing. It's an important rule of the game that the knuckle must be placed exactly at the spot where one's previous marble ended up. From this sense of strict observance of a rule comes the modern sense of earnest application.


Knuckle under
Meaning: To give way; submit; admit defeat.
Example: The Italian and German riders knuckled under the pressure from Lance Armstrong during the final stages of the Tour de France.
Origin: This expression goes back to the late 17th century tavern habit of knocking the underside of the table when beaten in an argument - they put their knuckles under.

Alternative: Although the word knuckle now refers to the finger-joint, it used to be applied to other joints such as the knee. To 'knuckle under' meant to bend the knee in respect or submission.

Send your additions, corrections/typos or new phrases/clichés to
Back to Clichés/Phrases Main Index
The Ultimate Phobia List - Real and Imagined - Newest


Pacman Skeleton

Vatican City's New Breakfast Special

Flying Cathedral Excuse

Day At The Beach

John The Baptist Souvenirs

Amish Prom Limo

Wishy-Washy Church

'Cover Girl' Magazine

One At A Time

Shofar So Good

Temple Car

Closing Time

Wine Glass Lanyard

Awning Truck Advertising

Plugged In
Full list of creditsFacebookTwitterDiggStumbleUponDelicious