Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
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O.K.   see 'All Right'


Old fogey
Meaning: Someone a bit old fashioned - out of touch with modern things.
Origin: In 1811 an "Old Fogey" was a nick name for a sick or invalid soldier; derived from the French word fougeux, fierce or fiery. The modern sense has changed the use a little, but there is still the element of disability in the saying.


On a good footing
Meaning: To be on good terms with someone.
Origin: During the days of trade apprentice-ships, when a newcomer - on the first time he put his foot over the threshold of his workplace - was expected to pay for drinks for all. If he was generous then he had had a good footing.


On a lark
Meaning: To do something on a whim or just for fun.
Example: On a lark we diverted our journey from Rome to Amsterdam.
Origin: A "lark," in British slang, is a gag, or a joe-k. The phrase "on a lark" is, then something done as a joe-k.


On cloud 9
Meaning: A feeling of euphoric exaltation.
Example: Canadian Senate members, once appointed to their patronage positions, feel as though they're on cloud 9.
Origin: Clouds are divided by the U.S. Weather Bureau into classes, and each class is divided into nine types. ‘Cloud nine’ is the cumulo-nimbus cloud that you often see building up in the sky in a hot summer afternoon. It may reach 30,000 to 40,000 feet, so if one is up on ‘cloud nine,’ one is high indeed.

Alternative: The common belief that this came from the US Weather Bureau classification of the 1950's is not true.
The first effort at properly classifying clouds was at the beginning of the 19th century by Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, who classified them in simple terms along Linnaean lines. Then a Quaker businessman, Luke Howard (1772-1864), classified clouds into types such as stratus, cumulus and cirrus. Howard was a near contemporary of the famed artist John Constable. Howard gave several lectures on his system and it is likely that Constable, who was renowned for his landscapes, attended some. Howard's system was expanded and developed into the International Cloud Atlas.
An abridged version of the Atlas came out in 1896 and classified ten types of cloud. Number 9 was the white, fluffy, comfy-looking cumulo-nimbus. Hence to be "on cloud nine" came to symbolise floating free on a downy, white cushion, presumably without a care in the world. Thanks to Phil Sawyer.


On the ball
Meaning: To be on top of a situation; in control.
Example: If you were a bit more on the ball, we might have averted the reactor melt down.
Origin: The 'ball' in this instance is a baseball and the 'on' is the spin which the pitcher applies to the ball in order to make it curve during flight. On a good day there will be lots of spin and curve to confuse the batter. The pitcher is said to be 'on the ball'. The expression first appeared in print in 1912 and was clearly in use before then.


On the dot
Meaning: Precise and accurate.
Example: We can always count on the time of the day by the arrival of the ferry - it's always on the dot with it's arrival.
Origin: This phrase comes from the comparison with the minute hand of a clock being exactly over the dot on the dial when it's precisely on the minute.


On the fiddle
Meaning: Someone assumed to be doing something illegal.
Origin: Dining tables on ships are edged with a rim, either fixed or hinged, which stops plates falling off during rough weather. These rims are called "fiddles". Similar rims were present on the square wooden plates which gave the origin of "a square meal". The story goes that some sailors would get their plates unfairly so full that the food was "on the fiddle" - hence today's saying.


On the fly
Meaning: To create a response, position, or statement without planning ahead.
Example: Kennedy's speeches were never on the fly, but always prepared.
Origin: "On the fly" is a shortened version of "flying by the seat of your pants". It refers to flying a plane in response to what is seen and felt through the course of the flight, instead of executing against a prepared flight plan.


On the grapevine
Meaning: Suggestion that a rumour or gossip has been heard through unofficial channels.
Origin: In the early days of U.S. telegraphy, companies rushed to put up telegraph poles, some made none too well and some actually using trees rather than poles. To some, the tangled wires resembled the wild vines found in California, hence a Grapevine. During the U.S. Civil War the telegraph was used extensively, but the messages were sometime unreliable, hence the association of rumour on the grapevine. The phrase first appeared in print in 1852.


On the lam
Meaning: To flee, often from the law.
Example: You have the choice. Pay your gambling debts or go on the lam.
Origin: "Lam" is by definition to leave or flee, especially from the law.

In the 1500s, the word lam meant “to beat soundly,” a derivation of the Norse word lamja, which meant “to make lame.” Over time, the meaning changed - by the 1800s it had become a slang term for running away - literally, beating one's shoes against the ground.

The confusion about this phrase is that "lam" is not a commonly used word. Many people assume the phrase to be "on the lamb".


On the level
Meaning: An indication of honesty.
Example: Many browsers have asked the Joe-kster whether the film clip, "Blindsided Pedestrian" @ is for real - whether it's really on the level.
Origin: This phrase was used by Freemasons (skilled stone workers) in the 14th century. From their use of the square (which drew a straight line and made you Go straight), and their use of the level (to make sure a surface was true), came the extension of the sayings into wider use.


On the wagon
Meaning: Abstaining from consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Example: Dean Martin never fell off the wagon. You have to be on the wagon before you can fall off.
Origin: The origin of this seemingly mysterious phrase becomes clear when one learns that the original phrase was “On the water wagon”. A water wagon was a common piece of equipment in the days before paved roads. They were used to spray the dirt roads to help control dust.

Alternative: It dates to Victorian times when prisoners where transported to the Old Bailey on a wagon. The officers guarding them would stop for a drink but the prisoners would have to stay on the wagon. Thanks to Barry Maginn.


On your beam ends
Meaning: When life is bad and all resources are low or absent.
Origin: The phrase is nautical in origin and refers to the supporting cross beams in old wooden ships. In shipwrecks the ships often ended up on their sides (i.e. "on their beam ends").


Once in a blue moon
Meaning: To happen only on rare occasions.
Example: The Post Office regularly fails to deliver cheques sent in payment to me, but bills sent to me fail to be delivered only once in a blue moon.
Origin: Two full moons in the same month are extremely rare, though they do happen. A second full moon has come to be called a blue moon. This is apparently because the Maine Farmers Almanac used to list the date of first moon in red text, and the second moon in blue.

The first published use of the phrase was in the 1600's, "Rede Me and Be Not Wrothe" and English poem by Roy and Barlow that in part says "If they say the moon is blue, we must believe it is true" the "they" in this poem referring to English nobility.

Also, the moon on rare occasions actually appears to be blue. For example, if there was a volcanic eruption somewhere, suspended ashes in the atmosphere can make the moon appear bluish.

Related Phrase: Blue Moon


One for the road
Meaning: An idea to be considered after one departs, but which won't be discussed now.
Example: Here's one for the road - if a man makes a statement in the woods, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?
Origin: The phrase originates from the context of a person having one more (alcoholic) drink for the road. The individual has the drink to make enjoyable the journey ahead, in the same way an interesting question can fuel conversation or thought on a journey.


One red cent
Meaning: A single symbolic penny.
Example: I refuse to pay even one red cent for the work until you complete the whole job.
Origin: The "Red" refers to both the color of a penny (one cent) and the image that used to be on the penny, an American Indian head. Redskin is a slang term used for American Indians.

Before today's Lincoln penny was the Indian Head penny.

The Indian Head penny was first issued in 1859 and looks just like that as issued in 1908 (before the Lincoln Cent). The only difference was that those from 1859-1864 were of a different copper-nickel alloy while 1864 started the common bronze, which was used until 1982. (You didn't know it changed then, did you?)

The copper-nickel alloy has a reddish tint, which turns redder with time and skin oil.

Before the Indian Head penny was the "Buzzard Cent", as the One Cent coins in 1856-1858 were called. The flying eagle on the coin was damned as an ugly bird and it wasn't popular.

However, it was the first "small cent" using about the same size as our penny today. In the half century before this, One Cent coins were about the size of today's Half Dollar! (of course they were also worth something then)


Onions should grow in your navel
Meaning: A mild insult.
Origin: Yiddish origin.


Out like a light
Meaning: Fast asleep; suddenly unconscious.
Example: After a 12-hour shift, nurse Trudy came home and she was out like a light in no time at all.
Origin: In the American 20th century, when the wonders of electricity spread across the land, people could turn on and shut off lights with just a flick of a switch. By the middle of the century, "out like a light" was a way of saying that a person had fallen asleep very quickly.


Over a barrel
Meaning: Someone who is having business or other problems and is in the hands of third parties.
Origin: In the past, a recognised treatment for someone who had been rescued from drowning was to place them over a barrel in order to drain water from their lungs. Such people were not really able to act for themselves and were totally reliant on their rescuers. In the same way, someone who is having business or other problems and is in the hands of third parties can be said to be "over a barrel".


Over the hill
Meaning: To be past your prime, to be old.
Example: Every time I see these kids and their baggy pants I can't help but feel over the hill.
Origin: A reference to a journey over a hill. Once you reach the top of the hill and begin your journey down, you have past the midpoint and are on the downside or decline (over the hill). With age, once you have past your peak, you are on the downside (I'll refrain from saying decline).


Over the top
Meaning: Too much, overdone, excessive.
Example: Wearing that bikini is one thing, but a bikini with a mink coat puts you over the top.
Origin: During the first world war a charge over the protective battery which ran alongside a trench was called "going over the top." Such a charge usually resulted in many casualties, as did most operations during that most tragic conflict.

Since the casualty rate was very high, it took remarkable bravery to go "over the top". Some considered it excessively brave and the phrase has come to be associated with excess.

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