Words & Phrases

A list of commonly used words and phrases and their origins…

Arms akimbo

Akimbo is a stance with hands on hips and elbows turned out, usually showing impatience or defiance.

Akimbo is an old word that is only heard in this phrase, or very occasionally and more recently, as ‘legs akimbo’. Another such example is ‘aback’, which only occurs in ‘taken aback’.

In Middle English akimbo appeared as kenebowe [more…]

Argy-bargy

Argy-bargy is British slang with the meaning ‘noisy quarrelling’.

The word appears to come from an earlier form, ‘argle-bargle’, which originated in Scotland. The first part of the doublet is a modification of the word ‘argue’ and the second part is nonsense rhyming. Oxford lists the plural as argy-bargies.

This type of playful language is known [more…]

Scuttlebutt

This is a wonderful slang word for gossip and we have to thank sailors for it.

Water for drinking on a ship was kept in a butt, or a large cask. The cask was scuttled, that is, a hole was cut in it, usually with a hatch as a lid. The hatch could be lifted [more…]

Fuddy-duddy

If someone calls you a pompous old fuddy-duddy you will no doubt take offense.
This term meaning stuffy and old-fashioned might well sound like a stuffy old-fashioned expression, but it has only been around for a short time really – well around 100 years, which is recent when you think that so much of our [more…]

Lazy Susan

A Lazy Susan is a revolving tray in the middle of the dining table for easy access to condiments and shared dishes.

What a strange name for this turntable that became fashionable in the early 20th century.

If your name is Susan, I am sure you are not lazy, but you are probably interested in the [more…]

As dead as a doornail

English abounds with similes in the form of  ‘as x as a y’ but where did this one come from?

The answer is not clear, but the expression has been around since before Shakespeare (and the good Bard used it in Henry IV).

Quite possibly ‘as dead as a doornail’ has survived down the centuries because it [more…]

At one fell swoop

This means in a sudden move or all at once but started out with more sinister connotations.
The expression is often wrongly quoted as ‘one foul swoop’, or even ‘one fowl swoop’, but it doesn’t relate to chickens.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macduff on hearing of the death of his family says;
All my pretty ones?
Did you say [more…]

Hell-bent

Hell-bent for leather?

Have you ever heard someone say that they are hell-bent on doing something? Did you understand they meant they were very determined, but didn’t really know what the phrase literally means?

This saying has been has been popular since the early 19th century and describes someone who is prepared to go “to the gates of hell” [more…]

Kangaroo court

A kangaroo court is not a legal proceeding in the Australian outback, nor does it involve hopping marsupials.

It refers to a criminal proceeding that is conducted for show, where the defendant is undoubtedly going to be found guilty.

The earliest use of the term was recorded not in Australia as you might expect, but [more…]