Words & Phrases

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

Frog in your throat

Although it is hard to believe now, at one time, medieval physicians believed that the secretions of a frog could cure a cough if they were coated on the throat of the patient.

That in itself sounds repulsive, but what makes the idea even worse is the application of the secretions.

Instead of painting the treatment [more…]

God bless you!

You’ve said it yourself – someone sneezes and you say, “God Bless You”, but do you know why?

There are several explanations for this saying which has become second-nature to so many.

Some say that during the sixth century it was a congratulatory statement as a sneeze was thought to expel evil spirits.

Some cultures believed that [more…]

Big

Big is one of the mystery words of English etymology, extremely common but of highly dubious origin.
In its earliest use in English it meant ‘powerful’ or ‘strong’ and it was not until the 16th century that it took on the meaning of ‘large’.
It occurred originally in northern English texts, only slowly spreading south, [more…]

An even break

W C Fields famous utterance, ‘Never give a sucker an even break’ has its origins at the dog race track.

Dog owners, betting on the speed of their hounds when chasing the hare, had to make sure they started at exactly the same time, that they had an even break.

Even break came to refer to [more…]

Beyond the pale

If someone’s behaviour is described as being beyond the pale, it is deemed unacceptable – they have overstepped the mark of good manners or decency.

A pale was a wooden stake (think of palings) and the word extended its meaning to ‘an enclosed area’ or ‘an area designated to a particular authority’, such as a [more…]

Bedlam

Bedlam is a state of chaos or uproar but its original meaning was an insane asylum.

Bedlam is derived from the word Bethlehem as taken from the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem located outside Bishopsgate, in the City of London. The hospital was established in approximately 1330 as an attachment to the priory, established [more…]

From the horse’s mouth

Originally, this term was racing slang which basically meant ‘a hot tip’.

After the 1930s however, the saying was used to encompass any kind of evidence given on the best authority.

It alludes to the fact that the most reliable way of determining a horse’s age is by simply inspecting its teeth.

A dealer may try to [more…]

Let the cat out of the bag

Those of you who can never keep a secret – no names of course – might be interested to know the origin of the expression “Let the cat out of the bag”.

This term comes from medieval times when a market vendor would openly display a sample of his wares and give the customer a [more…]

Quiz

Legend has it, that the word ‘quiz’ is the epitome of a made-up word.
The story goes that in 1780 a Mr. Daly, the manager of a Dublin theatre, wagered that he could introduce a new word of no meaning into the language in twenty-four hours.

All around the city, he chalked the letters QUIZ up [more…]