Words & Phrases

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


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…]

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 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 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…]