I feel that today my category of clichés is a bit antagonistic. Be assured that I am not feeling hostile; in fact, it is a lovely sunny day and my mood is quite cheerful! But I started with Mr. Franklin, and all the rest simply fell into place.
Axe to grind: meaning one has a grievance against someone else that they plan on addressing. This is an Americanism; created, in fact, by Benjamin Franklin. One of the many stories he wrote had a central character that was working the family grinding stone. When a stranger stopped by and asked how the grindstone worked, the character took the stranger’s axe and sharpened it to demonstrate. The stranger took the axe back, laughed, and went on his merry way with his newly sharpened axe.
Lock, stock and barrel: to be all in, to throw all enthusiasm behind a decision. This cliché has two possible histories. The first being the obvious: a fireman. A rifle (or musket) had three parts, the lock, the stock of wood and the barrel. Each was useless without the other, but put all three together and they worked beautifully in sync. The other meaning may have come from a farmstead. When purchased, one got the lock (house), the stock (animals), and the barrel (rain barrel). It generally meant that one got everything on the property, even if the owner mistakenly left something of value behind.
Put up your dukes: fair warning that someone was about to start a fight with you, and you better put up your fists in defense. This phrase comes from England, from the second son of King George III. Frederick Augustus, also known as the Duke of York, was known to love to duel. Because of this, fighters came to nickname their fists the “dukes of York.” Eventually it was shortened to just “dukes.”
An ill wind: something that will affect people negatively is coming. Originally “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” First written in 1546, by John Heywood:
“An yll wynde that blowth no man to good, men say.”
A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue
I’ll have your guts for garters: a threat of serious reprisal, although unlikely to take that precise form in this day and age. This cliché has been heard in many a movie, but originally came from Britain. The alliteration of the phrase may have something to do with its long life; and in the Middle Ages, when it became common, the phrase may indeed have had a literal meaning. Disembowelment frequently was used in England, Scotland and Ireland for torture and execution.
I’ll butter my knife in him, and give him his guts for garters.
William Curry, in The Dublin University Magazine, 1843
Cloak and dagger: meaning to involve spies, stealthy movements designed to useful in espionage. Often used humorously, as Boris and Natasha were most obvious in their cloak and dagger movements while chasing “moose and squirrel.” The term comes from a “form of drama that was popular in France and Spain in the 18th century, which included protagonists who typically wore cloaks and carried daggers was called ‘de cape et d’épée’ and, in Spanish, ‘de capa y espada’, which both translate literally as ‘of cloak and sword’.”* The cloak could be used as a shield, when wrapped around an arm during a sword fight, or as a disguise while slinking towards an assassination.