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Cliche Sunday

Here we go–the end of the alphabet! Following tradition, I will be doing X, Y, &Z in one lump.  Sadly, the X’s seem nonexistent–which is not truly a surprise.

Now that I have reached the end of the alphabet,  Cliche Sunday is also taking a break. Frankly, my weekends are so very busy, it is hard to get Cliche Sunday out. As you may have noticed by the amount of skipped weeks recently! I do have some ideas for some other serial posts–just not on Sunday 🙂 So stay tuned.

And I am sure there will be a resurgence of Cliche Sunday. Maybe in October?

you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink: people, like horses, will only do what they want, when they want.  This cliché started life as a proverb,  very, very long time ago, which can attest to its popularity. The earliest written copy of it was 1175, in Old English Homilies:

Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken
[who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?]

you are what you eat: the idea eating good food is best for you if you want to be healthy. This phrase has been around a bit longer than one might think. I thought its roots was likely to be in the 1970s, when the modern health craze hit.  However, the cliché began in  France in 1826:

Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es. [Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are].
   Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante

Later, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach shortened it a bit:

Der Mensch ist, was er ißt. (man is what he eats)
Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism, 1863

The modern iteration of the phrase came to be in the 1920s when Victor Lindlahr came up with the Catabolic  Diet:

  Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.

zero tolerance: a policy that allows no behavior to be overlooked. This has been a popular phrase in schools recently, having a “zero tolerance” for bullying. The cliché actually came out of the American 70s, when it was used to describe police action in areas with specialized high crime–drugs, mugging, prostitution, etc.  It was used more in the 80s during the War on Drugs, and also by the Food and Drug Admin to describe their policy on pesticides allowable in food.

zig-zag: the literal meaning of a series of straight lines joined at angles, used to describe a course of action. The popularity of the term is similar to other phonetically alternated phrases, like see-saw or tick-tock. The origin of this one is not known, although the earliest known  versions are either German or Dutch, suggesting that it came to English second.

“eenige in de voorstad van St. Germain zig zag bewegen  (some in the surburb of St Germain move in zig zag)
Dutch author Roelof Roukema, 1706


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Cliche Sunday

Oh, it is time for ‘O’s!

on the nail: one has hit the meaning on the head. This came about as a monetary phrase, meaning ‘spot cash’ (paying at the time). The origin seems a bit uncertain, as both the Dutch and the Germans also use this phrase. It is also referenced in a Scottish deed from 1326. Ireland has some claim to it, as well, as there was a pillar in Limerick that was topped with a copper plate under the Exchange. The pillar was called “The Nail” and a buyer would place his money on the copper plate. It seems more likely that the pillar was named after the cliché than that the cliché came from the pillar, based on the timeline.

one horse town: a town so sleepy and lifeless that one horse might do all the work. I admit, I thought this might have been said of a town that could afford one horse. I don’t suppose it makes much difference. The phrase is definitely an Americanism, and is thought to have originated in New Orleans. The popularity of the cliché didn’t spread until it reached Boston, where it  expanded quickly.

on the bubble: on the edge, particularly for sporting events-one may make the cut, but could still be pushed out if a following competitor does better. This phrase definitely comes from the American car racing.  Indy 500 reporters in 1970 used the term:

On the ‘bubble’ is rookie Steve Krisiloff whose 162.448 m.p.h. was the slowest qualifying speed last weekend. With only six spots open, Krisiloff’s machine would be ousted if seven cars qualified at a faster speed this week end.
                                –The Lima News, May 1970

on the quiet: also known as “qt” or “down low”, meaning to keep something secret to the benefit of all. The phrase, although popular in American culture in the last decades, is more likely to be a British saying. The phrase is also older than one might expect given its recent popularity,  with the first written  record is from 1862:

Unless men can work [the gold] on ‘the quiet’, they are not likely to make ‘piles’ so rapidly as Messrs. Hartley and Riley.
Otago: Goldfields & Resources

I will finish with a classic phrase, both in gravity and origin:

once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more: we must try yet again, despite overwhelming odds.  This is a rallying cry from Henry V, Act III, 1598, in which Henry was exhorting his Army to break through gap in the wall surrounding the city of Harfleur, which was under siege by the English.

      Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
      Or close the wall up with our English dead.
     In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
     As modest stillness and humility:
    But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
    Then imitate the action of the tiger;
    Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
   Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
     –Shakespeare,  King Henry V, 1598

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Cliche Sunday

Perfect for ‘C’liches, today is ‘C’!  Somehow my ‘C’ clichés turned into literary clichés as well; but, as a writer, I find I can’t help myself. At least I showed a bit of:

common sense: good, practical thinking. Common Sense was written in 1776 by Thomas Paine. Although many think Paine was an American, he actually was raised in Britain, and still lived there when he penned Common Sense. The phamlet became famous as it listed rational reasons for America to become independent of Britain. The phrase predates Paine, used in the fourteenth century to mean an actual sense, such as sight or sound. It represented an internal sense, rather like what we now call heart. By the sixteenth century it had morphed into what we now think of it, the plain wisdom that everyone possesse.* Of course, by the eighteenth century, common sense was regarded as anything but common.


chip off the old block: to say a child has the same characteristics as a parent. The original saying, “a chip off the same block,” was a bit more respectful of the parent involved. This one is not hard to see where it came from, a chip off a marble block will indeed have the same characteristics as the larger original. The cliché itself is from the 1600s, and used by Bishop Robert Sanderson in his sermons.


Canterbury pace: to go the pace of mounted pilgrims. I don’t know that I would call this one an actual cliché, as I have never heard it before. It it has a strong literary background, so it needs to be included 🙂 A pilgrimage is, by necessity, a long arduous journey, and accomplished a  properly sedate pace. One of the most famous stories about pilgrims, of course, is Canterbury Tales, Chaucer. The first mention of a ‘Canterbury pace’   is by a Church of England clergyman:

Have I practic’d my Reines [runs], my Carree’res [careers – full gallops], my Pranckers [prancings], my Ambles, my false Trotts, my smooth Ambles, and Canterbury Paces.
      William Sampson’s Vow Breaker,  1636

Catch 22: a situation where an attempt to solve the situation makes the situation impossible to solve. I figured as long we were on a literary bent, we might as well include a cliché from Joseph Heller’s marvelous novel of the same name.  A catch 22 is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ problem, although it is often used for issues that are more easily solved than the original:

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”


cold comfort: slight encouragement after a harsh reverse. Cold Comfort has roots in the fifteenth century. The phrase also has a literary history, being used in the sixteenth century by both Chaucer and Shakespeare:

Am I but three inches? why, thy horn is a foot; and
so long am I at the least. But wilt thou make a
fire, or shall I complain on thee to our mistress,
whose hand, she being now at hand, thou shalt soon
feel, to thy cold comfort, for being slow in thy hot office?
           The Taming of the Shrew, 1596


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Cliche Sunday

Today we are on to clichés that start with B. I would like to take a moment to thank the editors of the of Phrases.org.uk, one of my favorite places to find cliché histories. Not only are they accurate and detailed, but they are alphabetical! Makes my current endeavor so much easier 🙂

best bib and tucker: to put on one’s best clothes to go out. This is very old, with the definition of ‘tucker’ dating back to 1688:

   a narrow piece of cloth which compasseth the top of a Womans Gown about the Neck part

The ‘bib’ refers to the article of clothing that was worn by children, as well as women, and extended from the throat to the waist.  “Best bib and tucker,” therefore, was first used to refer to women.  The term was expanded to mean anyone of any gender who was dressed up to go out in their best attire.

burn the candle at both ends: to do too much. Originally, this phrase was used to describe couples who were both spendthrifts. Having no material wealth left, they were considered to use both ends of a candle. It gradually changed over the centuries to mean those who worked day and then night, thus burning themselves out. It was first found in print in an French-English dictionary:

  Brusler la chandelle par lex deux bouts
                                          –Cotgrave, 1611

back-seat driver: someone who criticizes unnecessarily  from a safe vantage point. This phrase was used frequently  in the early twentieth century when motor cars became common. The first car was manufactured in 1886 and by 1908 became a popular form of transportation. By the 1920s backseat drivers had already became a hindrance:

A back-seat driver is the pest who sits on the rear cushions of a motor car and tells the driver what to do. He issues a lot of instructions, gives a lot of advice, offers no end of criticism. And doesn’t do a bit of work.
The Bismarck Tribune – December 1921

bad hair day: the ultimate bad day–not only is one’s hair unmanageable, but nothing else goes right either. The term has expanded to mean any bad day, whether one’s hair is beautiful or not. The term was first used in print in 1988 in a Californian paper, although it may have a verbal history before that.  It was, however, the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer that gave rise to its popularity:

               Buffy (Kristy Swanson) to the one-armed vampire Amilyn (Paul Reubens):
                               “I’m fine but you’re obviously having a bad hair day.”

bandy words with: to ague persistently, often in a fun, witty exchange. The word ‘bandy’ means to toss to and fro, and the word originally meant a rather ferocious game using balls. It later came to be associated with tennis, as the ball was ‘bandied’ back and forth. Tennis was popular in the late fifteenth and  early sixteenth  centuries, and the term was used frequently. It is later that it came to be used to mean words being tossed back and forth, as in an argument, although is an easy path to follow.

                                                    It was not for me to bandy civilities with my sovereign.
                                                                             Samuel Johnson, 1767




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Sunday Cliches

I have to admit, I am pretty tired. Long weekend 🙂 I could even, well, fall asleep standing up! I wonder what we should pick as a theme this week?

fast asleep: soundly sleeping. While most of us know and use this phrase, we probably have little knowledge of why one would want to be “fast” asleep. The word “fast” actually comes from the old German word “fest”, meaning stuck firmly or not easily moved–“stuck fast.” Early on the phrase switched back and forth from “fast asleep” or  “in a fast sleep.” The first written record of the phrase was in 1555:

And I looked that the old bishop should have made me an answer, and he was fast asleepe
                Acts and Monuments, John Foxe

say goodnight Gracie: the sign off from George Burns’ show in 1958. This sign off prompted other comedians, such as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In  and  British comedians Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, to use a similar ending phrase. Later, based on Gracie’s rather scatterbrained character, the phrase came to mean it was time to leave after a stupid comment.  Or a silly comment.

swan song: a final performance before retiring; or passing away.  Swans were mistakenly thought  to be mute, until moments before dying when they would burst into  a haunting melody. This idea was proven wrong very early in history, but has remained part of our culture regardless.

Observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false.”
         Pliny the Elder, Natural History, AD 77

And thus ends my short but sweet list of clichés this week!


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Cliche Sunday

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.


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Cliche Sunday

Another week for clichés! Looking, once more, for a theme I had an idea: I was going  to open my book and find the first intriguing cliché, then do clichés starting with that letter. Maybe I will do that next week. What really happened is that I opened the book and I saw one I had never heard of. I immediately decided to find clichés I had never heard of for a theme this week. Rather like an anti-cliche list 🙂 Let me know if you have heard of any of these, it can always depend upon where you live!

greasy luck: another way of saying good luck. Originally from Nantucket, the meaning was meant for whalers. Saying that as the ship left port meant one hoped the captain would fill his ship with oil quickly. Not sure I would use this one in modern times. Definitely would garner us some odd looks.

up the spout: our plans have failed, our situation is hopeless. This is both a literal and figurative cliché: both referring to a pawn shop. Literally, the “spout” was the elevator that took the pawned articles upstairs for storage. It was also slang for the pawn shop itself, which we would normally only turn to when out situation is hopeless. Dickens used this phrase when Mr. Pickwick went to Fleet Prison to see a friend. The meaning is old enough to been listed in the 1812 publication of James Vaux’s A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language.

to catch a Tartar: to take something one thinks to advantageous, only to find an unpleasant attachment. This phrase was first found in the seventeenth century. An origination theory was published in 1785 by Francis Grose:

  “..this saying originated from a story of an Irish soldier in the Imperial service, who, in  a battle against the Turks, called out to his comrade that he had caught a Tartar. ‘Bring him along, then’, said he. ‘He won’t come,’ answered Paddy. ‘Then come along yourself,’ replied his comrade. ‘Arrah,’ cried he, ‘but he won’t let me.'”*

simon pure: similar to “the real McCoy,” used to indicate a genuine article. This phrase is literary in origin. Playwright Susannah Centlivre wrote A Bold Stroke for a Wife at a time when few women were writers,much less successful ones. In her play, produced in the 1720s, the main character (Simon Pure) had his papers of introduction stolen and later had to prove himself the “real Simon Pure.”

pope’s nose: also known as a fowl’s rear end. In the reign of James II, when anti-Catholicism was running high, some ‘wit’  noticed a similarity between the rump of a fowl and the nose of the Pope. Carrying forward, it continued to be derogatory to churchman: it was used by Longfellow in America;  the “epicurean morsel” was also known as the “parson’s nose.”  I find myself wondering exactly which fowl the Pope’s nose resembled. Hmmm….

*A Hog on Ice, Charles Funk

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