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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

Alrighty, tonight we are moving on to “M”s!

may you live in interesting times: while this sounds friendly, it is more of a curse. “interesting times” are really only those of turmoil, and most people would rather live in peace and prosperity. This also sounds as if it is an ancient curse, but it is actually fairly recent. Although it was mentioned by Frederic R Coudert at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science (1939) in his opening speech where he says that Sir Austen Chamberlain told him that he heard the phrase from a Chinese diplomat. Chamberlain had never been to China, however, so this provence of the cliché may not be accurate. It was definitely used by Robert Kenndey, however, in 1966:

There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.

mare’s nest: an exciting discovery is later shown to be false. This could be because a mare’s nest would be unusual and impossible to find, or that such situations that mare’s nest would be called would also convoluted and a mess. The first meaning  is quite old, and usually refered to a humourous situation:

                  Why dost thou laugh? What Mares nest hast thou found?
                                     John Fletcher’s  Bonduca, circa 1613

It was in the 1920s that the second meaning was used, and probably came out of “a rat’s nest.”

method to the madness: the reason behind apparent disorder or incomprehension. Another of Shakespeare’s inventions, this one from Hamlet:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?

milk of human kindness: care and compassion for others. And yet another from Shakespeare:

                Yet doe I feare thy Nature, It is too full o’ th’ Milke of humane kindnesse.
MacBeth 1605

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Cliche Sunday

A week into the new year, and I better get it in gear! I haven’t been checking my feed to see what all the other bloggers are putting out there, and I totally skipped last week on my running blog. I would like so say I have been busy, and I will admit that last week was the longest four-day work week ever; but really there has been a lot of Wordy and Solitaire in my life. I might have an addiction problem. I do waste a lot of time that way.  Probably better than Twitter (which I also spend a lot of time on).

I believe we left off on the “G’s”……

get it in gear: to start to work effectively and with energy.* I have to say this is one of my failures. While I can easily find what this phrase means, I can’t seem to find where or when it came from. I can say I heard it a lot growing up 🙂 There was rumor that it came from the 1950s, and was a reference to moving your car-which makes sense, but is completely unsubstantiated.

gee whiz: expletive, like good gracious, good grief, or good lord!  The gee is an actual reference to Jesus, shortened so it doesn’t offend. An Americanism from the 1800s, ‘gee’ was also a popular phrase to indicate surprise or disbelief.

“Gee-wees!…I’ll bet one hundred dollars on that hand!”
Cody and Arlington’s Life on the Border, 1876

gild the lily: to over embellish an item (or person) that doesn’t need it. ‘To gild’ is to cover with a thin layer of gold, so ‘gilding refined gold’ is obviously unnecessary.**  The origin of this lays, once more, with Shakespeare. While he may not have actually come up with the phrase, he is the first one to use it in print:

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
King John 1595

go over like a lead balloon: to be a complete and utter failure. This one arose on both sided of the pond. In England it was first used in the beginning of the 20th century, and actually started as “went down like a lead balloon.”  It was coined in America in the early 20th century as well, although at first the phrase went over like the proverbial lead balloon. It was in the early 1950s that it was revived and became popular.





*the free dictionary


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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

I realized this week just how important our ABCs are. I came to this  realization as I found misfiled orders, and I wondered if someone had a bad day, or just wasn’t paying attention in school. I decided that I would do an ABC round of clichés, which is quite an undertaking, as this will take 27 weeks. I feel confident that each letter will provide unusual and interesting phrases,  so don’t despair!

And, on to the A’s:

a bunch of fives: a fist, the fingers being the five. An old-fashioned  boxing term, I learned this cliché in old gangster films. The earliest record of it is in the Boxiana, a book by Pierce Egan in 1821. Boxiana was history of boxing, but is quite hard to get hold of currently to verify the origin of the phrase. It was later used in 1825:

   ….. with their bunches of fives….
                                    –Charles Westmacott The English Spy

a foregone conclusion: a decision that is made before all the details are in, an inevitable fate. Even when doing my ABCs, I manage to find Shakespeare 🙂

But this denoted a foregone conclusion:
‘Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.
           Othello, 1604

across the board: to embrace all, without thought to class or race. This has been expanded to mean any subject, no exceptions to that subject. This came from bookmakers, as the phrase “encompassing all aspects.”* First coined in America, “an ‘across the board’ wager is one in which equal amounts are bet on the same contestant to win, place, or show.”*

age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety:   before “she walks in cloudless climes” was used to describe utter beauty, there was Cleopatra:

Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
               Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra, 1606

And, finally, for those caught up in election fury:

agree to disagree: to set aside an irreconcilable argument to continue a discussion or relationship. This one could be American (1785) or English (1770), but with a lack of evidence either way,  I think we can just agree to disagree on the source of the cliché. It certainly has been around for a long time, however, and is still currently used.


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Cliche Sunday

Ok, I had a week off so I will try to make a go of it this week. I worked 50 hours last week, and we had a family member in the hospital, so when I got off work, I was still in the hospital (I work in the hospital). Good thing its a nice hospital 🙂 And they have great food!

So, clichés….well, based on the last paragraph, I thought we could try body part cliches. Apparently, there are more than a few. Which makes sense, since  when looking around for something to compare to or explain an idea, the first thing at hand is, well, a hand!

hands down: to win easily, with little to no effort. This came from horse racing, where if a jockey could release the reins and put his hands down on the horse’s neck, it was because he was so far ahead and was definitely going to win. The phrase became popular in the mid 1800s, when horse racing  became fashionable.

There were good horses in those days, as he can well recall, But Barker upon Elepoo, hands down, shot by them all.
                                                                        –‘Pips’ Lyrics & Lays, 1867

to have bees in one’s bonnet: to be slightly daft. I always thought it meant to be overly excited about something, I guess I have been using it incorrectly! The original idea was that the continuous humming of bees around one’s head would be enough to drive one insane. It has been used as far back as the 1500s, with the original phrases being either “to have a head full of bees” or ” to have bees in the head, or in the brain.” Bonnet is a much nicer image.

cat got your tongue?: a question to get a response from someone who is unusually quiet. The first  written record of this phrase is from Ballou’s Monthly Magazine in 1881. In it the quote, it makes reference to children’s play, so it could have been used for quite a while before 1881 without adults paying attention. It is most likely a nonsensical children’s phrase, without a cat actually stealing anyone’s tongue 🙂

knee-jerk reaction: an initial, emotional response to something. This cliché is actually based on the body part, and the sharp reflex the knee has when tapped. Known as the patellar reflex, it was first noted by Sir Michael Foster:

Striking the tendon below the patella gives rise to a sudden extension of the leg, known as the knee-jerk.
Text-book of physiology, 1877

It was later used by O.O. McIntyre in 1921 as he wrote for the Coshocton Tribune. It has been going strong since then, and is still well used today.

put your best foot forward: to start a journey/task with purpose. This one has also morphed a bit over the  years, as most people use it currently to mean making the best first impression. The phrase has been around for a long time, with the first known written record in 1613:

Hee is still setting the best foot forward.
  –Sir Thomas Overbury’s A Wife

There is dithering over whether we can put our ‘best’ foot forward, or should it have been ‘better’ foot all along? Better is known to be, well, better than best. Shakespeare preferred ‘better’ when he used the phrase in King John, 1595:

Nay, but make haste; the better foot before.

However it should have been, “best foot” is what we say now–and have been saying for hundreds of years.

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More thoughts–

–on the Bard. And his words.

I love words. I  took Latin high school simply because French and Spanish didn’t appeal at all.  I  truly enjoyed it when I realized how many words had their origin in the language. It was fascinating to see how they were transmuted through other languages and time.

While I will butcher the pronunciation of many words, I do tend to know a lot of them to butcher.  My knowledge comes from books, so I didn’t hear them. And,apparently, I missed the day in school when they showed what all those little pronunciation  symbols mean.   I learned a lot of meanings  from inferring the definition from the text, and others I asked. Just be a twelve-year-old girl and ask your dad what “phallic” means.

What was I reading at twelve that used that word, you ask? Well, I read a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to. My mom told me when I was ten that I could read Jaws when I was sixteen when I expressed interest in it.Or, more accurately, that I couldn’t read it until I was sixteen.  Of course, I promptly read it two weeks later. It was my parents fault.

I failed second grade due to my reading ability. They spent that summer force feeding me books and instilled a life long passion in me. I read quickly and, often, books no one expected me to be reading.

I do believe that I was the only 8th grader to take Shakespeare’s Complete Works out of the school library.

I may not have understood all the plays, his language being a bit complicated for me. But I did like them. Especially a Midsummer’s Night Dream. Fairies, mischievous sprites and romance–what was there not to love?  I am a much bigger fan of his comedies than his tragedies. But that probably has more to do with my personality than his writing.

I think I most enjoyed the words he used. As a teenager I frequently used words that were a bit old for me–or, at least, the century I was in.  The history of words is fascinating; as is the way that some catch our attention and live forever while some fade quickly. For all the difficulty people have deciphering Shakespeare, it is astonishing the amount of phrases we still use.

                                                                                                                                   Who hasn’t used this one??


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Cliche Sunday

Not knowing what to pick as a theme this week, I went to my favorite site, phrases. org.uk. I used the eeny-meeny-miny-mo method to pick a letter of the alphabet and came up with ‘O’. And still I came up with Shakespearean clichés. Oh, my!


off with his head: literally, to chop off his head. Or used to reproach someone in a joking manner. While many of us know this from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it was another bloodthirsty queen from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part III who said it first:

Off with his head, and set it on York gates;
So York may overlook the town of York.

oh, my stars and garters: an expression of astonishment. Coming from Britain, this one has a rather varied past. The “stars,” of course, mean actual astrological bodies; and “my stars” means one’s personal Zodiac signs and one’s corresponding position in life. The “garters” comes directly from chivalry. The highest heraldic order receivable in Britain is the “Noble Order of the Garter.”  Stars and garters put together in slang meant the trappings of high office, as well as the people in said office.Eventually it became a humorous exclamation of astonishment:

Supper at such an hour!
My stars and garters! who would be,
To have such guests, a landlady
A Journey to Oxford, 1765

Ups a daisy: a saying for picking a child up after a fall to encourage them to keep going, or when swinging a child in play. This one has many forms and spellings, from oops a daisy and upsa daesy to upsidaisy. It was first found in print by Johnathon Swift, who was remarking on someone lazy:

Come stand away, let me rise… Is there a good fire? – So – up a-dazy.

Ups a daisy also was a basis for  the word “lackadaisical.” It’s roots can be traced, as with so many things in the English language, to Shakespeare:

Shee’s dead, deceast, shee’s dead: alacke the day!
Romeo & Juliet, 1592

odd’s bodkins: God’s body, an oath. A bodkin is a small tool with a sharp end for piercing leather and other tough materials. It was mostly chosen for its alliteration to body, as “odd” was picked for its alliteration to God. This became an acceptable curse for those of religious backgrounds.  Unless one is Shakespeare, then one would just come out and use the original:

First Carrier:
God’s body! the turkeys in my pannier are quite starved
Henry IV Part II, 1597


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Cliche Sunday

I thought this week that we could do some older  phrases. I was amazed at how long “swan song” (pre-100 AD) has lasted in our vocabulary, so let’s look at some  more outdated clichés that have stuck around for a while.It must be the flair that made them live in our imagination for so long.

stuff and nonsense: telling a person they were being ridiculous. This phrase is only 175 years old, being first found in written form in 1827, but I have always liked it. It was first used by a politician, who said “”He had at once to declare, that all notions of concerting and of dictating to the King in the exercise of his prerogative, was merestuff and nonsense“* in a parliamentary debate in England.   It is  lovely way of telling someone they have no idea, and in this day and age, they would probably just go “huh?”!

rub the wrong way: to be insensitive to how someone is feeling, especially during a conversation. This is often thought of as being from rubbing a cat’s (or other animal)  fur the wrong way,resulting in one peeved feline. However, it really dates back to colonial times. Servants used to wet-rub and then dry- rub the wide wood plank floors, and if they did it against the grain the result was streaky and messy. Employers of these servants were peeved as the feline would have been, especially if it was not fixed before company came. They then blamed the servants, saying they “rubbed it the wrong way.”

blue jeans: pants traditionally made of a blue denim cloth. Although these days “jeans” can be made of almost any color and finish, jeans became popular earlier than most of us imagine. In 1495, King Henry VIII of England made a contribution to history that should remain forever: he bought 262 bolts of a heavy cloth termed “jean.” It was long wearing and durable, and remained its original color for many years until someone decided to dye it blue. While it would take a bit longer for it become fashionable for men and women, jeans have lasted for over 600 years!

hocus-pocus: vaguely magical words used many acts. This phrase is also much older than I would have thought, dating back to middle ages. Jugglers used it, mangling words from the Church to make the act sound important. They probably got the idea from commoners, who also mangled the words, having ho idea what the Latin words from Mass really meant:

In the Middle Ages, most people were illiterate and certainly didn’t understand Latin, the language of the Catholic mass.  During the Eucharist in the mass, the priest would turn away from the congregation and look at the cross, making his words hard to hear and/or understand.  When he raised the host (bread), he uttered the words “Hoc est corpus mei……”, or “This is my body….”, in Latin.  The congregation didn’t understand the meaning of the words, but they did know that, somehow through some magic, these words turned the bread into the actual body of Christ, the fantastic magical event of transubstantiation.  So, words that sounded like “hocus pocus” to the illiterate and uneducated masses would enable a magical and miraculous event to transpire, and, presumably, these words were a facilitator or enabler of a magical act or event. **

green-eyed monster: to be jealous. Another famous phrase started by Shakespeare. In Othello, Act III, Shakespeare used a cat’s green eyes to mean jealousy. He also used the actual cliché, “green-eyed monster,” in the play.





*Word Ancestry

**Words, Phrases, or Sayings

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Cliche Sunday

Here we are again! Hope your week went just as fast as mine. My schedule at work was varied this week, so I rarely knew what day it was. That made it go by quicker 🙂  For no particular reason, I think we will explore phrases spawned from the Bible this time around. Most are from the King James version, which is still the most common version of the Bible.  I will admit to picking those that I did not realize came from the Bible, and those the tickled my fancy.

a fly in the ointment:  a small flaw that spoils the whole. Originally, creams and ointments were most likely for beauty or anointing for ceremonial purpose . A fly could indeed spoil an entire batch. The first reference to it is from Ecclesiastes 10:1:
        Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and           honour.
Later, as the became popular in our everyday lexicon, John Norris directly references that phrase:
    ‘Tis that dead fly in the ointment of the Apothecary–1707

a house divided against itself cannot stand: no beating around the bush here, this phrase means literally what it says. And I admit, it is most familiar to me from being said by Lincoln in the second “Night at the Museum” movie. So it is interesting to learn that it is actually from the bible; Matthew 12:25, to be precise.
          And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided           against itself shall not stand

a leopard cannot change its spots: a person cannot change who they are.  I feel that people can change, however, I don’t see a leopard rearranging its spots!
Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
Jeremiah 13:23

as white as snow: pure, as a layer of fresh, white snow yet to be trod upon is pure. This one was stolen by Shakespeare; his phrasing was “pure as the driven snow” in Macbeth. Chaucer and several others have used this expression as well to indicate purity in their characters.  Before they stole it, however, Michael Drayton used it in 1593:
   Her skin as soft as Lemster wooll, As white as snow on peakish hill, Or Swanne that swims in Trent
And the original:
      I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure     wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire–Daniel, 7:9 

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