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you can’t have your cake and eat it

you can’t have your cake and eat it

  title page of The Scourge of Folly (1611?), by John Davies of Hereford     The proverb you can’t have your cake and eat it (too) means you can’t enjoy both of two desirable but mutually exclusive alternatives. It made more sense in its early formulations, when the positions of have and eat had not been reversed. It is first recorded in A dialogue […]

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Mayday

Mayday

  Frederick Stanley Mockford’s gravestone at Selmeston, East Sussex, England – photograph: Geoffrey Gillon/Find A Grave     The word Mayday, which dates from 1923, is used as an international radio distress signal, especially by ships and aircraft. It was supposedly coined by Frederick Stanley Mockford (1897-1962), a senior radio officer at London’s Croydon Airport, […]

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pour encourager les autres

pour encourager les autres

  The Shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque (1757) unknown engraver – image: National Portrait Gallery     The phrase pour encourager les autres is used, of a punishment or sacrifice, to mean as an example to the others, to deter or encourage the others. This French phrase is composed of pour, in order to, encourager, encourage, and les autres, the […]

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hand of glory

hand of glory

  mandragoras – from Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXX (1583), by Rembert Dodoens     The term hand of glory originally denoted a charm made from, or consisting of, the root of a mandrake. A calque of French main de gloire, it was first used in Curiosities of nature and art in husbandry and gardening (1707), the translation by Arthur Young of Curiositez […]

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loose cannon

loose cannon

  naval gunnery in the old days An 18-ton gun in action at the bombardment of Alexandria. The gun has just recoiled after firing. No. 1 is “serving the vent.” The sponge end is being passed to be thrust out of the small scuttle in the middle of the port (which is closed as soon […]

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Mamamouchi

Mamamouchi

  frontispiece and title page from a 1688 edition of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme     In his comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (literally The Bourgeois Gentleman – 1670), the French playwright and actor Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – 1622-73) invented the word Mamamouchi, an imaginary Turkish title that Monsieur Jourdain is gulled into thinking the son of the Grand Turk confers upon him. (Jourdain is […]

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field bishop

field bishop

  The term field bishop denotes a person who is hanged and imagined as grotesquely giving a benediction with his jerking legs. It is first recorded in A mysterye of inyquyte contayned within the heretycall genealogye of Ponce Pantolabus (1545), by John Bale (1495-1563), Bishop of Ossory, evangelical polemicist and historian: What your ende shall […]

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ranz-des-vaches

ranz-des-vaches

  The Ranz des Vaches – from A Complete Dictionary of Music (1779)     The term ranz-des-vaches denotes a type of Swiss melody, traditionally played on the Alpenhorn or sung in order to call cows scattered over the mountainside. The melody is characterised by the reiteration of short phrases and usually contains an element […]

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incunabula

incunabula

  Incunabula Typographiæ (1688), by the Dutch bibliographer Cornelius van Beughem (1639-after 1717)     The word incunabula, singular incunabulum, designates the books printed during the earliest period of typography, that is to say, from the invention of the art of typographic printing in Europe in the 1450s to the end of the 15th century. […]

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myrmidon

myrmidon

  statue of Ovid in Constanţa (ancient Tomis, the city where he was exiled), Romania – 1887, by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Kurt Wichmann     The noun myrmidon denotes a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly. This word first appeared in the […]

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