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to get the bird

to get the bird

  detail from the frontispiece to The Life of an Actor (1825), by Pierce Egan     The phrase to get, or to give, the bird means to receive, or to show, derision, to be dismissed, or to dismiss. It originated in theatrical slang and referred to the ‘big bird’, that is, the goose, which […]

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peaceable kingdom

peaceable kingdom

  one of the versions of The Peaceable Kingdom (circa 1834), by Edward Hicks image: National Gallery of Art (Washington DC)       The expression peaceable kingdom, in the sense of a state of harmony among all creatures as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah, 11:1-9, first appeared in the King James Version (1611):   […]

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French pig idioms

French pig idioms

    A violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously. Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, […]

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philtrum

philtrum

  photograph: Google+ Communities     The noun philtrum denotes the vertical groove between the base of the nose and the border of the upper lip. The literal and obsolete signification of this word, which appeared in the early 17th century, is love potion, from classical Latin philtrum, of same meaning. In post-classical Latin, philtrum […]

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heart of oak

heart of oak

  A New Song, sung by Mr. Champness in Harlequin’s Invasion from The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure – March 1760     The phrase heart of oak denotes a person with a strong, courageous nature, especially a brave and loyal soldier or sailor, and a courageous or valorous spirit. Its literal meaning is […]

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rift in the lute

rift in the lute

  L’astucieuse Viviane était étendue aux pieds de Merlin, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) from Les Idylles du roi (Paris – 1868), translation of Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson     The phrase rift in the lute means sign of disharmony between persons, especially the first evidence of a quarrel that may become worse. […]

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auld lang syne

auld lang syne

  Old Long Syne – broadside ballad (probably 1701)     The Scots lang syne means long since, long ago. Conversely, short syne means a short time ago, recently. Especially in recalling old experiences shared with friends, auld lang syne, literally old long-ago, is used as a noun to mean the years of long ago, old times, memories […]

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widow’s cruse

widow’s cruse

  The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta (circa 1630-40), by Bernardo Strozzi (circa 1581-1644) – image: wikiart.org     The noun cruse denotes a small earthenware vessel for liquids. It is of Germanic origin and related to words such as Dutch kroes and Swedish krus, of same meaning. The expression widow’s cruse signifies an […]

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cross my heart (and hope to die)

cross my heart (and hope to die)

    The phrase cross my heart (and hope to die) is used to emphasise the truthfulness and sincerity of what one is saying, from the action of making a small sign of the cross over one’s heart, which sometimes accompanies the words. It seems to have originated in the USA in the second half […]

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to look like something the cat has brought in

to look like something the cat has brought in

  A Tennis Racket – cover of The Judge (New York) of 10th June 1916     The phrase to look, or to feel, like something the cat has brought in means to look, or to feel, exhausted or bedraggled. The earliest instances that I have found are from the USA and date from the […]

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