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you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

    The proverb you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear means you can’t create a fine product from inferior materials. It originated in Scotland, according to its first recorded instance, in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), by “B. E. Gent.”: Luggs, Ears: Hence to Lug by […]

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cold comfort

cold comfort

  AUTHOR OF “COLD COMFORT FARM”: MISS STELLA GIBBONS. Miss Stella Gibbons’s novel has been most favourably reviewed. It is a well-sustained parody of the Loam-and-Love-child school of fiction. from The Sketch (London) of 21st September 1932     The expression cold comfort means inadequate consolation for a misfortune. The adjective cold has long been […]

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to sell a pup

to sell a pup

  photograph: Dog-Names-And-More.com     Frequently used in the passive, the phrase to sell someone a pup means to swindle someone, especially by selling something of little worth on its supposed prospective value. And to buy a pup means to be swindled. The expression is first recorded in 1901. That year, several newspapers gave its […]

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the cold shoulder

the cold shoulder

    The phrase the cold shoulder denotes a show of intentional and marked coldness or of studied indifference. Because the two earliest instances of this phrase recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition – 1989) are from the Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832) and do not refer to food, Robert Allen […]

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cat-o’-nine-tails

cat-o’-nine-tails

  cat-o’-nine-tails (1866-79) – photograph: National Maritime Museum     The word cat-o’-nine-tails is first recorded in Love for Love, a comedy written by the English poet and playwright William Congreve (1670-1729) and first performed in 1695. Ben, a young man “half home-bred, and half-Sea-bred”, is speaking to Miss Prue, “a silly, awkard [sic], Country […]

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who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother?

who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother?

  crossword in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury of 23rd January 1950 30 across: The cat’s mother? (3).       The phrase who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother? and variants are said to a person, especially a child, who uses the feminine third person singular pronoun impolitely or with inadequate reference. The earliest use of […]

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like a cat on hot bricks/on a hot tin roof

like a cat on hot bricks/on a hot tin roof

  poster for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), an American film directed by Richard Brooks, based on the play by Tennessee Williams     The phrase like a cat on hot bricks and its American equivalent like a cat on a hot tin roof mean very agitated or anxious. An earlier form of the phrase was recorded by the English […]

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not a cat in hell’s chance

not a cat in hell’s chance

  Jackson’s Oxford Journal – 29th September 1753       The phrase not a cat in hell’s chance, which means no chance at all, is puzzling. It is a shortening of the more explicit no more chance than a cat in hell without claws. The earliest instance of this phrase that I could find is from Jackson’s […]

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wouldn’t say boo to a goose

wouldn’t say boo to a goose

  photograph: Blackwells farm shop     The phrase wouldn’t say boo to a goose is used to emphasise that someone is very timid. Here, boo is not an expression of disapproval but a later form of bo, an exclamation intended to frighten. In Notes and Queries of 10th September 1870, the English philologist Walter William Skeat (1835-1912) wrote: “Cry Bo to a Goose” This has […]

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grimalkin

grimalkin

        In The Tragedie of Macbeth (around 1603), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Gray-Malkin is the name of a fiend in the shape of a grey she-cat, the cat being the form most generally assumed by the familiar spirits of witches according to a common superstition: (Folio 1, […]

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