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to lark about

to lark about

  skylark – photograph: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds     The phrasal verb lark about (or around) means to enjoy oneself by behaving in a playful and mischievous way. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary – 1st edition, 1902) indicates the following about the verb lark: The origin is somewhat uncertain. Possibly it […]

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black sheep

black sheep

  photograph: Hill Farm, Abermule     MEANING   a member of a family or group who is regarded as a disgrace to it     ORIGIN   This was perhaps originally an allusion to the book of Genesis, 30. Jacob has already worked fourteen years for both of Laban’s daughters, and after Joseph’s birth […]

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Aunt Sally

Aunt Sally

  Aunt Sally – from The Modern Playmate: A book of games, sports, and diversions for boys of all ages (new revised edition – 1875?), by John George Wood (1827-89)     The Oxford English Dictionary (first edition – 1885) thus defined Aunt Sally: a game much in vogue at fairs and races, in which the figure of a woman’s head […]

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A1 (at Lloyd’s)

A1 (at Lloyd’s)

    MEANING   first-class, outstanding     ORIGIN   Lloyd’s Register, historically Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, is an independent society formed in 1760 by a group of merchants operating at Lloyd’s coffee house in London, which surveys ships to ensure compliance with standards of strength and maintenance. The name also denotes an annual publication […]

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to be barking up the wrong tree

to be barking up the wrong tree

    Fess Parker (1924-2010) wearing a coonskin cap in Walt Disney’s 1950s television series Davy Crockett – photograph: AP       MEANING   to be pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action     ORIGIN   In Americanisms, Old and New. A Dictionary of Words, Phrases and Colloquialisms peculiar to the […]

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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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virtus dormitiva

virtus dormitiva

  Molière dans le rôle de César dans La Mort de Pompée de Corneille (circa 1650) par Nicolas Mignard (1606-68) – image: Musée Carnavalet     This Latin expression is composed of virtus, virtue, and dormitiva, feminine of dormitivus, dormitive. It first appeared in the following lines in dog Latin of Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary […]

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of that kidney

of that kidney

  bust of Jonathan Swift – Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin     The word kidney, which is attested around 1325, is of unclear origin. The second element of the Middle-English form kidenei, plural kideneiren, is apparently ey, plural eyren, meaning egg (cf. German Eier, literally eggs, used to mean testicles). The first element remains uncertain; it is perhaps identical with cud. The Anglo-Saxon name for kidney was cropp. The word kidney, […]

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earthling

earthling

  cover of Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1951)     The noun earthling is composed of earth and the suffix -ling, meaning, in this case, a person belonging to. In science fiction, it is used by aliens to refer to an inhabitant of the earth. But this noun, which dates back to the late 16th […]

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admirable Crichton

admirable Crichton

  biography of, and eulogy to, James Crichton of Clunie in Heroes ex omni historia Scotica lectissimi (1603)     James Crichton of Clunie (circa 1560-1582) was a Scottish prodigy of intellectual and knightly accomplishments, and the epithet admirable became traditionally applied to him. The Scottish scholar John Johnston (circa 1565-1611) used the Latin adjective admirabilis in Heroes ex omni historia Scotica […]

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