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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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gianduja

gianduja

  Gianduja e Giandujotto (1986), by the Italian artist Walther Jervolino (1944-2012)     The Italian noun gianduia (improperly gianduja) appeared in the 19th century to denote a soft confection made with chocolate and ground hazelnuts, first produced in Turin, the capital of Piedmont, a region in north-western Italy, in the foothills of the Alps. […]

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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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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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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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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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hat trick

hat trick

  THE HAT TRICK. ORGANISER OF GRACE TESTIMONIAL: — “I AM NOT DOING THIS TO GET ADVERTISEMENT; MY ONLY OBJECT IS TO HELP THIS POOR UNDERPAID CRICKETER!” caricature from The Entr’acte & Limelight (London) – 22nd June 1895 In 1895, a testimonial fund was set up for W. G. Grace (1848-1915), the Grand Old Man of English cricket. […]

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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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to nail (to the counter)

to nail (to the counter)

  Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), by Sir Francis Carruthers Gould (1844-1925), cartoonist and journalist – image: National Portrait Gallery     The verb nail is used to mean to expose or reveal the falsehood of an allegation, assertion, etc., especially to prevent further dissemination. This use is first recorded in An Oration delivered at the Celebration in Philadelphia of the 106th Anniversary of the Birthday […]

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to miss the bus

to miss the bus

  The phrase to miss the bus, or the boat, etc., means to be too slow to take advantage of an opportunity. In A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), B. A. Phythian explained: This expression is said to originate in an Oxford story of the 1840s about John Henry Newman, fellow of Oriel College, vicar of the University […]

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