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to see which way the cat jumps

to see which way the cat jumps

  Tip-Cat in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly (1787 edition)     The phrase to see which way the cat jumps means to see what direction events are taking before committing oneself. One of its earliest instances is from The Berkshire Chronicle of 28th May 1825; an article titled Lord Liverpool and […]

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Disgusted

Disgusted

    The proper noun Disgusted (with initial capital D) was originally used as a self-designation by a member of the public writing anonymously to a newspaper in order to express outrage about a particular issue. The earliest instance of this noun that I found is in the following letter, published in The Merthyr Telegraph, […]

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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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lupus

lupus

  illustration from The British Wolf-Hunters. A Tale of England in the Olden Time (1859), by Thomas Miller     The Latin noun lupus/-pi meant wolf. It is kindred with ancient Greek λύκος (= lukos) – cf. lycanthrope, which originally designated a person who believes that he or she is a wolf, and which, via […]

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‘posh’

‘posh’

  One of the earliest instances of posh is from a cartoon in Punch, or The London Charivari of 25th September 1918. An RAF officer is talking to his mother: “Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there.” “Whatever do you mean by ‘posh,’ Gerald?” “Don’t you know? It’s slang for ‘swish’*!” [* swish: impressively smart and fashionable]   […]

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starboard – port

starboard – port

  image: nageur-sauveteur     MEANINGS   The noun starboard denotes the side of a ship or aircraft that is on the right when one is facing forward, while port denotes the opposing side.     ORIGINS   From the Germanic bases of the nouns steer and board, starboard, which appeared in Old English as steorbord, […]

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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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