Tag Archives: folk etymology

cockroach

    MEANING   A beetle-like scavenging insect with long antennae and legs. Several tropical kinds have become established worldwide as household pests.     ORIGIN   This noun first appeared in the form cacarootch in The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), by John Smith (1580-1631), soldier and colonial governor. […]

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sparrowgrass

    MEANING   asparagus     ORIGIN   The Latin noun asparagus is a borrowing from Greek ἀσπάραγος (= asparagos). The Medieval Latin form was often sparagus, whence English sperage (also sparage, after smallage, wild celery), which was the common name in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Meanwhile, the influence of herbalists and […]

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Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.

    MEANING   Don’t risk the failure of a large project by trying to economise on trivial things.     ORIGIN   Ship is a dialectal pronunciation of sheep, and this proverb was originally to lose the sheep (often the hog) for a halfpennyworth of tar, that is to say, for want of spending […]

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to buttonhole

    MEANING   The verb to buttonhole not only means to make buttonholes in a garment, but also to attract the attention of someone and detain them in conversation against their will.     ORIGIN   This verb appears to be an altered form of to button-hold, meaning to take hold of someone by […]

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one over the eight

    I suppose it wasn’t often that the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School came across a man public-spirited enough to call their head master a silly ass, and they showed their appreciation in no uncertain manner. Gussie may have been one over the eight, but as far as the majority of those present […]

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to kick the bucket

    MEANING   to die     ORIGIN   What is nowadays considered a folk etymology may well be the true origin: to kick the bucket quite possibly refers to suicide by hanging after standing on an upturned bucket. For example, the following was published in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27th September 1788: Last […]

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in Dicky’s meadow

    MEANING   This phrase was explained in the column Day to Day in Liverpool, in The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury of Monday 20th March 1916: When a Liverpool warehouseman’s clerk, a man born and educated in mid-Lancashire, was asked, on Saturday, if his employer could rearrange his stock of goods in a […]

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a pig in a poke

    In this expression, the noun poke denotes a bag, a small sack. It is from Anglo-Norman and Old Northern French forms such as poke and pouque, variants of the Old French forms poche and pouche — the last of which is the origin of English pouch. (Incidentally, English pocket is from Anglo-Norman poket, […]

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to let the cat out of the bag

    MEANING   to disclose a secret     ORIGIN   Although it is possible that to let the cat out of the bag originally referred to some specific allusion, such as a line in a play, that has now been lost, it is probable that this phrase is simply based on the comparison […]

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a pretty kettle of fish

a pretty kettle of fish

  photograph: The Grocer     MEANING   The phrase a pretty (or fine) kettle of fish means an awkward state of affairs.     ORIGIN   There is an obvious error in the Oxford English Dictionary (1st edition – 1901): under the headword kettle in the general sense of a vessel for boiling water or […]

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