Tag Archives: Jonathan Swift
cut and dried

cut and dried

  It is a circumstance rather remarkable, that the answer to Sir George Rodney’s summons of surrender, given by the respective Dutch Governours of the Islands of St. Eustatius and St. Martin’s, should be couched exactly in the same form of words without the smallest variation; from this we are either to suppose, that the […]

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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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spick and span

    MEANING   extremely neat and clean     ORIGIN   The adjective span new, meaning perfectly new, was derived from Old Norse spán-nýr, meaning literally chip new (cf. German Span, chip, shaving), the metaphor being as new as a freshly cut wooden chip as in the obsolete English adjective split new. The adjective […]

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to have a bee in one’s bonnet

    MEANING   to be preoccupied or obsessed with something     ORIGIN   This phrase is an alliterative and metonymic* transformation of the earlier one’s head full of bees, meaning scatter-brained, unable to think straight, as if bees are buzzing around in one’s head. (* An alliteration: bee and bonnet have the same […]

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‘spud’

    MEANING   informal: a potato     ORIGIN   The noun spud is related to Old Norse spjōt, meaning spear, German Spieß, of same meaning, and English spit in the sense of skewer. It is first recorded in in the English-Latin dictionary Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum (Storehouse for Children or Clerics - around 1440): Spudde, cultellus […]

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leap year

leap year

  The month of February in Poor Robin Almanack for 1796 (Sundays, Christian festivals and saints’ days are marked in red.)       MEANING   a year, occurring once every four years, which has 366 days including 29th February as an intercalary day     ORIGIN   The name leap year refers to the […]

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to rain cats and dogs (1)

to rain cats and dogs (1)

    MEANING   to rain very hard     ORIGIN   Although B. A. Phythian made an interesting hypothesis as to the origin of this phrase in A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), to rain cats and dogs is probably based on a cat-and-dog fight as a metaphor for a storm or […]

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‘mob’

‘mob’

  Roger North, after Sir Peter Lely (1680) – image: National Portrait Gallery       MEANING   a riotous or disorderly crowd of people     ORIGIN   In the late 16th century, English borrowed from classical Latin the expression mobile vulgus, meaning the fickle crowd, the changeable common people. Around 1599, the English […]

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the devil to pay

the devil to pay

  portrait, said to be of Stella (Esther Johnson) image: Crawford Art Gallery – Cork, Éire         MEANING   serious trouble to be dealt with     ORIGIN   This expression refers to a person making a pact or bargain with the Devil: the heavy price has to be paid in the […]

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on the qui vive

on the qui vive

  Chaucer reciting – early 15th-century manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)       MEANING   on the alert, attentive     ORIGIN   The French phrase qui vive ? literally means (long) live who?. It is a sentry’s challenge, intended to discover to which party the person challenged belongs, with […]

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