Tag Archives: sayings-phrases
one swallow does not make a summer

one swallow does not make a summer

  photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Thermos       MEANING   a single fortunate event doesn’t mean that what follows will also be good     ORIGIN   The annual migration of swallows to Europe from southern climes at the end of winter was the subject of a proverb in Ancient Greece: μία χελιδὼν ἔαρ οὐ ποιεῖ, in […]

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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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loose cannon

loose cannon

  naval gunnery in the old days An 18-ton gun in action at the bombardment of Alexandria. The gun has just recoiled after firing. No. 1 is “serving the vent.” The sponge end is being passed to be thrust out of the small scuttle in the middle of the port (which is closed as soon […]

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heart of hearts

heart of hearts

  Sir William Davenant (1672), by William Faithorne, after John Greenhill image: National Portrait Gallery       MEANING   the depths of one’s conscience or emotions     ORIGIN   This anatomically curious but firmly established expression is a variant of the older and more comprehensible heart of heart, meaning very centre of the heart, which was […]

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short shrift

short shrift

  The Murder of the Princes in the Tower – illustration from The National and Domestic History of England (1870?-80?), by William Hickman Smith Aubrey (1848?-1916)     The expression short shrift means brief and unsympathetic treatment, and to make short shrift of means to dispose of quickly and unsympathetically. A short shrift was originally […]

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Witham

Witham

  Witham (Essex) – town sign photograph: East Anglian Daily Times     Witham is the name of several villages in Lincolnshire and Essex. With a pun on wit, the expression little, or small, Witham was used proverbially for a place of which the inhabitants were remarkable for stupidity. For example, the following, from A […]

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make hay

make hay

  The phrase make hay means make good use of an opportunity while it lasts. This is a shortening of make hay while the sun shines, recorded in A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue compacte in a matter concernyng two maner of mariages (1546), by the English playwright and epigrammatist John Heywood (1497?-1580?): […]

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happy as a clam

happy as a clam

  cherrystone or hardshell clam – photograph: The Fish Society     The phrase (as) happy as a clam means well pleased, quite contented. In Allen’s Dictionary of English Phrases (2008), Robert Allen explains: This American simile is more understandable in its full form, happy as a clam in high water (or at high tide). In these conditions, clams are able to feed and are […]

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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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