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Phrases and Sayings

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Phrases and Sayings

This page is about phrases and sayings that are more or less well–known in English, and their origins. It also includes some individual words, particularly those that are derived from the names of people or places.

The four words that Samuel Pepys customarily used to end his diary entries Click to show or hide the answer
Commonly attributed to Louis XV, but more accurately to his mistress Madame de Pompadour – adopted as a motto by RAF 617 Squadron (the Dam Busters) Click to show or hide the answer
Used as the title of a video game released 2010: term coined by F. D. Roosevelt to describe how he wanted the USA to act in providing arms to Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II Click to show or hide the answer
Term coined by George W. Bush in his State of the Union speech, January 2002, describing governments that he accused of helping terrorism and seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction – specifically Iran, Iraq and North Korea Click to show or hide the answer
A small country, often led by a corrupt government, whose economy depends upon either one internally–produced commodity or the revenue generated by foreign companies or investors (term coined by the American writer O. Henry in Cabbages and Kings, 1904) Click to show or hide the answer
Indian city whose name gave rise to a neologism (added to theurbandictionary.com in 2004) indicating a layoff, often systemic, and usually resulting from corporate outsourcing in order to lower wage costs Click to show or hide the answer
US revolutionary whose name became a byword for treachery or betrayal, after he changed sides in the War of Independence; but the breakfast dish (eggs Benedict) is not named after him Click to show or hide the answer
Originally signified an area beyond English rule in Dublin (16th century) Click to show or hide the answer
Prussian general at Waterloo, gave his name to a type of boot Click to show or hide the answer
Originated in Spain, arising from the whiteness of the skin of the nobility (veins showing as blue) Click to show or hide the answer
Term for a prestigious company, or its stock – derived from the highest currency denomination used in poker Click to show or hide the answer
The third full moon of a season that has four (most seasons have three. Often defined as the second of two full moons in the same calendar month) Click to show or hide the answer
Used by editors to correct copy – also used pejoratively to refer to censorship Click to show or hide the answer
"Workplace jargon" for visionary or idealistic ideas – not always with a practical application Click to show or hide the answer
May have been coined in 1887 when Prime Minister Lord Salisbury selected his nephew A. J. Balfour (later to succeed him as PM) as Chief Secretary for Ireland Click to show or hide the answer
Ceremonial burning of books and jewellery by Savonarola in 15th century Florence Click to show or hide the answer
Victorian self–appointed censor of Shakespeare: his name has become a byword for "to censor" Click to show or hide the answer
English land agent with whom the Irish Land League refused to deal, 1879–81 Click to show or hide the answer
Palace built by Henry VIII, whose name later became a byword for a police station or prison Click to show or hide the answer
"the faceless gnomes of Zurich": phrase coined (1964) by Click to show or hide the answer
US psychologist, gave his name to a type of squat thrust that starts and ends in a standing position Click to show or hide the answer
Leisure time spent doing something similar to what you do at work Click to show or hide the answer
19th Century Earl, gave name to a sofa and an overcoat Click to show or hide the answer
Dish jokingly referred to as "Jewish penicillin" Click to show or hide the answer
Originates in an American custom where someone looking for a fight would invite his adversary to knock a piece of wood off his shoulder Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase meaning a fanciful or ideal place – originating in Aristophanes's The Birds, where it was a city built in the sky Click to show or hide the answer
Unintentional injury to non–combatants, as a result of military action – a phrase first used in 1961 by the US economist (and future Nobel laureate) Thomas C. Schelling Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase coined by Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow to describe their break–up in 2014 Click to show or hide the answer
Used in the media to characterise a period of increased pride in the culture of the United Kingdom throughout most of the 1990s, inspired by 1960s pop culture – epitomised by Britpop, Oasis and the Spice Girls (title of a song from the Bonzo Dog Doo–Dah Band's 1967 debut album, Gorilla) Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase arising from Julius Caesar's action in entering Roman Italy with the 13th Legion in 49 BC, in his campaign against Pompey, thus committing a capital offence and plunging the Roman Republic into civil war; the phrase involves the name of a river that marked the border between Cisalpine Gaul (a province) and the part of Italy that was directly controlled by Rome; Caesar is said to have uttered the famous phrase alea iacta est – "the die is cast" Click to show or hide the answer
Slogan variously credited to Harry G. Selfridge, or his one–time American employer Marshal Field, or the French hotelier Cesar Ritz Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
Someone who spends too much time watching television – a term coined, according to one source, by the US cartoonist Robert Armstrong, in his "Official Handbook" for them (1982) Click to show or hide the answer
First appeared in a poem by Henry Woodfall, published in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1735: their names became a byword for a happily married couple, leading quiet, uneventful lives Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
Can be a type of fungus, coral, or seaweed, or the gills of a crab Click to show or hide the answer
English hangman from the Elizabethan era: gave his name to a gallows, and so (by analogy) to a type of modern–day crane (associated with ships, docks and construction sites) Click to show or hide the answer
Originally denoted an official position in the Catholic Church, in which a canon lawyer, also known as the Promoter of Faith, "argued against the canonization (sainthood) of a candidate in order to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation evidence favoring canonization." Click to show or hide the answer
Someone who holds on to something simply to prevent another person from using it, having no use for it himself Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
Event held annually in the eponymous district of Dublin, from 1204 to 1855: name became a byword for a disorderly gathering; also gave its name to a tune and a broadside ballad Click to show or hide the answer
Slang word meaning insane, from the name of a British military camp near Bombay where fever sufferers were sent to recover Click to show or hide the answer
Word used to describe a punishment that's unduly harsh for the seriousness of the offence – in reference to a 7th–century Athenian lawmaker (who shares his name with a character in Harry Potter) Click to show or hide the answer
Part of a musical instrument: gives its name to a type of cabbage, a court martial held in the field, and the circular top of a capstan, which is pierced with sockets for the levers used in turning it Click to show or hide the answer
"Beyond the Pale" refers to the surroundings of Click to show or hide the answer
A small freight lift, especially when used in a hotel or restaurant when the kitchen and dining room are on different floors – a term popularised in the USA in the mid–19th century (cf. Lazy Susan) Click to show or hide the answer
Word for a bad scholar, derived from the name of a 13th century Scottish theologian Click to show or hide the answer
False bravery, engendered by alcohol – first referred to by the English poet and politician Edmund Waller in Instructions to a Painter (1665) Click to show or hide the answer
Term for an influential advisor to a public figure, after a secretary to Cardinal Richelieu Click to show or hide the answer
"Take the King's shilling" Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
"Eat umble pie": umbles are Click to show or hide the answer
"Drawing the long bow" Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase used by US presidents, most famously Nixon, to justify the withholding of documents and information from other branches of government Click to show or hide the answer
Euphemism for the controversial policy of transferring (terrorist) suspects to countries where they may be tortured Click to show or hide the answer
A group that clandestinely undermines a larger group to which it is supposed to be loyal (coined by Nationalist leader Emilio Mola during the Spanish Civil War, as he approached Madrid, to describe sympathisers to his cause inside the city) Click to show or hide the answer
Dates back to the 17th century and refers to the gunpowder in a flintlock musket igniting without firing a bullet Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
An unauthorised period of absence from work, or from one's post (originating in the 18th century, and the belief that in the country implicated, it was the custom to leave a party or other social gathering without saying goodbye) Click to show or hide the answer
Biscuit named after an Italian soldier (who allegedly invented it by sitting on an Eccles cake, on a visit to Tynemouth in 1854) Click to show or hide the answer
Term coined in the 1950s by photographer Robert Capa, but popularised in a 1991 novel by Douglas Coupland, referring to people born between the mid–1950s and mid–1960s – many of whom, despite being well educated and well informed, found it hard to obtain meaningful employment Click to show or hide the answer
Coined the phrase "Let the punishment fit the crime" (in The Mikado) Click to show or hide the answer
Originally an advertising slogan for beer; adopted by the RAF during World War II to mean that someone had been shot down Click to show or hide the answer
Description of jealousy, from Shakespeare's Othello Click to show or hide the answer
'Goodbye' is an abbreviation (corruption) of Click to show or hide the answer
Term used to describe a third person interrupting the wishes of two others to spend time alone (the name of a fruit) Click to show or hide the answer
Cut by Alexander the Great (according to legend) – has become a metaphor for an intractable problem that is solved by a single bold stroke Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
Named after Californian surfer Tom Harvey Click to show or hide the answer
Term used in rock music, originated in William Burroughs's The Naked Lunch Click to show or hide the answer
Speak of the Devil, and … Click to show or hide the answer
Cambridge innkeeper who hired horses in strict rotation Click to show or hide the answer
Refers to an explosive device (basically a bomb) used in the 16th century for blowing holes in defensive walls – phrase used in Shakespeare's Hamlet Click to show or hide the answer
Reputedly the leader of a gang of 19th century Irish louts Click to show or hide the answer
Long pig (term used in the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia) Click to show or hide the answer
Term coined 1992 by Al Gore (then a Senator), to describe a unified global system of interactive electronic communication Click to show or hide the answer
Term used in America to characterise matters that are, or seem to be, important primarily to officials of the federal government, its contractors and lobbyists, and the corporate media who cover them – as opposed to the general population (a reference to the Washington DC ring road) Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase made famous by Winston Churchill in a speech made in Fulton, Missouri in 1946. Previously used (but not coined) by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels Click to show or hide the answer
Italian inventor of a type of bath with a mechanism to agitate the water to give increased invigoration Click to show or hide the answer
Word of uncertain origin, chosen by Robert Baden–Powell to denote a large gathering of Scouts (the first being held at Kensington Olympia in 1920) Click to show or hide the answer
Word meaning aggressive patriotism – originating in a Music Hall song from the time of the Russo–Turkish War, 1877–8; often used to describe the policies of US President Theodore Roosevelt Click to show or hide the answer
Someone who discourages or saddens while seeming to offer sympathy or support Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase meaning "every little detail", referring to two printers' marks, originating in the Gospel of St. Matthew ("one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled") Click to show or hide the answer
Animal that gives its name to a hastily–arranged and unjust court Click to show or hide the answer
A turntable or rotating tray, set in the middle of a dining table to enable diners to help themselves to food – often seen in Chinese restaurants (cf. Dumb waiter) Click to show or hide the answer
In mediaeval Europe, it was believed that bear cubs were born misshapen, or shapeless, and their mothers had to Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase used in the UK for "gritting one's teeth and putting up with the situation", especially in relation to a woman's role in sexual intercourse Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
Obsolete word for a match – especially the non–safety type; originally the King James Version rendering of the Hebrew word used in Isaiah, which means "shining one" or "morning star"; later came to be used as the name of Satan before his fall Click to show or hide the answer
City where a besieging general claimed to have four columns encircling the city and a fifth column working secretly within Click to show or hide the answer
Month that (proverbially) "comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb" Click to show or hide the answer
Pub name from the title of John Manners (1721–70), heir to the 3rd Duke of Rutland, a general in the Seven Years War, who is said to have provided funds for his non–commissioned officers to set up pubs on their retirement (there seems however to be very little conclusive evidence for this) Click to show or hide the answer
French drillmaster in the reign of Louis XVI, known as a strict disciplinarian Click to show or hide the answer
Texas rancher who didn't brand his cattle Click to show or hide the answer
"March winds and April showers bring forth the … " Click to show or hide the answer
Originally the temperament associated with black bile; meaning depression, or a gloomy state of mind, especially when habitual or prolonged Click to show or hide the answer
Australian opera singer, after whom an ice cream confection and a thin, crisp toast were named Click to show or hide the answer
What made hatters mad? Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
When the cat's away ... Click to show or hide the answer
Chicago bartender accused of lacing customers' drinks with knockout drops in order to rob them (1903) Click to show or hide the answer
Originates in publicans reckoning debts in pints and quarts Click to show or hide the answer
Popular phrase used to denote a hypothetical creature that lies between man and the apes on the evolutionary scale Click to show or hide the answer
Toasted by Jacobites as "the wee gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat" (being held responsible for the equestrian accident that led to the death of William III) Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase denoting meaningless or incomprehensible language, believed to originate in a custom of the Mandingo tribe of West Africa (when a man would dress up as a supernatural 'minister of justice' in order to resolve domestic disputes) Click to show or hide the answer
Fierce warrior nation described by Homer, troops led by Achilles (his father Peleus was their king); name entered English to mean an unquestioningly loyal follower, or hired ruffian; often used in computer, video and role–playing games Click to show or hide the answer
Coined in 1725 by the satirist Henry Carey to describe (the poems of) his contemporary Ambrose Philips Click to show or hide the answer
City that is the subject of an aphorism famously quoted by Goethe in Italian Journey (1786–8): "See ... and die" Click to show or hide the answer
Derisive term for the English, taken by Napoleon from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations Click to show or hide the answer
Aphorism commonly attributed to Aristotle, which although he argued for the principle it expresses, he never actually used; although now disproven by science, it is known scientifically by the Latin phrase horror vacui Click to show or hide the answer
Saying believed by many (but not Wiktionary) to originate in the Naval punishment of flogging – in reference to a nickname for the type of whip used Click for more information Click to show or hide the answer
The phrase "pulling out all the stops" originated in Click to show or hide the answer
The first working model of the Solar System, invented by George Graham c1710, was named after his patron the Earl of Click to show or hide the answer
When your prospects are looking good, the world is said to be your … Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase used by Mao Tse–tung in 1964 to describe the atomic bomb and all reactionaries Click to show or hide the answer
Russian ballerina who gave her name to a dessert Click to show or hide the answer
Pop goes the weasel, popping one's clogs: "popping" refers to Click to show or hide the answer
Term used for the throne of the Mughal (Mogul) and Persian empires Click to show or hide the answer
Term meaning to complete a task or to expire, originating in the game of cribbage Click to show or hide the answer
19th century term for a cheap, sensational form of literature, often published in serial form Click to show or hide the answer
Name used from the Renaissance onwards to refer to an affectionate, non–sexual relationship (modern usage suggests a misunderstanding of his ideal of love; the term referred originally to a special bond between an older and a younger man, as exemplified by Socrates and his young male pupils, described by Plato in one of his Dialogues) Click to show or hide the answer
English word that entered the language in America, in the 1840s, meaning 'nonsense' – literally from the Dutch meaning 'soft shit' Click to show or hide the answer
Invented the International Load Line for ships (1876) Click to show or hide the answer
Greek general, 318–272 BC, and King of Epirus (297–272 BC), whose victories often came at great cost; he was reported by Plutarch (in Parallel Lives) to have said, after one such, that "one other such victory would utterly undo him" Click to show or hide the answer
Norwegian Fascist leader who aided the 1940 Nazi invasion Click to show or hide the answer
Something that diverts attention from a line of enquiry – probably originating in the practice of laying a false scent for hounds, during or after a poor day's hunting Click to show or hide the answer
'… a dish best served cold' (according to a popular saying, of obscure origin) Click to show or hide the answer
Paved with good intentions (proverbially) Click to show or hide the answer
According to the proverb, all roads lead to Click to show or hide the answer
Pig in a poke: a poke is a Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase coined by Shakespeare, when Cleopatra referred to the time when she was "green in judgement, cold in blood" Click to show or hide the answer
Named after John Montagu (1718 – 92), 4th Earl of … Click to show or hide the answer
Fruit, also called a pomelo: named after the naval captain who is said to have brought its seed from the East Indies to Jamaica in 1696; crossed with an orange to produce the grapefruit Click to show or hide the answer
A distinguishing practice that indicates one's social or regional origin – from a test used in the Bible (Book of Judges) – Ephraimites couldn't pronounce "sh" Click to show or hide the answer
Time given to a criminal to confess before execution Click to show or hide the answer
'Playing to the gallery' Click to show or hide the answer
British army officer: eponymous inventor of a shell containing bullets to increase the spread of casualties – first used in 1804 Click to show or hide the answer
French finance minister during the Seven Years' War, who gave his name to a method of portraiture Click to show or hide the answer
'Sent up the river': the original destination (for prison officers) was Click to show or hide the answer
Term coined in 1975 by aspiring writer Peter York and Harpers & Queen features editor Ann Barr, to characterise a stereotypical young upper–middle or upper class person who pursues a distinctive fashionable lifestyle; they collaborated on the Official ... Handbook, which became a global best–seller in 1982 Click to show or hide the answer
Wading bird, whose erratic flight pattern gave rise to a term for a sharpshooter Click to show or hide the answer
You can't make a silk purse out of a Click to show or hide the answer
Candidate put forward to divide the opposition, or to mask the real candidate and later withdraw Click to show or hide the answer
Word used for a tin mine in Devon and Cornwall; also for an administrative region, for taxation Click to show or hide the answer
Originally meant a hunter's decoy; later a criminal who lured others into crime; modern usage refers to an informant Click to show or hide the answer
19th Century Russian count and diplomat: gave his name to a beef dish Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase coined by British natural philosopher Herbert Spencer, in 1864 (after reading Darwin) Click to show or hide the answer
Held by a single human hair above the head of the eponymous courtier to the elder Dionysius of Syracuse, Sicily, in the 4th century BC Click to show or hide the answer
English poet, coined the phrase "nature, red in tooth and claw" Click to show or hide the answer
Euphemism for a lie, coined by Winston Churchill in 1906 Click to show or hide the answer
Originally applied to the 93rd Highland regiment, after it broke up a Russian attack at the Battle of Balaclava Click to show or hide the answer
The phrase 'going commando', said to have gained currency after it was used in a 1996 episode of Friends (but of obscure origin), means going without Click to show or hide the answer
Country named after an Italian city (because of villages built on stilts in Lake Maracaibo) Click to show or hide the answer
Phrase originating in the 1886 divorce case of Lord Colin Campbell and Gertrude Elizabeth Blood, which came to be commonly used in Britain for the device marketed as a mutoscope Click to show or hide the answer
Originates in a 17th century custom whereby a boy used to be educated alongside a royal prince and would take the prince's punishment Click to show or hide the answer
An unwanted possession, that's expensive to keep and difficult to get rid of – originating (around 1850) in what kings of Siam used to give to troublesome officials in order to bankrupt them Click to show or hide the answer
US General Israel Puttnam, before the Battle of Bunker Hill: "Don't one of you shoot until you see …" (sometimes attributed to US historian William Prescott) Click to show or hide the answer
Expression that originates in horse racing, when a jockey slackens his grip on the reins Click to show or hide the answer
Sermon on the Mount: beware of false prophets. They will come as Click to show or hide the answer

© Haydn Thompson 2017–18