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‘Wasp’

    MEANING   (often used with mild derision): a person who belongs to, or is thought of, as being part of a white, upper middle-class, northern European, Protestant group that dominates economic, political and cultural activity in the USA       ORIGIN   This acronym from white Anglo-Saxon Protestant is first recorded in […]

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elevenses

    Have you ever seen a fat valet? Of course not. Nor has anybody else. There is no such thing as a fat valet. And yet there is scarcely a moment during the day when a valet is not eating. He rises at six-thirty, and at seven is having coffee and buttered toast. At […]

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between you and me and the gatepost

    MEANING   in strict confidence     ORIGIN   The noun post has long been metaphorical for anything deaf, lifeless or ignorant. For instance, the following was published in The World of Thursday 8th November 1753: The business of this letter is only to vindicate from reproach a poor inanimate being, vulgarly called […]

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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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to spike (some)one’s guns

    MEANING   to thwart (some)one’s plans     ORIGIN   In order to render a gun unserviceable, one fills up its touch-hole with a metal spike. For instance, in A true and full relation of the prosecution, arraignment, tryall, and condemnation of Nathaniel Fiennes, late colonell and governor of the city and castle […]

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caterpillar

    MEANING   the larva of a butterfly or moth     ORIGIN   First attested in the mid-15th century, the noun caterpillar is probably from catepeluse and variants, which were the Anglo-Norman forms of the Old French feminine noun chatepelose and variants, meaning literally hairy she-cat. In his textbook Lesclarcissement de la langue […]

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ball and chain

    The expression ball and chain appeared in the USA to denote a heavy metal ball secured by a chain to a person’s leg to prevent escape or as a punishment. Nile’s Weekly Register (Baltimore) of 12th December 1818 published the minutes of the proceedings of a court martial which convicted Robert Christy Ambrister […]

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umami

    MEANING   The noun umami denotes a category of taste corresponding to the ‘savoury’ flavour of free glutamates in various foods, especially protein-rich fermented and aged ones such as mature cheeses and soy sauce, specially the flavour of monosodium glutamate. Umami is sometimes described as a fifth basic taste alongside sweet, sour, salt, […]

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to have one’s work cut out

    MEANING   to be faced with a hard or lengthy task     ORIGIN   This phrase is supposedly a metaphorical allusion to the preparation of fabric to be worked on: once the shapes have been cut out, the tailor still has a lot of sewing to do, by hand in the past, […]

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