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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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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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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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parvanimity

    MEANING   smallness of mind, meanness     ORIGIN   This noun is composed of Latin parv(i)-, combining form of parvus, meaning small, animus, meaning mind, and the suffix -ity, forming abstract nouns. The combining form parv(i)- was found in a few Latin words such as parvicollis, meaning short-necked. In English, it is found for […]

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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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kingdom come

    MEANING   the next world     ORIGIN   In the gospel of Matthew, 6:9-13, Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples: King James Version (1611): 9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, […]

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to be part and parcel of

    MEANING   to be an essential feature or element of     ORIGIN   Derived from Anglo-Norman forms such as parcele and parcell and Old and Middle French parcelle, parcel has as primary meaning small part of a whole. This noun is from an unattested post-classical Latin particella, part, portion, alteration of classical Latin particula, […]

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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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