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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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to don – to doff

    MEANINGS   – to don: to put on (an item of clothing) – to doff: to remove (an item of clothing)     ORIGIN   The verb to don is a coalesced form of the obsolete phrasal verb to do on, meaning to put on (an item of clothing). For example, in the Coverdale […]

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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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one over the eight

    I suppose it wasn’t often that the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School came across a man public-spirited enough to call their head master a silly ass, and they showed their appreciation in no uncertain manner. Gussie may have been one over the eight, but as far as the majority of those present […]

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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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paramour

    MEANING   a lover, especially the illicit partner of a married person     ORIGIN   Derived from Old French par amour, par amur, meaning by, or through, love, the English adverb par amour, later written as one word, appeared around 1250 in Floris and Blancheflour in the phrase to love par amour, […]

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Bombay duck

Bombay duck

  Drying Bombay duck – photograph: Madhav Pai       MEANING   a small elongated fish of southern Asian coasts which is dried and used as food     ORIGIN   The first element is an alteration, by association with Bombay (until 1995, the name for Mumbai, in India), of bummalo, which has also […]

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to take the mickey

    MEANING   British (informal): to take the mickey (also micky, mick, mike) out of someone: to tease or ridicule someone     PROBABLE ORIGIN   Rhyming slang is a type of slang that replaces words with rhyming words or phrases, typically with the rhyming element omitted. For example apples, short for apples and pears, […]

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willy-nilly

    MEANINGS   whether desired or not and haphazardly     ORIGIN   This adverb is a contraction of the idiomatic phrase based on end-rhyme will I, nill I (or will he, nill he, etc.), meaning be I willing, be I unwilling (or be he willing, be he unwilling, etc.). The obsolete verb to […]

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one’s pigeon

  The development of trading contacts between Britain and China led to the emergence in 19th-century China of a trading language consisting of basic English and some Chinese grammatical forms. In this hybrid language, pidgin was derived from, and originally meant, business. (The phonetic development was perhaps via an intermediate form /pidginiss/ (with replacement of […]

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