Tag Archives: Jonathan Swift

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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to have a bee in one’s bonnet

    MEANING   to be preoccupied or obsessed with something     ORIGIN   This phrase is an alliterative and metonymic* transformation of the earlier one’s head full of bees, meaning scatter-brained, unable to think straight, as if bees are buzzing around in one’s head. (* An alliteration: bee and bonnet have the same […]

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‘spud’

    MEANING   informal: a potato     ORIGIN   The noun spud is related to Old Norse spjōt, meaning spear, German Spieß, of same meaning, and English spit in the sense of skewer. It is first recorded in in the English-Latin dictionary Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum (Storehouse for Children or Clerics - around 1440): Spudde, cultellus […]

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leap year

leap year

  The month of February in Poor Robin Almanack for 1796 (Sundays, Christian festivals and saints’ days are marked in red.)       MEANING   a year, occurring once every four years, which has 366 days including 29th February as an intercalary day     ORIGIN   The name leap year refers to the […]

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‘mob’

‘mob’

  Roger North, after Sir Peter Lely (1680) – image: National Portrait Gallery       MEANING   a riotous or disorderly crowd of people     ORIGIN   In the late 16th century, English borrowed from classical Latin the expression mobile vulgus, meaning the fickle crowd, the changeable common people. Around 1599, the English […]

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the devil to pay

the devil to pay

  portrait, said to be of Stella (Esther Johnson) image: Crawford Art Gallery – Cork, Éire         MEANING   serious trouble to be dealt with     ORIGIN   This expression refers to a person making a pact or bargain with the Devil: the heavy price has to be paid in the […]

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on the qui vive

on the qui vive

  Chaucer reciting – early 15th-century manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)       MEANING   on the alert, attentive     ORIGIN   The French phrase qui vive ? literally means (long) live who?. It is a sentry’s challenge, intended to discover to which party the person challenged belongs, with […]

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Cheddar cheese

Cheddar cheese

  Cheddar is a village near the Mendip Hills in Somerset.     According to Andrew Dalby in Cheese: A Global History (2009): English cheeses were already admired in Europe in the fifteenth century, but not under local names. These become prominent about a hundred years later. Banbury and Suffolk 1562, Shropshire and Cheshire about […]

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the writing on the wall

the writing on the wall

  Belshazzar’s Feast (1635), by Rembrandt (1606-69)     “He says that Civilization is in the melting-pot and that all thinking men can read the writing on the wall.” “What wall?” “Old Testament, ass. Belshazzar’s feast.” “Oh, that, yes. I’ve often wondered how that gag was worked. With mirrors, I expect.” P. G. Wodehouse – […]

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fleshpots

fleshpots

  Jonathan Swift by or after Charles Jervas (1709-10) image: National Portrait Gallery         MEANING   places providing luxurious or hedonistic living     ORIGIN   Literally, a fleshpot is a pot in which flesh, i.e. meat, is boiled to eat. The source is biblical. In the Book of Exodus, 16:3, when […]

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