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Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Idiom: A Month of Sundays

Definition: A very, very long time.

Example: Surveying the damage after the party, Martin realised it would take a month of Sundays to get it all cleared up, especially that stuffed moose head stuck in the toilet.


To dig deeper into the origin of this idiom, we need to define its meaning mathematically. A Month of Sundays is not just a very, very long time. It the calendar period it would take to rack up 30 or 31 Sundays, namely 30 or 31 weeks.
The phrase first appears in print in 1759, during a time when the Sabbath was observed much more closely then than it is today. Not only was it a day of rest as it is still considered to be in Christian societies now, it was strictly enforced. You were not meant to work, you were required to attend church, give thanks, and not allowed to indulge in any pleasures. Puritanical societies considered music, drinking, feasting, dancing, and almost any other activity out of bounds on the Sabbath.
The portrait of Whistler’s mother, painted a hundred years later, probably sums up Sundays under those conditions. Dress in black. Frown. Sit quietly and stare at the wall. Make sure you are sitting in a normal chair, not a rocker. Rocking on a Sunday would be too much like fun.
Sundays would be very boring indeed. A month of Sundays would be interminably long.
Co-incidentally, those 30 weeks are about the same length as a typical pregnancy. 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Idiom: see red

Definition: To be overcome with anger

Example: The scratches down the side of his prized Corvette made Nigel see red. Ironically, that was the same colour of the paint that was damaged.


It is widely thought that to see red comes from the ‘sport’ of bull fighting, specifically the waving of the red cape to enrage the bull. Despite this connection, it actually isn’t the colour of the cape that attracts the bull. Why? Because bulls are colourblind. It’s the movement of the cape that actually gets their attention. There is another phrase ‘like a red rag to a bull’ which seems to back up this theory as it has a very similar meaning.
A second theory says it may come from an American phrase ‘to see things red‘ which has fallen out of fashion. This refers to the colour that infuses the cheeks during rage, as your blood pressure soars, sometimes referred to as the ‘red mist’.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Idiom: big cheese

Definition: The most important person/ the boss.

Example: Sir Bigglesworth-Smythe was a big cheese in the world of moustache grooming products, having created the world’s best-selling tash wax.


Big cheese has undergone a series of changes over the centuries. Originally, just a simple ‘the cheese’ meant something top notch. Even the word ‘cheesy’, which now represents something tacky and embarrassing, once meant something of quality.
In the early 20th century, big cheese stood for wealth or fame. It wasn’t until 1922 that its current usage came into being.
Where did this ridiculous phrase come from in the first place?
Some attribute it to literal big cheeses created as showpieces in those same years of the 20th century.
A truly monstrous cheese was created in the 1799 by dairy farmers from Cheshire, Massachussets and sent to President Thomas Jefferson as a gift. It weighed 1250 pounds, was four feet in diameter, and had to be carried in a wagon. Legend has it that it was still being served five years later. That’s a lot of cheese. Iddy’s not sure if this particular fromage gave birth to the idiom, but it’s a great anecdote nevertheless.
Some sources claim it derives from a Persian/Urdu word ‘chiz’, which means ‘thing’. It was probably absorbed into the UK English language by returning soldiers in the Victorian age and Indian emigrants in later decades. In this way, the phrase is a corruption of ‘big chiz’ or ‘big thing’.
Interestingly, big cheese can be used with respect (though quite informally), or in a sarcastic way. If somebody calls you a big cheese, listen carefully to their tone!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Idiom: hot potato

Definition: Something controversial that nobody wants to deal with.

Example: The topic of Mal’s new hairpiece was something of a hot potato at the party.


The inference is that a hot potato is too hot to handle. It is derived from drop like a hot potato, meaning to abandon something as quickly as possible. Coined in the mid-nineteenth century, the full phrase has fallen somewhat out of fashion in recent decades, leaving us with just the overheated tuber at its heart.
It also lends its name to a party game where participants pass an object as quickly as they can. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Jane Austen, who died 200 years ago, has been enjoying an impressively vigorous afterlife.

«Great writers, living or dead, such as Austen, get reinterpreted in ways beyond their control. » Sherlock Holmes

A love of Jane Austen is a habit the world just can’t seem to kick.
Today marks the 200th anniversary of famed author (and hopeless romantic) Jane Austen’s death. The author continues to bring England’s Regency period to life (and romanticize it) to her countless fans. In a sign of her legacy’s tremendous influence, the Bank of England debuted a 10 pound note with her face on it this week.
But to call Austen lovers simply “fans” is underselling their devotion. Fanatics, perhaps, is more accurate. They join clubs for Austen lovers in droves — the Jane Austen Society of North America has over 5,000 members and hosts an annual conference. (That’s just one — there’s societies everywhere from New Zealand to Brazil.) They make pilgrimages to the house she grew up in and the places she spent her life (the city of Bath, in particular, is a hot spot, with its Jane Austen museum) as well as the various homes used in screen adaptations of her books.
There’s enough demand for Austen-inspired film and television that there’s been at least 26 film, television and theater adaptations of Pride & Prejudice alone since 1938, and several others of each of her remaining five novels (and even a few of her novella, Lady Susan, which Austen herself never submitted for publication.) Works of Austen fan fiction, too, aren’t banished to the corners of the internet where only the most obsessive of readers can find them. Instead, these Austen-inspired authors nab book deals of their own.

It’s not just that Austen’s books have remained a presence. Texts far older and far less widely-read remain a part of English class curriculums, on book store shelves. But people aren’t shelling out thousands of dollars to go on Henry James-themed tours of England, or gathering at yearly conferences to discuss the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. And even beloved literary figures like Charlotte Brontë’s Heathcliff fail to inspire the same sort of worldwide adoration that Fitzwilliam Darcy does.
Austen inspires something bigger in her devotees (a club to which, I admit, I count myself.) And the question, really, is why? Why have Austen’s books become more than sheer novels, but cornerstones of culture and objects of obsession for thousands, if not millions of readers? The answer differs for each Austen lover, to be sure, but it’s all grounded in relatability.
While the customs and expectations of Regency era is so firmly a part of her stories, they’re practically a character of their own. There’s something about Austen’s stories — not unlike another famed Brit, William Shakespeare, a comparison that academics have been making since 1821 — that makes them applicable to any time period or scenario. In fact, her heroines, often quick-witted and bright, sometimes seem more at home in the modern era, a time when expectations for women are broader.
Case in point: It’s not hard to imagine the matchmaking, scheming Emma as a spoiled teenager in Beverly Hills in the mid-’90s (as she was in Clueless), or Elizabeth Bennet as an Indian girl bucking her family’s traditional conventions (in Bride & Prejudice). Though there are a few elements that feel dated today, like the Dashwood sisters’ desperation after the death of their father (now, of course, they could just get jobs instead of relying on the generosity of distant family members) but the foundation of each story remains relevant.
“The characters are just universal,” literature student and Austen obsessive Siobhan O’Brien told Australia’s ABC. “You can recognize them in the people around you.”
There’s no denying that women love Austen’s work the most dearly. And O’Brien’s quote explains that, too: They see themselves in them. Her heroines aren’t the most wealthy or the most attractive characters in the book. But still, they find love with kind men who deserve them — even if they may not seem it at first. A marriage like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy‘s is what you should aspire to, in the world of Austen, one that is based on love (but has practical benefits) versus one like Charlotte Lucas’ to Mr. Collins, a union formed out of desperation. Austen reminds people that the former is possible.
Of course, her plots wouldn’t matter much if it weren’t for the sharpness of Austen’s writing, which still sparkles today as it did 200 years ago. And like her plots, her words ring as true today as they did then. “There are people, who the more you do for them, the less they will do for themselves,” she wrote in Emma. Or “life seems but a quick procession of busy nothings,” from Mansfield Park.
But even with all this, Austen’s continued popularity is somewhat astounding when you consider how close her books came to extinction. Her first book, Sense and Sensibility, was published in 1811, and she died in 1817. And though she enjoyed success while she lived, it wasn’t really long enough to make her a household name in those immediate years. By 1820, her publisher destroyed the copies of her final two books, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both of which had not yet sold. Twelve years went by without any Austen work in print. Though they were put back into circulation (for good) in 1833, it was her nephew James Austen’s 1870 book, A Memoir of the Life of Jane Austen, that truly put her on the map.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that with every new generation of readers comes a new crop of Austenites. And though times change, fads fade and customs adapt, there will always be something about Austen’s characters that speaks to people, and keeps them hopefully for their own happy ending — and their own Mr. Darcy.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Idiom: the apple of my eye

Definition: Somebody you cherish, a favourite person.

Example: My kids are normally the apple of my eye, but after their behaviour on the car journey, I may have to reassess that.


In olde English, the pupils of the eye were referred to as ‘apples’ as they were thought to be spherical like a piece of fruit such as an apple.
Shakespeare used the phrase in A Midsummers Night Dream (c1590), describing a character having been struck by Cupid’s arrow in ‘the apple of his eye’. The King James Bible of 1611 also uses the phrase. The Hebrew translation of the same passage uses the phrase ‘little man of the eye’. This refers to your reflection in somebody else’s pupils. You have to look really really close and invade their personal space to do this. A liitle bit of advice: don’t do it to a stranger.
Going deeper down the rabbit hole of word origins, the word ‘pupil’ is derived from the Latin ‘pupilla’ or ‘little doll’. This also refers to that reflection. And that is why students are also pupils, being little people.
So, what has this have to do with someone you cherish? Simply, they are somebody you keep close. Close enough to be little reflections in your eye.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Idiom: on the ball

Definition: To be alert, quick to react, or clever.

Example: Luckily, Smithy was on the ball, and noticed that he had spelled his boss, Mr. Fort’s name wrong on the email, and corrected it before sending it. It’s amazing how a misplaced ‘a’ can do so much damage.


A common explanation for on the ball gives it a naval connection like so many other phrases. We’ll visit some of the others at a later date. This particular one claims that it is related to the time-ball atop the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London, which in turn overlooks the Royal Naval College on the banks of the Thames. Ships moored riverside could set their timepieces by it as it dropped at the strike of one. Their clocks would be set to the second, or ‘on the ball’. Sounds great, but apparently untrue.
It is simply a shortening of the sporting advice “Keep your eye on the ball”. Bet you heard that phrase more than once during your childhood.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Idiom: Having your leg pulled

Definition: Being deceived in a humorous way.

Example: Larry realised his friends had been pulling his leg, but only after he turned up to the party as the only person in fancy dress. Doubly unfortunate was his choice of a French maid’s outfit.


There are two widely discounted theories to why you might have your leg pulled, rather than another part of your anatomy.
  • In Victorian London, street thieves would tackle their victims by their legs, or trip them up with strings or wires. Once down, they were easy targets. Iddy thinks this is a little bit vague and not clearly related to its current usage.
  • Still in good olde London, executions at Tyburn were often carried out via hanging by suspension. This grisly method did not employ a long drop which would normally break the victim’s neck. Instead, it left them dangling on the rope until they died of strangulation. It is said that relatives of the soon to be departed hired men to grab them by the legs and pull down with all their might in hopes of speeding up the process, and reducing the suffering. This, Iddy says, seems to be even more unrelated to its usage than the first explanation. He also adds that there seems to be a desire to connect all unknown origins to the ghastliest stories possible.
The idiom does, in fact, seem to originate from 19th century America, not London at all. It had a different meaning in its earlier inception, that of asking for something, usually money. If somebody was pulling your leg, they were probably hitting you up for a short-term loan.
Not to be outdone, the British have added an extension to the base idiom. “Pull the other one. It has bells on.”

Monday, 10 July 2017

Idiom: over the moon

Definition: To be overjoyed.

Example: When Beryl heard that her ex-husband had fallen down the stairs, she was over the moon.


Used more commonly in the UK, ‘over the moon’ is most likely to have been lifted from “Hey Diddle Diddle”. You know the one. That nursery rhyme where that cow famously jumped over the moon. First seen in print in 1760, the rhyme was probably common in popular culture for a century or more prior to this. In fact, the phrase ‘I shall jump over the moon for joy!” appears in another book “The Coquet” in 1718.
The phrase really gained popularity in the 1970’s as a common exclamation during football commentary. This use was further boosted by the satirical magazine Private Eye, which published outlandish quotes from the footballing world, cementing it in everyday speech.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Idiom: Bigger fish to fry / other fish to fry

Definition: Having something more important to do

Example: Roger ignored the fact that his socks were mismatched. He had bigger fish to fry. Like the fact that he couldn’t find his trousers.


Bigger fish to fry is interchangeable with the often used other fish to fry, and has been in common usage for about 400 years. Why fish are involved is a mystery lost to time.
In German, Spanish, and Italian, there are similar phrases. They simply translate to ‘having other things to do’. The French, not content with cooking sea creatures, have ‘ many other dogs to whip’.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Idiom: penny-pincher

Definition: A stingy, miserly person.

Example: Norbert was such a penny-pincher, he charged his houseguests a fee to visit the toilet.

alternatively can be used as a verb: ‘penny pinching’


Not much is known of penny pincher’s roots, though it appears to have started in America in the mid-nineteenth century. It was probably from the simple imagery of somebody clutching a penny between their thumb and forefinger as they removed it from a coin purse.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Church of Scotland fractured into several smaller churches. This left many of them without wealthy patrons or landowners, and funding their costs became problematic. A difficult decision had to be made to ensure these churches’ survival. The parishioners would have to pay when they came to service. To enforce this, someone would be stationed at the entrance to collect. No payment. No entry. Visiting Church of England worshippers were scandalised. Church of Englanders apparently have long memories.
The stereotype still sticks to the unfortunate Scots today.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Idiom: red tape

Definition: Excessive bureaucracy, or the rigid enforcement of rules despite the fact that they hinder progress.

Example: There was so much red tape involved in Linda’s application to change the colour of her house, she seriously considered blowing it up and starting again.


Red tape is believed to date back to the reign of Charles V, King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor. That’s way way back in the sixteenth century. His administration bound their most important documents in red ribbon. Some Spanish government departments still follow this procedure today.
Adoption into English followed a hundred years later.
In literary terms, red tape‘s most prominent use is probably from David Copperfield. In it, Charles Dickens refers to Britannia being ’bound hand and foot in red tape’ .

Friday, 30 June 2017

Idiom: take the bull by the horns

Definition: To confront a problem head on.

Example: Jill decided to take the bull by the horns and have her moustache waxed.


Taking the bull by the horns is unsurprisingly, traced most commonly to the Wild West and rodeo sports. In the discipline of steer wrestling, a cowboy tries to bring down a young steer single-handedly by facing it head on, grasping it by its horns, and forcing it to the ground. They seem to have been a bit short on entertainment back then, so it was something to do while they waited for the Playstation to be invented.
There is some evidence that the phrase was used as early as the 17th century. This would be prior to the era of six-shooters and cattle rustling. If so, then its roots may be anchored in an older cow related sport / torture, that of bull fighting.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Idiom: kicked the bucket

Definition: To die.

Example: Just before James was to collect the five dollars that Noddy owed him, Noddy kicked the bucket, ensuring that James was never going to see that money again. Some people have no respect.


The first written usage of this charming but deadly idiom was in 1785, but its origins are a bit muddied to say the least. There are at least three common explanations.
  • The first and most popular story claims that it has to do with death by hanging, either by suicide or execution. The hapless victim, having climbed onto a bucket to put their head in the noose, would literally ‘kick the bucket’ in their death throes. It does seem a bit far-fetched that a bucket was such a common device in hangings.
  • The second theory uses a bit of linguistic history. Trebuchet is a French word meaning a balance (also a medieval weapon that utilises the properties of tension and balance). The English language commandeered the word and shortened it to ‘bucket’, meaning a beam or yoke, though this usage of the word is rarely used today. It is theorised that the ‘bucket’ in our idiom is the beam that pigs and other farm animals were hung from as they were slaughtered. They too ‘kicked the bucket’ during their struggles. Another lovely image for you there.
  • Thirdly, some say it refers to an old Catholic custom of leaving a bucket of holy water at the feet of the recently deceased.  Friends and relatives could sprinkle it on the dearly departed when they paid their respects. Iddy’s not sure there’s much kicking happening in this explanation.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Idiom: being driven up the wall

Definition: To be so irritated by something (or somebody), you are willing to climb walls to escape.

Example: Matt was being driven up the wall by his neighbour’s compulsion to play the kazoo all night long.


There seems to be no absolute origin for being driven up the wall, probably because it is so self explanatory. We’ve all had those moments. You’ve been cornered by somebody at a party. They’re telling you about some tax loophole which could save you ninety-seven cents each and every year. The pure mental image of climbing or driving up a wall to escape is like the image of a tall cold drink when you’re lost in the desert.
Its meaning seems to have changed subtly in the past few decades. We have come to use the term ‘driven’ less and less as a way of expressing a push or a force, and more and more as the act of controlling a car. Just like poor Iddy here. Not quite sure where he thinks he’s going. Maybe he’s misinterpreted the term ‘uptown’.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Idiom: good as gold

Definition: To be well behaved or obedient.

Example: Timmy and Tammy, the twins from Hell, were actually as good as gold when they visited their Grandparents, and didn’t end up killing them as was widely predicted.


The meaning of good as gold has altered somewhat since its inception. We now use it exclusively for describing behaviour, but originally it meant that something was genuine. Bank and credit notes were often eyed with suspicion, as they were open to counterfeiting, and were only a promise of payment, rather than payment itself. Silver and gold coins were more readily accepted, being of tangible value, and a comforting weight in the hand.
Why the focus moved from the lustre of precious metals to the behaviour of children appears unclear.