Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

How Cliché: The “D” List

dark horse: an unexpected winner or a surprise outcome
An obscure origin, yet its use can be traced to the nineteenth century and horse racing. When a horse’s background or ancestry is unknown the term “dark” is used. The term is also associated with the practice of some owners who would dye their horse to disguise its appearance and change the betting odds. “Dark horse” eventually moved from racing to politics. A “dark horse” now means a political candidate who has unexpectedly won, such as James Polk, who won the 1844 Democratic nomination and became the US 11th president.


diamond in the rough: an individual with potential
An raw, unpolished diamond is not impressive since it resembles a dull worthless rock. However, once processed it is both stunning and valuable. The idea of an uncultivated person becoming polished in manners or appearance is found in various literary and film references.

image: AZ quotes

dime a dozen: readily available to the point of not having much value
In 1786 Congress designated the ten cent coin as a dime, which is derived from the French dime meaning “tithe” or one-tenth. This makes sense or cents since it takes ten dimes to make a dollar. Early in the twentieth century a single dime could buy a paperback novel, a cup of coffee, or a doughnut. The Great Depression created the plea of “Can you spare a dime?” which at the time had more buying power. Today the dime doesn’t go very far in buying power, but the idea of being able to buy much with a coin of little denomination stays on in usage.


dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s”: to be thorough and precise
Sloppy penmanship can create confusing results, so students learning to write were admonished to become more aware of finishing their writing with exactness. That was back when cursive writing was part of the educational menu. Today? Keyboards take care of those “i’s” and “t’s.”


dressed to the nines: well-attired
This American saying is first credited to E.G. Paige’s Dow’s Patent Sermons of 1849 with the passage “A gentleman tiptoeing along Broadway, with a lady wiggle-waggling by his side, and both dressed to kill.” Dressed to kill signified a conquest, and being dressed to the nines are similar in that they both mean achieving perfection since “nine” is considered to be a number that is associated with the best (being the highest single digit).


dull as dishwater: boring, oh so boring
The original saying was “dull as ditchwater” which referred to the muddy murk found in roadside ditches. In Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens the sentence uttered by Fanny Cleaver is found: “He’d be sharper than a serpent’s tooth, if he wasn’t as dull as ditchwater.” Probably due to incorrect or sloppy pronunciation “ditchwater” became “dishwater.”

images: AZ quotes

This was condensed list of “D” sayings–if I missed one or two let me know!

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3 thoughts on “How Cliché: The “D” List

  1. Aha, “ditchwater” does make more sense.

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