Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

How Cliché: “I” Spy

Moving on the “I” section of the cliché book. Going for a mix of familiar and not so familiar.

[No] ifs, ands, or buts: presenting excuses or reservations. This expression is derived from two expressions: ifs and ands; but me not buts. The first expression from the sixteenth century is found in the 1850 rhyme by Charles Kingsley: “If ifs and ans were pots and pans, there’d be no trade for tinkers.” Sir Walter Scott made us of “but me no buts” in his The Antiquary (1816). Today the expression is used as a negative imperative as in “Get this done, no ifs, ands, or buts.”

If the shoe fits, wear it: accept the situation if it applies. Another version is the early eighteenth century saying: “if the cap fits, put it on,” which referred to a if someone who wears a fool’s cap is usually a fool. “Cap” was replaced with “slipper” with a nod to the popularity of the Cinderella story. “Slipper” has slipped into “shoe” yet still carries the meaning of accepting the situation as it applies.

If worst comes to worst: should the most unfavorable happen. The expression should actually read: “if worse comes to worst”–comparative to superlative. It is what it is since the sixteenth century.

Ignorance is bliss: sometimes it is best to not be fully aware of the outcome. Sophocles expressed the idea and it has traveled through the the centuries, sometimes being noted as “blissful ignorance.”

In a nutshell: stated concisely. Pliny the Roman writer noted that Homer’s epic poem the Iliad had been copied in such tiny writing it could fit in a nutshell. Definitely a hyperbole, it caught the attention of writers such as Jonathan Swift. Down the line “the Iliad” was dropped to the present use of “in a nutshell.”

In a pig’s eye: not happening. Attributed as an American saying, it’s thought it developed from the expression “when pig’s fly.” Either expression means “never.”

In for a penny, in for a pound: to become fully involved. The saying means that if someone owes a little, they probably owe more. In the seventeenth century Thomas Ravenscroft wrote, “Well, that, O’er shooes, o’er boots, And In for a penny, in for a Pound.” Charles Dickens ran with the sayings and included it in three of his novels, which no doubt popularized the phrase.

In full swing: quite active. In the sixteenth century “swing” referred to a course of a career or a period of time. Someone being in “full swing,” meant they were actively involved in their career or the period of time.

In over one’s head: to be unable to meet the demand of the situation. The saying is a reference to being in water too deep for one’s ability to swim. Other situations, beyond swimming in too deep of water, can be referenced such as paying bills or dealing with work responsibilities.

In the bag: guaranteed success. In the 1600s and beyond, hunters placed their game in bags after bringing them down. In other words, they had already had success in the hunt and the results were placed in the bags to prove it. From hunting success the saying came to mean an acknowledgement success has been achieved.

In the pink: in good health. Shakespeare gets some credit for this one. In his time “the pink” meant perfection and he used the expression in Romeo and Juliet when Romeo and Mercutio traded quips. “The very pink of courtesy” meant the perfection of politeness. Today the expression refers to being in perfect health.

In the swim: actively involved. This is a fishing phrase. When a large amount of fish were found in one place this would be called “a swim.” It later transferred to mean being in the current of what is happening. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his 1893 THe Stock-broker’s Clerk, “He knew I was in the swim down here.”

There are sooo many more “I” phrases and these just a dozen. What was missed? “I” would like to know.

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