Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “idioms”

How Cliché: “H” phrases

Hair of the dog: a bit of what made a person ill to be used as a remedy. Traced to John Heywood’s 1546 Proverbs: “I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night.” Heywood might have been referring to the old folk remedy of placing the burnt hair of a dog into a dog bite to cure the wound. The phrase is now mostly referring to having a drink of alcohol to countermand the affect of having too much alcohol to drink. Does this mean I should have another chocolate bar when I celebrated too enthusiastically on National Dark Chocolate Day?

Handsome is as handsome does: actions, not necessarily appearances, are what matter. Before Anthony Munday in his 1580 Sunday Examples, used the phrase it was already in use, although the phrase was more commonly known as “goodly is he that goodly dooth.”

Throwing one’s hat in the ring: entering a contest or an election. This phrase stems from nineteenth century boxing days when someone would throw their hat into the ring to indicate their challenge. The term eventually moved into politics with Theodore Roosevelt announcing “My hat’s in the ring,” in 1912.

Have a nice day: a pleasant farewell. This ubiquitous, if not irritating, phrase has been around since the 1920s. It became more common in the 1950s when truckers used it as a sign-off on their radios. The phrase took off in the 1960s and by the 1980s it became irritating enough that the expression began being dropped by agencies, such as police departments when “Have a nice day” after delivering a traffic ticket didn’t necessarily sit well with people. Other versions are “Have a nice one,” or “Have a good day.”

I had this t-shirt in the 1970s. A collector’s item, you think?

To have one’s heart in one’s mouth: to be excessively frightened. Homer used “My heart leaps to my mouth,” in the Iliad in 850 B.C. Move up to 1874 and Mark Twain states in Life on the Mississippi: “My heart flew into my mouth so suddenly that if I hadn’t clapped my teeth together I should have lost it.”

Heart phrases are popular, there are at least eight more: To have one’s heart in the right place; A heart of gold; A heart of stone; To one’s heart’s content; A heart-to-heart talk; A heavy heart.

Here, there, and everywhere: all over the place. In the thirteenth century the expression was more commonly known as “Here and there.” Christopher Marlowe included this line in his 1588 Doctor Faustus: “If you turne me into any thing, let it be in the likeness of a little pretie frisking flea, that I may be her and there and euery where.” Not to be confused with the Beatles:

Hitch one’s wagon to a star: to set a high goal. Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with creating the phrase in 1862 with the line, “Hitch your wagon to a star” in an essay entitled “American Civilization.” Ogden Nash wrote about the line in his 1940 poem “Kindly Unhitch That Star.” While Emerson was encouraging people to set a lofty goal and work towards achieving said goal, more modern interpretations lean towards people achieving their goal by attaching themselves to someone famous or successful and allowing them to pull the goal setter along to reach their goal.

image: Etsy

To hit the jackpot: a substantial win. A form of draw poker involves opening with a pair of jacks or higher pair. It takes several rounds before a person has a hand good enough to open and players are required to put money in the pot, or jackpot. As the pot grows, round after round, the winner walks away with a healthy amount of money.

Hoist with one’s own petard: caught or destroyed by one’s own device. A “petard” an older word, is essentially a bomb. “Hoist” means to “blow up” not to pull up, like using a rope. Shakespeare uses the idea in Hamlet when Hamlet refers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s treachery: “Let it work; for ’tis sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petar.” In other words, he is suggesting that his former buddies can blow themselves up with their own plan (bomb).

Hope against hope: desiring something although it seems impossible. In the Bible, Paul writes in Roman 4:18: “Who against, hope believed in hope, that he [Abraham] might become the father of many nations.” Another version of the phrase is “hope springs eternal.” Aragorn in The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien uses the expression referring to the conflict with Orcs: “Well, now, if they still live, our friends are weaponless. I will take these things, hoping against hope, to give them back.”

image: Erik Engheim wonders if humans would have any hope of winning a fight with Orcs

Hue and cry: an loud outcry or protest. In old England neighbors, bystanders, and others would raise a “hue” or a shout if they saw a suspect being pursued to help authorities apprehend him or her. The term moved on to include referring to the public’s vocal concerns about an issue. A shout and cry can also include tweets and other social media ballyhoo.

Old time hue and cry
Today’s hue and cry

Okay–which of these “H” phrases most surprised you? Did I miss one or two that you are curious about?

How Cliché: A Look

As a writing teacher I wince whenever my students add in “The author paints a picture…” *Sigh* I remind my students to strive for originality. I really feel for the essay readers since I only have thirty offenders and they must read hundreds of cliché-ridden essays.

Previous posts dealt with those everyday expressions that we have little idea what they mean through the monthly column of “Why We Say.” It ran its course and now it’s off to another dictionary of expression use: Have a Nice Day–No Problem by Christine Ammer.

Ammer scrutinizes over 3,000 sayings that have been used, and overused, to become relegated as cliché. She informs reads of the origin and whether the expression is obsolete or still acceptable. Considering the book is copyrighted in 1992, current use could be questionable, and there are no doubt new clichés that could be entered. There is also the consideration that not all clichés are questionable, and are actually appropriate, if not useful, to make a point. One person’s cliché, then, could be another’s coup de grace (to paraphrase a cliché).

We start in the “A” section:

Today's News, Entertainment, Video, Ecards and more at Someecards. | | Innocence quotes, Funny confessions, Absence makes the heart  grow fonder
Some truths must be faced

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: separation can create a longing
The first line in an anonymous poem published in 1602 it then became the last line of a song by T. Haynes Bayly, “The Isle of Beauty,” in 1850. It has since been said and resaid. The opposite expression would be “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Achilles’ heel: a person’s weak spot.
Go back to Greek myths to find where the mother of the great warrior Achilles wanted to protect him. She held her baby boy by the heel and dipped him in the River Styx to supposedly make him invincible. However, during the battle of Troy, Paris, Hector’s brother, shot Achilles in the heel and brought him down to his death. Still current.

The Acid Test: a means of establishing the truth or validity of someone or something.
This comes from the practice of determining true gold by applying nitric and hydrochloric acid, which dissolves the metal. It became a figurative term and is still current.

Actions speak louder than words: what a person does is more telling than what is said.
A proverb stemming from ancient Greek and other cultures, it still applies aptly to today.

Add insult to injury: increasing harm caused.
There is a Greek fable in which a bald man goes to smack a fly that landed on his head. He misses, which incites the fly to ponder what the man will do with the insult added to the injury. Well-used cliché.

Afraid of ones own shadow – Mystery of Existence
Mickey in the Haunted House (1929)

Afraid of your shadow: extremely timid.
This expression has been stated by Sir Thomas More as, “Who may lette her feare her owne shadowe,” although it can be traced back to Plato.

(To go) against the grain: going in the wrong direction of the natural wood fibers.
While the actual meaning applies to wood, this expression has evolved to mean more towards something becoming an irritant. Shakespeare stated this expression eloquently in Coriolanus, “Preoccupied with what you rather must do than what you should, made you against the grain to voice him consul.” Dickens picked up the phrase and placed it in Edwin Drood–it might have be a cliché by then.

All in a day’s work: part of what one does for a living–expected.
This expression is found in the 18th century and was used figuratively and literally, as it is now.

All over but the shouting: the outcome is determined, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Thought to have originated in the 19th century as a phrase found in sporting events, yet it applies to other events as well and is used today.

This depends on one’s perspective–and what tactic is applied

All’s fair in love and war: all and any tactic is appropriate.
Found in some form from Chaucer to Maxwell Anderson and has been paraphrased to suit occasions as in “All’s fair in love and war and politics.”

While some of these expressions could be considered everyday expressions or idioms or proverbs, others are allusions, and a couple are metaphors. Be they cliché? Chime in. The Acid Test is if upon hearing the saying you grit your teeth since its use goes against the grain to hear them used.

More “A” explorations next month. We are far from over, so don’t be shouting.

Why We Say: #35 (finale)

Alas–we have come to the last page of Why We Say. Over the past couple of years I trotted out some of the odd little expressions we say enhanced by the odd little explanations of this odd little book published in 1953. Some of the explanations were as amusing of the featured expressions.

And so, the last four entries consist of:


While worsted sounds like a judgmental critique, it’s actually a material, a fabric made from wool and is used in tailored garments such as suits, carpets, gloves, and other clothing. It is known for its ability to be resilient and recovery well, meaning durability and wrinkle-resistant. We may not go around speaking great volumes about worsted, it is notable that it is actually the name of the town it originated from: Worstead, England. Incidentally, the archaic reference of worsted is “stuff.” I wonder if the Right Stuff  meant NASA space suits were wool.


Here are some theories about this word that is a slang reference to Americans:
1. It is derived from “yonokie” which is supposedly Indian (tribe not designated) for “silent” and this would be a bit of  joke since the English were considered quite talkative.
2. Another theory is that “yankee” comes from “yengee” a form of “English” or “Anglais.”
3. There is also the thought it is a corruption of “Jannee” which is a form of John in Dutch, since many settlers in the New York area were of Dutch origin.

Researching to verify the theories proposed by Why We Say leads to the conclusion no one really knows how and where the saying originated.  If you know, drop me a comment. In the mean time, enjoy this cartoon:

Yellow (as in coward)
To be yellow is to be associated with being a coward, or to be weak. We look to France for one source, which claims the doorways of traitors were painted yellow. (Yikes, I once painted our house yellow. Whatever did our neighbors think?). Another source says Spain because those being executed for treason were given robes of yellow. (No yellow robes in my wardrobe).

I associate the expression “yellow-bellied” with Yosemite Sam. Alas, I could not find a clip where he utters the phrase “Why, you yellow-bellied coward!” but I did find one where he dances and thought that merited a post.


It’s been a fun run with this feature. Not wanting to disappoint followers and fans, I have found another source. Stay tuned…



Why We Say #29: taking and talking

Taking a back seat can just take the cake sometimes, especially when talking turkey about telling a gag.

Taking a Back Seat
In England’s Parliament, members of power get the front seats, kind of a ringside view of the political show, while those members who are in the minority power must contend with the seats in the back, and probably don’t get to contribute in the same manner.   So when we tell someone to “take a back seat” we are basically letting him or her know that they don’t have the main say. Although back seat drivers are known for having quite a bit to say. Here are some back seat quotes to consider:

Image result for take a back seatImage result for take a back seat

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Take the Cake
Remember once upon a time when there were school carnivals with all those wonderful games, including the cake walk? Moving around the circle hoping your number was called after the music stopped so you could pick your favorite cake from the selections was a definite high point of the evening. After the surprise of getting your number called you got to take the cake home–that’s pretty special, winning a cake. And so it goes with the expression: it’s pretty special, even amazing, when someone or something “takes the cake.”

Image result for take the cake

Moving on from taking to talking…

Talking Turkey
Early American settlers trading with Native Americans were not always interested in bargaining for anything offered but turkey. Turkey was a new type of meat, and many a settler had developed a taste for the bird. Getting right to the talk of trading for turkey, without having to sift through other trading talk, meant “talking turkey,” getting right down to the facts, the serious business. Some may not quite understand that talking turkey is serious stuff….

Image result for talk turkey

Which leads us to telling a gag
Telling a joke, a “gag,” stems from the days when performers would save the situation when one partner would forget his or her lines by filling in the moment with a quick joke. This quick save avoided an otherwise awkward silence and helped the stricken partner regain the forgotten lines. The filler joke was referred as a gag, since gags were used as silencers. There are some great entertainers who knew all about great jokes:

Image result for tell a gag







Why We Say: #24–oldies, fer sure

A gathering of odd phrases today. Have you ever “laughed up your sleeve” at finding a good deal, only to find that you “paid through the nose” for the item, which, perhaps, made you feel “the wool was pulled over your eyes” making you want to “put up your dukes?”

In that case…

Back in the days of kings and queens when mindings one’s manners was essential to remain in good grace with the court, a courtier would hide an unbecoming guffaw by laughing up his or her wide sleeve, thus muffling the merriment. Today, to laugh up one’s sleeve indicates hiding our humor from someone or laughing at someone without that person realizing it.

preparing to laugh up one’s sleeve via

When the Irish were conquered by the Danes around the 9th century, they suffered the cruelty of receiving a slit on their nose if they didn’t pay their proper tribute. Today, if we feel we’ve paid more than what think is a fair price we apply this saying. My wallet taking a slice is a bit more appealing than my nose.

I knows I wouldn’t want to anger those Danes

Then we go back in time once again in the days when men, as well as women, wore wigs. Highway men would stop carriages of the well-to-do and pull their wigs over their eyes so they could not identify the thieves. The wigs often being white (that one I don’t know why) resembled wool. Today getting “the wool pulled over our eyes” indicates getting fooled or even cheated.

 King George apparently started the white wig fashion–or is someone pulling the wool over my eyes?

Inevitably, when a fight is about to erupt, the obsequious line “put up your dukes” is sallied forth. The Duke of Wellington, yes, Napoleon’s duke, had a rather significantly  sized nose. Fists became known as “duke busters” and finally shortened to “dukes.” To put up your “dukes” means someone’s nose is in hazaard. Is that where we got the Dukes of Hazzard?

 Did the Duke duck when a fight broke out?

Stay tuned for next month’s round of leg pulling, piping down, pulling up stakes, and getting read the riot act.

Why We Say #18: A bit about giving

Last month was all about getting, so this month we’ll focus on giving.

1. Giving the slip

Mercutio accused Romeo of giving his homies the slip after the Capulet party. So even in Shakespeare’s time there is mention of needing a fast getaway when the occasion called for one.

In actuality, ships coming into port would anchor by slipping a rope through a hawse pipe, the metal piece attached to the ship’s bow. If the captain needed to leave sooner than anticipated, he simply let loose the rope and slipped away silently to sea. I betcha Cpt Jack Sparrow knows about that one.

Heave ho, maties, give them the slip. iimage: BrassGlass/Morguefile

2. Give a wide berth

Speaking of ships coming and going–if a ship leaving the dock , or berth, knew they might be passing next to a ship being detained for health reasons, as in plague or epidemic concerns, they would give that ship wide passing. In other words, they would steer clear so they wouldn’t get near whatever was being feared.

Aargh, give them scurvy dogs a wide berth. image: BrassGlass/Morguefile

3. Giving the cold shoulder

Oh, we’ve been there, haven’t we–you know the feeling, that uncomfortable twinge of being snubbed, especially when you thought you would be ever so warmly received. Well, today you might just get subtly ignored, but if you lived in medieval France you would end up with cold cuts. That’s right, if you weren’t on the A list and you showed up to the party, instead of that yummy slice of venison, pheasant, swan, or whatever was on the best list of entrees, you would get the cold shoulder slice of lamb or beef. But wait a minute, I gladly purchase lamb and don’t mind it cold. Maybe that explains why I’m oblivious when people ignore me at dinner parties.

Moral: don’t be late or it’s a cold plate image:MaxStraeten/MorgueFile

Until next month… Be careful what you say until you know why you are saying it.

Why We Say: #16

This round involves some flash and splash in terms of remberance…

Flash in the Pan
We know the story: a new talent comes on the scene, everyone is appropriately dazzled, and whist and fizzle, the name fades from view. The expression “flash in the pan” comes from 17th century muskets and how the flint sparks ignited the powder in the loading pan. The powder, like flashy talent, gave off a spark, yet had no significance or long-lasting effect.

these guns were fairly flashy in their day image: revwarheart/Morguefile

Flirting is a behavior most associated with women, although I’ve known a few men who can rustle up the attraction factor as well. However, I don’t think too many men would consider waving a fan about to get attention, which is from where our term of “flirting” originates. Women desiring the attention of available men at dances, balls, or other gatherings would practice the fine art of waving or flirting their fans about. Fans are out, but flirting is still in play today. Perhaps words and actions have replaced the fan’s muted motions.

Pennywise (Morguefile) might be suggesting that someone fanning this about would definitely attract attention


These sweet little flowers have a sad story image: Jusben/Morguefile

These are garden favorites of mine. Every year I faithfully sprinkle out seeds and hope for the best. Not as many pop up as I hope, yet once planted they perk up the summer landscape with their multitude of blooms. Now that I’ve discovered their story I appreciate them even more. I’ve added a wee bit more to the snippet I found:

Once upon a time, (like all great German tales start), a dedicated knight decided to surprise his lady-love. Making his way down to the banks of the Danube river he began to pick a bouquet of the blue-star flowers that grew there. So intent was he upon gathering the flowers that he did not notice how close he was to the edge of the riverbank. Alas, the ground gave way and he fell in. Being a fighter and not a swimmer, he found himself being swept away by the river’s current. His lady-love rushed along the riverbank, yet she was not a swimmer either. Before the river claimed the gallant knight he tossed the remaining flowers he held in his hand towards his lady and called out “Vergiss mein nicht” asking her to “forget him not.” It’s said the lady never married and instead of black she wore the gentian blue of the little flower, as her way of always remembering her lost knight.

Next time we’ll look at different ways a person gets burned…

Why We Say: #15

Watercooler chatter: “That new CEO doesn’t do much, does he?”
“Yeah, bit of figurehead, I figure.”

Today’s lesson involves some sailing knowledge. First, it’s important to know the front, the bow, from the back, the stern. The bow would be decorated with some sort of figure which actually is fairly interesting (go on–have a peek). They didn’t serve any real purpose, but they sure made the ships look imposing, important, regal, at times intimidating. There is also the thought that a figurehead, as in politics and business, can be controlled by other forces, much like the figurehead on the ship is controlled by the sails or other power. Hmm, is there a connection between these two figures in terms of being figureheads?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA  Elizabeth II greets NASA GSFC employees, May 8, 2007 edit.jpg (I think highly of the Queen, BtW)

Any Laurel and Hardy fans out there? You might recognize this saying, “This is a fine kettle of fish you’ve gotten us into.” If you recall, this was flustered out by Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel after some frustrating incident. But why a kettle of fish? Maybe Ollie had some Scottishishness about him and was recalling how fishermen thought they could coax the best flavor out of the fish by cooking them right on the spot in a large kettle. They must have known the secret of cooking up a fine kettle of fish, since no one else could replicate it. Hence, from then on “a fine kettle of fish” is actually referring to a mess instead of success.


Singing in the Rain is a personal favorite, especially all those great song and dance numbers by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. How about this one:

Why “fit as a fiddle?” Kelly and O’Connor might not have realized they were referring to boxers, the fighters (not the dogs) in their ditty. Apparently the original expression was “fit as a fiddler” because boxers had to be in top condition in order to go a few rounds in the ring. Wait, a minute, Gene and Donald must have known that to be “fit as a fiddle and ready for love” they would have to be ready to fight for their love. Makes sense…


(images from Morguefiles and Wikipedia)


Why We Say: #14

Facing the music. For most of us that does not mean we are a conductor or going to a concert. Usually it means we have messed up and are about to deal with our consequences. Wait a minute–music is considered pleasant. Wouldn’t facing music be pleasant? Not if the band is playing and you’re in the line up for the firing squad. And the band played on takes on a whole different meaning.


“So, Eddie–what’s with the guy in the blind fold over by the wall?” image: morgue file

The scene: a business exec, clad in suit enters suburban home circa 1950s and excitedly greets wife stirring up dinner at the stove.

“Hey, Martha! Guess what, honey? You’re looking at the guy who just landed the Happy Holstein account. Get ready for some serious vacation time once my commission check comes through.”

“Oh, George! That’s wonderful, dear. That’s quite a feather in your cap. You worked hard to get that account.”

Fade out: happy couple celebrates over dinner and raised glasses of cheer and smiles.

George was fairly pleased with himself, and deservedly so. That Holstein account involved many overtime hours to get the right campaign ready for presentation. George placed his figurative feather in his cap for his achievement. If George had lived in the days of Edward the “Black Prince” (think the nice prince Heath Ledger’s William character faced in Knights Tale), he would have received three ostrich feathers for his valor or perhaps he would have fared well as a Lycian soldier who added a feather to his cap for every enemy soldier vanquished. Either way George can be pleased how he absolutely slayed that tough assignment.


George rocks his cap feather. image: morgue file

 a thing that is a complete failure, especially in a ludicrous or humiliating way.
“his plans turned into a fiasco
synonyms: failure, disaster, catastrophe, debacle, shambles, farce, mess, wreck
If George had blown the Holstein account he might have arrived home with the glum, instead of glad news, that his day had been a fiasco. Fiascos should be avoided, especially if one’s profession is a Venetian glass maker. Venetian glass is exquisite and craftsman pride is evident in the end product. If the slightest flaw became detected, the bottle was relegated to a common task which took on the name of “fiasco.” If you think about it, some mistakes can be as transparent as glass.

“Quartet of Fiascos” image: morgue file

A band of feathers and faulty glasses brought to you by Why We Say: a Guidebook to Current Idioms and Expressions and Where They Came From by Robert L. Morgan (if 1953 is considered current…)



Why We Say: #13

Today we learn about earning our salt, eating humble pie, and listening in on conversations.

“He’s worth his salt.”
“Oh, she earned her salt today, that’s for sure.”

Hear of these expressions? If so, then you know it’s in reference to someone who is worth the amount of money they are being paid. In fact, the word “salary” is derived from the Latin word “salarium” which refers to the old Roman practice of providing soldiers their daily salt allowance. A soldier earning his salt ration was earning his keep.

This soldier is looking forward to his salting his paycheck away for a rainy day.image: morguefile




Have you ever had to eat humble pie? You know what I’m talking about–that moment when you’ve been humiliated or had to admit you were wrong. Not a great feeling, but it beats having to eat real humble pie, which is actually the “umbles” or the liver and organs of deer. Yummy–right? Yup, back in the day when English noblemen trotted around bagging deer while hunting, they saved the best for themselves and left the less desirable umbles for the servants. The servants wanting to make their leftovers a bit more tasty would pack the dear bits of deer into a pie. I suppose it would be rather humbling to eat this culinary fare.

“I wonder if Radio would be saying ‘Where my pie?'” on this flavor of the day?” image:morguefile


Eavesdropping has taken on a more sophisticated form of listening these days due to the Internet and its penchant for hacking in on conversations. Yet, in the way old days, going back to England, a law existed where houses had to have enough room for the eaves to drip on the owner’s property. It was quite easy to stand in these spaces under the eaves to listen in on inside conversations. People got the inside scoop by being outsiders. Not much has changed, has it?

Not everyone is interested in the wayward tidbit that comes floating by. image: morguefile


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