Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “phrases”

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.

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!

How Cliché: The “B” List

The “B” section is booming with cliché phrases. All these are from Christine Ammer’s Have a Nice Day–No Problem: A Dictionary of Clichés.

The worst backseat drivers |
A backseat driver can be found anywhere

Backseat driver: unwanted advice.
In the 1920’s, those who could afford to do so, engaged a chauffer to drive them. The chauffer sat up front and the passenger or employer sat in the back and gave their driver instructions. Today the term applies to someone giving what they perceive as helpful advice, usually to the chagrin to the person doing the task. Other applicable phrases are Armchair General and Monday-Morning Quarterback.

Back to square one: back to the beginning
Though it sounds like a math problem, thoughts on this one are related to games where the start is a square, as in hopscotch or in a number of board games. Putting in hard work only to start over is frustrating and this term goes with back to the drawing board when the blueprints don’t pan out.

Salt mine Memes
And put some pepper in your efforts…

Back to the salt mines: returning to work
At one point in history, Russian prisoners during communist times were sent to work in the Siberian salt mines. While coming off of break can be tough, it probably is easier going that chipping away at rocks.

(The) ball is in your court: take your turn
A current expression from sports, which is attributed in the mid 20th century which is said when one person is a)being polite b)pushing the other person to take their turn c)a strategy to get the other person to reveal their intentions through action or words.

Bald face or barefaced liar/lie: an obvious, if not bold untruth.
Bare could be brazen, but it is likely is related to “beardless” which connects to only the young (not old enough to grow a beard yet) could so unashamedly tell such outrageous lies.

Idiom: Barking up the wrong tree (meaning & examples)
Categorically funny to Cocoa

(To) bark up the wrong tree: waste time or effort going in the wrong direction
Once when hunting racoons with dogs was prevalent, sometimes dogs, so pleased with themselves, would bound up to a tree so sure they had caught the varmint, would bark to their owners their success. Raccoons, being the clever creatures that they are often led the dogs astray by jumping to another tree or applying some other witty escape strategy. For those out there thinking they have solved the problem through what seems to be a long and productive chase, they might find themselves baying at empty branches and must go back to square one.

(To have) bats in one’s belfry: deemed slightly crazy
Bats in flight fly in a more irregular than regular pattern. At one time people watching bat flight thought the irregular flight reflected how bats thought–erratically. Since then it has been proven bats have a sophisticated flying system that employs sonar which keeps them from bumping into obstacles. While belfrys are not much in current use, one might be considered batty if their thoughts or speaking seems random, which might at first seem like an insult, yet it’s actually a compliment since bats are considered sophisticated creatures.

(To) beard the lion: to take a risk
If you haven’t heard this term recently, that makes two of us. Considered cliché for over a century, this phrase has Biblical roots coming from when David related how by grabbing a lion by its beard he slew him. Facing danger and vanquishing it is one thing, grabbing lions is quite another. Granted, David showed his bravery. Look how this lion’s beard–that’s up close and personal.

Why do men have more facial hair than women? - Quora
Bearding the lion (looks more like a goatee)

Beat (scare) the living daylights out of: to punish or scare someone tremendously
A 19th century American colloquialism for a person’s internal organs was “daylights.” To punish or scare someone so severely that there innards would fall out is indeed severe.

Bed or roses: an implied place of comfort
Metaphorically, lying in a bed of roses sounds pleasant, being surrounded by the fragrant petals. However, there are thorns to consider. And a literal bed of roses demands constant care, so this phrase implies the opposite, as in the situation is not comfortable.

Why We Say: from Pleased as Punch to Rule of Thumb

As we progress through our sayings and expressions it becomes clear that some of these truly make sense and others are needing to be shelved forever in the vault of forgotten. For example:

Pleased as Punch: Punch and Judy shows were once upon a time (supposedly) funny little puppet theatres where Punch, the male protagonist, after a bit of schtick ends up whacking Judy, the female lead with a stick and felt quite pleased about the outcome. Umm, not politically, socially, ethically correct. Then again, some have problems with Bugs Bunny humor, but we don’t say Pleased as a Bunny, so we won’t go there.

Point Blank: the center of a French target was once white or blanc. In order to hit the bullseye a person had aim directly at the target, so to hit the “point blanc” one had to be direct without missing or be right in front of the target in order to hit the coveted mid mark.

Pop Goes the Weasel: not the most popular song these days, but perhaps the line “That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel
will ring a bell. I remember my jack-in-the box used to play that tune and then “POP” out came Jack, usually surprising us and eliciting a shriek of laughter. The weasel in these case is not the chicken rustler critter but it is the slang for pocketbook. Then again if you listen to the song, the critter does take precedence over the pocketbook. It is a strange little ditty.

Anyone know this tune?

Pulling One’s Leg: This one makes sense. In order to trip someone up, a person might pull on their trouser or actual leg to see them stumble. This is supposed to be hilarious. Causing harm to others is traditionally funny. See the above for how funny Punch and Judy shows are.

Quack: Why are medical practitioners of dubious ability referred to as “quacks”? Not because a person is referring to their remedies as being “ducky” or wonderful in a sarcastic way, it’s a reference to the Dutch word kwakzalver which refers to salves. “Quack” is an abbreviation and also refers to the noise a person makes touting the benefits loudly, just as a duck makes a big noise for its small size.

Rhyme or Reason: If something does not make sense, the saying, “There is no rhyme or reason” might pop up. This refers to how poems, even though they might always be clear in meaning will most likely have rhyme or at least some meaning be derived from studying it. To lack rhyme or reason means the situation is fairly confusing. My AP students will undoubtedly relate to this saying when we get to our poetry unit.

Rule of Thumb: If measuring comes into the conversation and someone mentions “rule of thumb” then be aware that the measurement refers to the thumb’s first joint which is supposed to be an inch. I don’t know about you, but that surprised me–now I want to start measuring thumb joints.

A Better "Rule of Thumb" For Insurance? - The Free Financial Advisor
Are all thumb joints equal?

That leads up up to the “S” category and soon we will be through with Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins. If you have enjoyed this monthly feature, let me know in the comments and I will scout out another book and keep plying your brains with unnecessary but interesting trivia of why we say why we say.

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