"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Spend a penny

I came across mention of someone joining “a queue to spend 1d” in a 1945 diary and was not certain that the modern generation would understand the reference. It’s a long time since I heard it though it was quite commonly used in our household when I was young.

The penny, or sometimes a halfpence, was the cost of using a public toilet. Often gents urinals were free but ladies (or gents with other needs) had to spend a penny as each cubicle had a coin operated lock on the door. Keeping 1d in your purse for emergencies was quite common.

Nowadays a trip to a public toilet is either free or at minimum 20p. Somehow spending a 20p doesn’t quite sound the same.

Friday, 30 January 2009


One might imagine that in days gone by a buttery was a place where butter was churned – a dairy. But it was not. It was a pantry, next to the kitchen, a storeroom for liquor from which wine was dispensed.

The name derived from the Latin and French words for bottle or, to put the word into its simpler form a butt, that is, a cask.

“The Buttery” is also found as a shop name deriving from the term for a teashop where students in British universities could purchase light meals.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Beam me up, Scotty

Everyone knows that the popular catchphrase "Beam me up, Scotty" came from 'Star Trek'. Except it didn't.

It seems that "Beam me up, Scotty" was never used by William Shatner (Captain Kirk) in 'Star Trek'. The nearest he came to it was "Beam us up, Scotty" on the Star Trek animated series

Wednesday, 28 January 2009


A simile is a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds, usually formed with 'as' or 'like'. Some examples of well know similes include ‘ as busy as a bee’, ‘as thick as two short planks’, ‘as easy as falling off a log’ and, of course, ‘as mad as a box of frogs’.

The word simile comes from the Latin similis (like).

Here are a few less well know / freshly minted ones courtesy of Simon:

as dextrous as an octopus using seven pairs of scissors
as reliable as a fox wearing a cravat
as doomed to failure as a bouncy castle birthday party for hedgehogs

(the above suffer from not being pithy which, in my view, is one of the essential elements of a good simile)
as easy as herding cats
as spotty as a teenage leopard
like a duck to custard
like lambs to the mint sauce
as big as a very big thing

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Mad as a ....

I have a phobia about water. So,when I read the Archduchess’s blog posting about her sailing adventures, words that went through my mind included ‘mad as a hatter’ and ‘mad as a March hare’.

At one time the hat-making industry involved the use of baths of orange nitrate of mercury to soak animal skins. This process, called carroting after the typical colour of the fur being treated, helped make the stiff hairs more pliant, thereby producing a superior felt product. Unfortunately the vapour from the process filled the factory with toxic levels of mercury. With trembling hands and blackened teeth, mercury-poisoned hatters had slurred speech and other nervous disorders, odd behaviours, and symptoms of dementia. It is therefore little surpise that we ended up with the phrase ‘Mad as a Hatter’.

(Engraving by Andy English - available for purchase)

In Spring, hares can be seen boxing in the fields as part of their courtship ritual. Females weren’t always interested in the males' advances early in the season. The females actually “boxed” the amorous male hares using their forelegs to put a stop to it. For a long time it was thought to be bouts between males competing for females. Their strange behaviour led to the equally common phrase ‘Mad a March Hare’.

Lewis Carroll incorporated both the Hatter and the March Hare in Alice’s tea party.

Less easily explained are some of the other expressions used to designate strange behaviour like ‘Mad as Cheese’, 'Mad as a Brush',, ‘Mad as a Bag of Hammers’ or ‘Mad as a Wet Hen’.

Of the many variants one of my favourites is ‘Mad as a Box of Frogs’. I imagine that one at least is self-explanatory.

Monday, 26 January 2009


Approbation is an assenting to the propriety of a thing with some degree of pleasure or satisfaction; approval, sanction.
"Next morning Theobald and Christina arose feeling a little tried from their journey, but happy in that best of all happiness, the approbation of their consciences. "
Samuel Butler – “The Way of All Flesh”

Sunday, 25 January 2009


Solipsism (Latin: solus, alone + ipse, self) is the philosophical idea that "My mind is the only thing that I know exists.”

The notion that it is impossible ever to know another person, so why bother? This can end up in with an absolute egotism - a refusal to acknowledge the needs or even existence of others.

Saturday, 24 January 2009


D’Oh expresses frustration or anger, especially at one’s own stupidity.

In 1989 "The Simpsons" hit the television screens. A cult series in both the USA and UK some of the catchphrases are now so well-known that in 2001 Homer’s “D’Oh” arrived in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Friday, 23 January 2009


A house-dove was a tame dove or pigeon, kept in a dove-house or dovecote. At one time the expression was also used for a person who preferred to stay at home rather than going out amongst the social whirl.

Nan has a quote on her website - "I suppose I am a sparrow, a stay-at-home bird." Gladys Taber. A house-dove was obviously a similar creature.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Plus fours

The freedom that knickerbockers allowed led to the use of Plus fours for golf in the early 20th century. Since these baggy leggings required an extra four inches of material to allow for the overhang of the leg-band they got the name ‘plus-fours’ or 'plus fours'.

Similarly, the commonly used plus-twos (as worn by the shooting fraternity) required two inches more of material.

There were even plus-eights - which can be seen at Trevira's phtostream.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Put a sock in it

We all know the phrase ‘Put a sock in it’, used to mean ‘be quiet’, but its origins are vague. The imagery behind the phrase is that putting a sock in whatever was causing the noise would quieten it down. But what that thing was isn't known for certain. It may simply have been one’s mouth but more attractively there are suggestions that this may have been the horn of an early gramophone.

The earliest example of it in print that the Phrase Finder can find is a definition of the term in the weekly literary review The Athenaeum 1919:
"The expression ‘Put a sock in it’, meaning 'Leave off talking, singing or shouting'."
The fact that an erudite publication saw fit to define the term suggests it was recently coined in 1919.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


"Whigmaleerie" is a Scots word. Doesn't it have a wonderful ring to it? Ian Buchan suggested it merited a posting and it certainly does.

Whigmaleerie is currently the name of a musical group but it has a number of meanings including, principally, a fanciful notion. It can also be a piece of ornamentation in a dress, a game played at a drinking club and a fantastical contraption. Nowadays, it is often applied to a rotating clothes dryer in a garden. William Souter (1898-1943), born near the village of Auchtergaven, Perth, wrote a poem of that title.

Monday, 19 January 2009


My art exchange from Eliandme was a super piece of writing which (purposely) included some words that were new to me. Amongst these was cohyponym.

A cohyponym is a word or phrase that shares the same hypernym as another word or phrase.

A hypernym is a word whose meaning denotes a superordinate or superclass. So, for example, animal is a hypernym of dog.

Cat is therefore a cohyponym of dog.

Sunday, 18 January 2009


Resistentialism is a jocular theory in which inanimate objects display hostile desires towards human beings. For example, objects that cause problems (like lost keys or a fleeing bouncy ball) exhibit a high degree of resistentialism. In other words, a war is being fought between humans and inanimate objects, and all the little annoyances objects give people throughout the day are battles between the two. The term was coined by humorist Paul Jennings in a piece titled "Report on Resistentialism" published in 'The Spectator' in 1948.

Resistentialism is an example of the 'perversity of inanimate objects' or the 'innate perversity of inanimate objects'. This phrase (now abbreviated to IPIO) has been attributed to a variety of authors but the earliest appears to be Mary Abigail Dodge (March 31, 1833 - August 17, 1896) - an American writer and essayist who wrote under the pseudonym Gail Hamilton.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


Marc in Vancouver wrote a pantoum the other day.

I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered it
- is composed of a series of quatrains;
- the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next; except that
- the first and third lines of the last stanza are the second and fourth of the penultimate;
- the first line of the poem is the last line of the final stanza;
- the third line of the first stanza is the second of the final;
- ideally, the meaning of lines shifts when they are repeated although the words remain exactly the same; and
- this meaning change can be done by shifting punctuation, punning, or simply changing the context.

That, I thought, is next to impossible and was amazed at how good Marc's was. And then the competitive bit of me cut in. Not to beat Marc's (no chance) but simply to see if I could manage one. I did, of sorts.

"And now I'm done, I'm done!"
Is what I wish to cry.
Everything under the sun
I really have to try.

Is what I wish to cry
A reasonable wish?
I really have to try
To give up all this pish.

A reasonable wish
I rarely ever top.
To give up all, this pish
I'll just have to stop.

I rarely, ever, top
Everything under the sun.
I'll just have to stop.
And now I'm done, I'm done!

Friday, 16 January 2009

A lick and a prayer

Dulce Domum mentioned giving the bathrooms 'a lick and a prayer'. I thought, "Gosh, I haven't heard that phrase in years". Mum used to use it in the same context - doing a cleaning job in a way that sufficed but perhaps wasn't as thorough as it might have been.

So, I thought, I'll look up its origins and do a posting about it. But I've had no success. I can't find its origins. Often one cannot find the definitive origin of an old phrase but there are usually suggestions on sites like Wise old sayings. This one seems to have slipped through the net.

Presumably the idea was that one simply gave it a lick and prayed it would do but how did the phrase get popularised? Any ideas anyone?

Thursday, 15 January 2009


I meant to blog this some time ago.

In the olden days – i.e. when I was young and Adam was a lad – if you were caught lurking you were standing in someone’s flowerbed hoping to catch a sight of your favourite Eve or chatting to your friends in the doorway of the local shop and generally getting in everyone’s way.

In modern parlance it is to visit someone’s blog on a regular basis without leaving a comment – so that they do now know who you are or that you have visited.

I discovered this because one of the Archduchess’s New Year resolutions was to de-lurk. In my naivety I thought perhaps this meant to stop visiting people’s sites and blogs so much. However, as she explained “Lurking is the habit of reading a blog without commenting or revealing one's presence. Logically, de-lurking is the act of becoming an active reader on a blog.”

So if there are any lurkers out there, please feel welcome to de-lurk as comments are always welcome.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

As Cool as a Cucumber

Why? One might imagine that it was simply because eating cucumbers had a cooling effect due to their high water content – much as we might nowadays turn to a Water Melon on a warm day. But the origins of the phrase – which goes back at least to the 17th century when it was ‘cold as a cucumber’ – lies in the belief that cucumbers reduced lust. The phrase was especially applied to women and was intended to imply frigidity.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


Did you know that there's a word for that catchy tune you that you can't get out of your head? It's called an earworm! I found this definition -
Earworm, a calque of the German Ohrwurm, is a term for a portion of a song or other musical material that becomes stuck in a person's head.”

This led me to wonder what a calque was! It seems it is an expression introduced into one language by translating it from another language.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Dumb Tax

In one of Beth’s posting’s recently she referred to the ‘dumb tax’. I don’t know if it’s a common American expression but I think it’s brilliant. The context made it self-explanatory...

"He was the first bear I made, so I paid the "dumb tax" on him--I learned what does and doesn't work!"

Looking it up I found it was also a jocular term for the National Lottery and one other reference in Scholastic.com -

" The best thing I heard this week was on NPR, when a traffic engineer praised the pioneering work of his fellow urban planners for "paying the dumb tax" for the rest of the profession." The tone of the article, headed 'Dumb Tax', suggests it is a pretty new expression. This is one new one I can live with quite happily!

Sunday, 11 January 2009


Nosegay is a lovely word. It means a small bunch of fragrant flowers, usually as a gift. It is also known as a bouquet, posey (or posy) or tussie-mussie which are also attractive words.

Saturday, 10 January 2009


I recently came across the term enceinte in relation to a castle. I knew that enceinte meant in an advanced stage of pregnancy – from the same French word. I wasn’t sure how a castle could be pregnant...

Upon investigation I discovered enceinte was also a noun and meant the main works of fortification—walls, ramparts, and parapets—forming the primary enclosure of a fort or fortress. Shame, I had lovely visions of lots of little castles appearing over the drawbridge...

Friday, 9 January 2009

The Gentleman Who Pays the Rent

Nowadays if someone referred to "The Gentleman Who Pays the Rent" one might be tempted to think of a man who kept a mistress. But that is not what the expression meant in olden days. It referred to the household's pig. Often the greatest asset in the house a pig not only provided potential for trading but it was also said that the only part of a pig you couldn't use was the squeak!

Thursday, 8 January 2009


I don’t quite know how I reached it but I came across a Blog with one of my favourite virelangues as a heading. “ Les chaussettes de l'archiduchesse sont-elles sèches? Archi-sèches.” In case you hadn’t gathered, a virelangues is a French tongue-twister. i recall learning a load of those at college for fun. This one translates as “Are the Archduchesses socks dry? Extra dry.”

Here are a few others that I enjoyed as a youngster...

Si ma tata tâte ta tata, ta tata sera tâtée.
(If my aunt feels your aunt, your aunt will be felt.)

Je suis ce que je suis et si je suis ce que je suis, qu'est-ce que je suis?
(I am what I am and if I am what I am, what am I?)

Même maman m'a mis ma main dans mon manchon
(My mother has put my hand up my sleeve.)

Ces cerises sont si sûres qu'on ne sait pas si c'en sont.
(These cherries are so sour one can't believe they’re cherries.)

Wednesday, 7 January 2009


A cinquain is a poem with five lines in the following syllable pattern: 2/4/6/8/2. I challenge you to make one and leave it in the comments!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


A few years ago the dole had but one common meaning – being on unemployment benefit – but I rarely hear the word in that context nowadays. It originated as any share of money or food or clothing that had been charitably given and in the Nineteenth Century was commonly used to refer to penny loaves which were traditionally given out to children at a funeral.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The Upper Crust

Why were members of the aristocracy called the upper crust ? At one time the loaves were baked on the floor of the oven and the lower part of the loaf became charred before the top was baked. This lower part would be cut off and given to the swine (or the servants depending upon the household) while the family and important guests got the upper crust.

Sunday, 4 January 2009


The mantel or mantelpiece, also known as a chimneypiece, either originated in medieval times as a simple hood that projected over a grate to catch the smoke or as a shelf with hooks upon which one hung one’s wet mantle or cloak. Nowadays the term has evolved to include the decorative framework around the fireplace, and can include an elaborate designs extending right up to the ceiling.


Mzee is an African word meaning an older person; an elder.
It originates from the East African Kiswahili, meaning 'ancestor, parent, old person'.

I not only think it is a great word but if it were allowed in Scrabble it would be very useful!

Saturday, 3 January 2009


I always thought a putter was a golf club (as indeed it is) but I also discovered it was a verb when Don used it the other day. He said "But I like getting things done, so I started the year puttering around the house."

Dictionary.com defines Putter: To waste (time) in idling: puttered away the hours in the garden.

It is obviously a variant of 'potter', another super word, and both are defined as "to work lightly; do random, unplanned work or activities or spend time idly."

Friday, 2 January 2009

Hat Trick

On 2nd January 1994 Toronto haberdasher Sammy Taft died. The term "hat trick" was allegedly coined in the 1930s when Taft told ice hockey player Alex Kaleta that he would give him the hat that he had been admiring if Alex scored 3 goals in that night's game. Kaleta did so, and the term has been used ever since.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Hobson's Choice

Thomas Hobson, horse-hirer, died this day in 1631. He refused to let customers choose their own mounts. It was his choice or nothing; take it or leave it. Hence Hobson's Choice.