Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Idioms from Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack (2/2)

Reviewed earlier here. Second batch of idioms can be found here.


The rest of my favourite idioms from the book:

Work and Trade

Full blast - a furnace running at maximum power

Not fit to hold a candle - one of the lowest level jobs for unskilled workers (usually children) were given the job of holding a candle for craftsmen.

Letting the cat out of the bag - con men tricked people into thinking they were buying valuable piglets at a bargain but the piglets were often switched for cats.

Having work cut out - If a tailor had his materials cut out for him, he had a pile of work 'cut out' for him.

Fired or given the sack - A worker caught stealing would have his tool fired down in front of other workers so he couldn't work elsewhere and repeat his crime. When his job was complete or it was time to move on, he would be given his sack.

Mad as a hatter - Hatters in the Middle Ages used mercurous nitrate, which was toxic and could lead to a condition similar to Parkinson's Disease.

19 to the dozen - Means operating as fast as possible. From the 19,000 gallons of water that could be steam pumped out of tin and copper mines, with every dozen bushels of col burned.


Final straw - "It is the last straw that breaks the camels back" - Biblical proverb

Feet of clay - suggests a weakness. The state in Nebuchadnezzar's dream is made of brass, gold and silver but his feet are made of iron mixed with clay, leaving a weakness that might not be obvious.

Wolf in sheep's clothing  - Matthew (7:15) "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing. Inwardly they are ravening wolves."

People and Places

As bold as brass - re Magistrate Brass Crosby. Let a printer off who published some Parliamentary proceedings (when it was illegal to do so). Crosby was then arrested for not upholding the law and thrown in jail, but was released as a hero, with the support of the public.

Cock and bull - Two coaching inns in Stony Stratford (middle point between Birmingham and London, and Oxford and Cambridge), the two inns became central points for exchanging news and stories. The two competed for the best stories and unbelievable tales became known as Cock and Bull tales. 

Hobson's choice - Hired out horses strictly on rotation to give each one equal choice. Hence, Hobson's choice is no choice at all.

The Real McCoy -Elijah McCoy, born 1844 was a highly successful mechanical engineer. His inventions were copied but people insisted on "the real McCoy".

Parting shot - from the Parthinian warriors of south west of Asia, who archers rode away from the enemy but then turned to fire their arrows. 'Parthinian shot' became 'parting shot'.

Sweet FA - Fanny Adams was a six-year old girl who was murdered, her body cut up and thrown into a river. At around the same time, the British Navy switched their rations to a low grade of chopped up, sweet mutton that was tasteless and unpopular. The sailors darkly joked that the meat was the murdered girl. Sweet FA went on to mean anything boring and monotonous, not worth describing.


Screwed  - based on a 19th century prison punishment, prisoner made to turn a crank up to 10,000 times a day, made harder or easier by the setting of a screw (set by the warden).

Steal thunder - "See what rascals they are. They will not run my play and yet they steal my thunder" Playright John Dennis talking about the thunder sound effect he discovered for his play at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. His play was unpopular and was replaced quickly with a showing of Macbeth. He was fuming when he attending and heard his thunder effect in use.

Getting someones goat - Goats were thought to have a soothing influence on horses. A stealthy opponent may take the goat away, leaving the horse to get agitated ahead of a race.

Off the cuff  - Speaking without notes. In the Victorian era, speaker would sometimes write their speeches on their cuffs (detachable at the time) so they could read without the appearance of having notes.

Saved by the bell - Victorian era . A royal guard at the Horse Guard Parade in London was famously accused of being asleep on duty (a serious charge at the time). He denied it, claiming he had heard Big Ben chime 13 times at midnight instead of 12. The clock was checked, he was proved right and freed.

A Busman's holiday - spending your holiday doing exactly what you would do at work. Stems from tradition of horse drawn carriage bus drivers, who would spend holidays in the rear to make sure the relief driver was looking after his animals.

Nest egg - A porcelain egg placed in a nest to encourage chickens to lay more eggs.

Up the spout - Early bookmakers and pawnshops had spouts which funds would be sent up to the office for safe keeping. .

White elephant - Something that is useless/a burden. According to legend, in early Thailand (Siam), white elephants belonged to the Kind and were not allowed to be neglected. The King would give these elephants as royal gifts to people who caused him displeasure. They couldn't be refused and imposed a massive burden on the recipient.

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