There are several theories. One is that the phrase refers to greased-pig contests once held at county fairs, where the winner kept the pig and thus brought home the bacon. Another theory revolves around the town of Dunmon, England. There, in A.D. 1111, a noblewoman decreed that any person who knelt at the church door […]
Despite many alternative claims, the first appearance in print links the term O.K. to a political organization that supported the reelection of President Martin Van Buren. The New York New Era of March 23, 1840, carried an article on the Democratic O.K. Club. The initials stood for Old Kinderhook, a Van Buren epithet derived from […]
There are several words in the English language that use all five vowels. These include the words sequoia and facetious.
The old saying waiting till the cows come home is almost 400 years old. It refers to the early-morning hour when cows line up at the farm gates, ready to be milked.
No, the word shyster did not come from Shakespeare’s Shy-lock. It came from a Mr. Scheuster, an unscrupulous American criminal lawyer in the 1840s.
The practice, also called anthropophagy, is derived from the Spanish word for the Caribs. The Caribs were a West Indian tribe known for cannibalism.
In order of frequency of use, they are: e, t, o, a, and n. Which letters are least frequently used? They are: k, j, x, z, and q.
The term Stark Naked is a corruption of the term start naked. In the thirteenth century, when the phrase originated, start took the Anglo-Saxon form steort, which meant “tail” or “rump.” Therefore, stark naked refers to someone naked to the tail.
A cathartic is a medicine that stimulates movement of the bowels. Aristotle, in his Poetics, used the medical term catharsis (in Greek, literally “purgation” or “purification”) as a metaphor for the way a stage tragedy “cleans out” the emotions of a spectator by arousing terror and pity.
Probably not. In French, gaga means a silly old man, and the meaning may simply have been modified. However, some think it is short for artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who, it is said, revealed mental imbalance in his work.
Writers should busy themselves with other things. Insure and ensure can be used interchangeably to mean “make certain.” In the United States, however, the spelling insure is generally preferred to ensure, and only insure can be used to mean “indemnify against loss.”
It was coined by New York’s Finest along Twenty-third Street in the years before World War I. At the corner of Twenty-third Street and Broadway, traditionally the windiest corner of the city, men used to stand outside the famous Flatiron Building for free looks at ladies’ well-turned ankles. The police dutifully moved the audience along, […]
The American expression to Beat the Band is not more than a century old. It referred to the aim of arriving at a parade site before the band passed.
In the process of deduction, you derive conclusions from assumed statements by using the rules of logic, moving from the general to the specific. In induction, you make inferences from experiments or observations to build a general law, moving from the specific to the general.
The oldest letter in the alphabet is o, first used by Egyptians in about 3000 B.C. The newest letters are j and v. The consonant j was not distinguished from the vowel i until the 1600s, and not until the Renaissance was the consonant v distinguished from the vowel u.
In its earliest use, the phrase pin money did mean the money to buy pins, the primary fasteners for clothing before buttons and zippers were invented. But by the sixteenth century, the phrase came to mean the money used for incidentals.
Semantics is the study of meaning. Approached from the philosophical point of view, it involves the relationships between words; approached from the linguistic point of view, it deals with changes in meaning over time. Semiotics is the study of signs and the use of signs in human communication.
The word bedlam, now used to describe a scene of uproar and confusion, was originally a contraction of Bethlehem. It referred to Saint Mary of Bethlehem, a religious house in London that was converted into a hospital for the insane in 1402. The term came to mean a lunatic asylum, one of its inmates, or […]
The origin of the word Kismet is from the Turkish gismat, “portion” or “lot”. It means fate or the completion of destiny.
A perimeter is the distance around the boundary of a closed plane figure, such as a rectangle or circle. A parameter is a quantity that, when varied, affects the value of another quantity. Parameters are established to aid in determining an unknown figure.
The phrase “to 86” generally means “put an end to”. It is said to have been part of a number code used in diners and soda fountains. In those early days, 86 meant “we’re out of that dish,” “don’t serve that customer,” or “don’t serve another drink to that customer because he’s already had too […]
The phrase passing the buck probably came into use in American poker games during the late nineteenth century. In 1872, Mark Twain wrote that players would pass an object, a buck, to remind them of who was to deal. It is also possible that buck is an old word for bet.
In the evening, citizens of the Roman Empire constructed their beds by placing straw into a cloth sack. The straw had to be emptied every night to dry; therefore, the beds had to be remade every night. This practice continued until the fifteenth century, in some countries, even later.
A Fascist general named Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Sierro is said to have coined the phrase during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). As four Fascist army columns closed in on Madrid, the general described his supporters inside the city as a “fifth column.” The term came to mean any group of subversives trying to […]
The word petard refers to a type of bomb or mine once used to break down walls and gates. To be hoist is to be blown up. Therefore, to be hoist by one’s own petard is to be, literally or figuratively, blown up by one’s own bomb.