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By Lea Tassie

Copyright 2018 Lea Tassie

Published by Lea Tassie at Smashwords

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A heartfelt thank you to all those people who helped make this book better: Leanne Allen, Sharon King-Booker, and Laura Langston. And my gratitude to Google and the Wikimedia Foundation, who made this book possible.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.

“They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them!”

(Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson), Through the Looking-Glass, 1872.)



1 ~ Lamzy Divey

2 ~ Horsing Around

3 ~ Raining Cats & Dogs

4 ~ A Bird in the Hand

5 ~ The Zoo

6 ~ Bite the Dust

7 ~ Devilment

8 ~ Naughties

9 ~ Pie in the Sky

10 ~ Full of Beans

11 ~ Body Language

12 ~ Mother Nature

13 ~ Belly Up

14 ~ Ps & Qs

15 ~ Bite the Bullet

16 ~ Scuttlebutt

17 ~ Below the Belt

18 ~ Legless

19 ~ Face the Music

20 ~ Travel

21 ~ Psychology

22 ~ Time Flies

23 ~ Nuts and Bolts

24 ~ Nuppence

25 ~ Stitching

26 ~ Sleep

27 ~ Baddies

28 ~ Snickerdoodles

29 ~ At the Office

30 ~ Strays


About Lea Tassie

Books by Lea Tassie


Human language evolved from grunts and gestures to an incredibly complicated system of communication, which includes many thousands of different languages. And language goes on evolving, as new words become accepted and old ones fade away.

The history of language is a big field, but I'm interested in only one small part of it: the often weird-sounding phrases we use and where they came from. I've discovered that most arose from the ordinary, practical aspects of life.

As a writer, of course, I spend my days working with words. And I play with words, too, doing scrabble games and crossword puzzles. My friend, Leanne, plays with the language by making up neat new words, for example:

Curmudgette — female curmudgeon; specializes in complaining about the weather.

Wrabble — a combination of 'babble' and 'write,' describing chatty emails.

And what about the word "word"? According to the English Oxford Living Dictionaries, here are some (not all) uses of "word" in common phrases:

—at a word: As soon as requested.

—be as good as one's word: Do what one has promised.

—have a word: Speak briefly to someone.

—in other words: Expressed in a different way.

—in a word: Briefly.

—keep one's word: Do what one has promised.

—of few words: Taciturn.

—put something into words: Express in speech or writing.

—spread the word: Share information or news.

—take someone at their word: Interpret a person's words literally.

—take someone's word: Believe what someone says without checking.

—waste words: Talk in vain.

—word gets around: News or rumors spread.

—word of honor: A solemn promise.

—word of mouth: Spoken transmission of information.

—word on the street: A rumor currently being circulated.

—words fail me: Expresses one's disbelief or dismay.

—a word to the wise: A brief explanation is all that is required.

—my word: An exclamation of surprise.

A discussion of "word" could take many chapters, but let's not go there. Turn the page and, in two shakes of a lamb's tail, we'll be into the interesting stuff.

1 ~ Lamzy Divey

Mairzy Doats is a novelty song written and composed in 1943, and it made the pop charts several times, with a version by the Merry Macs reaching No. 1 in March 1944. The sheet music had sales of over 450,000 within the first three weeks of release.

The song's refrain, as written on the sheet music, seems meaningless:

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey

A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe

However, the lyrics of the bridge provide the answer:

If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,

Sing "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."

(A kid'll eat ivy, too, wouldn't you?)

Now, let's get serious about where lambs (and a few sheep) appear in the language.

two shakes of a lamb's tail

Lambs are playful and move remarkably fast. Hence, "two shakes of a lamb's tail" means "very quickly" or "in the blink of an eye" and has done so since at least 1840 in America.

We don't know where the phrase originated, but people generally agree that lambs can shake their tails so fast that two shakes are almost as fast as one.

The phrase first appeared in Ingoldsby Legends by Richard Barham, published in 1840. But we can assume the phrase existed in modern language long before that.

Here is the first part of a letter to the editor which appeared in the Nelson Evening Mail in New Zealand in 1881: "A Brooklyn man spent seven hours writing an essay to prove that a woman is inferior to a man, and then spent two hours more and a heap of profanity in an ineffectual attempt to thread a needle, a job which a woman finally did for him in about two shakes of a lamb's tail."

The phrase is also, surprisingly, used in science. A "shake" is an informal unit of time equal to 10 nanoseconds. It has applications in nuclear physics, helping to conveniently express the timing of various events in a nuclear explosion. Like many nuclear units of measurement, it is derived from Top Secret operations of the Manhattan Project during World War II. The typical time required for one step in the chain reaction (i.e. the typical time for each neutron to cause a fission event which releases more neutrons) is one "shake," and the chain reaction is typically complete by 50 to 100 shakes.

innocent as a lamb

An innocent lamb is naive, inexperienced, or guiltless of a crime. In contrast to ignorance, innocence is generally viewed as positive, suggesting an optimistic view of the world.

People who lack the mental capacity to understand the nature of their acts may be seen as innocent, regardless of their behavior. Therefore, "innocent" can refer to a child, or to a person of any age who is mentally disabled.

However, technology has given children in our contemporary world a platform where they are referred to as "digital natives," and often seen as more knowledgeable than adults. This is frequently true. Children born into the world of digital media will learn how to use it as easily as they learn language.

Many of us over 50 are indeed as innocent as a lamb when it comes to computers!

mutton dressed as lamb

This disparaging term is used for an older woman who tries unsuccessfully to look young and attractive in the style of younger women.

"Dressing as lamb" may have originated as describing a woman seeking marriage. It is still sometimes an economic necessity for a woman to marry while young enough to bear children. But, more often, it's used by a woman trying to pretend she's younger than she is.

The phrase is first found in print in An Irish Beauty of the Regency, the journal of social gossip that Mrs. Frances Calvert published in 1811.

"Mutton" was used as slang for a prostitute in the 1500s. From early in the 1800s, the word was also used in a derogatory manner for either sex as an abbreviation of "muttonhead," or stupid person. This, in turn, is thought to be the origin of the term "mutt" meaning both a silly person and a dog.

These two lines are apt:

"Things are seldom what they seem,

Skim milk masquerades as cream."

[W. S. Gilbert, H.M.S. Pinafore, Act II].

like a lamb to the slaughter

The lamb is someone who acts innocently, without knowing that something bad is going to happen, and therefore behaves calmly and does not fight the situation.

It arises from the Bible (King James Version), which has several allusions to animals going to slaughter. The one from Isaiah 53:7 says, "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth."

The allusion to the helplessness of lambs was used in the 1991 film The Silence of The Lambs.

might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb

If you're going to sin, sin big! Today, the phrase is often used to mean that once you've become involved in an action, legal or not, you might as well commit to it entirely.

The earliest written example is from John Ray's English Proverbs of 1678: "As good be hang'd for an old sheep as a young lamb."

The origin lies in old English law, when many crimes brought the death penalty. One of those crimes was sheep-stealing. So, if you were going to steal a sheep, you'd take a full-grown one rather than a lamb, because the penalty would be the same no matter which you took. In the 1820s, the law was reformed to end the death penalty for that crime.

A similar expression is "in for a penny, in for a pound." If you've risked losing a penny, perhaps it's worth risking a pound.

Both phrases are really more about the risk than the outcome. You might not be hanged at all; you're merely risking that possibility. Most of us don't actually believe we'll be hanged or lose the pound. Or that it's going to rain on Sunday's picnic.

March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb

This is an English proverb describing typical March weather. In theory, when March starts it's still winter and, on the twenty-first of the month, spring begins.

One of the earliest citations is in Thomas Fuller's 1732 compendium, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British.

Early North American settlers relied on weather observations to make forecasts. They observed that early March was often marked by biting cold and winter storms, likened to a lion's roar. But, by the end of the month, the weather was often warm, spring-like and docile, like a gentle lamb. But it didn't and doesn't happen that way all the time.

Prior to the invention of the mercury barometer, the only instrument was human experience, which doesn't always work. Just because last March ended like a lamb, warm and gentle, doesn't mean it'll happen that way this year. Or next!

The proverb "mad as a March hare" has a similar origin. A March hare is a brown hare in the breeding season, noted for leaping, boxing, and running in circles, regarded apparently as similar to the strong winds of March.

sacrificial lamb

Originally, a sacrificial lamb was one ritually killed as an offer to a deity. Today, the phrase is a metaphor referring to an animal or person sacrificed for the common good. It may also mean they've been blamed unfairly for something they didn't do, usually in order to protect another more powerful person or group.

As an example of sacrificing for the common good, farmers escorting cattle across a river which might have piranhas will sometimes sacrifice a sick or injured cow downstream before letting the herd enter the water. Keep those vicious little fish busy!

In politics, a sacrificial lamb candidate is a candidate chosen to contest an election despite the fact that he or she has little chance of victory.

In fiction, the term refers to a character whose only dramatic purpose is to die, spurring the hero to action and showing how evil the villain is. Often the sacrificial lamb is someone close to the protagonist.

In mythology, blood sacrifices are commonly made to appease, or as a trade for something greater down the road, such as regeneration or an increase in power. In some cultures, a king was sacrificed each spring to guarantee the growth of crops, thus ensuring the continuation and livelihood of the kingdom. In the classical era, Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon in order to placate the goddess Artemis, whom he had offended.

In real life, the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice to aid the sun in rising and disposed of thousands for events like the dedication of a new temple.

It occurs to me that there is some advantage in being a scruffy old sheep, not of much interest to anyone.

black sheep

A "black sheep" usually means a disreputable or disgraced family member. It may also refer to someone who doesn't conform to the ethics, morals, beliefs, or even the dress code of a particular group. The individual is often labeled as a troublemaker.

The term originated from the occasional black sheep born into a flock of white sheep due to a genetic process of recessive traits. Their fleeces weren't suitable for dying and so were worth less than those of white sheep.

In European thought, the use of "black" is often associated with the devil, and bad things in general. This may arise from black being used as the color of mourning, at least as far back as Rome in the second century CE, and Rome likely borrowed it from the Egyptians. In the early days, it was thought that the body contained four humors, or fluids, that determined one's physical and mental qualities: one of the four humors was black bile, associated with melancholy, sadness, and depression.

In spite of that, one black sheep in a flock was considered good luck by shepherds in some areas of England. The Folk-Lore Record, 1878, included this piece: "We speak figuratively of the one black sheep that is the cause of sorrow in a family; but in its reality it is regarded by the Sussex shepherd as an omen of good luck to his flock."

A black sheep is the hero of one of the oldest English nursery rhymes and was first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, circa 1744. This original is almost the same as the version we know today:

Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,

Have you any Wool?

Yes merry have I,

Three Bags full,

One for my master,

One for my Dame,

One for the little Boy

That lives down the lane.

The phrase has been adopted by some groups to mark themselves as radical or extreme. For example, a particular Marine fighter squadron during World War II was nicknamed the Black Sheep Squadron because of their radical exploits. Psychologists have also used the term to describe how a group will judge their own nonconforming member more harshly than the nonconforming members of a rival group.

The same concept is illustrated in some other languages by the phrase "white crow." And a similar term is bête noire, which is French for "black beast" and means something disliked or feared.

wolf in sheep's clothing

A wolf in sheep's clothing refers to someone who hides malicious intent under the guise of kindliness, playing a role contrary to their true character.

Certain elements of this proverb are found in Aesop's (620-560 BCE) fable of the shepherd who raised a wolf cub among his dogs. When the cub was grown, it secretly reverted to type. If a wolf stole a sheep and the dogs could not catch it, the guardian wolf continued the chase and shared the meal with the marauder. On other occasions it would kill a sheep and share the meat with other dogs. Eventually the shepherd discovered what was happening and hanged the wolf.

Another fable by Aesop concerns a wolf that regularly comes to view the flock but never attempts an attack. The shepherd comes to trust it and on one occasion leaves the wolf on guard. He returns to find his flock destroyed and blames himself for being taken in. In neither case is there any suggestion by Aesop that the wolf disguised itself as a sheep.

The King James Version of the Bible, 1611, gives this warning in Matthew 7:15: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." This tale wouldn't have been new to writers of the Bible; some form of what we now know as Aesop's Fables would have been in circulation at the time.

The following tale is told by the 12th century Greek rhetorician Nikephoros Basilakis in a work called Progymnasmata: "A wolf once decided to change his nature by changing his appearance, and thus get plenty to eat. He put on a sheepskin and accompanied the flock to the pasture. The shepherd was fooled by the disguise. When night fell, the shepherd shut up the wolf in the fold with the rest of the sheep and, as the fence was placed across the entrance, the sheepfold was securely closed off. But when the shepherd wanted a sheep for his supper, he took his knife and killed the wolf."

Accidental justice! I wonder if the shepherd ate roast wolf.

counting sheep

Counting sheep is what we do to combat insomnia, a problem always with us. It's an activity that involves both sides of the brain: the visual, picturing the sheep, and the logical, counting in sequence. The mundane repetition helps people to relax.

According to a text written in Spain in the early 1100s, a king heard stories from his storyteller every night. One night the king did not feel like sleeping and demanded extra stories. But the storyteller wanted to sleep and his solution was to tell a story that required counting sheep. A farmer bought two thousand sheep and they were ferried in a small boat, two at a time, across a flooded river. The farmer needed to do that a thousand times in order to get all his sheep home. The storyteller fell asleep after the first two sheep crossed the river!

Did the king fall asleep? Did the storyteller survive?

A cognitive psychologist tested the idea of counting sheep to achieve sleep. Fifty volunteer insomniacs were divided into three groups. One group was asked to concentrate on counting ewes in a field, or lambs hopping over a stile. The second group was asked to focus on something tranquil, such as a waterfall, or being on holiday. The third group was left to its own devices.

Those who imagined sunny afternoons in the south of France went to sleep on average 20 minutes earlier than they would normally. The sheep counters, and the ones who just lay there, hoping for sleep, actually stayed awake for longer than usual.

So, counting sheep is not the solution to insomnia for everyone. And why does it have to be sheep? Perhaps it's comforting to think of cuddling up to their soft, fuzzy wool. Or perhaps people think sheep are boring. Having never met any sheep, I wouldn't know.

But whatever you do, don't count cats. That will just keep you awake. None will jump the fence, most will fall asleep, and the others will go off in opposite directions or start a fight. In the end, you'll have hundreds of cats at your feet, all demanding a snack. Or breakfast, depending on how long you've been trying to herd them.


"Bellwether" is often used to refer to a leader or a trendsetter.

In politics, the term may be applied to a geographic region where political tendencies match in microcosm those of a wider area, such that the result of an election in the former region might predict the eventual result in the latter.

In the stock market, a bellwether is a stock that is believed to be a leading indicator of the direction of a sector, industry or market as a whole.

In sociology, the term is applied to a person or group of people who tend to create, influence, or set trends.

The origin is in Middle English. "Wether" was a castrated ram, which would usually have a bell hung around its neck, helping the herdsman locate the herd of sheep.


"Sheepish" originated around 1200 CE, and means meek, timid, or stupid, thus resembling a sheep. It can also mean showing embarrassment, or being bashful and awkward among strangers.

A delightful story called Lambert the Sheepish Lion became famous in a cartoon some years ago. Lambert was a lion cub which had lived with a flock of sheep since he was born. Therefore, he thought he was a sheep.

One night Lambert and the flock were sleeping peacefully when they heard the scary howl of a wolf. Because Lambert thought he was a sheep, he began to tremble.

The howl grew louder as the wolf came closer and began dragging one of the sheep away. Suddenly Lambert experienced a strong feeling that was new to him. He ran toward the wolf, determined to save the sheep.

At that point, Lambert realized he was not a sheep. When he chased off the wolf and saved the sheep, his true nature was revealed to him. He was the son of a lion.

2 ~ Horsing Around

Horses were an essential part of human life for centuries, and still are in some areas. Beautiful and intelligent, they're loved by many people.

The proverbs and phrases that concern horses contain useful information about equine behavior or the care and treatment of horses, and many can also be applied to humans. Phrases like "stubborn as a mule," "beating a dead horse," and "horse laugh" hardly need an explanation.

Many horse expressions allude to the hefty, coarse or even vulgar nature of the working hacks of the Middle Ages. This perceived lack of sophistication is apparent in the way that our language was formed. Any plant that resembled another but was larger and coarser would be known as a horse-something-or-other. For example, horseradish is a large root resembling a radish but with a fiery taste.

horsing around

"Horsing around" means enthusiastic, silly play, especially play with a child-like aspect and it may also be called "horseplay." This is usually physical, improvised, and spontaneous, and may be engaged in by people of any age, from young children to mischievous adults.

In the 1500s, "horse" was a common adjective describing anything strong, big, or coarse. Along with horseplay, that's how horseradish got its name. The verb "horse" once meant "play crazy jokes on." Experts aren't sure how it came into use, or what horses have to do with it, but I'm sure it's because horses have a sense of humor.

People first started using the term "horseplay" in the late 1500s. Colts and fillies tend to play hard and rough, especially when they have the freedom of a pasture, and most people enjoy watching young animals at play as they explore the world. Young creatures exhibit a great deal of curiosity and love of fun when they are around each other.

Kicking up one's heels now and then can be beneficial, both physically and mentally. And, of course, kicking up their heels is exactly what young horses do when they race around in a field.

I'm sorry I only have two feet, because I can only kick up one heel at a time.

straight from the horse's mouth

Getting information directly from the highest authority is always best.

In horse racing, the most trusted authorities are those who spend a lot of time with the horses. "From the horse's mouth" is supposed to be one step better than even the inner circle of humans, that is, the horse itself.

The expression came into racetrack use about 1830 and was part of everyday speech by 1900. The earliest printed version was in the Syracuse Herald, May 1913, and clearly indicates the horse racing context: "I got a tip yesterday, and if it wasn't straight from the horse's mouth it was jolly well the next thing to it."

A smart horse trader could get all the information he needed from the horse's mouth since a horse's teeth reveal its age and health. This fact has been known for centuries and gave rise to the adage, "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," dating to the fifth century.

A related comment is, "If you don't hear it from the horse's mouth, you're hearing it from a horse's ass."

I think I'd better be quiet!

champing at the bit

This phrase refers to the tendency of impatient or nervous horses, especially if being held back by their riders, to chew on the bit, often salivating excessively and sometimes head-tossing or pawing at the ground. Because such behavior was most often seen in racehorses eager to begin a race, the term has come to refer to a person who is impatient to get started on something or otherwise bursting with energy.

The verb "champ" means "to make a biting or chewing action with the jaws and teeth." A bit is part of the apparatus that goes in the horse's mouth and connects to the bridle and reins so the rider can control the horse. The bit fits into a toothless ridge of the horse's mouth, so the horse never actually bites the bit, merely grinds its teeth or jaw against it.

The earliest citation of "champ at the bit" appears in a poem published in 1810.

These days, the more common phrase is "chomping at the bit." "Chomp" began to replace "champ" in the USA in the early 1900s. Horses still champ/chomp at the bit and there are, of course, opposing opinions on how to say it.

William Safire wrote, some 31 years ago, that "to spell it 'champing at the bit' when most people would say 'chomping at the bit" is to slavishly follow outdated dictionary preferences."

I won't get involved in that argument. Both are right.

charley horse

"Charley horse" is a North American name for a muscle spasm. They can occur in virtually any muscle, but are most common in the legs. These spasms are marked by painful muscle contractions, which can last from several seconds to a whole day.

The main theories on how the term arose are related to late 1800s baseball. One theory is it came from a lame horse called Charley pulling the roller on the Chicago White Sox ballpark.

Another involves baseball player Joe Quest. First told in the Grand Rapids, Michigan Daily Democrat on 28 June 1889: "Years ago, Joe Quest was employed as an apprentice in the machine shop of Quest & Shaw in Newcastle. His father, who was one of the proprietors of the firm, had an old white horse by the name of Charley. Pulling heavy loads had stiffened the animal's legs so that he walked as if troubled with strained tendons. Afterwards, when Quest became a member of the Chicago club, he was troubled, with others, with a peculiar stiffness of the legs, which brought to his mind the ailment of the old white horse, Charley. Joe said that the ball players troubled with the ailment hobbled exactly as did the old horse, and as no one seemed to know what the trouble was, Quest dubbed it 'Charley horse.'"

A third says that the baseball pitcher Charley Radbourne was nicknamed Old Hoss. He got a cramp during a baseball game in the 1880s. The condition was named by putting together his first name and the second half of his nickname.

And a fourth, again from the baseball fraternity, tells that a group of baseball players bet on a horse named Charley who came up lame in the home stretch. The next day, when a player suffered from a muscle pull in the leg, it was dubbed a "Charley horse."

So, pick your favorite explanation and avoid getting a charley horse if you can. I know from experience how painful they can be.

dark horse

A "dark horse" is a person whose qualities are hidden or someone who is little known and unexpectedly becomes successful.

The phrase was originally horse-racing jargon. A dark horse was one which wasn't known to the bettors and was therefore difficult to place odds on. The figurative use later spread to other fields, including politics, and has come to apply to anyone who comes under scrutiny but was previously little known.

The first known mention of the concept is in Benjamin Disraeli's novel The Young Duke (1831). Disraeli's protagonist, the Duke of St. James, attends a horse race with a surprise finish: "A dark horse which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph."

Politically, the concept came to America in the 1800s when it was first applied to James K. Polk, a relatively unknown Tennessee politician who won the Democratic Party's 1844 presidential nomination over a host of better-known candidates. Polk won the nomination on the ninth ballot at his party's national nominating convention and went on to become the country's eleventh president.

Dark horses aren't always successful. Perhaps the two most famous unsuccessful dark horse presidential candidates in American history were Democrat William Jennings Bryan, and Republican businessman Wendell Willkie.

don't look a gift horse in the mouth

Looking a gift horse in the mouth would be like judging the gift's value, which is an insult. Even if the horse is old, it's free and you can still make good use of it.

Horses' teeth develop a distinct wear pattern over time. Therefore, looking in the horse's mouth and checking the teeth is a way of gauging age, and a sign of mistrust towards the giver. Determining a horse's age from its teeth is usually work for a specialist though.

Of course, this proverb is one that rarely applies to horses. After all, when was the last time somebody gave you a horse? But, as a proverb, it covers any and all gifts.

The proverb is ancient and its source unknown. It appears in John Heywood's collection of English proverbs, published in 1546, as, "don't look a given horse in the mouth."

It's been suggested that the proverb might have originated from the legend of the Trojan Horse. The Trojan Horse was built by Greeks to smuggle fighting men inside fortified Troy, and perhaps the Trojans were too polite to look their gift horse in the mouth.

No, I don't believe that either!

eat like a horse

A full-grown horse can eat up to 20 pounds of food in a day. But, to be fair to the horse, you have to consider that it must eat a lot of grass or straw to get the same nourishment as a human might from a half pound of beef or a handful of walnuts.

In some cases, the phrase is a compliment while in others it's an insult, depending on the situation. An allied phrase is "eat like a king." The similar French expressions say "eat like an ogre," or "eat as if one was four."

The expression "work like a horse" dates at least as far back as 1520, when horses replaced oxen in pulling carts, carriages, and plows. Since horses were now partnered with humans in so many ways, perhaps "eat like a horse" came into use at the same time.

On July 12, 1882, the St. Joseph Daily Gazette in St. Joseph, Missouri published an article on Tug Wilson, the English pugilist. It described his training regime, including his intake of food. "He has hardened his muscles and reduced his weight most remarkably. He can now skip about like a squirrel, eat like a horse, and move about like a champion pugilist."

I haven't seen any more recent examples, and perhaps the phrase "I could eat a horse," which means, "I'm really, really hungry," is now more common.

I'd be quite happy to eat like a horse. Since I love food, that would mean I could spend the whole day nibbling and enjoying myself.

flogging a dead horse

This phrase covers a lot of territory: engaging in fruitless effort, or talking about something that no one cares about, or that has already been thoroughly discussed. Similar phrases are "beating a dead horse," and "beating a dead dog."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the expression in its modern sense was by the English politician John Bright, referring to the Reform Act of 1867, which called for more democratic representation in Parliament. Trying to rouse Parliament from its apathy on the issue, he said in a speech, would be like trying to flog a dead horse to make it pull a load.

Parliaments are still like that.

get off your high horse

This phrase tells someone to stop behaving in an overbearing manner, or acting self-righteous or smugly superior, as if they know more, or are better, or claim a higher moral ground than everyone else.

The first references to high horses are ancient and were literal: "high" horses were very large. John Wyclif wrote of them in English Works, circa 1380. In medieval England, a person's rank was reflected by the size of the horse he rode. A noble or a person of importance would ride a large, expensive horse, one much taller and bigger than those ridden by commoners. The phrase "on one's high horse" came to mean "superior."

"High" has long been a synonym for "powerful." This use of the word has also persisted in terms like "high and mighty," "high-handed," and "high finance," and in job titles like "high commissioner."

Today, when we say that people are on their high horse, we are implying a criticism of their haughtiness. The first riders of high horses didn't see it that way. They were very ready to assume a proud and commanding position, which was why they had mounted such a horse in the first place. And it was also the reason for commissioning sculptures of themselves and their horses as larger than life.

The imagery of being high off the ground on a great war charger, looking down one's nose at the common herd, and also being a holder of high office made it intuitive for the term "on one's high horse" to come to mean "superior and untouchable."

Deference to people in positions of power has diminished over the years and we tend nowadays to mock high and mighty people as being on their high horse when they affect a superior and disdainful manner. The term is now rarely used for people who actually are powerful and remote.

And, since I'm neither powerful nor remote, applying the word "high" to me probably just means I've had too much scotch.

hold your horses

Slow down or stop, be patient, keep your shirt on, cool your jets.

The phrase literally means to keep your horse (or horses) still. It's usually followed by an explanation of why you should wait. For example, "Hold your horses. We're almost there."

And those who aren't in control of the horses often say, "Are we there yet?"

The phrase is historically related to horse riding or driving a horse-drawn vehicle. A number of explanations, all unverified, have been offered for the origin of the phrase, dating back to Ancient Greece. In Book 23 of The Iliad, Homer says, "Hold your horses!" when referring to Antilochus driving like a maniac in a chariot race.

After the invention of gunpowder, the Chinese had to hold their horses because of the noise. On the farm where I grew up we used both horses and tractors. Sometimes I had to hold the horses by their bridles so that they wouldn't panic when the noisy tractor rolled by.

In 1800s USA, where it was written as "hold your hosses," it appeared in print that way many times from 1843 onwards. Example: from The Picayune (New Orleans) in September 1844, "Oh, hold your hosses, Squire. There's no use gettin' riled, no how."

In the Arctic, I'll bet they say, "Hold your dogs!"

horse feathers

"Horse feathers" means rubbish or nonsense.

This term originated in America, reported as being coined by the comic-strip artist and writer, Billy de Beck. He was the author of the popular cartoon Barney Google, which often featured dialogues with a horse called Spark Plug. He also created a short cartoon film called Horsefeathers, which appeared in US cinemas in 1928.

It has been said that only birds have feathers, but the long fluffy hair on the lower legs and fetlocks of some breeds of horse, such as Clydesdale, is called "feathering" or "feather." On some draft horses, the hair can almost cover the hooves. While nearly all horses will grow longer hair on the lower legs and back of the fetlocks in winter, "feather" refers to the particularly long, luxuriant growth that is characteristic of certain breeds.

The phrase is also the name of a drink, the Horse Feathers Cocktail. Here's the recipe:

- 2 oz whisky

- 2 dashes bitters

- 4 oz ginger ale (Canada Dry)

Pour all ingredients into a highball glass almost filled with ice cubes. Stir well and serve.

But if you're going to ruin good whisky by mixing it with all those other things, I'll have to say "horse feathers"!

horse of a different color

"A horse of a different color" means another matter entirely.

Pure-bred horses are registered at birth and the information includes hair color. When a horse is sold, the registration is also transferred. Occasionally, the color recorded on the registration doesn't match the actual color of the horse. Horses' coats do sometimes change color as they age, but I'd be inclined to suspect that the horse being sold is not the one represented on the registration but an entirely different horse.

The saying has been around since at least the 1600s. Shakespeare wrote, in Twelfth Night, this dialogue by Maria: "My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour." It's possible that the phrase evolved from that speech but my guess is that the idiom already existed and Shakespeare was twisting it.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and Toto, along with the Strawman, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, find themselves at the gates of Emerald City. They experience difficulty convincing the Guardian of the Emerald City Gates to let them in. When they finally persuade him, he says: "Well, bust my buttons! Why didn't you say that in the first place? That's a horse of a different color! Come on in!"

Once the group is inside, the next scene shows the group in a horse-drawn carriage and the horse, of course, changes color from shot to shot. Dorothy remarks to the driver, "I've never seen a horse like that before!" And the driver responds, "No, and never will again, I fancy. There's only one of him, and he's it. He's the Horse of a Different Color you've heard tell about."

horse sense

Horse sense means common sense, or the ability to make good judgments or decisions.

Horse sense may refer to the accumulation of knowledge about horses acquired by humans. In order to buy, care for, train, handle, breed and work with horses, one must know a great deal about them. We've been using horses for thousands of years and writing about them for nearly as long.

On the other hand, as W.C. Fields apparently said, horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.

When coining a new phrase, horses wouldn't seem to be the obvious choice of animal to act as a yardstick for mental ability. Owls might, perhaps, because they have been a symbol for wisdom for a very long time, or foxes, because they have a reputation for being quick and clever. But whoever coined the term "horse feathers" associated horses with a certain lack of refined intellect.

So it seems that the combination of "horse" and "sense" was meant to convey a practical but unsophisticated country type of sense, which does have considerable value.

The phrase may have originated with cowboys in the wild west. The expression is often attributed to the American writer James Kirke Paulding, who wrote the novel Westward Ho! in 1832.

On the other hand, it may have arisen in England, where horses have always been loved. The English romantic novelist Evelyn Malcolm wrote Forsaken; Love's Battle for Heart, published in 1805, which includes some dialogue about horse sense.

All I know for sure is that horse sense is something we'd all like to have.

if wishes were horses, beggars would ride

This is both proverb and nursery rhyme, originating in the 1500s, which suggests that if wishing could make things happen, then even the poorest people would have everything they wanted.

One common version of the rhyme:

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

If turnips were watches, I'd wear one by my side.

If 'if's' and 'and's' were pots and pans,

There'd be no work for tinkers' hands.

The first recognizable ancestor of the rhyme was recorded in William Camden's Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine, printed in 1605, which contained the lines, "If wishes were thrushes beggars would eat birds."

John Ray's Collection of English Proverbs, 1670, recorded this version: "If wishes were buttercakes, beggars might bite."

The first version with modern wording was in James Kelly's Scottish Proverbs, Collected and Arranged, 1721: "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

And, if wishes were books, I'd own a great many more than I do now!

one-horse town

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as "a small or rural town; a town where nothing important or exciting happens."

This expression, first recorded in 1857, presumably alluded to a town so small that a single horse would suffice for its transportation needs. Or, perhaps, that only one horse was available for hire. These days, it might refer to a town with only one traffic light. But, of course, a small town could have dozens of horses or traffic lights and still be boring enough to rate the term "one-horse town."

Charles Dickens, in his magazine All the Year Round (1871), said "'One-horse' is an agricultural phrase, applied to anything small or insignificant, or to any inconsiderable or contemptible person, as a 'one-horse town,' a 'one-horse bank,' a 'one-horse hotel,' a 'one-horse lawyer,' and so on."

One of the earliest recorded uses comes in a poem The One-Horse Town, published in Graham's Illustrated Magazine (Philadelphia) and offering the chorus: "In this mean little, green little one-horse town."

Some who live in small towns try to escape them, but others idealize one-horse towns, regarding them as cheerful and peaceful places where the residents are friendly. The residents are often supportive of each other, though they may view newcomers with extreme suspicion.

A note in the Weekly Champion & Press of July 27, 1861 reads, "The citizens of Horsetown, California have raised the Stars and Stripes on a tall pole near the bridge over Clear Creek, and just beyond the flag and staff they have erected a gibbet with this inscription: 'Salute the Flag unconditionally or hang.'"

Now, I'd call that very insular. And downright unfriendly. Definitely "one-horsish."

you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink

This English proverb tells us that a horse, just like a human, drinks only if it wants to. The proverb is usually used in the senses of "there's only so much you can do" or "people will do what they want" or "you can't help people who don't want to be helped."

Apparently, this proverb is one of the oldest in English, having been recorded in Old English Homilies, 1175.

with bells on!

"I'll be there with bells on!"

That was my response last week to a friend who invited me to a party. She said she knew it meant I was eager and ready to participate, and she was right. But where did the phrase come from?

According to an online phrase dictionary, it originated in the late 1800s, and most early citations suggest a US origin. The phrase is paralleled in the UK by "with (brass) knobs on," which means, "with additional ornament." This is recorded from the 1930s onward. The knobs allude to iron bedsteads which were common at the time the term was coined. The better class beds were embellished with brass knobs at the top of each bedpost.

The explanation most often put forward for "with bells on" is that bells were worn as part of jesters' costumes. The "going to a party" scenario certainly fits with that. However, the distance in time and place between the world of medieval court jesters and the emergence of the phrase in 20th century USA tends to call that explanation into question.

The two best explanations have to do with horses.

Bells were used to decorate the harnesses of horses in parades, circuses or other gala circumstances, as depicted on old Christmas cards. Someone coming to a party with bells on was planning to come in with a flourish to boost the festive spirit.

US immigrants used large, sturdy wooden carts, called Conestoga wagons, for transport. These were drawn by teams of horses or mules whose collars were fitted with headdresses of bells. According to George Stumway, in Conestoga Wagon 1750-1850, the waggoneers personalized the bells to tunings they liked and took great pride in them. If a wagon became stuck, a teamster who came to the rescue often asked for a set of bells as reward. Arriving at a destination without one's bells hurt a driver's professional pride, whereas getting there with bells on was a source of satisfaction.

I'd better sew some little bells on my shoes to wear to my friend's party.

3 ~ Raining Cats & Dogs

A heavy rain is falling, which is just the cat's pajamas on this Wet Coast. But don't go barking up the wrong tree, because I'm going to let the cat out of the bag. It's only water falling out of the sky, not any of our favorite household pets. And, before you decide I'm going to the dogs with a shaggy dog story, let's look at some familiar phrases.

it's raining cats and dogs

In the England of the 1700s and 1800s heavy rain would sometimes carry dead animals and other debris down a city's filthy streets. Even though cats and dogs never literally showered down from the sky, they became associated with severe rainstorms.

The first appearance of the phrase was in Jonathan Swift's A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation in 1738: "I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs."

The weather on the northwest coast of North America can often be described that way. In Denmark, however, it rains shoemaker's apprentices, and in Norway, troll women. The weather in Bosnia, however, is worst of all because there, apparently, it rains crowbars.

let the cat out of the bag

If you let the cat out of the bag, you're revealing a secret.

Humorist and writer Will Rogers once said, "Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in." That certainly applies to cats as well as secrets.

The first documented use of the phrase comes from a book review in a 1760 issue of The London Magazine, the reviewer lamenting, "We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag." There are two main theories explaining where the phrase actually originated but neither is very plausible.

The first claims the phrase refers to the cat o' nine tails, used by the British Royal Navy for punishment aboard its ships. The whip's nine knotted cords could badly scratch a sailor's back, like a cat's claws. The bag comes into play because the "cat," being made of leather, was kept in a sack to protect it from drying out and losing its flexibility. A sailor due for punishment would have feared letting that cat out of the bag.

The other theory suggests the phrase came from livestock fraud. Merchants would sell customers live piglets, which were stored in bags for easy transport. The buyer wouldn't discover they'd been cheated until they got home and a cat popped out of the bag. However, knowing cats as I do, I'm sure the cat would have been yelling its head off and clawing the bag to ribbons before they even left the market.

Perhaps the phrase merely represents an entertaining image of what happens when a secret is revealed. The shock and surprise when such truth is revealed could be likened to the commotion raised by a frightened cat suddenly loosed from the bag that imprisoned it. Or perhaps it comes from the fact that when either secrets or cats are let out, they go wherever they want.

more than one way to skin a cat

A problem generally has more than one solution. Or, there may be several ways to accomplish the same goal.

In 1855, Charles Kingsley used one old British form in Westward Ho! "There are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream (or with butter)." For a dog, it was said, "there are more ways of killing a dog than choking him with pudding."

In 1678, in the second edition of John Ray's collection of English proverbs, he gives the phrase as, "there are more ways to kill a dog than hanging." That's obviously more lethal and permanent than choking on pudding.

Another printed citation of this proverb is in an 1840 short story by the American humorist Seba Smith, The Money Diggers: "There are more ways than one to skin a cat, so are there more ways than one of digging for money."

The American term "to skin a cat," means to perform a gymnastic exercise that involves passing the feet and legs between the arms while hanging by the hands from a horizontal bar and pulling oneself up into a sitting position.

Why would anyone actually skin a cat? To make money. In the 1700s and 1800s, cat skins were valuable, used as a cheap fur trimming and also to make felt for hats.

In the southern US areas, the phrase is often used to refer to catfish, a fish that is usually skinned before cooking but, since catfish do not live everywhere, this is just a local application of the proverb.

Because I'm a cat-lover, the talk of skinning one would make me wince if I didn't know there was no possibility of accomplishing that on a live cat. Those claws can be deadly.

the cat's pajamas

This slang phrase became popular in the US in the 1920s. In those days "cat" was used to describe unconventional flappers of the jazz era. It was then combined with "pajamas" (a relatively new women's fashion in the 1920s) to describe something that was the very best, thus making it highly desirable and eagerly sought.

The phrase must have been popular. The New York Times, in 1922, reported a publicity stunt by an unknown woman in which she paraded along 5th Avenue clad in yellow silk pajamas, accompanied by four cats similarly dressed.

In the jazz era, dozens of nonsense phrases combining an animal with a part of the human body or a piece of clothing were used by the cool kids. Here are some, all with the same meaning as "the cat's pajamas":

the bee's knees

the cat's meow

the dog's bollocks

the snake's hips

the gnat's elbow

the elephant's instep (or wrist or arches)

the cuckoo's chin

the duck's quack

the eel's ankles,

the bullfrog's beard

the leopard's stripes

the sardine's whiskers

the clam's garter

I'm not the only one who thinks such phrases are fun. The Cat's Pajamas is a 1926 American comedy silent film and the same title has been used for a music band, a song, a night club, and a hostel, to name just the ones I saw at a quick glance.


Catgut is a type of tough cord made from the natural fiber found in the walls of animal intestines, particularly sheep, though it is occasionally made from the intestines of cattle, hogs, horses, mules, or donkeys. Despite its name, no cat intestines are used in catgut.

The cord is used for surgical ligatures and sutures, for the strings of violins and related instruments, and for the strings of tennis rackets and archery bows. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians and the later Greeks and Romans used the intestines of herbivorous animals for much the same purposes. The origin of the term catgut is obscure; we do not know if the intestines of cats were ever put to such uses.

However, the word catgut may have been an abbreviation of the word "cattlegut." Alternatively, it may have derived by folk etymology from "kitgut" or "kitstring"—the word "kit," meaning fiddle, having at some point been confused with the word "kit" meaning a young cat.

I'm not a fan of classical violin music and have sometimes wondered if the sound produced by a violin, which sounds to me like the yowling of an angry cat, didn't give rise to the idea that violin strings might actually be made of cat guts.

not enough room to swing a cat

If there's not enough room to swing a cat, you're in very cramped quarters.

The earliest citation for the phrase was in 1665, by which point it would already have been in common use, and may have originated in naval slang. It is commonly thought to allude to the cat-o'-nine-tails, or "cat," a whip with nine lashes often used to punish offenders in the British Royal Navy. The whipping was administered on the upper deck of a ship, because on the main decks below there wasn't room to swing a "cat."

However, another theory says the idiom derived from literally swinging a cat around by the tail. There's plenty of evidence in favor of this one.

The explanations are gruesome, and certainly loathsome to cat lovers or, indeed, any animal lover. Cats were used in target practice during the 16th century. The 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says that sometimes "two cats were swung by their tails over a rope." At other times, according to the dictionary, a cat in a bag or a sack (leather bottle) "was swung to the bough of a tree."

Shakespeare refers to the practice in 1599 in Much Ado About Nothing.

When Mark Twain used the phrase "swing a cat" in the 1800s in Innocents Abroad, he was obviously referring to a four-legged cat: "Notwithstanding all this furniture, there was still room to turn around in, but not to swing a cat in, at least with entire security to the cat."

One more theory offered is that "cat" is a cat boat, which is a small sailboat with its mast stepped in the bow. The "swing" is the space necessary for the anchored boat to swing with the tide without fouling the lines of other vessels. But this one is easily dismissed since cat boats date only from the 1840s, and people have been writing about swinging cats since the 1660s.

going to the dogs

According to the Macmillan English Dictionary, if a place or an organization is going to the dogs, it is not as good as it was in the past. People often say things like, "This country's going to the dogs. Things aren't like they were 30 years ago," or, "This train service is going to the dogs. The trains are always late."

The phrase means descending into dissipation and ruin. Similar phrases are "go to pot" and "go to rack and ruin."

As far back as the 1500s, bad or stale food thought unsuitable for human consumption was thrown to the dogs. The expression caught on and expanded to include any person or thing that was ruined, or looked terrible, or otherwise came to a bad end.

One source states that the expression originated in ancient China where dogs, by tradition, were not permitted within the walls of cities. Consequently, stray dogs roamed the areas outside the city walls and lived off rubbish thrown out of the city by its inhabitants. Criminals and social outcasts were often expelled from cities, sent to live among the rubbish and the dogs. Such people were said to have gone to the dogs, not only literally but metaphorically in the sense that their lives had taken a distinct turn for the worse.

If you speak of "the dogs" in the UK, however, people may assume you're talking about greyhound racing, a popular pastime since the early 1900s. The British Greyhound Racing Board claims that around 4 million people each year "go to the dogs."

My to-do list is getting longer. It can only mean that my self-discipline has gone to the dogs.

barking up the wrong tree

You're wasting your time and energy by making the wrong assumption, making the wrong choice, or asking the wrong person the wrong question.

The allusion is to hunting dogs barking at the bottom of trees where they mistakenly think their quarry is hiding.

The earliest known printed citation is in James Kirke Paulding's Westward Ho! (1832): "Here he made a note in his book, and I begun to smoke him for one of those fellows that drive a sort of a trade of making books about old Kentuck and the western country: so I thought I'd set him barking up the wrong tree a little, and I told him some stories that were enough to set the Mississippi a-fire; but he put them all down in his book." The phrase appeared in several American newspapers throughout the 1830s.

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