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The Cat's Pyjamas

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Kitkat
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The Cat's Pyjamas

Post by Kitkat on 23rd September 2016, 17:29

... or to be more precise:

'Spilling the beans on the cat's pyjamas: Popular expressions - what they mean and where we got them'


is the title of a book I'm currently reading. 


The title is self-explanatory.  Written by Judy Parkinson, author of 'I Before E (Except After C)', this extract from the Foreword to the book gives an idea of what it's all about:

The English language has flourished over the centuries.  Some turns of phrase are 'as old as Methuselah' - our ever flexible language often revives phrases that we thought had 'bitten the dust' - and new words and expressions creep into the lexicon all the time.  There's a different 'flavour of the month' for each generation.

So 'strike while the iron's hot; if you want 'to bone up' on the origins of some of the curiosities of the English language, 'take a dekko' through these pages and you'll be 'in seventh heaven'.

This book is 'the bee's knees', 'the cat's whiskers' and 'the cat's pyjamas', all rolled into one, as it 'spills the beans' on the origins of all these expressions and many more.

I will 'make no bones' about it and I won't 'beat about the bush' (after all, don't forget I'm 'talking turkey' here):  this book contains some fascinating and remarkable stories about our best-loved and most colourful phrases.

The staples of our language - those familiar, well-worn expressions and clichés - originate from the most diverse sources.  From the high street to Homer, from advertising to America, from army to air force, from stage to screen ... it's an 'all-singing', all-dancing', round-the-world-trip through our language's history.

......... >>>

The pages of this book are filled with explanations and origins of these expressions that we use every day.
I'm going to take an example of one each day to post up here, starting with:
(I think the last suggestion given is the most likely one)

ALL TICKETY-BOO

There are many synonymous phrases for this enthusiastic statement that everything is 'fine and dandy'.

'Tickety-boo' may come from the word 'ticket', as in 'that's the ticket'.  In the nineteenth century, charities issued tickets to the poor that could be exchange for soup, clothing and coal.

Other sources suggest that the phrase has its origins with the British Army in India, and that it may be an Anglicized version of the Hindi phrase tikai babu, which means 'it's all right, sir'.
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Another nail in the coffin

Post by Kitkat on 24th September 2016, 19:22

ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN

A depressing phrase which is applied to a development that makes a situation progressively worse; one more factor to plunge a person into great disfavour, to hasten his dismissal, downfall or death.  The final nail can be compared with 'the last straw'.

Peter Pindar (Dr J. Wolcot, 1738-1819) wrote in one of his Expostulary Odes (1782):  'Care to our coffin adds a nail, no doubt.'


The phrase was also adopted by smokers.  As early as the 1920s, they referred to cigarettes as 'coffin nails', and this expression became the stock response whenever someone accepted yet another cigarette.

At the time, they were referring to the hazards of a smoker's cough; the links between smoking, cancer and heart disease were only recognised later (when cigarettes earned another nickname - 'cancer sticks').
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Bite the bullet

Post by Kitkat on 25th September 2016, 21:07

TO BITE THE BULLET

To undertake the most challenging part of a feat of endurance, to face danger with courage and fortitude, to behave stoically or to knuckle down to some difficult or unpleasant task.

The expression originated in field surgery before the use of anaesthetics.  A surgeon about to operate on a wounded soldier would give him a bullet to bite on, both to distract him from the pain and to make him less likely to cry out.
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On the nail

Post by Kitkat on 26th September 2016, 18:04

ON THE NAIL

This is a very old phrase meaning to pay immediately or on the spot.  Generally, it means 'now', 'at once', 'exactly' or 'dead on'.

In medieval times, a nail was a shallow vessel mounted on a post or stand and business deals were closed by payments placed in the 'nail'.  It is said that if a buyer was satisfied with the sample of grain shown on the nail, he paid on the spot.

Outside the Bristol Corn Exchange, such nails can still be seen in the form of four bronze pillars.
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To run the gauntlet

Post by Kitkat on 29th September 2016, 16:09

TO RUN THE GAUNTLET

To be attacked on all sides or, in modern use, to be severely criticized or to try to extracate oneself from a situation while under attack on all sides.

The expression appeared in English at the time of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) as 'gantlope', meaning the passage between two files of soldiers.  It is an amalgamation of the Swedish words galop (passageway), gata (way), and lop (course).

'Running the gauntlet' was a form of punishment said to have originated in Sweden amongst soldiers and sailors.  The compan or crew, armed with whips, thongs or rods, were assembled in two facing rows, and the miscreant had to run the course between them, while each man dealt him as severe a blow as he thought befitted the misdemeanour.

Native Americans also had a similar, more brutal, form of retribution, because here the victim was not intended to survive the blows he suffered during his run.
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To be given the third degree

Post by Kitkat on 30th September 2016, 15:49

TO BE GIVEN THE THIRD DEGREE

This is to be the object of detailed questioning to get to the bottom of an inquiry, whether it be criminal or general.

One possible source of the phrase is Free Masonry, where the third degree is the highest level of membership.  Those wishing to be considered as Master Masons must sit an intensive exam with interrogatory-style questions.

In America, the term is applied to the use by the police of exhaustive questioning to extract a confession or incriminating information from a suspect, criminal, accomplice or witness.

'Third-degree treatment' is also used as a euphemism for torture.
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To give short shrift

Post by Kitkat on 2nd October 2016, 14:01

TO GIVE SHORT SHRIFT

To treat someone peremptorily and unsympathetically, without heeding any mitigating arguments, or simply to make short work of something.

Shrift is defined as a confession to a priest.  'Short shrift' originally referred to the limited amount of time given to a convict between condemnation, confession and absolution, and then finally execution.
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Here's mud in your eye!

Post by Kitkat on 3rd October 2016, 22:29

HERE'S MUD IN YOUR EYE!

A drinking toast, the sentiments of which could be read either way.  One niterpretation is that it is to wish good fortune, as it was used in the trenches of the First World War when soldiers would naturally rather mud was thrown in their eye than anything more lethal.

Another, somewhat less good-natured, theory comes from horse racing, in which, with one's own horse out in front, it will be kicking mud into the eyes of the slower runners behind.

The phrase itself is thought to originate from a Bible story - featured in chapter nine of the Gospel of St John - when Jesus puts mud in the eyes of a blind man and restores his sight.
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Break a leg!

Post by Kitkat on 5th October 2016, 10:30

BREAK A LEG!

The theatre is notoriously superstitious, and among actors it is deemed bad luck to wish a colleague 'good luck' before going on stage.  Instead, this phrase - a traditional, if somewhat black, euphemism - is employed to wish someone luck in a performance, especially on opening night.

There are a number of possible sources for the expression and the earliest recorded use is in fact German; Luftwaffe pilots in the Second World War would send each other off to fight with the cheery saying 'Hals und Beinbruch', meaning 'break your neck and leg'.

The phrase was also used in English around this time to mean 'make a strenuous effort', so it may have simply been an instruction to put on the best show you possibly could.

A more fanciful explanation is that the saying came from the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) in his private box at Ford's Theatre, Washington, DC, on 14 April 1865.

The murderer, John Wilkes Booth (1838-65), a reputable Shakespearean actor, escaped after firing the shot by leaping down on to the stage, breaking his leg in the process.
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No room to swing a cat

Post by Kitkat on 6th October 2016, 21:37

NO ROOM TO SWING A CAT

A commonly used description for a restricted or cramped space.

There are various suggested origins for this phrase, 'cat' was an abbreviation for 'cat-o-nine-tails', a whip of nine knotted lashes or 'tails', which from the eighteenth century was used in the army and navy, as well as on criminals in gaol, and was not formally banned in England as an instrument of punishment until 1948. Since space was restricted on sailing ships, whippings were carried out on deck, as there was 'no room to swing a cat' elsewhere on board.

However, while this may seem the most likely origin, 'cat' is also an old Scottish word for a rogue, and if the expression derives from this, the swing is that of the condemned criminal hanging from the gallows.

Equally, suspending live cats in leather sacks and then swinging the sacks as moving targets for archers angry was once a popular, if barbaric, amusement, and this too has been suggested as a source for the phrase.
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Re: The Cat's Pyjamas

Post by Stardust on 7th October 2016, 09:36

Kitkat wrote:
NO ROOM TO SWING A CAT
Equally, suspending live cats in leather sacks and then swinging the sacks as moving targets for archers  was once a popular, if barbaric, amusement, and this too has been suggested as a source for the phrase.



HELP! Are you sure they don't do that any more, Kitkat? Can I come out of hiding?



Be grateful for even the smallest thing, blessings come in many disguises.
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Straight from the horse's mouth

Post by Kitkat on 7th October 2016, 18:01

STRAIGHT FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH

Some knowledge received direct from the highest authority, from the person whose word need not be doubted.

The expression comes from horseracing, where the tips to be trusted came from those closest to the breeders and trainers.  The phrase implies that you've heard something from the best possible source - in this case, the horse itself.

A variation on this as a source is the idea that the true age of a horse can be ascertained by an examination of its mouth.  The first permanent horse teeth appear in the centre of the jaw at the age of two and a half.  A year later, a second pair appears, and at between four and five years, the third pair appears.

So, no matter what an owner may say about a horse's age, the evidence is in the horse's mouth.
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To pass the buck

Post by Kitkat on 8th October 2016, 16:19

TO PASS THE BUCK

To evade blame or responsibility and shift all criticism elsewhere. An American phrase from the game of poker, the 'buck' being the token object that is passed to the person whose turn it is to deal the next hand.

Originally, the token was a buckhorn knife, so called because its handle was made from the horn of a buck, or male deer (although some sources argue that the buck was either a piece of buckshot or a buck's tail, which early hunters carried as a talisman).

The earliest recorded use of the phrase is by Mark Twain (1835-1910) in 1872, in the first decade after the end of the American Civil War (1861-65), when poker or 'stud poker' - the stake was probably orignally a stud horse - were played in bars by lumberjacks, miners and hunters,those being the days before it became known as a 'gentleman's' game.



THE BUCK STOPS HERE

A declaration meaning 'this is where ultimate responsibility lies'.

The most likely origin for the phrase is the poker table, where a buckhorn knife was placed before the player whose turn it was to deal.  'Passing the buck' meant passing responsiiblity on to the next player.

The phrase was made famous by us President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972); president 1945-53), who had it handwritten on a sign on his desk at the White House to remind himself and those around him that he alone had the ultimate responsibility for every decision of his administration.

Some twenty-five years later, President Jimmy Carter (1924-) had the legend reinstated with the same idea in mind.
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As happy as a sandboy

Post by Kitkat on 9th October 2016, 20:11

AS HAPPY AS A SANDBOY

This means to be very happy or in high spirits.

It is a traditional expression from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when sandboys or sandmen drove their donkeys through the streets selling bags of sand taken from beaches.  The sand was used by householders for their gardens, by builders, and by publicans for sanding their floors.

The merriness of the sandboys was probably due, in some part, to the temptation of spending their takings in the hostelries to which they delivered the sand.
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To come up to scratch

Post by Kitkat on 10th October 2016, 17:16

TO COME UP TO SCRATCH

To be good enough to pass a test; to make the grade. This is a colloquialism from the boxing ring dating back to the nineteenth century.

Under the London Prize Ring Rules introduced in 1839, a round in a prizefight ended when one of the fighters was knocked down.  After an interval of thirty seconds, the floored fighter was given eight seconds to make his way, unaided, to a mark scratched in the centre of the ring.

If he failed to reach the mark, he had not 'come up to scratch' and was declared the loser of the bout.
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To paint the town red

Post by Kitkat on 11th October 2016, 13:19

TO PAINT THE TOWN RED

To go out and party, to let your hair down and enjoy an uninhibited celebration, to trip the light fantastic, perhaps even to cause some disturbance in town.

This phrase, thought to have originated in America in the 1880s, may be an allusion to a town's red-light district, that is, the area where prostitutes ply their trade, advertising with red lights in the windows of their brothels, and where rogues might begin the evening before later extending the party to the rest of town.

Alternatively, it may have been a euphemism for a rowdy night in which blood would be spilt.
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Cat got your tongue?

Post by Kitkat on 12th October 2016, 22:40

CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE?

A question directed at a silent partner in a conversation to ask why they're not speaking.

The earliest written example appeared in 1911, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it may have been around since the mid nineteenth century.

As to its origins, numerous theories abound; none firmly proved.  Some argue that it must stem from ancient Middle Eastern punishment techniques, when liars' tongues were ripped out and then fed to kings' cats; while others cite the much-feared whip the 'cat-o'-nine-tails' as the source of the phrase, insinuating that this nasty weapon, used to flog sailors, forced them into silence - both through fear and pain.
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Hue and cry

Post by Kitkat on 13th October 2016, 11:18

HUE AND CRY

A noisy commotion over some spot of bother.

The phrase must have been in use since the beginning of the last millennium because the Norman French word huer means 'to shout'.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, 'hue and cry' was the old legal term for an official outcry made when calling out for assistance, 'with horn and with voice', in the pursuit of a suspected criminal escaping arrest.  All able-bodied men were legally required to join the pursuit - if they refused, they risked being held liable for any theft committed by the fleeing felon.  Thieves failing to respond to the 'hue and cry' were liable to greater penalties once they were caught.

We now chiefly use the phrase to describe the way the news media clamour for someone to be held responsible for high-profile crimes or political mistakes.
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To steal someone else's thunder

Post by Kitkat on 14th October 2016, 11:27

TO STEAL SOMEONE ELSE'S THUNDER

To adopt someone else's own special methods or ideas as if they were one's own.  The story behind the origin of this phrase was recounted by the eighteenth-century actor-manager, playwright annd Poet Laureate Colley Cibber (1671-1757) in his Lives of the Poets (1753), and was also mentioned by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in his poem The Dunciad (1728).

Legend has it that John Dennis (1657-1734), an actor-manager of the early part of the eighteenth century, had invented a machine to make stage thunder, which he employed in his own play, Appius and Virginia, performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1709.

However, Mr Dennis, whatever his inventive talents, was not a particularly gifted playwright; the play did not fill the house and was soon taken off in favour of a production of Macbeth by another company.

Dennis went to their opening night and was astonished to hear his thunder machine in action.  He leapt to his feet and shouted, 'That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play!'

Since the eighteenth century, the phrase has subsequently been refined to become 'to steal one's thunder'.

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Still waters run deep

Post by Kitkat on 15th October 2016, 11:59

STILL WATERS RUN DEEP

However quiet or calm someone may seem on the surface, do not be deceived; there is probably great depth of knowledge, personality or a hot temper lurking below.

This is a Latin proverb, thought to come from Cato's Morals.  The version we use today was first printed in an anonymously authored Middle English verse work 'Cursor Mundi' ('Runner of the World'; c.1300), which includes the line:  'There the flode is deppist the water standis stillist.'

The Malayan proverb, 'Don't think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm', means much the same.

It is never a good idea to show off or talk too much, because as everyone knows, empty vessels make the most noise.  Speech is silver, but silence is golden.
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Back to square one

Post by Kitkat on 17th October 2016, 11:30

BACK TO SQUARE ONE

To begin again, or, less formally, 'Back to where  you started, sunshine!'  This colloquialism possibly derives from board games like snakes and ladders, in which players, through bad luck or poor judgement, have to move their pieces back to the starting point.

Another suggestion is that it comes from the early days of radio football commentaries, when diagrams of the pitch, divided into numbered squares, were printed in radio listings magazines so that listeners could follow the game.

The expression's meaning is similar to 'Back to the drawing board', which means to go back and rethink a complete project or scheme.  Aircraft designers during the Second World War used this phrase when a concept or even a whole design for a new machine proved unworkaable and had to be started all over again.
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To bark up the wrong tree

Post by Kitkat on 18th October 2016, 11:21

TO BARK UP THE WRONG TREE

To be totally off the mark, to waste energy following the wrong course of action, or to have one's attention diverted off the subject in hand.  The phrase dates back to the 1800s and neatly puns a dog's bark with tree bark.

Its origins stem from the American sport of raccoon hunting.  The hounds of the hunting pack are trained to mark the tree in which the raccoon they are pursuing takes shelter, and then to howl at its base until their master arrives to shoot the animal.  The hounds may bark up at the wrong tree, however, if the raccoon has managed to evade them.

The expression first became popular in the early nineteenth century, appearing in the works of James Hall (1793-1868), Davy Cockett (1786-1836) - himself a great raccoon hunter - and Albert Pike (1809-91).

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A feather in one's cap

Post by Kitkat on 19th October 2016, 11:35

A FEATHER IN ONE'S CAP

A personal achievement or honour to be proud of.  The feather is a proud and visible emblem of victory and the gesture of putting a feather in your hat is almost universal in one form or another.

There is an ancient custom, widespread in Asia, among Native Americans and throughout Europe, of adding a feather to one's headgear to mark each enemy killed.   Even today, a sportsman who kills his first woodcock puts a feather from the bird in his hat.

At one time in Hungary, the only people who could wear feathers were those who had killed Turks.
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To come a cropper

Post by Kitkat on 20th October 2016, 12:09

TO COME A CROPPER

To fall heavily, head over heels, or to fail ignominiously.

The origin probably lies in the old term for the hindquarters of a horse, the croup or crupper.  If you fell from a horse in the eighteenth century, you were said to have fallen neck and crop, which came to be used colloquially to mean headlong or head over heels.  So to fall to the ground neck and crop is to 'come a cropper'.

We now use the phrase to mean 'to get into trouble' or 'to fail', rather than literally 'to fall'.
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According to plan

Post by Kitkat on 21st October 2016, 10:29

ACCORDING TO PLAN

A familiar expression that is frequently used ironically to describe things that did not go according to plan.

It derives from falsely upbeat communiqués issued during the First World War, often after a particularly bloody or shambolic operation; with the result that the phrase became associated with official attempts to cover up military incompetence and confusion.

Such inverted use of language creates a coded understanding between those 'in the know', strengthening the sense of camaraderie among those who suffer from such plans.

    Current date/time is 19th October 2018, 16:51