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Yobs over the moon about burying the hatchet: popular idioms explained

Why do we call hooligans yobs?

Yob is a good example of ‘back-slang’—a form of slang in which words are spelt backwards as a code so that others (usually parents) are unable to understand them. ‘Yob’ is simply ‘boy’ spelt backwards; the ‘backward’ element seems appropriate in the definition of retrograde behaviour.

Why do we bury the hatchet?

This phrase, meaning to end an argument or conflict, refers back to a Native American custom in the seventeenth century whereby a hatchet or tomahawk (the axe of the North American Indians, used as a weapon of chase and war) would be buried in the ground to signal the laying down of arms and the declaration of peace between warring groups.

Perhaps the most famous use of it in recent times was by the then PM Harold Wilson when he said of his Cabinet: ‘I’ve buried all the hatchets. But I know where I’ve buried them and I can dig them up again if necessary’.

Why do we talk about stealing someone’s thunder?

This idiom, defined as using the ideas devised by another person for your own advantage, has a gratifyingly literal story behind it.

It is quite rare for etymologists to pinpoint the very first use of a word or phrase. In this case, however, the eighteenth-century actor and playwright Colley Cibber, in his Lives of the Poets, recounted the exact events that spawned the idea of ‘stealing thunder’.

Alexander Pope also mentioned them in his poem ‘The Dunciad’. The story they tell involves a man called John Dennis, an actor manager of the early part of the eighteenth century who had invented a machine that reproduced for the stage the sound of thunder.

Dennis used his invention for the first time in his own play, Appius and Virginia, performed at Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1709. By all accounts Mr Dennis’s writing skills did not match his creative ones, and his play closed after a short run, to be replaced by a production of Macbeth performed by another company.

Dennis himself went along to the opening night and was outraged to hear his thunder machine being used. The story goes that he stood up and shouted, ‘Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.’

The phrase seems to have taken a while to enter the language figuratively. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of its use is as late as 1900. It is likely, though, that it was used in conversation and particularly within theatrical circles long before then.

Where does the expression ‘playing to the gallery’ come from?

Galilee, the northern region of ancient Palestine where Jesus is said to have lived and travelled, is probably the ultimate source of gallery, which entered English from the Italian word galleria, a church porch. The word was probably an alteration of galilea, ‘galilee’, which was used as the name for a chapel or porch at the church entrance. The idea behind this was probably that the porch was at the end of the church furthest away from the altar, just as Galilee, an outlying portion of the Holy Land, was far from Jerusalem.

From the mid-seventeenth century, the highest seating in a theatre was called the gallery, and this was where the cheapest seats—and the least refined members of the audience—were found. Hence, to play to the gallery, an expression dating from the late nineteenth century, is to act in a showy or exaggerated way to appeal to popular taste.

Who was the fat lady whose song meant the end of something?

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings is a well-worn phrase used to reassure someone that there is still time for something good to happen. It is to be found particularly in sport as a message of consolation to the losing team in the course of a championship, and is often attributed to Yogi Berra, the former Major League Baseball player and manager whose witticisms are well known (such as ‘Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true,’ ‘The future ain’t what it used to be,’ and—one which sounds very much like the phrase in question—‘It ain’t over till it’s over’).

Certainly the first quote found to date comes from the sporting world: the Yale Dictionary of Quotations includes an extract from the Dallas Morning News from 10 March 1976, in which a director of the baseball team Texas Tech Red Raiders is reported to have bravely used the phrase during a particularly tight match for his team: ‘The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings’.

Operas, of course, frequently involve a well-endowed soprano closing the proceedings with a famous aria, and so the connection with the idiom is a very plausible one. That said, the etymologist Michael Quinion quotes a 1976 booklet of Southern Quotes and Sayings that gives other forms to the saying, including ‘Church ain’t over till the fat lady sings’. If, as seems likely, the phrase had been around for some time before being recorded in print, it may have related to something entirely different, and have been part of Southern American slang for many years before.

Why are we over the moon when we’re really happy?

Over the moon is a very old expression that dates right back to the seventeenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of it is from 1718 and an extract from a play in which a character exclaims: ‘I shall jump over the Moon for Joy!’.

It was probably already a common expression when the nursery rhyme of around 1765 was first recorded: ‘High diddle, diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle, The Cow jump’d over the Moon.’ (The ‘High’ was later altered to ‘Hey’.)

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.

In the book What Made the Crocodile Cry?, Susie Dent draws on her popular television segment on the curiosities of English to tackle fascinating puzzles.

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