Tag: What Made the Crocodile Cry?

white elephants

Under the auspices of white elephants?! The origins of phrases, punctuation marks, and Cockney rhyming slang

In the phrase ‘under the auspices of ’, what are auspices? The root of auspices and the more familiar adjective auspicious are closely linked. If something is auspicious it bodes well, giving promise of a favourable outcome. In Roman times, people tried to predict future events by watching the behaviour of birds and animals. An […]

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hatchet

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 […]

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Where do odd idioms like 'in a nutshell' and 'by the skin of your teeth' come from?

6 popular idioms explained

Let’s have a look at some of the curious idioms found in the English language. The explanations are often stranger than you might imagine! Where does the expression ‘by the skin of my teeth’ come from? After Shakespeare, a prolific coiner of new words, the King James translation of the Bible has been the biggest […]

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The meaning of nice and bully have both changed drastically over time.

What is the strangest change in a word’s meaning?

I can only give a very subjective answer, but I’ll start with a few nominations. Most of the words in everyday English have been in (and occasionally out of) circulation for centuries. A study of them in a historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which charts chronologically the story of a word from […]

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09 Aug - Collective nouns

Who decides on the right collective noun for something?

The short answer is no one. While some languages, such as Spanish, French, and German, are ruled by committee there is no academy or governing body that decides on how English should evolve. Indeed English has never been under the administrative rule of a language academy. A keeper of English, according to the eighteenth-century English […]

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real mccoy

Was there ever a real McCoy?

As so often in cases like these, there are numerous contenders for the role of McCoy in this phrase, which has been with us since at least the 1850s. Part of the problem facing researchers is that McCoy is a fairly common surname. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the earliest versions of […]

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What is a contronym or Janus word?

What is a contronym?

Single words that have two contradictory meanings are known as contronyms. The number of contronyms in English is small, but they are significant. Contronym list dust: 1 to remove dust. 2 to cover with dust. hysterical: 1 frightened and out of control. 2 funny. nervy: 1 showing nerve or courage. 2 excitable and volatile. moot: […]

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