Tag Archives: Grammar

Hair of the dog

I am currently nursing an urgent after party headache and so this phrase seemed to hold a particular relevance. Meaning ‘a small measure of drink intended to cure a hangover’, it is actually short for ‘the hair of the dog that bit me’. It originates from the medieval belief that when someone was bitten by a rabid dog, a cure could be made by applying the same dog’s hair to the infected wound. The dangers of this inconvenient suggestion should be immediately apparent. As my trusted source at somewhere I’ve now lost the link for  so deftly puts it, “How many people managed to get bitten again when trying to approach the aforesaid dog to acquire the hair to achieve this completely useless remedy isn’t known.”

Enough of the writing, I’m going to find a dog of my own.



Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

Bird/Chick (when referring to a female)

I’m afraid that I have failed you all, for I was unable to find any solid history behind the reasons why a female might be referred to as a bird or a chick. It was suggested by one source that the description fits because women are ‘flighty’. Another proposed that a man might refer to a woman as a bird because he ‘wants her to see his pecker’.

These worthy explanations aside, a possible alternative could be that the English ‘chick’ has derived from the Spanish word for a girl, which is ‘chica’. The step onto bird is easy to see from this position.

Not wanting to accept that the Queen’s language might have been sullied in this manner (joke) I turned elsewhere for answers. In my reading I found that in 1400’s Europe prostitutes were referred to as ‘chicks’ because they were considered in essence to be of that same class of animal. If this is indeed the correct origin, which I suspect it might be, by calling a woman a chick you are essentially calling her a whore. Just as well I don’t, then.


Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

Naked as a Jay bird

‘Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,’ Atticus – one of my favourite characters of all time – lays down some truths for his children in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I have no idea what the great man is on about, but in terms of the phrase ‘naked as a Jay bird’ goes, I believe that I can do a little better.

If one is as naked as Jay bird one is entirely nude, usually in a public setting without embarrassment and sometimes with a humorous connotation. It was tricky to get to the root of this one (a sound suggestion by loyal reader Sarah Jane) but after some digging I discovered that it was the American equivalent of the good old fashioned British phrase ‘naked as a Robin’. Now we’ve all heard of that one, haven’t we? You crafty Americans – well played, but you won’t pull the wool over the eyes of this soldier.

The difficulty is – of course – that Robins and Jay birds are not remotely naked, in fact they both have a fine plumage. This seemed to stump the good people at Yahoo answers and they withdrew from me their support. In spite of this crushing blow suffered so early in the campaign, I persevered. After a sly spot of skirmishing on Google I found out that Robins and Jay birds are born with only the lightest of downy fluff; that is to say that they are born almost naked. Throw in the fact that as a result of this wardrobe malfunction these birds are, like most nesting birds, rather helpless and pathetic before they reach maturity, and you have your metaphoric link as well.

Why the Jay bird / Robin in particular? I have no idea. Maybe in the case of the Jay bird it has something to do with the fact that they are rascally little devils who often try to tip each other out of the nest before the appropriate time. This behaviour can hardly have gone unnoticed and perhaps it is the Jay bird’s celebrity status that led to his meteoric rise to the summit of informal English language.

Interestingly a ‘Jay’ in American slang refers to a hick, or simpleton (perhaps in English a ‘country bumpkin’). I wonder whether there is any link between the human and bird forms. While we are on the subject, the term ‘Jay walker’ to mean ‘a fool who crosses the streets without any regard for proper regulation or safety’ looks to have originated via a similar route. And so the plot thickens…


Filed under Idioms & Their Origins


The term ‘cliffhanger’ to mean a plot device involving a main character in a precarious dilemma is thought to have come into popular use from the end-of-episode situation in adventure silent films of the early 1900s, where the protagonist was often literally left hanging from the edge of a cliff.

It may have originated with Thomas Hardy’s serial novel A Pair Of Blue Eyes in 1873. At the time newspapers published novels in a serial format with one chapter appearing every month. To ensure continued interest in the story, at one point Hardy chose to leave one of the main protagonists, Henry Knight, hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock. This became the archetypal cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.


Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

Peeping Tom

The name ‘Peeping Tom’ (meaning voyeur) originates from some versions of the legend of Lady Godiva, in which Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry in order to gain a remission of the taxation opposed by her husband on his tenants.

The story goes that Lady Godiva’s husband said he would grant his wife her request if she would strip naked and ride through the streets. After issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, Godiva rode through the town clothed only in her long hair. Just one person – a tailor called Tom – disobeyed her proclamation. Rather filthily, he bored a hole in his shutters and watched Godiva pass with great enthusiasm. Not to worry, though, 0ur hero was struck blind for his sin.


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Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

Taking the piss

‘Taking the piss’ may be a reference to a related expression, ‘piss-proud,’ which refers to morning erections. These have long been popularly attributed to arising by consequence of a full bladder – thereby being something of a ‘false’ erection – and so in a metaphoric sense, someone who is ‘piss-proud’ suffers from false pride. It is possible, therefore, that ‘taking the piss’ refers to the deflating of this false pride, through disparagement or mockery. As knowledge of the expression’s metaphoric origin became lost on users, ‘taking the piss’ came to be synonymous with disparagement or mockery itself, with less regard to the pride of the subject.

Note – ‘taking the mickey’ may be an abbreviated form of the Cockney rhyming slang ‘taking the mickey bliss’, a euphemism for ‘taking the piss.’

PS: WordPress suggests as a tag ‘Gerard Depardieu’ no doubt in reference to his urinating on a plane gaffe. Hilarious.



Filed under Idioms & Their Origins