bum’s rush

When you get the “bum’s rush,” you’re hustled out the way a bum would be hurried out of a bar or restaurant for begging from the customers. A bum is a down-and-outer trying to cadge money or drinks. Today, we would probably call him a “street person.” The way it’s done is to grab the bum/hobo/tramp/homeless person by the back…

an eye for an eye

This phrase describes the law of retaliation (lex talionis) in that the person who causes another person to suffer should suffer in an equal amount. It originated in the Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, 1792-1750 BCE. The code survives today in the Akkadian language, and the phrase was used in the King James Bible: “…it hath been said, An…

salt of the earth

This phrase is used to describe people considered to be of great worth and reliability. It originates from the King James Bible, in Matthew 5:13, where Jesus said to his disciples, “Ye are the salt of the earth,” meaning, so it is said, that they were more valuable than gold. These words are still used to praise the finest common…

busman’s holiday

If you’re taking a “busman’s holiday,” you’re spending your free time doing the same thing you do during work. For example, a carpenter who spends a weekend repairing a friend’s house is taking a busman’s holiday. “Busman” refers to the driver of early buses, which were powered by horses. The phrase is originally British, dating from the end of the…

chasing rainbows

“Chasing rainbows” means to pursue a “useless quest,” and originated at least as early as 1450.  The idea of the elusive, evasive rainbow, always tantalizingly one step ahead of us but never within reach, is an interesting one. It came from old English literature and is frequently used. In fact, a film made in 1930 was named after the common…

quid pro quo

Quid pro quo is Latin, literally “something for something, one thing for another.”  As we use it today, it means a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something, or an exchange of goods or services, in which one transfer is contingent upon the other. For example, “The pardon was a quid pro quo for their help in…

forty winks

If you’re taking “forty winks,” you’re having a nap. The implication is that you’re lying in the closed-eye position, the “extended wink” assumed during sleep, but that you don’t fall into a deep sleep. The phrase “forty winks” can be traced back to Dr. Kitchiner’s 1821 self-help guide, The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life. In a November 1821 issue…