bookworm

“Bookworm” is a general name for any insect that is said to bore through books. It’s also used to describe someone who loves to read books. The damage to books that is commonly attributed to “bookworms” is, in truth, not caused by any species of worm. Usually responsible are the larvae of various types of insects including beetles, moths and…

eight to the bar

“Eight to the bar” is a 30s and 40s phrase used on uptempo dance tunes, as a command to the rhythm section to emphasize 8 beats to every bar of music, making it feel like double-time (as opposed to 4 beats to a bar).  Calling for eight to the bar meant something like, “Speed up the music. Let’s dance!” though…

putting lipstick on a pig

This rhetorical expression, “putting lipstick on a pig,” means you can dress something up but that doesn’t change its essential nature. The phrase “lipstick on a pig” seems to have been coined in the 1900s, but the concept may be older. For example, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” seems to have been in use by…

sesquipedalian

“Sesquipedalian” means polysyllabic, long-winded, bombastic, grandiloquent, or florid. Antonyms are: monosyllabic, laconic, brief, brachysyllabic, terse. The first known use of sesquipedalian was in 1656. The word “sesquipedalian” is, in fact, sesquipedalian. Horace, the Roman poet and satirist, was merely being gently ironic when he cautioned young poets against using sesquipedalia verba –-“words a foot and a half long”– in his…

tie one on

To “tie one on” means to get drunk. In The Wordsworth Book of Euphemisms, Eric Partridge suggests that this expression is derived from “hang one on” (circa 1935), which originated in the US. It is certainly clear that a “hangover” is the miserable memento of having hung or tied one on. Some sites claim that “tie one on” dates back…

the fourth word herd

Here’s another collection of unusual words and phrases that have too much history to be “one-liners” but not enough to warrant a full blog post: Bloviate — empty, pompous, political speech, originating in Ohio about 1850 and used by US President Warren G. Harding, who described it as “the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants, and…

fortune cookie

Most of us enjoy a fortune cookie after a meal in a Chinese restaurant. The crisp cookie is usually made from flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame seed oil with a piece of paper inside, a “fortune,” on which is printed an aphorism or a prophecy. The message may also include a Chinese phrase with translation and/or a list of lucky…

put a sock in it

If  you say, “Put a sock in it,” you’re telling someone to be quiet. This phrase originated in the early 1900s and is generally used when someone is annoying others by being noisy. Imagine the pleasure of stuffing a sock in that person’s mouth.  One of the earliest examples of it to appear in print is a definition of the…

computer cookie

Last Sunday I wrote about “smart cookies” and a friend said, “But what about computer cookies?” So, here we go. When you visit a website, the website sends the cookie to your computer, which stores it in a file inside your web browser. The term “cookie” was coined by web-browser programmer Lou Montulli in 1994. He derived it from the…

in dire straits

If you’re “in dire straits,” you’re in desperate trouble or impending danger. “Dire” first appears in English, as a mutation from Latin dirus, in the mid-1500s, and it became popular as a useful adjective to mean extremely serious. “Straits” are narrow passages of water which connect two larger bodies of water. Navigating straits can be perilous. In the mid-1500s again,…