short takes

Odds and sods — another English version of bits and pieces Have rocks in one’s head — be stupid. (Slang; 1940s) Cool as a cucumber — calm, relaxed, in control of your emotions. (1732) Lie low — keep out of sight, bide one’s time (Shakespeare, 1599) Alike as two peas in a pod — two identical items or people (1500s)…

going nineteen to the dozen

“Going nineteen to the dozen” means going at breakneck speed. Apparently, it arose during the heyday of the Cornish tin and copper mines, which were often hit by floods. In the 1700s, coal-powered, steam-driven pumps were installed to clear the water. When working at the top rates, the pumps could clear nineteen thousand gallons of water for every twelve bushels…

read the riot act

Today, “reading the riot act” means warning an unruly citizen, or citizens, to stop behaving badly. An actual Riot Act was passed by the British government in 1714 and came into force in 1715. Under this English law, any group of twelve or more persons that worried the authorities could be deemed a “riotous and tumultuous assembly” and arrested if…

right as rain

“Right as rain” means things are absolutely fine, perfectly correct, just the way they should be. For example, “He was very ill, but he’s right as rain now.” The phrase originated in Britain, where rainy weather is a normal fact of life and was first recorded in 1894. Part of the reason for its popularity may be the alliteration. However,…

touch and go

The literal and original meaning of this phrase is to briefly touch on something and then go on to something else. But these days we usually take “touch and go” to describe a risky, precarious, or delicate state of things, where the slightest change could prove disastrous. We might say of a heart operation that it was touch and go…

a fly in the ointment

A “fly in the ointment” is a minor flaw or irritation that spoils the success or enjoyment of something, especially one that wasn’t at first apparent. Example: “We had a cookstove, beans, and plates; the fly in the ointment was the lack of a can opener.” In my opinion, that was more than a fly; that was a great bumbling…

a sight for sore eyes

“A sight for sore eyes” is a person or thing that you are extremely pleased or relieved to see. It’s similar to saying that a welcome sound is music to your ears. It can also be a way of expressing that you think someone is good-looking or saying that some object makes you are happy when you look at it.…