doohickey

A “doohickey” is a small object or gadget, especially one whose name the speaker does not know or cannot recall. Synonyms are those well-used words: thingamabob, thingamajig, whatchamacallit. It may seem as if a “doohickey” is a thing that’s too unimportant to have a name of its own, but no object is that unimportant. It’s just that there are so…

flibbertigibbet

A “flibbertigibbet” is a Middle English word, referring to a frivolous, flighty, or whimsical person, usually a young woman. In modern use it is a slang term for a gossipy or excessively talkative person. It arose around the 1540s, probably a nonsense word meant to sound like babbling or prattling on in meaningless chatter, but by 1600, it also was…

make a good fist of it

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that the phrase “make a good fist of it” is British, and means to do (something) well. For example, “Despite her inexperience, she made a remarkably good fist of chairing the meeting.” On the other hand, if you make a poor fist of a task, you are incompetent or inadequate at doing it. In such various…

turnkey

“Turnkey” has two meanings. The first, known from about 1647, is a person in charge of the keys of a prison. The second, known from the 1920s, is an adjective used to describe something that is “complete and ready to be used.” A turnkey product indicates that the customer, upon receiving the product, just needs to turn the ignition key…

baloney

“Baloney,” which means “nonsense,” apparently originated around 1894 as a spelling variant of bologna sausage (traditionally made from odds and ends of inferior meat), representing the popular pronunciation. It was also used in the ring, in early 20th century slang, to mean an inferior fighter.  The Oxford English Dictionary says about the baloney-bologna connection: “[Commonly regarded as from bologna (sausage)…

the sixth word herd

Galumphing — to prance about in a triumphant manner. Lewis Carroll coined the word for Through the Looking Glass (1871) in “Jabberwocky,” apparently by blending gallop and triumph. ~~~~~~~~~~~ A pretty penny — a considerable profit, or a large sum of money. The expression came into the language in the 1700s. George Eliot used it in her famous novel, The…

don’t cut off your nose to spite your face

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” describes a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem in a way that would damage oneself more than the object of one’s anger. The phrase is known to have been used in the 1100s. It may be associated with the numerous legends of pious women disfiguring themselves in order to protect their…

first-footing

Here’s an old custom that involves coal. In British and Manx folklore, the first-foot is the first person to enter a home on New Year’s Day and is regarded as a bringer of good fortune for the coming year. Similar practices are also found in the new year traditions of other countries. Generally, the first-footer should be a tall dark-haired…

with flying colors

If you passed, came out, or came through, “with flying colors,” you succeeded with distinction, were triumphant or victorious. “Sailing under false colours,” on the other hand, means practicing deception or being misleading.  Both phrases are nautical, related to ship flags, also known as “colors.”  In the past, when we did not have modern communication devices, a ship’s appearance on…

hold your tongue

When someone says to you, “Hold your tongue!” that person wants you to keep quiet, to remain silent. The word “hold” is meant in the sense of “refrain.” Chaucer used the idiom in The Tale of Melibus (c. 1387): “Thee is better hold thy tongue still, than for to speak.” A variant appears in the traditional wedding service, telling anyone…