spill the beans

To “spill the beans” means to divulge a secret, especially if you do so by accident, or maliciously, and upset the situation. The earliest meaning of “spill” was “kill,” in common use in the 1300s. It has meant “divulge” since at least the 1500s. Variations include: “spill the soup,” “spill your guts,” “spill blood,” and just plain “spill.” You might…

by hook or by crook

“By hook or by crook” means “by any method necessary,” suggesting that you should do whatever you have to, whether or not ethical and legal, in order to accomplish a goal. The origin of the phrase is obscure, with several different explanations and little evidence to support any particular one over the others. The phrase has endured at least partly…

in the nick of time

These days, “in the nick of time” means just in time or at the last possible moment. However, the expression began prior to the 1500s as “pudding time.” In those medieval times, pudding was a savory dish, usually made of sausage or haggis, and was served at the beginning of a meal. Therefore, to arrive at pudding time was to…

catch lightning in a bottle

To “catch lightening in a bottle” means to capture something powerful and elusive and then be able to hold it and show it to the world. It can also be defined as accomplishing a nearly impossible task, or a moment of creative brilliance, This American idiom originated in the 1800s, very likely as a reference to Benjamin Franklin’s electricity experiment,…

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…