dirt poor

If you’re dirt poor, you’re suffering extreme poverty, lacking most of the necessities of life. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “dirt poor” is an American expression first documented in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, and refers to the Dust Bowl. As a side note, “dirt” as a synonym for “soil” is an American invention. The following phrases were…

Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail

Yes, I’ve published a new book! Non-fiction this time. Here are the cover and the back page blurb:   This book explores the source and use of 355 common phrases and words in our wicked, wonderful, wacky English language.  While it’s raining cats and dogs, we’ll horse around with pie in the sky and, when we’re at the zoo, a…

don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

This proverb warns you against eliminating something good when trying to get rid of something bad. For example, before you send that old desk to the junkyard, check the drawers to see if there’s anything of value still in them.  The proverb has been in use in English since the late 1800s, but it originated in the 1500s as a…

didn’t have a pot to piss in

Before the days of indoor plumbing, bedrooms were equipped with chamber pots, wide-mouthed vessels used by the room’s occupants as toilets during the night. Chamber pots were a common house-ware item for centuries, but the saying itself dates only to 1905. However broke people might have been in the past, there weren’t a whole lot of them unable to afford…

piss poor

“Piss poor” is an intensifier, meaning extremely poor, or “of very poor workmanship or ability.” The phrase is appealing at least partly because of the alliteration. Words having to do with excretory functions are routinely used in colloquialisms meant to communicate a meaning of “little or no value.” For example: “shit for brains,” “not worth a fragrant fart,” and “I…

a good egg

“A good egg” is an old-fashioned term for a good guy or a kind person. The expression originally came from its opposite, “bad egg,” British public school slang from the 1800s for someone who was not nice. Fifty years later, “good egg” began to be used for a good person. Literally, of course, a good egg is one that is…

in a nutshell

“In a nutshell” is an idiom which describes summing something up in a concise way, or “in a few words.” For example, “Just give me the facts in a nutshell.”  Shakespeare’s Hamlet used it when he said, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”…