one-horse town

A very small town that is typically regarded as dull or boring. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “a small or rural town; a town where nothing important or exciting happens.” This expression, first recorded in 1857, presumably alluded to a town so small that a single horse would suffice for its transportation needs. Or, perhaps, that only…

four-footed language

Outfox: To defeat (someone) by being more clever or cunning than they are; outwit them. You may outfox your opponent with quick thinking, tricky strategies, or sneaky tricks. Outfox has been used in this way since the 1930s, from the old-fashioned verb fox, “to delude or deceive,” which stems from the idea (popular in folklore) of foxes being wily or…

not enough room to swing a cat

Very cramped quarters, as in “There’s not enough room to swing a cat in this tent.”  The earliest citation for the phrase was in 1665, by which point it would already have been in common use, and may have originated in naval slang. It is commonly thought to allude to the cat-o’-nine-tails, or “cat,” a whip with nine lashes often…

six ways from (to) Sunday

To do something thoroughly, completely, and in every way imaginable. For example, “We can go about solving this problem six ways from Sunday, but we need to pick just one of those approaches and go with it.” “Six ways” can represent the six days after, or the six days before Sunday. Arriving at Sunday is inevitable, no matter which direction…

trip the light fantastic

To “trip the light fantastic” means to dance, especially in an imaginative or ‘fantastic’ manner. Here, ‘trip’ doesn’t mean to stumble or fall, but rather to move lightly and nimbly, to dance. Chaucer used it that way as early as 1386, in The Miller’s Tale: “In twenty manere koude he trippe and daunce.” (In twenty ways could he trip and…

done and dusted, home and dry

  If an activity, event or deal is done and dusted, it has been completed successfully and none of remains to be done. I’ve read many suggestions as to the source, but this one is the most sensible, or, at least, the most interesting. In the past, before blotting paper was created, documents were signed using pens dipped in ink.…

dark horse

This idiom describes a person whose qualities are hidden or someone who is little known and becomes successful unexpectedly. The phrase was originally horse racing jargon. A dark horse was one which wasn’t known to the bettors and was therefore difficult to place odds on. The figurative use later spread to other fields, including politics, and has come to apply…