running amok

“Running amok” is used to describe wild or erratic behavior, going crazy. Wikipedia describes “running amok” as an episode of sudden, savage violence against people usually by a single individual following a period of brooding, that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malay culture but is now increasingly viewed as psychopathological behavior. “Amok” first appeared in English in…

by and large

“By and large” now means: on the whole; generally speaking; all things considered. The phrase is nautical in origin, used as far back as the 1500s, and meant sailing “alternately close-hauled and not close-hauled.” The earliest known reference to “by and large” in print is from Samuel Sturmy, in The Mariners Magazine, 1669. When the wind is blowing from behind…

crocodile tears

  We use the phrase “crocodile tears” to describe a display of false sorrow, but the saying actually derives from a medieval belief that crocodiles shed tears of sadness while they killed and consumed their prey. The myth dates back to the 1300s and comes from a book called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Wildly popular upon its release,…

fly-by-night

Specifically, a fly-by-night is someone who departs or flees at night in order to avoid creditors, law enforcement, and so on. A fly-by-night person operates in a dishonest fashion and is not reliable or responsible. A fly-by-night company is a dishonest one that may appear and disappear rapidly. According to Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796), “fly-by-night” was originally…

brown as a berry

“Brown as a berry” means being very brown and often refers to a good suntan. Nobody knows the origin of the phrase, but it’s old. Chaucer used it twice in his Canterbury Tales and it was probably common in speech years before it was used in writing. Here is the relevant verse from the Monk’s Tale: “He was not pale…

pipe dreams

A “pipe dream” is an unattainable or unrealistic hope or scheme, and alludes to the dreams experienced by smokers of opium pipes. Opiates were widely used by English writers in the 1700s and 1800s, Coleridge being one of the best known. We don’t know whether Lewis Carroll used opium himself, but he makes clear allusions to drug use in Alice’s…

salmagundi

“Salmagundi” is a salad plate of chopped meats, anchovies, eggs, and vegetables arranged in rows for contrast and dressed with a salad dressing. The word is now used mainly to mean a mixture or miscellany but in England it first referred specifically to a dish of chopped meat, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts, anchovies, and eggs, garnished with onions, lemon juice,…