Month: October 2019

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,…

shake a leg

“Shake a leg” means to get started, rouse yourself, hurry up, get out of bed. It was explicitly defined that way in the New York Magazine in 1904, and is usually used as a command or request.   “Shake a leg” also means to dance. That meaning may have evolved from “shake a heel,” or “shake a foot,” which were…

wishbone

The “wishbone” is a bird’s furcula (“little fork” in Latin), formed by the fusion of two clavicles. It’s important to flight because of its elasticity and the tendons that attach to it.  It’s important to humans because it’s been used for divination since the time of the ancient Etruscans. In the third edition of John Russell Bartlett‘s 1859 Dictionary of…

a fine kettle of fish

a fine kettle of fish This phrase is used to describe a troublesome situation or a muddle. “I’ve burned the roast. We don’t have anything to serve our guests as a main dish. This is a fine kettle of fish.” “A kettle of fish” refers to the long, oval, metal saucepans that have been used for centuries to poach whole…