Month: December 2020

first-footing

Here’s an old custom that involves coal. In British and Manx folklore, the first-foot is the first person to enter a home on New Year’s Day and is regarded as a bringer of good fortune for the coming year. Similar practices are also found in the new year traditions of other countries. Generally, the first-footer should be a tall dark-haired…

with flying colors

If you passed, came out, or came through, “with flying colors,” you succeeded with distinction, were triumphant or victorious. “Sailing under false colours,” on the other hand, means practicing deception or being misleading.  Both phrases are nautical, related to ship flags, also known as “colors.”  In the past, when we did not have modern communication devices, a ship’s appearance on…

hold your tongue

When someone says to you, “Hold your tongue!” that person wants you to keep quiet, to remain silent. The word “hold” is meant in the sense of “refrain.” Chaucer used the idiom in The Tale of Melibus (c. 1387): “Thee is better hold thy tongue still, than for to speak.” A variant appears in the traditional wedding service, telling anyone…

pleased as Punch

If you’re “pleased as Punch,” you’re extremely pleased, delighted, self-satisfied. The expression derives from the puppet character, Mr. Punch (Polichinello) in the Punch and Judy puppet shows that originated in the 1500s in Italian Commedia dell’arte. The show began in Britain in the 1600s. The Diary of Samuel Pepys has an entry from 1666 that shows the popularity of the…

chock-a-block

“Chock-a-block” means crammed so tightly together that nothing can move. Similar words are “chock-full” and “jam-packed.” The derivation of the first part of the word, “chock,” isn’t clear but may have come from “chock-full,” or “choke-full,” meaning “full to choking.” This dates back to the 1400s and is found in Morte Arthur, circa 1400. It might also come from the…

coal in (one’s) stocking

If you get a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking, you’ve been naughty. Getting coal instead of candy is your punishment. I can think of worse! The tradition of giving lumps of coal to misbehaving children goes back far enough to be associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. There’s no history to explain the gift of…

Short stuff

Abnormous  — irregular, misshapen, (1710);  later as a humorous version of enormous  Brume — mist or fog, 1694, from Latin bruma ‘winter’ Callipygian — having well-shaped buttocks (1831) from Greek kallipygos Couthie — sociable, unsophisticated, comfortable, 1715-25, Scottish Couth — familiar, but in modern use: cultured, refined, well-mannered Uncouth — unfamiliar, but in modern use: rude, vulgar Drumble — a…

nitty-gritty

“Nitty-gritty” means the basic essentials, the heart of the matter, the harsh realities, the most vital details, the most practical part of something. It’s often used in this phrase: “getting down to the nitty-gritty.” There exist several theories about the source of “nitty-gritty.” The most prevalent seems to be that it’s a derogatory reference to the English slave trade of…

seven lumps of coal

Caroline Woodward liked my article “carry coals to Newcastle” and suggested there might be other interesting “coal” phrases. Well, she was right, and here are seven more. Haul (someone) over the coals — to reprimand a person severely for an error or mistake. The earliest print record of the phrase appears in 1565, in the Catholic Church’s practice of dragging…