Category: phrase sources

hit below the belt / low blow

An unfair, underhanded tactic, from the sport of boxing, in which it is illegal to hit an opponent below the belt or waist. Both phrases are also applied to speech, where someone says something that is too personal, and often hurtful. A groin attack, or a ‘low blow,’ is a deliberate attempt to cause pain to one’s opponent. Often used…

duke it out / put up your dukes (fists)

Fight, or hit with the fists / invite to fight The connection between ‘dukes’ and ‘fists’ isn’t obvious at first glance, but it derives from Cockney rhyming slang: Duke of Yorks = forks = fingers/hands. In rhyming slang, the intended word is replaced by a phrase in which one word rhymes with it. A standard example is ‘china plate’ meaning…

off one’s rocker

Crazy, demented, silly, insane, out of control, behaving in a strange way. Similar phrases are: off one’s trolley, off one’s nut, off one’s head. This expression has been in use since the mid-1800s. Written examples: 1923 “The Duke is off his rocker.” The Inimitable Jeeves by Wodehouse. 1932 “It’s going to be awkward for us if the Emperor goes off…

beauty is only skin deep

Physical beauty is superficial. It tells us nothing about what’s under the skin. Similar phrases are: All that glitters is not gold. Appearances are deceptive. Internal reality is often different from external looks. Never judge by appearances. Never judge a book by its cover. The cowl does not make the monk. This proverb was first found in a work by…

boxing phrases

Many of our colorful phrases come from the sport of boxing, but I had no idea how many there were until I started doing research. Here’s a list of the phrases that don’t have much of a story, other than that they originated in the ring. I’ll do the ones with stories as the weeks go by. Bare-knuckle: fierce (from…

more than one way to skin a cat

A problem generally has more than one solution. Or, there are always several ways to accomplish the same goal. In 1855, Charles Kingsley used one old British form in Westward Ho!. “There are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream.” Or, “choking it with butter.” For a dog, it was said, “there are more ways of…

got under my skin

To be intensely annoyed or irritated or obsessed with someone or something. This phrase could have arisen from the experience of having an insect burrow under the skin. Such insects are usually difficult to remove. Think ‘tick.’ The first use in print appears to be from 1866, in Bayard Taylor John Godfrey’s Fortunes; Related by Himself: “The idea [of writing…