Category: phrase sources

between the devil and the deep blue sea

Faced with two dangerous alternatives, with neither option offering any clear benefits. The first print record of ‘the devil and the deep sea’ is in Robert Monro’s His expedition with the worthy Scots regiment called Mac-keyes, 1637: “I, with my partie, did lie on our poste, as betwixt the devill and the deep sea.” You’ll note, from that source, that…

bitch

Literally, a female dog. But it has become a slang put-down for a woman (usually), whether or not she’s unreasonable, malicious, a control freak, rudely intrusive, or aggressive. When applied to a man, bitch is a derogatory term for a subordinate.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘bitch’ comes from the Old English word bicce, meaning ‘female dog,’ dating back…

on the horns of a dilemma

Confronted with two equally disagreeable choices. Finding yourself in a position where you’re faced with two equally unpleasant options appears to be a common human condition. Language usually reflects the realities we experience, and there are several phrases that express this problem of choices, for example: ‘the lesser of two evils,’ ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea,’ ‘between…

blowing smoke up someone’s ass

Usually means paying insincere compliments to feed somebody’s ego, but can also mean  misleading statements or outright lying. It appears that this phrase was developed from ‘blowing smoke.’ The Dictionary of American Slang, (1960) has this entry for the phrase ‘blow smoke’: “To boast, to brag, to exaggerate. Implying that the speaker is having a pleasant dream, as induced by…

pull your horns in

To restrain yourself, become less belligerent, retreat, calm down, chill out, cool off , lower your ambitions, cut back on spending This phrase has nothing to do with the large mammals we think of as having horns, such as domestic bulls, or moose, or goats. None of these animals can retract their horns. What it does refer to is the…

ass over teakettle

Tumbling upside down, topsy-turvy. ‘Ass over teakettle’ is one of many variants of an expression meaning ‘head over heels; topsy-turvy; in confusion’. The usual British version is ‘ass over tip’ (or tit), which occurs in James Joyce’s Ulysses, among other works. This form also occurs in America. For instance, in The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck has a character say, “You…

face the music

To accept criticism or other unpleasant consequences of your actions. “You were the one who stayed up so late last night, and now this morning you have to face the music.” The phrase first arises in the mid 19th century, and appears to be American. The earliest citation for the phrase is in The New Hampshire Statesman & State Journal,…