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Oxford Dictionary of Idioms

Did you know that 'flavor of the month' originated in a marketing campaign in American ice-cream parlors in the 1940s, when a particular flavor would be specially promoted for a month at a time? And did you know that 'off the cuff' refers to the rather messy practice of writing impromptu notes on one's shirt cuff before speaking in public? These and many more idioms are explained and put into context in this second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms. The volume takes a fresh look at the idiomatic phrases and sayings that make English the rich and intriguing language that it is. This major new edition contains entries for over 5000 idioms, including 350 entirely new entries and over 500 new quotations. The text has been updated to include many new idioms using the findings of the Oxford English Reading Program, the biggest language research program in the world. The entries are supported by a wealth of illustrative quotations from a wide range of sources and periods and the text has been entirely redesigned so that it is both elegant and easy to use. Anyone interested in the colorful side of the English language will get hours of fun browsing this fascinating and informative volume.
Jahr: 2004
Edition: 2
Verlag: Oxford University Press, USA
Sprache: english
Seiten: 352
ISBN 13: 9780198527114
ISBN: 019852711X
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The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms

Idioms
Edited by
Judith Siefring

OXPORD
UNIVERSITY PRESS

OXFORD
UNIVERSITY PRESS

Great Clarendon Street, Oxford 0x2 6DP
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It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship,
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in the UK and in certain other countries
Published in the United States
by Oxford University Press Inc., New York
© Oxford University Press 1999, 2004
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
Database right Oxford University Press (maker)
First published 1999
Second edition 2004
All rights reserved. No part of this publication maybe reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press,
or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate
reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction
outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department,
Oxford University Press, at the address above
You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover
and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Data available
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Data available
ISBN 0-19-852711-X
1
Designed by Jane Stevenson
Typeset in Swift and Frutiger
by Kolam Information Services India
Printed in Great Britain
by Clays Ltd.

Contents
Preface

Dictionary of Idioms
Index

vii

1
323

Preface
The aim of the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms is to provide clear definitions of
phrases and sayings for those who do not know what they mean, but also to
offer the curious reader interesting facts about the origins of phrases and
examples of their use. This second edition of the Oxford Dictionary ofIdioms is
based on the first edition, edited by Jennifer Speake. It maintains the first
edition's focus on contemporary and historical phrases, sayings, and
proverbs, and uses a combination of definition and (where required)
explanatory note and illustrative quotation to provide a rounded picture of
idiomatic usage. The coverage of the previous edition has been extended by
the inclusion of more than 350 new idioms, and a great many contemporary
illustrative quotations have also been added. These quotations have been
taken from a variety of sources: from novels to travel guides, broadsheet
newspapers to teenage magazines. They help to give the reader a better
understanding of how an idiom is used: a typical context, a certain tone, or a
particular resonance. The formation of new phrases and sayings is one of
the most colourful aspects of language development, and by adding idioms
such as chew the scenery, be in like Flynn, and give someone the hairy
eyeball, and quotations from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Arundhati Roy,
Melvin Burgess, and Tom Clancy, the new edition hopes to reflect this
colour.
A new index section at the end of the book groups together idioms which
share a common theme or subject, so giving readers a vivid snapshot of
those areas and aspects of life that have generated a particularly rich variety
offigurativeexpressions.
My thanks must go to Richard Jones for his work on sourcing quotations,
to Georgia Hole for proofreading, and above all to Sara Hawker for her help
and insight throughout the project.
JUDITH SIEFRING

Aa
A

abdabs

A 1 excellent; first-rate.

give someone the screaming abdabs induce
an attack of extreme anxiety or irritation in
someone.

i
!
j
I
!
;

O The full form of this expression is >47 at
Lloyd's. In Lloyd's Register of Shipping, the
phrase was used of ships in first-class
condition as to the hull (A) and stores (1). The
US equivalent is A No. 7; both have been in
figurative use since the mid 19th century.

j
!
j
j

O Abdabs (or habdabs) is mid 20th-century !
slang whose origin is unknown. The word is
sometimes also used to mean an attack of
delirium tremens.

from A to B from your starting point to your
destination; from one place to another.
abet
1987 K. Rushforth Tree Planting & Managementaid and abet: see AID.
The purpose of street tree planting
is to... make the roads and thoroughfares
pleasant in their own right, not just as places
about
used to travel from A to B.
know what you are about be aware of the
implications of your actions or of a
from A to Z over the entire range; in every
situation, and of how best to deal with
particular.
1998 Salmon, Trout & Sea-Trout In order to have them, informal
seen Scotland's gamefishingin its entirety,
1993 Ski Survey He ran a 3-star guest house
from A to Z, visiting 30 stretches ofriverand
before this, so knows what he is about.
350 lochs a year, you would have to be
travelling for a hundred years.

above
aback
take someone aback shock, surprise, or
disconcert someone.
!
i
;
i
i
i
!
|

O The phrase is frequently used in the
passive form (be taken aback): this was
adopted in the mid 19th century from
earlier (mid 18th-century) nautical
terminology, to describe the situation of a
ship with its sails pressed back against the
mast by a headwind, preventing forward
movement.

above yourself conceited; arrogant.
1999 Frank McCourt 'Tis Many a man made his
way in America by the sweat of his brow and
his strong back and it's a good thing to learn
your station in life and not be getting above
yourself.
not be above — be capable of stooping to an
unworthy act.
1991 Maureen Duffy Illuminations The copyist
was not above turning author or forger and
several MS S from this period must be viewed
as highly suspect.

1991 Kathleen Jones Learning Not To Be First
Abraham
They were taken aback by the shabbiness of
the hotel and lack of cleanliness in the city
in Abraham's bosom in heaven, the place of
generally.
rest for the souls of the blessed, dated

ABC
as easy (or simple) as ABC extremely easy or
straightforward.
I
I
!
j
|

O From the 15th to the 17th century, a
child's first spelling and reading book was
commonly called an ABC, and this led to the j
development of its metaphorical use, 'the
basic elements or rudiments of something'.

j
i
j
j
i
I

O The phrase is taken from Luke 16:22: 'And
it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was
carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom',
In the Bible, Abraham was the Hebrew
patriarch from whom all Jews traced their
descent.

acceptable
the acceptable face of the tolerable or
attractive manifestation or aspect of.

!
I
j

j

accident
1996 New York Review of Books He presents
himself as the acceptable face of
gambling... the man who, almost singlehandedly, has turned a huckster's paradise
into a gangster-free zone.

accident

2
i
I
I
j
I
j

O The a c e i s t n e highest playing card in its
suit in many card games, so a cheating player j
mightwellhideonetouseagainstan unwary ;
opponent. A North American variant is an ace \
in the hole. The next two idioms are also
based on this meaning of ace.

an accident waiting to happen Q a
potentially disastrous situation,
usually caused by negligent or faulty
procedures. © a person certain to cause
trouble.
01997 Times Accidents are often said to be
'waiting to happen'. It does not take much
imagination to see that the chaotic start to the
Whitbread round-the-world race... could
easily have ended in tragedy.

hold all the aces have all the advantages.
play your ace use your best resource.
within an ace of very close to.

accidents will happen however careful you
try to be, it is inevitable that some
unfortunate or unforeseen events will
occur.

an Achilles heel a person's only vulnerable
spot; a serious or fatal weakness.

! O This phrase is a shortened form of the
i early 19th-century proverb'accidents will
i happen in the best regulated families'.

a chapter of accidents: see CHAPTER.

i
j
i
;

O Ace here has the figurative meaning of 'a j
tiny amount' and is used with reference to
thesinglespotontheplayingcard.Thephrase i
was first recorded in the early 18th century.

Achilles

j
j
i
!
|
j
i

O In Greek mythology, the nymph Thetis
dipped her infant son Achilles in the water of j
the River Styx to make him immortal, but the i
heel by which she held him was not touched j
by the water; he was ultimately killed in
battle by an arrow wound in this one
vulnerable spot.

1998 Times The inclination to outlaw that of
which it disapproves... is, if not the cloven
hoof beneath the hem of Tony Blair's
Government, certainly its Achilles heel.

accord
of your own accord voluntarily or without
outside intervention.

account

acid

give a good (or bad) account of yourself
make a favourable (or unfavourable)
impression through your performance or
actions.
settle {or square) accounts with someone
0 pay money owed to someone. Q have
revenge on someone.

the acid test a situation or event which
finally proves whether something is good
or bad, true or false, etc.

accounting

1990 Which? These deals are designed to
encourage impulse buying, so the acid test is
whether you would have bought anyway.
come the acid be unpleasant or offensive;
speak in a caustic or sarcastic manner.
put the acid on someone try to extract a loan
or favour from someone. Australian & New

there's no accounting for tastes it's
impossible to explain why different people
like different things, especially those
things which the speaker considers
unappealing, proverb
1
|
!
|

O Since the late 18th century, this has been j
the usual English form of the Latin expression I
de gustibus non est disputandum 'there is no !
disputing about tastes'.

ace
have an ace up your sleeve have an effective
resource or piece of information kept
hidden until it is necessary to use it; have a
secret advantage.

i
I
i
i

O The original use of the phrase was to
describe a method of testing for gold with
nitric acid (gold being resistant to the effects j
of nitric acid).

Zealand informal

acquaintance
have a nodding acquaintance with
someone or something: see NODDING.
scrape acquaintance with: see SCRAPE.

acre
God's acre: see GOD.

admirable

3

across
across the board applying to all.
!
j
i
I

O , n the USA, this expression refers to a
horse-racing bet in which equal amounts are j
staked on the same horse to win, place, or
show in a race.

1999 Wall Street Journal The decline for the
euro across the board was mainly attributed to
the further erosion of global investors'
confidence toward the euro-zone economy.
be across something fully understand the
details or complexity of an issue or
situation. Australian

I O Originally, this was an order to naval
; personnel to go to their allocated positions
j ready to engage the enemy.

man of action a man whose life is
characterized by physical activity or deeds
rather than by words or intellectual
matters.
a piece of the action: see PIECE.
where the action is where important or
interesting things are happening, informal
1971 Gourmet You can dine outside,
weather permitting, or in the bar where
the action is.

act

actual

act your age behave in a manner appropriate
to your age and not to someone much
younger.

your actual — the real, genuine, or
important thing specified, informal
1968 Kenneth Williams Diary There's no doubt
about it, on a good day, I look quite lovely in
your actual gamin fashion.

act the goat: see GOAT.

act of God an instance of uncontrollable
natural forces in operation.
I O This phrase is often used in insurance
j contracts to refer to incidents such as
j lightning strikes or floods.
a class act: see CLASS.

clean up your act: see CLEAN.
do a disappearing act: see DISAPPEARING.

get your act together organize yourself in
the manner required in order to achieve
something, informal
2002 New York Times There are still many who
think all that the dirty, homeless man on the
corner talking to himself needs is just to get
his act together.
a hard (or tough) act to follow an
achievement or performance which sets
a standard difficult for others to measure
up to.
1996 Independent Her determination and
championing of tourism will be a tough act to
follow.
in on the act involved in a particular
activity in order to gain profit or
advantage, informal
1997 What Cellphone Conference calls are
becoming big business for the fixed-line
operators, and now there are signs that the
mobile networks are getting in on the act.
read someone the riot act: see R E A D .

action
action stations an order or warning to
prepare for action.

Adam
not know someone from Adam not know or
be completely unable to recognize the
person in question, informal
the old Adam unregenerate human nature.
! O In Christian symbolism, the old Adam
! represents fallen man as contrasted with the \
\ second Adam, Jesus Christ.

1993 Outdoor Canada It is the Old Adam in us.
We are descendants of a long line of dirt
farmers, sheepherders... and so forth.

add
add fuel to the fire: see FUEL.

add insult to injury: see INSULT.

adder
deaf as an adder: see DEAF.

admirable
an admirable Crichton a person who
excels in all kinds of studies and
pursuits, or who is noted for supreme
competence.
|
j
j
i
!
i
j
i

O This expression originally referred to
James Crichton of Clunie (1560-85?), a
Scottish nobleman renowned for his
intellectual and physical prowess. In J. M.
Barrie's play The Admirable Crichton (1902),
the eponymous hero is a butler who takes
charge when his master's family is shipwrecked on a desert island.

i

adrift
adrift
cast (or cut) someone adrift ©leave
someone in a boat or other craft which has
nothing to secure or guide it. © abandon or
isolate someone.
01998 Oldie The various dissenting movements ... should be cut adrift and left to their
own devices.

advance
any advance on —? any higher bid
than —?
j
I
j
I

O This phrase is said by an auctioneer to
elicit a higher bid, and so is used figuratively i
as a query about general progress in a
particular matter.

4
something because neither party will
compromise or be persuaded.

agreement
a gentleman's agreement: see GENTLEMAN.

ahead
ahead of the game ahead of your
competitors or peers in the same sphere
of activity.
1996 Daily Telegraph The smart money headed
for Chinatown, where you can pick up all
those Eastern looks the designers are
promoting for next spring ahead of the
game.
ahead of your (or its) time innovative and
radical by the standards of the time.

advocate

streets ahead: see STREET.

play devil's advocate: see DEVIL.

aid

afraid

aid and abet help and encourage someone
to do something wrong, especially to
commit a crime.

afraid of your own shadow: see SHADOW.

Africa

j O Abet comes from an Old French term
j meaning 'to encourage a hound to bite'.

for Africa in abundance; in large numbers.
South African informal
1986 Frank Peretti This Present Darkness She
strained to think of... any friend who would
1980 C. Hope A Separate Development An entire
still aid and abet a fugitive from the law,
museum of vintage stuff including...
without questions.
Bentleys for Africa.
in
aid
of in support of; for the purpose of
after
raising money for. chiefly British
be after doing something be on the point of
1999 Teesdale Mercury A wine and savoury
doing something or have just done it. Irish
evening in aid of cancer research will be
1988 Roddy Doyle The Commitments I'm after
held... on Friday.
rememberin'. I forgot to bring mine back. It's
under me bed.

age

what's all this in aid of? what is the purpose
of this? British informal

act your age: see ACT.

air

the awkward age: see AWKWARD.

airs and graces an affected manner of
behaving, designed to attract or impress.
British
give yourself airs act pretentiously or
snobbishly.
1948 Christopher Bush The Case of the Second
Chance It was said she gave herself airs, and it
was also hinted that she was no better—as
they say—than she might be.

come of age Q (of a person) reach adult
status, ©(of a movement or activity)
become fully established.
feel your age: see FEEL.
a golden age: see GOLDEN.
under age: see UNDER.

agenda
a hidden agenda: see HIDDEN.

agony
pile on the agony: see PILE.
prolong the agony: see PROLONG.

agree
agree to differ cease to argue about

:
j
I
i
j

O Air in the sense of 'an affected manner'
has been current since the mid 17th century; j
from the early 18th century the plural
form has been more usual in this derogatory i
sense.

hot air: see HOT.
up in the air (of a plan or issue) still to be
settled; unresolved.

all

5

1990 Times Thatcherism may be dying on its
1995 Scientific American Prospects for federal
feet in Britain, but it is alive and well in foreign
research and development are up in the air as
parts.
Republicans looking for budget cuts take
control on Capitol Hill.
on (or off) the air being {or not being)
all
broadcast on radio or television.
all and sundry everyone.
take the air go out of doors.
1991 Sunday Times In the manner of an Oscarwalk on air feel elated.
winner, she thanks all and sundry for their
help.
1977 Bernard MacLaverty Secrets 'I'm sure
you're walking on air,' my mother said to Paul
all comers anyone who chooses to take
at his wedding.
part in an activity, typically a
competition.
aisle
1992 AI Gore Earth in the Balance He has
have people rolling in the aisles ©make an
traveled to conferences and symposia in every
audience laugh uncontrollably, ©be very
part of the world, argued his case, and
amusing, informal
patiently taken on all comers.
O1940 P. G. Wodehouse Quick Service I made
all-in ©with everything included.
the speech of a lifetime. I had them tearing up
©exhausted. British informal
the seats and rolling in the aisles.
all my eye and Betty Martin: see EYE.
all of as much as (often used ironically of an
aitch
amount considered very small by the
drop your aitches: see DROP.
speaker or writer).
1995 Bill Bryson Notesfroma Small Island In
Aladdin
1992, a development company... tore down
an Aladdin's cave a place full of valuable
five listed buildings, in a conservation area,
objects.
was taken to court and fined all of £675.
an Aladdin's lamp a talisman that enables its
be all one to make no difference to
owner to fulfil every desire.
someone.
i O , n t r , e Arabian Nights tale of Aladdin,
all
out using all your strength or resources.
i the hero finds a magic lamp in a cave. He
all over the place in a state of confusion or
i discoversthatrubbingitsummonsapowerful j
j genie who is able to carry out all his wishes.
disorganization, informal

alarm
alarms and excursions confused activity and
uproar, humorous
!
I
I
j
;
j

O Alarm was formerly spelled alarum,
representing a pronunciation with a rolling
of the 'r'; the phrase was originally a call
summoning soldiers to arms. The whole
phrase is used in stage directions in
Shakespeare to indicate a battle scene.

alight
set the world alight: see SET.

alive
alive and kicking prevalent and very active.
informal
1991 Mark Tully No Full Stops in India You
deliberately choose unknown actors,
although India is a country where the star
system is very much alive and kicking.
alive and well still existing or active (often
used to deny rumours or beliefs that
something has disappeared or declined).

!
!
!
j

O Other variants of this phrase include a//
over the map and all over the lot which are
North American, and all over the shop which i
is mainly British.

1997 Spectator The government... proposed
equalising standards and making them
comparable... there could be no clearer
admission that standards are all over the
place.
all the rage: see RAGE.

all round ©in all respects, ©for or by each
person.
all-singing, all-dancing with every possible
attribute; able to perform any necessary
function. British informal
O This phrase is used particularly in the area
of computer technology, but it was originally
used to describe show-business acts.
Ultimately, it may come from a series of 1929
posters which advertised the addition of
sound to motion pictures. The first
Hollywood musical, MGM's Broadway
Melody, was promoted with the slogan All
Talking All Singing All Dancing.

all-clear
1991 Computing Each of the major
independents launched an all-singing
all-dancing graphics-oriented version last
year.
all systems go: see SYSTEM.

be all that be very attractive or good.
US informal
2002 Guardian I can't believe how she throws
herself at guys, she thinks she's all that.
not all there not in full possession of your
mental faculties, informal

6
!
i
i
j
i
j

O Alpha and omega are respectively thefirst j
and last letters of the Greek alphabet,
Christians use the phrase as a title for Jesus
Christ, taking it from Revelation 1:8: 'I am
Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the
ending, saith the Lord'.

0 1 9 9 4 BBC Holidays At Cambridge... you'll
find the alpha and omega of American
academic life: historic Harvard and
space-age MIT (Massachusetts Institute of
Technology).

be all things to all men: see THING.

altar

— and all used to emphasize something
additional that is being referred to.

sacrifice someone or something on the
altar of make someone or something
suffer in the interests of someone or
something else.
1994 Post (Denver) The cherished goal of a
color-blind society... has been sacrificed on
the altar of political expediency.

informal

1992 Kenichi Ohmae The Borderless World You
can whip up nationalist passions and stagemanage protectionist rallies, bonfires and all.
be all go: see G O .
be all up with: see U P .

for all — in spite of—.
1989 Independent For all their cruel, corrupt
and reckless vices, the Maharajahs were
worshipped as gods by tens of thousands of
their subjects.

altogether
in the altogether without any clothes on;
naked, informal
1991 Today The mothers... have agreed to
pose in the altogether.

all of a sudden: see SUDDEN.
on all fours: see FOUR.

all-clear
give (or get) the all-clear indicate {or get
a sign) that a dangerous situation is now
safe.
i O In wartime a signal or siren is often
j sounded to indicate that a bombing raid is
i over.

American
as American as apple pie typically American
in character.
1995 New York Times Magazine To reward
people for something beyond merit is
American as apple pie.
the American dream the ideal by which
equality of opportunity is available to any
American, allowing the highest aspirations
and goals to be achieved.

alley

amok

a blind alley: see BLIND.

run amok behave uncontrollably and
disruptively.

up your alley: see up your street at STREET.

ally
pass in your ally: see P A S S .

along
along about round about a specified time or
date. North American informal or dialect
1989 Motor Trend Along about this time, it
had started raining, so they red-flagged the
race for a change to rain tires.

alpha
alpha and omega Othe beginning and the
end. ©the essence or most important
features.

j
I
j
!
!

O Amok, formerly also spelt amuck, comes
from the Malay word amuk, meaning 'in a
homicidal frenzy', in which sense it was first
introduced into English in the early 16th
century.

j
i

1990 New York Review of Books Hersh's article
is sensationalism run amok. It does no credit
to him or to The New York Times Magazine.

analysis
in the final analysis when everything
has been considered (used to suggest
that the following statement expresses
the basic truth about a complex
situation).

appeal

7

ancient

ant

ancient as the hills: see HILL.
the ancient of Days a biblical title for God,
taken from Daniel 7:9.

have ants in your pants be fidgety or restless.
informal

any

angel

not be having any of it be absolutely
unwilling to cooperate, informal

the angel in the house a woman who is
completely devoted to her husband and
family.
I
i
:
j

anyone

O This was the title of a collection of poems !
on married love by Coventry Patmore
(1823-96), and it is now mainly used
ironically.
j

on the side of the angels on the side of what
is right.
j
i
i
!
j
j
j
\

O In a speech in Oxford in November 1864
the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli
alluded to the controversy over the origins of
humankind then raging in the wake of the
publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin
of Species (1859): 'Is man an ape or an angel?
Now I am on the side of the angels' (The Times
26 Nov. 1864).

be poles apart: see POLE.
!
i
j
\

angry young man a young man who feels
and expresses anger at the conventional
values of the society around him.
O Originally, this term referred to a member
of a group of socially conscious writers in
Britain in the 1950s, in particular the
playwright John Osborne. The phrase, the
title of a book (1951) by Leslie Paul, was used
of Osborne in the publicity material for his
play Look Back in Anger (1956), in which the
characteristic views of the angry young
men were articulated by the anti-hero
Jimmy Porter.

answer
the answer's a lemon: see LEMON.
a dusty answer: see DUSTY.

ante
up (or raise) the ante increase what is at
stake or under discussion, especially in a
conflict or dispute.
i
i
!
i
;

anything
anything goes: see GOES.

apart

angry

!
j
!
I
!
j
!
I
I
j

anyone's game an evenly balanced contest.
be anyone's (of a person) be open to sexual
advances from anyone, informal

O Ante comes from Latin, in which it means j
'before'. As an English noun it was originally j
(in the early 19th century) a term in poker and j
similar gambling games, meaning'a stake
put up by a player before drawing cards'.

1998 New Scientist This report ups the ante on
the pace at which these cases need to be
identified and treated.

come apart at the seams: see SEAM.

ape
go ape go wild; become violently excited.
informal
i
!
i
|

O Originally mid 20th-century North
American slang, this expression possibly
refers to the 1933 movie King Kong, which
stars a giant ape-like monster.

apology
an apology for a very poor example of.
1998 Imogen de la Bere The Last Deception of
Palliser Wentwood It's an apology for a bridge,
built of left-over stones.
with apologies to used before the name of
an author or artist to indicate that
something is a parody or adaptation of
their work.
2001 This Old House With apologies to Robert
Frost, boundary expert Walter Robillard says,
'Good fences on the proper line make good
neighbours'.

appeal
appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober ask
someone to reconsider, with the
suggestion that an earlier opinion or
decision represented only a passing
mood.
j
j
j
i
j
j
j

O This phrase comes from an anecdote told
by the Roman historian and moralist Valerius
Maximus concerning an unjust judgement
given by King Philip of Macedon: the woman
condemned by Philip declared that she would
appeal to him once again, but this time when
he was sober.

j
j
|
i
!

8

appearance
appeal to Caesar appeal to the highest
possible authority.
!
i
!
;

apple pie
as American as apple pie: see AMERICAN.

O The allusion is to the claim made by the
apostle Paul to have his case heard in Rome,
which was his right as a Roman citizen: 'I
appeal unto Caesar' (Acts 25:11).

apropos
apropos of nothing having no relevance to
any previous discussion or situation.

approval

appearance

seal (or stamp) of approval an indication or
keep up appearances maintain an
statement that something is accepted or
impression of wealth or well-being.
regarded favourably.
to (or by) all appearances as far as can be
I O This expression stems from the practice of j
seen.
1991 Eric Lax Woody Allen To all appearances, | putting a stamp (or formerly a seal) on official j
I documents.
theirs was a unique case of sibling amity.

apple

apron

apple of discord a subject of dissension.
I
j
!
j

O This expression refers to the Greek myth
in which a golden apple inscribed'for the
fairest'was contended for by the goddesses
Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite.

j

the apple of your eye a person or thing of
whom you are extremely fond and proud.
i
j
I
;
i

O | n Old English, the phrase referred to
the pupil of the eye, considered to be a
globular solid body; it came to be used as a
symbol of something cherished and watched j
over.

apples and oranges (of two people or things)
irreconcilably or fundamentally different.
North American

a rotten (or bad) apple a bad person in a
group, typically one whose behaviour is
likely to have a corrupting influence on the
rest, informal
she's apples used to indicate that everything
is in good order and there is nothing to
worry about. Australian informal
i O Apples and spice or apples and rice is
! Australian rhyming slang for nice.

apple cart
upset the apple cart wreck an advantageous
project or disturb the status quo.
i
j
i
!
i

O The use of a cart piled high with apples as i
a metaphor for a satisfactory but possibly
precarious state of affairs is recorded in
various expressions from the late 18th
century onwards.

1996 Business Age The real test will be
instability in China... Another Tiananmen
Square could really upset the apple cart.

tied to someone's apron strings too much
under the influence and control of
someone (especially used to suggest that
a man is too much influenced by his
mother).

area
a grey area: see GREY.
a no-go area: see NO-GO.

argue
argue the toss dispute a decision or choice
already made, informal, chiefly British
i
I
j
;

O The toss in this phrase is the tossing of a
coin to decide an issue in a simple and
unambiguous way according to the side of
the coin visible when it lands.

ark
out of the ark extremely old-fashioned.
j
j
j
i

O The ark referred to is the biblical Noah's
ark (Genesis 6-7), in which Noah
endeavoured to save his family and two of
every kind of animal from the Flood.

arm
a call to arms a call to make ready for
confrontation.
cost an arm and a leg be extremely
expensive, informal
give an arm and a leg for pay a high price for.
keep someone or something at arm's length

avoid intimacy or close contact with
someone or something.
the long arm of coincidence the far-reaching
power of coincidence.

9

as

the long (or strong) arm of the law the
police seen as a far-reaching or
intimidating power.
as long as your arm very long, informal
put the arm on attempt to force or coerce
someone to do something. North American
informal
up in arms about protesting angrily about
something.
1994 Asian Times A lack of checks and
balances... or legal redress for workers have
trade unions up in arms.
with open arms with great affection or
enthusiasm.
would give your right arm for be willing to
pay a high price for; greatly desire to have
or do. informal

armchair
an armchair critic a person who knows
about a subject only by reading or
hearing about it and criticizes without
active experience or first-hand
knowledge.
I
i
!
i
!
!
j

O The phrase armchair critic is first recorded ;
in 1896, but the concept was around at least a i
decade earlier: in 1886 Joseph Chamberlain
sneered at opponents as 'arm-chair
politicians'. Another common variant is
armchair traveller, meaning 'someone who
travels in their imagination only'.

armed
armed at all points prepared in every
particular.
armed to the teeth Q carrying a lot of
weapons, ©heavily equipped.

armpit
up to your armpits deeply involved in a
particular unpleasant situation or
enterprise, chiefly US

resources or strategies that can be drawn
on or followed.
arrow of time (ortime's arrow) the direction
of travel from past to future in time
considered as a physical dimension.
a straight arrow an honest or genuine
person. North American
a r s e vulgar slang

go arse over tit fall over in a sudden or
dramatic way.
kiss my arse: see KISS.

kiss someone's arse: see KISS.
lick someone's arse: see LICK.

not know your arse from your elbow be
totally ignorant or incompetent.
a pain in the arse: see PAIN.

art
art for art's sake the idea that a work of art
has no purpose beyond itself.
I
j
:
:

be art and part of be an accessory or
participant in; be deeply involved in.
!
I
i
!

O Be art and part of was originally a Scottish
legal expression: art referred to the bringing
about of an action and part to participation
in it.

I
j
j
j

have something down to a fine art: see F I N E
ART.
state of the art: see STATE.

article
an article of faith afirmlyheld belief.
I O Article is here used in the sense of 'a
I statement or item in a summary of religious
j belief.
!

1994 Paul Ormerod The Death of Economics It is
an article of faith in orthodox economics that
free trade between nations is wholly desirable.

army
you and whose army? used to express
disbelief in someone's ability to carry out a
threat, informal

© This phrase is the slogan of artists who
hold that the chief oronlyaimof aworkof art i
is the self-expression of the individual artist
who creates it.

the finished article: see F I N I S H E D .
the genuine article: see GENUINE.

around
have been around have a lot of varied
experience of the world, especially a lot of
sexual experience, informal

arrow
an arrow in the quiver one of a number of

as
as and when used to refer to an uncertain
future event.
1996 She The single most important strategy
you can adopt to boost your energy levels is to
learn to deal with an issue as and when it rears
its head.

ascendant
as if! used to express the speaker's belief that
something is very doubtful or unlikely.
informal
as it were in a way (used to be less precise).
1991 Atlantic jazz audiences permit older
musicians to go on suiting up, as it were, until
they drop.

10
behave in a way that is likely to result in
difficulty for yourself, informal
for the asking used to indicate that someone
can easily have something if they want it.
1991 Mark Tully No Full Stops in India Second
helpings come automatically, and third
helpings are there for the asking.

ascendant

asleep

in the ascendant rising in power or
influence.

asleep at the wheel not attentive or alert;
inactive, informal

i
j
!
!
:

O This expression has been in figurative use I
since the late 16th century. Literally, in
technical astrological use, an ascendant is the j
sign of the zodiac that is just rising above the j
eastern horizon at a particular moment.

I
|
I
I

2003 Guardian Rowling has not been asleep at
the wheel in the three years since the last
Potter novel, and I am pleased to report that
she has not confused sheer length with
inspiration.

ash
dust and ashes: see DUST.
rake over the ashes: see RAKE.
rise from the ashes: see RISE.
turn to ashes in your mouth become bitterly
disappointing or worthless.
!
!
j
j
!
;

O This phrase alludes to the Dead Sea fruit, I
a legendary fruit which looked appetizing
but turned to smoke and ashes when
someone tried to eat it. The fruit are
described in the Travels attributed to the
14th-century writer John de Mandeville.

1995 Guardian Those who marvelled at the
phenomenal climbing feats of Pedro Delgado
in the 1988 Tour found words such as 'heroic'
and 'Herculean' turn to ashes in their mouths
during the probenecid (a masking agent)
scandal.

ask
ask for the moon: see MOON.

ask me another! used to say emphatically
that you do not know the answer to a
question, informal
ask no odds: see ODDS.

a big ask a difficult demand to fulfil.
informal
don't ask me! used to indicate that you do
not know the answer to a question and that
you are surprised or irritated to be
questioned, informal
I ask you! an exclamation of shock or
disapproval intended to elicit agreement
from your listener, informal

asking
be asking for trouble (or be asking for it)

© The image here is of falling asleep while j
driving a car. A North American variant is
asleep at the switch, which refers to the
points lever or switch on a railway.

a S S North American vulgar slang

bust your ass try very hard to do something.
chew someone's ass reprimand someone
severely.
cover your ass take steps to protect yourself.
drag (or haul) ass hurry or move fast.
get your ass in gear hurry.
kick (some) ass (or kick someone's ass): see
KICK.

kiss ass:see KISS.
kiss someone's ass: see KISS.
no skin off your ass: see S K I N .

not give a rat's ass not care at all about
something.
a pain in the ass: see PAIN.
a piece of ass: see PIECE.

put someone's ass in a sling get someone in
trouble.
whip (or bust) someone's ass use physical
force to beat someone in a fight.

at
at it engaged in some activity, typically a
reprehensible one.
1993 G. F. Newman Law b Order Oh, don't take
me for a complete idiot, Jack. I know you're at
it.
at that in addition; furthermore (used for
emphasis at the end of a statement).
1994 Sunday Times The sensitivity to social
change may play its part, but in reality
fashion is a business, and a hard-nosed one
at that.

11

aye

where it's at the most fashionable place,
get away with you! used to express
possession, or activity, informal
scepticism. Scottish
1990 Ellen Feldman Lookingfor Love New York is
far
and away: see FAR.
where it's at, stylewise.
out and away: see OUT.

atmosphere
an atmosphere that you could cut with a
knife a general feeling of great tension or
malevolence.

attendance
dance attendance on: see DANCE.

auld
for auld lang syne for old times' sake.
i © The phrase literally means'for old long
; since', and is the title and refrain of a song by j
! Robert Burns (1788).

auspice
under the auspices of with the help,
support, or protection of.
;
!
!
!
j
j
|
!
!

O Auspice (since the late 18th century
almost always used in the plural), comes from
the Latin word auspicium, which means the
act of divination carried out by an auspex in
ancient Rome. The auspex observed the flight
of birds in order to foretell future events. If
the omens were favourable he was seen as
the protector of the particular enterprise
foretold.

authority
have something on good authority have
ascertained something from a reliable
source.

away
away with something used as an exhortation
to overcome or be rid of something.

awkward
the awkward age adolescence.
the awkward squad a squad composed of
recruits and soldiers who need further
training.
i
I
!
j
!
i

O Shortly before his death Robert Burns is
reported to have said, 'Don't let the awkward
squad fire over me'. Nowadays, the expression
is often used to refer to a group of people
who are regarded as tiresome or difficult to
deal with.

axe
have an axe to grind have a private,
sometimes malign, motive for doing or
being involved in something.
j
j
j
j

O T n e expression originated in a story told !
by Benjamin Franklin and was used first in the j
USA, especially with reference to politics, but j
it is now in general use.

1997 Times I am a non-smoker, and have no
personal axe to grind.

aye
the ayes have it the affirmative votes are in
the majority.
j
!
j
j

O /Aye is an archaic or dialect word meaning j
'yes', now used in standard speech only when j
voting. Compare with the noes have it
(at NO).

2000 Guardian The arguments will continue.
But we think the 'ayes' have it.

Bb
B
plan B an alternative strategy.
1999 8 Days And if that doesn't work, well,
there's always Plan B.

babe
babes in the wood inexperienced people in a
situation calling for experience.
i
!
\
j
i
j
i
|
i

O The babes in the wood are characters
in an old ballad The Children in the
Wood, which dates from the 16th century,
The two children are abandoned in the wood
by their wicked uncle who wishes to steal
their inheritance. The children die of
starvation and robins cover their bodies
with leaves; the uncle and his accomplice
are subsequently brought to justice.

baby
be someone's baby (of a project) be
instigated and developed by one particular
person; be someone's creation or special
concern, informal
be left holding the baby: see HOLDING.

throw the baby out with the bathwater

discard something valuable along with
other things that are inessential or
undesirable.
!
|
j
!
j
j
j

O This phrase is based on a German saying
recorded from the early 16th century but not !
introduced into English until the mid 19th
century, by Thomas Carlyle. He identified it as I
German and gave it in the form, 'You must
empty out the bathing-tub, but not the baby i
along with it.'

date and who is no longer relevant or
useful.
back o'Bourke the outback. Australian informal
j O Bourke is the name of a town in northi west New South Wales.

the back of beyond a very remote or
inaccessible place.
1998 Sanjida O'Connell Angel Bird This is
London, Niall, not some poky wee place in the
back of beyond.
back to the drawing board used to indicate
that an idea or scheme has been
unsuccessful and a new one must be
devised.
; O An architectural or engineering project is j
: at its earliest phase when it exists only as a
j plan on a drawing board.

1991 Discover Even as Humphries fine-tunes
his system, however, he realizes that NASA
could send him back to the drawing
board.
back to square one back to the starting
point, with no progress made.
j
i
:
:
j

O Square one may be a reference to a board j
game such as Snakes and Ladders, or may
come from the notional division of a football j
pitch into eight numbered sections for the
purpose of early radio commentaries.

back the wrong horse make a wrong or
inappropriate choice.
be on (or get off) someone's back nag (or

stop nagging) someone, informal
by the back door using indirect or dishonest
1998 New Scientist It is easy to throw out the
means to achieve an objective.
baby with the bathwater when it comes to
UFO books—there are some seriously bad
get someone's back up make someone
titles out there.
annoyed or angry.

back
at the back of your mind not consciously
or specifically thought of or remembered
but still part of your general awareness.
back in the day in the past; some time
ago.
a back number Qan issue of a periodical
before the current one. © a person
whose ideas or methods are out of

I O This phrase developed as an allusion to
i the way a cat arches its back when it is angry i
! or threatened.

get your own back: see GET.
know something like the back of your

hand be entirely familiar with something.
not in my back yard: see NOT.
on your back in bed recovering from an
injury or illness.

balance

13

0 1 9 9 7 Spectator Mr Montgomery was able to
sack Mr Hargreaves, who had evidently not
brought home the bacon.

put your back Into approach a task with
vigour.
see the back of be rid of an unwanted person
or thing. British informal

someone's back is turned someone's
attention is elsewhere.
1989 Orson Scott Card Prentice Alvin That
prentice of yours look strong enough to dig it
hisself, if he doesn't lazy off and sleep when
your back is turned.
take a back seat take or be given a less
important position or role. Compare with
in the driver's seat (at DRIVER).

bad
bad blood: see BLOOD.

a bad quarter of an hour a short but very
unpleasant period of time; an unnerving
experience.
!
!
i
!

O A bad quarter of an hour is a translation
of the French phrase un mauvais quart
d'heure, which has also been current in
English since the mid 19th century.

with your back to {or up against) the wall in
a desperate situation.

a bad workman blames his tools: see

backbone

be bad news: see N E W S .

put backbone into someone encourage
someone to behave resolutely.

my bad used to acknowledge responsibility
for a mistake. North American informal

j O A s a metaphor for 'firmness of character', !
| backbone dates from the mid 19th century.

1998 Spectator There is a widespread belief
that if only Mrs Thatcher had still been in No.
10, she would have put backbone into Bush
and got rid of Saddam.

back-seat
a back-seat driver Q a passenger in a vehicle
who constantly gives the driver unwanted
advice on how to drive. 0 someone who
lectures and criticizes the person actually
in control of something.

backwards
bend over backwards to do something
make every effort, especially to be fair or
helpful, informal
know something backwards be entirely
familiar with something.
1991 William Trevor Reading Turgenev
People who lived in the town knew it backwards.

WORKMAN.

turn up like a bad penny: see PENNY.

bag
bag and baggage with all your belongings.
a bag of bones an emaciated person or
animal. Compare with be skin and bone
(at S K I N ) .

a bag {or bundle) of nerves a person who is
extremely t i m i d or tense, informal

a bag {or whole bag) of tricks a set of
ingenious plans, techniques, or resources.
informal

be left holding the bag: see be left holding
the baby at HOLDING.

in the bag Q (of something desirable) as good
as secured, © d r u n k . US informal

pack your bag: see PACK.

bait
fish or cut bait: see F I S H .
rise to the bait: see RISE.

bacon

baker

save someone's bacon: see save someone's

a baker's dozen thirteen.

skin at SAVE.

bring home the bacon Q supply material
provision or support, ©achieve success.
informal
i
i
j
j
;

O This phrase probably derives from the
much earlier save your bacon, recorded from i
the mid 17th century. In early use bacon also j
referred to fresh pork, the meat most readily \
available to rural people.

!
\

I
j
i
I

O This expression arose from the former
bakers' practice of adding an extra loaf to a
dozen sold to a retailer, this representing the j
latter's profit.

balance
turn the balance: see turn the scales at
SCALE.

weigh something in the balance carefully

bald

14

ponder or assess the merits and demerits of
something.
!
!
!
i
i
j
!
!
i
!

O The image is of a pair of old-fashioned
scales with two pans in which the positive and
negative aspects of something can be set
against each other. The expanded phrase
weighed in the balance and found wanting
meaning'having failed to meet the test of a
particular situation'is also found, and is an
allusion to the biblical book of Daniel, where
such a process formed part of the judgement
made on King Belshazzar.

j

j
j
j

bald
as bald as a coot completely bald.
j
!
j
I
i
|
i

O The coot {Fulica atra) has a broad white
shield extending up from the base of its bill,
The history of the word bald is somewhat
obscure, but analogies with other northern
European languages suggest a connection
with the idea of 'having a white patch or
streak'.

ball
a ball and chain a severe hindrance.
I
j
j
j

O Originally, a ball and chain referred to a
heavy metal ball attached by a chain to the
leg of a prisoner or convict to prevent their
escape.

the ball is in someone's court it is that
particular person's turn to act next.
j O This expression is a metaphor from tennis i
j or a similar ball game where different players j
j use particular areas of a marked court.

a ball of fire a person who is full of energy
and enthusiasm.
j O In the early 19th century this phrase was j
j also used to mean 'a glass of brandy'.
behind the eight ball: see E I G H T .

have a ball enjoy yourself greatly; have fun.

1998 Romesh Gunesekera Sandglass It's big
business now, you know. You have to be on
the ball: go, go, go all the time.
play ball work willingly with others;
cooperate, informal
! O The literal sense is of play ball is 'play a
! team ball game such as baseball or cricket'.

start the ball rolling set an activity in motion;
make a start.
the whole ball of wax everything. North
American informal

a whole new ball game a completely new set
of circumstances, informal
i O The phrase originated in North America, j
i where a ball game is a baseball match.

1989 Looks Making the film was a whole new
ball game... for Kylie.

ballistic
go ballistic fly into a rage, informal
1998 New Scientist The French nuclear
industry, local authorities around La Hague
and some government agencies went ballistic.
Viel wasfiercelycondemned for his findings.

balloon
go down like a lead balloon: see LEAD.
when (or before) the balloon goes up when
(or before) the action or trouble starts.
informal
! O The balloon alluded to is probably one
j released to mark the start of an event.

1959 Punch The international rules of war are
apt to be waived when the balloon goes up.

ballpark
in the ballpark in a particular area or range.
informal
i O The phrase originated in the USA, where a j
! ballpark is a baseball ground.

informal

have the ball at your feet have your best
opportunity of succeeding.
have a lot on the ball have a lot of ability.
US
keep the ball rolling maintain the
momentum of an activity.
keep your eye on (or take your eye off) the
ball keep (or fail to keep) your attention
focused on the matter in hand.
on the ball alert to new ideas, methods, and
trends, informal

bamboo
the bamboo curtain an impenetrable
political, economic, and cultural barrier
between China and non-Communist
countries.
j O Formed on the pattern of the iron curtain j
j (see at IRON), this phrase dates back to the
j 1940s.

banana
banana republic a small tropical state,

bark

15
especially one in central America,
whose economy is regarded as wholly
dependent on its fruit-exporting trade.
derogatory
go bananas ©become extremely angry or
excited, ©go mad. informal
0 1 9 9 2 Jim Lehrer A Bus of My Own I
predicted John Erlichman would probably
go bananas when he testified the next
day.
second banana the second most
important person in an organization
or activity, informal, chiefly North American
top banana the most important person in an
organization or activity, informal, chiefly North
American
I
i
j
I
i

O The two expressions above originated in i
US theatrical slang. The top banana was
originally the comedian who topped the bill !
in a show, while the second banana was the j
supporting comedian.

banana skin
slip on a banana skin: see SLIP.

band
when the band begins to play when matters
become serious.

bandwagon
jump on the bandwagon join others in
doing something or supporting a cause
that is fashionable or likely to be
successful.
j © Bandwagon was originally the US term
I for a large wagon able to carry a band of
I musicians in a procession.

bang

get a bang out of derive excitement or
pleasure from. North American informal
1931 Damon Runyon Guys and Dolls He seems
to be getting a great bang out of the doings.
go with a bang happen with obvious success.

bank
break the bank Q(in gambling) win more
money than is held by the bank. Q cost
more than you can afford, informal

banner
under the banner of Q claiming to support a
particular cause or set of ideas. © as part of
a particular group or organization.

baptism
a baptism of fire a difficult introduction to a
new job or activity.
j O A baptism of fire was originally a soldier's !
j initiation into battle.

1998 Times Opposition spokesmen do not
normally face a baptism offire,but the Bank of
England's unexpected decision... provided
the Shadow Chancellor with an opportunity to
make an early mark.

bar
bar none with no exceptions.
1866 M.E. Braddon Lady's Mile Your 'Aspasia' is
the greatest picture that ever was painted—
'bar none'.

bare
the bare bones the basic facts about
something, without any detail.

bargepole
would not touch someone or something
with a bargepole used to express an
emphatic refusal to have anything to do
with someone or something, informal

bang for your (or the) buck value for money;
performance for cost. US informal
1995 Desktop Publishing Journal These additions j O A bargepole is used to propel a barge and i
to RunShare... will surely give you the most
I to fend off obstacles. The equivalent US
productive network, the most 'bang for your
i expression substitutes a ten-foot pole.
buck'.
bang goes — used to express the sudden or
bark
complete destruction of something,
bark at the moon: see MOON.
especially a plan or ambition.
bark up the wrong tree pursue a mistaken or
1895 George Bernard Shaw Letter Somebody
misguided line of thought or course of
will give a surreptitious performance of it: and
action, informal
then bang goes my copyright.
bang on exactly right. British informal
j O The metaphor is of a dog that has
! mistaken the tree in which its quarry has
bang people's heads together reprimand
j taken refuge and is barking at the foot of the j
people severely, especially in the attempt
i wrong one.
to make them stop arguing.

barn
1969 Arnold Bennett Forty Years On For
sovereign states to conclude agreements on
the basis of a mutual fondness for dogs seems
to me to be barking up the wrong tree.
someone's bark is worse than their bite
someone is not as ferocious as they appear
or sound.
!
I
\
j
i
i
i
|

O A similar association between barking
and biting occurs in the proverb a barking
dog never bites, which can be traced back
through 13th-century French (chascuns
chiens qui abaie ne mort pas, dogs that bark i
don't bite) to Latin (canem timidum
vehementius latrarequam mordere, a timid
dog barks more furiously than it bites).

barn
round Robin Hood's barn: see R O B I N HOOD.

barred
no holds barred: see HOLD.

barrel
a barrel of laughs a source of fun or
amusement, informal
1996 Mail on Sunday Seeing so many old people
gathered all in one place was hardly a barrel of
laughs.
get someone over a barrel get someone in a
helpless position; have someone at your
mercy, informal

16
off base mistaken. North American informal
1947 Time Your Latin American
department was off base in its comparison
of the Portillo Hotel in Chile with our
famous Sun Valley.
touch base briefly make or renew contact
with someone or something, informal
1984 Armistead Maupin Babycakes In
search of a routine, he touched base with
his launderette, his post office, his nearest
market.
j
j
j
j

O Base in these three phrases refers to each i
of the four points in the angles of the
'diamond' in baseball, which a player has to
reach in order to score a run.

basic
back to basics abandoning complication
and sophistication to concentrate
on the most essential aspects of
something.
j
I
j
|
!
i
i

O Back to basics is often used to suggest the i
moral superiority of the plain and simple, as i
in a speech made in 1993 by the British
Conservative leader John Major, who
spearheaded the government's campaign for j
the regeneration of basic family and
educational values in the 1990s.

bat
blind as a bat: see BLIND.

i
!
i
i

O This phrase perhaps refers to the
condition of a person who has been rescued i
from drowning and is placed over a barrel to i
clear their lungs of water.

scrape the barrel: see SCRAPE.
with both barrels with unrestrained force or
emotion, informal
I O The barrels in question are the two barrels j
j of a firearm.

barrelhead
on the barrelhead: see on the nail at NAIL.

barricade
man (or go to) the barricades strongly
protest against a government or other
institution or its policy.

base
get to first base achieve the first step towards
your objective, informal, chiefly North American
1962 P. G. Wodehouse Service with a Smile She
gives you the feeling that you'll never get to
first base with her.

have bats in the (or your) belfry be eccentric
or crazy, informal
j O This expression refers to the way in which I
j bats in an enclosed space fly about wildly if
j they are disturbed.

c-1901 G. W. Peck Peck's Red-Headed Boy They all
thought a crazy man with bats in his belfry
had got loose.
like a bat out of hell very fast and wildly.
informal
1995 Patrick McCabe The Dead School Like a bat
out of hell that Joe Buck gets on out of the
apartment and doesn't stop running till he
reaches Times Square.
not bat an eyelid (or eye) show no emotional
or other reaction, informal
!
I
j
j

O Satin this sense is perhaps a dialect and
USvariantoftheverbbatemeaning'loweror j
let down'. The variant not blink an eye is also !
found.

1997 James Ryan Dismantling Mr Doyle She
did not bat an eyelid when Eve spelled out the
unorthodox details of the accommodation
they required.

be

17

1998 Oldie They endured the hard pounding of
the Seventies, when Labour battened down
the hatches, and soldiered through the follies
of the early Eighties.

off your own bat at your own instigation;
spontaneously. British
| O The bat referred to in this phrase is a
; cricket bat.

battery

1995 Colin Bateman Cycle of Violence She
doesn't have me doing anything, Marty. It's
alloffmyownbat.
right off the bat at the very beginning;
straight away. North American

recharge your batteries: see RECHARGE.

battle
battle of the giants a contest between two
pre-eminent parties.

bated

| O This expression may be a reference to the j
! battle between the giants and gods in Greek j
; mythology.

with bated breath in great suspense; very
anxiously or excitedly.
i
i
i
:
!

battle royal a fiercely contested fight or
dispute.
1997 Fred Chappell Farewell, I'm Bound to
Leave You The boys told no one about the
fight... it was a battle royal and went on
from two o'clock in the afternoon until
sundown.

O Baited, which is sometimes seen, is
a misspelling, since bated in this sense is
a shortened form of abated, the idea being
that your breathing is lessened under the
influence of extreme suspense.

bath
an early bath the sending off of a sports
player during a game. British informal
i © The allusion is to the bath or shower
| taken by players at the end of a match.

take a bath suffer a heavy financial loss.
informal
1997 Bookseller When the yen drops in value,
as it is doingrightnow, we take a bath. There is
no way to change the prices fast enough.

baton
pass (or hand) on the baton hand over a
particular duty or responsibility.
i
!
I
\
j
I

O In athletics, the baton is the short stick or i
rod passed from one runner to the next in a i
relay race. The related phrases pick up or take \
up the baton mean 'accept a duty or
responsibility'. Compare with hand on the
torch (at TORCH).

under the baton of (of an orchestra or choir)
conducted by.

battle stations used as a command or
signal to military personnel to take up
their positions in preparation for battle.
chiefly US
half the battle an important step towards
achieving something.
a losing battle: see LOSING.
a pitched battle: see PITCHED.
a running battle: see RUNNING.

bay
bay for blood demand punishment or
retribution.
bring someone or something to bay trap or
corner a person or animal being hunted or
chased.
|
j
j
i
i

O This phrase was originally a medieval
hunting term, referring to the position of the j
quarry when it is cornered by the baying
hounds.Ananimalcorneredinthiswayissaid !
to stand at bay.

hold (or keep) someone or something at
bay prevent someone or something from
approaching or having an effect.

! O The baton here is the rod used by the
; conductor.

be
batten
batten down the hatches prepare for a
difficulty or crisis.
i
j
i
i

O Batten down the hatches was originally
a nautical term meaning 'make a ship's
hatches secure with gratings and tarpaulins'
in expectation of stormy weather.

j

-to-be of the future.
1993 Mother 8 Baby Many mums-to-be
report that smallfrequentsnacks are
easier to keep down than three large meals
a day.
be there for someone be available to support
or comfort someone who is experiencing
difficulties or adversities.

bead

18

the be-all and end-all a feature of an activity
or a way of life that is of greater importance
than any other, informal

bead

know how many beans make five be
intelligent; have your wits about you. British
informal
not have a bean be penniless, informal
j O

Bean was an early 19th-century slang

draw (or get) a bead on take aim at with a
i term for a golden guinea or sovereign. In the i
gun. chiefly North American
i sense of 'a coin', it now survives only in this
1994 Ontario Out of Doors Few moose will pose j phrase.
majestically right at the water's edge while
spill the beans: see SPILL.
you draw a bead on them.

beam

bear

a beam in your eye a fault that is greater in
yourself than in the person you are finding
fault with.

bear the brunt of: see BRUNT.
grin and bear it: see GRIN.
have your cross to bear: see CROSS.
like a bear with a sore head (of a person) very
irritable. British informal
loaded for bear fully prepared for any
eventuality, typically a confrontation or
challenge. North American informal

!
i
i
i
i

O This phrase comes from Matthew 7:3:
'Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy
brother's eye, but considerest not the beam
that is in thy own eye?' For a mote in
someone's eye, see MOTE.

!

broad in the beam: see BROAD.
off (or way off) beam on the wrong track;
mistaken, informal
! O Originally, this phrase referred to the
i radio beam or signal used to guide aircraft.

1997 Anthony Barnett This Time I sample
the press coverage to illustrate how large
sections of the Fourth Estate were way off
beam in their conviction that voters want
the country steered back towards 'Great
Englishness'.
on your beam ends near the end of your
resources; desperate.
i
!
i
!
:
!
j

O The beam referred to here is one of
the main horizontal transverse timbers
of a wooden ship; compare with broad in the j
beam (at BROAD). The phrase originated as
the nautical term on her beam ends, and was j
used of a ship that had heeled over on its side j
and was almost capsizing.

bean
full of beans lively; in high spirits, informal
i O This phrase was originally used by people j
! who work with horses, and referred to the
i good condition of a horse fed on beans.

give someone beans scold or deal severely
with a person, informal
a hill (or row) of beans something of little
importance or value, informal
1999 SL (Cape Town) I think that what your
friends and family think shouldn't amount to
a hill of beans.

i O The image here may be of a hunting gun i
i loaded and ready to shoot a bear.

beard
beard the lion in his den (or lair) confront
or challenge someone on their own
ground.
;
!
j
j
j

O T h i s phrase developed partly from the
idea of being daring enough to take a lion
by the beard and partly from the use of beard \
as a verb to mean'face', i.e. to face a lion in
his den.

beat
beat a hasty retreat withdraw, typically
in order to avoid something unpleasant.
j O In former times, a drumbeat could be
j used to keep soldiers in step while they were j
I retreating.

beat about the bush discuss a matter
without coming to the point; be ineffectual
and waste time.
! O This phrase is a metaphor which
I originated in the shooting or netting of birds; j
j compare with beat the bushes below.

1992 Barry Unsworth Sacred Hunger I don't
want to beat about the bush. Mr Adams is
threatening to leave us.
beat someone at their own game use
someone's own methods to outdo them in
their chosen activity.
beat your breast: see BREAST.

bed

19
beat the bushes search thoroughly. North
American informal

beautiful

beat the daylights out of: see DAYLIGHT.
beat the drum for: see DRUM.

the beautiful people Qfashionable,
glamorous, and privileged people, ©(in
the 1960s) hippies.
01995 Singapore: Rough Guide The coolest
address in town, and a magnet for the
beautiful people.
the body beautiful an ideal of physical
beauty.
1992 Mother Jones About 75,000 women a year
elect to have cosmetic surgery, spurred on by
ubiquitous images of the body beautiful.

beat your (or the) meat (of a man)
masturbate, vulgar slang

beaver

!
:
I
I
;

O This expression originates from the way in \
which hunters walkthrough undergrowth
wielding long sticks which are used to force
birdsoranimalsoutintotheopenwherethey j
can be shot or netted.

beat the clock perform a task quickly or
within a fixed time limit.

beat the pants off prove to be vastly superior work like a beaver work steadily and
industriously, informal
to. informal
1990 Paul Auster The Music of Chance 'Not bad,i O The beaver is referred to here because
kid,' Nashe said. 'You beat the pants off me.'
j of the industriousness with which it
j constructs the dams necessary for its aquatic
beat a path to someone's door (of a large
j dwellings. The image is similarly conjured
number of people) hasten to make contact
j up by the phrase beaver away meaning
with someone regarded as interesting or
j 'work hard'.
inspiring.
i
;
I
;

© This phrase developed from the idea of a j
large number of people trampling down
vegetation to make a path: compare with off j
the beaten track (at BEATEN).

beat the system succeed in finding a means
of getting round rules, regulations, or other
means of control.
beat someone to it succeed in doing
something or getting somewhere before
someone else, to their annoyance.
if you can't beat them, join them if you are

j
j

beck
at someone's beck and call always having to
be ready to obey someone's orders
immediately.
j
j
j
j

O Beck in the sense of 'a significant gesture i
of command' comes from the verb beck, a
shortened form of beckon. It is now found
mainly in this phrase.

bed

bed and breakfast O overnight
accommodation and breakfast next
morning as offered by hotels etc.
© designatingfinancialtransactions in
which shares are sold and then bought
miss a beat: see MISS.
back the next morning.
to beat the band in such a way as to surpass
a bed of nails a problematic or uncomfortall competition. North American informal
able situation.
1995 Patrick McCabe The Dead School He was
j O A bed of nails was originally a board with !
polishing away to beat the band.
unable to outdorivalsin some endeavour,
you might as well cooperate with them and
gain whatever advantage possible by doing
so. humorous.

beaten

i nails pointing out of it, lain on by Eastern
j fakirs and ascetics.

a bed of roses a situation or activity that is
comfortable or easy.
get out of bed on the wrong side be badi O The post alluded to here is the marker at i
tempered all day long.
j the end of a race.
in bed with ©having sexual intercourse
with, ©in undesirably close association
off the beaten track (or path) Qui or into
with, informal
an isolated place, ©unusual.
© 1992 lain Banks The Crow Road 'Your Uncle 02000 Snowboard UK Jackson lies like an
oasis of culture and good coffee in a state that
Hamish... ' She looked troubled. 'He's a bit off
the beaten track, that boy.'
is otherwisefirmlyin bed with gun culture.
beaten (or pipped) at the post defeated at
the last moment.

bedpost
you have made your bed and must lie in it

you must accept the consequences of your
own actions.

bedpost
between you and me and the bedpost (or
the gatepost or the wall) in strict
confidence, informal
! O The bedpost, gatepost, or wall is seen as !
I marking the boundary beyond which the
j confidence must not go.

bedside

20
beg
beg the question Q raise a point that has not
been dealt with; invite an obvious
question, ©assume the truth of an
argument or of a proposition to be proved,
without arguing it.
!
\
!
I
j
j
!
I
!
j

O The original meaning of the phrase beg
the question belongs to the field of logic and ;
is a translation of Latin petitio principii,
literally meaning Maying claim to a principle', j
i.e. assume the truth of something that
ought to be proved first. For many
traditionalists this remains the only correct
meaning, but far commoner in English today ;
is the first sense here, 'invite an obvious
question'.

!
!
|
j

O Compare with the mid 17th-century
proverb set a beggar on horseback and he'll \
ride to the devil, meaning that a person not j
used to power will use it unwisely.

bedside manner a doctor's approach or
attitude to a patient.
1993 Bill Moyers Healing & the Mind Are you
just talking about the old-fashioned bedside
manner of a doctor who comes around and
beggar
visits you when you need him?
beggar belief (or description) be too
extraordinary to be believed (or described).
bee
beggar on horseback a formerly poor person
the bee's knees something or someone
made arrogant or corrupt through
outstandingly good, informal
achieving wealth and luxury.
i
!
j
!

O The bee's knees was first used to refer to !
something small and insignificant, but it
quickly developed its current, completely
opposite meaning.

have a bee in your bonnet have an obsessive
preoccupation with something, informal
j
i
j
I

O This expression, along with have bees in
the head or bees in the brain, was first used to j
refer to someone who was regarded as crazy j
or eccentric.

beeline
make a beeline for go rapidly and directly
towards.
; O The phrase refers to the straight line
j supposedly taken instinctively by a bee
j returning to its hive.

beggars can't be choosers people with no
other options must be content with what is
offered, proverb

begging
go begging Q(of an article) be available.
0 (of an opportunity) not be taken.

beginner
beginner's luck good luck supposedly
experienced by a beginner at a particular
game or activity.

beginning

1997 Bookseller And when he heard that people the beginning of the end the event or
might like him to sign copies of his new
development to which the conclusion or
novel... he cut the small talk and made a
failure of something can be traced.
beeline for the stall.
1992 H. Norman Schwartzkopf It Doesn't Take a
Hero I heard about D-Day on the radio. The
been
announcer quoted Ohio governor John
been there, done that: see THERE.
Bricker's now-famous line that this was 'the
beginning of the end of the forces of evil'.

beer

beer and skittles amusement. British
j
!
j
j

O This phrase comes from the proverb life
isn't all beer and skittles. The game of skittles i
is used as a prime example of a form of light- j
hearted entertainment.

bejeSUS informal
beat the bejesus out of someone hit

someone very hard or for a long time.
scare the bejesus out of someone frighten
someone very much.

bend

21
2001 GQThis place is going to scare the
bejesus out of the fuddy-duddy Sloaney-Pony
set.

belly
go belly up go bankrupt, informal

| O Bejesus is an alteration of the exclamation !
j by Jesus! It is often found in its Anglo-Irish
I form bejasus or bejabers.

bell
bell, book, and candle a formula for laying a
curse on someone.
j
!
j
!
|
j
j

O This expression alludes to the closing
words of the rite of excommunication,
'Do to the book, quench the candle, ring
the bell', meaning that the service book
is closed, the candle put out, and the
passing bell rung, as a sign of spiritual
death.

bellyful

below
i

© Bell the cat alludes to the fable in which
mice or rats have the idea of hanging a bell
aroundthecat'snecksoastohavewarningof !
its approach, the only difficulty being to find I
oneof their number willing to undertake the j
task.

bells and whistles attractive additional
features or trimmings, informal
i
:
j
!
j

1998 Times: Weekend The single currency
could well go belly-up within two or three
years.

have a bellyful of become impatient after
prolonged experience of someone or
something, informal

bell the cat take the danger of a shared
enterprise upon yourself.
!
i
I
!
!
|

j O The implied comparison is with a dead
i fish or other animal floating upside down in !
j the water.

© The bells and whistles originally referred i
to were those found on old fairground
organs. Nowadays, the phrase is often used in !
computing jargon to mean 'attractive but
superfluous facilities'.

below stairs in the basement of a house, in
particular as the part occupied by servants.
British dated

belt
below the belt unfair or unfairly; not in
keeping with the rules.
i O ' n boxing a blow below the belt is a low, j
i and therefore unlawful, blow.

belt and braces (of a policy or action)
providing double security by using
two means to achieve the same end.
British
I O This meaning developed from the idea of i
! a literal belt and braces holding up a pair of j
j loose-fitting trousers.

2002 Digital Photography Made Easy Oddly, the
manual is also on CD, which seems a bit belt
as clear (or sound) as a bell perfectly clear {or
and braces (though useful if you lose the
sound).
original).
1993 Independent We spent a few thousand on
tighten your belt cut your expenditure; live
redecoration, but basically the place was
more frugally.
sound as a bell.
under your belt Q (of food or drink)
give someone a bell telephone someone.
consumed. © safely or satisfactorily
British informal
achieved, experienced, or acquired.
ring a bell revive a distant recollection;
sound familiar, informal
bend
with bells on enthusiastically. North American
bend someone's ear talk to someone,
informal
especially with great eagerness or in order
1989 Mary Gordon The Other Side So,
to ask a favour, informal
everybody's waiting for you with bells on.
bend your elbow drink alcohol. North
saved by the bell: see S A V E D .

belle
belle of the ball the most admired and
successful woman on a particular occasion.
i O Thebe//eoftheba//wasoriginallythegirl i
j or woman regarded as the most beautiful
j and popular at a dance.

American
bend over backwards: see BACKWARDS.
round the bend (or twist) crazy; mad. informal
1998 Spectator She combines a fondness for
holidays in Switzerland with an amiable
husband... who saves herfromgoing
completely round the bend.

bended

22

bended

besetting

on bended knee kneeling, especially when
pleading or showing great respect.

besetting sin a fault to which a person or
institution is especially prone; a
characteristic weakness.

I
j
j
j

O Bended was the original past participle of j
bend, but in Middle English it was superseded i
in general use by bent. It is now archaic and
survives only in this phrase.

i O The verb beset literally means 'surround
j with hostile intent', so the image is of a sin
; besieging or pressing in upon a person.

1974 Donal Scannell Mother Knew Best Mother
said vanity was a besetting sin which Amy
resented, to say the least of it.

benefit
give someone the benefit of — explain or
recount to someone at length (often used
ironically when someone pompously or
impertinently assumes that their
knowledge or experience is superior to
that of the person to whom they are
talking).
1999 Stage Our courses are delivered by 2
current TV personalities who will give you the
benefit of their 6 years experience.
the benefit of the doubt a concession that
someone or something must be regarded as
correct or justified, if the contrary has not
been proved.

Benjamin
a Benjamin's portion (or mess) the largest
share or portion.
O In the Bible, Benjamin was the youngest
son of the Jewish patriarch Jacob. When
Jacob's sons encountered their long-lost
brother Joseph in Egypt, where he had
become a high official, they failed to
recognize him, but Joseph generously
entertained them: 'And he took and sent
messes [servings of food] unto them from
before him: but Benjamin'smesswasfivetimes
so much as any of their's' (Genesis 43:34).

bent

beside
beside yourself overcome with worry, grief,
or anger; distraught.

best
best bib and tucker: see BIB.
the best thing since sliced bread: see BREAD.
put your best foot forward: see FOOT.
with the best will in the world: see WILL.
the best of both worlds: see WORLD.

the best of British used to wish someone well
in an enterprise, especially when you are
almost sure it will be unsuccessful, informal
i O This phrase is an abbreviation of the best I
j of British luck to you.

give someone or something best admit the
superiority of; give way to. British
1990 Birds Magazine Hefinallydecided to give
us best and took himself off.
make the best of it Q derive what limited
advantage you can from something
unsatisfactory or unwelcome, ©use
resources as well as possible.
! O The first sense is often found in the form j
j make the best of a bad job, meaning 'do
i

bent out of shape angry or agitated. North
| something as well as you can under difficult
American informal
: circumstances'.
1994 David Spencer Alien Nation 6: Passing
Fancy Max Corigliano was there... and bent your best bet the most favourable option
out of shape about having been made to wait
available in particular circumstances.
so long.
six of the best a caning as a punishment,
traditionally with six strokes of the cane.
berth
give someone or something a wide berth

stay away from someone or something.
j
i
j
i
j
i
j

O Berth is a nautical term which originally
referred to the distance that ships should
keep away from each other or from the shore, j
rocks, etc., in order to avoid a collision.
Therefore, the literal meaning of the
expression is'steer a ship well clear of
something while passing it'.

I
!
!
i
I

O Six of the best was formerly a common
punishment in boys' schools, but it is
now chiefly historical in its literal sense
and tends to be used figuratively or
humorously.

bet
all bets are off the outcome of a particular
situation is unpredictable, informal

!

bicky

23
don't bet on it used to express doubt about
an assertion or situation, informal
you can bet your boots (or bottom dollar or

life) you may be absolutely certain, informal
bet the farm risk everything that you own on
a bet, investment, or enterprise. North
American informal
a safe bet a certainty.
I O >A safe bet originally referred to a horse
j that was confidently expected to win a race.

2002 Observer It is a safe bet that as the
Western world gets fatter, the people on its
television screens will continue to get thinner.

better
against your better judgement: see
JUDGEMENT.

go one better O narrowly surpass a previous
effort or achievement. © narrowly outdo
another person.
no better than y o u should (or o u g h t to) be

regarded as sexually promiscuous or of
doubtful moral character.
i O This phrase dates back to the early 17th
! century. Used typically of a woman, it is now j
j rather dated.

1998 Spectator 'She's no better than she ought
to be'. (British mothers of my generation...
often used that enigmatic phrase. They would
use it about female neighbours of whom they
disapproved, or women in low-cut dresses on
television.)
your better half your husband or wife.
humorous
seen better days: see DAY.

the — the better used to emphasize the
importance or desirability of the quality or
so much the better: see M U C H .
thing specified.
1986 Patrick Leigh Fermor Between the Woods & betting
the Water He had a passion for limericks, the
the betting is that it is likely that, informal
racier the better.
better the devil you know it's wiser to deal
with an undesirable but familiar person or
situation than to risk a change that might
lead to a situation with worse difficulties or
a person whose faults you have yet to
discover.
! 0 This phrase is a shortened form of the
i proverb better the devil you know than the
| devil you don't know.

better late than never it's preferable for
something to happen or be done belatedly
than not at all.
better safe than sorry it's wiser to be
cautious and careful than to be hasty or
rash and so do something that you may
later regret.
i
j
\
;

O Apparently the expression is quite recent j
in this form (mid 20th century); better be sure \
than sorry is recorded from the mid 19th
century.

1998 New Scientist The meeting is to be
commended for taking a 'better safe than
sorry' attitude, and drawing up a baseline list
of measures to be put in place when disease
breaks out.

between

between the devil a n d the deep blue sea: see
DEVIL.
between a rock a n d a hard place: see R O C K .

betwixt
betwixt and between neither one thing nor
the other, informal
i O Betwixt is now poetic or archaic and is
j seldom found outside this phrase.

beyond
the back of beyond: see B A C K .

it's beyond me it's too astonishing, puzzling,
etc. for me to understand or explain, informal

bib
your best bib and tucker your best clothes.
informal
i
i
!
:
i
j

O Bib and tucker originally referred to
certain items of women's clothing. A bib
is a garment worn over the upper front
part of the body (e.g. the bib of an apron),
and a tucker was a decorative piece of lace
formerly worn on a woman's bodice.

the better to — so as to — better.
1986 Peter Mathiessen Men's lives Francis ran
both motors with their housings off, the better
to tinker with them.

stick (or poke) your bib in interfere. Australian
& New Zealand informal

get the better of win an advantage over
someone; defeat or outwit someone.

big bickies a large sum of money Australian
informal

bicky

bide
j O

24

1981 Canberra Times Appearance money is
another claim which we think will
succeed.. .Just showing up is worth big
bickies.

bide
bide your time wait quietly for a good
opportunity.
i
!
|
i

O Bide in the sense of await is now only
found in this expression. It has been
superseded by abide in most of its other
senses.

big white chief: see CHIEF.

give someone the big e reject someone,
typically in an insensitive or dismissive
way. British informal
! O The e in the phrase is from elbow: give
I someone the big elbow has the same
j meaning.

make it big become very successful or
famous, informal
1991 Gillian Slovo The Betrayal And so he bided talk big talk confidently or boastfully, informal
his time, waiting, plotting, planning, looking
think big be ambitious, informal
for the signs that would be good for him.
too big for your boots conceited, informal

big
Big brother: see BROTHER.

the big C: see C.
a big cheese an important and influential
person, informal
;
i
;
i
;
j
;
!
|
i
!
j
!
!
j
j

1998 Sunday Telegraph The notion that
someone outside the so-called 'Big Four'—the
ministerial group which meets before Cabinet
—might be given such status is uplifting.

Bickies is an abbreviation of biscuits.

O Other versions of this phrase substitute
fish, gun, noise, shot, or wheel for cheese.
These are mainly self-explanatory, with the
exception of cheese itself, which is of
doubtful origin but may be from Persian and
Urdu chTz meaning 'thing'. As a phrase, big
cheese seems to have originated in early
20th-century US slang, as did big noise. Big
wheel in this metaphorical sense (as opposed
to the fairground ride known as a Ferris
wheel) and big shot are similarly US in origin
(mid 20th century). Big fish may have
connotations either of something it is
desirable for you to catch or of the
metaphorical expression a big fish in a small
pond.

big deal Q an important or impressive event.
© used as an ironic exclamation to indicate
that you do not think something is as
important or impressive as another person
has suggested, informal
the big five a name given by hunters to the
five largest and most dangerous African
mammals: rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo,
lion, and leopard.
the big lie a gross distortion or misrepresentation of the facts, especially when
used as a propaganda device by a politician
or official body.
the big smoke QLondon. British informal ©any
large town, chiefly Australian
the big Three, Four, etc. the dominant group
of three, four, etc. informal

bike
get off your bike become annoyed. Australian &
New Zealand informal
1939 Xavier Herbert Capricornia 'I tell you I saw
no-one.' 'Don't get off your bike, son.—I know
you're tellin' lies.'
on your bike! © g o away! © t a k e action! British
informal
j
|
|
!
j
|
j
|

O Sense 2 became a catchphrase in 1980s
Britain, when it was used as an exhortation to j
the unemployed to show initiative in their
attempt to find work. It was taken from a
speech by the Conservative politician
Norman Tebbit in which he said of his
unemployed father: 'He did not riot, he got
on his bike and looked for work.'

bill
bill and coo exchange caresses or affectionate words; behave or talk in a very loving
or sentimental way. informal, dated
i O The image is of two doves, a long; established symbol of mutual love.

a clean bill of health a declaration or
confirmation that someone is healthy
or something is in good condition.
I
I
j
j
!

O | n the mid 18th century, a bill of health
was an official certificate given to the master i
of a ship on leaving port; if clean, it certified i
that there was no infection either in the port j
or on board the vessel.

fit (or fill) the bill be suitable for a particular
purpose.
i O fl/7/in this context is a printed list of items j
I on a theatrical programme or advertisement, j

bit

25
foot the bill be responsible for paying for
something.
sell someone a bill of goods deceive or
swindle someone, usually by persuading
them to accept something untrue or
undesirable.
I © A bill of goods is a consignment of
j merchandise.

1968 Globe & Mail (Toronto) There was no
production bonus... We were sold a bill of
goods.
top (or head) the bill be the main performer
or act in a show, play, etc.

billy-o
like billy-o very much, hard, or strongly.
British informal
1995 John Banville Athena This skin tone is the
effect of cigarettes, I suspect, for she is a great
smoker... going at the fags like billy-o.

bird
the bird has flown the person you are
looking for has escaped or gone away.
a bird in hand something that you have
securely or are sure of.
! O This phrase refers to the proverb a bird in \
I hand is worth two in the bush, current in
i English since the mid 15th century.

a bird of passage someone who is always
moving on.
I O Literally, a bird of passage is a migrant
j bird.

a bird's-eye view a general view from above.
the birds and the bees basic facts about sex
and reproduction as told to a child, informal
birds of a feather people with similar tastes,
interests, etc.
!
i
i
i
j
i

O This phrase comes from the proverb birds I
of a feather flock together, which has been
current in this form since the late 16th
century. Its origins may ultimately lie in the
Apocrypha:'the birds will resort unto their
like'(Ecclesiasticus 27:9).

do bird serve a prison sentence. British
informal
j O In this phrase b/rd comes from rhyming
i slang birdlime 'time'.

early bird: see EARLY.
flip someone the bird stick your middle

finger up at someone as a sign of contempt
or anger. US informal
1994 Washington Post Magazine We could
simultaneously honour America, break the
law and flip the bird to all the do-gooders.
give someone (or get) the bird boo or jeer at
someone (orbe booed or jeered at). British
informal
j
!
I
j
i
!

O This phrase first appeared in early 19thcentury theatrical slang as the big bird,
meaning'a goose'. This was because the
hissing of geese could be compared to the
audience's hissing at an act or actor of which i
it disapproved.

have a bird be very shocked or agitated. North
American informal
1992 Globe & Mail (Toronto) The Washington
press corps would have a bird if the presidentto-be appointed his wife to a real job.
kill two birds with one stone: see KILL.
a little bird told me used as a teasing way of
saying that you do not intend to divulge
how you came to know something.
strictly for the birds not worth
consideration; unimportant, informal
! O This expression was originally US army
! slang. Itmaybeanallusiontotheway in which I
I birds eat the droppings of horses and cattle.

birthday
in your birthday suit naked, humorous

biscuit
have had the biscuit be no longer good for
anything; be done for. Canadian informal
1994 Equinox I thought I'd had the biscuit.
I was more than 12 kilometres from camp,
I didn't have a coat... and it was about
40 below.
take the biscuit: see TAKE.

bit
a bit much somewhat excessive or
unreasonable.
a bit of all right a pleasing person or thing,
especially a woman regarded sexually.
British informal
bit of fluff (or skirt or stuff) a woman
regarded in sexual terms. British informal
1937 W. Somerset Maugham Theatre It was
strangely flattering for a woman to be treated
as a little bit of fluff that you just tumbled on to
abed.
bit of rough: see ROUGH.

bite
bit on the side Q a person with whom you
are unfaithful to your partner. © a
relationship involving being unfaithful to
your partner. © money earned outside
your normal job. informal
bits and pieces (or bobs) an assortment of
small or unspecified items.
do your bit make a useful contribution to an
effort or cause, informal
! O The exhortation to do your bit was much j
! used during World War 1, but the expression j
j was current in the late 19th century.

get the bit between your teeth begin to
tackle a problem or task in a determined or
independent way.
:
j
i
i

O The metal bit in a horse's mouth should lie i
on the fleshy part of its gums; if a headstrong i
horse grasps the bit between its teeth it can
evade the control of the reins and its rider.

to bits very much, informal
1998 Times A succession of elderly ladies
explained how, as young women, they had
fancied him to bits.

bite

26

bite off more than you can chew take on a
commitment you cannot fulfil.
bite your tongue make a desperate effort to
avoid saying something.
put the bite on blackmail; extort money
from. North American & Australian informal
1955 Ray Lawler Summer of the Seventeenth Dol
Your money's runnin' out you know you can't
put the bite on me any more.
take a bite out of reduce by a significant
amount, informal

biter
the biter bit (or bitten) a person who has done
harm has been harmed in a similar way.
! O Biter was a late 17th-century term for a
I fraudster or trickster. In this sense it now
I survives only in this phrase.

2000 Locus The most common plot device
in Lee's stories is the classic 'biter bitten'
resolution.

bitten
be bitten by the bug: see BUG.
I could have bitten my tongue off used
to convey that you profoundly and
immediately regret having said something.
once bitten, twice shy: see ONCE.

bite someone's head off respond curtly or
angrily.
a bite at the cherry: see CHERRY.
bitter
a bitter pill: see PILL.
bite the big one die. North American informal
1996 Tom Clancy Executive Orders The Premier to the bitter end persevering to the end,
of Turkmenistan bit the big one, supposedly
whatever the outcome.
an automobile accident.
black
bite the bullet face up to doing something
beat someone black and blue hit someone
difficult or unpleasant; stoically avoid
so severely that they are covered in bruises.
showing fear or distress.
be
in someone's black books be in disfavour
! O This phrase dates from the days before
with someone.
j anaesthetics, when wounded soldiers were
| given a bullet or similar solid object to clench j
; between their teeth when undergoing
! surgery.

1998 Joyce Holms Bad Vibes Once he
accepted it as inevitable he usually bit the
bullet and did what was required of him with a
good grace.
bite the dust Qbe killed, ©fail, informal
bite the hand that feeds you deliberately
hurt or offend a benefactor; act
ungratefully.
1994 Warren Farrell The Myth of Male Power
When this is combined with the fact that
women watch more TV in every time slot,
shows can't afford to bite the hand that feeds
them.

!
!
i
!
i
j
;
I

O Although a black book was generally an
official book in which misdemeanours and
their perpetrators were noted down, this
phrase perhaps originated in the blackbound book in which evidence of monastic
scandals and abuses was recorded by Henry
VIH's commissioners in the 1530s, before the
suppression of the monasteries.

j

j

beyond the black stump: see STUMP.
black box an automatic apparatus, the
internal operations of which are
mysterious to non-experts.
i O Black does not refer to the colour of the
! device but to the arcane nature of its
; functions. Originally Royal Air Force slang for ;

bleeds

27
i a navigational instrument in an aircraft, the
I phrase is now used in aviation specifically to !
i refer to the flight recorder.

a black mark against someone something
that someone has done that is disliked or
disapproved of by other people.
i O T h e literal meaning of the phrase is a
! black cross or spot marked against the name j
j of a person who has done something wrong, j

the black sheep a person considered to have
brought discredit upon a family or other
group; a bad character.
a black spot a place that is notorious for
something, especially a high crime or
accident rate.
1992 Radio Times Jonathon Porritt meets the
'green warriors' who are spearheading
campaigns to clean up some of the world's
worst pollution black spots.
in the black not owing any money; solvent.
in black and white Qin writing or in print,
and regarded as more reliable than by
word of mouth, ©in terms of clearly
defined opposing principles or issues.
not as black as you are painted not as bad as
you are said to be. informal
i
j
j
i
I

O The proverb the devil is not as black as he \
is painted, first recorded in English in the mid j
16th century, was used as a warning not to
base your fears of something on exaggerated j
reports.

!
!
j
i
;

O A stone at Blarney Castle near Cork in
Ireland is said to give the gift of persuasive
speech to anyone who kisses it; from this
comes the verb blarney, meaning 'talk in a
flattering way'.

blast
a blast from the past something powerfully
nostalgic, especially an old pop song.
informal
1997 Time Out N.Y. Tonight's act is a tribute to
Curtis Mayfield, featuring three blasts from
the past: The Impressions... The Stylistics and
The Dramatics.

blaze
blaze a trail be the first to do something
and so set an example for others to
follow.
;
!
|
\
i
j
i

O Blaze in this sense comes ultimately from j
an Old Norse noun meaning'a white mark on j
a horse's face'. In its literal sense, blazing a
tra/7 refers to the practice of making white
marks on trees by chipping off bits of their
bark, thereby indicating your route to those :
who are following you.

like blazes very fast or forcefully, informal
j O Blazes in this context refers to the flames i
j of hell; go to blazes! is a dated equivalent of j
j go to hell!

blazing
with guns blazing: see GUN.

blank
a blank cheque unlimited scope, especially
to spend money.
i 0 A blank cheque is literally one in which
! the amount of money to be paid has not been ;
! filled in by the payer.

draw a blank elicit no response; be
unsuccessful.

bleed
bleed someone dry (or white) drain
someone of all their money or resources.
|
I
j
i

O Since the late 17th century bleeding has
been a metaphor for extorting money from
someone. White refers to the physiological
effect of losing blood.

1982 William Haggard The Mischief-Makers Her
husband had been a wealthy man, the lady's
solicitors sharp and ruthless, and her husband
had been bled white to get rid of her.

j O Ab/an/cwas originally a lottery ticket that i
| did not win a prize.

firing blanks (of a man) infertile, informal

bleeds

blanket

my heart bleeds for you I sympathize very
deeply with you.

born on the wrong side of the blanket
illegitimate, dated
a wet blanket: see WET.

blarney
have kissed the blarney stone be eloquent
and persuasive.

j
!
!
j
!
i

O This image was used by Chaucer and
Shakespeare to express sincere anguish.
Nowadays, the phrase most often indicates
the speaker's belief that the person referred I
to does not deserve the sympathy they are
seeking.

bless
bless
not have a penny to bless yourself with: see
PENNY.

28
blind someone with science use special or
technical knowledge and vocabulary to
confuse someone.
go it blind act recklessly.

blessing

rob s o m e o n e blind: see R O B .

a blessing in disguise an apparent
misfortune that eventually has good
results.

turn a blind eye pretend not to notice.

count your blessings: see C O U N T .
a mixed blessing: see M I X E D .

blind
a blind alley a course of action that does not
deliver any positive results.
1997 New Scientist The next person looking
for the same information has to go through
the process all over again—even if 1000
people have already been up the same blind
alleys.
as blind as a bat having v e r y bad eyesight.
informal
;
!
i
i
I
i

O This expression probably arose from the
bat's nocturnal habits and its disorientated
flutterings if disturbed by day. The poor
eyesight of bats (and less frequently, moles)
has been proverbial since the late 16th
century.

;
i
i
j
i
!
i
;

O This phrase is said to be a reference to
Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), who
lifted a telescope to his blind eye at the
Battle of Copenhagen (1801), thereby
ensuring that he failed to see his superior's
signal to discontinue the action. A less usual j
version, referring directly to this story, is turn \
a Nelson eye.

blinder
play a blinder: see PLAY.

blinding
effing and blinding: see E F F I N G .

blink
in the blink of an eye very quickly, informal
1995 Daily Mail It also has an unnerving way of
flipping overfromcomedy to tragedy, or from
tragedy to comedy, in the blink of an eye.
on the blink (of a machine) not working
properly; out of order, informal

a blind bit of — the smallest bit of—; no — at
block
all. informal
1995 Patrick McCabe The Dead School Not that it a chip off the old block: see C H I P .
made a blind bit of difference what they
a new kid on the block a newcomer to a
thought, considering the way their lives were
particular place or sphere of activity, informal
about to go.
a blind date a social meeting, usually with
the object of starting a romance, between
two people who have not met each other
before.
the blind leading the blind a situation in
which the ignorant or inexperienced are
instructed or guided by someone equally
ignorant or inexperienced.
! © This phrase alludes to the proverb when
! the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into
! the ditch, quoting Matthew 15:14.

a blind spot Q an area into which you cannot
see. © an aspect of something that
someone knows or cares little about.
!
i
i
i
|
j

O These general senses appear to have
developed from a mid 19th-century
cricketing term for the spot of ground in
front of a batsman where a ball pitched by
the bowler leaves the batsman undecided
whether to play forward to it or back.

: © This phrase was originally American: the
j block referred to is a block of buildings
j between streets.

j

1998 Times Andrew Flintoff has displaced Ben
Hollioake as the new kid on the block.
have been around the block a few times (of
a person) have a lot of experience. North
American informal
on the block for sale at auction, chiefly North
American
j O The block in this phrase was the platform j
i on which, in former times, a slave stood to be j
I auctioned.
put the blocks on prevent from proceeding.
I O A block of wood or other material placed i
j in front of a wheel prevents forward
j movement.
put your head (or neck) on the block put

your position or reputation at risk by

blot

29
proceeding with a particular course of
action, informal
! O This phrase alludes to the block of wood j
i on which a condemned person was formerly j
i beheaded.

blood
blood and guts violence and bloodshed,
especially in fiction, informal
blood and iron military force rather than
diplomacy.
j
!
j
i
j

© Blood and iron is a translation of German j
Blut und Eisen, a phrase particularly
associated with a speech made by the
German statesman Bismarck (1815-98) in the j
Prussian House of Deputies in 1886.

j © A North American variant of this
! expression is///re geft/ng bloodoutofaturnip.

\

make your blood boil infuriate you.
make your blood curdle fill you with
horror.
make your blood run cold horrify you.
!
|
j
;
!
!
j
j
!
j
;
j

© The previous three phrases all come from
the medieval physiological scheme of the
four humours in the human body
(melancholy, phlegm, blood, and choler).
Under this scheme blood was the hot, moist
element, so the effect of horror or fear in
making the blood run cold or curdling
(solidifying) it was to make it unable to fulfil
its proper function of supplying the body
with vital heat or energy. The blood boiling
was a supposedly dangerous overreaction to
strong emotion.

j

i

j

I

blood and thunder unrestrained and violent
action or behaviour, especially in sport or
fiction, informal

new (or young) blood new (or younger)
members of a group, especially those
admitted as an invigorating force.
! O Blood and thunder is often used to
someone's
blood is up someone is in a
: describe sensational literature, and in the late j
fighting mood.
; 19th century gave rise to penny bloods as a
| term for cheap sensational novels.
sweat blood: see SWEAT.
taste blood achieve an early success that
blood is thicker than water family loyalties
stimulates further efforts.
are stronger than other relationships.
there is bad blood between — there is longblood on the carpet used to refer in an
standing hostility between the parties
exaggerated way to a serious disagreement
mentioned.
or its aftermath.
2001 Hugh Collins No Smoke There are
1984 Times The last thing I want now is blood
occasional square-gos sometimes, but there's
on the boardroom carpet.
no bad blood between rival gangs.
blood, sweat, and tears extremely hard
bloody
work; unstinting effort.
bloody (or bloodied) but unbowed proud of
j O l n May 1940 Winston Churchill made a
what you have achieved despite having
! speech in the House of Commons in which he j
suffered great difficulties or losses.
! declared : 'I have nothing to offer but blood, !
i toil, tears, and sweat.'

blood will tell family characteristics cannot
be concealed, proverb
first blood the first point or advantage
gained in a contest.
i O First blood is literally 'the first shedding of I
| blood', especially in a boxing match or
I formerly in duelling with swords.

have blood on your hands be responsible for
the death of someone.
in cold blood: see COLD.
in your blood ingrained in or fundamental to
your character.
like getting blood out of a stone extremely
difficult and frustrating.

bloom
the bloom is off the rose something is no
longer new, fresh, or exciting. North American

blot
blot your copybook tarnish your good
reputation. British
; © A copybook was an exercise book with
i examples of handwriting for children to copy j
j as they practised their own writing.

a blot on the escutcheon something that
tarnishes your reputation.
j © An escutcheon was a family's heraldic
j shield, and so also a record and symbol of its i
j honour.

blouse
a blot on the landscape something ugly
that spoils the appearance of a place;
an eyesore.
1962 Listener Charabancs and monstrous
hordes of hikers are blots upon the landscape.

blouse
big girl's blouse a weak, cowardly, or
oversensitive man. British informal

blow
blow someone away ©kill, destroy, or
defeat someone, ©have a very strong
effect on someone, informal
01998 Times It blows me away the way she
[a 13-year-old] is already moving through her
life.
blow away the cobwebs: see COBWEB.

blow your cool lose your composure;
become angry or agitated, informal
blow the doors off be considerably better
or more successful than. North American
informal
blow a fuse (or gasket) lose your temper.
informal
i © The metaphor is of the failure of an
i electrical circuit or engine as a result of
j overheating.
blow the gaff: see G A F F .
blow great guns: see G U N .

blow hot and cold alternate inconsistently
between two moods, attitudes, or courses
of action; be sometimes enthusiastic,
sometimes unenthusiastic about som