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Definition: To be enjoying something immensely
Example: The children had a whale of a time at Sarah’s sixth birthday party, fuelled by chocolate and all the cola they could drink. The parents had a less fantastic time.
Whales are big. Especially blue whales, the largest mammals on the planet. So anything described in terms of a whale will be big, immensely big. The word is used as an ‘intensifier‘. There are a number of phrases describing things in terms of giant sea mammals: whale of a lot, whale of a job, whale of a difference, etc, etc, though they are not as commonly used as whale of a time.
As to its introduction to the English language, that seems to be somewhere around 1900, along with the other related phrases.
The phrase has absolutely nothing to do with Jonah, the biblical character swallowed by a whale. His experience was not in the least bit enjoyable so would not be a birthplace for the phrase.
Iddy certainly seems to be having a whale of a time. He seems to have totally forgotten that salt water plays havoc with his skin.
Definition: A subtle warning that time passes quickly
Example: “It seems like only yesterday that I gave birth to you,” Jim’s mother said to him. “Yes, time flies,” he agreed, looking down at the ‘Happy Fortieth’ birthday card she had given him.
This idiom is an English translation of ‘tempus fugit’, coined by Virgil in the first century BC. To be precise, he wrote ‘fugit inreparabile tempus’ which translates as “it escapes, irretrievable time“. That wasn’t very snappy, so it has become shortened in the intervening centuries. It’s actually quite a sobering statement.
It is often used in the phrase ‘Time flies when you’re having fun‘. Iddy disagrees with that phrase. Time’s flying at him, but he’s not having any fun whatsoever!
Definition: Feeling wonderful
Example: After achieving his highest score ever on Pac-Man, Kev was on top of the world.
Iddy couldn’t find a specific origin for this idiom, but it has been around since at least the 1920s.
However, it is certain that it didn’t come from the numerous ‘Sitting on the Top of the World’ songs that appeared shortly after the phrase’s first instances in print. And it certainly didn’t come from the one by the Carpenters, though that is one of Iddy’s favourites.
Strange that. Iddy’s rarely on top of the world himself. He’s usually the opposite. Too bad there isn’t the idiom ‘at the bottom of the world‘, because that’s exactly where Iddy would be.
Definition: That’s never going to happen!
Example: “You’re coming with me to see ‘Mamma Mia’ tonight, aren’t you?” John’s wife said to him. His reply? “When pigs fly!”
Iddy learnt a new word with this one…. adynation. ‘When pigs fly‘ is an adynation, a figure of speech using exaggeration to explain something is impossible. Other adynations include ‘When hell freezes over‘, and keeping in the hell theme, ‘A snowball’s chance in hell‘.
Why pigs? Why not. They’re perfectly unsuitable for flight. In the past, both cows and snails have been used in place of swine, but the swine came out as the popular choice.
The phrase has appeared in print since the mid-eighteenth century, probably most conspicuously in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
Iddy discovered two interesting ‘when pigs fly‘ related stories. Well, he thought they were interesting. You may disagree.
Firstly, in 1909, the first pig did fly. Aviator Baron Brabazon of Tara (now, that’s a great name!) took a piglet up in his biplane, strapped safely into a waste basket. Just to make sure the subtlety of his point was not lost, a note reading ‘I AM THE FIRST PIG TO FLY’ was pinned to the basket.
Secondly is a tale concerning novelist John Steinbeck. Apparently, one of his professors told a young Steinbeck that he would be an author when pigs took flight. After he did succeed as an author, he started his books with an insignia proclaiming ‘Ad astra per alas porci‘ or ‘to the stars on the wings of a pig‘. Sometimes there was also an illustration of a flying pig, called Pigasus.
Definition: A forceful or domineering woman
Example: Mrs. Peabody was a fearsome old battle-axe and ruled her classroom like Attila the Hun.
Iddy’s pretty sure that this is a phrase used solely by men to describe women. He can’t imagine women using it. Then again, Iddy’s not usually privy to many woman to woman conversations.
Battle-axe refers to something fearsome and cutting. There is a similar phrase to describe someone with a cutting manner of speaking; ‘sharp tongued’.
Our particular idiom goes back to the last years of the nineteenth century, but may have been reinforced by one particular woman, Carrie Nation. Mrs Nation was involved in the temperance movement, a social reform group that was opposed to the drinking of alcohol. She lived at Hatchet Hall, published a magazine ‘The Hatchet’, a newsletter ‘The Smasher’s Mail’, and even carried a hatchet as a symbol. No, actually it was more than a symbol. She was arrested more than 30 times for using that very same hatchet to smash up fixtures at bars during her protests. While singing and praying. She called these incidents her ‘hatchetations’.
She sounds a bit fierce. But Iddy’s tooled up and ready for her!
Definition: To be delighted
Example: Maria was tickled pink to have gotten front row tickets to see Bruce Springsteen
The tickling described in this idiom has nothing to do with somebody’s fingers on your belly. This has everything to do with the other meaning of tickling, that of being entertained or gratified. This usage of the word dates back to the 17th century.
However, the combination of tickling with the colour pink is much more recent, dating back only to the first years of the 20th century. And why pink? Why not blue, or orange, or in Iddy’s case, green? It simply is the colour of flushed cheeks when somebody is particularly happy or excited.
Apparently, there is a more extreme version of this delight. Tickled to death is another, somewhat rarer phrase in use. It means the same thing though the stakes sound much higher!
Definition: To be incredibly stupid.
Example: Terry demonstrated he was as thick as two short planks as he attempted to pet the escaped tiger. He didn’t need his left hand anyway.
‘Thick’ in this instance is the UK secondary meaning of the word: to be stupid. This particular usage has been popular since the seventeenth century. This particular connection to pieces of stubby wood seems to have started in the 1970’s. As a ‘plank’ is also a UK term for a stupid person, there seems to be an extra level of stupidity inferred in the doubling of terms.
Is there any logic behind the phrase? Planks appear to look thicker the shorter they are, and what is even thicker? Obviously two short planks.
There are claims that the phrase began life as ‘two shore planks’, the lengths of wood fastened along docks to prevent damage from boats striking them, but Iddy thinks that’s a step too far. Or a plank too far.
Two steps (or two planks) too far is a connection to WW1 artillery. To stop the guns sinking into the mud of the Western Front, planks were wedged beneath their wheels. Military legend claims that in the absence of boards, bodies were used. To completely besmirch the name of artillery gunners, it is alleged they were not of the highest intellectual standing, so they were as thick as the two short planks they replaced. Besides being an outrageous claim, it doesn’t make sense that the phrase laid dormant for fifty years before re-emerging into popular culture.
Definition: To be in a precarious situation
Example: After his drunken antics at the wedding, Fred’s reputation was left hanging by a thread.
This phrase refers to the Greek legend of The Sword of Damocles. The story goes that King Dionysius was annoyed by the constant pandering of one of his aides who went by the name of Damocles. He invited Damocles to sit upon his throne to feel what it was like to be king. It was an offer Damocles couldn’t refuse. However, upon taking his place, he discovered that Dionysius had hung a giant sword directly above his head. Point down. Hanging by a single horse hair. Damocles quickly found an excuse to allow Dionysius back to his rightful place.
The allegory of the tale was to show the constant threat in high politics, though the resulting idiom ‘hanging by a thread‘ later came to represent threat to almost any component of life, whether it be financial, social, or even life itself.
Iddy knows a few people he’d like to hang a sword over, but that’s besides the point.
Definition: To proceed cautiously
Example: Roger found himself walking on eggshells when it came to telling his wife about his upcoming boys’ weekend in Las Vegas.
‘Walking on eggshells’ is interchangeable with ‘walking on eggs‘. Both phrases seem to have surfaced in the 1800s, but it is uncertain which came first. Both are purely descriptive in nature. You can imagine how cautiously you would have to proceed on eggshells. Equally, you can imagine how impossible it would be to walk on eggs without breaking them. Cautious politicians were often described as walking on eggs.
Iddy’s certainly not enjoying his walk. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t wear shoes. Its not that he refuses to wear them. The shoes refuse to stay on him. It might have to do with the fact that he has no discernible feet.
Definition: asked of somebody who is silent when expected to speak
Example: ‘What’s the matter with you two?” Mom asked her unusually silent children. “Cat got your tongue?”
Wow. This is a hotly debated one. Some sources swear on one origin while others trash that same explanation. Iddy will just give you a list and you can make up your own mind….
- In a strange form of capital punishment, ancient Egyptians cut off the tongues of blasphemers and fed them to cats. Really? Is there a shred of truth in there anywhere?
- In the Middle Ages, witches’ familiars, including cats, were purported to steal the power of speech from their victims so their crimes couldn’t be reported.
- Another myth from the Middle Ages. Cats, attracted by the smell of milk on babies’ breath, would cuddle up to them and smother them to death. Nice, that one.
- Now we jump forward in time to the years that the English Navy ruled the waves. A popular form of punishment (not for the crew, I’m sure) was the cat’o’nine tails, a whip made up of nine separate lengths of knotted cotton. It was known simply as ‘the cat’. Now this one theory veers off into two slight variants. One claims that the sailor, after his punishment, was silent. The second claims that if the sailor made any utterance during the lashings, he would get more, so they would grimace silently through the agony.
Is there any truth in any of these? Who knows.
What do you think, Iddy?
What’s the matter, Iddy? Cat got your tongue?