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Definition: To accept the inevitable and proceed bravely.
Example: Despite the risk, John decided to bite the bullet and tell his landlady that he had sat on her cat.
The most widely expressed theory for this idiom is that it came from battlefield surgery, that patients in field hospitals were encouraged to bite down on a bullet during surgery to help deal with the pain and muffle their screams (nice.), but this seems unlikely when studied in further detail. There are no specific written accounts of this ever happening, and the choice of a bullet seems pretty poor. A leather strap or stick of wood would have been more effective, and less likely to be swallowed as well!
Another theory, also militarily grounded, is that it originated from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. When new rifles were issued to the Indian Sepoy fighters, they included greased paper cartridges that held the powder. These had to be bitten open. The Sepoys objected, not because it tasted horrible (which it probably did), but on religious grounds. The Hindu fighters feared the grease was derived from cows, and the Muslims feared it was from pigs. They were ordered to ignore their religious qualms, and thus ‘bite the bullet’.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Alas, it seems the phrase predates this period of British colonialism.
So, we’re still no closer to nailing this one down.
Iddy doesn’t really care. He just wants to get the explosives out of his mouth!
Definition: Something you cannot understand, usually because it is so complicated.
Example: When asked by his algebra teacher to solve the equation, Mike just shrugged and said, “Sorry. It’s all Greek to me!”
It is widely thought that ‘all Greek to me’ derives from the Latin phrase ‘Graecum est, non legitur or Graecum est, non potest legi’. How’s your latin? Iddy’s is a bit rusty, but he did eventually translate it: ‘It is Greek; it cannot be read‘. Those Romans. Already dismissive of the civilisations before them!
Its modern form began to creep into the English language in the sixteenth century. Similar phrases appear in plays by Dekker and some fellow called William Shakespeare.
This idiom has many different variations in languages around the world. After all, Greeks are not likely to use it, are they? They in fact say ‘This strikes me as Chinese‘. Here a sampling of other language variations:
Italian: To me, this is Arabic.
Slovakian: This is a Spanish village to me.
Icelandic: Fish egg language.
Comparing the incomprehensible to the Chinese language is by far the most common. Hungarian, Hebrew, French, Dutch, and Arabic, to name but a few, use variations on ‘Sounds Chinese to me‘. Not to be outdone, English writing is sometimes referred to as ‘chicken intestines‘ in Cantonese.
Finally, this idiom has a link to the Spanish term ‘gringo‘, slang for somebody not of Spanish origin or non-Spanish speaking. It is a shortening of ‘hablar en griego’. Translation? ‘Speaking in Greek.’
Definition: Something exactly correct: a place, an idea, or an amount
Example: Kevin’s frisbee throw was on the money. It was a shame that Lennie wasn’t looking at the time. The doctor told Lennie to come back on Thursday to have the stitches removed.
‘On the money’, or ‘right on the money’ as it also often expressed, is among several idioms about exactitude. There’s ‘on the mark’, ‘on target‘, ‘on the dot’, and ‘spot on‘ to name a few. Those idioms probably have roots in archery. They all express hitting the centre of a target which is usually marked with a spot or mark.
‘On the money’ does not come from the same root. Most sources agree it has to do with horse racing, specifically the related bets. A winning horse would be ‘on the money‘. A losing one would be ‘out of the money‘.
Iddy has heard one other explanation, that it has to do with surveying. Surveyors sometimes hammer a metal ‘benchmark’ rod into the ground at a precisely defined position. Sometimes these rods are difficult to see through the viewfinder of their transit (the viewing equipment on a tripod you will have seen surveyors using). A coin placed atop the benchmark would make the rod easier to see. So, when they lined up the coin in their viewfinder, they would be ‘on the money’.
Iddy doesn’t know if there is any truth in that one, but he likes it anyway.
Right now he’s trying to figure out which shop would accept the giant note he’s found….
Definition: To be completely, irretrievably dead, or for an inanimate object; completely useless
Example: No matter how many times he turned the key, Gerry’s piece of garbage Chevy refused to start. It was as dead as a doornail.
This is one of the oldest idioms that can be found in print, going back to the fourteenth century.
But why doornails as a comparison for death?
To better explain the reason, maybe we should look at exactly what a doornail was back then. If you go into your local Home Depot or B&Q today, you’d be unlikely to see a big bucket labelled ‘doornails’.
Doors would have been heavy slabs of wood, often with iron reinforcements. The nails used to bind them together were long, flat headed beasts that would have been driven through the door, with the protruding end bent over and hammered flat. In the 1300’s, all iron hardware would have been valuable. There was no mass production. Each piece was hand made. So none was wasted. If a door had reached the end of its usefulness, all the hardware would have been stripped from it for reuse. However, the doornails, having been bent and hammered would be unusable. They were useless. They were dead.
Well, its a theory.
There have been other ‘dead as’ phrases. There was ‘dead as mutton‘ which has fallen out of fashion, just like mutton. And there is the still popular ‘dead as a dodo‘ which uses the comparison to the world’s most famous extinction. It also reminds us as to how much, we, as a race, are screwing up the planet. If we’re not careful, we’ll all be as dead as a dodo as well. Or even a doornail.
Definition: Being so overcome with doubt that you do not proceed
Example: Peter got cold feet over his upcoming wedding to Maria. After all, they’d only been on two dates.
Why icy toes have anything to do with uncertainty is absolutely unknown. Even its first use is a source of debate. It is usually accepted as being first used by author Stephen Crane in 1896, but many earlier examples have been touted. Some decades earlier. Some centuries.
Cold feet is most often used like in the example, in terms of somebody uncertain as to whether they want to proceed with an upcoming wedding.
When Iddy was about to get married to his second cousin Hilda, he had a raft of symptoms. Upset stomach. Cold sweats. The shakes. Crying eyeballs. Dry mouth. But his feet remained surprisingly warm. He cured all his symptons by coming to Earth before the wedding.
Definition: Money or investments set aside for future use.
Example: Ned had been saving up a nest egg for decades, for an early retirement. Or a trip to Vegas.
Farmers have been putting eggs in chickens’ nests for centuries. Now, that sounds wrong. Surely Iddy means that farmers have been taking eggs from chickens’ nests for centuries. Yes, they have been doing that as well. Putting an egg, whether real or ceramic, in a chicken’s nest encourages it to lay more. Strange but true.
So, our idiom ‘nest egg’ refers to that practise, putting something aside in order for it to grow for future collection. It first appeared in print with that meaning in 1686.
Definition: Your emotions are clearly shown in your expression
Example: Jim’s disappointment was written all over his face. He had wanted that first edition Star Wars comic so badly.
Iddy could not find any origin theories for this idiom. He supposes the reasons behind it are fairly evident. Your expression can be read as clearly as the written word.
Iddy hasn’t written just any old thing on his face for this demonstration. Extra smug points to you if you can identify the classic novel opening page he has transcribed on his own green skin.
Definition: To be in difficulty.
Example: Archie was in a bit of a pickle after asking both Betty and Veronica to the Riverdale Dance. Good ol’ Archie. He never learns…
The pickle referred to here is the saucy, sometimes spicy condiment popular in the UK and India, not the little cucumbers in vinegar more popular in the US. Sorry, Iddy. You’re using the wrong one there!
To be precise, it refers to the stewed fruits that make up a pickle. Like that fruit, the unfortunate individual ‘in a pickle‘ is entirely disoriented and mixed up. It’s closely related to the nineteenth century idiom ‘in a stew’. Same idea. Same meaning.
There is another, more grisly explanation kicking around, but it is thought to be untrue. It claims that the phrase comes from gruesome tales of bodies being pickled for preservation in centuries past. Yes, much more lurid and much more interesting. But not a shred of evidence to support it.
It certainly does not relate to a specific case, that of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Some claim he was pickled after his death at the the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, so his body could be returned to England. But he wasn’t. To be a stickler about picklers, Nelson wasn’t pickled at all. He was preserved in brandy.
Sometimes the idiom is used in a slightly expanded version: ‘in a pretty pickle‘. Iddy doesn’t think there’s anything pretty about it at all…
Definition : To be self-righteous, superior, or haughty.
Example: Brenda got on her high horse, and told the ladies how the cupcakes had to be presented for the bake sale, with her pink monstrosities taking centre stage.
GET OFF YOUR HIGH HORSE
Definition : A command to stop acting superior.
Example: The rest of the ladies told Brenda to get off her high horse and threw her cupcakes away.
In medieval times, a large horse was more commonly referred to as a ‘high horse‘. They were bred for this quality, and the larger or ‘higher’ the horse, the more expensive. Consequently, the size of your horse was an indicator of your rank. So, the wealthy and the aristocratic were literally on ‘high horses‘, looking down upon the common folk.
This has fallen out of fashion in our petrol age, though some folks have substituted four wheel drive vehicles instead. The ‘highest’ horse today would likely be the Hummer….
Definition: Somebody who comes to the aid of another, especially a man coming to a woman’s aid.
Example: Belinda’s knight in shining armour came in the form of a vending machine repairman. She’d had her arm caught in the machine for three hours. And she still hadn’t been able to reach that Mars bar.
A knight in shining armour (or armor if in the States) owes its existence to the romanticised ideals of Victorian painters, poets, and novelists. Tales of knights in gleaming suits of armour rescuing fair maidens from all manner of evil proved popular at the time, especially stories of Camelot and King Arthur. Everyone had a go. Le Morte d’Arthur was re-printed after an absence of centuries. Pre-Raphaelite painters like Edward Burne-Jones created images infused with light. Tennyson wrote romantic poetry about Arthur. Even Mark Twain visited the tale in a more satirical form with A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
The reality was entirely different. Suits of armour rarely gleamed unless they were royal showpieces. They rusted. Their occupants washed infrequently. In the sunshine, the temperatures soared inside the suit. As it took ages to put armour on, those same occupants could not afford the time to take them off for toilet related activities. You could probably smell the knight coming before you heard the ragged breathing of his overloaded horse.
As for the damsels in distress… with all the various forms of pox, poor diet, and questionable personal hygiene of the age, Iddy’s not sure how fair they would have been…..
This idiom was requested by Carsten. Hope your students enjoy it!