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….

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?


flying colours

Definition: To accomplish something convincingly

Example: Johnny passed his second driving test with flying colours. His first test had not been promising. There were still seven people in hospital.


The phrase ‘with flying colours‘ can be preceded by a number of words; ‘pass‘, ‘come through‘, ‘win‘, etc. All of the combinations mean ‘to succeed‘.

But what are these colours?

They have a naval origin. Ships used flags as a means of communication. Returning to port, victorious naval craft advertised their success with their flags unfurled for all to see. They would be ‘flying their colours‘. In contrast, a defeated ship would come into port with her flags lowered. She would be ‘striking her colours‘.

There are a number of further colour related idioms, all relating to naval flag use:

  1. Nail your colours to your mast‘  Flags fastened in such a way could not be lowered. It means to take a stand and not surrender.
  2.  ‘Under false colours’  This means to deceive and is thought to relate to pirate ships using flags to trick other craft into coming near.
  3. ‘Go down with flying colours’  This is the only negative usage of our original idiom, meaning to fight to the end.

Iddy just wants his paint back. He’s never going to get that dining room redecorated at this rate.


Definition: To be successful

Example: When Ruby’s album of ukulele cover songs sold more than a dozen copies, she knew she had hit the big time.


Big time‘ probably had its origin in late nineteenth century Vaudeville theatre. Performers were rated by popularity. ‘Small time‘ performers were just starting out or at the end of their careers. ‘Big time‘ performers were at the height of their popularity and were the headliners on the bill. These more popular artists spent longer on the stage than their counterparts, so they literally had ‘bigger time’ on stage. Please excuse Iddy’s poor English there. “Longer time’ would be grammatically more acceptable, but wouldn’t explain the situation as clearly.

Iddy’s probably been a bit pre-occupied to worry about his grammar. He’s been wondering how to wind up this particular clock.


snowed under

Definition: having too much to do

Example: Steve would have loved to attend the all night screening of Sex and the City episodes with his wife, but unfortunately he was snowed under at work and wouldn’t be home in time. Poor Steve.


There doesn’t seem  to be any fancy origin for snowed under. It simply describes the feeling of being smothered or crushed by the weight of work. Just like you would under a heavy snowfall. That’s it.

In a little sidebar about snow related terms, the word ‘blizzard’ was around for many years before it had anything to do with snow. It originally meant a sharp blow or a gunshot. No snow in sight. It wasn’t until 1870, when an Ohio newspaper described a particularly bad snowstorm as  a ‘blizzard’, that the word took a right hand turn into a different meaning.


Definition: The sudden halt of using addictive substances such as drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol, usually with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Example: After Mort went cold turkey on his pack-a-day habit, he had vivid dreams of being chased by giant cigarettes.


For many of those that celebrate Christmas, the thought of cold turkey can make them feel nauseous some time after Boxing Day as the remains of their Christmas feast becomes an endless series of cold turkey sandwiches. But this idiom has nothing at all to do with this facet of post-Christmas blues….

Cold turkey’s roots are firmly in the twentieth century. It started off specifically referring to the kicking of a hard drug habit. Later in the century it began to apply to more common addictions such as cigarettes and alcohol.

There are explanations why frigid poultry is possibly used to describe the situation.

  • It refers to the cold clammy sweats of withdrawal. The habit-kicker’s skin is pale, cold, and damp. And let’s not forget the goosebumps. Just like the skin on a plate of cold turkey leftovers a week after Christmas.
  • It derives from an earlier expression, ‘to talk turkey’, meaning to speak plainly, without any frivolous accompaniment. The process of cold turkey is simple as well: just stop.

Whatever the reason, Iddy doesn’t want any of those Christmas roast leftovers. But if you have some spare chocolate, he’d be happy to relieve you of that.


bad apple

Definition: an untrustworthy person, especially somebody who influences others

Example: My mother always warned me to stay away from little Nicky Smith. ‘He’s a real bad apple’, she would say.


There have been a number of varied uses for the phrase bad apple in the printed word going back to the 1300s.

In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, readers are advised that a ‘rotten appulle’ should be thrown away before it spoils others. Benjamin Franklin (the guy who flew kites during thunderstorms) warned his readers ‘The rotten apple spoils his companion‘.

And so on. And so forth. There is a recurring theme showing.

A single rotten apple can contaminate all the others stored with it. The science bit? The spoiling one gives off ethylene which speeds up the ripening process in its companions.

So, just like that rotting fruit, a single malicious or dishonest person can affect everyone about them.

Iddy looks a bit like an apple himself. A particularly sour one.


Definition: Doing something for a very long time without result, normally associated with talking or arguing a point.

Example: Jeff argued with his girlfriend until he was blue in the face, but she would not admit that Predator is the greatest movie ever made.


As it is used mostly in regards to heated conversations, it is assumed ‘blue in the face‘ refers to the speaker running out of breath. To the point where you have so little oxygen in your system that your face takes on a bluish tinge.

Iddy has some advice. Next time you are having an argument, don’t forget to breathe. That way, you’ll avoid this potentially embarrassing condition.

He really shouldn’t be handing out this kind of advice. After all, he’s always green. That’s hardly a good look. In fact, blue might be an improvement.


No no no Iddy! You’ve got it all wrong!

It’s not ‘get an Eiffel’!



Definition: To look at somebody or something for a long time, or to see something visually striking or possibly shocking.

Example: Roger got an eyeful when he opened the bathroom door and saw his Grandmother sitting there. That was an image that was going to haunt him for a very long time. 


Iddy couldn’t find anything at all about getting an eyeful. When it was first used. Nothing. Where it originated. More nothing.

He’d been hoping for a bit of explanation. After all, with those big old eyes of his, he’s always getting an eye full of something. Just last week, when he was cleaning his apartment, he got some dust in his eye. Problem was, it was still attached to the broom.



Definition: A shameful secret, one that could ruin an individual’s reputation.

Example: Every family has a skeleton in the closet. The Jones’ was that Grandpa had been arrested for streaking at the age of 79.


‘Skeleton in the closet’ is a common American idiom, although it has become more common in the UK in recent years. Previously, it was  expressed as ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ there. Why? Closet was a short form of ‘water closet’ in the UK. A water closet is a toilet and a toilet probably isn’t an ideal place to hide a skeleton. As the use of ‘water closet’ dies out in UK English, so the use of ‘skeleton in the closet’ increases.

Have we bored you yet?

The first printed use of the phrase was in 1816, but who inspired the image of skeletal corpses hanging in bedroom cabinets is unclear.

Unsurprisingly, there are suggestions to fill the void.

Theory the first:

‘Skeleton in the closet’ arose from the UK practise of body snatching. Prior to 1832 and the Anatomy Act, there was a distinct shortage of corpses for medical schools to teach anatomy and dissection. The only permissible specimens were those of executed criminals, and there were simply not enough to go around. A lucrative black market trade sprang up around this shortage. Freshly buried corpses mysteriously vanished across the country, finding their way to medical schools.

The most notorious case was that of Burke and Hare who couldn’t wait for people to die naturally, and took to murdering their victims and selling their corpses immediately. Iddy supposes it saved a lot of hard labour. After all, digging up bodies is a lot of work.

Thus, ‘skeleton in the closet’ springs from the fact that the doctors involved had to keep their illicit dissection subjects hidden away, perhaps in closets. Sounds possible. But there is no direct evidence to support it. Maybe it’s just another of those gloriously grisly stories that seems to spring up whenever nobody knows the true origin of a phrase.

Theory the second

This tale relates to a true life skeleton in a closet , though it is far from hidden away. Jeremy Bentham was a prominent British philosopher and reformist of the 18th and 19th centuries. Upon his death, he had made preparations to have his body preserved. And so it was. His skeleton and mummified head were posed in a cabinet and dressed in his clothes. He’s still on display at University College London.

Sounds great, but alas, his preservation came after the first usages of the phrase.

Iddy doesn’t care where that skeleton came from. He just wants it out of his closet.


storm in a teacup

Definition: Something minor or trivial that is blown out of all proportion.

Example: The debate at the Christmas dinner table over which side of the plate to put the dessert spoon soon developed into a storm in a teacup, with Grandma hitting Uncle Bob squarely between the eyes with her own spoon.


Storm in a teacup is the UK version of the phrase, Tempest in a teapot, the American.

Why there is so much inclement weather in drinking vessels is a bit unclear. However, what is apparent, is that same weather is not restricted just to teacups and teapots.

In 1678, there is record of a storm in a cream bowl. In 1830, there is a storm in a wash-hand basin. It is not until 1825 that the American rendition of tempest in a teapot is reported in a Scottish publication, and another 13 years until the UK version of storm in a teacup appears, also from Scotland.

There are variations on the theme in other languages. The Roman poet, Cicero, refers to ‘stirring up billows in a ladle’ back in 52 BC. The Dutch, to this day, experience a storm in a glass of water. The Hungarians have the most unhygienic storm; a tempest in a potty.

Iddy’s relieved that he didn’t need to check that one out.