On the ball

Definition: To be alert, quick to react, or clever.

Example: Luckily, Smithy was on the ball, and noticed that he had spelled his boss, Mr. Fort’s name wrong on the email, and corrected it before sending it. It’s amazing how a misplaced ‘a’ can do so much damage.


A common explanation for on the ball gives it a naval connection like so many other phrases. We’ll visit some of the others at a later date. This particular one claims that it is related to the time-ball atop the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London, which in turn overlooks the Royal Naval College on the banks of the Thames. Ships moored riverside could set their timepieces by it as it dropped at the strike of one. Their clocks would be set to the second, or ‘on the ball’. Sounds great, but apparently untrue.

It is simply a shortening of the sporting advice “Keep your eye on the ball”. Bet you heard that phrase more than once during your childhood.

BOOOORRRRIIINNNGGGG!  Iddy liked the naval origin much better.

Incidentally, that ball in Greenwich? It still drops every day, even now. Check it out if you ever happen to be in the vicinity!


Having your leg pulled

Definition: Being deceived in a humorous way.

Example: Larry realised his friends had been pulling his leg, but only after he turned up to the party as the only person in fancy dress. Doubly unfortunate was his choice of a French maid’s outfit.


There are two widely discounted theories to why you might have your leg pulled, rather than another part of your anatomy.

  • In Victorian London, street thieves would tackle their victims by their legs, or trip them up with strings or wires. Once down, they were easy targets. Iddy thinks this is a little bit vague and not clearly related to its current usage.
  • Still in good olde London, executions at Tyburn were often carried out via hanging by suspension. This grisly method did not employ a long drop which would normally break the victim’s neck. Instead, it left them dangling on the rope until they died of strangulation. It is said that relatives of the soon to be departed hired men to grab them by the legs and pull down with all their might in hopes of speeding up the process, and reducing the suffering. This, Iddy says, seems to be even more unrelated to its usage than the first explanation. He also adds that there seems to be a desire to connect all unknown origins to the ghastliest stories possible.

The idiom does, in fact, seem to originate from 19th century America, not London at all. It had a different meaning in its earlier inception, that of asking for something, usually money. If somebody was pulling your leg, they were probably hitting you up for a short-term loan.

Not to be outdone, the British have added an extension to the base idiom. “Pull the other one. It has bells on.”




Over the moon

Definition: To be overjoyed.

Example: When Beryl heard that her ex-husband had fallen down the stairs, she was over the moon.


Used more commonly in the UK, ‘over the moon’ is most likely to have been lifted from “Hey Diddle Diddle”. You know the one. That nursery rhyme where that cow famously jumped over the moon. First seen in print in 1760, the rhyme was probably common in popular culture for a century or more prior to this. In fact, the phrase ‘I shall jump over the moon for joy!” appears in another book “The Coquet” in 1718.

The phrase really gained popularity in the 1970’s as a common exclamation during football commentary. This use was further boosted by the satirical magazine Private Eye, which published outlandish quotes from the footballing world, cementing it in everyday speech.


Bigger fish to fry

Definition: Having something more important to do

Example: Roger ignored the fact that his socks were mismatched. He had bigger fish to fry. Like the fact that he couldn’t find his trousers.


Bigger fish to fry is interchangeable with the often used other fish to fry, and has been in common usage for about 400 years. Why fish are involved is a mystery lost to time.

In German, Spanish, and Italian, there are similar phrases. They simply translate to ‘having other things to do’. The French, not content with cooking sea creatures, have ‘ many other dogs to whip’.

Iddy thought frying fish was odious enough, but whipping dogs? Even he draws the line somewhere!


penny pincher

Definition: A stingy, miserly person.

Example: Norbert was such a penny-pincher, he charged his houseguests a fee to visit the toilet.

alternatively can be used as a verb: ‘penny pinching’


Not much is known of penny pincher’s roots, though it appears to have started in America in the mid-nineteenth century. It was probably from the simple imagery of somebody clutching a penny between their thumb and forefinger as they removed it from a coin purse.

Iddy would like to take the opportunity to address a related slur, that the Scottish are penny-pinchers. How did this misnomer come about? Iddy’s own experiences are quite the opposite. In fact, his first hangover was the direct result of a Scotsman insisting on buying him beers in an Edinburgh pub.

It’s all the fault of religion. No, not the drinking. The Scottish slur.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Church of Scotland fractured into several smaller churches. This left many of them without wealthy patrons or landowners, and funding their costs became problematic. A difficult decision had to be made to ensure these churches’ survival. The parishioners would have to pay when they came to service. To enforce this, someone would be stationed at the entrance to collect. No payment. No entry. Visiting Church of England worshippers were scandalised. Church of Englanders apparently have long memories.

The stereotype still sticks to the unfortunate Scots today.