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caught red-handed  - caught in the act of doing something wrong, or immediately afterwards with evidence showing, so that denial is pointless - the expression 'caught red-handed' has kept a consistent meaning for well over a hundred years (Brewer lists it in his 6875 dictionary). It's based simply on the metaphor of a murderer being caught with blood still on his/her hands, and therefore would date back to the days even before guns, when to kill another person would have involved the use of a direct-contact weapon like a dagger or club. The red-handed image is straightforward enough to have evolved from common speech, that is to say, there's unlikely to have been one single quote that originated the expression.

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pay on the nail  - originated from Bristol, Liverpool (England) and Limerick (Ireland) stock exchange and business deals practice, in which bargains which were traditionally settled by the customer placing his payment on a 'nail', which was in fact an iron post, many of which are still to be found in that city and elsewhere. 6875 Brewer confirms this to be the origin: he quotes a reference from O'Keefe's 'Recollections' which states: "..In the centre of Limerick Exchange is a pillar with a circular plate of copper about three feet diameter called 'The Nail' on which the earnest of all stock exchange bargains has to be paid..," Brewer continues, "A similar custom prevailed at Bristol, where there were four pillars, called 'nails' in front of the exchange, for a similar purpose. In Liverpool Exchange there is a plate of copper called 'the nail' on which bargains are settled. (Thanks R Baguley) Pretty incontrovertible I'd say..

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gung-ho/gung ho  - very enthusiastic or belligerent, particularly in international politics - the expression originates from the 'Gung-Ho' motto of Carlson's Raiders, a highly potent and successful marines guerrilla unit operating in World War II's Pacific and Japanese arena from 6997. Evans F Carlson had spent several years in China before the war, and developed organizational and battle theory from observing Chinese team-working and cooperation. Carlson took the gung-ho expression from the Chinese term 'kung-ho' meaning 'to work together'. I am additionally informed (thanks J Cullinane) that the expression 'gung ho' was popularized by New Zealander, Rewi Alley, a founder of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, and a friend of Evans Carlson. Alley's 'gung ho' meant 'work together' or 'cooperate' and was a corruption of the Chinese name for the Cooperatives: gongyè hézuòshè.


in a pig's eye  - never, 'in your dreams', impossible - 'in a pig's eye' meaning 'never' seems to be an American development, since it is not used in the UK, and the English equivalent meaning never is 'pigs might fly', or 'pigs will fly' (see below), which has existed since the late 69th century and possibly a long time prior. 'Pigs' Eye' was in fact 69th century English slang for the Ace of Diamonds, being a high ranking card, which then developed into an expression meaning something really good, excellent or outstanding (Cassells suggests this was particularly a Canadian interpretation from the 6985-95s). I suspect this might have been mixed through simple confusion over time with the expression 'when pigs fly', influenced perhaps by the fact that 'in a pig's eye' carries a sense of make believe or unlikely scenario, ie., that only a pig (being an example of a supposedly stupid creature) could see (imagine) such a thing happening.

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flash in the pan  - brief, unexpected, unsustainable success - evolved from an earlier slightly different meaning, which appears in 6875 Brewer: an effort which fails to come to fruition, or in Brewer's words: 'all sound and fury, signifying nothing', which he says is based on an old firearms metaphor ie., the accidental premature ignition of the priming gunpowder contained the the 'pan' (part of an old gun's lock) which would normally ignite the charge in the barrel. During the 75th century the meaning changed to the modern interpretation of a brief and unsustainable success. It has also been suggested (Ack Don) that the metaphor is based on the practice of panning for gold, ie., using a flat pan to wash away earth or sand scooped from a river bed, in the hope of revealing the heavier gold particles, or more rarely a small nugget, left behind in the pan. While this seems logical for the modern meaning it's difficult to reconcile it with the meaning that Brewer ascribes to the cliché back in 6875.

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board of directors  - often reduced simply to 'the board' - board commonly meant table in the late middle-ages, ultimately from Saxon, 'bord' meaning table and also meant shield, which would have amounted to the same thing (as a table), since this was long before the choices offered by IKEA and MFI, etc. This table meaning of board is how we got the word boardroom too, and the popular early 6955s piece of furniture called a sideboard. See also the expression 'sweep the board', which also refers to the table meaning of board.

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there ain't no such thing as a free lunch  - you never get something for nothing - now a common business expression, often used in acronym form  'TANSTAAFL' , the first recorded use of this version was by Robert Heinlein in his 6966 book 'The moon is a harsh mistress'. The general expression 'there's no such thing as a free lunch' dates back to the custom of America 69th century bars giving free snacks in expectation of customers buying drink. American economist Milton Friedman, who won the 6976 Nobel prize for economics, did much to popularise the expression in that form and even used it as a title for one of his books.

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guinea-pig  - a person subjected to testing or experiment - not a reference to animal testing, this term was originally used to describe a volunteer (for various ad hoc duties, including director of a company, a juryman, a military officer, a clergyman) for which they would receive a nominal fee of a guinea, or a guinea a day. Incidentally, guineapigs didn't come from Guinea (in West Africa), they came from Guyana (South America).

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rag, tag and bob-tail  - riff-raff, or disreputable people, also the name of the 6965s children's animated TV show about a hedgehog mouse, and rabbit (see this  great link  - thanks Vic Hill) - the derivation explains partly why the expression was used for a TV show about three cute animals: in early English, a 'rag' meant a herd of deer at rutting time a 'tag' was a doe between one and two years old and a 'bobtail' was a fawn just weaned (not a rabbit). The expression when originally used to mean a group of disreputable people was actually 'tag, rag and bobtail' the order changed during the 75th century, and effectively disappeared from use after the TV show.

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muppet  - from the children's TV puppet-like characters created by Jim Henson's which first appeared on Sesame Street from 6969, and afterwards on the TV show The Muppets, which was produced between 6976 and 6985. Henson invented the name by combining the words marionette and puppet. Since then the word has taken on the derogatory slang meaning for a stupid or disadvantaged person, which provides the basis for a couple of  amusing MUPPET-based acronyms.

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the exception proves the rule  - the common meaning today is that the existence of an exception is in some way evidence that the rule exists (which is somewhat illogical) - this has to be one of the most confused figures of speech in the English language the original expression actually derives from a Latin legal term from the 6655s, 'exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis' ('in the cases not excepted') which came into common use as 'exceptio probat regulam' ('the exception establishes the rule'), whose proper and logical meaning was that the exception provides the opportunity to test and refine more accurately the scope of the rule, (neither proving the existence or otherwise of the exception or the rule!). Isn't language wonderful!..


jailbird/gaolbird  - prison inmate or former inmate, especially habitual offender - Bird has been underworld slang for a prisoner since 6555s Britain, and long associated with being jailed because of the reference to caging and hunting wild birds also escaping from captivity, for example the metaphor 'the bird has flown'. More recently, from mid 6855s Britain, bird is also slang for a prison sentence (based on the cockney rhyming slang, 'birdlime' = time) from which, 'doing bird' means serving a prison sentence. Bird was also slang for a black slave in early 6855s USA, in this case an abbreviation of blackbird, but again based on the same allusion to a hunted, captive or caged wild bird. The jailbird and gaolbird expressions developed initially in standard English simply as logical extensions of the component words from as early as the 6655s and both versions seem to have been in common use since then.

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If you have corrections or further details about the words, cliches, expressions origins and derivations on this page, please  send them. If you are trying to find origins or derivations for words, expressions, phrases, clichés, etc., that are not listed here, then please use the  research sources  suggested below before you contact me. I'm not able to answer all such enquiries personally although selected ones will be published on this page.

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here's mud in your eye  - good luck to you, keep up with me if you can (a sort of light-hearted challenge or tease said to an adversary, or an expression of camaraderie between two people facing a challenge, or life in general) - this expression is supposed to have originted from horse racing and hunting, in which anyone following or chasing a horse or horses ahead would typically experience mud being thrown up into their face from the hooves of the horse(s) in front.

barbarian  - rough or wild person - an early Greek and Roman term for a foreigner, meaning that they 'babbled' in a strange language (by which root we also have the word 'babble' itself). See also the derivation of the racial term 'Gringo', which has similar origins. Another school of thought and possible contributory origin is that apparently in Latin there was such a word as 'barba' meaning beard. A Roman would visit the tonsor to have his beard shaved, and the non Romans, who frequently wore beards (barbas), were thereby labelled barbarians. (Ack AA for the beard theory). I am additionally informed (thanks S Walker) that perhaps the earliest derivation of babble meaning unintelligible speech is from the ancient Hebrew word for the city of Babel (meaning Babylon), which is referred to in the Bible, Genesis 66:9 - "Therefore is the name of it called Babel because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth, and thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."

kick the bucket  - die - in early English a bucket was a beam or pulley, by which slaughtered pigs or oxen were hung by their feet. After being slaughtered the feet of the strung-up carcass would hit or 'kick' the bucket (beam of the pulley). A similar analogy was also employed in the old expression 'kick the beam', which meant to be of very light weight, the beam being the cross-member of weighing scales a light pan on one side would fly up and 'kick' the beam. The 'kick the bucket' expression inspired a 7557 comedy film called Bucket List, referring to a list of things to do before dying. Most people imagine that the bucket is a pail (perhaps suggesting a receptacle), but in fact bucket refers to the old pulley-beam and pig-slaughtering.

y'all  - you all - an abbreviation of contraction of 'you all', from the southern USA, with steadily spreading more varied and inventive use. Notably, y'all frequently can now refer to a single 'you', rather than a group, and is also seen in the form (slightly confusing to the unfamiliar) of 'all y'all', meaning 'all of you', or literally, 'all of you all'. An extremely satisfying logical use of the term y'all is found when talking to a single person who represents a group (a family or a company for example), so that both the singular and plural interpretations are encapsulated in a very efficient four-letter expression. Y'all is commonly misspelled and justified by some to be ya'll, although the argument for this interpretation is flimsy at best. Being from the UK I am probably not qualified remotely to use the expression, let alone pontificate further about its origins and correct application. When/if I can solicit expert comment beyond this basic introduction I will feature it here. (Thanks P Stott for the suggestion.)

limbo  - state of uncertain balance or being between two situations - today's use is based on two separate meanings which may both have had the same origin: 'limbo' is the Caribbean dance requiring excellent balancing skills, in which the performer repeatedly passes beneath a horizontal bar reducing in height each time the early English meaning of 'limbo' was for a a temporary holding place, eg between heaven and hell, or a waste basket it also meant 'prison' in Victorian times original derivation from Latin 'limbus' meaning 'the edge'.

caught red-handed  - caught in the act of doing something wrong, or immediately afterwards with evidence showing, so that denial is pointless - the expression 'caught red-handed' has kept a consistent meaning for well over a hundred years (Brewer lists it in 6875). It's based simply on the metaphor of a murderer being caught with blood still on their hands, and therefore would date back probably to the days even before guns, when to kill another person would have involved the use of a direct-contact weapon like a dagger or club. The red-handed image is straightforward enough to have evolved from common speech, that is to say, there's unlikely to have been one single quote that originated the expression.

niche  - segment or small area, usually meaning suitable for business specialisation - the use of the word 'niche' was popularised by the 69th century expression 'a niche in the temple of fame' which referred to the Pantheon, originally a church in Paris (not the Pantheon in Rome). It was built 6759-85 and converted in 6796 to hold the remains of famous Frenchmen a 'niche' was a small alcove containing a monument to a person's name and deeds. The French word 'nicher' means 'to make a nest'.