10 Long-Forgotten Expressions To Drop Into Conversation

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iStock

When someone says that they “ate humble pie,” they mean that they had to admit to a mistake or else to something humiliating or degrading. But what they literally mean is that they ate “numbles pie”—that is, a pie made from the umbles or numbles, or internal organs, of an animal. Because pies like this were once considered low-quality food fit only the poorest of people, an association with being humble was quick to follow.

But humble pie isn’t alone among the peculiar, weird-sounding expressions we use in the English language. Whether you’re sailing three sheets to the wind or flying by the seat of your pants, English allows you to drop what are (at face value at least) some pretty peculiar idioms and expressions into your everyday conversation.

1. IT’S TOO LATE TO WHET THE SWORD WHEN THE TRUMPET BLOWS

From taking time by the forelock to seizing the day, plenty of proverbs and expressions warn against procrastination or ill-preparedness—to which you can add this one. Whet here means “to sharpen,” and the trumpet that’s being blown is a military one signaling the start of a battle. Put another way, you should always be prepared: It’s too late to start sharpening your sword when the battle has already begun.

2. “THE CASE IS ALTERED,” QUOTH PLOWDEN

Edmund Plowden was a renowned English lawyer of the Elizabethan period, while The Case Is Altered was the title of an early 17th century play by Ben Jonson. It’s possible that no real life event should have led to the two being connected in this expression, but plenty of anecdotes have arisen that purport to explain it. According to one, Plowden was involved in the case of some hogs that had escaped and ran amok on the plaintiff’s land, and was about to push the court to rule that the hog’s owner pay for the damage, when it was pointed out that they were his. “Nay then,” Plowden apparently replied, “then the case is altered.” Regardless of whether this anecdote (or any of the others that purport to explain this phrase) is true or not, the case is altered, quoth Plowden has been used proverbially in English since the mid-1600s at least to point out that new evidence or facts have come to light. It's also used in a less flattering way to mean when a lawyer switches sides for nefarious reasons, such as larger fees.

3. A LAZY SHEEP THINKS ITS WOOL IS HEAVY

An 18th century expression alluding to someone who consistently finds fault in even good things. It would also come to mean someone who is so lazy that they can’t take care of the basics.

4. TO RUN BEFORE YOUR HORSE TO MARKET

A warning from the 15th century, that Shakespeare used in Richard III: If you run before your horse to market, then you anticipate success before it’s guaranteed. Essentially, it’s an alternative to not counting your chickens before they’re hatched.

5. LITTLE BIRDS MAY PECK A DEAD LION

Dating from the late 19th century and thought to originate in Spanish, little birds may peck a dead lion implies that only once a strong opponent is weakened or out of the game do weaker players or participants start to act.

6. A KING’S CHEESE GOES HALF AWAY IN PARINGS

A paring is a thin sliver of waste material cut or scraped off something larger. The old adage that a king’s cheese goes half away in parings might allude to the fact that to ensure his majesty is only ever served the very best food, every time the king wanted to eat some cheese his servants would have to trim away the dry outer edge of the block, leaving only the freshest cheese on his plate. Another possibility is that there are so many people wanting to take tiny slivers of the king’s cheese that these bits add up to half the block. Either way, a lot of the king’s cheese ends up wasted. This saying was first recorded in 1735 in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack as the longer “The King’s cheese is half wasted in parings: But no matter, ’tis made of the peoples milk.”

7. TO END IN A WHEW, LIKE CAWTHORNE WAKES

A whew is a whimper or a soft blow, like that used to blow out a candle. Cawthorne is a village in South Yorkshire, England, while a wakes is a local village festival, traditionally one held on the feast day of the patron saint of the local parish church. If something ends in a whew, like Cawthorne wakes, then it ends in a disappointment or an anti-climax: Apparently, the festival at Cawthorne would typically end with the parish authorities unceremoniously blowing out the festival’s candles or lanterns.

8. “THAT’S EXTER,” SAID THE OLD WOMAN WHEN SHE SAW KERTON

Exter is Exeter, a city in the southwest of England, and Kerton is Crediton, a small town lying to its northwest. This old dialect expression is attributed to a (probably apocryphal) “old woman” traveling on foot to Exeter for the first time. Suddenly seeing the impressive spire of the Church of the Holy Cross in Crediton emerge on the horizon, she presumed she was at long last approaching Exeter Cathedral and that her long, tiresome journey was nearing its end; in fact, she would still have roughly another eight miles to walk before she got to Exeter. Whether true or not, this anecdote inspired this bizarre expression referring to someone who thinks their work is finished, only to find there’s just that little bit more to get done.

9. TO LEAP OVER THE HEDGE BEFORE YOU COME TO THE STILE

Anyone familiar with walking in the countryside will know that a stile is a wooden step or rung used for climbing over a fence or wall. To make things unnecessarily difficult for yourself by acting prematurely or too quickly, ultimately, is to leap the hedge before you come to the stile.

10. “FIRE,” QUOTH THE FOX, WHEN HE PISSED ON THE ICE

As proverbs and sayings go, you can’t get much stranger than a urinating fox. Apparently, the origin of this expression refers to the fact that the fox’s actions would make the ice steam, fooling the fox into thinking he could produce fire. As a result, this old adage—which dates back to the 1600s, at least—refers to someone who unrealistically expects too much from a plan or undertaking that is liable not to succeed.

Find Your Birthday Word With the Oxford English Dictionary's Birthday Word Generator

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iStock/photoman

Language is always changing and new words are always being formed. That means there are a bunch of words that were born the same year you were. The Oxford English Dictionary has created the OED birthday word generator, where you can find a word that began around the same time you did.

Click on your birth year to see a word that was first documented that year, and then click through to see what that first citation was. Then explore a little and be surprised by words that are older than you expect (frenemy, 1953), and watch cultural changes emerge as words are born (radio star, 1924; megastar, 1969; air guitar, 1983).

Does your birthday word capture your era? Does it fit your personality? Perhaps birthday words could become the basis for a new kind of horoscope.

This story has been updated for 2019.

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

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iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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