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3 December 2016

Not my pigeon Readers may not be familiar with John Rowland, a little-known and neglected British detective-story writer who published Calamity in Kent in 1950. The British Library has republished it ...
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Subnivean Classical scholars will spot the wintry associations of this word; it derives from Latin nix for snow, which becomes niv- in compounds such as nivālis, snowy or snow-covered. Etymologists point out that the English ...
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Black as Newgate knocker It’s very probable. But not perhaps in that form. Your mother’s version is a mishearing of a Londoners’ expression that dates back in written records to 1881: black as Newgate knocker. It ...
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Boxing Day (updated) Boxing Day is a public holiday in Britain and most Commonwealth countries. There’s some minor confusion these days, in Britain at least, over which day it actually is. The reference books a ...
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Chalazion (updated) Peter Gilliver, the eminent lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary whose book I mentioned last time, quoted this word in an interview a couple of weeks ago. He said he had found it ...
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5 November 2016

Fizgig Today — 5 November — is one of those periodic celebrations of failure we Brits so much enjoy, in this case the inability of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament on this day in 1605. For the four centuries ...
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Spin a yarn It’s puzzling because we’ve lost the context. We know that sailors were the first to use spinning a yarn — often in the extended form spinning out a long yarn — to refer to telling a story that described ...
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Chalazion Peter Gilliver, the eminent lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary whose book I mentioned last time, quoted this word in an interview a couple of weeks ago. He said he had found it when ...
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What am I? Chopped liver? This takes me back. In November 1999, when this newsletter had already reached issue 167, I mentioned that a reader had asked about this but as it was unfamiliar to me, I asked for ...
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Happy as a sandboy (updated) Let me add an explanatory note to your question, as many readers will never have heard this saying. It’s a proverbial expression that suggests blissful contentment: “Made me think ...
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1 October 2016

Tomfoolery I would write it as one word, tomfoolery, and my ordered ranks of dictionaries tell me I’m right. But it often turns up in print in the way you have written it, or as Tom foolery or tom-foolery ...
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Fair to middling (updated) As you hint, the phrase is more usually fair to middling, common enough — in Britain as well as North America — for something that’s moderate to merely average in quality ...
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So help me Hannah Hannah, as a personal name, sometimes with the spelling pronunciation “Hanner”, has been used in the US in various colloquial sayings since at least the 1870s. They include that’s what’s ...
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Joe Soap (updated) It remains moderately common in Britain but its meaning has shifted since your mother learned it. She would have had in mind a stupid or naive person, one who could be easily put upon ...
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3 September 2016

Nimrod Let’s start, as all good stories should, at the beginning. In the Bible, Nimrod was said to be the great-grandson of Noah. Genesis reports “And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a ...
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Isabelline (updated) Isabelline refers to a colour. The dictionaries variously describe it as greyish-yellow, light buff, pale cream-brown, dingy yellowish grey or drab. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged ...
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No soap (updated) From my vantage point in the UK, this classic Americanism appears to have largely died out, remembered and occasionally used only by older people. A speaker usually means by it that ...
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27 August 2016

Umquhile (updated) I’ve previously written about whilom, one of three words, I said then, with closely related meanings of formerly or previously, the others being erstwhile and quondam. There is a fourth, as ...
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Steal one’s thunder (updated) A splendid story is told about the origin of this striking phrase. John Dennis was a literary critic whose life straddled the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Having spent his ...
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13 August 2016

Katy bar the door (updated) Various sources down the years have suggested at least three origins. However, the more one investigates, the further away a simple answer seems to get. The idiomatic expression ...
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Simoleon (updated) This bit of US slang for one dollar or money in general now sounds rather dated, though it still turns up from time to time, especially in humorous journalistic writing. One example: “Today I ...
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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Last updated 3 Dec. 2016.

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996– All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/index.htm
Last modified: 3 December 2016.