C: LESSON 10 – Popular phrases

  a shot in the arm a stimulus This expression derives from the invigorating effect of injecting drugs. A shot is of course US slang for an injection, either of a narcotic or medicinal drug. The vets can give politics a shot in the arm and the political leaders realize it.
  a sledgehammer to crack a nut to use disproportionate force or expense to overcome a minor problem Sledgehammers are large iron hammers which were first used in England in the 15th century. Don’t worry over little ills of life. It is like taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut.
  acid test a sure test, giving an incontestable result Gold prospectors and dealers need to be able to distinguish gold from base metal. The original acid test was developed in the late 18th century and relied on nitric acid’s ability to dissolve other metals more readily than gold. The acid test for the product will be whether people actually buy it.
  all singing, all dancing very modern and technically advanced From the advertising posters used to promote the 1929 film Broadway Melody – the first musical film – which proclaimed it to be ‘All talking All singing All dancing’. She showed us the new all-singing, all-dancing graphics software she’d boughtfor her computer.
  an arm and a leg a large, possibly exorbitant, amount of money Portrait painters used to charge more for larger paintings and that a head and shoulders painting was the cheapest option, followed in price by one which included arms and finally the top of the range ‘legs and all’ portrait. Everything the restaurant offers tastes good, and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
  as easy as pie very easy How though are pies thought to be easy? The easiness comes with the eating – at least, that was the view in 19th century America, where this phrase was coined. You make everything sound as easy as pie, George.
  as happy as a clam very happy and content The phrase originated in the north-eastern states of the USA in the early 19th century. It has been suggested that open clams give the appearance of smiling. I am happy as a clam living all by myself in this little house by the sea.
  back-seat driver someone who criticizes from the sidelines This comes from the annoying habit of some people of giving unwanted advice to vehicle drivers. It emerged in the USA in early 20th century, as motoring was becoming widespread. Stop pestering me with all your advice. Nobody likes a backseat driver!
  back to the drawing board to start from the start after the failure of an earlier attempt This term has been used since WWII as a jocular acceptance that a design has failed and that a new one is needed. It began appearing in US newspapers by 1947.
Our proposal might not be accepted, in which case we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.
  bad hair day a bad day in general  This first came into prominence in the language following its use in the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I’m sorry I am so glum. This has been a real bad hair day.
  barking up the wrong tree making a mistake or a false assumption in something you are trying to achieve The allusion is to hunting dogs barking at the bottom of trees where they mistakenly think their quarry is hiding. It appeared in several American newspapers throughout the 1830s.
If you think that I ate your food, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I wasn’t even home this weekend!
  bee`s knees excellent – the highest quality “Bee’s knees” began to be used in early 20th century America.Bees carry pollen back to the hive in sacs on their legs. It is tempting to explain this phrase as alluding to the concentrated goodness to be found around a bee’s knee.
Have you tried this double chocolate-chip ice cream? It’s the bee’s knees, it really is.
  between a rock and a hard place in difficulty, faced with a choice between two unsatisfactory options. In 1917 the lack of funding precipitated by the earlier banking crisis led to a dispute between copper mining companies and mineworkers in Bisbee, Arizona. The mineworkers were faced with a choice between harsh and underpaid work at the rock-face on the one hand and unemployment and poverty on the other, that this is the source of the phrase.
I couldn’t make up my mind. I was caught between a rock and ahard place.
  big fish in a small pond people who are important but only within their limited circle of influence The phrase is American and the earliest reference I can find to it is in The Galveston Daily News, June 1881.The phrases are often used to convey the degree of ambition a person holds.
As the manager of a local company, he enjoys being a big fish in a smallpond.
  bigger bang for your buck more for your money Generals and political leaders have argued over the costs of the military since Adam was a lad in 1953. The solution was simple – increase the armed forces but decrease their budget. This policy was described as the ‘bigger bang for your buck’ theory. Moving the production part of his enterprise to China the businessman got the bigger bang for his buck.
  blast from the past something or someone that returns after a period of obscurity or absence Used first by US radio DJs when introducing old records. Pennsylvania, 1967. Hearing that record again was areal blast from the past.
  blaze a trail to lead the way When soldiers ‘blaze away’ with their weapons the blaze refers to the fire and smoke. This has been used since the late 18th century, as here from the Battle of Brooklyn, 1776. Professor Williams blazed a trail in the study ofphysics.
  blonde bombshell a glamorous blonde The phrase was first used to describe Jean Harlow. Her US film ‘Bombshell’ was released in 1933. Elisha Cuthbert is just one of the new and upcoming blonde bombshells in Hollywood.
  the birds and the bees sex and reproduction This phrase is the name of parents’ traditional responses to their children’s question ‘where do babies come from’?This was satirised in The Simpson’s cartoon show, February, 1995. He’s twenty years old and doesn’t understand about the birds and the bees!
  break a leg to wish good luck A superstition that by wishing someone bad luck, it is supposed that the opposite will occur. Used to be said to actors for good luck before they go on stage, especially on an opening night.Indiana, 1942. Let’s all go and do our best. Break a leg!
  bronx cheer a sarcastic cheer when a struggling team completes a mundane task The Bronx is a borough of New York City, named after the 17th century Jonas Bronck, who was the first recorded European settler in the area. The crowd let out a bronx cheer when the goalie finally made a save.
  to get brownie points to get praise or approval for something you have done Derives from wartime US food rationing. Ration points in various colours were required to buy food. Meat was designated by red or brown points; for example, this advertisement in The Daily Times-News, September, 1943. I thought I might get some brownie points by helping to organizethe party.
  bunny boiler an obsessive and dangerous female, in pursuit of a lover who has spurned her. The expression ‘bunny boiler’ derives from the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, written by James Dearden and Nicholas Meyer. “Man i can’t believe kate, after we broke up she keeps ringing my place and hanging up when I answer, she turned into a bunny boiler for real!”
  burry the hatchet to settle your differences with an adversary The figurative expression ‘burying the hatchet’ is different in that it did originate as an American Indian tradition. Hatchets were buried by the chiefs of tribes when they came to a peace agreement. Tom and I buried the hatchet and we are good friends now.
  card-sharp someone who is skilful at playing or manipulating cards, or one who makes a living by cheating at cards Originated in the 19th century. There is a 1594 painting by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio) called ‘The Cardsharps’. Of course, Caravaggio didn’t title his paintings in English and it isn’t clear when it was given its Anglicized name – probably not until well into the 20th century. In one corner of the room a card sharp was cheating a few men, and in another a long game of poker was going on.
  catch 22 a paradox in which the attempt to escape makes escape impossible The title of Joseph Heller’s novel, written in 1953 and published in 1961.The paradox is presented as the trap that confined members of the US Air Force. If you don’t have a place to stay, you can’t get a job and with no job, you can’t get an apartment. It’s a Catch 22situation.
  chaise lounge a form of sofa with a backrest at one end only The name is of French origin and has been known there since the 18th century, translating into English simply as ‘long chair’ – which is just what it is. Have a seat on the chaise lounge.
  chick flick a film with characterization and storylines that appeal especially to women The use of ‘chick flick’ to describe the films with appeal to women began in the early 1990s. For a few years prior to that ‘chick flicks’ were the sexually exploitative films, like those made by directors like Russ Meyers, which were designed to appeal to male sexual fantasy. I really enjoy watching the chick flick films such as “Thelma & Louise”.
  climb on the bandwagon with the majority; taking a popular position. The word bandwagon was coined in the USA in the mid 19th century, simply as the name for the wagon that carried a circus band. Tom always has to climb on thebandwagon. He does no independent thinking.
  close, but not cigar some effort came close to succeeding, but did not succeed. The phrase is of US origin and date from the mid-20th century. Fairground stalls gave out cigars as prizes, and this is the most likely source, although there’s no definitive evidence to prove that. Jill:How did you do in the contest? Jane: Close, but no cigar. I got second place.
  brass monkey weather very cold weather conditions iIt is originated with the three wise monkeys. The original of these was a set of carved wooden monkeys in the Sacred Stable at Nikko in Japan. In 1896, Robert Hope introduced their meaning to the West in his The Temples & Shrines of Nikko:”One closing its eyes with its hands, another one closing its ears with its hands; the other one closing its mouth with its hands.” In Siberia people experiance brass monkey weather during winter period.
  cold turkey the sudden and complete withdrawal from an addictive substance and/or the physiological effects of such a withdrawa The turkey looms large in the American psyche because of its link to early European colonists and is the centrepiece of the annual Thanksgiving meal. She gave up her drinking habit cold turkey and had no ill effects.
  customer is always right

the trading policy that states a company’s keenness to be seen to put the customer first

In the USA it is particularly associated with Marshall Field’s department store, Chicago (established in the late 19th century). Don`t reject in serving your client if he is late for an appointment: customer is always right.
  cut to the chase to focus on what is important This phrase originated in the US film industry. Many early silent films ended in chase sequences preceded by obligatory romantic storylines. The first reference to it dates back to that era, just after the first ‘talkie’ – The Jazz Singer, 1927. After a few introductory comments, we cut to the chase and began negotiating.
  dead ringer an exact duplicate A ringer is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies. This word originated in the US horse-racing fraternity at the end of the 19th century. My silver-blue Buick was a dead ringer for the one Sinatra drove in that movie.
  doom a gloom a feeling of pessimism and despondency, often with regard to business or political prospects The phrase began to be used in US newspapers in the late 19th century. The phrase ‘doom and gloom’ might be quite old – Shakespeare or the Bible. Come on, it’s not all doom and gloom, if we make a real effort we could still win.
  double whammy a situation where two bad things happen at the same time A whammy was originally an evil influence or hex. It originated in the USA in the 1940s and is associated with a variety of sports. The first reference to it in print that I can find is in the Syracuse Herald Journal, October 1939. Critics claim that the cuts in public spending coupled with apay freeze is a double whammy which will affect low-paid workers badly.
  down the tubes wasted and unrecoverable All the early citations come from US sports reports, notably baseball. The earliest reference to it that I have found is in the Charleston Daily Mail, May 1954. His business is going down the tubes and he’s about to lose his house.
  drop-dead gorgeous very good-looking “Drop-dead gorgeous” seems to have been with us since just 1985. A piece about Michelle Pfeiffer in Time used this idiom for her description. Some of her neighbors describe Eva as drop-dead gorgeous.
  face the music to accept the unpleasant results of one’s actions Originated from the popular theory is that it was actors who ‘faced the music’, that is, faced the orchestra pit, when they went on stage. The phrase appears to be mid 19th American in origin. The earliest citation is from The New Hampshire Statesman & State Journal, August 1834. Mary broke a dining-room window and hadto face the music when her father got home.


Down the tubes

Drop-dead gorgeous

Ethnic cleansing

Face the music

Fancy pants

Fashion victim – A

Feeding frenzy – A

Fifteen minutes of fame

Filthy rich

Five o’clock shadow

Flavor of the month – The

Fly off the handle

Foot in the door – A

Fuddy-duddy – A

Funny farm – The

Generation X

Get down to brass tacks

Get your dander up

Get your goat

Gild the lily

Go haywire

Go the whole hog

Go postal

Go to hell in a handbasket

Good riddance to bad rubbish

Goody, goody gumdrops

Gung ho

Have an axe to grind

Heads up – A

Heavy metal

Heebie-jeebies – The

High on the hog

High, wide and handsome

Hissy fit – A

Hold your horses

Hooray Henry – A


Identity theft

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen

In an interesting condition

In like Flynn

In spades

In the bag

In the sticks

Indian summer – An

Jobs for the boys

Joined at the hip

Jump on the bandwagon

Jump the gun

Jump the shark

Jury is still out – The

Kangaroo court – A

Keep the ball rolling

Keep your chin up

Kit and caboodle – The

Knock into a cocked hat

Know your onions

Lame duck – A

Level playing field – A

Life of Riley – The

Loose cannon – A

Lose your marbles

Make a bee-line for

Middle of the road

More bangs for your buck

Mother country – The

My bad

New kid on the block – The

Nitty-gritty – The

No dice

No-brainer – A

Off the record

On cloud nine

On the wagon

On the warpath

Paddle your own canoe

Paint the town red

Pass the buck

Peg out

Peter out

Pie in the sky

Piece of cake – A

Pipe dream – A

Play by ear

Power dressing

P.D.Q. – pretty damn quick

Prime time

Pull the wool over your eyes

Quality time

Red letter day – A

Rise and shine

Road rage

Run a mile

Run of the mill

Sacred cow – A

Security blanket

Seven-year itch – The

Skid row

Smart casual

Smoke and mirrors

Sold down the river

Sound bite – A

Spill the beans

Spin doctor – A

Spring forward, fall back

Square meal – A

Stool pigeon – A

Tail wagging the dog – The

Take the cake

Talk to the hand

Talk through one’s hat

Real McCoy – The

That’s all she wrote

That’s All Folks!

The pits

The whole nine yards

The whole shebang

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

Top notch

Tuckered out

Up a gum tree

Up shit creek without a paddle

Wear the trousers

Well heeled

What you see is what you get

What’s not to like?


Wild and woolly

Zero tolerance