Category Archives: Words & Vocabulary

Fun idioms, explained

Idioms – Those sometimes silly, obscure phrases that we use in everyday conversation.  

A lot of idioms originate from nautical and military origins, Shakespeare and Olde English pubs, or from life as it was known a century or more ago. 

Cut and run 

You’re an 18th century sea captain on a large schooner filled with spices and silks and jewels. You just dropped anchor along the coast and are about to let the crew go ashore. You look to the horizon and here comes a ship flying the Jolly Roger! You don’t waste a moment getting outta there. You slice the anchor rope and get a move on. You cut and run.

Armed to the teeth –

The pirates bearing down on the schooner have the single-shot weapons of the day. And they each have a couple of them – stuffed into their belts, their vests, their pockets. In addition to the guns, they have a knife. Where to hold the knife? Open your mouth and bite down – armed to the teeth.

Mind your Ps and Qs – I found two explanations on this one.

From an old printer’s tenet. Back in the early days of printing presses, each letter of text had to be set up by hand. Since the letters in the press were reversed, the printer or typographer had to be careful not to confuse one letter for the other. He had to mind his Ps and Qs.

The more accepted historical meaning for this idiom (and one that’s a little more fun) dates back to ye Olde English pubs of yester-year. A bartender would use chalk and board to record the number of Pints (Ps) and Quarts (Qs) a patron had consumed. This chalkboard allowed said patrons to keep up with their tab, to not get too drunk to pay the tab, and prevented disagreements between bar and patron.

Saved by the bell – Again, I found two really cool explanations on this one.

Boxing slang … a boxer who is in danger of losing a bout can be ‘saved’ from a beat down by the bell that marks the end of a round. There is a reference to this idiom in the Massachusetts newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, February 1893: “Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns in 32 rounds by a complete knockout. Half a dozen times Flaherty was saved by the bell in the earlier rounds.”

Imagine being buried alive and having no means of communicating with those that are walking about the cemetery. A person would be buried, a string available or attached to a wrist. The string would be fed through the top of the coffin, through the dirt, and attached to a bell on top of the grave. The recently buried person would wake up, ring the bell, and be saved from an unpleasant death.

Hold your horses 

Most accepted – the term originated from the men serving the artillery. These soldiers had horses. When the cannon went kaboom, the horses bolted and ran off. Thus, hold your horses was created.

This idiom is also attributed to the use of horse and carriage. Imagine the under-paid carriage driver, waiting at the curb, while Scarlett put the finishing touches on her petticoats; he was holding his horses, waiting.

Blow off steam –

This idiom was frequently used when steam engines were the locomotion of the day. Blowing off steam prevents explosions by relieving the pressure in an engine or boiler by venting excess steam and pressure. 

Reading the riot act –

This refers to actual events. Bobbies in Britain used to read a proclamation – known as the Riot Act – before they were permitted to break up or arrest rioters. This Riot Act was used in the same fashion as the current Miranda Rights in the US. The Bobbies would approach the crowd, read the Riot Act out loud, and then disperse the crowd (or arrest them).

Jump on the bandwagon –

Old-time political campaigns would attempt to gather supporters by driving through town with a vehicle announcing (through loud-speakers) the candidate’s schpeel. Usually these wagons also carted a small band playing patriotic music. Jumping on the bandwagon was akin to providing your support for this popular candidate.


I’ll have another “Fun Idioms” next weekend. 

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Much of English Isn’t English

Typing my first blog, circa 1958.

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Roots and Sprouts

We have “English” in America, but the language we use every day is the result of blending the roots and sprouts of Ye Old English, Danish, French, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Dutch, and Spanish, et al. 

We explore, below, some words from other languages that have been adopted and adapted into our English language. 

Old English

Kith and kin – basically means friends and relatives. This is one of my favorite phrases, and I know a certain Dragon Master who uses it as well. However, you won’t see it much in blog posts, articles, or memes. 

Eke – as in “eke out a living.” 

To and fro – back and forth

Danish/Scandinavian

Cog, cozy, hug, and maelstrom. 

French – Oh, mon dieu! 

There are about 10,000 French words we have adopted into our every-day English.

Déjà vu 

Fiancé 

Faux

A la carte

Bon appetit

Hors d’oeuvre

Vinaigrette (my favorite dressing!) 

Silhouette

Petite

Chauffeur

Critique (something writers love to get!) 

Déjà vu – Wait…did I mention that one before? 

Latin

It’s not just for attorneys anymore.

Ad hoc, bona fide, circa, ergo, et cetera (commonly known as etc.) habeas corpus, in vitro, per annum, per capita, quid pro quo – I’m looking at you, former guy! 

I could continue, ad nauseam…

Greek 

Galaxy … far, far away

Europe

Dinosaur

Democracy (remember what that feels like?)

Cynicism 

Cemetery

Acrobat

Chinese

Pekoe, bok choy, ginseng, won ton, wok, chow, and ketchup. Alert Heinz! 

We practice tai chi, talk about yin and yang (not ying yang), we play mahjong, and some of us worry about typhoons. 

Hindi

Verandah, jungle, bandana, dinghy, pyjamas (I’ve been living in these going on two years), cashmere, bangles, and shampoo.

Japanese

Tsunami, karaoke, emoji, sushi, tofu, ramen (a college dorm staple), and origami (at one time, my grandson’s obsession). 

Dutch

Boss, yankee (sorry NY, it’s not the ball team), mannequin, bazooka, snoop, frolic, and iceberg (I wonder if the lookout on the Titanic knew he was screaming in Dutch?) 

Spanish

Many of our own U.S. state names are from Spanish origins – California, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona. 

You would think this would make our state and some federal administrators more respectful of our Latin American brethren.  

Other words of typical use – corral, chaps, desperado, lasso, alligator, barracuda, cockroach, and everyone’s favorite little bug – the mosquito. 

And let’s not forget an American favorite, now served, infamously on Tuesdays (I could eat them every day) – TACO. 

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What “foreign” words can you think of that

we use in our American English every day?

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SpewagE – Easy Plurals, Easy Apostrophes

Henceforth, I will share my acute and capacious superpowers foisted upon me by Mom (worked for Merriam-Webster as a proofreader) and Ang (who could complete the NYT Crossword in a day), and the years of research and learning stuff and “Looking Things Up.” 

I will share my experiences … Spelling, Proofreading, Editing, Writing, Apostrophes, Grammar, and English. “SpewagE.” I capped the last E because that’s how the art came out. 

Easy Plurals, Easy Apostrophes

Social Networking Yuckies

Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen more and more misuse of the apostrophe in plurals, especially on social networking posts. 

Plurals are simple (for the most part). Here are a handful:

Cats

Dogs

Scientists

Doctors 

Nurses

So, if you have one cat, you can have two cats, three cats, and so on. 

If you trust a scientist, then you can also trust two scientists, three scientists (and you can trust Dr. Fauci, too!). 

Apostrophes in Plurals

Plural’s do not need apostrophe’s. (Ew!)

Wrong – Mistake’s are being made. 

Correct – Mistakes are being made. 

Plurals do not need apostrophes. (Good!)

Apostrophes in Possessives

Now, this is where you need apostrophes – in possessives. 

The cat’s whiskers

The dog’s tail 

The scientist’s research 

The doctor’s white coat

The nurse’s stethoscope

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Any questions? 

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Filed under Editing & Proofreading, Quick Editing Tips, Social Networking, Words & Vocabulary

SpewagE – There, Their, They’re

Henceforth, I will share my acute and capacious superpowers foisted upon me by Mom (worked for Merriam-Webster as a proofreader) and Ang (who could complete the NYT Crossword in a day), and the years of research and learning stuff and “Looking Things Up.” 

I will share my experiences … Spelling, Proofreading, Editing, Writing, Apostrophes, Grammar, and English. “SpewagE.” I capped the last E because that’s how the art came out. 

Homophones

The English language is plagued with gawd-awful homophones. They are a bug-a-boo even for born-in-the-USA English speakers. 

Consider:

You’re and Your (SpewagE – You’re/Your

To, Two, Too 

Yew, Ewe, You

For, Fore, Four

Bye, By, Buy (not to be confused with the NSYNC song, “Bye Bye Bye.”)

There, Their, They’re

There

Where? There. 

Where? There!  

Where did you put it? I put it there. 

It’s a place. And the last four letters of Where/There are the same. 

Whoomp, there it is! 

Their*

It’s a possessive pronoun. 

Their dogs. 

Their house. 

Their human rights. 

Their body, their choice. 

Little Fin Tips – Having trouble remembering?

It was her choice. It was his choice. It was their choice. 

*Personal note – I support our LGBTQ2S friends. This word is not just a possessive, but it’s a possessive pronoun, like she/hers, he/his, and they/theirs. Whatever pronouns you choose for yourselves, I support those choices. You have every right to choose your own personal pronouns. 

They’re

It’s a contraction. Short for “they are.” 

Drop the “A,” slap an apostrophe in it, et voila! They’re. 

They are going to get vaccinated – They’re going to get vaccinated. 

They are wearing masks at school – They’re wearing masks at school. 

They are standing up for women’s rights – They’re standing up for women’s rights. 

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Get it? Got it? Fabulous!   


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Filed under Editing & Proofreading, Quick Editing Tips, Words & Vocabulary