Author Archives: Louise

Phrases using place names: 2 – The Rest of the World ūüėČ

Yesterday we looked at phrases and expressions that use the names of towns and cities in the UK. Today we take a look at those citing places around the rest of the world – a few of which mention a certain Italian city …

A Bronx cheer: a sound of contempt or derision made by blowing through closed lips, usually with the tongue protruding (like the proverbial raspberry). Dating back to the early 20th century, the phrase probably originated at sporting events in the Bronx area (the northernmost borough of New York City), and it was first seen in print in the Bridgeport Telegram in a report by none other than Damon Runyon of a football game in October 1921.

Not for all the tea in China: not at any price (because China was known to produce tea in huge quantities).

A road to Damascus moment: when you have a great and sudden change in your ideas or beliefs. It comes from the famous occasion when Saint Paul converted to Christianity while he was heading to Damascus to persecute the Christians.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark: used to describe corruption or a situation in which¬†something¬†is wrong. It’s a direct quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, said by Marcellus when he thinks something’s up because the ghost of Hamlet’s father has appeared several times.

Dunkirk spirit: what people draw on when they pull together to get through a difficult time. The phrase came into use following the evacuation of allied troops across the English Channel by flotillas of pleasure boats, working barges and other civilian craft at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940.

Houston, we have a problem: used humorously to report any kind of problem. This is Hollywood’s version of what was radioed by the Apollo 13 moon mission to its command base in Houston after an oxygen tank explosion aboard the spacecraft in April 1970. Command module pilot John “Jack” Swigert called Houston after the little mishap, and his exact words were: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

I’m from Missouri: you need proof, or you¬†need to¬†be¬†shown, as¬†in: “Show¬†me:¬†I’m¬†from Missouri.” The¬†phrase¬†comes¬†from¬†Missouri’s nickname,¬†“The¬†Show¬†Me¬†State,” which it earned because of the devotion of its people to simple common sense. In 1899, Rep. Willard D. Vandiverr, a scholar, writer and lecturer with a passing resemblance to Mark Twain, was speaking to Philadelphia’s Five O’Clock Club. Questioning the accuracy of an earlier speaker’s remarks, he explained: “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

In a New York minute: very fast. ‘Cos everything happens quickly in the Big Apple. The phrase is said to have been coined in Texas in the late 1960s, when it was first claimed that a¬†New¬†Yorker does in an instant what a Texan would do in a whole¬†minute.

A Philadelphia lawyer: a shrewd, astute, highly-skilled attorney (because back in the 18th century members of the Philadelphia bar were widely considered to be the best trained in the American colonies and exceptionally skilled in the law and rhetoric).

When in Rome … (or, more fully: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do): an advisory to follow the conventions of the area where you’re staying or visiting. The story goes that Saint Monica¬†and her son,¬†Saint Augustine, who both lived in Milan, planned to visit Rome, where they discovered that Saturday was observed as a¬†fast day – unlike in their hometown, where it wasn’t. They consulted¬†Saint Ambrose,¬†who said: “When I am here (in Milan) I do not fast on Saturday, when in Rome I do fast on Saturday.”

Fiddling while Rome burns: occupying oneself with trivial matters and neglecting priorities during a crisis. Legend has it that while a fire was raging through the city of Rome, the emperor Nero played his lyre and even wrote a song about the fire’s destruction, showing utter neglect for his people and his empire.

All roads lead to Rome: a variety of means and methods will yield the same outcome. The phrase seems to be a modern reworking of a medieval expression. The 12th-century French theologian Alain deLille wrote¬†“Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam”¬†(A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome) in¬†Liber Parabolarum. Chaucer’s¬†Treatise on the Astrolabe¬†provides us with the earliest known English source: “Right as diverse pathes leden the folk the righte wey to Rome.” In about 300 BC, the Romans started building long straight roads that connected all the major cities with Rome but not with each other. This network of 29 roads connected 113 provinces of the empire, with Rome at its center. So it was true then that ‚Äúall roads led to Rome.‚ÄĚ

Rome wasn’t built in a day: you need plenty of time to create great things. It is the common English translation of a medieval French phrase,¬†“Rome ne fu[t] pas faite toute en un jour”, found in the collection of proverbs¬†Li Proverbe au Vilain published in about 1190. The expression really took off in the 16th century when John Heywood listed it (in English) in his¬†A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue¬†(c. 1538),¬†and Queen¬†Elizabeth¬†I referenced the expression in Latin in an address in Cambridge¬†in 1563.

A Saigon moment: when people realize something has gone terribly wrong and they will lose or fail. The term presumably dates back to the capture of¬†Saigon (also known as the fall of Saigon) by the¬†People’s Army of Vietnam and the¬†Viet Cong¬†on 30 April 1975.

Stockholm syndrome: the tendency of a hostage to bond, identify or sympathize with his or her captor. The Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot originally coined the term to explain the aftermath of a bank robbery in Stockholm in 1973. The robber Jan-Erik Olsson took four bank employees hostage and remained with his accomplice, Oloffson, inside the bank with the four hostages during a six-day stand-off with police. After the hostages’ release, they were found to have developed strong emotional bonds with their captors. The hostages reported that Olsson and Oloffson treated them kindly and did not physically harm them. They defended their captors and refused to testify against them.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: any¬†scandalous¬†activities¬†that¬†happen¬†away from home¬†shouldn’t¬†be¬†discussed¬†with others¬†afterwards. Or, more¬†simply put,¬†something¬†needs to¬†be¬†kept¬†secret. It originates from the official advertising¬†slogan¬†of¬†Las¬†Vegas¬†(“What Happens¬†Here,¬†Stays¬†Here”),¬†a¬†popular¬†vacation¬†destination¬†with¬†a¬†reputation¬†for¬†hedonism. The slogan was first cooked up in 2003 at a brainstorming meeting in the Las¬†Vegas¬†tourism department of the ad agency R&R Partners.

Goodnight Vienna: it’s all over. It comes from the title of a romantic 1932 operetta, with book and lyrics by Eric Maschwitz and music by George Posford. According to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases: “As a [catch phrase] it has been described by Cyril Whelan, 1975, as ‘a pen-knife phrase, in that it can be put to a variety of different uses – often apparently contradictory. “If the officer catches us up to this, it’s Good Night, Vienna, for the lot of us.” … “So I met the girl. We had a few drinks. Back to her place, and Good Night, Vienna”.’ Its appeal and currency are due only to the fact that it’s mildly pleasing to the tongue in a racy sort of way and bounces quite happily on the ear of the listener.'”

* * * * *

Phrases using place-names: 1. British locales

A Glosso post five years ago – “Nationality (and very un-PC) expressions” – listed and described some common terms and expressions that incorporate names of countries and nationalities, drawing on proverbial and stereotypical national characteristics for comic effect. Some of these expressions were already considered derisive or downright offensive back in 2016 (and were labelled as such in the post), but probably just as many were thought to be benignly amusing if a little un-PC. Times have changed, and most of these phrases now come across as racist and offensive, so if you read the earlier post, please bear its original date in mind. It occurred to me recently that phrases including more specific place names (such as cities, towns or regions, and even some countries) don’t tend to carry the same derisive overtones, and if they do they’re fairly mild and inoffensive. Their origins are invariably as quirky and interesting as the expressions themselves. We’ll start with the British place names: please add any phrases I’ve missed to the comments section below. Tomorrow we’ll post phrases using non-British places (like when we’re in Rome …).

Put some English on it: hit or bat a ball in baseball, pool etc., giving it some curve or spin. The expression originated in billiards (which dates back to the 16th century: Shakespeare refers to it in Antony and Cleopatra), but in itself dates back to about 1823, when the introduction of a leather cue-tip allowed billiard players to make a side-spin. By 1860 the French were referring to this spin on a billiard ball as anglé, the French word for angled, which happens to be pronounced the same way as anglais, meaning English. As the word anglé took off and was used more broadly Рnot just in French Рto describe this spin, it was duly translated into English to mean just that: English.

Close your eyes (or lie back) and think of England: to tolerate undesirable sex – usually on the part of a bored or tired spouse or lover. (It was first written in 1912 in the journal of Lady Hillingdon, but the phrase wasn’t necessarily coined by her.)

More front than Brighton: very self-confident, perhaps excessively so (because “more front than” historically denotes impudence or effrontery, and Brighton is known for its seafront – hence the ironic pun).

Ship-shape and Bristol fashion: in first-class condition (because Bristol’s harbor has one of the most variable tidal flows in the world and the water level can vary greatly between tides, with the result that ships moored there were beached at each low tide and had to be of sturdy construction and the goods in their holds needed to be securely stowed; the problem was resolved in 1803 with the construction of Bristol’s floating harbor).

Going at a Canterbury pace: at a dignified or stately pace. The word canter comes from pilgrims on horseback going at a ‘Canterbury pace’ along the Pilgrim’s Way to visit St Thomas √† Becket’s shrine. The phrase was eventually shortened to the simple verb, to canter.

Grinning like a Cheshire cat: to grin broadly (and no-one knows why cats from Cheshire were said to grin, but the expression dates back to the mid-18th century, long before Alice in Wonderland – which featured literature’s most famous Cheshire cat – was written …).

To be sent to Coventry: to be deliberately ignored or ostracized (probably because of events in Coventry during the English Civil War in the 1640s, when Cromwell sent a group of Royalist soldiers to prison there and the locals, who were parliamentary supporters, shunned and refused to consort with them).

To carry coals to Newcastle: to undertake something that is both unnecessary and pointless (because Newcastle Upon Tyne was the UK’s first coal exporting port and has been well-known as a coal mining centre since the Middle Ages, so carrying coals there is a pointless activity – there being more than enough coal there already).

Getting off at Paisley: contraceptive practice of withdrawal/coitus interruptus (because Paisley is the penultimate train station when traveling from the Clyde coast back to Glasgow).

More non-British place-name expressions follow tomorrow.

* * * * *

You guys, y’all and youse. Or yintz.

Is “you guys” no longer appropriate to use in our more enlightened gender-neutral speech? It has an undeniably male “twang” to it, that’s for sure. But how do modern English-speakers – especially female and non-binary folks – respond to that catch-all term used to conveniently and informally address a group of people in the absence of a genderless second person plural in standard English (which German-, Turkish- and Gaelic-speakers, among others, are lucky enough to have in their linguistic toolkits)?

Continue reading

The OED: the birth of a dictionary, Part 2. The editor and the mad surgeon.

Dr. William Chester Minor: an American army surgeon, lunatic asylum inmate, and one of the most prolific contributors of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary. / Wikimedia Commons

Continuing Glosso’s telling of the OED birth story…

Five years into the New Dictionary project, in 1884, James Murray and his family moved to a large house in north Oxford, where he built a second – larger – Scriptorium in his back garden, to store the growing mountain of paper slips that were flooding in for him and his team following his Appeal (see yesterday’s Glosso post). The Scriptorium, crafted from corrugated iron, was lined with wooden planks, book shelves and 1,029 pigeon-holes for the quotation slips. Anything addressed to ‘Mr Murray, Oxford’ would find its way to him, and the volume of mail sent by Murray and his team was so vast that the Post Office erected a special mailbox (or what the British call “postbox”) outside his house, which he had named ‘Sunnyside’. Among those slips of paper were some penned by a notorious murderer detained at the even more notorious Broadmoor.

Continue reading

The OED: the birth of a dictionary, Part 1. Wikipedia, 19th-century style

Murray in the Scriptorium at Banbury Road, before 1910 / Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t already heard the story (which Glosso is about to tell you) of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be, about the word-nerd man behind it, the role of the American public (who basically failed in their task – with one notable exception), and the even more extraordinary story of one of the dictionary’s most notorious and prolific contributors, you’ll probably think: “Oh wow, this should be made into a movie!” Well, sadly Mel Gibson beat you to it; like you, he’s good at spotting a juicy movie plot, but unlike you he’s got friends in the biz. Oh well: can’t win ’em all. Let’s hear the story of how one of the world’s oldest and most authoritative dictionaries came into being, using a kind of handwritten precursor to Wikipedia and depending on the good intentions of English-speaking readers around the world – including a schizophrenic murderous American surgeon who read a lot and knew a lot of words …

Continue reading

Oxford & Cambridge: is punctuation the new battleground for an old rivalry?


The annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is coming up on Sunday (it will be a closed event on the River Great Ouse). Will Oxford take the trophy back from Cambridge, who were victorious in their last encounter (in 2019)? Tension is mounting in the historic rivalry between the famous British universities – and today it goes beyond the coxes and crews and the battle of the Blues. As reported this morning in the Cambridge Herald, Cambridge University has announced its introduction of the “Cambridge comma.” Rivaling the contentious Oxford comma, which – after the apostrophe – is probably the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the Oxford or serial comma here), the Cambridge comma introduces a punctuated pause AFTER the word “and in lists — i.e. before the final list item, with Oxford already having staked its claim to the prime position before the “and”.

An example of the new Cambridge comma illustrates the unexpectedly belated verbal interruption that it offers: “He packed up his books, cigars, teddy bears and, slippers.” Oxford’s remains more predictably timely: “He packed up his gowns, pipes, long-johns, and ties.”

Oxford and Cambridge have enjoyed an infamous but healthy rivalry for centuries, dating back to when they were the only two universities in England and Wales. Competition between the “Oxbridge” institutions is most famously characterized by the annual boat race, which takes place on a four-mile stretch of the River Thames. Now the colleges will have one more thing — in addition to the best cox and crew, the most famous alumni, the best academic ranking, the most renowned theatrical society — over which to compete: the relative value of their respective serial comma positions. Are you an Oxford comma kind of character, or a Cambridge comma cat?

A spokesman for Cambridge University was quoted in the Cambridge Herald remarking on this new role for the ever versatile comma: “Cambridge is proud to add a new, dynamic and, pause-worthy role to the most widely-used and abused punctuation mark in the English language. We look forward to seeing it flourish in literature, texts, DMs and, IMs as we encourage the world to take an added pause.” Read the full Cambridge Herald article here.

We didn’t see this one coming!


When Irish words are smiling (in English)

Another favorite from the Glosso archives, posted again to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. What do galore, slew, hooligan and boycott have in common? Glossophilia celebrates 13* colorful words in common English usage that we got from the Irish.

Banshee: in Irish folklore, a type of female fairy believed to foretell deaths by singing in a mournful, unearthly voice, 1771, from the phonetic spelling of the Irish bean sidhe¬†(“female of the Elves”) from bean “woman” + Irish sidhe (Gaelic sith) meaning “fairy” or sid¬†meaning “fairy mound”.

Boycott: From Irish Land League ostracism of Capt. Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897), land agent of Lough-Mask in County Mayo, who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers. Quickly adopted by newspapers in languages as far afield as Japanese (boikotto). The family name is from a place in England.

Brogue: A type of Celtic accent, 1705, perhaps from the meaning “rough, stout shoe” (made of rawhide and tied with thongs), of the type worn by rural Irish and Scottish highlanders (1580s), via Gaelic or Irish, from Old Irish broce “shoe.” The footwear was “characteristic of the wilder Irish” [Century Dictionary], thus the noun might mean something like “speech of those who call a shoe a brogue.” Or perhaps it is from the Old Irish barrog, meaning “a hold” (on the tongue).

Galore: 1670s, from the Irish¬†go le√≥r, and equivalent Scottish Gaelic¬†gu le√≥ir, meaning¬†“sufficiently, enough,” from the Old Irish¬†roar,¬†“enough”.¬†The particle¬†go/gu¬†usually means “to,” but it is also affixed to adjectives to form adverbs, as it is here.

Gob:¬†slang for “mouth” 1540s, from the Irish gob,¬†meaning “mouth”.

Hooligan: 1890s, of unknown origin, according to OED, first found in British newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898, almost certainly from the variant form of the Irish surname Houlihan, which figured as a characteristic comic Irish name in music hall songs and newspapers of the 1880s and ’90s.

Leprechaun: c. 1600, from Irish¬†lupracan, a metathesis of the Old Irish¬†luchorpan¬†meaning literally “a very small body,” from¬†lu¬†(“little, small”). The variant¬†leithbragan¬†is probably Irish folk etymology, from¬†leith¬†(“half”) +¬†brog¬†(“brogue”), because the spirit was “supposed to be always employed in making or mending a single shoe.”

Sheila: The Australian slang for ‚Äúwoman‚ÄĚ comes from the Irish name ‚ÄúS√≠le‚ÄĚ, the Irish equivalent of Celia, a shortened form of Cecilia, the feminine form of Cecil. A standard Irish women’s name since 1828; slang for “girlfriend, young woman” dates from 1839.

Slew: meaning “large number” 1839, from the Irish sluagh¬†meaning “a host, crowd, multitude”.

Slogan: 1670s, earlier slogorne (1510s), “battle cry,” from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm¬†meaning “battle cry” used by Scottish Highland or Irish clans,” from sluagh¬†(“army, host, slew” — see slew above), from the Celtic and Balto-Slavic slough¬†(“help, service”). Second element is gairm¬†meaning “a cry”.

Tory: Colloquial name for a member of the British Conservative Party: 1566, “an outlaw,” specifically “one of a class of Irish robbers noted for outrages and savage cruelty,” from the Irish toruighe,¬†“plunderer,” originally “pursuer, searcher,” from the Old Irish toirighim¬†(“I pursue”) from toir¬†(“pursuit”) from Celtic to-wo-ret¬†(“a running up to”). In about 1646, it emerged as a derogatory term for Irish Catholics dispossessed of their land (some of whom subsequently turned to outlawry); in c.1680 it was applied by Exclusioners to supporters of the Catholic Duke of York (later James II) in his succession to the throne of England. After 1689, Tory was the name of a British political party at first composed of Yorkist Tories of 1680. It was superseded in c.1830 by Conservative, although it continues to be used colloquially. As an adjective from 1680s.

Shamrock: 1570s, from Irish seamrog, the diminutive of seamar meaning “clover.”

Whiskey: 1715, from Gaelic uisge beatha “whisky,” literally “water of life,” from the Old Irish uisce, meaning¬†“water”. Note that the spelling distinction between Scotch whisky and Irish and American whiskey is a 19th-century innovation.


And here are two words that are commonly thought to be of Irish origin but probably aren’t:

Dig? Some people think the slang word dig — meaning to understand or “get it” — comes from the Irish tuig. However, read Frank McNally’s dig into the word dig in the Irish Times a decade ago: it’s a complicated subject, and probably not of Irish heritage after all.

Hillbilly? It’s commonly thought that the¬†pejorative term for people living in rural areas of the U.S., especially around the Ozark Mountains (Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas) and Appalachia, initially came from 18th-century Ulster Protestant settlers in the Appalachian Mountains.¬†However, as Michael Montgomery argues in his From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English:¬†“In Ulster in recent years it has sometimes been supposed that it was coined to refer to followers of King William III and brought to America by early Ulster emigrants, but this derivation is almost certainly incorrect. … In America hillbilly was first attested only in 1898, which suggests a later, independent development.”

* Don’t worry: we’ve got the luck of the Irish on our side.


Happy 10th Birthday, Glossophilia!

Ten years ago today, this little hobby-blog tip-toed onto the internet, taking an informal, irreverent, trans-Atlantic look at language use and abuse in all its glory. A decade on, it’s flourishing. With visitors from every country in the world bar five, the blog recently celebrated its millionth reader. Its lively Facebook page has a flock of 28,000+ followers, and our fledgling podcast spin-off is warmly appreciated on both sides of the pond. It’s thrilling to know that there are glossophiles loving their lingo in every far-flung corner of the planet. (Read more about the blog below.)

Continue reading