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1991 crime novel in the 'Dr Kay Scarpetta' series: "Body Of WHAT"?


Strange phrases


By Christine Lovatt

Some of the expressions we use regularly don’t seem to make any sense. We hear them being used but rarely stop to think about where they come from.
For instance, To make no bones (as in, “Waiter, I’ll have tomato soup and make no bones about it…”) means to have no hesitation in dealing with something, no matter how unpleasant.

Apparently dating from the 1400s, the phrase is a reference to the unwelcome discovery of bones in your soup. If you found no bones in your bowl you could swallow it easily, but if you did find bones, you would hesitate in eating it.

Bone Soup!

The lily is an emblem of purity and innocence but being lily-livered means being cowardly. This comes from the ancient Greeks who would sacrifice an animal before battle and examine the entrails. The liver was considered to be the most important omen - a good liver was healthy and blood-red but a pale one signified cowardice.

If you lose courage you are said to lose your bottle or to bottle out. This probably comes from the contents of the bottle being alcoholic, thereby giving false courage, and so to lose that would be to lack courage.

To be cut to the quick means to be deeply hurt. It refers to the quick which is the very sensitive flesh beneath fingernails and toenails. If you’ve ever accidentally scraped off a toenail as I did once, you’d agree!

To go cold turkey is to cure an addiction by suddenly ceasing all drug-taking, which causes the blood supply to concentrate on internal organs, leaving the skin cold and sweaty, with goosebumps like an uncooked turkey.

When you behave recklessly, it might be said that you are kicking over the traces. The 'traces' in this case are the leather straps which connect the collar of a draught-horse to the cross-bar at the front of a plough. When the horse tries to break free and gets a leg over the traces, it can kick out dangerously.

These are just some of the many whacky phrases we throw into our conversation. What on earth do people who are learning English as a second language make of these expressions, I wonder? 

Have you ever been stumped by a phrase - or wondered about where one came from?

Happy Puzzling!

Christine Lovatt



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41 Responses to

Strange phrases

pepsimax said:
April 10, 2013 at 6:29 AM

UK as a child in the 50's, hearing " any old road up" in between the latest news/gossip topics being shared with adult female family members.Think it's the equivalent of todays " anyway"? Source I have no idea, it's a strange one

luddite said:
April 16, 2013 at 10:54 AM

Because, puzzlefun, a blind horse can't detect either wink or nod.

luddite said:
April 16, 2013 at 10:56 AM

I like my barber's expression, used at the end of each shearing "It'd look good to a blind man on a galloping horse."

hoova said:
April 16, 2013 at 12:04 PM

to chuck a wobbly

hoova said:
April 16, 2013 at 12:04 PM

fair suck of the sauce bottle

Yobro said:
April 16, 2013 at 12:59 PM

My Grandma had hundreds of these sayings which as a child I "could not make head or tails of". One which has always confounded me was when giving me some hot food to eat she would say "Don't burn your mouth eating a cold potato". Has anyone heard this one before? What possible relevance is contained I wonder?

April 16, 2013 at 7:45 PM

"Bucket list" bewildered me a couple of years ago. Well, having the Internet... I wonder if the phrase existed before the movie - The Bucket List (2007) with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. In Russian translation the movie's title is more verbose (and less funny): "Пока не сыграл в ящик" - "Till one kicked the bucket".

April 16, 2013 at 8:52 PM

Learning a foreign language, you quite often notice that not only phrases but just simple words (sounds!) can be confusing when, say, specially pronounced in specific circumstances. When I first started working as an Russian/ English interpreter-translator, my task was to provide commmunication for a group of specialists from the U.K., namely: an Englishman, a Scot, and an Irishman. I couldn't have imagined the worst nightmare... Every morning we went by car to the factory for them to help Russian construction workers. I perfectly understood what the Englishman said but was absolutely perplexed when talking to the other two guys (or merely listening to). The first word from the Scotsman when we came up to some welding machines was "sex?". I was petrified and couldn't utter a word. He then repeated it twice, waited for my reaction, and having had none of it, showed me six of his fingers. I wonder what his thoughts were at that moment, kind of "what a dumb interpreter we have managed to get". Off course, it was "six" (a very wide sound [i]) - since there were only six welding machines for some purpose. My misfortunes lasted for several months until at last I learnt to understand the Scotsman. It was even worse with the Irishman: I could only breethe freely when another Irishman came to Russia and joined our group - it turned that although they lived not far from each other in Northern Ireland, at first they had difficulties in understanding each other. As for the British sense of humour, I enjoyed lots of it when working with the guys. Once we were invited to the factory to commission some production line. Sure, there had been some concrete work done in the last minute. The concrete was fresh, too fresh for Bill the Englishnam to step knee-deep right into the ditch. Everybody around was dumbfounded waiting for some swear words or something like that. Trying to take the strain off, I asked Bill if he felt like being baptized. "No, circumcised!", he said laughing his heart out. It made everybody's day or two.

lucilleaa said:
April 17, 2013 at 5:32 AM

fun comments

April 17, 2013 at 6:25 AM

Topsytoo: that's fascinating abt "codswallop". Have seen Henry VIII portrayed with a massive codpiece. One suspects that the noble art of stuffing codpieces is carried on today by men padding out their "budgie smugglers".

lucilleaa said:
April 22, 2013 at 6:45 AM

hold your horses....It comes from the circus.... When the elephants would parade through the town on their way to the fairgrounds, they would tell people at intersections to "hold their horses" so they didn't get spooked and start a riot.