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WHAT THE IDIOMS MEAN

RED HERRINGS AND WHITE ELEPHANTS
BY ALBERT JACK,
Metro, £9.99

English is a language rich in idiomatic expressions. To somebody new to the language, many of these expressions are bewildering. Why say, it is raining cats and dogs when every one knows that it in literal terms is utterly untrue. Why say, some one spoke off the cuff' There are innumerable such phrases which are in use but whose origins are unknown and obscure. Albert Jack in this concise book traces the origins and meanings of some of these phrases and idioms.

Some of the explanations are complicated or there exists more than one explanation. Raining cats and dogs could go back to the time when it really rained frogs who had been taken up in the air by a gale. Rhyming Cockney slang replaced frogs with cats and dogs. But there is also the ancient nautical myth which led sailors to believe that cats and dogs had some sort of influence over storms. The cats brought the rain and the dogs caused the gales. It was Jonathan Swift who first used the phrase in 1738 in his A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation.

Off the cuff goes back to Victorian times when stiff, detachable cuffs were worn by men. Politicians wanted to convey the impression that they were speaking spontaneously and did not carry notes. They wrote down the points they wanted to make on their cuffs and referred to them rather discreetly.

If one is bankrupt, one is in Queer Street. This originates from the word query which tradesmen and merchants would write against the names of persons who were late in paying. Another theory relates it to Carey Street off Chancery Lane in London which housed the bankruptcy courts.

To continue to mind one's qs: the phrase queer the pitch is often taken to come from the world of cricket. It actually comes from the market place. During the 18th and 19th centuries, traders began calling the area set aside for their barrows and stalls a pitch. Queer was always the slang for something that was wrong or worthless. The phrase refers to rival traders trying to spoil each other's trade. Rendering a rival stall worthless came to be called as queering the pitch. Later in the 19th century, actors began using the phrase when other cast members stole the audience's attention during a scene.

In today's parlance, given the sack has become synonymous with being fired. But the original meanings are very different. In earlier times, artisans tramped from place to place carrying their tools in a sack. This sack was kept with their employer and returned to the artisan when the job was done. To be given the sack was to be given the means to carry the tools to another employer. An artisan was fired when he was caught breaking rules; his tools were then burned so that he would not be able to work elsewhere.

Many other idioms are thus explained by Jack in a very matter of fact and non-pedantic way. There is no need to take any of the explanations with a pinch of salt. Keep a copy of the book handy and if an expression mystifies you, look up the book, and Bob's your uncle you will know the meaning.

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