• Linguistics academics have revealed a definitive list of the 30 most obscure phrases in the British language
• List developed based on frequency of use, origin and intrigue
• The most obscure phrases originate from little-known historical facts and from the army
University linguistics lecturers have revealed a list of the 30 most obscure phrases in the English language.
Commissioned by Privilege insurance, Franz Andres Morrissey (Lecturer in Linguistics and Creative Writing, University of Bern) and Jürg Strässler (emeritus Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Zurich) spent a month examining the English language for its most bizarre phrases, that would likely make no sense to a fellow English speaker from across the pond, let alone a foreign speaker.
The list was developed by dividing British sayings according to their origins, from Biblical to literary, and assessing them for frequency of use, intrigue - how surreal or baffling their roots are, and misunderstanding - how often they are actually misunderstood even by native speakers.
Of the final list, the most (two in five) are historical and one sixth comes from Britain's rich army and navy history. A number (13 per cent) come from Britain's world-famous Cockney rhyming slang and from sports, whilst a tenth come from the bible, from euphemisms or are figurative. Just six per cent of the final list comes from literature and, of those, both are Shakespearean.
The academics also looked into the origins of the sayings - how they came about - and how they are used today.
1. Bite the bullet To have to do something very unpleasant. Wounded soldiers in WW1 being operated on without anaesthetic literally had to bite a bullet to deal with the pain
2. Fly by the seats of your pants To do something without a clear plan, to improvise. Used in a 1938 headline to describe Douglas Corrigan's 29 hour flight from Brooklyn to Dublin, which was meant to be to California. Corrigan had filed for a transatlantic flight two days earlier but it was rejected because his plane was not considered fit for the job. Upon landing in Dublin he claimed his compass had packed up…
3. Go doolally To go mad. After the Indian garrison town of Deolali where British soldiers waited, sometimes for months, to be taken back to Britain after their tour of duty. There was nothing to do and many may have been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
4. It's brass monkeys outside Freezing cold and miserable weather. 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'. A ship's cannon balls used to be stacked on a brass structure called a 'monkey'; the brass would contract in arctic temperatures and the cannon balls would fall off
5. Three sheets to the wind Very drunk and walking correspondingly unsteadily. 'Sheets' refers to the ropes with which a sail is fastened, two per sail. If out of four sheets, one was not properly fastened, the ship would become difficult to control and would be 'to the wind', moving as erratically as a drunk
6. Separate the wheat from the chaff To distinguish between quality and worthlessness. The phrase comes from Matthew 3:12 where John the Baptist describes the man to come after him: 'His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.' In the Old Testament the image of winnowing is also used in Psalm 1:4: '…the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.'
7. Skin of your teeth Barely managing to do something. Job describes his state (Job 19: 20): 'My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, / And I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.' The phrases suggests something so thin and elusive as to be insubstantial
8. Through the eye of a needle To undergo a near impossible process. From Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; and Luke 18:25. Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich person to get to heaven
9. Happy as a sand boy To be very happy indeed. In Bristol there were pubs where fine sand from sea caves was strewn on the ground to soak up spills. The lads who collected the sand were partially paid in drink and were consequently usually quite merry or happy
10. Sweet Fanny Adams Emphatically nothing at all. This can be seen as a euphemism with Fanny Adams standing for F. A.
Fanny Adams (8) was the victim in a 1867 murder case, cut into pieces and thrown into the River Wey. A broadside ballad about the murder referred to her as 'sweet'; a term British Naval slang later adopted to refer to tinned stew, apparently not very popular with the sailors
11. Up the duff/in the club To be pregnant. 'In the club' refers to The Pudding Club. Both, duff and pudding are euphemistic expressions for penis and crudely link intercourse and pregnancy
12. Butter up To flatter someone with the aim of getting them to be of assistance. A figurative saying to illustrate that someone is smothered in pleasantries
13. Kick the bucket To die. Popular understanding is that in a lynching someone would kick the bucket away from under the person about to be hanged. However, a 1570 English dictionary records the word 'bucket' as a synonym for 'beam' - animals for slaughter would be hung upside down from such a beam and would kick the bucket (or beam) in their struggle during slaughter
14. Storm in a teacup/tempest in a teapot A lot of trouble or argument over nothing of importance. The 'tempest' in a teacup or teapot is an image used in Roman philosopher Cicero's De Legibus in approximately 100 BC. 'Billows in a spoon'
15. Bob's your Uncle To achieve something with great ease. In 1886 PM Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (Lord Salisbury) surprisingly made Arthur Balfour Chief Secretary of Ireland; Balfour was 'Bob's' nephew…
16. Eat Humble Pie To submit to something below one's dignity, to admit one is wrong. Umbles, from Middle English, comes from Old French nombles meaning loin. It refers to offal, a meal for the poor
17. Mad as a hatter To be completely insane. In the 18th and 19th century mercury was used in felting - and hat making; the madness of hat makers was the result of mercury poisoning
18. Piss Poor To be extremely poor In ancient times, urine was used in tanneries to soak the animal hides. A way for very poor families to make a few pennies was to sell their urine
19. Kangaroo Court A fast, unfair legal procedure. 19th century American courts, especially in the Gold Rush, would skip procedures to assure quick sentencing. Australian prospectors, of which there were a considerable number, likened this to kangaroos hopping or skipping
20. Skeleton in the cupboard Something embarrassing to hide. Until the 1830s it was illegal to dissect human bodies, so grave-robbers and murderers supplied medical schools and doctors with bodies. These had to be hidden in case of raids. William Thackeray, satirical writer of Vanity Fair, used this phrase for the first time in print in 1845.
21. Carry your heart on your sleeve To be very open and transparent. In Othello Act 1 Scene 1, 64 Iago says "But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve…" meaning he would be exposed
22. It was a dickens of a job A very difficult job Shakespeare used this weakened form 'Dickens' for 'devil' or 'devilkin' in The Merry Wives of Windsor 'I cannot tell what the Dickens his name is' Act 3 Scene 2
23. Have a butchers To look at something Much Cockney Rhyming slang leaves out the word that actually rhymes to confuse the uninitiated. This goes back to 'butcher's hook', which rhymes with 'look'
24. Haven't seen you in donkey's years In a long time. The longevity of donkeys and the length of their ears
25. Taking the Mickey To make fun of someone. As so often in rhyming slang, the actual rhyming word, Mickey 'Bliss' is left out. Some sources claim he was a 1950s BBC radio personality, but Mr Bliss remains elusive
26. It's raining cats and dogs Raining very hard indeed. An instance of rhyming slang with frogs, after they were whipped into the air during a storm and came back down again with the rain (as testified to in historical accounts)
27. Horses for courses Different people suited to different things. Horses perform better on certain courses. A horse that does well on a damp course may not do so well on a dry course
28. Red herring Something misleading. To train young hunting dogs to follow a scent, the carcass of a cat or fox or, at a pinch, a smoked and salted herring (of a reddish colour) would be dragged along the ground. There is also the suggestion that it would have been used to see if the dogs would be put off the scent they were meant to follow
29. Win hands down To do something without a great effort. In horse racing, a jockey winning comfortably does not need to use a whip and can ride to the finishing lines with his 'hands down'
30. Point Blank Very close up and right on target. From the French 'point blanc', referring to the white circle at the centre of the target for archery or shooting practice. The meaning of being right on target was therefore the original meaning before it came to signify close up, from where it is easier to hit the 'point blanc'
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