Rub the Wrong Way

by Joanne Mason on April 1, 2013

GuntherOver Easter dessert yesterday, my brother, sister-in-law and I started talking about idioms.  Their cat, Gunther (in the photo), sat contentedly on the arm of the chair while Ellen patted him.

Suddenly, she reversed her hand’s direction, so that Gunther’s fur started to stand up on end.  “Hey, Gunther,” she joked.  “I hope I’m not rubbing you the wrong way!”

In other words, she hoped she wasn’t annoying him.  When people (or things) rub you the wrong way, they irritate you.

Example 1

Marion seems to be a capable manager, but her gruff personality really rubs me the wrong way. 

Example 2

The sportscaster’s comments rubbed me the wrong way. The losing team did make mistakes, but they had a good season overall.  He could have been more gracious about it. 

I found a couple of possible origins for rub the wrong way, but Ellen’s joke seems to be the most common.  The OED lists the phrase “with reference to stroking a cat against the lie of its fur” and notes that Thomas Hood, a nineteenth-century English poet and humorist, used it as early as 1834 in Tylney Hall.  And Richard Spears suggests that rub someone the wrong way stems from the original phrase rub someone’s fur the wrong way.

But Robert Hendrickson offers us another possibility.  Some believe that rub the wrong way comes from the practice of “wet-rubbing” unfinished floors during the Elizabethan era:

Oak floors that servants mopped against the grain became streaked, such carelessness giving rise to these words for the inept handling of people as well as floors.

Hendrickson also points out that there’s not much evidence to support this origin. He adds that the phrase was first recorded in 1862 and that its true origin is unknown.

What do you think about the origin?  Has someone or something every rubbed you the wrong way?  What did you do about it?


High and Dry

by Joanne Mason on January 28, 2013

hgih and dryI always enjoy when readers suggest idioms to me. Laurie wanted to know about high and dry.

If you’ve been left high and dry, you’ve been stranded or abandoned.

Example 1

After their argument, Anton left his girlfriend high and dry at the party. She had no ride home and had to call a cab.

Example 2

The manager of our store quit abruptly, without any notice. She just left us high and dry as we were starting the busy summer season.

The phrase high and dry has nautical roots, referring to ships that had run aground, unable to sail. According to Christine Ammer’s Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches, the term could also refer to ships in dry dock, where they were being repaired. Merriam-Webster places the first known use of high and dry in 1750. However, Ammer notes that the phrase started taking on its figurative sense in the late 1800s, becoming the idiom we know today.

By the way, the phrase high and dry always makes me think of this Radiohead song by the same name. And the video takes place in a greasy spoon – another idiom we’ve discussed here!

Have you ever been left high and dry?  What happened?

Image courtesy of


Busman’s Holiday

by Joanne Mason on January 14, 2013

Josh busman's holidayNot long ago, my friend Josh (seen here) sent this photo of himself in front of a casino in Las Vegas, where he was vacationing. He also added the caption “busman’s holiday.” Why? Because he works at a casino on the East Coast.

When you take a busman’s holiday, you spend your free time doing something that you normally do for work (or something similar).

Example 1

We enjoyed our behind-the-scenes tour of the airport. But for my uncle, a pilot, it was a busman’s holiday.

Example 2

Rachel, a shopping mall personnel manager, didn’t enjoy her visit to the Mall of America. After all, it was a busman’s holiday.  

According to The Word Detective Evan Morris, one popular explanation of the term comes from 19th century London. In order to ensure the well-being of their horses, drivers of horse-drawn buses would spend their days off riding their own bus, making sure the substitute driver was responsible with the animals.

However, Morris doesn’t agree.

Neither does Robert Hendrickson. In his Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, he notes that the term busman’s holiday wasn’t recorded until 1921 and was probably in use for at least ten years before that. The timing just doesn’t seem to jibe with 19th century London and, Hendrickson says, the story can’t be authenticated, leaving the idiom in the “origin unknown” category.

So where might busman’s holiday have come from?

Morris offers this explanation:

Well, I don’t believe that it was “busman’s” in the first place, or that it had to do with buses at all.

I think that the phrase was originally “buzman’s holiday.” A “buzman” or “buzzman” in 19th century British criminal slang was a pickpocket, and to “buzz” was to pick someone’s pocket. The word came from the common practice of two pickpockets working as a team, one of whom would “buzz the mark,” or engage the victim in conversation, while the other picked his pocket. The underworld argot of that time contained a wide range of “buz” words synonymous with “buzman,” among them “buznapper” (from “nap” meaning “to snatch”), “buzbloke,” and “buzcove.” Charles Dickens depicted a “buznapper’s academy,” or pickpockets’ training school, in his “Oliver Twist,” run by the dastardly Fagin.

Now the question is, “When is a pickpocket’s holiday? When is he off-duty, not cruising for a score?” Simply put, never. Pickpockets are always working to some extent, and I think that’s the point of “buzman’s holiday.” I think the phrase probably arose as a sardonic comment on the voracity of criminals, and gradually spread as a metaphor for anyone who seemed unable to “put down his tools.” Only when the phrase reached the stratum of polite society where “buzmen” were unknown did the heart-warming story of “busmen” arise from an attempt to explain the origins of the phrase.

What do you think? And have you ever taken a busman’s holiday? What was it like?


Bull in a China Shop

by Joanne Mason on December 24, 2012

Take a look at this guy. Now imagine him in a china shop, surrounded by crystal wine glasses and fine china teacups. Do you think the merchandise would survive?

Someone who is a bull in a china shop is awkward, clumsy, and uncoordinated, with a tendency to disrupt things.

Example 1

I can’t take Greg to the fancy dinner party at my boss’s house. He’s like a bull in a china shop. He’ll ruin everything! 

Example 2

Gloria was crazy to bring her toddler to the Macy’s housewares department. He’s a bull in a china shop and broke several pieces of Waterford crystal. She had to pay over $200 for the damage he caused.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this phrase’s first appearance was in 1834, when Captain Frederick Marryat, “the father of nautical fiction” used it in his book Jacob Faithful.  Michael Quinion of World Wide Words found a reference to an 1812 London theatrical production called Bull in a China Shop.

The origin of this phrase seems straightforward enough.  If you imagine a bull running around a china shop, you probably imagine a path of destruction. However, when the Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters” put the phrase to the test, their results were quite surprising!

What do you think? Do you know of any similar phrases in other languages?

(Bull photo by Just a Prairie Boy via Flickr)



Please Vote for About English Idioms!

by Joanne Mason on December 22, 2012

I’m excited and honored to announce that About English Idioms has been nominated for a Macmillan Dictionary Love English Award!  This award goes to the best blog about the English language.  (There is a category for best website, too.)

May I ask for your vote?  It’s easy to do – just click here, scroll down to About English Idioms, and click “vote.”  You don’t need to give out any personal information.  Macmillan allows one vote per IP address. Voting is open until January 21. Winners will be announced on January 22.

In the meantime,  please feel free to tell me what I can do to make About English Idioms a better blog.  Are there certain idioms and phrases you’d like to know more about?  Would you like to see the blog expand its focus beyond idioms?

I do plan to post more regularly in the new year and I’m looking forward to some great conversations about language!

Thank you very much!



Broken Record

by Joanne Mason on December 4, 2012

Around four this morning, my cat began her request for an early breakfast.





“Kitty,” I told her.  “You’re sounding like a broken record!”

When someone sounds like a broken record, he or she repeats things over and over.

Example 1

Whenever my Mom and I went to the store when I was little, she’d say, “Look with your eyes, not with your hands” like a broken record.  

Example 2

We know Misha is excited about her upcoming wedding, but she’s told us every detail of the reception menu a hundred times! She’s a broken record!

My favorite example of broken record, however, is in this Simpsons clip. Bart and Lisa really want to go to a water park called Mount Splashmore:

My brother is a vinyl record enthusiast, so I know the origin of this phrase well. If our records were scratched, or if there was dust in the groove, the needle of the record player would skip – sometimes landing in the same spot, causing short snippets of music to repeat and repeat and repeat. The problem could sometimes be fixed by placing a nickel on top of the needle, but if the nickel fell, we’d end up damaging the record more.

I find it funny that after many years of listening to music on CD, I still remember where all my old records used to skip. “Baby You’re a Rich Man” on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was full of skips. And I still feel nostalgia for my first record player, a plastic suitcase model, seen here with one of my childhood cats.

Nostalgia aside, I do wonder how long broken record will be a common phrase, in this age of CDs and MP3s. What do you think?

(Carton of records photo by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr.)


Talk Turkey

by Joanne Mason on November 19, 2012

With Thanksgiving approaching in the U.S. this week, a lot of Americans are talking about turkey. But are they talking turkey?

They might be. To talk turkey is to talk seriously, frankly, and directly.

Example 1

When the job interview started, we talked about the weather and last night’s baseball game. But soon, we were talking turkey and discussing the job requirements.

Example 2

I get impatient when Everett runs meetings. He jokes around for a half hour before we finally talk turkey. He wastes everyone’s time.

The story I’ve heard most about talk turkey involves a Native American and a white settler from the Colonial era who go hunting together and agree to equally share whatever they catch. They wind up with 4 crows (though in some versions they’re buzzards) and 4 turkeys. When the settler divides the birds, however, he gives crows to the Native American and keeps the turkeys for himself, saying, “You may take this crow and I will take this turkey.”

According to the story, the Native American then protests, “You talk all turkey for you. You never once talk turkey for me! Now I talk turkey to you.” And he takes his equal share. (This version of the story comes from Robert Hendrickson’s Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Fourth Edition.)

Whether this story is the true origin or not is a matter of debate. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first entry for it comes from 1824, several decades after the end of the Colonial Era. This entry refers back to the hunting story, suggesting that the phrase actually goes back farther than that.

The OED also notes that the phrase originally meant “to talk agreeably or affably, to say pleasant things.” Michael Quinion of World Wide Words suggests that this sense might have come from happy conversation at Thanksgiving dinner. Another possible explanation, Quinion writes, is this:

“It is also suggested that it arose because the first contacts between Native Americans and settlers often centred on the supply of wild turkeys, to the extent that Indians were said to have enquired whenever they met a colonist, ‘you come to talk turkey?’.”

He later adds,

“I plump for the prosaic Thanksgiving explanation, with a side bet on the turkey trading thesis.”

What do you think?

By the way, if you’re hungry for more food idioms, there are several posted here on About English Idioms:

small potatoes

worth one’s salt

comfort food

smart cookie, tough cookie (guest post by Jennifer Walker)

spill the beans



(Photo by flythebirdpath via Flickr)


Get Out of Dodge

by Joanne Mason on November 11, 2012

Reading a news story this morning, I came across an idiom I don’t see often anymore: get out of Dodge.

When you get out of Dodge, you leave a dangerous situation or place in a hurry. Or, you might tell someone to get out of Dodge when you want that person to leave.

The article from was about drug use among teenagers in western Massachusetts. Here’s the quote that caught my eye:

“We see people coming into our city all the time driving through our high-crime areas, looking to score either heroin or oxycodone,” said Springfield Police Sgt. John M. Delaney.

Sgt. Delaney later added:

“Heroin is so much cheaper now, and the purity level is at an all-time high. These kids can buy a $5 bag of heroin as opposed to $50 for a single oxycodone pill. Officers in the district know when somebody’s patrolling the area looking for drugs. We’ll pull them over and tell them to get out of Dodge because we don’t need any more crime victims.”

Dodge refers to Dodge City, Kansas, dubbed  “the wickedest little city in the west” during the 1870s and 1880s.   Here’s how the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau describes it:

“… during those early years, Dodge City also acquired it infamous stamp of lawlessness and gun-slinging. There was no local law enforcement and the military had no jurisdiction over the town. Buffalo hunters, railroad workers, drifters and soldiers scrapped and fought, leading to the shootings where men died with their boots on.

(Click here for more history from the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau. I like that the city’s slogan is “Get the Heck Into Dodge!” with the words “out of” crossed out in red. )

Does the description make you think of old-time American Western films and TV shows? It might – Dodge City was the inspiration for many depictions of the Old West, including the TV show that gave us the idiom, Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke entertained Americans on television for twenty years, from 1955 to 1975. And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it started all this talk about getting out of Dodge.  Here’s an example:

What I find most interesting about get out of Dodge is the TV context. I vaguely remember Gunsmoke, but was too young during its heyday to make that connection to get out of Dodge when I read it this morning. It makes me wonder if more recent idioms and phrases inspired by television shows – such as master of my domain from Seinfeld or on a break from Friends will stick around for long.

What TV-related idioms can you think of?

(Dodge City sign photo by heschong via Fickr)


Run Hot and Cold

by Joanne Mason on October 12, 2012

Photo by Marcin Wichary via Flickr

Tonight we’re expecting our first frost in this part of New England, which means the temperatures are expected to go below freezing. It seems that fall is finally here, which is welcome news to me after weeks of fluctuating weather. It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s cold…as my mother used to say, “The weather just can’t make up its mind.”

So that made me think of the idiom run hot and cold which means to fluctuate or be inconsistent.

Example 1

Our boss is always running hot and cold.  One day, he’ll compliment your work and the next day, he’ll be critical.  

Example 2

Nora’s having problems with her new boyfriend. He runs hot and cold. He gave her a beautiful flower arrangement for her birthday and then started a huge argument with her.

Robert Hendrickson points us in the direction of the ancient Greek fabulist Aesop for the origin of this one.  Among Aesop’s many famous fables is The Man and the Satyr, in which a man, lost in the woods on a bitter cold night, meets a satyr, who agrees to give him shelter. The man blows on his hands and when the satyr asks why, the man says he is warming them. Later, when the satyr gives him a warm meal, the man blows on his spoonful or porridge. Why? To cool it off, of course. With that, the satyr kicks him out, saying “I will have nought to do with a man who can blow hot and cold with the same breath.” (There are variations on the quote.  This one comes from this site.)

Retired University of Pittsburgh professor and folklore researchers D.L. Ashliman offers two additional stories similar to Aesop’s. The first comes from 15th century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, who gives us more to the story through poetry. The second is a folktale from Flanders, or northern Belgium. I enjoyed this version the most, since satyrs are described as “strange forest folk” and the story happened, apparently, “a very long time ago, in the days when fishes flew, and cats had wings.” The man who could blow hot and cold was also suspected of sorcery and told to practice his spells in the forest. (Click here to read all the stories, including Aesop’s.)

So why might this lead us to our present-day idiom? Here’s my thought: To the satyr, it seems that the ability to blow hot and cold was difficult to understand, inconsistent, and frustrating – just as someone who runs hot and cold is today.

What do you think?


Greasy Spoon

by Joanne Mason on October 5, 2012

photo by hellostanley via Flickr

Attending college on Long Island, my friends and I had no shortage of greasy spoons to choose from when we wanted good, cheap food.  My favorite meal was the American cheese omelet with white toast smothered in butter. If I was feeling rich, I’d add some fatty bacon to the mix. Yep, a good ‘ol plate of cholesterol!

I don’t eat like that anymore, but I do appreciate a good greasy spoon – a cheap restaurant.  Some say that greasy spoons are dirty and might make the city health inspector visit.  But I don’t think that’s always true.  In the U.S., your local greasy spoon might have a short-order cook, Formica tables, quick service, and cheap prices. Fine dining it’s not, but sometimes, that’s the appeal.

Example 1

I know that place is a greasy spoon, but it has the best coffee in town!

Example 2

Vince, Jeff, and I had amazing French toast at that greasy spoon by the train station.

Merriam-Webster says the first known use of greasy spoon was in 1902.  As far as I can tell, the origin comes from 2 angles.  First, the food served does tend to be pretty greasy.  Second, some greasy spoons have reputations for uncleanliness, meaning you might have to inspect your silverware before you use it.

Still, there’s often a love of – and nostalgia for – greasy spoons.  Here’s how Toronto blogger Rick McGinnis described them:

The best greasy spoons in Toronto are a tribute to a vanishing subspecies of eatery.  There used to be dozens to choose from – even hundreds – but retirement and health code violations have thinned the ranks in the last few years.  The menus are almost interchangeable, and prices vary by only a buck or two, so preference often comes down to a cook’s touch with the home fries, or notable breakfast acumen.

Check out his post The Best Greasy Spoons in Toronto for some recommendations and great photographs!

Where is your favorite greasy spoon?  What’s your favorite meal there?