As life changes so does the relevance (and acceptability) of expressions. So where do old cliches go to die? I can tell you…Alan Chapman’s website. It is actually a fun little resource and I’ve included quotables from his site previusly. Below are some that just sounded fun.
never wear a brown hat in Friesland – meaning the same as ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ (ie, don’t upset the locals by behaving contrary to their customs) – Friesland was a province of the Netherlands, where the custom was to wear several different types of headgear (knitted cap, silk scull-cap, a metal turban and a large bonnet – all at once!).
cat’s paw – person doing someone else’s dirty work – from Aesop’s fable of the monkey who uses the cat’s paw to remove roasted chestnuts from the hot ashes.
chatter-broth/scandal-broth – tea (the drink).
cow-lick – a (stubborn) quiff or tuft of hair on the forehead.
the devil’s tattoo – to drum one’s fingers on a table (‘tattoo’ meant originally a military drum beat, which was used to call soldiers back to barracks).
driving pigs – snoring – from the metaphor of taking grunting pigs to market.
German comb – using the fingers and thumb of one hand to roughly comb one’s hair – from the practice of German people who were much later than the French to adopt combs.
a head full of bees – being mad or very stupid.
keep your breath to cool your porridge – mind you own business.
kiss the hare’s foot – be late for or miss dinner (the old metaphor was based on the idea that the hare had run away and you’d only be able to kiss its footprint).
leaves without figs – empty words or promises.
pecksniff – a hypocrite.
shove the queer – attempt to pass counterfeit money (queer used to mean fake money).
scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings – desperate people do desperate things (people understood there was a needs hierarchy long before Maslow told us).
shoe a goose – engage in a fruitless task.
not got a shot in the locker – penniless – from the naval analogy of having no gunshot in the munition store.
parish oven – 1800s French slang for a bus – according to Brewer this is how the French slang expression ‘four banal’ translates, although the modern translation would be ‘common oven’ – either way it’s a wonderful expression).
stiff – (bought with) credit – also meant an I.O.U., from the ‘stiff’ rate of interest imposed by money-lenders. Buying something ‘stiff’ was buying on credit.
tap the admiral – to suck liquid from a container with a straw.
tapster – bar-maid.
touch bottom – learn the details of a bad predicament – a naval metaphor, as in a ship’s keel touching the sea-bed.