Read an Excerpt
To Play Cat and Mouse With One
Everyone has seen the way a cat acts with a mouse that she has caught. The poor little animal, half dead with fright or injury, waits with beating heart until the cat has apparently forgotten it or gone to sleep, and then may get halfway to its hole or other place of safety, only to be pounced upon and again tossed around. Figuratively, then, when sweet and capricious Susan "plays cat and mouse" with lovesick Peter, she is by turns seemingly indifferent to him or mercilessly possessive if he dare cast an eye at another maid. She has him on a string. The expression came into popular use in England in 1913 during the suffragette agitation. Women, arrested for disturbing the peace, resorted to the hunger strike, thus endangering health. To get around such voluntary martyrdom Parliament passed an act called the "Prisoners' Temporary-Discharge-for-Ill-Health Act," which promptly became known as the "Cat-and-Mouse Act." Namely, it provided that a hunger striker could be released, but was subject to re-arrest to serve out the remainder of a sentence whenever danger to health was removed.
At the Eleventh Hour
With not a moment to spare; at the latest time possible; just under the wire. This is of Biblical origin, Matthew xx,1-16: "For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard ... And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. Hesaith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive." But at evening all received the same payment. Despite the protests of those who had "borne the burden and heat of the day," those who came at the eleventh hour received a penny, just as those who had come early in the morning.
A Tempest In A Teacup
Of course, the old Romans had neither teacup nor tea, but they did have a saying so like ours as to be usually translated in our wording: excitare fluctus in simpulo. The literal meaning is "to stir up a tempest in a small ladle"; hence, to storm about over trifles, to make much ado about nothing. In our literature the "teacup" analogy did not appear before 1872, but as long ago as 1678 small affairs were compared with great affairs as "but a storm in a cream bowl," and, in 1830, as "a storm in a wash-basin."
For Crying Out Loud
An ejaculation, usually indicating complaint or astonishment; as, "For crying out loud, why did you do a thing like that?" Many of the users of this expression would be shocked to learn that it is in the category known as a minced oath; that is, a substitute based on, but slightly differing from a profanity. The expression is a highschool adaptation of about twenty-five years' standing of the profane ejaculation, "for Christ's sake."
A Rift In the Lute
It is the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, to whom we are indebted for this saying, and he expressed its meaning in the lines from The Idylls of the King (Merlin and Vivien, 1970) in which it appeared:
Faith and unfaith can ne'er be equal powers:
Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all.
It is the little rift within the lute,
That by and by will make the music mute,
And ever widening slowly silence all.
A Hair of the Dog That Bit You
Ibis stems from the ancient medical maxim, Like cures like -- Similia similibus curantur. Thus, even in the Iliad we find the Greek belief that a wound caused by the spear of Achilles could be healed by an ointment containing rust from that same spear. And to thisday there are men and women who sincerely believe that the best cure from the bite of a dog is some of the hair from that dog applied to the wound. In England, they say, the hair should be burned before it is applied. But, generally speaking, when men get together, "a hair of the dog that bit you" means another little drink. If the conviviality of last night's sessions has resulted in a morning's hangover, the "hair" is supposed to be a pick-me-up, a little whisky to clear the head. This was the meaning among gentlemen four hundred years ago, as recorded in John Heywood's Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546): "I pray the leat me and my felow haue / A heare of the dog that bote us last night."
In the Dumps
Feeling blue; depressed; dejected; low in spirits. People felt this way and so expressed themselves four hundred years ago, though no one knew then (or now, for that matter) just what "dumps" meant. Sir Thomas More, in A Dialoge of Comforte against Tribulation (1534), has: "What heapes of heauynesse [heaviness], hathe of late fallen amonge vs alreadye, with whiche some of our poore familye bee fallen in suche dumpes."
To Strike While the Iron is Hot
To act at the most fitting moment; to seize the most favorable opportunity. It was, of course, the blacksmith who was originally so exhorted. If he failed to swing his hammer while the metal on the anvil was still glowing, nothing would do but to start up the forge again and reheat the iron. His time was lost; the opportunity for effective work had passed. Figurative use is very old. It is found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "The Tale of Melibeus," (1386): "Right so as whil that Iren is hoot men sholden smyte."Heavens to Betsy!. Copyright © by Charles E. Funk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.