Tag Archives: etymology

That’s a different kettle of fish

fish kettle

Photo credit: rosekentishkitchen.blogspot.com

Monday was a bank holiday in the UK and we benefited from some more time to spend together as a family. This also meant that we didn’t have to cram all the things into just two days and could do our grocery shopping on Monday. I went online to check opening hours of a local Waitrose (disclaimer: we don’t always shop in Waitrose, it’s more of a treat really) and while I was looking at a general information about the branch I noticed that you can borrow champagne flutes and… a fish kettle there! Now that was exciting. I googled “fish kettle” and realised it was an oval pan.

However, whenever I’ve heard an idiom “that’s a different kettle of fish” I always imagined a regular kettle (OK, perhaps not an electric one), and wondered how you were supposed to squeeze a fish in there and whether the tea would stink of fish afterwards. I should have known better!

The idiom means ‘to be completely different from something or someone else that has been talked about’ (Cambridge Dictionary). However, its origin – as is usually the case with idioms – is far from clear. You can check Michael Quinion’s website for more information.

Here are some examples of its usagethough:

  • Matthew Kneale had a well-deserved critical and commercial hit in 2000 with his Whitbread prize-winning novel “English Passengers”, about 19th-century Tasmania. His new collection of short stories is a completely different kettle of fish. It is resolutely up to the minute, with its quaint Italian villagers shopping at IKEA—and, with one or two exceptions, also middle-class and metropolitan (The Economist).
  • I do not really get inflamed at the thought of some busybody checking out my books, or looking at which clothes I have packed, although, in a straw poll of the office, it seems I am alone in this. But trying to log on to a computer or tablet is a very different kettle of fish (The Economist).
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To cobble together

to cobble together meaning

Photo credit: chocolateandzucchini.com

This exciting new phrased cropped up at today my Russian lesson (which goes to show that I don’t speak Russian all the time, which, perhaps, I should, but nevermind) in the context of teachers who sometimes ‘cobble together‘ textbooks for their course using different bits and pieces. That’s what I do because so far I haven’t found the book for teaching Russian, for better or for worse.

As you’ll see from the examples below, it’s an incredibly useful verb and there’re lots of things that lend themselves to cobbling together:

– He cobbled together a meal from leftovers in the fridge (MacMillan Dictionary).

– Even if an agreement is cobbled together it will not please everyone (Oxford Dictionary).

– Consumers who want to cobble together different subscriptions from HBO, Netflix and others may find it is not that much cheaper after paying for broadband (The Economist).

– When the overspend was officially announced, almost a year later, the Scottish government acted shocked and took a weekend to cobble together a rescue package despite knowing the full increase in costs (BBC).

However, when I heard this phrase, it made me think of a cobbler recipe I recently saw on Clotilde Dusoulier’s blog called Chocolate and Zucchini. And although some suggest that ‘cobblers get their names from the biscuits on top, which look like cobblestone streets’, the assumption that ‘perhaps it’s called a cobbler because you take whatever fruits you have on hand and cobble them together’ also makes perfect sense to me.

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Bob’s your uncle

bobs_your_uncle meaning

Photo credit: zazzle.co.uk

A few weeks ago my other half and I went to a medieval city of Wells, known for its impressive cathedral. This time we decided to go inside and explore the cathedral (not something we often do, since the entry to such places in the UK is by no means cheap). We were just in time for a guided tour, and even though I used to hate the idea of walking anywhere as a group, I started to realise that you learn much more this way. So in we went with our knowledgeable guide. Towards the end of the tour he used the phrase ‘… and Bob’s your uncle’, which at first puzzled me as I’ve never heard it before, but it seemed to mean something like ‘and here you go’.

Indeed, according to World Wide Words, ‘It’s used to show how simple it is to do something: “You put the plug in here, press that switch, and Bob’s your uncle!’

The origin of this phrase is, as usual, quite obscure, but you can find a detailed explanation on World Wide Words’ website and on Wikipedia.

I particularly like this bit: “It is sometimes elaborately phrased Robert is your mother’s brother or similar for comic effect. With his customary whimsical humour, P.G. Wodehouse (one of my favourite writers, by the way) extended it to “Robert’s your father’s nearest male relative”.

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Boxing day: what’s in a box?

boxing day origin

Photo credit: gardenofeaden.blogspot.co.uk

The other day my husband asked me whether I knew why Boxing day was called Boxing day and I had to admit that I didn’t. Somehow I never asked myself this question. So I went on a googling mission and found an article in Time that was quite helpful.

In fact, the origin of Boxing day is somewhat murky. One possible explanation is that around Christmas people were encouraged to donate money to the poor, putting them in alms boxes.  According to another popular version, the aristocracy distributed presents (boxes) to their servants, who ‘returned home, opened their boxes and had a second Christmas on what became known as Boxing Day.’

It’s impossible to say which one (if any) is correct and in any case, these days Boxing day is mostly known as the Day When the Sales Start.

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Binge-watching

binge-watching phrase origin visual thesaurus

Photo credit: blogue.us

When I subscribe to newsletters I always hope that they’ll make me cleverer and smarter. But what actually happens is that I usually get tired of them pretty quickly and sometimes I just delete them without reading. Not so with the newsletter from Visual Thesaurus, which is a brilliant software for linguists.

Today’s post was about ‘binge-watching‘, something I occasionally indulge in, I have to admit. Being not quite impartial to certain series, I find it difficult not to watch several episodes at a time, and that’s what binge-watching is.

This is a valuable addition to my I-didn’t-know-there-was-a-word-for-that-in-English-collection. There’s even a synonym for that in the article – ‘marathon-style watching‘.

The article on binge-watching by Ben Zimmer explores the origin of ‘binge’, and how it brought about binge-drinking, binge-eating and binge-watching.

Update: MacMillan Dictionary recently added a synonym – ‘to chainwatch‘.

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To go pear-shaped

to go pear-shaped meaning usage

Photo credit: Penelope Fewster (flickr)

Today I overheard a discussion of some refurbishment works that have gone ‘pear-shaped‘. I was delighted to learn a brand-new expression, but, come to think of it, I’ve definitely heard it before. All the more reason to explore it in greater detail!

To go pear-shaped means to become unsuccessful, I’d say it’s almost the same as ‘go awry’ (but sounds so much funnier).

As to its origin, as usual, there are several theories. One of them attributes the origin of the phrase to RAF slang – at some stage pilots they are encouraged to try to fly loops – very difficult to make perfectly circular; often the trainee pilot’s loops would go pear shaped (Phrases.org.uk).

Would you care for some pear-shaped examples?

– It is hard when you start out being too pally with your builders and then step back when everything starts to go pear-shaped (Sunday Times).

– A new American bail-out finally appears to be ready. The programme could potentially cost (if everything went utterly pear-shaped) between $1 trillion and $2 trillion (The Economist).

– The first episode more than lived up to expectations with some tense claustrophobic photography and fast-paced action; until the last five minutes, when I had a horrible sense that the whole show was about to go seriously pear-shaped (The Guardian).

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Barking mad

barking mad phrase origin and usage

Photo credit: curiousexpeditions.org

Not long ago I embarked upon reading Peter Ackroyd’s huge book London. The Autobiography and despite its somewhat lofty language it’s proving to be a good read. At some point I was even rewarded with a linguistic revelation about the origin of the phrase ”barking mad‘, which is now used informally to say that someone is totally crazy. 

According to Ackroyd (almost a pun!), it originates from ‘a refuge for the insane at Barking’, which presumably existed in this area of London in medieval times.

Not so fast…

Actually, Ackroyd’s suggestion is almost universally dismissed. For instance, Michael Quinion, the author of Port Out, Starboard Home: The Fascinating Stories We Tell About the words We Use writes that ‘the problem with Mr Ackroyd’s idea is that the evidence strongly suggests the term is nothing like so old as that’. He argues that the earliest reference dates back to 1965, not the middle ages.

Quinion thinks that ‘the idea behind the saying is most likely that the person referred to is so deranged that he or she barks like a dog, or resembles a mad dog, or one that howls at the full moon’.

This lack of agreement on the etymology doesn’t surprise me at all and it shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying some nice examples of how the phrase is used:

– But it is quite consistent with Santander in Britain being in rude health for it also to be little short of barking mad for Santander as group to be acquiring yet more assets and liabilities anywhere – including the UK – at a moment when Spain as an economy is an evolving and dangerous crisis (BBC).

– Kevin Geoghegan, who has been reporting from Cannes for the BBC News website, was among those impressed by Holy Motors. The film, he wrote in his reporter’s diary, is “utterly, barking, slap-me-on-the-face-with-a-wet-fish, mad” (BBC).

– Mr Wilders’s anti-immigrant party has nine seats in parliament, too few to affect the government’s fairly tolerant policy towards the country’s Muslim minority. But he has jabbed his finger into several sore spots. He has publicly questioned the loyalty of two cabinet members with dual nationality (ie, Turkish and Moroccan as well as Dutch). He called a third minister “barking mad” because of her liberal integration policies. And he has demanded a ban on immigration from Muslim countries (The Economist).

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