Page 1



Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins Linda & Roger Flavell


In This Book

In This Book We use idioms in our day-to-day lives but do we realise what we are actually saying. Idioms are a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. Many phrases that we use in the English language are classed as idioms which we may not realise originate from peculiar events and stories. I wanted to turn these poetic sayings into images that illustrate both the literal and lateral meaning.

Follow through this book and see if you can guess the idioms.

In this book you will notice there is one page which differs from the others. This page will appear to have another layer. Peel off this layer as it is a t-shirt transfer for you to use on the t-shirt provided.


I did not want to reveal the common phrases just yet, so the letter spacing here in the contents page is a clue to each idiom.

1 2 3 4

-- -- - ---- ------ ---- ------- ---- -- ------------- ---


-- ---- --- ---


-- -- ----- ------


-- --- ---------


---- ----


-- --- ---- -- --- -----


--- -------- ----

Benjamin Disraeli is credited with bringing this racing term to public attention. His novel The Young Duke (1831) contains a description of a horse race in which the two favourites cannot make the running while ‘a dark horse, which never had been thought of rushed past the grandstand in a sweeping triumph.’ In the competitive world of horseracing, owners sometimes like to conceal the potential of a promising young horse until it has been tried on the racecourse. A dark horse is one whose form has been withheld from public scrutiny in this way. By extension the phrase might simply be used to describe someone who has not yet had the opportunity to show what he can do. It is also applied to candidates for an election or for a job who are not

I congratulate you on falling in love with Rose. It makes me feel that I understand you so very much better. You have always been a bit of a dark horse.

well known but who might be well appointed. This particular use owes a lot to the election of James Knox Polk to the Presidency in the USA in 1844. More likely candidates for the Democratic nomination could not muster the required number of votes, so the compromise candidate, the relatively unknown dark horse Polk, came through. A few years later, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was a similar dark horse compromised candidate for the Republican Party.

DAVID GARNETT, Aspects of Love, 1955.


To Be A Dark Horse

Definition /

An unknown quantity, a person whose abilities are not yet known and tested.

Usage /

Used as a noun or adjectively.

Until 1971 the officers and men of the Royal Navy were entitled to a daily ration of rum. In 1740 Admiral Vernon, dubbed ‘Old Grog’ because of the grogram cloak he always wore, started to issue rum diluted with water, which the sailors called grog after him. Men who could not take their drink or perhaps drank others’ rations as well as their own would end up feeling groggy or ‘drunk’. Today the term could be used to describe someone suffering

The pheasants would be up in the trees by then, roosting, and they’d be starting to feel groggy, and they’d be wobbling and trying to keep their balance and soon every pheasant that had eaten one single raisin would be sitting target. COBUILD CORPUS.

the after-effects of a party the night before but is more likely to be used of someone who is generally unwell.

2 To Feel Groggy

Definition /

To feel dizzy, unsteady, shaky.

Usage /

Used adjectively.

Few people today would keep their life savings hidden under the mattress; a bank is generally reckoned to be a safer place. Similarly,





or institutions that we consider dependable. The first banks were in medieval Venice, then a prosperous center for world trade. They were no more than benches set up in main squares by men who both changed and lent money. Their benches would be laden with currencies

I can put this entire structure at your disposal for assistance purposes.’ ‘No, thank you. I prefer to bank on my own complete anonymity. It is the best weapon I have. COBUILD CORPUS. The Super-Pocket may at last accept the fact that you have been a good loser and give you a wintry smile. But don’t bank on it. COBUILD CORPUS.

from the different trading countries. The Italian word for bench or counter is banco. The English word ‘bank’ comes from this and here we have the origin of this phrase.

3 To Bank On Something

Definition /

To count or depend on something.

Usage /

I’m banking on ‌ is current but the negative phrase I wouldn’t bank on it is just as common. A banker is used in racing and gambling circles to mean a sure bet.

Adam’s ale is water, this being all that Adam drank in Eden. The phrase is thought to have been introduced by the Puritans. Hyamson refers to a work by Prynne entitled Sovereign Power of Parliament (1643) to support this theory.

A cup of cold Adam from the next purling brook. THOMAS BROWN, Works, 1760.

Adam’s ale, about the only gift that has descended undefiled from the Garden of Eden. EMERY A. STORRS, Adam’s Ale, 1875.

4 Adam’s Ale

Definition / Water.

Usage /

Literally and jocular.

Running races are started by a pistol being fired into the air. An athlete who, in anticipation, starts to run before the gun sounds is guilty of jumping the gun.

I am certainly not engaged. The divorce isn’t going to be very nice at all. Marriage is not on the cards – that would be jumping the gun. We haven’t talked about it. DAILY MAIL, September 12, 1991.

5 To Jump The Gun

Definition /

To be hasty in embarking upon a course of action.

Usage /


In the days of sailing-ships, if the wind unexpectedly whipped the huge sails back against the mast, the ship was taken aback, that is, its progress was abruptly halted. This could happen either through faulty steering or a swift change in the wind direction. The shock involved relates now to a person’s reaction when suddenly stopped short by a piece of news or a surprising event.

A short distance down the unfrequented lane, the Prime Minister’s car was suddenly held up by a band of masked men. The chauffeur, momentarily taken aback, jammed on the brakes. AGATHA CHRISTIE. Poirot Investigates, The Kidnapped Prime Minister, 1925. ‘I say, can I help? I’d like to.’ Willie was quite taken aback at being asked. MICHELLE MAGORIAN, Goodnight Mr Tom, 1981. He wasted no time with social niceties, asking her immediately how many times she had tried to commit suicide. She was taken aback, but her reply was equally forthright: ‘Four or five times.’ ANDREW MORTON, Diana: Her True Story, 1992.


To Be Taken Aback

Definition /

Shocked, surprised.

Usage /

Used as an adjective.

When calcium dioxide, or lime, is heated it gives off a glaring white light. Thomas Drummond, a British army engineer, used this discovery to help his map making in dismal weather conditions. The very visible limelight (the Drummond light of 1826) was used as a marker for measuring distances accurately. Scientists took up this invention, adapting it to produce powerful lights that were then used in film-projection, lighthouses and later in the theatre, rather like spotlights, to draw attention to the principal artiste on the stage. Someone standing in the lime light was very much the focus of the public attention. So powerful was the light that there were cases of

It’s difficult to grow up in the limelight and come out your own person, people don’t allow you to. EVENING STANDARD, December 2, 1991. Regular as clockwork, the mighty prune steps forward once a year for its brief moment in the limelight. All the year round it works wonders behind the scenes: National Prune Week, which begins on Monday, gives the nation its chance to say thank you. THE TIMES, January 1992.

people going blind through too great exposure to it. To steal the limelight suggests deliberately seizing the public attention, to the detriment usually of a rival, as may be the case in one of the quotations.

7 In The Limelight

Definition /

In the public eye, the centre of public attention.

Usage /

Used as a noun.

A sure way to find out whether a metal was pure gold was to test it with aquafortis, or nitric acid. Most metals are corroded away by the nitric acid but gold remains unaffected. Although the original acid test has been known for centuries, the phrase in its figurative use is only a hundred years old. If something survives the acid test it has been proved to be true beyond the shadow of a doubt.


The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will. WOODROW WILSON, Address, January 8, 1918.


8 The Acid Test

Definition /

A foolproof test for assessing the value of something.

Usage /

Bordering on a clichĂŠ.

It is a long-standing belief, dating back to Cicero, Horace and Livy, that wounds will not heal unless re-opened




application of salt was one way of doing this – at a cost of some pain. Today there is no implication of healing, just the imposition of discomfort. It is possible that the phrasal verb to rub it in is connected.

She sprinkles salt upon my wound and opens the sore afresh. SADI, Gulistan, c1258.

David Mellor: ‘I’m not one of those people who want to rub salt in the wounds but I did say last night that the bandwagon had become the tumbril. I’m not into personal vendettas – but I can’t see how he [Kinnock] can stay on.’ EVENING STANDARD, April 10, 1992.

9 To Rub Salt In The Wound

Definition /

Intentionally to increase someone’s pain, discomfort.

Usage /

Used as a verb.

The Gospel of Matthew records the parable of the labourers (Matthew 20:1-16). It tells of a householder who went out one morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He took men on at different times throughout the day right up to the eleventh hour. When the men were paid, however, the householder gave them all the same wage even though those hired at the eleventh hour had done only one hour’s work. By this illustration Jesus was saying that God accepts everyone who comes to him on equal terms, whether they have spent a lifetime

Sandybay had discovered, at the eleventh hour, that The Good Companions were offering it an unsually good show. Ten minutes before the performance began all the unreserved seats were filled and there were a number of people standing at each side and at the back. J. B. PRIESTLY, The Good Companions, 1929.

From the abstract the theories looked identical. Darwin ran the risk of being beaten at the eleventh hour. BBC 1, Timewatch, ‘Charles Darwin – Devil’s Chaplain’. October 2, 1991. obeying him or approach him just before death, at the eleventh hour, at the last possible moment.

10 The Eleventh Hour

Definition /

At the very last moment.

Usage /

Used as a noun.


Now Let’s Create

It is time to make your tee to spread idiom awareness.


Supplied for you in the box


Supplied for you in the box


The iron will heat the image which will transfer it onto the t-shirt



Place on a hard surface to cushion the tee.

1. Make sure your iron is set on maximum temperature, but you must remember NO STEAM.

4. Start ironing the image. Make sure all areas of the image receive the same amount of theat by moving the iron constantly in small circles and covering all areas, especially the edges. Apply firm and constant pressure to the image. Iron for 45-60 seconds

2. Cover the surface on which you are ironing with either a pillowcase or tea towel to give it a slight cushioning.


3. Place the t-shirt on the surface with the area onto with you are about to transfer facing up. Iron the t-shirt without the image to smooth out any creases. Then, place the transfer paper with the image printed face down onto the t-shirt. You should have the grid faced up at you.


The transfer should be completely stuck to the t-shirt. For a matt effect finish, peel off the backing paper straight away in one swift movement.

For a shiny finish, leave to cool down completely, then slowly remove the backing paper.

There you have your finished tee.

WASHING INSTRUCTIONS -For best results wash garment before wearing. -Turn garment inside out. -Wash garment separately (first time only). -Machine wash cold (do not dry clean). -Colour safe detergent. -No chlorine bleach. -Remove promptly from washer. Colours may bleed if left wet too long. If bleeding occurs, rewash immediately. -Tumble-dry low. TIP: Add towels to the load to improve drying. -Do not iron on the transferred image. If garment needs ironing, turn inside out or cover transfer with ironing paper (could use greaseproof paper) before ironing.

Illuminated Idioms