Recently in the Idioms Category

More recombinant idioms

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The following bit from an old Dr Who episode popped into my head this morning:

Seventh Doctor: Time and tide melt the snowman.

Mel: Doctor, "wait for *no* man."

Doctor: So who's waiting?

I never actually saw the episode, but I liked the quote, though it may not be precisely accurate. So I went to check on the phrasing, and ended up finding some other Seventh Doctor-isms; I particularly liked “Fools rush in where horses fear to drink.”

Elliott has been calling this sort of thing a “recombinant idiom” for a long time. I only just learned, from the Wikipedia article about the Seventh Doctor, that they're also known as “dundrearyisms,” after a character from the play Our American Cousin, which I've never seen nor read.

While I'm here, here are a couple from Elliott from a long time ago that I never got around to posting.

The administration has the upper ground.

—Professor emeritus Nathan Glazer, in a 2003 New York Times article


That way, the public will be more secure that we're not trying to pull a fast one over their eyes.

—Moses Carey of the Orange County (NC) Board of County Commissioners, in a 2003 Chapel Hill News article


To say that the world is trying to destroy “the romance of depression,” and by doing so end the future of literature and art, is a load of crock.

—Liz Kuzemski of Greenfield, MA, in a letter to the editor of the Valley Advocate, Feb. 17-23, 2000.

And finally:

Bush's visit to the vehemently anti-Catholic Jones college is a wedge big enough to drive a candidacy through.

Newsweek, March 13, 2000, p. 34

There can be only one (or two)

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Heard an unintentionally funny line on the radio this morning:

"There's only one person who can answer this, and that's y'all."

Car Talk caller, 4 April 2010.

Of course, "y'all" can be singular in some dialects. But in this case it was clear that the caller was addressing two people, the two Car Talk guys. It seemed to me that there was even a slight hesitation before "y'all" as she realized what she was saying, but I may have read too much into it.

I don't remember for sure, but I don't think she had a Southern accent; I suspect she was using the Northerner version of "y'all," which I've been hearing more often in recent years as a disambiguating plural "you" (which is also how I use it).

It may well be that she thought of the Car Talk guys as interchangeable—I know I can't tell them apart. But I think there may've been something else going on as well:

I'm pretty sure I've heard a construction like "there's only one X, and it's Y" (with Y being a plural noun) before, may even have said it myself.

So it may be that "there's only one X" is a kind of idiom or semi-fixed phrase or exaggeration-for-effect that really just means "Y is very likely to be an X."

in the wind

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Just happened across a remarkably poetic phrase that I've never heard used this way before.

I was reading an article about a woman who stabbed an attacker; the woman fled the scene, and near the end of the article it notes:

The woman was still in the wind Thursday night, police said.

At first I thought that must be a typo of some sort. But a quick search finds some other occurrences, such as this headline from an unrelated article: "Shooting victim shows up at hospital, perp still in the wind."

Urbandictionary suggests that the term can mean various things, including "unable to be found" and "on the run."

The derivation seems obvious, but I do wonder (a) where and when the phrase was first used this way, and (b) why I've never encountered it before.

Another recombinant idiom

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From TechCrunch, December 3, 2009: "Don't shoot the gift horse that feeds you."

Recombinant idioms

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There was a good Frank Rich opinion piece in the New York Times a week ago on Sarah Palin.

But the reason I'm mentioning it here is not the topic or the quality but the clever reworkings of well-known phrases.

Which I'm now going to pick apart and over-explain, thereby killing their humor value, just 'cause I think they're particularly clever.


  • The column's title, repeated in the body of the column: "The Pit Bull in the China Shop." Palin having referred to herself (essentially) as a pit bull, plus the idiom "bull in a china shop."
  • "she will not stay in Wasilla now that she's seen 30 Rock": updating the old song lyric "How you gonna keep them down on the farm now that they've seen Paree?" with Palin's hometown and with the GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza—which in turn is both (a) synecdoche for New York, the entertainment industry, and the national spotlight, and (b) a sly reference to Tina Fey, who played Palin on SNL and stars in the TV show 30 Rock.
  • The third recombinant idiom that caught my attention isn't by Rich; it's a quote from a Matthew Continetti article about Palin: "You shall not crucify mankind upon the cross of Goldman Sachs," mixing the classic William Jennings Bryan "Cross of Gold speech" with today's financial travails.

go down a storm

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Hadn't encountered this idiom before; apparently it means about the same thing as "go over well." (And not at all the same thing as "go down the storm drain.")

I first saw it in the Telegraph: "Vladimir Putin's Poland war speech will go down a storm in Russia." A blog called "Experimental Linguistics" posted some cites back in 2004.

I'm guessing it's common in the UK.

foul play


It struck me the other day that "foul play" is an odd sort of euphemism for murder. "Play"? What kind of play?

The Phrase Finder says Shakespeare probably coined the phrase and used it to mean "unfair behavior." (A search at RhymeZone Shakespeare seems to confirm that that was basically what he meant by it.) That seems plausible enough; I can imagine someone taking this common phrase and sort of jokingly and understatingly using it to refer to murder.

Except that MW11 defines it as "violence; especially: murder" and dates it to the 15th century, at least a hundred years before Shakespeare. Then again, MW3 (unabridged) says "unfair, dishonest, or treacherous conduct or dealing; specifically: violence."

Also, MW11 notes that "play" can mean "swordplay."

Anyway, I'm left without an answer to my question. I'm specifically wondering when and how "foul play" came to refer specifically to murder, as in "he met with foul play" or "there was no evidence of foul play." It's a phrase I associate with murder mysteries and detective stories; could it have entered popular use in this context via Arthur Conan Doyle? Agatha Christie? I don't know.

I suppose it could have started with the line from Pericles: "She died by foul play." But now I'm just guessing. Anyone know for sure?


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The other night, Mary Anne noted that the sheets for the air mattress were in the dryer, and that once they were dry, I would have to make my own bed. "And then I'll have to lie in it!" I said.

Which wouldn't have been noteworthy in itself; a weak joke made in passing. But not long after that, Kavi finished her bath (in her little plastic baby bathtub, which the baby bathes in while the mini-tub sits inside the otherwise dry full-size bathtub), and Mary Anne picked her up to put her to bed, and I found myself dumping out the bathwater but not, of course, the baby.

Fulfilling two proverbs in ten minutes! A new record for me, I think.

Btw, an article in De Proverbio, the electronic journal of international proverb studies, notes that the baby/bathwater proverb comes from German, and didn't come into common use in English until the 20th century. (Or at least the 19th.)

off the dime


I've been mentioning a lot of British idioms and slang that I hadn't previously encountered; now here's an American one.

The compromise proposal [...] was introduced last night and "has moved this issue off the dime," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)[....]

--Washington Post, "Immigration Legislation Compromise Announced," by William Branigin and Jonathan Weisman, 6 April 2006

Don't think I've ever seen that before.'s idioms section says to "get off the dime" is to "Take action, especially following a time of indecision or delay." Claims it's from 1920s dance halls, though that sounds a little dubious to me.

shake of the whip

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I've heard "fair shake" before, but hadn't heard it connected to whips:

No film-maker ever got a better shake of the whip than I did.

--Robert Altman, quoted in a Guardian article about the Oscars, March 5, 2006.

See also fair shake of the whip in the idiom dictionary.

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