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Creative writer who often procrastinates with history and English language. I’ll never use a semi-colon and you can’t make me.
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. That’s right, you heard me — Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

English is a slippery little devil, isn’t it? On the surface, it appears so simple, yet as a language, it contains so many exceptions, so many variations, so many contradictions, and so many gosh-darn words that mean the same gosh-darn thing.

On one hand we have social media — the veritable Wild West where anything goes and no one is safe, and on the other we have language tools like Grammarly which will not rest until all humanity is sucked out of it. Two extremes, and as is usually the case these days, no middle ground.

As a native speaker…

Wikipedia Commons — edited by the author

“When pigs fly”, or “pigs might fly” if you prefer, is a way of saying something will never happen, akin to “when hell freezes over”.

It is what we call a Adynaton: an exaggerated/hyperbolic figure of speech taken to such lengths as to suggest a complete impossibility. This is not a rare or unlikely thing, but a purposely absurd idea usually used sarcastically or ironically in response to someone or something.

For example, when your slacker roommate tells you they are going to start looking for a job and will be good for rent this month, you might reply, “yeah…

Photo by Diego Passadori on Unsplash

“Hey ma,” Tom shouted into the kitchen from outside. “How long till supper’s up ma? We’s getting awful hungry.”

“Oh, a few hours yet Tom,” a voice returned. A large woman appeared from behind the kitchen door, wearing a stained apron and dripping sweat in to a pot she was stirring. “Tells ya what we needs though Tom, we needs some sugar. Grocery’s out of it this morning. To tell ya the truth its bin out of it for a while. No shipment comin’ in from the city, they reckon, hasn’t bin none a few months now.”

“Them cats jes’…

Wikipedia Commons, credit: Marcus Quagmire— edited by author

There are multiple variations of this one, but the gist goes, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”, essentially meaning you can’t have both things: there are two options and you must choose one.

People often have a problem with this expression because they take it literally: “why the hell can’t I have my cake and eat it too? Why make it in the first place?” This is a misunderstanding of what the expression means, not helped by the unclear word order. …

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To “spill the beans” is not a literal invitation for you to throw a tin of baked beans on the floor. That would be stupid. And would cause a large mess. And it would achieve precisely nothing.

No, to “spill the beans” is to divulge secret information that you probably shouldn’t. For example, if you are in work gossiping by the water cooler and you just overheard that Sharon is getting a promotion and an office next door to the manager, who you’ve long suspected of having an affair with, then to tell your colleagues is to “spill the beans”.

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To fill one’s boots is to take as much of something as you want, such as when dinner is served at an all you can eat buffet. You’d ‘fill your boots’ (often said as ‘fill yer boots’) and take as much as you want — help yourself — don’t hold back, and so on. Basically, it is both a phrase of encouragement and an invitation to over indulge.

But others say this phrase actually refers to getting a fright or being so filled with fear that you, well, wet yourself (or more), and fill your boots that way. …

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Every dog has his day, in other words, everyone will get a chance eventually.

Even the most unfortunate will get a bit of luck at some point.

And even the most oppressed will have their chance to get revenge some day.

Wholesome, but life doesn’t always work that way, does it? An expression used for positive encouragement more than anything else, “every dog has his day” (and other, similar variations) has existed for a lot longer than you may think.

Dog days are never over

The history of this expression highlights how long humans have kept dogs as pets and been fascinated by them. Taking…

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Okay, so this one is going to be part etymology and part entomology.

Firstly, saying something or someone is “the bee’s knees” is saying that thing is excellent, top notch, really cool, and so on.

The history of the expression is, like most idioms in the English language, confusing, uncertain, and utter nonsense. But let’s get one pressing matter out of the way first…

Do bees even have knees?

Well, they aren’t called knees, but in terms of joints in the legs, bees have quite a few of them. All insects have six sections to their legs, each connected by a joint: the coxa, trochanter…

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To say something happens “once in a blue moon” is to say it is very rare. Your husband doing the dishes, for example. But like many expressions in the English language, this one’s meaning has got muddied along the way.

It dates back some 400 years, but back then, it would have been akin to a modern day “when pigs fly”: a nonsensical thing that will never happen. Like your husband cooking dinner.

The earliest recorded example comes from 1528, in an anti-clerical pamphlet by William Roy and Jerome Barlow (complete with Old English spellings):

O churche men are wyly…

Russian serfs hearing of their freedom on at the proclamation of the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861, painting by Boris Kustodiev, 1907 — (public domain)

Until serfdom was abolished, to be a peasant in Russia was to be a serf: to work the land for the profit of a master, with no chance of freedom. Unlike a slave, a serf is technically tied to the land, only to be traded or sold when a landowner changes, but in practice, there was little difference between the two.

Russian serfs were often policed, whipped, executed, governed and controlled much like any slave, bowing to a master, marrying only with their approval, and having children knowing their fate would also be a life of servitude and toil for…

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