Some English Idioms

Over the barrel

Example:My boss had me over the barrel when told me that if I didn’t like the idea of working the night shift I could resign.

Usage: To have someone over the barrel. In this instance I couldn’t resign as the job market is very tough and I have a family to feed so I was at the mercy of my boss. Think of an example where some has had you over the barrel.

Origins: Not over a gun barrel as you might have thought but it origins are from medieval Britain where a drowning or drowned person was put face down across a large barrel to to try and clear their lungs of water. As the person was usually unconscious they were usually at the mercy of others

to determine their fate.

By and Large

Example: By and large the company follows the regulations laid down my the Government concerning carbon emissions.

Usage: used in place of ‘broadly speaking’ or ‘usually’.

Origins: From sailings ships – ‘by’ meant sailing close to the wind and ‘large’ sailing with the wind coming from the aft of the ship. A good sailing ship could sail by and large.

At a loose end.

Example: I was at a loose end without a dancing partner at the ball.

Usage: Describes a time when you have no defined purpose/there is nothing for you to do.

Origins: Sailors on sailing ships spotted by the Captain as having nothing to do would be assigned to check the ships riggings for loose ends.

Son of a Gun.

Example: Son of a Gun!

Usage: Used to express shock or disbelief about something.

Origins: When women were allowed to live on ships in the olden days there were often unwanted pregnancies. The women gave birth in an area usually between the midship gun and a canvas screen aboard the ship. Hence when the child was born and the father unknown they were termed as a son of a gun.

Spick and Span

Example: She kept her house spick and span.

Origins: This means to keep things neat and tidy. The origins are from when sailing ships where launched in the past, they still had wood shavings – ‘span’ and shiny nails and tacks called spicks gleaming on their decks.

A Square Meal

Example: I had one square meal a day

Usage: Used to imply that the meal was a hearty/filling one – usally dinner

Origins: From sailing ships where meals were stored on square trays. Sailors were usually served just one filling meal in the evening on their square food tray – hence the term square meal developed.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Example: It was cold enough today to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.

Usage: Used to imply that the weather is extremely cold.

Origins: It has nothing to do with a statue of a brass monkey as you migh be inclined to think. The term comes from the brass trays used to store canon balls in pyramid formation with 16 at the bottom of the stack. When the weather go very cold the brass monkey (I.e the tray) would contract faster that the iron canon balls it held and so force the canon balls to spill out. Hence the term cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.

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