Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
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Paint the town red
Meaning: Spend a wild night out, usually involving drinking.
Example: At the end of final exams college students have traditionally gone out to paint the town red. College students traditionally also do this at the throughout the semester.
Origin: This phrase originated with the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers used to wash the walls of a newly-conquered town or city with the blood of the vanquished. This was usually accomplished with a great degree of gusto, hence the term being applied to a great night on the town.

Alternative: In the 19th century, the section of town where brothels and saloons were located was known as the 'red light district." So a group of lusty cowhands out for a night on the town might well take it into their heads to make the whole town red.

Alternative: "Paint the town red" is a reference to the money spent in the process. The party goer ends up in the red paying for the celebration. Related phrase: "In the red".

Alternative: A joe-k that the resulting blood-shot eyes resulting from partying and drinking might actually color one's field of vision red.


Pan out
Meaning: To come to fruition.
Example: My lifelong dream of making my fortune by cornering the lint market just didn't pan out.
Origin: Early prospectors panned for gold. They would swirl a mix of soil and water around the pan. Because Gold is very dense, with a little skill the pan could be swirled at just the right speed to allow the gold to settle to the bottom of the pan, while the dirt and low-density particles would wash over the side.

This would continue until there was nothing left but gravel - and maybe a little speck of gold if it "panned out"!

Related phrase: "Flash in the pan".


Pap smear




Pardon my French
Meaning: Excuse my foul language.
Example: Pardon my French, but if the neighbours don't like the lovely pink colour I painted the house, they can kiss my derrière.
Origin: The French have been enemies of Britain for the past thousand years (on and off), and are even today thought of with some suspicion by a lot of British people.

Perhaps because of this, the British (a very polite society) have considered the French to be vulgar and rude. To say "pardon my French" is to say that you are about to behave as a Frenchman would (i.e. you are about to say something vulgar).

Other examples of the British perspective on the behavior of the French have also found there way into the English language.

French Kissing includes the tongues.

French Lessons is a euphamism for prostitution.


Pass the buck
Meaning: Blame someone else; avoid accepting responsibility by passing it off to someone else.
Example: In times of trouble, my old boss was quick to pass the buck. But when things went well, her mantra became "the buck stops here".
Origin: Some card games used a buckhorn knife marker called a buck. Players took turns acting as dealer with the buck marking the current dealer. When the buck was passed to the next player, the responsibility for dealing was also passed. The phrase "The buck stops here" was popularized by President Harry Truman.

A buck-slip is also a small piece of paper that is sometimes preprinted, or hand-written, and included the names of the people who were to receive a memo or report. It is a routing list.

In the days before copy machines and computers people typed one memo, with a carbon copy, then passed the one copy of the memo around to the people listed on the buck slip. Each person initialed next to their name on the buck slip and passed the memo on to the next person on the buck slip.

A tactic used to delay or delegate something was to pass the document on to the next person, without initialing the buck slip - pass the buck (slip). When Harry said the buck stopped here he meant he wasn't going to pass the responsibility along. Although the buck slip was a popular use of the term, that usage may have originated with the gambling usage.


Pass with flying colours
Meaning: To exceed expectations, to do better than expected.
Example: The B.C. motor vehicle test is tough, but my car passed with flying colours.
Origin: Colour(s) has numerous meanings. An early use of the word is flag, pennant, or badge.

"Passed with flying colours" comes from sailing ships that, when passing other ships at sea, would fly their colours (flags) if they wanted to be identified.

Alternative: A metaphor drawn from parades, which do not merely pass, but rather do so with flags raised, "with flying colours."

Related phrase: "Show your true colours".


Peeping Tom
Meaning: Original resolution that anyone who stirred abroad should be put to death.
Example: Tailor Tom became the first Peeping Tom and lost his eyes for looking at Lady Godiva.
Origin: Lady Godiva was a noblewoman who lived in Coventry, England in the eleventh century. Together with her husband, Leofric III, Earl of Mercia, Lady Godiva founded the monastery at Coventry in 1043.

Leofric quickly became active in public affairs, handling financial matters that arose as the town of Coventry grew around the monastery. The tax burden on the peasant populace also grew, as mandated by Leofric, and soon, Lady Godiva began her campaigning for a tax reduction.

Leofric agreed to the reduction on one condition. He would reduce the local taxes when his wife would ride naked through the market square of Coventry. Once Lady Godiva ensured that she truly had his permission to ride naked through the town, she announced she would do it.

Legend has it that Godiva sent advance word to the townspeople of Coventry, asking them to avert their eyes as she rode naked through the market. Out of respect for Godiva, all complied with her wishes. All except one tailor named Tom, who could not help but sneak a peek as she rode by. Immediately after viewing her, Tom was struck blind. From this story comes the phrase "Peeping Tom". Historians generally agree that this portion of the story was added on as an embellishment much later in the history than the actual event. There is historical evidence for details of the Lady Godiva story, including land and tax records of the time. Women have used the symbol of Lady Godiva to inspire their own demonstrations in modern times.


Pay through the nose
Meaning: To pay an exorbitant price for something.
Example: An autograph collector who collects autographs of kings and queens must pay through the nose for an original autograph.
Origin: Gamblers in the 17th century coined the expression to bleed a victim. “They will purposely lose some small sum at first, that they may engage him more freely to bleed as they call it,” a contemporary writer on card playing noted. He also observed that these same gamblers would always fix half a score packs of cards beforehand whenever they intended to bleed a dupe. Once the “coll” had paid through the nose, lost all his blood through the nose, he was “bled white,” weak and helpless, until he had nothing left to lose. These last expressions arose later but they clearly derive from the gambling term, which was used to describe extortion or blackmail at about the same time. The bloodletting that physicians and barbers commonly used to treat so many diverse illnesses suggested the expression to the gamblers. Bleeding patients not only made them pale, weak, and helpless but often killed them, as it did Lord Byron.

Thanks to 'Word And Phrase Origins', Robert Hendrickson.


Pidgin English
Meaning: A simplified language used to communicate between groups that do not have a language in common, in situations such as trade, or where the groups speak languages different from the language of the country in which they reside.
Origin: Pidgin English was originally developed by British traders in China, taking its name from the way the Chinese pronounced “business” (“bijin”). It combines English, Portuguese, German, Bengali, French, and Malayan. The Catholic Mission in New Guinea publishes a magazine in pidgin, Frend Belong Me (“My Friend”).


Pie in the sky
Meaning: An un-achievable dream, a fantasy.
Example: I'm waiting for the day I win the biggest ever Lotto 649 jackpot, but when I tell this to people they say it's pie in the sky.
Origin: Derived from a parody circulated in a Trade Union song book of a classic Ira Sankey hymn. The parody reads: "You will eat by and by/ In that glorious land in the sky / Work and pray, live and hay, / There will be pie in the sky by and by."

Mocking the belief that all our earthly sufferings will be rewarded in Heaven when we die.

Apparently our just reward is... pie!


Piece of cake
Meaning: An especially easy and pleasant task.
Example: On his 1st day of his MBA program, unprepared JJ made the mistake of volunteering to start off the first group discussion since he thought it would be a piece of cake.
Origin: In the mid 19th-century, dance contest contestants made up complex strutting movements usually with high steps, and the winner won a cake. The dance was called the cakewalk, and the expression "That takes the cake" came from it. A related expression is "Easy as pie."


Pig in a poke
Meaning: An offering that is foolishly accepted without being looked at first.
Example: I bought a used pickup truck, but it turned out to be a pig in poke because it burned oil.
Origin: A poke is defined as a bag or a pouch and is the origin of the word pocket - a small pouch.

At medieval markets, unscrupulous traders would display a pig for sale. However, the pig was always given to the customer in a bag, with strict instructions not to open the bag until they were some way away. The trader would hand the customer a bag containing something that wriggled, and it was only later that the buyer would find he'd been conned when he opened the bag to reveal that it contained a cat, not a pig.

The phrase refers to the failure to look inside the bag or poke.

First printed references: (A) Fraser's Magazine (1858) reprinted this advice to market traders: “When ye proffer the pigge open the poke.” from Richard Hilles' Common-place Book (1530); and (B) John Heywood in “Proverbes and Epigrammes”, 1555-60: “I will neuer bye the pyg in the poke: Thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke.”

Related phrase: “Cat's out of the bag” and “Let the cat out of the bag”.


Piss like a racehorse
Meaning: An urgent need to urinate.
Example: Stop the car at the next tree, I have to piss like a racehorse.
Origin: Horses, it turns out, don't always feel comfortable urinating just anywhere. Show horses and racehorses spend a great deal of time in their pens and come to feel safe and secure there. They don't like to urinate outside of those pens and in many cases won't.

In fact show and racehorses are frequently returned to their pens to allow them to urinate. Hence racehorses are often walking around outside of their pens with an urgent need to urinate.

Alternative: This phrase originated in the practice (currently illegal, I believe) of giving diuretics to racehorses. The horse would then urinate substantially and drop a few pounds in the process. Voila! A lighter, faster, somewhat dehydrated horse.


Meaning: A substance with no pharmacological effect, given to a patient to reinforce that patient's expectation to do well.
Example: The pills Joe took did something wonderful for him. Even though it might have been just the placebo effect, Joe was much more 'regular'.
Origin: “Placebo” was a treament given by Doctors in the 17th Century purely to please a patient. Later, with the advent of clinical trials, the word was adopted to describe the mock medication given to some patients in a controlled experiment, in order to ensure that the changes being observed in the main experiment are the result of the drug being tested, rather than the patient's belief in the medication. “Placebo effect” is now used to describe any positive outcome that is caused by a belief in something's effectiveness. “Placebo” is Latin for “I shall please.”




Play fast and loose
Meaning: Stretch the truth or meaning of words or rules; deceive or trifle with someone.
Origin: This phrase dates from the 16th Century - coming from a game called “fast and loose,” which was played at fairs. Operators rolled up a strap and left a loop hanging over the edge of a table. To win, a player had to catch the loop with a stick before the strap was unrolled. But they never won - cheating operators rolled it up in such a way that the feat was impossible.


Pleased as punch
Meaning: Delighted.
Example: Bryan Adams was pleased as punch to be invited to play for the Queen.
Origin: This expression is related to the puppet character Punch (of Punch and Judy fame), who derived enormous sadistic pleasure from his many evil deeds. The phrase was so popular that even Charles Dickens used it in his 1854 book, "Hard Times."


Poor as a Church mouse
Meaning: Extremely poor; impoverished; insolvent; poor but proud.
Example: The owner, 'tis said, was once poor as a churchmouse.
Origin: This 17th century expression is most likely derived from a tale which recounts the plight of a mouse that attempted to find food in a Church. Since most Churches of that time did not have kitchens, the proud mouse found it difficult to survive since its pickings were slim at best.


Pop goes the weasel
Origin: The old song, with every verse ending in “Pop goes the weasel,” is a tale of Victorian London working-class poverty. The Eagle of the lyrics was a famous pub (The City Road) which still exists. Pop means to pawn something for cash, while a weasel in cockney rhyming slang is a coat. After spending his money on rice and treacle, followed by a visit to the pub, the man in the song is forced to visit the pawnshop for more money - thus selling his belongings, or “Pop goes the weasel.”

Pop goes the Weasel

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.


Possession is nine points of the law
Meaning: Someone claiming an overwhelming advantage over an opponent; someone claiming that something in their possession actually belongs to them whether this is the case or not.
Example: Having found the wad of $5,000 cash on the street, Jethro thought that it was his - that possession is nine tenths of the law.
Origin: The original nine points of the Law were: (1) a lot of money; (2) a lot of patience; (3) a good cause; (4) a good lawyer; (5) a good counsel; (6) good witnesses; (7) a good jury; (8) a good judge; and (9) good luck.


Post operative


Pot calling the kettle black
Meaning: Someone who faults another for faults conspicuously his own.
Example: You think police should stop all those other terrible drivers? That's like the pot calling the kettle black!
Origin: This expression dates back to the 17th Century. In ancient times, pots as well as kettles would likely be blackened over the open cooking fires of the day.

Alternative: "The pot calling the kettle black: Said of someone accusing another of faults similar to those committed by the accuser. The allusion is to the old household in which the copper kettle would be kept polished, while the iron pot would remain black. The kettle's bright side would reflect the pot. The pot, seeing its reflection, would thus see black, which would appear to be on the side of the kettle. The pot could then accuse the kettle of a fault it did not have." Source: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1870, revised by Adrian Room (Millennium Edition)  Thanks to Jan Heirtzler.


Pot to piss in
Meaning: To have money or wealth.
Example: You want to have children! We can't afford them, we don't have a pot to piss in.
Origin: In medieval London, people did not have indoor plumbing. It was common to use a chamber pot as an indoor toilet. The chamber pot could then be dumped out a window into the street gutter below. A person who did not have a "pot to piss in" was poor indeed.

In medieval times the word "piss" was not considered at all vulgar. It was not until Victorian England that words such as piss were deemed vulgar. Even today phrases like "pot to piss in" and "Full of Piss and Vinegar" are somehow considered to be generally acceptable and only moderately crude.


Pretty kettle of fish
Meaning: There is a mess, problem or predicament.
Origin: A kiddle was a grille put across a stream to catch fish. It could become full of weeds and only a few fish; or the fish might have become damaged. In any case there was a pretty kiddle of fish.

Alternative: The kettle (cooking pot), was taken on picnics by Scottish gentry. Salmon were caught straight from the river and cooked on the bank side. Such an outing was known as a kettle of fish.


Pretty much
Meaning: Almost, nearly, approximately.
Example: Typewriters are pretty much obsolete now that computers are so popular.
Origin: ~ 1800. This adverbial use differs from the use of pretty for "considerable" use.


Pull out all the stops
Meaning: To make every effort, to use all advantages.
Example: You have been out of work for over a year. It is time for you to pull out all the stops and actually start applying for a few jobs.
Origin: This phrase comes from the pipe organs in churches and classical music. Each pipe has a "stop" that acts as a baffle that controls the amount of airflow. The volume of the organ can be adjusted by adding or removing the stops.

By pulling out all the stops, all pipes are playing at their loudest.


Pull the wool over one's eyes
Meaning: To try to deceive or trick someone.
Example: Someone tried to pull the wool over one's eyes by sending the Joe-kster a Canadian wool cap!
Origin: The actual source is unknown, and although this expression was first recorded in America (1839), it's thought to be of older, English origin. 'Wool' here is the hair of wigs. In the 19th century, the status of men was often indicated by the size of their wigs - hence our word 'bigwig' to indicate importance. Judges often wore these poor-fitting wigs, which frequently slipped over the eyes, and it may have been that a clever lawyer who tricked a judge bragged about his deception by saying that he pulled the wool over his eyes. Such 'bigwigs' were worth robbing. Street thugs would pull the wig down over the victims eyes in order to confuse him - the 'wool had been pulled over his eyes'.


Pull your chain
Meaning: To take advantage of someone in an unfair way to do something to annoy someone; to tease or needle someone just to get a reaction from them.
Example: The fox loved to pull his chain by stealing the farmer's rabbits and chickens.
Origin: This North American slang originated in the 1980s as an expression for someone who is trying to annoy or get a reaction from someone else. Feisty, formidable Charlotte Whitton, the former mayor of Ottawa, was introduced to the mayor of London, England. He was bedecked in all the medals and chains of his office, while she had only a flower in her lapel. "There was something fitting, about this, wasn’t there," the London mayor asked. "After all, what was Ottawa, a city of 600,000, compared to London, twelve million?" He leaned forward and said most haughtily, “If I sniff your rose, will you blush?” Charlotte replied, “And if I pull your chain, will you flush?”


Pull your finger out
Meaning: To hurry, to get a move on.
Origin: During the times of the Men'o'War, when a cannon was loaded, a small amount of powder was poured into the ignition hole near the base of the weapon. In order to keep the powder secure before firing, a crew member pushed one of their fingers into the hole. When the time came for ignition, the crewman was told to pull his finger out.


Pushing the envelope
Meaning: To approach or exceed known performance boundaries.
Example: Your performance at work is not exactly pushing the envelope.
Origin: This expression comes out of the U.S. Air Force test pilot program of the late 1940's.

The envelope refers to a plane's performance capabilities. The limits of the planes ability to fly at speeds and altitudes and under certain stresses define what is known as its performance envelope. It's an "envelope" in the sense that it contains the ranges of the plane's abilities.

"Pushing the envelope" originally meant flying an aircraft at, or even beyond, its known or recommended limits.


Put a sock in it
Meaning: Telling someone to be quiet.
Example: Your music is too loud - put a sock in it!
Origin: In the early days of sound reproduction and radio broadcasts, the ability to control the volume of sound coming out of the instruments was almost non-existent. Sound came out of large, uncontrollable horns. However, if a sock was stuffed into the mouth of the horn, then the volume was considerably reduced, hence the saying.


Put English on it
Meaning: To impart a spin to something in an effort to make it hard to control, usually a ball in sports like tennis.
Example: Your serve is dangerous when you put English on it.
Origin: "The English way" or "English" comes from the British game of Snooker. Snooker is a forerunner to the game of Billiards or pool. Similar to pool, Snooker uses cue sticks, balls, and a table however the table has no pockets.

A technique used in Snooker is to impart a spin to the ball to alter its travel.

Alternative: Snooker was based on billiards, and does not pre-date it. It is thought to have been invented by British Army officers serving in India in the 19th Century. The game of snooker is played on a table with pockets (as is English Billiards). See and Thanks to Jonathan Hartshorn, London, England.


Put in the clink
Meaning: To be sent to prison.
Example: OJ was not put in the clink.
Origin: "Clink" does not refer to rattling chains but, rather, the name of a specific London prison which, in turn, took its name from the Borough in which it was sited. This was The Liberty of Clink, a district of Southwark exempt from the jurisdiction of the City of London.


Put my two cents in
Meaning: To state one's opinion.
Example: If I can put my two cents in, maintenance on that Corvette will kill you.
Origin: "Put my two cents in" originates from the older "put my two bits in" and has its origin in the game of poker. When playing poker you have to make a small bet before the cards are dealt called an "ante" to begin play in that hand.

This phrase draws an analogy to the poker ante (two bits) and gains your entry into the conversation. Two bits means one quarter (currently the American twenty five cent piece). This comes from the older term "piece of eight".

Today we have coins minted in different denominations - nickel, dime, and quarter in the U.S. - but this was not always so. Gold and silver coins once served as currency, with the value of the coin equal to the value of the gold or silver contained in the coin. To obtain currency valued at less than a full gold coin, coins would be scored and split into pieces. This is how one would make change so to speak.

Coins could be split into halfs, quarters, and eighths. One eighth of a coin was called a "piece of eight" and also called a "bit". Two pieces of eight is equal to one quarter.; Hence "two bits" is a quarter. Hence "Smashed to bits" literally means to break something into eighths.


Put on your thinking cap
Meaning: Start to think seriously about how to solve a problem.
Example: Let me put my thinking cap on and see if I can come up with a solution.

In previous centuries it was customary for judges to put a cap on before sentencing criminals. Because judges were respected thinkers, it was referred to as a “thinking cap”.


Put the dampers on
Meaning: To express a lack of enthusiasm.
Origin: A damper is a part of a piano which presses on the strings and cuts out their sounds.


Put the hammer down
Meaning: Method of maintaining speed for truck drivers.
Origin: Freight haulers have most always been paid based on how much freight they carried and how far they transported it; hence, speed became a priority. In the early days of using trucks, they would often run at full throttle in rural areas. Since those early trucks didn't have 'luxuries' such as cruise control, drivers would literally place the head of a large hammer atop the accelerator so they could rest their leg during the long drive.  Thanks to Shelia Clark.


Put through the hoop
Meaning: Something done to a person when they're in trouble, or are to be punished.
Example: Ryan thought he'd be put through the hoop for calling his boss a kumquat.
Origin: This expression comes from the ancient marine custom of "to run the hoop" in which four or more half naked boys had their left hands tied to an iron hoop. Each had a length of rope, called a nettle, in the other hand. One of the boys was then hit with a cat o'nine tails by the bosun; that boy in turn hit the boy in front with his rope and so on. The lashes were at first quite gentle, but soon became heavy and in earnest. This "pastime" was anciently practised when a ship was becalmed.

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