River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Red Herrings & White Elephants

May 2005

Some more well known phrases and sayings explained

Dickens to Pay is used as a threat: "If you do that again there will be the Dickens to pay." Charles Dickens wasn't a frightening character so as a threat it seems mild to say the least. But the 19th - century novelist has nothing to do with it. As long ago as the 16th century the word "Devil" was, in fact, "Devilkin" and "having the devilkin to pay" meant a passage straight to Hell for one's misdemeanour. Devilkin was usually pronounced "Dickens", or at least it was in 1601 when William Shakespeare included the line "I cannot tell what the Dickens his name was" in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor - more than 200 years before Dickens was born.

As Sure as Eggs Is Eggs is used to describe absolute certainty about something. In fact, it is a simple miss-quote which has passed into common usage. In formal logic and mathematics the formula "x is x" is used to describe complete certainty. It is unclear how or when "x I x" became "eggs is eggs" but it is known that Charles Dickens used the phrase "eggs is eggs" in The Pickwick Papers , published in 1837. Maybe Dickens was joking, or playing with words, or possibly it was a simple mistake that proved amusing enough to be left unchanged.

At One Fell Swoop is used to indicate "in a single movement" or all at the same time, and conjures up an image of a bird of prey swooping down on its target. It is one of Shakespeare's creations. In the Bard's 1606 play Macbeth , the character Macduff, on learning his wife and children have all been killed, cries out, "What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam, at one fell swoop?" The word "fell" has been used since then to mean "evil" or "deadly".

Sending someone off with a Flea In The Ear implies they have been told off, and in no uncertain terms. The analogy is that of a dog with a flea in its ear, running around in distress shaking its head. The phrase has been used since 1578 when the popular Elizabethan author John Lyly (Lillie or Lylie) published Euphues, Or The Anatomy Of Wit. In it he included the line -"Ferardo..whispering Philautus in his eare (who stoode as though he had a flea in his eare), desired him to kepe silence", as he described a scene where the lord of the manor rebuked a servant.

Ignorance Is Bliss is used to suggest that lack of knowledge equals lack of concern. Originally the phrase alluded to the innocence of youth described in 1747 by Thomas Gray in his poem "Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College" in the lines "Thought would destroy their paradise/ No more where ignorance is bliss / Tis folly to be wise." The context Gray uses for the word ignorance is one of limited knowledge rather than the impoliteness or arrogance the word can be associated with.

Taken from Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack

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