28th April 2014

The origin of phrases: Part four

We’ve studied the bee’s knees, got cold feet and painted the town red so far. Here are the origins of five more funny phrases…

Treat it with kid gloves

Meaning: Approaching a situation sensitively

Origin: Kid in this instance refers to a baby goat, rather than a human infant. Gloves made with the hide of a kid are very thin, very soft and very delicate, allowing the wearer to handle things sensitively. On the contrary, a ‘gloves off’ approach, comes from the idea of fighting bare fisted.

Catch 22

Meaning: A problem which has two, equally undesirable solutions

Origin: The name of a paradoxical rule described by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel of the same name.

One fell swoop

Meaning: To complete one or a number of things quickly, in one go

Origin: Another Shakespearean term, used for the first time in Macbeth by Macduff in response to hearing that his wife and children had been brutally murdered. The words were probably initially paired to mean a swift murder, from the ‘swoop’ of a bird of prey on its victim and the French word ‘fel’, meaning without mercy.

In the limelight

Meaning: Being the centre of attention

Origin: Limelight was quite simply the name for the type of lighting used in stage productions for years. Those acting in the play would be ‘in the limelight’ and therefore the centre of attention for the audience.

Swing into action

Meaning: React quickly to something

Origin: The word ‘swing’ comes from the old English wordswingan, which meant to beat, fling oneself or rush. Therefore the idiom ‘swing into action’ makes perfect sense. It’s less obvious in modern day English, in which we tend to use swing in relation to inanimate objects such as a clock pendulum. However, it does mean ‘to change’ or ‘to move easily and without interruption’.

Here’s some we wrote earlier:

Part one

Part two

Part three