Oxford £9.99 (408pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, By John Ayto
Friday 23 July 2010
This fascinating book reminds us how much of English is a sort of code. Ayto points out, "There is no way you could guess that 'kick the bucket' means 'to die'." A chilling derivation is the "pail on which a person committing suicide might stand".
This is no relation to the jollier "hand in your dinner pail" (much used by PG Wodehouse). Ayto has "laugh like a drain" and "laugh all the way to the bank", but not Liberace's inversion (on an abusive article): "I'll cry all the way to the bank".
Among the joys of this work are Ayto's drolly sober definitions: so . "to sweat blood" means "make an extraordinarily strenuous effort to do something".
If you want to know who Sweet Fanny Adams was (victim of an 1867 murder), this book is the bee's knees.
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