Wednesday, 22 April 2015

caught red-handed

If you are caught red-handed you are discovered in the middle of committing a crime or doing something wrong. Criminals can be caught red-handed by the police at the scene of a crime or children can be caught red-handed committing some minor misdemeanor like taking food from the fridge in the middle of the night. For many centuries it was not considered to be proof of guilt if someone was found in possession of meat from another man’s animal. If, however, they had the blood of a freshly killed animal on their hands, this was incontrovertible proof of guilt. In those days being caught red-handed usually meant a death sentence. Nowadays, it often merely means being embarrassed.

The expression originated in Scotland around the 15th century.  Given the context often used in the earliest references, the phrase ‘red hand’ or ‘redhand’ probably referred to people caught with blood on their hands. The first known documented instance of ‘red hand’ is in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, written in 1432. It subsequently appeared numerous times in Scottish legal proceedings, nearly always referring to someone caught in the act of committing a crime, such as ‘apprehended redhand,’ ‘taken with redhand,’ etc.

The first documented instance of the expression morphing from “red hand” to “red handed” was in the early 19th century work Ivanhoe, written by Sir Walter Scott. Scott was an avid student of Scottish history and folklore, which he relentlessly mined for inspiration in his novel writing. The enormous popularity of his books certainly brought 'red-handed' to a wide audience and, without him, the term might now be long forgotten.

The Red Hand has long been a heraldic and cultural symbol of the northern Irish province of Ulster. One of the many myths explaining its origin is the tale of how, in a boat race in which the first to touch the shore of Ulster was to become the province's ruler, one contestant guaranteed his win by cutting off his hand and throwing it to the shore ahead of his rivals. The potency of the symbol remains and is used in the Ulster flag.

Sometimes the Diet Ogre catches me red-handed delving into the cookie jar.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

rabbit punch

I wanted to know what this meant because I’ve heard it a few times over the years or, more likely, read it in books, but never got around to looking it up until now.

A rabbit punch is a blow to the neck or to the base of the skull. It is considered especially dangerous because it can damage the cervical vertebrae and subsequently the spinal cord, which may lead to serious and irreparable spinal cord injury. A rabbit punch can also detach the victim's brain from the brain stem, which can kill instantly.

The term originates from a method used by rabbit gamekeepers or trappers to kill a rabbit without spoiling its pelt. Delivering a strong, sharp blow to the back of a rabbit's neck at a 45-degree angle dislocates its neck and severs its spinal cord. This is typically performed with a small, blunt object or by using a chopping motion with your hand. If performed correctly, it is thought to be one of the quickest and most humane ways to kill a trapped or injured rabbit.

And now I know what a rabbit punch is, but I don’t think I could do it.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015


Catgut is a type of  tough cord made from the natural fiber found in the walls of animal intestines, particularly sheep, though it is occasionally made from the intestines of cattle, hogs, horses, mules, or donkeys. Despite its name, no cat intestines are used in catgut. It is used for surgical ligatures and sutures, for the strings of violins and related instruments, and for the strings of tennis rackets and archery bows. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians and the later Greeks and Romans used the intestines of herbivorous animals for much the same purposes. The origin of the term catgut is obscure; we do not know if the intestines of cats were ever put to such uses.

The word catgut may have been an abbreviation of the word ‘cattlegut.’ Alternatively, it may have derived by folk etymology from kitgut or kitstring—the word kit, meaning fiddle, having at some point been confused with the word kit for a young cat.

I am not a fan of classical violin music and I have sometimes wondered if the sound produced by a violin, which sounds to me like the yowling of an angry cat, didn’t give rise to the idea that violin strings might be actually made of cat guts. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

short shrift

To deal quickly with, or get rid of, something or someone.

Shrift is an antique word, as is the verb form, shrive. In its original form, short shrift referred to a brief period of penance granted to a person condemned to death so he or she could be forgiven for immorality before execution. The modern sense of the word is to give someone very little attention, either because you’re not interested or because you’re annoyed.

Naturally, it was Shakespeare, who first to uses it, in Richard III, in 1594. It doesn't appear again in print until 1814, in Scott's Lord of the Isles. In North America, the first citation is from the Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in August 1841:
"The negroes were to be tried on Wednesday, and it was believed that a short shrift and a speedy doom would be awarded to the guilty."

I may go out this afternoon and sweep leaves off the patio. But that’s a task that will get short shrift!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

wild-goose chase

A hopeless quest. Doing something long, tedious and doomed to be useless from the start, usually because someone tricked you. The person or thing being searched for does not exist or is somewhere entirely different.

This phrase is old and appears first in a Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet, in 1592. In those days, however, the meaning related to horse racing. A 'wild goose chase' was a chase in which horses followed a lead horse at a set distance, mimicking wild geese flying in a vee formation. This connection was referred to, just ten years after Shakespeare, in Nicholas Breton's The Mother's Blessing, 1602:
     "Esteeme a horse, according to his pace, But lose no wagers on a wilde goose chase."

That meaning had been lost by the 19th century. In Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811, he defines the term much the way we do today:
     "A tedious uncertain pursuit, like the following a flock of wild geese, who are remarkably shy."

The current meaning of the phrase alludes is undertaking which will probably prove to be fruitless. And it is hard to imagine anything more doomed to failure than an attempt to catch a wild goose by chasing after it.

The Wild Geese, a 1978 film, alluded to the phrase in its title. The plot was about Irish mercenaries who left Ireland to serve in various European armies in the 16th to 18th centuries. The plot involved a group of mercenaries embarking on a near-impossible mission. Of course, the near-impossible is no problem for action heroes and they won the day.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

hunky dory

Satisfactory; fine.

This expression is American and the earliest example of it in print seems to be from a collection of US songs, George Christy's Essence of Old Kentucky, 1862. 

‘Hunky-dory' was preceded by earlier words, for example: 'hunkey', meaning 'fit and healthy' and 'hunkum-bunkum', which had the same meaning as 'hunky-dory'. 'Hunkey' was used in the USA in 1861, in the title of the Civil War song ‘A Hunkey Boy Is Yankee Doodle.’ 'Hunkum-bunkum' appeared in the US newspaper The Spirit of The Times, November 1842.

‘Hunky’ probably originated in the archaic American slang word ‘hunk,’ meaning ‘safe,’ from the Dutch word ‘honk,’ meaning ‘goal,’ or ‘home’ in a game. To achieve ‘hunk’ or ‘hunky’ in a child's game was to make it ‘home’ and win the game.

But where did ‘dory’ come from? It may come from the way children use words, or add to them. Children (and some adults, too) very often do not just say ‘okay,’ they say ‘okey-dokey, which is what linguists call ‘reduplication,’ or the emphatic, joking repetition of parts of a word. ‘Hunky- dory’ is almost certainly a similar product of reduplication by children who had won their game.

Anyway, it’s Sunday, and the sun is shining, so everything is hunky dory!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

rain check

This is the promise to complete an unfulfilled order or task at a later or more convenient date.

People don’t like to do anything in the rain. Therefore they pass along a metaphorical voucher—a rain check—to affirm their intent to complete the task. Of course, tangible ‘rain checks’ are also often handed out, say, at an outdoor event postponed by bad weather, or at a store when an item has sold out.

A promise that an unaccepted offer will be renewed in the future, as in ‘I can't come to dinner Tuesday but hope you'll give me a rain check.’ This term comes from baseball, where in the 1880s it became the practice to offer paying spectators a rain check entitling them to future admission for a game that was postponed or ended early owing to bad weather. By the early 1900s the term was transferred to tickets for other kinds of entertainment, and later to a coupon entitling a customer to buy, at a later date and at the same price, a sale item temporarily out of stock.

Sometimes I have to give my writing muse a rain check and promise I’ll get back to the keyboard later.