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TRIVIA August 21, 2007 12:33 PM

Play ducks and drakes


To behave recklessly; to idly squander one's wealth.


ducks and drakesDucks and drakes is the old English name for the pastime of skimming flat stones on the surface of water to make them bounce as many times as possible. There are various names for the game, for example, stone skipping in the USA and stone skimming in the UK; in fact most countries have their own name for it. I doubt that there's a child anywhere in the world who hasn't tried to establish his or her own record. Most people manage seven or eight bounces. In researching this phrase I was surprised to find that the world record, as endorsed by the Guinness Book of Records, stands at 40. That hardly seems possible, but there is video evidence of Kurt Steiner setting that record in 2002.

The pastime surely pre-dates written records. The first known reference to it in print is in The nomenclator, or remembrancer of Adrianus Junius, translated by John Higgins in 1585:

"A kind of sport or play with an oister shell or stone throwne into the water, and making circles yer it sinke, etc. It is called a ducke and a drake, and a halfe-penie cake."

Why that name was chosen isn't clear. Most early citations give the phrase as 'make ducks and drakes' rather than 'play ducks and drakes', so it may be that the circular ripples that are formed evoked images of splashing waterfowl. For example, from the play Dick of Devon, circa 1626:

"The poorest ship-boy Might on the Thames make duckes and drakes with pieces Of eight fetchd out of Spayne."

Around the same time, the use of 'ducks and drakes' to refer to idly throwing something away or squandering resources came into use. That usage was recorded in James Cooke's Tu Quoque, 1614:

"This royal Caesar doth regard no cash; Has thrown away as much in ducks and drakes As would have bought some 50,000 capons."

The adoption of 'play ducks and drakes' meaning to throw away money seems to have come directly from the throwing of stones in the waterside game.

The meaning now seems to have wandered closer toward the 'unreliable and reckless' and away from the original 'idly squandering'. This may be a simple migration of meaning over time, or it may be due to a confusion between 'playing ducks and drakes' and ' playing fast and loose '.

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 September 01, 2007 11:35 PM

From: A Phrase A Week <>
Subject: Take umbrage

Take umbrage


To be displeased or offended by the actions of others.


There doesn't seem to much we can do with umbrage other than to take it, i.e. become displeased - the word is no longer used in any other context. What is umbrage exactly? It sounds like some form of distasteful patent medicine.

Step back to the 15th century and umbrage didn't mean displeasure. The word was inherited into English from the Latin 'umbra', meaning shade. Umbrage came to be used in English to mean shade or shadow, or the foliage of trees which cause shadows. For example, this piece from John Lydgate's 1426 translation of De Guileville's Pilgrimage of the life of man: vysage whiche is clowded with vmbrage,

'Taking umbrage', i.e. sitting under a shady tree, had then no negative associations, as is made clear in Sir Thomas Elyot's The image of gouernance, 1540:

The sayd trees gaue a commodyous and plesant vmbrage.

Over time, the figurative use of umbrage to mean displeasure evolved, probably from the simple association of darkness with gloomy thoughts. In that meaning, umbrage was first said to be given rather than taken, as this example from Sir Nathaniel Brent's 1620 translation of the Historie of the council of Trent shows:

He... therefore besought them to take away all those words that might give him any Vmbrage.

The shade/disfavour metaphor is made explicit in this piece from Sir Robert Naunton's Fragmenta regalia, 1635:

On the fall of the Duke he stood some yeers in umbrage, and without imployment.

The first record of anyone taking umbrage is in Lord Fountainhall's [Chronological Notes on] The decisions of the Lords of Council and Session, 1680:

The Bishop... took umbrage at his freedom of speech in the pulpit anent [side by side with] the government.

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 September 10, 2007 7:58 PM

On the wagon


'On the wagon' - abstaining from alcohol. 'Off the wagon' - returned to drinking after an attempt to give it up.


Suggested explanations of the origin of 'on the wagon' focus on actual wagons that were used to transport people; for example, condemned prisoners who had taken their last drink in this life and were transported to the gallows by wagon. Another story has it that Evangeline Booth, the US Salvation Army National Commander, toured the Bowery slums in a wagon picking up drunks and delivering them to sobriety. The phrase predates Booth's work in New York, so that can't be the origin. It isn't far from the truth though, but, as we'll see below, no actual wagon rides were involved.

'On the wagon' was coined in the USA around the turn of the 20th century. The phrase began as 'on the water-cart', migrated to 'on the water-wagon' and finally to 'on the wagon'.

The late 19th century saw the emergence of several temperance organisations, notably The Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893 and The Woman's Christian Temperance Union , founded in 1874. These followed on from the work of The Abstinence Society which had encouraged millions of men to 'take the pledge'. The Pledge wasn't just a vague intention to avoid drink; it was a specific and absolute promise never to drink again and was taken very seriously:

"I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.

on the wagonWater wagons were a commonplace sight in US cities at the time. They didn't carry drinking water but were used to damp down dusty streets during dry weather. Those who had vowed to give up drink and were tempted to lapse said that they would drink from the water-cart rather than take strong drink.

The first reference to it that I've found in print is from Alice Caldwell Hegan's comic novel Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, 1901:

I wanted to git him some whisky, but he shuck his head. "I'm on the water-cart."

'Water-wagon' was soon used as an alternative and the distinction between the figurative phrase 'on the wagon' and real water-wagons was made clear in this piece from The Davenport Daily Leader, March 1904:

"Peter Solle took a bad fall from the water wagon this morning. The water wagon was not that imaginary, visionary affair that is sometimes applied to he who signs the pledge, but was the real thing, all there and big as life."

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 September 24, 2007 12:04 AM

From: A Phrase A Week <>

Start from scratch


Begin (again) from the beginning, embark on something without any preparation or advantage.


'Start from scratch' is an expression which has altered slightly in meaning since it was first coined. It is now usually used to mean 'start again from the beginning' - where an initial attempt has failed and a new attempt is made with nothing of value carried forward from the first attempt (as opposed to 'made from scratch' which means 'made from basic ingredients').

In the late 1800s, when 'start from scratch' began to be used it simply meant 'start with no advantage'. 'Scratch' has been used since the 18th century as a sporting term for a boundary or starting point which was scratched on the ground. The first such scratch was the crease which is a boundary line for batsmen in cricket.

John Nyren's Young Cricketer's Tutor, 1833 records this line from a 1778 work by Cotton:

"Ye strikers... Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright."

It is the world of boxing that has given us the concept of 'starting from scratch'. The scratched line there specified the positions of boxers who faced each other at the beginning of a bout. This is also the source of 'up to scratch', i.e. meet the required standard, as pugilists would have had to do when offering themselves for a match.

Scratch later came to be used as the name of any starting point for a race. The term came to be used in 'handicap' races where weaker entrants were given a head start. For example, in cycling those who were given no advantage had the handicap of 'starting from scratch', while others started ahead of the line. Other sports, notably golf, have taken up the figurative use of scratch as the term for 'with no advantage - starting from nothing'.

The Fort Wayne Gazette, April 1887, contains the earliest reference to 'starting from scratch' that I can find, in a report of a 'no-handicap' cycling race:

"It was no handicap. Every man was qualified to and did start from scratch."

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 September 24, 2007 8:36 PM

Aid and abet


To help and encourage, usually in the commission of a crime or anti-social act.


'Aid and abet' is a common enough expression but, whilst 'aid' is well-known, what does 'abet' mean exactly? The word derives from the French 'abeter' - to hound, which itself derives from the Norse 'beita' - to cause to bite.

The phrase 'aid and abet' was coined in the late 18th century, by which time the term 'abet' had lost its original 'cause to bite' meaning. An early example of its use dates from 1798, when George Washington included it in a letter, first published in Writings, 1893. He didn't appear to have any better opinion of the French than that of the present US administration concerning the Gallic reluctance to aid and abet the war in Iraq:

"My mind is not a little agitated by the outrageous conduct of France towards the United States, and at the inimitable conduct of its partisans, who aid and abet their measures."

aid and abet Bear baiting, or as it was first called 'bear abetting', was a popular entertainment in England between the 16th and 19th centuries. It took place in pits in 'bear gardens', in which tethered bears were torn to pieces by trained bulldogs. Such pits were commonplace and some still exist - for example the Bear Pit in Sheffield Botanical Gardens.

The 'sport' wasn't viewed with the distaste we now have for animal cruelty - Queen Elizabeth condoned the practice by attending baitings, one of which resulted in 13 dead bears. The Elizabethan writer Robert Laneham described the scene:

"It was a sport very pleasant to see, to see the bear, with his pink eyes, tearing after his enemies approach... and when he was loose to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and the slaver hanging about his physiognomy."

So, if you plan to help someone, aid them by all means, but no biting please.

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