If any visitor to this page would like to know the origin of a phrase or saying please email me with the details. I will try my best to research it and place my findings on this page. Also, if anyone disagrees with anything in this page please let me know.

A Taken Aback Above board Armed to the teeth
B Bakers Dozen Cold enough to freeze the Balls off a Brass monkey To Beggar Belief
  Bite the Bullet The Bitter End Boskey
  Passing the Buck Bully for You Bum Boat
C Let the CAT out of the bag Not enough room to swing a CAT Chock'o'Block
  Chewing the Fat Clean bill of health Being in "Clink" or prison
  To get Cold Feet 'Cop' the blame etc.. Cut-Throat
D Dead Ringer Between the Devil and the deep blue sea The Devil to pay
  Don't throw the Baby out with the Bath water In the Doldrums Doss
  Down the hatch Dutch Courage  
F Fathom Feague - Make a horse lively Losing Face
On the Fiddle Flash in the Pan Fluffing
  Passed with Flying colours    
G Glimmer Don't teach Granny how to suck eggs Grog & to be Groggy - feeling rough?
H Go off Half Cocked The Head Holy Stone
J in a 'Jiffy'    
K Ketchcraft    
L Lant Loose cannon  
O Owlers    
P Mind your P's & Q's In for a Penny in for a Pound Taking the 'Piss'
  Pig in a Poke Pipe Down Put a Sock in it
R Caught 'Red Handed' Round Robin Red Herring
  Rule of Thumb    
S You Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours Shake a leg or Show a leg S.H.I.T.
  Son of a Gun Splice the main brace Three Sheets to the wind
Square meal Starboard From Stem to stern
  Storm Signal Stay on the Straight & narrow Sun is over the Yard Arm
T Tantalise (Origin of word) Getting Tanked Showing your True Colours
  Toe the line Toss Pot Touch Wood
  Tying the Knot    
U Under the weather    
V
The insulting 'V' sign.    
W Walter Weeting - stale urine Wherry
  Wild Goose Chase The Writing on Wall The Wrong (or Shitty) End of the Stick
 
Taken Aback
Meaning: One of the hazards faced in days of sailing ships has been incorporated into English to describe someone who has been jolted by unpleasant news.
Example: He has really been "taken aback" by the sad news. The person is at a momentary loss, unable to act or even to speak.
Origin - A danger faced by sailing ships was for a sudden shift in wind to come up (from a sudden squall), blowing the sails back against the masts, putting the ship in grave danger of having the masts break off and rendering the ship totally helpless. The ship's sails were 'all aback' or the ship was 'taken aback'.
 
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Above board - Meaning: Legal, out in the open, activities not concealed.
Example: All of my business dealings have been above board. At least all that you know about.
Origin: Early trading ships would hide illegal cargo below the ship's deck. Legal cargo could be placed in plain view on deck, or above the boards of the deck.

 

Armed to the Teeth - Meaning: To be heavily armed.
Example: Don't even think about going into Chicago's housing projects unless you are armed to the teeth.
Origin: This is a pirate phrase originating in Port Royal Jamaica in the 1600's. Having only single shot black powder weapons and cutlesses, they would carry many of these weapons at once to keep up the fight.
In addition they carried a knife in their teeth for maximum arms capability.
Thanks to Robert W.
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Bakers Dozen
In the Middle Ages in England there were severe penalties for anyone who gave short weight. Bakers were often uneducated and unable to count. To guard against miscounting twelve as eleven they habitually gave thirteen loaves when selling a dozen.
 

Cold enough to Freeze the Balls off a brass monkey

Meaning: Cold in the Extreme.
Example: I am not going outside. It is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and mine are considerable more sensitive.
Origin: One explanation has it that the balls were stacked in the familiar pyramid configuration with a wooden triangle holding the bottom layer together. These wooden triangles were also referred to as "monkeys". The trouble with wooden monkeys was that they couldn't take much abuse before shattering under the impact of dropped cannon balls. The next material used to make monkeys was brass. These worked perfectly in warmer weather. The trouble with brass monkeys was that they tended to shrink a little when the weather turned cold. When the weather became so cold that the 'monkey' shrank excessively, it would squeeze the bottom layer of cannon balls up, sending them rolling off the monkey and all over the deck.
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Beggars Belief
Example: "What you have just said "beggars belief!"
Meaning: Outstanding; Unbelievable
Origin: The word "beggar" can also be a transitive verb, meaning to exceed the boundaries, resources or capabilities of. It survives today primarily in set phrases, such as to beggar belief, the example you cite, or to beggar description. The word/meaning must spring from the same root as the noun beggar, who is someone who has also exhausted all his/her resources. I think it's Old German in origin, but someone else will no doubt confirm this.
Webster's Second traces it to Middle English < Anglo-French < Old French < Low German < probably Middle Dutch "beggaert," beggar.
This explanation was given by R. Berg
 
Bite the Bullet
Meaning - Pay a painful price and move on.
Example - If you want to clear those 8 tickets off your driving record, you will need to bite the bullet and pay the fines.
Origin - Before the advent of ether, the first anaesthetic, surgery was a pretty desperate and painful affair. With the patient (although victim might be more descriptive) fully conscious and feeling the pain. These early surgeries were typically limb amputations or the removal of some object lodged into the body such as a bullet or arrowhead. A typical amputation consisted of the "surgeon" using a saw to hack off the unwanted limb. The skin was then pulled down over the stub and sutured shut. Amazingly, some of these patients survived, but certainly the success ratio was low. Note that poorly skilled physicians today are called "hacks". Even after the advent of anaesthetics such emergency surgery has had to be performed at times. Particularly in times of war when anaesthetics may be in limited supply or unavailable. To ease the pain the patient was given a couple of stiff belts of whiskey to numb the senses, then given a stick or lead bullet to bite down on as the surgeon went to work with knife and saw. The bullet or stick was given to let the patient focus their energy and attention on the biting instead of the cutting and pain. It may also have helped to reduce the screaming, which probably benefited the surgeon and attendants. Why bite on a bullet? Made of lead, bullets are malleable. Although quite strong they will actually deform somewhat when bitten hard. Hence teeth would not break as would likely happen from biting a stone for example. Bullets are also readily available in times of war, when this type of surgery is frequently called for. "Bite the bullet" may have originated in the civil war. The patient who bit the bullet was cooperating with the surgery. Clearly this poor fellow saw the surgery as unavoidable and absolutely necessary. He had decided to "bite the bullet" and get on with the surgery. "Biting the bullet" has been captured in countless war movies and westerns. Thanks to Jane, Kyle, John Gold, Kevin Morefield, Frederick Blume, Laurie Lee, and Melchor Balaguer.
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Right to the Bitter End
Meaning: To see something the very end. The limit of one's efforts.
Origin: A 'bitt' is a bollard used for tying off ropes and cables on board ship. If you let out the anchor to the full extent of the cable you are known to be at the "Bitter End" with no more cable left. The end of the cable that is fixed to the bollard is the bitter end. After this point there is no more left to give.
An alternative suggestion offered is - The inboard end of a ship's hempen anchor cable was less often used than the outboard end, and so was known as the better end, later pronounced bitter end, and meaning the very end or the extreme end.
 
Boskey - To be Elated with liqour - taken from William Cope's Glossary of Hampshire Words and Phrases, 1883
 
Passing the Buck - The Buck stops here
Meaning - To take responsibility for something.
Example - When it comes to the origin of phrases, the buck stops here.
Origin - Some card games use a marker called a buck. Players take turns acting as dealer with the buck marking the current dealer. When the buck is passed to the next player, the responsibility for dealing is passed. Stopping the buck is to accept responsibility for dealing.

This phrase was popularized by president Harry Truman who kept a sign with the phrase inscribed on his desk and is a rebuttal to the older phrase "Pass the buck".

The media interpreted Harry's sign to mean he was accepting responsibility, but he may well have had something else in mind. Truman was a poker player. He knew exactly what the "buck" was - it was the marker that identifies the person who calls the game, or in essence, sets the rules. Truman may have been saying that he was in charge and would set the rules - a bit different than just accepting responsibility.
 

Bully for You- The phrase 'Bully for you' (or him) Means 'good for you' (or him) but where does it derive from? In Shakespeare the use of the word 'bully' is not as we know it to-day. i.e. in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peter Quince refers to Nick Bottom as, "Good bully Bottom". In older times, the word "bully" had a couple of positive meanings and the only trace appears to be left in the expression "bully for you", which is still occasionally used in British English. However, nowadays, it seems to be used mostly in a derisive or sarcastic way, along the lines of "Well then, aren't *YOU* the clever one?".
The halyard sea-shanty Blow, Boys, Blow uses bully in two senses. In the chorus lines and in one verse the bully boys are ship-mates;

Then blow, my bullies, all together,
Blow, boys, blow!
Blow, my boys, for better weather.
Blow my bully boys blow!

And who d'you think is the captain of her?
Blow, boys, blow!
Why, Bully Hayes is the captain of her.
Blow my bully boys blow

**********
Doerflinger notes the captain is said to be "Bully Hayes, the Down East bucko." The discipline was brutally enforced and packet ships were famed for their fighting mates and the brutal treatment of seamen. Many ships bore the name "bloodboat."
Oh, Bully Hayes, he loves us sailors;
Blow, boys, blow!
Yes, he does like hell and blazes!
Blow my bully boys blow!
And who d'you think is the mate aboard her:
Blow, boys, blow!
Santander James is the mate aboard her.
Blow my bully boys blow!
Santander James, he's a rocket from hell, boys,
Blow, boys, blow!
He'll ride you down as you ride the spanker.
Blow my bully boys blow!

On the other hand- could the origin be from the French Verb "Bouillir". Perhaps French bouilli, boiled meat, label on canned beef, from past participle of bouillir, to boil, from Old French boilir. Hence the term "Bully Beef" (boiled beef)

A term associated with US President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, was his favourite phrase "Bully!", meaning "Fantastic!":

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Bum-boat - the small craft used by local tradesmen in ports throughout the world. Probably the original term was boom-boat, i.e. permitted by the executive officer to secure to the ship's lower boom in order to conduct business. It has never been considered advisable to allow civilian tradesmen onboard.
 
Letting the Cat out of the bag - So here we are then with a sailor having been caught "on the fiddle" or "fiddling" extra food. His mess mates would now be saying of him that he has really "let the Cat out of the bag" this time! The 'cat' being the 'cat of nine tails' and not a domestic cat! Therefore, the saying "to let the cat out of the bag" is derived from when sailors were found guilty of an offence punishable by flogging.
 
Not enough room to swing a Cat - Meaning: A confined space.
Example: This bedroom doesn't even have enough room to swing a cat.
Origin: This colourful phrase evokes strange images of feline cruelty. In fact it has nothing to do with cats, but the real story is at least as cruel. Taking the story line from 'letting the cat out of the bag', now imagine that same guilty sailor tied to a grating on deck. He is about to receive his punishment by flogging which was generally carried out by the bosun. There he is trying to lay out the cat of nine tails but other sailors having to witness the punishment are too close. So close that the bosun has insufficient room to "swing the cat".
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Chock-a-block -Meaning something is filled to capacity or over loaded. A 'chock' is simply a 'wedge' or 'block' used for making sure items in storage do not roll about. If two blocks of rigging tackle in store on an old sailing ship, were so hard together they couldn't be tightened further, it was said they were "Chock-a-Block". Recovered from the wreck of the Invincible were items called "chocking blocks".
 
Clean bill of health - Meaning: To be healthy.
Example: I visited the doctor today and was given a clean bill of health.
Origin: This widely used term has its origins in the "Bill of Health", a document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.
Thanks to Donald R. Swartz
 
Chewing the Fat - "God made the vittles but the devil made the cook," was a popular saying used by seafaring men in the 19th century when salted beef was a staple of the diet aboard ship. This tough cured beef, suitable only for long voyages when nothing else was cheap or would keep as well (remember, there was no refrigeration), required prolonged chewing to make it edible. Men often chewed one chunk for hours, just as if it were chewing gum and referred to this practice as "chewing the fat."
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Being in Clink - Meaning - to be in prison.
Example: When someone goes to prison they are often said to be in "Clink". It is sometimes thought that this is a slang word describing the noise that the iron bar doors make when they are closed.
Origin: However, the term refers to the name of a prison which was on Clink Street in the Southwark area of London.

 
'Cop' the blame

‘Cop’ often means to ‘Get’ as in “I always cop (get) the blame!”

Around the year 1700, the slang verb cop entered English usage, meaning "to get a hold of, catch, capture." By 1844, cop showed up in print, and soon thereafter the -er suffix was added, and a policeman became a copper, one who cops or catches and arrests criminals. Copper first appeared in print in 1846, the use of cop as a short form copper occured in 1859.
Mid 19th and 20th century - meaning to get, take, receive, forced to endure.  Cop it hot – to be scolded, get in trouble.
By the USA to carry out an execution by lethal injection. Hence, 'to cop the needle' is to be thus sentenced to death.
Cop the bullet = get the sack.
The most probable explanation is that it comes from the slang verb cop, meaning “to seize”, originally a dialect term of northern England which by the beginning of the nineteenth century was known throughout the country. This can be followed back through the French caper to the Latin capere, “to seize, take”, from which we also get our capture.
 
To get Cold Feet
Example: He did not turn up for his wedding - he got 'cold feet' at the last moment.
Meaning: To lose ones nerve at the last moment.
Origin: I heard on the radio this week that this saying comes from historic times when soldiers were fighting overseas. If they were in very cold climates/conditions, some would end up with feet so cold that when the time came to charge the enemy they were unable to do so through extreme 'cold feet' or even frost bite. To be the proverbial "fly on the wall" when this happened, these men would 'appear' to losing their nerve just like someone not turning up for an appointment where they had lost their nerve at the last moment.
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Cut-Throat - A dark lantern, in which there is generally horn instead of glass, so constructed that the light may be completely obscured when this is found necessary for the perpetration of any criminal act.
John Jamieson's Etymological Scottish dictionary - 1808
 
Dead Ringer
In earlier times, after several coffins were excavated and found to have scratches on the inside, morticians began the process of tying a string to the finger of the corpse. The string was then threaded through a hole in the coffin and up to a bell on the outside of the grave. If the person was alive and they pulled the string, they were called a dead-ringer. This is also the origin of the term Graveyard Shift. The person from the mortuary who was assigned the task of sitting at the new grave sight to listen for the bell to ring was said to be working the Graveyard Shift.
The person being brought back to civilisation would be seen by others who once knew him/her. They would call that person a 'dead ringer' - meaning - one who was buried alive and managed to ring the bell to be recovered from the fate. Since then, if you see someone who is so similar to one recently deceased, you would consider that person someone who managed to ring the bell and be brought back from the grave.
 
Between the Devil and the deep blue sea. - Meaning - between two evils or alternatives, so that one is in a hazardous or precarious position. In wooden ships, the "devil" was the longest seam of the ship. It ran from the bow to the stern. When at sea and the "devil" had to be caulked, the sailor sat in a bo'sun's chair to do so. He was suspended between the "devil" and the "deep blue sea"... a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.. (see, Devil to pay and no pitch hot'.
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The Devil to pay no pitch hot. - Meaning - problems, trouble, unpleasant consequences. Today the expression "devil to pay" is used primarily to describe having an unpleasant result from some action that has been taken, as in someone has done something they shouldn't have and, as a result, "there will be the devil to pay."
Caulking was done with "pay" or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of "paying the devil" (caulking the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was despised by every seaman. The 'Devil' was the longest seam between the outboard plank and the waterways of a wooden ship and very awkward to reach. It also, needed more pitch when caulking and 'paying' (covering with pitch), hence the 'Devil'.
Origin - Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship. The "devil" was the wooden ship's longest seam in the hull.
 
Don't throw the Baby out with the Bath Water

Origin - in the 16th & 17th centuries, baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies were washed.  However, by then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the Bath water!"

 
In the Doldrums - Meaning: To be depressed or unmotivated.
Example: Id like to provide a good example, but I'm feeling in the doldrums.
Origin: Doldrums is the name of a place in the ocean that is located near the equator and is characterized by unstable trade winds. A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums can be stranded due to lack of wind.

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Doss - Meaning - to Sleep
Origin - In the old pugilistic days, a man knocked down, or "out of time", was said to be "sent to dorse". But whether because he was senseless, or because he lay on his back, is not known, though most likely the latter. Formerly spelt dorse; [from] Gaelic dosal, slumber. - John Camden Hotten's slang dictionary, 1887.
To Dorse with a woman means to sleep with her. - Capt. Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785.
 
Down the hatch - Meaning: Drink or eat.
Example: Enough talk, let's put some food down the hatch.
Origin: Here's a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch for transport below deck. The freight appears to be consumed by the ship.
Thanks to Donald R. Swartz
 

Dutch courage - Meaning - The uninhibited courage shown by a man who has had one too many to drink.
Origin - This refers to the old Dutch custom of issuing tots of schnapps before battle. The Dutch had every right to base similar sardonic remarks on the British rum issue.

 
Losing Face - The noble ladies and gentlemen of the late 1700s wore much makeup to impress each other. Since they rarely bathed, the makeup would get thicker and thicker. If they sat too close to the heat of the fireplace, the makeup would start to melt. If that happened, a servant would move the screen in front of the fireplace to block the heat, so they wouldn't "lose face."
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Fathom - Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Ango-Saxon word "faetm" meaning to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average size of parts of the body, such as the hand (horses are still measured this way) or the foot (that's why 12 inches are so named). A fathom is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a man.. about six feet. Since a man stretches out his arms to embrace his sweetheart, Britain's Parliament declared that distance be called a "fathom" and that it be a unit of measure. A fathom remains six feet. The word was also used to describe "taking the measure of" or "to fathom" something. Today, of course, when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to "fathom it" or "get their arms around it."
 
Feague - Meaning - to make a hose lively.
To put ginger up a horses fundament, and formerly, it is said, a live eel, to make him lively and carry his tail well...... A forfeit is incurred by any horse-dealers servant who shall shew a horse without first feaguing him. Feague is used figuratively for encouraging or spiriting one up. - Capt. Francis Grose's Claissical dicionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796.
 
On the Fiddle - As mentioned in the text of "Square plate", fiddles were the raised edges on a naval issue square plate. These were there not only to stop food items such as peas falling off the plate but also to set the limit of food for each sailor. In the event a sailor was found to have so much food on his square plate that it touched or lay on one of the 'fiddles', he was accused of 'fiddling' or taking something not rightfully his. I.e. the next mans share of food. In the Navy "Fiddling" was an offence punishable by flogging. Although not confirmed, I am led to believe that the maximum sentence for fiddling was twelve lashes of the cat.
 
Flash in the pan - Meaning: Something that shows great promise, then disappoints by being over too quickly.
Example: Ross Perot's political career turned out to be a flash in the pan.
Origin: Flintlock muskets have small pans to hold the gunpowder fuse. Sometimes the gunpowder in the pan would flare up without firing the gun. That would be a "flash in the pan".
Alternatively,

Derives from the early gold prospectors who would literally see a flash of light as they panned for gold, but who would often fail to find the nuggets on closer inspection. See the related expression "pan out".

Thanks to Nina Zhito
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Fluffing
Fluff [is] railway ticket clerks' slang for short change given by them. The profit thus accrued are called fluffings, and the practice is known as fluffing. - John Camden Hotten's slang dictionary, 1887.
Fluffer, an operator of the short-change swindle.- Eric Partridge's Dictionary of the underworld 1950.
 

Passed with Flying colors - Meaning: To exceed expectations, to do better than expected.
Example: The California smog test is tough, but my car passed with flying colors.
Origin: Color(s) has numerous meanings. An early use of the word is flag, pennant, or badge.
"Passed with flying colors" comes from sailing ships that, when passing other ships at sea, would fly their colors (flags) if they wanted to be identified.

Alternatively, a metaphor drawn from parades, which do not merely pass, but rather do so with flags raised, "with flying colors."

Thanks to Dennis Reed Jr.

See the related phrase "show your true colors".

 
Glimmer - Glimmering light
Meaning - (of a light, candle, etc.) to glow faintly or flickeringly. To be indicated faintly "There was a 'Glimmer' of hope for the castaways".
Origin - In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, midshipmen and junior officers in Naval warships, used to study for promotion in the dark and gloom of the lower decks. In order to have some light to read and write by, they would purchase a crude lamp from the purser. This generally consisted of a wick soaked in fat oil in an iron saucer. This cheap device was called a purser's ‘GLIM’. The purser was obliged to provide lights below decks and this was a simple way for him to make a profit. The dim flickering light became known as a ‘glimmer of light'.
 
Don't teach your Granny how to suck eggs
Meaning - is an old English-language saying dating back to the 18th century, meaning that a person is giving advice to someone else about a subject that they already know about (and probably more than the first person)
Origin - The story behind this expression is that you can punch a hole in both ends of a raw egg and suck out the insides. When a child learns this, it's the kind of thing the he/she wants to teach Granny, but the reality is that Granny already knows about it.
The metaphoric meaning is that Granny is already an expert as far as egg-sucking is concerned, and experts get kind of bored when someone is trying to teach them something they already know quite well.

Another source suggests: - Charles Earle Funk says in "Hog on Ice" (Harper & Row,New York, 1948). "To teach one's grandmother to suck eggs" - To offer needless assistance; to waste one's efforts upon futile matters; especially, to offer advice to an expert.

Simple - Of course it could be something very simple such as - your granny is meant to be really old and possibly hasn't a tooth in her head. Consequently she cannot chew hard boiled eggs and so will be an expert on the subject of sucking them. The meaning of the phrase remains the same - don't try to tell someone how to do something, when that person knows more about the subject than you do.
Someone else offered this explanation - Raw eggs used to be a popular food and regarded as healthy. Grandmothers, especially those without teeth, would have been particularly addicted to them and therefore needed no instruction about how to drink (suck) them. Sounds plausible to me.
NOTE - This particular expression is well over two hundred years old. It was first recorded in Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, published in 1749
  • The phrase was also used in the 1890s in a Punch magazine cartoon -

    "You see, Grandmama, before you extract the contents of this bird's egg by suction, you must make an incision at one extremity, and a corresponding orifice at the other." Grandmama's response is to the effect, "Dearie me! And we used to just make a hole at each end."

 
Grog
Meaning A term for watered down Rum - In 1740 Admiral Vernon - of the British fleet decided to water down the Navy's rum. Needless to say, the sailors weren't too pleased and called Admiral Vernon and nicknamed him Old Grog, after the stiff wool grogram coats he wore. The term "grog" soon began to mean the watered down drink itself. When you were drunk on this grog, you were "groggy", a word still in use today.
 

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Go off Half Cocked - Go off Half Cocked - Meaning: To be less than fully prepared.
Example: Before you go in half cocked demanding a raise, you better think through what you are going to say.
Origin: "Cocked" refers to the action of cocking a gun. Interestingly the term cocking a gun comes from flintlock muskets of 17th century, the hammer was very ornate and resembled a rooster (a cock).
The phrase was originally "going off half cocked". The half cock position of the cock on a flint or cap lock weapon was a "safe" position to which the cock was drawn to permit access to the priming pan (flint lock) or to permit capping (cap lock). The cock could be placed in the half cock position while, hopefully, not risking having the weapon go off accidentally.

Pulling the trigger of a flintlock at "half cock" will not fire the weapon. The hammer, which contains the flint, will not strike the frizzen with sufficient force to produce a spark and the primer charge in the pan will not be ignited.

The loading process of a flintlock is quite involved.

1) Draw the hammer to the "half cock" position
2) Prime the pan
3) Close the pan
4) Charge the weapon, i.e. pour the powder into the barrel
5) Load the ball/bullet
6) Drive the ball home
7) Draw the hammer to "full cock" position

Particularly in the heat of battle, it was easy to forget the last step and continue with the platoon, change position (with the loaded gun in "safe" mode), shoulder the weapon to be fired, and pull the trigger with the result being that nothing happens. Embarrassing and potentially dangerous.

Thanks to C.A. Eubanks, Nathan Hillman, and Robert Marciszewski

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Head - The "head" aboard a Navy ship is the bathroom. The term comes from the days of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all the way forward on either side of the bowsprit, the integral part of the hull to which the figurehead was fastened. This was also as far away as one could get from the Captain's cabin at the stern of the ship.
 
Holystone - The last Navy ships with teak decks were the battleships, now since decommissioned. Teak, and other wooden decks, were scrubbed with a piece of sandstone, nicknamed at one time by an anonymous witty sailor as the "holystone." It was so named because since its use always brought a man to his knees, it must be holy!
 
Jeffy - A slang term among thieves for lightning. It is probable that "in a jiffy", in a moment, may have originated in this connection. - John Farmer's Americanisms Old and New - 1889
 
 
Ketchcraft - The hangman's craft; [from Jack Ketch, a famous London executioner, c. 1663-1686]. - James Murray's New English Dictionary, 1901
 
Lant
Urine; to Lant or leint ale, to put urine into it to make it strong; Northern England. - Capt. Francis Grose's Provincial Glossary 1787.
 
Loose cannon - Meaning: A person who is out of control, unpredictable, who may do damage.
Example: The typical Engineer is too honest for his own good, they can be like a loose cannon around customers.
Origin: On sailing ships that had cannons, it was important that they be secured. Cannons are very heavy, and a loose cannon on a ship's deck in a rough sea could be thrown about in an unpredictable fashion, causing a lot of damage.
More than just needing to be lashed down during normal travel, cannons needed to be secured during use, or else the recoil would send the cannon on its way causing injury or damage.

Thanks to Kensmark

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Olwers- Meaning - Those who privately in the night carry wool to the seacoasts, near Romney Marsh in Kent, and some creeks in Sussex, and ship it off for France against the law. - B.E.'s Dictionary of the Canting Crew 1699.
 
Mind your P's & Q's- Meaning - watch your manners.
Source - According to one record I read, the source is from early English pubs when ale was ordered by Pints and Quarts. So in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down. Hence grew ther phrase to "mind your P's and Q's."
Philip T wrote to me with an explanation that sounds far more likely - He Say's: -
*My* understanding is that it is a term that comes from the early days of printing where the letters used to form words and sentences were cut on small blocks
of metal. The letters were cut in reverse so as to print properly on the paper, and the lower case p and q could easily be confused. The printer would have to check his p's and q's to ensure they were the right way round!
Pipe Down - Meaning to stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun's pipe each day which meant "lights out" and "silence".
 
Taking the Piss
In times when urine was used extensively in the cloth making industry (see weeting), the tubs containing the saved urine were transported on carts from all over the country to the mills. If a person driving the cart was stopped by customs men top check what was being transported, often, through embarrassment, the driver would lie and say wine. When found to be urine he would be laughed at and accused of "taking the piss".
 
Buying a Pig in a Poke
Meaning - An offering that is foolishly accepted without being looked at first.
Example - I bought a second hand car, but it turned out to be a pig in poke because the chassis was rusty.
Origin - A poke is defined as a bag or a pouch and is the origin of the word pocket - a small pouch. At medieval markets, unscrupulous traders would display a pig for sale. However, the pig was always given to the customer in a bag, with strict instructions not to open the bag until they were some way away. The trader would hand the customer a bag containing something
that wriggled, and it was only later that the buyer would find he'd been conned when he opened the bag to reveal that it contained a cat, not a pig.
 
In for a Penny in for a Pound
Meaning "If you're going to take a risk at all, you might as well make it a big risk.". "If the punishment for failure is the same, you may as well try for the largest possible reward".
Origin - From an old British expression (thus "pound" instead of "dollar"); the original reference was probably to theft (though this is not certain), saying that being arrested ("taken in") for stealing a small amount is just as bad as for a large amount, so you may as well steal a lot and hope to get away with it.
 
Put a Sock in it - Meaning to quiet down. In the mid 1900's records were played on gramophones which had the old large trumpet for amplifying the sound. If someone in the room thought it to be too loud, they would ask for a 'sock' to be put into the trumpet to mute the level of sound.
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To be caught Red Handed
Meaning - to be caught in the act.
Origin: One of the four kinds of offences in the king's forest, by which the offender is supposed to have killed a deer. In Scotland, in such like crimes they say, "Taken in the fact, or with red hand". The red of course being the blood from the slaughtered animal.
From Thomas Blount's Law Dictionary and Glossary, 1717
 

Red Herring

Meaning – To attempt to divert attention from the real question or task. To leave or set a false trail for someone to follow. To send someone on a ‘wild goose’ chase.

Why a Red Herring – Throughout the ages, herrings have been cured by a smoking process. This process not only turned the herring a red colour but made it rather smelly.

Origin – In the early 16th century, dog handlers would train the hounds to hunt foxes by dragging a ‘Red Herring’ on a piece of string along the ground for several miles to leave a scent for the hounds to follow. Later in the training the handlers would drag a ‘Red Herring’ across the scent of a live fox to test the hounds. If they diverted from the Fox scent and followed instead, the scent of the Red Herring, they were being diverted away from the primary task and taken along a false trail. By analogy they had been thrown a “Red Herring”.

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Round Robin
Meaning: Repeatedly taking successive turns in the same order.
Example: Everyone in this family will take round robin turns putting out the trash, everyone that is except me.
Origin: "Round robin" originated in the British nautical tradition. Sailors wishing to mutiny would sign their names in a circle so the leader could not be identified.
Thanks to Erin and Justin Bengry

The "round" part of the phrase is clear. The "robin" less so.

This may just be alliteration. Alliteration is two or more neighbouring words in a phrase that start with the same letter and is constructed largely because it sounds good. It is a type of rhyme

 
Rule of Thumb -
Meaning - roughly, approximately.
Probable Origin - An old English law declared that a man could not beat his wife with a stick any larger than the diameter of his thumb.
Another Possible Origin - Before thermometers were invented, brewers would dip a thumb or finger into the mix to find the right temperature for adding yeast. Too cold, and the yeast wouldn't grow. Too hot, and the yeast would die. This thumb in the beer is where we get the phrase "rule of thumb."
 
You Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours
Meaning - If you help me then I will help you.
From BBC program about antiques: This phrase came from the use of the Cat O Nine Tails - the whip used in the British Navy. This saying effectively meant that if the person went easy with the whipping on them when the punishment was reversed they would go easy with them.
 
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Shake a leg or Show a Leg
Meaning - to get ready for work or specific task.
Origin - At the end of a stay in harbour, particularly when overseas, the sailors would often smuggle the local women aboard. On the day of departure from the anchorage, it was the job of a midshipman or petty officer to go along the rows of occupied hammocks tapping each with a rattan shouting, "show a leg" or "shake a leg". The occupant of the hammock would show a leg from under the cover. The officer would then make sure that the person asleep in the hammock was in fact male and not a woman!
Mark wrote: I have been led to believe that having women aboard ship, often wives and girlfriends visiting while the ship was in home port, led to this phrase. When the petty officer's came through the compartments rousing the men in the morning, a women could avoid being dumped out of the hammock by "shaking a leg," showing that the occupant was female and not required to turn to for work.
 
S.H.I.T.
Meaning - A crude word for excrement

Origin - Manure - In the 16th and 17th centuries, everything had to be transported by ship and it was also before the invention of commercial fertilizers, so large shipments of manure were quite common.
It was shipped dry, because in dry form it weighed a lot less than when wet, but once water (at sea) hit it, not only did it become heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, of which a by-product is methane gas, of course. As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen.
Methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone came below with a lantern, BOOOOM! Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was determined just what was happening.
After that, the bundles of manure were always stamped with the instruction ' Stow high in transit ' on them, which meant that the sailors should stow it high enough on the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane.
Thus evolved the term ' S.H.I.T ' - (Stow High In Transit). The initials are associated with manure and has come down through the centuries and is still in use to this very day.
Dave J says - "I had always thought it was a golf term"

 
Stay on the Straight and Narrow
Meaning - To stay out of trouble.
Example - Ever since getting out of jail on bond I have been on the straight and narrow.
Origin - This phrase comes from the Bible and describes the path to heaven. Matthew 7:14 to be exact: "Broad is the way that is the path of destruction but narrow is the gate and straight is the way which leadeth to the house of God."
 
Sun is over the Yardarm - Toni asks: When sailors say "The sun is over the Yardarm" does it mean that it is late enough to have a drink and call it a day?
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Three Sheets to the Wind - A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a three masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be "in the wind". A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind. Similarly, someone who is under the influence of too much alcohol might stagger and wander aimlessly down the road. That person might well be accused of being 'Three sheets to the wind".
 
Son of a Gun - After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have boys, who were called sons between the guns.
Here is a variation from Peter at the BBC: In the early days of the Navy, women were allowed to join up in (presumably) non combative roles. The long voyages and feelings of loneliness ended up with babies born whilst at sea. If the woman concerned would not name the father, the Captain would log the birth as being the son of a gun - the gun deck(s) being the only place where decent privacy may be had for such an event.
Rosemary comments: By the way, your explanation of "son of a gun" referred to irresponsible sailors, which may either pre-date or post-date the meaning our book reports. It says that a soldier was called a "gun" (probably, I presume, for the same reason a woman is called a "skirt" and a hippy was called a "beard" - you're nicknamed by that which you carry around on your body). So a son of a gun was a son of a sailor - used increasingly less pejoratively as time went on. I seem to recall my grandfather, a career Navy CPO, calling his son "you son of a gun" with great pride and affection. My uncle was neither illegitimate nor conceived on the deck of a ship, by the way!
Paul adds: The History Channel had a program on its "Great Ships" series about English Ships of the Line, and they gave a slightly different story. According to that program, desertion was so likely that when in port the seamen were not allowed shore leave. Their wives were, however, allowed to board on the gun decks with their mates. It was said on the show that if a woman was having a difficult labour, the cannons on either side of her were fired as an "aid" to the process. It was these (male) children who were referred to as Sons of a Gun.
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Splice the Main Brace - A sailing ship's rigging was a favourite target during sea battles since by destroying the opponent's ability to manoeuvre or get away you would be at an obvious advantage. Therefore, the first thing tended to after a battle was to repair broken gear, and repair sheets (sails) and braces (lines, improperly, ropes, passing through blocks and holding up sails). It was the custom, after the main braces were properly spliced, to serve grog to the entire crew. Thus, today, after a hard day (or, not so hard day), the phrase has become an invitation to have a drink.

 
Three square meals day - According to the history reference books, square plates came into existence in the mid nineteenth century. You can imagine our surprise therefore, when we came across a small number of square wooden plates on the wreck of the Invincible, which sank in the mid eighteenth century, in 1758. Only a small number were found complete with the raised edges still intact. All were the same size although the raised edges (fiddles) were slightly different on each plate. When a sailor joined the navy in this period, he would have been issued with one of these square plates, off which he would have been fed "three times daily", according to Admiralty instructions. This then gives rise to the saying -
"Three square meals a day". Or "A good square meal".
However, contrary to popular belief, this was a 'maximum' measure of food and not a 'minimum' one!
 
Starboard - The Vikings called the side of their ship its board, and they placed the steering oar, the "star" on the right side of the ship, thus that side became known as the "star board." It's been that way ever since. And, because the oar was in the right side, the ship was tied to the dock at the left side. This was known as the loading side or "larboard". Later, it was decided that "larboard" and "starboard" were too similar, especially when trying to be heard over the roar of a heavy sea, so the phrase became the "side at
which you tied up to in port" or the "port" side.
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Storm Signal - A signal for indicating to mariners, fishermen &c. the probable approach of a storm. It consists of a hollow cylinder and cone, either of which, or both simultaneously, may be suspended from a mast or staff; their positions denoting the probable direction of the wind in an approaching storm. Thus, cone point[ing] upward (a) to the right of the staff, northerly gale; cone point[omg] downward (b) to the left of the staff, southerly gale; cylinder (c), dangerous winds from both quarters successively; upright cone above cylinder (d) dangerous wind from the north; reversed cone below cylinder (e), dangerous wind from the south. - Edward Lloyd's Encyclopedic Dictionary 1895

 
From Stem to stern- Meaning: Thorough, complete.
Example: I searched the house from stem to stern for that cat, then found him sleeping on a shelf right in front of me.
Origin: The very front of a ship is called the stem, the rear is called the stern. From stem to stern includes the entire ship.
Thanks to Susan Stevenson
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Toe the line - Meaning: Follow the group, don't disagree, do what others are doing.
Example: Your lifestyle has gone on for too long. It is time for you to "toe the line" - get a wife, a job, some kids etc.
Origin: Many mistakenly think the phrase is "tow the line", thus obscuring the meaning.
This term comes from military line-ups for inspection. Soldiers are expected to line up, that is put their toes on a line, and submit to the inspection.
Alternatively but similar, the space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called "oakum" and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, is a series of parallel lines a half foot or so apart, running the length of the deck. Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters -- that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.

Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship's boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time. Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment. From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to "toe the line."

Thanks to Donald R. Swartz

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Tying the Knot - Tying the knot of the ropes in the marriage bed.
James in Japan writes: ... the priest performing the wedding would bind the bride and grooms hands with rope during the ceremony. In modern day, you will often see the priest place a sash around their hands rather than rope, and it is from this that the saying comes. Although the practice is not as common as it was, depending on your denomination it is still done.
Karen: This is also from the old marriage custom of actually tying the couple's hands together as part of the ceremony. They were not allowed to untie it until they had consummated the marriage.
Claudie wrote: A Swedish exchange student told me that illiterate sailors and soldiers of yesteryear would send a piece of rope to their sweethearts when they wanted to get married. If the rope came back with a knot in it, that meant she said "yes" to the marriage proposal. He demonstrated this by tying two ornate knots in a length of rope. When the ends were pulled, the knots came together in the middle. Even if this isn't the origin of the expression, it was a charming demonstration.
Mike wrote: Having recently attended a Hindu wedding it would seem that the phrase is a quite literal one where the bride and groom each tie a necklace of flowers to consummate the marriage.
 

Tantalise

Meaning - to tease or torment by holding out some desirable object and continually disappointing those wanting it by keeping it out of reach.
Origin - this word originates in Greek mythology with - 'Tantalos' - the mythical King of Phriygia and son of Zeus and the Nymph Pluto. For revealing the secrets of the Gods to mere human mortals, he was condemned to stand up to his chin in water, which perceptually shrunk away when he attempted to quench his thirst. He had branches of fruit hanging above him that always evaded his grasp hanging just out of reach when he was hungry.
 

Getting Tanked - When you drank too much out of your "tankard" of beer you were said to be "tanked" ... if you got so "tanked" that you passed out, there was a chance that somebody might think you had actually died. Since back then they didn't have experience with taking pulses, they often buried people alive who were actually in a drunken stupor or otherwise comatose.

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Showing your True Colours
Meaning: To reveal your true intentions, personality, or behaviours.
Example: Everyone is on best behaviour on the first date, but soon enough they will show their true colours.
Origin: Colour(s) has numerous meanings. An early use of the word is flag, pennant, or badge.
Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true colours or national ensigns (flags) before firing a shot.

Someone who finally "shows his true colours" is acting like a warship which hails another ship when flying one flag, but then hoisted their own when they get within firing range.

Thanks to Donald R. Swartz

See the related phrase "passed with flying colours".

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Touch Wood - Knock on Wood

To touch wood is a superstition action to ward off any evil consequences, say of untimely boasting; it can also be a charm to bring good luck. The origin is quite unknown, though some writers have pointed to pre-Christian rituals involving the spirits of sacred trees such as the oak, ash, holly or hawthorn. There is, I'm told, an old Irish belief that you should knock on wood to let the little people know that you are thanking them for a bit of good luck. Others have sought a meaning in which the wood symbolises the timber of the cross, but this may be a Christianisation of an older ritual. The children's game of tag in which you are only safe so long as you are touching wood is not likely to be connected (an indicator of this may be that at times iron was substituted for wood if there was no wood handy). The phrase itself seems to be modern, as the oldest citation for touch wood in the Oxford English Dictionary dates only from 1908; my searches haven't turned up anything earlier. (Incidentally, that work doesn't have a single example of knock on wood, which is the American version of the British touch wood.)

 
Toss Pot
My own understanding:
I always understood the term to describe the losers in a drinking contest, often the favourite pastime of sailors on shore leave in the 18th century. Each contestant who, through having had too much to drink, could no longer find his mouth when trying to drink his "pot of beer", ended up tossing it all over himself - hence a "Toss Pot".

Kathy wrote to say:
a "toss pot" derives from someone who drinks fast - i.e. tosses it
down! Don't have an actual source, it's one of those terms that has been in
use for a very long time.

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Under the weather - Meaning: To be ill.
Example: I'd love to help you move all your furniture next weekend, but I expect to be feeling a bit under the weather.
Origin: Passengers aboard ships become seasick most frequently during times of rough seas and bad weather. Seasickness is caused by the constant rocking motion of the ship. Sick passengers go below deck, which provides shelter from the weather, but just as importantly the sway is not as great below deck, low on the ship.
On a ship the greatest swaying action is on deck, and the most stable point is down near the keel. Hence seasick passengers tend to feel better below deck.

More likely - is this Comment from Frank: "Under the weather" is a nautical term that was originated, I believe, in the British navy. When a sailor was ill, he was kept below decks, and thus, under the weather. (The upper deck being known as the 'weather deck' open to all weather) - Thanks to Joel Finkel

Some illnesses like rheumatism and arthritis act during time of poor weather. Sufferers from those ailments are literally under the influence of the weather - Thanks to John Gold

 
The insulting 'V' sign.
Meaning - The "V" sign (consisting of sticking up the two first fingers on the hand, with the palm facing towards you) is used throughout Britain as an insult.
Origin - These are a little hazy and steeped in myth. The most well-known origin dates back to the Battle of Agincourt between the armies of the English and French kings. The English bowmen were an important part of their kings army and the French king decided that any captured English soldier was to have his first two fingers cut off, to prevent him from being able to use a longbow. As an act of defiance against the French generally, the English came to stick their two (attached) bow-fingers at them - a way of saying "we can still fire our longbows at you" (or more generally, just be mean "go stuff yourself!" or stronger). Over the years, this simply became a general way of insulting people in the British Isles.
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Walter - The rolling of the sea in a storm. [1400's]. Of a ship, to be tossed on the waves; [1300's to 1500's]. Of the sea Tempestuous. - James Murry's New English Dictionary, 1928.
 
Weeting - Stale urine is so called because in the process of manufacture, cloth is wetted with that liquid when sent to the mill, the object being to bring out the grease. Weeting is also called lecking. There are instances of persons using this substance instead of soap, even for washing themselves. - Alfred Easther's Glossary of Almondbury and Huddersfield 1883.
Not many years ago, this was employed very largely in the process of fulling, and it was carefully preserved by every means that could be adopted. The woollen factories used to supply to any householder who would receive it and undertake to save the [urine], a tub or vat for the purpose, (See "taking the piss") and moreover paid an annual sum to the good wife for doing so. - Frederick Elworthy's West Somerset Word-book, 1888
 
Wherry - A small boat such as is commonly used for carrying passengers, probably so called of ''to hurry', from its swiftness. - Nathaniel Bailey's Etymological Ebglish Dictionary, 1749.
 
Wild Goose Chase

Meaning: -A fruitless search (usually one where a person has been purposely given bad directions or information)

Origin/date: - First used in a Shakespeare play Romeo & Juliet in 1592.

Englishmen in the late 16th century invented a new kind of horse race called the wild-goose chase in which the lead horse could go off in any direction and the succeeding horses had to follow accurately the course of the leader at precise intervals, like wild geese following the leader in formation. At first the phrase 'wild-goose chase' figuratively meant an erratic course taken by one person and followed by another; Shakespeare used it in this sense. But later the common term's origins were forgotten and a 'wild-goose chase' came to mean 'a pursuit of anything as unlikely to be caught as a wild goose,' any foolish, fruitless, or hopeless quest." From the "Encyclopaedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

 
To be able to read - The Writing on the Wall
Sixty two miles south of Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, lies the ruins of one of the most powerful and greatest cities in the history of the world, Babylon. In September 539 BC, Babylon was the fabled heart of the legendary Babylonian empire. The city was considered militarily impregnable. It had walls that Herodotus claims were 15 miles in circumference, sixty feet high, and thick enough to race six chariots abreast on top of the walls. The mighty Euphrates river flowed through the center of the city, providing virtually unlimited water in the event of a siege. Vast storehouses of food and even growing space existed within the city walls. On October 10, 539 BC Belshazzar, the co-regent of Babylon, was informed the mighty armies of Cyrus the Persian were raiding Babylonian territory. Rather than prepare, Belshazzar threw a great party for the nobles and intelligentsia of the city. After all, the city was unconquerable, so why worry? After a lavish celebration full of debauchery, King Belshazzar was terrified to see a disembodied hand scrawling a cryptic message on the wall of his royal banquet hall. He was so scared, he offered to make anyone who could interpret the message the third most powerful man in the Babylonian kingdom. The conventional astrologers, soothsayers, and analysts could not decipher the text, as it was in code form and also in another language. The famous Hebrew prophet Daniel was brought in to read the cryptic scrawlings on the wall before the king and his court. Daniel understood, and told Belshazzar his kingdom had been weighed and was found wanting, and that Babylon would be taken by the Persians that very night. Belshazzar, of course, was in a state of disbelief and denial until he was executed several hours later by the Persians. Cyrus, a military genius, had his army divert the Euphrates river into a Babylonian canal system in the north. The river water level dropped to thigh level under the walls of Babylon, and Cyrus's general Ugbaru and his troops were able to walk in and subdue the greatest city in history without a battle.
 
Getting the - Wrong end (or the shitty end) of the stick
This saying comes from the usage of the toilets in Norman castles. These were slopped holes out of the castle in the outer walls into the moat, down the wall. Once a person had "dumped" they took a hand full of straw and threw it onto their waste and took a stick and pocked it all out and replaced the stick for the next person............who had to grab the RIGHT end of the stick!
 
 
 
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