Dictionary of Clichés - O
also: Ockham’s razor
The simplest explanation of something is apt to be the correct one. This principle is named for the English scholar William of Occam (or Ockham), who lived from 1280 to 1349. A Franciscan monk, he so angered Pope John XXII through both his writings on the nature of knowledge and his defense of his order’s vow of poverty that he was excommunicated. William, whom his colleagues called Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis (“singular and invincible doctor”), put his principle in Latin: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, “Entities should not be unnecessarily multiplied.” In effect, he held that any unnecessary parts of a subject being analyzed should be eliminated. Obviously, this could simply be called Occam’s Principle, and indeed, the razor did not enter into it until a French philosopher, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, in 1746 called it Rasoir des Nominaux, “the razor of the nominalists,” that is, cutting through complicated arguments to reach the truth. In 1836 Sir William Hamilton, lecturing on metaphysics and logic, put the two ideas together, saying, “We are therefore entitled to apply Occam’s razor to this theory of causality.” While some may believe that this phrase, with its ancient and rather abstruse origin, is obsolete, novelist Archer Mayor clearly disagreed, for he entitled his 1999 murder mystery Occam’s Razor.
odd man out
One of a group who is not selected or included, or who differs markedly from the others. At first applied only to persons, the term later was extended also to inanimate objects, as in “This checkered tablecloth is odd man out in a formal dining room.”
odds and ends
Fragments and remnants; a miscellaneous collection. This term may have originated as odd ends, meaning short leftovers from bolts of cloth. It was transferred to miscellany of other kinds by the mid-sixteenth century, and by the mid-eighteenth century it had become the modern cliché.
odor of sanctity, the
A reputation for holiness.Today generally used ironically, for extreme or hypocritical piety, this term is based on the medieval notion that the dead body of a saintly person gives off a sweet smell. From this came, “He died in the odor of sanctity,” meaning he died a saint, which later was extended to mean saintliness in general. G. K. Chesterton used it in his poem “A Song of Self-Esteem”—“The Faith of Tennessee has wafted o’er the sea, the odour of its sanctity—and Golly how it stank!”—in which he derided the prosecution of John Scopes in 1925 for teaching evolution in his class at the Dayton (Tennessee) High School.
off again, on again
Intermittently; at intervals. Also, capricious, fickle. This nineteenth-century Americanism was originally a railroad term referring to minor mishaps, in which a train went off track and then back on again. It was reinforced by a popular song of about 1910, “Finnigin to Flannigan,” by Strickland Gillilan, which went, “Bilin’ down his repoort, wuz Finnigin! An’ he writed this here: ‘Muster Flannigan—Off agin, on agin, Gone again.—FINNIGIN.’” Today the term is frequently applied to romantic and other relationships characterized by intermittence. It is, of course, a version of off and on, current since the mid-nineteenth century.
Mistaken, incorrect, wrong.This term dates from the first half of the 1900s and alludes to baseball, where a runner whose foot is not touching a base may be put out. John Steinbeck used it in In Dubious Battle (1936): “If they can catch us off base, they’ll bounce us.”
off one’s head, rocker, etc.
See GO OFF ONE’S HEAD.
off the beam
See ON THE BEAM.
off the beaten track
See BEATEN TRACK.
off the cuff
Extemporaneously, impromptu. This term allegedly comes from the practice of after-dinner speakers making notes for a speech on the cuff of their shirtsleeve at the last minute, as opposed to preparing a speech well beforehand. It originated in America in the 1930s. See also OFF THE TOP OF ONE’S HEAD.
off the deep end, to go
To overreact; to let one’s emotions carry one away. The “deep end” presumably means the deep water at the end of a swimming pool, which it is rash to enter unless one can swim. The term became current in the early twentieth century. “There’s no reason for your going off the deep end,” wrote Kathleen Knight (Rendezvous with the Past, 1940).
off the hook, to get/to be let
To escape from some difficulty.The analogy is to throwing a fish one has caught back into the water, saving its life. The term on the hook goes back to the seventeenth century; the current cliché dates only from the mid-1800s. Anthony Trollope used it (The Small House at Allington, 1864): “Poor Caudle . . . he’s hooked, and he’ll never get himself off the hook again.”
off the record
In confidence; unofficially. This twentieth-century expression became current in America in mid-century, used with increasing frequency by public officials giving the media information that was not for publication. Ultimately, it probably stems from an older legal term whereby a courtroom judge directs that certain evidence be struck from the court record (because it is irrelevant or improper), and at the same time instructs the jury to disregard it. See also FOR THE RECORD.
off the reservation
Beyond acceptable limits. This term, which dates from about 1900, alludes to Native Americans who leave their assigned tracts of land, which could be dangerous. In politics, according to William Safire, to go off the reservation acquired a special meaning: to refuse to support a party’s candidate but still remain in the party. President Harry S. Truman so used it in referring to Southern Democrats who refused to support Al Smith in the 1928 election, thereby gaining support for Herbert Hoover.
off the top of one’s head
Extemporaneously, impromptu; impetuously. A mid-twentieth-century Americanism, the term appeared in Harold L. Ickes’s Secret Diary (1939): “He was impetuous and inclined to think off the top of his head at times.” Author June Drummond (Junta, 1989) wrote: “‘And then, you just acted off the top of your head.’ Richard half-smiled. ‘You know I have that failing.’”
off the wall
Extremely unconventional, unorthodox, eccentric. This expression, which dates from about 1960, probably alludes to the erratic path of a ball bounced against a wall in a sport like squash or racquetball, as in “Answering multiple-choice questions by writing in new and different choices, that’s off the wall.”
of that ilk
Of the same kind or class. The word ilk is now rarely used (except in Scotland) other than in this cliché, which is actually a twisting of the original meaning. It comes from the Old English ilca, meaning “the same,” and is correctly used only in referring to a person whose last name is the same as that of his estate; for example, Cawdor of that ilk means “Cawdor of Cawdor.”
of the first magnitude/order/water
See FIRST MAGNITUDE.
oil on troubled waters
See POUR OIL ON TROUBLED WATERS.
old as the hills, (as)
Very old indeed. The term refers, presumably, to geological time, when mountains were first formed, but one writer suggests a relation to a biblical passage: “Art thou the first man that was born? or wast thou made before the hills” (Job 15:7). The expression dates from about 1800 and was used by Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, among others. See also AS OLDASADAM; FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL.
old-boy network, the
Social contacts among a group of insiders who help one another advance.The term old boy, originally British, refers specifically to a former pupil at one’s own public school, signifying a common background (upper-class male) and therefore a mutually beneficial interest. Although the practice of fellow alumni helping one another is much older, network was added only in the mid-twentieth century, when the idea began to be transferred to members of a social club, professional organization, business corporation, and other groups. Long an exclusively male province, it came under vigorous attack from about 1970 on by women who maintained it gave men an unfair advantage in the workplace.
A stale joke, anecdote, or adage. This term has a specific source, the play The Broken Sword by William Dimond, first produced in 1816.The principal character, a Captain Xavier, constantly repeats the same stories, one of which involves a cork tree. Pablo, another character, interrupts, saying, “Chestnut, you mean, captain. I have heard you tell the joke twenty-seven times, and I am sure it was a chestnut.” The play has long since been forgotten, but the term survives, and has itself become an old chestnut.
Unflattering names for an elderly man. Old codger, dating from the mid-1700s, may imply that he is testy or crusty, whereas old coot, from the mid-1800s, indicates he is silly or ignorant. As for an old fogy, he may be hidebound in tradition. None of these is a desirable epithet, or, as Terrel Bell put it, “There’s only one thing worse than an old fogy, and that’s a young fogy” (commencement address at Longwood College, Virginia, June 17, 1985). A newer and decidedly vulgar synonym is old fart, dating from the first half of the 1900s. Phil Donahue said it of himself on his NBC television show in 1992: “I didn’t always look like an old fart like this.”
old college try, (give it) the
Do the best you can, even if you think it’s a hopeless cause. This slangy Americanism dates from the 1930s when college football films became very popular in the United States. The phrase was one of the cheers intended to urge on a team that was falling behind or facing overwhelming odds. Transferred to other endeavors, it came to be used more or less ironically.
old enough to know better
Mature enough to have good judgment.This phrase, sometimes completed with but young enough to learn, dates from the nineteenth century. Oscar Wilde played with it in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892): “My experience is that as soon as people are old enough to know better, they don’t know anything at all.”
The established, conservative members of any movement or party, who tend to resist any change.The term is a translation of Vieille Garde (French for “old guard”), the name given to Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, who were the elite veteran regiments of his army and intensely loyal to him. It was they who made the last French charge at Waterloo. The name began to be used for American political conservatives in the early 1840s.
Outmoded, old-fashioned, uninteresting. The term, it has been suggested by several writers, comes from the fact that hats go out of style long before they are actually worn out. The term began to be used figuratively during the late nineteenth century. Shaw used it in Platform and Pulpit (1932): “If I mention that sort of thing I am told that is old hat.”
A proverb, maxim, or adage. This term comes from a much older meaning for saw, derived from the Old English sagu and meaning just about the same as “saying.” The “old” here is not necessarily derogatory, rather signifying “wise.” Thomas Cooper in his Thesaurus (1565) defined a proverb as “an olde sayed sawe.”
old stamping ground
A favorite or habitual haunt. This Americanism dates from the eighteenth century and originally referred to a place where horses or cattle were gathered together (presumably stamping down the ground with their hooves). By the early 1800s it had been transferred to a gathering place for human beings. D. Dunklin used it in an 1821 letter: “It is unnecessary to undertake to give you any details of affairs in your old stamping ground.”
old wives’ tale
A superstitious story. This term actually dates back to Plato, who repeated the phrase in a number of writings and was so cited by Erasmus. In English a version of it appeared in John Trevisa’s translation of Polycronicon, “And useth telynges as olde wifes dooth” (1387), and then began to be used frequently from the sixteenth century on. “These are trifles and mere old wives’ tales” wrote Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus (c. 1589). Arnold Bennett used it as the title of a novel (1908), and this sex- and age-biased cliché persists to the present day.
on an even keel
In stable condition, well balanced.The keel is a structure in the bottom of a vessel’s hull, extending along its full length and forming, in effect, its backbone. A boat is said to be on an even keel when it rides flat in the water, without tilting to either side. The image was extended to human affairs in the mid-nineteenth century.
on a/the rampage
Violently excited; furious. This term appears to have come from the Old Scots verb to ramp, meaning “to storm and rage.” The current cliché was known in the mid-nineteenth century. Dickens used it in Great Expectations (1861), in which Joe Gargery tells the hero, “On the Rampage, Pip, and Off the Rampage, Pip; such is Life!”
on a roll
Enjoying a series of successes or a run of good luck.This expression, which alludes to successful rolling of dice, dates from the second half of the 1900s. Brian Fremantle used it in Dead Men Living (2000), “As Charlie headed south across the river . . . he thought happily that when you’re on a roll you’re on a roll, and it was one of the better feelings.”
on a shoestring
On a strict budget; with very limited means.The source of this term is not wholly clear. One writer suggests it comes from one’s resources being limited to shoelaces. In Exeter, England, there is a legend that prisoners confined in debtor’s prison would lower a shoe from the window to collect money so they could get out of prison, a tale appealing to tourists but far-fetched. The likeliest explanation is the physical nature of a shoelace—that is, a very slender cord or string, which became a metaphor for slender resources stretched to their utmost. It originated (according to the OED) in America in the late nineteenth century. A 1904 issue of Cosmopolitan stated, “He speculated on a shoestring—an exceedingly small margin.”
once and for all
Finally and decisively.This phrase, literally meaning “this one final time which will serve forever,” dates from the fifteenth century.The earliest appearance in print is in William Caxton’s translation of the Foure Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489): “We oughte to ask it of hym ones for all.”
once bitten, twice shy
One injury will make one extra cautious in the future. This proverbial saying appears to date from the mid-nineteenth century, although the idea is centuries older. William Scarborough’s version of Chinese Proverbs (1875) stated, “Once bitten by a snake in passing by, a second time he will of grass be shy.”
once in a blue moon
Very rarely; once in a long while.The earliest reference to a blue moon is skeptical, as well it might be: “Yf they saye the mone is blewe, we must believe that it is true” (Roy and Barlow, Rede Me and Be Not Wrothe, 1528). An early reference to the moon as a time period occurred in Thomas Dekker’s A Knight’s Conjuring (1607): “She would have trickes (once in a moone) to put the divell out of his wits.” The pairing of the two came only in the nineteenth century: “That indefinite period known as a ‘blue moon’” (Edmund Yates, Wrecked in Port, 1869). Modern astronomers now say “blue moon” refers to the occurrence a fourth full moon in a season, in addition to the usual three.
on cloud nine, to be sitting
To be blissfully happy. Some writers believe this expression began as being on cloud seven, akin to being in SEVENTH HEAVEN. Others feel nine has legitimacy in its own right, since it has been a mystical number since the times of the ancient Greeks. Nine is a trinity of trinities (3 x 3), and a trinity itself represents a perfect unity. In any event, the cliché dates only from the mid-twentieth century.
one fell swoop
See AT ONE FELL SWOOP.
one foot in the grave
On the verge of death.This graphic hyperbole was already being used in the sixteenth century, when William Painter wrote (The Pallace of Pleasure, 1566), “Takyng paines to visite him, who hath one of his feet alreadie within the graue, and the other stepping after with conuenient speede.”
one for the road
One last drink (alcoholic). Eric Partridge believed the term originated with traveling salesmen who applied it either to one last drink after a night’s carousing or to one more drink before one literally set out “on the road” to see more customers. Originating early in the twentieth century, it is heard less often today, at least in America, where heavy drinking is increasingly frowned upon, especially for drivers.
one good turn deserves another
I owe you for the favor you did me previously. This adage, usually said by a person returning a favor, dates as far back as c. 1400, appearing in a Latin manuscript of that period, and by the mid-sixteenth century it was part of John Heywood’s proverb collection.
A person able to perform many different tasks well. The literal term applies to a musician who can play many instruments, sometimes even simultaneously. In one of his shows the composer and musical humorist Peter Schickele blew a bassoon while at the same time playing the piano with one hand or elbow. The term dates from the 1800s. The Burlington (Iowa) Hawk-Eye had it on July 1, 1876: “The one-man band, comprising drums, cymbals, violin, and a squeaking pipe . . . had one thing to recommend it. You can kill the drummer and thus obliterate the whole band.” The term is also applied to multitalented individuals in other fields.
one man’s meat is another’s poison
See NO ACCOUNTING FOR TASTES.
A single performance or sexual encounter. This term comes from the days of touring theater companies, who would perform for only one night in a town that was likely to provide the audience for only one engagement. By the mid-twentieth century it had been transferred not only to other one-time performances of various kinds but also, in colloquial usage, to a single sexual encounter that was unlikely to be repeated by the same couple and therefore implied some promiscuity.
one on one
A direct encounter between two persons.This expression was transferred to general use from several sports. In basketball it signifies an informal game with just two players. It also means the standard form of defense, in which one player guards one opponent. In football it similarly means a player covering (or being covered by) a single opponent. About 1960 it began to be used for nonathletic encounters, as in “Dean never liked a big party; he preferred social events where he could be one on one.”
one picture is worth a thousand words
A graphic illustration communicates more meaning than a verbal one. In the December 8, 1921, issue of Printers’ Ink Fred R. Barnard wrote, “One look is worth a thousand words.” Six years later (March 10, 1927) he changed it to “One picture is worth a thousand words,” and, so that it would be taken seriously, said it was an ancient Chinese proverb. Since then other writers have indeed cited a Chinese proverb that holds one picture to be worth ten thousand words, but the evidence for this origin (since none cites a source) is obscure. Nevertheless, the statement became a cliché.
one swallow does not make a summer
A single portent or element of something does not mean the totality is here. This ancient adage, known already in Greek times, may come from one of Aesop’s fables. A swallow emerges on a warmer-than-usual winter day, and a young man, seeing it, sells his warm cloak and spends the proceeds on drink and carousing. The following week, the weather turns cold again, and he, shivering without his cloak, discovers that one swallow did not mean summer had arrived. Appearing in many proverb collections and in numerous languages, along with numerous variants (One grain does not fill a sack, one actor cannot make a play, and the like), the term was defined by George Pettie in 1576: “As one swallow does not make sommer, so one particularity concludeth no generality.”
one-track mind, to have a
To be focused on a single issue, action, or undertaking; to be unable to take on more than one thing at a time. This cliché refers to the single-track railway line, which allows traffic in only one direction at a time. In a 1917 speech President Woodrow Wilson said, “I have a single-track mind,” one of the early figurative uses of the term.
on one’s high horse, to be
To put on airs; to behave arrogantly. As long ago as the fourteenth century, persons of high rank rode very tall horses, a custom that came to symbolize superiority and arrogance. By 1800 or so, to be or to get on one’s high horse meant to act superior, with or without justification.
on one’s last legs, to be
To be extremely tired or about to collapse; near the end. Despite the implication, this term never meant that legs were in any way serial—that is, beginning with the first and ending with the last. Rather, it uses last meaning “near the end” (of one’s energy or life). The expression was already used in the sixteenth century; it appears in the play The Old Law (1599) by Thomas Middleton and Philip Massinger: “My husband goes upon his last hour now—on his last legs, I am sure.” In John Ray’s Proverbs (1678) the term is defined as meaning “bankrupt,” and since then it has been transferred to anything nearing its end or about to fail, as in, “This cliché may be on its last legs.”
on one’s toes, to be
To be fully alert, ready to act. The metaphor of the dancer or runner poised on tiptoe, prepared to go, has been applied to any kind of readiness since the early twentieth century. John Dos Passos used it in Three Soldiers (1921): “If he just watched out and kept on his toes, he’d be sure to get it.”
on pins and needles, to be
To be extremely nervous or uneasy; in suspense.The image is as clear as that of a CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Robert Louis Stevenson appears to have been the first to use it metaphorically, in St. Ives (1897): “He was plainly on pins and needles.” It was a cliché by the mid-twentieth century. See also ON TENTERHOOKS.
on second thought
After reconsidering. This phrase, which often precedes announcing a change of opinion or decision, has been around for centuries. Many writers have proclaimed that second thoughts are superior to first; Euripides, Cicero, Sir Francis Bacon, and John Dryden all held that “Second thoughts are best.” Almost as many others have disagreed and maintained that second thoughts are markedly inferior, among them Lord Byron, Robert Fitzgerald, and the Earl of Shaftesbury (1711): “Men’s first thoughts are generally better than their second.”
on tenterhooks, to be
In a state of painful suspense.The frame on which newly woven cloth was stretched was called a tenter and the hooks used to hold the cloth in place thus were tenterhooks. Tobias Smollett appears to have been the first to use the term metaphorically: “I left him upon the tenterhooks of impatient uncertainty” (The Adventures of Roderick Random, 1748). Clothmaking has changed, and “tenterhook” today survives only in the cliché.
on the ball
Efficient and/or effective. This American colloquialism is believed to come from baseball, where the pitcher who puts spin or speed on the ball is apt to strike out more batters. It was being transferred to mean any kind of competence by 1912, when an article in Collier’s stated, “He’s got nothing on the ball.”
on the bandwagon, to get/climb/hop
To join the cause, movement, or party. The original bandwagon was a horse-drawn wagon bearing a brass band, used in a circus parade. In the second half of the nineteenth century such wagons began to be used in political campaigns as well, accompanying a candidate on speech-making tours. During William Jennings Bryan’s presidential campaign of 1900 the term began to be extended to mean supporting the movement itself. It also was used in Britain: “The Mirror . . . does not jump on bandwagons . . . it isn’t, never has been, and never will be a tin can tied to a political party’s tail” (Daily Mirror, 1966; cited by William Safire).
on the beam
On course; on the right track. This colloquialism originated about the mid-twentieth century, when aircraft began to be directed by radio beams. Its converse is off the beam, meaning “wrong” or “incorrect.” Both expressions began to be transferred to other enterprises almost at once.
on the carpet, to be/call/put
To be reproved or interrogated by one’s superior. In the eighteenth century a carpet was also a table cover, and to put something on the carpet meant for it to be on the table—that is, under discussion. However, to walk on the carpet meant, in the early nineteenth century, to be reprimanded, as generally only employers or gentry used carpeted floors, and a servant who did so was being summoned for a reproof. By the late nineteenth century carpets were exclusively floor coverings, but still confined to the rooms of the rich, highborn, or employers. Presumably they sometimes summoned underlings for other purposes than reprimand, but only that meaning survived, as in G. H. Lorimer’s 1902 letter: “The boss of the canning-room [will be] called on the carpet” (Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to His Son).
on the dot
Exactly on time. The dot in question is the minute indication on the face of a clock or watch.The term has been around since about 1900. Rex Stout used it often to describe his compulsively punctual detective, Nero Wolfe, as in Champagne for One (1958): “At six, on the dot as always, Wolfe entered.”
on the fast track
See FAST LANE.
on the fence, to be/sit
To be undecided or uncommitted. This term dates from the early nineteenth century and conjures up the image of a person who cannot or will not decide to which side of the fence to jump. At first the term was most frequently applied to politics—that is, which candidate or party one would support—and indeed it was even so defined in John Bartlett’s 1859 Dictionary of Americanisms: “Fenceriding: The practice of ‘sitting on the fence,’ or remaining neutral in a political contest until it can be seen ‘which way the cat is going to jump.’” Subsequently the term began to be applied to any kind of hedging.
on the fly
Hurriedly, on the run.This expression originally meant “on the wing,” that is, in flight, and was being used figuratively by the mid-1800s. An article in The Nation stated, “He may be said to have caught the Melanesian people on the fly” (Aug. 4, 1892).
on the fritz
Out of commission; broken. No one really knows the origin of this term, which has been used since about 1900. Everyone agrees that Fritz was a derogatory name for a German, but how—or even if—it became equated with disrepair has been forgotten. P. G.Wodehouse used it in Bill the Conqueror (1924): “Everything’s on the fritz nowadays.”
on the go, to be
To be extremely active and busy. Formerly used to mean a variety of conditions, among them intoxication and imminent catastrophe, this term acquired its present meaning in the first half of the nineteenth century.Thomas B.Aldrich used it in Prudence Palfrey (1874): “Ever since the day we said good-bye . . . I have been on the go.”
on the hustings
Campaigning for office. The noun hustings comes from the Old Norse husthing, for house assembly, which meant a council held by a king or other leader that included his immediate followers (rather than a large assembly of the people). In England husting became a court of law, specifically the highest court of the City of London. Eventually it was transferred, in the plural, to the platform where the city officials sat, and later still to the platform from which candidates for Parliament were nominated. From this last sense came its current meaning of the candidates’ platform for campaign speeches, or simply campaigning. A synonymous phrase with a far simpler history is on the stump. An Americanism dating from the 1700s, it alludes to a tree stump used as a platform by a frontiersman making a speech.
on the level, to be
Honest, straightforward, and sincere. An American colloquialism originating in the late nineteenth century, this term may have come from Freemasonry, in which the carpenter’s level symbolizes integrity. Ngaio Marsh used it in a 1936 novel (Death in Ecstasy), “He’s on the level all right.”
on the loose
Not constrained by responsibilities, free to indulge oneself. This seemingly modern slangy expression dates from the mid-1700s, when it could also mean to live by prostitution. That may or not have been intended by John Cleland when he wrote, “The giddy wildness of young girls once got upon the loose” (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1749).
on the make, to be
Actively seeking personal gain of some kind (financial, social, or the like); also, specifically looking for sexual conquest. An American slang expression of the second half of the nineteenth century, it refers to financial gain in Sir James Barrie’s play, What Every Woman Knows (1918): “There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.” The even slangier use for sexual conquest became popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
QT Clandestinely, secretly. This slangy expression, dating from the late 1800s, uses QT as an abbreviation for “quiet.” George Moore had it in A Mummer’s Wife (1887), “It will be possible to have one spree on the strict Q.T.”
on the rocks, to be
Ruined, either financially or in some other way. This term comes from a ship that has run aground on rocks and will break into pieces unless it can be hauled or floated off in time. The term began to be used as a metaphor for other disasters in the late nineteenth century. A common modern application appears in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955): “When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right there [pointing to the bed].” A more recent meaning for on the rocks is for a beverage, usually containing liquor, that is served over ice cubes (“rocks”).
on the ropes, to be
To be on the brink of collapse or ruin. The term comes from boxing, where a fighter who is on the ropes surrounding the ring is in a defenseless position, often leaning against them to keep from falling. It began to be transferred to other catastrophic situations about 1960. A Boston Globe article used it in 1988: “He acknowledged that the Dukakis campaign was on the ropes.”
on the same page, to be
To be in complete agreement. This term, from the second half of the 1900s, alludes to reading from the same page of a book. It has largely replaced the earlier on the same wavelength, which alluded to the radio waves of a broadcast and dates from the first half of the 1900s. The newer version appears in David Baldacci’s Hour Game (2004), “We need to coordinate and keep each other informed. We all need to be on the same page.”
on the side of the angels, to be
Supporting the good side. This expression comes from a speech by Benjamin Disraeli (1864) concerning the problems raised by Darwin’s theory that mankind is descended from apes: “The question is this: Is man an ape or an angel? Now I am on the side of the angels.” The phrase was later extended to mean siding with goodness and upholding the moral or spiritual view.
on the sly
Secretly, furtively. This early-nineteenth-century term appeared in a letter of John Keats’s (1818): “It might have been a good joke to pour on the sly bottle after bottle into a washing tub.” It remains current.
on the spot
Immediately, at once; also, in a very difficult situation. Both meanings are several hundred years old. “If once they get you on the spot you must be guilty of the plot,” wrote Jonathan Swift in 1723 (To Charles Ford, Esq.), clearly meaning a bad situation.To put someone on the spot, however, appears to be an American locution of the twentieth century, and in gangster slang meant marking someone for execution.The other meaning—at once or immediately—dates from the nineteenth century. “I couldn’t stand it, sir, at all, but up and kissed her on the spot,” wrote poet William Pitt Palmer (1805–84) in “The Smack in School.” This meaning also gave rise to JOHNNY-ON-THE-SPOT.
on the spur of the moment
Spontaneously and impulsively, without deliberation. This figure of speech, which likens the right time (the moment) to the goading action of spur to horse, dates from the late eighteenth century. Archibald Duncan used it in Lord Nelson’s Funeral (1806): “The contrivance of Mr.Wyatt, on the spur of the moment.”
on the tip of one’s tongue
Ready to say something but unable to remember it precisely. This graphic image was stated early in the eighteenth century by Daniel Defoe (Moll Flanders, 1722): “She had arguments at the tip of her tongue.” However, a similar term that is even older had quite a different meaning: at one’s tongue’s end meant that one could not keep from saying something but blurted it out. Thus, “Having always at her tongue’s end that excellent proverb” (Henry Fielding, Amelia, 1751) meant she could not stop repeating it. This version is obsolete, but “on the tip of the tongue” has been a cliché since about 1850.
on the up and up
Honest, frank, and sincere; legitimate. Literally this term makes little sense; why should “higher and higher” mean OPEN AND ABOVEBOARD? One writer speculates that something that is “up” can be clearly seen. Despite unclear analogy, the term has been around since the mid-nineteenth century, mainly in America. Dashiell Hammett used it in Red Harvest (1929): “He phoned . . . to find out if the check was on the up and up.”
on the wagon, to be
To refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages. This term began life as being on the water wagon, referring to the horse-drawn water cart used to spray dirt roads in order to keep down the dust. The metaphor for abstaining from liquor originated about the turn of the century. It was given a definition (“To be on the water wagon, to abstain from hard drinks”) in Dialect Notes of 1904. B. J.Taylor used it in Extra Dry (1906): “It is better to have been on and off the Wagon than never to have been on at all.” To resume drinking is also put as to fall off the wagon.
on the warpath, to be/go
To be infuriated enough to seek out the person or agency responsible. This Native American term was used quite literally by James Fenimore Cooper in The Deerslayer (1841) to describe a character who had never engaged in battle (“He has never been on a warpath”). By the end of the nineteenth century it was loosely used to describe anyone on an angry rampage.
on thin ice, to be/skate
A hazardous course of action or conversation. “In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Prudence (1841). Literally, it is possible to skate over very thin ice without breaking through if one glides quickly enough, but Emerson was already using the expression figuratively.
on top of the world, to be
To feel elated; to be extremely successful. This metaphor for the peak of well-being dates from the early twentieth century. P. G. Wodehouse used it in Very Good, Jeeves! (1930): “If ever a bird [fellow] was sitting on top of the world, that bird was Bingo.”
onward and upward
Striving to advance and improve. This midnineteenth-century rallying cry was invoked by, among others, Frances Anne Kemble (1809–93) in her Lines addressed to the Young Gentlemen leaving the Lenox Academy, Massachusetts: “Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin, but onward, upward, till the goal ye win.” Today it is sometimes used ironically, as in the New Yorker magazine’s title for comments on unwittingly amusing news: “Onward and Upward with the Arts.”
open and aboveboard
Honest and fair. This term comes from the rule that players, when dealing cards, must keep their hands above the board (ifie., table). Presumably when they put their hands under the table they could be changing their own cards.The expression appeared in print as early as 1608, in Joseph Hall’s Virtues and Vices: “All his dealings are square, and aboue the board.” It has been so used ever since.
open arms, with
Extremely welcoming, very cordial. This term was used by Erasmus in the sixteenth century (in Latin). In English it appears from the seventeenth century on. Alexander Pope used it in his Epistle to Arbuthnot (1735): “With open arms received one Poet more.”
open book, like an
See OPEN SECRET; READ (SOMEONE) LIKE A BOOK.
The first move in a contest, game, or competition of some kind. The term comes from chess and is actually redundant, since in that game gambit signifies a way of opening the game that involves sacrificing a pawn or other piece in order to gain some advantage over one’s opponent. It was being used figuratively by the mid-1800s, and for some reason opening was added in later decades.
open question, an
An issue that has not been finally settled or determined.The adjective open has been so used since the early nineteenth century. The term acquired a specific meaning in the British Parliament: on open questions members may vote as they wish, independent of party. David Masson used it figuratively, as it often is today: “The summary decision of what had hitherto been an open question in the Church” (The Life of John Milton, 1859).
open secret, an
Something that is supposedly clandestine but is actually well known.This term was used as the Italian title of a play (Il pubblico secrete) translated by Carlo Gozzi in 1769 from a Spanish play by Calderón de la Barca, El secreto a voces (literally, “the noisy secret”). In English it came into general use in the nineteenth century for a secret in name only.
An effective means for achieving a desired goal. The term comes from the story about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (The Arabian Nights Entertainments, c. 1375), in which Ali Baba uses the words “Open, Sesame” to open the door of the robbers’ den. By 1800 or so the words had become synonymous with any password. For example, Sir Walter Scott wrote in a letter to Lord Dalkeith (Feb. 11, 1806), “Your notoriety becomes a talisman—an ‘Open Sesame’ before which everything gives way.”
order of the day, the
The agenda; the most important activity or issue. This term originated in the seventeenth century and was used both in the military, for specific commands given to the troops for the day, and in legislative bodies for the day’s agenda. By the late eighteenth century it was being used figuratively, as by George Washington, quoted as saying (1795), “Peace has been (to borrow a modern phrase) the order of the day.” The poet Howard Fish put it very cynically (The Wrongs of Man, 1819): “The good but pine; the order of the day is—prey on others, or become a prey.”
Isn’t that so? This rhetorical question always follows a statement and serves either to emphasize its truth or indicate that its answer is obvious. For example, “Is this fun or what?” says emphatically that this pursuit is fun. As a slangy usage, it dates from the 1960s. However, the phrase can also be the last choice among a series of options, and this usage dates from the mid-1700s. For example, a diary entry by John Adams in 1766 stated, “In what is this man conspicuous? in reasoning? imagination? in painting? in the pathetic? or what?”
other fish to fry
See FISH TO FRY.
other side of the coin, the
An alternative view; the opposite side. This metaphor has replaced the older other side of the medal/shield since about 1900.W. B.Yeats wrote, in a letter of 1904, “Cuchullain or The King’s Threshold are the other side of the half-penny.”
other things being equal
See ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL.
out and out
Thoroughly, wholly. This term preserves the old meaning of the adverb out as “to the conclusion” or “to an end” (from c. 1300). Chaucer used it in Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1374): “For out and out he is the worthiest, save only Ector.”
out in left field
Out of contact with reality; also, completely mistaken. The term refers to the left field of baseball, but there is some mystery as to how it acquired its current meaning. William Safire lists a number of theories, among them that in older, unsymmetrical ballparks, left field was deeper (and therefore farther from the batter) than right field; that the left fielder must play farther back when the batter is right-handed; and that at the Chicago Cubs’s old ballpark, the Neuropsychiatric Institute (a mental hospital) was located just behind the left field stands (leading to the implication that anyone out in left field was crazy). None of these theories has been verified, but most likely those concerning distance are closest to the mark, since it is often put as way out in left field. Used from about 1950 on, the term appeared in Publishers Weekly (1974): “Novak’s use of religious metaphor may put him in left field.”
out like a light
Suddenly asleep; unconscious. A mid-twentieth-century Americanism, it appeared in Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: “Bobby, I just can’t make it no further—and I passed out like a light.”
out of a clear (blue) sky
Unexpectedly, suddenly. The image of something dropping from the sky was transferred to sudden or surprising events in the late nineteenth century. “He dropped upon me suddenly out of a clear sky,” wrote W. E. Norris (Marietta’s Marriage, 1897). It also was put simply as out of the blue, “the blue” having signified the sky (or the sea) since the seventeenth century. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a letter in 1910, “I got an encouragement out of the blue . . . in the form of an honorary degree.”
out of harm’s way
In a safe place, away from possible accident or injury. This term dates from the mid-1600s. Richard Steele had it in The Spectator (1711) in what might well be hyperbolic form: “People send Children to school to keep them out of harm’s way.” Oddly enough the corollary, “in harm’s way,” never caught on.
out of kilter/whack
Out of adjustment or alignment, not working properly. Kilter is an American variant of kelter, an English dialect word used since the seventeenth century to mean “in good condition.” James Lowell used it in an 1862 letter, “I must rest awhile. My brain is out of kilter.” The origin of the synonymous out of whack, dating from the late 1800s, is more mysterious. The OED suggests it may come from wacky, for “crazy,” but that is by no means certain. Both terms are used to describe malfunctioning mechanisms (“This tape recorder is out of kilter and won’t rewind”) as well as figuratively (“He may have a conscience, but if you ask me, it’s slightly out of whack”).
out of sight, out of mind
What is absent is soon forgotten.This phrase has been proverbial since Homer’s time. The Greek poet had it in the Odyssey (c. 50 B.C.), and the earliest English appearance is in a 1501 translation of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. For the opposite sentiment, see ABSENCE MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER. Out of sight, a twentieth-century slangy expression meaning “Wonderful!” or “Beyond belief!” may become a cliché.
out of the blue
See OUT OF A CLEAR (BLUE) SKY.
out of the frying pan into the fire
From bad to much worse. This cliché, a proverb in many languages, was already known in the early sixteenth century, appearing in Sir Thomas More’s treatise on heresy (1528), “They lepe lyke a flounder out of the fryenge panne into the fyre.” Shaw used it in one of his cynical remarks: “We shall fall out of the frying-pan of the football club into the fire of the Sunday School” (The Revolutionist’s Handbook, 1903).
out of the mouths of babes
The young and innocent are often unexpectedly wise. This term originated in the Old and New Testaments. The Book of Psalms (8:2) has God ordaining strength out of the mouths of babes and sucklings; the Gospel of Matthew (21:16) has praise emerging from the same source. Over the centuries the meaning was changed to wisdom.
out of the running
Not competing; having no chance of winning. This term was transferred from racing to other endeavors in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Kingsley used it in Water-Babies (1863): “Which quite put her out of the running.”
out of the woods
Out of trouble or danger.The image of emerging from a dangerous forest goes back at least to Roman times.The playwright Plautus used it (in Menaechmi, c. 200 B.C.), as did other Roman writers. In Great Britain it is usually put as out of the wood.
out of whole cloth
A fabrication; untrue. From the mid-fifteenth century on, whole cloth meant a piece of cloth of full size, as opposed to one from which a portion had been cut.The term was used figuratively in various ways from the late sixteenth century on, and the current cliché came into use in the early 1800s. Lexicographer Charles Funk suggested that the turnaround came from the fact that some tailors deceived customers by using patched or pieced goods instead of a genuine full width of cloth. William Safire commented that by ironic transference the fabrication (cloth) was treated as another kind of fabrication (a lie). An early appearance in print came in Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Clockmaker (1840): “All that talk about her temper was made out of whole cloth. . . .What a fib!”
out on a limb
Stranded, exposed.The image of an animal crawling out on the branch of a tree and then afraid or unable to retreat was figuratively applied to other vulnerable conditions by the late nineteenth century. Marion Holbrook defined it further in Suitable for Framing (1941): “This is what they mean when they talk about being out on the end of a limb. Or painted into a corner.” See also TWIST IN THE WIND.
out the window
Discarded, gone forever. The transfer from objects thrown or dropped out of a window to ideas and other more ephemeral things took place in the seventeenth century. Dickens played with it in Pickwick Papers: “‘I am ruminating,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘on the strange mutability of human affairs.’—‘Ah, I see—in at the palace door one day, out at the window the next. Philosopher, sir?’—‘An observer of human nature, sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick.”
out to lunch
Extremely absentminded or stupid; also, crazy. The Science Digest of August 1955 defined this mid-twentieth-century slangy expression: “‘Out to lunch’ refers to someone who, in other years, just wasn’t ‘there’— and he is told immediately to ‘Get with it.’” See also the quotation under MEAN STREAK.
over a barrel
In a weak position; helpless, in someone’s power.This term allegedly was derived from the practice of reviving drowning victims by positioning them headfirst over a barrel and rolling it back and forth, thereby attempting to empty the lungs of water. Happily this practice has been replaced by better methods of resuscitation, but the helpless position of the victim has survived in the current cliché. Raymond Chandler gave it a double meaning in The Big Sleep (1939): “We keep a file on unidentified bullets nowadays. Some day you might use that gun again.Then you’d be over a barrel.”
over and above
In addition to, more than. This cliché is most often used with reference to some amount, to signify more than that amount, and thus is redundant, for both words mean the same thing. However, the repetition serves as emphasis. It has been around since the early 1500s.
See GO OVERBOARD.
over my dead body
I will not allow you to do this. This hyperbole, often used in jocular fashion, dates from early-nineteenth-century America. H. Brighouse used it in the one-act play, New Leisure (1936): “Elsie Dixon doing confidential secretary! Over my dead body!” A New Yorker piece about evangelists described a photograph of the evangelist preacher Jerry Falwell plunging down a water slide: “He is clearly not enjoying himself. In fact, the photograph suggests that he is doing this over his own dead body” (1990).
over the hill, to be
To be past one’s prime.The analogy to a climber who has reached the top and is now descending has been transferred to the decline of aging since the mid-twentieth century, principally in America. Mary Roberts Rinehart used it in The Pool (1952): “The flawless skin goes, the lovely eyes fade, and she knows she is over the hill.” However, in U.S. military slang during World War II, going over the hill meant going AWOL (absent without leave).
over the top, to go
To surmount something. During World War I this term signified climbing over the parapet of front-line trenches to attack the enemy, and by extension this came to mean doing something dangerous or notable. After World War II the phrase took on the additional meaning of going above and beyond what had been originally planned, as in, “Her generous donation put us over the top; we’ve exceeded our goals.” And finally, in the later 1900s, the phrase took on yet another meaning, to go too far or beyond reasonable limits, as in, “Making the entire chorus wear flesh-colored body suits—that’s going over the top.” With all these usages one must rely on the context to figure out which sense is meant.
own man/person, to be one’s
To be in charge of one’s own affairs and actions. This term is very old indeed and may be obsolescent. Chaucer, who often portrayed strong women, used it (Troilus and Criseyde, c. 1374): “I am myn own woman wel at ese.” A modern equivalent is to DO ONE’SOWN THING.
own medicine, a dose/taste of one’s
Repayment in kind; TIT FOR TAT. Although the idea is hardly new, the medicinal metaphor dates only from the late nineteenth century. V. Perdue used it in The Singing Clock (1941): “It was only fair for them to get a taste of their own medicine.”
own up (to), to
To admit something, to confess. Dating from the mid1800s, this expression seems to use own in the sense of possessing responsibility for something. “On being arrested he owned up to his crime,” appeared in the Boston Journal (May 23, 1890).
own worst enemy, to be one’s
To be the major source of one’s own difficulties. The Greek philosopher Anacharsis (c. 550 B.C.) already was stating this idea: “What is man’s chief enemy? Each is his own.” Cicero said it of Julius Caesar (Ad Atticum, 49 B.C.). In more recent times, cartoonist Walt Kelly expressed the same thought through his main character, Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and they is us.”
Dictionary of Clichés - P