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5 Mostly Unknown Idioms

First, a refresher: An idiom is a phrase whose meaning isn’t obvious from looking at the individual words.

We use idioms in conversations and in writing as a form of shorthand. Here is a short list of common idioms in English. I’m sure you know their meanings.

A dime a dozen

Call it a day

Under the weather

The following idioms are less common, but intriguing. The source: A Browser’s Dictionary,, by John Ciardi, 1980, Harper & Row, New York.

Beecher’s Bibles: During the pre-Civil War days when proslavery and free-state forces fought bloody battles for control of Kansas, the antislavery Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society raised money for rifles and ammunition to arm the Kansas Free-Soilers, the antislavery party. Thomas Bailey wrote in his book, Voices of America, that the rifles were shipped in cases marked “Bibles.” The shipment was arranged by Henry Ward Beecher, a well-known Unitareian minister. He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Barmecide Feast: John Ciardi suggests this is what the emperor eats while wearing his new clothes. A Barmecide Feast is an elaborate pretense of offering a luxurious meal when in fact there is nothing to eat. Barmecide was the name of the noble Persian family in The Arabian Nights that offered a beggar an elegantly served meal of platters heaped with imaginary food. I hope you were not present at a Barmecide Feast this Thanksgiving!

Free Lance: a free agent who accepts commissions for special assignments but is not employed by a specific firm. The origin of the term came into use after the 13th Crusade. A knight who was not in the service of a particular feudal lord who offered his services to the highest bidder was known as a free lance. (No, honest. I’m not kidding).

Scylla (Silla) and Charybdis (Ka RIB dis): In the Strait of Messina which divides Sicily from the toe of the Italian boot, Scylla is a dangerous rock on the Italian side and Charybdis is a whirlpool on the Sicilian side. The rapid current through this strait has made it a dangerous passage for ships. Many ship captains trying to avoid one peril of this area fall victim to the other. In Greek mythology both Scylla and Charybdis were portrayed as monsters who ate men. Next time someone says they’re between a rock and a hard place, you might reply, “Oh, you mean between Scylla and Charybdis,” just to show off a little.

Mother Carey’s Chickens: the small seabirds named Stormy Petrels are called Mother Carey’s Chickens by sailors who observed that Stormy Petrels fly especially low with their legs dangling when a storm is approaching. They look like chickens walking on the water. The Latin words mater cara (dear mother) is a pseudonym for the Virgin Mary: Mater Cara = Mother Carey. The Virgin Mary, patron saint of seafarers, sends her birds (chickens) to warn sailors of the coming storm.

Tuesday, November 30, is Giving Tuesday. Please consider making a gift to help others who are hungry by supporting your local food banks and kitchens. Many people do not have a place to call home. We can help with a contribution to local organizations that provide safe, clean shelters.

Giving isn’t just giving money. Charitable organizations always need volunteers to sort clothing, to pack and distribute boxes of food. To deliver meals. We can give ourselves by being friendly to strangers, showing kindness to others by simple acts of helpfulness and caring.

Strangely, the majority of idioms that use the word “give” are hurtful, e.g. I’ll give the back of my hand.. What’s that about? On this Giving Tuesday, here are wise quotes about the meaning of giving.

“No one has ever become poor by giving.” Anne Frank

“Giving is not just about making a donation. It is about making a difference.” Kathy Calvin, former President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill

“At the end it’s not about what you have or even what you’ve accomplished. It’s about who you’ve lifted up, who you’ve made better. It’s about what you’ve given back.” Denzel Washington.

Passing Storm Original Watercolor by Bryce Herrington

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