To take aback, means to be suddenly taken unawares or to have "the wind
taken out of one's sails". This is one from a nautical background. A
sudden change of wind could catch a ship's sails on the wrong side,
flattening them back against the mast and bringing the ship to a
standstill, or even driving her backwards.
Acid: When something passes the acid test it indicates that it is
genuine and can be relied on; as "good as gold". Unlike most metals,
gold is particularly resistant to digestion with almost all types of
acid. Application of acid to a substance suspected of being gold, if
not resulting in digestion, could therefore confirm the presence of
gold. Thus, by extension, any test of character or quality came to be
considered an "acid test".
Adams: Sweet Fanny Adams; In 1867, a little 8 year old girl called
Fanny Adams was murdered; her body was dismembered and badly mutilated.
At about this time the Royal Navy was first issued with tinned mutton;
this was not of good quality and became jokingly known as "Fanny
Adams". This term then was applied to any product regarded as poor or
worthless and, eventually, came to mean "nothing at all".
The grave is in Alton's cemetery (Alton, Hampshire, England). It's well
maintained. A website, with a picture of the grave and a related poem,
is at http://www.johnowensmith.co.uk/fanny.htm
Alec: A smart Alec is regarded as a somewhat conceited person. The
saying goes back to the 19th century and the Alec is said to be short
for Alexander, but why the name Alexander features at all I cannot
However, a possible explanation was offered by Dom Pleasance in the
Q&A section of The Times on 9th May 2002.
"The phrase "Smart Alec", meaning a conceited know-it-all, dates back
to mid-19th century America. Regarding the identity of "Alec", most
American dictionaries point to Alec Hoag, a notorious pimp and thief
who operated in New York in the 1840s. He operated a trick called "The
Panel Game" where he would sneak in via gaps in the walls and steal the
valuables of his sleeping or unwary clients. The reputation he
generated for not getting caught earned him the nickname Smart Alec.
Apple pie: Apple pie bed; this is a practical joke type bed in which
the bottom sheet is folded back upon itself, thereby making it
impossible for the occupant to stretch out his or her legs. The phrase
is an Anglicised version of the French "nappé pliè" - a folded sheet.
pie order; probably from the same origin as "apple pie bed" i.e. a
folded sheet in French. Such sheets are neat and tidy.
Apple: When someone is the apple of your eye then they are really
special. Sight has always been regarded as something special; this same
appreciation applied equally to the pupil. In ancient times the pupil
was supposed to be round and solid like a ball, i.e. like an apple. By
extension the phrase was then applied to anything or anyone being
Arm: To chance your arm is to risk something. This was firstly of
military origin. Badges of rank, such as stripes, were worn on the arm.
If the wearer offended against Military regulations then there was a
risk of being demoted with consequent loss of some or all badges -
hence such offences "chanced the wearer's arm".
An alternative explanation comes from Ireland. A couple of centuries
ago two families had a feud. One eventually took refuge in St Patrick's
Cathedral in Dublin. They then wished to make peace, but were afraid
for their lives if they ventured out; in consequence they cut a hole in
one of the Cathedral's doors and put out an arm - the worst that could
have happened was that an arm was lost. The hole is present to this
day. Sadly, the feud took place in 1492 and the saying is first
recorded only in the 1880s!
Aunt: My giddy aunt is an expression used to denote surprise. The
"giddy" in this instance is probably unrelated to a sense of spinning
around but rather to an alternative meaning of the word indicating
"impulsive" or "scatterbrained" (Old English gydig meant "mad,
frenzied, possessed by God").
Axe: If someone has an axe to grind then they have an ulterior motive
to pursue. This saying comes allegedly from the US diplomat Benjamin
Franklin. He told the story of the young man who wanted his axe ground.
The smith agreed to do it provided the man turn the grindstone himself.
He soon tired and gave up having bitten off more than he could chew.
This story was published early in Franklin's career in an article
entitled "Too much for your Whistle", but the actual phrase does not
seem to have been used until about 20 years later, in another story
called "Who'll turn the Grindstone?", written by Charles Minter. This
story was clearly based on Franklin's tale, and did include the phrase
"......that man has an ax to grind". It seems that Charles Minter was
the likely author of the phrase.