To make a pig's ear out of something means to do a job messily. I
can't find an origin for this either but, again, it may be associated
with rhyming slang.
In November 2005 Gary Mason wrote: "Can I suggest (as an origin) the
saying, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." i.e. if
you've got rubbish, you'll never make anything of value from it, but
usually applied disparagingly when observing someone trying to teach a
"bumpkin" manners. The "pig's ear" is a lump for rubbish."
Earmark: To earmark something. This comes from the ancient habit of
marking cattle ears with a tab to indicate ownership. In biblical times
the custom even extended to human property. In Exodus xxi, 6 it says of
a servant who declined to go free after six years' service : "his
master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him
forever". In the 19th century the term came to be applied to money
designated for a special purpose. Later it spread to the wider
application used today.
Ears: If someone is wet behind the ears they are regarded as being
inexperienced and new to a task. The saying is many hundred of years
old and comes from the fact that many animals, when they are new born,
have a small depression behind the ears. The young themselves are wet
at birth and this depression is the last thing to dry out. By the time
it does, the animal is a little older and possibly wiser.
Eavesdropping: To be caught eavesdropping implies that a person has
been deliberately trying to overhear a conversation not intended for
their ears. The word and its implication go back centuries to the time
when most houses had no gutters; the rain dripped off the roofs but the
roofs themselves projected well beyond the walls. This area inside
where the water dripped was known originally as the Eavesdrip and later
as the Eavesdrop. People sheltering here were somewhat protected from
the rain, but could also overhear what was going on in the house.
Eight. When someone is described as being one over the eight, then they
are reckoned to be drunk. The saying is based on the belief that you
don't get drunk on a mere 8 pints of beer, but need one more! The
expression is seemingly unknown in the US but is widespread in the UK
Egg: To egg on means to urge someone to continue doing something that
is, perhaps, a little dubious, such as a schoolboy being encouraged by
his classmates to make faces at the teacher behind his back. Why Egg?
This could be an adulteration of the word Edge and the expression
should perhaps really be to edge on.
However! there is another, more likely origin. In this case egg derives
from the old English eggian which means "to spur" or "to incite".
curate's egg; anything that is a less than perfect but which has its
good points is often described as being like the "Curate's egg". This
comes from a famous "Punch" cartoon of the 19th century in which a
young curate is seen having breakfast with his Bishop. The curate's egg
is clearly not fresh and, when asked by the Bishop "how is your egg?",
is forced to politely reply "excellent, in parts".
sure as eggs is eggs is used to describe a certainty but, again, why
eggs? This is another possible adulteration, this time eggs is really
"X" and the saying should be As sure as X is X.
Elephant: A white elephant is something which is a liability, more
trouble than it's worth. The saying is based on the supposed habit of
the King of Siam who, if he wished to get rid of a particular courtier,
gave a gift of a white elephant. The courtier dared not offend the King
with a refusal although he was fully aware that the cost of upkeep of
such an animal was ruinous.
To keep/hold your end up means to persevere at, keep going with, carry
on with a certain task - you don't give up in any circumstances without
a 'fight'. I can't find an exact origin for this particularly British
phrase, but it's not difficult to see an analogy with cricket, where
two batsmen are in play, one at each end of the batting area/wicket.
One batsman may be much better than the other but, in order to stay
batting, the good one must always have someone at the other
end. Thus, the weaker of the two is told to 'keep/hold his end up'.
Ends: If one is at loose ends then there is not much of anything to be
done; life is a little dull and boring. The ends here are almost
certainly those of rigging ropes on a sailing ship. There were many
such ropes associated with the sails and the ends were tightly bound to
prevent them unravelling. When there was little else to do the Captain
would order his men to check the ropes and repair any of those with
To make (both) ends meet is to
live within one's means, but what are the ends in this instance? Most
probably the term comes from accountancy where meet used to be an
adjective meaning "equal" or "balanced". The end was the end of the
financial year in which both profit and loss accounts had to be
balanced: the ends had to be met
An alternative explanation is that it came from tailoring or
dressmaking, in which the amount of cloth available might only just be
sufficient to complete the garment, so that it would wrap completely
around the body, making the ends meet. A saying with this sense occurs
Eyewash: It's a load of eyewash implies that something is a load of
rubbish or is Bunkum. Why such use has arisen I haven't been able to
Eyes: To keep one's eyes peeled means to be alert, observant. This
seems an odd phrase, but dates back to the 1820s in Britain, when Sir
Robert Peel established the first organised police force. The officers
were known as 'peelers, or 'bobbies'. They were expected to be
particularly observant and to keep their eyes 'peeled', after their
founder's orders! Of the two popular names, only 'bobby' survives.