Do You Know the Origin of These Words and Phrases?

Do You Know The Origin of These Words and Phrases?

I have been editing again, as well as judging a few writing contests. The process had me searching out some of the least common words and phrases I encountered. Check these out. 

Let us begin with “Dwile flonking.” World Wide Words provides this explanation. 

“Pronounced /ˌdwaɪl ˈflɒŋkɪŋ/Help with pronunciation

“When summer comes or charity fund-raising is involved, English pub games often veer from mere eccentricity towards total lunacy. These are the days of marrow dangling, passing the splod, Portuguese sardine racing, conger cuddling, rhubarb thrashing, and dwile flonking.

“The game is officially played by two teams of twelve players, though there is great flexibility in numbers (the terminology and rules also vary from place to place). The fielding team gathers in a circle, called a girter, enclosing a member of the other team, the flonker. He holds a broom handle (usually called the driveller), on top of which is a beer-soaked rag, the dwile or dwyle.

“At a signal, the girter dances around the flonker in a circle. He must flick (or flonk) the dwile with the driveller so it hits a girter team member. His score depends on which part of the body he hits — the usual scoring is three points for a hit on the head (a wanton), two for a hit on the body, (a marther), and just one for a leg strike (a ripple). If after two shots the flonker hasn’t scored he is swadged, or, which means he has to drink a quantity of beer from a chamber pot within a given time. After all the members of one team have flonked, the other team is put in. The winner is the team with the most points after two innings, usually the one with more members still upright.

“There are two schools of thought about its origins. Some say it’s a traditional game that’s known from medieval times, others that it was invented by a group of Suffolk printing apprentices in 1966. The information that we have strongly supports the latter thesis. The first reference to the game that researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary have discovered is in the Beccles and Bungay Journal of Suffolk for June 1966, in reference to a game involving a team from Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) of Bungay. Among the group that “evolved” the rules of the game were George High, George Davis, Graham Roberts, Bob Devereux and Andrew Leverett, all apprentices either at Richard Clay or at another printers, William Clowes in Beccles, who met weekly on courses at the Technical College in Norwich. Graham Roberts recalls, “We used to sit down during lunch breaks in between rows of type cases and discuss amendments to the rules.”

“Dwile is a real word: an old Suffolk dialect term for a dishcloth; dweil, said the same way, is the Dutch word for a floorcloth, or in defunct slang a drunkard. There were links between parts of East Anglia and the Netherlands, especially in the eighteenth century, and it is conceivable that the Suffolk dialect word was borrowed from Dutch.

“Several other terms seem to be fanciful derivations of obsolete or rare words: girter looks as though it comes from gird, a strap or band; flonk could be based on flong, the name in printing for a paper mould used to create an impression of type; swadge might be another form of the obsolete swage, to pacify or appease, from the same origin as the more common assuage. The rest seem to have been invented.”


For this one, an editor questioned on the usage. I used it in my American set WIP (Work in Progress). 

“A Daniel come to judgement”is described by as, “Someone who makes a wise judgement about something that has previously proven difficult to resolve.

“Origin: This phrase doubtless alludes to the Biblical character Daniel, who was attributed with having fine powers of judgement.

“In Daniel 5:14 (King James Version) we have: ‘I have even heard of thee, that the spirit of the gods is in thee, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in thee.’

Drury_Lane_Playbill_of_the_Merchant_of_Venice (Image via Wikipedia)                                                                       The first use of the phrase as we now know it is from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, 1596: SHYLOCK: A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!/O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!”


In reading stories based in the Regency, I often encounter the phrase “diamond in the rough” used to indicate a woman coming out in Society that still requires a bit of polish to fit in with her aristocratic acquaintances. However, in a recent piece I came across it used in the following manner, having something to do with lacking respect for authority/law.” 

“Diamond in the Rough” is defined by, as “Someone who is basically good hearted but lacking social graces and respect for the law.”

“Origin: The phrase is a metaphor clearly referring to the original unpolished state of diamond gemstones, especially those that have the potential to become high quality jewels. It is more commonly expressed in the form ‘rough diamond’. The first recorded use in print is in John Fletcher’s A Wife for a Month, 1624: ‘She is very honest, and will be as hard to cut as a rough diamond.’

“The term is often now used to describe people on the edge of the criminal fraternity who, while they may not commit serious crimes themselves, probably know people who do.

8656-3013“The English comic actor, the late Sid James, typified the type both on and off stage and was typecast in such roles; for example, he played Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond in the Ealing comedy Carry On Up The Khyber. That was particularly appropriate as it turns out – Sid James worked in a diamond mine in South Africa before becoming an actor.”


“He’s beside himself with rage” is an odd twist of the words. How can one be beside himself? It reminds me of such words in English which make no sense to those who are first learning the language, words such as “pineapple” (that contains neither a “pine” or an “apple”); “groundhog”; how a person’s feet smell and his nose runs, etc. World Wide Words brings us this explanation. 

“The language has changed but the idiom hasn’t. The phrase appears first in the language in 1490. William Caxton, who established the first English printing press in Westminster, published a book with the title Eneydos. We know it better as The Aeneid by Virgil. Caxton records its linguistic travels in its title: ‘translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton.’ This is the relevant passage, describing the grief of Dido at the departure of Aeneas.

“‘She sawe the saylles, wyth the flote of the shippes that made good waye. Thenne byganne she, for grete distresse, to bete & smyte thre or four tymes wyth her fyste strongly ayenst her brest & to pulle her fayr heres from her hed, as mad & beside herself.’

“Caxton was translating the French phrase hors de soi, ‘outside oneself.’ He used ‘beside’ because for him the word could mean ‘outside of’ or ‘away from.’ The idea was that powerful emotion had led Dido’s mind to escape her control. Her mind had got away from her and she wasn’t herself.

“We use the phrase rather less now than we used to. When it appears, it is most often related to rage, but it can also refer to delight, grief, amazement, excitement, horror, or any other powerful emotion.”


I particularly like this next phrase on my list, argy-bargy, for it is a doublet. “Linguists refer to such doublets as reduplication. The second part isn’t always invented, but can be a real word if one is available that fits in meaning and form. English is fond of the trick and the language is full of such pairs. Some are conventional rhymes (super-duper, hoity-toity, namby-pamby, mumbo-jumbo) while others are pairs that modify an internal vowel (dilly-dally, shilly-shally, wishy-washy, zig-zag).” 

World Wide Words explains “the origin of the expression argy-bargy (also written argey-bargey), meaning a relatively amicable, if somewhat heated, argument. 

In truth, “argy-bargies are often not only heated arguments, but also rather bad-tempered ones, amounting to a spat or minor quarrel. But then, the term is mainly a British or Commonwealth one, not that well known in the U .S., and easily misunderstood out of context.

“Argy-bargy was a late nineteenth-century modification of a Scots phrase, which appeared early in the same century in the form argle-bargle. The first part of this older version was a modification of argue. The second parts of the two forms, bargle and bargy, never had any independent existence — they are no more than nonsense rhyming repetitions of the first elements.

“An example in the old spelling from later in the century: ‘Last night ye haggled and argle-bargled like an apple-wife.’ from Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886. An apple-wife was a seller of apples from a stall, the female equivalent of a costermonger (who, historically and etymologically, also sold apples, an ancient large ribbed variety called a costard). By repute apple-wives were just as argumentative and foul-tongued as their male counterparts.

“An early example of the modern form, also as a verb: ‘Ten minutes at the least did she stand at the door argy-bargying with that man.’ from Margaret Ogilvy, by J M Barrie, 1896. This autobiographical novel, by an author who is most famous for his play Peter Pan, takes its title from the maiden name of his mother; it deals with his childhood memories of the death in a skating accident of his thirteen-year-old brother David in 1867.”


Cack-handed_poster_1 (Image by Kelly Gunn, 

Another recent find is cack-handed

Larry Nordell on World Wide Words asked this question: “This is from the Economist so I assume it must be some obscure Briticism: ‘And most recently, Mr Pitt has been stunningly cackhanded over the appointment of William Webster as head of the new Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’. What does cackhanded mean?”

The answer was:  “It’s a well-known British informal term for somebody who is inept or clumsy. By extension, it means somebody left-handed, who does everything “backwards” and so looks clumsy or awkward. It first appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The American Heritage Dictionary suggests it comes from Old Norse keikr, bent backwards, and other American dictionaries also suggest this. British works of reference disagree. The direct association is with cack, another fine Old English term, for excrement or dung. Cachus was Old English for a privy, and both words come from Latin cacare, to defecate.

“It almost certainly comes from the very ancient tradition, which has developed among peoples who were mainly right-handed, that one reserved the left hand for cleaning oneself after defecating and used the right hand for all other purposes. At various times this has been known in most cultures. Some consider it rude even to be given something using the left hand. So to be left-handed was to use the cack hand or be cack-handed.

“There are similar terms in other languages, such as the French main de merde for somebody awkward or butter-fingered.”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Do You Know the Origin of These Words and Phrases?

  1. carolcork says:

    I love the phrase argy-bargy and can remember people saying “it was a right argy-bargy” when I was young. Sid James always played those “Diamond in the Rough” roles and “Carry On Up The Khyber” is my favourite Carry On movie. I also loved him in the sitcom “Bless This House” which ran from 1971 until he died in 1976.

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