Do You Know These Words and Phrases?

Dead as a Doornail. The “doornail” is the plate or knocker upon which the hammer of a door knocker strikes. gives us this explanation on the origin of the phrase. In 1350,  William Langland used the phrase in a translation of the French poem Guillaume de Palerne: “For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenayl.” 

Langland also used the expression in the much more famous poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman, circa 1362: Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl. [Faith without works is feebler than nothing, and dead as a doornail.]

The expression was in widespread colloquial use in England by the 16th century, when Shakespeare gave these lines to the rebel leader Jack Cade in King Henry VI, Part 2, 1592: Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.

doornailWhy doornails are cited as a particular example of deadness isn’t so obvious. Doornails are the large-headed studs that were used in earlier times for strength and more recently as decoration. The practice was to hammer the nail through and then bend the protruding end over to secure it. This process, similar to riveting, was called clenching. This may be the source of the ‘deadness’, as such a nail would be unusable afterwards.

Dickens was among the celebrated authors who liked the phrase and made a point of musing on it in A Christmas Carol: Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.


Exception Proves the Rule: This one is quite logical when one realizes at one time the word “prove” meant “test.” In other words, “exception tests the rule.” The website Mental Floss tells us, “In fact, the ‘prove’ part of the phrase was not very important in its original formulation. The expression comes from the Latin legal principle exceptio probat regulam (the exception proves the rule), also rendered as exceptio firmat regulam (the exception establishes the rule) and exceptio confirmat regulam (the exception confirms the rule). The principle provides legal cover for inferences such as the following: if I see a sign reading ‘no swimming allowed after 10 pm,’ I can assume swimming is allowed before that time; if an appliance store says ‘pre-paid delivery required for refrigerators,’ I can assume they do not require pre-paid delivery for other items. The exception here is not a thing but an act of excepting. The act of stipulating a condition for when something is disallowed (or required), proves that when the stipulated conditions do not hold, it is allowed (or not required). The general rules are that swimming is allowed before 10pm and that pre-paid delivery is not required. The fact that exceptions to those rules have been stated confirms those rules hold in all other cases. The full statement of the principle reads exceptio probat regulam, in casibus non exceptis. The exception proves the rule in cases not excepted.”


hoosegowHoosegow. This one comes to American English via the Spanish word juzgado meaning judged (which Hispanics in Mexico pronounced without the “d.”) In the American West, the word became synonymous with “jail.” According to World Wide Words, “It’s a fine old American slang term for a jail, still widely known today. Most people would connect it with the nineteenth-century cowboys of the Wild West. It’s very likely that they knew the word, but it didn’t start to be written down until the early twentieth century. The first known example was penned by Harry Fisher, better known as Bud, in one of his early Mutt & Jeff cartoons, of 1908: “Mutt … may be released from the hooze gow.”

“The word is from Mexican Spanish juzgao, a jail, which came from juzgado for a tribunal or courtroom. It shifted to mean a jail because the two were often in the same building (and the path from the one to the other was often swift and certain). In sense and language origin it’s a relative of calaboose, which is also a prison (from calabozo, a dungeon, via the French of Louisiana).”


Philippic. Demosthenes made the attempt to arouse the Athenians against Philip of Macedon. His verbal attacks came to be known as Philippics. A philippic (/fɪˈlɪpɪk/) is a fiery, damning speech, or tirade, delivered to condemn a particular political actor -a discourse or declamation full of bitter condemnation. The term is most famously associated with two noted orators of the ancient world, Demosthenes of Athens and the Roman Cicero, although it can be applied to any speech of this type.



Two Strings to His Bow. This is a British phrase supposedly from the practice of the British archers who had a spare bowstring when they went to war. The Grammarist tells us, “To have another string in your bow can mean either that you have a backup plan in case the current plan fails. This is analogous to an archer carrying an extra bowstring in the event that the first breaks. Alternatively, the phrase may mean to have two strings in one bow that may work together, or to have two methods of acquiring a goal. This would be similar to a bow having two or more strings to increase the force propelling the arrow forward. The arrow would hit the target faster.

“A slight variation of this last definition is that by having an extra string in your bow, you have learned a new talent that will help in your career. Or in other words, you have more than one skill to rely on to accomplish your goals. This may refer to an archer having different kinds of strings, some of different materials and strengths. It should be noted that all of the archer analogies have been used since the sixteenth century and some of them have morphed over time. It is unlikely that each phrase was coined with the explicit analogy in mind. This idiom is mostly found outside of the United States.”


200px-A_single_white_feather_closeupShowing the White Feather. When gamecocks are crossbred, a different colored feather shows up in their tail feathers. This unusual feather is customarily white in color. This is chiefly a British term, which means to show cowardice. It came into the language between 1775-85; orig. from a white feather in a gamecock’s tail, taken as a sign of inferior breeding (an outside strain will lead to cowardice in the fighting gamecock) and hence of poor fighting qualities.

“A white feather has been a traditional symbol of cowardice, used and recognised especially within the British Arm and in countries of the British Empire since the 18th century, especially by patriotic groups, including some early feminists, in order to shame men who were not soldiers. It also carries opposite meanings, however: in some cases of pacifism, and in the United States, of extraordinary bravery and excellence in combat marksmanship. As a symbol of cowardice, the white feather supposedly comes from cockfighting and the belief that a cockerel sporting a white feather in its tail is likely to be a poor fighter. Pure-breed gamecocks do not show white feathers, so its presence indicates that the cockerel is an inferior cross-breed.

“In August 1914, at the start of the First World War, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather with support from the prominent author Mrs Humphrey War. The organization aimed to shame men into enlisting in the British Army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform. In the first episode of the second series of Downton Abbey some women, presumably members of the Order of the White Feather, interrupt a benefit concert to hand out white feathers to the men who have not enlisted. Upon seeing this insulting behaviour, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, angrily orders them out.” (White Feather


Easier For a Camel to Pass Through the Eye of a Needle. Most of us are familiar with this Biblical phrase, but what does it mean exactly? There was a small gateway in the Wall of Jerusalem that was used specifically by pedestrians. It was possible for a small camel (if kneeling) to work its way through this opening, but it would be very difficult. “The eye of a needle” is scripture quoting Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels: I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

“Based on the simple reading of the text, there shouldn’t be any confusion about what it means to pass a camel through the eye of a needle (the reference also appears in Matthew 19:24 and Mark 10:25). The explanation usually goes something like this: Christ wasn’t referring to the eye of a literal needle—that would be preposterous. Instead, He was talking about a narrow entrance into the city of Jerusalem, a gate known locally as “the eye of the needle.” This gate was so small that a camel could only be brought through with great difficulty, squeezed through on its knees—which depicts how we humbly need to come to the Lord.

“That explanation can be quite compelling—after all, humility is necessary—as long as you don’t read the next two verses of Luke’s gospel: “They who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But He said, ‘The things that are impossible with people are possible with God’” (Luke 18:26-27) Christ’s words make the point of His illustration abundantly clear. He can’t mean that the rich man can only attain salvation through humility—getting a camel to stoop and squeeze through a narrow gate might be challenging, but it doesn’t require divine intervention. In context, His point is unmistakable: Manufacturing your own salvation is just as impossible as threading a massive beast of burden through the eye of a sewing needle. Apart from the intervention of the Lord, it cannot be done.” (The Study Bible


Warm the Cockles of the Heart. The cockles of the heart are its ventricles, named by some in Latin as “cochleae cordis”, from “cochlea” (snail), alluding to their shape. The saying means to warm and gratify one’s deepest feelings. The etymology of the phrase comes to us from the 17th Century, but the true basis of the phrase remains unsure. Some believe the  phrase redundant because of the resemblance of cockle-shells to the shape of the heart. It could also be a corruption of the Latin cochleae in cochleae cordis (ventricles of the heart) or of an Irish Gaelic origin. There is also those who believe the phrase inspired by how mollusks open when exposed to warmth, most notably in cooking. 

World Wide Words tells us, “Cockles are a type of bivalve mollusc, once a staple part of the diet for many British people (you may recall that Sweet Molly Malone once wheeled her wheelbarrow through Dublin’s fair city, crying ‘cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!’). They are frequently heart-shaped (their formal zoological genus was at one time Cardium, of the heart), with ribbed shells.”


Beyond the Pale. This is a phrase often found in Regency era novels. It is “pale,” not “pail,” as it sometimes appears. I again turned to World Wide Words for a full explanation of the origin: 

“The phrase is properly beyond the pale. It means an action that’s regarded as outside the limits of acceptable behaviour, one that’s objectionable or improper.

I look upon you, sir, as a man who has placed himself beyond the pale of society, by his most audacious, disgraceful, and abominable public conduct. Mr Pott to Mr Slurk (we never learn their first names) in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1837.

This is a classic example of the expression but by no means the earliest. That’s more than a century older, in 1720, in the third volume of The Compleat History of the Lives, Robberies, Piracies, and Murders Committed by the Most Notorious Rogues, by a man hiding, perhaps wisely, under the pseudonym of Captain Alexander Smith.

“Pale has nothing to do with the adjective for something light in colour except that both come from Latin roots. The one referring to colour originates in the Latin verb pallere, to be pale, whilst our one is from palus, a stake (also the name of the wooden post that Roman soldiers used to represent an opponent during fighting practice). Pale is an old name for a pointed piece of wood driven into the ground and — by an obvious extension — to a barrier made of such stakes, a palisade or fence. Pole is from the same source, as are impalepaling and palisade. This meaning has been around in English since the fourteenth century and by the end of that century pale had taken on various figurative senses — a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go. The idea of an enclosed area still exists in some English dialects.

“Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale
To planted Myrtle-walk.

“The History of Polindor and Flostella, by the Elizabethan courtier and author Sir John Harington, written sometime before 1612 but published in 1657. This uses pale in its literal sense of a boundary or enclosure. In the poem, Ortheris and his beloved risk going beyond the boundary (the pale) of their quiet park lodge with the result that Ortheris is attacked by five armed horsemen. Harrington is best remembered now for his Metamorphosis of Ajax (this last word being a pun on a jakes, meaning a privy) of 1596, a scatological and satirical work that contains the first description of a water closet, more than 200 years before anybody built one.


Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia Benjamin Nathans (Author)

“In particular, the term was used to describe various defended enclosures of territory inside other countries. For example, the English pale in France in the fourteenth century was the territory of Calais, the last English possession in that country. The best-known example is the Russian Pale, between 1791 and the Revolution of 1917, which were specified provinces and districts within which Russian Jews were required to live.

“Another famous one is the Pale in Ireland, the part of the country which England directly controlled — it varied from time to time, but was an area of several counties centred on Dublin. The first mention of the Irish Pale is in a document of 1446–7. Though there was an attempt later in the century to enclose the Pale by a bank and ditch (which was never completed), there never was a literal fence around it. The expression has often been claimed to originate in one or other of these pales, most often the Irish one, but the earliest appearance of 1720 for beyond the pale is very late if it’s linked to the Irish one and much too early for the Russian one.

“The earliest figurative sense that’s linked to the idiom was of a sphere of activity or interest, a branch of study or a body of knowledge, which comes from the same idea of an enclosed or contained area; we use field in much the same way. This turned up first in 1483 in one of the earliest printed books in English, The Golden Legende, a translation by William Caxton of a French work. This is a much later example:

By its conversion England was first brought, not only within the pale of the Christian Church, but within the pale of the general political society of Europe.

The History of the Norman Conquest, by Ernest A Freeman, 1867.

Our sense seems part to have grown out of this, since people who exist outside such a conceptual pale are not our kind and do not share our values, beliefs or customs.


Petticoat. Originally, men wore a small coat (“petty coat”) under their mail or their doublet. Eventually, women adopted the practice. They, too, wore a short or “petty” coat. In time the garment was lengthened and covered the area from the waist to below the knees. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: petticoat (n.)  early 15c., pety coote, literally “a small coat”. Originally a padded coat worn by men under armor, applied mid-15c. to a garment worn by women and young children. By 1590s, the typical feminine garment, hence a symbol of female sex or character.

Men declare that the petticoatless female has unsexed herself and has left her modesty behind. [“Godey’s Magazine,” April 1896]


About Regina Jeffers

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

  1. carolcork says:

    I love the phrase “Warm the Cockles of the Heart”.

    • It certainly is not “warming the cockles” of one’s heart to be “shown the white feather.” The feather one took me a while to figure out because of the difference in America. When I saw the Heath Ledger film, I was “like what?”.

      • carolcork says:

        Regina, I remember seeing a 1939 film called The Four Feathers in which a British officer resigns his post just before battle and subsequently receives four white feathers from his friends and fiancee as symbols of what they believe to be his cowardice.

      • It is the same story, Carol. The Heath Ledger version was the latest one (I think.). As a military brat and wife in America, the white feather indicates honor rather than shame. I am certain some who watched the scene in Downton Abbey had no idea of the differences.

  2. MaryAnn Nagy says:

    Very interesting article. I have used a few of those sayings such as the “Hoose-Gow” when I say someone is going to the slammer. I knew about the camel going thru the eye of the needle meaning one of the eleven gates to Jerusalem. Cockles of the Heart also I have used. Some of the others I didn’t know about. Thanks for sharing with us.

  3. vvaught512 says:

    Reblogged this on Vikki Vaught Romance Author and Book Reviewer and commented:
    Thought this was fascinating!

  4. nmayer2015 says:

    I never heard of the white feather as being a badge of honor. I think I have always heard of it as indicating a coward.

    • I am a military brat and a military wife. I recall when I was perhaps 8 (during the Korean War) that my mother’s cousin was talking about his surprise in learning that the white feather meant cowardice in England. He said where he came from it was bravery. When I first say Heath Ledger’s version of The Four Feathers, it took me a bit to realize the significance of the feathers in British military terms.

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