Are You Familiar with These Words and Phrases?

043973228x_rgb4_xlgI love unusual words and phrases and often make note of them as I read. Today, we have a nice mix. 

As Nice as Ninepence means neat, tidy, well-ordered. Phrase Finder tells us that the origin of the phrase may include the variants, ‘as right as ninepence’ and ‘as neat as ninepence.’ 

as nice as ninepenceThere are suggestions that this expression derives from from ‘as nice as ninepins.’ In the game of Ninepins (Skittles) the pins are set out in a square. For the game to be fair this must be done neatly and accurately or, in the old parlance, nicely. There are no early records of ‘as nice as ninepins’ in print, which we might expect if the ‘ninepence’ version derived from it. The ‘ninepins’ form, in the guise of ‘as smart as ninepins’ isn’t found until the 20th century, so it is reasonable to assume that it is a simple mishearing of the earlier ‘as neat/clean/grand as ninepence’ versions.

We find the earliest known recorded form of the phrase is ‘as neat as ninepence’; the first citation is in James Howell’s English Proverbs, 1659:

“As fine as fippence, as neat as nine pence.”

as nice as ninepenceThe ‘fippence’ (five pence) here makes it clear that the reference is to money rather than to skittles. For it to appear in a list of sayings viewed as proverbial it must have been in existence for some time before 1659. There was a ninepence coin in circulation in the 16th and 17th centuries, although there was nothing especially neat or nice about it. The rhyming and alliterative style of the citation suggests that the ‘neat’ and ‘nice’ were chosen just for that reason. [When I originally went looking for this phrase, I sought out ninepence to nothing.”]


Next, I have clever about his fambles.” I could not find this one as written, but we could break down the meaning. As a noun, “famble” was a form of obsolete slang meaning “hand.” The word came from the Old English famelen, and as a verb it means “to stammer.” In James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” we find, “White thy fambles, red the gan/And thy quarrons dainly is./Couch a hogshead with me then./In the darkmans clip and kiss.”


Bamboozle” is a word meaning deceive or get the better of (someone) by trickery, flattery, or the like; humbug; hoodwink(often followed by into); perplex; mystify; confound. The origin comes from 1695-1705. Bamboozle is one of those words that has been confounding etymologists for centuries. No one knows for sure what its origins are. One thing we do know is that it was originally considered “low language,” at least among such defenders of the language as British.


It won’t fadge can be found in The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose. It means “it won’t do.” Its origin lie in the Anglo-Saxon,fægen, to fit together; Welsh, ffag, what tends to unite. In literature, we find, “How will this fadge?” from Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, ii. 2. It could also mean a “farthing ~ A corrupt contraction of fardingal, i.e. farthingale. (See Chivy.) Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894.


Earwig is a verb meaning “to eavesdrop on a conversation.” The archaic meaning is “influence (someone) by secret means or to fill the mind of with prejudice by insinuations.” Old English ēarwicga, from ēare ‘ear’ + wicga ‘earwig’ (probably related to wiggle ). “Earwigging” is any of numerous elongate, nocturnal insects of the order Dermaptera, having a pair of large,movable pincers at the rear of the abdomen.The insect is so named because it was once thought to crawl into the human ear. The word comes from the Middle English. 


Humbug comes to us from 1751, student slang, “trick, jest, hoax, imposition, deception,” of unknown origin. Also appearing as a verb at the same time, “deceive by false pretext” (trans.). A vogue word of the early 1750s; its origin was a subject of much whimsical speculation even then. “[A]s with other and more recent words of similar introduction, the facts as to its origin appear to have been lost, even before the word became common enough to excite attention” [OED]. Meaning “spirit of deception or imposition; hollowness, sham” is from 1825.



Holland linens

From Jane Austen in Vermont, we learn the meaning of Holland Covers.” “One of my most favorite scenes in a movie is the opening of the 1995 Persuasion and the slow-motion laying on of the “holland covers” to protect all the Kellynch furniture as the Elliots retrench to Bath.  One can read just about any book of historical fiction and see this term used to refer to furniture coverings:  “shrouded in holland covers” or some such reference.  It is such a common reference in today’s historical fiction writings, and one reads along, knowing what it means, but where does the term come from? and most important of all, did Jane Austen ever use the term? 

“I have a book titled Regency Furniture, by Clifford Musgrave, and there is much on Henry Holland, and I recall when I first bought this book that I thought perhaps this is where the term originated – Holland designed furniture, so coverings for said furniture could be called ‘holland covers’ – no?  Holland was the architect appointed by the Prince Regent [then the Prince of Wales] to rebuild and refurbish Carlton House, the Prince’s London establishment since 1783.”

At British History Online, we find history of the import of holland linen:   

Holland and its neighbours were major producers of LINEN of all grades, the finest of which was usually designated simply as HOLLAND or HOLLAND CLOTH. It was much used for making the highest quality of NAPERY and BED LINEN above those made of DIAPER, HUCKABACK, FLAXEN CLOTH, HEMPEN CLOTH and TOW.

OED earliest date of use: 1617

Found described as PLAIN

A Dictionary of Costume and Fashion by Mary Brooks Picken [Dover, 1999] says the following under “Holland”: 

Closely woven linen fabric originally made in Holland.  The first Hollands were made of this fabric [i.e. a form-fitting foundation made by big establishments for special customers and used as a size guide in cutting and draping to save fittings] – a linen or fine cotton in plain weave, sized and often glazed [p. 175];

and under “Linens”:  firm, course, plain-woven, linen, unbleached or partly bleached, glazed and unglazed; originally from Holland.  Used for aprons, furniture covers, window shades, dress-form covers, etc. [p. 213]

And in Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic life in Victorian England, by Judith Flanders [Norton, 2004]:  

As the second half of the century progressed, hygiene became the overriding concern.  Mrs. Panton, still distressed about bedroom carpets, remembered a carpet that had spent twenty years on the dining room floor, “covered in Holland in the summer,” and preserved from winter wear by the most appallingly frightful printed red and green ‘felt square’ I ever saw.” [with a note:  Holland was a hard-wearing linen fabric, usually left undyed.  It was much used in middle- and upper-class households to cover and protect delicate fabrics and furniture.”  [p.  43] 



Someone steals your thunder when they use your ideas or inventions to their own advantage. Phrase Finder tells us the Origin: Devices that produce the sound of thunder have been called on in theatrical productions for centuries. The methods used include – rolling metal balls down troughs, grinding lead shot in bowls, shaking sheets of thin metal. The latter device, called a thunder sheet, is still in use today. The bowl method was referred to in Alexander Pope’s literary satire The Dunciad, published in 1728:

With Shakespeare’s nature, or with Johnson’s art,
Let others aim: ‘Tis yours to shake the soul
With Thunder rumbling from the mustard bowl.

John DennisThe story that lies behind ‘stealing someone’s thunder‘ is that of the literary critic and largely unsuccessful playwright, John Dennis. In 1704, Dennis’s play Appius and Virginia was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre, London and he invented a new method of creating the sound of thunder for the production. We don’t know now what this method was (some texts say it was a refinement of the mustard bowl referred to by Pope, in which metal balls were rolled around in a wooden bowl), but it is reported that after Appius and Virginia failed and was closed, the method was soon afterwards used in a production of Macbeth. Dennis was less than pleased at having his idea purloined and this account of his response was recorded by the literary scholar Joseph Spence (1699–1768) and later quoted in W. S. Walsh’s Literary Curiosities, 1893:

“Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”

The actual words are in doubt and are also reported as “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play!”. What is clear is that Dennis’s experience was the source of this attractive little phrase.


From World Wide Words, we find “dab hand.” This is mainly a British Commonwealth phrase, commonly used in sentences such as “My son has become a dab hand at renovating cast-off computers”. We’re able to trace its origin back to the end of the seventeenth century, but then the trail runs into the sand.

The phrase dab hand turns up first in the early nineteenth century and is widely recorded in English regional and dialect usage through the century. The first recorded use of dab by itself in a related sense is in the Athenian Mercuryof 1691. It’s also in the Dictionary of the Canting Crew of 1698-99: a dab there is “an exquisite expert” in some form of roguery. The US word dabster for an expert comes from the same source, and is recorded from about the same time. Dab is often reported as being school slang, but that may be a later development, as the early sightings all seem to have had criminal associations.

Nobody is even sure where the original dab came from: it may be linked to the Old Dutch dabben and German tappen. The verb first appears about 1300, when it meant to give somebody a sharp blow; it weakened in sense over time, until in the sixteenth century it arrived at its modern meaning of pressing lightly and repeatedly with something soft (the criminal slang dabs for fingerprints seems to derive from this sense, perhaps with a nod towards dab hand). It’s difficult to see how the idea of expertise grew out of the various senses of dab and it’s possible that in this sense it is a separate word, perhaps from adept.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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3 Responses to Are You Familiar with These Words and Phrases?

  1. The English also have an expression ” made up to the nines” Im now wondering if this is perhaps a spin-off of ”nice as ninepence/ninepins”

    • Phrase Finder says,
      The most frequently heard attempts to explain the phrase’s derivation involve associating the number nine with clothing in some way. One theory has it that tailors used nine yards of material to make a suit (or, according to some authors, a shirt). The more material you had the more kudos you accrued, although nine yards seems generous even for a fop. Another commonly repeated explanation comes from the exquisitely smart uniforms of the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot, which was raised in 1824. The problem with these explanations is that they come with no evidence to support them, apart from a reference to the number nine (or 99, which seems to be stretching the cloth rather thinly). The regiment was in business in the early 19th century, which is at least the right sort of date for a phrase that became widely used in the middle of that century.

      The first example of the use of the phrase that I can find in print is in Samuel Fallows’ The Progressive Dictionary of the English Language, 1835. In his entry for the phrase ‘to the nines’ Fallows gives the example ‘dressed up to the nines’ and suggests that it “may perhaps” be derived from ‘to thine eynes’ – to the eyes. Not bad as a hypothesis, but without any evidence (and I can find none) ‘may perhaps’ is as far as we can go with that.

      What counts against the above explanations, and indeed against any of the supposed explanations that attempt to link the number nine to some property of clothing, is the prior use of the shorter phrase ‘to the nine’ or ‘to the nines’, which was used to indicate perfection, the highest standards. That was in use in the 18th century, well before ‘dressed to the nines’ was first used, as in this example from William Hamilton’s Epistle to Ramsay, 1719:

      The bonny Lines therein thou sent me,
      How to the nines they did content me.

      Dressed to the NinesIt is worth noting that the number nine has long been used as a superlative. The Nine Worthies were characters drawn from the Pagan and Jewish history and from the Bible. This distinguished group consisted of Hector, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabaeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon. These were well-known to mediaeval scholars as the personification of all that was noble and heroic. Also, classical mythology has given us the Nine Muses of Arts and Learning – Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania and Melpomene.

      The Poetick Miscellenies of Mr John Rawlett, 1687, provides the earliest reference to ‘to the Nine’ that I can find:

      The learned tribe whose works the World do bless,
      Finish those works in some recess;
      Both the Philosopher and Divine,
      And Poets most who still make their address
      In private to the Nine.

      It seems clear that ‘the Nine’ that Rawlett was referring to were the Nine Muses. It is just as clear that ‘dressed to the nines’ is merely an extension of ‘to the nine/s’ and that we could equally well ‘dance to the nines’ or ‘etymologise to the nines’. The search for the link between ‘nines’ and dress sense has unearthed no convincing candidates. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but I’ll stick my neck out here and say, with this phrase and with the other ‘nines’ phrases, ‘nine’ doesn’t refer to anything specific – it just means ‘a lot’.

      • WOW, sort of a can of worms opened up, that is fascinating. Have to love the English language. From now on I shall have more respect for the numer nine.
        I was known for many years by the number Five Nine!, but that’s a long story. 🙂

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