Are You Familiar With These Words and Phrases?

maxresdefault.jpgSpillikin ~ The Oxford Living Dictionaries gives us: [treated as singular] A game played with a heap of small rods of wood, bone, or plastic, in which players try to remove one at a time without disturbing the others, while Wikitionary tells us that Spillikin is “One of the straws used in the game of Jackstraws (which ironically is also called spillikins. The word came into the language in the mid 18th Century. I always called the game “pick up sticks.” Wikipedia gives us this explanation: “Pick-up sticks or pick-a-stick is a game of physical and mental skill. A bundle of ‘sticks’, between 8 and 20 centimeters long, are held in a loose bunch and released on a table top, falling in random disarray. Each player, in turn, must remove a stick from the pile without disturbing the remaining ones. One root of the name “pick-up sticks” may be the line of a children’s nursery rhyme, “…five, six, pick-up sticks!” The game has spawned several variations such as Jackstraws (or Jack Straws), Spellicans, and Spillikins.


“We are not amused.” ~ Surely you have heard this line attributed to Queen Victoria. However, Phrase Finder tell us… 

This supposed quotation was attributed to Queen Victoria by courtier Caroline Holland in Notebooks of a Spinster Lady, 1919. Holland attests that Victoria made the remark at Windsor Castle:

‘There is a tale of the unfortunate equerry who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. “We are not amused,” said the Queen when he had finished.’

Holland doesn’t claim to have been present at the dinner and is good enough to describe the account as a “tale’, that is, her account has the same standing as “a man in the pub told me”.

Despite the fact that in almost all of the photographs and paintings of her, Victoria provides a particularly po-faced demeanour, she had the reputation of being in private a very fun loving and amusing companion, especially in her youth and before the crown began to weigh heavily on her. In public it was another matter, as Victoria preferred to maintain what she saw as the dignity of her position by remaining sternly impassive. She did, of course, become considerably less fun-loving after the death of her husband and her persona in later life is well-documented as being dour and straight-laced. 

As to whether she ever uttered the expression ‘we are not amused’, there’s little convincing evidence that she did so with the intention of conveying the serious intent that we now ascribe to the phrase, although in the 1976 biography Victoria Was Amused, Alan Hardy makes the claim (again without offering explicit evidence) that Victoria did sometimes utter the expression ironically.

The evidence to support the idea that Queen Victoria originated this expression ‘we are not amused’ lies somewhere between thin and nonexistent.


Warts and all ~ From Phrase Finder we have this explanation: The whole thing; not concealing the less attractive parts.

Oliver Cromwell- warts and allThis phrase is said to derive from Oliver Cromwell’s instructions to the painter Sir Peter Lely, when commissioning a portrait.

At the time of the alleged instruction, Cromwell was Lord Protector of England. Lely had been portrait artist to Charles I and, following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he was appointed as Charles II’s Principal Painter in Ordinary.

Charles IILely’s painting style was, as was usual at the time, intended to flatter the sitter. Royalty in particular expected portraits to show them in the best possible light, if not to be outright fanciful. Lely’s painting of Charles II shows what was expected of a painting of a head of state in the 17th century. It emphasizes the shapely royal calves – a prized fashion feature at that time.

Cromwell did have a preference for being portrayed as a gentleman of military bearing, but was well-known as being opposed to all forms of personal vanity. This ‘puritan Roundhead’ versus ‘dashing Cavalier’ shorthand is often used to denote the differences in style of the two opposing camps in the English Commonwealth and subsequent Restoration. It is entirely plausible that he would have issued a ‘warts and all’ instruction when being painted and it is unlikely that Lely would have modified his style and produced the ‘warts and all’ portrait of Cromwell unless someone told him to.

We have Cromwell’s death mask as a reference. From that it is clear that Lely’s portrait is an accurate record of Cromwell’s actual appearance.

Despite the plausibility of the account, there doesn’t appear to be any convincing evidence that Cromwell ever used the phrase ‘warts and all’. The first record of a version of that phrase being attributed to him comes from Horace Walpole’sAnecdotes of Painting in England, with some account of the principal artists, 1764. Walpole’s authority for the

Oliver Cromwell - death mask - warts and all attribution came from a reported conversation between John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, the first occupant of Buckingham House, now Buckingham Palace, and the house’s architect, Captain William Winde. Winde claimed that:

Oliver certainly sat to him, and while sitting, said to him – “Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”

That was published in 1764 – over a hundred years after Lely painted Cromwell. Walpole included no evidence to support the attribution, nor any explanation of why no one else had mentioned the phrase in the preceding hundred years – this despite Cromwell’s life being the subject of minutely detailed historical research and over 160 full-length biographies. We can only assume he was indulging in a piece of literary speculation rather than historical documentation. The first known citation in print of the actual phrase ‘warts and all’ is from a ‘Chinese whisper’ retelling of Walpole’s story – an address given by an Alpheus Cary, in Massachusetts, in 1824:

When Cromwell sat for his portrait he said, “Paint me as I am, warts and all!”

It may well be the case that Oliver Cromwell preferred portraits of him to be accurate, but it is most unlikely that he ever uttered the words ‘warts and all’.


MARCELLA-WHITE-FINE-SHIRTING-FABRIC-600x450.jpg Marcella ~ While some of us know “Marcella” as a British crime noir detective series, for this post, I am speaking of an English cotton fabric made with a quilted or honeycomb face and used especially for clothing, trimming, or bedspreads. says, “a cotton or linen fabric constructed in pique weave, used in the manufacture of vests, mats, etc.” It is probably an alteration of marseilles. It entered the language around 1805-1815. 


In many Regency books, a wealthy man will present his mistress her congé, but what does that mean? Merriam-Webster tells us the word congé means “a formal permission to depart; a dismissal.” The origin is likely an alteration of earlier congee, congie,from Middle English conge, from Anglo-French cungé, from Latin commeatus going back and forth, leave, from commeare to go back and forth, from com- + meare to go — First Known Use: 14th century.


Tomfoolery ~ World Wide Words gives us this origin for “tomfoolery.” The word often turns up in print in the way you have written it, or as Tom foolery or tom-foolery or Tom-foolery. Such forms show that their writers still link the word with some fool called Tom, even though they may not know who he was.

Tom Skelton
A portrait of Tom Skelton.

It is sometimes claimed that the original Tom Fool was Thomas Skelton. He was a jester, a fool, for the Pennington family at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria. This was probably about 1600 — he is said to be the model for the jester in Shakespeare’s King Lear of 1606. In legend, he was an unpleasant person. One story tells how he liked to sit under a tree by the road; whenever travellers he didn’t like asked the way to the ford over the River Esk, he would instead direct them to their deaths in the marshes. Another tale links him with the murder of a carpenter who was the lover of Sir William Pennington’s daughter.

So much for stories. In truth, Tom Fool is centuries older. He starts appearing in the historical record early in the 1300s in the Latinate form Thomas fatuus. The first part served even then as a generic term for any ordinary person, as it still does in phrases like Tom, Dick or Harry. The second word means stupid or foolish in Latin and has bequeathed us fatuousand infatuate, among other words. By 1356 Thomas fatuus had become Tom Fool.

Around the seventeenth century, the character of Tom Fool shifted somewhat from the epitome of a stupid or half-witted person to that of a fool or buffoon. He became a character who accompanied morris-dancers or formed part of the cast of various British mummers’ plays performed at Christmas, Easter or All Souls’ Day.

A tom-fool was more emphatically foolish than an unadorned fool. Tomfoolery was similarly worse than foolery, the state of acting foolishly, which had been in English since the sixteenth century. Perhaps oddly, it took until about 1800 for tomfoolery to appear. It had been preceded by the verb to tom-fool, to play the fool.


By hook or by crook ~ For this one, I again turned to World Wide Words. 

“This curious phrase has bothered many people down the years, the result being a succession of well-meant stories, often fervently argued, that don’t stand up for a moment on careful examination.

“As good a place to start as any is the lighthouse at the tip of the Hook peninsula in south-eastern Ireland, said to be the world’s oldest working lighthouse. It is at the east side of the entrance to Waterford harbour, on the other side of which is a village and parish called Crook. One tale claims that Oliver Cromwell proposed to invade Ireland during the English Civil War by way of Waterford and that he asserted he would land there “by Hook or by Crook”. In another version the invasion of Ireland was the one of 1172 by Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow.

“Two other stories associate the phrase with gentlemen called Hook and Crook. Both appeared in early issues of the scholarly research publication Notes and Queries. One linked it with the difficulties of establishing the exact locations of plots of land after the great fire of London in 1666. The anonymous writer explained:

“The surveyors appointed to determine the rights of the various claimants were Mr. Hook and Mr. Crook, who by the justice of their decisions gave general satisfaction to the interested parties, and by their speedy determination of the different claims, permitted the rebuilding of the city to proceed without the least delay. Hence arose the saying above quoted, usually applied to the extrication of persons or things from a difficulty. The above anecdote was told the other evening by an old citizen upwards of eighty, by no means of an imaginative temperament.

Notes and Queries, 15 Feb. 1851.

“The other supposed derivation was equally poorly substantiated:

“I have met with it somewhere, but have lost my note, that Hooke and Crooke were two judges, who in their day decided most unconscientiously whenever the interests of the crown were affected, and it used to be said that the king could get anything by Hooke or by Crooke.

Notes and Queries, 26 Jan. 1850.

“Most of these stories can be readily dismissed by looking at the linguistic evidence, which tells us that the expression is on record from the end of the fourteenth century, by which time it was already a set phrase with the current meaning.

“During this period, local people sometimes had rights by charter or custom known as fire-bote to gather firewood from local woodlands. It was acceptable to take dead wood from the ground or to pull down dead branches. The latter action was carried out either with a hook or a crook, the latter implement being a tool like a shepherd’s crook or perhaps just a crooked branch.

“Little contemporary evidence exists for this practice. Written claims for it dating from the seventeenth century are said to exist for the New Forest in southern England, one of which argued for an immemorial right to go into the king’s wood to take the dead branches off the trees “with a cart, a horse, a hook and a crook, and a sail cloth” (it’s not stated why the sail cloth was needed). Another version was once claimed to be in the records of Bodmin in Cornwall, whereby locals were permitted by a local prior “to bear and carry away on their backs, and in no other way, the lop, crop, hook, crook, and bagwood in the prior’s wood of Dunmeer.” Richard Polwhele’s Civil and Military History of Cornwall of 1806 argued in support of this claim that images of the hook and the crook were carved on the medieval Prior’s Cross in nearby Washaway, though modern writings describe them as fleurs-de-lys.

“The examples suggest that this origin for the expression is the correct one, though some doubt must remain.

Medieval peasant trimming vines
This medieval illustration shows a billhook, but the worker is pruning a tree, not cutting firewood.

“The hook of the idiom may have been just a bit of wood or metal but might equally have been a tool with a sharpened edge, allied to the billhook or reap hook of more modern agricultural practice. We now connect crook principally with shepherds and bishops, but in medieval times it was any hooked device or implement. This meant that hook and crook were synonyms as well as rhymes, which made it almost inevitable that they were put together to make a reduplicated rhyming phrase.”



Cartoon of a “hobbledehoy” William Cobbett enlisting in the army. From the Political Register of 1809. Artist James Gillray. Wikipedia

Did you know that a hobbledehoy is an awkward, gawky youth? According to Merriam Webster, hobbledehoy was first used in 1540. World Wide Words tells us, “You will not find a better description of the type than in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington: ‘Such young men are often awkward, ungainly, and not yet formed in their gait; they straggle with their limbs, and are shy; words do not come to them with ease, when words are required, among any but their accustomed associates. Social meetings are periods of penance to them, and any appearance in public will unnerve them. They go much about alone, and blush when women speak to them. In truth, they are not as yet men, whatever the number may be of their years; and, as they are no longer boys, the world has found for them the ungraceful name of hobbledehoy.’

“But where the world found it is far from clear. The word seems to have been around at least since the sixteenth century, but was long distinguished by seeming never to be written the same way twice. It may well be related to Hoberdidance or Hobbididance, which was the name of a malevolent sprite associated with the Morris dance (and whose name is from Hob, an old name for the Devil; nothing to do with hobbits). It may also be linked to hobidy-booby, an old English dialect word for a scarecrow. The modern spelling seems to be the result of popular etymology, which has changed a puzzling word into something that looks as though it might make more sense.”


Billet-doux is a love letter. It is literally a “sweet letter” from the French. (French billet doux, from billet (“note”) + doux  ‎(sweet). Its first known use is 1673. 

He mutters something about fate and free-will, and walks off with the billet-doux. – The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay, Vol. 2 (of 4) by Thomas Babington Macaulay


One of the literary devices my AP students were expected to recognize within the literature was metonymy. “It is a figure of speech that replaces the name of a thing with the name of something else with which it is closely associated. We can come across examples of metonymy both from literature and in everyday life. Metonymy is often confused with another figure of speech called synecdoche. They resemble each other but are not the same. Synecdoche refers to a thing by the name of one of its parts. For example, calling a car ‘a wheel’ is a synecdoche. A part of a car i.e. “a wheel” stands for the whole car. In a metonymy, on the other hand, the word we use to describe another thing is closely linked to that particular thing, but is not a part of it. For example, ‘Crown’ which means power or authority is a metonymy.”

Literary Devices provides this example: 

The given lines are from Shakespeare’s  “Julius Caesar” Act I.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

Mark Anthony uses “ears” to say that he wants the people present there to listen to him attentively. It is a metonymy because the word “ears” replaces the concept of attention.


Pourboire ~ gives us “a gratuity; tip (especially in appreciation).”Origin of pourboire: literally, for drinking [pour + boire (“for drinking,” cf. Ger. Trinkgeld)]. One can find the word in this examples: 

  • Then to Jefferson she added: “Give him a franc for pourboire —that makes five francs altogether.” – The Lion and The Mouse by Charles Klein. 

  • Tartarin went up to give him a pourboire, as he had seen all the other tourists do. – Tartarin on the Alps by Alphonse Daudet

  • “Nay, thou shalt have pourboire,” and he gave him a small coin. – The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade


Carry Coals to Newcastle ~ Phrase Finder gives us this explanation. 

Newcastle Upon Tyne in England was the UK’s first coal exporting port and has been well-known as a coal mining centre since the Middle Ages, although much diminished in that regard in recent years. ‘Carrying coal to Newcastle’ was an archetypally pointless activity – there being plenty there already. Other countries have similar phrases; in German it’s ‘taking owls to Athens’ (the inhabitants of Athens already being thought to have sufficient wisdom). ‘Selling snow to Eskimos’ or ‘selling sand to Arabs’, which in many people’s understanding also have the same meaning, are a little different. Those expressions refer to things that are difficult to achieve, that is, requiring of superb sales skills, rather than being things that are pointless..

Carry coals to NewcastleDespite the name of the city, Newcastle’s castle keep is almost a thousand years old – having replaced an earlier castle in 1178. The association of the city with coal and the phrase itself are also old. In 1606, Thomas Heywood in ‘If you know not me, you know no bodie: or, the troubles of Queene Elizabeth‘ wrote:

“As common as coales from Newcastle.”

The explicit link with pointlessness came soon afterwards, in Thomas Fuller’s The history of the worthies of England, 1661:

“To carry Coals to Newcastle, that is to do what was done before; or to busy one’s self in a needless imployment.”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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