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The origin of phrases: Part seven

Could you utter a clothing-based idiom at the drop of a hat? In the seventh of our origin of phrases series, we talk hats, trousers and birthday suits.

At the drop of a hat

Meaning: To stop everything else in order to complete an action immediately, often on a signal to do so

Origin: According to various sources, the idiom comes from 19th Century America, where the signal to start a fight in battle was sometimes signalled by the person in charge dropping a hat or sweeping it downwards. It fits with other phrases around the idea of battle, including rolling up the sleeves.

Birthday suit

Meaning: Naked / Wearing nothing

Origin: The origin doesn’t seem to have been recorded; however, the widely held belief is that this was coined to describe the skin – the only thing you’re ‘wearing’ on the day you’re born.

All mouth and [no] trousers

Meaning: Description of someone who talks a good game but can’t back it up with actions

Origin: This has caused many a debate over the years, not the etymology per se, but whether or not to include the word ‘no’. However, what all sources agree is that the original phrase was ‘all mouth and trousers’, used to describe a man consisting just of mouth (bravado) and trousers (outer clothing) but no brain/substance or anything underneath the clothes (we’ll leave the specific meaning of that part to your imagination). It has evolved to read ‘all mouth and no trousers’, meaning the same thing but moving it closer to the idea of someone ‘talking the talk’ but not ‘walking the walk’.

Down at heel

Meaning: Out of luck / Penniless

Origin: The first known use of this phrase was in William Darrell’s A gentleman instructed in the conduct of a virtuous and happy life: “Sneak into a corner…down at heels and out at elbows.” The idea was that a person who wears worn down heels is impoverished, as is a person who is ‘out at elbows’, i.e. has worn through the elbows of their jacket/top. The latter phrase, however, isn’t as widely used as ‘down at heel’.

Dressed to the nines

Meaning: Dressed up for a special occasion

Origin: Researching this idiom threw up perhaps the most interesting of points so far – that nine is troublesome when it comes to etymology. Its use in this phrase is unclear, as it is in ‘cloud nine’ and ‘whole nine yards’. One theory is that it takes nine yards of fabric to make a suit, another that the uniform worn by members of the 99th Wiltshire Regiment – known as the Nines – was flamboyant. A third and eminently believable theory is that it developed from the earlier phrase ‘to the nines’ meaning perfection. However, this still leaves the question of why nine, rather than any other number. The final explanation given is that ‘to the nines’ may actually be derived from ‘to thine eyes’ – but this has very little basis in history.

In part six we looked at ANIMALS, part eight will explore MUSIC, and part nine covers NATURE. Who said learning wasn’t fun?

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