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January 2, 2008

Dictionary of Clichés


Endless entertainment.

Would-be spies whose native tongue is other than English would be well-advised to buy and study this book: I suspect on more than one occasion in the past, a covert agent has been unmasked by her or his failure to understand a common cliché.

Below, selections from just the letter "a" — as far as I've read.

This will be a cover-to-cover, slow excursion.

according to Hoyle — On highest authority, in keeping with established rules. Edmond Hoyle, an Englishman born in 1679 and buried in 1769, wrote short treatises on five different card games (they were bound together in one volume in 1746). Within a year his name appeared on other books published by plagiarists, which also gave rules and advice for playing games. This practice has continued to the present day, and there are rule books about poker and numerous other games, all invoking the authority of Hoyle, who died long before these games were invented.

ace in the hole — A hidden advantage. In stud poker the dealer gives each player a card facedown, called a "hole card"; from that point on all other cards are dealt faceup. Should the hole card be an ace, a high card, the player has an advantage unknown to his opponents. Stud poker was first introduced shortly after the Civil War and played mostly in what is now the Midwest but then was the West. In time "ace in the hole" became western slang for a hidden weapon, such as a gun carried in a shoulder holster, and by the early 1920s it was used figuratively for any hidden leverage. The related ace up one's sleeve comes from the practice of dishonest gamblers who would hide a winning card in just this way.

across the board — Affecting all classes and categories. The term, originally American, comes from horse-racing, where a bet covering all winning possibilities — win (first place), place (second place) or show (third place) — was so described. By about 1950 it was extended to other situations, principally of an economic nature, as in across-the-board wage increases, (for all employees), tax reduction (for all brackets), air-fare increases, and the like.

albatross around one's neck, an — A burden or curse. The figurative meaning comes straight from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), a narrative poem in which a young sailor who shot an albatross, considered an extremely unlucky action, was punished by having the dead bird hung around his neck.

January 2, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on May 5, 2009 10:20:57 PM


It wasn't until a few years ago that I discovered that the albatross cliche did in fact refer to a burden. I had always thought it meant a talisman, of the apotropaic kind. I remember once, even looking at a jewelry catalog for an albatross charm for a friend. Jeez. What an idiot.

Posted by: Flautist | Jan 2, 2008 2:31:58 PM

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