Gargoyle from Notre Dame cathedralA gargoyle is a stone figure that forms part of the gutter system of medieval cathedrals. It is a spout, in the shape of some grotesque creature, that carries rainwater away from the walls of the building. The word is from the Old French gargouille, or throat, and is a reference to the water passing through the throat of the stone figure. The same root gives us the modern noun and verb gargle.

From the c.1386 century poem, Saint Erkenwald (the extant manuscript, BL Harley 2250, dates to sometime before 1500):

Hit was a throghe of thykke stone...With gargeles garnysht aboute, all of gray marbre.
(it was a tomb of thick stone…with gargoyles garnished about, all of gray marble.)

According to myth, in the 7th century a dragon, named Gargouille rose from the waters of the Seine River in France. Unlike the typical dragons of mythology, this one did not breathe fire, but rather was a water dragon. The monster proceeded to lay waste to the countryside around Paris by drowning it. St. Romain, the Archbishop of Rouen, accompanied only by a condemned prisoner, set out to stop the beast. Upon confronting the monster, the saint formed a cross with his two index fingers, taming Gargouille. The dragon was led back to Paris, where it was slain and burned. The head, however, was saved and mounted on a building. This legend supposedly gave rise to the architectural practice of designing waterspouts to look like monsters.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Middle English Dictionary)

frog march

Nowadays, to frog march someone is to pin their arms behind their back and hustle them along with a person at either side. The term is usually used in reference to prisoners in police custody. From J. Ferguson’s 1931 Death Comes To Perigord:

Cæsar slewed him round, and forcing both arms behind his back, got ready to frog-march him to the door.

But why frogs? The answer is that the modern concept of frog-marching is not the original. Originally, frog-marching was carrying a person face downwards, with a man holding each limb. The metaphor comes from the idea that a frog crawls on its belly. From the Evening Standard, 18 April 1871:

They did not give the defendant the "Frog’s March".

This citation from the Birmingham Weekly Post of 15 November 1884 makes the concept clearer:

Deceased was ‘frog’s-marched’–that is, with face downwards–from Deal to Walmer.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

French kiss

A French kiss is an open-mouthed kiss with tongue and the term dates to the beginning of the 20th century. From a 1918 letter appearing in Private Lindner’s Letters: Censored and Uncensored:

So I have decided to become a linguist. Being able to read French fluently and speak it wretchedly, and to speak German connectively but not to read it at all, I am taking up Luxembourg, which is a wonderful blend of the two, a sort of laison [sic] between tongues. (Not to be confused with French kissing.)1

But why French? The French have been associated with sexual practices dating back to the 18th century. From Henry Fielding’s 1749 Tom Jones:

But I am so far from desiring to exhibit such Pictures to the Public, that I would wish to draw a Curtain over those that have lately been set forth in certain French novels.2

In this case, Fielding was writing about risqué novels that were literally French. By the mid-19th century, the figurative sense was well established. From Robert Browning’s 1842 Bells and Pomegranates:

Or, my scrofulous French novel,
On grey paper with blunt type!3

1Clarence R. Lindner, Private Lindner’s Letters, edited by Gladys Dudley Lindner (San Francisco, 1939), 119.

2Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, In Four Volumes, vol. 3 (Basil: J.L. Legrand, 1791), 306.

3Robert Browning, Bells and Pomegranates, edited by Thomas J. Wise (London: Ward, Lock & Company, 1896), 144.


Freelancing is a form of self-employment, where one hires out one’s services instead of being employed on a permanent basis. Many believe this term dates to the Middle Ages, referring to a knight who served as a mercenary, as opposed to pledging fealty to a single lord. While this is indeed the metaphor underlying the term, freelance only dates to the early 19th century and is applied anachronistically to medieval times. From Sir Walter Scott’s 1820 Ivanhoe:

I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.

Figurative use, referring to something other than knights, dates to 1864. From The Standard of 16 April of that year:

They may be Free Lances in Parliament so long as the guerilla career suits them.

The verb and gerund are from the early 20th century. From Enoch Arnold Bennett’s 1903 The Truth About The Author:

What in Fleet Street is called “free-lancing.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

flying saucer

The modern phenomenon of UFO sightings dates to 1947. While occasional reportings of unusual objects in the sky date to the early 20th century, both the modern UFO craze and the term flying saucer date to this year.

On 24 June 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing several high-speed, unidentified flying objects near Mount Rainier in Washington state. This produced a spate of such “sightings” in the following days. Initial reports described these objects as “shaped like a pie plate” and within a few days this description morphed into flying saucer. From the Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1947:

The area over which the “flying saucers” were reported seen widened to Southwestern New Mexico today.

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flying colors

To come off with flying colors is to achieve great success. It is a military metaphor for leaving the battlefield still in possession of one’s flag. The phrase dates to the 17th century. From John Locke’s 1692 A Letter Concerning Toleration:

It may...bring a Man off with flying Colours.

And from George Farquhar’s 1706-07 A Beaux Stratagem:

We came off with flying colours.

Some claim a nautical origin for this phrase, but it appears to have got its start among armies, not navies.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

five by five

Often in old war movies you’ll hear a radio operator say, “I read you five-by-five.” What does this mean?

The operator in question is ranking the voice transmission on a scale of one to five in two categories, strength and clarity. So, five-by-five is loud and clear and one-by-one would be weak and unintelligible. From Evan Hunter’s 1954 Blackboard Jungle:

“All right, testing, one-two-three-four."..."Five by five, Mr. Halloran!”

By the 1980s, it had acquired a general slang sense of okay, fine. From Rick Eilert’s 1983 For Self and Country:

“I hope everything’s all right.”
“Yeah, everything is five by five.”1

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 757.


To fire is an American slang verb meaning to dismiss someone from employment, to sack someone. The underlying metaphor is not quite certain, but it is most likely that of a bullet being fired from a gun.

The word first appears in the early 1870s in a general sense meaning to dismiss, to get rid of someone. From the March 1871 issue of Overland Monthly:

The thought that I was fired by some stranger, who wasn’t a-takin’ no not a good thought to die on.

The dismissal from employment sense appears a decade or so later. From Sweet and Knox’s Texas Siftings of 1882:

If Gould fires you out, the only railroad in Texas that will employ you will be some street railroad.1

There are various claims floating about that the slang term comes from literal acts of arson. An employer would burn the desk or home of someone he wished to dismiss. This is utter nonsense. The slang term is metaphorical and was never meant to be taken literally.

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 749.


During a filibuster, a senator or group of senators continue to talk, often about irrelevant topics (reading the telephone book is a phrase often used), in order to prevent a vote on a particular subject. The rules of the US Senate allow for unlimited debate. So as long as the vocal cords of the senators hold out, they can prevent legislation from moving forward. The term is technically not restricted to the US Senate, but given the peculiar rules of this body it is most often used in reference to that body.

A filibuster is so-called because the minority hijacks the debate, much like a pirate hijacks a ship and it is an affront to good order and discipline, just like the Yankee filibusters who invaded Latin America in the 1850s.

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fifth column

This term for a group of insurgents, traitors, or spies is a calque from Spanish. It dates to 1936 and the Spanish Civil War. That year, Nationalist general Emilio Mola had surrounded Madrid with four military columns and declared that he had a quinta columna within the besieged city. The quotation was widely reported in British and American newspapers and the term quickly caught on and generalized. From the New York Times of 17 October 1936, in reference to the fighting for Madrid:

Prudence counsels the government to forestall as far as possible the activities of this “fifth column.”

And in a more general sense, from the 21 October 1939 edition of War Illustrated:

This looks to me like the Nazis’ “fifth column” in Belgium ready for the invasion.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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