life of Riley

The life of Riley (or Reilly) is a life of indolent pleasure. But who was Riley and why did he get to live such a life?

The earliest known use of the phrase is when Private Walter J. Kennedy wrote about about his life in the Army in The Syracuse Herald, 29 July 1918:

“This is surely one great life,” writes Kennedy. “We call it the life of Riley. We are having fine eats, are in a great detachment and the experience one gets is fine. I must say I enjoy it immensely. It sure has some advantages over the undertaking business.”

From the quote, it’s obvious that this was a catchphrase common in the Army, or at least at Fort Dix, New Jersey where Kennedy was posted.

The next year, Harry Pease penned the song My Name is Kelly which included the lyric:

Faith and my name is Kelly Michael Kelly, But I’m living the life of Reilly just the same.

Pease’s song probably did much to popularize the phrase to a wider audience and perpetuate it over the years.

There were several Victorian-era songs that featured characters named Riley or O’Reilly who lived the good life, notably the 1883 Is That You Mr. Riley by Pat Rooney and The Best in the House Is None Too Good for Reilly, popularly c.1900. These may be the inspiration for the character of that name, but the phrase life of Riley/Reilly does not appear in the lyrics.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; American Speech, Vol. 51, No. 1/2, Spring-Summer, 1976;

let the cat out of the bag

To let the cat out of the bag is to reveal a secret. But where does the phrase come from? What is the cat doing in the bag and what has this to do with secrets?

The phrase is a reference to an old scam in which a cat would be surreptitiously substituted for a suckling pig that had just been purchased at market. The cat would be placed in the bag in the hopes that the customer would not look into it until they were some distance away.

The phrase dates to at least 1760, although the scam itself is much older, dating to the 16th century at least. From London Magazine of 1760:

We could have wished that the author...had not let the cat out of the bag.

Also related is the phrase to buy a pig in a poke, which is a reference to the same scam (a poke is a bag or sack). And there is a similar phrase in French, vider le sac, literally meaning to empty the sack and used to mean to tell the whole story or finish the tale.

It’s commonly asserted that let the cat out of the bag refers to the cat o’ nine-tails used on board ships as form of punishment. The whip would be kept in a special bag to protect it from the sea air and to let the cat out of the bag was to confess a crime worthy of flogging. A neat tale, except there is absolutely no evidence to connect the phrase with a nautical origin.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


To the modern ear, Lent, the name for the season of fasting that precedes Easter, is an odd word; it has no apparent religious or seasonal connotation. But this was not always the case.

The word comes from the Old English lencten, the name for the season we now call spring. The Anglo-Saxon name is long gone in English, surviving only in the name of the religious observance.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

left wing

In politics, someone on the left wing is socialist, a radical liberal. This usage stems from the 1789 French National Assembly. In that body which met on the eve of the French Revolution, the Third Estate, the commoners who where were considerably more radical than the clergy and nobles of the First and Second Estates, were seated on the left side of the chamber.

Use of left to denote liberal (later socialist) views dates to 1837 and Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution:

Still less is a Coté Gauche wanting: extreme Left.

Left wing makes its debut in 1884 in William James’s The Will To Believe:

In theology, subjectivism develops as its "left wing" antinomianism.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


A leatherneck is a marine, the name coming from the high, leather collars once worn by Royal and U.S. Marines. The term is originally British, applied by sailors to marines. It dates to at least 1889, when it appears in Barrère & Leland’s Dictionary of Slang:

Leather-necks (naval), a term for soldiers; from their leather stock, which, to a sailor, with his neck free from any hindrance, must appear such an uncomfortable appliance.

It makes it American appearance in the December 1907 issue of Army & Navy Life:

“Yah, yah, twelve eighty and a horse blanket; yah, yah, leather neck!”
“Sergeant, who the devil is that?”
“An ex-flat-foot who is driving a truck, sir; he passes every morning and devils the man on watch at the door.”

It is likely that the reference to U.S. Marines is borrowed from the British instead of coming directly from the marine uniform. U.S. Marines abandoned their leather neck stocks in 1875, long before the term leatherneck came into use.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

Classifying Human Knowledge, Part II

Last week we looked at the Dewey Decimal and the Cutter Expansive Classification systems for organizing books. The other major system in use by English language libraries is the Library of Congress Classification or LCC system. The LCC is used and maintained, obviously, by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and is also used by most of the larger libraries in the United States, including most university and research libraries.

Read the rest of the article...

Ku Klux Klan

Ku-Klux is a variation on the Greek kuklos meaning circle. The Klan is obviously from clan, with the k used for alliterative purposes.

The name dates to 1867 and was chosen by the group’s founders. Their exact reasons for the choice are not known for certain, but a circle implies a secret circle or society, a symbol for continuity, a symbol for perfection, and lots of other mystical imagery. From the Pulaski, Tennessee Citizen of 29 March 1867:

The Kuklux Klan will assemble at their usual place of rendezvous...exactly at the hour of midnight, in costume and bearing the arms of the Klan.

A common folkloric origin is that the name of the group comes from the sound of a gun cocking. This is bunk.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This word for a horsed warrior has an interesting history. It is Germanic in origin, but its cognates in Dutch and German, Knecht, mean farm hand, boy, slave, and servitude—a far cry from the English sense of nobility.

The earliest English sense of knight, or more accurately cniht, is also servant or boy. It is recorded in King Alfred’s Orosius, circa 893:

Philippus, þa he cniht wæs, wæs Thebanum to gisle geseald.
(Philip, when he was a knight, was bound as a hostage to Thebes.)

This sense fell out of use in the 13th century, probably to avoid confusion with the second, more modern sense.

The sense meaning nobility (corresponding to Dutch and German Ridder and Ritter, respectively) stems from the idea that the knight was a servant of the king. From the Old English Chronicle, written sometime before 1100:

Þænne wæron mid him ealle þa rice men...abbodas & eorlas, þegnas & cnihtas.
(Then he was aware of all the great men…abbots & earls, thanes and knights.)

Thus in English, the servant became ennobled, while he remained low in the other Germanic languages.

Cavalier which is the literal equivalent of the Dutch or German words, dates to the 15th century and was adopted from the Spanish—hence the Latin root. While the denotation is the same as knight, the connotation is different. Cavalier was never an official title and its association with the supporters of Charles I in the English Civil War gave rise to the idea that cavaliers were noble, but distracted and careless.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Knickerbocker / knickers

This nickname for a New Yorker is perhaps best known today as the source of the name of the New York Knicks basketball team. But it was once in more general use.

It got its start in Washington Irving’s 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York, allegedly written by the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker. By 1848 edition of that work, Irving noted that the name was being used by New Yorkers as a nickname:

When I find New Yorkers of Dutch descent priding themselves upon being “genuine Knickerbockers.”

The name transferred to the style of men’s loose-fitting trousers, gathered at the knee because of illustrations of similar knee-breeches in Irving’s book. From the Times of London, 23 May 1859:

The that volunteers should not wear trowsers, but I would recommend as a substitute what are commonly known as nickerbockers [sic], i.e. long loose breeches generally worn without braces, and buckled or buttoned round the waist and knee.

This was also shortened to knickers, a term that is still in use in the United States. In Britain, however, knickers also transferred to mean women’s underpants, a term that dominates British usage today. From the 1882 publication Queen:

I recommend...flannel knickers in preference to flannel petticoat.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Kitty-corner, or catty-corner, is a classic example of the phenomenon known as folk-etymology. When a word or phrase makes little apparent sense, it will often mutate into a form that seems more familiar.

The term was originally catercorner. Cater is an old dialectical term for diagonal. It derives from the French quatre or four. Cater dates to the16th century, appearing in Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry:

The trees are set checkerwise and so catred [partim in quincuncem directis], as looke which way ye will, they lye level.

By the early 19th century, the folk etymology had set in. From Joseph C. Neal’s 1838 Charcoal Sketches:

One of that class...who, when compelled to share their bed with another, lie in that engrossing posture called “catty-cornered.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2019, by David Wilton