Bailiwick is an old legal term from England, a compound of bailie + -wick. Bailie is an obsolete form of bailiff, an administrative official, from the Middle English and Old French bailli; -wick is from the Old English wic, meaning dwelling, farm, town, or enclosed space.

The term bailiwick dates to the mid-15th century and originally meant the district under a bailiff’s jurisdiction. The legal sense meaning a jurisdiction is still current. The term was brought to America in the mid-19th century, where it generalized to mean a person’s sphere of knowledge or expertise.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

by and large

By and large is nautical in origin, originally referring to the sailing qualities of a vessel.

To sail by the wind is to sail directly into the wind (or as close into the wind as is possible). A large wind is one that comes from the stern quarter (on a square-rigged vessel, if the wind is directly astern only the rear sails catch it, therefore the most favorable wind comes from slightly off one side where it will fill all the sails). Therefore, a ship that sails well by and large sails well in all directions.

The nautical sense dates to 1669, from Samuel Sturmy’s Mariner’s Magazine:

Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and learge.

The general sense, meaning in one direction in another, in all ways, on the whole, was evident by 1833, in John Neal’s Down-Easters:

A man who feels rather perplexed on the whole, take it by and large.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

buy the farm

To buy the farm is to die, usually in a battle or aircraft accident. It has spawned several false explanations of its origin. The phrase as we know it dates to the 1950s, but has its roots in older variants. The farm in the phrase is a metaphor for a grave, the last plot of land a soldier will own.

The earliest variant is the phrase to buy it. From W. N. Glascock’s Naval Sketch-Book in 1825:

Never mind, in closing with Crappo, if we didn’t buy it with his raking broadsides.

Crappo in this quotation is a slang word for the French, especially used in reference to French sailors.

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busman’s holiday

A busman’s holiday is a day off from work spent doing the things one does on the job. It comes from the idea that a bus driver would spend his holiday traveling somewhere on a bus. The phrase dates originally referred to horse-drawn buses. From the English Illustrated Magazine of 1893:

I shall indeed take a holiday soon,...but it will be a “Busman’s Holiday.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Bunk is short for bunkum, which in turn is an alteration of Buncombe, the name of a county in North Carolina. In the year 1820, the Missouri Question, whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave or a free state, was being hotly debated in Congress. Near the end of the debate and amidst calls from the floor to have a vote, Felix Walker, the representative from Buncombe rose to speak. Walker launched into an irrelevant and seemingly interminable speech. When asked to desist, he replied, “I am talking for Buncombe,” and continued on.1

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bumper crop

To the modern ear this phrase sounds odd. How did bumper become associated with agriculture?

The original bumper was a large cup, filled to the brim with wine, and used for toasting. Why it is called a bumper is a bit uncertain, but could be from the idea of knocking such glasses together during a toast. From Thomas D’Urfey’s Madam Fickle of 1676:

Full Bumpers crown our Blisses.

Bumper eventually came to refer to anything large or abundant. From Gentleman’s Magazine of 1759:

In some of the midland counties, anything large is called a bumper, as a large apple or pear.

By 1885 it was associated with crop, from the Times of London of 2 October:

The floods will have the effect of giving a “bumper” rubbee crop.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Most of us have encountered bugs in hardware or software, those defects that prevent computers from operating properly. But the term existed long before the age of computers. It has its origins in the shop of perhaps the greatest innovator of the industrial age.

The term was coined in the lab of Thomas Edison, perhaps by the man himself. Edison is the first to be recorded using the term in 1878. From Matthew Josephson’s 1959 Edison: a Biography which quotes the man himself:

“Bugs"—as such little faults and difficulties are called—show themselves and months of anxious watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial reached.1

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Buckley’s chance

Buckley’s chance is an Australian phrase meaning a slim chance or no chance at all. It is first cited in 1898 in the Sydney Bulletin of 17 December:

“Devil shoot me!” muttered Tim..."if I see Buckley’s chance of a shindy tonight.”1

The origin is unknown, but there are two common explanations.

The more likely of the two is that it is a bit of wordplay stemming from the name of the Melbourne department store of Buckley and Nunn, founded in 1851. The term is often phrased as there are two chances, Buckley’s and none.

A less likely, but more colorful, explanation is that it is a reference to William Buckley, a convict who escaped from Port Phillip prison in 1803 and lived with the Aborigines for 32 years before surrendering to authorities and obtaining a pardon. The problem with this explanation is the passage of time between his adventure and the appearance of the phrase and that fact that he did pretty well for himself in the bush. It’s not the story of a man with no chance.2

And it is possible for both of these to be true—with William Buckley giving rise to Buckley’s chance and it subsequently being punned into two chances Buckley’s and none, playing on the department store name.

1Oxford English Dictionary, Buckley’s, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 27 Dec 2008 <>.

2Sydney J. Baker, The Australian Language, Sun Books, 1970 (Melbourne: MacMillan, 1966), 269.


Where did this slang word for woman come from? It comes from a broad being a playing card. This may sound absurd on the face of it, but if you follow the development of slang uses of broad it all becomes clear.

Broad is an 18th century slang term for a playing card, especially one used in three card monte. This usage may refer to style of playing deck. In modern card decks, a bridge deck has narrower cards than are found in a poker deck. If this variation in card size is older (I know words, not cards), then a broad could be a reference to this larger cut of cards. From George Parker’s 1781 A View of Society:

Black-Legs, who live by the Broads and the Turf [...] Cant for cards.

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break a leg

Superstition against wishing an actor Good Luck! has led to the adoption of this phrase in its place. The date of origin is a bit obscure; as theatrical slang it existed long before it was ever documented in print, but the intent of the phrase is clear. It is simply a way of warding off a jinx. It being bad luck to speak of a positive performance, one instead speaks of a bad one.

Based on the recollections of actors, break a leg is commonly thought to date to the 1930s. Some claim a British origin, but the earliest citations are all American.1 The earliest actual appearance in print that anyone has found is from 1957, from the 29 May Associated Press wire service story about a dancer who literally broke her leg during a performance:

In the theater, they say “break a leg” to an actor just before he goes on stage, but it really means “good luck.”2

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