The origin of this odd term is unknown. It is an Americanism dating to the middle of the 19th century, but beyond that we don’t know much about its origins.

Lollygag, or as it is often spelled lallygag, has had several meanings. The earliest seems to be something of no worth, nonsense, foolery. From a poem about a dead milk cow that appears in the Sparta Democrat (Wisconsin) on 14 September 1859:

22 Kwarts of milck she give,
As true as Eye dew liv,
but now er 12 Kwart bag
Aint wuth a lallygag,
Poor old thyng!

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lock, stock, and barrel

This phrase, meaning completely or thoroughly, is another phrase originally referring to firearms. In this case, it refers to the three major parts of a musket, the firing mechanism or lock, the stock which rests against the shoulder, and the barrel. The phrase was originally reversed, first appearing in an 1817 letter by Sir Walter Scott as stock, lock, and barrel:

Like the High-landman’s gun, she wants stock, lock, and barrel, to put her into repair.

The current sequence dates to 1842 in William T. Thompson’s Major Jones’s Courtship:

All moved, lock, stock, and barrel.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

lock and load

This imperative phrase originally referred to the operation of the M1 Garand Rifle, the standard U.S. Army rifle of WWII. Its meaning is more general now, referring to preparation for any imminent event.

To load a Garand, the bolt would be locked to the rear and a clip of ammunition loaded into the receiver. The command lock and load was immortalized by John Wayne in the 1949 movie The Sands of Iwo Jima:

Lock and load, boy, lock and load.

There are earlier uses of the command reversed, load and lock. This command, primarily used on firing ranges, referred to the loading of a single round into the Garand (or into another weapon). In this case, the lock referred to striking the bolt handle with the heel of the hand to ensure it was fully closed and locked into place. From Gene Gach’s 1942 In The Army Now:

One round, ball ammunition, load and lock!

There is even an instance of this usage going back the Spanish-American War; although it’s not certain if this was a phrase current at the time or just a coincidental use of the words. From the Annual Reports of the War Department, 1900, a dispatch from the Philippines, 15 June 1899:

The line was under strong long-range fire and the order was given to load and lock the pieces; investigation proved that the white objects seen were the marines returning to their ship.

The term lock in this phrase is a different use of the word than in references to the firing mechanism of a weapon, as in flintlock.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

Planetary Update: Xena Is Cancelled

The dwarf planet 2003 UB313 has been given an official name by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Unofficially named Xena, after the television heroine, by its discoverer Mike Brown of Caltech, the object will now officially be known as Eris, the Greek goddess of discord. And the dwarf planet’s moon, previously dubbed Gabrielle after Xena’s companion on the TV show, will now be known as Dysnomia, Eris’s daughter and demon of lawlessness.

The discovery of Eris/Xena was what prompted the recent definition of the term planet by the IAU.

The use of the Greek name falls into line with that of the other planets, which also have the names of Greek or Roman gods and not the naming convention used for other non-planets, that of deities from other mythological traditions like Sedna and Quaoar.

It should also be noted that the name Dysnomia shares its first syllable with Brown’s wife Diane. Similarly, Pluto’s moon Charon shares an initial syllable with Charlene, the wife of Clyde Tombaugh, its discoverer.

(Dysnomia’s association with lawlessness and the fact that the part of Xena was played by actress Lucy Lawless is assumed to be entirely coincidental.)

Word Watch: pretexting

The Hewlett-Packard scandal involving its Chair Patricia Dunn hiring private investigators to spy on other board members has brought the term pretexting to the fore. Pretexting is the obtaining of private records about an individual by pretending to be someone authorized access to them. The term comes from the idea of creating a false pretext justifying access to the data.

The term is not new, however, having been around for least 14 years. From the 9 March 1992 issue of Computerworld magazine:

Another technique, called “pretexting,” is to get the data by phone after claiming to be an [Social Security Administration] employee from another office where the computer is down.

Somewhat earlier, is the more general use of the term to mean the creation of false pretenses. From the Usenet group soc.culture.vietnamese, 4 February 1992, Vietnamese Legend (The Happy Dream):

Worried at not finding him back, he sent for Sinh several times; but the latter refused to return to the Court, pretexting that he had to stay for a while to organize the administration of the occupied country.

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)

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