Following up this post:
Adonis to Zorro: Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion, by Andrew Delahunty and Sheila Dignen, is the third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (1st ed. 2001). It’s very nicely produced and laid out, with each phrase provided with both an explanation and one or more citations; thus “cupboard was bare” has the “Old Mother Hubbard” rhyme and includes a quotation from BusinessWeek Magazine 2004 (“We were barely breaking even, and the cupboard was bare”). I did not know that the phrase “naughty but nice” comes from an 1871 music hall song “It’s Naughty but It’s Nice.” The problem with such books is that they’ve largely been superseded by the internet, and yet that last bit of information is not easily found by googling (cf. the unhelpful Wikipedia page). So maybe there’s a place for such a book after all.

Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, covers words derived from place names, like skid row (from a corduroy road, probably in the Pacific Northwest, down which logs were skidded) and tuxedo (from Tuxedo Park, New York, whence the garment spread throughout America; it came from the U.K., where it is known as a dinner jacket—I hadn’t realized that it was designed by Queen Victoria’s son Edward as a casual alternative to formal evening wear!). The author is an artist who happens to love words, so one would not want to use the book as a basic reference (I’ve already noticed that he states that magnets are so called from “Magnesia, a city on the banks of the Maeander River,” a very contentious statement—see this LH post), but it’s full of enjoyable anecdotes.

From the Horse’s Mouth: Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, by John Ayto, is a nicely organized work with lots of cross-references and citations, but it’s not as thorough as one would like. For instance, it has the idiom “be all mouth (and no trousers),” meaning “tend to talk boastfully without any intention of acting on your words,” but with no hint that the more common form, however illogical, is “all mouth and trousers” (see here, for example). There is also no indication that the phrase is exclusively U.K. (or Commonwealth? it’s certainly not U.S.), and in general the book seems geared to U.K. usage.

Secret Language: Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols, by Barry J. Blake, does what it says; it’s got sections headed Palindromes, Cryptic Crosswords, The Rebus, Equivocation and Prevarication, Steganography, Notarikon, Gematria, Texts of Power, Jargon, Abusive Language, etc. etc. There’s a chapter “Words to Avoid,” with separate sections for Names of Humans and In-Laws; I don’t think any slight to in-laws was intended, however. There are lots of neat examples from other languages, and the author is an actual linguist. If this is the sort of thing you like, I expect you will like this book.


  1. see this site,
    Most of the good nursery rhymes were a way to show contempt for the powers to be, thus co-opted the babes to recite, they could not be held in the local clink.

  2. Iggy, are you sure about that? I thought the Oppés had laid it to rest, (but I’m no expert).
    I think you can surf from phrase to phrase more easily with this book than you can with the internet.

  3. Barry Blake is an actual linguist, a professor at LaTrobe University in Australia.

  4. J. W. Brewer says

    “All mouth and no trousers” is presumably functionally equivalent to the expression found in and around Texas “All hat and no cattle,” which is probably understood by a reasonable percentage of other Americans even if they wouldn’t utter it themselves.

  5. Good stuff on “all mouth and (no) trousers at Language Log:

  6. All mouth & no trousers means exactly the same as “All mouth & trousers”. It is in that sense the British equivalent of “Could (or couldn’t) care less”.

  7. See the mission statement of the “All mouth and trousers” blog “Dedicated to preserving and promoting the great Northern English phrase ‘All mouth and trousers’ against barbarism and neglect.” I haven’t perused that blog since near its launch, and I’m pleased (and a little surprised) to see that it’s still going strong.
    I wouldn’t call ‘all mouth and trousers’ illogical; nor does it mean *exactly* the same thing as ‘all mouth and no trousers’. Its sense is, however, less obvious than ‘all mouth and no trousers’, so the blogger has an uphill task.

  8. There’s a Norwegian expression “Det er bare kjeften og bakbeina på’n” (“He’s all mouth and hindlegs”), meaning all he’s good for is biting (or snarking) and running away. Could the English one have the same origin?

  9. Could the English one have the same origin?
    It’s known that the Saxons were one of the first European tribes who, by the 9th century, wore trousers regularly. Probably, trouserless Vikings reworked an old Saxon phrase.

  10. Trouserless Vikings?!??? Tell that to Breeches Aud.

  11. the phrase “naughty but nice” comes from an 1871 music hall song “It’s Naughty but It’s Nice.”
    Or most popularised by, anyway. There are a handful of earlier examples, such as the Montreal Free Lance, Feb 27, 1869. Or

    I rode home in one of the carriages, and got a good scolding; it was very naughty, but very nice.
    p 172, Gallops and gossips in the bush of Australia, Samuel Sidney, 1854

  12. the Saxons were one of the first European tribes who, by the 9th century, wore trousers regularly.
    The Gauls (at least the men) wore trousers (breeches) even in Roman times. However, they took them off to fight in battles. The Scythians wore breeches too, as well as jackets, and seem to have kept them on for fighting.

  13. rootlesscosmo says

    “All mouth and no trousers” occurs in this week’s New Yorker article about a young British politician named Rory Stewart.

  14. People who took their trousers off to fight battles would come into the “all mouth and no trousers” category.

  15. “Then I said, “O brother-in-law to Mr. Spurgeon’s haberdasher,
    Who seasonest also the skins of Canadian owls,
    Thou callest trousers ‘pants’, whereas I call them ‘trousers’,
    Therefore thou art in hell-fire and may the Lord pity thee!”
    O God! O Montreal!
         –Samuel Butler, “A Psalm of Montreal”
    In any case, it has always seemed to me that “all mouth and trousers” and “all mouth and no trousers” mean radically different things, roughly “smartass” and “blowhard”, and that it is foolish to condemn someone for using either, provided they do not use it with the semantics of the other.

  16. And then there’s “All trousers and no mouth”, which is apparently a comment rappers make about someone with the sagging equipment but no rhymes.

  17. And of course “all trout and no mousers,” which refers to fishermen who don’t have cats to share their catch with.

  18. “All moth and no trousseau” refers to the sad moment when a bride opens her hope chest to find that insects have ravaged the contents.

  19. Trond Engen says

    Ø: Bjørnson, anyone? He had a jubilee this year. I hardly noticed. Few did, apparently.

  20. “All doubt and no espousers” refers to agnostic and freethinking associations.

  21. A household with cats but no dogs is called “all meow and no schnauzers”.

Speak Your Mind