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65 votes

Washing the skin of a dead rat

A somewhat crude but memorable equivalent is: "You can't polish a turd." It also gives an idea of what the result would be if you could do it. "Lipstick on a pig." is a similar expression, but ...
Ray Butterworth's user avatar
61 votes

Meaning of the phrase "womp womp" in American English?

Womp womp is an onomatopaeic approximation of a brief, chromatically descending trombone phrase dating from the days of Vaudeville theater indicating either mock sympathy for the victim of a slapstick ...
KarlG's user avatar
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49 votes
Accepted

What does 'Big Hand, Small Map' mean?

Big hands, small maps - that's the way to kill the chaps is a military saying. It is a saying which discourages having masses of resource but not enough fine detail about what to do with that resource;...
Nigel J's user avatar
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48 votes
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What is the meaning of Terry Pratchett's idiom/pun "coming and going"?

As mentioned in the comments, the "has me coming and going" part is not a pun but a normal English idiom meaning that no matter what choice you make, the outcome will be something you don't ...
44 votes
Accepted

Washing the skin of a dead rat

A very old saying comes to mind: "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" meaning it's very difficult to make a fine article out of inadequate material, or it's impossible to train a very ...
Centaurus's user avatar
  • 50.2k
40 votes

Meaning of "two days either side of a dash" (from a motivational speech)

It's an allegorical reference to a tombstone inscription: Between the date of your birth and the date of your death is all the rest of your life, represented visually by the dash between the dates on ...
BradC's user avatar
  • 3,924
39 votes
Accepted

What does the social idiom "not received" mean in 19th century America?

He's not accepted in society. In particular, if he tried to call on a lady, or a gentleman, he would be told the other person was "not at home," even if he had seen other visitors received ...
Mary's user avatar
  • 4,074
35 votes

What is the meaning of the idiom "cat's in the cradle"?

I may have been missing something here, but my interpretation was that the chorus (of the song Cat's in the Cradle) was referencing childrens stories. Presumably ones that the father in the story ...
Scott's user avatar
  • 1,172
34 votes
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Alternative idiom to "ploughing through something" that's more sad and struggling

There's the similar expression slog through: slog through To work at or make progress through something at a sluggish, strenuous pace, especially for a long period of time. We had to slog through ...
Edwin Ashworth's user avatar
31 votes
Accepted

To whose 'salt' is the idiom, "worth one's salt" referring to?

Dale: Every journalist worth his or her salt (worth paying to do his or her job) should ask probing and challenging questions. Dale is referring to the journalist. We used to pay people in salt. That'...
candied_orange's user avatar
25 votes

Meaning of "tapped on the shoulder"

“tapped on the shoulder” In this British (possibly only English - but I doubt it) legal context, it specifically means "approached for the purpose of enquiring if the person metaphorically ...
Greybeard's user avatar
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23 votes
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What does it mean to be "sixty-fortied"?

The episode transcript earlier explains LORELAI: This isn’t a singles bar, Mom. It’s a sixty-forty bar. EMILY: A what? LORELAI: Sixty-year-old men hitting on forty-year-old women, divorcees mostly. ...
Helmar's user avatar
  • 5,447
23 votes
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To take something off someone's plate

To have something on one's plate is an idiom meaning to have something to do, usually work of some sort, that is taking up their time. The person's mentor is implying that the person has enough things ...
Ryan M's user avatar
  • 1,157
19 votes

What does "box-ticker" mean when applied to a person?

According to Collins, box-ticking means the process of satisfying bureaucratic administrative requirements rather than assessing the actual merit of something. So a box ticker should be a ...
Panic's user avatar
  • 382
19 votes
Accepted

“Out of the mouths of babes”: Is this idiom strictly used to refer to children?

Most dictionaries explain that this biblical passage has survived in modern English as a proverb about children. For example, Dictionary.com points out two qualities of babes this proverb refers to: ...
fev's user avatar
  • 34.5k
18 votes

What is the meaning of the idiom "cat's in the cradle"?

snopes.com discusses an (obviously untrue) urban myth about cats smothering new born babies, so cat is in the cradle may be a reference to that old wives tale, with the implication that a cat in the ...
k1eran's user avatar
  • 22.6k
18 votes
Accepted

What is the meaning of the phrase to "wake up dead"

It's a way of saying that a person might die in his sleep, and thus never wake up at all.
Pete's user avatar
  • 2,621
17 votes
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What does "third leg of the stool" mean?

The whole citation explain quite well what are the other legs (emphasis mine) of the metaphoric stool. The offer from the vendor is composed of three main lines of product, two of them seeming more ...
P. O.'s user avatar
  • 4,096
17 votes

Meaning of "tapped on the shoulder"

In the U.S. tap alone is used to mean selected/designated. In my opinion, it's more common here than "tap on the shoulder." Edit: in AmE. to tap is neutral, without a connotation of ...
DjinTonic's user avatar
  • 21.9k
16 votes

What does "If you are playing the Yankees, you don’t want the umpires to show up wearing pinstripes" mean?

In American Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees traditionally wear pinstripes on their uniforms. https://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/04/yankees-pinstripes-origin-babe-ruth 1 Thus, for the umpires, ...
drewhart's user avatar
  • 3,108
16 votes

Washing the skin of a dead rat

I would choose Flogging a dead horse "to waste effort on something when there is no chance of succeeding"
mungflesh's user avatar
  • 1,714
14 votes

Meaning of the phrase "womp womp" in American English?

When I first read about the alleged joke, I charitably assumed that it meant, “What an embarrassing mistake by the agency. They sure failed this time.” While that is an alternative possible meaning ...
Davislor's user avatar
  • 7,537
14 votes
Accepted

Does the idiom "step on a rake" mean making the same mistake twice?

Stepping on a rake evokes the visual "joke" of someone walking carelessly onto a lying rake and getting violently struck in the face and torso, it's been used in cartoons and slapstick ...
Mari-Lou A's user avatar
  • 91.6k
13 votes

What is the meaning of the phrase "slam home"?

As Andy Bonner points out in a comment beneath the posted question, "slam home" is a variant of the more common idiomatic phrase "drive home." Here is the entry for that phrase in ...
Sven Yargs's user avatar
  • 164k
13 votes

“Out of the mouths of babes”: Is this idiom strictly used to refer to children?

It's not only used when the very young come up with something wise (or intelligent) beyond their years. It's used when wisdom comes from any unexpected source ... but there is necessarily an ...
Edwin Ashworth's user avatar
12 votes
Accepted

Can there be a sarcastic meaning to "top gun" in a (non-)linguistic context like this?

Arthur is claiming (probably falsely) to be a top military pilot in reference to the old Tom Cruise movie Top Gun. He is attempting a put-down of Person A by making himself out to be more 'manly' than ...
BoldBen's user avatar
  • 17.2k
12 votes

What is the meaning of the idiom "cat's in the cradle"?

Cat's cradle is a cooperative game in which two people transfer looped string back and forth, stretching it into shapes that loosely resemble various objects. See example here. Often, at least one of ...
Alan's user avatar
  • 386

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