Re: TRIVIA: Originas of Catch Phrases

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Mon Sep 10 2001 - 14:50:44 MDT

"" wrote:
> Does anyone know where the following phrases originated and meaning?

Here are the entries from "The Dictionary of Cliches" by James Rogers
(not, AFAIK, our own James Rogers).

> 1. Play it by ear.

Improvise; act according to what the situation suggests. The origin is
made clear in John Playford's _A Brief Introduction to the Skill of
Musicke_ (1674): "To learn to play [a musical instrument] by rote or ear
without a Book."

> 2. Going to hell in a handbasket.

Indulging in some minor dissipation. The _Dictionary of American Slang_
suggests that anything carried in a handbasket has to be small. Actually
an older expression is "going to heaven in a handbasket." _Dialect Notes_
took account of the saying in 1913, declaring that in Kansas "it means 'to
have a sinecure.'" Ten years later the same publication reported that in
southwestern Wisconsin the expression meant "to do something easily."

> 3. By the skin of my teeth.

Narrowly; just barely. The teeth have no skin, so if you achieve
something by that slim a margin, it is close indeed. It is a biblical
phrase, somewhat modified since the 18th century. In the Bible (Job
19:20) it is: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am
escaped with the skin of my teeth."

> 4. Off the top of my head.

No entry found.

> Thanks,
> Natasha

-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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