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Much Ado About English: Up and Down the Bizarre Byways of a Fascinating Language by Richard W Todd

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The origin of phrases

The origin of phrases is a fascinating area full of surprises. Some are understandable, such as having egg on your face from the tradition of throwing eggs at bad performers. Others are less straightforward. Dead as a door nail, for instance, dates from the time when nails were very expensive and had to be reused whenever possible. Nails that held a door needed to be bent back and so could not be reused, and thus door nails were dead. Another strange phrase is pay through the nose, which may have originated in a ninth-century tax law imposed on Ireland by the conquering Danes, which included the provision of slitting the noses of tax evaders.

Many other idioms are similarly ancient. Both hair of the dog and living in cloud ...

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