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American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms

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sure enough

Actually, as one might have thought, as in Sure enough, the plane was three hours late.

[Mid-1500s]

sure of oneself

Self-confident, as in Now that Mary's graduated she's much more sure of herself. This expression uses sure in the sense of "confident" or "secure," a usage dating from the mid-1400s.

sure thing

1. a sure thing. A certainty, as in Making the bestseller list has been a sure thing for Stephen King.

This usage originally alluded to a bet that one could not lose. [First half of 1800s] 2. Yes indeed, certainly, as in Are you coming tonight??

Sure thing! This use of the idiom as an interjection dates from the late 1800s.

surface

hand. see ON THE SURFACE; SCRATCH THE SURFACE.

surprise

hand. see TAKE BY SURPRISE.

survival of the fittest

Those best adapted to particular conditions will succeed in the long run, as in They've had to close a dozen of their stores, but the ones in the western part of the state are doing well?

it's the survival of the fittest. This phrase was invented by Herbert Spencer in Principles of Biology

(1864) to describe Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection of living species. By the early 1900s it was being transferred to other areas.

suspicion

hand. see ABOVE SUSPICION.

swallow

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with SWALLOW, also see BITTER PILL TO

SWALLOW.

swallow one's pride

Humble oneself, as in She decided to swallow her pride and apologize. This idiom employs swallow in the sense of "refrain from expressing," a usage dating from the early 1600s.

swallow one's words

Take back what one said, as in If they win I'll have to swallow my words. George Farquhar used this idiom in The Inconstant (1702): "I have swallowed my words already; I have eaten them up." For a synonym, see EAT ONE'S WORDS.

swan song

A final accomplishment or performance, one's last work. For example, I'm resigning tomorrow; this project was my swan song. This term alludes to the old belief that swans normally are mute but burst into beautiful song moments before they die. Although the idea is much older, the term was first recorded in English only in 1890.

swap horses

hand. see CHANGE HORSES IN MIDSTREAM.

swath

hand. see CUT A WIDE SWATH.

sway

hand. see HOLD SWAY.

swear at

Curse, use abusive, violent, or blasphemous language against, as in He has a way of swearing at all the other drivers on the road. [Late 1600s]

swear by

1. Have great reliance on or confidence in, as in She swears by her personal physician. [Early 1800s] 2. Also, swear to. Have

reliable knowledge of, be sure of, as in I think she was going to the library but I can't swear to it.

[Mid1700s] 3. Take an oath by, as in I swear by all the saints in heaven. [Early 1200s]

swear in

Administer a legal or official oath to, as in The new mayor will be sworn in tomorrow. [c. 1700]

swear like a trooper

Freely utter profanity or obscenity, as in The teacher was shocked when she heard one of the fathers begin to swear like a trooper. The troopers in this term were the cavalry, who were singled out for their swearing from the early 1700s on.

swear off

Pledge to renounce or give up, as in I've sworn off cigarettes. This expression was first used for abjuring liquor in the first half of the 1800s but has since been broadened to just about anything.

swear on a stack of Bibles

Promise solemnly that what one is about to say is true, as in I swear on a stack of Bibles that I had nothing to do with his dropping out. This term alludes to the practice of placing one's hand on a sacred object while taking an oath, which dates from the mid-10th century. It is still followed in courts of law where a witness being sworn to tell the truth places a hand on the Bible. [Mid-1800s]

swear out

Obtain a warrant for arrest by making a charge under oath, as in The school principal swore out a warrant for the arrest of the vandals. [Late 1800s]

swear to

hand. see SWEAR BY, def. 2.

sweat

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with SWEAT, also see BY THE SWEAT OF

ONE'S BROW; IN A COLD SWEAT; NO PROBLEM (SWEAT).

sweat blood

1. Also, sweat one's guts out. Work diligently or strenuously, as in The men were sweating blood to finish the roof before the storm hit. The phrase using guts was first used about 1890, and that with blood shortly thereafter. 2. Suffer mental anguish, worry intensely, as in Waiting for the test results, I was sweating blood. This usage was first recorded in a work by D.H. Lawrence in 1924. Both usages are colloquial, and allude to the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44): "And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground."

sweat bullets

Perspire profusely; also, suffer mental anguish. For example, We were sweating bullets, sitting in the sun through all those graduation speeches, or It was their first baby, and David was sweating bullets while Karen was in labor. The bullets in this expression allude to drops of perspiration the size of bullets. [Slang; mid-1900s]

sweat of one's brow

hand. see BY THE SWEAT OF ONE'S BROW.

sweat out

Endure or await something anxiously, as in He sweated out that last final exam, or I don't know if I made the team?

I'm still sweating it out. This idiom, often expanded to sweat it out, was first recorded in 1876.

sweep

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with SWEEP, also see MAKE A CLEAN

SWEEP; NEW BROOM SWEEPS CLEAN; (SWEEP) OFF SOMEONE'S FEET.

sweep off someone's feet

hand. see OFF SOMEONE'S FEET.

sweep under the rug

Hide something, as in Their attempts to sweep the scandal under the rug were not very successful.

This idiom alludes to sweeping dust under the rug, so it won't be seen. [Mid-1900s]

sweet

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with SWEET, also see SHORT AND SWEET;

TAKE THE BITTER WITH THE SWEET.

sweet dreams

Sleep well, as in Good night, children, sweet dreams. [c. 1900]

sweeten the kitty Also, sweeten the pot or deal. Make something financially more attractive, as in I am unable to give you the new title but I could sweeten the kitty a little by giving you a raise. This idiom comes from card games such as poker, where it means "add money to the pool," and uses sweeten in the sense of "make more agreeable." [Slang; c. 1900]

sweetness and light

Ostentatious amiability and friendliness, as in One day she has a temper tantrum, the next day she's all sweetness and light. This phrase was coined by Jonathan Swift in his Battle of the Books

(1704), where it referred literally to the products of bees: honey and light from beeswax candles. But in Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1869), the term meant "beauty and intelligence." In the 20th century, however, it was applied to personal qualities of friendliness and courtesy and to the general pleasantness of a situation, as in Working with him isn't all sweetness and light, you know. Today it is generally used ironically, indicating lack of trust in a person's seeming friendliness or for a difficult situation.

sweet nothings

Endearments, often whispered, between lovers. For example, They sat in a corner all evening, whispering sweet nothings. [c. 1900] Also see SWEET TALK.

sweet on, be

Enamored of, in love with, as in I think Barbara's sweet on Nick. This colloquial idiom was first recorded in 1740.

sweet talk

Flattery, cajolery, as in She uses sweet talk to get her way. [First half of 1900s]

sweet tooth

A love for sugary foods, as in You can always please Nell with cake or ice cream; she has a big sweet tooth. This expression dates from the late 1300s, although it then referred not only to sweets but other delicacies as well.

swelled head, have a

Be conceited, as in Winning all those prizes has not given her a swelled head, at least not yet. This idiom began as be swellheaded, first recorded in 1817. The present form dates from about 1860. For a synonym see BIG HEAD.

swim

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with SWIM, also see IN THE SWIM; SINK OR

SWIM.

swim against the current Also, swim against the stream or tide. Go against prevailing opinion or thought, as in I'm voting for him even if that is swimming against the current.

Shakespeare used a similar metaphor in 2 Henry IV (5:2): "You must now speak Sir John Falstaff fair, which swims against your stream." For the antonym, see SWIM WITH THE TIDE.

swim with the tide

Go along with prevailing opinion or thought, as in Irene doesn't have a mind of her own; she just swims with the tide. In the late 1600s this idiom was also put as swim down the stream, a usage not much heard today. The present form was first recorded in 1712. For the antonym, see SWIM

AGAINST THE CURRENT.

swine

hand. see CAST PEARLS BEFORE SWINE.

swing

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with SWING, also see GET INTO THE SWING

OF THINGS; IN FULL SWING; NOT ENOUGH ROOM TO SWING A CAT.

swing into action

Energetically start doing something, as in Come on, let's swing into action before the others arrive.

This idiom uses swing in the sense of "move vigorously."

switch

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with SWITCH, also see ASLEEP AT THE

SWITCH; BAIT AND SWITCH.

switch off

Stop paying attention, lose interest, as in Whenever he starts in on economics, I switch off automatically. This metaphoric expression transfers turning off a light switch or similar device to diverting one's attention. [c. 1860] Also see SWITCH ON.

switch on

Produce as if operating by a control, as in She switched on the charm as soon as he walked in.

[Mid1900s] Also see SWITCH OFF.

swoop

hand. see ONE FELL SWOOP.

sword

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with SWORD, also see AT SWORD'S POINT;

CROSS SWORDS.

sword of Damocles Also, Damocles' sword. Impending disaster, as in The likelihood of layoffs has been a sword of Damocles over the department for months. This expression alludes to the legend of Damocles, a servile courtier to King Dionysius I of Syracuse. The king, weary of Damocles' obsequious flattery, invited him to a banquet and seated him under a sword hung by a single hair, so as to point out to him the precariousness of his position. The idiom was first recorded in 1747. The same story gave rise to the expression HANG BY A THREAD.

syllable

hand. see WORDS OF ONE SYLLABLE.

symbol

hand. see STATUS SYMBOL.

system

hand. see ALL SYSTEMS GO; OUT OF ONE'S SYSTEM.

T

hand. see DOT THE I'S AND CROSS THE T'S; TO A T.

tab

hand. see KEEP TABS ON.

table

hand. see CLEAR OUT (THE TABLE); LAY ONE'S CARDS ON THE TABLE; ON THE TABLE; SET THE TABLE; TURN THE TABLES; UNDER THE TABLE; WAIT AT TABLE.

tack

hand. see GET DOWN TO BRASS TACKS; ON THE RIGHT TACK; SHARP AS A TACK.

tail

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with TAIL, also see BRIGHT-EYED AND

BUSHY-TAILED; CAN'T MAKE HEAD OR TAIL OF; GET OFF ONE'S TAIL; HEADS OR TAILS; IN TWO SHAKES (OF A LAMB'S TAIL); ON SOMEONE'S COATTAILS; TIGER BY THE TAIL; TURN TAIL; WORK ONE'S FINGERS TO THE BONE (TAIL OFF).

tail between one's legs, with one's

Dejected, cowed, ashamed, especially after a defeat or being proven wrong. For example, After bragging about her great musical ability, she lost the competition and went off with her tail between her legs. This idiom alludes to a dog's slinking away in this manner. [First half of 1800s]

tail end

1.The rear or hindmost part, as in Douglas was at the tail end of the academic procession.

[Mid-1700s]

2.The very end, the conclusion, as in Only at the tail end of his speech did he thank his sponsors. [Mid1800s]

tail off Also, tail away. Diminish gradually, subside, as in The fireworks tailed off into darkness. [Mid-1800s]

tailor-made for

hand. see

tailspin

hand. see

MADE TO MEASURE.

GO INTO A TAILSPIN.

tail wagging the dog, the

A small or unimportant factor or element governing an important one; a reversal of the proper roles. For example, She found herself explaining the new therapy to her doctor?

a real case of the tail wagging the dog. [c. 1900]

take

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with TAKE, also see AT (TAKE) PAINS; DEVIL

TAKE THE HINDMOST; DOUBLE TAKE; GIVE AND TAKE; GIVE OR TAKE; GO TO (TAKE) THE TROUBLE; HAVE (TAKE) A CRACK AT; HAVE (TAKE) A FIT; IN (TAKE) EFFECT; (TAKE) IN GOOD PART; IN TOW, TAKE; IT TAKES ALL SORTS; IT TAKES GETTING USED TO; IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE; (TAKE) OFF ONE'S HANDS; (TAKE) ON FAITH; ON THE TAKE; PAY YOUR MONEY AND TAKE YOUR CHOICE; PRIDE ONESELF (TAKE PRIDE IN); (TAKE A) RAIN CHECK; SIT UP AND TAKE NOTICE; THAT'S (TAKES CARE OF) THAT; WHAT DO YOU TAKE ME FOR; WHAT IT TAKES; (TAKE) WITH A GRAIN OF SALT; YOU CAN LEAD (TAKE) A HORSE TO WATER; YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.

take aback

Surprise, shock, as in He was taken aback by her caustic remark. This idiom comes from nautical terminology of the mid-1700s, when be taken aback referred to the stalling of a ship caused by a wind shift that made the sails lay back against the masts. Its figurative use was first recorded in 1829.

take a back seat

Occupy an inferior position; allow another to be in control. For example, Linda was content to take a back seat and let Nancy run the meeting. This idiom uses back seat in contrast to the driver's seat, that is, the one in control. [Mid-1800s]

take a bath

Experience serious financial loss, as in The company took a bath investing in that new product.

This idiom, which originated in gambling, transfers washing oneself in a bathtub to being "cleaned out" financially. [Slang; first half of 1900s]

take a bow

Acknowledge praise or applause, as in The conductor asked the composer to take a bow. This idiom uses bow in the sense of "inclining the body or head as a token of salutation." [c. 1800]

take a break

Interrupt one's activity briefly, as in We've been working for two hours; let's take a break. Also see

TAKE FIVE.

take account of

hand. see TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.

take a chance

Risk something, gamble, as in I'll take a chance that he'll be on the next plane. [c. 1900]

take a crack at

hand. see HAVE A CRACK AT.

take a dim view of

Regard disapprovingly, as in I take a dim view of meeting every single week. This idiom, which uses dim in the sense of "unfavorable," was first recorded in 1947.

take advantage of

Put to good use; avail oneself of; also, profit selfishly by, exploit. For example, Let's take advantage of the good weather and go hiking, or They really take advantage of her good nature, getting her to do all the disagreeable chores. [Late 1300s]

take a fall

1. Also, take a spill. Suffer a fall, fall down, as in You took quite a fall on the ski slopes, didn't you? or Bill took a spill on the ice. 2. Be arrested or convicted, as in He's taken a fall or two and spent some years in jail. [Slang; 1920s]

take a fancy to Also, take a liking or shine to. Be attracted to someone or something, as in

They took a fancy to spicy foods after their Mexican vacation, or I'm hoping he'll take a liking to the water, now that we have a cottage on a lake, or We think Bill's taken a shine to Betsy.

The first term was first recorded in 1541, the first variant in 1570, and the last, a colloquialism, in 1850.

take a fit

hand. see HAVE A FIT.

take after

Follow the example of; also, resemble in appearance, temperament, or character. For example, Bill took after his uncle and began working as a volunteer for the Red Cross. [Mid-1500s]

take a gander at

Look at, glance at, as in Will you take a gander at that woman's red hair! This slangy idiom, dating from the early 1900s, presumably came from the verb gander, meaning "stretch one's neck to see," possibly alluding to the long neck of the male goose. For a synonym, see TAKE A LOOK

AT.

take a hand in

hand. see HAVE A HAND IN.

take a hike

Go hiking; also, go away. For example, We asked Jim to take a hike with us but he didn't want to, or I've had enough of you?

take a hike! The latter usage is a slangy imperative. Also see TAKE A WALK.

take a hint Also, take the hint. Accept an indirect or covert suggestion, as in Evelyn took the hint and quietly left the room. This idiom was first recorded in 1711.

take aim

Direct a missile or criticism at something or someone, as in Raising his rifle, Chet took aim at the squirrel but missed it entirely, or In his last speech the President took aim at the opposition leader.

[Late 1500s]

take a joke

Accept teasing at one's own expense, as in Sam really couldn't take a joke. This idiom, often put negatively, was first recorded in 1780. Also see TAKE IT.

take a leaf out of someone's book

Imitate or follow someone's example, as in Harriet took a leaf out of her mother's book and began to keep track of how much money she was spending on food. This idiom alludes to tearing a page from a book. [c. 1800]

take a leak

Urinate, as in Excuse me, I've got to take a leak. [Vulgar slang; c. 1930] take a load off one's mind

hand. see LOAD OFF ONE'S MIND. Also see TAKE THE LOAD OFF.

take a look at

Turn your attention to, examine, as in Take a look at that new building, or The doctor took a look at Gene's throat and swollen glands. For a synonym, see TAKE A GANDER AT.

take amiss

hand. see TAKE THE WRONG WAY.

take an interest

1. Be concerned or curious, as in She really takes an interest in foreign affairs, or I wish he'd take an interest in classical music. 2. Share in a right to or ownership of property or a business, as in He promised to take an interest in the company as soon as he could afford to.

take apart

1. Dismantle or disassemble, as in They had to take apart the stereo before they could move it.

This usage was first recorded in 1936. 2. Examine thoroughly, analyze or dissect, as in The teacher embarrassed Tom by taking his thesis apart in front of the class. [Mid-1900s] 3. Beat up, thrash, as in You'd better be careful; those boys will take you apart. [Slang; mid-1900s]