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American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms

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which way the wind blows

hand. see WAY THE WIND BLOWS.

while

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WHILE, also see ALL THE TIME

(WHILE); A WHILE BACK; EVERY NOW AND THEN (ONCE IN A WHILE); FIDDLE WHILE ROME BURNS; GET OUT WHILE THE GETTING IS GOOD; IN A WHILE; MAKE HAY WHILE THE SUN SHINES; ONCE IN A WHILE; QUIT WHILE YOU' RE AHEAD; STRIKE WHILE THE IRON'S HOT; WORTH ONE'S WHILE.

while away

Spend time idly or pleasantly, as in It was a beautiful day and we whiled away the hours in the garden. This expression is the only surviving use of the verb while, meaning "to spend time." [First half of 1600s]

while back

hand. see A WHILE BACK.

while there's life there's hope Also, where there's life there's hope. So long as someone or something ailing is alive, there is hope for recovery. For example, The company has survived previous recessions; while there's life there's hope. A statement made about dying individuals since ancient times, it was cited in numerous proverb collections from 1539 on. Today it is also applied to inanimate matters.

whip

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with WHIP, also see CRACK THE WHIP; LICK

(WHIP) INTO SHAPE; SMART AS A WHIP; UPPER (WHIP) HAND.

whipping boy

A scapegoat, as in This department's always been the whipping boy when things don't go well. This expression alludes to the former practice of keeping a boy to be whipped in place of a prince who was to be punished. [Early 1900s]

whip up

1. Arouse, excite, as in The speaker whipped up the mob. [Early 1800s] 2. Prepare quickly, as in I can easily whip up some lunch. This usage was first recorded in 1611.

whirl

hand. see GIVE SOMETHING A WHIRL.

whisker

hand. see

whisper

hand. see

BY A HAIR (WHISKER); WIN BY A NOSE (WHISKER).

STAGE WHISPER.

whispering campaign

A deliberate spreading of derogatory rumors about a candidate, as in That whispering campaign destroyed his chances for election. [c. 1920]

whistle

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WHISTLE, also see BLOW THE WHISTLE

ON; CLEAN AS A WHISTLE; SLICK AS A WHISTLE; WET ONE'S WHISTLE.

whistle Dixie

Engage in unrealistic, hopeful fantasizing, as in If you think you can drive there in two hours, you're whistling Dixie. This idiom alludes to the song "Dixie" and the vain hope that the Confederacy, known as Dixie, would win the Civil War.

whistle for

Ask for or expect without any prospect of success, as in If you want a cash refund, you can just whistle for it. [Mid-1700s]

whistle in the dark

Summon up courage in a frightening situation, make a show of bravery. For example, They knew they were lost and were just whistling in the dark. This expression alludes to a literal attempt to keep up one's courage. [First half of 1900s]

white

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WHITE, also see BLACK AND WHITE;

BLEED SOMEONE WHITE; GREAT WHITE HOPE; SHOW THE WHITE FEATHER.

white as a sheet

Very pale in the face, as in She was white as a sheet after that near encounter. This simile, dating from about 1600, survives despite the fact that bedsheets now come in all colors.

white elephant

An unwanted or useless item, as in The cottage at the lake had become a real white elephant?

too run down to sell, yet costly to keep up, or Grandma's ornate silver is a white elephant; no one wants it but it's too valuable to discard. This expression comes from a legendary former Siamese custom whereby an albino elephant, considered sacred, could only be owned by the king. The king would bestow such an animal on a subject with whom he was displeased and wait until the high

cost of feeding the animal, which could not be slaughtered, ruined the owner. The story was told in England in the 1600s, and in the 1800s the term began to be used figuratively.

white feather

hand. see SHOW THE WHITE FEATHER.

white flag, show the Also, hang out or hoist the white flag. Surrender, yield, as in Our opponents held all the cards tonight, so we showed the white flag and left early. This expression alludes to the white flag indicating a surrender in battle, a custom apparently dating from Roman times and adopted as an international symbol of surrender or truce. [Late 1600s]

white lie

An untruth told to spare feelings or from politeness, as in She asked if I liked her dress, and of course I told a white lie. This term uses white in the sense of "harmless." [First half of 1700s]

white sale

A special offering of towels, bed linens and similar goods, not necessarily white-colored. For example, The big stores always have white sales in January. [c. 1900]

within reach

hand. see IN REACH.

who knows what

hand. see under WHAT HAVE YOU.

whole

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WHOLE, also see AS A WHOLE; GO

WHOLE HOG; ON THE WHOLE; OUT OF WHOLE CLOTH.

whole ball of wax, the Also, the whole enchilada or shooting match or shebang.

Everything, all the elements, the entire affair. For example, The union demanded higher wages, a pension plan, job security?

the whole ball of wax, or The contract includes paperback rights, film rights, electronic media?

the whole enchilada, or She lost her job, her pension, her health-care coverage, the whole shooting match. Not all the allusions in these slangy terms are clear. Ball of wax may refer to a 17th-century English legal practice whereby land was divided among heirs by covering scraps of paper representing portions of land with wax, rolling each into a ball, and drawing the balls from a hat. An enchilada combines several foods inside a tortilla; a shooting match denotes a shooting competition; and a shebang is a rude hut or shelter. The first two of these slangy terms date from the second half of the 1900s, the last two from the late 1800s. For synonyms, see WHOLE KIT

AND CABOODLE; WHOLE MEGILLAH.

whole hog

hand. see GO WHOLE HOG.

whole kit and caboodle, the

Everything, every part, as in He packed up all his gear, the whole kit and caboodle, and walked out. This expression is a redundancy, for kit has meant "a collection or group" since the mid-1700s (though this meaning survives only in the full idiom today), and caboodle has been used with the same meaning since the 1840s. In fact caboodle is thought to be a corruption of the phrase kit and boodle, another redundant phrase, since boodle also meant "a collection."

whole megillah Also, whole schmeer. Everything, every aspect or element, as in The accountant went through the whole megillah all over again, or Her divorce lawyer took him for the house, the car, the whole schmeer. The first term alludes to the Megillah, five books of the Bible read on certain Jewish feast days and considered by some to be very long and tedious. Schmeer is Yiddish for "smear" or "smudge." [Slang; second half of 1900s]

whole new ballgame, a

A completely altered situation, as in It will take a year to reassign the staff, and by then some will have quit and we'll have a whole new ballgame. This expression comes from baseball, where it signifies a complete turn of events, as when the team that was ahead falls behind. [Colloquial; 1960s]

whole nine yards, the

Everything that is relevant; the whole thing. For example, He decided to take everything to college?

his books, his stereo, his computer, his skis, the whole nine yards. The source of this expression is not known, but there are several possibilities: the amount of cloth required to make a complete suit of clothes; the fully set sails of a three-masted ship where each mast carries three yards, that is, spars, to support the sails; or the amount of cement (in cubic yards) contained in a cement mixer for a big construction job. [Colloquial]

whole shebang Also, whole shooting match. hand. See WHOLE BALL OF WAX.

whoop it up

1. Also, make whoopee. Celebrate noisily, as in After exams they decided to whoop it up at their apartment, or Down in the basement the residents were making whoopee. The variant may be dying out. [Slang; late 1800s] 2. Arouse enthusiasm, especially politically, as in The volunteers' job is to whoop it up for the candidate. [Slang; late 1800s]

who's who

The outstanding or best-known individuals of a group, as in Tonight's concert features a veritable who's who of musicians. This expression comes from the name of a famous reference work, Who's Who, first published in 1849, which contains biographical sketches of famous individuals and is regularly updated. Its name in turn was based on who is who, that is, the identity of each of a

number of persons, a phrase dating from the late 1300s. [Early 1900s]

whys and wherefores

All the underlying causes and reasons, as in She went into the whys and wherefores of the adoption agency's rules and procedures. This idiom today is a redundancy since why and wherefore mean the same thing. Formerly, however, why indicated the reason for something and wherefore how it came to be. [c. 1600]

wide

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WIDE, also see ALL WOOL AND A YARD

WIDE; CUT A WIDE SWATH; FAR AND WIDE;

GIVE A WIDE BERTH TO; LAY (ONESELF WIDE) OPEN; LEAVE (WIDE) OPEN; OFF (WIDE OF) THE MARK.

wide awake

Fully awake; also, very alert. For example, He lay there, wide awake, unable to sleep, or She was wide awake to all the possibilities. The wide in this idiom alludes to the eyes being wide open. [Early 1800s]

wide open

1. Unresolved, unsettled, as in The fate of that former colony is still wide open. [Mid-1900s] 2. Unprotected or vulnerable, as in That remark about immigrants left him wide open to hostile criticism. This expression originated in boxing, where it signifies being off one's guard and open to an opponent's punches. It began to be used more broadly about 1940. Also see LEAVE OPEN.

widow

hand. see GRASS WIDOW.

wife

hand. see under WIVES.

wig

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with WIG, also see FLIP ONE'S LID (WIG).

wig out

Become or make wildly excited or irrational, as in He'll wig out when he gets the bill for that party. This idiom probably alludes to the earlier flip one's wig (see under FLIP ONE'S LID). [Slang; c.

1950] Also see FREAK OUT, def. 2.

wild

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WILD, also see GO HOG WILD; GO

WILDING; RUN AMOK (WILD); SOW ONE'S WILD OATS.

wild about, be

Be highly excited or enthusiastic about, as in She was just wild about that jazz band. This usage replaced the slightly earlier wild after. [Second half of 1800s]

wild card

An unpredictable person or event, as in Don't count on his support?

he's a wild card, or A traffic jam? That's a wild card we didn't expect. This expression comes from card games, especially poker, where it refers to a card that can stand for any rank chosen by the player who holds it. The term was adopted in sports for an additional player or team chosen to take part in a contest after the regular places have been taken. It is also used in computer terminology for a symbol that stands for one or more characters in searches for files that share a common specification. Its figurative use dates from the mid-1900s.

wildfire

hand. see SPREAD LIKE WILDFIRE.

wild goose chase

A futile search or pursuit, as in I think she sent us on a wild goose chase looking for their beach house. This idiom originally referred to a form of 16th-century horseracing requiring riders to follow a leader in a particular formation (presumably resembling a flock of geese in flight). Its figurative use dates from about 1600.

wild horses couldn't drag me

Nothing could induce or persuade me, as in Wild horses couldn't drag me to that nightclub. This idiom, always in negative form, is believed to have replaced wild horses couldn't draw it from me, referring to the medieval torture of using horses to stretch a prisoner and thereby force a confession. [First half of 1800s]

wild oats

hand. see SOW ONE'S WILD OATS.

wild pitch

A careless statement or action, as in Calling comic books great literature?

that's a wild pitch. This term comes from baseball, where it signifies a pitched ball so far off target that the catcher misses it, enabling a base runner to advance. [Mid-1900s]

will

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with WILL, also see AGAINST ONE'S WILL; AT

WILL; BOYS WILL BE BOYS; HEADS (WILL) ROLL; MURDER WILL OUT; OF ONE'S OWN ACCORD (FREE WILL); SHIT WILL HIT THE FAN; THAT WILL DO; TIME WILL TELL; TRUTH WILL OUT; WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY, MICE WILL PLAY; WHERE THERE'S A WILL; WITH A WILL; WITH THE BEST WILL IN THE WORLD; WONDERS WILL NEVER CEASE.

hand. see under THE CREEPS.

willing

hand. see READY, WILLING, AND ABLE; SPIRIT IS WILLING BUT THE FLESH IS WEAK.

will not hear of

hand. see NOT HAVE IT.

win

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WIN, also see (WIN) HANDS DOWN;

NO-WIN SITUATION; SLOW BUT SURE (STEADY WINS THE RACE); YOU CAN'T WIN; YOU CAN'T WIN 'EM ALL.

win by a nose Also, win by a whisker. Just barely succeed, as in Sally's political cartoon came in first in the contest, but I heard that she won by a nose. This term comes from horseracing, where from about 1900 on it referred to a finish so close that only a portion of the horse's nose reached the finish ahead of the second horse. A whisker??

that is, a hairis a narrower margin yet. [Second half of 1900s]

wind

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WIND, also see BEFORE THE WIND;

BREAK WIND; GET WIND OF; GONE WITH THE WIND; ILL WIND; IN THE WIND; LIKE GREASED LIGHTNING (THE WIND); SAIL CLOSE TO THE WIND; SECOND WIND; SOMETHING IN THE WIND; STRAW IN THE WIND; TAKE THE WIND OUT OF ONE'S SAILS; THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND; THROW CAUTION TO THE WINDS; TWIST IN THE WIND; WAY THE WIND BLOWS.

wind down

Diminish gradually, draw to a close, as in By midnight the party had wound down. [Mid-1900s] Also

see WIND UP.

up the meeting and get back to work. [Early 1800s] Also see

windmill

hand. see

window

hand. see

TILT AT WINDMILLS.

OUT THE WINDOW.

wind up

1. Come or bring to a finish, as in The party was winding up, so we decided to leave, or Let's wind

WIND DOWN. 2. Put in order, settle, as in She had to wind up her affairs before she could move. [Late 1700s] 3.

Arrive somewhere following a course of action, end up, as in We got lost and wound up in another town altogether, or If you're careless with your bank account, you can wind up overdrawn. [Colloquial; early 1900s]

wine

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with WINE, also see NEW WINE IN OLD

BOTTLES.

wine and dine

Entertain someone or treat someone to a fine meal, as in The company likes to wine and dine visiting scientists. [Colloquial; mid-1800s]

wing

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with WING, also see CLIP SOMEONE'S

WINGS; IN THE WINGS; LEFT WING; ON THE WING; SPREAD ONE'S WINGS; TAKE FLIGHT (WING); UNDER SOMEONE'S WING.

wing it

Improvise, as in The interviewer had not read the author's book; he was just winging it. This expression comes from the theater, where it alludes to an actor studying his part in the wings (the areas to either side of the stage) because he has been suddenly called on to replace another. First recorded in 1885, it eventually was extended to other kinds of improvisation based on unpreparedness.

win hands down Also, win in a walk or breeze. hand. See under HANDS DOWN.

wink

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with WINK, also see FORTY WINKS; QUICK AS A

WINK; SLEEP A

wink at

Deliberately overlook, pretend not to see, as in Sometimes it's wise to wink at a friend's shortcomings. This idiom, first recorded in 1537, uses wink in the sense of ''close one's eyes."

winning streak

A series of consecutive successes, a run of good luck, as in Our son-in-law has been on a winning streak with his investments. This expression comes from gambling. [Mid-1900s]

win one's spurs

Gain a position or attain distinction through hard work or some special accomplishment. For example, After two years of freelancing, she won her spurs as a programmer and was hired for the top job. This expression originally alluded to being knighted for some act of bravery and was being used figuratively by the mid-1500s.

win on points

Succeed but barely, especially by a technicality. For example, Both sides were forceful in that argument about the embargo, but I think the senator won on points. This term comes from boxing, where in the absence of a knockout the winner is decided on the basis of points awarded for each round. Its figurative use dates from the mid-1900s.

win out

Succeed, prevail, as in She was sure she'd win out if she persisted. [Late 1800s]

win over

Persuade, gain one's support, as in It won't be easy to win him over to our point of view. [Late 1800s]

win some, lose some

It's not possible to win all the time, as in The coach was philosophical about our being shut out, saying "Win some, lose some." This expression, generally uttered about a loss, originated in the early 1900s among gamblers who bet on sporting events. A variant, win some, lose some, some rained out, suggests that the idiom comes from baseball. Its figurative use dates from the 1940s.

Also see YOU CAN'T WIN 'EM ALL.

win through Also, win the day. End successfully, be victorious, as in We didn't know until the very end if they would win through, or It seems that hard work won the day. The first term dates from the late 1800s and today is more often put as COME THROUGH (def. 1). The variant

originally alluded to the outcome of a battle and dates from the late 1500s.

wipe

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WIPE, also see MOP UP (WIPE) THE

FLOOR WITH; SETTLE (WIPE OUT) AN OLD SCORE.

wipe off the map Also, wipe off the face of the earth. Eliminate completely, as in Some day we hope to wipe malaria off the map. This idiom uses wipe in the sense of "obliterate," and map and face of the earth in the sense of "everywhere."

wipe out

1. Destroy, as in The large chains are wiping out the independent bookstores. Originally put simply as wipe, the idiom acquired out in the first half of the 1800s. 2. Kill; also, murder. For example,

The entire crew was wiped out in the plane crash, or The gangsters threatened to wipe him and his family out. [Late 1800s]

wipe the slate clean

hand. see under CLEAN SLATE.

wire

hand. see DOWN TO THE WIRE; GET ONE'S WIRES CROSSED; LIVE WIRE; PULL STRINGS (WIRES); UNDER THE

wise

hand. In addition to the idioms beginning with WISE, also see GET WISE TO; NONE

THE WISER; PENNY WISE AND POUND FOOLISH; PUT WISE; SADDER BUT WISER; WORD TO THE WISE.

wise guy

An obnoxious know-it-all, a person who makes sarcastic or annoying remarks, as in The teacher was delighted that the worst wise guy in the class was moving out of town. [Slang; second half of 1800s] Also see SMART ALECK.

wise up to

Make or become aware, informed or sophisticated, as in It's time some

one wised you up to Mary; she's an incorrigible flirt, or As soon as Tony wised up to what the company was doing, he quit. [Slang; early 1900s] Also see PUT WISE.

wish

hand. In addition to the idiom beginning with WISH, also see IF WISHES WERE

HORSES.