English Idioms: From Damocles'Sword, Discretion is the Better Part of Valour to Every Inch

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Damocles’ Sword

  • Impending disaster 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.

Discretion is the Better Part of Valour

Something that you say which means that it is better to be careful and think before you act than it is to be brave and take risks, she decided not to voice her opposition to the Chairman’s remarks. Perhaps discretion was the better part of valour.

Down the Drain

  • On the way to being lost or wasted; disappearing Buying new furniture when they can’t take it with them is just pouring money down the drain.

  • During the Depression huge fortunes went down the drain.

  • This metaphoric term alludes to water going down a drain and being carried off.

Dead as Doornail / Dead as a Dodo or Herring

  • Totally or assuredly dead; also finished the cop announced that the body in the dumpster was dead as a doornail. The radicalism she professed in her adolescence is now dead as a dodo. The Equal Rights Amendment appears to be dead as a herring.

  • The first, oldest, and most common of these similes, all of which can be applied literally to persons or, more often today, to issues, involves doornail, dating from about 1350.

  • Its meaning is disputed but most likely it referred to the costly metal nails hammered into the outer doors of the wealthy (most people used the much cheaper wooden pegs), which were clinched on the inside of the door and therefore were “dead”, that is, could not be used again.

  • Dead as a herring dates from the 16th century and no doubt alludes to the bad smell this dead fish gives off, making its death quite obvious.

  • Dead as a dodo, referring to the extinct bird, dates from the early 1900s.

Dole Out / on the Dole

Receiving payment from the government, as relief they couldn’t afford any luxuries while living on the dole.

Every Dark Cloud Has a Silver Lining

  • An element of hope or a redeeming quality in an otherwise bad situation the rally had a disappointing turnout, but the silver lining was that those who came pledged a great deal of money.

  • This metaphoric term is a shortening of every cloud has a silver lining, in turn derived from John Milton’s Comus (1634): “A sable cloud turns forth its silver lining on the night.”

Every Inch

Completely, wholly He was every inch a leader. I had to argue this case every inch of the way.

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