Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas by Judy Parkinson

My sister gave me this pretty little book for Christmas, which was great because it’s not the type of book I would usually think about buying for myself. The title might leave you wondering exactly what this book is about, but the subtitle helps to explain: Popular Expressions – What They Mean and Where We Got Them.

The book looks at some of the well-known phrases and proverbs which appear in the English language and explains what they mean and how they originated. Do you know what ‘to shoot the moon’ means, for example, or why we give someone ‘the third degree’. Why do we ‘steal someone else’s thunder’ and why do we ‘go to the Land of Nod’ when we fall asleep?

The phrases appear in alphabetical order. I was a bit disappointed by some of the entries which are little more than a straight definition of the phrase or proverb, but the majority were interesting and I learned a lot of fascinating little facts. Some of them such as ‘ballpark figure’ and ‘take a rain check’ have American origins. Others stem from Ancient Greece or Rome. There are others that come from the Bible, some that are derived from Aesop’s fables and some that were made famous by Shakespeare. A few of the phrases have no definite origins and in these cases the author tells us that the definitions she’s providing are merely speculation.

I particularly liked the explanation for the phrase ‘to blow hot and cold’.

The expression has its origins in the Aesop’s fable that describes the experience of a traveller who accepted the hospitality of a satyr (one of the gods of the forest, a creature who is part goat and part man). The chilly traveller blew on his cold fingers to warm them – and then blew on his hot broth to cool it. The indignant satyr ejected him because he blew hot and cold with the same breath.

This is not really a book you would read from cover to cover in one sitting; it’s perfect for dipping in and out, reading a few entries at a time. It’s strangely addictive though as the entries are temptingly short (usually no more than two or three paragraphs). I’d recommend it to anyone with a love for the English language. It’s a perfect book to buy as a gift too, as it even has a special page at the front where you can write your ‘to’ and ‘from’!