Interview: Christine Ammer, Author Of 'The American Heritage Dictionary Of Idioms' From "dead cat bounce," which originated in the 1980s, to "cold fish," which was coined by Shakespeare, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms explores the origins of more than 10,000 nonliteral sayings.

Dictionary Of Idioms Gets Everybody On The Same Page

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Over the next few minutes, we're going to go with the flow and discuss the phrases that we use in everyday speech. Some of the most famous are in the works of Shakespeare: dead as a doornail, a sea change. A new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms is out this week, adding hundreds of expressions.

To give us the low-down, we've reached the editor of the collection, Christine Ammer.

Good morning.

CHRISTINE AMMER: Good morning to you.

MONTAGNE: My first thought when I started leafing through this very thick book with more than 10,000 idioms, altogether, was where to begin - which actually doesn't appear in the dictionary, and which got me thinking how do you decide what new idioms to add?

AMMER: Well, I usually go by the frequency with which I hear them used and where I see them used in print. There are some that simply jump out at you because they're used so often, even though they may be of very early provenance.

With all the talk about immigration these days, you hear about the American Dream. But what is the American Dream and where did that come from?

MONTAGNE: Where does the expression, the American Dream, come from?

AMMER: Well, to the American Dream was actually originated by "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville, which was published in 1835. But the term may be even of earlier origin. And it's the notion that living in the United States would enable prosperity. Of course, to some extent this becomes pie-in-the-sky, another Americanism, and I don't know whether you've heard of that one or not.

MONTAGNE: Well, absolutely I've heard of that one. It's become quite old-fashioned. And where does pie-in-the-sky come from?

AMMER: Pie-in-the-sky comes from a song that was written by the UWW, the Wobblies, they were called, an early American union in 1911. It was a rallying song and it was called: "Work and Pray, Live on Hay, You'll Get Pie-in-the-Sky When You Die." And, of course, that was taken up as an idiom mean an empty wish or promise. What good is pie-in-the-sky, you want something here.

MONTAGNE: Right. But, you know, saying that right now, among the new entries - and those include couch potato, elephant in the room, comfort food - which still seem new-ish. But in fact, they go rather far back.

AMMER: Well, an interesting one like that is no pain no gain - what you think of as a sports thing your personal trainer might say: you've got a workout hard; no pain, no gain. And that actually goes back, all the way to 1500, and appeared in a dictionary of proverbs about 100 years after that. So that's really unusual.

Not a dry eye in the house, and you think of that in the theater, you know, or in a very sentimental movie or something. That goes all the way back to the 16th century and has been in English since the 1500s. It was in a biography of Cardinal Wolsey.

MONTAGNE: He made that up? I mean we knew, though, speaking of Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare made up many idioms that we use now.

AMMER: Well, of course, he did. He made up cold fish, as a matter of fact - Shakespeare did. It had the same meaning in Shakespeare's as it does today; somebody who's very, very hard hearted, not sentimental at all.

MONTAGNE: Is there an idiom that you can think of that started way back when, but that has, sort of, changed its meaning entirely, in light of the new modern things?

AMMER: A close shave apparently is a changed meaning.

MONTAGNE: Right, one thinks that might be somewhat old-fashioned version of going to the barber, getting a close shave.

AMMER: Yeah, that's right. It was. It alludes to the narrow margin between closely shaved skin and a razor cut. And this latter usage is just replaced by the much earlier equations of a close shave used to be identified as miserliness; based on the idea that a close shave by a barber meant one would not have spend money on another shave quite so soon.

Think tank, that meant something else, too, once. And that's a fairly new one. Around 1900, it was facetious colloquialism to mean brain - your own brain. So that's your think tank. And it was given its new meaning about 1950.

I thought I would give you some that you might not realize come from American politics.


AMMER: To go with the whole hog, meaning to do the whole thing, first appeared in a letter from Daniel Webster at the time he was a Massachusetts senator. And he was saying that Andrew Jackson will either go along with the party or he'll go the whole hog. He will do it all, which is, of course, what he did.

MONTAGNE: And that has had no relationship to fork.


AMMER: And it has no relationship to pork. So there you go.

To keep the ball rolling, came from the William Henry Harrison's campaign in 1840, where a huge decorated ball was rolled out in his political parades. And again, that's used very generally.

MONTAGNE: I know this might be, as they say, a fool's errand to ask you to pick a favorite. But would you give it a shot?

AMMER: I'll give it a shot.


AMMER: I do like bad hair day, 'cause I often have troubles with that.


AMMER: Control freak. Actually the freak in that comes from the idea that freak meant enthusiastic, an enthusiast. So and the freak part of it, I am a word freak.


AMMER: And I am enthusiastic about words and about expressions. It's hard, you know, these are like my children. And with 10,000 children it's very, very hard to pick a favorite.

MONTAGNE: Christine Ammer is the author of the Second Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

Thank you very much for joining us. And don't be a stranger.

AMMER: Well, my pleasure.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.