Cockney rhyming slang for a row or argument.

They were shouting and screaming at each other – a real bull and cow.

The United Kingdom.

Mostly in the UK, but occasionally elsewhere too.

A fist, as used in a fight.

Punch me would you? How’d you like a bunch of fives in your eye?

The United Kingdom.

Mostly in the UK, but occasionally elsewhere too.

A mild rebuke, often given when a more severe punishment might be expected.

Those muggers should get a jail term but these days they’ll probably just get a fine and a slap on the wrist.



Make a bad situation even worse than it is.

Going into that race riot and telling them to get back to Africa was really adding fuel to the fire.

The United Kingdom – 17th century.


A dispute with someone.

Hey, I’ve an axe to grind with you. Didn’t I hear you calling my sister a slag?

USA, 18th century.


Be happy when a person leaves or when an unpleasant situation is ended.

He came for two days and stayed a month. To be honest I was glad to see the back of him when he finally left.


An open-handed slap in the face intended to be humiliating.

He wasn’t worth the respect of a punch. Bitch-slapping was more humiliating.

USA, late 20th century.

Widely used, but mainly amongst the young.

Boorish behaviour by rank and file police or soldiers.

The place was full of bikini pin-ups. No wonder that female recruit didn’t feel comfortable in that canteen culture environment.

Britain, late 20th century.

Worldwide, but more commonly in Britain than elsewhere.

Verbally scold someone.

Little Jimmy ran out right in front of that car. His mother really chewed him out for that.

USA, mid 20th century.

Quite widely used but more so in the USA than elsewhere.

Adopt an aggressive stance.

The whole gang stood there defiantly glaring. They really copped an attitude.

USA, mid to late 20th century.


Irritate or annoy very much.

He wouldn’t stop going on about it. He was driving me up the wall.

Britain, 1950s. An extension of ‘up the wall’ meaning angry.


The singling out and killing of a specific ethnic group.

The ethnic cleansing of the Croats in the Bosnian War left the country open wide to the Serbs.

USA, late 20th century.


To aggressively raise your middle finger at someone as a sign of displeasure.

I stopped the car a little too close when he crossed the road and he flipped the bird as a response.

USA, mid 20th century.

Mostly USA.

Chaotic collective behaviour where items of food are thrown about wildly.

It was supposed to be a quiet wedding reception but some of the girls got drunk and started a food fight. There were canapes and buns flying everywhere.

USA, mid 20th century.


Said after more than one thing goes wrong.

The boiler broke and now my phone is out of battery so I can’t ring for help. If it’s not one thing it’s another…

Aggressive confrontation.

The police kept interrogating him. They were in his face for hours.

USA, 1970s.


Tricking me.

I know you didn’t box with Mike Tyson. Stop joshing me.

USA, 19th century.

Mostly USA.

Cause a disturbance.

I know your ex-wife is here with her lover but don’t make a scene, that will just make you feel worse.

Britain, early 19th century.


A refusal to accept a proposition.

You want me to work all weekend for no extra pay? Sorry, no dice.

USA, 1920s.

Worldwide. but more common in the USA than elsewhere.

Unwilling to give one’s view about which side you support.

Increase taxes or reduce spending. Who knows? I’m sitting on the fence on that one.

USA, 19th century.


Engaged in active fighting or dispute.

The folks across the street have taken to hurling abuse whenever they see us, and we are giving it back – it’s open warfare.


Said when you absolutely refuse to allow something to happen.

He bullied me at school and now you want to promote him. Over my dead body!

Britain, circa 1800. From the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


Avoid responsibility by giving it to someone else.

The government has been in power for six years now but every time there’s a crisis they pass the buck and blame the previous administration.

USA, early 20th century. Later popularised by president Harry Truman.


Australian slang term for physical or verbal attacks on the English.

As Londoners, we never felt comfortable on our trip to Sydney. Every day we were subject to pommie bashing.

Britain, late 20th century.

Mostly Britain and Australia.

Become less ambitious; curb your enthusiasm.

The team came bottom of the league last year and now has no money. They’ll have to pull their horns in when making bids for new players.

Britain – 19th century.


An instruction to a noisy person or a group to be quiet.

Hey, you kids, put a sock in it – I can’t hear myself think in here.

Britain, early 20th century.

Worldwide, but considered rather old-fashioned.

Making an unprovoked physical or verbal attack on homosexuals.

Since the skinheads have moved out of the area and it’s become more cosmopolitan there has been a marked reduction in the instances of queer-bashing.

Britain – 1970s.

Worldwide, but more common in Britain than elsewhere.

Ruin a plan or undertaking.

That scrapyard opening next to Julies bridal shop has really queered her pitch.

Britain, 19th century.

Widely used, but mostly among the older generation.

The malicious posting of sexual images online to harm the reputation of an ex partner.

After she ended it he posted some really nasty pictures of her from when they were together. No other words for it than revenge porn.

USA, late 20th century.

Worldwide, but not amongst the older generations.

Destroy an argument or theory.

They sent their perpetual motion ideas to the Royal Society. Of course, it was all nonsense and they were shot down in flames.

Britain, 1940s. An allusion to fighter planes being shot down.

Worldwide, although rather old-fashioned.

Said, or printed, as a warning that the following will give away the ending or important plot development of a drama.

I’ve just been to see Shakespeare’s Othello. Spoiler alert – Othello dies.

USA, 1980s.

Worldwide, mostly by the young.

Hurt someone who was close to us by betraying them secretly and breaking their trust.

All my friends promised to vote for me but when the election came and I got no votes I knew I’d been stabbed in the back.

First seen in James Joyce’s Ulysees, 1922.


Accept a bad situation.

Listen Jedd, it’s over, Janine will never be coming back. Suck it up and move on.

USA, 20th century.

More common in the USA than elsewhere, but spreading Worldwide.

Give up, especially to avoid further punishment when facing certain defeat.

AltaVista tried to hang on and compete with Google, but eventually they just couldn’t compete and were forced to throw the towel in.

USA, 1910s. The allusion is to a boxing match where throwing the towel in indicates a concession


Cockney rhyming slang for wife.

Twenty years we’ve been married now, the trouble and strife and myself.


Mostly Britain.

Denoting the enmity between two opposing groups.

There’s no way we will be negotiating over this deal. Its us versus them and let the best will.


Deliberately draw attention to something with the intention of causing trouble.

There was no need to point out that the girl who dumped him was in the next room. That was only going to wind him up.

Britain, 20th century.

Mostly Britain.

The adorning of public buildings with knitted or crocheted material – either for fun or to make a political point.

We wanted to draw attention to the trees that the council planned to cut down so we got the local guerrilla knitters to yarn bomb them for us.

Britain, early 21st century.

Initially mostly Britain but quickly spreading to others countries.

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.