Some endeavours either succeed or they don’t – to miss narrowly is still failure.

He came within a millimetre of breaking the high jump records. Sadly, a miss is as good as a mile.



An idealistic dream of a sunny hideaway.

We’ve been lucky, we managed to buy ourselves a place in the sun for our retirement.

The United Kingdom, early 20th century. An allusion to a literal pleasant retirement location.

Worldwide, not not common.

A short distance.

Number Ten Downing Street is just a stone’s throw from parliament – the Prime Minister can walk there in no time.

The United Kingdom.


Cockney rhyming slang for hair.

I’m not sure about that new hairdresser – he cut my barnet much too short.


Mostly Britain.

Slang term for a homosexuality.

If Julian didn’t want us to know he was batting from the pavilion end he shouldn’t keep wearing those lilac loafers.

Britain, 20th century. An allusion to the game of cricket.

Cockney rhyming slang for queer (i.e. homosexual).

Quite appropriate that James lives with Julian in Brighton – they are Brighton Pier after all.


Mostly Britain.

Deal with a problem if and when it becomes necessary, not before.

My pension might not be enough to live on when I’m retired, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.


The industrialised affluent and wealthy nations.

The rise of China and India means we may have to redefine the First World before long.

USA, mid 20th century.


A relatively trivial problem only affecting the affluent.

Jack’s complaining again that his 48 inch screen is giving him eyestrain. That’s a First World problem if there ever was.

USA, late 20th century.


Said when people meet unexpectedly, away from their usual haunts.

I went to New York and the first person I met was the guy from next door. it’s a small world alright.

Britain, in an 1873 novel by G. Chesney.


Cockney rhyming slang for arse.

That was really insulting to my mother. When he bends over he’s going to get a good kick up the khyber.


Mainly Britain. Note that the original pronunciation of ‘pass’ would have been ‘parse’, to rhyme with ‘arse’. This reflects the ‘long r’ vocalisation of Cockneys. Current pronunciation depends on where you come from

A utopian dreamland.

Sonya says she’s going to get a part in Jonny Depp’s new movie. She needs to stop living in never-never land.



A short space of time.

I know we need to leave soon, but I can get ready really quickly. I’ll be with you in a New York minute.

USA, 20th century.

Mostly USA.

Someone new to the group or area.

Let’s go and play with him. Its hard being the new kid on the block.

USA, mid 20th century.


Out enjoying oneself.

Let’s go to the pub and then on to a club. Its good to have a night on the town every now and again.

Worldwide, this hippie-sounding expression is no longer fashionable.

Go on a boisterous or exuberant spree

It’s the last day of term and everyone wants to party. Why don’t we paint the town red?

USA, 19th century.

Worldwide, although considered rather old fashioned language

The imaginary location of people who have major problems in their life, especially debt. (Note: not a real place, nor connected to homosexuality)

The business has gone into liquidation, my wife has left and the mortgage company want the house. I’m really in queer street.

Britain – 17th century.


Major and important projects take time.

The new airport won’t be finished for another ten years. I know Rome wasn’t built in a day but that seems too long to wait.

Britain, 16th century. From a translation of Erasmus’s proverbs.

Worldwide, but less commonly than in the past.

Cockney rhyming slang for go.

The police are on there way. With your record they are bound to think the fight was your fault – you’d better scarper before they get here.


Mostly Britain.

Drop in for a visit.

Come and join us – well be down at the pub until 9pm. Why don’t you swing by around 8.30?

Origin uncertain but possibly an allusion to a ‘swing-by’ which is a use of gravity by a spacecraft to change course.


Nickname of the Atlantic Ocean between the UK and the USA.

London’s getting boring – I’m planning to hop the big pond and have a weekend in New York.

USA, 1840s. Previously called, in both UK and USA as ‘The Great Pond’.

Mostly USA and Britain.

On a fruitless course of action.

We couldn’t trace their fraudulent transactions – the evidence was gone. We were just looking up a blind alley.

Britain, 16th century.


Said of a location that indicates something significant – like a pirate’s mark on a treasure map.

Jim said the cafe was opposite the yellow street sign and here it is. I guess X marks the spot.

Britain, mid-20th century.


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.