Black Sheep and Lame Ducks


To be having kittens is an expression used to describe a hysterically nervous person who is petrified about a forthcoming event. The expression was used in America from around 1900 before being taken up in Britain. During the Middle Ages, doctors apparently believed that if a pregnant woman was experiencing pains that she must have been “bewitched” and had a litter of kittens inside her womb clawing at her. Witches, it was said, could provide the potions that would destroy the imagined kittens. Incredibly, as late as the seventeenth century, the legal term for obtaining an abortion was still presented in the courts as “removing cats in the belly.”

Some of the words and phrases in this book are old and some of them have changed their meaning over the years, but all of them have interesting histories. In the follow up to his bestselling book Red Herrings and White Elephants, author Albert Jack briefly explains the origins of over four hundred words and phrases relating to eighteen categories including entertainment, money, love, sports, and food. The research findings chronicled for the majority of entries read like stories and occasionally contain the author’s own opinions (see the bought the farm entry) about the findings.

Black-and-white cartoon illustrations add humour to the book. Bolded text helps identify the words or phrases described on each page, and an alphabetized index at the back of the book makes searching easy. Though entries are only one or two paragraphs in length, a good number contain information about the words’ countries of origin, timelines for use, original and present definitions, and quoted sources. Originally published in Great Britain in 2007, Black Sheep and Lame Ducks: The Origins of Even More Phrases We Use Every Day will be a hit for anyone fascinated with the etymology of well-known English words and phrases.

To win a free copy of this book, be the fifth person to email me ([email protected]) an expression you often use.