Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Criminal expressions - part 1 by J. S. Marlo

I'm fascinated by expressions & idioms. They are colorful and interesting, and they often stump me as many of them cannot be translated word for word in my first language.

I write romantic suspense, so there's always a crime being committed in my stories...and a dead body or two hidden somewhere. I often use expressions and it got me curious to know where they come from. So, here are some of them:

- To cover one's tracks (1898): to conceal or destroy evidence of a shameful or nefarious act. The expression stems from "hiding one's footprints".

- To get caught red-handed (1432): to get caught in the act. It comes from Scotland, and it's an allusion to having blood, which is red, on one's hand after the execution of a murder or a poaching session.

-  To keep one's nose clean (late 19th century): to stay out of trouble, to avoid doing anything shady. It originates from "to keep one's hands clean", an expression widely used in England in the 18th century which meant to avoid corruption. When it crossed the Atlantic, the "nose" replaced the "hand".

- A red herring (18th century): something designed to distract or throw someone off a trail. A herring is a fish that is often smoked, a process that turns it red and gives it a strong smell. Because of their pungent aroma, smoked herrings were used to teach hunting hounds how to follow a trail, and they would be drawn across the path of a trail as a distraction that the dog must overcome.

- A whistleblower (19th century): a person who exposes someone involved in an illicit activity. The term attached itself to law enforcement officials because they used whistles to alert the public.

- The long arm of the law (1908): the far-reaching power of the authorities. It began in 16th century as "Kings have long arms".

- A wild goose chase (1592): a futile search, a useless and often lengthy task. The original meaning is related to horse racing, as a 'wild goose chase' was a race in which horses followed a lead horse at a set distance, mimicking wild geese flying in formation.

- A skeleton in the closet (early 1800s): a dark or embarrassing secret that is best kept unrevealed. It stems from the dissected corpses that British doctors kept hidden for research purposes.

- The third degree (19th century): intense interrogation. In Masonic lodges there are three degrees of membership, and in the third degree, the member undergoes vigorous questioning.

- A cat burglar (1907): a burglar adept at entering and leaving the burglarized place without attracting notice. First used by a reporter to describe a burglar who operated in London.

- A stool pigeon (19th century): a person acting as a decoy or informer. It stems from the use of a decoy bird (often a pigeon) to lure birds of prey into a net.

Now I need to stop googling and go back to writing a special children's book for my granddaughter.

Happy reading!


  1. Interesting bit of information. Knew about the red herrings but not the origins of some of the others

  2. I was brought up on a lot of these as my mother was fond of using them without explanation, so I mostly had no idea what they meant until I was adult. Interesting. One she said often was "The kettle calling the pot black" and I still really don't know the meaning of this one.

  3. 'The pot calling the kettle black' is a response often given when someone criticises another for a fault they also have themselves. In the figure of speech, the kettle is chastised for being black by a pot who is also black.

    It would be like me telling my hubby not to eat before going to bed when I do it myself. 'The pot calling the kettle black' would be his response.

    It dates back to 1600s.

  4. Fun blog. I always enjoy this sort of interesting detail.


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