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Name idioms

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Idiom: A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on. [1]

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The English language is replete with colorful idioms – most of them common enough that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can quote them ad nauseam till the cows come home. However, it is common knowledge that overuse of idioms should be avoided like the plague because people are sick and tired of them.

For Pete’s sake, just consider the feelings of the poor people whose names are used in idioms! It’s Katy bar the door if some smart Alec decides to use one in their presence ‘cause them’s fightin’ words, and they get mad as all get-out before a person can say Jack Robinson! Maybe it wouldn’t get under their skin so much if they could get a line on the etymology of those idioms.


For the love of Pete! and For Pete’s sake! are euphemisms for “For the love of God!” and “For Christ’s sake!” and stem from a time when using God’s name in that way was considered blasphemy. There are several theories as to who Pete was, the most common being that he was St. Peter. Another is that Pete wasn’t a person at all, but simply a name that replaced Mike in the older saying, “for the love of Mike!” or it may be that the expression, “for pity’s sake” evolved into “for Pete’s sake.”

In like Flynn is generally thought to have developed after famous actor Errol Flynn was accused of having sex with two underage girls, but was found not guilty of statutory rape. The acquittal was said to be based on the fact that he was a celebrity (something that would never happen today), which is implied by the phrase “In like Flynn.” Another theory involving Flynn is that the phrase refers to his legendary ability to seduce women into his bed, so if someone has a sure thing, s/he is said to be in like Flynn.

Intriguing as the Errol Flynn theories are, the most that can be said for them is that his acquittal and/or sexual prowess simply popularized the idiom. Mark Israel (“in like Flynn”) claims that the phrase is “in allusion to Edward Joseph "Boss" Flynn (1892-1953), a campaign manager for the U.S. Democratic party during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency. Flynn's machine was so successful at winning elections that his candidates seemed to be in office automatically." [1]

According to Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society, the phrase was first used in 1940 and popped up again in the San Francisco Examiner, on 8 February 1942:

Answer these questions correctly and your name is Flynn, meaning you’re in, provided you have two left feet and the written consent of your parents." [1]

Katy bar the door may come from the Scottish ballad, “Get Up and Lock the Door,” in which a husband and wife who have gone to bed realize that they hadn’t locked the door. Neither wants to get up to do it, and after a long argument, during which nothing is resolved, they decide that the next one to speak will be the one to get up. Silence reigns until robbers come in through the unlocked door and harm the couple repeatedly, until finally the husband cries out, and his wife informs him that he lost the argument and has to get up and lock the door.

The more popular theory about the origin of the idiom is that it stems from an event in Scottish history involving King James I of Scotland and the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Catherine Douglas (aka Kate Barlass). The King was staying at a Dominican chapterhouse in Perth, when a band of murderers burst in, intent on killing him. There was no lock or bar on the door of the King’s chamber, so Catherine attempted to bar the door with her arm. Unfortunately, the men broke her arm and killed the King. The phrase, “Katy bar the door” is taken from "The King's Tragedy," a poem by Gabriel Dante Rossetti, written in 1881:

Then the Queen cried, ‘Catherine, keep the door, And I to this will suffice!’ At her word I rose all dazed to my feet, And my heart was fire and ice....

Like iron felt my arm, as through The staple I made it pass: Alack! it was flesh and bone - no more! 'Twas Catherine Douglas sprang to the door, But I fell back Kate Barlass’." [1]

Keeping up with the Joneses simply means “keeping up with the neighbors,” referring to the suburban competition to best one’s neighbors as far as material possessions and image go. Jones is such a common surname that it implies “everyone” in this idiom; it could just as well be “keeping up with the Smiths.” The phrase first appeared as the title of a comic strip by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand, which ran in U.S. newspapers from 1914 to 1958, and chronicled the life of the McGinis family, who were envious of their neighbors, the Joneses. [1]

Living the life of Riley first appeared in print on July 29, 1918, when The Syracuse Herald published an article about Private Walter J. Kennedy:

This is surely one great life,” writes Kennedy. “We call it the life of Riley. We are having fine eats, are in a great detachment and the experience one gets is fine. I must say I enjoy it immensely. It sure has some advantages over the undertaking business." [1]

The next year, the idiom was seen again in the song “My Name is Kelley” by Harry Pease:

Faith and my name is Kelly Michael Kelly, But I’m living the life of Reilly just the same." [1]

It was a 1940s radio program, "Living the Life of Riley" which later evolved into a television show, that made the phrase common in America.

Smart Alec is an idiom whose origin is often attributed to British humorist J.B. Morton’s character Dr. Smart-Allick, however Morton was born in 1893, and the term has been around since the mid 1800s. The more popular, though unproven theory is that the police gave the name to Aleck Hoag, a New York con man, in the 1840s. Hoag ran a scam in which his wife posed as a prostitute, and while she was busy with her johns, he robbed them. He avoided arrest by paying off the police, but later decided to cut them out of the deal, and they took him in, nicknaming him “Smart Aleck.” [1]

Before (or quicker) than you can say Jack Robinson is a phrase of unknown origin, but of course, there are several theories as to how it came to be. The most popular seems to be that it refers to a man who paid such brief visits to friends and neighbors, that it was impossible to say his name before he went back out the door.

The term appeared in Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

Before one could say Jack Robinson; a saying to express a very short time, originating from a very volatile gentleman of that appellation, who would call on his neighbors, and be gone before his name could be announced. [1]

A song entitled “Jack Robinson” appeared in the early 19th century, and somewhat later it became a slang term for penis.

Tom, Dick, and Harry means everyone, and implies common or ordinary people; it was used in America as early as the late 1500s. Shakespeare writes “Tom, Dick, and Frances” in 1 Henry IV. [1]

Idioms from Shakespeare: “Et tu, Brute," and “as old as Methuselah." [1]


At the end of the day, once all is said and done, we find that the origin of most name idioms is uncertain at best, so we’re left hanging, and your guess is as good as mine. A person could travel the length and breadth of the land seeking enlightenment, only to end up empty-handed. So, Pete, Flynn, Katy, Jonses, Riley, Alec, Jack Robinson, Tom, Dick, Harry, Brutus, Methuselah, and all you others, get over it.


Guy, DrH. "Etymological Serendipity: Smart Aleck and Heck Of A Guy ." Heck Of A Guy. 05 Sep 2006. 21 Apr 2008 <>.

Israel, Mark. ""in like Flynn"." alt.usage.english. 21 Apr 2008 <>.

"Idioms." Answers Corporation. 21 Apr 2008 <>.

"16 results for: idiom." Lexico Publishing Group, LLC.. 21 Apr 2008 <>.

Moreland, Chuck. "Chapter 2 - Special Interest ." Origin of Phrases . 11 Oct 1998. 21 Apr 2008 <>.

Weintraub, Glenn "Spot". "Stump Me Questions Answered in July 2002 ." Mindless Crap . 21 Apr 2008 <>.

Martin, Gary. "Katy bar the door." The Phrase Finder. 21 Apr 2008 <>.

Morris, Evan. The Word Dectective. 17 Nov 2003. 21 Apr 2008 <>.

Quinion, Michael. "For Pete's Sake." World Wide Words. 1 May 2004. 21 Apr 2008 <>.

Author: Madeleine Wieder

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