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The phrase ‘motley crew’ derives from the eighteenth century. ‘Motley’ is a medieval word meaning mixed in colour and often referred to clothing. The Motley was therefore the court jester due to his multi-coloured costume.

The meaning of the word then developed to mean ‘mixed bag’ or ‘various things’ so the phrase ‘motley crew’ began to be used to mean ‘a roughly-organized assembly of characters’. The first use is found in 1748 in George Anson’s Voyage Round the World:

With this motley crew (all of them except the European Spaniards extremely averse to the voyage) Pizarro set sail from Monte Video.

By the nineteenth century, ‘motley crew’ was an well-used cliché. It refers to a mixed group of unlikely heroes coming together to overcome adversity. It most often referred to pirates and is now a common archetype for sports and science fiction stories.


Somebody drew my attention towards the term lukewarm yesterday, wondering why we add the word luke to warm to mean tepid. The term derives from Middle English, first used in the 14th century, when the word ‘luke’ was a adjective meaning tepid or warm. luke derives from leuk, a word first used around 1200, but with an unknown origin.

There are many suggestions for its origin however and there are many clear parallels with other langauges. It has been suggested that leuk  may have derived from the word leuk (meaning tepid/weak) in Middle Dutch or Old Frisian, a language spoken on the northern coast of modern Netherlands and Germany before 1500. It could also have come from the Old English term hleowe, meaning warm.

Modern connections are found in the Dutch word lauw, meaning tepid or indifferent, the German lauwarm, meaning lukewarm and the Danish word lunken, meaning half-hearted. Clearly the word derives from the original Proto-Germanic language of Europe.

In English, the use of lukewarm to mean “indifferent” or “lacking in zeal” dates from the 1520s.

This cliché first developed in the 18th century and means to take over somebody’s idea, fame or recognition or to draw people’s attention towards oneself at the expense of someone else. The phrase originates from the theatre at a time when new methods of creating stage thunder were being invented.

Writer and critic John Dennis invented one successful new method of creating the sound of thunder on stage for his play Appius and Virginia in 1709, however his play was a box office failure. The invention of the sound effect however proved very popular and was used immediately afterwards in a highly-praised production of Macbeth applaud.

This frustrated John Dennis greatly and he apparently said: ‘Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder’. It seems that this was the origin of the phrase, so at least Dennis created something that definitely lasted!

The superstitious phrase ‘touch wood’ is one with many contested origins and it is still not clear which is the correct one. In the UK, many people still touch wood and use the phrase when they talk about their luck or mention their own death and want to stop their words from “tempting fate” and jinxing future good fortune. In the US the phrase ‘knock on wood’ is more commonly used.

Many believe that the phrase derives from the pagan belief that good and evil spirits lived in trees and touching the wood of a tree would gain the blessing of the spirits and stop them bringing misfortune on the speaker. The idea of the two ‘knocks’ is that one knock on the tree would ask the spirits for good luck and the second knock would thank the spirits.

Another interpretation of the phrase is that it is Christian, possibly adapted from the pagan original. The wood could refer to the Cross and thus touching wood meant that you were requesting the blessing of God.

However old the original custom is, it appears that the established phrase is relatively modern. The first recorded use of ‘touch wood’ is in 1899 and ‘knock on wood’ in 1905.

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