Here are a few of my favorite entries, all beginning with the letter “B,” from Word and Phrase Origins, a book given to me (and a most thoughtful gift it was) shortly after its 1997 publication.
Bat out of hell. As everyone knows, moving like a bat out of hell means going very fast. This expression dates back to the late 19th century. It is likely inspired by the fact that bats are nocturnal creatures that loathe the light, and would be inclined to flap furiously to get out of the infernal regions.
Bazaar. Used to describe a store or marketplace that sells many kinds of goods, bazaar is one of the few English words that originated in the Middle East. It comes from the Persian bazar, which (as you might suspect) translates to marketplace.
Bear the brunt. Brunt is an old word for the main force of an army. The expression to bear the brunt has been used since the 1400s to mean taking the main force of an enemy attack. It is now also used in a more general sense, meaning to bear the worst of anything.
Bender. First recorded in the 19th century, bender was a sailor’s word for a drinking bout. Although its origins are nautical, it is used today to describe any drunken spree, on land or at sea.
Bilk. Bilk comes from the game of cribbage and referred to defrauding another player of points by using sly tactics. By the mid-1800s, bilk was commonly used in its current sense of defrauding in a clever way.
A note about the author: Word and Phrase Origins was written by Robert Hendrickson, now 84 years old and the author of more than 25 other books, including American Literary Anecdotes, New York Tawk, and More Cunning than Man: A Social History of Rats and Men.