Numerical Expressions

By Sharon

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There are many expressions in English which reflect our need to classify and put a value on items. Here are a few:

First water
This is most often heard in the phrase ‘a diamond of the first water’. The expression means the best quality. The best diamonds are nearly as clear as water, and this is the origin of the expression.

Second fiddle

This expression means a secondary role, as in ‘She played second fiddle to her best friend’. The lead violinist sounds the notes that guide the rest of the orchestra, so this position is more important than the second violin or second fiddle.

Third degree

When you’re given the third degree, you get a verbal grilling. No one’s quite sure where the expression originates, but a popular tale has it that the third degree of masonry was difficult to attain and candidates had to answer a lot of questions in order to attain it.

Fourth estate
The fourth estate is the press, as distinct from the other three estates in the UK. The other three are the spiritual lords, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Fifth column
This expression is reportedly of Spanish origin. During the Spanish Civil War, a general who was leading four columns of his army to fight, claimed to have a fifth one in Madrid. The expression refers to a group of people who support their country’s enemies.

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10 Responses to “Numerical Expressions”

  • Maeve

    Re fourth estate:
    Although the “House of Commons” takes its name from the class of people who were neither clergymen nor aristocrats, the third estate did not refer to the representative body called the House of Commons, but to the townspeople, the “commoners” as opposed to the other two estates, the clergy and the nobility.

  • Sharon

    Thanks, Maeve. I double checked this on two reliable offline sources, but it just goes to show that you can’t always rely on the information in books, no matter how good their pedigree.

  • Michael

    Couldn’t ‘first water’ also have come from the medieval hygiene habits, where a group of people would share a wash basin for their early morning wash up? The concept would be to enhance the superior quality of the water for the first user! The other end would be ‘muddy waters’, for the last one to wash up!

  • Juggling Frogs

    Don’t forget:

    “Sixth Sense”
    “At sixes and sevens”
    “Behind the eight ball”
    “Dressed to the Nines”

  • Dave Bullock

    Third Degree is the worst type of burn. It is a burn that chars the flesh to the point that your nerves are damaged and you don’t feel any pain. A First Degree burn is like a sun burn, a Second Degree burn has blisters.

    Also the Freemason highest level is the 33rd Degree.


  • Robin

    From you article:

    10. “Third degree”
    Shakespeare’s humorous reference in Twelfth Night to someone “in the third degree of drink” harks to the principle of degrees in natural philosophy, which assigns the third degree to the penultimate level of intensity. The modern sense is of merciless interrogation, though it’s usually employed in a lighthearted tone.

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