Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

As the UK and other places have been struck by the icy blast of the so-called ‘beast from the east’ this week, the weather has been very much in the news. I was particularly struck by a phrasal verb used by an emergency services worker urging people to dress appropriately for the weather conditions. The verb he used was rug up, new to me but not to the Open Dictionary where it has been an entry since 2014. The verb originally referred to the practice of putting a rug or blanket on a horse in cold weather. In the human context it comes from Australia and New Zealand and means to dress in warm layers.

A rug is, of course, a carpet that does not cover the whole floor and, in British English, a blanket, especially one used when travelling. The word has some less familiar meanings as well. It is a humorous way of referring to a men’s hairpiece called a toupee and is used in the dated US expression to cut a rug, meaning to dance energetically. If you pull the rug out from under someone  you suddenly stop supporting them.

The phrasal verb dates back to the 1960s but the noun is much older, its various meanings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The toupee meaning is of course much more recent and is first attested, like the phrase cut a rug, in the 1940s. Pull the rug out from under someone dates from the early 20th century. There is another old-fashioned phrase that I remember from my childhood, snug as a bug in a rug, and this is how you want to be while the freezing weather lasts.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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