I won’t beat a dead horse by railing against Stanford University’s recent list of prohibited words and phrases. Some of that list reflects common sense and common courtesy. But some of it is just plain silly, like banning beat a dead horse because it “normalizes violence against animals.” We should pity all language censors, for they face an impossible task: when it comes to violent, strange, and provocative phrases, English is as full as a tick. Over the centuries, we English speakers have robbed Peter to pay Paul, cut off our noses to spite our faces, and gone down to Davy Jones. We raise Cain, Hamlet, and even Ned when we feel like it. It’s enough to make you stare like a throttled earwig (normalizes violence against insects).

But what do all these weird phrases mean, and where did they come from? Why does...


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