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Today we’re finishing off our 2017 series looking at curious English phrases and expressions – things we might say and understand the meaning of, without really knowing where they come from.

Our language is peppered with odd idioms like these. Sometimes their origin is straightforward and obvious, but other times it could be more obscure or simply lost in the mists of time. Today we reach the final three letters of the alphabet, ‘X, Y and Z’:

X marks the spot: If you’re having trouble finding something, either literally or figuratively, it’s always handy to have a map showing its exact location marked with an ‘X’. This is another of those phrases with multiple explanations as to its origin or later meaning. The most popular one is that pirates would draw a map and put an ‘X’ on it marking the exact spot where they had buried their ill-gotten treasure. This idea has given rise to many novels and films where the carefully marked treasure map sparks a series of adventures. Of course, military strategists also relied heavily on maps and charts throughout history and no doubt marked key position with an ‘X’. Another more grisly version is also military in origin; that in British Army tradition, anyone sentenced to death by firing squad would have a piece of paper pinned to their clothing directly over their heart. That paper would be marked with an ‘X’, giving the members of the firing squad a clear target to aim for. In more recent times. People performing on stage might be required to stand on a specific spot, usually marked with an ‘X’ in chalk or sticky tape. Look out for it if you watch people auditioning for the…

X Factor: Someone who a has a certain quality or talent which is remarkable but difficult to define can be said to possess ‘the X factor’. Nowadays the phrase is massively associated with the TV talent show which takes it as its title, but in fact it goes back to at least the beginning of the 20th century. Scientists, mathematicians and statisticians needed some way to denote unknown quantities or properties in their equations and tended to use the letter ‘X’. Remember those baffling algebra lessons at school? This methodology was already in widespread use in 1895 when German physicist Wilhelm Rontgen discovered a type of electromagnetic radiation which could penetrate flesh and be used to create images of the bones within. Unsure of the properties of these electromagnetic rays, he gave them the working title of ‘X-Rays’, and the name stuck. Around the 19340s the phrase the ‘X factor’ begins to appear in print, meaning that something (or someone) has a certain noteworthy but unknown quality marking it out as somehow special. It soon became widely used in showbiz to describe people with an exceptional talent which cannot be defined but is evident in their performance.

Year dot: something that happened a very, very long time ago, even before the beginning of recorded history, can be said to date to ‘the year dot’. We might also use the phrase to suggest that something has been happening since the beginning of time. For example, man has worked hard at finding ways to avoid hard work since the year dot. This is a peculiarly English phrase, little used elsewhere in the world, except in a few areas settled almost exclusively by the English. It can be found in print from the mid-1800s as a device to describe any event or period of time which was so long ago that it cannot be dated.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks: The literal meaning of this commonly-used phrase is pretty apparent; that old dogs learn less well than young ones. Of course, it is normally used in reference to old people than old dogs, meaning that as people grow older they become more set in their ways and less open to embracing new knowledge and ideas. For example, many older people will use the phrase to justify their own reluctance or inability to get to grips with new technology. Of course, there are also countless examples which prove the phrase wrong, such as people pursuing new hobbies or studies in their retirement years. Generally, though, it’s a phrase that is easy to relate to, which probably explains why it is one of the oldest in the English language, dating from at least the 1500s.

Zero tolerance: In contrast to the previous phrase, this one is relatively recent, dating from the 1970s in America. It now refers to anything that will not be abided, even in the most minute quantity, but the phrase’s origin is in police terminology. It meant that officers would clamp down on a particular type of crime and enforce the law rigorously and without exception in a bid to wipe it out. The New York Police Department (NYPD) began referring regularly to a ‘zero tolerance approach’ in its press conferences and the snappy phrase was quickly picked up by the media and adopted by politicians. It found particular favour among those tackling drug-related crime, and soon migrated across the Atlantic to the UK, where it was particularly linked to hard-line police officer Ray Mallon, who was nicknamed “Robocop” during his tenure as the Detective Superintendent in charge of CID in Middlesbrough. Prime Minister Tony Blair was a staunch supporter of Mallon and also popularised the ‘zero tolerance’ phrase. Since then its meaning has spread beyond the world of policing into other areas of life. For example, many businesses now operate a ‘policy of zero tolerance’ on things such as racism or sexism among their employees.

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