About us

A brief history of phrase finding…

The Phrasefinder website was founded in 1997 by Gary Martin, who writes the Meanings and Origins section of the site and the Phrase A Week posts. It grew out of post-graduate research into computational linguistics that was developed in 1985 in a Sheffield Hallam University research project into the use of artificial intelligence techniques to aid the teaching of writing.

The site initially hosted a searchable database of phrases and idioms called The Phrase Thesaurus, which uses artificial intelligence methods to enhance search results.

You can find further details on the history of the site at our timeline page.

Meanings and Origins

In 1998 a listing of the meanings and origins of phrases was added. That list of idioms and phrases now contains the origins of more than 2,400 entries – making it the largest such public reference on the Internet.

How reliable is it?

While no reference can claim its content is 100% definitive, every effort has been made to include here only information that is verifiable as correct. The content is researched to published reference book standards. The sources used in the research are twofold, either primary sources or trusted references. The primary sources include newspaper cuttings, books, films, photographic archives etc. The trusted reference sources are those that themselves derive from primary sources and have sufficient reputation to be considered reliable. These include:

The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition
The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, First Edition
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 5th Edition
Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang, 8th Edition.

In addition to these are numerous reference works and databases which, although not in themselves definitive, provide a rich source of stimulation; for example, Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, Hotten’s Slang Dictionary and many others.

Discussion Forum

Late in 1998 a discussion forum was added to the site, where anyone could ask questions on the meaning or origin of phrases and sayings in English. It contains an archive of 70,000 questions and answers about phrase origins and their meanings. The majority of the posted replies have been contributed by a hard-working and exceedingly persistent group of unpaid enthusiasts, some of whom began contributing daily in early 1999. The forum is now closed to new queries but remains online as a reference archive.