Sleeveless errand

The phrase is outdated, rare, even moribund. Those who use it do so to amuse themselves or to parade their antiquarian tastes. However, it is not quite dead, for it sometimes occurs in books
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The phrase is outdated, rare, even moribund. Those who use it do so to amuse themselves or to parade their antiquarian tastes. However, it is not quite dead, for it sometimes occurs in books published at the end of the nineteenth century. A sleeveless errand is a fool’s errand, a fruitless endeavor. Alive or expiring, for an etymologist this idiom is extremely interesting. Though both words in it are clear, no one knows who went on errands without sleeves and failed. People began to speak about such errands at the end of the sixteenth century, continued to do so for a hundred years, and then stopped. Shakespeare loved this idiom, for in Troilus and Cressida he plays with it like a cat with a desperate mouse (sleeve, sleeve, sleeve, sleeveless errand). Curiously, the origin of the phrase was obscure even very long ago, for the earliest dictionaries had no clue to its derivation or offered fanciful guesses. Perhaps, they said, –less should not have been added to sleeve, for not. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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