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Hole-in-the-wall is one of those phrases where you get a lot of words hyphenated, if you wrote it down: hole-in-the-wall, being used as a single word, as a noun. “‘I’m going to the hole-in-the-wall”‘ you might say or “‘I’m getting some money out of the hole-in-the-wall”‘. Well you can see what it means, it means an automatic cash dispenser – one of those installed in the outside wall of a bank or some other money-giving organisation.
It’s British colloquial; it’s not used as far as I know in the States, or in Australia, or anywhere, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it spread a little bit – always written with hyphens. Very unusual to see phrases of this kind and sentences being used in this way, as single words. But if you listen out for them, you’ll find them – especially being used as adjectives. Have you heard people for instance say “‘he’s a very get-up-and-go-person”‘? Now there’s the sentence ‘get up and go’. To say a “‘get-up-and-go-person”‘ means somebody who’s got lots of oomph inside them, lots of enthusiasm. Or if I give you a “‘come-hither-look”‘ – a “‘come-hither-look”‘: come here – come hither. Another phrase being used as an adjective.
You can try them out as a sort of game. “‘Who do you think you are?”‘ is a common enough expression – so you can make it an adjective and say “‘he gave me a who-do-you-think-you-are sort of look”‘. Make it even longer if you want: “‘he gave me a who-do-you-think-you-are-and-why-are-you-looking-at-me sort of look”‘ – but there is a limit to the length you can make an adjective. Don’t go on for too long, you’ll run out of breath!
Katherine, Chicago, IL, USA writes:
In his explanation of “hole-in-the-wall”, Professor Crystal says that it means an ATM, and the term is not used in the United States. It’s true that we don’t use hole-in-the-wall to describe an ATM. But we do use it to describe a small, modest, and out-of-the-way place, like a diner or a rundown cafe.
For example: “My apartment is just a hole-in-the-wall, but my rent is so low I can’t complain.”
“Instead of going to a fancy restaurant, let’s visit some family-owned hole-in-the-wall.”
The Hole-in-the-Wall is a nightclub in Austin, Texas; a community theater in New Britain, Connecticut and a place in Wyoming that once served as a hideout for the legendary gunmen Jesse James and Butch Cassidy.
Graham from Australia adds:
The term “hole-in-the-wall” for an ATM is in common use in Australia. It appeared to derive, or at least to gain common recognition, from an early television advertisment, in which the boss’s secretary pops out to the bank after closing time for cash. When she returns with the cash he asks how she got it and she replies that “I just punched a hole in the wall of the statewide building society”. The term soon became pretty universal here.