We Just Don’t Talk Like This Anymore
I had just dropped a clanger – again. I called the thing in the corner of the kitchen the “washing-up machine” (I always do) and now the others are dissing me because I am such a linguistic dinosaur. I thought everything was tickety-boo on this front, having recently mastered the use of the word “fam” to address my family. This, it seems, was just a flash in the pan.
It is as cold as a witch’s tit outside, so I just wanted a lazy day and to stay warm inside – the only fly in the ointment being that the curtain-twitcher over the road was watching me intently through the window, so I was of a mind to pull down the blind and do an aimless bit of web surfing. I found an article online originating from the Daily Mirror in which they discovered that 78% of 18 to 50-year-olds were not aware of/never used some of the (to my mind) most exquisite idioms that our rich language is blessed with. What a crying shame to lose some of these gems of English due to… I don’t know what? A language without idioms is as dead as a doornail for those of us who are lovers of descriptive phrases. You may think that it’s a load of old codswallop, but I have to nail my colours to the mast and state openly that I am fighting for their cause and am as keen as mustard to stick up for what would seem to be an endangered species. I sort of knew this was the case, just by interacting with others, and a nod’s as good as a wink, as they say.
So, here is my challenge to you: do you know your onions when it comes to our language? Read this through carefully, spot twenty of the top most-endangered idioms in this piece of writing and Bob’s your uncle. Do you know what they mean or where they came from? I don’t think that any of them are ready for the knacker’s yard and will post the answers and a bit of information in part two of this post… If you want to save a stich in time, just head straight there. But there really is no need to get your knickers in a twist if you struggle – the majority of the people in this age group are the same; it is not a case of putting pearls before swine.
Pip pip for now,
Drop a clanger – meaning to make a very bad or embarrassing mistake. This phrase seems to have originated in British Army slang during, or immediately after, the Second World War. The word clanger is simply British slang for a blunder and refers to a mistake whose effects seem to “clang,” or ring out.
Tickety boo – meaning in good order, fine. British slang. Possibly from an Indo-Aryan language: compare Hindi ठीक है, बाबू (ṭhīk hai, bābū, “it’s all right, sir”). The phrase could have been picked up by British personnel in India before independence and spread in modified form to the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
A flash in the pan – meaning a thing or person whose sudden but brief success is not repeated or repeatable. The term ‘flash in the pan’ originated sometime during the late 17th century, when flintlock muskets were used. An attempt to fire a musket that resulted in gunpowder flaring up, but no ball firing was referred to as a flash in the pan.
Colder than a witch’s tit – an expressive way of saying ‘very cold’ – usually in reference to the weather. Back in Salem during the 1600’s, witch’s were portrayed as old hags with wrinkly skin and icy blood. So the phrase “… colder than a witch’s tit…” was used during very cold weather because of the reference to their cold blood and skin.
A fly in the ointment meaning a trifling annoyance that spoils one’s enjoyment. This term comes from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 10:1): “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour; so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.” It has been so used ever since.
A curtain twitcher – meaning a person who typically watches neighbours through the window, hiding behind a curtain. Stemming from a fine old British tradition dating from the early Victorian era, of creating homes with features like bay windows with large sashes that let in a lot of light and which often included fitted window seats… then hanging some variation on net curtains to hide behind and hide behind whilst peeking out.
Of a mind – meaning inclined or likely to do something.
Crying shame – meaning an unfortunate situation. This term may well come from the now obsolete to cry shame upon, meaning “express vigorous disapproval or censure,” current from about 1600 to the mid-1800s.
Dead as a doornail – an expressive way of saying dead. The term dead as a doornail was used in the 1500s by William Shakespeare, and in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843. It is thought that the phrase dead as a doornail comes from the manner of securing doornails that were hammered into a door by clenching them.
Load of old codswallop – meaning words or ideas that are foolish or untrue. A frequently given etymology, although widely rejected as a folk etymology, derives it from Hiram Codd, British soft drink maker of the 1870s, known for the eponymous Codd-neck bottle, with the suggestion that codswallop is a derisive term for soft drinks by beer drinkers, from Codd’s + wallop (a slang term for beer).
Nail your colours to the mast – meaning declare one’s beliefs or intentions openly. In 17th century nautical battles colours (flags) were struck (lowered) as a mark of submission. It was also the custom in naval warfare to direct one’s cannon fire at the opponent’s ship’s mast, thus disabling it. If all of a ship’s masts were broken the captain usually had no alternative but to surrender. If the captain decided to fight on this was marked by hoisting the colours on the remnants of the ship’s rigging, that is, by ‘nailing his colours to the mast’.
As keen as mustard – meaning extremely keen. The long-standing enthusiasm for the Sunday roast was real, as reflected in the words of Richard Leveridge’s 1735 song Roast beef of Old England:
When mighty Roast Beef
Was the Englishman’s food,
It ennobled our brains
And enriched our blood...
Mustard was an essential accompaniment to the traditional meal including beef. It became associated with vigour and enthusiasm because it added zest and flavour.
A nod’s as good as a wink – meaning that it is not necessary to explain something further, because you understand what someone has already told you indirectly. The earlier form of the phrase is a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse. Because of the word blind, it has been said that the original sense of the longer form was the opposite, that whatever sort of hint one may give, whether a nod or a wink, some people are unable to understand it. But its meaning was in fact the same as that of the abbreviated form.
Know your onions – meaning to be very knowledgeable about something. The expression isn’t British but American, first recorded in the magazine Harper’s Bazaar in March 1922. It was one of a set of such phrases, all with the sense of knowing one’s stuff, or being highly knowledgeable in a particular field, that circulated in the 1920s.
Bob’s your uncle – Usually used to conclude a set of instructions, much like the French ‘et voilà!’. No-one’s quite sure of its origin. One theory suggests it refers to the supposed nepotism of the 20th British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (whose first name was Robert), who appointed his nephew to several political posts in the 1880s. Another credits it to the slang ‘all is bob’, meaning ‘all is well’.
Ready for the knackers yard – meaning in a state of ruin or failure due to having become useless or obsolete. The knacker’s yard is a slaughterhouse for horses, which is what this phrase refers to, and so meaning destruction because of being beyond all usefulness.
A stitch in time saves nine – meaning if you sort out a problem immediately it may save a lot of extra work later. “A stitch in time saves nine” is a French proverb, dating back to the early 1700’s. It was a sailing term that had a specific meaning. When burying someone at sea, nine pounds of shot was used to weigh the body sack. Then, when the sack was stitched closed, the last stitch was passed through a body part. This kept the shroud and body together. Otherwise the nine pounds of shot would be wasted.
Get your knickers in a twist – meaning to become unduly agitated or angry. It goes back in print at least to 1969 and refers to women’s (or girl’s) underwear becoming twisted and therefore uncomfortable and objectionable.
Pearls before swine – meaning do not waste good things on people who will not appreciate them. This proverb is adapted from a saying of Jesus from the Gospels, “Cast not pearls before swine.” Jesus appears to be warning his disciples to preach only before receptive audiences.
Pip pip – meaning goodbye. The Oxford English Dictionary believes it originates with an imitation of the sound of a car horn, or sometimes a bicycle horn.