English (and American) sayings, ancient and modern

People born and educated in Britain claim to speak ‘The Queen’s English’, which they consider is ‘proper’ English, as opposed to other people of the world who speak English as a second or other language. Those other people, between a quarter and a half of the world’s population may well speak perfectly good English, which can be understood by almost anyone, everywhere. However, when ‘The Queen’s English’ speakers join the conversation, misunderstandings and confusions can occur, because, for centuries the British have intentionally, or in many cases, unthinkingly, or unwittingly peppered their speech with a variety of ancient English sayings and quite a few modern ones, sayings which are not taught in formal lessons. Consequently the ‘Queen’s English’ speakers can, and often do confuse and confound other English speakers, including their American cousins.

For example, imagine if you will, two monkeys in a tree having a grooming session. One monkey says to the other, “My back itches, but I can’t reach the spot, can you give me a scratch please?” The other monkey says, “Yeah sure, as long as you do the same for me, ok?” Now transform the monkeys into two people who could quite possibly help one another in some way. However, before helping each other, they want to know that the assistance they give will be repaid in a like way.

If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, is an often used and generally well understood old English saying, but it is about scratching backs, not giving mutual assistance. This, of course, is what we know in the English language as a metaphor, which, simply put, means talking about one thing but meaning something quite different. A good example of a metaphor was told to me recently by an elderly friend, who said “sometimes these days, my chain of thought leaves the station without me.” Of course he wasn’t talking about trains or railway stations, or even thought, but about getting old and forgetful.

If someone is described as having got hold of the wrong end of the stick, these days, it is taken to mean that they have arrived at completely the wrong conclusion about something. It is a nice phrase and is often used, but the origin is rather unsavoury.

Centuries ago before toilet paper was available in England, people used a stick to wipe themselves. One end of the stick was kept clean while the other end, which was the part used for wiping, was obviously far from clean. If, in the dark, someone could not see which end was which, they may well have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Yuck!

If someone, for example a police detective, has got hold of the wrong end of the stick and is pursuing an incorrect line of enquiry, he could be said to be barking up the wrong tree, very much as a dog would bark up at a tree which a cat had run up, even though the wily cat had long since climbed across to another tree and gone home.

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The excited, but not too bright dog continues to bark up the wrong tree.

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If we carry the police detective analogy further, we could imagine him investigating a crime that has two suspects who are, in appearance, as different as chalk and cheese. The first, who we’ll call the Smart Man, is as clean as a whistle, well-spoken and dressed up like a dog’s dinner, appearing as fresh as a daisy, while the second man is dishevelled, dirty and looks like he’s been dragged through a gooseberry bush backwards. In the police station while they are waiting to be interviewed, the Smart Man looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth appearing as if he is as innocent as the day he was born, and laughs and makes fun of the scruffy man and attempts to point the finger at him, in the hope it will send the detective on a wild goose chase. The scruffy looking man, who is only one step removed from being a milestone inspector, was used to having the Mickey taken out of him, and so it was like water off a duck’s back.

On the face of it the scruffy man is the most likely suspect, but the detective knows never to judge a book by its cover and starts questioning the pair like a dog with a bone, leaving no stone unturned to find the truth. The Smart Man, who the detective decides is a bit of a clever Dick, claims that at the time the crime was committed, he was with his brother and a lady friend, miles away. However the detective is too long in the tooth to swallow that story hook line and sinker, so tells him straight that he considers his alibi beggars belief. The scruffy man who the detective decides is a bit of a dork can offer no alibi.

The detective recognises the Smart Man’s MO and that he is attempting to lead him up the garden path, with a red herring, and pull the wool over his eyes, so, knowing there are more ways than one to skin a cat, he shoots through to question the man’s brother. The brother of course, because blood is thicker than water, swears blind that the alibi is correct, but the detective, who by this time has really got his teeth into the case suspects jiggery pokery, smells a rat and is certain he is being fed a cock and bull story. He soon discovers that the brother has a skeleton in the cupboard, which comes back to haunt him. He has been convicted more times than you can shake a stick at, for giving false evidence on his brother’s behalf and has got a criminal record as long as your arm. Also he has obviously never heard the old expression once bitten, twice shy.

The detective knows that a leopard never changes its spots and tells the brother to stop faffing around and piss-arsing about and that he has bitten off more than he can chew this time, so had better come clean, spill the beans and make a clean breast of it, which, after chewing the fat for a while he does, while eating humble pie. Once the Smart Man hears that his brother has put a spanner in the works and that at the drop of a hat, his alibi has gone up in smoke and he is in danger of having his collar felt, he stays shtoom. He is really shocked that his brother has ratted on him, because he thought he knew his brother like the back of his hand, never sussing him to be a grass, but when it came to the crunch, he realised he didn’t really know him from Adam and his betrayal is a bolt from the blue.

When the lady friend is questioned, she gets the heebee jeebies and turns out to be a fair weather friend, who indicates the suspect has made his bed and will have to lie in it and will have to stew in his own juice, on his Todd, which really upsets the apple cart. The lady friend now becomes flavour of the month with the detective, but about as popular as a fart in an astronaut suit with the Smart Man, who now realises the lady friend has turned her back on him, he is clutching at straws, hasn’t got a leg to stand on and the game is up, so coughs to the charge and Bob’s yer Uncle, he’s nicked and banged up, in the slammer.

By claiming a complicated alibi involving two unreliable associates, the Smart Man has been skating on thin ice and eventually jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, or if we thought he had tried to be too clever for his own good, we could use an expression of William Shakespeare’s which says, he was hoist by his own petard (blown up by his own bomb) and, as sure as eggs is eggs he will go down for the crime. The scruffy man, who it turned out was guilty of sweet Fanny Adams is let off the hook and released, probably with a sigh of relief, as pleased as Punch and thinking he who laughs last, laughs longest. .

When everything is all sewn up and shipshape and Bristol fashion the police detective decides all work and no play makes jack a dull boy, and so goes off for a few bevies and some nosh with his mates in the pub where all the policemen gather after work, because birds of a feather flock together.

The term cock and bull story comes to us from the days of horse drawn stage coaches. Back then, the trip from London to York took two days, sometimes more with an over-night stop at the half way point. The travellers were accommodated in two hostelries, the Cock Tavern in the main street and the Bull Inn, across the road. The travellers would spend the evening eating, drinking and telling stories, which in those far off days before radio or television, was a favourite evening pastime. In time these two ale houses developed a reputation for the telling of stories that were wildly exaggerated, downright lies or uproariously funny, or all three. Over the years their reputation became so widely known that any story that was an exaggeration or an obvious lie became known as a cock and bull story.

The expressions made his bed and had to lie in it and stew in his own juice, simply means taking responsibility for his own actions. If you have ever been silly enough to chase wild geese you will know they are very hard to catch, and even if you do catch one, you will find they are extremely tough and not at all good to eat. In other words, a wild goose chase is a rather futile exercise.

Skating on thin ice is obviously a risky thing to do, while jumping out of the frying pan into the fire is simply rushing from one difficult situation into a much worse one. Jiggery pokery is a colourful way to imply dishonesty or deceitfulness and comes from the Scot’s joukery pawkery.  As sure as eggs is eggs is thought to be a humorous distortion of as sure as X is X. In algebra, the value of X is always X and so it is always true to say, X is X, or, if you have a sense of humour, eggs is eggs, which is how we use it today to assert that something is true.

Blood is thicker than water is a very old saying that indicates that no matter what the rights or wrongs of a situation, most people are likely to agree with, or take the side of their blood relations, rather than anyone else such as the Old Bill.

Never judge a book by its cover, because a book may have a brightly coloured, well-illustrated cover, but the text may be dull and rather boring so it would be a mistake to buy a book that had a bright cover without inspecting the content or text. This is also very true of other situations and even people. You may meet someone who is well dressed, well spoken, good mannered and likeable, as our police detective did, only to discover later that they are dishonest. In that case, another biblical saying may apply to that person, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.   

A milestone inspector is another term for a gentleman of the road, or in plain English, a tramp, or to use a couple of American expressions that are occasionally heard this side of the Atlantic, a hobo or bum. The word tramp, used to describe someone who travelled the country on foot, living on charity and usually looking unkempt and comes to us from Victorian times. Back then itinerant or casual workers would walk or tramp from one work site to the next, sleeping rough or occasionally stopping at night in the poor house, which was known as the Spike.

The word shtoom is one we have adopted from the Yiddish, which means silent or dumb, or possibly from the German, stumm, meaning silent.

I really cannot satisfactorily explain why we should say as clean as a whistle, as all the whistles I have come across have been full of fluff and other people’s spit. When a criminal coughs, it is old police jargon for admitting to the crime, and thereafter he would be escorted to the cop shop with a policeman holding on to him by the scruff of his neck, or in other words having his collar felt.

The initial M.O. is the abbreviation police use to describe a criminal’s mode or method of operating and stands for the Latin phrase, modus operandi. Wrong doers often stick to the same methods of operating, over and over again, which at times is almost as identifiable as a fingerprint. In this case the detective recognised the Smart Man’s alibi was too confident, probably rehearsed and suspected he had contrived the alibi and hoped his nit wit brother and reluctant girlfriend would stick their necks out and everything would be hunky dory, never thinking he’d be left with egg on his face looking a right twerp.

The funny old expression Bob’s yer Uncle and Fanny’s yer Aunt, which is more likely to be expressed, simply as just Bob’s yer Uncle, is usually added at the end of an explanation to emphasise how simple something can be. As this saying is rarely heard these days and is in danger of becoming extinct I will give a couple of examples of how it can be used. “This garden has an automatic watering system. All you do is ensure the water is turned on and the electric timer is properly set and switched on then Bob’s yer Uncle. It all happens while you’re asleep.”

If the explanation was more complicated, you could be justified in using the full saying in order to try to convince the person you are talking to that it really is simple, when it quite obviously, is not. For example “The operation of the toilet flush on this vessel is very simple. All you do is turn the red lever to prime, and then give four pumps on the green pump handle. Wait five seconds then turn the red lever to discharge, wait another two seconds then give six more good pumps on the green pump handle. When the discharge is completed, return the red lever to neutral and Bob’s yer Uncle and Fanny’s yer Aunt, all done.”

We may not always be aware of it, but the Americans, who we know speak their own variety of the Queen’s English, have over the centuries had quite an effect on our common language and given us some very useful words and sayings. Once these sayings are incorporated into the English language everyone forgets who first said them and the sayings are assumed to be of English origin. This is a pity because the Americans have contributed greatly to the richness of our shared language, but are rarely acknowledged on either side of the Atlantic. To counter this, I would like to introduce five American personalities, whose names or deeds have over the years, become part of our English spoken folklore.

Mr. R S Murphy was a research engineer who worked for the McDonald Douglas Aircraft Corporation of America during the war years, testing new aircraft. When a trial he was conducting went drastically wrong, he discovered that six test gauges he had directed be fitted to an aircraft, had been put in upside down. This led him to say, no doubt with the addition of a few well-chosen colourful expletives, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” This phrase, minus the swear words, was later repeated at a press conference and eventually came into use amongst engineers and later, amongst the general public on both sides of the Atlantic, and is known of course, as Murphy’s Law. However, I also like a much more modern American expression, author unknown, but sounds Flower Power Hippy, which very concisely, explains the situation when things go wrong and that is of course “yeah well! Shit happens.”

During the latter part of the Second World War when there was the greatest ever interaction, between the British people and the thousands of American servicemen, flooding into Britain for the build up to D Day  a little saying did the rounds of the war-weary British, who had survived four years of war and blitz, concerning their Yankee cousins who had not, at that time, seen much action. “There are only three things wrong with the Yanks, they’re over payed, over sexed and over here.”

The next American personality whose name has entered British folk history is Mr.  James J Kilroy, who was a war time ship construction inspector, in one of the America’s largest ship building yards. When he had inspected the latest part of the ship to be built he would chalk, Kilroy was here followed by O K signifying that the next stage of construction could commence. We still use the initials O K as an affirmative reply indicating “Yes that is correct, or acceptable, or I agree.” However the expression was known previously, but its early origin is rather debateable and vague so I like to give the credit to the wartime Kilroy.

The Kilroy was here phrase remained legible in many difficult to access parts of a number of ships, for many years, even well after the war, which led to the humorous practice of people writing the words in any and every difficult to access place. Such as the tops of mountains, the bottom of wells, on tall chimneys and by people with a warped sense of humour and far too much time on their hands, on the last piece of paper on a toilet roll.

Before ladies’ underpants became so brief and began being called knickers, they were much baggier and were called bloomers. Amelia Bloomer was a real person, born in New York in 1818, who spent most of her life fighting for the emancipation of women. In 1850 Amelia began wearing a new style of clothing comprising a pair of loose Turkish-style trousers, gathered at the ankles, covered by a skirt which came to just below the knees.

Amelia hoped that other women would strike out for freedom in this way by wearing her bloomers. However the women of the time were not quite ready for such a bold step just then, but later, when bicycles became the craze, bloomers came back into fashion for those brave young women who dared to ride a bike.

In the transition between ladies’ bloomers and the much briefer knickers, we had ‘drawers’. These were a much smaller version of bloomers with elastic at the waist and legs, just above the knees. These drawers acquired a rather funny nick-name of harvest festivals, which was a reference to the hymn, sung at the harvest festival church service, a line of which is ‘all is safely gathered in’.

Now finally, one that has only a tenuous connection with America, but a strong link to two Americans and is still well worth recounting and concerns the phrase you’ll catch your death of cold. This simple phrase is rather innocuous and can hardly be claimed as a very interesting or important English saying, even though it is often said by parents to their children in various circumstances, especially to daughters who are going out for the evening, scantily, or to the parent’s minds inadequately dressed and showing far too much of themselves.

The reason I have included it here is because it acquired a rather macabre notoriety in a very interesting way, and the person who said it probably later wished they had kept their gob shut. It came out in evidence at the famous Old Bailey trial of the infamous American Doctor, Hawley Harvey Crippen, in 1910. The Doctor was charged with the murder of his wife Cora, who was also American and known to her theatrical friends by her adopted stage name, of Belle Elmore.

On what was undoubtedly the last evening of her life Cora,(or Belle) and Doctor Crippen had entertained some of Cora’s music hall friends, the Marinettis, with dinner and a game of cards.

As the Martinettis were leaving sometime after midnight, Belle escorted them out to the street door to see them off. As the night was very cold Mrs. Martinetti said “Don’t come out Belle, you’ll catch your death of cold.”

Belle did catch her death that night, but it wasn’t from the cold. It was from a large dose of the vegetable poison, hyoscine hydro bromide, administered by her husband. No doubt Mrs. Martinetti very much regretted using those words and probably avoided the phrase for the rest of her life.

After Cora was dead, the Doctor cut her body into many small pieces, burying some in the cellar of their home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Town. Much later, after the trial and Dr. Crippen had been hanged, it was decided, in order to dispel the horror of what had gone on there, the name of the crescent should be changed and the public were asked for ideas. Some wag suggested Filleted Place.

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2 thoughts on “English (and American) sayings, ancient and modern

    1. Hi Judy, yes that’s Dan’s artwork, also if you scroll to the children’s stories, such as Tommy’s ride to the Duck Pond etc. you’ll see a few more and Eleanor did the artwork in The Sicknote. Also, this is the article I did just for Miranda (and anyone else who enjoys or teaches the English language.) All the best to you and the family, Roge’.

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