Sunday, 22 January 2012

Why Do We Say That?

I was recently asked to explain a very British expression by a non-Brit who had no idea of the meaning. Of course no sooner had I explained and I was wondering why I had said it in the first place and where such a weird expression came from. Before long I had uncovered the origins of several very British comments and written the following.

Don't get shirty with me! - was how it all started, not that I had realised ever using a phrase advising the other to hold their temper. It probably shares an origin with 'keep your shirt on', meaning the same thing and maybe suggesting there was a tendency to remove one's shirt before a fight.

Bob's your uncle - an expression meaning 'as simple as that'. It is generally held to have started sson after 1887 when Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil found a nice little job for his nephew Arthur James Balfour when assigning him to the post of Secretary for Ireland. Whether this was earned or blatant nepotism, it is easy to see why some would think it was easier for him to get the job when Bob is your uncle.

A little black over Bill's mother's - suggests there's a dark cloud on the horizon and rain seems imminent. It seems many are trying to tie this down to 'Bill' Shakespeare and his mother. Yet as usage appears to be well-nigh national a more likely explanation is that William (or Bill) has been a very common name for centuries and thus any direction (be there a dark cloud present or not) would almost certainly represent the direction of a woman who had had a son of that name.

Double Dutch - is something baffling but did not originally refer to the Dutch. The similarities in the Dutch and Germany languages would have been unintelligible to the English. As German language was also refererred to as High Dutch, this was originally a slur on German or Germany.

A pig's ear - is to make a mess of, a very poor attempt. It is derived from another phrase first seen in the sixteenth century when an English clergyman by the name of Stephen Gosson wrote in the story Ephemerides that someone was "Seekinge too make a silke purse of a Sowes eare", ie engaged in a hopeless task. Thus to make a pig's ear of something was exactly the reverse, turning something useful into something utterly useless.

Like it or lump it - a very odd comment as it suggests 'like' is the opposite of 'lump' which it clearly is not. At least not today. However in the sixteenth century 'lump' was used to describe someone's sulky or moody expression. Thus while the use of 'lump' in this sense is unknown today, the phrase is still surprisingly commonplace.

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