December 3, 2022
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Don’t get your knickers in a twist, it’s just a passing phrase

Do you know your onions? And, if so, do you ever have the urge to tell less-informed folk that they are talking a load of codswallop?

I’m afraid you may be casting your pearls before swine. These phrases are ready for the knacker’s yard and may soon be dead as doornails.

If, like me, you do use these expressions then you are probably getting on a bit and younger people may think you as mad as a hatter.

Just tell them to put a sock in it. And don’t get your knickers in a twist … pardon my French.

The phrases are among fifty in danger of extinction according to a survey conducted for the research agency Perspectus Global among English speakers in the 18 to 50 age group.

Pearls before swine, which has its origins in the Bible, is a phrase 78% of them said they had never used. Dead as a doornail, which refers to a method of sealing coffins  in Victorian times, is a little more familiar, but unused by 55% of those surveyed.

Oddly, although they don’t use the phrases, many of the people surveyed were sorry to hear they were threatened, with 73% saying their extinction would be a shame.

I agree. So, as 71% of younger people never say, let me nail my colours to the mast and declare that, without them, having a chin wag (52%) will just not be tickety boo (57%) .

If nothing else, the idioms are colourful and many have interesting origins stretching back centuries.

Some, like the references to knickers and socks, need no explanation. Mad as a hatter comes from one of the characters Alice met in Wonderland and spending a penny (51%) dates to a time when one penny was the price of admission to a public toilet.

Others have interesting historical associations. A flash in the pan (51%) goes back to the use of flintlock muskets in the late 17th century. Gunpowder, in the pan of the musket, would be ignited by a spark and the explosion fired out the musket ball. Sometimes the powder would ignite without expelling the ball. It looked  impressive but with no result – a flash in the pan.

Nailing colours to the mast also dates back to the 17th century, this time to naval warfare. A ship’s colours, usually the national flag, would fly from the mast when the vessel went into battle and could be lowered as a sign of surrender. If a captain nailed the colours to the mast they could not be lowered, and he was declaring his intention to fight to the end.

Some origins are contentious. Knowing your onions (68%) is attributed by many to Mr S.G Onions, a teacher who, in the 1840s, produced a series of fake coins to help English schoolchildren get to know real currency. But World Wide Words, a website devoted to such matters, says this is a load of codswallop and the idiom was invented by the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar in 1922.

Nobody is certain about the origin of codswallop (56%) but all agree it is relatively recent. The Oxford English dictionary thinks the term might derive from London fish markets in the 1950s when a codswalloper meant “a woman who cannot keep her mouth shut’.  Later it became a euphemism for something more rude. As did ‘pardon my French’ (48%) which, in the 19th century, was used to poke fun at someone who used French words in affectation. Over the years, the phrase  came to be offered as an excuse for some uttered profanity.

My mother, who would be 100 this year had she lived, was a fund of unusual sayings. When confronted with, say, stale bread or overcooked meat, she would declare it to be “as hard as the knockers of Newgate”.

She had no idea where the phrase originated and neither had I, but Google says it relates to Newgate, the infamous London prison where, in the 18th and 19th century, debtors might be left to rot unless someone settled their account.

The officers who dragged  unfortunates off to this jail were known as Knockers, hard men in every way.

That phrase has long since become extinct and if we don’t keep using the others it could all go pear-shaped (51%).

Maybe I’m making a storm in a teacup (55%) or even flogging a dead horse (54%). But as us old folk say, a nod’s as good as a wink (65%) and stitch in time saves nine (65%). Know what I mean?

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