81. It’s just an expression.

English is a beautiful language. Not because it is rhythmic or melodic or filled with words that slip off your tongue like caresses. No. English is a beautiful language because it’s a bloody mess. It’s a quilt made up of random scraps. A potluck dinner of a language. One of those cocktails students make by mixing every drink they have together in a hollowed out watermelon. And then drink. Without gagging. Because they are students.

On a more positive note, they are into recycling.

On a more positive note, they are into recycling.

It’s not the English’s fault their language ended up this way. It’s just that everyone kept invading them and leaving words lying around. Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Jutes, Romans, Normans, they all popped round for a little firing and swording and left bits of their languages scattered across the landscape.

The English were clearly not averse to this, because when the world was finished invading them, they went off and invaded the world. And brought back words. Words from Africa, India, China, the Americas. Words from Australia.

Strewth! Look at that bogan!

Strewth! Look at that bogan!

Reading a passage in English is like being an archaeologist. Every word has a story behind it. Words in English are like relics, pointing to long forgotten pages in a history spanning thousands of years.

But I’m not writing about words today. That would take several volumes and a degree in linguistics. And I seem to have misplaced mine. I’m writing about phrases. Expressions. We all use them, all of the time. They are so much a part of our vocabulary that we never stop to think about them.

We should. All those expressions we use come from somewhere. Sometimes their origins are lost in the mists of time. And sometimes we make up origins because they just sound cool, like “posh” having started life as an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home”, because wealthy passengers headed for India would pay a premium to have a cabin on the side of the ship protected from the sun, or the F-bomb have started off as a criminal charge for having “Full Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”.

She's guilty! There's video evidence!

She’s guilty! There’s video evidence!

But most of the time, those origins can be tracked down. And they are quite fun to read about. They give us a glimpse into history. Not schoolyard history, filled with battles and discoveries and catastrophes, but a more intimate sort of history; a glimpse into the sorts of things everyone would have been so familiar with that they could drop them into conversation without fear of being misunderstood.

And some of them got dropped into conversation so often that we’ve carried on saying them, without fear of being misunderstood, long after we forgot what they meant.

Ever been so cross with someone you wanted to blow them away? We all know what it means. It means shoot someone. But it doesn’t make any sense. Blowing is a gentle thing to do. Shooting isn’t. It did make sense to people who lived in New Orleans, however. They had jazz funerals, where the coffin was played through the streets by a band. A brass band. Dead people were blown away. Thecriminal element got hold of the phrase and started using it to describe a slightly early step in the whole funeral process.

It would be both terrible and beautiful if one of these guys got blown away while blowing this guy away.

It would be both terrible and beautiful if one of these guys got blown away while blowing this guy away.

Ever felt like you were on cloud nine? I hope it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Cloud nine was a real cloud. Or rather it was a type of cloud. The American Weather Bureau used to classify clouds according to numbered types. Cloud nine was a cumulo-nimbus cloud. Type nine. The highest. And a flash in the pan happened when you pulled the trigger on your musket and saw the powder in the priming pan flash, but the gun didn’t fire.

We seem to have taken a lot of our expressions from fighting. It would be a very bad thing if you put your arse on the line and didn’t come up to scratch. So why would you be putting your arse on the line? Ever watched little boys trying to start a fight? One of them might draw a line in the sand. “If you cross that line”, he will say, “it’s on!”, because his parents let him watch too many movies. And if the other boy steps over the line, guess where his arse will be.

And as for coming up to scratch, boxing used to be a little more robust than it is today. The gloveless boxers would fight until one was knocked down. Then they would be given 30 seconds to recover, and another 8 seconds to make their way to a line that had been scratched on the floor of the ring. And if they didn’t come up to the scratch, the fight was over.

Whether he comes up to scratch or not, I wouldn't advise laughing at his pants.

Whether he comes up to scratch or not, I wouldn’t advise laughing at his pants.

Speaking of fighting, has anyone ever threatened to lick you into shape if you don’t put a sock in it? Back in the day, people had some odd notions about wildlife. They thought that bears gave birth to amorphous little blobs, which were then literally licked into the shape of a bear by their mothers. And the first gramophones didn’t come with a volume control. They were either on or off. So if you wanted to turn one down, you put a sock in it.

It’s better just to avoid trouble. If you don’t keep your nose clean, you’re either going to have to face the music or cut and run. Ever sipped on a nice, frothy beer and found your nose covered in foam? Alcohol causes all sorts of problems, and is best avoided. Run into too many problems in the military, and you could be drummed out. You would appear before a full parade, complete with band, and would have to stand facing them as they read out the charges, stripped your uniform of its insignia, and broke your sword. Which seems like a bit of a waste. And cutting and running? Sailing ships in precarious situations would lie at anchor with their sails furled in such a way that they could drop them into place quickly by cutting a few well-placed ropes.

Even getting fired was done with more style back in those days.

Even getting fired was done with more style back in those days.

There’s tons of this stuff out there, and finding it is one of life’s joys. But my favourites are the ones that you just don’t hear any more. The ones that are dying out because they’re too obscure. Or just plain nasty.

Ever had a fine country gentleman tell you he was pissing on ice? Before fridges were invented, ice used to be a pretty expensive commodity. The finest hotels in the States used to put ice in the urinals, ostensibly to cut down on the smell, but really to show the patrons that no expense had been spared when it came to their comfort. So if you were living the high life, you were pissing on ice.



Musicians these days can earn staggering amounts of money. Just ask the nearest gangster rapper; he’s just dying to tell you about it. But it wasn’t always like that. Back in the day, musicians playing at weddings and other parties sometimes didn’t get paid at all. They were, however, allowed to eat and drink as much as they wanted to. Which led, I would imagine, to a significant drop-off in the quality of the music by the end of the night.

But the musician’s excesses would be hampered by the fact that he was a little busy with that whole music thing. The woman accompanying him, however, would have had no such limitations. Which gave rise to the charming old saying “as drunk as a fiddler’s bitch”. It’s ugly and it’s brash and it’s misogynistic, but say it out loud and tell me it doesn’t just sound right. You’ll fight the urge, I’m sure, but I defy you not to want to use it to describe your dodgy uncle after he lets the side down at Cousin Nadine’s reception this weekend.

Quiet, kids. Uncle Jimmy is just having a bit of a lie-down.

Quiet, kids. Uncle Jimmy is just having a bit of a lie-down.

Well’ that’s me for today. The sun is well over the yardarm, so I think it’s time for me to splice the mainbrace. I’ll try not to go the whole nine yards, though, or Mrs 23thorns will read me the riot act, and I’ll have to show her a clean pair of heels.


59 thoughts on “81. It’s just an expression.

  1. From someone who studied linguistics (although never completed her degree) This is a brilliant post! I love “rule of thumb” and of ourse, the linguistical origins of the word “boy”. Great post!

  2. Great post – I had no idea about the origins of some of those phrases! 😀

  3. Great post. Really enjoyed this

  4. narf77 says:

    You appear to be dabbling in Mrs 23Thorns territory here Mr 23Thorns. History for the masses…English 101. Gotta say, that bogan looks a bit more Irish than the average Aussie bloke…too much hair for a start. He would be teased mercilessly and the very first time he fell asleep mid binge, he would lose half of it to a “shearing accident”. Fair suck of the sav 23, we Aussies are the kings of the Ocker vernacular. My dad was king of the quote and his Ockerisms were stuff that legends were made of. Stone the crows, stiffen the bandicoots, a lot of animal abuse appears to have been at the centre of our Aussie past. The sav comment is the strangest though…a “Sav” is a thick frankfurter style sausage that is spicy from a liberal smattering of black pepper and that is boiled or steamed and eaten like a hotdog without the bun. “Sav’s” (or saveloys as they are properly known) must harken back to some primal culture but the saying apparently means to give someone a turn. Why on EARTH we Australians would be sharing large boiled peppery frankfurts with each other, let along sucking them before we share is the stuff that strange peccadillos are made of! It all bodes badly for our desire to integrate ourselves with the rest of the world. I figure we should just stand off to the side with our tinnies and not bother with the integration process and be done with it. If anyone wants to suck sav’s please feel free. As a vegan I am safe from the obvious contaminants that will be part of this ancient Aussie process…”Knock yourselves out!”

    • LyndaD says:


    • 23thorns says:

      We have the “boerie” here. Short for boerwors. It sounds like it occupies a similar niche in our culture. Except that we cook them with fire, like proper men! I’m trying to imagine a bunch of Aussie blokes getting together for a bite before the rugby comes on, all mullets and beers and wife-beater vests, standing around in the kitchen waiting for a pot to boil.

  5. whatd’tr mean ‘words from Australia’? Fair shake of the sauce bottle mate!! LOL – something our PM said whilst in his previous rein as PM (don’t ask)… but I like the origins of the saying ‘upper crust’, which is a very English saying: so back in the good old peasant days , if the said peasants had enough flour (& by George, they made sure they did) they would make bread for when the lord/knight/tax collector/whatever came calling and the best part of the bread was reserved for him (coz back then it was a ‘him’) and this was the upper crust…. 🙂

  6. Fantastic! There were a few I hadn’t heard before (I’m a lover of old sayings and colloquialism’s) so this has been a rare treat. Thank you so much. Inks have an expanded vocabulary to try out on some unfortunate souls. Lol. Susan 😊😧

  7. I love our language, since it’s such a patchwork quilt of words and phrases from everywhere. When you share idioms with other language speakers, they often have variations on the same theme. In several languages, you get “chicken skin” instead of “”goosebumps”.

    • 23thorns says:

      I’ve always liked the foreign sayings which are completely opaque unless they are explained, like the Turkish “it’s not festival time, it’s not a pleasure trip, so why did my brother-in-law kiss me”?

      • Haven’t heard it, but can kind of follow the logic(?!). I LOVE the images from your blog, you’ve really highlighted your own part of the world and what makes it unique. It’s always hardest to “see” what’s close at hand, so thanks for doing that!

  8. Great post, but what do you colonial johnnies know about speaking the language properly? (like what I does)

  9. LyndaD says:

    Try living with Aspergers. My son doesnt understand idioms. So when you say “read between the lines” he is actually looking between the lines. Its only when there are misunderstanding and confusion that you realise how often we use these expressions. Especially in Australia. Its a case of having to explain it, just once, and then they understand. Great Post and as usual, i learned a few things as well.

  10. Excellent, me old son!

    Sent from my iPhone

  11. Martina Wald says:

    You are “playing in the same league” as Bill Bryson and Dave Berry. Hope I can download a book of yours on my Kindle soon.

  12. billgncs says:

    I never thought English was such an awkward language until I heard the singer from “Pink Martini” singing in French — wow!

  13. leecleland says:

    Wonderfully entertaining, I don’t know how non English born people ever figure these phrases out unless it’s in post like yours.

  14. syrbal says:

    I love the interesting little potholes of meaning stuck into language! I have several books around the place somewhere laying out origins — both likely and simply so cool you hope it is true. So I greatly enjoyed this post! But come on…tell us about hoist upon one’s own petard!!

  15. sstamm625 says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks!

  16. albertine says:

    Is it just how I am today, or was this blog a tad pedestrian? Not up to your usual inspiration, 23, maybe because less personal? less zip? Or maybe it is me after all.

  17. ioniamartin says:

    Reblogged this on readful things blog and commented:
    One of the best posts ever

  18. Jennwith2ns says:

    Love this post.

    The origins of the f-bomb are much older: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=fuck&searchmode=none
    I like to say I’m speaking Anglo-Saxon on the (ahem) rare occasions that I use it.

    I think it’s safe to say that acronym was made up later.

  19. Judy says:

    Sob, Sob!! You have just shot to hell my favourite!! Port Out, Starboard Home!! But, tomorrow is another day and I’ll get over it!!

  20. Please tell me you get paid for this. Taking a break to read your post is often the highlight of a work day. Cheers!

  21. Ashana M says:

    One of the best parts of library school was Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

  22. cate b says:

    A very interesting and enjoyable post. Take care and be sure to mind your p’s and q’s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_your_Ps_and_Qs) 😀

  23. Jocelyn Hers says:

    OK… shall we burn the midnight oil, cut the mustard and be two Jack Braggs before we call it a day and hit the hay?

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