PC 270 Phrases

I feel comfortable in the Hope Café so I am back in my usual spot. Naturally I nod my head in acknowledgment to those who are similarly habitual; the grey haired chap in the corner, always with a hardback book, a couple of twenty somethings for whom this is their office and of course to whoever is behind the counter. I have brought something sweet from the new Brazilian cake shop next door and look forward to sampling it with a double espresso.

Great horned owl mama with two owlets

Getting up in the morning, with or without a dog to walk or exercise class to go to, is not an issue for me! Being a Lark and not an owl I identify with the phrase ‘The early bird catches the worm’ and truly believe that ‘early to rise makes one healthy, wealthy and wise’, although the last two adjectives are for me simply aspirational!

On India’s Independence Day and my nephew’s birthday this year, twenty-sixth of January in case you were wondering, The Times covered news that here in Britain a great many sayings that would have been familiar to our grandparents are no longer understood, never used, or considered completely inappropriate in the C21st. You may remember the pamphlet series ‘Bluffer’s Guide to …..’ where you could learn key facts about Etiquette, Cycling, Entertaining, Wine, Golf, Tennis, Football or Opera for example. Careful study of these light-hearted guides would help those who need help, those who need a leg up, those who need to make friends, those who need to influence, by sounding like you know everything there is about the particularly subject. Truly bluffing your way through life.

The use of Latin phrases dropped liberally in one’s conversation or writing, is a sine qua non for some poor people, poor as in sad and not financially poor, anxious to show their educational or intellectual prowess. The affectation is dying out but maybe still found in the dusty corners of our Civil Service, or indeed from the mouth of our current Prime Minister. I readily admit to using inter alia and maybe ad hoc, and recognise but rarely use carpe diem (seize the day), ad infinitium (on and on) or ‘cognito, ergo sum’!! (I think therefore I am).

Long gone are the days when cables sent back to HM Government contained Latin words. You may know the lovely one from General James Napier, fighting Queen Victoria’s wars in India in 1842? Ordered to subdue a particular part of the large independent state of Sind, to the North West of British India, Napier, flushed with success at the Battle of Miani, ignored his brief and occupied the rest of Sind State, much to the anger of his boss Lord Ellenborough. Napier’s dispatch to London contained one Latin word, ‘Peccavi’ (note 1)

The Times’ article listed a number of sayings which are in danger of dying out, although 73% of the survey sample, 2000 people aged 18-50, believed it was a shame if they did! In Britain it’s inevitable that the weather features in our sayings, but I don’t recall ever using ‘cold as a witch’s tit’. While not listed in Nigel Rees’ ‘Phrases & Sayings’, it refers to the imagined icy blood and wrinkly skin of a witch – why were witches female I wonder? Personally I use ‘cold as a brass monkey’ or in full ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’. 

But hey, Je ne sais quoi! I certainly use ‘under the weather’ to describe being slightly ill, and when it’s ‘raining cats and dogs’ I am aware that the saying originates from a time when towns and cities had poor drainage and, after torrential rain, it wasn’t unusual to see drowned cats and dogs. Of the 10 most endangered sayings, I probably only use one, then only when the moon’s blue – ‘a stitch in time saves nine’, particularly dealing with our landlord’s lack of urgency in getting things done. And in the same vein use ‘measure twice, cut once’ a great deal and always try to ‘hit the nail on the head’!!  Others on the list of sayings dying out are ‘pearls before swine’ (don’t waste time trying to persuade someone who’s thick to do something), ‘nail your colours to the mast’ (dropping out because you can’t nail the White Ensign to a metal mast!), ‘I’ve dropped a clanger’, ‘ready for the knackers yard’(the destination of horses not cars – never quite translated across!), ‘a fly in the ointment’ and ‘know your onions’.

Food often works its way into our sayings: ‘don’t cry over spilt milk’, ‘the best thing since sliced bread’, ‘like two peas in a pod’, ‘can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs’ and ‘it’s a piece of cake’. Others I sense I use quite often are ‘killing two birds with one stone’, ‘better late than never’, ‘bite the bullet’, ‘it’s not rocket science’, ‘no pain no gain’ and ‘time flies when you’re having fun!’

One of my favourite T Shirts

Countries have their own collection of sayings, like the famous ‘No Worries’ originating in Australia. In Brazilian Portuguese you hear people shout ‘va tomar banho’ (give me a break!) and then there’s ‘em boca fechada não entra mosca’ (better to keep your mouth shut and don’t offer an opinion – but literally keep your mouth shut to prevent the flies getting in) or ‘meter o bedelho’ (getting involved in someone else’s business)!!

It’s possible that these scribbles about sayings prompt ‘a penny for your (own) thoughts’? Maybe you can picture something as a ‘picture paints a thousand words’; but it was the group Bread in 1971 who questioned ‘then why can’t I paint you?’

I am pleased to see that, after my last postcard entitled ‘Hope’, the owners of The Hope Café have stencilled the proverb “Hope well and have well” above the counter. Good choice for an enterprise focused on giving sustenance to people.

In closing these scribbles I hope you remain ‘as fit as a fiddle’ in its C21st meaning and not its C17th one, when it meant fit for purpose or well suited.

Richard 18th February 2022


Note 1 Translated to mean: ‘I have sinned’!

5 thoughts on “PC 270 Phrases

  1. Most of the people who read my own blog are from overseas, and I’ve become increasingly aware that some of the sayings and idiomatic expressions that I use are not readily understood in, say, Sydney or Cincinnati. Reading your fascinating post it’s sad, though not perhaps surprising, to learn that many younger Brits are also likely to be baffled by some of my pearls of wisdom.

    Incidentally, do you know if the Pecavvi story is true? I first came across it studying A-Level history, but many years later read something suggesting it may be more apocryphal than reliable. It definitely ought to be true…I love a good pun, and puns in Latin are something else!


    1. It’s such a clever pun I ‘wanted’ James Napier to have written it but, according to Saul David in his Victoria’s War (page 78), it was the invention of a 17 year old schoolgirl Catherine Winkworth!
      If you have never read David’s book (?) for a non-historian it’s a lovely concise story of how the British Empire came into being.
      Lovely sunny day down here in Hove after yesterday’s battering by Eunice!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that rings a bell (oh dear, another idiomatic saying!), I now seem to recall being surprised hearing a suggestion that the pun was the creation of a veritable youngster (oh dear, doesn’t that sound age-ist?). I don’t know Saul David’s book, but I’ll look out for it.

        Glad to hear things are looking up for you after Eunice. Here in Derbyshire the wind’s dropped but the heavens have opened, heavy rain mixed in with some sleet. Brrr!


  2. Such a shame that they be of the unique characteristics of the English language will be lost!
    What is your favourite proverb/Latin phrase??


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