Famous sayings that come from Britain

Adam   Wednesday, October 13, 2004, 20:14 GMT
THE CLINK The name of a prison which was on Clink Street in the Southwark area of London.
Claudie wrote: I always thought that the doors of the cells went "clink" when they shut behind the prisoner. Maybe a more accurate name would be the "clang".

BLACK MARKET In medieval England there were nomadic mercenaries who wandered the country side and would sell their services to the highest bidder. These were hardened fighters who lived solitary lives in the wilderness. They did not have the luxury of servants to polish their armor and it would oxidize to a blackish hue, and they came to be known as black knights. At local town festivals they would have exhibition jousting matches in which the winner of the fight would win the loser's weapons and armor. The local gentry, softened by the good life, would lose to these black knights. The nomadic knights didn't have much use for an extra set of armor and would sell it back to them immediately after the fight. The losing nobility would be forced to buy back their armor and this after market came to be known as the "Black Market"

SON OF A GUN After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have boys, who were called sons between the guns.

PATENT LEATHER After the Patten shoe which the young women wore in the buttery. When the cream spilled on their shoes, the fat would tend to make the leather shiny.

DONE TO A TURN Meat was roasted until cooked on an upright spit which had to be turned by hand.

BEAT AROUND THE BUSH Game birds were scared out of their hiding places under bushes and then killed.

CUT THROUGH THE RED TAPE Solicitors kept their clients papers in a file folder tied with red ribbon to prevent the papers from falling out. Of course, when they wanted to get at the papers, they would have to cut through the red tape.

MINDING YOUR Ps & Qs Ale was served at local taverns out of a "tankard" ... you were charged by the angle of your elbow ... half-way up... you drank a pint, all the way up... you drank a quart. Since the Quart cost so much more than the Pint, you were warned to "Mind your Ps & Qs"
Comment from Bill Kling: "Minding one's p's and q's" is a typesetter's admonition. When you handle individual character type slugs, you need to be careful of how you store and retrieve the p's and q's, because they look so much alike.
Adam   Wednesday, October 13, 2004, 20:22 GMT
GETTING TANKED When you drank too much out of the above "tankard" you were said to be "tanked" ... if you got so "tanked" that you passed out, there was a chance that somebody might think you had actually died. Since back then they didn't have experience with taking pulses, they often buried people alive who were actually in a drunken stupor or otherwise comatose.

PITCHER A leather jug treated with tar pitch to help it hold its shape.

GETTING BOMBED A bombard is a leather jug which holds 8 pints or 4 quarts. A full bombard of ale would make you drunk.

WET YOUR WHISTLE Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used to blow the whistle to get some service.

TUMBLER & TIPSY Glasses were hand blown, thus flat bottomed glasses were difficult to produce. Those with curved bottoms would tend to tumble over when placed on the table, and too many tumblers of whiskey would make you a little bit tipsy.

SAVED BY THE BELL When our ancestors realized that they were burying a great deal of people before their time had actually come, they came up with a solution. They tied a string onto the "dead" person's hand, buried them, and tied the other end of the string to a bell and then tied it to nearby tree branch. If the person revived enough to ring the bell, their survivors would rush out and dig them up. Hence... "saved by the bell"

THRESHOLD The raised door entrance held back the straw (called thresh) on the floor.

CHEW THE FAT A host would offer his guests a piece of bacon, which was stored above the fireplace in the parlor, so they could chew the fat during their visit.

GETTING THE SHORT END OF THE STICK Candles were expensive to make, so often reeds were dipped in tallow and burned instead. When visitors came, it was the custom for guests to make their exit by the time the lights went out. Therefore, if your host didn't want you to stay very long, he would give you a "short stick."

GIVING SOMEONE THE COLD SHOULDER When a guests would over stay their welcome as house guests, the hosts would (instead of feeding them good, warm meals) give their too-long staying guests the worst part of the animal, not warmed, but the COLD SHOULDER.

GETTING A SQUARE MEAL Your dinner plate was a square piece of wood with a "bowl" carved out to hold your serving of the perpetual stew that was always cooking over the fire. The kettle was never actually emptied and cleaned out. New ingredients were simply added to the muck. You always took your "square" with you when you went traveling.
From BBC program about antiques: The British war ships of the time of Nelson and Trafalga had square plates to fit the tables slung between the cannons below decks. So many sailors were from such poor and under nourished backgrounds they saw this as a "Square Meal" - meaning the only good one they had had.

FROG IN YOUR THROAT Medieval physicians believed that the secretions of a frog could cure a cough if they were coated on the throat of the patient. The frog was placed in the mouth of the sufferer and remained there until the physician decided that the treatment was complete.

UPPER CRUST Visitors to the Anne Hathaway's cottage (near Stratford upon Avon) are given this explanation while looking at the bread oven beside the fireplace in the kitchen: "The bread was put, as a raw lump of dough, straight into the bread oven. No bread tin, it just sits on the floor of the oven. The oven is heated by the fire and is very hot at the bottom. When the bed is done baking and taken out to cool, the base of the loaf is overcooked black and also dirty. The top of the loaf is done just right, and still clean. The bottom of the loaf is for the servants to eat, while the upper crust is for the master of the house.

EATING HUMBLE PIE Servants at "umble pie" which was made from deer waste while their Master and his guests had the better cuts of meat.

TURN THE TABLES Tables only had one finished side. The other side, less expensive to make, was more rough. When the family was alone, they ate on the rough side to keep the good side nice for company. When company came, the whole top lifted off and was turned to its good side.

CLEAN YOUR PLATE BEFORE YOU HAVE DESSERT The square plate (above) was never washed either. After your daily dose of stew, you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread. Then you flipped it over which provided a flat surface for your dessert portion (if there was any, that is)

ROOM & BOARD An apprentice would journey to another village to learn more about his craft (journeyman). There he would pay someone for his room, and food for his board.
Adam   Wednesday, October 13, 2004, 20:25 GMT
RULE OF THUMB An old English law declared that a man could not beat his wife with a stick any larger than the diameter of his thumb.

STONE COLD Slate floors were often cold enough during the winter months that any bare skin coming in contact with them would "stick". The slate floors were covered with a layer of hay to provide some warmth. The kitchen was the only room kept heated during the winter. All of the family spent the day cooped up in this one room (often 10 kids or more)... also the family cats and dogs who served important functions of "mousing," "garbage disposal," and etc.

SPRING CLEANING The layer of hay in the kitchen, was finally hauled out of the house when the weather turned warm in the Spring.

BON(e)FIRE The discarded "bones" from winter meals were piled outside and a bonefire would be set to get rid of them.

SLEEP TIGHT The bed frames were strung with ropes on which straw mattresses were placed. After some time the ropes would loosen and one of the young men would pull them tight.

GET OUT OF BED ON THE WRONG SIDE An old superstition said that it was bad luck to put the left foot down when getting out of bed.

TIE THE KNOT Tying the knot of the ropes in the marriage bed.

HONEYMOON It was the accepted practice in Babylonia 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the "honey month" or what we know today as the "honeymoon".

REASON FOR CANOPY BEDS Most English homes of old had "thatched" roofs. Canopies were placed over the beds to keep bugs, mice, dirt, rain, etc. from disturbing your sleep! Of course, I think I would want to stay awake because I'd be so afraid of having to be "saved by the bell"!

Damian   Wednesday, October 13, 2004, 20:32 GMT
Adam...a fund of information. Ok then, why did it rain cats and dogs today? Why do I feel sick as a parrot? Why do I win a tenner on the lottery every once in a blue moon? Why is Bob my uncle?

Have you actually been to the Clink? We passed it one day walking along the Southwark embankment along the Thames.
Adam   Wednesday, October 13, 2004, 20:35 GMT
How do I know? I just came upon this information accidentally and decided to post it here.
Adam   Wednesday, October 13, 2004, 20:36 GMT
It seems that cats were at one time thought to have influence over storms, especially by sailors, and that dogs were symbols of storms, often accompanying images and descriptions of the Norse storm god Odin. So when some particularly violent tempest appeared, people suggested it was caused by cats (bringing the rain) and dogs (the wind).

Adam   Wednesday, October 13, 2004, 20:40 GMT
Bob's your uncle
The origin of the expression Bob's your uncle remains something of a puzzle. All the best authorities say: 'origin unknown'. There is a story associated with the expression, but the story doesn't fit. As I explain in my book Kel Richards' WordWatch the story concerns one Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930). Balfour was a British politician, who became, first, Chief Secretary of Ireland, and then (in 1902) Prime Minister. But why did he achieve such advancement? Because, they said, his uncle was Robert, Lord Salisbury, a powerful Tory statesman. It's good story, but it won't explain Bob's your uncle because of the timing. Those events happened at the beginning of the 20th century and Bob's your uncle did not come into circulation until the 1930s, so that story cannot be the source of that phrase. Hence, the conclusion by all the books: 'origin unknown'. However, I have another suggestion. A listener pointed out to me recently that she knew the expression, in childhood, as Bob's your uncle and Fanny's your aunt. If this is the original form of the phrase, it may explain it - in the sense that its original meaning was "complete, the whole lot". If Bob's your uncle and Fanny's your aunt you've got a full set of relatives: complete. And when a job is finished and complete (or when we're promising to finish and complete a task) we say: Bob's your uncle. Well, it's a possibility.

Kel Richards 2002

Adam   Wednesday, October 13, 2004, 20:49 GMT

Kenyon wrote that he was told that the term "Black Mail" came from the armor used in Medieval times. The armor which was worn was called maol and it became black (as described in black market). When the two knights were dueling and one attained the upperhand, he would give the other an alternative of life or death as the sword was pointed at his face. This was known as black mailing someone.

British Bobbies

P.J. says: The police force in London was established by Sir Robert Peel. For a time policemen were called 'Peelers' or 'Bobbies men'....hence Bobbies.

Cloud nine

Another comment: Cloud nine is an easy one. It is of relatively recent origin. The US weather bureau listed the different cloud formations and assigned them numbers. Cumulous clouds are #9.

The devil to pay; between the devil and the deep blue sea

Kevin wrote: In the large wooden sailing ships of yore, large beams running down both sides of a ship, supporting the thwarts on which the main deck was laid, were called "the Devil(s)." "Paying" is the task of caulking and pitching seams. Since the devil was outside the guardrails, it was dangerous work because it was unlikely that one would be rescued if one fell overboard (too long to turn the ship around and they were mostly pressed men, anyway!). The task of "Paying the Devil" was assigned to Men Under Punishment; hence, the expression, "I've got the Devil to Pay." If one were really in trouble, one was assigned the task of paying the seam between the devil and the ship's side. This was particularly difficult since one was slung in a bos'n's chair, caulking with oakum (rotten lengths of fibre rope) which rained hemp fibre into one's eyes, then pitching against gravity with hot pitch which splattered all over one's body, burning exposed skin--all the while having to contend with the rolling of the ship. If you were given this task, during its execution you were, "Between the devil and the deep blue sea" - stuck between two most unpleasant options.

Fair and square

Mark the Master Mason wrote: The square is the symbol of the Master (the presiding officer) of a Masonic lodge, and one of the two masonic working tools used in the square and compass logo that most people immediately recognize as the symbol of Freemasonry worldwide.

Getting Nailed

A few centuries ago in Britain, 'justice' was meted out mostly by hanging or flogging. However there were some crimes for which you could be 'nailed' for. For these crimes you would be taken to the hangman's gibbet and nailed through the earlobe(s) until night. You had two options: you could either stand all day, nailed to the scaffold or else tear your ear from the nail (yuk!). Women could also be nailed through the tongue for spreading malicious gossip.


British sailors got in the habit of referring to a particular prostitute as a "hooker", indicating that although she had been around a while, she was still serviceable. There is NO truth to the rumor that the term came from the American Civil war. General Hooker's Hookers (camp followers) were called such because of the convenient similarity of the names, they did not get the name from him.

Keep your shirt on!

Kevin wrote: In the Royal Navy, "kit" is equipment, including uniforms, that is provided by the service. I believe that "kaboodle" was a slang phrase for personal items kept by the sailor (necessarily small in size and quantity because of little or no storage space/privacy). If one was transferred out, one was required to take all "kit and kaboodle."
Easterner   Friday, October 15, 2004, 12:10 GMT
I like those with place-names:
"Carry coal to Newcastle" - to take something to where it is in excess, (like taking food when one is invited for a dinner). We have a similar one in Hungary: "Don't carry water to the Danube!"
"Send somebody to Coventry" - ignore them completely (I saw the explanation of this in an earlier topic) - my favourite!!!
Do you know any more English, Scots, Irish, American, etc. sayings featuring place-names (apart from "It's a long way to Tipperary":-) )?
Damian   Friday, October 15, 2004, 21:30 GMT

There are loads of nicknames for police officers, some are regional. As you say, London saw the world's first organised police force in 1829 and they were called Peelers, and then Bobbies. Still called that today. Before that there were the Bow Street Runners, and the very first police station actually was in Bow Street, which remained a police station in the Metropolitan Police, before moving to a new location just off the Strand a few years ago. American tourists love British bobbies (maybe because they go about their duty unarmed!). In Scots they are called simply Polis. In Liverpool they are rozzers or scuffers and a police station is called a bridewell. Everywhere else they are called cop shops or, more officially, the nick.

Coppers (sometimes just cops); plods (a police officer can be called Mr Plod, because of the way he sort of plods along the street); flatfoots (maybe because of their big boots?); woodentops (because of their helmets!); the Fuzz; the Bill (especially in London [Metropolitan Police]; the TV serial about a cop shop in East London is called The Bill...it's cool). If you're on the wrong side of the law (in Liverpool called a "scally" - from scallywag) then you may call the Police names like Pigs or the Filth.

Yes, Easterner..we have covered "being sent to Coventry", and now "taking coals to Newcastle". All I can think of apart from those is "shipshape and Bristol fashion".....meaning in top condition, in good nick, in a perfect state. What it's got to do with Bristol I have no idea as I've never been there, but my dictionary says it is a nautical term and Bristol was once an important seaport; now it is a high tech city.