Saturday, April 23, 2016

What Did you Say?

RHYS BOWEN:  The other day I told my granddaughter I'd be finished in two shakes of a lamb's tail.
"What did you say?" she asked, looking as if I'd suddenly switched to speaking Chinese.
"Two shakes of a lamb's tail. That means almost immediately," I replied. "Haven't you ever heard that expression?"
"Never," she said.
And then it hit me. We don't use expressions any longer. The world of the young has become devoid of colorful language, of metaphors, of proverbs.
Two shakes of a lamb's tail was something my grandmother used to say. She and my great aunts had a wealth of such colorful language.
N'ere cast a clout until May is out--which I thought meant you weren't allowed to hit anybody until the end of May but really referred to casting off winter clothing.
Too many cooks spoil the broth and all the similar proverbs, of course.
Once a wish, twice a kiss, three times something better when you sneezed.
Many a slip twixt cup and lip. Pride comes before a fall. All of the above directed at me when I was trying something daring, dangerous or new.

My father also had his share of colorful language.
His favorite to me was "don't count your chickens before they are hatched." or usually abbreviated to "Don't count chickens" when I was excited about planning some future scheme.
Another favorite was "donkey's years."  As in "That place has been going for donkey's years."
And then he threw in some Cockney expressions picked up from his childhood. (Although he wasn't a Cockney he grew up in London, hearing all this colorful language).  "Time to go up the apples and pears." meaning stairs.
Another way of telling a child to go to bed in England during my childhood was "Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire."

And an absolute favorite from rural Britain was that something would be completed "come dungspread."
Having just written this I think I must put Georgie on a farm in a future novel so I can use such expressions.

Do you think these colorful expressions have completely disappeared these days? Do you still use any of them? Which ones do you remember from your childhood? And is the English language permanently reduced to CU LOL and BFF?  I really hope not.


  1. I’d hate to think these expressions were gone . . . but they’re alive and well around here!

    I remember “Little Goody Two-Shoes” from when I was a child, but I never liked that expression because it always seemed to be used in a negative way.

    We don’t use “no-brainer” much, but we’re rather fond of “It’s not rocket science . . .
    A few of my favorites that I remember from my growing-up days that immediately come to mind:

    Caught between a rock and a hard place.
    Every cloud has a silver lining.
    It’s not my cup of tea.
    On cloud nine.
    The plot thickens.

  2. I used to say "it's not brain surgery" -- but that was before I knew about Ben Carson....

  3. I love these phrases. I'm fond of saying "all's well that ends well." And I still say "two shakes of a lamb's tail."

    The problem with some of these is that I'm also fond of the jokes that end up with twisted versions of these sayings as their punch lines: "Don't put all your Basques in one exit," "Leave no tern unstoned," and "There's nothing like chrome for the Hollandaise." And then I get confused about the real phrase!

    Hey, FChurch, if you pop in today - you won the copy of DELIVERING THE TRUTH but I don't know how to contact you. Please email your snail mail address to edithmaxwellauthor at gmail dot com!

  4. I too love these phrases and hope they're not disappearing from our culture.

    I have a couple of faves and use, probably over-use, them.

    One is "finer than frog's hair" when asked how I'm feeling.

    Words and language are lovely and so much fun - LOADS more fun than those short little abbreviations that kids are using. It annoys me, but it also makes me sad, when I see things like "ur" instead of "you are."

  5. I use many of these, but I don't think they are getting passed down for some reason.

  6. So funny you posted about this Rhys, just the other day I was saying to my daughter something about how adorable "his Nibs" (my grandbaby) looked all decked out in his new onesie... and she said: His nibs? I had to 'splain.

    I use Two shakes of a lamb's tail all the time, and I'm sticking with it.

    Gadzooks! Great Caesar's Ghost! Hubba hubba... love those old expressions. They're the cat's pajamas. Best thing since sliced bread.

  7. We watched a trio of Shakespeare plays recently, Richard II, and Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. As always, I was amazed at the phrases in his work that are commonplace in our language today.

    Pin your courage to the sticking place
    The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers
    Who woo'd in haste and means to wed at leisure. (Marry in haste, regret in leisure)
    Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep (Still waters run deep)
    Now is the winter of our discontent
    How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child
    I am one who loved not wisely but too well
    Beware the Ides of March
    Get thee to a nunnery
    All that glitters is not gold
    But, for my own part, it was Greek to me.

    And I could go on and on and on (Oh wait, that's the Bible, not Shakespeare Hebrews 11:38)

    But this is best of all I think.

    "This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
    This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
    This other Eden, demi-paradise,
    This fortress built by Nature for herself
    Against infection and the hand of war,
    This happy breed of men, this little world,
    This precious stone set in the silver sea,
    Which serves it in the office of a wall
    Or as a moat defensive to a house,
    Against the envy of less happier lands,
    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England"

  8. Somewhere, when I was young, I picked up the expression "all around Robin Hood's barn" for doing things the complicated way. It might have come from my grandfather. One I still use is three dog night, or in our case, three cat night, for the winter nights it gets so cold that all three of them want to be under the covers with us.


  9. Hallie, you have a new grandbaby? How did I miss this news?!! Congratulations.

  10. "Two shakes of a lambie-kins tail," is how my grandmother said it. Nanna (the same grandmother born in 1888 who lived to be 108) had an entire repertoire of these sayings, which I am going to start writing down before they are extinct and no one knows what I'm talking about in my own old age. "She hangs a nice wash" was a fine compliment to any woman, while "being in his cups" meant he drank more than he should. When I told Nanna I was going to nursing school, she was thrilled. You can always "fall back on it, dear." I had no idea what she meant until the scoundrel I married left me with two little kids! But the best came from my father-in-law. "Like a fart in a gale" leaves nothing to the imagination.

  11. Oh Kaye, I use "Fine as frog's hair" all the time, and I have never before run into anyone else who seemed to have heard it!

    Others I remember from my childhood:
    Well that's a fine kettle of fish!

    There's something rotten in the state of Denmark.

    The Lord takes care of fools and drunks. (Used when someone has just gotten away with a really stupid mistake, unharmed.)

    Also, one I didn't grow up with, because there wasn't a hint of British in my upbringing, but I dearly love the sound of, is: "Bob's your uncle!"

    I really hope all these colorful expressions aren't dying out of our language. I feel like we would be a lot poorer and a lot less interesting without them.

  12. My grandmother used to say "Between you and me and the lamp post" when she was offering an opinion or a secret. Has anyone else every heard that?

  13. This post/conversation is marvelous!

  14. So many of these sayings, and others we have used all our lives colloquially, came from Shakespeare. My youngest daughter was a Shakespeare nut when she was in high school, and I bought her a poster with hundreds of such phrases, all from the Bard. It's fascinating, how many of his richly formed aphorisms have survived all these centuries.

    And how fitting, since today is the 400th anniversary of his death. Which today's Google Doodle honors.

    I'm all for more rich language then less. It's fine for Elmore Leonard to write sparely, but I prefer a more colorful and more highly textured read, myself.

  15. Triss, I've heard between you and me and the lamp post!

    If a woman had a sexy walk, Miss Edna would say, "She has quite the hitch in her getalong."

  16. I said "Boo Hiss" on FB once an I got, "What does that mean?" I sure hope we're not lost to ttyl and ty and brb.

  17. One of my favorite expressions is, "I'm so angry I could spit nickels," and I still use it. "Lucky duck" is another.

  18. The cat's meow.
    Look at what the cat dragged in.
    A tall drink of water.
    Speak of the devil.

    Deb Romano

  19. OH Sysan, still chuckling about Ben Cardon and Miss Edna. My grandfather once described a woman as "All mouth and trousers!" Great image.
    Margaret Maron told me that when you want to insult a woman in the South you say "bless her little heart"
    And if course Bob's your uncle is one that my character Queenie uses all the time.
    But we're all a certain age, aren't we. Do the younger generations use any of these? I must ask my schoolteacher children.

  20. We used to say between you , me and the gatepost. Interesting how there are variations.

  21. Rhys,

    What is the difference between a farm and the land where rannoch castle is? I wonder if Lady Georgie will find more similarities ? How about her cockney grandfather going to a friend's farm and inviting Georgie?

    Re: sayings, I learn about phrases from reading this blog and many novels.

    I often say "there is that". My grandmother said "bee's knees" in the 1920s.


  22. Marvelous!
    I do hope our language is not getting diluted to a murky glass of water state.
    I would be overjoyed to see the end of LOL. It seems to have replaced "like" as the all purpose comment. (You know, like, she said...)
    Rich language reflects rich thinking.

  23. I inherited a whole bunch of wonderful expressions from my grandmother who was born in 1909: "He doesn't have the brains God gave geese" "In good season", which meant arriving or leaving on time, "All joints on the table will be carved" (keep your elbows off the table while dining) and two that sound like variations of ones already mentioned here: "I haven't seen her in dog's years" and "round Robin's barn."

    Ross and I often come up against phrases our kids aren't familiar with, which, considering they're all three voracious readers, tells me Rhys is right and a lot of colorful expressions are falling out of living use.

  24. Oh, Rhys, I love to hear "two shakes of a lamb's tail." It's a standard of mine, although with my kids and now grandkids, I started adding, "but first I have to find a lamb." They always giggled at that. Oh, and Hallie, I so love "the cat's pajamas," and I even have a graphic for it I use on FB.

    I think it's a real loss in our culture that colorful expressions aren't regularly used anymore. It was the way our parents communicated with us, and it was quite effective. Julia, I can still hear my mother say, "he doesn't have the sense God gave a goose." A little different from what you know, but the same sentiment.

    Kathy Lynn, the variation of Robin Hood's barn I grew up with just shortened it a bit. Round Robin Hood's barn. Triss, "between you and me and the lamppost" is very familiar to me, too. Leslie, the angry and spit expression I know is "I'm so angry I could spit nails." Joan, "caught between a rock and a hard place" is a common saying for me, too.

    Another idiom I grew up with was "to scare the living daylights out of someone," or on a more serious note, "to beat the living daylights out of someone." Apparently, it's also gained the use of "hug the living daylights out of someone." Some others include: by the skin of your teeth, once in a blue moon, feeling under the weather, take what someone says with a pinch of salt, hit the nail on the head, piece of cake, bite off more than you can chew, missed the boat, that ship's sailed, tickled pink, let the chips fall where they may, let the cat out of the bag, cost an arm and a leg, kill two birds with one stone, to cut corners, to add insult to injury, a bitter pill, a dime a dozen, a chip on your shoulder, a blessing in disguise, a fool and his money are easily parted, a drop in the bucket, a penny saved is a penny earned, a taste of your own medicine, add fuel to the fire, his bark is worse than his bite, an axe to grind, apple of my eye, at the drop of a hat, beating around the bush, barking up the wrong tree, curiosity killed the cat, come hell or high water, cock and bull story, flash in the pan, get down to brass tacks, everything but the kitchen sink, don't put all your eggs in one basket, don't count your chickens before they hatch, don't look a gift horse in the mouth, haste makes waste, going to hell in a handbasket, living high on the hog, hold your horses, keep your chin up, kick the bucket, make no bones about it, never bite the hand that feeds you, no dice, not playing with a full deck, let sleeping dogs lie, lend me your ear, like a chicken with its head cut off (which would usually lead in my family to the story about my aunt actually cutting the heads off the chickens), it takes two to tango, in like Flynn, on pins and needles, practice makes perfect, third times a charm, til the cows come home, raining cats and dogs, steal someone's thunder, water under the bridge, wear your heart on your sleeve, and so many more. I've used all these sayings my whole life and these are only the "tip of the iceberg."

  25. And a few more . . . .
    The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
    Least said soonest mended.
    I don't give a tinker's dam.
    He's a few bricks shy of a load.

  26. Kathy... What a marvelous list. I'm going to print out everyone's comments and give them to my grandchildren to memorize!

  27. Running in late! I tried to do this before I left, but that was pie in the sky. (What?)

    This is so terrific..of course, there are also the things that are so out of date that they;re meaningless: You sound like a broken record. (A what?)

    And just dial me up when you can. (Dial? On..what?)

    Once i had Charlotte McNally say something was "dandy" and my editor went crazy. NO ONE would say that, she insisted. Once I had her say "Oh, piffle."--she was being dismissive. Editor did not like it, but it stayed. :-)

    But even okey-doke makes one sound like a geezer.

  28. It sure does, Hank! (As one geezer to ...)

    Kathy, I say almost every one on that list. No idea why I couldn't come up with them at the start of my day. Thank you.

  29. Rhys, I think I'll do the same for my granddaughters. Edith, I was amazed at all of these and more that I say in the normal course of my speech.

  30. Are there any Southerners in this bunch?

    "Just ducky", "fine as frog's hair", "that dog don't hunt", "haven't got a dog in that fight", "so poor he can't pay attention", "dumber'n a box of rocks", "could argue the ears off a donkey", "take off like a herd of turtles"...those are the first ones off the top of my head. There are more, but most of the others I can think of come via my Gran, and are too colorful for polite company!

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  32. I hope these colorful language, metaphors or proverbs will be saved somewhere, so that even when modern people don't use them no longer, they won't disappear. Thank you for the post, it's really nice and make me realized that it's really important to keep the diversity of language.
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