Cracking on with a few more words

Monday, July 4, 2011

Time for some more fun with words.  Today we concentrate on a few of the colourful turns of phrase that pepper the language over here.  Many of them have North American equivalents, but a few are purely English.

”Painting the Forth Bridge” – The Forth Railway Bridge is the famous Victorian-era cantilevered railway bridge in Scotland, which crosses the Firth of Forth between Edinburgh and Fife.  It is, to put it mildly, rather on the large side.  Hence the task of painting the bridge is assumed to be so immense and time-consuming that once you daub on the last brushful it’s time to go back to the other end and start over again.  Thus, “painting the Forth Bridge” is a colourful way of describing a never-ending job.  North Americans call this type of Sisyphean labour “painting the Golden Gate Bridge”.  Sadly the  phrase must soon be consigned to the bin because the Forth Bridge is currently getting a big makeover that involves blasting off every layer of paint until bare steel is revealed, making any necessary repairs, and then coating the whole bridge in some kind of super epoxy stuff that’s supposed to last for 25 to 40 years.  This means the Brits will have to come up with some new phrase to denote a job that never ends;  perhaps something else culturally appropriate like “Watching ‘Coronation Street’”.  Or maybe we could simply say “blogging”.

Forth Bridge and Cruise ShipYes, that’s a gigantic cruise ship passing under the Forth Bridge.  I told you it was big.

“Cheap as chips” – When something is really inexpensive, it’s cheap as chips.  The phrase is so well known and used so much it’s often shortened to simply “cheap as…”.  As in “Let’s go round to the curry place down the street.  It’s cheap as.”

“Chalk and cheese” – A phrase describing things that are so dissimilar in nature that they can’t be fairly compared, like “apples and oranges”.  It’s also often used to describe people who are very different, as in “That Gavin and his brother, I can’t believe they’re related.  They’re chalk and cheese!”  (Note: In reading up on the phrase – yes, I actually do research some of this stuff – I came across a few variations from other languages some of which are too delicious not to share.  Lots of languages employ the slight variant of “apples and pears” (boring), Latin American Spanish compares “potatoes and sweet potatoes” (yawn), and the Welsh compare “honey and butter” (slightly better).  However, the Serbs employ the much more interesting “grandmothers and toads” comparison, and the Russian use the more abstract “warm and soft”.  But I think the prize goes to the Serbians.  When they contrast two wildly dissimilar things, they compare “the cow to the longjohns”.  Of course.)

“Popped his clogs” – Just one in the long line of irreverent phrases used to describe someone who is, well, dead.  Like six feet under, kicked the bucket, pushing up the daisies, shuffled off this mortal coil…

Dead Parrot
That parrot has popped his clogs.

”Sod's Law” – The British equivalent of “Murphy’s Law”, but with subtle and highly culturally revealing differences. Murphy’s Law is commonly quoted as “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Sod’s Law includes that idea but is broader, encompassing what Wikipedia calls “a general sense of being ‘mocked by fate’".  Therefore Murphy’s Law would apply if you go out without an umbrella and it rains.  Sod’s Law applies when you pack your umbrella, rain coat and wellies and the day turns out hot and sunny.  Similarly the fact that Beethoven, the brilliant composer, became deaf… well that’s just Sod’s Law, innit?  Do you see the distinction?  Sod’s Law is for a people who don’t just expect that things will go wrong, but also expect an ironic twist of the knife while it’s all going down the pan.  In other words, Sod’s Law is for the English.

”Muck in” – Pitch in, help out.  As in “If we all muck in we’ll be done in an hour.”  Or, “I don’t mind mucking in a bit, but where would I even start? The whole thing’s gone completely pear-shaped.”

“Pear-shaped” – When something’s gone pear-shaped it’s all gone wrong, off the rails, down the tubes.  If the Apollo 13 astronauts had been English they would not have said “Houston, we have a problem”.  They would have said, “Excuse me Houston… terribly sorry to bother… but if you’ve got just a mo’ we thought you might want to know that things up here have gone just a tiny bit pear-shaped.”

“Crack on” – Get started, get on with it.  As in, “The boffins in Houston have come up with a way of fixing that oxygen filter with a bit of cardboard and duct tape, so let’s crack on lads!”

Not Cricket“It’s not cricket” – something that’s unfair or unsportsmanlike can be referred to as “not cricket”.  The phrase is derived not from the insect but from the game of cricket, which is held up as a gentlemanly ideal of good sportsmanship and fair play, an important concept for the English.  For instance, recently it’s been revealed that hundreds of coveted 2012 Olympics tickets have been held back from public sale and reserved for VIPs, which is not cricket.  (Nevermind that the game of cricket has recently had troubles of its own, especially related to game-fixing by the Pakistani international squad last summer.  Several Pakistani bowlers were accused of taking bribes to bowl “no balls” at specific points in the game, which is most certainly NOT CRICKET.)

“Pushing the boat out” – Has nothing whatsoever to do with boats. To “push the boat out” is to do something more extravagantly than usual, especially related to spending generously on a special occasion.  For instance they really pushed the boat out on Will and Kate’s wedding.  It’s also great to use ironically, as in “Wow, half a pint of lager shandy.  You’re really pushing the boat our tonight!” (Note: lager shandy is a half-and-half mix of lager and lemonade (7-Up).  So a drink that’s already watered down and then can’t even be tolerated in proper pint form is weedy in the extreme.)

“Lost his rag” – got angry.  Similar to “blew his top” or “blew his stack”.  As in, “All I did was ask him to move his BMW off my foot and he totally lost his rag at me!”

“Taking the piss” – this is a phrase that goes right to the heart of all things English. To take the piss out of someone is to mock, tease or ridicule them, especially someone who is especially full of himself.  The English have a finely honed sense of when people are getting a bit too uppity, and are quick to deflate them when they do.  So taking the piss is a combination of the Englishness of not pushing oneself forward, and the all-pervasive sense of humour, and it happens all the time.  Whole TV shows are essentially just extended sessions of taking the piss (“Mock the Week”, anyone?). 

“Taking the piss” can also be used to describe an action or situation that’s out of line or unfair.  For instance, I recently tweeted about the price of a pint of lager shandy in a Richmond pub.  £3.95?  For a lager shandy?  That’s just taking the piss. 

The phrase is sometimes euphemistically changed to “taking the Mickey” in mixed company.  I’ve even heard the phrase “taking the Michael” as a variation on Mickey.  (“Mickey” is a Cockney rhyming slang substitution, but I’m not even going to contemplate getting into Cockney rhyming slang right now because that is most definitely a whole other post.) 

”Give it a bit o’ welly!” – A phrase used to request a greater level of effort be employed in the task at hand.  Similar to “put yer back into it!”.  As in, “Come on now lads, give it a bit o’ welly! That 17 tonne pile of gravel isn’t going to shift itself!”

“On the piss” – as distinct from “taking the piss”.  There are two different meaning for this phrase, and I strongly suspect one is derived from the other.  In the first instance to be “out on the piss” is to spend a night out drinking excessively.  As in “The lads are out on the piss tonight.”  As a corollary, for reasons that should be obvious, something that’s “on the piss” is wonky, or leaned over, or otherwise not straight up and down.  As someone who is frequently required to fit large, bulky or awkwardly shaped items into the back of trucks, it’s a useful phrase.  As in, “I don’t think that thing will go in straight up and down, but it might fit on the piss.”
Leaning Tower
The Leaning Tower of Pissa. (Note: using this photo in illustration of this phrase could also be described as taking the piss.  Ah, it’s a subtle, malleable, expressive language…)


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