The History Of A Phrase
The language I grew up with isn’t yours.
Family members don’t speak to each other as people on the street communicate. Familiarity changes the way we speak. Parents shorthand and pepper their conversations with odd phrases. The family language I grew up with won’t be yours.
Much of my father’s conversation was filled with references to his teenage years, which were lost to the Second World War and therefore bear a military stamp. My mother’s banter was perhaps even older, inherited from a religious Victorian mother.
One of the phrases they both used was ‘as dim as a Toc H lamp’, which I inherited without understanding the meaning.
The Toc H movement was a club for soldiers born out of WWI in the shattered Belgium town of Poperinghe. In a symbolic ceremony at the beginning of each meeting a lamp was lit. The lamp, a replica of those used by the early Christians in the catacombs of Rome, has the double cross of Lorraine on its handle, and was the signal for all to stand in the Silence of Remembrance. It was less bright than a 100 watt bulb. How it jumped from Belgium in 1916 to Greenwich in the 1960s remains a mystery.
But my mother used another phrase with an even more convoluted background. Whenever I made a grammatical mistake or failed to explain myself clearly she would say, ‘that’s English as sheer spoke.’ I didn’t imagine there was anything behind this other than her pointing out that I had mangled words.
But I thought back about it recently and realised it didn’t sound like her. I wondered if it was in something she had read or learned, so I did a little research. That’s when I stumbled upon the Portuguese writer Pedro Carolino.
In the middle of the 19th century Pedro decided to write ‘The New Guide to Conversation in Portuguese and English’, the most comprehensive Portuguese-to-English phrasebook ever produced. Unfortunately, he didn’t know a word of English, but he had a Portuguese-to-French phrasebook and a French-to-English dictionary. He carefully set about translating his Portuguese into French, then put it through from French to English.
The result was a game of Chinese whispers that produced the worst phrasebook of all time. It was utter bollocks. ‘To craunch the marmoset’ apparently meant to wait for someone to open the door because it was a direct translation of a real French phrase, croquer le marmot. People started laughing when they read it, and Pedro’s work became an early post-modern joke. Mark Twain wrote the introduction to the American edition.
‘All trees have very deal bear’, apparently, and it was all received in good fun, even if this was not quite the result Pedro had expected. Now sold as a literary joke, it became a template that would eventually lead to Monty Python’s ‘Hungarian Phrasebook’ (sample; ‘My hovercraft is full of eels’).
And the English title of the book? ‘English As She Is Spoke’. Printed in 1855. The title had been mangled further by my mother through her own family memories and had reached me in the 21st century.
I’d like to thank Edward Brooke-Hitching for his delightful book ‘The Madman’s Library’, which pointed the way to this story for me.