English As Sheer Spoke

Christopher Fowler
That was how my mother referred to idiomatic English, and while there have been dozens of books on the peculiarities of the English language, including fanciful volumes of outdated rhyming slang and even a history of Polari (which was still in common use until the 1990s) few have noticed the everyday oddities because we simply take them for granted. Slang exists without us realising; 'Heard from her lately?' 'Not a dicky bird' - still very common, but a rhyme of course. Older people are a national archive for odd phrases, especially in less populated regions where the edges have not been rubbed off. You still hear Neither use not ornament used occasionally, and the Yorkshire Negative 'They're never doing that, are they?' is still common among over-40s. A friend from Sheffield can't say 'I was sitting' but always uses 'I was sat' - a survivor of his upbringing. My PA uses a real oddity, learned from her parents. 'I haven't heard from him since the old king died.' I use it as well. Snippets of Monty Python seem to have entered the language. Nobody can say the word wafer without pronouncing it French thanks to John Cleese's oleaginous waiter. 'What did the Romans ever do for us?' is now adapted to everyday use with a single word substitution. Fags, gaspers and snouts have all returned to fashion as a substitute for cigarettes. Wonga, notes and dosh are all still synonyms for cash, with dosh also used as a verb ('I'll dosh you up later'). Sixpence short of a shilling, and Lost half crown and found a sixpence are not as much used now in London. The young have a fast evolving set of phrasings with Fam and Bey and the ubiquitous Innit tacked onto sentences.
Notably, the ubiquitous Mate has jumped barriers from a working class call-out (Oi Mate!) to a middle class term of endearment (Mate, how you doing?)
The best examples I've heard of real London language are in the TV comedy series 'Stath Lets
Flats', which features second generation working class Europeans claiming a common ground in a form of mangled English that exists wherever people from different linguistic backgrounds meet socially. Much like me speaking Spanish, the words are bolted together badly, so that while they're technically the right nouns and adjectives, the resulting sentences are Frankenstein-like and clumsy.
If you compare the show with the more successful 'Fleabag' you'll notice that the latter is too middle class to use anything other than Received Pronunciation, while Stath revels in accurately bizarre linguistics, because Jamie Demetriou has used what he's heard all around him (as I imagine Phoebe Waller-Bridge did). My parents' language was peppered with wartime slang.
The remnants of our childhoods have a long survival rate.


Rachel Green (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 10:33

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Stone the crows. You have a grasp of the language, sir.

Liz Thompson (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 11:11

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Nine bob note. I still use it I'm afraid. But only where it won't cause offence or upset. A sandwich short of a picnic. Someone being 'not on this earth or Fullers'. Dim as a Toc H lamp.
I learnt them all up here in Leeds!

Liz Thompson (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 11:13

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Come to think of it, I've put my two pennorth in.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 11:15

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It is interesting how the old-fashioned word "wireless" has come back into everyday use.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 11:19

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I can't remember who told the story about the Norfolk market stall where the latest gadget is being demonstrated.

Stall holder: ' That do that'

Customer: 'Do that do that?'

Stall holder: 'That do do that, that do'

I spent many a childhood summer visiting my aunt in Wisbech, and certainly heard similar then. I hope you still can. It would be a real shame to lose regional accents and dialect.

' I were sat' makes me think of Hylda Baker, who was often 'sat sitting".

davem (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 11:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Falling 'arse over tit' still used regularly.

'Put a sock in it' to be quiet.

Going to the loo by 'spending a penny'.

Or maybe this all 'takes the biscuit' because it's gone 'pear-shaped'.

Then again, I might just be 'off me trolley'. 'Not your cup of tea?', never mind mate.

Oh well, time 'to hit the sack'.

John Griffin (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 13:17

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Having moved to the Lichfield area (but the less middle-class bits) some 20 years ago I encountered "it's all swole" used instead of swollen (the brook's swole today, me hand's gone all swole".. My wife finds my Northernisms strange - the ones Liz Thompson mentions, plus "daft as 'owt", "all fur coat and no knickers", "daft as a barrel-load of monkeys" and many other cosmopolitania. Does anyone still say "mum's the word" either?

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 13:33

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A while ago, I turned to the woman behind me in a supermarket queue (we talk to each other in queues oop north) remarking at the chaos, and said: "It's like Fred Karno's army in here" Her response was "Blimey, I haven't heard that one for years"

Do people still say "daft as a brush"

John Griffin (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 13:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brian Evans we haven't plumbed the weirdness of Northern slang one bit yet! "I'll go to the bottom of our garden" (may be universal), "I'll go to the end of our road" - but I was brought up where beef suet puddings are called 'flannel' puddings as they are cooked in flannels used specifically for that purpose, where watering cans were known as 'degging' cans (Latin dego, I spit) or jezzing cans (Fr jeter?).

Jo W (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 14:04

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As I was born when he was still alive, "since the old king died" is used by me and other friends of my age. Perhaps it won't be for long, but in our house the saying for a long time ago is and was "when donkeys wore 'igh 'ats".
# Brian Evans - Fred Karno's is still mentioned down here in the Sarf, where people do talk in queues, usually because the queues are long and slow. It can create a party atmosphere in Sainsbugs IF someone opens another till.

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 16:39

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Don't know where it came from but from my Mother I got, "that wind would blow the horns off a goat." My Ulster Irish Mother in law had a number, but "howking" for digging was one. What we really want to hold on to are the similes and metaphors because they are what colour the language. Received vocabulary can be very boring. I love the "not on tis earth or fuller's." Requires specialised knowledge but truly great.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 19:43

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Do yow think I'm yampy if I say it's looking black over Bill's mother's. Bill's mother was a bostin wench. Yow wow find 'er at the back of Rackham's.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 19:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Haven't come across nine bob notes lately, but there are still nine pound notes and they're bent as crooked. No wonga, notes and dosh around, but I've come across spondulicks and moolah. Some Polari has moved across to standard slang - perhaps even standard English. People I know who worked for the Underground used to call it Fred Karno's Railway. I don't know if that was widespread or a private joke.

Jan (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 20:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I still say daft as a brush ( mainly cos I am). West Dorzetteers have a language all their own though " Where you be to? " is a common one which translates as " Where are you going? " so you say where you be to. Then another asks "Well then where her be to? And where's him be to? As I 'd like to be knowing"

Then you have got to say you have no idea where other passers are off to even though you realise the enquirer is very curious to know.....

It's a funny old do. I'll tell you that for nowt.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 12/03/2020 - 21:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

John Griffin,
The Liverpool version is "I'll go to the foot of our stairs". I think it means that what you just have been told is such a shock that if you were standing at the top, you'd fall down the lot.

A fave of mine is "He's three sheets to the wind"-referring to a bloke leaving the pub at chucking out time being a little "tired and emotional"

Alan Robson (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 04:26

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In the lingua franca of my Yorkshire youth, the word "until" did not exist. The word "while" had absorbed its meaning...

In most of the world, Cinderella asks her fairy godmother if she can go to the ball and she is told, "Yes, but you can only stay until midnight." Because, of course, at midnight the coach turns back into a pumpkin and the horses turn back into white mice.

If Cinderella had been born in Yorkshire she'd have asked, "Eee, granny. Can I go t' ball?"

And the reply would have been, "Ay lass, tha can go t' ball. But tha can only stay while midnight!"

While means until. Isn't it obvious?

I used to make my living as a computer programmer. Most programming languages have something called a "while loop" in them. Almost invariably I got while loops wrong when I used them because even though I haven't lived in Yorkshire for more than fifty years, my brain still believes that "while" means the opposite of its dictionary definition.

Take my advice -- if you want to make a career as a computer programmer, don't make the mistake of getting born in Yorkshire.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 04:50

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A Yorkshire expression I often heard there was:
"Chuffin' 'Ell!" It stuck with me, and I was amused to see a flyer for a band calling themselves "The Chuffinelles".
An expression for being 'heavily refreshed', much used by my my brother, is:
"He's as pissed as a buckled wheel''. A good friend of mine once referred to someone with less than perfect dentition, (possibly the great Shane MacGowan) as having "A mouth like a burnt-out fusebox". You also hear, even now, in Suffolk, people using the word 'Runned' instead of 'Ran'.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 04:59

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My mum used the phrase: "It's like Fred Karno's Circus!", when confronted by chaos or great untidiness. All I know of Fred Karno was that he bought Tagg Island, which I believe is in the Thames, on which to build an entertainment palace which he called his 'Karsino'. He displaced some Gypsies who lived on the island, and unsurprisingly, they put a curse on the island. The 'Karsino' came to nothing.

Jean (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 06:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My grandmother referred to mouths and what came out of them as "motley" ie: shut your motley" = be quiet. Another one f hers was "There's most so queer as folk" and "two jumps at the door and a bite of the knob" in reply to what's for dinner. She were right grand were my grandma.

Jean (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 06:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh dear spell check ruined that ! ! Should read: shut your mottey and there's nowt so queer as folk. Tsk tsk.

Andrew Holme (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 09:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Another Northern word for cigarette used to be tab, " spark me tab please, pal."

David Ronaldson (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 10:14

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A woman from the West Country (an idiomatic expression) told me that her mother once chastised her common accent and said she wouldn't have her daughter turning out "All Hayzun, Bayzun, Cayzun", which she explained meant:

"I hayzun seen it, I bayzun going looking for it and I cayzun think where it might be".

Peter Dixon (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 10:43

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For a situation of disorganisation or confusion we used to have: 'Its like Paddy's Market' which I took to refer to an actual market but recently discovered was a comic page in a 20's or 30's children comic - similar to the Bash Street Kids.

A description of the verbal skills of politician or general nuisance was: 'He talks and says nowt"

A few of you may remember the title sequence to the western series 'Bonanza' which featured a map exploding into flames from the centre - we had a phrase describing the after effects of a curry as 'having an arse like the map off Bonanza'

A more recent one, describing someone ill or perhaps suffering a hangover is 'As shaky as a B&Q wardrobe'.

Eliz Amber (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 11:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Monty Python has to be the universal vernacular of the English-speaking world. Regardless of age or wealth, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 11:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If we turn to the hallowed pages of the VIZ Profanisaurus, we find the definitely un-PC term for a scene of utter chaos: a 'Chinese Fire Drill'. Yes, It's wrong. And yes, it does make me laugh, because life is short, and I'm a terrible person. I also first learned of the expression 'Tab' from VIZ - an early 'Biffa Bacon' strip, wherein Biffa throws his 'Mutha' a cigarette, causing his fighty 'starter' of a 'Fatha' to say the following, which gave my brother and I immense pleasure:
"Did you hoy tabs at wor lass? Nayone hoys tabs at wor lass!"
After which, of course, a pagga ensues. You would expect nothing less.

chazza (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 11:14

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Where does "shut the front door" originate from?

Andrew Holme (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 11:28

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Following Peter's Bonanza turn of phrase, when Frank Bough got caught with his trousers down whilst being high as a kite, students at my college tried to get " boughed " meaning " out of it " into common usage. Judging by our failure, this idea went down like 'a packet of pork scratchings at a Bar mitzvah.'

Liz Thompson (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 15:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Only this morning at our community centre, I heard the word 'chuffin' used as an expletive. Along with a few more familiar words. In Northamptonshire where I grew up, mardy meant sullen or sulking, my grandmother always referred to sweets as peps, and our school headmaster was known as the beak.
In Holmfirth, the common greeting would be Na then. First time I went there, the local pub landlord greeted my boyfriend with 'Eh lad! Is'ta coortin?' And that was the only thing I understood of the entire conversation.

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 13/03/2020 - 17:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Three sheets to the wind is common here (or was last time I looked) and I haven't heard "spondulicks" for ages. My father said "there's none so queer as folks" and "monkeys is the queerest people" but that last he said he learned from someone in the movies of the 20s or 30s.
And thanks to whoever gave our prime minister's wife corona. He's in self isolation and she's in quarantine. Our parliament is shut till the end of April and cabinet, provincial ministers et al are meeting by teleconferencing. We will get through all this.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 14/03/2020 - 05:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Talking of the term 'Snouts' for cigsrettes - the people who can be observed standing determinedly smoking in the drizzle outside their workplace - the name for them is 'Snoutcasts'.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 14/03/2020 - 16:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I believe the phrase 'English As She Is Spoke', was the title of a Portuguese/English dictionary, published in the 1800's. Your title kept kicking at the door of a tiny cupboard in my brain, until that door swung open, and the above fell out. If I recall, it was intended, by it's writer, to be a serious work, but he was not at all familiar with English, and all it's idiosyncrasies, and it read more like a modern day washing machine instruction manual, where there has been a direct translation from Japanese to English.
Using it must have been akin to the 'Monty Python' Imflammatory Hungarian Phrasebook - 'I would like a packet of cigarettes' in Hungarian, ranslated by the book, comes out as:
"My hovercraft is full of eels." And whatever the sentence
"Yendelavasa gredenwi strovenko" meant, we shall never know (the late Terry Jones made it nonsense, so as not to upset anyone from eastern Europe), but it got the tobacconist a smack in the mouth.

Unconnected, but coming back from the post office to pick up a tiny wee package that the postman hadn't managed to put through the letterbox, for some reason, I saw a bloke walking along wearing bright red flared trousers, and immediately thought: 'Nice Lionels*'. Shows how deeply ingrained slang is.

*After Lionel Blair - Choreographer, dancer, TV personality, and target of many a joke on the BBC Radio 4 panel show, 'I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue.'

Nick (not verified) Mon, 16/03/2020 - 13:45

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I once used the description "the slowest lift in Christendom" and didn't half get the side-eye from my colleagues.

Glasgow1975 (not verified) Thu, 19/03/2020 - 00:50

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Helen, ''howking' is a fine Scottish word, so I imagine it was via Ulster Scots rather than Irish . . .
'big light' seems to be universal Scots for the ceiling light - usually expressed as "Don't put the big light on!" by mum's who prefer ambient lamps scattered around instead.
'ned' - meaning roughly the same as chav, and 'quines and loons' still heard in the north east of Scotland for girls and boys.
'Fit like?' roughly meaning What like? ie How are you? is a very East Coast/Dundonian phrase
A particularly West Coast/Glaswegian phrase for gullible or stupid was They've/Ive not 'just come up the Clyde in a banana boat'
'messages' meaning shopping seems to be a west Coast thing, when we moved east my mum's new friends and neighbours were fair flummoxed by her 'just popping out for the messages' - also popping meaning going out
'Syboes' for spring onions is either West coast or just our family, as my sister was laughed at in Primary School for identifying a spring onion as a syboe - pronounced cybee

Wayne Mook (not verified) Mon, 23/03/2020 - 00:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Just heard a phase I'd not heard in a long time, 'How are you diddling?' = How are you?

Not be confused with didling, or the alternative use of Diddling = swindled.