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.


24 comments on “The History Of A Phrase”

  1. David Skinner says:

    There’s a YouTuber who puts songs through multiple iterations of Google Translate, and then performs the results. Here, for example, is Memory.

  2. Rob Lloyd says:

    My mum (who died 31 years ago today, so I’m thinking of her) used to say ‘Up in Annie’s room behind the clock’, which until I researched it a couple of years ago I always took to be ‘up in Nannie’s room behind the clock’. It was her way of telling me to look for something myself!

  3. Barbara Boucke says:

    My mother used to say something that, I think, was “Now that’s enough to cook a radish.” although I never really knew what she meant. She once told me that she had a teacher (a lady) in Business College who used to say something that sounded like “parts of it” when she was talking about something in class, but no one ever dared ask the lady what she meant!

  4. Brooke says:

    See David Suchet’s pronouncement at the conclusion of The Affiar at the Victory Ball… The English as She Should Be Spoken.

    Thank you, David Skinner. Wonderful preview of our lives when artificial intelligence takes over.

  5. SteveB says:

    Pow R Toc H!

  6. David Atkinson says:

    I thought that Toc H stood for the letters T and H in the army communications of WW1; much as Tango Hotel would do in today’s NATO alphabet. T H referred to Talbot House which was the HQ in Popperinge of the group founded by Rev Tubby Clayton as a mission to servicemen. Later he used the name of TocH for his work in the East End of London, based somwhere about the Tower, from memory.

  7. Henry Ricardo says:

    When my wife and I were in Morocco, the card listing hotel amenities boasted of “males delivered to room.”

  8. David Atkinson says:

    David Skinner is right. Look for Twisted Translations on You Tube. Melinda is devastatingly talented, it makes her beautifully timed comic pieces pure joy to watch.

  9. Paul C says:

    Another poorly translated sign in a foreign hotel was ‘Don’t touch yourself ask staff’

  10. Gary Hart says:

    hat very same story gets featured in “The Book of Heroic Failures” by Stephen Pile. He was at the time of writing the president of the Not-terribly-good-club of Great Britain.

    However, as the book became a runaway success, he was instantly outed from his job and when the club itself became more than popular, they disbanded as a failure of a failure’s club.

  11. My Dad had various sayings inherited from his mum. OI he said he was bored she would say, “Well stick your thumb up your bum and sit on your elbow.”

  12. Martin Tolley says:

    Was it Beachcomber who was always putting his elbow in his ear?

  13. Ian Luck says:

    An odd phrase still to be heard in parts of Suffolk and Norfolk (possibly elsewhere in the UK, too, but I doubt it) is the description of something very sour in taste:
    “It’ll bring yer arse up to yer elbow.”
    My dad used to say it, and I last heard it a couple of years ago by a couple of old ladies buying Gooseberries at our local market. I had to go quickly, as the temptation to laugh was far too great.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    The interesting thing about that title page you show is that you know exactly what the book is about even if you don’t know a word of Portuguese.
    Google translate now gives “to bite the kid” as a translation for “croquet le marmot.” I’ve no idea how accurate that is since my French is considerably less than idiomatic.
    I like the weather phrases that seem to pass on for ever as in “so windy it would blow the horns off a goat” (my Mother)

  15. Brian Evans says:

    Hinge and Bracket used to say “as dim as a Toc H lamp”. Thanks Mr F for the explanation, I’ve often wondered where it came from.

  16. Roger says:

    “Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.” is standard safety advice from otologists, Martin Tolley.

  17. Daren Murray says:

    David Skinner, thank you so much. I have just spent the last hour laughing like I have not laughed since before covid-19 was a thing. By the time I got to My heart will go on, the ABBA medley and Bohemian Rhapsody I was almost hysterical. What a tonic and just when it was needed.

  18. Jan says:

    Chris I know this is me being me being me far too literal self but when I worked in Kensington in the 1990s I visited Talbot House in Queensgate Gardens which was Toc H’s base( they had an earlier place in Chelsea b4 moving here) but Queensgate Gardens was initially set up as a sort of fairly upmarket homeless men’s hostel. For WW1 veterans flitting 2 London looking for work.

    Toc H was a fairly innocuous vets association – tied up with Christianity bigstyle.

    I think there’s a tie up that I can’t tbh fully remember regarding the exact details of with this “dimness” having a link with the dim lights of the trenches. I think this Tubby Isaacs geezer organized some sort of place for the troops not far from the trenches where the lights had to be kept proper dim.

    Theres some sort of Toc H memorial in the City near ‘re memorial to the Merchant seamen killed in both world wars.

  19. John Howard says:

    Kudos to you Steve B for getting a Pink Floyd reference into an Admin blog.

    I remember Toc H being a “thing” of my grandparents but thanks Admin for the explanation of it all these years later. English as she is spoke was a phrase used by my parents as well whenever we were getting our grammar mangled but again, thanks for the origin.

  20. Jo W says:

    The guild church of Toc H is All Hallows by the Tower. When I visited there a few years ago I asked a guide if they knew why a Toc H lamp is dim.They didn’t.

  21. Lyn Jackson says:

    My mum was from Liverpool and often said “It’s all my eye and Betty Martin “ when something was suspicious. I don’t know the origins , but sometimes say it myself now!

  22. Brian Evans says:

    Lyn, I’m from Liverpool and Dad used to say that. With him, I think it meant “it’s a load of rubbish” ie a put down on what someone else said. He said quite a lot watching the TV news, when he was shouting at the telly!

  23. Paul C says:

    According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) : All my eye and Betty Martin : In Britain during the 1700s, the phrase was a common claim of dismissal (similar to ‘nonsense’, or ‘hogwash’), or a way to declare disbelief of an absurdity. The phrase possibly originated as the punch line of a joke. Most variations of the joke involve a British sailor visiting Italy. He overhears a Latin prayer, “Ah! mihi, bea’te Martine” (which translates to “Ah! Grant to me, blessed Martin”, The sailor misheard the prayer, and later used the phrase as “All my eye and Betty Martin”.

  24. Lyn Jackson says:

    Thanks Brian and Paul, I wondered if it was just a family saying , It is certainly an odd one I think.

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