Archive for the ‘Phrases’ Category

What is unusual about the word pulchritude. It means beauty, especially the beauty of a woman. Pulchritude is certainly not an attractive word. How about the word diminutive or unwritten. Diminutive is not a short word, and unwritten is a word that can obviously be written. What is distinctive about these words is that they are all words that have been described as ‘not being themselves’. What they appear to mean is different from what they actually mean, their  structure or appearance contrasts with their meaning, or they contradict themselves.

The term for such words is heterological, meaning something that does not describe itself, A study of such words is an esoteric one, of interest to language academics or lexicologists.

As this post is a little on the dry side (except perhaps for the bit about oxymorons etc at the end), I thought to lighten it up with a few cartoons on the subject of language and learning.

Words that do describe themselves are called homological or autological words such as finite, meaningful, numberless, pronounceable, readable, unhyphenated, thing, and visible. Good examples are grandiloquent meaning pompous or extravagant in a way intended to impress, and sesquipedalian meaning long-winded or characterized by long words. Such words are actually hard to find.

Are not almost all words heterological words? I suppose they are.

Misleading Words 

Apocryphal sounds as if it’s a story of great importance whereas it means a tale of dubious authenticity.

Belladonna may mean beautiful lady in Italian and sound like a stylish woman, but it’s the poisonous plant deadly nightshade.

Bemused might sound like amused, but it means puzzled or confused.

Benighted suggests someone who is honoured but it refers to someone who is ignorant or lacking in morals.

Bodkin ought to mean a little body but its a large needle without a point.

Bucolic surely means chocked up if not a severe illness, but it refers to an idyllic rural life or it suggests a pastoral way of life as with shepherds.

Crapulous sounds dirty but it’s excessive indulgence, intemperance.

Callipygian sounds as if describes a feature of an animal but it means well proportioned buttocks

Crepuscular refers not to a skin ailment but to creatures like bats or rabbits that are active in twilight, the period before dawn or after dusk

Decimate historically this was to kill one in every ten soldiers but nowadays it means destroying a large portion of something

Disinterested means to be impartial or unprejudiced, but it is often confused with uninterested, that is to be unconcerned or not bothered with something

Enervate is to be lacking in energy, though it sounds like the opposite, or even to annoy someone.

Enormity might be something to do with size or magnitude, but it’s actually about the seriousness or extent of something that’s bad or morally wrong.

Erstwhile means former not as often thought esteemed.

Fungible sounds like it describes a spongy fungus, but its a legal term describing goods or commodities that can be replaced by equivalent items.

Hiatus is not a commotion or a ruckus, but a pause in activity.

Inflammable suggest it can’t be set on fire, that it can’t be burnt, except that it means it can. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

Ironclad has nothing to do with somebody dressed in armour, but it describes arguments that are impossible to disprove or contradict.

Mawkish sounds as if it might be to do with mocking someone or something, but it means to be excessively sentimental

Mordant might suggest someone who is ponderous or broody but it actually means humour that is biting and incisive. It also refers to a substance used to fix dyes to cells and textiles, and to a musical notation.

Noisome is to have a very disagreeable smell. Nothing to do with being noisy,

Nonplussed sounds like it means not caring too much about things, but it means very surprised or confused.

Nugatory must be something to do with nougat but it means futile, trifling, or having no value.

Orrery might be an animals nest or lair but it’s a mechanical model of the solar system showing the relative positions and motions of the planets.

Phlegmatic refers to a person who is calm, composed, unemotional, not as it might seem someone who gets easily excited or is animated.

Plethora means an excess of something, not an ancient Greek musical instrument

Priceless sounds as if it could mean cheap or worthless though it means the opposite, very valuable.

Prodigal looks and feels like the word prodigy which means a talented individual who invites admiration, but in reality means recklessly wasteful.

Prosaic comes from the word prose and means commonplace, lacking in imagination, dull, even though the word sounds elegant or ornamental.

Pulchritude sounds like ineptness or even a pustule, or refers to a rather large person, but as mentioned above it’s a showy word for beauty.

Saturnine was said to be the temperament of someone born under the supposed astrological influence of Saturn, but it nowadays means gloomy or melancholic.

Scurrilous could describe how some small animals move, but it’s the making or spreading scandalous claims about someone in order to damage their reputation.

Vomitorium contrary to what might seem obvious was the tunnel-like entrance in an amphitheatre or stadium.

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It’s a dog’s breakfast. It’s a dog’s dinner. What lovely phrases. Figures of speech that I think are a delight to use, provided of course that you’re not involved. So where do they come from and what do they mean?

Animals figure prominently in many expressions. A kettle of fish, the cat’s whiskers, pearls before swine, the cat that got the cream, a fly in the ointment, the bee’s knees, a pig in a poke, a nest of vipers. Dog expressions for some reason are particularly numerous: gone to the dogs, why keep a dog and bark yourself, in the doghouse, it’s a dog’s life, a shaggy dog story, the tail wagging the dog, every dog has its day.

‘It’s a dog’s breakfast’ means a complete mess – something or someone that ​looks ​extremely ​untidy. Or a muddle, a shambles or a botch – something that is very ​badly done – as in ‘we’ve made a real dog’s breakfast of it’. There’s a few other phrases that mean much the same: a pig’s ear, a hodgepodge, a mare’s nest.

It’s a 20th century phrase that was first cited in the 1937 edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English as ‘a mess: low Glasgow (1934)’.

dog's breakfast cartoon, waiterThe reference to a dog and breakfast suggests that the phrase had something to do with a cooking calamity: a half-cooked omelette, watery porridge, burnt sausages. Couple this with the notion that a dog will eat anything – though dog lovers would not be amused at this idea – and you have the phrase. But nowadays, whatever its origins, this figure of speech covers much more: a badly planned party or meeting, instructions that are incomprehensible, a do-it-yourself disaster.

There is a similar phrase ‘a dog’s dinner’ which many online references say means the same as ‘a dog’s breakfast’; that it is used interchangeably to mean a mess or a muddle.

But the full phrase is ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’, or ‘done up like a dog’s dinner’, meaning to wear ridiculously smart or extravagant clothes, clothes which are inappropriate for the occasion: ‘My mum really embarrasses me, she always dresses like a dog’s dinner, even when we’re just going to the shops!’. It’s a fairly negative way to describe someone, and it would be more polite to say someone was ‘overdressed’.

It is also used to express surprise what someone dresses in an unexpected way. If you were a man used to wearing a morning suit or white tie in the evenings you might not think twice about what you looked like. But if you usually wore more casual clothes: jeans, open neck shirts, trainers, then putting on a business suit and tie – even if it was necessary for an interview or a formal occasion – might draw comments from family or friends that you were ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’.

dog's grand dinner party, dame dingles series, mcloughlinIt’s not clear how two similar phrases have completely different meanings, at least when ‘dressed up like’ is added to ‘a dog’s dinner’. How is being dressed up likened to a dog’s dinner? It is said to refer to the stiff collars that were the height of male fashion in the 1890s and which actually looked very like dog collars. But where does the dinner come in?

Others say that in Medieval England the finest shoes were made of dog skin, and that if you were invited to a castle for a feast you would dress in your finest, and for shoes, you would ‘put on the dog’, meaning shoes made of dog skin. In the full Oxford English Dictionary, ‘to put on the dog’ was ‘to assume pretentious airs’, but did this become ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’?

dog's dinner party, harrison weir, routledge

This picture from The Dog’s Dinner Party by the renowned Victorian children’s illustrator Harrison Weir, shows Mr Foxhound presiding over dinner. © harrisonweir.com

In the 19th century, a number of children’s books came out on the theme of a dog’s dinner party. In America in 1869 there was the The Dog’s Grand Dinner Party with illustrated verse. In Britain a year later, The Dog’s Dinner Party was a story in My Mother’s Picture Book with lavish illustrations that gave the dogs apparent human traits and personalities. In Cock Robin’s Picture Book published in 1873, an illustration of a dog’s dinner party has the caption:

At last the day of the grand dinner-party arrived, and the guests all assembled, in good spirits, with keen appetites for the feast. Never had so many sleek, well-dressed dogs met together before, and the variety of their coats and countenances was very striking.

Is it possible that these stories somehow gave rise to the phrase?

But back to ‘it’s a dog’s breakfast’. I wonder why its origin is said to be ‘low Glasgow’ in 1934? Do any Glaswegians know?

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school dinners, fulham, central kitchsnslondon county council

In my primary school in Fulham, London, unappetising potatoes and vegetables were served from heavy insulated metal containers brought from central kitchens run by London County Council.

Prior to 1954, when I was at primary school, food was still rationed following the Second World War which meant that butter, milk, eggs, meat, cheese and sugar was in short supply. School dinners were memorable only for being pretty dreadful. After that things began to improve. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is the school puddings that I remember the most. At my boy’s secondary school in west London, I particularly liked the chocolate pudding and chocolate sauce, though I don’t think that much chocolate was used as both the pudding and the sauce were pale in colour. I would stay back on the ‘extra helpings’ table at the end of the school dining room for seconds, or even thirds. Another favourite was baked jam roll, iced sponge cake with hundreds and thousands on top, bread and butter pudding, and treacle sponge pudding, all served with custard. I didn’t like the semolina with rose hip syrup so much, or the pink blancmange – it was always pink – or the rice pudding which always had a thick skin on it. Even if you asked to have it without the skin, the kitchen staff would often say that you couldn’t.

Most of the kitchen staff were fairly cheerful as far as I can recall, in contrast to most of the teachers. All the food was cooked on the premises in the kitchen, though I don’t think that in all the five years I was at the school, I ever ventured into the kitchen. It just wasn’t done. I don’t recall that many boys were fat. There were lots of carbohydrates and fat in the puddings, what nutritionists would call stodge, but then you didn’t have snacks. And we drank water, not squash. The water was supplied in metal jugs, and I think we drank from plastic cups.

At home, it was shepherd’s pie, corned beef hash, macaroni cheese, or spam fritters for tea, At the weekend it could be a Fray Bentos tinned steak and kidney pie, smoked haddock, a lamb or pork chop from the local butchers, or boiled or sliced ham from David Greig, a chain of grocery shops, who were rivals to Sainsburys. I can’t recall what we had for Sunday lunch but we did sometimes have a small chicken. Rice, noodles and pasta (apart from the macaroni, and tinned spaghetti) were simply not part of the British diet, and spices and herbs were used rarely. The only take-away was fish and chips. I think we ate quite well compared to many.

In the 1960s frozen food arrived and it was seen as a great innovation. Smedley’s fish fingers and Birds Eye peas, though I can’t remember frozen chips. For dessert it was often Del Monte or Libby’s tinned fruit with Carnation evaporated milk. Bird’s instant whip in five flavours was an improvement on jelly, and Walls neapolitan ice cream brick with its three flavours, chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla – sometimes replaced by a pale green pistachio – was a real treat. But my Nan would come to our house regularly and she would make proper puddings. The highlight for me was coming home to see a basin, in a pan of steaming water, covered by a piece of linen held on with string. That usually meant we were having spotted dick, with custard of course. Alternatively the pastry in the steaming saucepan was a sausage shape rolled up in linen and tied at each end. Spotted Dick was made from a flat sheet of suet pastry dough sprinkled with currants and raisins. If the pastry had been spread with jam, rather than with added dried fruit, then that would have been jam roly-poly (known in the 19th century as rowley-powley), and also called ‘dead man’s arm’ because some families apparently steamed it in an old shirt sleeve. I must have had roly-poly as a pudding at home, whether baked or steamed, but I can’t remember it. But why spotted dick?

spotted dick, custard, pudding

Spotted Dick once cooked, could, unintentionally or not, be quite dry and spongy, or stodgy and chewy. Some people like their custard thin and watery, others thick and creamy, but hopefully without any lumps or skin.

The pudding was first described in an 1849 cookbook The Modern Housewife or Ménagère by a socially progressive French chef Alexis Benoist Soyer, who became a celebrated cook in Victorian England. The book included a recipe for ‘Plum Bolster, or Spotted Dick-Rolle’ made from paste (pastry) and raisins, ‘tie in a cloth and boil for an hour’. Suet puddings had became popular by the 17th century thanks to the invention of the pudding cloth. The Pall Mall Gazette reported in 1892 that ‘the Kilburn Sisters … daily satisfied hundreds of dockers with soup and Spotted Dick’. ‘Spotted’ is a clear reference to the dried fruit that ‘spot’ the pudding. Though ‘dick’ was widely used as a term for pudding in the 19th century, its source is more obscure. It could be a corruption of the word pudding, evolving through puddink, then puddick, then finally dick.

In 2009, Flintshire County Council reversed a decision by its catering staff to change the name of the pudding on school menus to ‘Spotted Richard’ following a complaint from a person about the use of ‘Spotted Dick’, which has long been a source of amusement and double entendres. It is difficult to believe that this is a true story, but here is the report on the BBC website.

The joy associated with a steam pudding goes back a long way. In 1843, Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, wrote:

Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding.

What was your favourite pudding at school?

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mind the gap, district line platform, victoria station, london underground

A ‘mind the gap’ tile mosaic on a District line platform at Victoria Underground station in London

‘Please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ is a recorded announcement familiar to travellers on the London Underground. The ‘tube’ is the oldest underground railway in the world and when it was built in the 19th century the tunnels often followed the line of the streets above so as to avoid the costs of obtaining permission from owners to tunnel under their properties. The result was that on the oldest deep-level or ‘tube’ lines, the Bakerloo, Central, Northern, and Piccadilly, the tracks in the tunnels inevitably curve quite a bit, which means that when a train comes to rest at a platform that is on a curve, there is a gap between the carriage and the platform. The gap can either be in the middle of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘outside’ of the curve, or at each end of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘inside’ of a curve. There were likely other reasons for the winding tracks underground such as pipes, sewers, and deep foundations that would have been too costly for the construction companies, who were privately-financed, to divert or reconstruct.

This wasn’t so much of a problem when the tunnels were first built as train carriages were much shorter, so the gaps weren’t so great. But as trains were modernised and the carriages made longer to increase their capacity, the gap between the train and the platform was quite a hazard in many stations. Although drivers and station attendants had been warning passengers of the gap since at least the early 1920s, this was proving increasingly impractical, and in 1968 London Underground started introducing recorded announcements to warn passengers to ‘mind the gap’.

oswald laurence, actor, rada, three men in a boat, mind the gap, london underground

Oswald Laurence joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1938 at the age of 17. The dashing actor appeared in a number of minor roles in films including Three Men In A Boat, a 1956 comedy starring Laurence Harvey, Jimmy Edwards, and a young Kenneth Williams playing a bit-part, as well as appearances in the TV series The Saint, starring Roger Moore.

One of the early announcers was Oswald Laurence whose clear compelling voice was heard by millions of people at many stations on the Northern Line. In the early 2000s however, the minimalist message to ‘mind the gap’ was deemed an insufficient warning. What was the gap? Where was it? Whilst there are no records of anyone misunderstanding what the announcement was referring to, only of people not taking notice of it, or being in a state of intoxication such that they were incapable of acting on it. Nevertheless the announcement was re-recorded and the location of the gap clearly identified: ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’.

Mr Laurence, who as an actor had made the recording in the 1970s, died in 2001 at the age of 80, and his place in history might have been forgotten. Except that when his announcement at Embankment Station, the last station to play the recording, was replaced in November 2012 by a new one, his widow, Dr Margaret McCollum, wrote to London Underground. Dr McCollum asked if they had a recording of the announcement that her husband had made some forty years before, and explained that she would go to the station if she was travelling that way, to hear her husband’s voice. ‘Knowing that I could go and listen to his voice was simply wonderful. It was a great comfort. I would go and sit on the platform, and sometimes miss a couple of trains just so I could hear it’. Here is a video of an interview by the BBC with Dr McCollum.

margaret mccollum, oswald laurence, mind the gap, london underground

Dr Margaret McCollum met Oswald Laurence in 1992 when she went on guided tour holiday with Mr Laurence as tour guide. She heard ‘the most gorgeous voice’ behind her and the pair were instantly attracted.

Somewhat unexpectedly, given that London Underground has a lot on its plate, carrying over four million passengers every day and rising, tracked down the recording, and not only did they send Dr McCollum a copy of the recording on a CD, they also decided to reinstate his announcement at Embankment station. So now if you stand on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at the station, where MIND THE GAP is painted at intervals on the platforms edge, it is an eerie experience hearing Mr Laurence remind people in his precise authoritative voice, not once but three times, as trains rush into the platform and come to a rest, to ‘mind the gap’. You can hear him here.

There are two other locations where ‘mind the gap’ warnings are most notably played: the Central line platforms at Bank, where there can be a 1-foot (30cm) gap, and the Bakerloo line platforms at Piccadilly Circus.

the queen, baker street station, 150th anniversary, london underground, mind the gap

The Queen inspected a new train at Baker Street station during the 150th anniversary of the London Underground in March 2013. Baker Street is one of the oldest and ornate stations on the Underground. Here the Queen alights carefully from a carriage, though the gap at this particular platform is not that wide.

The ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ warning is also used where there is a difference in height between the platform and the floor of the train carriage. This occurs where a platform is used by both deep-level ‘tube’ trains and larger ‘sub-surface’ trains, and in these situations the height of the platform is a compromise between the different floor heights of the train carriages (a difference of 8 inches). That’s why you will hear the warning at a number of stations in west London, which although having straight platforms, serve both the larger District line trains and the deep-level Piccadilly line trains.

If you are really interested, you can read a lot more about London Underground platform gaps on Mike Horne’s website here. Amongst many fascinating facts, Mike Horne has identified that the largest gap between the train and the platform at any of London’s deep-level ‘tube’ stations is at the west end of the eastbound platform of the Central Line at Bank station, a scary 375mm or 14.76 inches!

Going back to Oswald Laurence, in February this year, a short film Mind the Gap was shown at the London Short Film Festival which tells Dr McCollum’s story. The poignant film was written, directed and produced by Luke Flanagan with Eileen Nicholas played the lead role, and you can see it here. The main location for the tube shots was Barbican station which is in the open, and as the tracks are straight at the station, there is no gap, and hence no announcement is needed, but filming in the deep-level tube stations such as at Embankment would have proved difficult.

And here is the voice of Oswald Laurence again.

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gérard de nerval, france, ,cliche, romantic

The French writer and poet Gérard de Nerval, who died in 1855, may have unintentionally defined a cliché when he said ‘The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet; the second, an imbecile.’

Salvador Dalí, the Spanish surrealist painter, was reputed to have said ‘The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot’, though something like this was first coined by the French poet Gérard de Nerval. What Dali was getting at was that a phrase can be striking at first but when overused it loses its force.

And when an expression or idea, which at some earlier time was considered meaningful or novel, is overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, then it becomes a cliché, a ready-made phrase. In private or informal conversation they are used all the time: ’24/7′, ‘absolutely’, ‘actually’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘basically’, ‘I hear what you’re saying’, ‘if the truth be told’, ‘I’m not being funny but’, ‘it’s not rocket science’, ‘literally’, ‘no problem’, ‘the fact of the matter is’, ‘to be perfectly honest’, ‘you know what I mean’. Clichés pop up everywhere: in the supermarket, in soap operas, in fashion, in sport, on dating websites, on book covers, with art critics and travel writers. And in organisations, the close cousins of the cliché, the jargon and gibberish of ‘corporate speak’, is omnipotent.

Though clichés should be avoided, in reality they’re not. The language of Britain is the language of cliché. The British people could speak in cliché till the cows come home. And it is in journalism where clichés stick out like a sore thumb.

newspaper, title, daily express, daily mail, daily mirror, the sun, the independent, the times, the telegraph, the guardianThey may be part of a seemingly unchangeable news culture, and we may like them, and they can be descriptive, but clichés show a lack of originality. And they’re not just over-used phrases. They can be used to disguise a lack of information, as padding, or as a code or euphemism to imply something that can’t be said or which can be left to us to work out. They are often cynical, and sometimes comical. Above all journalists want their stories to be more exciting, meaningful or profound than they really are. So, cynical or not, here’s some reading between the lines …

Reporting

According to published reports We got scooped
Allegedly We know he did it but we have to protect our backs
Clamour We’ve written an editorial. If we write about it again, refer to a ‘growing clamour
Considering The all-purpose unfalsifiable policy story as in ‘the Minister is considering whether to ditch the policy’. No one will ever be able to convincingly deny that they’re considering something
Couldn’t be reached for comment The reporter didn’t call until after 5pm
Deepened What happened to people’s difficulties last night
Exclusive We were the only ones who returned the press office calls
Exclusive neighbourhood/school/club The reporter couldn’t get in
Influential Any group that can get a letter printed in a national paper, or someone who has appeared on television twice in one week
Informed source Reads the newspaper
Momentum is building The story hasn’t changed since last night
Mystery surrounds Tomorrow the mystery might ‘deepen‘ but right now, we don’t have a clue what’s going on
Outpouring of support, emotion We are with them, so long as things don’t get out of hand
Reportedly We stole this bit of information
Set to Might mean ‘will’, but if it turns out the story is wrong, you can say it only actually means ‘may’
Shocking revelation Leaked on a slow news day
Special investigation A normal investigation, but with a picture by-line for the reporter
Stunned Couldn’t give a decent quote
Uncertain, unclear, unknown No one will tell us
Uproar The reaction of the ‘Great British Public‘ to a mindless tweet
Well placed source Someone who will talk to us

Politics

About turn Any change of mind. May be followed by ‘it’s back to the drawing board
Activist Will talk to the press
Acolytes Supporters of someone with whom we disagree.
Arcane rules Ones we can’t be bothered to explain
Bolthole Place where a disgraced MP (or rock star) seeks refuge from the media. Never a house, flat or hotel room
Brutal dictator One who kills his opponents slowly. If he just had them all shot, use ‘ruthless dictator‘. If our government could easily ‘topple him‘, but can’t be bothered, use ‘tinpot dictator‘.
Concerned residents Residents usually are
Draconian The Government is proposing something with which we disagree
Embattled He/she should quit
Family values Right wing idiot (also Progressive Left wing idiot)
Hard-working people As opposed to everyone who hasn’t a job, except pensioners of course
Humiliating U-turn Any adjustment in policy, especially over parking charges
Landmark decision Not sure why, but that’s what the other papers are saying
Moderate Fence-sitter
Parking expose Editor got a parking ticket
Raft The standard unit of ‘measures‘. Under the imperial system, a ‘cocktail of measures
Red-faced What council ‘bosses‘ usually are after a ‘humiliating U-turn
Troubled Small country currently enjoying a lull between civil wars
Trusted source An MP out for revenge or a government stooge, but often someone vaguely connected with politics in a Westminster bar
Venerable Should be dead but isn’t

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Bob’s your uncle

‘Bob’s your uncle’ is a typically English phrase not heard that often these days. It’s something that you say after you have explained how to do something, to emphasize that it will be simple and successful eg. ‘You put the plug in here, press that switch, and Bob’s your uncle’ or ‘Just put on the stain remover, leave it for an hour and Bob’s your uncle, the stain’s gone’.

There are a number of theories as to where it comes from, but no one is sure of its origin. Here are the most plausible three.

lord salisbury, prime minister, bob's your uncle, queen victoria, king edward VII

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Conservative politician, was Prime Minister three times during the reigns of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII

‘Bob’s your uncle’ is often said to derive from the supposed nepotism of the 20th Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Salisbury – family name Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil – who appointed a favourite nephew, Arthur Balfour, to several political posts in the 1880s. Balfour went on to become Prime Minister after his uncle, but his early political appointments were considered inappropriate as he had shown no prior interest in public work. Incidentally, by 1900, Salisbury’s cabinet was nicknamed ‘Hotel Cecil’ reflecting his aloofness and its aristocratic composition, a number of whom were relatives. Hence having an Uncle Bob was a passport to a good job. Since the very word nepotism derives from the Italian word for nephew, the association here seems more than apt.

Unfortunately, the phrase isn’t recorded until at least the 1920s, and if public indignation at Lord Salisbury’s actions had been great enough to provoke creation of the saying, why didn’t it appear the newspapers, or in a satirical magazine of the time such as Punch?

Another possible, but less exciting, theory has it that it derives from an old slang phrase ‘all is bob’ meaning that ‘all is well’, everything is safe. This goes back to the 17th century and it is listed in a dictionary of the time. From the 18th century on, ‘bob’ was also a common name for somebody you didn’t know. Though these may have contributed to the genesis of the phrase, there seems little reason to connect them to ‘Bob’s your uncle’ other than that they both contain the word ‘bob’.

The third possible source is the music hall. There is record in a newspaper of a musical revue at the King’s Theatre in Dundee, Scotland, called Bob’s Your Uncle in June 1924.  And the expression was in the lyrics of a song  Follow Your Uncle Bob published in 1931, which was sung and recorded by Florrie Forde, a celebrated music hall artiste.

Though we can’t be sure, given the difficulty with the first two, this classically English expression may well be Scottish, and derive not from 10 Downing Street but from Dundee.

Tail-end Charlie

rear gun turret, tail end charlie, raf, bomber aircraft, second world war

The rear gun turret of a RAF bomber of the Second World War. The turret was made of Perspex and metal, and could rotate through 180 degrees. Once in the turret at the beginning of a mission, the gunner stayed there until the aircraft returned to base.

Likewise ‘Tail-end Charlie’ is not heard much these days. It referred to the gunner that was in a gun turret at the rear of RAF bomber aircraft in the Second World War. He had the unenviable role of being holed up in the ‘tail’ of the bomber for up to ten lonely hours fighting intense cold, scanning the sky’s for enemy aircraft attacking from the rear. The rear-turret gunners were in the most vulnerable position on the plane. The life expectancy of a Second World War rear gunner varied but was never high, mostly about just five sorties (missions).

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Have you heard this phrase and thought that it doesn’t sound quite right. It’s as if the truth of a rule is somehow strengthened by it not always being true. When you think more about it, this is nonsense. If there is a rule that says ‘all birds can fly’, the existence of a flightless bird like a penguin doesn’t prove the rule to be correct; in fact it proves just the opposite. So where does the phrase come from and what does it mean?

cicero, roman empire, lawyer, orator, consul

Marcus Tullius Cicero
106 BC – 43 BC
Roman lawyer, orator, philosopher, politician, consul and constitutionalist.
Defender of the Roman republic, opponent of Julius Caesar, critic of Mark Anthony.

The phrase comes from a legal principle of republican Rome: exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis (‘the exception confirms the rule in cases not excepted’). The first recorded citation is by the accomplished lawyer and orator, and later consul, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in his defence of Lucius Cornelius Balbus in 56BC who was charged with having been illegally granted Roman citizenship.  The prosecution argued that as treaties with some non-Roman peoples explicitly prohibited them from becoming Roman citizens, it should be inferred in the treaty covering Balbus, even though it had no such clause.  Cicero rejected this saying that if you prohibit something in certain cases, you imply that the rest of the time it’s permitted. The second part of Cicero’s phrase, in casibus non exceptis, or ‘in cases not excepted’, is almost always missing from modern uses of the statement that ‘the exception proves the rule’ and it is this that contributes to the confusion over the use of the phrase.

It is often suggested that it is the alternative meaning of the word ‘prove’ that is the source of the confusion, and that it means ‘to put to trial or to test’, as in ‘proving ground’ or ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ etc. It could then be argued that the phrase means ‘it is the exception that tests whether the rule is true or not’.  In the case of the ‘all birds can fly’ rule, it would mean that the existence of a bird that can’t fly would put the rule to the test, and find it wanting. Though the phrase can be used correctly in the context of scientific enquiry, it is not what the phrase meant originally.

Going back to the legal origin of the phrase, it’s the word ‘exception’ rather than ‘prove’ that causes the confusion. By exception we usually mean ‘something, not following a rule’ but in this case it means ‘the act of leaving out or ignoring’.

Cicero’s argument was that if an exception exists then there must be some rule to which the matter in question is an exception, that is the existence of an exception proves the existence of a general rule

If a sign says ‘entry is free of charge on Sundays’, you can reasonably assume that as a general rule, entry is charged for. So, from that statement, the rule would be that ‘you usually have to pay to get in’.

The exception on Sunday is demonstrating that the rule exists. It isn’t testing whether the rule ‘you have to pay’ is true or not, and it certainly isn’t proving  the rule to be true.

Though ‘the exception proves the rule’ is a phrase best avoided, you might be thought pedantic to argue that it should only be used in its original Latin sense. Nowadays, when people use the phrase they may simply mean ‘every rule has an exception’ or ‘it’s an exception to the rule’. This may highlight the unusualness of an exception, a case that it is well outside the norm. The exception makes you notice what the norm is; its existence gives force to the rule. This is the gist of the original sense of the phrase.

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