Archive for the ‘Phrases’ Category

‘Inspector Sands, please report to the operations room immediately’ is an announcement that many commuters will have heard on the London Underground or on mainline railway stations. Inspector Sands is a code phrase used by public transport authorities in the UK to alert staff to an emergency, or to a potential emergency such as a fire alarm being operated or a suspect package, without alerting the public and creating panic. The actual phrase used may vary so as to direct staff to the location of the incident.

‘Mr Sands’ has long been used in theatres as a code for fire, where sand buckets were used to put out fires since the word ‘fire’ backstage or anywhere else would cause alarm to the performers and the audience. Indeed the phrase ‘it’s like shouting fire in a crowded theatre’ is a popular metaphor for a person recklessly causing unnecessary panic.

Apparently the alert usually means a fire alarm has been tripped and 90% of the time it’s a false alarm. The use of ‘Sands’ may arise from the sand from the fire buckets that would have been to put out fires. Less likely is the suggestion that it comes from the period of time that elapses between the staff investigating and resetting the fire alarm, as might be measured in a sand-timer, before the station’s systems automatically switch to a fail-safe evacuation mode.

Incidentally in theatres, Mr Gravel was the code name for a bomb alert. I wonder if this is true, and if so, why Mr Gravel?


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Bottle of Green InkI heard this phrase whilst listening to Feedback on BBC Radio 4, and I don’t think I’ve heard it before. On the programme it was used, not that unkindly, to refer to irate complainants who write into the BBC to express their dissatisfaction with some aspect of programming or management. A bit of digging finds this definition: a collective term for people who write abusive or threatening letters to people in the public eye, from the idea that only the eccentric would write in green ink! In 1998, the newly appointed Readers’ Editor of the Guardian, Ian Mayes, wrote: ‘Even before I began I had numerous warnings from colleagues to ‘beware of the green-ink brigade’, conjuring the spectre of obsessive correspondents who would write at great length and persistently, typically covering their copious sheets in longhand scrawled in green ink’. ‘The ‘green ink brigade’ is apparently used in news rooms as a euphemism which saves one from talking about the lunatic fringe, and the use of a green ink pen is also said to be the implement of choice of conspiracy theorists and cranks.

An early example comes from a 1985 article, again from the Guardian, in which Ian Aitkin describes the uproar over a House of Commons debate on fluoridation, and says ‘Our elected legislature was taken over lock, stock and barrel by the green ink brigade’, and he goes on to explain the expression as the more-or-less affectionate description given by journalists and politicians to the people who write them eccentric letters, often in block capitals and frequently underlined in multicoloured inks. For some reason I have never heard satisfactorily explained, the most obsessive of these correspondents seem to prefer green’. Reading all this, and not myself having ever seen a letter written in green ink, I wonder whether the prevalence of a green ink brigade is a little exaggerated.


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This now rather archaic British phrase refers to a person who has died or to something that has broken. There are many ideas as to its origin but it first came into common use in the mid-20th century. The two main contenders refer either to the beer brewed in the Midlands town of Burton upon Trent, which was and still is famous for its breweries, or to the suits made by Montague Burton, who supplied the majority of the de-mobilization suits that British servicemen were given on leaving service after WWII.

BurtonAle2According to the brewing origin, it is said that there were pre-WWII adverts for Burton Ale where one of the characters was missing. One advert showed a football team lined up for a photo with one player missing, and the caption ‘he’s gone for a Burton’, that is he’d gone to the pub. However during WWII, the phrase was in widespread use in the RAF in referring to pilots who had crashed, especially those who crashed into the sea, that is ‘in the drink’. Having ‘gone for a burton’ was a gentle way of saying that an airman had been killed in action.

MontagueBurtonAlternatively, the phrase is said to be a euphemistic reference to an errant serviceman. ‘Where’s Private Coggins? He’s gone for a burton sir’. Private Coggins hasn’t of course gone to have a suit fitted at Burton the tailor, he’s more likely gone absent without leave.

This latter explanation however seems the less likely of the two, as it doesn’t quite match the meaning of the phrase which was used to mean dead, not merely absent, so the brewing origin seems the most likely.

Whilst the phrase is fading from general use, it hasn’t as yet quite ‘gone for a burton’.

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milk churns, horsted keynes, bluebell railway

Milk Churns at Horsted Keynes Station on the Bluebell Railway

Daughter Anna Gryce had great success at the Lambeth Horticultural Society Spring Show on 6 April 2013. Her exhibit in the ‘Nostalgia’ photographic class won first prize and the best in show!

The photograph was taken at Horsed Keynes railway station on the Bluebell Railway heritage line in West Sussex, and the image converted to monochrome. It elicits a bygone era when milk was brought from local farms and taken up to London by train. Hence the ‘milk train’, a train that ran very early in the morning to transport milk but which also carried passengers.

In the ‘Flowers in Spring’ class, Anna’s exhibit, a tint enhanced image of bluebells in a wood, won first prize. But it has no connection with the location of her’ Nostalgia’ entry.

In the Summer 2013 issue of the LHS newsletter, the editor said about the photos, ‘the standard has been set!’

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