Posts Tagged ‘glasgow’

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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Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire

The town of Godmanchester near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire is pronounced Gumster
© Keith Evans / Creative Commons Licence

We learn how to pronounce words before we can spell them. When it comes to place names, if we hear them day and day out, and see the name everywhere, I doubt we realise that the way we pronounce a name can quite often be different from how it is spelt.

If you were born in London, or lived there a long time, Greenwich is always Gren-nitch, Holborn is Hoe-bun, and Leicester Square is Lester Square. Though Marylebone, which is pronounced Marry-leben, still doesn’t sound right to me. If you live in Glasgow, locals may pronounce the name of their city as Glezga, though BBC Scotland announcers soften the s to say Glass-gow. But most Southerners will pronounce it as Glasgo rather than Glas-gow (as in how) without a second’s thought.

But there are many places in the UK, that if you’ve only seen the names written down on a map or in a newspaper, could well cause you embarrassment should you try to pronounce them as they are written. Here a few better known place names in England with ‘counter-intuitive’ pronunciations that often catch people out.

Beaminster in Dorset is ‘bemster’, Bicester in Oxfordshire is ‘bis-ter’, Bosham in West Sussex is ‘bozzham’, Lewes in East Sussex is ‘lewis’, Loughborough in Leicestershire is ‘luff-buh-ruh’, Teignmouth in is ‘tin-muth’, Towcester in Northamptonshire is ‘toaster’, Warwick in Warwickshire is ‘worrick’, and Wisbech in Cambridgeshire is ‘wiz-beech’.

The pronunciation of some English place names is very different from the spelling.

Alnwick in Northumberland is ‘annick’, Belvoir in Leicestershire is ‘beever’, Cholmondeley in Cheshire is ‘chum-lee’, Costessey in Norfolk is ‘cossy’, Darwin in Lancashires is ‘darren’, Furneux Pelham in Hertfordshire begins with ‘furn-ucks’, Mousehole in Cornwall is ‘mou-zl’, Prinknash in Gloucestershire is ‘prinnish’, Torpenhow in Cumbria is ‘tre-penna’, Wymondham in Norfolk is ‘wind-um’, and Woolfardisworthy in Devon is pronounced economically as ‘wools-ree’.

In Wales, if you can’t speak Welsh, pronunciation will be difficult anyway. Some of the more difficult place names are Caersws which is ‘car-soose’, Llandudno is ‘hlan-did-no’, Pwllheli is ‘poohh-helly’, and the little known Ponciau in Wrexham is ‘ponky’.

Scotland has Auchinleck in East Ayrshire which is pronounced ‘aff-leck’, Dalziel in North Lanarkshire is ‘dee-el’ or ‘deeyel’, Hawick in the Borders is ‘hoyk’, Kirkcaldy in Fife is pronounced somewhere between ‘kir-caw-dee’ and ‘ker-coddy’, Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire is ‘mull-guy’, and Penicuik in Midlothian is ‘penny-cook’.

There is a story of an American couple passing through Milngavie who became aware that it had a confusing pronunciation, so they thought they’d better ask a local. When having lunch they asked the waitress ‘can you tell us how you pronounce the name of this place and say it slowly so that we can pick it up’. The obliging lass said, slowly and clearly ‘B-u-r-g-e-r K-i-n-g’.

For those seeking further examples, you can do no better than to consult this list in Wikipedia.

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