I’ve always been fascinated by different sayings and expressions, and how they come to be. Obviously I’m not alone in that judging by how many websites there are on the topic. The only frustrating part is often we will never really know how a particular phrase originated; we can only come up with a theory, which may or may not be correct.
For example, here in Australia we say ‘mad as a cut snake’. It’s fairly easy to guess the origin of that; a snake cut in half (a common if somewhat bloodthirsty way of dealing with the threat of a venomous snake too close for comfort – and done using a shovel or similar long handled implement, not a knife) would thrash around violently in its death throes.
Another Australian one that is less obvious is ‘flat out like a lizard drinking’. Lizards are pretty flat out when they are drinking, but then they are pretty flat out all the time, especially the ones with short legs.
Recently I was telling a friend that person A could ‘knock person B into a cocked hat so far as computer skills go’. Why do we say that, meaning the bit about hats, not computer skills? One theory is that it means being knocked out of shape, normal hats are round, like heads, but cocked hats are three cornered, so out of shape. This certainly seems plausible.
Thinking of this reminded me of the story about the British police helmet. (Do British bobbies still wear them, according to Wikipedia apparently yes they do.) Some wit looked at a British bobby and asked, ‘Does your head come all the way to the top of that helmet?’ Presumably he then ran quickly in the opposite direction.
Some of these expressions are very regional. I know that in England you will hear sayings in some places that you won’t hear in others. One I grew up with is ‘it’s black over Will’s mothers way’, meaning the sky is dark and it looks like rain. I Googled this, and came up with a few possible origins, none of them to my mind very satisfying. One theory is that the Will in question was William Shakespeare, and in that part of the country weather generally came from the direction of Stratford on Avon. In Essex the suggestion was William of Orange, who came from Holland, and that was the direction weather came from there.
It seems the saying is widespread in different parts of the country, so neither of these is very likely to be true.
Another possible suggestion is Will or Bill was a very common name, almost everybody would have known somebody called that, and therefore his mother and where she lived. This doesn’t seem right, other names were also common, why not Harry’s mother or John’s mother or Pete’s mother?
One which has me completely baffled is ‘I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ to indicate surprise or amazement. I can think of no logical solution, even a far-fetched one.
These sayings all add colour to our language, although they are all quite old. I wonder if new ones are appearing, I’m sure they must be but at the moment I can’t think of any examples.
One point about the various websites discussing the origins of these phrases, I don’t think all of them are very reliable. Many of them have the same theories, and often the theories are only sent in by random contributors, not by anybody who has actually researched or studied the subject. I guess the same could be said about websites about almost anything. Here are a couple of the better ones in my opinion:
Another site I found which has heaps of links to language base resources is
I didn’t have time to browse through a fraction of the stuff here – enter at your peril! I suspect it could be major time consumption. I won’t say time wasting, but it’s close. The site is a compilation of links to many other site loosely connected with English usage, and it’s the loose part that’s the problem. Some of the links are also obsolete.
I’ve tried blogging before, but never managed to maintain it, neither have I ever managed to write a journal for more than a week or so. This time I’ve set myself the task of posting every week, on or before Thursday, somewhere between 500 and 1000 words (more if I get really inspired). This means that sometimes the quality will be doubtful, but I hope to make a habit of writing, and train myself to write even when inspiration does not seem immediately forthcoming. This makes three weeks, but I think it takes longer than that to form a habit, I’d guess three months or so at least. I’ll review that after Christmas!
Stan Carey said:
Interesting post! I like “flat out like a lizard drinking”; it immediately conjures up a good image — even if, as you say, lizards are normally pretty flat anyway. Does it mean being literally flat, near the ground? There’s a common idiom “flat out”, meaning “hard at work” or “trying one’s best”, e.g., “I was flat out all morning but I still didn’t get the house tidied.”
You’re right about Phrases.org, by the way. Major time suck!
Thanks for the comment Stan. It means ‘flat out’ in the sense of being hard at work, but often used ironically. Australians are very good at irony and understatement.
When I have time I’m going to spend some of it checking out your blog, I hadn’t seen it before but it’s definitely my cup of tea!
Ah, thanks for explaining it, Julie. I might try using it one day — with or without irony! You’re welcome to visit my blog(s) any time.
I’ve never heard of any of these ‘Australian’ sayings, Julie. Not sure where you live, but maybe they’re not used in Melbourne where I live.
Interesting point wondering where sayings come from.
In the late 1970’s I share a flat in London with 6 other Australians, all from different states – we all used different expressions & terms. Half the time, we didn’t know which slang word meant what meaning (from each state).
I live in Perth, and have lived in Adelaide, not Melbourne. I thought these sayings were pretty universal though, just goes to show how much I know. I grew up in England, and often can’t remember whether sayings I use or hear come from the UK or Australia. Both the cut snake and the lizard drinking are definitely Australian, presumably West Australian only.