Why Shakespeare – and Del Boy – gave us the phrases that live longest

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While we used to borrow language from the Bible or Shakespeare, now it’s more likely to come from TV shows - Rawpixel
While we used to borrow language from the Bible or Shakespeare, now it’s more likely to come from TV shows - Rawpixel

When did you last say “Pip, pip”? Some opinion-survey company has been going round asking people if they use phrases like pip, pip or dog’s dinner. Since more than half the people asked didn’t use them, the survey folk concluded that “phrases that were once commonplace in Britain are seldom used nowadays”.

When was pip, pip ever commonplace? It was first used in the 1890s to imitate a car horn, but we’re all familiar with it from P G Wodehouse – Pip, pip! Toodle-oo! Tinkerty-tonk! These were seldom off the lips of Gussie Fink-Nottle, and as long as Wodehouse is read, they will remain familiar to us. We’re not going to start using them seriously, only jocularly or with invisible inverted commas.

“The survey’s a bit of a dog’s dinner, scientifically,” says Dot Wordsworth, the Spectator’s longstanding language expert. “Even the phrase that 78 per cent said they don’t use – pearls before swine – would be recognised by most. Otherwise, the old joke (sometimes attributed, like many others, to Dorothy Parker), ‘artificial pearls before real swine’ would fall flat. But it’s as popular as ever.”

So it seems wrong to think that once upon a time we scattered our speech with noble phrases from the Bible and Shakespeare, but now can only summon up secondhand wit from TV ads, even if it’s true that some authors of letters to The Telegraph end them “Simples!”, for want of anything better to put before their signature.

That’s bad, and I get quite annoyed to hear “Lovely jubbly”, as though it were bound in itself to bring joy, rather than being a mere catchphrase from Only Fools and Horses. It was first used there in 1989, as a tacit adaptation of “lubbly Jubbly”, a 1950s advertising slogan for an orange-flavoured drink in a triangular-pyramid packet. In my schooldays it was sometimes frozen and sucked free of its flavour through one chewed corner.

Such phrases are annoying partly because they are associated with recent decades and have gone out of fashion, like words such as groovy or fab (though that has come back in, half-ironically). But an origin in Shakespeare is little guarantee of cultural superiority. Take be-all and end-all. Often it is used to express disapproval of someone who gives himself airs, thinking himself the be-all and end-all, as though he were the only pebble on the beach. Macbeth, though, used it in quite a different sense: that it would be fine if the murder he contemplated was the end of the affair.

We deploy plenty of phrases from Shakespeare, unaware of their origins. The same goes with the Bible. The skin of your teeth is now used for “a very narrow margin”. It comes from the Book of Job in the very literal translation of the Authorised Version. What Job meant by “I am escaped with the skin of my teeth” is hotly disputed, but that does not affect its common meaning today.

It’s trivially true that when people heard the Bible read out in church they often picked up phrases from it. Now we share advertising slogans in common: “Vorsprung durch Technik,” I heard Tim Harford say jocularly on Radio 4’s More or Less last week. How could anyone use it not jocularly?

Yet borrowed phrases take on a life of their own – or become dead metaphors, better known as clichés. On the Today programme, someone said “across the piste”. I’d like to think that the phrase originated as “across the piece” (or “across the board”, as we used to say, with reference to a bookie’s blackboard of odds for a win or place). The broadcasting classes, however, are more familiar with the ski slopes than with a piece of work, and stick to the snowy linguistic high ground.

Some phrases, though, slog through the centuries with surprising tenacity. A parent today may say encouragingly to a small child that it’s time to climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. It might be thought to go back to 1936 when Vera Lynn released a record by that name. But Bedfordshire features in Jonathan Swift’s dramatised collection of clichés known as Polite Conversation (1738). The fashionable characters round the card table grow sleepy and Colonel Atwit says: “I’m going to the Land of Nod.” (A place mentioned in the Bible, open to an obvious play on words.) Miss Notable replies: “Faith, I’m for Bedfordshire.”

For those of a less savagely satirical mind than Swift, clichés can almost seem like poetry. After all, we hardly know why we like proverbs saying obvious things. “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good,” we say cheerfully, to no apparent purpose.

A proverb has made it when it starts being quoted in part: “It’s an ill wind...” “When the cat’s away...” “The proof of the pudding...” In fact, once a proverb is ground down, speakers don’t always know how to finish it. Instead of “The proof of the pudding’s in the eating thereof” (a nice archaic bolt-on), they erroneously come out with: “The proof’s in the pudding”. That’s not the extinction of an endangered phrase, just part of the endlessly playful development of language.

Which ‘endangered’ phrases do you still use? Tell us in the comments section below

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