I’ve been recalling some of the catchphrases used by my parents, who both died in 1999. Perhaps some readers will recall these phrases with some interest and nostalgia.
We start with:
You wouldn’t chuckle!
This was used by my dad in emphatic agreement, tantamount to “you can say that again!” Perhaps originally it was more literal in its meaning. I’ve done a google search on it but came up with rather little beyond a French site for learning English in which the various tenses of “wouldn’t chuckle” are elaborated, so that, if need be, a Frenchman would be able to say, with accuracy and precision: “you wouldn’t have been chuckling” or “she wouldn’t have chuckled”. I’ve lived 67 years without ever having to say those things, but you never know. Had you, dear reader, not navigated to this blog, you might possibly not have been chuckling quite so much, who knows.
Then there’s He thinks his body every self.
This magnificent phrase was favoured by my mum and it meant “is besotted by self importance”. Apparently the original usage was more North country and was completed by the reason for such self-aggrandizement: “… because your mother’s got a mangle“. We did have a mangle, actually, but it by no means inspired my mother to entertain ideas above her station. My parents were perfect products of a social system that engendered pride in one’s class, as once illustrated so vividly by Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker, and John Cleese or whoever it was, all lined up and looking up to or down on each other. When my brother and I succeeded in getting places at Cambridge University my mum went into a sulk because she felt that we were reneging on our heritage. I did in fact meet some very privileged and well-to-do people at that university, some of whom, I felt, thought their bodies every self. None of them, however, adopted me in order to wrench me from my working-class roots. It’s not too late! Any rich person remembering me from those days may still become my patron; don’t hesitate to make the offer.
It’s no skin off my nose.
This was used by my parents to countenance proposed action insofar as that it would have no negative impact upon themselves. The problem with this one is that there might be one or more third parties off of whose noses skin might be removed by the projected activity. In other words, it represents a very narrow moral viewpoint if over-used.
As firm as the rock of Gibraltar
As smooth as a baby’s bottom
As big as the Queen Mary
As sweet as a Brazil nut
As happy as a sandboy (or as Larry)
My dad enjoyed similes such as those above. Everyday speech was peppered with them. When completing an activity he would announce “That’s it. Fini. Wrap up!” and if he had not been 100% successful he would say “Regret, done utmost!” He would dismiss any lingering problem with “that don’t make no never-mind” or “San Fairy Anne” (derived, one feels by military folk, from the French ca ne fait rien, (excuse the fact that I don’t know how to generate accents on the keyboard)). If he had been tolerably successful he would say that “a blind man’d be pleased to see it”. Tom dab ta la, he’d say, backslang for not bad at all.
Speaking of backslang ….
My dad got a job in a fishmonger chain shop managed by a man from London who used a lot of cockney slang and was fluent in piscatorial backslang. Of course, the words were amended for mellifluousness. So eeslaps were plaice, generatches herrings. and lerricums mackerel. They were delivered to the shop in metal crates, known as metals even after they were replaced by plastic containers (“‘ere Bill, bring me a coupla plastic metals”). Backslang was used to pass messages without customers catching on:
Vaccha kol, Bill, deelo nammow – Have a look (watch out) Bill, old woman (and therefore a difficult customer!)
You silly ‘apoth!
Mum characterized people meriting affectionate ridicule as “apoths” meaning “Half-pennyworths” – suggesting that only half of the requisite intelligence was present. As a girl my mum was able to buy “an ‘apoth of muckup” from the local sweet shop. Muckup was left-over sweets from the bottom of the jars. The young man who served her took rather a shine to her and came round one day with a box of chocolates, but she spurned him, making it possible for my dad to court her successfully some time later.
Anything falling short of proper proceeding was known as poor do’s. If one said anything out of line, especially anything which might indicate that you thought your body every self, one got the response “Arkat you!” (hark at you). If one mentioned something (xxxxxx) that was felt inappropriate, the response would be “xxxxxx?! I’ll give you xxxxxx my lad!” and one might be promised that the speaker would “show you the back of my hand!” although of course we weren’t ever punished in that way.
Some general remarks about catchphrases
Catchphrases have the merit of inclusivity – a private language shared by the in-group (Cockneys, fishmongers, working-class folk, followers of a certain comedian…) but they can become cliches (sorry, I don’t know how to do accents) and, over-used, they can inhibit more detailed and nuanced communication. In our family, and in many others perhaps, this might have been part of their function – they may have served as a tool for conventionalization of attitudes. They can also embody and excuse some unacceptable “isms” passed on in this sardonic manner.
In a similar way, I notice that modish phrases and text-speak are currently cementing conventionalization amongst younger people today.