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Johnny Grimond: Words and Stuff

Regulars | By Johnny Grimond | May 2016

Sliced bread doesn't cut the mustard

It was reported the other day that a German-born juror had been convicted of contempt of court for researching online the case he was hearing and then telling a fellow juror about the results, thus causing the trial to collapse. Although he had lived in Britain since 1994, was a university professor and had written two books and umpteen academic articles in English, he claimed he hadn’t understood the judge’s warning that the jurors would be ‘in hot water’ if they Googled the case. He was fined £1,250.

Idiomatic and colloquial expressions play a huge part in any language. A friend tells me that you can tell whether someone knows a language by asking him the word for a spanner. I suspect a better test would be to ask whether he can translate an expression or two. Think you know English? Then what does it mean to ‘know your onions’? 

As it happens, the juror did know his onions: water, ironically, was his special subject and he could tell you all about it and allied subjects, including drainage and evaporation and wetlands and so on. But he didn’t know colloquial English. Had he done so, he would have been aware that knowing your onions is pretty close to knowing what’s what, and also to knowing a thing or two, though the three are not quite the same, as any native-speaker can explain. 

It’s sometimes interesting to learn the origin of expressions. ‘Top notch’, for example, arose because the bottom man in the sawpit would get sawdust in his eyes, making it preferable to have the top notch. So I’m told anyway. But most of us use expressions and know what they mean without knowing their origin. I have yet to see a convincing account of the origin of the phrase ‘spill the beans’, and the same goes for ‘cash on the nail’, though suggestions abound. We use such expressions because we like them.

Some I don’t much like, partly because even when I think I know what they mean, I can’t understand how they have come into common use. One of these is ‘He looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth’, supposedly used to describe someone who is cold-bloodedly guileful. Yet the description never matches the child or ingénue, who is invariably divinely sweet and innocent-looking, fully capable of melting both hearts and butter. 

A more modern annoyance is ‘the greatest thing since sliced bread’. Sliced bread is to me an abomination; I can think of a thousand inventions I rate higher, including Tetrapak and double-entry bookkeeping, charmless though they are in their different ways. Then there is ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’. It’s pedantic to ask, I know, but would it be better to be in the wrong place at the right time, or indeed in the right place at the wrong time? And that highly desirable object, be it a pudding or a dress, is it really ‘to die for’? Irritating? ‘Tell me about it’ – almost the silliest expression of the lot. When listening to other people’s minor misfortunes, the last thing I want is to hear any more about them.

So I have some sympathy for foreigners who don’t understand English expressions. Yet sometimes more than contempt of court is at stake. In 1953 Derek Bentley was found guilty of murdering a policeman largely because he had said to Christopher Craig, ‘Let him have it, Chris.’ The jury interpreted this to be an incitement to Craig to shoot, as the prosecution alleged, rather than an entreaty to hand over the gun, as the defence argued. Bentley was hanged, though the conviction was overturned in 1998. If only the jurors had had a more limited command of English. 

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now