In 1993 Andrew ‘Brillo Pad’ Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, initiated a regular column in his paper inviting readers to submit answers to the origins of well known phrases and institutions. In the same year a book appeared with some of these answers. Many of these submissions now read like the outrageous fictional suggestions that Private Eyeoccasionally publish in one of their columns.
Who was the ‘ Bob’ in the phrase ‘ Bob’s your uncle ?
Only one reader offered a solution. Bob, according to Tecwen Whittock of mid Glamorgan, was Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne Cecil, better known as Lord Salisbury, the last man to be Prime Minister while a member of the House of Lords. The phrase came into use when Salisbury promoted his nephew, A. J. Balfour, to the post of Chief Secretary for Northern Ireland in 1887. Fifteen years later Balfour succeeded his uncle Bob as Prime Minister.
It is interesting to note that Tecwen Whittock later achieved notoriety as the audience member with the chronic cough who it was alleged helped Major Ingram win a million pounds on ‘ Who Wants to be a Millionaire ‘. But Whittock was surely incorrect in stating that Balfour was Chief Secretary for Northern Ireland, which only came into existence in 1921, after the island was divided into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Balfour was in fact Chief Secretary of Ireland. So perhaps Mr Whittock was not the reliable quiz expert he appeared to be.
Today there is general acceptance that this derivation is correct.
If it is not over until the fat lady sings, who is the fat lady and what does she sing ?
Four readers thought they had the answer to this question. One thought it was a portly singer in the role of Brunhilde in a Seattle production of Wagner’s Ring; another felt it was the woman who sang the national anthem at American baseball matches; another argued it was the overweight American diva Kate Smith; however, the most convincing answer came from a Mr Robert Fox of Shrewsbury who contended that it referred to someone who sang at the first performance of Wagner’s Ring in 1876.
Today the most popular derivation is the one featuring the overweight Miss Kate Smith.
When did homosexuals become gay ?
Only one reader dared to answer this question. Ms Emma Fox, a Ph D candidate at my alma mater, the University of Birmingham, argues that the term was beginning to be used by around 1900. According to her, men drawn to wearing gaudy clothes were popularly regarded as effeminate. She argues that in R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Jekyll’s admission that he is torn between a life of gaiety and one of gravity suggests that he is a closet homosexual. Also in Conrad’s Victory (1915) the ’openly homosexual Jones wears a ‘ gay’ blue silk dressing gown. By 1957 – 8 yay novelist E. M. Forster used the word in his story ‘The Other Boat’ to described the hedonistic lifestyle which the protagonist Lionel wishes to experience.
These observations, however, do not explain why the words ‘ gay ‘ and ‘homosexual were not more frequently interchangeable in the years after1900. Today, many people accept that ‘gay’ is an acronym for Good As You, though there is some dispute among the gay community regarding this.
How or why ‘ willy-nilly ‘ ?
All three readers agreed that the term essentially derived from the Old English ‘ gewillan ‘ ( to wish for) and its opposite ‘ genillan’ ( to wish not to do ). In Chaucer’s time you could ask a question by putting the two alternative—thus ‘will he? will he ne?’
Today, this derivation is generally accepted
What is the origin of the slang word for Americans: Yanks ?
The three respondents pretty well agreed that the word has a Dutch origin. The first suggestion is that the word is Dutch for Jonny, used as a term of abuse between rival colonial groups. The third respondent warns readers to differentiate between Yank and Yankee: ‘A Yank, to someone outside the States, is an American. ‘ To an American it is someone from the East Coast, north of the Mason-Dixon line. To that person it is someone from New England. To a New Englander it is someone from the state of Vermont…’
Today, lexicographers disagree on the derivation. Most argue that it is of Dutch origin, but one source contends it is from the Cherokee word eankke, meaning coward.
Why do parrots enjoy such an explanation for being sick ?
Only one answer was forthcoming, which is disappointing. According to Mr Barry Morton from Yorkshire, the full expression is ‘ as sick as a parrot with a broken beak ‘. We at Jot 101 have not heard of this full expression and therefore might be wrong in thinking that the deadly lung diseases, psittacosis, which is spread by parrots, was behind the expression.
Mr Morton’s derivation doesn’t seem to be supported on the Internet. One derivation refers to the fact that parrots often became drunk after gorging on fermenting fruit, which sounds plausible. However the best supported derivation is the psittacosis one.
Why do we refer to a downpour as ‘ raining cats and dogs ‘?
Again, just one respondent. Dennis Walker of London argues that cats are associated with the occult and that witches rode in the form of cats during storms. Similarly, dogs are descended from wolves, who rode with the god Odin when he summoned a storm. It might also be added that in medieval times storms were reported in which fish and other creatures rained down from the sky. Perhaps cats and dogs were also swept up in a particularly violent storm. Just a thought.
Today, the etymology is described as uncertain and ‘ is not necessarily related to the raining animals phenomenon ‘.
R. M. Healey
To be continued.