History of Some British Idioms

A brief history of some British idioms.

So a friend of mine in London emailed me a little while ago and, while referring to a particular British politician and the Brexit mess, declared, “He’s pants”. It made me laugh out loud, because the very first time I had heard that expression was with that same friend many years ago, but at that time we were both in London. After he said it I must have looked puzzled, because he laughed and said, “I see I have to explain that one”.

Anyway, it made me think of some more British idioms and expressions that I could remember from my trip to England, and I spent a few hours looking up a few of them and exploring their etymology and history.

“He’s pants”.  The first time I heard this I thought it was hilarious. It is used to indicate that something is trash or garbage. It can refer to a person, an action, a thing or a place, so it can be “your argument is pants” or “my workplace is pants” or “I’m pants at maths”.

In England, what we Americans call “pants” are always called “trousers”. Conversely, in England, the word “pants” always refers to “underpants”. So, the meaning and derivation of “it’s pants” becomes clear: it means “dirty underwear” or “crappy”—or, more politely, “bad”.

Nobody is really sure where it originally came from, but the term was popularized by disc jockeys on the BBC’s Radio 1 pop music channel in the early 1990s (who would characterize things they didn’t like as “a pile of pants”), and became a catchword among London’s rebellious teenagers before spreading to the general population. In 2001 it really went mainstream, and was adopted by a BBC TV charity telethon fundraiser under the slogan “Say Pants to Poverty!” 

“You’ve lost your bottle.”  Roughly translated, this means you’re afraid to do something, perhaps even that you’re a wee bit of a coward. Can also be said as “bottling out”.

According to the Innertubes, the expression comes from old Cockney rhyming slang, which appeared in London’s East End in the 1840s. In this form of cant or argot, rhyming phrases were substituted for words. For instance, instead of calling someone your “mate”, you would use the rhyming phrase “china plate”, then shorten this to just “china”. In this way, working class Cockneys could talk to their “chinas” without being understood by anyone who did not know the slang. Reportedly, socialists and union organizers used it to avoid being overheard by police or company spies. It also became particularly popular amongst the criminal underground, and by the 1920s it had spread to other English-speaking countries like Australia and South Africa. For a time, it was part of popular culture in the US and could even be found in a number of Hollywood movies. Some elements of it can still be heard today.

In old Cockney rhyming slang, then, “bum” (the British expression for “ass”) became “bottle of rum”, which was then shortened to “bottle”. (Some alternate versions have it that the familiar British word “arse” was rhymed to “bottle and glass”—which was also shortened to “bottle”.)

So, “losing your bottle” meant losing control of your bum or arse, indicating that you were so scared that you were shitting yourself. 

As with so many slang expressions and idioms, though, this one has a plausible alternative etymology. In 1890s bare-knuckle boxing, each pugilist had a “bottle man” who stood in his corner with a bottle of water to revive him in between rounds. So if a fighter couldn’t or wouldn’t enter the ring for the next round, he was said to have “lost his bottle” and quit the fight—the equivalent of the American “chickening out”.

 

“Bob’s your uncle”. The first time I heard this one, I was in a London pub and asked the barman where the “loo” was. He told me “Down the hall, to the right, and Bob’s your uncle”. And I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Heck, I don’t even have an uncle named Bob. 

So here’s the story as it was then explained to this Yank by the laughing barman, amended by some Google-fu: back in 1887 a British Prime Minister named Robert Gascoyne-Cecil appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as the government’s Chief Secretary for Ireland. And the nephew, being completely unqualified for the job, screwed everything up and caused a big mess. But, since he was the Prime Minister’s nephew and aristocratic nepotism ruled the day, any objection to Balfour’s performance was overruled by the simple fact that Bob was his uncle.

So, the expression “Bob’s your uncle” came to mean a situation in which you  could not possibly lose because everything was in your favor, and then over time evolved to refer to any task that was so simple and easy that anyone could do it. Today it’s like the American expression “piece of cake” or “easy-peasy”. You’ll mostly hear it when someone is giving you instructions or directions for something. Like “Where’s the loo?”

“Taking the piss out of”.  This one, roughly translated, means “laughing at”, “mocking”, or “making fun of”—especially if done publicly. I first heard it on an Internet forum when one of the British members declared that he enjoyed “taking the piss out of” his opponents. “Taking the piss out of someone” may be with mean intent, or it may be just friendly joshing around.

According to the Innertubes, this expression comes from … how to say this delicately … it comes from the propensity of young males to wake up in the morning with an erection. This condition was said to be “piss-proud”, and when cocky young men (pardon my pun) then strutted around town, that expression was applied to them. And so, mocking them or making fun of them became known as “taking the piss out of them”, thereby deflating their … uh … ego.

Although the term “piss-proud” dates all the way back to the 1780s, the expression “taking the piss out of them” seems to have not first appeared in print until around 1900. But there is an earlier version—“taking the mickey”—that may explain things. This was part of the old Cockney rhyming slang, in which “mickey bliss” (or sometimes “michael bliss”) was the rhyming phrase for “piss”. So, that version of “taking the piss” may go back to sometime in the 19th century (though, maddeningly, that phrase too does not actually appear in print until around 1900).

“Pop your clogs”.  OK, this one is simple—somebody who has “popped their clogs” is dead. Examples: “I wonder when ole Queen Lizzie will finally pop her clogs”, or, “That bastard Boris is lucky he didn’t pop his clogs in hospital”.

It’s a bit uncertain how this one originated, though it almost certainly refers to the “clogs” (leather shoes with wooden soles) worn by 1920’s factory workers. One theory is that, since there were no workplace safety regulations back then, workers were continually being killed by getting mangled in the machinery, and their shoes fell off–hence they “popped their clogs”.

Another hypothesis holds that, since “pop” was once a slang term for “pawn”, the expression refers to a factory worker who is so poor that they have pawned their shoes for money and can therefore no longer come to work and will no longer be here. It would then be similar to the American idiom “to cash in one’s chips” or “to cash out”.

The first introduction of the expression, though, is not clear. Though it apparently has roots that go back to the 1920s, there are no actual printed references to “popping one’s clogs” as an idiom for “dying” before the early 1970s. So this may be a “pseudo-archaic” form, in which a modern expression makes reference to something in the anachronistic past. 

5 thoughts on “History of Some British Idioms”

  1. There is yet another different version for the origin of “lost your bottle”: it refers to alcohol. Being drunk makes people extra-brave and aggressive, so “losing your bottle” means losing your courage.

  2. Here in South Africa, the word “china” as synonym for mate is well known. I am also quite familiar with the expression “Bob’s you uncle,” though I can’t say it is extremely commonly used – I am actually not too sure where I have encountered it.

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