Jedburgh Justice & Kentish Fire:
The Story of English in 10 Phrases & Expressions (2014)
If Haggard Hawks & Paltry Poltroons started everything off, then Jedburgh Justice & Kentish Fire kept it going...
Just like last time, Jedburgh Justice is comprised of 50 lists of ten—but in this case, it’s not the origins of words that are under the microscope, but the origins of 500 proverbs, phrases, and expressions.
So here you’ll find the related origins behind 10 Phrases Derived From Places in Britain, 10 Latin Phrases Used in English, 10 Phrases Derived From Comics and Cartoons, and many more—plus, along the way, a story about a cursing curate, a belligerent parrot, and the filthy joke behind the expression who’s robbing this coach, anyway?
Here’s a taster...
10 PHRASES FROM COMICS AND CARTOONS
Comic books and cartoon strips might seem an unlikely source of English turns of phrase (and certainly some of those listed here will be far from familiar to modern speakers) but as expressions like curate’s egg and keeping up with the Joneses prove, cartoons can be a surprisingly inventive resource...
1. BANG GOES SIXPENCE!
In late-nineteenth-century London, bang goes sixpence! was a popular catchphrase describing a sudden or unexpectedly costly expense. It was coined in a caption to a cartoon by the Victorian artist Charles Keene, first printed in Punch magazine in 1868, which lampooned two contemporary stereotypes: the increasingly extortionate cost of living in London and the clichéd miserliness of Scots. Depicting a meeting between two Scottish men, one of whom has apparently returned earlier than expected from a visit to the capital, the caption read, ‘It’s just a ruinous place, that! A had na’ been there abune twa hours when—bang—went saxpence!’ The expression soon caught on in Victorian London, before dying out in the early 1900s.
2. BROWN, JONES AND ROBINSON
Created by the English artist and illustrator Richard Doyle, Brown, Jones and Robinson were three middle-class Englishmen who featured in a long-running comic strip first printed in Punch in 1850. The cartoons, originally called The Pleasure Trips of Brown, Jones and Robinson, satirized the narrow-mindedness and awkwardness of social climbers and would-be gentlemen, and soon the trio’s names became a popular nineteenth-century expression typifying the English middle classes.
3. CURATE’S EGG
Like the curate’s egg—good in parts is a familiar expression used to refer to something that, although outwardly bad, has at least some redeeming features. It has been current for over a century, having first appeared in a cartoon by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the authoress Daphne du Maurier) in Punch in 1895. The image depicted a nervous-looking curate having breakfast with a bishop, who comments, ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones’, to which the curate replies, ‘Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’ Almost a century later, the same cartoon was reprinted in the final edition of Punch in 1992, but making light of changes in manners since the Victorian era was given the more modern caption: ‘Curate: This fucking egg’s off!’.
4. DRAGON LADY
Describing any domineering or strong-willed woman, the expression dragon lady was originally the name of a character in Terry and the Pirates, an action-adventure comic strip created by the American cartoonist Milton Caniff in 1934; the Dragon Lady character, a beautiful but treacherous East Asian piratess, was introduced the following year. Originally a villain, when Caniff cleverly began to work the real-life events of the Second World War into the comic’s storylines in the 1940s, the Dragon Lady allied herself to the main protagonists and was depicted fighting against invading Japanese forces in China. Her name soon entered into common use in American English as a byword for any aggressively powerful or commanding woman, and in more recent years has begun to be used with increasingly positive connotations to refer to any strong-willed or unflappable woman.
5. HORSE FEATHERS
Horse feathers, American slang for ‘nonsense’ or ‘lies’, is often wrongly credited to the Marx Brothers, who used it as the title of their fourth full-length feature film in 1932. In fact its earliest record comes from a 1927 cartoon by the American artist Tad Dorgan, which featured the caption ‘The cashier’s department—Bah!—horse feathers’. The following year, the same phrase was used as the title of a short animated film by the American cartoonist Billy de Beck, who claimed it as his own. As both writers were well known for creating their own words and phrases in their work—Dorgan coined drugstore cowboy and cat’s pyjamas, while de Beck invented the heebie-jeebies—which of the two men is truly responsible remains a mystery.
6. To KEEP UP WITH THE JONESES
Expressing the natural competitiveness of neighbours, keeping up with the Joneses was originally the title of a comic strip created by the American cartoonist Arthur ‘Pop’ Momand in 1913. Based on Momand’s own experience of growing up in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost thirty years and was adapted into books, films, and even a musical comedy. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand originally wanted to call ‘the Smiths’ before deciding that ‘Joneses’ sounded better—were the neighbours of the cartoon’s principal characters and were never actually seen.
7. LEAD BALLOON
In British English, a complete failure is often said to go down like a lead balloon, while in America it is said to go over like a lead balloon, a change of words thought to have originated in the theatre where a poor joke was said to ‘go over’ the audience’s heads. The original expression, however, was to go up as fast as a lead balloon, first used in an edition of the comic strip Mom-n-Pop by the American cartoonist Loren Taylor in 1924. From there, it soon slipped into use in US slang before being adopted into British English during the Second World War.
8. MUTT AND JEFF
Before it became rhyming slang for ‘deaf’ in the 1960s, in the early 1900s the names Mutt and Jeff were used to refer either to any two visibly dissimilar people, or to a ‘good-cop, bad-cop’ means of interrogation. It derives from the name of a popular comic strip created by the American cartoonist Bud Fisher in 1907. Recounting the various misadventures and get-rich-quick schemes of its two mismatched leads—the tall, slim Augustus Mutt and his short, bald companion known only as Jeff—the series ran for almost eighty years, during which time it spawned several books, spin-off cartoons, songs and a musical stage show.
9. PIP, SQUEAK AND WILFRED
Pip, Squeak and Wilfred were the names of a dog, a penguin and a rabbit who featured in a children’s comic strip in the Daily Mirror from 1919 to 1955. Created by the cartoonist Austin B. Payne, the series proved hugely popular in the 1920s, around the same time that a series of First World War medals were introduced by the British government: the 1914–15 Star became known as Pip; the British War Medal was Squeak; and the Allied Victory Medal became Wilfred. The nicknames were soon established in military slang, and by the 1960s Pip, Squeak and Wilfred had come to be used simply for any connected group of three people or things.
10. SADIE HAWKINS DAY
Created by the American cartoonist Al Capp in 1934, the Li’l Abner comic series ran for more than forty years, chronicling the lives of a group of hillbillies in the fictional Arkansas town of Dogpatch. 35-year-old spinster Sadie Hawkins was the town’s ‘homeliest gal’, whose father, worried that she was never going to marry, decided to organise a Sadie Hawkins Day on which a footrace was held for all the town’s unmarried men with Sadie in pursuit. The first man Sadie caught would ultimately become her husband. What began as a one-off joke soon became an annual occurrence in the comic strip and eventually inspired real-life Sadie Hawkins Days, on which women are encouraged to propose to their partners, and Sadie Hawkins dances, in which women are obliged to invite male guests, all across America.