When it came to being amazed, those Victorians really knew how to respond:
If ever an old fashioned phrase needed bringing back into circulation, it was this one. But where does a saying as bizarre as this one come from?
The earliest record we have of this beats my grandmother! dates back to 1833, when it first appeared in a comic poem included in an American elocutionary reader, The United States Speaker. The poem, “Logic”, outlines a light-hearted back-and-forth conversation between a young schoolboy—“an Eton stripling”—who has just returned from boarding school, and his uncle, Sir Peter, whom he is visiting:
“Well, Tom, the road; what saw you worth discerning?
How’s all at college Tom: what is’t you’re learning?”
“Learning?—Oh, logic, logic; not the shallow rules
But wits’ and wranglers’ logic; for d’ye see
I’ll prove as clear as A, B, C,
That an eel-pie’s a pigeon; to deny it
Is to say that black’s not black;”—“Come, let’s try it?”
“Well, sir; an eel-pie is a pie of fish:” “Agreed.”
“Fish-pie may be a jack-pie:”—“Well, well, proceed.”
“A jack-pie is a John-pie—and ’tis done!
For every John-pie must be a pie-John!”
“Bravo! bravo!” Sir Peter cries,—“Logic for ever!
This beats my grandmother, and she was clever!”
Tom’s grandmother-beating argument is that the eels in an eel-pie are fish, as are the jacks (an old nickname for a young pike) in a “jack-pie”. Jack is a pet form of John, and “John-pie” when reversed gives “pie-John”— hence, “pigeon”. Ipso facto. Quod erat demonstrandum. Logic forever, indeed.
The poem is unfortunately anonymous, which makes it hard to pin down the precise origin of this beats my grandmother. Its appearance here in an American textbook makes it tempting to presume it’s an American invention, but the reference to Eton College confuses things, as does the fact that the entire “pigeon”/“pie-John” argument is apparently considerably older than this poem might suggest: a reference to it here, for instance, from a book published in London in 1821, suggests that it was already fairly well known even by then.
But regardless of its American or British ancestry, one question remains—why on earth does it beat my grandmother?
Well, oddly enough, this beats my grandmother! was just one in a long line of bizarre eighteenth-nineteenth century slang expressions that emphatically alluded to the speaker’s grandmother. So all my eye and my grandmother! meant “don’t talk rubbish”. So is your grandmother! was the Victorian equivalent of that schoolyard favourite, “I know you are, but what am I?” And to shoot your grandmother meant to find out a juicy bit of gossip, only to discover that everybody else already knows it. (Shameless plug: there’s more on this here.)
Some of these expressions even made the leap from everyday colloquial English into hard-copy literature. Dickens, for instance, used the emphasizing expression not even to your grandmother in Our Mutual Friend (1865). Anthony Trollope dismissively used your grandmother! in his novel Phineas Redux (1873), as did Mark Twain in his short story How I Edited An Agricultural Paper Once (1870). And chances are you’ll have heard someone warn not to teach your grandmother to suck eggs—which Henry Fielding used in Tom Jones as far back as 1749.
As well as being the only one of these phrases to still be in use today, this egg-sucking grandma is also the oldest—and as such provides the best clue to the origin of this entire clutch of expressions. It’s earliest record dates all the way back to 1707, but before then, seventeenth-century speakers were telling each other not to teach their grandmothers “to sup sour milk”, “to make milk-kail” (a type of cabbage soup), and even “to grope a goose” (meaning to poke a goose’s rear end to see if it’s ready to lay an egg—which is likely the origin of the egg-sucking grandma).
The implication of all of these sayings was the same—don’t try to tell an informed, experienced person how to do something they already know how to do. Tellingly, a similar meaning is implied by another expression, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, which has been found in a list of proverbs dating back to 1636 but is probably much, much older: a book on animal husbandry written in 1534, for instance, advises that “it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe [i.e. be compliant]”. The same book also explains the best technique for greasing sheep. Truly, it’s an indispensable read.
The implications in the old dog new tricks and grandma to suck eggs might be different, but there’s only a slight semantic sidestep from “old dog” to “old person”, and hence to “grandmother”—so it’s likely that the one inspired the other, and, eventually, its plethora of later variations.
And if that doesn’t beat your grandmother, I don’t know what will.