Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Things Mum and Dad said...

When we die lots of things go with us – our memories, our stories and so on. None of these particularly matter but it occurred to me the other day that some of the things that often disappears are family sayings. I thought of a number of things that used to be said regularly in my parents household that my children have probably never heard – or at least were too young to now recall them. As a result the next generation after them may never know them at all. Or if they do come across them will fail to realise they were once commonly used by the family. Here are a few examples:-

There’s enough blue to make a sailor a pair of trousers – Used when a cloudy sky has brightened up slightly and a small patch of blue sky is visible. (This seems to have been a reasonably common saying in the early 20th century and appeared in Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year in 1941)

Here’s a church
And here’s a steeple;
Open the doors
And here are the people.
A game played using folded fingers. Looking it up on Google I found there were more lines - "Here's the parson going upstairs, And here he is saying his prayers". I hadn’t heard those before and I don’t know what finger movements went with them. The idea of this nursery rhyme was apparently not only to amuse but to increase a child’s manual dexterity.

Elbows off the table.. This was one of the many examples of good manners that we were taught. However, in our house if an adult was to commit this misdemeanour while dining in our presence they were excused on the basis that they were an aunt or uncle. Aunts and uncles being exempt from this particular rule in our household – I wonder if they were in other homes?

Sleep tight, don’t let the bed-bugs bite. A common enough saying this one but do you know where it originated? At one time many beds were simply straw mattresses on a set of ropes within a wooden frame. If the ropes were slack the bed sagged and was uncomfortable. if they were tight it was comfy. As for bed bugs I can always remember how the heroine was taught to hunt bed-bugs in Lynne Reid Banks’ novel ‘The L-shaped Room’. Her rescuer wet a bar of soap, turned off the light and then when she turned the light back on he whipped back the sheet and bashed the soap down on the bed-bugs to catch them. Nowadays bed-bugs are very rare – thank heaven – but in the twelfth century they were pretty common and it is alleged that after a particularly disturbed night staying at an inn in Kingsclere, Hampshire, King John gave the order that the church should ever after display a bed-bug on its tower. To this day the church has a bed-bug weathervane which dates from 1751, but may well be a copy of its predecessor, and perhaps the line goes faithfully back to King John!

One, two, three,
Mother caught a flea;
Put it in the teapot
And made a cup of tea.
The flea jumped out
Mother gave a shout
And in came dad
With his shirt hanging out.

Home James and don’t spare the horses. A commonly used phrase when asked ‘Where next’ towards the end of a day out or simply used when getting in the car at the start of a return journey.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor,
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.
This rhyme was used when counting one’s prune stones, cherry pips or anything else that would end up at the side of a dessert plate. Whichever career was landed on was supposed to be one’s own (if a boy) or one’s husband’s (if a girl). The girls at my prep school would also use the same counting rhyme while pulling petals off a daisy.
A similar rhyme has been noted in William Caxton's, The Game and Playe of the Chesse (c. 1475), in which pawns are named: "Labourer, Smith, Clerk, Merchant, Physician, Taverner, Guard and Ribald." The first record of the opening four professions being grouped together is in William Congreve's Love for Love (1695), which has the lines:
A Soldier and a Sailor, a Tinker and a Taylor,
Had once a doubtful strife, sir.

Dad, who never, ever swore at home used to say ‘Sufferin’ tayters’ (tayters as in potatoes) with great regularity. It was a way of sort of bemoaning his fate or expressing misery. Needless to say he was ragged about it on occasion. I have never heard it anywhere else and as a phrase it doesn’t Google so I assume it was unique to Dad. Heaven knows where he got it from.

Je smile
Tu grins
Il giggle
Nous laughons
Vous splitez
Ils bust
This is one that doesn’t bring up any results in Google so presumably it was a home-made, family one. Or perhaps one Mum was taught at ‘Miss Smith’s’ – her preparatory school.

Mutton dressed as lamb. although this is quite a common English idiom it is usually used to refer to an older woman dressed or made up to look younger (usually unsuccessfully). Mum would not have used it in that sort of catty context but used it to refer to something that was of inferior quality made to look better than it was.

A thousand a year and a handsome wife. This was supposed to be a man’s ambition in life. Interestingly this is another one which gets no response from Google and yet it must have been a reasonably common saying since Jo’s family also used it – with the added phrase Will make a man happy for the rest of his life.

This and better might do; this and worse will never do. A phrase used, for example, if sitting and having a cup of tea when there was work to be done. Although frequently used in our family this creates no response in Google.


  1. Elbows off the table and Sleep tight were common in my youth on this side of the pond.

  2. I remember "here's the church, here's the steeple". Also remember the elbows off the table and sleep tight. The rest are all new to me! Thanks for sharing them!

  3. What about - "If the wind changes your face will stay like that."

    (When pulling a face after you have been told off or have not got your own way)

  4. Bryony certainly remembers hearing the elbows off the table one -- I keep getting told that my brother doesn't yet have children!

    The "a thousand a year..." one sounds as if it's come straight from a Jane Austin novel.

  5. and what sayings do you associate with yourself? Off the top of my head I can't think of many, but there must be lots.

  6. that took me right back to way back when!!!


    saz x

  7. Interestingly, the first three have exact equivalents in Swedish. I associate the saying about the sailor's trousers - with my paternal grandmother. The meaning as I understood it was that if there was enough blue sky for a pair of trousers, the weather was likely to keep getting better (and it would determine things like if you were to go on a picnic or not...)

    I think I remember the finger game as well but not that additional line.

  8. One of my grandmother's favourite sayings was,
    "All wool and a yard wide." I'm still not entirely sure whether this was good or bad!
    Canadian Chickadee

  9. One very risqué one Nana used was: I chased a bug around a tree. I'll have his blood. He knows I will.
    For those who might not mimic the accent, when said qiickly it translates as: I chased a bugger round a tree. I'll have his bloody nose, I will. Given that swearing in our house was taboo - even 'blimey' was not allowed - that was quite something.

    Another of Nana's (Nana rarely drank anything except the occasional sherry) was 'Success to temperance' as a toast when she had that occasional sherry.

  10. My kids still say "Home, James, and don't spare the horses!" so some of my parents expressions still live on. I sometimes hear them say something and wonder where they heard that, before remembering they probably got it from me!

  11. "This and better might". This is something my mum, who's 8 years into Alzheimers, comes out with regularly whenever she's struggling with something. Strangely this is not a phrase that I ever recall her using when I was growing up, so it appears to be an old memory of her own mums sayings. It seems somewhat ironic that someone with Alzheimers has remembered a phrase long forgotten by most.

    I'm wondering whether this phrase is specific to Birmingham, as she grew up in Yardley Wood?

  12. Interesting that someone else knew 'This and better might do' - so it's obviously not just a family saying. But I don't think we have any family connection with Birmingham, Nigel, so I wonder what its origin was?


Hello - thanks for dropping by to leave a comment. Your comments are much appreciated even if I don't always reply. They will appear as soon as they have been moderated.

Blog Archive