Recent posts about housework have reminded me of my gran’s term for my kind of cleaning. She used to call it a ‘cat’s lick’ or a ‘lick and a promise’.
Promises to my household surfaces rarely get fulfilled.
I’ve since been reminded of some other phrases Nan would use, One of which I haven’t managed to track down yet on the internet. Sometimes, after giving her opinion on something, she would conclude with the declaration, ‘That’s me; me barrer’s outside.’ (Which is Nanglish for, ‘That’s me; my barrow’s outside’.)
I’ve not found this explained anywhere as yet. I can only guess that it parodied some kind of East End sales pitch from a travelling pedlar. If anyone knows where it came from, I’d be interested to hear its history.
Many of Nan’s phrases are still well known and used – we all knew not to ask too many questions if a new item ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. But the sayings I remember most are those that made us stop and think the first time we heard them.
When one of us grandchildren would, for instance, seize on a biscuit or other treat not wanted by Nan, she would ask if we’d be as quick to jump in her grave – which we, of course took literally. (The phrase was originally used on relatives who were expected to squabble over the speaker’s belongings after his or her death.)
Another equally spooky saying on first acquaintance was when she said someone had walked over her grave, having been seized by a sudden shiver. (It occurs to me that I haven’t had such an involuntary shiver for years. Does that signify that my remains are likely to be cremated, do you think? Or does it just mean my automatic reflexes are shutting down as I age?)
Nan’s warning that ‘yer can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,’ conjured up interesting images the first time I heard it. At that time, I don’t think she was referring to any of us, but we were often the subject of her scorn. For instance, if we couldn’t find something that was in plain sight, she’d tell us, ‘Yer can’t see for looking’ – especially if it was something she’d asked us to retrieve for her.
I recall one time I asked where our dad was, she told me he’d gone ‘to see a man about a dog’. Oh, the false hopes this casual euphemism conjured up in my dog-loving breast!
In fact, this was a phrase employed at any time someone didn’t want to explain where they were really going. It is possible my dad was in the pub in this instance, but more often in our household it was used when someone was going to ‘spend a penny’.
Nan often knew when we had been somewhere we shouldn’t have been. When we asked how she knew she’d say, ‘A little bird told me.’ Apparently, the root source of this is thought to be Ecclesiastes 10-20:
Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.http://britainandbritishness.com/2017/01/20-quaint-british-phrases.html
A less worthy source is quoted for another of her favourites, used to greet an unexpected stroke of good luck: ‘That was a turn up for the book’.
Originally “a turn up for the book” was related to 18th-century horse racing meetings, where punters’ names and wagers were recorded in a notebook. If an unbacked horse won, it was called a “turn up” for the bookmaker, who kept all the money. (A ‘turn up’ comes from games of chance like cribbage, where cards are “turned up” by chance.)