Gran Used to Say…

close-up of old lady

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!

Jack Russell terrier

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.

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.)

What phrases do you recall from your childhood that you rarely hear now?

42 thoughts on “Gran Used to Say…

  1. When asking what was for dinner, the answer was often ‘bread and pullet,’ or ‘pull it,’ as I thought.
    I find myself using old sayings, such as at the weekend, ‘what’s that got to do with the price of bread?’ after my son finished one of his tales.
    ‘Cats lick,’ in our family was used when mothers licked a hanky and wiped it across a child’s dirty face, or even licking a finger to do so.
    There were a lot, I’ll have to think. My son uses a lot of Cockney rhyming slang.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting… I recall a ‘what’s that got to do with the price of fish’. Maybe some of Nan’s relations lived in fishing communities. (Come to that, we did used to holiday with one in Salcombe, Devon.)


  2. My Mum’s phrase book had a lot of the same ones in it as your Grans.
    A favourite of hers was “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” As was, “If he stuck his head in a gas oven would you do the same?” after I had excused some misdeed by saying that I was only doing what a friend or more often my cousin had done.

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  3. So familiar but not from my grandmothers though. My Mum was from Bethnal Green and my Dad from Lambeth so we had all sorts of sayings filtering through conversation. My Dad’s version of seeing a man … was ‘I’m off to water my horse’. Same meat, different gravy. He was stationed for WW2 army training in Yorkshire so he had many sayings from there under his belt too.
    Never heard the ‘barrer’ one, although there were barrer-boys for all sorts of trades. The version of this sentiment I still use is : I’ll run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.
    Turn up for the book: as today (when they’re not being turf accountants) betting is run by bookmakers or bookies. So ‘for the book’ referred to the bookie rather than the book in which the calculations of odds were made – similar to the tally boards at race meets. The bookie’s runner might have a notebook to record bets but usually bookies give betting slips to record bets.
    Turn up was used for good fortune pre legalised betting, and as you say from the turning over of a card in cribbage. Cribbage only cuts the pack and turns over the top card once, at the start of the game. There is still debate over how much of the game is skill but it is certainly not all chance. It was (perhaps still is) the only card game allowed to be played in licensed premises.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used to play Cribbage with my gran. I still have a crib board but not sure I remember how it goes now… I remember scoring ‘one for his nob’ though. (Not sure if that would be spelled with a ‘k’ or without. I’m assuming – since it was Gran – it referred to his head, but whose head I couldn’t say.)


  4. Brought back a lot of memories Cathy. I recall many that my granny used regularly. She spent her whole life in the fens and talked of a fly b’night,(a person you wouldn’t trust) and those rent dodgers who did a ‘moonlight flit’, she would describe the dark fen sky as ‘black as Newgit’s knocker’ which I believe was a reference to the door knocker at Newgate prison. Read so many more in my memoir of living with Granny, ‘THE RAILWAY CARRIAGE CHILD’ available on Amazon, wendy fletcher

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember all those too. There was something hubby said yesterday that I remembered from Nan too, but – wouldn’t you know it? – I can’t remember what it was now.
      I knew more would turn up if I put a few out there. (I may import those people have offered on Facebook so I have them all here together.)


  5. Were you born on a bus? If you didn’t close the door. Can’t say that now all buses have doors. I still go by Shank’s Pony – though I was disappointed when I discovered there never was a real pony!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been reminded of some other phrases by our u3a facebook group.
    Two familiar sayings were, ‘s/he’s no better than s/he ought to be,’ and ‘little pitchers have big handles.’ (Thank you Glenda). Nan’s version of this one – ‘little piggies have big ears’ was easier to decode when we were taking more notice than we should of the adults’ conversation.

    And thank you Vera for reminding me of the response to our frequent complaints about each other, such as ‘SHE pulled my hair!’ Nan would say, ‘Who’s SHE – the cat’s mother?’

    And Rudy reminded us of the phrase ‘Rat’s Arse’ which was used to avoid swearing around children when they were young, as in, ‘I don’t give a…’.


  7. many of these were familiar to me as well, although I’ve heard the phrase “see a man about a horse” rather than dog. another one I remember was my dad askig us if he thought we were the Rockefellers if we didn’t turn off the lights when leaving a room…

    thanks for the fun memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Fun post, Cathy. Here are some things that came out of my parent’s mouths. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand time…” We’re going out.” (When I’d ask where my parents were going after we were too old for baby sitters.) I don’t know who said this, but I heard it a lot something pretty was “the cat’s meow.”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Close. I have heard several like that, which are similar across the countries. Not that I can think of them right now. Thanks again for hosting Story Chat. I announced it was August, but I think you said September, didn’t you? I’m going to have to change my email and announcement, if that’s the case.

        Liked by 1 person

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