I Like the Cut of Your Jib and other Endearing Idioms, Acronyms, & Clichés

As the youngest of a large family, I was surrounded by plenty of boisterous company when I was a little girl. But every Thursday, all the fun and games stopped, and a strange silence fell over the rooms, with an implicit ‘do not disturb’ sign on every door. Thursday was the day my mam came home from town armed with a week’s supply of comics, and a shopping bag full of packets of Yorkshire toffee and rum & butter bonbons. So the only thing breaking the silence was the sound of contented chewing as the exploits of the Four Marys, Dennis & Gnasher and other characters in ‘Bunty’, ‘Judy’, ‘Dandy’, ‘Beano’ and ‘Hotspur’ were devoured along with the sweets.  

I hated just looking at the pictures in my little comic ‘Twinkle’ and I became determined to find out how the mysterious letters joined together to form words, so that I could join in the fun of reading.  I knew the alphabet, but couldn’t manage to break the code of how the symbols created the words, until one day, my finger haltingly tracing the letters, I had my ‘eureka’ moment and it all became clear. That was the day my love affair with words began when at four years of age I learned to read. This gift has been my solace, my joy, my liberation, and my inspiration ever since then, and I have had the privilege of working in various careers where I could use my passion for reading and writing to sustain me both intellectually and emotionally.

I hated not being able to read the words in Twinkle

I hated not being able to read the words in Twinkle

One of the greatest delights of the written word is its ability to change and evolve, reflecting the nuances and social mores of particular eras. I think idioms, clichés & acronyms are a sound measure of contemporary culture and social climate. It seems that nautical sayings, for example, were historically very relevant to the island nations of Ireland and the UK, and still retain their relevance today, mostly because they’re fun and usually very apt!

the course and speed of a ship is determined by the cut of a ship's jib

the course and speed of a ship is determined by the cut of a ship's jib

When you think about it, an inordinate number of idioms relating to ships and seafaring are still in use. If you and your friends go out on a Saturday night, for example, shake a leg, push the boat out, then stagger home three sheets to the wind, you’re using nautical idioms. If, while you’re on the town, you spot a likely looking lad and tell him, ‘I like the cut of your jib’, well hello sailor, it’s another nautical idiom. The acronym POSH – port out starboard home – can mean an uppity person as well as a super skinny former Spice Girl, while the term broad in the beam refers to the majority of us with a bit more meat on our bones.

Three sheets swaying merrily in the breeze

Three sheets swaying merrily in the breeze

Many people will have read journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin’s On Quoting Shakespeare, a poster of which was commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  Although it is debatable whether Shakespeare coined all of these phrases, with some being attributed to the works of Chaucer and earlier, what is undeniable is that the words survived due to the mass appeal of the Bard’s output and indelibly influenced the English language as we use it today.

 

We tend to think of acronyms as a concept of the 21st century, with the advent of texting and ultra-fast communications. In fact, as an entertaining article on www.mentalfloss.com points out, acronyms date back 2,000 years to Roman times and were very popular during the war years in letters between soldiers and their sweethearts back home (or WAGs as they might be known nowadays). You can find some charming, and some very cheeky farewell messages from that era on the site. Apologies in advance for introducing you to E.N.G.L.A.N.D!

letter writing involved lots of sentimental messages

letter writing involved lots of sentimental messages

Getting back again to when I was young, LOL used to mean lots of love at the end of a letter or note. My friend stubbornly continues to use it in this context even though she is well aware of the laughing out loud current reincarnation of the acronym. All very well sticking to her principles until she sent her condolences and put LOL at the end of an online death notice; be assured that the deceased’s family weren’t laughing out loud at her sentiment, although they saw the funny side eventually.

Apologies for the macabre humour

Apologies for the macabre humour

And so, to use a well-worn cliché, I want to hammer home my point that although some terms and phrases are enduring as well as endearing, the majority are rooted in their own era, and should remain so. Does anyone really use the term YUPPIE any longer, wouldn’t people think you were strange if you exclaimed ‘NIMBY’ in protest at a perceived threat to your lifestyle, or if you tried to register disbelief and distaste by proclaiming GUBU. Oh, I could go on and on but YOLO and since this is a blog post and not a dissertation on the English language, I have G2G.

Ye olde yuppies from the 1980s

Ye olde yuppies from the 1980s

Before I go though, I want to share a video, one that takes an earnest tone rebuking the grammar snobs among us and cautioning against the restriction of language by overly rigid rules. I tend to agree with this in general, and although I do my best to adhere to the basic rules of grammar and give spelling my best shot, I'm sure a language pedant would find many errors and omissions in my efforts. Now, since I have neglected the humble cliché in this post, I feel the need to add that at the end of the day, when all is said and done, you can't please everyone, the grass is always greener, actions speak louder than words, you can fool some of the people all of the time, there's no time like the present to say that ignorance is bliss, and just to be on the safe side, I'll say so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu, in case we don't meet again. PS. SWALK