Food for thought.
First Class Idioms
Words | Leon Fleming
Oh we peoples of the British Isles, how we love our language with its myriad of words that nobody but us can pronounce, its overflowing catalogue of adjectives, and all those odd little phrases made up of just two or three words that we can set down all shining and fluorescing in our sentences; mini-metaphors that can be absolutely nothing at all to do with our subject, but which can, with just a single sentence, describe with all its many flavours and aromas, exactly what it is we are talking about.
We describe our world in these perfect, compact little stories, and we instinctively know what each of these phrases means; which must be immensely annoying for a person coming to our lingo from abroad, for there is not just one tongue for them to learn, but two.
What is more obscure, and often not given even the slightest thought, is where they came from, what their derivation is, and what it was in the evolution of our beautiful verbal and written expression that gave first breath to these creatures. So here I have taken on the task to bring enlightenment and describe the birth of some of our favourite and most used English idioms.
Many are class related, be it of domestic or military and naval extraction, and with almost all of them comes the often unintentional but seemingly always present spectre of English snobbery.
Let’s look at the first of our idioms to be placed under the microscope, and the one that has inspired this little piece about them; ‘First Class’. And here’s the thing, it is the idiom I don’t seem to be able to find an explanation of, even though it is a term used on the railways, in education, and in the postal services. I am unable to find a reason for it ever coming into being. From this I will conclude, rightly or wrongly, that it has emerged from the hierarchy within the British system of social class. After all, what self-respecting gentleman would want to sully himself in the presence of a man who must by necessity of his existence toil for a living with his own hands, vigour and sweat? No, no, there must be some way of making distinction, of dividing, of creating levels between the two. There is, and it is class; the first class carriage on a train, the more expensive, prioritised, first class post.
Another in the same vein is ‘Top Drawer’. It is obvious to anyone who imagines a set of drawers what this idiom stands for. But it’s an odd sounding thing to say, so just where does it come from? It is first known to appear as a quote in a novel from 1905 by Horace Vachell. The term makes a simile out of the idea that the best kind of people, those from the higher echelons of British society, are to be found in the highest compartment of a bedroom chest of drawers; which is the place where Victorian gentry kept their jewellery and most valuable possessions.
Associated with that oh so English of character traits, Englishness itself even, is a phrase that rings the bells of memories of empire and greatness, the thing we are both admired and ridiculed for in equal portion; a ‘stiff upper lip’ is something said to always be inherent in the greatest of our clan. It is what is meant to mark us out; that desire to do one’s duty, no matter what the cost, never complaining and never alluding to any negative feeling about it whatsoever. What a coup then by those comical Americans that it should be one of their number that originally penned the phrase.
It was in a publication called the ‘Massachusetts Spy’ in 1815, that a stiff upper lip was first notated in context describing this noble stoicism.
How about a naval one for us now. “I don’t like the cut of your jib young sir” is something that any one of us might say on any given day. “I don’t like the look of you” might be a more frank way of expressing the same feeling. A jib is the triangular sail which is strung between the head of the foretopmast at the bow of the ship and the jib boom which protrudes from it. In naval tradition every country had a different style of jib sail, and so the nationality of the sailors aboard could be read by the shape. The triangular shape also has the appearance of a nose, which is the most prominent feature of the face and one of the visual markers we humans use to make an instant opinion about another of our race.
I shall end our little foray into the idiosyncrasies of the English metaphor with what I suppose is actually a proverb, and one that I hope one day can be said of the system of inequality which exists in our society, and which has given rise to so many of the idioms used in our speech and our literature; ‘the writing is on the wall’. This warning of impending doom and demise is taken unequivocally and literally from the Bible: Daniel 5:5, in a story where a king finds words of an unknown language scrawled upon his wall. Daniel, a slave with unearthly powers, is summoned to translate and finds it is a foretelling of the downfall of the kingdom. That night the king is killed, and the kingdom is sacked.
With that parting shot, my colours nailed to the mast, I grit my teeth, batten down the hatches, cross my fingers and hope to keep the wolves from the door.
But please remember, never look a gift horse in the mouth or wait with baited breath killing time while others chew the cud; instead seize the day, keep your nose clean, keep your pecker up, but always mind your p’s and q’s my old china, and walk tall through your salad days.