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Idioms are fun

I have chosen this title for today’s post, because in our life everything is supposed to be fun. Grammar, as I have often noted, is no longer studied at our schools, because grammar is not fun. Neither are math and geography. I am happy to report that, according to my experience, idioms are fun. Even my Zoom talks on them attract big crowds. In the nearest future, I expect to choose some of the most attractive idioms I have in my modest collection and “publish” them here.

Fox and cub
The aftermath of the fox’s wedding (by Peter Trimming via Flickr)

The most amusing examples occur in dialects. I have an 1879 phrase, recorded in Berkshire (South East England): “There she lies fast asleep with hands full of pancakes.” This is a description of a child fast asleep. In such cases, I always appeal to native speakers. Perhaps someone in Berkshire reads this blog (this is not impossible: I occasionally receive letters from New Zealand and Brazil, so why not from Berkshire?) and can tell us more about this wonderful expression. In Devon and Cornwall (again in the South West), when one sees sunshine through rain, people speak of “fox’s wedding.” This weather phenomenon has highly individual names all over the world. People refer to animals, the Devil, and many other creatures, as well as to improbable entities, at the sight of water and light, which is indeed a union (wedding) of two elements from heaven. According to the conclusion of a knowledgeable scholar, the idea of the fox’s wedding arose in India and spread from there to diverse points of the globe, adapting on its journey to different cultural backgrounds, linguistic environments, and patterns of thought.

European folklore owes a great debt to India. Tales from there traveled west, and sometimes only the punchline stayed in human memory as an idiom. Also in Devon and Cornwall, people say (or said a hundred years ago): “That beats Ackytoashy, and Ackytoashy beats the Devil.” This is a description of something almost incredible. Another variant has Acky Baugh instead of Ackytoashy. Apparently, Ackytoashy outwitted the Devil, a plot celebrated in many folk tales. We don’t know how and where he performed his deed. The fact that Acky is short for Hercules and Archelaus (both names having been sometimes confused in the county) may be true but does not go far, because Toashy remains unexplained, and nothing is known about his deeds. Across some water, in Ireland, they used to say (1874): “That beats Akebo” (an expression of surprise). As far as I know, those two phrases have never been compared. Yet Acky Baugh looks like a variant of Akebo.

An image of St. Muiredach’s churchyard (by Phil Champion via Geograph)

Nor is it improbable that Akebo is a place name! Consider the phrase: “That bangs Banagher, and Banagher beats the world.” The phrase implies something unbelievable (my references go back to the notes published between 1872 and 1883, but the adage seems to have lost none of its freshness since that time). The legend tells about the miraculous qualities of the sand in the churchyard surrounding a tomb erected to the memory of St. Muiredach O’Heney. Allegedly, a horse sprinkled with the sand from that churchyard was supposed to win in a race, and, if it lost, the winner was said to bang Banagher. The Internet is full of information about Banagher and this phrase (see especially the idiom “to beat the band). A different story has it that Banagher conquered everything including the Devil. Whatever its origin, the expression follows the same model we have seen above. Bangs of course alliterates with Banagher, but at the core of the idiom is a migratory tale. In the context of the present discussion, it does not matter whether some hero defeated the Devil or returned home safe from fighting with an enchanted place. The roots of the tale may be hidden in the depths of Celtic folklore.

Mihály Munkáksy, “Woman carrying faggots”, 1873 (via Wikimedia)

Now a short journey east, to the Midlands: “He that would eat a buttered faggot, let him go to Northampton.” This is puzzling advice. I am quoting from Athenæum 1898, I, p. 812 (Athenæum was an excellent periodical; all the volumes of it have been combed for idioms, but they yielded incomparably fewer examples than Notes and Queries). Here goes:

“‘There can be little doubt that this proverb refers to the former scarcity of fuel in the country town, and implies that a faggot was a choice delicacy’ (Fuller) [the reference is to Thomas Fuller’s 1662 book History of the Worthies of England]. Ray, whose collection of proverbs was issued only a few years subsequent to Fuller’s ‘Worthies’ [in 1668], supports Fuller in this view, adding that King James [James I, 1566-1625] is said to have spoken thus of the Newmarket, but that the saying was more applied to Northampton, as the dearest town in all England for fuel. There is little question that ‘faggot’ can mean, as Christopher A. Markham (in his The Proverbs of Northamptonshire) says, something like ‘a mediæval porcine preparation’; but why any preparation of pig should want buttering is not explained.”

Buttered faggots (via Wikimedia)

I always wince when I see the words certainly, obviously, little question, there can be little doubt, and undoubtedly in explanations of etymological puzzles. And, like the anonymous contributor to Athenæum, I wonder why a preparation of pig should want buttering. However, I remember that buttering inappropriate foodstuffs was at one time proverbial. Fried parsnips do indeed need buttering, even though fine words cannot substitute for butter. Let us not forget what King Lear’s fool says to his distressed, disillusioned master: “Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ’em i’ the paste alive; she knapped ‘em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried, ‘Down, wantons, down!” ’Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay” (II, 4, 121-28). Could it be that faggots in the old saying meant what the word was supposed to mean, namely, “a bundle of sticks or twigs,” while that porcine preparation only resembles such a bundle in form?  Fool’s sayings refer to the popular genre ridiculing the people who do good things at a wrong time or perform acts of outrageous stupidity. International folklore is full of such anecdotes (remember the ship of fools).

The wise men of Gotham also resided in Nottinghamshire. They could have indulged in buttering faggots or hay. Didn’t the king say: “If you want to meet fools, go to Northampton?” At that time, the joke would have been understood in London and Stratford, but, possibly, not many people knew it. In any case, Shakespeare did (King Lear was written in the early 1600s); yet half a century later neither Fuller nor the well-informed Ray seem to have had the slightest notion of it.

Wise men of Gotham (via Wikimedia)

I sincerely hope that, while reading this post, you had some fun.

Editor’s note: updated on 24 September 2020

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Berkshire is not in the South West of England. It lies just west of and adjacent to London, to the north of Hampshire and to the south of Oxfordshire. A ‘berk’ is an irritating person, a coxcomb, but I have no idea what relation this word has to the county. Faggots are made from a butcher’s sweepings, made up with bread (or possibly sawdust) and can be truly disgusting – the cheapest items on offer.

  2. OUPblog

    Many thanks for your comment, Gavin. We have now corrected the error. Kindest regards, the OUPblog team.

  3. Gavin Wraith

    Thank you, OUPblog. One of my favourite idioms, current in the north of England, is ‘he is as daft as a brush’. Why brushes should be considered daft I do not know, but somehow this phrase is wonderfully descriptive but it is not cruel.

  4. E. Robinson

    I grew up in Berkshire but have never heard the “hands full of pancakes” phrase. Is it possibly linked with Shrove Tuesday? The only idiom I recall I think came from London, which was “he couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding”. The name of the county comes from Anglo-Saxon, and is now pronounced ‘bark’.

  5. Christopher WILSON

    ‘berk’ is supposedly rhyming slang: ‘berkshire hunt’.

  6. Ildi

    In Hungary, the idiom says the Devil beats his wife.

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