😿 Ho Ho Ho
What the hell does that mean? I’ve never really seen a cat cry, but I’m not keen on the little varmints so I haven’t actually studied them. I imagine a crying cat might look strange, oddly amusing, even vaguely sinister, but I really have no idea.
I guess the answer lies elsewhere. My dear old Nan, as we called our grandmother, used to say “You’d laugh to see a cat cry” to me from time to time because I was easily amused. I still am, as it happens, and I still use this expression when the mood takes me.
I have selected this as an example of the odd and sometimes inexplicable terms that we pick up as we go through life, and that I think we should hang onto for grim death!
Oh! here I go again. Why “ for grim death”?
I mean I get it, death is pretty grim, but I still don’t quite understand the reference.
Anyway, I think expressions like this enrich our lives and we should take care to look after them.
My wife’s mother was always complaining that their house or room looked like “The Wreck of The Hesperus”. A nice poetic reference, but not one likely to be appreciated by young children, who’s familiarity with Longfellow was unreliable at best!
My own father, who was not drawn to cursing, even though he worked mainly on building sites, had a few eccentric expressions of his own that I have not picked up from anywhere else.
“Well, stripe me pink!” he would exclaim when surprised. Apparently, this has citations going back to 1902 and may well have originated in London.
He also commonly cried “Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” as another expression of surprise, or sometimes disbelief, in the form of “if that’s true then I’ll be a monkey’s uncle”. Incidentally this expression, the monkey’s uncle one, seems to have originated in the US around 1925, coming to prominence in 1928 during The Scopes Creationist trial, when our American cousins were trying to determine what to teach in their schools: Darwinism or Creationism. This prompted H L Mencken to propound his quite often quoted view that, if man found it hard to accept that we descended from apes, then apes should find it even more difficult to believe that they could have descended from man.
Not that my dad was any kind of creationist as I’m pretty sure that he was firmly in the Darwin camp. It is interesting that this particular debate has come full circle in the US and hasn’t fallen off the edge of the flat earth, yet.
But I digress. My brother has reminded me that if we did anything particularly endearing, our dad would bless our cotton socks. Not that we had any particular fancy for cotton socks, or that he had any canonical rights, it was just an expression that has certainly done the rounds of the English vernacular.
All this makes our dad sound like a bit of a wet blanket (an expression much used in the late 18th century in a figurative sense where no actual blankets were harmed in the process), but he certainly wasn’t one.
He was accustomed to the hurly-burly of the building site, and was certainly no shrinking violet. This term was originally used in the 18th Century to describe an insignificant woodland flower, but after travelling back and forth across the Atlantic, it is nowadays more often used in the negative to describe someone who is not, by any stretch, an overly shy individual.
In fact, I remember being really impressed when dad came home with his hands covered in cuts and gouges and the way he used some bright green slime called Swarfega to get all the dirt and lead residue off and out of pretty deep cuts. By the time he had finished, his hands and arms were startlingly clean, but the remaining cuts and scars were mightily impressive! I used to stand by him, as he told me about his day, while his hand-rolled cigarette bobbed up and down, stuck to his top or bottom lip, as he washed, spoke, and squinted to keep the smoke out of his eyes.
My mum, on the other hand, had a much more predictable repertoire. She pretty much stuck to Sod, Bugger, and Bloody, and their derivatives when we were young. My dad always pulled a face when she swore in front of us.
Every relative had their own pet expressions for example something being described as “black as Newget’s knocker” which, I worked out, translated to mean as black as the door knocker at Newgate Prison. I have no idea if it was black or not, and if so, how my nan knew about it! I was also threatened that I would “get struck like that if the wind changes” when making faces in the mirror as a child.
However, my real exposure to expressions of all kinds began as I started work. In the UK, conscription had been an amazing social intervention and for the first time most young men had to meet, mingle, and share a billet with other young men from all over the UK.
Cockneys, Jocks, Taffs, Micks, Limeys, Yanks, Jews, all sorts of Country boys, Northerners, and a whole miscellany of Black Commonwealth and Asian folk (generally known as Jamaicans or Indians no matter where they came from), were all having to come to terms with each other for the first time. They ended up mixing cultural references and language and creating strangely affectionate but derogatory attitudes and labels for each other. Maybe I’m idealising it, but it seems to me that the resulting workplace in the early sixties was a robust but often good-humoured place.
For my generation of South West London white boys, the Notting Hill Race Riots were an interesting historical episode and I remember feeling the need to look up the significance of Jim Crow. I’m sure that minorities got the rough end of the stick, but class distinctions, a sense of humour, and a spirit of rebellion seemed to carry more weight in the mixed group of lads I moved around with in those days.
I was a few years too late for all that services melting pot stuff, but when I started work as an office junior, everyone else had that common shared experience, and the staff had picked up a language of their own. They had been ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen, whereas the senior management had been officers. Some of them were even minor gentry.
The older men I got to work with were an odd bunch and used unfamiliar terms like spats, jankers, glasshouse, sprogs, bull, billet, and so on but it was the culture that got to me.
I found it fascinating, mainly because it was often profane, always irreverent, and usually funny. At school I had always been a surreptitious rebel. I liked to cause havoc without being caught. Devious I guess you’d call it. But here ridicule took centre stage and I found this really beguiling.
One particular manager of mine could barely get through even the briefest conversation without injecting some kind of humour.
He would walk into the office and simply proclaim something like “Hurl not the lamp at Carlos, wait while he gets in bed and stir his Horlicks with a rusty nail”. He would do this in the grand Shakespearean manner reminiscent of Laurence Olivier.
It was only much later that I found out that this was a line from an army song that had alternative lyrics relating to the number of testicles that members of the Nazi hierarchy were reputed to have.
“A tisket, a tasket, it really is a basket” was an oft used expression around the office if anything proved a little troublesome. Along with its companion saying; “Dear Mum, it’s a bastard! Dear Son, so are you, but don’t tell your father.”
As five pm approached it was almost inevitable that someone would say:
Five O’clock is almost here,
It’s time the Fairies did appear.
Hark! Here comes the Fairy Queen,
Where the effing hell’s she been?
There were standard excuses for turning up late for work, for taking a sick day, for having to leave early, and so on. All of these had an element of humour, giving the place a feel of some strange wireless comedy show. It had undertones of the Kenneth Horne programmes, Beyond our Ken and Around The Horne, but I later realised that this office was much more like an extended episode of the wartime wireless programme ITMA (It’s That Man Again), where catchphrases and abbreviations were the rules of the day.
In fairness the work was not the most exciting thing at the time and there was plenty of inventiveness that went into keeping up morale.
At the time of the scandalous John Vassall spy case involving blackmail and homosexuality, my manager pranced into the office and made some comment about the Massive Vassall with the passive tassle, only to be firmly put down by his manager who told him that the Vassals were family friends of his. Oops! You could have cut the air with a knife!
Stories abounded about past managers, and one in particular who had got the job at the expense of some of his colleagues. After a few weeks, he found that he was getting the respect that his colleagues thought he deserved, and not what the office called for. So, the story goes, he decided to make things more formal. He went out into the main office informing everyone “If you want to see me, you’ll have to go through my secretary first!” He could have chosen his words more carefully.
How times have changed, thankfully, in some respects.
I remember sitting next to my immediate manager and hearing him on the telephone talking to one of his colleagues in Liverpool saying “Bite my ear, will you? Go on, bite my ear! I like a bit of passion when I’m being F**ked about!”
If a senior manager was spotted approaching the office someone would call out: Stand by your beds! followed sotto voce with here comes the Air Vice Marshal, scrambled egg on his hat and a bullet up his arsehole.
Well, as an impressionable 17-year-old this sort of thing just about made my day.
This stuff wasn’t going on in some pokey little business but in the head office of a famous Anglo Dutch, multi-national food, soap, and cosmetic outfit.
Still. I can’t complain, working there was the making of me.
Ironically, life got much tamer for me when I went to university but picked up again once I dropped out after a year and stumbled into a career in IT.
Now that did give me a bit of an opportunity to exercise my imagination. But more of that in a later episode.
So, gird your loins, and set off to face the world armed with the aphorisms that carried our forefathers (OK, and foremothers) through thick and thin.
Remember, if you can’t fight get a big hat and have more front than Selfridges; don’t be afraid to be all fur coat and no knickers, all mouth and trousers, or have more rabbit than Sainsbury’s. However, whatever you do, don’t lose your bottle and have to quit the battle for a QP&T without shutting the karzi door.
One thought on “You’d laugh to see a cat cry!”
Hey! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 3gs!
Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and
look forward to all your posts! Carry on the excellent work!