When I was growing up, any time there was a protracted argument, or a disturbance in a pub, or out in the street, you would be sure to hear somebody say “What a palaver”. The origin of this expression was never explained to me, but I instinctively knew what it meant, when I heard someone say it.
For some reason, this came into my head today, and it was the voice of my grandmother saying it. She would always say it if us children were being noisy, arguing among ourselves, or playing loudly. That also made me think that it is a great many years since I hear that used in conversation, along with other phrases and expressions that were once familiar, at least in London.
Many of those old expressions have disappeared due to political correctness, and the fact that using them may well cause offence. I was still quite young when it was common to hear a gay man described as a ‘Confirmed bachelor’. This was never done with malice, I hasten to add. Quite a few local men were obviously gay in the London of my youth, though rarely open about the fact. Rather than label them with the formal term of ‘Homosexual’, my family would prefer to use ‘confirmed bachelor’, to let others know that this was a man who was unlikely to get married to a woman, and might possibly stay at home with his parents until middle age.
Another one familiar from an early age was ‘A touch of the tar brush’. This was a racist remark, much favoured by my own Dad, and used to indicate that a person had parents who were mixed race. Looking back now, it seems strange that he used it so often, when mixed-race people could be counted on the fingers of one hand, where we lived. On the same theme, my Mum and her sister often used the word ‘Piccaninny’ to refer to a black baby. Black babies were also a rarity in the district where I grew up, and would be treated with huge admiration by any local woman who came across such a child. I can still hear my Mum saying, “Those little piccaninny babies are so lovely”. Once again, there was no malice intended, at least none I could discern. But this now reviled term was so common, I thought that ‘Piccaninny’ was a country, for the first years of my life.
Something else that has changed is the references to currency. These days, almost anyone would say things like “five hundred pounds”, or “twenty-five quid”, when talking about such amounts. But in the London of my youth, £500 was a ‘Monkey’, and £25 was a ‘Pony’. £100 was a ‘Ton’, and £1000 a ‘Grand’. Coins also attracted colloquial names. A shilling was always ‘A Bob’, so ten shillings was always ‘Ten bob’. Five shillings was called a ‘Dollar’, and seven shillings and sixpence was known as ‘Three half-crowns’. Twenty-one shillings was referred to as a ‘Guinea’, and shops advertised the prices of more expensive items in’Guineas’. Even now, I still refer to a fifty-pence piece, the modern equivalent of ten shillings, as ‘A ten-bob bit’.
Watching programmes on TV, those made before 1971, or set in the 1960s, I notice if they get those expressions right or not.
What expressions do you remember that you no longer hear now?
Please add them in the comments.