English is a complex language. The version written in North America attempts to simplify some of it, with spellings like ‘Nite’, instead of ‘Night’. But here in Britain, we have regional accents to make it even more confusing, with the use of words that may mean nothing to someone only a hundred miles away. Slang makes the situation worse, especially in large cities like London and Newcastle, where some areas have almost a separate language.
New words arrive all the time too, often driven by technological advances. Words like ‘Byte’, ‘Laptop’, ‘Megapixels’ and ‘Microchip’. That last word is even more confusing, as we already had ‘Micro Chips’. They were french fries, designed to be cooked in a microwave oven.
Along the way, we lost many English expressions. They were once used by almost everyone I ever met, and though sometimes apparently meaningless, easily understood by all.
“Well, I’ll Go To The Foot Of Our Stairs”.
When did you last ever hear anyone say that, I wonder? This was a common saying used to express amazement or surprise, especially in the north of England. I don’t think anyone knows how it originated, but they all knew what it meant.
Again used to express shock or wonder, the Blimey part comes from abbreviating ‘Blind me’, and the O’Reilly was probably used just for rhyming purposes.
A favourite of my grandmother, this was in common usage in London during my youth. Again an expression of dismay or surprise, I don’t think anyone living can explain its origins.
“You’re The Giddy Limit”.
This was usually part of a telling-off, for being naughty. I suspect it implies that the naughtiness is so extreme as to make the person giddy. Whatever the origin, it appears to be a lost expression now.
“Three Sheets To The Wind”.
This was commonly used to describe a person who was very drunk. I still use it regularly, if I see a drunk person staggering around. It has a nautical origin, as sails were secured by ropes or chains called ‘sheets’. If three of these become loose, the sail will be uncontrollable, and the boat will lurch around on the waves.
“In One Fell Swoop”.
This originates in Shakepeare’s Macbeth, and denotes a fierce action resolving a situation with speed and ruthlessness. I last used it to remark on the chatting up skill of a work colleague.
I turned to a friend, and said “In one fell swoop, he will have her back to his flat, and in his bed”. I think that was in 2006.
So there are six expressions pretty much lost to common parlance. Let me know any you can think of, in the comments.