English is Always Changing

by Margaret Watson


I studied linguistics at university. The emphasis was on how language changed over the years from Beowulf to hip-hop.

We are decorating at the moment so old books have been moved and I have in front of me ‘Historical Slang’ – some 50,000 terms, many of them quite crude, that are no longer used by English speakers. Elsewhere I have ‘Hobson, Jobson’ a book of words used in British India – some of which are still in use both by Indians and Brits, but most of which are obscure to say the least.

I am a native English speaker, I’ve been reading since I was three, and I listen to lots of talk radio, as well as what my neighbours and family say every day, yet I still come across phrases I have never heard before. Sometimes you can work out from the context what they mean ‘to go at a snail’s gallop’ obviously means very slowly indeed. Others you can guess at – but not always. How on earth could you work out that ‘And the moon is made of green cheese’ means ‘it’s all make-believe’? Some phrases are really obscure ‘God permit’ being another name for a stagecoach for instance. No one would be able to work that out, but apparently stage coaches times used to be put up with the addition of the words ‘If God permit’ because of the uncertainly of the roads, the weather, highway men etc.

As a learner of a foreign language don’t despair if you can’t work out what something means. You won’t be alone and words and phrases come in and out of fashion so quickly that the awkward ones are soon forgotten. Here are some from the 1960’s that you hardly ever hear today:-

Brew – beer. This is now used for making a cup of tea ‘Let’s have a brew’.

All show and no go – a car that looked good, but wasn’t really a great performer. My parent’s generation would have said ‘Fur coat and no knickers’ to describe someone who was all show – it’s an expression I haven’t heard in 25 years. Another phrase described pretentious people from a certain district of town ‘Kippers and curtains’ i.e. poor man’s food eaten behind shut curtains so that no one knew how poor they really were.

People used to say ‘Lay it on me’ when they wanted you to bear your soul – often under the influence of certain substances.

‘Dibs’ was a shout from childhood. It meant that the first to shout it could claim some privilege – ‘Dibs it’s mine’ as he raced to the back of the bus and an empty seat for instance, or to take the last cake on a plate

‘To split’ now means to break up with a partner. 30 years ago it meant to leave a scene – go home from a party, etc.

The least romantic expression I can think of from those days was ‘Swapping spit’ for kissing. Ugh. It perhaps took place in someone’s pad – i.e. their flat – it wasn’t usually a house, because it was a term used by young people – too young for mortgages and houses. You could even say ‘I was at Pete’s pad, but he wanted to swop spit so I split the scene’. It sounds really weird now, but I wouldn’t have noticed anything odd then.

By about 1970 everything was either grotty (bad) or groovy (great) though where these came from no one seems to know, though groovy was used as early as 1937 to describe poetry that was enjoyable!

I can’t keep up with it, so don’t despair – just enjoy, but avoid using slang you don’t understand or you might ‘put your foot in it’ ( get into trouble because of something you said) or even ‘put your foot in your mouth’ ( say something derogatory that you didn’t mean) when all you mean to do is ‘put your best foot forward’ i.e, do your best’ Why the foot should always get the blame and not the tongue I can’t imagine.