Phrases using place-names: 1. British locales

A Glosso post five years ago – “Nationality (and very un-PC) expressions” – listed and described some common terms and expressions that incorporate names of countries and nationalities, drawing on proverbial and stereotypical national characteristics for comic effect. Some of these expressions were already considered derisive or downright offensive back in 2016 (and were labelled as such in the post), but probably just as many were thought to be benignly amusing if a little un-PC. Times have changed, and most of these phrases now come across as racist and offensive, so if you read the earlier post, please bear its original date in mind. It occurred to me recently that phrases including more specific place names (such as cities, towns or regions, and even some countries) don’t tend to carry the same derisive overtones, and if they do they’re fairly mild and inoffensive. Their origins are invariably as quirky and interesting as the expressions themselves. We’ll start with the British place names: please add any phrases I’ve missed to the comments section below. Tomorrow we’ll post phrases using non-British places (like when we’re in Rome …).

Put some English on it: hit or bat a ball in baseball, pool etc., giving it some curve or spin. The expression originated in billiards (which dates back to the 16th century: Shakespeare refers to it in Antony and Cleopatra), but in itself dates back to about 1823, when the introduction of a leather cue-tip allowed billiard players to make a side-spin. By 1860 the French were referring to this spin on a billiard ball as anglé, the French word for angled, which happens to be pronounced the same way as anglais, meaning English. As the word anglé took off and was used more broadly – not just in French – to describe this spin, it was duly translated into English to mean just that: English.

Close your eyes (or lie back) and think of England: to tolerate undesirable sex – usually on the part of a bored or tired spouse or lover. (It was first written in 1912 in the journal of Lady Hillingdon, but the phrase wasn’t necessarily coined by her.)

More front than Brighton: very self-confident, perhaps excessively so (because “more front than” historically denotes impudence or effrontery, and Brighton is known for its seafront – hence the ironic pun).

Ship-shape and Bristol fashion: in first-class condition (because Bristol’s harbor has one of the most variable tidal flows in the world and the water level can vary greatly between tides, with the result that ships moored there were beached at each low tide and had to be of sturdy construction and the goods in their holds needed to be securely stowed; the problem was resolved in 1803 with the construction of Bristol’s floating harbor).

Going at a Canterbury pace: at a dignified or stately pace. The word canter comes from pilgrims on horseback going at a ‘Canterbury pace’ along the Pilgrim’s Way to visit St Thomas à Becket’s shrine. The phrase was eventually shortened to the simple verb, to canter.

Grinning like a Cheshire cat: to grin broadly (and no-one knows why cats from Cheshire were said to grin, but the expression dates back to the mid-18th century, long before Alice in Wonderland – which featured literature’s most famous Cheshire cat – was written …).

To be sent to Coventry: to be deliberately ignored or ostracized (probably because of events in Coventry during the English Civil War in the 1640s, when Cromwell sent a group of Royalist soldiers to prison there and the locals, who were parliamentary supporters, shunned and refused to consort with them).

To carry coals to Newcastle: to undertake something that is both unnecessary and pointless (because Newcastle Upon Tyne was the UK’s first coal exporting port and has been well-known as a coal mining centre since the Middle Ages, so carrying coals there is a pointless activity – there being more than enough coal there already).

Getting off at Paisley: contraceptive practice of withdrawal/coitus interruptus (because Paisley is the penultimate train station when traveling from the Clyde coast back to Glasgow).

More non-British place-name expressions follow tomorrow.

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