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“take no lectures”

I see that Emily Thornberry in the Guardian says that Labour will ‘take no lectures’ from Theresa May about respecting democracy. God, how I hate this tiresome, snitty, intellectually feeble but rabble-rousing Question-Time-style cliché. Take no lectures. What does it mean? It means, roughly, ‘I don’t actually have much of an answer to your point but I don’t need one because you’re just as bad as me, in fact you’re worse.’ There is a term in philosophy  for this kind of argument: tu quoque (which means ‘you too’). It is a logically fallacious argument, for a proposition advanced by a hypocrite may nevertheless be true. ‘Smoking is bad for you’ is still true even if it is said by somebody puffing on a cigar. Its widespread use in political discourse (and Thornberry is very far from being the only culprit; it’s beloved of both left and right) is symptomatic of our dreadful tribal, adversarial political culture, where utterances are judged not according to their content but according to who says them.


Not my monkey

Here is a nice expression, courtesy of the character Peter Barlow in Coronation Street: “Not my monkey, not my circus” – meaning, This is not my problem and I don’t have to deal with it. It’s like “Not my pigeon”, I suppose, but more picturesque; and I like the way it moves from the particular to the general. The expression somehow works even though monkeys are not well-known for appearing in circuses. I wonder if it is a real expression, or did a clever scriptwriter make it up?

Trip a Little Light Fantastic

Just been to see Mary Poppins Returns with the family. It’s an enjoyable two hours and fans of the original won’t be annoyed by it: the storyline is consistent with Mary Poppins and it is extremely faithful to the spirit and the aesthetic of the earlier film. It’s not groundbreaking and the songs aren’t as good as the Sherman brothers’ songs but it is a respectful homage and has lots of spectacular scenes; and the acting performances are brilliant.

This isn’t supposed to be a film review, however. I wanted to comment on one of the big set-piece numbers, Trip a Little Light Fantastic. This song, sung by the lamplighter Jack (Bert the chimneysweep’s equivalent), is all about how if you get lost in the dark you could give up and despair or… you can trip a little light fantastic! Now trip the light fantastic is a jocular phrase meaning to dance. It was used by David Essex in his song ‘Me and my Girl’; and no doubt Procol Harum’s ‘skipped the light fandango’ in ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is a version of the same expression. It is a curious phrase, which if analysed logically makes no sense at all. That’s because it is a corruption of some lines by Milton in his 1645 poem L’Allegro: ‘Come, and trip it as you go/ On the light fantastic toe’. In Milton’s poem ‘light’ means that one’s toes, or feet, are light; and ‘fantastic’, also referring to the toes, means ‘imaginative’. In modern parlance, however, these meanings have been forgotten, and the whole thing is just a fancy way of saying dancing. In Mary Poppins Returns, the phrase is somehow stretched to mean both dancing and finding light in the darkness, a meaning embodied by having a load of lamplighters lighting lamps as they dance around.

Shanks’s pony

I was thinking today about the expression Shanks’s pony, meaning the legs as a means of locomotion: that is to say, walking. (“How are we getting there?” Shanks’s pony”.) I like that expression. I don’t know where or when it originated. Brewer’s Dictionary gives it as a variant of Shanks’s mare, and also offers going by the Marrowbone Stagecoach (a pun on the Marylebone stagecoach, I’m guessing) and going by Walker’s bus as alternatives.

Most speakers of British or antipodean English are familiar with Shanks’s pony, if not the alternatives; but for some reason the expression is unknown in American English. They have their own completely different version instead: the Ankle Express.

That’s all I have to say about Shanks’s pony. Happy New Year, everyone!


My children gave me a stocking this Christmas, with such welcome goodies as socks, pens, chocolate and a bottle of Chivas Regal therein – and also a book, sourced from a second-hand bookshop, called Tom Merry and Co. of St. Jim’s by Frank Richards. Now, I know Frank Richards’ Greyfriars stories (starring Harry Wharton and Billy Bunter etc) very well indeed; but I knew much less about his St Jim’s stories, so I read it with pleasure and interest. The boys at St Jim’s use all the same slang as the Greyfriars bunch: Rats, Go and eat coke, You howling ass, You image etc and, the subject of this post, fathead.

Fathead. That’s a funny insult. It’s not unique to Frank Richards. Enid Blyton used it a lot too. But I have never heard it used in real life. No one ever says it. It’s a word that is used only in books. And in fact, when I first came across it I didn’t understand it and thought it was pronounced fath-eed. Are there any other words, I wonder, which appear only in books, not in real life? The only similar example I can think of, off the top of my head, is the expression Naff off, which was invented for the sitcom Porridge. The strange thing about that one is that, post-Porridge, people did start saying it in real life, for a while at least. But I have still never heard anyone say fathead.

The PG Wodehouse Catechism of Cliché

I am an aficionado of PG Wodehouse, but there is no denying that he had a habit of recycling his favourite flippancies. Read too many of his books in quick succession and you are left feeling that you have gorged on a surfeit of clichés. But they are his own clichés; he made them up himself and nobody else uses them. With this in mind I have compiled a Wodehousian Catechism of Cliché (in homage to the great Myles na Gcopaleen):

When Fate is against a person, what section of clothing does it press against which part of the anatomy?

The sleeve against the windpipe

What are the odds of anything unlikely occurring?

A hundred to eight

In what casual manner are these decidedly specific odds unfailingly announced?

Call it a hundred to eight

When two persons part, where does one of them, exhibiting knowledge of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar, predict that they will meet again?

At Philippi

What is the indictable offence for which persons are most commonly fined or incarcerated?

Stealing a policeman’s helmet


On Boat Race night

What is the second most common indictable offence?

Failure to abate a smoky chimney

Should you perform some self-indulgent activity ad libitum, you perform it to what point at which your optical organs exhibit which strange behaviour?

Until your eyes bubble

What requires to be avoided, usually by stopping a cheque?


To what comestible item is an unsatisfactory or unsavoury person to be compared?

A piece of cheese

When food and drink are in plentiful supply what are said to be good?

The browsing and sluicing

When a person dies, which item necessary to browsing and sluicing must be handed in?

The dinner pail


My son Fred (14) has taken to using an expression which is new to me. When he and his friends are going out, they call it a motive. (“We’re going on a motive tonight.”) It seems to be a synonym for “outing”, but sounds much more exciting than that, giving trips to the cinema or to Nando’s the air of being some sort of secret masterplan. No idea of its origin: any suggestions welcome.