How We Spoke Then

In a previous post, I discussed Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’. I’m now re-reading his ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy. It was first published in the 1950s, so it is perhaps unsurprising how dated many of the words and expressions his characters have become. It is set in the era of RAF-speak, satirised in the Monty Python banter sketch:

Top-hole. Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.

They include, with, for those below a certain age, approximate translations:

blighter – an unpleasant person, a bastard, but can be used in a neutral sense as well
tight – drunk, pissed (also mean)
the balloon going up – things going wrong, all hell breaking loose, sewage hitting the air conditioning
a lot of rot – nonsense, rubbish, a load of crap
– flirty
– catch on, understand
flap – a
state of worry or excitement, particularly in a military sense
goner someone who is dead or someone or something in some other way lost
decent kind, accommodating, pleasant, opposite of beastly
beastly – of behaviour or speech unbecoming polite society, oppsite of decent
the blower telephone
a bit thick– too much of some kind of unacceptable behaviour
topping – great

I was surprised to find that two, the balloon going up and a lot of rot, have citations in the OED as late as 2004. Of the rest, none is later than 1961 (although not all entries have been subject to the OED’s latest revisions). On the other hand, the contemporary Corpus of Web-Based Global English has 22 records for the balloon goes up, and 115 for blighter.



Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Literature, Syntax, Vocabulary

6 responses to “How We Spoke Then

  1. That sense of fresh is standard informal AmE. It is not always sexual in connotation: it means ‘impudent, inclined to take liberties’, and may be used by a parent or other authority figure as well as someone who is the object of unwanted attentions. It is borrowed from German frech; the regular cognate of fresh is frisch.


  2. I was aware of its use in the US, John, but I don’t think we use it much at all in the UK any more other than in the literal senses.


  3. Just curious, did you enjoy encountering these expressions? Did they make the book feel more grounded in a specific time and place, or did you find them distracting?


    • They were noticeable, but, no, I didn’t find them distracting. They were just what I would have exppected. That’s perhaps because I am of a similar vintage myself.


  4. Alon

    Fresh ‘flirty; impudent’ sounds old-fashioned to me, but by no means incomprehensible— and I was born well after the last attestation in the OED. The lack of recent citations may be simply an artifact of the entry being unrevised since 1989: an Ngrams search in UK English for getting too fresh does not show a noticeable decrease in frequency over the last few decades.

    Others are familiar only from noir, I’m afraid.


    • On the other hand, there are no records for ‘getting too fresh’ in either the British National Corpus or the Corpus of Contemporary American English. There are only four in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, of which two are from the US, one from the UK and one from Canada. I agree that it is not incomprehensible in context, but I imagine many would, like you, find it old-fashioned.


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