Review: Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack

English is full of idioms, but where do they all come from?

I’m British, I write crime fiction, and when creating dialogue I’m always struck by how many peculiar sayings we have in the English language – by that I mean British English.

‘What’s his beef?’

At times we Brits must be incomprehensible to anyone for whom English is not a first language. Thinking about it, our daft idioms must be a mystery to almost anyone from the US, from Canada, and even our cousins ‘down under’.

‘It’s brass monkeys out there’

Let’s not ‘beat about the bush’, ‘by and large’ most of what we Brits say sounds like a ‘load of old codswallop’. But if, like me you spend a lot of time searching out the origins of such sayings, then this book is for you.

Albert Jack is a writer and researcher, he’s done all the hard work. I found this gem of a book in a charity shop. It now has a permanent home in my writing shack. Packed with wonderful stories from all over the world which explain how these bonkers phrases came into everyday use, it is captivating. For example to ‘pay through the nose’ means we’ve been charged an exorbitant price for an item or a service. ‘Strike a bloody light, you paid through the nose for that, Billy’…

Pay through the nose – what an odd phrase to use. These days you’d be forgiven for thinking it had something to do with notes and cocaine sniffing.

But its origin is Viking and it’s a bloody one. After they invaded the British Isles, any citizen failing to pay the required tax imposed by the Danes had their nose slit or cut off. Luckily order was restored when Viking leader Eric Bloodaxe (what a great name) was killed by King Edred at the Battle of Stainmore in 954. Now I bet you did know that…

And my favourite: ‘Not a sausage,’ meaning either free of charge, or being penniless is derived from Cockney rhyming slang.

Sausage and mash = Cash.

Wonderful stuff, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was first published in hardback in 2004, but you can get it in kindle and paperback versions too. Stand by family members this may be what you get for Christmas this year!

Ali Morgan

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