Whilst discussing different modes of transport in a recent German class, I used the English phrase ‘to go by Shanks’s pony’ to mean to go on foot. The expression was met with complete surprise by several members of the group, who didn’t seem to have heard it before and certainly didn’t know what it meant.

This sent me searching for the meaning and origin.

It also got me wondering whether there are other words or phrases I use when talking with students, or generally, that are unfamiliar or misunderstood.We’re all familiar with old sayings and modern clichees, but they’re not necessarily the same ones.

I try to avoid those particular turns of phrase that only occur within families or close friendship groups. For example, in our house we never speak of lions roaring, because, since my son was about 3 years old, we have known, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the term for a lion giving voice is, of course, to ‘rart’.

”Raaarrrrrttt!” said the lion

My Mother was a great one for old country sayings. She would occasionally refer to people as being ‘three sheets to the wind’.  Another of ‘hers’ was ‘as dim as a Toc-H lantern’. I had no idea where this came from, but one of my students was able to relate it to a war time benevolent association. (I hasten to add that I wasn’t referring to a person when I used the phrase, but, instead, the lighting in our classroom, which is not very bright!) My Father’s favourite expletive is ‘flaming warships!’

I’ve collected an entire notebook full of Lincolnshire words and phrases I remember from my childhood. Many of them I still enjoy using. It’s keeping that old language alive and I can enjoy fond memories of my grandparents by repeating their words. Until we relocated from Kent to Lincolnshire, my husband, originally from Somerset, had never heard anyone outside our family talk about looking at someone ‘gone out’, whereas to me it is a frequent, more colourful way of saying ‘askance’ or ‘startled’. This is exactly the way Nigel looked at me in that German class when I mentioned Shanks’s pony!

My favourite Lincolnshire word is ‘stitherum’, again one of my Dad’s specials. Opinions vary as to what it really means. It comes to my mind when I find myself ‘getting in a right old stitherum’ trying to work out how to explain a particularly knotty bit of French or German and ending up in a state of confusion! It’s exactly the same when I’m knitting and my wool gets ‘taffled up’.

Then there are those awful ‘business speak’ coinings such as ‘pushing the envelope’ and the current, cringeworthy ‘reaching out’ to people, which doesn’t mean, as we might have hoped, we’ve been offered friendship and support or some kind of lifeline. All this really means is that they’ve sent us an email!

When we learn a new language for the first time, we learn set words and phrases to use in particular situations. With greater confidence and experience can we broaden our knowledge to embrace a whole raft of different ways of expressing ourselves, our thoughts, feelings and opinions.

Until then we can continue to share the richness of our own language and wonder at the courage and skills of others who learn it as adults!


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