A dictionary editor explains your parents’ weird sayings.

By Tiger Webb for Life Matters

It was at the end of car trips when I first began to realise that with admission to the Webb family came a series of unusual rituals.

When our hapless Peugeot finally managed to conquer our markedly unsteep driveway at the conclusion of a long summer trip, one (or both) parents would say, with all the inevitability of history, “Home again, home again, jiggity jig.”

The construction was quite specific. Duplication, somehow, seemed essential. Exactly what a “jiggity jig” was, or how long a car trip needed to be before jiggity jigging was required has been left unarticulated now for decades.

There’s a paradox here: such turns of phrase are both universal and totally unique. You may not have experienced “jiggity jig”, but you probably recognise common parental answers to childhood questions.

What time is it? A hair past a freckle (optionally: going on a wart). What are you making? A wigwam for a goose’s bridle. And so on.

When Life Matters recently asked their audience what sayings they remembered hearing in their youth, the segment was so popular it broke the text line software. But where do these weird parental sayings actually come from?

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Going to see a man about a dog

Mark Gwynn is an editor of the Australian National Dictionary. His family had their own idioms, too. Particularly one about seeing a man about a dog.

“Dad used to say that when he was going down the bowling club for a drink,” Mr Gwynn laughs.

Seeing a man about a dog is a relatively antediluvian phrase — the Oxford English Dictionary has examples dating back to the mid-19th century — long used as a euphemistic catch-all for leaving to an undefined second location.

As a child, though, Mr Gwynn had no way of knowing that. “I just thought it was something dad made up,” he says. “It’s a bizarre experience when you realise it’s not exclusive to you.”

Bread and duck under the table

By far, the most common submissions to Life Matters’ callout were nonsense answers to the question, “What’s for dinner?”

The canonical answer — oddly — seems to be “bread and duck under the table”, though parental variants included: monkey poo and honey, a leg of a chair and a pump handle, hot tongue and cold shoulder, bee’s knees and chicken eyebrows, and (distressingly) horse poo pie.

Why did so many families have an eerily similar variation on the theme? The regularity of the interaction accounts for much of it, or as Mr Gwynn says, “snubbing or dismissive replies to unwanted questions”.

Given the sheer mutability of the saying, the original quick-witted parent is lost to time, but in Australia, this particular construction may also date back to the Depression.

Many responses suggest extreme frugality — “a drink of water with a fly in it”, say, or “wait and see pudding”.

Mr Gwynn says this recalls an age of “making do with what you had”, and act as a “bit of a kick up the butt for kids”. It is also, one suspects, a bit of comic relief for stressed parents.

Dry as a dead dingo’s donger

Many idioms are based around the “as X as Y” construct. People are reckoned to be as useless as windows on a submarine, or tits on a bull. Australia is also very dry. You can see where this is going.

“As dry as a dead dingo’s donger” (meaning: very dry) is far more recent than one would expect. The Australian National Dictionary currently dates its inception to the 1970s and one Barry Humphries.

But it most likely emerged before that. “That’s the thing with idioms,” Mr Gwynn says. “With a lot of these sayings, you know it goes back earlier — some of them I have heard personally before the evidence [the Australian Dictionary Centre] has.”

The dingo’s donger has linguistic antecedents — “as dry as the Simpson desert” is a saying that long predates Dame Edna.

How to explain the emergence of the dingo’s appendage? Idioms “tend to get a bit more risqué as you get into the 60s”, Mr Gwynn says.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.


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