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?
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.