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London to a brick

Q From Bernard Ashby: A column in the Sydney Morning Herald recently included the expression London to a brick. Prior to migrating in the middle 1990s to Australia, I lived in the London area for 50 years and never came across the expression. It seems to mean something like “You can bet your bottom dollar!” Have you come across this before?

A I can recall being asked about this many years ago but didn’t then have the resources to uncover its history. Despite the reference to London it’s not known in Britain, or anywhere else outside Australia. This is another recent example:

Even with advancing technology and ever more sophisticated extraction methods though, it is London to a brick that the price of crude oil will rise sharply in the longer term.

The Age (Melbourne), 17 Mar. 2014.

It’s an exaggerated version of phrases such as it’s a pound to a penny, meaning that the odds on something happening are very great, that it’s a certainty. Bruce Moore, currently editor of the Australian National Dictionary, wrote in a glossary of racing slang two decades ago that the Sydney racing commentator Ken Howard is credited with it:

Brick was Australian slang for a £10 note (from its reddish colour), and so if, towards the end of a race, Howard claimed that the odds of a particular horse winning were London to a brick, he was saying that the horse was at extreme odds-on, with an indisputable chance.

Ozwords, Oct. 1996.

However, as so often a more recently accessible historical record disputes the attribution. The recent digitisation of many Australian newspapers makes it possible to say that the earliest known example is well before Ken Howard’s time:

Had the latter got away on even terms with the winner it would have been London to a brick on the mare; as it was she lost many lengths, and was then only beaten by a short head.

The Riverine Grazier (Hay, NSW), 16 Oct. 1917.

Only a few examples appear in the decades that follow but it becomes more frequent from the early 1950s onwards, often attributed to or with reference to Ken Howard. He must have popularised it in his horserace commentaries on Sydney radio stations; one biography of him says he first used it while he was working for station 2UE in the early 1940s.

Several Australian readers criticised the first version of this piece on the grounds that in common with many people Bruce Moore and I had given the expression wrongly — it should be London to a brick on, which indeed often appears in the record. In racing jargon, on here is short for odds-on, meaning that the stake is higher than the potential winnings if the bet is successful. Such a bet can be expressed either as “2-1 on” or “1 to 2”. This example shows that Ken Howard, as befits a knowledgeable racing man, used it correctly:

Brisbane race broadcaster Tom Poley outdated [updated?] Ken Howard’s familiar “London to a brick on” phrase to indicate his choice in photo-finishes. As three horses crossed the finishing line in Saturday’s Q.T.C. Derby, Tom said: “It’s mightly close, but it’s Paris to a peanut on Forest Beau.” That one will take some trumping.

Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 20 Nov. 1951.]

But in everyday speech such niceties are often rubbed off by regular usage and most of the instances I’ve found omit the on. The same, of course, is true of pound to a penny. We may forgive such sloppiness in the unconsidered speech of daily life; it’s an example of what H W Fowler used to call a “sturdy indefensible”.

Why London? I suspected its source lay in some recent immigrant from Britain to Australia a century ago with memories of the metropolis but then found one isolated appearance from Britain of a century earlier still that suggests it may have been a London expression:

Sampson received an echoing blow in the short ribs and wind, and went down down wofully distressed, 10 to 1. The poundage went round in vain, and a Cockney called out “all London to a brick!”

Boxiana; Or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism, by Pierce Egan, 1824. Poundage is a gambling slang term from the period, meaning extravagant odds.

The expression is here figuratively wagering London, considered as a mass of buildings, to a single brick, implying huge odds on something happening, hence a dead certainty. Though it’s possible that brick in the Australian examples is referring to a £10 note, because that name for the note is older than the first appearance of the phrase in 1917, this example suggests it was originally meant literally and only gained an additional association after its arrival in Australia.

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Page created 26 Apr 2014