Q From Kate in Australia: Can you explain the origin of how’s your father and what it actually means?
A You take me back to my youth in west London and to my dear old dad, one of whose phrases this was.
To my ear it’s certainly an outdated expression, even in Britain, where it was once most popular. There are several senses, the most common of which is as a low slang phrase for a leg over, or a bit of the other, in other words a casual sexual encounter, especially in phrases such as “a spot of the old how’s-your-father” or the irresistible invitation “Awright darlin’, fancy a bit of how’s yer father?”. It has also been employed as yet another of those hand-waving words, in this case for a person whose name one cannot for the moment remember.
All these derive ultimately from the fertile imagination of the music-hall comedian Harry Tate, born in 1872 and popular from before the First World War to his death as the result of an air raid in 1940 (although if you listen to a 1912 recording of the famous motoring sketch that he toured for more than thirty years, you might wonder why; truly that was a different age). When he was supposedly stumped for an answer in one of his sketches, he would break off and ask “how’s your father?” as a way to change the subject.
This became a catch phrase and was picked up by servicemen in the First World War. John Brophy (who edited Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918 with Eric Partridge) wrote that it was “turned to all sorts of ribald, ridiculous and heroic uses”. Our modern meaning is a relic of those times.