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To my ear it’s an outdated expression, even in Britain, where it was once most popular. However, it seems that it’s still around:
A Bit of How’s Your Father?, Slap and Tickle and Rumpy Pumpy are favourite ways for the over 40s to refer to sex, according to a survey. While under 40s prefer the distinctly more functional Hump, Get Laid and Get Some Action. No wonder the birth rate’s falling.
Daily Mirror, 11 Feb. 2015. The survey was commissioned by the retailer Holland & Barrett to promote its Horny Goat Weed aphrodisiac pills.
It belongs with 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?”.
The other main sense is less vulgar but equally slangy, meaning nonsense or some unidentifiable object:
The lights went up revealing the interior of a large van. It was crammed with telescreens, monitoring doodads, hi-tech how’s your fathers and state-of-the-art whatnots.
They Came and Ate Us, by Robert Rankin, 1991.
Despite some imaginative and frankly ridiculous online claims about authorship, the expression ultimately derives 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.
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