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A Word in Your Shell-Like

Nigel Rees is well known in Britain as a broadcaster, presenter of the radio quiz Quote, Unquote and the author of more than 50 books on the popular use of the language.

The cover of A Word in Your Shell-Like

This one, his monster fun book of 6000-plus entries and 768 pages, is a compilation of catchphrases, clichés, euphemisms, proverbs, slogans and idioms. They range from “ban the bomb”, and “cleanliness is next to godliness”, through “feeding frenzy”, “he who is not with us is against us”, “past one’s sell-by date”, and “remember the Alamo!”, to “sky-blue pink with a finny haddy border” and beyond. Each is supplied with its meaning, some background and an example or two.

The title is an obscure outdated humorous phrase (it has an entry, but it’s listed under in your shell-like, which took me a while to find). It combines a word in your ear, meaning a brief message in confidence, with shell-like ear, a poetic image that was already being mocked as a cliché well over a century ago.

There’s a lot of fascinating material here and the larger part of the book is unexceptionable, with much interesting information. The book is clearly a compilation without supporting original research. There’s nothing wrong with that, but unfortunately it has resulted in an inability or unwillingness to judge the evidence he has. A good example is the idiom cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. He repeats the folk etymology about its being a brass plate on which cannonballs were piled on Royal Navy ships, despite the obvious impossibility of the story. He then quotes two challenges to the story by recent writers which leaves the reader wondering whether he believes the naval story (he seems to) or is just hedging his bets.

Several of his explanations are incorrect: a coot is not said to be bald because it looks hairless, but because of the pale flash on its forehead, bald once having meant “white”. The phrase bog standard is not an acronym from “British or German” but is most probably a modification of “box standard”. A mondegreen is not a mishearing by a child but any mishearing of a song lyric. To find so many errors in a random sampling of entries is worrying and suggests you may need to treat other entries with caution.

[Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-Like, published in the UK by Collins on 6 September; hardback, pp768; ISBN 0-00-715593-X; publisher’s UK price £16.99. Published in Canada and the USA under the title Collins Encyclopedia of Phrases: A Complete Guide to Phrases in Everyday Life with the same ISBN.]

Page created 2 Oct. 2004

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