Ian Clayton column: Flabbergasted and flummoxed

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I was thinking some more about expressions and particularly local ones. There’s one that means to be surprised, which I think is very local and that is ‘well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.’ I can’t find any reference to this phrase in any part of the English speaking world other than in West and South Yorkshire, though I did discover it was in use amongst some families in the Black Country back at the turn of the last century.

I have written in this column before that a lot of people who live in the former Yorkshire coal mining towns are immigrants from the West Midlands, so it might be that this phrase travelled north with them. An educated guess tells us this is a very working class phrase, probably first said by someone living in a two up, two down terrace house and then passed on because it was comical, into the local community. Life is full of surprises so an idiomatic phrase about that would soon catch on. A close cousin of this phrase is to be flabbergasted. This has been in common usage for going on 300 years and is thought to be a corruption of two words, flap and aghast, which would make sense I suppose.

My search for the meaning and origin of every day phrases often leaves me flummoxed. Now that’s a great word, isn’t it? Older members of my family regularly used that word when they couldn’t fathom what the heck was going on in the world. One of the first people to write down this word was none other than Charles Dickens, who wrote in Pickwick Papers: “He’ll be what the Italians call regularly flummoxed.”

I can’t find any Italian meaning to this word, so I don’t know what the Dickens Charles was inferring. The word seems to be what we refer to as onomatopoeic dialect, which is a posh way of saying it sounds like it ought to. The Oxford English dictionary describes this as a vulgar term for something slovenly flung together in disarray and suggests it is a word from the Gloucestershire and Herefordshire region. Again, because there was a lot of migration north for work from this area, the word probably travelled from those parts. In America they use the word to mean done up as in like a dog’s dinner.

I heard another phrase I hadn’t heard for a bit the other day. I bumped into a group of friends while I was shopping in the indoor market in Pontefract. One of them looked up and said “talk of the devil,” which usually means someone has been gossiping, but that aside, this phrase has a very long history.

Today it’s a bit of a jokey phrase, but in more superstitious times it was a warning to be careful of what you were talking about, particularly on matters satanic. Hazlitt in his book of proverbs (1672) said: “Talk of the devil and you will see his horns.” In an old text translated from the Latin, the Italian writer Giovanni Torriano said: “Speak of the devil and he will presently be at your elbow.” Which might also explain why we refer to a bad bend on a country lane as the devil’s elbow.

The rock singer, Ozzy Osbourne once did an LP called Talk of the Devil. It’s a record I’ve never heard and one I’m not particularly interested in listening to either, not that I’m superstitious, I just can’t get on with heavy metal music.

The search for meaning in the language we use has become quite a hobby of mine recently. I have collected more books on idioms, phrases and proverbs than you can shake a stick at. There I go again, where does that phrase come from, more than you can shake a stick at? I don’t think anybody knows this one for sure, but my guess is that it refers to counting and in the old days, farmers and shepherds used sticks to count their animals and as their flocks grew, they had more than they could shake their sticks at.

If you would like me to have a go at researching a phrase that you are particularly fond of, let me know.