The Top Ten: Phrases that don’t mean what people think

‘Wherefore art thou?’

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Two of the most famous come from the same Hamlet speech about binge drinking. ‘To the manner born’ did not mean he was born in a manor house, while ‘a custom more honour’d in the breach than the observance’ means a custom better ignored, not one that is frequently ignored. Thanks to Allan Draycott, Market House Books, Roger White and Sam Freedman. Here are 10 more…

1. ‘No such thing as society’

Margaret Thatcher tried to explain to Woman’s Own in 1987 that people could not blame their problems on an abstract “society”. Suggested by Tom Doran.

2. ‘Immaculate conception’

Often thought to refer to Jesus’s, but means Mary’s: thus she was born devoid of sin and was suitable to bear Jesus. From Maighread McC and Lucy Stone.

3. ‘The Mother of Parliaments’

Coined by John Bright, 1865. Not a claim that the English Parliament had offspring, but that England created democracy, says David Boothroyd.

4. ‘There are no second acts in American lives’

F Scott Fitzgerald didn’t mean Americans never get second chances, says Truly S. He was referring to the classic Hollywood three-act structure.

5. ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?’

It means, “Why are you [a Montague]” not “Where are you”. From Xlibris1 and Chris Jones.

6. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’

Robert Frost was belittling the sentiment in his poem “Mending Walls”, point out Matthew Hoffman and Arieh Kovler.

7. ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’

The rest of the sentence is: “made glorious summer by this sun of York”. Meaning that the discontent is over, as Chris Mochan points out.

8. ‘Deutschland über Alles’

Not “We’re the best” but “Think of yourselves as Germans, not as Bavarians, Saxons and so on.” Thanks again to Chris Jones.

9. ‘We don’t do God’

Alastair Campbell was trying to bring a long interview with Tony Blair – who quite often “did” God – to an end. Thanks to Max Wind-Cowie.

10. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’

Samuel Johnson meant that it should be the first duty of right-thinking men, says Andrew Denny.

Next week: Pop songs shorter than two minutes

Coming soon: Characters not originally the star (starting with Thomas the Tank Engine). Send your suggestions, and ideas for future Top 10s, to top10@