Dogs' dinners and things the cat dragged in

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"Don't upset the apple cart," said my wife, some time last week.

"I won't," I said (and I didn't).

"What's an apple cart and why is it bad to upset it?" said my son.

"Because ..." I said, and stopped.

"Don't forget, he's never seen an apple cart, whether upset or not," said my wife.

"Nor have I," said I.

"None of us has," she said.

We looked at each other.

It was clearly time for another visit to the Idiom Heritage Museum.

This is one of our favourite days out in the West Country. It is such a simple idea for a theme park and yet such fun. The concept, basically, is to have working demonstration models of the origins of all the phrases in our language that have a rural, agricultural and early industrial background but whose origins have vanished while the phrase remains.

Like an apple cart.

We don't have apple carts any more, but you can sort of guess why it must be bad to upset an apple cart. All the apples would roll on the road. They would take ages to pick up again and half of them would be spoilt. Nasty. But until you've actually seen an apple cart roll over and disgorge its load, you can't understand how disastrous it might be.

Especially if you're standing too close, as I was last Saturday at the Idiom Heritage Museum.

"Terribly sorry about that," said the director, James Holinshed, as he picked me from under a ton of cheap Golden Delicious while my son laughed like a drain. "I'm glad to see your son has got a sense of humour, though. Has it ever occurred to you, by the way, why we say: 'Laugh like a drain'?"

It never had. Mr Holinshed took us to the demonstration drain and laughed down one end while I put my ear to the other.

"Sorry about that," he said again, as I staggered away from the drain half-deafened, while my son continued to chuckle merrily. "Look, let me show you a few more quiet bits of the place. Anything particular you'd like to see?"

"There's something I'd like to know," I said. "Why is the place full of horses? Do you need so many?"

"Well spotted!" he said. "The reason is, of course, that a vast amount of our idioms were invented in the pre-car age, when the horse was king, and so it was the natural currency for imagery. Putting the cart before the horse, a horse of a different colour, a dark horse - you don't get this sort of imagery from cars, even now, do you? A car of a different colour? You can take a car to a garage, but you can't make it take on petrol? I don't think so, somehow. I don't think it would work."

"No, I think you're ..." I said, but he was already on to the next display, which was two huge lumps of something white.

"Can you tell the difference?" he said.

"Is there a difference?" I said.

"One's chalk, one's cheese," he said - pretty smugly, I thought. "Pretty damned similar, aren't they? People are amazed how similar."

"Depends on the cheese," I said."You've got a hard white cheese here, but if we had Brie ..."

"He wasn't listening. He was already on to the next thing.

"If your child is easily shocked or squeamish, I wouldn't let him look into the next shed of exhibits," he said.

He was right. I felt a bit queasy myself. There was one nasty pile that was a dog's dinner, another something that the cat had dragged in, a cooking vessel smelling evil which was a kettle of fish, a drowned rat, a dead dormouse, a drunk skunk ...

"Have you got a bird in the hand?" I said, in an attempt to lighten things.

"That's a proverb," he said. "No proverbs here. Only idioms.

"Idioms tell you more about history than proverbs do. 'Dog's dinner' tells you abut a time when dogs' dinners didn't come out of tins called Woof or Petticat, but were real rotten scraps."

We passed the bandwagon and the gravy train.

We saw the demonstration of the cat being put among the pigeons.

We passed a refreshment stall.

"How are they selling?" called Mr Holinshed.

"Very well indeed," a lady called back.

"Hot cakes," he explained to me.

We finally got out of the Idiom Heritage Museum and drove home. I was so glad to get away that I must have been driving too fast, as my wife asked me to slow down.

"You're driving like the clappers," she said.

"What are clappers?" asked my son.

I thought about it for a moment.

"Shut up," I told him.

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