Miles Kington Remembered: We are all sticklers for clichés we don't understand

A chalice is a sort of drinking cup, I think we'd agree, but what kind of drinking cup? Apoisoned one, that's what. We never use the word except in the cliché
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The Independent Online

1 December 1994

It suddenly occurred to me the other day that I didn't know what a grail was. I know that it is holy. I know that King Arthur's knights used to go abroad looking for it, rather like modern-day cricketers setting off for a warm winter Test series, and that King Arthur's knights used to come back many months later tired and battered from their fruitless quest, not unlike modern-day cricketers, but I didn't know what a grail was. A cup of some kind? A goblet? Maybe the chalice out of which Jesus drank at the Last Supper.

Wrong. I have now looked it up and it is the dish in which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly collected Jesus's blood as he was dying (an odd thing to do, I would have thought, if you had the slightest medical training). However, when a grail is holy, not just a household object, it is, according to this big and heavy old dictionary that my wife brought to our marriage as part of her dowry, "a vessel divided into compartments for different kinds of food".

I don't think we have those any more, do we? That would certainly explain why nobody asks us to pass the grail at mealtimes any more. Unless – hold on a moment – unless it refers to those sub-divided serving dishes in which old-fashioned hotels serve vegetables. You know, shiny metal dishes with three vaguely triangular pockets, hopelessly overboiled carrots in this corner, mashed potatoes here, and drowned cabbage here by the waiter's fingers ... Does the cry still go up in provincial hotel kitchens: "Grail of veg for table five – come and get it!"?

I think not. It's just that there are a lot of words in English whose meaning we have almost forgotten and which we no longer use except in the odd phrase or cliché. Another one, not too far removed from "grail", is "chalice". A sort of drinking cup, I think we'd agree, but what kind of drinking cup? A poisoned one, that's what. Because we never use the word except in the cliché "the poisoned chalice". Never. Strange that, because football is always in need of new drinking vessels. Once you have exhausted the use of cup with World Cup, European Cup, FA Cup and so on, you then find yourself competing for bowls and shields and even, God help us, vases. What's wrong with the European Chalice?

"Stickler" is another. Another word preserved opaquely in a cliché, I mean. We all know what it means when we say that someone is a stickler for accuracy or etiquette, but not one in a million knows what "stickling" is or how one stickles, and no one ever uses it as a verb. Well, according to my Wife's Heavy Dictionary (hereinafter known as the WHD), a stickler was an old kind of umpire, and to stickle was to rule, dispose, set in order or arrange.

And a sandboy was a boy who went round selling sand from a cart. I looked that up, of course, because it occurred to me that I had no idea why a sandboy was happy, and having looked it up I still have no idea.

There used to be an expression "as merry as a grig", meaning "as happy as a sandboy". Whatever happened to that? And what was a grig? Well, let me tell you. A grig is a small eel. And the only reason I happen to know that a grig is a small kind of eel is that my eye was caught by the word "grig" in the WHD as I was heading towards "grail", and blow me down, there it was, "merry as a small kind of sand eel", and no, I don't know why small eels should be happy either.

If "griff" was a word, it would be right there next to "grig", but it isn't anywhere except in Griff Rhys Jones, and it was from listening to him that this whole train of thought started. I was watching his Bookworm television programme the other day and made a note of two phrases he used. One was about Burke and Hare dealing in corpses, except that GR Jones didn't say that, he talked about them "plying their murderous trade"; and the other was about RL Stevenson's first draft of Jekyll and Hyde being burnt, except that GR Jones didn't say burnt, he said "consigned to the flames". It is true, is it not, that without those two formulae the words "ply" and "consign" would both be obsolete by now?

Meanwhile, a small word competition to keep you happy. Can you think of anything that ever gets "scotched" apart from a rumour? And can you honestly say what "grist" is before it gets to the mill?