‘Spend a penny?’: Britain’s oldest phrases are falling out of fashion, study claims

New research suggests most people do not use, or even understand, majority of traditional sayings

Olivia Petter
Wednesday 26 January 2022 15:41
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Some of the oldest sayings and phrases in the English language are falling out of fashion, a new survey has found, with most Britons admitting they can’t even understand what they mean.

The survey of 2,000 people between the ages of 18 and 50 was conducted by Perspectus Global.

Topping its list of the 50 expressions that are dying out was the term “casting pearls before swine”, which means you are wasting time because you’re offering help to someone who won’t appreciate it.

Out of those surveyed, 78 per cent said they did not know what the expression meant.

Another saying that was not understood by 71 per cent of participants was “nailing your colours to the mast”, which means stating your beliefs openly, and refers to the 17th century, when flags were lowered as a symbol of submission in battle.

Meanwhile, 68 per cent of Britons hadn’t heard the phrase “know your onions”, which means you are experienced or knowledgeable about a particular topic.

The phrase is thought to originate from the British lexicographer and grammarian C T Onions, who is believed to have worked on the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1960s.

Additionally, the phrase “mad as a hatter” is on the list, however, this was popularised through Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and the character of the Mad Hatter.

The term does not come from the book, though. In fact, it’s thought to relate to mercury being historically used in hats, which was known to have impacted people’s nervous systems resulting in what became known as Mad Hatter’s disease.

The phrase “spend a penny”, meaning to need to use the bathroom, was also on the list, and references how public toilets were once operated with locks that used coins.

Other phrases on the list included: “flogging a dead horse”, “popped her clogs”, and “be there or be square”.

Ellie Glason from Perspectus Global said: “It’s interesting to see from our research, how language evolves and changes over the years.

“It would seem that many of the phrases which were once commonplace in Britain are seldom used nowadays.”

See the full list of phrases, along with the percentage of participants who never use them, below.

1.      Pearls before swine (78 per cent)

2.      Nail your colours to the mast (71 per cent)

3.      Colder than a witch’s t** (71 per cent)

4.      Pip pip (70 per cent)

5.      Know your onions (68 per cent)

6.      A nod is as good as a wink (66 per cent)

7.      A stitch in time saves nine (64 per cent)

8.      Ready for the knackers yard (62 per cent)

9.      I’ve dropped a clanger (60 per cent)

10.  A fly in the ointment (59 per cent)

11.  Keen as mustard (58 per cent)

12.  A flash in the pan (57 per cent)

13.  Tickety boo (57 per cent)

14.  A load of codswallop (56 per cent)

15.  A curtain twitcher (56 per cent)

16.  Knickers in a twist (56 per cent)

17.  Dead as a doornail (55 per cent)

18.  A dog’s dinner (55 per cent)

19.  It’s chock a block (55 per cent)

20.  Storm in a teacup (55 per cent)

21.  Could not organise a p*ss up in a brewery (54 per cent)

22.  Not enough room to swing a cat (54 per cent)

23.  Flogging a dead horse (54 per cent)

24.  Toe the line (54 per cent)

25.  Popped her clogs (54 per cent)

26.  Drop them a line (53 per cent)

27.  Steal my thunder (53 per cent)

28.  A few sandwiches short of a picnic (53 per cent)

29.  A legend in one’s own lifetime (52 per cent)

30.  Be there or be square (52 per cent)

31.  Fell off the back of a lorry (52 per cent)

32.  A bodge job (52 per cent)

33.  Eat humble pie (52 per cent)

34.  Having a chinwag (52 per cent)

35.  Put a sock in it (52 per cent)

36.  Mad as a Hatter (51 per cent)

37.  Spend a penny (51 per cent)

38.  Cool as a cucumber (51 per cent)

39.  It’s gone pear shaped (51 per cent)

40.  It cost a bomb (51 per cent)

41.  Raining cats and dogs (51 per cent)

42.  See a man about a dog (51 per cent)

43.  It takes the biscuit (50 per cent)

44.  He’s a good egg (50 per cent)

45.  Snug as a bug in a rug (49 per cent)

46.  Chuffed to bits (49 per cent)

47.  Have a gander (49 per cent)

48.  Selling like hot cakes (48 per cent)

49.  Pardon my French (48 per cent)

50.  A turn up for the books (45 per cent)

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