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Chinese whispers

Are there cases of Chinese whispers in language?

Oral ‘mis-transmission’—whereby words change as they are passed on verbally and their new form moves towards becoming the norm—can be a subtle and slow process and the results are sometimes hard to detect. Indeed, some of our most common idioms and grammatical constructions are the result of linguistic Chinese whispers.

to have another thing coming: the idiom was originally to have another think coming, which dates from 1937. The use of thing is now however extremely well established, as in this line from the popular sitcom Only Fools & Horses in 1999: ‘If you think I’m staying in a lead-lined Nissan hut with you and Grandad and a chemical bloody khazi you’ve got another thing coming.’

bog standard: instead of box standard. The term means basic, unmodified, or unexceptional; the original box standard is said to have applied to motorcycles that were brand new and unmodified, ‘straight out of the box’.

should of: instead of should have. Similarly could of, would of, etc. The use of of simply represents the unstressed pronunciation of have, and is often used humorously. However, it is also becoming increasingly common in some regional dialects and in speech:

‘A Metropolitan Police spokesman said that he suspected Miss Nightingale, 70, may of ate a bun and that there might of been all jam on her mouth when the wasp struck.’ (Viz comic, 1999)

arse over tit: instead of arse over tip. This phrase has the equivalent meaning of head over heels. The mutation of tip, used in the sense of the utmost part of the body, into tit seems to have taken place around the late 1960s, and probably resulted simply from the logical equation of two slang terms for parts of the body.

off one’s own back: instead of off one’s own bat (meaning doing something on one’s own initiative).

to hone in on something: instead of to home in on something. The use of hone is frequently considered a typographic error, misunderstanding, or phonetic alteration of home. However, it has become sufficiently widespread, especially in US English, to be considered a sense in its own right.

to tie you over: instead of to tide you over. The idea behind the original phrase, which is first recorded in around 1860, is of a swelling tide that will carry you over an obstacle in your path. It is used particularly in relation to money.

to curry favour: instead of to curry favel. Favel was the name of a horse in a medieval French romance, which became a symbol of cunning and duplicity. To ‘curry’ or ‘rub down’ Favel was to use cunning. Over time, the allusion was lost and ‘favour’ made better sense.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.
In the book What Made the Crocodile Cry?, Susie Dent draws on her popular television segment on the curiosities of English to tackle fascinating puzzles.

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