Spilling The Beans On The Cat’s Pyjamas by Judy Parkinson (book review).

When I first enquired about getting a review copy of this book, the bemused publicist said it wasn’t Science Fiction. I then pointed out that we of the geeky kind also have an interest in a variety of subjects, especially when it comes to research.


Case in point here with Judy Parkinson’s book, ‘Spilling The Beans On The Cat’s Pyjamas’, which is about the origin of popular expressions. We take them all for granted but knowing something about them can also provide some ideas for any future setting if we want to evolve them or make some up. Knowing how they came into popular usage then makes a book such as this very useful, especially if you’re planning any in your own stories. One important thing I learnt is that many of them have been around for several centuries, although they have been tidied over the years. Something to remember if you use them, evolve them a bit. The fact that many of them stay relevant is probably for the same reason that many story plots do because they hit the same nerve.

Saying that, any that are created today are invariably called catchphrases and most aren’t created deliberately but catch on because they catch the listener or reader and propagate some truth. If that happens now, then it’s hardly surprising that they catch on similarly in the past, especially when fewer people read so most had to be remembered. That probably explains why so many ancient sayings survived to present day and might be why new ones don’t last so long.

Probably the biggest surprise is how far many of these expressions started with the Bible and Shakespeare donating several to the English language with various modifications. No doubt they must have hit a resonance chord in the public. There are also many from America, France and Greece that we’ve adopted as well. It might have been interesting to have seen some sort of statistics as to how the sources were distributed.

There are various things I’ve learnt and here’s a sample:-

If you thought ‘All singing, all dancing’ became popular only with computer software then you might need to look back to the 1929 film ‘Broadway Melody’.

The title quote isn’t one I’ve come across before. ‘The cat’s pyjamas’ in America means top notch. Then again, I’ve never seen a cat in pyjamas.

I always thought that ‘To freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ had something to do with pawnshops rather than cannonballs as stated. I never realised ‘For Pete’s sake’ had something to do with St. Peter, the chap who stands at the gates to heaven. Surely that must be the worst job, just being the bouncer and never invited to the party. The rather graphic description of being ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ explains that the adage was somewhat abbreviated as to what happened although I do wonder how many people had strong stomachs watching this particular kind of execution.

Considering how much Parkinson gets accurate about people, it’s a shame she didn’t realise there was only ever one scriptwriter, the late John Sullivan, on ‘Only Fools And Horses’. Mind you, I never knew ‘jubbly’ was orange juice before.

Eric Idle’s ‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more’ in ‘Monty Python, although not said as such, is one of those odd sayings created from the actions with the last three words, all meaning the same thing and being emphasised by being put together.

Those of you who’ve been involved in ‘round robins’ should be relieved to know it had a word change from ‘round ribbons’ or ruban from the French. A means to sign a petition on a ship in a circle so avoiding having anyone on the top of the list. Makes you wonder how it got adopted in fandom circles for distributing letters and APAs, doesn’t it?

‘Saved by the bell’ was a means to put those people buried prematurely an opportunity to pull a string if they woke up rather than school lessons ending. Although that is something I did know, it did leave me pondering. Burying dead people quickly was largely before freezers were available. However, who was going to wait in a graveyard for a bell to ring and would those interned remember what the string was when they woke up in the dark?

Although I knew vaguely what an American ‘rain check’ was, a ticket stub to return to a match replay after bad weather, it gets a groundhog’s day treatment in never continuing to never have the offered date.

‘What the Dickens’ has nothing to do with the Victorian writer as it has even been sourced back as far as Shakespeare and is probably another name for the devil.

The biggest fault with this book is that it neither has a list of titles at the beginning nor an index at the end for quick reference. Although the book is supposedly in alphabetical order, where the first word is considered less important, its placement with the second word of the saying is used. If you scanned the book in a shop, I suspect you might wonder if the book was in a jumble because of it.

I did have a ponder as to how comprehensive the book was and it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember coming across a ‘can of worms’ or ‘kettle of fish’, although there are some references to variants given from time to time.

Saying that, I’m sure there’s enough material left over for Judy Parkinson to continue this in a second book. I doubt if many people will be like me and read the book straight through as really it’s more designed to dig in for a little read at a time. The fact that I have so much to say about the book should be an indication of an interesting learning curve.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Michael O’Mara Books. 192 page illustrated small enlarged paperback. Pric: £ 5.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78243-011-7)
check out website: www.mombooks.com


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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