I was perplexed this week to hear two BBC TV reporters puzzling out what the phrase “as fit as a butcher’s dog” means.
The discussion was sparked by footage of Boris Johnson doing press-ups after his bout of COVID-19, and insisting he was as fit as the canine pet of the meat purveyor in question. I am largely unmoved by Boris’s exercise habits, he can pump iron until the cows come home for all I care. But I’m astonished that two journalists appeared not to instantly know the meaning of the butcher’s dog idiom.
It means “very fit”. Surely they must have heard this before? But they went round the houses, deciding whether a dog owned by a butcher might be overfed. They then, ridiculously, over-analysed the notion that a dog fed on meat scraps might not have a balanced diet.
Perhaps there is a nationwide plague of failures to grasp the meanings of idioms? There is a very senior Scottish politician who demonstrably doesn’t know what “as clear as mud” means. He appears to think it means: “very clear”, and uses the phrase to say how transparent his policies are. But that idiom means the exact opposite.
How can seemingly intelligent people, in positions of influence, not have a grasp on such language basics? It’s akin to thinking two plus two equals five.
These weren’t misquoted idioms, as commonly happens. I now (sadly) half expect people to say “damp squid” when they mean damp squib, or write “tow the line” when they mean “toe the line”.
No, these hacks genuinely didn’t seem to have grasped simple idiomatic phrases that I thought were firmly in everyday usage. Every child would know “stair-rods” means it is wet. Or that “throwing a spanner in the works” isn’t a good thing. Wouldn’t they?
Is it curtains for idioms? Are they as dead as a doornail, pushing up daisies, or been given the old heave-ho? Have they shuffled off this mortal coil, gone belly-up, or popped their clogs?
Given time, idioms become old hat, that’s taken as read. “Give it some elbow grease” seems very 1950s, and “stuff and nonsense” even older. And it’s less common to hear people say “pardon my French”, or giggle about hanky-panky. But surely that’s not the case with the butcher’s dog.
The trouble, I think, is that people don’t read as widely as they should. And when journalists can be accused of this, it’s bad news.
Word of the week
Having a powerful, muscular physique. EG: “If I were more hench, I’d pop in on those reporters and give them a piece of my mind.”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org