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Common Christmas mishearings and classic family catchphrases

PUBLISHED: 12:43 16 December 2014 | UPDATED: 12:43 16 December 2014


Every family has their own mishearings and malapropisms, and the van Schaicks are no different. This month Chris lets us in to a few expressions sure to be heard in his house over the festive period

Part of the pleasure of getting together with loved ones at Christmas is surely the dusting down of family sayings and catchphrases.

Every family has them: the mishearings and the malapropisms that, once uttered, work their way into the warp and weft of any clan. They’re the expressions which have accidental beginnings, but which soon become part of the family furniture.

Mrs v. S. has given us more than our fair share. One is based on her legendary mishearing of the phrase “It’s all gone Pete Tong.” That’s of course 1980s rhyming slang for the moment when it all goes wrong, coined in honour of the eponymous DJ. But Mrs. v.S. didn’t quite hear it like that. She convinced herself that the phrase was: “It’s all gone Peak Tongued.” The picture conjured up in her mind, clearly, was of some nasty 1970s cladding. As in: “Darling! We’ve bought this lovely farmhouse near Bramdean. But before we could do anything else with it, we simply had to gut the kitchen and rip out some positively ghastly Peak Tongue.”

Mrs v.S. has also endowed the family with what’s now another well-worn phrase. Out in the car one day she pointed out what she sincerely believed to be a bird of prey. But in fact it turned out to be a largish pigeon. Since then, any hunting bird spied during a family car trip is now identified not as a bird of prey, but as a bird of pigeon.

Even the grandest families do it. The father of a school friend of mine was a high powered oil executive. Yet he called his favourite breakfast cereal not Weetabix but Weetybangs. Clearly a mispronunciation by a toddler-age member of the family had passed into the language in their house.

You can see it, too, in the writings of the political diarist and ardent Thatcherite Alan Clark. What, in the lavatories of many households is called a Number Two was called - in Clark’s diaries - a Thompson. 
The reasons for which I’ve never really been quite clear.

The older family members become and the more their hearing goes, the more creative become their linguistic corruptions. A wall in our house is painted in a colour that the decorators’ charts call Celestial Blue, but my father-in-law misheard and to him (and now to us) it will always be Cholesterol Blue; that expression is now as much a part of our house as the wall itself.

Perhaps I was sensitised to this stuff at an early age. My Mum and Dad were very playful with language, and always tampering with words and expressions. So when they used the phrase ‘one fell swoop’, I assumed they must have been messing about. Especially when I heard a teacher say “In one foul sweep.” Turns out that the teacher was wrong and Mum and Dad were right. “One fell swoop” sure enough dates its history back at least to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The last word must go to Mrs. v.S, however. Bustling through the house one day she asked what rom-com the kids were watching on TV. It was Failure to Launch. But Mrs. v.S. misheard and the film is forever more known in our house as Phileas Forlorn.


Read on

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Chris van Schaick has a confession on his knowledge of local wildlife

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