Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A false Peace

An egregious example of getting it wrong. David Peace, in his recent novel The Damned Utd, writes an argument between his fictionalised Brian Clough and Pete Taylor:

'So what are you going to do then?' asks Pete. 'Drive a taxi? Buy a pub?'
'Fuck off!'
'All mouth and no trousers,' says Pete. 'That's the real Cloughie!'
'Fuck off!' you shout and throw a pillow at him -
'All mouth and no fucking trousers,' he laughs. 'No fucking balls!'

Of course, it's fine to have a fictional character use the phrase 'All mouth and no trousers' if that is in character. However, the character here is a working-class man from Nottingham in the early 1970s. It's not in character, and it's anachronistic.

David Peace has been widely praised for his evocation of the language and atmosphere of his native West Riding in the 1970s and 80s. This then seems a rare error. I wonder if it was rather the fault of an keen-but-ignorant editor at his London publisher, Faber & Faber?

The 'No fucking balls!' extension might suggest so - it explicitly distinguishes between the surface gloss (the trousers) and the actual content, a distinction that is at the heart of the correctly-used expression, and suggests that Peace is aware of this. Contrary to the implicit assumptions of the bastardised phrase, 'trousers' is an antonym for 'balls', not a metonym.

Constantine says

Here's how to do it right -

One of my (anti)heroes of fiction, John Constantine, in an early appearance in Swamp Thing 37, as written by the great Alan Moore.

Respect and remonstration

Gratitude and respect to the learned Languagehat, who noted and recommended this humble blog within hours of its launch:
Such extreme devotion to authentic local usage deserves our honor and respect. Greetings also to the visitors who left messages below.

To demonstrate the need for this campaigning blog, may I point towards the Guardian, a frequent offender. The newspaper's excellent style guide correctly prescribes:
all mouth and trousers
not "all mouth and no trousers", as has appeared in the paper

Yet last month, diarist Jon Henley wrote, apropos David Cameron:
Surely they're not suggesting the dear boy's all mouth and no trousers?

I naturally emailed Mr Henley to remonstrate. He replied, with as little contrition as style:
had a bit of a debate with myself about that one.
you are of course right, tho at least three reputable sources now say that "all mouth and no trousers" is now the more commonly used, and indeed logical, variant. language must advance, say !

While I'm as supportive of an evolving, living language as the next chap, the 'no trousers' variant really cannot be described as an 'advance', but rather as a barbarism. Shame on you, Mr Henley, for such gormlessness.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A mission statement

This blog is dedicated to preserving and promoting the great Northern English expression "all mouth and trousers". This mission, sadly, also requires defending this venerable phrase against the more recent Southern perversion "all mouth and no trousers".

The meaning and elegance of the expression has been well explained by Michael Quinion in his Port Out, Starboard Home (extracted here) -

This strange expression comes from the north of England and is used, mainly by women in my experience, as a sharp-tongued and effective putdown of a certain kind of pushy, over-confident male. Proverbial expressions like this are notoriously hard to pin down: we have no idea exactly where it comes from nor when it first appeared, although it is recorded from the latter part of the 19th century onwards. However, we're fairly sure that it is a pairing of "mouth", meaning insolence or cheekiness, with "trousers", a pushy sexual bravado. It's a wonderful example of metonymy ("a container for the thing contained").

The phrase seems to have become known, and surprisingly popular, among southern English writers in the last decades of the 20th century, perhaps as a result of the airing of a series of television comedies based in the North, such as the BBC's Last of the Summer Wine. What is interesting about the saying from a folk etymological point of view is that its opaqueness has led its modern users to reinterpret it as "all mouth and no trousers".

For example, an article in the Daily Record in 2002 quoted a Scottish politician as saying, "The First Minister is all mouth and no trousers"; a piece in the People newspaper described a pop group in the same terms; the Guardian in June 2002 said: "Bloody men. All mouth and no trousers.'' It has reached the stage in which the older, non-negative form is in great danger of vanishing, though Australia and New Zealand seem to be staying with it (when they use it at all, which isn't often).

Metropolitan writers are trying here to make sense of something obscure that they have not often heard in its native surroundings, and are getting it muddled. They confuse it with other put-downs that are conventionally phrased with a negative, such as "all talk and no action" or "all fur coat and no knickers". To have no trousers on is not only embarrassing, the argument seems to go, but is a state in which one is not ready for action (outside the bedroom, that is).

It's a pity it should be changing through ignorance. It's a lovely phrase, as effective a snub as anyone could want – all the better for being slightly obscure – and it's one that ought to be preserved pristine.

This blog will seek to recognise and praise use of the original phrase, and name and shame promulgators of the Metropolitan vulgarisation. Reports of such should be submitted to mouthandtrousers@googlemail.com