‘Red sky at night’, so the saying goes, ‘Shepherd’s delight’, unless you’re my mother, in which case, it’s ‘Sailor’s delight’.
No, I don’t honestly believe that my mother’s so perverse that she has a saying all to herself or that she’s adapted one to suit her very own needs. I assume that she say’s ‘Sailor’s delight’, because she was raised in Grimsby, which is a large fishing town and sometime important shipping dock on the East coast of England, and that there weren’t a whole lot of sheep there, and, of course, weather is critical to sailors, too, so the saying works both ways out.
Of course, if you happen to be the husband, then ‘Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight/ Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning’ very easily becomes ‘Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight/ Red sky in the morning, thatch is on fire’, but then he is a big Monty Python fan, so... you know... not a huge leap.
Roughly the same thing applies to ‘batten down the hatches’, another seagoing expression, which, in some parts of rural England is still generally expressed as ‘flatten down the thatches’. ‘I’ll have your guts for garters’ used, sometimes, to be expressed as ‘I’ll have your gangles for gutswag’, but I’m not sure how long its been since I’ve heard that one.
Expressions litter our language and I still love to hear them, and note down new ones whenever I get the chance. I suppose most are to do with technology now, and lots of those are expressed as initials like LOL or ROFL or IMHO, but they’re not the same, are they?
If we found a penny, we’d always say, ‘See a penny pick it up and all day long you’ll have good luck’, but how many of you follow it with, ‘See a penny, pass it on, your luck will last twice as long’? Your mother might encourage you to share your woes by saying, ‘A trouble shared is a trouble halved’, but my grandfather would repudiate that with a stern, but sensible, ‘A trouble shared is a trouble doubled’.
Then there’s the whole superstition thing; when did we lose that? ‘Marry in May, and rue the day’, or ‘Change the name and not the letter, and marry for worse and not for better’. When was the last time you heard either of those sentiments expressed? No, I don’t know either.
Well, I suppose you’ve heard them now, or read them, at least, and some of you will raise an eyebrow at them; some of you will laugh or scoff, and some of you might be jolted into a memory or even a state of mild nostalgia for a long-forgotten, possibly even a well-loved and lost friend or family member. These are the bits and bobs that colour our lives and our memories, and so they’re one of the things we could use, as writers, to help bring our prose to life, to imbue it with energy, to make it breathe and to make it memorable.
I’m not saying I’m going to use any of these particular expressions, any time soon, but they’re part of my own personal vocabulary, part of my experience, part of my vernacular, and they remind me of what it is to build and know, to love and use a language, and I hope I’ll remember that while I’m writing whatever it is that next I’m writing. It’s all useful stuff, after all.