Damp Squids or Swell Foops?: Top 10 Misquoted Phrases in Britain

By Laurel Sutton

August 13, 2010

Until I saw this episode of the IT Crowd, I don’t think I’d ever heard the expression damp squid:

As the judge helpfully points out, the actual expression is damp squib, which I hadn’t heard either. By sheer coincidence (maybe), a survey appeared in the UK newspaper The Telegraph which listed damp squid as the top misquoted expression amongst Brits. Here’s the entire list:

1) A damp squid (a damp squib)
2) On tender hooks (on tenter hooks)
3) Nip it in the butt (nip it in the bud)
4) Champing at the bit (chomping at the bit)
5) A mute point (a moot point)
6) One foul swoop (one fell swoop)
7) All that glitters is not gold (all that glisters is not gold)
8) Adverse to (averse to)
9) Batting down the hatches (batten down the hatches)
10) Find a penny pick it up (find a pin pick it up)

FYI, damp squib is a term for failure, named after a dud 19th century explosive mining device.

Looking over this this, I was struck by two differences in use between British English and US English. First is the absence of the damp squib expression; I have heard “translations” of it, as in wet match or wet firecracker. So maybe it’s just the squib part that we never imported from the UK.

The one that really surprised me is fell swoop:

Others in the chart include “one fell swoop” which was originally uttered by MacDuff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth but which is often mistakenly repeated as “one foul swoop”.

Foul swoop? Really? The only variation I’ve heard on this one is swell foop, a Spoonerism that’s clearly meant to be playful. Swoop refers to the rapid descent of a bird of prey, and fell means “deadly”. Fell is an old, old English word and is related to the word felon. Tolkien used it to great effect in Lord of the Rings, especially when describing the winged steed of the Nazg├╗l as “fell beasts”. (Did I just go up 100+ on geek cred or what?)

Glister is a weird word – sounds too much like blister – so I totally approve of changing it to glitter, especially when the two words are synonyms. But I didn’t know the origins numbers 2 and 10:

The 14th century phrase “On tenter hooks” which derives from a wooden frame that hung wet clothes out to dry is often mistaken as “on tender hooks.” The phrase “Find a pin and pick it up,” the first line of a poem in “The Real Mother Goose” book of nursery rhymes is now misquoted as “Find a penny pick it up”.

I’ve picked up a lot of pennies in my time, but not nearly so many pins. I’d rather have the luck and the money, frankly.

As I suspected, this article is really a PR piece masquerading as news, to wit:

The survey of 1,000 people was compiled by hearing aid retailer Amplifon, as part of its “Bringing Sound to Life” campaign aimed at revealing the state of the nation’s hearing.

I’m not sure I understand what hearing has to do with misquoting Shakespeare, but perhaps the good folks at Amplifon can explain it to us. (Hint: it’s not that people have bad hearing, it’s that they encounter an unfamiliar word, like moot, can’t remember it, so they substitute a word they do know, like mute, even if it doesn’t make sense in context. Thus does language change over time.)

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