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Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this one’s gonna be a breeze. You’re thinking no sane culture would take a sentence, a gentle enquiry with as clear a meaning as “how’s your father?” and turn it into something sordid and nasty, right?
Wrong! The British did! Mind you, they were trying to avoid describing the act of (polite cough) making love; the explicit description of which is frowned upon by most polite societies. In many ways, the phrase “how’s your father” is just a slightly older, slightly more innocent version of modern near-innuendos like “bump uglies,” “if you seek Amy,” “the beast with two backs,” or or even the great “rock ‘n’ roll” itself.
Put simply, if someone asks you to go somewhere for a spot of how’s-your-father, they want to do stuff with you. Urgent stuff. Rude stuff. Dirty stuff. Got it?
Now, the origin of the phrase appears to be open to interpretation, but the Urban Dictionary has three astonishing thoughts about where it could have come from, only one of which rings true.
The first is that it’s to do with Second World War soldiers soliciting sex from elderly French madames, some of whom may also have been old enough to have shared intimate moments with British soldiers during the First World War too. The inference being that the son is going where the father has already been. So far, so gross.
Then there’s the Victorian explanation, which suggests it’s to do with Fathers attempting to preserve their daughter’s modesty by hiding in their voluminous skirts. A suitor, hoping to get close to the object of his affections, would ask “how’s your father?” and if the girl’s skirts were loaded with dad, she’d cast her eyes downwards and say something like “my father is very well, thank you, and defends my honour with every inch of his being,” which was a coded way of saying “NOT NOW, SIMON.”
Frankly that one seems more than a little far-fetched, unless the Victorians bred a race of super-tall girls, from the loins of very short men with collapseable spines.
The third suggestion is that the phrase originated in the music halls, as the catchphrase of a man called Harry Tate, and that he used it as a way of changing the subject when asked a difficult question in one of his skits. It’ll have worked like this:
Straight man: “I say! What game do you think you’re playing, knocking at my door in the middle of the night?”
Harry Tate: [flustered] “I… er… that is to say… I… [long pause] how’s your father?”
This caught on among those randy First World War soldiers, and they put it to good use, describing all sorts of unpleasant activities. Which then became codified in peace-time as a slang term for sex. It’s fallen out of use nowadays, but should you ever find yourself having been propositioned by an old soldier, at least you can now be sure exactly what you’re turning down.
Which other British phrases get your goat? Tell us here:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic