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Look at that dog. Look at it! Total focus, that is. If any of you so much as THINKS about pressing on the back button he’ll be on you like candyfloss on Nicki Minaj’s wig.

Now, as we’ve discussed before, it’s fairly common to take a medical description and apply it to something else for comic or colorful effect. An archaic term for mental illness, a learning disability or epilepsy gets appropriated and re-used to describe people being stupid, or absent-minded or possessed of excessive energy. And once those terms become superseded by new medical definitions, the old words continue in a kind of radioactive half-life, where their currency and worth is entirely based on the deliberately misread version of their original context, having had the tang of medical insult surgically removed by the passing of time.

By which I mean no one who uses the word idiot or cretin ever uses it to specifically refer to someone with actual learning disabilities, not without also wanting to call them an idiot or a cretin as well.

(For a brief examination of a word which has still to make that jump to safety, see Fraser’s Phrases: Ricky Gervais and the Dreaded ‘Mong’)

This is only the beginning, however, there are a glut of expressions, all of which essentially mean the same thing – “I do not understand the way you think” –  which take these terms and add bits for extra color.

Barking mad is a prime example. Back when our understanding of mental health issues and learning disabilities was not terribly high, we equated what we then called madness with the moon. That’s where lunacy comes from, and therefore loony, and then raving loony. That’s not unique to Britain either, although we do have a silly political party called The Monster Raving Loony Party, so we’ve rather taken that ball and run with it.

And of course the other animal that we think of as being affected by the moon is the wolf. Which is where barking mad (often shortened to just barking) and howling mad come in. These are terms which skirt around the original definition of lunacy without meaning anything specific. ‘Howling Mad’ is now thought to be innocuous to use as the nickname for the lovably eccentric character Murdoch in The A-Team.

Other words and terms which mean crazy person without really meaning crazy person include:

Bonkers –  the title of a hit record by Dizzee Rascal, no less, and one of British slang’s finest words ever.

Daft as a brush – comes from daft as a besom, which comes from fond as a buzzom, which takes the original Northern English meaning of the word fond, to mean simple-minded. So to say you’re fond of dogs means the very idea of a wet nose and a waggy tail makes you simper and coo. Not so very different to our own use of the word, really. A buzzom (later besom) is an old broom, made of twigs like the witches use. Quite why brushes are stupid is, sadly, lost to history.

Off your rocker – means either to have become temporarily unreasonable, or to be drunk. See also: off your chump, off your trolley, off your pip, off your nut.

Lost his marbles – came from a phrase which meant forlorn, as in “like a boy who has lost his marbles” (you know a bag of marbles were a beloved toy for boys, right?), and changed, via a literal interpretation in Peter Pan, among other places, to mean the same as doolally.

Doolally – another wondrous word, originally doolally tap, which came from a British Army transit camp at Deolali in India, a place where troops felt frustrated and bored, to the point of madness, they claimed, while waiting to be transferred elsewhere. Tap being an urdu word for a malarial fever.

Not the full shilling – see also, a sandwich short of a picnic, not the sharpest tool in the box, etc.

Barmybarm is the foam on top of fermenting liquid. It is full of nothing but wind and a yeasty whiff, so a barmy person is just a blow-hard. See also: barmpot.

Twerp – no one seems to know where this came from, how it fell out of common use, or why it has not seen a resurgence, now we’re all on Twitter and people want to make puns. A twerp is a silly fool, someone who isn’t really worth bothering about because they have no influence, and are unlikely to develop any, due to being, y’know, a twerp.

In the Second World War, a good way to keep morale ticking over during bomb raids or on the battlefield was to have a sing-song. A popular tune was “Whistle While You Work,” which came from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Only the words were changed to suit the prevailing mood.

Hence: “Whistle while you work, Hitler is a twerp. He’s half barmy, so’s his army, whistle while you work.”

And finally, an old favorite from my school days. If someone is talking nonsense, and you wish to mock them for it (schooldays, remember, we all did it), there’s a little sing-song sentence you use, with accompanying hand actions. It goes like this:

1: You tap your temple twice, while saying “tap tap”
2: Make a spiral with your index finger around your temple, while saying “curly-wurly”
3: Point at the person whose views you wish to mock, and say (using the same vocal tone as someone yelling “yoo hoo!” across a busy street) “cuckoo!”

It’s not very mature, but MAN ALIVE it’s fun.

What British slang shall we have a crack at next?  Tell us here:

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine