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Don’t talk to me. Don’t even look at me right now. I have had it up to here with this preposterous nonsense, I’m at the end of my tether and frankly, I’m not going to take any more. A line has been drawn, a high horse mounted, I got out of the wrong side of the bed,  and, like a bear with a sore head, my mood is as black as Newgate’s knocker*, so you’re all going to get it in the neck.

Not really, I’m in a delightful frame of mind, as always, but this week we’re looking at expressions of grand grumpiness. The sort of terms you might find a British person uses to explain their own poor temper, or the way you’d warn someone off bothering a friend or colleague who is in the middle of an unpleasant episode.

To offer a non-specific explanation for anything from a mild feeling of disquiet to raging temper, you might say you’re feeling out of sorts. This simply means all is not well, but you’re either not sure why or unwilling to explain. If you wish to express sympathy when someone is feeling under the weather or generally down, you can say you’re sorry they’re feeling out of sorts, and they will probably rather like that.

If, however, they’re in no mood for your sympathy, they might snarl something rude, and bite your head off. Which is not acceptable behavior, so feel free to tell them not to go off on one. Which just means to aggressively overreact.

Of course, it could be that you’re normally the grumpy one, and this is the first time they’ve ever displayed any kind of frustrated behavior, while you always expect them to absorb your foul tempers. This is their cue to fume that your intolerant behavior really takes the biscuit.

They will probably then launch into a long explanation of why they are feeling so very cheesed off. And if they do, do not offer to fetch them a sandwich. While cheesed off could have derived from bad cheese, it’s more likely to be a twist on the old RAF slang browned off (also still in use among the upper middle classes). This refers to rust damage a plane’s metalwork, where a section of the plane could literally be browned off. A frustrating and potentially disastrous problem.

This then became a phrase used to denote misfortune, and the feelings that come with it. As cheese on toast was, and still is, a popular British dish (it’s just a grilled cheese sandwich without the top slice of bread), it’s easy to see how the connection was made between bubbling brown rust and bubbling, browning cheese.

Well, maybe it’s not THAT easy, but then slang isn’t an exact science.

* Newgate was a notorious British jail, the Folsom of its day, I suppose. And if you had to go and knock on the front door, it meant you were in serious trouble. No one really uses the expression any more, but it’s a cracker.

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine