It’s always nice to be nice, isn’t it? Every day we see countless examples of human frailty, ample proof that while we may be the dominant species on the planet, we are far from perfect. But why spend your time lingering on the imperfections? Will that make them go away? No. Does the act of obsessing over the negative things in life, so much so that you have to point out other people’s flaws at every opportunity – on Twitter, on Facebook, out loud on a crowded train – subtract from the sum total of unpleasantness in the world or add to it? Well it’s the latter, isn’t it?
Will telling someone off for being overweight in a public place shame them into eating less, or will it upset them into eating more? It’s hard to say: humans are complicated.
So let’s take a moment here to doff the cap to those corners of the English language which are devoted to encouraging and supporting our fellow humans.
I just used one right there: doff the cap. That’s a doozy. Oh, there’s another one! We’d best get on with this before I collapse into a blissful, self-congratulatory heap on the floor.
So, let’s start with a game. Billiards, to be precise, which came from colonial India. Unlike pool, once you’ve potted the red ball, it must be returned to its starting position, which is the spot where the black ball goes in a game of snooker. So the phrase spot on evolved, as a simple expression of extreme accuracy. This then was applied to other aspects of life, and found to be a fairly decent way to convey delight and support.
“How do you like my Victoria sponge, Cedric?”
“Spot on, Cecelia!”
It seems most likely that a similar phrase, bang on, comes from the same source, albeit with a more colorful twist. There’s a common link between this and the idiom bang up, as in “Jack did a bang up job of that fence.” Clearly we’re all very fond of things that explode.
Although not THAT fond, or there would be no need for the phrase banging on, which describes a person talking at great and tedious length about something tiresome.
But really, if you want positive adjectives, the people to ask are teenagers. They’re the ones with the most fluid approach to language in any case, and there are no shortage of words that have been coined by young people and then slipped into general use. First and biggest is wicked (or latterly wix), the Swiss army knife of positive adjectives for an entire generation, and its attendant buddies safe, sorted and sound, all of which describe a state of essential rightness, in the same way that ’60s kids excitedly babbled fab and gear, and ’70s kids said ace or brill.
In the West Country and Wales, it’s relatively common to use the word lush in this context too. It’s also used to describe anything which is overwhelmingly good, from your boyfriend to your dinner. Stacey says it about Gavin a lot, in Gavin and Stacey.
The one I’ve never, ever heard said out loud, is the word wizard. Now if you read Enid Blyton or any children’s literature dating from the early 20th Century, you’ll often come across children who are pleased about something – a slap-up feed appears to be the X-Box 360 of its day – and express this by yelling about what a wizard time they are having.
I can only assume this came and went before my time, or that it exists only in the playrooms of the extraordinarily well-heeled, because it certainly didn’t do the rounds at my school.
Oh and before you ask, a slap-up feed derives from the time of Charles Dickens, where a fast food establishment that threw out hot meals in a rough and ready fashion was called a slap-bang, because you slapped your money on the counter and they banged your food on the table.
A state of affairs which is as far from slap-up as it appears to be able to get, but there we are. Language, like people, isn’t perfect. But it is ace.
Which British idiom confuses you? Tell us here: