Sometimes the most innocuous sayings are the ones that that cause the most confusion. In fact, this post came out of a conversation between two Anglophenia writers – one British, one American – about something annoying, a situation which really needed taking in hand, or at the very least, a jolly good talking about. You join us after a certain amount of biffing outrage back and forth, the British writer (*waves*) says “I mean really, it’s not on, is it…” and the American writer; confused by a phrase which looks like a question, but isn’t; replies with the time-honored “?”
So, to clarify matters, the phrase it’s not on, or it’s just not on simply means it’s not acceptable. It’s a phrase that comes from the more well-to-do end of British society – upper middle class and above – and is synonymous with other posh expressions of outrage such as it’s just not cricket and well, of all the nerve!
It’s not a very common expression, but does come in handy for situations such as the one described above, in which it’s not appropriate to indulge in character assassination or conspiracy theorising, you just want to express that the way things currently stand are not the way they should remain. It’s vague, but if delivered with enough whiny punch, can be very effective, and probably won’t get you into a fight, should you use it on someone who’s just cut in front of you in a queue.
And that would be that, except that in trying to find out where this stunted little expression of outrage originally came from (no luck, sadly), I discovered that, in 1980, Justin Heyward of the Moody Blues wrote a song with Jeff Wayne (the man behind the fantastic 1978 musical version of War of the Worlds) about a love gone bad, in which a lover realises that her feelings are failing and the relationship is doomed. She’s effectively telling her man that whatever he brings to the table is no longer good enough.
And what’s it called? Oh yeah: