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The British, by and large, are not an optimistic nation. Romantic, yes; easily distracted, certainly; prone to irrational behavior, WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY, EH? But optimistic, not so much. Even in our happiest moments, there’s always a nagging Eeyore voice wondering how long it’s going to last.

It’s like the Beatles song says, we have to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time (it can’t get much worse).

So it should be no surprise to discover there’s a rich seam of slang terms for things going wrong embedded within British English. “It’s all gone pear-shaped” is one of the best. It’s a catch-all expression of dismay, that encompasses everything from “this situation has not turned out quite the way I planned,” to “everything is ruined,” and all points in between.

When I was investigating the origins of this fine and vivid phrase, what struck me was the sheer amount of plausible explanations that have been put forward. It seems there are many, many occasions in which it’s important to try and draw a perfect circle, and just as many opportunities for dismay when it turns out to be fatter at one end than the other.

Here are just a few possible origins of the phrase:

The shape of a graph of probability in which there are a lot of extreme outcomes, distorting the data and making relatively-improbable events more statistically likely.

• A badly-thrown circular pot.

• A badly-blown glass ball.

• A badly-blown cathode ray tube.

• A badly made ship’s rivet, which has been allowed to cool badly.

• Two-day old party balloons which become saggy over time. Also Victorian gas balloons which do likewise.

• RAF pilots in the 1940s failing to achieve a perfect mid-air loop.

• Aircraft engines becoming distorted over time.

• A gun barrel failing, and becoming swollen as the pressure buckles the metal.

• Worn or badly-made metal bearings in large stationary engines.

• A crashed bi-plane, which buckles into guess what? A pear shape.

• A person who’s put weight on, but mainly in their lower half (sincerely doubt this is the one).

The Oxford English Dictionary has got as far as placing the credit for the phrase with the RAF, but hasn’t yet discovered the definitive original use. And really, that’s the way it should be. In reality it wouldn’t matter what the shape was, this is a phrase for which there are no end of possible applications. You tried to make something, it came out wonky.

So long as you’re saying it in a disappointed tone, people will know what you mean.

See also: It’s all gone Pete Tong, where Pete Tong (BBC Radio 1 DJ) is rhyming slang for “wrong.”

Which other British expressions give you the screaming abdabs? Tell us here:

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine