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Some rum. Not really doing anything.

Some events, while being enormously emotive, can only be properly described using terms that are not. It’s better to imply than it is to describe, because the imagination is far more powerful that words can ever be, and backing off a little leaves more room for the mind to play.

The British, being very good at saying a mild thing and meaning a strong thing, have a ton of expressions that do the job. Because when you want to suggest a needless fuss has been made, it’s often a good idea to be circumspect in your language, for fear of being biffed on the hooter.

My personal favorite is a rum do, which simply means an event that went wrong, possibly in an angry or frustrated manner.

The derivation is fascinating, in that it comes from the 16th Century, a period where the word rum – nothing to do with the drink that is much beloved of sailors – meant very good, and was well-represented in British slang of the time: a rum buffer was a good dog, a rum chant was a good song, and there were rum clouts (handkerchiefs), rum kicks (breeches) and even rum doxies (prostitutes).

However, rum was also used to mean the exact opposite. A rum customer was someone you couldn’t trust, a rum phiz, an ugly face. And there’s an element of glee to these expressions, as if coined by miscreants and rogues. A rum bubber was a thief who specialised in silver tankards, rum fun is a good swindle, and a really good pickpocket would be called a rum diver.

So in the end, rum became a word that meant skilled in disreputable things, and a rum do was a circumstance bedevilled with poor fortune or worse, deliberately sabotaged.

Nowadays, if you hear the expression used at all, it’s reserved for events taking a turn for the baffling or odd, with less of a roguish giggle than in the past. Amy Winehouse’s death was a rum do. Michael Jackson’s death was a very rum do. As for Glenn Miller, the rummest of all.

There are other terms that do similar jobs, of course:

Kerfuffle, as any fan of Little Britain can tell you, beautifully downplays the effect of a stressful confrontation or animated discussion, by attempting to make it cute. It has a relatively short pedigree, only settling on a formal spelling in the 1960s after a short period of being spelled curfuffle, carfuffle, cafuffle, cafoufle or gefuffle. But the meaning is the same: some hot ruckus is occuring and you don’t want to dignify it with an equally heated adjective.

Argy-bargy is a Scottish squabble. The argy comes from argue, and the bargy is simply there because it was so much fun to say argy in the first place. If you were a fan of the pub brawl, you’d deliver the phrase with a knowing leer, probably as the last word in a sentence which lingered over “a little bit of…” with unseemly glee.

Barney is not just a purple dinosaur: it’s another slang word for a row, as in “they’re having a right barney over there.” There are people who will claim it’s Cockney rhyming slang where Barney Rubble = trouble, but the meaning goes back to the 1800s, so that’s rubbish. Although I should add that Barney the dinosaur does make me want to punch people, so his name isn’t just a coincidence.

Hubbub comes from Irish Gaelic, but no one is quite sure how, as it has been around for nearly 500 years and there are a couple of possible derivation stories doing the rounds. And that says a lot about the value of a pleasing and onomatopoeic word that delightfully expresses its meaning  – the confusing din of chattering voices or traffic – while giving the mouth and cheeks a plosive workout.

Then there’s the practically un-Googlable to-do (not to be confused with well-to-do which means rich). If any phrase delivers on the need for a lofty term for a fight that doesn’t implicate the speaker in the fighting (and is therefore idea for gossiping), this is it:

“…and then she came barging in here, screaming something about her husband and causing a right to-do. Well I didn’t know where to look.”

Fighting talk, it is not.

Which British phrase needs explaining next? Tell us here:

And here’s the full archive of Fraser’s Phrases.

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine