Review: Idiomantics – Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis

IdiomanticsI occasionally review books about language and the origin of words and was drawn to Idiomantics which has the subtitle, “The Weird World of Popular Phrases”.  With a recommendation from Gyles Brandreth (host of the BBC radio show Wordaholics) I decided to read the book to see how it compared to the rest of my collection of “word” books.

The book is similar in format to The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, which I featured late last year, and the book is equally entertaining.  The phrases are arranged into 13 chapters with titles such as Corridors of Power, The Daily Grind and National Identity. Each phrase is covered by up to two or three pages describing the origin and use of the phrase phrase and the results are often surprising. A useful index is provided at the end and I found that quite most of the common phrases I could think of were covered in it.

I’ll just give one example to show the sort of thing covered.  Let’s take for example, Tall Poppy Syndrome.  We read that,

the roots of this phrase go back thousands of years to the legend of Tarquin, King of Rome, who when asked what should be done with the occupants of a neighbouring and hostile city, replied now with words by by going out to his garden and striking the heads off the tallest poppies.  His silent message was that the most prominent citizens of that city should be disposed of.

This suggested that to be a tall poppy could be not the safest thing to be.  But in 1975, Margaret Thatcher made a speech in New York which reversed the message by quoting a Mid-West USA phrase, “Don’t cut down the tall poppies – let them grow tall” and used this to promote identifying  talented children and to letting them flourish in school.

By the 1980s, we had the phrase “tall poppy syndrome” and began to be used to in the Thatcherite way of suggesting that it was unhealthy to want to cut others down to size.

I liked the way that the book covers phrases from many different nations.  Many of them were unfamiliar to me such as

All hat and no cattle (USA – describes someone who can’t back up his self-importance)
To swallow grass snakes (France – to have to eat unpalatable food)
Its all Spanish villages to me (German – similar to English “its all Greek to me)
To go where the King goes alone (Spanish – a visit to the toilet)
To have the heart of an artichoke (France – to peel off your affections one by one and distribute them to all and sundry).

Some of these show national prejudices.  I like the French phrase “to leave in the English manner” which means swanning off without saying goodbye or even leaving in a cowardly fashion. In Britain on the other hand we use the term “French leave” for much the same thing!  The Dutch on the other hand have the phrase “a French compliment” to indicate something insincerely said.

If you like this sort of thing then this book is for you.  I found it to be an entertaining read – not to read in one go but to keep coming dipping into over a week or so.  Its a nicely presented book and would make an ideal gift for a word-loving friend or relative.



A new comedy series, Gloomsbury, starts on BBC radio 4 this morning, written by the marvellous Sue Limb of “The Wordsmiths of Gorsemere” fame.  This time Sue has taken on the Bloomsbury set. I’ll quote from the BBC website:-

A stellar cast of Miriam Margolyes, Alison Steadman, Nigel Planer, Morwenna Banks, Jonathan Coy and John Sessions breathes life into the colourfully chaotic characters of Gloomsbury, a riotous new comedy about the Bloomsbury Group.

The six-part series from the pen of Sue Limb is an affectionate send up of the infamous literary group whose arty and adulterous adventures dominated the cultural scene in the early 20th century.

The series follows the fortunes of Vera Sackcloth-Vest (Margolyes) – writer, gardener and transvestite – and her urge to escape from the tranquillity of her rather cramped little castle in Kent which she shares with her doting but ambiguous husband Henry (Coy), who is ‘something in the Foreign Office’. Vera’s heart is forever surging with exotic passion for Ginny Fox (Steadman), a highly-strung novelist who adores her, or the beautiful but shallow Venus Traduces (Banks).

Definitely not one to miss whether in Britain or on Internet radio around the world.

4 thoughts on “Review: Idiomantics – Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis

  1. There’s a surprise: I had never heard of the Dutch expression “a French compliment”, but looked it up in the dictionary and there it was, though with the addition that it is not in general use (whatever that means).
    Isn’t that lovely: to learn something new about your own language from an English weblog? Thanks for the review.


    • Hi Anna – thanks for visiting. I think it goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read in books! If its not in common use then it shouldn’t be included


    • Hi Parrish – thanks for visiting. Yes, I’d say its very much on a par with the Etymologicon. Its quite readble too – you can take it to bed with you and spend a pleasant hour or two!


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