LINGUIST List 13.564

Fri Mar 1 2002

Sum: English Idioms

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Beate Waffenschmidt, idioms

Message 1: idioms

Date: Tue, 26 Feb 2002 17:43:39 +0100
From: Beate Waffenschmidt <>
Subject: idioms

Dear all,
last week I posted a following query to find out the meaning of two idioms /
metaphors that appeared in a series of British videos produced for business
training (which we are adapting for use in language training). The story is
centred around an Irish private detective who tries to solve a murder in the
"numbers business".

A wide range of interesting etymologies & explanations (see below) were
posted by 38 (!) helpful colleagues - a big THANKS to all of you - all of
them were certainly better than a bent canary on payday ... and you were not
just whistling dixie!!

Cheers, Beate


(The phrase appears when the detective has searched the victim's account
books and thinks he's found the solution there)

Although none of you recognised the expression as an idiom, everyone agreed
on the textual meaning of the phrase: whatever the etymologies, the
detective is highly pleased - i.e sth. like "This is better than anything I
could have expected!".

The types of explanations amount to five basic ideas:

A) a novel metaphor to imitate "hard-boiled detective talk" (I like this
one!) or American detective slang

Many of you located this phrase in the tradition of American (or
pseudo-American) detective fiction, where obscure idioms are attributed to
the private eye to "add color" and / or a feeling of the 1920/30s. On this
basis (as the story takes place in the 90s in London), the expression could
be seen as a joke to underline the contrast between the City Slickers and
the Irish backyard detective: "There is a particular side-alley of American
humor that consists of making up outlandish figures of speech and putting
them in the mouths of characters of the sort that stereotypically use
picturesque idioms -- Texans, hard-boiled detectives, rural Southern
baseball announcers".

B) a proverbial / pseudo-proverbial expression based on a comparison:

Others interpreted the phrase in the context of other well-known colourful
"better than..." expressions commonly used as an understated or humorous way
of saying that something is pretty good: "better than a slap in the face
with a wet fish", "better than a kick in the stomach". More specifically, it
could be an attempt to characterize the speaker as mixing aphorisms and
metaphors, where "canary" might evoke associations to the concept of a bird
in the hand (better than nine in the bush). "

C) a coinage based on "canary" = woman" and "bent" with sexual connotations

Two people pointed out that "canary" has long been a slang word for a female
performer or singer (dating back to the mid to late 1800s), or more
generally "girl"/"broad"/"bird", i.e., woman (seen as a sex object), while
"bent" has sexual connotations (based on the meaning "corrupt, perverted,
dishonest, immoral"). The conclusions from this were a) "it refers to
really good, like for a man getting together with a pretty female singer on
payday" and b) the reference is to a sexually promiscuous/available woman, a
prostitute or near-prostitute, whom the speaker would like to encounter on
payday, when he has cash on hand (but he seldom does meet one [that's why
"too good to be true"] -- because on payday there are many competitors who
have also have just gotten paid, and all the "canaries" are taken)."

D) a coinage centered around "canary" = "informer"

The meaning "informer" is easily derived from "canary"=songbird" (i.e. so.
who "sings"). "Bent" was interpreted in various ways in this context:
1. "drunk" - based on the stereotype that working class people will use the
money on payday to drink, a bent "canary" would be "an informer who will
tell everything because he is very drunk"
2. "crooked" / "corrupted"/ "dishonest" or (in this case "bought") - an
informer who will say anything for you when they have been paid - and his
situation is much better than that.

E) a coinage based on "canary" = "gold coin / sovereign"

A "canary" is also a rather old-fashioned British slang word for a coin,
more precisely a sovereign (presumably because of the yellow colour). "Bent"
can either mean "stolen", or (based on the meaning "crooked", with reference
to money) "forged".
So, against the background of the "better than" phrases mentioned above, it
clearly expresses satisfaction: Almost anything would be better than to be
paid in fake (or stolen) money.

F) Other ideas

Two other more interesting etymologies were given for "canary", which led to
two other equally convincing explanations:
1. Canaries were carried into mines to warn the miners of the presence of
poisonous gas. If the canary died, it was time for the miners to get out.
Perhaps "bent" is slang for dead (similar to "keeled over" - [in the video,
the detective muses that the victim must have "keeled over" at the sight of
something wrong in those accounts; BW]) and your quote refers to the miners'
dead canary - a "smoking gun" or proof positive of a someone's guilt.
2. A 'canary' was a term for a convict in Australia (first evidence 1827)
because of their yellow clothing. It probably derived from British slang
'canary-bird' (first attested 1673) 'a jailbird'. So a 'bent canary' is
presumably a crooked 'crim'.


(The phrase is uttered ironically by the detective when his City accountant
woman friend Charlie has been trying to explain to him how to analyse
statutory accounts for half an hour (to find a motive for suicide or
murder), and he clearly hasn't understood a word.

All of you agreed that the phrase has its roots in America (as someone
said:"I'm American, and I don't know what the Brits have done to this
phrase" ;-): "Dixie" originally was a collective term for the Southern
states which seceded from the Union in 1862. Derived from this meaning it is
a synomym for "Dixie jazz" or "Dixieland" music, based on the title of a
popular song composed in 1852 as the closing number for a minstrel show (a
popular entertainment in which white actors played black characters). The
music is quite fast and complicated, and the song was so successful that the
audience literally left the theater "whistling Dixie."
So, "dixie" in one sense can refer to any connection with things Southern,
or more specifically to the line of the song which goes "Good times there
are not forgotten."
>From this origin, the general idiomatic meaning, confirmed by the Random
House dictionary, is derived: "to engage in unrealistic fantasies; waste
one's time", probably based on the idea of Southerners marching and
whistling dixie in the hope to win their battle to keep the South
independent when the cause was lost already , hence also the more general
figurative meaning ""to make meaningless claims, preach hollow wisdom, to be
hopelessly optimistic or sadly self-deluded."
In this meaning, it is used (even in Australia) to express that so. is
engaging in wishful thinking ("You can whistle dixie for that!") or that so.
is bragging without any substance to one's claims
In this context, some pointed out a Henry Ford quote: ""If you think mass
transportation is going to replace the automobile I think you're whistling

The idiom is also - and more commonly - used in its negative form "not just
whistling dixie", to express that someone is not talking nonsense but saying
something that has substance, or that his claims have validity, etc., used
with the connotation of strong agreement. The American Slang Dictionary
notes the entry in the same meaning: "Not just whistling Dixie: To be saying
something important or useful. "When they warned us about this they weren't
just whistling Dixie".
More generally, it expresses agreement: "You ain't just whistling Dixie",
meaning "you got that right."
Thirdly, the expression can intensify this latter illocution to indicate
that what is said should be taken seriously: the meaning is roughly, 'You're
not just talking empty words', 'You've said something true /the honest
truth' Also, it can express that something is done in a non-nosense fashion
/ with a serious attitude and the person in question is not wasting his/her
time: "We aren't goofing off (we are doing our work). Example: "What are
you all doing?" Answer, "Well, we aren't whistling dixie". Compare: "To
(just) whistle Dixie" means to take no action, even though your convictions
dictate taking some action.

Based on these etymologies, the explanations were five:

A) "you are making no sense" /"what you are saying is incomprehensible /
meaningless to me" (i.e. non-ironical)

B) the equivalent of the more common "Now you're cooking with gas" (heading
in the right direction) / or "now you are making sense" (i.e. ironical)

D) "you are talking nonsense" (or at least, that's what is seems to me):
Dixie was the national anthem of the Confederacy of States, so a Northerner
would not understand a Southerner because the Southerner is whistling
Dixie - they do not "speak the same language". Usually, it means that the
"whistling Dixie" is not really talking any sense.

E) "hopelessly optimistic":
In the context of the video, it means something like "If you think your
second explanation is
any clearer to me than the first, you're being hopelessly optimistic".

Some of you pointed out that the "idiom" used in a positive meaning is very
uncommon in the US, and may even be regarded as a malapropism used as a
"stylistic device intended to give the detective a folksy down-home
character". (compare also the "bent canary"). In this case, the
unappropriate conversion to the positive could intend a humorous effect.

A totally different explanation was the following: it means "you're not
merely wasting your time". (where the expression may have come, by several
steps of derivation from the idea of whistling casually to show one is not
afraid;) So, this could be a sarcastic comment "you're wasting your time,
you're confusing me."
This, I might add, is certainly the illocotion that got across to the
detective's friend (who is definitely British!) in the video... because she
just sighs.. and starts explaining again!

Also, I would not wish to keep it a secret that there is an excellent
website dedicated to obscure or interesting idioms:

Thanks to all those who replied:
Bruce Despain
Christian Heddesheimer
Cynthia Hagstrom
Damon Allen Davison
Debbie Berkley
Donald Cooper
Donald K. Watkins
Dorothy Jauncey
Douglas K. Wilson
Elena Bashir
Elizabeth J. Pyatt
Ellen DeSoto
Fiona MacArthur
Gary H. Toops
Geoffrey Sampson
Gordon Brown
Jane Rosenthal
John Durbin
John e. Koontz
John Mullen
Kevin Gregg
Kristi Hislope
Linda Coleman
Lois Stanford
Michael A. Covington
Michael Hughes
Nancy Frishberg
Neil Chalk
Neil Fulton
Peter T. Daniels
Rebecca Larche Moreton
Susan Burt
Toby Paff

Beate Waffenschmidt
T´┐Żbingen University - Applied Engl. Linguistics
Wilhelmstrasse 50
D-72074 T´┐Żbingen
Tel. ++49 7071 2972960
Fax. ++49 7071 295079
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