6 February 2010


Rudolph Valentino in the 1922 film version of "Blood and Sand"

We may think that we are free. Independent people who can make up our own minds and take on the world but we're not, not really. Look in a mirror and what do you see? You see inherited genetic patterns. The shape of your eyes, the colour of your skin, your hair, your height. And if you listen to yourself you hear the accents of the adults who raised you - mostly parents. Their influence upon you is like the veins in Blue Stilton cheese - inextricable - no matter how much you may squirm and protest.

The spoken words that escape our lips are like signatures - personal and rather unique. They define us as much as our actions do. We think that we are in control of them. We think that we are choosing them as they tumble out of us in chains. In states of exasperation, annoyance, amazement or confusion, stock phrases or single words emerge to ease or to signify those moments. And very often these expressions will have been distilled from our childhoods. Heard expressions repeated. Echoes of the past.

One of my pet expressions is "Blood and sand!" I remember my mother using it but never consciously sought to imitate her and besides, how did she acquire it? I see Tony Blair playing games with the truth at the Iraq Inquiry - "Blood and sand!" I mutter. The car hits a pothole in the road following the recent Arctic weather - "Blood and sand!" On the TV they're going to have a celebrity dancing competition for disabled people in wheelchairs - "Blood and sand!"

But where did this odd expression come from? Apparently, it's the title of a Spanish novel about bullfighting published in 1909 by Vicente Blasco Ibánez (the Spanish title is "Sangre y Arena"). This story has been filmed several times, most famously starring Rudolph Valentino. I dimly recall my mum talking about Valentino. She remembered him from the movies of the early nineteen thirties but is that how she absorbed the expression? Indeed, does the expression predate the 1909 novel?

If only there were an archaeological "Time Team" for words.

The English language is brilliant at accepting new words, opening doors from other languages and recognising the innovations of youth and technology. But how open are we as individuals? Some people want their English to remain fixed in time like Roman ruins whereas others sponge up the latest words and expressions as gladly as seagulls chasing trawlers. It's complicated. The words we choose and why we choose them... but I think that in essence they are as much a part of our inheritance as the colour of our irises and the shape of our toes. Blood and sand! At one thirty in the morning...perhaps I'm talking tosh - whatever that is.


  1. Very true, English is not a static language. Having been away from England for 20 years I'm often perplexed when I speak to my 80-year old mum on the phone (or more likely Skype these days) and notice that she's dropped in some phrase that I've never heard before. Last week it was someone not being a 'happy bunny'. I also remember the first time my dad, a dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshireman used the phrase 'gone pear shaped', which I'd never heard hom say before.
    These days my (Aussie) kids are often perplexed by the English phrases I use, and ask for an explanation even for simple things like 'blimey' or 'berk' (they would say 'retard').

  2. I thought there was, er is "an archaeological Time Team for words" in English already: The Oxford English Dictionary.

    But you're right; there isn't one for phrases, I suppose.

  3. I don't get over to the UK too often but a couple of years back I caught a programme on BBC with someone from the OED looking into the origins of expressionss; the episode I saw spoke about "to go pear-shaped" ... don't know if it was a one off, or if it's possible to contact the OED about expressions.
    Living "quite near" Spain, in Catalonia (ehm, it's a long story), I'll ask around here too to see if it is used as an expression too or is just the novel's title ...

  4. by the way, I have to admit that I hadn't heard the expression before :(

    one I like, and I've only heard it in Yorkshire, to be precise, Elsecar!, "I wouldn't do bla bla bla for a gold pig" !

  5. MICHAEL ...But I bet that unconsciously your children have actually absorbed some of that language "baggage" that you brought with you from England.
    RHYMES Yes there are dictionaries and there also reference books in which you can root out the origins of sayings but there is no dictionary that can unravel the peculiarities of an individual's version of English - our pet words and phrases, our grammatical patterns.
    BRIAN The term "pear shaped" is widely used nowadays. Of course a pear isn't the same as a perfect orb. It's like an orb that went wrong somewhere along the line. I know where Elsecar is - I have been there a few times but I had never heard of the "gold pig" expression so thanks for that. I may absorb it or I may not - who can say? It obviously had a resonance for you because that is why you have remembered it.

  6. 'Blood and Sand!' was my Dad's expression of choice. For all I know, maybe it still is, but I don't see him that much and the new Mrs Dad is very skilled at deflecting his rant mode.

    Oddly, I caught myself saying it yesterday, for the first time in years. I never knew where the expression came from though, so that was interesting. Perhaps this could be the first post in YP's Guide to English Sayings?

  7. One I liked when I lived in Cardiff was "He thinks he's chocolate!" used to describe someone with a high opinion of himelf. I've always remembered that one but never heard it in Yorkshire.

  8. of course Wednesday legend David Hirst once claimed that '...he wouldn't sign for Wednesday for a golden pig...' from Barnsley.

    I once asked him if he ever received his golden pig in a pub (typically), I won't print his answer...

    I'm always amazed how different parts of the country spread newly-formed words and phrases spread across playgrounds across the British Isles in the 70s/80s.

    Nowadays social networking creates this phenomenon but before mass-communication ideas and vocabulary would be 'picked up on' and claimed from TV and radio like the latest fashions and music tastes. I would be amazed years later how someone from Nuneaton could've used the same sub-language as someone from Sheffield

    Sadly the post-modern world we live in has somehow ripped all that sponteneity out of society.

  9. Anonymous4:10 am

    I had to smile when I read your post. It reminded me growing up in Manchester and of my dad. His favourite expression was 'Shave off!' I have never heard anyone else use this expession.

    My grown-up Aussie sons still get a laugh when they hear me ask 'What are all these lights doing on? It's like Blackpool Illuminations'Not having lived in the UK for 40yrs, does Blackpool still have 'Illuminations'?

  10. it still did 4 years ago when I took my Catalan wife to appreciate English "culture"!

    Another expression that came to me today; you're about as much use as a boot with a hole in it - (roughly said as, tha's abart as much use as a booit wi a oil init) - something else I haven't heard since Elsecar.

    Intersting to see you've been through Elsecar - not much there, I'm afraid, another town still recovering from the hand-of-Thatcher or "inevitable progress" depending on your outlook, like many other places in the area the folk seem to live on state-handouts and dodgy doings, with little life. To top it all, attempts to give the town and people something, like the Heritage Centre, or Steam railway, get about as much support as my application to be England's captain.

    Must recommend, though, Elsecar Park's bandstand which features an eclectic season of local music throughout the summer.

  11. Read Ian McMillan's excellent post-modern satire on Elsecar Heritage Park and the irony of having a museum of culture about the culture of a town.

    Can't remember the name of it though.

    When he's not being a goon on YTV, I would say McMillan is possibly the greatest living English poet.

  12. thanks for the tip, i'll see if I can find it.

  13. McMillan is hardly an English name... mind you neither is McGough and what about the deceased Hughes... no the only proper English poet's name I can think of is Pudding. Isn't Booth Irish?

  14. No it's bloomin' well not!

    Very Anglo (hyphen) Saxon...

  15. As I read through the comments, what comes burbling up from my memory is a Far Side cartoon with the caption, "God and Pete arm-wrestle to decide for who's sake it really is." (Link goes to Wikipedia article.) When I was growing up, "For Pete's sake!" was a common ejaculation of incredulous disgust.

    I'm going to work "Blood and sand!" into my conversations this week and see if the phrase sticks. I had no idea how often I said, "Oh no," until I heard my daughter start to say it with much drama in her voice. I am bracing myself for the day she starts copying other phrases that escape my lips.

  16. Blood and Sand! I never heard that one before...I'm intrigued. There used to be that programme series where the researchers would hunt the phrase. Victoria Cohen was the presenter..."Balderdash and Piffle!"...maybe it is in there..or you could send it to her?

    I love all these different English sayings I must admit.

  17. I absolutely loved this post and wish my dad would have pointed you out earlier. I'm looking forward to reading more.


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