Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Surprising Origins of Everyday Expressions

When I was younger, before the internet became widespread, I used to read these kinds of trivia books like eating candy. This slim volume has both the appeal and flaws of similar works in the genre.

Flying by the Seat of Your Pants cover
Flying by the Seat of Your Pants
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The phrases and their origins are divided into subject-based chapters: Food and Drink, Sports and Games, Military, Religion, and the like. Each chapter heading has a cartoon (by Mike Mosedale), but otherwise, the book is unillustrated, just blocks of plain text on a newsprint-like paper.

It’s fun to browse, easy to flip through and dip into, but like much of the rest of its ilk, no sources are given. This is for entertainment, not actual reference, so if you question any of the explanations given, tough luck finding out more. And I found it a very odd choice that the book begins as follows:

Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth

This phrase has been in use since at least the fifteenth century, but its origins are pretty much unknown.

I would think it would be a better choice to start with an expression that had some kind of explanation, although it doesn’t stop the author from nattering on for a paragraph about what he thinks it means. That’s an unfortunate tendency that continues, where instead of saying where a phrase came from, he explains his interpretation of it. For that reason, and because I already knew so much of what he covered (see previous reading habits), I quickly became bored with the volume.

One thing does set this apart: Writer Harry Oliver is from London, and the book was originally published a couple of years ago in England, so some of the expressions are distinct to that area. An American won’t be familiar with “one over the eight” or a “bobby” or “jolly hockey sticks”, but a number of U.S.-based phrases are included as well. The particularly British phrases were my favorite part and will particularly please Anglophiles. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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