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Peter Corris, AuthorA Sunday birthday lunch, old and young gathered around the table. A child asks an adult what she’s doing when it’s perfectly obvious what she’s doing. ‘Making a wigwam for a goose’s bridal,’ she says, not unkindly. Some of us nod sagely, others look puzzled.

Discussion gets underway and it turns out that the phrase is well known to some of the adults but not all, and it is completely unknown to the younger fry. Interestingly, there appears to be a difference in nuance. Some remembered it as just a humorous way of saying ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ Others remember it as a mild, mind-your-own-business rebuke. Google provides variants of spelling – bridal or bridle.

I was prompted to think about other expressions once much in use and now redundant in some cases.

Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs. This, meaning I know what I’m doing and don’t need your input, was common in my family and completely foreign to those a generation later. It referred to the old practice of sucking the contents out of birds’ eggs through a pinhole and painting the intact egg to make decorations. I remember painted eggs in my grandparents’ house but not who sucked them.

Flash as a rat with a gold tooth. Modern sanitation has reduced the number of urban rats and the expression is now seldom heard. It had a nice ambiguity: a rat is not flash (good-looking and showy) and is partly, but only partly, redeemed by a gold tooth. A rat (ie the person the expression describes) is still a disparaged animal.

Go for your life.  This appears to be a quintessentially Australian expression. At the risk of being branded a name-dropper, this was brought home to me as I was having lunch with Bryan Brown in one of the meetings that failed to result in a follow-up Cliff Hardy film to The Empty Beach. Someone asked Bryan to pass something on the table and as he did so Bryan said, ‘Go for your life.’ His English wife Rachel Ward looked puzzled and asked if he meant ‘Go for it’. We had to explain the difference, the implication in the expression that what was available might be whisked away.

Crook as Rookwood. This is a specifically Sydney expression referring to the vast Rookwood cemetery to the west of the city, one of the largest in the world. It depends for its effect on the rhyme and Sydneysiders’ association with the cemetery where many of their predecessors lie and which is frequently visited. In Melbourne, crook as Springvale simply would not work.

You wouldn’t be dead for quids. This is as Australian as Vegemite and embodies the very best of dry Australia humour in the complete contradiction it embodies. What good would money be to you if you were dead? But the thrust of the remark is more subtle than that. It cocks a snoot both at death and at money.

A friend told me a story about his use of this expression. He was in a gift shop on a Hawaiian island. While he was examining the goods, the 40-ish woman shopkeeper said she hoped he was having a nice day. ‘Yes,’ my friend replied, ‘you wouldn’t be dead for quids.’ The woman ran from the shop in fright. This was, of course, after 9/11. Not knowing what quids were, she found the combination of the unknown word and the all-too-familiar one ‘dead’ (and possibly the Australian accent) terrifying.

Be careful what you say in foreign countries.

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