My giddy aunt
Aunts come under today’s spotlight.
The first variant is a giddy one and the phrase “my giddy aunt” is used as an expression of surprise. Giddy owes its origin to the Old English noun, gidig, which meant in its most literal sense possessed by a god – gudo being the Old Teutonic word for a god – and by extension, therefore, mad or insane. And giddy has had this meaning since around the tenth century CE.
By the 16th century the adjective giddy had developed its more modern meaning of being giddy or dizzy or suffering from vertigo. Shakespeare uses it in this context in his poem entitled The Rape of Lucrece which was dedicated to the third Earl of Southampton and published in 1594.
Shakespeare uses giddy as an adjective around a dozen times but applies it specifically in As You Like It to describe a woman whose characteristics are to be frivolous, flighty and irresponsible. It was most often applied as an adjective to nouns beginning with g such as goat or geese to play on the alliterative potential of the phrase. It was used in the Monthly Review of 1837 as a straightforward adjective in describing an aunt, “under the protection of a fashionable but giddy aunt”.
But more often than not the conjunction of giddy with aunt was used in an exclamatory context and the first sighting of this usage in printed form is relatively late, in 1919 to be exact in W N P Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man. Despite its rather un-PC associations and late arrival on the scene it is regularly employed by those who are looking for a mild form of imprecation.
My sainted aunt or my sacred aunt are direct comparators whilst the earliest recorded use of aunt as an exclamation dates from 1888 with a simple, “My aunt”.
An Aunt Sally is an easy target, something that is put up or an idea that is floated to gauge a reaction.
The expression probably owes its origin to a traditional game, popular in the central regions of England, called Aunt Sally. It is probable that in its earliest guise the object of the exercise was for the contestant to hit the modelled head of an old woman with sticks thrown from distance, perhaps rather like throwing at a coconut shy.
There are still pubs in the Cotswolds where you can play the game but the caricature of the old woman has been replaced by a 3 foot tall metal spike upon which the dolly (around 4 inches tall) is placed. Teams of up to 6 take it in turns to throw 6 sticks at the dolly with the aim of knocking the dolly off without hitting the spike. The 2015 World Championships were held at Charlbury Cricket Club in June with Roger Goodall taking the crown.
We seem to be obsessed with aunts in our idiomatic expressions. The expression an Aunt Emma is used to describe a form of unenterprising croquet player, particularly one is more interested in hindering their opponent than trying to progress themselves. Aunt Edna was brought to our popular consciousness by Terence Rattigan who personified her as the epitome of the theatre goer he had to please, “a nice respectable, middle-class, middle-aged maiden lady with time on her hands and the money to help pass it”. Of course, she was just the type the Angry Young Men of 1950s British theatre set out to upset.
My giddy aunt!