Common or garden
This phrase, sometimes mistaken for those with cloth ears as common all garden, is used as an adjective to describe something that is ordinary or unexceptional. Its origin seems to be quite prosaic – as a descriptor for a plant that was to be found growing in both the garden and on the commons, patches of land or woodland designated as being for the use of the community as a whole. Such abundance would mean that the plant was regarded as being unexceptional or ordinary.
It is no surprise, therefore, to see the phrase first appear in print in the context of plants. In 1657 W Coles Adams wrote in his history of plants, herbs and flowers called Adam in Eden, “But the Common or Garden Nightshade is not dangerous”. John Wilkins in his Autobiography of an English Gamekeeper published in 1892 used the phrase in the context of a hen, “it was as large as a common – or garden – hen”.
Shortly afterwards it was being used as an adjective, perhaps used slightly jocularly, to ascribe ordinariness to any object. The Daily News of 1896 commented “such common or garden proceedings not being to the taste of Noa” and the Westminster Gazette of 1897 reported “I have – to make use of a common or garden expression – been rushed in this matter”.
A variant which is more commonly used on the other side of the pond is garden-variety which has the same meaning, something ordinary and unremarkable, as in something that you would find in your backyard. As a phrase it seems to have gained currency in the 1920s.
An even more recent alternative, one I find I use, is bog standard which did not appear in print until 1983. Structurally it is unusual in having a slang component at the front of the compound word and a formal second part. Its origin is shrouded in some mystery and controversy. Let’s consider some of the possible theories. Bog as a stand-alone word and a noun is slang for a toilet, which is itself a variant of the even older boggard and there are, of course, standard toilet sizes but there is no compelling reason to think this is the origin.
Another theory suggests that the word bog is an acronym for British or German, the reasoning being that engineering standards in the 19th century were mainly set by the two industrial powerhouses. If this were true, why did it take a century for the phrase to get into circulation?
Perhaps a more appealing theory starts with the phrase box-standard. In bicycle and early car manufacturing a box was a framework made out of hollow tubing which was the most economical, and therefore the commonest, material out of which to build a strong frame or mounting. The standard suggests that it was a regular design and probably did not need any modifications. In February 1983 Clive Sinclair, in an interview he gave to Computerworld, said, “we cannot foresee a day when a computer becomes just a standard box. There will be box-standard machines down the road but we do not simply have to make those”. Was the inversion of standard box just a clever play on words or was he alluding to the earlier usage of the phrase?
By August of that year the Australian Personal Computer was reporting “decryption of a 30-byte cipher block takes about 5 minutes using a bog standard Z80”. Was this a corruption of Sinclair’s box-standard? It is tempting to think so, particularly as bog wheel is Cambridge slang for a bicycle. Whatever its origin it is now firmly in our vernacular.