A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: D H Lawrence

What Is The Origin Of (139)?…

Blown to smithereens

This is a rather dramatic phrase which is used to describe the consequences of a large bang or explosion. Bits and pieces, shard and shrapnel flies everywhere and what you are left with is a rather charred bit of ground and some smoking remains. Smithereens mean tiny bits or shattered fragments.

Smithereens is an unusual word in that it is rarely, if ever, found in the singular. That makes sense as it would be a pretty poor show if a bang or explosion created only one fragment. It is also usually found as a noun in the company of rather aggressive verbs such as blown, bashed, dashed, smashed or shot to. Interestingly, D H Lawrence used it as a collective noun for birds in his collection of travel essays, Mornings in Mexico, published in 1927; “then someone mysteriously touched the button, and the sun went bang, with smithereens of birds bursting in all directions.” Works rather well, methinks.

As to its origin, we need look no further than the Irish Gaelic word smiodar, which means a piece or fragment, and its diminutive form, smidirin. Een in Gaelic is also a diminutive form as in colleen, a small girl. So smithereens technically comprises of two diminutives. Whether this is to reflect that the fragments are as small as they can be is unclear. When the word crossed the Irish Sea it had a variety of forms, the principal variants being smiddereens, which at least preserves the original root, and shivereens before it settled down to smithereens.

It has been used in its modern sense since the start of the 19th century at least. Francis Plowden, in his History of Ireland, published in 1801, records a threat made by Orangemen to a Mr Pounden. “If you don’t be off directly, by the ghost of William, our deliverer, and by the orange we wear, we will break your carriage in smithereens, and hough your cattle and burn your house.”  Houghing was severing the tendons of animals. Charming!

Somewhere else things are blown to is Kingdom come. The origin of the phrase kingdom come is straight forward. It was used in the King James’ version of the Christian bible. in Matthew 6, where the disciple details the Lord’s Prayer; “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. etc”  The meaning is pretty straightforward too. Christ’s kingdom will come or return as many of the Utopian sects believed. Topographically it could reflect some utopian idyll to which the fragments are blown. This suggested interpretation doesn’t sit too well with the Greek text of Matthew where the verb eltheto is an imperative, aorist imperative if we are being pedantic. So the more correct translation should be let thy kingdom come.

There may be a temporal sense to the phrase. The thing has been blown so far away that it will take until the coming of Christ’s kingdom to retrieve it. I’m not convinced by that either and I’m left with the conclusion that it might just be a euphemism or, perhaps more accurately, a minced oath. These, like cor blimey, gadzooks, shoot and freaking, are designed specifically to avoid swearing.

Personally, I will stick with the Irish if I ever need to describe something that has been shattered into small pieces.


There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Seven


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

“Lady Chatterley, Muffin the Mule/ Winston Churchill, Robin Hood”

Brits, and the world at large it seems, has a fascination with life upstairs and downstairs in English stately homes – witness the unfathomable popularity of Downton Abbey – and the sexual frisson that existed between the upper and lower classes. D.H.Lawrence’s infamous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, dealt with the subject in for what was at the time gritty realism in a narrative that was laced with explicit descriptions of sex and un-printable words. Seems pretty tame now but it wasn’t until the early 1960s that you could buy a copy over the counter in Britain. Penguin Books published the first unexpurgated version in 1960 which triggered a prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. During the trial the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, asked one of the most famous rhetorical questions in forensic history – whether this was the kind of book you wanted your wife or servants to read. The jury thought it was and the swinging sixties were born or, as some might say, civilization and decency died a death.

The BoJ seems transfixed every time Peppa Pig appears on TV. Children’s TV is far more sophisticated than it was when I was a kid and the stuff I grew up on – Andy Pandy, the Woodentops etc – were a leap forward from Muffin the Mule. The original mule puppet – yes you could see the strings – was made in 1933, packed away for the war, resurfaced in 1946 and ran on British TV until 1955. Annette Mills was the presenter (her death led to the series coming off air) and she played the joanna whilst Muffin danced on top of it, accompanied by sundry other characters such as Crumpet the Clown and Oswald the Ostrich. Ah, innocent times. The Beeb re-commissioned the show in 2005 but it was never the same.

Winston Churchill was a towering figure in British politics, credited with pulling Britain together, over-ruling the appeasers and leading the fight-back against the Nazi peril. Of course, we had a bit of help from the Americans, Russians and Chinese, a fact which those of a blinkered John Bull outlook cheerfully ignore. The British booted him out at the first opportunity when the war was won to usher in the National Health service and the welfare state.

We like our villains and one of the most enduringly popular is Robin Hood who, according to English folklore, was an outlaw waging a guerilla war on the oppressive and unscrupulous Sheriff of Nottingham. In the 19th century Robin became known for robbing the rich to give to the poor and was accompanied by a band of desperadoes known as his Merry Men who wore Lincoln green and fetching tights. Robin’s origins may be rooted in history but whether there was really such a character and one so skilled at archery and swordplay is open to question. Still, Robin Hood is unquestionably part of what people associate with England.