Worried face: the battle for emoji, the world’s fastest-growing language

It started with 176 icons. Now it’s grown to 1,800. But who decides what becomes an emoji? We lift the lid on the California coders who live and breathe smiling cats and banned aubergines

The original emojis

 The original emojis

Had Shigetaka Kurita realised when he sat down to design the first emoji that he was laying the foundation for what would become the world’s fastest-growing form of communication, he might have chosen his icons a little more carefully. Kurita’s original 176 designs, which launched in February 1999 for Japanese mobile phones, were weirdly specific, including no fewer than five phases of the moon, three timepieces (watch, clock, sand-timer) and two states of umbrella (open, closed).

Shigetaka Kurita, the inventor of emojis
 Shigetaka Kurita, the inventor of emojis

Unmoderated by any panel, Kurita’s choices reflected his priorities and predilections, producing a singular suite of icons that, against the odds, proved universally handy. Today, there are now more than 1,800 emojis, which are estimated to be used by more than 90% of the world’s online population. As Satoe Haile, an emoji designer at Google, puts it, these pictograms “communicate beyond language”, transcending tongues and borders.

For some, these “brainless little icons” (as Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones described them last year) represent not an adjunct but a regression for our species. Their precursor, hieroglyphics, Jones argues, never produced an Iliad or an Odyssey because, put simply, the written word is infinitely more adaptable. But, for most, emojis offer not a substitute for the written word, but a complement, lending brevity or wit, irony or joy, to a text message.

The people who use emojis are certainly proving detractors wrong, at least in terms of the form’s adaptability. For example, denied a pictorial penis, millions have come to rely on the aubergine emoji – purple, engorged, topped with a pubic shock of green leaves. This abusage is now so widespread that, in 2015, Instagram banned search results for photographs tagged with an aubergine emoji, fearing it could be used as a signifier of nudity. The double meaning was formalised last month when an American woman launched a vibrator made in the eggplant’s image. (Be thankful, perhaps, that the hive mind settled on the vegetable as a genital stand-in, rather than the umbrella, in either state.)

The emoji’s success has attracted scrutiny. Just as English has adapted to remove signifiers of sex in professions – hoping to make obsolete words such as “actress” and “male nurse”, terms coined at a time when certain occupations were dominated by one gender – so the custodians of emojis are having to adapt to compensate for Silicon Valley’s bias.

In 2015 Unicode, the California-based consortium that standardises the use of these pictographs across the internet, added modifiers to enable us to alter the skin tone of our emoji (according to the Fitzpatrick Scale for humans, no less). A forthcoming update will add scores of gender-swap icons for existing professions, including a third, androgynous option. In this way, emojis present a rare opportunity. Many words smuggle quiet atrocities at an etymological level. Women who cannot have children are known as “barren”. Disabled children are known as “invalids”. Pictorial writing systems are no different. The Japanese kanji for “noisy”, for example, consists of three kanji for “women” squished together. The kanji for “wife” is comprised of the symbols for “house” and “inside”.

When sexism is entangled with language at such an elemental level, reforging words takes a great deal of time and education. Emojis work differently. Unicode assigns an object a numerical text code, to which companies add a relevant image according to their whim or aesthetic. “U+1F63B”, for example, is the code for “SMILING CAT FACE WITH HEART-SHAPED EYES”. Apple interprets this as a yellow cat with its mouth agape. Android translates the arcane script into a black cat with its mouth closed. Fixing problematic imagery, therefore, is as easy as redrawing the image associated with the code.

Mark Davis.
 Google’s Mark Davis. Photograph: Alamy

Mark Davis, who is 63 and works at Google, helped originate Unicode in the late 80s while working at Apple in Japan, where he was trying to find a way to encode kanji so they would display correctly across computers and operating systems. His elegant solution of assigning images to immovable codes proved popular. Today, every operating system, laptop, smartphone and even the internet itself is based on Unicode. For its first decade, the Unicode Consortium, which is made up of unpaid volunteers, many of whom work at Apple, Google and other tech giants, dealt principally with characters unique to specific written languages, current, classical and historical. The latest version of Unicode contains more than 128,000 characters covering 135 modern and historic scripts, and emojis are accounting for a greater number of additions every year.

New emojis can be proposed by companies, such as Durex condoms, and by private citizens. Additions cannot be bought, but are rather considered by an impartial panel, which votes on their inclusion based on a variety of factors including distinctiveness (is there really a need for “stew” when we already have “soup”?), whether it feels a meaningful gap in the vocabulary and the emoji’s expected levels of usage (a microphone versus a gramophone, for example).

While less than one percent of the 7,500 characters added to the latest version this summer are emoji, some argue that too much effort is being directed at the script.

For Everson, this focus has distracted effort and resources away from minority and historical writing systems, such as medieval Cornish. However, Mark Davis, president and co-founder of the Unicode Consortium, denies this is the case. “Emoji is still only a small part of what we do,” he says, pointing out that the attention emojis have brought has helped the consortium to further its goals for support of languages by allowing people to “Adopt a Character” for between $100 and $5,000 to raise money.

“There’s certainly an impression that new emojis get approved faster than writing system proposals or additional characters for historical scripts,” says John Hudson, another prominent typographer within Unicode. For Hudson, this is partly due to the fact that the questions that arise from emoji use are relatively straightforward (“Is the dumpling emoji just for East Asian dumplings, or can it be used for perogies?”) while historical languages require experts, who often disagree on finer points.

A greater issue, according to Hudson, and one that will deepen as the script continues to grow in popularity, is the use of Unicode to handle emojis in the first place. “It was the wrong technical solution,” he says. “The set of little pictures that people might want to send between mobile devices is boundless; therefore, it needs a technology that is endlessly extensible, which Unicode is not.” In other words, if emoji continues to evolve at its current rate, Hudson believes that will need much more flexible technology, capable of sending images between devices in a more efficient and flexible way. Davis, understandably perhaps, disagrees – although he won’t be drawn on the question of emoji’s future. “It’s very hard to say,” he wrote. “I don’t have a U+1F52E.” That’s emoji code for a crystal ball.


Hidden in plain sight

Most people don’t know they know most of the grammar they know

WHO can say what order should be used to list adjectives in English? Mark Forsyth, in “The Elements of Eloquence”, describes it as: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose and then Noun. “So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.” Mr Forsyth may have exaggerated how fixed adjective order is, but his little nugget is broadly true, and it has delighted people to examine something they didn’t know they knew.

Clearly, then, the discipline of linguistics needs a marketing overhaul, because this is exactly what linguistics consists of: describing the rules, many of them hidden and not obvious, of the human language ability. Given how eagerly word-nerds recently shared this tit-bit about adjective order on social media, the lecture-halls for linguistics classes should be crammed to the rafters.

Instead, as most linguists only too ruefully admit, upon confessing their profession at cocktail parties they tend to be told: “Oops, better watch my grammar around you.” Just as many psychologists moan that outsiders think the discipline is mainly about abnormal psychology, linguists haven’t sufficiently spread the word that they are not out to ban split infinitives or correct the misuse of “whom”. They consider themselves scientists (in a discipline that overlaps with psychology, cognitive science and others) in trying to learn how the human mind works.

They’ve found out many wonderful things about rules you know, but don’t know you know. For example, a question can be formed from a statement by turning the questioned element into a question-word (like “where”) and moving it to the front of a sentence. “Steve went to Toronto. Where did Steve go?” But that doesn’t work when the element in question is itself a clause: in “John wonders where Steve went to university” “went” can’t become “Where does John wonder that Steve went to university?” Everyone knows that the latter is awkward or even unacceptable, but very few people outside the world of linguistics know why. In fact, it took linguists themselves quite a while to work out the details.

There are hidden rules not just in grammar, but at every level of language production. Take pronunciation. The –s that marks a plural in English is pronounced differently depending on the previous consonants: if the consonant is “voiced” (ie, the vocal cords vibrate, as in “v”, “g” and “d”), then the –s is pronounced like a “z”. If the consonant is “unvoiced” (like “f”, “k” and “t”), then the –s is simply pronounced as an “s”. Every native English-speaker uses this rule every day. Children master it by three or four. But nobody is ever taught it, and almost nobody knows they know it.

Because linguists spend their careers trying to tease out what people actually do say and why, they get cross when people equate “grammar” with a host of rules that most people don’t actually observe. Take the so-called rule against ending sentences with a preposition. In fact, saying things like: “What are you talking about?” is deeply embedded in the grammar of English. “About what are you talking?” strikes real speakers of English as absurd. So it annoys linguists to no end to hear the latter “rule” associated with “grammar”, while the real, intricate grammar already embedded in the mind is ignored.

Sometimes our mental grammars don’t know what to do with unusual cases. Take the newish verb “to greenlight”, meaning to approve a project. What is its past tense? “Light” has the past tense “lit”. But some people go for “greenlighted” (Variety, a film-industry magazine, prefers this) whereas others go for “greenlit”. Why the confusion? It’s because “to greenlight” was formed anew from a noun phrase, “a green light”. One mental rule is that new words are always regular; hence “greenlighted”. But other people’s mental grammars see “greenlight” as a form of the verb “to light”, an existing irregular verb with the past tense “lit”; hence “greenlit”.

This implicit grammatical knowledge overwhelms, in its intricacy and depth, the relatively few rules that people must be consciously taught at school. But since the implicit stuff is hidden in plain sight, it gets overlooked. It is cheering to see that things like the adjective-order rule can go viral on social media. Perhaps it can make people more likely to associate “grammar” not with drudgery, but with fascinating self-discovery.


The Language of the 1920s: More Than the Bee’s Knees

bees-kneesNo doubt: the 1920s were the bee’s knees. But the ads banking on the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby would have you believe the Jazz Age was all about flappers, fashion, and parties. It was more than that.

After World War I, Americans had more money to spend. That combined with “low prices. . . and generous credit made cars affordable luxuries” in the early 1920s; by the end of the decade, “they were practically necessities.”

Zez Confrey Car

Zez Confrey Car

With “a car in every backyard,” automobile-related language entered the everyday lexicon. There was step on it, as in “step on the gas” or hurry up, in 1923;  jalopy in 1924; and in 1927, back-seat driver, “a passenger who constantly advises, corrects, or nags the driver of a motor vehicle,” and by extension, “a person who persists in giving unsolicited advice.” (This 1929 article lauded Mrs. Charles Lindbergh for keeping her mouth shut as her husband flew and being “no ‘back seat’ driver.”)

Americans were also going to the movies more. By the end of the decade, “three-quarters of the American population visited a movie theater every week,” says History.comHollywood, a district of Los Angeles, came to refer to the U.S. film industry in general around 1926, three years after the Hollywood sign was erected.

Synonyms for the movies arose, including flick (1926) and the silver screen (1924). In 1921Chaplinesque entered the vernacular, and in 1927, Valentino, named after movie heartthrobRudolph Valentino, came to mean a “good-looking romantic man.”

Also in 1927, it meaning “sex appeal,” while originally coined by Rudyard Kipling, was popularized by Elinor Glyn in her novel, It, and the film of the same name. Clara Bow, the star of the movie, became known as the It Girl, which now refers to any fashionable young female celebrity with a certain something.

Clara Bow

Clara Bow

The post-Victorian age also saw a change in “manners and mores,” with raised hemlines (“all of nine inches above the ground”), petting parties (more on that later), and wider acceptance of contraception. Along with that came new words about sex and relationships.

Blind date, a date with someone one hasn’t seen before, originated as college slang around 1921, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. The earliest attested use referred to the person one was going on the date with.

While we’re sure the French kiss existed before the 1920s, the earliest citation in English is from around 1923, with the idea of equating French culture with “sexual sophistication.”

Sexpert, a sex therapist or expert in sex, is attested to 1924Sugar daddy, a rich older man who lavishes gifts on a younger woman, came about in 1926gigolo, a male prostitute, is from 1922; and tomcat, to pursue multiple women, is from 1927, says the OED. To two-time, or cheat on a lover, is from 1924. The earlier non-romantic notion of to deceive or double-cross is from 1922.


Now how about those petting parties? The earliest citation goes to F. Scott Fitzgerald in his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920: “That great current American phenomenon, the ‘petting party.’” (Petting, in case you were unclear, refers to the “practice of amorously embracing, kissing, and caressing one’s partner.”) However, not everyone was such a fan of this 1920s version of PDA, such as one Fay King in a 1923 article:

But when this love stuff becomes a dull, deadly determined battle of the eyes, and a kiss is a long drawn out disgusting episode, it’s time somebody blew a whistle or rang a bell to remind these love birds that public petting parties are not permitted.

The term sleep around originated around 1928, says the OED, with the earliest recorded mention by Aldous Huxley: “‘Sleeping around’—that was how he had heard a young American girl describe the amorous side of the ideal life, as lived in Hollywood.”

Who were these young girls? We know them as flappers. The term flapper originated around 1921, but where it came from is uncertain. A possibility is flapper meaning “a young bird when first trying its wings,” or the 17th century flap meaning “young woman of loose character.”

While we might think of the flapper as a sexually free “young woman with bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked and said what might be termed ‘unladylike’ things,” the term flapperbecame “the popular press catch-word for an adult woman worker, aged twenty-one to thirty.”

In 1926, a train which conveyed “only female workers to London each morning” was dubbed “the flapper special.” From a 1927 article about giving women over 21 in the United Kingdom the right to vote: “The expression ‘flapper vote’ has been used by those who strongly denounced the plan to extend the vote to women between the ages of twenty and thirty.” Lady Astor, “American born pioneer woman member of the House of Commons,” responded:

They are not flappers; most of those 5,000,000 women who are going to vote are hard workers. They went into factories during the World War. They are still at work and now they are going to have their rightful vote.

The first election in the United Kingdom to allow women over 21 to vote was often called the Flapper Election.

El Daiquiri @ El Floridita

El Daiquiri @ El Floridita

Despite the passing of the Volstead Act of 1919, at least a few new drink words sneaked into English. Bubbly, slang for champagne, is from 1920. It comes from the earlier bubbly water, which now refers to water that’s carbonated. The sidecar, “a cocktail combining brandy, an orange-flavored liqueur, and lemon juice,” came about in 1928, says the OED.

Daiquiri, a cocktail of “rum, lime or lemon juice, and sugar,” is first attested to Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise: “Here’s the old jitney waiter. If you ask me, I want a double Daiquiri.” Daiquiri is also the name of a beach in Cuba, and was supposedly invented by an American mining engineer who was there during the Spanish-American War.

To discourage illegal drinking, in 1924 a national contest was held “to coin a word to characterize a person who drinks illegally.” Two contestants simultaneously entered scofflaw, a combination of scoff and law. Now scofflaw also refers to “one who habitually violates the law or fails to answer court summonses.”

Continued demand for alcohol and lack of legal supply led to supply by criminal means. Although the term speakeasy had been around since the late 19th century, it gained wide usage during the Prohibition. (For more on speakeasy language, check out this post from the OxfordWords blog.) The mob, referring to organized crime, originated in 1927. The fuzz, slang for the police, is from 1929, while cop a plea is from 1925.

In terms of harder stuffweed became slang for marijuana in the 1920s, perhaps as a shortening of locoweed. From a 1924 article:

“Marihuana,” or “Marijuana” as some spell it, the everyday “loco weed” that formerly grew wild on the deserts of northern Mexico, now is being cultivated on thousands of acres in that country for sale to addicts of the plant in this country.

Other 1920s terms for marijuana are Mary Jane (1928) and muggle (1926). The term junkie is from 1923, and wingding, now known as a lively party or celebration, originated in 1927, says the OED, as “a fit or spasm, esp. as simulated by a drug addict.”

Crash meaning “to join or enter. . .without invitation” originated around 1922. The financial meaning of a “sudden severe downturn” is older, from 1817, but gained resurgence with the Wall Street crash of 1929, which marked the end of a prosperous and seemingly carefree time.



Where did these words and phrases come from?

1. Tomfoolery

Q From Joe Brown: I was wondering where the phrase Tom Foolery came from?

A I would write it as one word, tomfoolery, and my ordered ranks of dictionaries tell me I’m right. But it often turns up in print in the way you have written it, or as Tom foolery or tom-foolery or Tom-foolery. Such forms show that their writers still link the word with some fool called Tom, even though they may not know who he was.

Tom Skelton
A portrait of Tom Skelton.

It is sometimes claimed that the original Tom Fool was Thomas Skelton. He was a jester, a fool, for the Pennington family at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria. This was probably about 1600 — he is said to be the model for the jester in Shakespeare’s King Lear of 1606. In legend, he was an unpleasant person. One story tells how he liked to sit under a tree by the road; whenever travellers he didn’t like asked the way to the ford over the River Esk, he would instead direct them to their deaths in the marshes. Another tale links him with the murder of a carpenter who was the lover of Sir William Pennington’s daughter.

So much for stories. In truth, Tom Fool is centuries older. He starts appearing in the historical record early in the 1300s in the Latinate form Thomas fatuus. The first part served even then as a generic term for any ordinary person, as it still does in phrases like Tom, Dick or Harry. The second word means stupid or foolish in Latin and has bequeathed us fatuousand infatuate, among other words. By 1356 Thomas fatuus had become Tom Fool.

Around the seventeenth century, the character of Tom Fool shifted somewhat from the epitome of a stupid or half-witted person to that of a fool or buffoon. He became a character who accompanied morris-dancers or formed part of the cast of various British mummers’ plays performed at Christmas, Easter or All Souls’ Day.

tom-fool was more emphatically foolish than an unadorned fool. Tomfoolery was similarly worse than foolery, the state of acting foolishly, which had been in English since the sixteenth century. Perhaps oddly, it took until about 1800 for tomfoolery to appear. It had been preceded by the verb to tom-fool, to play the fool.

2. Fair to middling

Q From John Rupp, Dallas, Texas: I have often heard the phrase fair to Midland (middlin’?) in response to the inquiry ‘How are you doing?’ Any ideas on the origins of this phrase?

A As you hint, the phrase is more usually fair to middling, common enough — in Britain as well as North America — for something that’s moderate to merely average in quality, sometimes written the way people say it, as fair to middlin’.

With an initial capital letter, fair to Midland is a Texas version of the phrase, a joke on the name of the city of Midland in that state. A Texas rock band called themselves Fair to Midland after what they described as “an old Texan play on the term ‘fair to middling’”. American researcher Barry Popik has traced it to May 1935 in a report in the New York Times, “Dr. William Tweddell … is what might be called a fair-to-Midland golfer.”

But we do occasionally see examples of fair to midland in American contexts without a capital letter and without any suggestion of humour:

While overall attendance was fair to midland — the championship session drew about 800 — the Bartlett student section was outstanding.

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Illinois), 31 Dec. 2011.

This lower-case fair to midland version is recorded in Massachusetts in 1968, which suggests that even then it had already lost its connection with Texas. It might be folk etymology, in which an unfamiliar word is changed to one that’s better known. But it’s an odd example, as middling isn’t so very uncommon. It may be that people tried to correct middlin’ to a more acceptable version that lacked the dropped letter but plumped for the wrong word.

All the early examples of fair to middling I can find in literary works are similarly American, from authors such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and Artemus Ward. To go by them, it looks as though it became common on the east coast of the US from the 1860s on. However, hunting in newspapers, I’ve found examples from a couple of decades before, likewise from the east coast. This one was in a newspaper review of the current issue of The Ladies’ Companion:

These three articles are the best in the present number — of the rest, most are from fair to middling.

Boston Morning Post, 6 Feb. 1841.

The earliest of all I’ve so far found comes from an article in the July 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia: “A Dinner on the Plains, Tuesday, September 20th. — This was given ‘at the country seat’ of J. C. Jones, Esq. to the officers of the Peacock and Enterprise. The viands were ‘from fair to middling, we wish we could say more.’”

So the phrase is American, most probably early nineteenth century. But where does it come from? There’s a clue in the Century Dictionary of 1889: “Fair to middling, moderately good: a term designating a specific grade of quality in the market”. The term middling turns out to have been used as far back as the previous century both in the US and in Britain for an intermediate grade of various kinds of goods — there are references to a middling grade of flour, pins, sugar, and other commodities.

Which market the Century Dictionary was referring to is made plain by the nineteenth-century American trade journals I’ve consulted. Fair and middling were terms in the cotton business for specific grades — the sequence ran from the best quality (fine), through good, fair, middling and ordinary to the least good (inferior), with a number of intermediates, one being middling fair. The form fair to middling sometimes appeared as a reference to this grade, or a range of intermediate qualities — it was common to quote indicative prices, for example, for “fair to middling grade”.

The reference was so well known in the cotton trade that it escaped into the wider language. Some early figurative appearances in newspapers directly reflect the market usage:

Twenty-five cents a line, then, may be quoted as the present commercial value of good poetry … fair to middling is probably more difficult of sale.

New York Daily Times, 29 May 1855.

I have only the opinions of some who patronized her entertainments, who profess to be judges of such things. Verdict, as the Price Current says, “fair to middling with downward tendency.”

The Wabash Express (Terre Haute, Indiana), 18 May 1859.

The figurative term starts to appear in Britain in the 1870s, but early examples are all in stories imported from across the Atlantic. Even that seemingly most home-grown British composition, Austin Doherty’s Nathan Barley: Sketches in the Retired Life of a Lancashire Butcher of 1884, written in local dialect, includes it in the speech of an old school fellow who had emigrated and made his money in Michigan. So it was known but labelled as an Americanism. It took until the twentieth century for it to begin to be used unselfconsciously.

3. So help me Hannah

Q From Jon S of Mississippi: By any chance do you know the origin of the American expression, So help me Hannah? It used to be heard more often in days gone by, and people today may have never heard of it, but it’s an old saying that I cannot find the origin of.

A I can’t provide a definite origin but I can give some pointers.

Hannah, as a personal name, sometimes with the spelling pronunciation “Hanner”, has been used in the US in various colloquial sayings since at least the 1870s. They include that’s what’s the matter with Hannah, indicating emphatic agreement, of which John Farmer wrote disparagingly in his Americanisms of 1889, “A street catch-phrase with no especial meaning. For a time it rounded off every statement of fact or expression of opinion amongst the vulgar.” Another, since Hannah died, was a reference to the passage of time.

The earliest on record is he doesn’t amount to Hannah Cook, later often abbreviated to he doesn’t amount to Hannah and also appearing as not worth a Hannah Cook.

Mr. Sweeney rose again to explain the mysteries of printing ballots the evening before election, and added that the acceptance or rejection of the investigating Committee’s report “didn’t amount to Hannah Cook,” because it made no recommendations.

Boston Daily Globe, 9 Sep. 1875.

This early appearance in a Boston newspaper supports the general opinion that it’s of New England origin. John Gould suggested in his Maine Lingo of 1975 that it derived from seafaring: “A man who signed on as a hand or cook didn’t have status as one or the other and could be worked in the galley or before the mast as the captain wished. The hand or cook was nondescript, got smaller wages, and became the Hannah Cook of the adage.” The story sounds too much like folk etymology to be readily swallowed.

So help me Hannah is a mildly euphemistic form of the oath so help me God, which starts to appear in print in the early twentieth century. Hannah here seems likely to have been borrowed from one or other of the earlier expressions. It became widely used in the 1920s and 1930s.

“By hell, Chief,” he drawled, drawing a huge clasp-knife from his
pocket, “I been grazin’ on this here Alasky range nigh on to twenty
yars, and so help me Hannah, I never did find a place so wild or a
bunch o’ hombres so tough but what sooner or later all hands starts
a-singin’ o’ the female sect.”

Where the Sun Swings North, by Barrett Willoughby, 1922.

After the Second World War, the American firm Hannah Laboratories produced a salve with the name So help me Hannah. Some people have pointed to this as the origin of the expression, though the firm was, of course, merely exploiting a phrase that had long since become part of the common language.

4. Joe Soap

Q From Steve Campbell: My dear old mother would occasionally use the expression Who do you think I am, Joe Soap? We migrated to Australia from the Old Dart in 1951 and I’ve never heard it used by Australians. What is its origin and is it still in use in the UK?

A It remains moderately common in Britain but its meaning has shifted since your mother learned it. She would have had in mind a stupid or naive person, one who could be easily put upon or deceived. These days it refers to a typical individual, the archetypal person in the street.

The full judgement will be published in a week or two and the ordinary Joe Soap will take hours to read it and understand.

Daily Mirror, 9 Sep. 2015.

Joe Soap
An early wartime use, in an illustration by David Langdon in Cyril Jackson’s It’s a Piece of Cake — RAF Slang Made Easy of 1943. The text reads “A.C.2 Joe Soap, who carries the can for one and all.”

This sense is now known outside the UK, especially in North America.

Your mother’s sense is usually regarded as services slang from the Second World War, most often associated with the Royal Air Force:

Joe Soap was the legendary airman who carried the original can. He became a synonym for anyone who had the misfortune to be assigned an unwelcome duty in the presence of his fellows, or to be temporarily misemployed in a status lower than his own. “I’m Joe Soap,” he would say lugubriously, and I’m carrying the something can.”

Royal Air Force Quarterly, 1944. “Something” may be read as a polite substitute for a more forceful epithet. See here for carry the can.

The term certainly became popular during the war but there’s evidence it was known earlier in the naive sense:

I ain’t no Joe Soap to go a-believin’ of all their yarns.

Blackwood’s Magazine, 1934. The writer who quoted this added, “Who Joe Soap was I have never discovered”, which suggests it wasn’t then widely known.

What might be an earlier services connection is the song Forward Joe Soap’s Army, which featured in Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh What a Lovely War and in the film made of it. Despite claims that the songs in the play were authentic First World War creations, I can find no reference to it before the play was first performed in 1963.

However, it wouldn’t have been an anachronism, since the phrase can be traced to the nineteenth century as a generic name for someone unknown, or a pseudonym that was adopted by somebody wanting to stay anonymous.

A man whose real name is unknown, but who is known in the district as “Joe Soap,” had on Tuesday evening crossed a field near Meltham, to get to Bingley Quarry, but in the dusk, mistaking his position, he fell into the quarry, and was killed.

Leeds Times, 21 Sep. 1878.

Witness then went across the road to him and told him to be quiet, and defendant who was using very bad language, put on his coat and got into his trap. Witness then asked him his name and he said “Joe Soap, that will do for you.”

Chepstow Weekly Advertiser, 13 Apr. 1907.

Nobody knows for sure where this generic name comes from.

The first part has been widely used to refer to an ordinary person — Joe BloggsJoe BlowJoe SixpackJoe Averageordinary JoeJoe DoakesJoe Public — there are lots of examples, though most of them originate in North America. Joe was noted in Britain as a generic term in 1846, albeit in a different sense, when it appeared in The Swell’s Night Guide: “Joe, an imaginary person, nobody, as Who do those things belong to? Joe.” The unknown-person sense of Joe Soap might have come from it.

It is usually assumed that the second part is rhyming slang for dope, a stupid person, though this would have been improbable in the nineteenth century. Though a couple of examples of dope with that meaning are recorded from the dialect of Cumberland in the 1850s, it wasn’t then widely known in Britain. In that sense it was imported later from North America.



The Element by Kevin Robinson

the-element-by-kevin-robinsonThe Element by Kevin Robinson focuses on how everyone has their own unique element and you have to find it yourself via trial and error. “To do that each of us individually and all of us together need to discover the Element.” Dr Kevin Robinson uses the word element to describe “the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.” Along with views about the current state of education, the book also takes the reader on a journey through stories of how ordinary people combined their passion with their talents (the element) to become highly successful. An example at the start of the book is a girl named Gillian who combined her love of music with her lively personality to become a professional dancer. However Dr Ken Robinson says that in today’s society she would have straight away been diagnosed with ADHD. The reader learns that the girl is Gillian Lynne who is a famous choreographer.
The book emphasises on the idea that we might be happier in life if we take advantage and pay more attention to our natural talents. Ken Robinson suggests that we need to put play and creativity before overly organised structuring in children’s development. This books intended audience is the general public as its encouraging everyone to find their element to lead a better life. The book is unlike any others as it introduces readers to a new concept of self-fulfilment through converging natural talents with our individual passions.
I personally like this book as it encouraged and inspired me to find my element (which I am still unsure about). I rate it a 3/5 as at the start it was dry and it didn’t really serve a purpose but towards the middle it started to explain what its purpose was.

Martin Luther King Autobiography Review


martin-luther-king-autobiography-reviewAlthough there were many non-violent protestors against racism in the past who are famous in their own right for their philosophies and ideologies such as Malcolm X as a prime example, but having read the autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can see that there is an alternative to violence, a much more peaceful alternative that leads to a better resolution.

Dr. King’s speeches and letters, which were printed throughout the book were incredible. Unfortunately, the only one I had heard before was the “I have a dream speech”, because let’s face it, who hasn’t? But it has to be said that his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was one of the most inspirational documents I have ever read. His use of metaphorical and other figurative language to get points across is simply magical and yet he does it with such ease. The way in which he speaks of non-violent protests not being creators of tension nut in fact, the surfacers of hidden tension, describing this tension as “like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all of its ugliness to the natural medicines of light and air.” This struck me profoundly.

However, it’s not just quotations from famous letters and speeches that are so mesmerising, even just his general writing produces the most thoughtful and inspirational quotes that are possibly readable. Quotes such as “a man who is not willing to die for anything is not fit to live”, it is so thought-provoking, you instantly think- what would I die for? This isn’t so much reading, as an actual conversation with yourself about your own moral proclivities.

Probably the main thing I liked and appreciated about Dr. Kings character, aside from his humility and willingness to fight for freedom for all, is his desire to learn from those with even the most radically different ideas to himself. For me, this is what sets him apart from all other major philosophical faces of our generation;  he is the antithesis of narrow-minded and in fact incorporates the ideas of others in some of his more radical ideologies.

Although of course I may be wrong, I personally get the feeling that Martin Luther King knew that he would eventually be assassinated, but he was willing to work despite this fact. In conclusion, this was possibly the best book I have ever read and not only would I strongly recommend it, I believe it should be required reading for all.


Book Review: A few kind words and a loaded gun by Razor Smith

a-few‘A few kind words and a loaded gun’ is an autobiography by Noel ‘Razor’ Smith, a convicted armed robber from South London. Smith tells the tale of how he grew up in a dysfunctional family and how his behaviour deteriorated to the point where he carried out acts of armed robbery, initially for the thrill but eventually for a living.
The issue of Nature vs. Nurture is discussed and he provides his opinion and reasoning for believing that it is a person’s upbringing (nurture) that affects how they behave rather than their genetics (nature).
The story of Smith’s life is told in grave, brutal detail which is very effective in getting across to the reader the cold truth of life as a criminal and life in prison. After 58 criminal convictions Noel was often considered to be one of the toughest convicts that there are however, he explains how despite the horrific conditions of prison, he did in fact manage to teach himself to read and write, and also how he gained an Honours Diploma from the London School of Journalism and an A Level in Law. Furthermore, Smith speaks of his time in rehabilitation and how he now works as a motivational speaker at Crimiknowledge conferences all across the country.
The autobiography as a whole is gripping from the very beginning and eye-opening in respect of the UK penal system. The novel is excellently written in a way that draws the reader in and attaches them emotionally to the tale. Personally, I find the honest accounts very admirable and particularly enjoyed the last chapter, the heart-breaking account of Smith’s son’s death and all of Smith’s regrets.



The book covers aspects of Smith’s life for example how he lived in South London and then tuned out to be a career criminal, Smith tells the tale of how he was in trouble with the police often and even had appearances in juvenile court for theft. By the age of 16 Smith had been in trouble with the law many times and was convicted of a crime which gave him 14 years imprisonment, Smith explains his childhood acts as ”for the thrill” which eventually became his living.

Smith doesn’t sugarcoat his life and the book is very cold and brutal in the way it comes across, it is very blunt and Smith doesn’t attempt to make prison sound any better than it was. Smith speaks of his life in prison in the story and even goes into detail about the 58 criminal convictions he had made. Noel was considered to be a tough criminal but despite all of this, despite the cold prison and the lengthy sentence, Smith actually managed to make the most of himself whilst there. He taught himself how to read and right and then went on to receive an Honours Diploma from the London School of Journalism.

In the book Smith also speaks about how he ended up getting his life together through rehab and he is now a motivational speaker at many conferences, to me this is interesting as it shows from a first persons perspective how he managed to turn his life around and change who he was.

For me, the autobiography is a very interesting book throughout and very hard to put down. It made me realise many things about prison and convictions which I hadn’t really had insight on before, the fact that Smith himself wrote the book made me become very emotionally involved and so the last chapter even brought a tear to my eye. Smith runs through his regrets and even goes into his sons tragic death which was very upsetting but also enjoyable to see how different Smith had become.