The Earl of Hell’s Waistcoat.

Via Catriona Kelly’s FB post, some Grauniad letters in which “Readers respond to Adrian Chiles’s article mourning the decline of our most poetic sayings”; the first one drove me to make this post:

My Scottish mother-in-law had a wealth of expressions which she’d use so appropriately […]. One saying that we use now and again, to excuse spending on a treat, is “there’s nae pockets in a shroud”. Another couple of wonderful ones to describe threatening weather are “it’s dark over Will’s mum’s”, plus a particular favourite, “it’s as black as the earl of hell’s waistcoat”. Real poetry.
Catherine Roome
Staplehurst, Kent

Real poetry indeed! My wife and I were both struck by the eerie specificity of “the earl of hell’s waistcoat” — not the more obvious “lord of hell” or, say, “cloak,” but “earl” and “waistcoat.” It sticks in your mind. (I like “Staplehurst,” too.) There are a few more letters, but none as good; the best idiom in them is, I’d say, “more edges than a broken pisspot.” And my favorite from the Chiles piece is “wet as an otter’s pocket.”


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    “As wet as an otter’s pocket” actually means something rather different.

  2. *faints dead away*

  3. As wet as an otter’s pocket

    I bet the girls love it when you whisper that in their ear at an opportune moment…

  4. David Marjanović says

    “it’s dark over Will’s mum’s”

    Is Will the Bastard?

  5. Another handy excuse for splashing out: “There’s nae roof rack on a hearse”.

  6. There’s a good investigation of “black/dark over Will’s/Bill’s mother’s” at (which specializes in regional sayings). Nobody knows how it got started; it was said to be “a very old Sussex saying” in 1930, but no trace has yet been found earlier than 1927.

  7. Well, three years can feel like forever in Sussex…

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    I feel like I need more information about the exact hierarchy of titles in Hell. Is the Earl the actual main dude in charge, or is there a Marquess or Duke or Margrave or Archduke or Emir or what have you that outranks him and also has a flashier waistcoat?

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    I expect he’s just a thane, really.

  10. Traditionally, Hell seems to have had “princes,” sometimes synonymized as “dukes” or “grand dukes”—as well as “earls,” which may have been different. On the other hand, “barons of Hell” may not have existed at all until they were the final bosses of shareware Doom.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    General Managers of Hell? (Actually, “CEO of Hell” sounds perfectly possible. And it would fit with the flashy waistcoat. Old school, of course. None of this Silicon Valley crap. The CEO’s of those organisations will be among the managed in that place …)

  12. i think the ones to worry about might be the Assistant Procurement Specialists of Hell, since they’re likely the hungriest, but we’d probably have to consult charles stross to be sure about the organizational chart.

  13. Kate Bunting says

    “It looks a bit black over Bill’s mother’s” is alleged to be a Midlands expression (I’ve never heard the ‘Will’ version). One theory I’ve read is that it refers to King William III (‘Dutch William’), which would mean the East! It doesn’t hold water, though, because this William’s mother was Princess Mary of England, Charles I’s daughter – it was his father who was Dutch.

  14. Lucifer Baal Moloch de Pfeffel Satan, 1st earl of Hell of the second creation, Viscount Tartarus, Baron Dis. Also Duke of Inverstyx in the Jacobite peerage.

  15. David Eddyshaw says
  16. David Marjanović says

    Also Duke of Inverstyx in the Jacobite peerage.

    Week saved. And it’s only Monday.

  17. There’s nae pockets in a shroud is in Dutch: het laatste hemd heeft geen zakken (the last shirt has no pockets). My grandmother said this sometimes.

  18. General Managers of Hell?
    Pratchett had something like this in one if his novels (Eric?), a prince of hell working with modern management methods and writing strategy papers starting with “we’re in the damnation business”.
    het laatste hemd heeft geen zakken
    German has the same: Das letzte Hemd hat keine Taschen.

  19. Trond Engen says

    We don’t have it, but I’ll work on that. Det er ikke lommer i likskjorta has even a nice alliteration.

  20. Hell also has a High Sheriff.

  21. Clearly work needs to be done on the officialdom of the nether regions.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Some of them seem to be mediatised.

  23. Michael Hendry says

    I guess Bluegrass singer Larry Sparks was not quite as clever or original as I thought when he titled his 2007 album after the most striking song on it: “The Last Suit You Wear [won’t need no pockets]”. Did he get the idea from a grandparent, and update it from shroud to suit? An appropriate adjustment in a society where even the lower classes can afford to bury the dead in a full suit of clothes, not a shroud or sheet (like the traditional ghost), or even a fancy half-suit that covers only the visible side of the corpse. (I’ve heard of the last, but never seen one or any proof that they were ever used. Of course, the ones that were used would all be in coffins.)

  24. John Cowan says

    “As wet as an otter’s pocket” actually means something rather different.

    Well, perhaps; or is that just a fallacy of undergeneralization? After all, wet by itself also bears that sense; indeed, the Wikt article lists it as a distinct sense. One is reminded of Dr. Johnson speaking of an earthquake felt in Staffordshire (his native county, which he was at the time visiting):

    Sir, it will be much exaggerated in popular talk: for, in the first place, the common people do not accurately adapt their thoughts to the objects; nor, secondly, do they accurately adapt their words to their thoughts: they do not mean to lie; but, taking no pains to be exact, they give you very false accounts. A great part of their language is proverbial. If anything rocks at all, they say it rocks like a cradle; and in this way they go on. [italics in original]

  25. or is there a Marquess or Duke or Margrave or Archduke or Emir or what have you that outranks him and also has a flashier waistcoat?

    No, no, no Frenchy titles there. Jarl helju is as high as it gets. Though one of Dante’s cantos begins with the hymn-parody “Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni”, or “On march the banners of the King of Hell” (fine hendecasyllabics both).

  26. For helju (dative) read heljar (genitive). I misread Wikt.

  27. Trond Engen says

    That reminds me that there are people in Norway named Heljar. SSB counts 75 males.

    The count of males named Jarl is 1611. There doesn’t seem to be anyone combining both of them to Jarl Heljar or Heljar Jarl. So much for Norwegian death metal.

  28. “Black over Bill’s mother’s” was also discussed by Graham Pointon (who’s from Staffordshire) at Linguism in 2014:

    My mother would look at a lowering sky, when dark clouds were gathering before a storm, and say “It’s looking a bit black over Bill’s mother’s”. I always assumed that this was simply a family saying, going back to a time perhaps when a family member or friend called “Bill” lived in the direction from which bad weather often came, but my partner, who was born thirty-odd miles away from me, and whose parents’ families were from Norfolk and South Staffordshire respectively, also uses it, so it obviously has wider currency. I’ve also established that it is known as far away as Blackpool.

    Commenters then chimed in saying they’d known it from childhood in Derby, Yorkshire, and Coventry — with one insisting that Bill was Shakespeare!

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