A Dictionary of Catch Phrases: British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day

By Paul Beale; Eric Partridge | Go to book overview
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I acknowledge (or admit or confess) the corn

is a c.p. deriving from acknowledge the corn, to plead guilty to a minor charge in order to avoid being charged for a much graver offence. 'I know the story but not the dates. A man was accused of stealing four horses and the corn that fed them; he said, “I acknowledge the corn”. The original, the true, c.p. went out of use, I suppose, with the decline of the Wild West and [the abolition of] summary hanging for horse thieves' (Shipley, 1977). Perhaps, therefore, c. 1835-1900. The earlier limit has been established by D. Am. and OED, esp. its second Supp.

I ain't coming.

See: ain't coming on that tab.

I always do my best for all my gentlemen.

See can I do you now, sir?, third paragraph.

I am becalmed, the sail sticks to the mast.

'My shirt sticks to my back'-says Grose, 1785; he adds, 'a piece of sea wit sported in hot weather'; a nautical c.p. of mid C18-late C19.

I am here to tell you!

I tell you emphatically: a c.p. of affirmation: since c. 1945; by 1975, slightly ob. In his Pretty Polly Barlow, 1964, Noël Coward, at the story titled 'Me and the Girls', writes: 'George Banks [the narrator] and his six Bombshells I am here to tell you began their merry career by opening a brand new night spot in Montevideo.'

I am (or I'm) not here.

I don't feel inclined to work; or, I wish to be left alone: tailors': since c. 1870. (B&L.) Cf I want to be alone.

I am the greatest

or, depending on the mood, the prettiest. 'Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) admits that he acquired his “I am the greatest… I am the prettiest” routine from the wrestler, Gorgeous George, whom he saw in Las Vegas. “I noticed they all paid to get in-and I said, 'This is a good idea!'” On occasion, Ali admitted to a group of school children: “I'm not really the greatest. I only say I'm the greatest because it sells tickets”' (VIBS): adopted in UK as a c.p., or perhaps rather as allusive quot'n, c. 1970.

Iam the vicar!

is 'used when someone mistakes one's name or position. From the well-known children's dialogue game which starts with a man pursuing a girl, and goes on to such exchanges as “My mother wouldn't like it!”-“Your mother's not going to get it!” [or “Nonsense, she loved it!” (P.B.)] and concludes: “I'll tell the vicar!”-“I am the vicar!”' (Derek Parker, in The Times, 9 Sep. 1977). This adult c.p. dates from very approx. the mid 1920s or the early 1930s. See also to the woods!

I apprehend you without a constable.

Recorded in the Dialogue I of S, this smart c.p. of c. 1700-60, signifying 'I take your meaning', contains a pun on apprehend-to seize, hence to arrest-and apprehend-to understand.

I ask myself.

A politician's rhetorical cliché, become c.p. in the early 1980s when used for humorous effect: e.g. 'Why is he such a Charlie, I ask myself, or the speaker may pluralise the phrase, 'Where do we go from here, we ask ourselves'. Cf and contrast ask yourself!, q.v., and see also orft we jolly well go. (P.B.)

I ask you!

-often prec. by well. It is an intensive of the statement to which it is appended. It is characteristically C20, but may have arisen in the late 1880s; there seems to be an allusion in F. Anstey's Voces Populi, 1890-a collection of 'sketches' that had appeared in Punch, in the piece entitled 'Sunday Afternoon in Hyde Park', where a well-educated, well-dressed demagogue harangues the crowd: 'But, I ask you-(he drops all playfulness and becomes sinister) if we-the down-trodden slaves of the aristocracy-were to go to them.' The tone of voice is usually derisive. It implies 'That's ridiculous, don't you think?' In Letter to a Dead Girl, 1971, Selwyn Jepson provides an excellent example:

'How can my finances be involved because I met Mrs Kinnon once in my life for a couple of minutes? I ask you!'

Harry begged not to be asked.

Cf this from Anne Morice's Death of a Gay Dog, 1971:

'My dear, you must be joking! When did you ever see anything so pretentious?… I ask you! Just look at the way he's tarted it up!'

It occurs, as one would expect, in comedies of the 1920s and 1930s (and after). Miles Malleson, in The Fanatics, 1924, has an opening scene with parents talking about their son:

MRS FREEMAN: He came home.

MR FREEMAN: Eh? What excuse did he give?

MRS FREEMAN: I only heard him upstairs in his attic
…playing the piano.

MR FREEMAN: Playing the piano!!! I ask you…a grown
man…what is 'e? Twenty-six.

And in H.M. Harwood's The Old Folks at Home, played 1933, pub'd 1934, the opening scene contains the lines:

LIZA: You needn't have bothered with lizards, darling.

JANE: (warningly) Now, Liza!

LIZA: Well, I ask you. He's been simply living with these lizards for months, and all he's found out is that males can behave like females. I could have shown him that in half an hour, anywhere in London.

Somewhere about 1930, the phrase was established in the US; Berrey includes it in a synonymy for 'I don't believe it!'.

The phrase seems to have derived from French and could well have arisen during the mid 1850s. In 1851 appeared Le Dictionnaire des Dictionnaires, which records: “Peut-on tolérer cela? Je vous le démande”; and the C20 Robert, noting the var. je vous le démande un peu, says that this familiar or highly coll. expression 'marque l'étonnement, la réprobation' and '=certainement pas'. (Paul Janssen, 1977.)

I asked for that! and got it!

Since c. 1930. Cited in the Daily Mail book page on 15 May 1975.

I been there before.

Yes, I know all about that-'I've had some': US. It prob. became a c.p. very soon after Mark Twain (1835-1910) reached the height of his literary powers


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A Dictionary of Catch Phrases: British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day


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