BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 13:54 GMT
What now for the Forth metaphor?
Forth Bridge

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

After 100 years the painting of the Forth Rail bridge is to come to an end, depriving the English language of one its most treasured similes.

With three coats of a special paint, similar to that used in the offshore oil industry, painting of the bridge is due to be completed in four years. The paint has an estimated life-span of 25 years, although it is hoped it will last closer to 40 years.

But what Network Rail, the owners of the Forth Bridge, stands to gain in productivity, the English language could lose a cherished aphorism.

According to the Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms, if "repairing or improving something is like painting the Forth Bridge, it takes such a long time that by the time you have finished doing it, you have to start again".

What might take its place? "Like Northern Rock paying back taxpayers," suggests one reader of the BBC News website.

Tell us your suggestions for a new "Forth Bridge" metaphor using the form at the bottom of this page. The following might supply some inspiration.


Putting the cart before the horse means to reverse the natural order of things. According to Brewer's dictionary, one of its first mentions was in 1475 in the children's book, The Babees Book: "This methinks is playnely to sett the carte before the horse." Other languages have their own equivalents. In France, it is "mettre la charrue devant les boeufs" or "to put the plough before the oxen". With equine presence on the average British street restricted these days to flamboyant weddings or expensive funerals, perhaps the modern day metaphor should be putting the hybrid engine before the dual airbag release mechanism.

Sending someone to Coventry means to ignore them. The phrase comes from a 17th Century perception that the citizens of Coventry once so disliked soldiers that anyone seen speaking to one was instantly outlawed. So when a soldier was "sent to Coventry" he was ostracized. According to Brewer's dictionary, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, in his History of the Great Rebellion (1702-04), says that Royalist prisoners captured in Birmingham were sent to Coventry, which was a Parliamentary stronghold. Assuming this anti-military feeling - if it ever truly existed - has today dissipated, let the last thing ever sent to Coventry be this phrase.

To throw a spanner in the works is to deliberately sabotage, coined in more industrial times when lobbing a hulk of metal into a piece of functioning factory plant would have brought an early end to the workers' shift. One of its first recorded uses was in PG Wodehouse's Right Ho in 1934: "He should have had sense enough to see that he was throwing a spanner into the works." With many factories now closed in the UK, perhaps it now requires a Mandarin translation.

Spinning a yarn is to tell a story and is a nautical expression that originates from the days when sailors would sit on deck doing rope work and making spun yarn, telling tales to each other while they did it. These days the notion of sailors idling away the hours wouldn't escape the glare of a Ministry of Defence time-management guru. Besides, if there's any spinning to be done it's probably in the name of a senior Cabinet minister.

Giving a blank cheque is to give a signed cheque, with the amount to be completed by the other person, thus giving them carte blanche or as much freedom - not necessarily financial - as they desire. With a succession of High Street stores no longer accepting cheques - Tesco's will stop taking them on Saturday - the writing is very much on the wall (a Biblical metaphor that still holds), not the stub.


At the eleventh hour means the last moment, just in time. Its modern-day currency has been underlined in the Northern Rock story, with many newspapers using the image of the bank's clock set to 11 o'clock to illustrate the drama. Its first mention is thought to be in Matthew's Gospel, referring to labourers hired for the vineyard who started work at 5pm and were paid the same as those who had worked all day. The World War I armistice, called at 11am of 11 November, gave the image added impetus.

It's all Greek to me. Shakespeare used this expression in Julius Caesar in 1599 and it has stuck since for anything that is unintelligible or alien. Given the average Briton's aversion to learning a foreign tongue, let alone one that has a different alphabet, the saying retains its bite. It's all grist to the mill (if you'll excuse the lapse into olde metaphor) for critics of the latest plan to stop foreign language oral exams in school.

A fly in the ointment is the detail that spoils everything. In Ecclesiastes (10:1), it is said: "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour." The trend for male grooming and rise of global warming only multiply the chances of insects meeting sticky ends in exotic lotions.

Here are some of your suggestions for a new Forth Bridge metaphor.

Manually deleting spam emails.
Calum Hutchinson, Edinburgh, Scotland

Looking for WMD
Peter Watmough, Baston

Like waiting for a new Caption Competition
Simon Rooke, Nottingham UK

Like upgrading the West Coast Main Line...
Richard Gleave, Leighton Buzzard

Cooling the earth
Peter MacDonald, Glasgow

Paying for the Crimean War. I understand it was the reason for the introduction of Pay as you Earn Income Tax. But the bill keeps going up.
Malcolm Langley, Wrexham. United Kingdom

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific