I'll go to the foot of our stairs! (Idiom)

James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
The expression "I'll go to the foot of our stairs" is used to express surprise. It is a form of exclamation. Similar ones would be "Stone the crows!" (a bit old-fashioned, no doubt) or "Christopher Columbus!" (ditto), or the more common "Jesus Christ!"

There is no problem with the meaning, by which I mean the way it is used.

I have found that it is mostly Northern English, and more particularly related to Yorkshire. Apparently, it is still in use. It is frequently featured in sitcoms etc when there is a typical Yorkshire character, in order to add a bit of local 'colour'.

No one seems to know where the expression comes from. Why: "Go to the foot of (the stairs)"? Why would it come into it at all, when expressing surprise? Or is this one of those deliberately absurd phrases used in a tongue-in-cheek way? "Our" seems to imply the person is talking about his or her family-home.

Suggestions welcome.
 
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  • ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I love this expression. But I've only ever ~ to the best of my recollection ~ heard it as a 'stereotypical' Northern thing, i.e. I've never heard anyone (including me) use it unselfconsciously. Of course, this isn't to say that in the past it was used otherwise.
    As to why it should be the foot of our stairs and not the top of our stairs (or even our backyard gate, or somewhere else), I'd think we can only guess, James.

    EDIT: Incidentally, mention of backyard gate has reminded me of another expression in exactly the same vein, used for when a person is famished: I could eat a scabby donkey between two backyard gates.
     
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    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Well, here's one suggestion, James: the idea that it was a deliberately comical variant of "I'll go to hell".

    I can't tell if the suggestion's plausible or not, not being a user of the expression:)
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Ok, very interesting. It would be a way of not using "go to hell", along the lines of "gorblimey" in Cockney English being a disguised form of "God Almighty!" as far as I understand.

    Why choose "the foot of our stairs", though? Maybe because the idea is, if you start going up the stairs, eventually, you will rise and rise, and arrive in heaven (or hell, as the case may be). In other words, this would explain why "foot" it is, as opposed to "top".

    I get the feeling this is one of those expressions that are never used unselfconsciously, i.e. that are always used in ironic manner, particularly nowadays. This would explain why it is used in soap operas with Yorkshire characters etc - scriptwriters love a good cliché, particularly if they do not come from the region in question...

    All the references I have seen do mention N England, Ewie. And thanks for the other - very funny - idioms: I shall try and use the donkey one at the nearest opportunity! :D
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    From Phrasefinder.org
    Posted by ESC on December 26, 2004

    From one of my newly acquired books:
    (well) I'LL GO TO THE FOOT OF OUR STAIRS! - "An old north England expression of surprise or amazement - meaning presumably, that the short walk to the place mentioned would allow the speaker to recover equanimity. Or perhaps it meant it was time to give up and go to bed! Used by Tommy Handley in BBC Radio's ITMA (1940s) and elsewhere. Said to have been used by the entertainer George Formby as 'Eeh, I'll go to the foot of our stairs', as also, 'Eeh, I'll go to our 'ouse (pronounced 'our rouse')' - Robina Hinton, Suffolk . Chris Littlefair gave this variation from the North-East : 'I'll go to the bottom of our garden.'" From "Oops, Pardon Mrs Arden! An Embarrassment of Domestic Catchphrases" by Nigel Rees (Robson Books, London, 2001) Page 99-100.

    Submitted by viewers/listeners to Mr. Rees on British TV and radio. The dates are when the informants submitted the information to him.
    Go to the foot of the stairs - phrase meaning and origin

    And
    Yes, my mother (90 years and going strong) has used this expression for as long as I can remember. I understand it to be a Birmingham saying though, although that may not conflict with Rees giving it a northern origin. For some reason London folk think the English Midlands are in the North.
    Go to the foot of the stairs - phrase meaning and origin
     

    sound shift

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I distinctly remember an occasion when a chap from Oldham (northern England) said "Well, I'll go to our 'ouse" (as per Paul's quote, above) in my presence. I don't know if there was any self-consciousness involved.

    Funnily enough, one of our forum colleagues today used "Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs" in another thread. I know that he learned the expression from a northerner. I of course don't know if that northerner used it self-consciously.

    All a bit different from the "Well I'm blowed!" used by my father, who's from so far dahn sahth that it's almost in the sea.
     
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    Barque

    Senior Member
    Tamil
    My first reaction after reading the OP was that it meant: I'm so surprised that I might fall down the stairs (if the speaker was standing at the top).:) Something like You could have knocked me down with a feather. But it seems from Paul's post 6 that there's a different explanation.
     

    somebloodyyank

    New Member
    English (yankee-ish)
    Well, here's one suggestion, James: the idea that it was a deliberately comical variant of "I'll go to hell".

    I can't tell if the suggestion's plausible or not, not being a user of the expression:)
    I only joined this thing to share the following- In the song A Passion Play by Jethro Tull there is a section called "The Foot Of Our Stairs" and it takes place just before the hero of the story, being bored in Heaven, decides he might try Hell instead. I've wondered what the phrase meant since first hearing the song in 1973. Read other places where it's cited as a term of surprise, but this is the first reference to Hell... wait- could it be a deliberately comical variant of "Well I'll be damned"?

    THAT would tie my search for the meaning of the phrase together nicely.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    could it be a deliberately comical variant of "Well I'll be damned"?
    It does have that general meaning to it: one of outraged astonishment and/or incredulity. But, given the general understanding of it, I doubt that it has anything to do with Hell.

    "Except You're a Bird" by Peter Tinniswood - 1974 -- Page 67
    Except You're a Bird

    [At the] very moment he slammed the glass onto the table, Uncle Mort walked into the bar with Olive Furnival. He smiled at Mr Brandon and said: "This is Olive Furnival, Les. I don't know if you've been introduced, but it doesn't matter either road, cos we're going to sit on our own to discuss some personal matters personally in person." Olive Furnival smiled at Mr Brandon. It was a warm smile. Uncle Mort led her away. "Well, I'll be buggered," said Carter Brandon. "I'll go to the foot of our stairs."
    "So will I," said Mr Brandon."
    It was well-known to the readers of New Society in 1978
    New Society - Volume 45 - Page 710
    New Society
    1978 - ‎Snippet view - ‎More editions

    ... Stanford University, California Local sayings Sir: In wordmap 2 (24 August), regional words with the same meaning had been collated. From friends and family in the north of England. I have been collecting local sayings. Although not now in everyday use, comments such as " 'E thinks every 'air on 'is y'ead's a fresh 'erring," or "She's as far between as a-fo'-penny rabbit," can be translated as "he's rather conceited while she's unintelligent." "Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs," muttered in one county, and "I'll go t' the front of our house" in another" If New Society readers know of other sayings, I would be pleased to hear them. What I want to know is, is this part of our cultural heritage dying out, or is it in the oven behind the meat?"​
    However, it is older than that - there's another site that suggests that it from the 30s. Go to the foot of the stairs - phrase meaning and origin I remember it as a child in the 50s, : Go to the foot of the stairs - phrase meaning and origin:
    (well) I'LL GO TO THE FOOT OF OUR STAIRS! - "An old north England expression of surprise or amazement - meaning presumably, that the short walk to the place mentioned would allow the speaker to recover equanimity. Or perhaps it meant it was time to give up and go to bed! Used by Tommy Handley in BBC Radio's ITMA (1940s) and elsewhere. Said to have been used by the entertainer George Formby as 'Eeh, I'll go to the foot of our stairs', as also, 'Eeh, I'll go to our 'ouse (pronounced 'our rouse')' - Robina Hinton, Suffolk . Chris Littlefair gave this variation from the North-East : 'I'll go to the bottom of our garden.'" From "Oops, Pardon Mrs Arden! An Embarrassment of Domestic Catchphrases" by Nigel Rees (Robson Books, London, 2001) Page 99-100.

    : Submitted by viewers/listeners to Mr. Rees on British TV and radio. The dates are when the informants submitted the information to him.

    Yes, my mother (90 years and going strong) has used this expression for as long as I can remember. I understand it to be a Birmingham saying though, although that may not conflict with Rees giving it a northen origin. For some reason London folk think the English Midlands are in the North.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    The extra information is interesting and confirms the meaning, which was clear, overall, from the beginning. The origin (I mean, geographical origin) seems clear too (Northern England and also, apparently, parts of the Midlands). We still do not really know -- but maybe no one does -- why 'the foot of our stairs'.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    It sounds to me like 'the foot of our stairs' or 'Hull' (cf 'h') or 'Hanover' (cf 'h') could all be euphemisms for 'hell'. The 'foot' could be in opposition to the top of the stairs, giving access to heaven, hence a coded reference to hell: as we know, hell is often represented as being located down below in the netherworld (a torture basement) whereas heaven is often represented as being among the stars and clouds, up there in the sky. So, the expression would be, having expressed surprise and confusion: 'Well, in that case, I'll go to hell (and back), then!' It could carry an extra meaning of derision, along the lines of: hell would be worse than this after all.

    PS I don't know about Hanover, but maybe Hull is hell. :p
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    EDIT: Incidentally, mention of backyard gate has reminded me of another expression in exactly the same vein, used for when a person is famished: I could eat a scabby donkey between two backyard gates.
    Is this some sort of sandwich? Pre-dating brie and camembert pannini by some decades.

    More likely to be served in Hull or Salford, do you think?
     

    heypresto

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I heard Peter Alliss use the expression this evening while commentating on the Masters at Augusta, after one of the golfing chaps hit a particularly fine shot with his bat.

    It's probably the first time I've heard it said on the telly.
     

    Cooperman

    New Member
    English
    Ok, very interesting. It would be a way of not using "go to hell", along the lines of "gorblimey" in Cockney English being a disguised form of "God Almighty!" as far as I understand.

    Why choose "the foot of our stairs", though? Maybe because the idea is, if you start going up the stairs, eventually, you will rise and rise, and arrive in heaven (or hell, as the case may be). In other words, this would explain why "foot" it is, as opposed to "top".

    I get the feeling this is one of those expressions that are never used unselfconsciously, i.e. that are always used in ironic manner, particularly nowadays. This would explain why it is used in soap operas with Yorkshire characters etc - scriptwriters love a good cliché, particularly if they do not come from the region in question...

    All the references I have seen do mention N England, Ewie. And thanks for the other - very funny - idioms: I shall try and use the donkey one at the nearest opportunity! :D
    I may be incorrect, but I understood ‘cor blimey’ to be a corruption of ‘God blind me.’
    Still with the same meaning though.
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The earliest example in the OED of “I’ll go to the foot of our stairs” is from 1939.

    I tried a bit of googling about its origin, to no avail, but what I did find was several people claiming that it is or was mainly used sarcastically, to imply the opposite of amazement. In other words, to indicate that what has just been said is either hugely underwhelming and/or something that everyone already knows — rather like: “You don’t say” or “Is that right? I’d never have guessed.”

    Others are convinced that the phrase was coined to avoid a similar expression using the f-word, but that seems highly unlikely to me.
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I found comments about that here, for example: Lancs saying in The AnswerBank: Phrases & Sayings

    And here’s yet another bizarre interpretation (although those alternatives are used, apparently, so maybe there’s something in it?):

    The foot of the stairs was en route to the lavatory, as was, in the days of the outside privy, the less well-known alternatives, 'the back of our house' and 'the bottom of our garden'. The implication of the speaker's destination suggests that the real meaning was 'I was so surprised that I soiled myself and need to visit the lavatory to clean up'.​
     

    Barque

    Senior Member
    Tamil
    The foot of the stairs was en route to the lavatory, as was, in the days of the outside privy, the less well-known alternatives, 'the back of our house' and 'the bottom of our garden'. The implication of the speaker's destination suggests that the real meaning was 'I was so surprised that I soiled myself and need to visit the lavatory to clean up'.
    That made me laugh so much I spilt some coffee over myself. Excuse me while I go to the foot of the stairs to find a paper towel.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I think the interpretation according to which it refers to being on the way to the toilet and soiling oneself etc is a bit far-fetched. What I find interesting is that, on one level, the expression would be used to express surprise, but, on another level, it can be used to mean that you are totally unimpressed by what the person has said (as mentioned by various contributors, also in the Lancashire Thread you have pasted in). I suppose it depends on the context and the person's tone of voice -- sarcastic or not.

    By the way, is it still used/ heard, humorously or not, Oop North?
     

    Hildy1

    Senior Member
    English - US and Canada
    Keith Bradford mentions "go to Hull and back" (#14), which sounds similar to "go to hell and back".

    In the same way, "go to the foot of our stairs" starts out sounding rather like "go to the pit of hell", especially if you make a slight pause after "foot".
     
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