Make a porridge of it - Idiomatic expression

Discussion in 'English Only' started by James Brandon, Jul 15, 2009.

  1. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I was wondering how common this expression (= to make a mess of it = to make a mess of things) is. A friend of mine here in London recently used it with the meaning I am giving here.

    A web search does not return many entries at all, most of them in relation to food (literally, "making porridge").

    Here is one (The Independent newspaper, 1992 report on cricket):-


    http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/...ourists-ragged-to-win-the-series-1541609.html

    "... there are two ways to go against a total of 363: make a fist of it and fail, or make a porridge of it and fail."

    Comments welcome. Thanks.
     
  2. MichaelW Senior Member

    English (British)
    Not a lot on Google, there's a mention here.

    Compare Modern Irish "Rinne mé praiseach de!" (literally, "I made a porridge of it!).

    I've never heard the expression before.
     
  3. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    No, neither have I, though there are a lot of other similar expressions. Isn't a mess originally a sloppy food (a mess of pottage)? A pig's breakfast is another common one.
     
  4. sound shift

    sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    Nor have I.
     
  5. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I agree it is not common - I had never heard it before... In a way, I find it odd that it is not more commonly used, because it works quite well (and visually so, so to speak). In other words, it would seem to be a pretty obvious one...
     
  6. liliput

    liliput Senior Member

    Spain
    U.K. English
    The expression I'm familiar with is "to make a dog's breakfast" of something. I think it's better than the porridge expression, which I've never heard before.
     
  7. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I have heard the "dog's breakfast" one, which is indeed much more common...
     
  8. Franzi Senior Member

    Astoria, NY
    (San Francisco) English
    I think I may have heard it before. Neither that nor the dog's breakfast one are common in AE as far as I know. (I'd probably say "to make a hash of something".)
     
  9. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    All the replies so far have been from BE speakers or speakers of unidentified "English".
    I've never heard the idiom, nor seen it written by an AE speaker. Here is why that is not at all surprising, and would not be especially surprising if it were a more common expression.

    Porridge is a perfectly fine word, but for AE speakers it is either very old-fashioned, or unknown. I say this despite any potential bandying about of Google search results. People over the age of fifty have heard it, and may use it on very rare occasions. Those under the age of twenty will know it, if at all, from having had old children's books read to them. They may have figured out the meaning from context, or asked their parents. If the parent knew the answer, they might have replied with terms including hot cereal, oatmeal, or perhaps glop.

    Edit: Cross-posted with Franzi, another AE speaker who is unfamiliar with the expression. Dog's breakfast is well known around my small corner of the AE world, but that corner is not necessarily representative of the other 99.7% of AE speakers in the U.S.
     
  10. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    From what contributors have said, the expression would be more BE than AE - even if it is not common in BE. For information, my references would be BE, not AE, and I was quoting an English friend who is very much a Londoner, born and bred.
     
  11. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The only contributor who has heard of it is Franzi, who may have heard of it.
    Hardly enough evidence to pin it to BE, I would have thought.
     
  12. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I gave a quote, and the quote is from The Independent of the UK - an article about cricket. Can it be more British (and English) than that? But I would agree these are just samples and not scientific proof.

    Porridge is not really known in the US, anyway, is it? Maybe among Scottish immigrants and their descendants... It is not exactly an American thing, I would have thought. To be found in an idiom, it helps if it is known in the 'real world'...
     
  13. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    You are absolutely right, and dead wrong at the same time. Porridge is very well known and widely consumed in the U.S., but is known by a different name: oatmeal. See my earlier post.

    Your point about being known as a condition to be included in an idiom sounds logical, with the exception of many older idioms that are a link to our linguistic past. We still talk about "shoemaker's children", yet the huge majority of AE speakers never say shoemaker other than as part of the idiom. If the idiom in question dates to the 19th century or before, when porridge was a better known word in AE, it might well have survived despite the loss of porridge in everyday speech.

    Americans still speak of very small, very dull little places (like my beloved Sheepscott) as "one-horse towns", though the horse-drawn wagons have been replaced by louder conveyances. Many Americans are familiar with the expression (discussed at length in other threads) "to be in the catbird's seat", though they have no idea what a catbird is, and never utter the word outside of this expression.

    Based on what I've learned in this thread, I agree with you that it is likely BE, but not for the same reasons. I think it isn't AE just because I've never come across it. That is, admittedly, very unscientific.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2009
  14. lablady

    lablady Senior Member

    Central California
    English - USA
    This speaker of AE has never heard the phrase either, but I immediately understood it's meaning. Like Franzi I would say, "make a hash of it". The "dog's breakfast" version is also known to me, but not quite enough that I would call it "familiar". :)

    I agree with Cuchu in that "porridge" is not a very common word on this side of the pond. A lot of our exposure to the word is through reading "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" to small children (and then having to explain what porridge is to those same small children). I notice that story has a British author, so maybe the BE association still applies. :)
     
  15. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    I grew up in England and Wales eating porridge made with "Scott's Porage Oats". This is obviously the oatmeal kind.
    The shorter OED lists this as one of the meanings. It also lists a kind of stew made with meat, veggies and a thickening "cereal". The third meaning is figurative "a conglomeration, a hotchpotch; unsubstantial stuff". That sounds like a possible sense used for the development of the usage James describes.

    I had not heard of "making a porridge of something" in that sense - the only figurative one I'd heard was "doing time" was "doing porridge"
     
  16. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Ok, so porride as a type of food is known in America, but porridge as porridge (i.e. the word porridge) is, in the main, not known in America - and various AE contributors have confirmed this. Hence it would be unlikely to be found - as a word - in an idiomatic expression, in AE, if the word is never - or very rarely - used, and even though the food is consumed (but under another name).

    The legacy idioms quoted are linked to the fact that, at an earlier stage, horses were found in every town, etc. Not so porridge, it seems (not called porridge anyway). So, on balance, it would be a BE expression. :)
     
  17. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    Sorry to throw one horse into your applecart's works, James, but I've never heard it either, though it's quite understandable given the general appearance of porridge (which I haven't eaten since I reached the age where I was able to say I never want to eat this stuff again without being sent to my room. That age being 33.)
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2009
  18. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Everyone agrees it is rare in BE, but it exists, since I heard it a week ago, and have found references on the web in...the British press. As for AE, clearly, it is not rare - it is non-existent. This is, at any rate, what it looks like...

    PS There are many things I have never heard or come across, Ewie: it does not mean they do not exist, does it? Who said there are the 'known unknowns' and there are the 'unknown unknowns'? :D
     
  19. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    So, on balance, it has been used once by your friend and once in the Independent in 1992.
    Apart from that - blank.

    It would be hazardous to draw any conclusions from such evidence.
     
  20. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    From an Australian site: http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache...made+a+porridge+of"&cd=20&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

    To panj's point about the hazards of jumping to conclusions, we now have half as many AusE instances as BE. That suggests...





    that we may need more data before ascribing a rarity to a region.
     
  21. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    If you want to prove a negative - i.e. that the expression does not exist - it is going to be difficult, since you have to prove that, nowhere, in any recognisable and documented way, the expression has been used. The test fails here: anecdotal evidence (I heard it here in London about a week ago, used by a local native speaker) and traceable evidence (an article in a British paper going back to 1992) have been provided. So, we have established a positive, i.e. that the expression does exist, and I hope no one is disupting this at this point in time. Establishing a positive is a lot easier: all I have to do is find a few references to the idiom. I have.

    On the issue of where the idiom comes from or where it is known, it would appear (and I agree that it is not scientific) that it is not known or used in the US. This would not be surprising, since 'porridge' as a type of food is known (as you have pointed out), but 'porridge' as a word or term, in the main, is not... It would be difficult, even allowing for twists of time and space, for an idiomatic expression to make use of a word that is hardly ever used in a given language. So, on balance, I think we can say safely that the expression is not AE.

    In the last analysis, as far as I know, and I have not checked on the web or anywhere else, porridge as a type of food is primarily Scottish. There are many well-known expressions in BE revolving around the word, usually in relation to prison sentences (to do porridge = to serve time). So, it would not be unreasonable, since both the food and the word are known in the UK, and of British origin, to assume - and I agree it is only an assumption - that the origin of the phrase is indeed British.

    Now that you have found references in Australian English, this does raise a couple of issues. It could be that the phrase originated in Australia and it would be interesting to hear from Australians whether they are familiar with it or not. It could have been re-imported into the UK. Or it could be that the phrase, British in origin, was exported to Australia: a lot of Australian slang is actually very similar to (or the same as) Cockney Londoner-speak, by the way.

    In the early days of the colony, most Australian Whites, apart from a handful of soldiers, administrators, officials, and sailors, were convicts from England and at a later stage women were brought in, many (if not most) from Ireland. So, linguistically, there is no surprise that Australian dialect would be predominantly British, despite the fact it has of course evolved in its own way and right since.

    In conclusion, I think we have established that the phrase is not AE but linked to the UK and the Commonwealth, more particularly Australia. We have also established that, although the phrase exists in the UK, it is rare - I am not disputing this. I started this Thread, precisely, because I wanted to check whether I was the only one who had never heard it before, or whether it was indeed quite uncommon.

    PS It could be that the phrase is mostly used by sportsmen and in the context of sports. This would be an added twist that would make it non-mainstream. Pure speculation on my part, but both quotes we have found relate to sports reports.
     
  22. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I don't think that saying that you've heard the expression once or twice means that you can conclude that 'the expression exists'. I won't give examples, unless pressed, but I know of many cases where someone in touch with many people has, by using an expression of his own, caused several others to come to use it. Whether it then catches on and becomes what we can call 'an expression' idiomatic in the language is another matter. It surely needs much more widespread use and hence acceptance, and therefore comprehension, than that.

    Several sloppy foods seem to serve well in this expression: mess, hash, mishmash, so why not porridge?
     
  23. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Wise post, TT :thumbsup:
     
  24. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    To the best of my knowledge, there is no way that the journalist at The Independent (or the online writer in Australia) would have been in contact with the friend I was talking about, here in London.

    Then again, anything is possible, and people read what others write, and can be influenced by it. Still, if there are several references to a given phrase (one anecdotal, the others traceable), in 2 countries (UK and Australia), you would think that was the beginning of proof that it exists.

    The argument: "I have never heard it" - only carries as much weight as the experience of the person concerned, and the relevance of his or her opinions, are meaningful and tangible, I am afraid.

    I am not saying the phrase is common. Clearly, it isn't. I am saying it exists, and it sounds like it is BE rather than AE. That is all I am saying.
     
  25. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Mission accomplished.
     
  26. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Yes, on the basis of what contributors have said: sometimes you wonder whether you are the only one who doesn't know about something... Anyway, that happens to me. Occasionally. :D
     

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