About Me

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I led workshops at the British Library2003-2019, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and now teach the history of printing and history of the English language at educational institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in printmaking, performance, public engagement, curating and intervention; and I lead museum tours.


Saturday, 11 April 2015

Don't get the breeze up

Knees up Mother Brown!
Knees up Mother Brown!
Under the table you must go
If I catch you bending,
I'll saw your legs right off,
Knees up! Knees Up! Don't get the breeze up, Knees up Mother Brown!

I do remember singing this in a school playground in the early 1960s, which is further back from now, than the first documentation of the song is from then; our version had the line ‘If I catch you dancing’, which of course made nonsense of the lyrics. But consistent sense plays second place to the sounds of the words in successful popular songs – witness the number of people who happily sing to themselves for decades mistaken lyrics to songs first heard in childhood.

First recorded as having been sung by troops in 1918, ‘Knees up Mother Brown’s not-so-covertly sexual lyrics seemed to have slipped by into widely accepted popular culture – in fact my internet search for it this morning gives the fourth listing as a children’s song. There are several proposals suggesting that it relates to the early nineteenth century, or the period of the widowhood of Queen Victoria - if, as is suggested in several websites, ‘Mother Brown’ was Queen Victoria, the song looks like an anti-monarchy satire encouraging her to have sex with her companion John Brown. But there is some consistency to the documentation of it being widely sung at the period of the Armistice, November 1918. It was published in 1938 as ‘by’ Harris Weston and Bert Lee.

One question is whether the line ‘Don’t get the breeze up’, is a development of ‘getting the wind up’, First World War slang for ‘be afraid’. There were plenty of developments of this phrase: ‘it’s a very windy proposition to sit in a “bus” that is performing all the insane tricks a pilot can think of’ (1918), and ‘wind-up’ jackets were ordinary uniforms officers wore to avoid being targeted by snipers. Jonathan Green gives ‘getting the breeze up’ as another development (Language! 500 years of the Vulgar Tongue, 2014). Given that ‘breeze up’ is a perfect rhyme for ‘knees up’, the question is which came first? Did the expression ‘getting a breeze up’ come from the possibly pre-war song, and was it incidental that it meant the same as ‘getting the wind up’? Or was  there an earlier version with a different phrase, which was substituted at the end of the war by ‘don’t get the breeze up’ – ‘don’t go and freeze up’, ‘don’t be a tease [up]’? It doesn’t seem likely. Or was ‘don’t get the breeze up’ a meaningless phrase in the pre-war song, a quite feasible proposition in itself, which suddenly coincided with a slang expression during the war, and made a match in popular culture heaven – the words were there just waiting for the meaning to come along?

‘Getting the wind up’ seems to have existed early on among the infantry, and may possibly have been reinforced by the idea of fear as a wind blowing through troops. It later matched perfectly the uplift sensation caused by anti-aircraft fire, also known as ‘Archie’ (see earlier posts on the origins of that term). Coincidence did help the wider acceptance of phrases during the period; did the fact that the relief at the end of the war meant no more ‘getting the breeze up’ help gain wider acceptance for the song?

‘Breeze’ appears in Farmer & Henley’s Slang and its Analogues (1890) as – A row; quarrel; disturbance; coolness. [From BREEZE, a cool wind.]  Famer and Henley cite Grose The Vulgar Tongue (1785) which gives 
‘To kick up a BREEZE, to breed a disturbance.’ 
And Moore in Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress (1819): 'But, though we must hope for such good times as these, Yet, as something may happen to kick up a BREEZE’. 
And in The Saturday Review 28 January 1865: ‘Don’t be angry; we’ve had our BREEZE. Shake hands!’

‘A breeze’ here is ‘a fuss, a disturbance’. 

This meaning is not included in Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (1865) or Redding Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909), so it presumably was disappearing in the second half of the nineteenth century, but may by then have been embedded in the song.

Many thanks to Jonathon Green for the following citations:

breeze-up (n.)
[play on get one’s/the wind up under wind n.2 ]
(Aus.) fear.
1917 F. Dunham diary 8 Feb. Long Carry (1970) 30: Fritz made a bombing attack to the right of our front [...] and there was general ‘breeze up’ for some time.
1919 W.H. Downing Digger Dialects 13: breeze-up — Fear.
1924 G.H. Lawson Dict. of Aus. Words And Terms [Internet] BREEZE-UP—To be afraid.

[that is the complete entry for the noun form, including Lawson's use as intransitive verb]

get the breeze up (v.)
(also have the..., put the...) to worry, to disturb.
1918 E.G. Dodd diary 27 Jan. [Internet] This time he chased an engine on the railway line. I’ll bet he put the breeze up the driver and fire man.

[this is an Australian diary; the geography gets mixed as time passes]

Jonathon Green also sends this:

1865 Leaves from Diary of Celebrated Burglar 31/1: I don’t want to say anything more about it just now, for fear he gets ‘wind.’

This was originally published in New York, by G. W. Matsell & Co., proprietors of the National Police Gazette, in 1865; it was the work of a celebrated, though anonymous, British criminal. More on this in the highly recommended Language! 500 years of the Vulgar Tongue.

Currently my hypothesis is as follows: during the nineteenth-century the criminal slang term ‘get (the) wind’, spread through the English-speaking world (the last convict transportation to Australia was in 1853), and was used in underworld slang. Its use by British and/or Canadian troops in the trenches was reinforced by contact between UK and Anzac troops in Egypt, Gallipoli and then Europe, and by the phenomenon of ‘up-blast’ from anti-aircraft fire (and from the earlier experience of the updraft at Brooklands). Creative wordplay in the trenches developed this into ‘getting a breeze-up’, meaning ‘be afraid’. ‘Don’t get a breeze up’ in pre-war versions of the song meant – ‘don’t kick up a fuss’, i.e. ‘don’t complain’. First World War slang, dominant from 1918, pushed out the older and obsolete meaning of the phrase, so that the injunction, instead of meaning ‘don’t complain’, meant ‘don’t be afraid’.

Does this tone down the song’s essential message of the threat of extreme physical violence and rape? I think not. But curious that First World War slang may have helped change a republican/anarchist satire into a drinking and dancing song associated with the spirit of the Blitz.

1 comment:

  1. I find myself reading this entry in a blog previously unknown to me, having googled “knees up mother brown meaning”. I’d written a short story in poetic form on a whim some four years ago. It contains the lines “Billy didn’t know the words to this song but gave a frown as Cockney Psycho blasted out “Knees up Mother Brown”. “Why did they threaten Mrs Brown?” he enquired of the guys. “To saw her legs right off” were awful words in his eyes. He recalled the slashing knife which gave him trepidation, Cockney Psycho might like a spot of leg amputation.” I’m currently in the process of translating the effort into Spanish, while attempting to explain the lyrics and the use of Cockney rhyming slang. So, thanks for this entry. Very interesting.