Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Squids, squibs and misquotes

with 22 comments

Squid egg cases.
Image via Wikipedia

I could have misheard this (I was in pre-tea mode early this morning) but I’m sure I heard a BBC Radio 4 news presenter saying:

The lack of  goals in the World Cup could be turning the event into a damp squid.

That, of course, should be ‘damp squib’, one meaning of a squib being a small firework that hisses before exploding. And as Oxford Dictionaries explains, a ‘damp squib’ is something that turns out to be far less impressive than expected.

A squid, on the other hand, is a type of mollusc with eight arms and two tentacles. And I’m guessing that a damp squid would not be suggestive of disappointment, especially to another squid.

A survey carried out last year apparently found that this is the most misquoted saying in Blighty. As reported in the Telegraph, these are the top ten misquotes in Britain, with the correct version in brackets:

  1. A damp squid (a damp squib)
  2. On tender hooks (on tenterhooks) See The Squirrelbasket’s fascinating post on this.
  3. Nip it in the butt (nip it in the bud)
  4. Champing at the bit (chomping at the bit)
  5. A mute point (a moot point)
  6. One foul swoop (one fell swoop)
  7. All that glitters is not gold (all that glisters is not gold)
  8. Adverse to (averse to)
  9. Batting down the hatches (batten down the hatches)
  10. Find a penny pick it up (find a pin pick it up)

Squirrelbasket on damp squibs/squids

Commonly confused and just plain wrong



22 Responses

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  1. Oh dear, Deborah, you do realise that this way madness lies?

    Most of these are, sadly, a lost cause, along with “begging the question” which now means its complete opposite.

    Of course, much of this is down to the fact that every illiterate hobbledehoy now has an Internet connection, and is free to post insanities like “lounge” as a collective noun for lizards on Wikipedia (and which now seems immovable).

    Computer spelling checkers have to take a share of the blame, too, having the vocabulary of a particularly dim 10-year-old child. Those without the vocabulary to create their personal dictionary accept the computer’s offering and thus errors, like these, are perpetuated.

    I mean, the quintessentially British (quite possibly English), “quid” has now sprouted 10 appendages.

    We’re doomed, I tell you, doomed!



    17/06/2010 at 5:11 pm

    • You’re so right, Ron.

      I’ve not heard of ‘lounge’ as a collective noun for lizards. Which could get me started on the whole collective nouns thing, but let’s not go there today, especially taking into account your initial — and true — observation.

      As a shameless self-promoter, I am unable to resist noting that I have previously posted on ‘begging the question’.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ron — especially bearing in mind your recent horrendous experiences.


      17/06/2010 at 5:17 pm

  2. The Internet, Deborah, is my safety valve – or possibly net – (except that I can’t spell worth a damn today), along with books.

    “As a shameless self-promoter, I am unable to resist noting that I have previously posted on ‘begging the question’.”

    Indeed. And I’m surprised I didn’t comment on that…


    17/06/2010 at 5:33 pm

    • A safety valve/net for lots of people. Strange how hard it is to remember how life was pre-internet days. It must be completely unimaginable for Young People.


      17/06/2010 at 5:37 pm

  3. We use glitter here (never glisters). I see my oxford dictionary has both glitter and glister. I shall be careful hereafter.

    I read more here http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/18/messages/479.html

    • Hi, Vikas — nice to see you again. Hope you’re well. I wouldn’t worry too much about using ‘glister’ instead of ‘glitter’. I don’t think it’s an important distinction — more a point of interest. Many thanks for the link.


      17/06/2010 at 7:40 pm

  4. By the way, quid is described in my dictionary as British, but as it pre-dates the 1707 Act of Union, it might well be English.

    It’s also a lump of chewing tobacco.

    By the way, have you ever been tempted by the confusion of “may” and “might”? I have to confess, even though I know the difference (may is permissive, might is possible – simply), I still tend to use them interchangeably if I’m running on auto-pilot (an odd, but not entirely unknown experience, whereby a writer isn’t entirely sure what s/he has written until they read it). I tend to write at my best when I don;t think to hard about it. He said, modestly…


    17/06/2010 at 5:44 pm

    • …and ‘quid’ meaning tobacco, is a variant of ‘cud’ as in ‘chewing the’ presumably. I’ve also got in my dictionary the phrase ‘not the full quid’ from Australia/New Zealand, meaning ‘not very intelligent’. I quite like that.

      Hmmm — may and might. I did consider it. I looked them up. Then not feeling the full quid decided against. I might (hah) reconsider…


      17/06/2010 at 5:52 pm

  5. “It must be completely unimaginable for Young People.”

    Many things are, in my experience…


    17/06/2010 at 5:45 pm

    • By the way – and you can leave this in or not, as you wish, Deborah – I would have explained why I’m being a bit hard on young people, but I’m having a Stephen King “Dead Zone” event.

      In King’s book, Johnny Smith, after waking from a coma, had a “dead zone” into which words, concepts and images would disappear, never to return.

      Since I developed ME that’s happened to me frequently, often in the middle of conversations.

      I do get mine back, minutes, weeks, even months later, but for now, what I was going to say about young people has completely gone. It’s just one word, but everything else I was going to say depends on it.

      So I just get to look curmudgeonly. Ah well…


      17/06/2010 at 6:51 pm

      • That sounds very disconcerting. Come and say what you were going to say at any time. Admission is always free. Curmudgeon is such a good word. Unknown origin, apparently.


        17/06/2010 at 7:07 pm

  6. We say “glitters” here; actually never heard “glisters.” I plan to work “nip it in the butt” into a convo.

    Michael Farrell

    17/06/2010 at 8:11 pm

    • Yes — that one made me laugh, although I haven’t heard the expression before. I think it’s probably better than the original.


      17/06/2010 at 8:24 pm

  7. It’s probably a clear sign that I’m too immersed into pop culture because all I hear is Harry Potter. What with squids and squibs. 😉

    Also, I did not know that ‘glitters’ should be ‘glisters’.


    17/06/2010 at 11:58 pm

    • Hi, TaleTellerin — I think ‘glister’ is a lovely word. The link provided by Vikas above is a good one for the background. My Oxford Dictionary of English tells me that the word is late Middle English, probably from the Middle Low German ‘glistern’ or Middle Dutch ‘glisteren’.


      18/06/2010 at 12:11 am

      • Oh, that’s interesting. I only knew “glisten” until now but obviously the etymology is very close anyway.


        18/06/2010 at 11:24 pm

  8. Hi — You sent me back to my dictionary again! ‘Glisten’ is apparently from Old English ‘glisnian’, related to Middle Low German ‘glisen’.

    I also didn’t realise that ‘glisten’ can be a noun as in ‘a sparkling light reflected from something wet’. Very poetic. Its use as a noun dates from the nineteenth century. Thanks, TaleTellerin. Interesting!


    19/06/2010 at 7:42 am

  9. It is amazing how often these phrases get bandied around incorrectly, one thing is for sure however, it is a subject that is never as dull as ditch water … as opposed to dish water, which is nothing but dull.

    Lizi B

    22/06/2010 at 7:26 pm

    • Very clever! I’m surprised that one didn’t make it into the top ten most misquoted phrases. I recommend a dishwasher (in human or machine form, as long as the former isn’t you).


      22/06/2010 at 8:08 pm

  10. This is one of my favourite threads on your blog because misquotes and malapropisms are usually funny. Yesterday, a client was talking to me about her alcoholic ex-partner and she shook her head and said regretfully, “I’ve disabled people my entire life. I just can’t help disabling people. I’m a disabler!” (As far as I know, there are no broken knee caps in her past) After she left I wasted a good half hour searching for malapropisms and giggling like a lunatic (I call it stress relief and my boss can shut it). The crown of course goes to George Bush, our own modern day Mr Malaprop, but I did see one comment attributed to the London Evening Standard that made me chuckle: “Why can’t we, as a society, treat each other with a bit of respect and give Madonna and her elk the 1st class treatment she deserves!” Totally agree!


    22/07/2010 at 12:28 pm

    • Hi, Jo-Anne — thanks so much for sharing this. The bit about the elk made me laugh out loud.


      22/07/2010 at 1:06 pm

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