Book review: Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas by Judy Parkinson

There’s no point in beating about the bush... the English language is simply littered with quirks which, to foreigners, must sound positively barking mad!

Friday, 26th April 2013, 1:15 pm
Spilling the beans
Spilling the beans

But where do they come from and what are their true meanings?

Judy Parkinson has all the answers... and she’s not alone. Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas, a colourful cornucopia of phrases from our centuries-old and ever-flexible language, is just one of a series of nostalgic and entertaining retro-educational paperbacks, all priced at £5.99 and published simultaneously by Michael O’Mara Books.

And there’s something here for every taste whether it’s a book of poems you half-remember from school and the classical ‘stuff’ you wish you’d been taught to the basic tenets of philosophy and an exploration of why old-fashioned proverbs still work.

These elegant, handy-sized paperbacks form an attractive home library of essential, accessible knowledge which can be dipped into to catch up on lost learning, impress your friends or to simply have fun.

Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas provides a wealth of fascinating facts about the meaning and origin of phrases we use every day. How on earth did ‘with bells on’ come to express enthusiasm, what do chips on shoulders have to do with inferiority complexes and whose is the face that launched a thousand ships? And did you know that ‘the rule of thumb’ refers to the use of the thumb to make measurements, as the first joint of the average adult thumb measures one inch? Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas provides the meanings of these well-worn and much-loved phrases by placing them in context and explaining how and why they were first used. With every page guaranteed to entertain and inform, this really is the bee’s knees when it comes to the perfect gift!

Proverbs are short, well-known, pithy sayings that offer advice or words of encouragement and are used in everyday English without much thought as to their meanings or, indeed, their usefulness. In An Apple A Day, Caroline Taggart explores the truth behind our favourite proverbs, their history and whether they really do offer genuine help. Does absence truly make the heart grow fonder, can beggars be choosers and is it always better late than never? Taggart reveals that the Old Testament has an entire book devoted to proverbs and that ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ is a proverb from falconry dating back to the Middle Ages. Many proverbs are still in use today, including the very famous ‘slow and steady wins the race’ which derives from one of the many fables of the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop. Witty, wise and authoritative, An Apple A Day proves that proverbs are as useful today as they ever were.

And how many times have you wished that your history knowledge stretched all the way back to Greek and Roman myths and legends or that you’d been taught Latin at school? Or perhaps you wish you knew all about the great inventions and medical developments that have made our world what it is today? Caroline Taggart takes up her quill again for A Classical Education which gives an invaluable overview of the principles and discoveries of the Ancients, providing all those classical facts that modern schooling leaves out... and many more. Perfect for parents who wish to teach their children and for those who would like to learn or re-learn the facts themselves, A Classical Education is informative and educational but, most importantly, fully accessible. It includes simple lessons in Latin and Greek, logic and philosophy, natural sciences, art and architecture, poetry and drama, history and classical literature. With helpful suggestions for further reading and entertaining tit-bits of information on the classics, A Classical Education is a must for anyone feeling let down by modern schooling. Yes, it’s never too late to enjoy the classics so carpe diem and seize the book!

You may remember the famous opening lines, ‘Tyger tyger, burning bright’ and ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ but would you be able to name the poems or the poets? The English language is jam-packed with wonderful verses that we’ve all heard at some point, but probably forgotten. I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud by Ana Sampson helps us remember all those long-forgotten poems that we were taught at school, together with short biographies of the poets and introductions to the poems themselves. Featured in this lively, evocative book are such greats as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Kipling, Heaney and Yeats, the poems you may have once learned and others that have informed our everyday speech. Complete with an inspired and invaluable index which allows readers to search not just by first lines, but by well-known phrases, this superb book is the perfect addition to any poetry lover’s collection.

And as for philosophers, they certainly like to make life sound terribly complicated, whether they are pondering whether a falling tree still makes a sound if there is nobody around to hear it (Berkeley) or declaring that everything in the universe is in a state of flux (Heraclitus). But is philosophy really so complicated and is it really as irrelevant as it sometimes seems? I Think, Therefore I Am by Lesley Levene is the ideal way to take the fear out of philosophy. Written in an accessible and highly entertaining style, Levene explains how and why philosophy began and how, from Greek democracy to Communism, the ways in which we live, learn, argue, vote and even spend our money have their origins in philosophical thought. Covering the biggest names, including Socrates, Seneca, St Augustine, Descartes, Marx and Nietzsche, I Think, Therefore I Am delves into all the principal ‘isms’ and ‘ologies’ with humour, knowledge and plenty of useful thinking.

It’s been one of those days. You’ve worked like a Trojan, displaying titanic strength and stoic endurance to overcome the Herculean labours that have faced you in order to meet that important deadline. We regularly employ classically-derived expressions in our everyday language, yet many of us have little understanding of the origin of these common phrases. But an incomplete classical education need no longer be your Achilles heel. In Opening Pandora’s Box, Ferdie Addis offers a light-hearted yet fascinating look at the stories behind the expressions. For example, did you know that the phrase ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ originates from the story of the kidnapping of Helen of Troy, but that the actual line comes from a poem by Christopher Marlowe? Opening Pandora’s Box provides a useful introduction to classical mythology as well as giving an insight into our versatile language.