We all know what a phrase is, but what’s a catchphrase? That’s the question my prankster mate Barney threw in my direction recently, over the rim of a steaming mug of coffee. “Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once,” I replied, and he burst out laughing. Of course, he knew that my reply comprised (entirely) words made famous on the TV show ’Allo ’Allo! Lines that have come to be known as a catchphrase.
Barney, true to form, rattled off a few of his own in rapid succession, which always makes me believe that he comes to such conversations well prepared. “How very dare you?” he asked, imitating Catherine Tate before segueing into the Two Ronnies with “It’s goodnight from me ... and it’s goodnight from him.”
A catchphrase he informs me, rather redundantly, is simply a phrase that’s caught on. Okay, so what’s with the catchphrase interest this morning, I inquire, and it turns out he’s been led to this particular one — ‘stone the crows’ — via an accidental conversation with his granddaughter as she was leaving home for school.
The little one, in grade four, asked Barney what the difference was between a crow and a raven. “Give me two differences quickly, grandpa,” she’s supposed to have said, and Mrs Barney, who is sipping coffee with us this morning says, “Poor Barney, he was rendered speechless for a while and it’s not often that happens to him.” Barney says, half under his breath: “We can edit out some of the details, darling, I think Kevin will be more interested in what my research turned up.”
Mrs Barney lapses into silence not before rolling her eyes good-naturedly. “Yes,” says Barney, resuming his place in the spotlight, “You’ll be surprised to hear that the saying stone the crows originated from this very place, not as earlier thought from America or England. “Stone the crows!” I reply, and he says rather dryly, “Yes, very funny. We all know it’s a phrase expressing surprise.”
Barney says he cannot be too sure, but the term may have started on Australian sheep farms where crows may be plentiful but also unwelcome. This is because they’ve been known to kill and eat little lambs. (Which makes me decide at this stage that when I get back home I should spend time researching where the collective ‘A murder of crows’ had its origin. Could that have come from sheep farms, too?)
Anyway, back to the crows and ravens ... those mythological messengers of bad luck, doom, tragedy and catastrophe. The raven, apparently, has glossier plumage, sometimes so shiny it may even have a purple, blue or green sheen. The raven also, I’m informed, has longer feathers around the throat called hackles and they use this to display their masculinity when singing their (rather mournful) songs.
But the more telling difference, according to Barney, is to be found in the eyes. “Look into a raven’s eyes,” he says (and I know then and there that that is something I shall never ever be doing) “and you’ll see the irises are white.”
Both crows and ravens belong to the family known as corvids and among birds, they have the largest brains for body size. Because of this well-developed brain they are able to recognise people with guns and also avoid traps.
Mrs Barney who has no doubt heard all this before has long abandoned the conversation and is leafing through a glossy magazine. However, sensing that her ‘information-sated’ husband is bringing his little coffee-table info session to an end, she looks up and says: “Right Barney, since you’re the expert now on crows and ravens — you’ve been crowing about it all morning — tell me what’s the difference between a raven and a rook?”
Barney performs his own version of a friendly-hubby eyeroll and says: “I know whose genes your granddaughter has inherited and they’re not mine. Luckily, I’ve lived with you longer so I know when you’re setting me up, my dear.”
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.