It’s handbags not manbags

Posted by on June 16, 2011

Alastair Campbell, Britain’s best-known spin doctor, was recently playing in a celebrity football match, and got involved in a minor tussle with one of his opponents, following an aggressive tackle. Tweeting about the game later, he played down the incident,  describing it as “all a bit handbags”. This expression, which seems to be almost always used in the context of football, has been around for a while. As long ago as 2005, a report on a game between Liverpool and Newcastle includes this:

Gerrard shoved Shearer, who then pushed the England midfielder away with a high forearm. To the credit of both men, neither made a meal of the ugly scenes and Gerrard said it was “just handbags”.

Google supplies several other examples where the context is similar: two or more big strong sportsmen stand looking threateningly at one another, but without actually coming to blows. The “handbags” phrase is employed in order to trivialize the situation, conveying the idea: “this wasn’t a ‘real’ (i.e. manly) fight, just a minor (i.e. girlie) confrontation”. So there’s a definite sexist edge to this expression and its users tend to be alpha males – Campbell being a well-known example of the type.

This isn’t the first time we’ve observed a tendency to use nouns in an adjectival way, but “handbags” joins a small group of plural nouns that are employed as adjectives. A well-established example is pants – which is roughly equivalent to rubbish, either in the sense of “nonsense”,  or as a way of saying something is of really bad quality, as these examples from our corpus illustrate:

Most of the music is totally pants and not really of interest to your average collector of any music genre.
No-one deserved to win – they were equally pants.
Worst Book of the Year: The Corporation. Should have been shocking and gripping, and instead was just pants.

As often happens, these adjectival nouns are at first used only predicatively, but may later take on the characteristics of a true adjective, as in these examples, where it comes before the noun and is modified by an adverb:

Other than that it has been a mildly pants day really.
Ok you are going to have to excuse the really pants positioning of the banner at the top of the page.

I believe (though if anyone disagrees, please correct me) this may have originated with the phrase “a (big) pile of pants”, for which there is abundant evidence on the Web (for example here), and this later got abbreviated.

A more recent addition to this select group is jokes: if you say something is “jokes” or “so jokes”, you mean it’s funny. This has been picked up already in the Urban Dictionary but it’s hard to tell whether it is part of a developing trend. So far we have just these three cases (pants, handbags, jokes): does anyone out there know of other plural nouns being used like this?

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Comments (8)
  • There are a couple of “bad” words used this way. One is “tits,” which is used in America to mean something is good or cool. The Urban Dictionary has already picked up on this one too. Another is “the shits,” which means something is terrible. What I find most interesting about this one is that the singular noun (“the shit”) is a way of saying something is great. Pluralize it, and the meaning becomes the opposite. Crazy…

    Sorry I couldn’t think of any “cleaner” plural nouns being used as adjectives to add. That reflects on me, not you, you know. Trust me, this blog is tits. Er… I’ll get me coat.

    Posted by Joe McVeigh on 16th June, 2011
  • Cobblers? Not your article – which I really like – but a plural noun used in the same way as pants, handbags and jokes.

    And maybe skills/skillz too. For example, “That blog post by Michael Rundell was skills”.

    Posted by dan on 16th June, 2011
  • Thanks to both Dan and Joe. Funnily enough i spotted ‘tits’ the other day in a tweet on my son’s website (www.the2bears.co.uk) but thought i’d better keep quiet about it (too late now). Should have thought of ‘cobblers’ of course (and several synonyms, come to that). ‘Skills’ looks like a definite candidate and seems to follow the same pattern as ‘jokes’. Keep them coming!

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 16th June, 2011
  • Sorry for letting the cat out of the bag, Michael. I have two small children and have been consciously watching my speech, lest they turn out like their father. But I must curse somewhere! Your excellent post fit for today. I’ll keep it clean from here on out. Speaking of which, how about “tops?” Does that work as a plural noun used as an adjective? And then there’s the “bee’s knees,” which I haven’t used since flapper dresses were the “cat’s pajamas.”

    Posted by Joe McVeigh on 16th June, 2011
  • This post is aces.

    Posted by Stan on 16th June, 2011
  • I guess ‘bananas’ and ‘crackers’ fit the bill too.

    Posted by Andrew Delahunty on 16th June, 2011
  • Thanks to everyone for their suggestions. It’s clear that what i thought was a ‘new’ trend is in fact based on some well-established models – bananas, for example, has been around for a long time (one of my dictionaries has a citation from 1957). I’ll perhaps do a follow-up post on this in a week or two. Laters…

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 17th June, 2011
  • You also have pony which means ‘gay’ e.g. ‘have you seen John’s pink bag? It’s well pony!’

    Posted by rich T on 13th July, 2012
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