“Go pear-shaped”

Reader Priscilla Jensen alerts me to this from the November 7 Wall Street Journal: “But [Barack Obama’s] opportunity will quickly go pear-shaped if the bond market loses confidence . . . ”

Unfamiliar with this metaphorical pear-shaped, I went to the OED and was informed that the expression, usually preceded by to go or to turn, is chiefly British and originally RAF slang, and means “to go (badly) wrong, to go awry.” The dictionary offers no etymological explanation as to why the metaphor would have this meaning, and I would be interested in any thoughts on the matter. In any event, the first citation is from a 1983 book called Air War South Atlantic and has telltale quotation marks: “There were two bangs very close together. The whole aircraft shook and things went ‘pear-shaped’ very quickly after that.

The first use of go pear-shaped or went pear-shaped in the Lexis-Nexis database of U.S. newspapers is a 1999 New York Observer column by Phillip Weiss about the Clinton impeachment hearings. He writes:

Eve MacSweeney, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, sends me an e-mail that says, “couldn’t e you back from england as friend in hospital and everything went pear-shaped.” I call to ask about the phrase. She tells me that “pear-shaped” is the reigning metaphor in England now. Things are going pear-shaped. They say it in the financial district when a stock goes bad. They say it in W11 about a marriage. Ms. MacSweeney says the term resonates because English women are frequently referred to as being pear-shaped, the men in England being buttless, but she and I agree that when the phrase gets here — the land of the aging, big-butted male — it will have wider resonance.

(Weiss’s subsequent aside is relevant to this blog: “I think of when that other Anglicism, ‘at the end of the day,’ came here a few years ago, landing in New York. The House managers use the phrase ‘at the end of the day’ over and over again, summing up their case on the Senate floor. Now we know what the end of the day looks like.” I find, to my shock, that on this blog I have never looked in to at the end of the day. I imagine that’s because, even when I started NOOBs, it was already such a dispiriting cliche on both sides of the Atlantic that I couldn’t bear to write it down several times in a blog post. But I digress.)

The next one Lexis-Nexis hit comes in in 2001, when a reporter for the University of Massachusetts student newspaper wrote, referring to a soccer player’s injury, “That is when it all went pear-shaped.” The phrase pops up now and then in the early and mid-2000s, but really took hold around 2009. There are twenty-eight Lexis-Nexis hits through 2008 and twenty-nine since then, including the testimony of  James Grant, editor of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer,” to the House of Representatives in September 2012: “Nowadays, when things go pear-shaped, Chairman Bernanke is front and center with broad hints to print enough money or suppress enough prices or inflate enough assets to make us forget our troubles.”

Now go pear-shaped seems to be fully established, especially in  financial and, for some reason, sporting circles. But does it truly resonated in this land of the aging, big-butted male? The jury is still out on that one.

59 thoughts on ““Go pear-shaped”

  1. I’m not entirely surprised it would make its way through sporting circles – I’m guessing a lot of soccer fans in the U.S. read their fair share of British sports news.

  2. I used it on my FB page a few weeks ago and had about three American friends laughing out loud about it. Not one I use a lot I must say, but I was surprised at the reaction.

  3. ‘Pear shaped’ is a good one. I had not given it much thought, other than the pear shaped figure analogy, a particularly source of strife to many women since it is/was seen as undesirable, think hourglass without the obvious additional talents. In this context I had thought certainly gone wrong but such a cruel way of expressing it, the RAF origins had completely flown over my head!

    ‘At the end of the day’ is a particularly horrid cliche that I am guilty of using as much as anyone else. To my mind it is the phrase of so many post match premiership football (soccer) player interviews and hence the worst type of cliche confined to grand use only by those who despite having immense sporting talent would actually be better off mute (though still superior to its use by The Office style middle managers who appear completely talentless). I think Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard is a keen exponent of the phrase, I would not be surprised if he has begun and ended responses with it on occasion.

  4. The Urban Dictionary adds: ‘Pear-shaped’ is an RAF euphemism for ‘tits-up’, which is itself a euphemism for ‘dead’.
    The first time I heard the expression “tits-up”, the speaker was a woman from Hull, in the North. I found it very amusing. And I doubt it will ever become popular in the States.

    1. American version is “belly up” as in dead goldfish in your child’s little aquarium:). (Mommy, why is Bubbles swimming upside down?) A bit more gender- neutral, if not species-neutral. I first heard the term belly up in the context of the stock market to describe a company going under or some other bad investment.

    2. In the Minty Python skit about the parrot in the pet shop, John Cleese used “he’s gone tits up!” That would put the origin at least as far back as the early seventies.

    3. “Tits-up” has very long been used in the US military, commercial aviation and elsewhere in the US. Often expressed as “Tango Uniform” for a thin veneer of politeness.

  5. As to where it came from, Michael Quinion I think looked into that (www.worldwidewords.org) and came to the conclusion that … Gawd Knows.

  6. Now that you mention it, I recall having heard “gone pear-shaped” just once before, in some movie. It made no sense to me then, and it still made no sense to me here. So, I searched further. Wikipedia offers a number of theories, but the one that makes the most sense to me in this context is found at UrbanDictionary.com: “The origin is unclear, but one theory says that it is RAF slang relating to the difficulty of performing aerobatic loops, which were described as ‘pear shaped’ if executed imperfectly,” a theory apparently overlooked in the OED.

    “At the end of the day” was made famous to me by the Britcom, /Yes, Minister/, as was “not to put too fine a point on it.”

    1. I remember “not to put too fine a point on it” as being a frequent expression used in a British TV series on Charles Dickens. I believe it was: “Dickens (renamed Uncovering the Real Dickens upon its DVD release” from 2002.

  7. My take on pear-shaped is that it refers to someone’s body where below the waist has got much wider than the upper half of the body. The person has got fat, gone to see, gone pear-shaped. Now extended to anything that has got messed-up

    1. Thats the definition I heard too. Pear shaped as opposed to apple-shaped, supposedly the “ideal” shape for women.

      1. I think Robin’s supposition is (ahem) spot-on.

        As for the apple, Dave: in the context of this blog post, it’s a minor quibble, I know, but isn’t the PEACH the ideal shape for the part of the female anatomy we’re thinking of? It is to me at least 🙂

  8. Its prevalence in sports context no doubt comes from its usage in football (i.e. soccer) contexts. Just as American jocks do, English footballers routinely speak entirely in cliches when giving post-match interviews, and pear-shaped is one of the more popular cliches they reach for when they ended up on the losing side in a match.

    Speaking of Britishisms in sporting contexts, just today I spotted an occurrence of “spanner in the works” in the most American of contexts, and article about baseball. See here: http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20121109&content_id=40221058&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb

    I suspect we’ll see find far more occurrences of metaphorical spanners in US sources than we’ll find of literal spanners.

  9. I don’t suppose “It’s all gone Pete Tong” has surfaced in America yet, and I don’t suppose it will. It’s rhyming slang for “wrong”, and it means the same thing as “it’s gone pear-shaped”, pretty much. Pete Tong is a famous Radio 1 DJ but he’s probably unknown in the US.

  10. It’s all gone a la poire when something has broken and everything has slumped to the bottom, so that the bottom half now bulges out: a metaphor so visual I didn’t think it could need explaining. “Pear-shaped” is just broken, “Tits up” is actually dead.

  11. Tits up because, I understand, a dead body floating in the water might lie on its back with legs and arms dangling down, so that the most visible part of the body above the surface is the chest. There was once a long correspondence in the Guardian about the derivation of pear-shaped, but I don’t think that there was a satisfactory consensus.

  12. One of the exercises in dressage involves getting a horse to walk the perimeter of an imaginary circle, it is considered a failing if the path walked is ‘egg shaped’ or ‘pear shaped’ that may be where the RAF trainers got the inspiration to describe inexpert loop-the-loops as ‘pear shaped’ although I’m not sure if the dressage term pre-dates the RAF slang,

  13. From the first few times I heard something had gone “pear-shaped” in dialogue from British TV shows, I decided that it meant something had transformed from an ideal situation or condition, like the ancient ideal of spheres, to something misshapen, malfunctioning, and/or displeasing. Any anatomical similarities are culturally-relative judgments, in my experience.

    (BTW, apple-bodied means too fat to have a waist, and is not an ideal in most health-conscious metrics.)

  14. The original RAF meaning refers to aerobatics.

    When a pilot executes a loop with his or her airplane, the loop ideally should be circular when seen at ground. Unfortunately, novice pilots have tendency to pull the control column too much at the top of the loop, causing the shape of the loop becoming oval – or, at worst, pear-shaped. Needless to say, the instructors are not amused of a pear-shaped loop.

  15. OK, that’s just funny. No one appears willing to say the obvious. Everything is “all hourglass” for the first year or two, but then she “goes all pear shaped” and lets herself go. It’s an expression taken from a typical marriage that goes tits-up.

  16. The two words have of course been pairable long before this popularisation: RAF pilots, in a manoevre called variously “loop-the-loop” or “loop de loop” (easily imaged by browsers), would sportingly taunt each other for not having sufficient airspeed at the top of a loop, requiring them to break the stalled arc by temporarily diving, resulting in a circle that was pair-shaped.

  17. The comparison to body dynamics and pilot maneuvers do not convey the dread accompanying “going pear shape” is suppose to communicate. It is just short of being FUBAR while in sight of going “tips up” (where “Tits” refer to the area around both male & female nipples.)
    The “pear shape” is from Airborne Paratroopers describing the shape of a parachute which failed to full open and the center/highest point lost its rounded shape. The chute is threatening to collapse into a candle and the paratrooper must decide if the cute can be recovered or release it and use the safety parachute.

  18. According to my unreliable memory, I first heard the term ‘pear shaped’ in the mid to late 1980s – I was working as an engineer in the defence industry in Australia. The implication of the term was ‘not round’ or ‘not spherical’, rather than ‘big bottomed’. The term resonated with machining problems in metal manufacturing and optics. I would speculate that the term has came from military usage (hence the RAF reference) and possibly from artillery, where shot that was not round causes problems.

  19. Isn’t there also an expression, used to describe something like the sound of a traditional BBC announcer’s voice, as having “pear-shaped tones”? And please don’t go all NEW YORKER on me and say, “No, there isn’t.”

  20. Precisely, Ben. I note that in the thread you cite, it says the phrase was used in the screenplay for “The King’s Speech.” I know I heard it earlier than that, perhaps on “Round the Horne.”

  21. I first heard the phrase ‘pear-shaped’ from an Army pal, around 1982-83. It was quite a common piece of Army slang, apparently. It came up in conversation when we saw tinned hams in a Yorkshire butcher’s window, labelled ‘pear-shaped ham.’ He started laughing, and when asked ‘what’s so funny?’ explained its Army usage.
    When I asked him for its origins, he said it was ‘from the shape of a punctured tyre,’ which makes some sense.

    However, this web-page suggests another possibility—it might be much older, and French in origin!

  22. I can remember at least one of the Cornelius Ryan books has a quote from an interview about going ‘pear-shaped’ during a British op in WWII, maybe Market-Garden. And I’m pretty sure I remember hearing it from a movie character, probably Anthony Hopkins’, in the 1977 film ‘A Bridge Too Far.’ Someone said it in The Great Escape too, and that was 1963 or 64 or something like that. The phrase didn’t originate in the last 20 years.

  23. Here’s a recent use, from a blog on advertising law: “Trade dress infringement suits in a crowded market space can go pear-shaped rapidly.” Second time I’ve seen one in this source (last was “full of beans”). https://www.adlawbyrequest.com/2018/11/articles/in-the-courts/sunkists-new-candy-packaging-is-forbidden-fruit-welchs-infringement-suit-says?utm_source=Reed+Smith+-+AdLaw+By+Request&utm_campaign=7a768baf2c-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e842abcb2d-7a768baf2c-70801217

  24. I first heard the term “going pear-shaped” in the British TV police drama The Bill, which first went to air in 1984. It was often used to describe a police operation that had gone wrong. I always assumed that things were pear-shaped when they weren’t the much more perfect circle, rather than having anything to do with the shape of a person. Clearly if it was used in the RAF book in ’82 The Bill can’t be the origin but I do believe that that is where it was popularised, at least here in Australia where the show was a ratings hit. It has come into common usage here, I heard a journalist use the phrase on the news just last week. The RAF aeronautics origin sounds like a good explanation to me, but at the end of the day we may never know exactly where it comes from. I guess sometimes thing can’t be tied up in a neat little bow.

  25. I recall P.G.Wodehouse using the expression somewhere. Terry Pratchett used it too, but he occasionally nicked things from Wodehouse as an obvious homage. Perhaps it lives right next to “tickety-boo”.

  26. Just the other day, was reminded of the etymology of “fiasco,” as being from the Italian word cognate with “flask.” Now, speaking as a former chemist, a Florence flask (not the triangular profile ones called “Erlenmeyer”) is somewhat “pear-shaped.”

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