Twixt Wind and Water

Hurricane Sandy batters the east coast of America, but back here in Blighty slang has a rather down-to-earth relationship with wind…

Slang is urban and its lexis draws thereupon, but the elements, linked to nature and thus the world beyond town, are too powerful to be ignored. So slang undoubtedly uses them in its imagery, but its cussed nature, struck analphabetic by the concept of simple factual description, is wholly averse to dealing with them as they are. Rain, wind, whatever, and let alone mighty storms that are distinguished by a proper name, are abandoned to standard English. As for hurricane we are offered nothing more than big blow, a rare of example of argotic understatement.  And we have the Windy City or Big Windy, which represent Chicago. The town can also be feminized as Madame Windy, but does that really fit what Sandburg termed ‘hog butcher for the world / […] / Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders.’ Perhaps Madame is in drag.

At which point the plot, as ever, thickens and wind tends to blow us somewhat off course.

Wind itself can the stomach, at least in prize-fighting journalism, and gin, an 18th century reference not to possible after-effects, but because ‘it catches your breath’. It meant life, as in sentence, thus lagged for one’s wind, transported down under for one’s natural life, which stretch was known as a winder (seaborne, one was blown to Botany Bay, but hearing the sentence pronounced also ‘took your breath away’). It could also mean courage, in the same way as does guts. The windbag (sometimes windpump or windy wallets), who is likely all wind and piss or dialectally all wind and woo like the burnywind’s bellows (burnywind or burn-the-wind being a  blacksmith), is of course tediously loquacious. Save your wind to cool your kail (i.e. porridge), intone the easily bored. The verbose windjammer is synonymous; its homonyms refer a. to a male homosexual and b. a sexual athlete, though in this case wind is the verb of mechanical motion and suggests the ‘winding up’ of sexual ‘equipment’. Sex further underpins long-winded: taking time to reach orgasm although it can also mean someone reluctant to pay their bills. The sailing vessel remains categorized as slang in the unrevised OED, but times have surely changed since the 1890s. That is not to disqualify Boreas [above]. Three sheets in the wind (plus all or even a little in the wind, a few sheets in the wind, a sheet in the wind’s eye and three sheets before the breeze) stands for drunk as does the equally nautical hulled or shot twixt wind and water. The braggart has their face out a yard and sucking wind, though to suck wind is to be on one’s last legs, a quality of those who, so beyond redemption, cannot blow wind up their own arse.


Sucking wind gives the urban version of wind-sucker, that unfortunate horse who is old, decrepit and soon to be en route to the knackers. The country’s take, either windsucker or wind-bibber and overflying slang for dialect, was used to represent the kestrel; the 16th century knew it as the windfucker, and that was not an era when people became confused over the printer’s long ∫ and in any case there was also a species of hawk: the fuckwind.

South Africa’s equally voluble equivalent is the windgat, literally ‘wind-arse’.  The posterior reappears in windmill, the anus; thus a poor woman has ‘no fortune but her mills’, a phrase that points up watermill, the vagina, and the comment by the Ladies’ Champion in 1660 that ‘Marriage is but two pair of legs in one pair of sheets, with a windmil and watermil, from whence comes no grist vendible.’ More puns arrive with the windward passage, the anus again, and the navigator of the windward passage, what the 18th century termed a sodomite. One could also navigate

The windcutter is a cocked hat, the coarsely punning wind instrument yet another  anus. The Caribbean offers a short lexicon based on wind-pie, all of which mean nothing to eat and used presumably to answer the hopeful child: wind-pies and air sausages, wind-pies and nutten-chops, wind-sandwich and breeze-pie. Air pudding is equally devoid of nutritive matter. The thin are rashers of wind.  Further wind compounds give the windsheet, a thin overcoat, the windshield, a napkin, and the wind-stopper, a garrotter.

The 19th century’s wind tormentors were super-long sideboards, and can refer to the curled paies of religious Jews. (Wikipedia offers a gallery here: Cruikshank, who often drew them for Dickens, has a fine set). Verbs tend to mean departure: get in the wind and put it in the wind. To have the wind in one’s jaws is to be very angry, this is intended to put the wind up the target of one’s wrath. Thus windy, they may wish to get in the wind, which means to get drunk.


The primary use of wind, it is almost impossible that readers are not ahead of me here, concentrates on its incapacitated state, i.e. ‘broken’. The word is fart, which is assumed to be echoic. Chaucer used it in 1386 and he is only the first recorded. Fart gives us the fart-catcher, the unfortunate servant who walked in his master’s or mistress’ wake; the servant was doubtless liveried and his employer bedizened from inside out: thus the phrase farts through silk, which implies the enjoyment of a life of luxury. That aside there are synomyns. Nouns include the air biscuit, not to be confused with is disco equivalent, the rhyming apple tart, and other echoisms such as grunt, poot, and trump. The verb is more fruitful (fruity?) with backfire, gurk, drop your guts, squeeze cheese, shoot a bunny, and, since this is one of rhyming slang’s favoured arenas, horse and tart, jam tart, and ringbark. There is burn bad powder, cut a finger and cut the cheese, drop a thumper, prat wids, literally ‘buttock speech’, drop one, Australia’s open the lunch– or sandwich-box, the camp open your purse and the uncompromising let fly. Baked wind, which seems to qualify, does not, although it qualifies as metaphor: nonsense or ‘hot air’.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

2 thoughts on “Twixt Wind and Water

  1. Brit
    November 1, 2012 at 13:51

    A friend of the family has as his (unconscious) catchphrase: “I got the wind up” – meaning, to become frightened. Every anecdote, from going in a ski lift to encountering other people in any sort of situation, concludes with him ‘getting the wind up’. He’s not one, but he comes across as, a terrible coward with digestive problems.

    November 1, 2012 at 13:51

    the inventiveness of the human language present in your posts never ceases to amaze JG! Would I be correct in assuming that ‘fire’ is the element with the most slang attached to it?

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