Mad as a box of frogs? Phrases that suddenly become popular.

by Liz Walter
In 2009, the UK was shocked, angered and entertained in almost equal measure when revelations about the expense claims of our MPs appeared in the media. Amidst the accusations of greed, a few examples became iconic, such as the MP who claimed for cleaning the moat around his home or the one who bought a floating duck house for £1,645 and expected the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Of course, this behaviour increased the perception that our MPs are out of touch with the realities of ordinary life, and it seemed for a while as though nobody could speak about the affair without uttering the phraseThey just don’t get it.’ That phrase, more than any other, seemed to sum up the feelings of the nation and was repeated to the point of tedium.

A phrase that is currently enjoying popularity is miss the memo. Someone who is surprised not to know about something may say ‘Oh, did I miss the memo?’ or ‘I seem to have missed the memo’.

It is not obvious what has caused the popularity of that one, but some phrases seem to spread simply because they catch the imagination. One such example is mad as a box of frogs, a colourful expression that does not seem to have been around for more than a few years, but which has become quite well known in the UK (though apparently hasn’t crossed the ocean yet). The variant mad as a sack of ferrets is similar in its rather striking imagery of writhing, uncontrollable creatures in a confined space.

At the more slangy end of the spectrum, two recent phrases share the same odd attribute of sounding like incomplete sentences. Where previously we might have said that someone or something was ‘not all that good/clever/talented, etc.’, we now see the phrase used without an adjective. For example, a post on an online problem page asks, ‘How can I tell a guy that he’s not all that?’

Something similar is happening with I can’t even or I literally can’t even. Conventionally, we would say something like ‘I can’t even begin to tell you how angry I was’, but in an informal situation (typically between young women) the incomplete phrase is now enough, for example, ‘OMG, did you see his hat? I literally can’t even.’

Some people get angry about this sort of subversion of language, but personally I love it. Why not go below the line and let me know your views?

39 thoughts on “Mad as a box of frogs? Phrases that suddenly become popular.

    1. When I had to describe the Orange Moron, sometimes known as Trump the Grump, my mind immediately thought he was as “mad as a box of frogs”.
      I remember that phrase being used at least 40 years ago.

  1. Emel

    Personally I detest the sort of subversion you mention in your blog, but am comforted by the fact it will probably be short-lived, a passing fad, a teenage craze.

    1. Deke Thomas

      Hatters in the US haven’t been allowed to use mercury for carroting felt since 1941, and hats for men have been out of style since 1961, so there are few hatters, and fewer still who’ve gone mad who weren’t buried decades ago. so the only “mad hatter” these days is a character in a Lewis Carroll book – and even bookstores are rapidly disappearing. In 20 years, people will think hatters were angry, not demented.

      1. Reg

        True enough…. The only hats that “men” wear these days are those idiotic baseball caps. I’ve decided it’s so they don’t have to wash or comb their hair……UGH!

  2. I find that the inventive and amusing coinages are colorful enough to offset the perplexing or annoying new words. The buzz word I am eager to see disappear is “trending.” It started with Twitter, but now it’s used to refer to any word, phrase, or phenomenon (or “meme,” another word I’m tired of) that’s a frequent subject of conversation.

    1. mikepope

      >”The buzz word I am eager to see disappear is “trending.” It started with Twitter”

      “trending” as a noun with the definition “The fact or manner of turning, bending away, or taking a general (specified) direction, as a coastline, etc.; general direction, trend.” has a first cite in the OED from 1600. As an adjective, it has a first cite from 1968, with reference to “trending variables.”

      A trip to the dictionary is advised before making commentary about terms in contemporary usage. See also “Recency Illusion” (Wikipedia has a nice entry.)

      1. Tony

        “has a first cite in the OED from 1600”

        Don’t you mean ‘citation’? I feel sure the OED has never referred to ‘a cite’ (but sure, prove me wrong).

        “A trip to the dictionary is advised before making commentary”

        Well, yes. Here you go:

        (Maybe its use as a noun has disappeared since 2014?)

  3. I’ll suggest that “not all that” comes along behind its opposite number, “all that and a bag of chips” (meaning the most of something, whether that’s beauty, handsomeness, wealth, etc.). The second phrase has been around for some time in the US.

  4. Monica

    “Why not go below the line and let me know your views?” Why do you use this expression (below the line) in that context? what’s the meaning?

    1. In web design I’ve used the phrase ‘below the line’ in the context of webpage content that is invisible until you scroll further down the page; the current ‘bottom line’ being the visible page limit at the bottom of the screen.

      1. It’s derived from “below the fold” – referring to that part of the newspaper front page that you can’t see when it’s displayed in a folded manner. In my experience most website designers still use “fold” rather than “line” or any other word.

  5. Liz Walter

    Hi, Monica.
    It’s a way of referring to online comments, like these comments here, and therefore another example of a new phrase.

  6. Minty

    One of my favourite expressions is “madder than a bag full of badgers.” Denoting a more furious level of insanity, rather than the gentle eccentricity associated with a box of frogs.

    1. Denker

      ” … a bag full of badgers.” A frightful thought! As National Geographic has taught, badgers fight fiercely when cornered.

  7. LanguageFan

    The first time I encountered “miss the memo” was in the tv show Stargate, season 4, episode 20, Entity. Original air date January 31, 2001 .

    Jack says it in a different form in response to an unexpected result and later says the famous phrase.

    And thus, the catchphrase was born – at least among gate fans.

    Gen. Hammond: What’s it doing? [About the MALP]
    Maj. Carter: Flying, sir.
    Col. O’Neill: MALPs can’t fly.
    Dr. Jackson: Apparently they can.
    Col. O’Neill: Shouldn’t there be a memo on this stuff?

    Dr. Fraiser: It is a very bad burn, Sam.
    Maj. Carter: Five minutes.
    Dr. Fraiser: Now!
    Col. O’Neill: Do as the Doctor says.
    Maj. Carter: Yes, Sir.
    Dr. Fraiser: Thank you Colonel. You, Daniel and Teal’c are next.
    Col. O’Neill and Dr. Jackson: What? We’re…I’m fine.
    Dr. Fraiser: Yeah well I would like to be the judge of that. Some form of energy came through the Stargate. I think it’s only prudent to make sure there are no physiological effects to those exposed. ASAP.
    Col. O’Neill: Who put her in charge?
    Gen. Hammond: The US Air Force.
    Teal’c: In medical matters, Dr. Fraiser may overrule those of any rank.
    Col. O’Neill: I’m not getting all my memos.

  8. hy! Im from Huddersfield and most of your purposely unfinished anecdotal phrases such as “I don’t even” arn’t used here. interesting reading though. Regards.Stuart Whitwam

  9. Stephen Hoyland

    The Original phrase Is “(He or She) has a face like a box of Frogs”. I can’t even see the rationale’ behind “Mad as a box of Frogs”, It doesn’t make sense.

  10. Tony

    I think “back in the day” is another of those unfinished phrases isn’t it? I don’t hear it so much now as I did, … well, (a little while) back in the day. Maybe people have just got less nostalgic, though.

    I first heard “box of frogs” a couple of years ago from an old friend at a function, towards the end. As he passed he told me he was “just trying to get all the frogs the same box”. I assumed he was trying to collect together the various people he had come with. Or something. Very vivid, but no obvious reference to madness.

    Also: “Box of Frogs was a band formed in 1983 by former members of The Yardbirds” – Wikipedia

  11. morningstarflail

    Another example of the shortened sentence is the rather self conscious ‘sweet as’, presumably ‘sweet as a nut’

    I’ve never understood why ‘sweet as a nut’ and ‘brown as a berry’ are not expressed as sweet as a berry and brown as a nut..

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, good one. And another one I’m seeing all the time at the moment (and finding a bit annoying!) is ‘No words’ when people are very shocked or upset about something. I think what irritates me about that one is that it’s a strange juxtaposition of a rather casual phrase with a usually serious circumstance.

  12. Christopher Monniot

    “More fun than a barrel of monkeys” is a phrase that’s been in use in the USA for a long time. I first heard it in the Beach Boys song “Little Honda” released in 1964 or thereabouts. I suspect that many of the other phrases are derivatives of that.

  13. Sally Shaw

    Frankly, I don’t think a new BMW or any other new commercial product is iconic. I don’t mind using iconic frequently just so the use is within the meaning of the word. Is a car an icon?

  14. DONG YOU

    English is my second language. Often I found it has fascinating expressions such as this one, mad as a box of frogs. Love it.

  15. See that Shakespeare – always using cliches. “Star-cross’d lovers” “More sinned against than sinning” – why couldn’t he use original stuff?

  16. Mad as a box of frogs has been around for ages – at least I have heard it being used for ages. Mad as a hatter refers to the use of mercurous nitrate in hat-felting which caused hatters to suffer from St Vitus Dance symptoms. Mad as a March hare has been around for centuries as has hare-brained. My most hated neologism is ‘diarise’ and I don’t care for ‘chillax’ either, but language must move or die.

    1. Lindsay Turner

      It’s very clever. It invites others to finish your sentence thus exposing their true opinion. “I think that’s rather…….” Someone jumps in….”stupid!”

    1. Trogolodyte

      ‘Missed the memo’ was used in Monsters Inc when Mike and Sully are trying to explain the presence of Boo (‘disguised’ as a monster) in the factory:

      Henry J. Waternoose: Ah, James. Is this one yours?
      Sulley: Ah, actually that’s my uh, cousin’s sister’s daughter, sir.
      Mike: Yeah, it’s uh, “Bring an Obscure Relative to Work Day”.
      Henry J. Waternoose: Hmm, must have missed the memo.

      My wife and I watched the movie in a regional theatre. Working in The City (of London) for a U.S. company, we were familiar with events such as Being Your Daughter to Work days. So we laughed… alone. I don’t think anyone else got it! :o)

  17. The phrase ‘mad as a box of frogs’ won’t catch on in the US, because they use the word ‘mad’ to mean ‘angry’. OR maybe the phrase will catch on, but will mean something else entirely – that the person is very angry!

    I heard a new one this week: “He noped out of there pretty fast” – I like it, It tells a whole story in just one word!

    1. They “got” the meaning of “mad” in the movie title “The madness of King George” although they were spared the embarrassment of assuming that “The madness of George III” was the third movie in a trilogy.

Leave a Reply