SO DULL YOU COULD RIDE TO CHINA ON THEM
Q From S M Tucker: When I was a child my mother used to describe knives or scissors in need of sharpening as so dull you could ride to China on them. In the more than half a century since then I’ve only heard two other people use that expression and both of them were from my hometown of Baltimore. I’d love to know if this phrase is regional as well as getting a hook on the origin of it
A Nothing about this strange phrase appears in any of my reference books, so I asked World Wide Words subscribers about it.
A fascinating set of responses came in, not only from the USA, but also from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, South Africa, Germany, and the Netherlands. The only significant difference in most cases was that the destination changed to fit the location or inclinations of the speaker. So it’s not specific to Baltimore, or even to the USA.
Several replies came from Australia. This from Kevin Esposito was typical: “In North Queensland, the phrase was ‘so blunt you could ride to London on it’, frequently used by my Irish granny. It was in common use in that area through the 1940s to 1960s”. Other Australians also recall London as the destination. Michael Grounds said: “My mother (born in Australia about 1900), who had a very English heritage, used to say of a blunt knife that you could ride to London on it, and I was delighted to hear the same expression again just recently”.
What was especially interesting was that several German, Dutch and South African subscribers also recognised it. Johan Viljoen wrote: “In Afrikaans we say: ‘Die mes is so stomp dat jy op hom Kaap toe kan ry’ (‘The knife is so dull/blunt that you can ride to the Cape on it’). The Cape refers to Cape Town”. Ted Friethoff remarked: “The funny thing about this expression is that here in Holland my mother used the same expression about dull knives or scissors, with this difference that she used to ride to Rome on it”. S Windeisen wrote from Germany: “The expression reminds me of something my mother says about dull knives — in German, more precisely in our Swabian regional dialect: ‘You could ride to Stuttgart on this knife without getting a sore behind’ ”.
The reference to sore backsides is echoed by Alistair McCaw: “My late father-in-law, who was English, often used the phrase ‘you could ride bare-arsed to London on this’ in reference to blunt tools or knives”. Two British subscribers echoed the English links: Cecil Ballantine wrote from Cheltenham to say that a Wiltshire relative of his partner used that form of the expression. Angela Shingler mentioned that her mother, from East Yorkshire, also used it (though she referred to China as the destination).
This rather more pungent version of the saying suggests that it is horse riding that is being referred to, rather than any more modern form of transport. In turn this suggests that the expression is quite old.
Angela Shingler wondered whether it was originally Yiddish, as this would explain her mother’s use of it. That sounds very reasonable, especially considering its existence in German. It would have been taken to other countries as a natural result of the emigrations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
That it is quite unrecorded in any reference work or in any work of mainstream literature that I can search shows only that it was one of those folk sayings that never made the big time.