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Hop the twig

Q From Bob Sypek: In a recent article in Slate about the advanced age of US Senator Strom Thurmond (he’s 98), the following statement was made ‘In the 1970s, only eight senators hopped the twig’. Has the author invented a new term for the universal fate of all humanity? And what about ‘He’s joined the choir invisible’ which was also in the article?

A It certainly belongs with all the other phrases the writer used in his piece, like “kick the bucket”, “push up the daisies”, “go the way of all flesh”, and “buy the farm”, several of which seem to be direct references to that infamous Monty Python sketch about the dead parrot.

It’s not new. The first recorded example actually dates from 1797: “He kept his bed three days, and hopped the twig on the fourth”, in a book by Mrs Mary Robinson, Walsingham; or the Pupil of Nature. At first it meant to go away suddenly, for example to avoid creditors, and it’s from this that the figurative sense arise. It’s connected also with “hop it!”, a request to somebody to depart without delay, and with the British slang phrase “hop the wag” for playing truant, which is still to be heard in places. In the early part of the twentieth century, the phrase was modified into “drop off the twig”, “hop the perch”, and various other forms.

In one version of the Parrot Sketch (not the original television one), John Cleese says “he’s off the twig”, which is yet another variation. That appears just before “He’s joined the choir invisible”, a reference to a poem by George Eliot, in which she is evoking the heavenly host:

Oh may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Apr. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 April 2001.