This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. See our privacy statement
World Wide Words logo

Pear-shaped

Q From M-C Seminario: What’s the history behind pear-shaped?

A It’s mainly a British expression. “It’s all gone pear-shaped”, one might say with head-shaking ruefulness, in reference to an activity or project that has gone badly awry or out of control.

There are plenty of things that are literally pear-shaped, of course, such as a person’s outline, a particular cut of a diamond, or the shape of a bottle, anything in fact that is bulbous at the bottom but narrows at the top, like the pear. It isn’t immediately obvious how the literal meaning turned into the figurative one, though we do know that it started to appear in the 1960s.

A common explanation, the one accepted by Oxford Dictionaries, is that it comes from Royal Air Force slang. However, nobody there or anywhere else seems to know why. Some say that it may have been applied to the efforts of pilots to do aerobatics, such as loops. It is notoriously difficult (I am told) to get manoeuvres like this even roughly circular, and instructors would describe the resulting distorted route of the aircraft as pear-shaped.

I’ve not seen firm evidence to convince me of this explanation, which sounds a little far-fetched, but that’s the best I can do!

Page created 10 Mar. 2001

Support World Wide Words.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.


Buy anything from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon USA

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pea2.htm
Last modified: 10 March 2001.