Q From Heather Hanley in Rhode Island: I have heard the expression stone the crows as one of incredulity, but do not know its origin. Can you help?
A In the fifties I regularly heard the late Tony Hancock use stone me! as a term of astonished disgust in his BBC radio comedy Hancock’s Half Hour. It sounded so much part of his London character that I am surprised to find that stone the crows is attested in the dictionaries as being Australian in origin. It seems there were a number of similar expressions around in the early decades of the twentieth century, such as starve the mopokes, stiffen the crows, speed the wombats, spare the crows, and starve the bardies (mopokes is a variant of moreporks, an imitative name for a small brown native owl; bardies are a kind of edible grub). From this spread of terms, it seems they were all variations on a basic theme, fuelled by the Australian love of playing with language. The original intention may have been to suggest an action that was as exotic as the event that provoked the cry. In its popularity and speed of mutation it has parallels with the craze for catchphrases like bees knees, fashionable in America in the twenties, which also generated lots of creative variations in a short period, now mostly forgotten. But where exactly stone the crows comes from, it seems nobody can say for sure.