“Charlie’s dead” – “I’ll go and see George.”
When I was at school in the nineteen-fifties, that was code for: “Your underskirt is showing below the hem of your skirt“ – “I’ll go to the toilets to adjust it.”
The phrase suddenly popped into my head this morning and made me smile. Does anyone wear petticoats or underskirts nowadays? The purpose of the bouffant petticoats (starched or dipped in sugar water) that we wore under our full skirts was obvious. And in addition to disguising a panty line, another reason given in our youth to justify wearing a slip under a straight or pencil skirt was; “it makes your skirt hang better”. A slip also saved our modesty, for instance when standing against the light, if the wind was blowing hard, or when jiving. No good girl wanted to show her suspenders and stocking tops!
There are plenty of euphemisms to tell a girl or woman that her slip is showing. “It’s snowing down south” is clear, and “Are you looking for a mother-in-law?” (“Tu cherches une belle-mère?”) was how the French would inform you; I have also heard this, in more accusatory tones, in German: “Du suchst eine Schwiegermutter!” The implication is, of course, that you are as loose as your underskirt’s elastic, flaunting its lacy edge to draw male attention. In Italian: “il vostro isolatore a campana sta mostrando” – your bell insulation is showing – is also plain enough. Those are not so farfetched.
But where on earth did the phrase “Charlie’s dead” come from? Was it generally current in the fifties, or only in our school? We also playfully translated it into Latin: Carolus mortus est. I googled it and discovered that it was indeed a current phrase, not only among my schoolmates, but used internationally along with “Queen Anne’s dead”. Why Queen Anne? The implication appears to be that “the flag is flying at half mast”.
But who was the deceased Charlie? Some suggest it was King Charles I (“loyalist women dipped their petticoats in his blood when he was beheaded” but that surely implies a red petticoat), King Charles II (a notorious womaniser: a reminder that there’s no need to show your petticoat because he isn’t around anymore to respond) or Bonnie Prince Charlie who wore a lot of lace. Another explanation – apart from the flag at half-mast – dates it from WWII when window blinds were lowered to mark a death in the family. Is it Cockney rhyming slang? This blog makes an effort but still doesn’t explain who was the original Charlie.
There are literally thousands of euphemisms for the lavatory in English, but what about “I’m going to see George”: was that just a phrase in our school circle, or was the discreet George more widely used? Americans often talk of “the john” but I haven’t heard anyone apart from my schoolmates refer to George. Google doesn’t recognise it. At least one of my regular readers was at school with me. So I’m calling on you, Marie: do you remember this phrase, and any idea where it came from?