Modern Idioms (and where they come from)



Modern idioms? They do exactly what they say on the tin...

Posted on May 27, 2021 at 5:35 AM

TV has been a rich source of linguistic innovation over the years, but it’s not always the main events that have an impact. Several well-known advertising campaigns have contributed idioms or catchphrases to the language, as we explore below.

1. “Does exactly what it says on the tin” – Ronseal, 1994. The grandaddy of all advertising idioms, Ronseal first used it to describe its range of straightforward products in the mid-1990s. “Does what it says on the tin” has become a phrase that is firmly embedded in British English at least, to describe any item or situation that performs exactly as you would expect based on its name. See Ronseal’s own explanation of the origin of its iconic slogan here:


2. “Simples” – Compare the Market, 2009. Insurance comparison website Compare the Market came up with its “Compare the Meerkat” advertising campaign in 2009, fronted by anthropomorphic Russian meerkat “Aleksandr Orlov”. Orlov’s catchphrase – “Simples” – helped the campaign to huge success, and was named as the UK’s second favourite in a 2019 poll (see:


3. “Should’ve gone to Specsavers” – Specsavers, 2003. Another named as one of the UK’s favourites (coming in at number 16:, “Should’ve gone to Specsavers” became well known as part of the advertising campaign for high-street opticians Specsavers. Ads typically featured people blundering in a variety of ways as a result of poor eyesight, with a top 10 collection available here:


4. “Where’s the beef?” – Wendy’s, 1984. One that will be familiar to anyone in the USA or Canada, “Where’s the beef?” was first used in an advert for Wendy’s fast food chain in 1984. The ad featured an elderly lady being served a “Big Bun” hamburger from a fictional competitor restaurant, only to respond with “Where’s the beef?” when she found a disappointingly small beef patty inside. The slogan took off, and you can read more about its origins here:

5. “Shrimp on the barbie” – Australian Tourism Commission, 1984. A phrase now inextricably linked to Australian culture, “slip another shrimp on the barbie” originated in a TV advertisement aimed at attracting US tourists to visit Australia. A pre-Crocodile Dundee Paul Hogan fronted them, and helped catapult Australia into the top 10 destinations for Americans (even if Australians themselves aren’t too enamoured with the phrase:


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