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Why do we speak, for example, of a 'common or garden' bicycle, meaning one that simply does the job of a bicycle without alloy wheels, Sir Bradley Wiggins pedals or any other bells and whistles.

'Common or garden' means much the same thing as 'bog standard' and can apply to anything animate or inanimate.

Edit 28/7/15

The OED entry says.

d. passing into adj., in the slang phr. common or garden, a jocular substitute for ‘common’, ‘ordinary’.

[1657 W. Coles Adam in Eden xxix. 59 But the Common or Garden Nightshade is not dangerous.]

1892 Autobiog. Eng. Gamekeeper (J. Wilkins) 67 It was as large as a common—or garden—hen.

1896 Daily News 16 Oct. 3/4 Such common or garden proceedings not being to the taste of Noa.

1897 Westm. Gaz. 4 Aug. 8/2, I have—to make use of a common or garden expression—been ‘rushed’ in this matter.

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OED's first citation is [1657 W. Coles Adam in Eden xxix. 59 But the Common or Garden Nightshade is not dangerous.] I assume they put that one in brackets because it may not exactly reflect the modern idiomatic usage, which is next cited in 1892 Autobiog. Eng. Gamekeeper (J. Wilkins) 67 It was as large as a common — or garden — hen. Really, garden here just means domestic, home-grown (as opposed to professional). – FumbleFingers May 16 '14 at 20:14
When it comes to run-of-the-mill whatzitses, I’ve certainly heard a common whatzit, and I’ve heard a garden-variety whatzit, and I’ve heard a bog-standard whatzit, but I’m not sure that I’ve particularly noticed a common-or-garden whatzit as a unit. – tchrist May 16 '14 at 20:14
I would think common comes from common meaning open land for public use e.g. Wimbledon common, as opposed to farmed land for specific use and garden from well garden really. The key point being it's not something that needs to be tended or forced to grow, your basic common or garden thing. – Frank May 16 '14 at 20:35
@FumbleFingers - I added the American garden variety and common as dirt to your Ngram, changed it to English, and found garden variety the most common. I suspect it's picking up the common or garden variety ending from AmE. I agree with you re: petit pois. I had my first ever mashed peas in London earlier this month. I was amused. Is it so you don't have to chase them all over your plate? – medica May 16 '14 at 21:21
@medica: I eat my peas with honey; I've done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny, But it keeps them on the knife. And like it says here, The only item one should eat with a knife are English peas. – FumbleFingers May 17 '14 at 11:59

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The derivation of the phrase obviously does have something to do with gardening, or more precisely, agriculture. It's original meaning, as has already been said, relates to the type of plant, fruit or vegetable which is found frequently in gardens or on "commons". (Historicaly, "commons" were the large patches of grass or woodland that ancient rural villages designated as being for the use of the community as a whole.) If such a plant is found growing in "the common or garden" it is likely to be unexceptional because of it's abundance. The phrase has since come to be applied to anything that is common or unexceptional. (I was going to say "run of the mill" but that would be opening a whole new bag of worms, to coin a phrase).

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It means that it is no frills and generally unremarkable, in that it is easy to come by and not in any way fancy.

Think of the roses you may grow in your backyard- they are pretty common and wouldn't likely win a gardening competition; they simply aren't special. That said, if you were to mention roses, most everyone would be familiar enough with the flower to know what you are talking about. You would have yourself some garden variety roses.

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I don't think you grasp the point at all. The term common or garden is applied to everyday objects etc, which need have nothing whatever to do with gardens or gardening. – WS2 Oct 27 '14 at 18:55

I always assumed it came from the way we describe species of animals or plants. We call lots of abundant species the 'common ____', just a quick google search throws up the common shrew, the common vole, the common pheasant, to dissociate them from the less common species such as the water vole, the pygmy shrew and the golden pheasant.

The term garden is used similarly in colloquial language, especially for plats. As someone said earlier you can call a common rose a garden rose to distinguish it from a highly cultivated and rare species more likely to be found in some botanical garden.

So the term 'common or garden _____' just comes from these phrases used about animals and plants, and was just applied humorously to other objects, such as a common or garden bicycle to distinguish it from a racing bike or a BMX.

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