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I've recently heard this phrase spoken twice on a British television show, and I assume it means something along the lines of, "everything's fallen apart," generally meaning, things are bad right now. Is this correct?

Two follow-up questions:

1) What is the history of this idiom?

2) Is it commonly used in other countries?

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Eri -- it's worth noting that in England, if someone is, well, fat, you describe them as "pear shaped." (Many English women are a bit of an "English pear" - i.e., chubby bum.) I would have guessed that is the origin, but I'm not sure. I'd guess that if you asked 1000 English people, 900 would assume the two phrases are related. Frankly, I think the "air loops" explanation is just plain silly, it's too minor and vague to have started a whole phrase. –  Joe Blow Jun 22 '11 at 17:31
    
Many different sources seem to include the "air loops" explanation (including the links in all three answers below). As to which is actually correct, I guess it'll ultimately depend on our finding the earliest recorded use of the phrase with the same meaning... –  Eri Jun 23 '11 at 18:21

6 Answers 6

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Wikipedia confirms that yes, it does mean what you think - but the etymology is less certain:

The third meaning is mostly limited to the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australasia. It describes a situation that went awry, perhaps horribly wrong. A failed bank robbery, for example, could be said to have "gone pear-shaped". Less well known in the US it generated some media interest when British politician Margaret Thatcher used the phrase in front of the world's press at one of her first meetings with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, with many reporters being unsure of the meaning of the term. The origin for this use of the term is in dispute. The OED cites its origin as within the Royal Air Force; as of 2003 the earliest citation there is a quote in the 1983 book Air War South Atlantic. Others date it to the RAF in the 1940s, from pilots attempting to perform aerial manoeuvres such as loops. These are difficult to form perfectly, and are usually noticeably distorted—i.e., pear-shaped.

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Question 1: The history was found in Phrase finder:

To go pear shaped is an expression used to indicate that a scheme has not been perfectly executed. The phrase seems to have originated in British English in the late 1940s or early 1950s. I have come across several suggested origins, but the best, for me, is related to training aircraft pilots. At some stage they are encouraged to try to fly loops - very difficult to make perfectly circular; often the trainee pilot's loops would go pear shaped.

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Another theory from The Word Detective:

As I said, the origin of "to go pear-shaped" is uncertain, but there are, as usual, several theories. The human body, as it ages, tends to acquire a bottom-heavy shape similar to a pear, perhaps giving us "pear-shaped" as another way of saying "things fall apart." A poster to the American Dialect Society mailing list a few years ago reported a theory that ties the phrase to ship construction in the 1950s using hot rivets. If the rivets were allowed to cool, they assumed a "pear" shape and were unusable.

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A pear when put in water floats with it's bottom up. When something is failing (or falling over), it is said to be going pear shaped as it falls over. This expression is older than the RAF and aerobatics.

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Having read theregister.co.uk enough, I see pear-shaped and tits up meaning the same thing: bad things have happened.

Some sources say pear-shaped means "broken" where tits up means "dead". However, I'm likely to assume these were more directly related than urban definitions propose.

tits up has an analog in belly up in AmE (think dead fish).

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Stumbled upon this by chance and as a subject of Her Majesty I feel compelled to give an explanation. The earliest use of the phrase 'gone pear-shaped' that I have located was during the use of observation balloons during WW1. The use of spherical balloons was short-lived as the things would spin around wildly, not conducive to making accurate observations, so a sausage shaped balloon was designed and pressed in to service. When being inflated with hydrogen there were occasions where due to various conditions the balloons didn't inflate as designed and rather than becoming sausage shaped ... well I guess you've figured the rest out for yourself. Imagine the average Tommy running to his officer and reporting "sa, it's gone pear shaped sa!" Isn't history wonderful!

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This sounds very convincing, could you find a link which confirms your theory? –  Mari-Lou A Aug 13 '13 at 22:36
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Please add verifiable facts or describe your specific expertise which demonstrates the truth of this answer. –  MετάEd Aug 14 '13 at 4:04

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