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So as not to bury the lede (yes that's the spelling apparently):

My question: According to the wiktionary the phrase "safe as houses" refers to something being as safe as investing in house property, and the phrase originated well over a century ago. As an American who has rarely heard the phrase, I am wondering if the average person who uses or hears this phrase would be relatively aware of the etymology, or whether the phrase instead brings to mind a house being physically safe (in relation to crime) compared to, say, a tenement building. Obviously, since it's an idiom no knowledge of its origins is required to use it correctly, but it seems that understanding its etymology might bring a person to use it more often since it makes more sense than a house being particularly safe in regards to crime.

In other words, how popular is the phrase, and is the consideration of its etymology often mistaken, in regions in which it is commonly used.

I should add here that during my research (and about halfway through writing this post, trying to see if I'd heard the phrase in Sherlock Holmes or the few seasons of Dr. Who I've seen) I found out that the rarest incarnation of the good doctor went through this same train of thought as to the etymology. I haven't seen the TV movie or whatever special appearance he made (he didn't play in a live-action season?), and I realize that the popularity of Dr. Who may have brought about a recurrence of the use of the phrase or at least a wider knowledge of its etymology. So perhaps some feedback from a perspective of an audience wider than that of Dr. Who's audience is in order.

Now for some useless garbage background info on why I'm curious about this (tl;dr just skip this):

I am an American and I have never heard the phrase spoken or seen it written by another American, even in TV or movies. The first time I noticed the phrase was a few years ago, online in some ad campaign located in Australia or New Zealand, and thought it might have its geographical center in that area. I then began noticing it in a variety of popular media from the United Kingdom. For the few years I've known of the phrase I've thought of it as "as safe as a house" vs. say... apartments or roads or parks or something. A house didn't seem to be the first place I would refer to as safe, so I wondered if it was a reference to the general safety of houses vs. tenements in the U.K. and I went and discovered the etymology. Then I channeled the good doctor on accident and now here I am.

  • Safe as Houses : John Hotten argued in his Slang Dictionary of 1859 that safe as houses may have arisen when the intense speculation on railways in Britain — the railway mania — began to be seen for the highly risky endeavour that it really was and when bricks and mortar became more financially attractive. But that ignores the figurative nature of the phrase, which, even so early after its coining, must have had little in users’ minds to do with any actual building. worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-saf1.htm – user66974 Oct 22 '15 at 21:42
  • I prefer to refer to the opening paragraph as the lead, eschewing the journalistic neologism. – Colin Fine Oct 22 '15 at 23:12
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    @Josh61: I note that the first edition of Hotten to mention "safe as houses" at all is the third (1870), and the first to raise the issue of railway speculation is the fourth (1874). – Sven Yargs Oct 23 '15 at 8:22
  • I think I've maybe read the expression two or three times. I think one time I figured it out from the context and the other time or two not. It's certainly not common in the US. – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 8:36
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The earliest instance of safe as houses I find in Google Books is this passage from a popular Victorian novel, James Hannay's Eustace Conyers, originally published in 1855. The hero has conceived an ambition to follow his grandfather's profession and join the Navy:

— his grandfather was pleading his case for him; and his mother’s fancies already saw him tossed in tempests, whirled in stormy waters, shot by cannon balls, or eaten by sharks.
    “My dear Helen,” the Captain said, “pardon me if I say that I scarcely recognize here your usual firmness. Her Majesty’s ships and vessels of war are now-a-days as safe as houses; if he had been going in one of the old Falmouth packets, now, of my time, it would have been a different thing. As for sharks,” the Captain added, with some humour—“when he bathes, he must keep inside the lower studding-sail.”

Hardly probative; but if indeed this is the earliest use of the phrase it casts quite a different light on the original sense.

  • It should be noted that in that context the meaning could be taken to be "safe as living in a house on land", which is how many people would interpret it if not familiar with the idiom. – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 8:38
  • @HotLicks If this is in fact the earliest use, then the literal sense is exactly what the idiom meant originally. – StoneyB Oct 24 '15 at 14:10
  • I think you just discovered the actual etymology, outdoing John Hotten well over a century later. If this is the actual etymology it makes complete sense in a nation with such a large naval tradition. I didn't expect this from an answer, to say the least, and I thank you for the answer. I do think most people will think of crime first, rather than house vs. ship comparisons, but it is still a reference to a house being physically "safe." – JackArbiter Oct 24 '15 at 20:29
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In Britain, as opposed to continental Europe, there has always been a very strong tradition and drive to own our own property as opposed to renting. Hence the phrase 'An Englishman's home is his castle'.

As soon as I had thoughts about owning my own house, I immediately understood that the phrase 'safe as houses' referred to investment in bricks and mortar in both a personal and financial sense.

  • You may have understood that, but that does not make it necessarily true. I've always understood it to refer to physical safety. – Colin Fine Oct 22 '15 at 23:09
  • Interesting. I take it you are also British? – chasly from UK Oct 22 '15 at 23:13
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    I am, and have been a home-owner for over 30 years. – Colin Fine Oct 22 '15 at 23:15
  • You obviously were never told the story of the three little pigs! By the way, if it meant what you thought then surely the phrase would have been "as safe as a house". The term 'houses' is more of an investment term, e.g. "I invest in stocks and shares but John invests in houses." – chasly from UK Oct 23 '15 at 0:17
  • If you believe houses are always physically safe, you obviously were never told the story of the three little pigs! Or for that matter haven't ever needed to meet the fire service at first hand (I have). If it meant what you thought then surely the phrase would have been "as safe as a house". The term 'houses' is more of an investment term, e.g. "Stocks and shares are risky but houses are safe." – chasly from UK Oct 23 '15 at 0:31

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