10

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?

This question has an open bounty worth +400 reputation from Mari-Lou A ending in 2 days.

The current answers do not contain enough detail.

I'd appreciate evidence from sources other than Wikipedia and someone called James Briggs who posted an answer on Phrase Finder, that confirms the expression is derived from an RAF catchphrase during the 1940s. Citations from the OED are welcomed.

  • 2
    -1 Where's the homework? Is the bounty for doing the homework for the OP? – Kris Mar 14 at 8:17
  • 3
    @Kris question posted in 2011, the criteria was different back then, as well you know, so your protest is misplaced. – Mari-Lou A Mar 14 at 8:26
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA I commented today under the new criteria, when the bounty is current. Please read the entire comment. – Kris Mar 14 at 8:34
  • 3
    @Kris I did. Your comment was addressed to the OP. – Mari-Lou A Mar 14 at 11:11
  • 2
    For completeness, I should mention that in Terry Pratchett's Discworld, the phrase is used in any number of contexts, always amusingly. For example, wizards are pear-shaped, so magic is associated with it. It's one of the common expressions he took and modified for his own purposes. – John Lawler Mar 15 at 18:47

10 Answers 10

3

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.

  • 1
    I'm surprised that the earliest citation is from the 1980s. I'm sure that I can remember it from at least the 60s. Having said that I'm more familiar with as "gone a bit pear shaped" meaning "not quite succeded" or "gone all (or completely) pear shaped" meaning "failed spectacularly" than just "gone pear shaped". – BoldBen Mar 14 at 15:02
  • @BoldBen Just a regional note: in Australia, I’ve mainly heard it used in the plain “gone pear shaped” form. – Lawrence Mar 14 at 23:20
  • 1
    @Lawrence That's interesting, thanks. – BoldBen Mar 15 at 12:18
  • I can think of other things that become pear-shaped by the force of gravity, Reagen's facial features for one, or the butt. Both stand in contrast to the round shape of an apple, cp. German "Apfel-Bäckchen". Indeed, cheeks, as well as "Backen" can mean either anatomy. Growing old is not exactly a spectacular tragedy, but a midlife-crisis does sound sever. "Birne" (pear) is a general euphemism for the head, with a slightly negative connotation. – vectory yesterday
4

The OED entry (updated March 2003) for pear-shaped, adj. (paywalled), defines sense 3 as

colloquial (chiefly British, orig. R.A.F. slang). to go (also turn) pear-shaped: to go (badly) wrong, to go awry.

OED's earliest attestation is from 1983, in the context of the British response to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands:

J. Ethell & A. Price Air War South Atlantic 158 There were two bangs very close together. The whole aircraft shook and things went 'pear-shaped' very quickly after that. The controls ceased to work, the nose started to go down.

I was unable to confirm any earlier use in the RAF than that attested in 1983.

A use in 1968 (The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wisconsin, 28 Apr, p. 79; paywalled) attests the earlier appearance of the sense:

And the way the world (a big weather balloon that leaked) went pear-shaped during a performance of "Love Makes the World Go 'Round."

Slang use of 'to go (also turn) pear-shaped' with the meaning "to go wrong, to go awry" in the RAF during World War II may derive from reports such as this 1938 (paywalled) description of the sinking of the US Gunboat Panay (Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 01 Jan, p. 12):

 Then, from under the plane, a black dot appears...As it is darting toward you it becomes larger...Then there is a shape to it...A second later...it becomes a pear-shaped plummet, stream-lined for speed, trailing off in a fish-tail.
 Hell from heaven, this plummet is a roaring bomb.

Indeed, bombs and mines were frequently described in UK newspapers as 'pear-shaped' during the war.

 The mine, a large black pear-shaped object....

Newcastle Journal, 02 March 1940, p. 12 (paywalled).

It was a pear-shaped mine which when dropped from the air had a parachute attached to the "stalk" to deaden the shock of falling.

Belfast Telegraph, 02 March 1940, p. 7 (paywalled).

Examples of what is believed to be a new type of aeroplane bomb of enormous potency are being washed up...The bomb consists of a pear-shaped object three feet long and fifteen inches in diameter.

Liverpool Daily Post, 30 March 1940, p. 7 (paywalled).


In contrast to OED's derivation of 'to go pear-shaped' from RAF slang, Robert W. Holder, in How Not to Say What You Mean: a Dictionary of Euphemisms (Third Edition, 2002; originally published in 1987, revised for later editions) says this:

pear-shaped unsuccessful

Probably from the form of an analyst's graph, the use having started as jargon in financial circles. As with the fruit, the weight is at the lower end...

Holder provides an attestation of the variant "went pear-shaped" from the Daily Telegraph of 20 June 1997.


A common trauma unrelated to the shapes of bombs may contribute to the comparative frequency of 'to go pear-shaped', and so to other constructions on the same model, in contemporary speech. The trauma, male menopause, is described in a 1942 Arizona Republic article:

 One common symptom in men is the increase in weight, particularly in lower abdomen and often a loss of fat and muscle also about the chest and shoulders. Instead of the wide shoulders and narrow or medium hips, he becomes pear shaped in appearance.

Women, it appears, suffer from a similar problem. None other than Emily Post, in 1932 (a syndicated column; paywalled), remarks, with phrasing identical to a variant of the later, more abstract figurative expression, that

Precisely as one should take setting-up exercises every day to keep one's figure from going pear-shaped in the hips....

Newspapers reran Post's 1932 advice in 1941, and again in 1949. The same phrasing characterizes other quasi-literal uses in the 1960s:

...[a black-and-white television] has developed a variety of tube troubles in old age. The picture often tends to squish in at the top, broaden at the middle, and then becomes narrow and curvy toward the bottom....
 Well, a little aberration can be a devastating thing. What our TV did to thos 36-24-36 figures was bad enough to gladden the hearts of all overweight, over-thirty types.
 The pageant wasn't boring, Miss Alexander, it was (if you'll pardon the expression) a riot. Imagine those dolls coming on looking so peachy and then suddenly going pear-shaped!

Garden City Telegram (Garden City, Kansas) 16 Oct 1968, p. 4 (paywalled).

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend after her figure goes pear-shaped, but they can be next to worthless too....

The Californian (Salinas, California) 10 May 1969, p. 1 (paywalled).

Also worth noting is the occasional mention of the 'pear-shaped problem'. The mentions are ill-defined, but show up earlier, bracket Post's quasi-literal uses, and may be the noun progenitor or a sibling of the verb phrase. Here are some examples:

An average of one child a day is killed by automobiles in Greater New York, showing that speed regulations and rules of the road still afford a large, pear-shaped problem for those who must solve it.

The Atchison Daily Globe (Atchison, Kansas) 30 Jan 1913, p. 4 (paywalled).

Now Iverson runs a posture clinic here. He concentrates on children because he believes the answer to the nation's pear-shaped problem lies in correcting youngsters early.

Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York) 18 Aug 1950, p. 13 (paywalled).

"When one monkeys with Uncle Sam's security procedures, he's bound to have a large, pear-shaped problem on his hands," he continued.

The Hays Daily News (Hays, Kansas) 06 Jan 1972, p. 4 (paywalled).

All told, then, the absence of early direct primary source evidence for a British, RAF origin of 'to go pear-shaped', and the comparative abundance of evidence, in the form of identical phrasing, suggests an origin in the earlier quasi-literal expression of the sorry effects of aging on the human physique.

  • 1
    My dad was a WWII pilot from Newcastle, and he used "gone pear shaped" from time to time until he died. The bomb story rings true, and has a parallel in pranged – Phil Sweet Mar 15 at 10:44
  • 1
    @PhilSweet excellent anecdote, so can you confirm that the expression gone pear shaped is older than the 1980s? When were you born? I'm hoping in the 60s and not the 80s... – Mari-Lou A Mar 15 at 11:13
  • 1
    No, I can't. Like everyone else, internet searches go nowhere. My suspicion is that it was a local expression that was disseminated by pilot trainees during WWII. There is a 103 yo WWII pilot where my mom is, so I will try to ask him when I see him next. But it seems odd that dad would have acquired a new-fangled phrase from the '80's. But he could have picked it up from talking to relatives in England. – Phil Sweet Mar 15 at 12:33
4

Jonathon Green, Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) lists pear-shaped as a surprisingly recent slang coinage—certainly more recent than the 1940s/1950s period reported by The Phrase Finder and cited in Thursagen's answer. Here are the relevant entries from Green:

pear-shaped adj. {the image of a solid rectangle 'slipping down' into a pear shape, hence 'the bottom drops out'} {2000s} out of order, going badly or wrong.

go pear-shaped v. (also turn pear-shaped) {1990s+} of plans or schemes, to fail, to collapse.

I ran a series of exact-phrase searches for various related phrases at The British Newspaper Archive (a subscription service to which I am not a subscriber) to see what the earliest claimed matches are. Here's what the site delivered:

  • "go pear-shaped": Newcastle Journal (July 3, 1992); Liverpool Echo (May 18, 1995); Liverpool Echo (November 16, 1996); Liverpool Echo (December 7, 1996); [Dublin] Irish Independent (March 5, 1997).

  • "going pear-shaped": [Dublin] Irish Independent (June 14, 1997); [County Wexford] New Ross Standard (April 21, 1999); [Dublin] Sunday Tribune (April 25, 1999); [County Wexford] Wexford People (December 15, 1999); [Dublin] Evening Herald (December 30, 1999).

  • "gone pear-shaped": Liverpool Echo (January 27, 1997); [Dublin] Evening Herald (May 1, 1997); [County Kerry] Kerryman (May 30, 1997); Liverpool Echo (December 17, 1998); Liverpool Echo (March 3, 1999).

  • "went pear-shaped": [County Wicklow] Bray People (May 12, 1995); [County Wicklow] Bray People (September 14, 1995); [Dublin] Irish Independent (August 26, 1996); Liverpool Echo (May 31, 1997); [Dublin] Evening Herald (June 17, 1997).

  • "turn pear-shaped": [Dublin] Irish Independent (November 6, 1999); [Dublin] Evening Herald (July 16, 2001); [Dublin] Sunday Independent (April 3, 2005); [Dublin] Evening Herald (May 14, 2005); [Dublin] Irish Independent (July 25, 2005).

  • "turning pear-shaped": [Devon] Western Morning News (November 30, 1927); [Dublin] Sunday Tribune (December 13, 1998).

  • "turned pear-shaped": [Dublin] Sunday Independent (December 15, 1996); Liverpool Echo (December 26, 1998); [Dublin] Evening Herald (June 27, 2005); [Dublin] Evening Herald (January 30, 2009).

Since I couldn't check to see how many of these matches are false positives, I have no idea how many (if any) are actual matches for the specified exact phrase; nor do I know whether the British Newspaper Archive's database of searchable newspapers from recent decades comprises more than a handful of publications.

Nevertheless, I think it is noteworthy that—aside from a highly suspect outlier from 1927—the claimed matches are all from 1992 or later. This puts the claimed matches from the British Newspaper Archive in harmony with Jonathon Green's assertion that "go [or turn] pear-shaped" dates to "1990s+." As circumstantial evidence goes, it's not terribly strong—but it is something.

  • 1
    To confirm your suspicion: "Into this clear space the sun dipped, and as the lower limb neared the horizon the optical illusion of the disc turning pear-shaped was well seen." Western Morning News, 1927. – JEL Mar 15 at 5:14
  • @JEL That was a literal use, nothing idiomatic. – Kris Mar 15 at 10:00
  • 2
    @Kris: Yes, that was JEL's point: I had expressed strong skepticism about the possibility that the 1927 instance from the Devon Western Morning News of November 30, 1927, was relevant to the figurative usage that otherwise has not been clearly established as appearing in print before 1983—and JEL found the actual wording of the (paywalled) instance from 1927 and confirmed that it was literal. Thanks, JEL! – Sven Yargs Mar 15 at 16:31
2

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.

2

'Pear Shaped' is a direct euphemism for 'Tits Up', meaning 'dead' or 'completely broken'. It is common in the RAF, and the first usage recorded by the OED comes from RAF usage in 1983. I was an RAF pilot in 1983, so can confirm this from personal experience. Faulty loops have always been referred to as 'egg-shaped', not pear shaped. This is due to the effect of gravity not being properly compensated for by students. There is no waisting effect to the shape in the error, hence egg not pear. If you check Wikipedia, you'll see the 'tactical egg' in the air combat manoeuvring section shows why this error occurs. I have not heard it commonly used by other nations, just people who have worked with the British and find the phrase funny.

1

A partial answer: I've done a database search of The New York Times archive. My choice was nonintuitive but hopeful: as a foreign newspaper to the phrase's RAF origins, the NYT might have been struck enough by the use to explain or gloss it. From this search, I can highlight two possible points of usage for the phrase "pear-shaped."

First, the fruit was used to describe an airplane part. Shape associations are common, with pear-shaped objects including pearls, hearts, geographical features, and of course fruit. An early description of a "missile" from a plane (really an unidentified object dropped from a plane) is probably incidental but shows its descriptive use. From "10-Pound Missile Hurtled from Airplane Narrowly Misses Children in Central Park." New York Times (1923-Current file), Dec 18, 1934, pp. 3:

Narrowly missing several children as they were playing in Central Park near East Sixty-second Street at 3:40 o'clock yesterday afternoon, a steel pear-shaped object, about four inches long and weighing between ten and fifteen pounds, fell out of the sky and imbedded itself six inches in the ground.

A few years later, a flight weight is described as pear-shaped. From "Plane Weight Falls Into Home." New York Times (1923-Current file); Jul 27, 1944:

A pear-shaped metal object which city and military police identified as an aerial weight plunged through the roof of a Syracuse house today while planes were flying overhead.

This led me to try to figure out what the object is. Here's (amateur historian?) John Evans, To the Ends of the Earth, Paterchurch Publications 1999:

Day flying, too, could have its unexpected moments. When coming in to land at Pembroke Dock Fred Perry's Southampton lost part of its trailing aerial, complete with pear-shaped weight, because the pilot had neglected to to tell him to wind the aerial in.

It is imaginable that losing such a weight could translate to losing control. That said, I'd need to understand exactly what this weight is. If it's a streamer that trails a plane, well, that would lead to a plane losing control.

Second, pear-shaped was used to describe aviation weaponry during the second World War. Note that the weapon described is air-to-air, and would effectively harass bomber crews. From Wireless to THE NEW,YORK TIMES. "Enemy Uses New Bomb." New York Times (1923-Current file), May 27, 1942, pp. 3.

Japanese fliers in the New Britain and New Guinea areas are using a new aerial bomb - described by United Nations pilots as pear-shaped or cone-shaped - as an offensive weapon against formations of United Nations planes returning from raids.

Enemy Zero fighters wait until the United Nations bombers have regained formation. Then the Zero pilots climb 1,000 feet above the bombers and drop the new bombs. The bombs explode violently, emitting a shower of shrapnel and bluish white smoke.

A disastrous encounter with such a weapon or the piloting maneuvers that follow might have led to referring to a "pear-shaped" flight path.


More work is needed. The two trails I've found don't yet connect convincingly to any slang usage. Rather, they are related to aviation and offer literal descriptions of items. Next time I have time, I'll do some digging in other sources to try to find early uses of the idiom, and then see if either of the explanations connect.

0

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.

0

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.

0

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!

  • 9
    This sounds very convincing, could you find a link which confirms your theory? – Mari-Lou A Aug 13 '13 at 22:36
  • 2
    Please add verifiable facts or describe your specific expertise which demonstrates the truth of this answer. – MetaEd Aug 14 '13 at 4:04
0

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).

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:20

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.