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I'm preempting the usual comments by saying: If you're not British, you probably won't have heard it before.

But it is a fairly well known phrase in BrE.

For instance, in this book:

Unfortunately, it meant that we were without Yos and Ga for the game and myself, Jer, Jumpy, Sherry, Reg, Pob, were all feeling distinctly rough as houses.

Pretty much the last thing you want to do with a stinking hangover is go out on a Sunday morning, put shorts on and attempt to run around in the pouring and freezing rain.

emphasis added

Which matches my understanding of it meaning "feeling very unwell".

Even though nGrams finds nothing, I'm confident it's not a new phrase.

The answer bank has some speculative guesses (derived from "roughhousing" or "rough as a bag/arsehole"), but I'm looking for an actual etymology and/or origin.

What is the origin of the British phrase "Rough as houses" ?

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    I speak BE: it is quite rare. However... word-detective.com/2011/10/roughhousing: "A “rough house” in 19th century Britain was an inn, pub or private home known as a “rough” place where brawls regularly broke out (“The defendant had been drinking at the new Inn for three weeks … Mr. Oglethorpe stated that it was a rough house … The prisoner had been convicted frequently for assaults on the police,” 1874). So “to roughhouse” was originally to behave as if you were a habitué of a seedy and violent dive." I suggest that "rough as houses" comes from this source.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 28, 2021 at 23:41
  • Is "safe as houses" meant to be taken ironically?
    – TimR
    Dec 26, 2023 at 13:38
  • @Greybeard But the term here is NOT rough house. rough as houses could easily come from to roughhouse, too.
    – Lambie
    Dec 26, 2023 at 20:49
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    @Lambie: my suggestion is that "rough as houses" = "rough as roughhouses" in which the second "rough" is lost for effect.
    – Greybeard
    Dec 27, 2023 at 11:54
  • It only seems to show up in books after 2000 according to google. I noted that "rough as toast" has a lot of traction and is used in the context of hangovers/feeling poorly as well as just a general exclamation of bad workmanship etc. Some claim it as Scotland regional (?)
    – Yorik
    Jan 26 at 16:17

1 Answer 1

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It's a kind of joke: To roughhouse is a verb; here, he is hung over so he says "rough as houses", which is just silly and mimics his quasi-drunk state. It's a bad joke.

Not to be confused with a "rough house", which would be a bar with brawlers or petty criminals. And, fyi, it is not fairly common at all. And is not particularly BrE.

Merriam Webster:

roughhouse

2 of 2 verb rough·​house ˈrəf-ˌhau̇s -ˌhau̇z roughhoused; roughhousing transitive verb

: to treat in a boisterously rough manner intransitive verb

: to engage in roughhouse

Cambridge Dictionary

to fight in a way that is not serious:
A couple of boys were roughhousing (each other) in the park.

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    Do you have a source for that connection? Dec 27, 2023 at 14:14
  • @AncientSwordRage Some questions are not in sources. Ever heard of creative writing? Here in reference to being drunk.
    – Lambie
    Dec 27, 2023 at 15:06
  • @Lambie In fact, in context, it means "hung-over" and more generally: (i) "in a poor and/or unfinished state" and/or (ii) particularly unattractive.
    – Greybeard
    May 5 at 11:02

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