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He couldn't run a whelk stall!

00:00 Mon 29th Jan 2001 |

By Hermione Gray

THERE are many colourful ways of describing incompetence, where a person is placed in a position far beyond his ability.

One memorable saying is, 'He couldn't run a whelk stall'. This may have originated with John Burns, a Labour MP in 1894, who said: 'From whom am I to take my marching orders From men who fancy they are Admirable Crichtons*, but have not got sufficient brains and ability to run a whelk stall '

The phrase is considered to be the UK equivalent of the American phrase: 'That's hell of a way to run a railroad.'

According to the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 'What a way to run a railroad' probably started life as a cartoon in an American magazine in the 1930s. This shows two trains that are about to collide, with a signalman looking out of his box. The caption is, 'Tch-tch - what a what to run a railroad!'

The Boston and Maine railroad seized upon this phrase when it was looking for 'a statement which would explain some of the problems of the railroad in times of inclemental weather.'

So, while it gave the reasons why leaves on the line and the wrong kind of snow etc. would brings things to a halt, it inserted the line 'That's a H--l of a Way to Run a Railroad!' between each paragraph of its advertisement.

As a result, the saying was used to describe mismanagement or inability of any kind. More modern ways of conveying the same impression concern organising a get-together in a brewery, or not being able to fight one's way out of paper bags.

  • *Admirable Crichton comes from The Admirable Crichton, a JM Barrie play and subsequently two films, about a butler who proves invaluable to his aristocratic employer when they are shipwrecked on a desert island. It is used to describe anyone who is resourceful, accomplished and intelligent.

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