As safe as houses
For the risk averse amongst us we look for an investment opportunity which is as Safe as houses by which we mean secure and unlikely to cost us our principal. With interest rates so low and house prices buoyant, at least in certain parts of the country, property has an irresistible attraction. But what goes up can come down and some sages fear that an investment involving houses won’t necessarily always be as secure as we delude ourselves into thinking. Whether that comes to pass or not, as safe as houses describes figuratively something that is absolutely secure with safe having the sense of being free from danger.
There are a couple of things of interest about our phrase. The first is that it is another example of the formulation of as adjective as noun that peppers our language. We have come across a number in our etymological explorations. The second is much more interesting – the change in the meaning of the word safe.
There was a curious expression, as safe as bellows, which may give us the key with which to unlock the mystery. In London Life and the London Poor, written by Henry Mayhew in 1851, he reports, “if you was caught up and brought afore the Lord Mayor, he’d give you fourteen days on it, as safe as bellows.” Surely safe in this expression means without doubt, certainly or for sure. That this is the case is reinforced by Francis Grose’s explorations into English dialect in the 1780s when he unearthed an expression from Cumberland, “he is safe enough for being hanged.” Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary, published in 1898, unearthed a Lincolnshire expression, “it is safe to thunder.” In each case it is an expression of certainty, something that is bound to happen.
That we are on the right track is confirmed by a passage from James Friswell’s earlier usage of the phrase in his novel, Out and About, published in 1860, “No uncertainty here, guv’nor, answered one of the captors. You’re booked, as safe as houses.” This sense of our phrase is echoed in a passage from Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, published in 1874. There he wrote, “He must come without fail, and wear his best clothes. The clothes will floor us as safe as houses! said Coggan.” This echoes In John Conroy Hutcheson’s Penang Pirate from 1886 we find “Why, you’d be a dead man ‘fore morning, safe as houses.” And J S Winter, in her 1894 novel entitled Red Coats, wrote “You know the Colonel is as safe as houses to come round after church parade.”
So at least in English dialect and the vernacular in the 19th century we may conclude that as safe as houses was a variant of other curious phrases such as as sure as eggs is eggs, conveying a sense of certainty rather than security. My only hesitation is that there is an element of ambiguity in the phrase’s first appearance in print in the melodrama, Timour the Tartar, printed in 1851 but performed in the 1840s, “I’ll give my word, that Timour’s life/ shall be safe as houses.” It could be read as certain but equally it could mean safe.
In his Slang Dictionary of 1859, John Hotten suggested that the failure of railway investments and the collapse of savings institutions around that time made property an attractive form of investment and that this was the origin of the phrase, security rather than certainty. It doesn’t explain the use of safe in dialect but it may be that there were two variants of the phrase and when the old usage of safe fell into obscurity, the meaning we are accustomed to gained precedence. But is far from certain.
Filed under: Culture, History Tagged: as safe as bellows, Far From The Madding Crowd, Francis Grose, origin of as safe as houses, safe meaning certain, Thomas Hardy, Timour the Tarar
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