Pear-shaped, adjectiveSomething that has gone pear-shaped has been ruined or has gone not according to plan in a depressing way.

“I’ve been seeing this fantastic girl I met recently, but then last week I got smashed and made a jerk of myself, and, since then, it’s all been going a bit pear-shaped.”

Had Robert Burns been writing today, he might well have written, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go a bit pear-shaped.”

The phrase also refers for obvious reasons to a wide-hipped person, an older and probably unrelated meaning.

The phrase is known to have originated as pilots’ slang; it may go back to the 1960s but first appeared in print only in 1983.

If there is a single original reference, it is lost in the fog, though several have been suggested: for example that a pilot looping the loop might, if inexperienced, make pear-shaped rather than circular loops, or that a spherical balloon might become pear- shaped as it collapsed.

In any event, the phrase suggests something (a soufflé, say) collapsing under its own weight into an unpleasingly bottom-heavy and dumpy shape, with all the unexpected sogginess or lack of structural integrity that might have caused such a collapse in the first place.

Of course, gravity operates the same way on soufflés as it does on balloons and flying planes, so perhaps one of those derivations is correct.

Or perhaps, as I like to imagine, it started life a purely geometric metaphor.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.

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