BRITISH LIFE Festivals Sport Traditions

Flipping Hell, it’s Pancake Day: a Time for Tossers?


Every year British newspapers have a great deal of fun playing with language around pancakes, for Pancake Day.

The way we cook a pancake on one side and then throw it into the air to turn it over to cook the other side is described by the verbs to flip or to toss. Which brings us into a wonderful field of English slang because look: to flip can also mean to go mad suddenly, or to lose control of yourself. Used as a phrasal verb, if someone flips out they get suddenly, uncontrollably angry. And it doesn’t stop there because flipping is also a minced oath, which means it is used as a way of avoiding the F-word. “Oh flipping hell!”, we cry, when the trains are cancelled again for no reason, and we are late for work. Or, (as I just said to my dog) “WHY is there flipping mud all over the floor?”

Toss is another one. Yes, to toss something means to throw it, often so it will turn over in the air. You can toss a coin, for example. But it also means…to masturbate. And therefore a tosser in spoken language does not really mean someone who is throwing something. A tosser is a bastard; a prat, an idiot…someone you don’t like, in any case. It’s rude, but not hugely so. Don’t use it in formal circumstances, or in front of someone’s grandmother.

Anyway, when you understand this, you will understand why, last year, when David Cameron went to a primary school on pancake day (to show himself as friendly, fun, playful type of guy), tossed a pancake and DROPPED it…the newspapers, and social media, had a jolly good time. Comments like “OFFICIAL! HE’S A USELESS TOSSER!”  “Flipping heck, what a tosser!” and “Cameron IS a flipping tosser” filled the air. It was all quite good fun, though maybe not for Cameron.


Anyway, Pancake Day comes every year on Shrove Tuesday, which is the Tuesday before Lent. Traditionally, Lent is a Christian period of fasting and abstinence for four weeks before Easter.  Cooking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday was a useful way of using up all the eggs, fat and flour before Lent fasting began.

Even now, people “give things up for Lent”, though it should be something you like, and not “violin practice and maths”,  which is the annual hopeful attempt of my daughter.

But there is also the British Pancake Race. All over the country, people put on aprons and headscarves, grab a frying pan and a pancake, and then race each other while tossing the pancakes. The story seems to have begun in 1445 in Olney, Buckinghamshire, where a housewife apparently was still cooking pancakes when they Shrovetide bell ran for church, and not wanting to be late for the service, she ran there with her pan, and pancakes in it. Whether this is fact or legend, every year Olney still holds one of the UK’s largest pancake races, but before you decide to do it, you might want to remember that the prize is just a kiss from the verger, and I’m not sure it’s worth running 400 yards just for that.

These ladies look as though they would quite like that kiss, though.

These ladies look as though they would quite like that kiss, though, don’t they?



  • 110g plain flour, sifted
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 200ml milk mixed with 75ml water
  • 50g butter

To serve

  • caster sugar
  • lemon juice
  • lemon wedges

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