Expression: To Cotton on to Something

In this episode of Aussie English I teach you guys how to use the expression “To cotton on to something”.

Expression: To cotton on to something

G’day guys. How’s it going? Welcome to this episode of Aussie English. Today’s going to be another expression episode, but I just thought I would chat to you a little bit first and tell you what the latest news is.

So, I spent the last weekend at my parents’ place down in Ocean Grove, and it was really fun because it’s always good to see them, and they’d been away recently in England and Scotland doing a little tour of the country, I guess, with my grandparents, because my grandparents, my mother’s parents, were over there when mum was born. And so, I’ve got a British passport as a result of that, lucky me. And it was their sixtieth wedding anniversary. So, sixty years that they’ve been married. Pretty mind-blowing. So, they went and found all these places that they had gone to when they used to live there like places they lived, so different houses they lived in as well as going to visit churches they went to, the church they got married in, the house that they had mum in, and I think grandpa’s work as well. He used to work for a some kind of engineering company that worked on a damn over there. So, they were going around and seeing all of these sites that still were there sixty years later. So, that was really cool. I got to see a bunch of photos and have mum show me everything that they went and did over there, and dad sort of went I think about a month afterwards, or a few weeks after my mum had initially gone with her brother and my grandparents to do the first part in England, and then my dad went over and they also toured Scotland. So, that was pretty cool, and it was good to see that I guess they had pretty good weather while they were there. It rained a little bit as you would expect in the UK, and yeah, while we’re in Australia the weather’s getting better over here down in the southern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere obviously it’s doing the opposite going into winter and getting a little bit colder. So, yeah, [I] spent the weekend down there. I also recorded a bunch of quick discussions with my folks, my parents, as well as my sister, talking about the different recent Expression and Like A Native episodes that I had done, and I’d sort of sat them down and got them to briefly discuss the different phrases that had been in recent episodes of the podcast, and I videoed it. I had them sort of discuss what they thought each expression or word that we went through meant. So, they defined it and then they kind of chatted about how they would use it and when they would use it as native speakers of English obviously. And so, I definitely encourage you guys to go to YouTube, the Aussie English channel there and check out all of the ones that I have released so far, the Aussie Chinwags episodes. They’re all pretty short. I think I’ve shared them all so far on Facebook too, and I’m going to release a few more in the next few days. So, they’ve also got subtitles so you can listen and read at the same time to get a bit of practice with the Australian accent and with some of these expressions.

Anyway, the expression for today that I wanted to run you guys through and talk to you guys about is “To cotton on to something”, “To cotton on to something”.
So, to define what “To cotton on to something” means to start with. It means to form an understanding of something. So, if you cotton on to something if means that you’ve worked something out, you’ve discovered something, you’ve realised something, you’ve figured something out. So, it’s that getting an understanding of something, working it out.

So, what is the word “Cotton”? The word “Cotton”, literally, is a soft fibrous substance which surrounds the seeds of the cotton plant and is made into textile fibre and thread for sewing. So, it’s turned into textiles, clothing, linen, all of that sort of stuff, and it was mass produced in the US and India back in the day, but as you’re about to find out the origins of this phrase it actually has nothing to do with the literal, I guess, translation of cotton as a fibrous substance that’s used in fabrics and textiles. So, that’s the word “Cotton”.

Where did the phrase originate from? “To cotton on to someone” or “To cotton on to something”, I’ll go through both of these. I’m not really going to talk about “To cotton on to someone” because apparently that is an expression that’s used in the US. I don’t really use it, in fact I’ve never used it [in that sense] and I don’t hear people in Australia using it [in that sense] but just so that you are aware “to cotton on to someone” means to talk a liking to someone, and this is apparently a very old phrase from the US dating back to the 1600s, so the 17th century.

“To cotton on to something”, to go through the origins of this phrase, “To cotton on to something”, it originally meant to attach oneself to something. So, specifically, to attach oneself, or to attach yourself, to an idea that you hadn’t encountered before. SO, there’s that “getting an understanding of something”, attaching yourself to the idea. Suddenly getting the idea and understanding the idea. Interestingly, although it seems reasonable to think that these phrases originate from part of the English speaking world where cotton was produced [i.e. US and India] this actually isn’t the case, at least according to what I was reading, suggesting that this phrase doesn’t actually have anything to do strictly with the cotton plant itself. So, “To cotton to” was coined in the UK and the first widespread uses of “To cotton on to something”, it was used in New Zealand and Australia, and this is obviously why it’s a phrase that I use because I’m Australian. The earliest of “To cotton on to something” was used in the media in a newspaper that dates back to March 1883 in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser newspaper. So, this is somewhere in New South Wales, and it was in reference to a racehorse. So, the phrase was something along the lines of “A lot of backers then cottoned on to Sahara, who was a strong favourite”. And for “A lot of backers” that’s people supporting this racehorse. “To cotton on to Sahara” it effectively suggests they worked out, they realised, they discovered that Sahara was a good racehorse. So, that it was a strong favourite in the race, and this is why they decided to back the horse. They “cottoned on to it” being a good horse.

So, to run you through some examples as usual guys. I’ve just sort of written out four different examples here to sort of discuss about how I would use this phrase.

The first example is, say that you’re father is about to have his 60th birthday party and you and the rest of the family are planning to have a surprise party for him. So, you haven’t told him ahead of time that there’s going to be a party for him. He doesn’t know. And everyone’s come over before he gets home, say, from work. You’ve put decorations up in the house, there’s cake, there’s presents that everyone’s brought over, you know, it’s everyone from the family as well as all of his really close friends. Everyone’s wearing one of those silly cone hats for birthday parties. They’ve got those whistles with paper tails on them ready to blow the whistles as soon as he walks in through the door. Say, he’s running late for some reason and you start messaging him and asking “Where are you? What are you doing? What time are you going to be home?” and as a result of this interrogation, you know, you’re sending a bunch of messages to him asking where he is, what he’s doing, when he’s going to be home. He gets sort of suspicious of what’s going on because he knows it’s his birthday, obviously, and usually you don’t send him this many messages asking about his whereabouts. So, if he starts suspecting that you’ve planned a party you could say that “He’s cottoning on to the surprise party”. So, “He’s cottoning on to something that you guys have planned.” He’s starting to work out, he’s starting to suspect, he’s starting to discover the fact that you planned a surprise party for him. So, “He’s beginning to cotton on, he’s cottoning on to the party”. So, he’s discovering the party plans.

Example number two, maybe you’re a teenager who’s started dating someone, you’ve started seeing someone secretly. So you’ve got a girlfriend or a boyfriend that you’re seeing, that you’re dating. You’re parents don’t know about this. You’ve been dating them for a while, say a few months. Your parents obviously don’t know. If they did know they wouldn’t be happy because for some reason, whatever the reason is, they don’t want you dating because they think you’re too young, they don’t think you’re mature enough, whatever the reason is. All of a sudden you start getting home late at night past your curfew, so past the time you’re meant to get home. Say, you’re meant to be home at 8 and you get home at 8:15. Say, you’re getting phone calls late at night and you’re up all night on the phone. If they started suspecting that you were dating someone you could say that “You think they’re cottoning on to you dating someone”. So, “you think that they’re beginning to cotton on to the fact that you’re seeing someone, to the fact that you’re dating someone”. So you could tell the person, “Oh no! I think they’ve cottoned on to us. I think they’ve cottoned on to us dating. I think that they’ve cottoned on to us seeing each other”.

Example number three, say you’re at a party and a guy keeps asking you to dance. So you’re a young lady, you’re at a party, a guy keeps asking you to dance, he keeps bringing you drinks, he keeps wanting to talk to you, he won’t leave you alone, you know, he wants to get to know you. You haven’t worked out why he’s doing it. Say, for whatever reason you don’t realise that he obviously really likes you. You think he’s just being really nice, or maybe he’s just weird, or something else. And maybe you turn to your friends who are also at this party and you say, “Why’s this guy doing this? He keeps asking me to dance. He keeps asking me to have a drink with him. He wants to chat to me. I don’t’ really know him. What the hell’s going on? Why do you think he’s doing this?”. And they could say to you or they could ask you, “Haven’t you cottoned onto it yet? He likes you. Haven’t you cottoned on? Haven’t you cottoned on to him?” Haven’t you worked it out, haven’t you figured it out, haven’t you discovered the fact, haven’t you understood that he likes you. So, “You need to cotton on to the fact that he likes you”.

And I guess the last example here is imagine that you’re playing a joke on a friend who’s gotten drunk at a party. And this isn’t a bad joke, you guys will see in this example. You know that he’s had too much to drink. So, maybe he’s had 10 beers or something. He’s very drunk and he keeps asking you to bring him another beer. And obviously you know that he’s had enough. He’s had more than enough of his fair share of beer, You don’t want to make him more drunk. So, instead of bringing him beer you take the beer that he’s holding and you fill that bottle with water and then you bring it back to him to try and help him sober up and stay hydrated. So, say he’s so drunk that he doesn’t even notice that he’s actually drinking water, and you know, you and your friends are sitting around chatting, doing your thing, and he’s saying “This is amazing beer! Thanks for getting me the beer”. You could tell you friends, you know, laughing, “He definitely hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that he’s drinking water. He hasn’t cottoned on to it being water. He hasn’t cottoned on.”

So, that’s it guys. Hopefully by now you get the idea of what the phrase “To cotton on” means, or “To cotton on to someone” or “To cotton on to something”. It’s that idea of forming an understanding of something, working something out, discovering it, realising it, figuring it out.

Note: it only occurred to me after making this episode that you can say “To cotton on to someone” in the sense that you’ve worked out, figured out, realised, what someone is doing.

That’s effectively it. So, now we’ll just do a brief listen and repeat exercise as we always do at the end here guys, and I’ll try and do this in my Australian accent just so that you can practice my pronunciation. Again, if you don’t want to you don’t have to. Check out the transcripts and pronounce it how you would generally pronounce these things if you don’t want to practice my accent, and you just want to practice your English in general. Anyway, let’s go. Listen and repeat after me guys.

Listen and repeat:

I haven’t cottoned on to it yet

You haven’t cottoned on to it yet.

He hasn’t cottoned on to it yet.

She hasn’t cottoned on to it yet.

We haven’t cottoned on to it yet.

They haven’t cottoned on to it yet.

And I guess, just to discuss a little bit there about how my pronunciation changes. As an Australian, I’m not sure if it’s the same for Americans or people from the UK, but when I speak quickly as you will notice if you go back and listen to that exercise the “T’s” kind of become muted. So, the “T’s” in the words there like “Haven’t” becomes “haven’d”, “To it” becomes “Do id” and “yet” becomes “yed”. So, it’s almost like it turns into a muted “D” instead of a “T”. Anyway, that’s just something to practice if you want an Australian accent, but yeah, or you just want to be able to understand Australians when they speak.

Anyway, this episode’s gone long enough guys. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think on Facebook as always and come and join the community. Have a chat to me. I’m always on there reading your comments and trying to engage with you guys, and in general just trying to foster a community where you guys can practice your English. So, always feel free to come over to Facebook and ask any questions, share anything, chat with us, chat with us in general. Have a good one guys.