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I heard this phrase the other day, and couldn’t get it out of my head for some reason. So I did what any sensible person would do – I went down a rabbit hole of Google searches and Reddit/Quora posts to try to work out where this came from.
Really? That’s just a me thing?
“Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch” has come up in movies, talk shows and books. But what’s the origin story of this phrase?
What Movie is “Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch” From?
For many people, the “source” of this expression is the movies, but it’s presumably much older.
Why older? We’ll get to that.
These movies all use the phrase “Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch”:
- “Gran Torino”, starring Clint Eastwood and Bee Vang (2008)
- “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”, starring Mike Myers (1999)
- “Nuns on the Run”, starring Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane (1990)
“Nuns on the Run” is the earliest movie reference I could find, and it’s a good one to use as an outline of what the phrase is for.
It’s not (as some people have assumed) a list of things to remember when you leave your house (including presumably “don’t leave your manhood behind when you go out to face the world”).
Nope. (And presumably that would include “phone” these days…)
Not suprisingly for a movie called “Nuns on the Run”, it’s based on the Catholic sign of the cross.
In this 1990 comedy, the two crooks (played by Monty Python alum Eric Idle and a pre-Hagrid Robbie Coltrane) are disguising themselves as nuns to escape retribution from the fellow crooks they’ve betrayed.
Coltrane’s character has to explain to the non-Catholic Idle how to make the sign of the cross. While making the four points of the cross with his hand, he repeats the rhyme, one word at each point.
Rhymes are easy to remember, so they are often used as a way to memorize some important piece of information. It’s also been shown that over-the-top, controversial (or in this case, cheeky) memory tricks (mnemonics) are the easiest ones to remember.
So in this case, you have a cheeky little rhyme to remember the order of the sign of the cross. We’ll come back to the implications of that later.
What is the Sign of the Cross?
For those that aren’t familiar, a quick recap.
The sign of the cross is a Christian blessing, sometimes referred to as “Crossing yourself.”
The gesture is made with fingertips touching, tracing the shape of a cross across the body. Starting at the forehead, then the lower chest/stomach, then left shoulder, finally the right shoulder.
There are variations in different Christian traditions, but the Catholic version – at least in the West – is the one being referred to here.
OK, Why “Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch?”
The phrase has a word for each point on the cross, so lets go through them one by one.
This one’s easy.
The gesture technically starts with a touch to the forehead, but spectacles (glasses) are worn right up close to the forehead so that’s close enough.
So, to remember that the cross starts at the forehead, a gesture toward where your glasses are (or would be if you wore them) is a good start.
Remember what we said about “cheeky” memory tricks? Hard to forget this one, and that’s why the whole rhyme is easy to remember.
This one is not so accurate. The gesture is really toward the lower part of the chest, or as low as the stomach, never as low as the crotch, but the rhyming memory trick is what we’re going for.
So a gesture vaguely pointing down your chest, hopefully remembering not to actually go further if you’re the unfortunate Eric Idle trying to remember the sequence.
Not surprising that this is where we come in!
Typically, if a man puts his wallet in a jacket pocket, he will use his dominant hand to place it in the easiest pocket – the one across the body.
Since most people are right-handed, that means the “usual” place for a wallet is in the left breast pocket.
And the left side of the chest is the next point of the cross – perfect.
Well, sort of. Obviously people tend to have much smaller, minimalist wallets these days. And with good reason – if you’re not putting your wallet in a jacket then you should slim it down and carry it in a front pants pocket (here’s why.)
But even given that there are many different kinds of wallets these days, most people would be comfortable about carrying a wallet in the left inside pocket of a jacket or blazer, so that one’s good too.
Woah, hold on there. How does touching the right side of your chest translate to “watch”?
This is why we said earlier that the phrase must be a lot older than a 1990 movie. Thinking back, what did people wear before they used their phones to check the time?
OK, OK, but before wristwatches?
You got it – pocket watches. Often worn in a vest (waistcoat) pocket.
This is the one is the least solid of the four. Typically you would wear a pocket watch on the left side if you were right-handed (same theory as the wallet), but the rhyme assumes it’s on the right. Which hand you wear a wristwatch on is still a question asked today…
The best I’ve been able to come up with is that you might wear a pocket watch on the opposite side to the wallet for balance, but it doesn’t really matter. After all, there are only four points, so its obvious which one remains once you’ve done the first three.
The Origin Story
OK, so where does this little ditty come from?
Based on the pocket watch reference alone, it’s clearly quite old. A number of people claim to have heard this on TV shows in the seventies, from relatives, and so on.
In all those cases though, there seems to be an implication that its been around for a while.
Looking again at the “Nuns on the Run” movie, it’s not a stretch to see that the Robbie Coltrane character is meant to be repeating something he heard a long time ago.
So the best theory we think fits is (drum roll please) this is a old-fashioned schoolboy ditty.
Many people can remember a whole bunch of cheeky rhymes and phrases from their schooldays (probably prefer to forget some of them…) so the most likely explanation is this comes from a long-ago schoolboy rhyme (British or Irish Catholic school if I was to guess.)
OK, that’s quite enough digging for a random Sunday! I really must get a hobby …
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