The poor pear. It may be a delicious fruit, but its distinctive shape has become regularly used as a criticism or fault. When a plan goes horribly wrong, it said to have gone ‘pear-shaped’.
As there are many occasions when a pear-shaped result wasn’t intended or wanted, there are many stories vying for the origins of the expression. In glassblowing, for one, a perfectly spherical vessel can be ruined if the glass is overheated. This makes the shape of the blown glass change as it cools, leaving a pear-shaped container.
Likewise, overly fast turning on a potter’s wheel could distort the shape of a circular bowl or vase into a pear-shaped one.
But the phrase really took off in popularity in the 1940s – in the 1940 film My Little Chickadee starring WC Fields and Mae West, the line, “I have some very definite pear-shaped ideas” appears – which gives a clue as to where it came from.
One of the manoeuvres trainee pilots in the Royal Air Force had to master, in preparation for fighting in World War II, was the loop de loop. It was a difficult aerial trick and most inexperienced pilots would not keep a perfect circle all the way round but would level off at the bottom of the loop.
The loop de loop would have a distorted outline, much to the pilot’s frustration who would have to land and bare the insults from his friends that his attempt went all pear-shaped.