Why do MPs use weird phrases like ‘my Right Honourable Friend’?

2APCPKN (200122) -- LONDON, Jan. 22, 2020 (Xinhua) -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Front) speaks during the Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons in London, Britain, on Jan. 22, 2020. Britain's Brexit withdrawal bill was finally approved Wednesday night after historic votes in the Houses of Parliament, paving the way for Britain to leave the European Union (EU). (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/Handout via Xinhua) HOC MANDATORY CREDIT: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

BRITISH democracy’s beating heart is within the House of Commons, with MPs shouting, jeering and derating their way through parliamentary meetings. They are often heard belting out archaic language during debates, with the origins of some words stretching back as far as the nation’s governmental foundation.

Here we explain who or what exactly “Black Rod” is, why there used to be two collapsible top hats on hand at all times, and what happens if you say an MP’s name.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks fired up while addressing the opposition in the House of Commons, London


Order, order!

Probably the most recognisable phrase uttered in the House of Commons by its Speaker, it comes from their role in calling the chamber to order – which given how often it is shouted shows that it’s not always successful.

Ex-Speaker, the legendary shouter John Bercow explained: “I keep order in the chamber, really, by saying ‘order’.”

He often admonished the politicians with:”Ordeeeeer! The House must calm itself, there’s a long time to go,”

Out of order

Briefcases are banned from the Chamber, as is the reading of newspapers, magazines, letters or other material – except when connected with issues being debated.

Members must not pass between the Chair and the member who is speaking.

Any errant MP annoying the House with distracting electronic pagers, telephones and other electronic devices is likely to be told off by the Speaker.

And if your tummy is rumbling, too bad, as eating and drinking is not permitted in contrast to previous centuries, when visitors saw Members sucking oranges and cracking nuts.

My honourable friend/the honourable member

Politicians can sometimes sound as if they’re addressing their best mates despite blasting their political foes across the floor.

MPs are not allowed to call each other by their name, so they often refer to each other by their constituency.

And they differentiate between the parties they represent by calling someone from their party “MY honourable FRIEND, the member for X,Y and Z”, while an MP from another party is “THE honourable MEMBER for X,Y and Z”.

They’re not called honourable outside the Commons though – in the real world they are simply addressed by their name, followed by MP.

Right honourable friend

If an MP has become a member of the Privy Council, they are referred to in a slightly different way.

The Privy Council is an advisory body to the Monarch and its origins date back to at least the thirteenth century.

Membership is nowadays an honour bestowed on  senior politicians from all parties.

MPs must refer to them as “My right honourable friend”, or “the right honourable member”.

Other embellishments such as “gallant” – used for MPs in the armed forced – and “learned” for MPs who are barristers, are rarely used anymore.

Naming a member

When it comes to discipline, being named means you’re officially shamed.

Naming a Member is the term used to describe the disciplining of an MP for breaking the House’s rules.

This is carried out by the ever-watchful Speaker.

They can dish out punishment such as suspending them for that particular sitting – or for the rest of the day.

The other place

Another thing the MPs are not allowed to mention when they are in the Commons chamber is the House of Lords.

Since the 1800s, they have instead dismissively referred to the upper house as “the other place”, indicating the historic bad feeling between the two.

Mr Speaker

Often MPs will begin an answer to a question by another MP with the phrase “Mr Speaker”.

This is because officially they are not allowed to directly address anything said by another member, instead going via the Speaker with their answer.

Serjeant at arms

The officer responsible for the order and security of the House of Commons, the role dates back to 1415.

Easily spotted in their black tights, they perform ceremonial duties such as carrying the mace into and out of the chamber each day, and are the only person in the House of Commons allowed to carry a sword.


This was historically the term used for anyone who was not a member of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords – but has since been updated to “members of the public”.

If the House needed to sit in private MPs would say “I spy strangers”, which would mean the public had to leave the galleries.

Collapsible top hats

Until the sweeping modernisation in 1998, MPs who wanted to raise a point of order during proceedings had to wear a hat when speaking.

As most members didn’t own one, much less wore one to work, two collapsible top hats were kept in the Chamber especially for this purpose.

Unparliamentary language

There are a number of words which are off-limits for MPs to say – and some of them are not what you might expect.

One example is “pipsqueak” – which got former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson in hot water when he used it to describe Michael Gove.

Others include: coward, git, guttersnipe, bag of wind, blatherskite, dim-witted saboteur, hooligan, rat, swine, Canadian Mussolini, stoolpigeon, ignoramus and traitor.

Terminological inexactitude

Another thing MPs cannot do is accuse their colleagues of being a liar – with the Speaker quick to request they withdraw any such comment.

Some MPs have sought to get round it by using a phrase first coined by Winston Churchill, who once accused an opposition member of using a “terminological inexactitude”.

Tired and emotional

Being accused of appearing “tired and emotional” is another euphemism used by MPs to accuse a fellow member of something they are not allowed to – in this case of being drunk.

It was first popularised by Private Eye, when it was used in a spoof memo about the state of Labour Cabinet minister George Brown in 1967.

Other phrases used to mean the same thing are that the MP is “not quite himself” or is “overwrought”.

Three-line whip

Each party assigns several of its MPs to become “whips”, whose job it is to corral their members to vote the way the party wants them to.

The number of lines determine how serious the vote is – with a “three-line whip” being the most important, defiance of which could see a black mark against an MP’s name.

Nodding through

If an MP is on the Parliamentary estate, but is unable to get to the voting lobby to have their say on a bill due to illness or looking after a small child, they may be allowed to cast their vote anyway by being “nodded through” by agreement of the whips from both sides, known as going through the “usual channels”.


This is an arrangement between two MPs from opposing sides of the Commons, who agree that if one of them is unable to make it to a vote, then their “pair” will abstain from voting too, so that their absence will not affect the outcome.

It is an informal arrangement run by the whips offices that often breaks down when Governments have small majorities and face rebellions.

‘Black Rod’

Or to give him or her their full name is the “Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod”.

They are responsible for controlling access to the House of Lords, but is most well-known for having a door slammed in their face every year.

During the State Opening of Parliament when the Queen delivers a speech in the upper chamber, Black Rod walks to the lower chamber and bangs on the door three times with the ebony rod.

But the MPs in the House of Commons – in order to show their primacy over the Lords – slam it in their face, before allowing them to enter, and following them to the “other place”.

Norman French

Due to the ancient nature of our Parliament, its first official language was Norman French.

And as many of the practises of passing a bill into law have not changed in the time, some parts of the process involve using this language, such as “La Reyne le veult” – which means “The Queen wills it” – and signifies that a bill has received royal assent.

Father and Baby of the House

The Father of the House is a title given to not necessarily the oldest MP, or the one who has been there for the longest – but the member with the longest period of unbroken service.

Currently it is Sir Peter Bottomley, the MP for Worthing West.

The Baby of the House is the youngest MP, and is currently Nadia Whittome, 24, a Labour newbie representing Nottingham East.

The woolsack

In the House of Commons, the Speaker sits in a massive gilded chair, raised high above the MPs.

But in the Lords, the Speaker parks their backside on a large square cushion of wool covered in red cloth, stuffed with wool brought from around the Commonwealth.

This is to remind Peers of the importance of the wool trade to our economy, and the tradition dates back to the reign of Edward III.

Ayes to the right, Noes to the left

When a vote is called, MPs exit the chamber and go into two corridors either side – the “aye” lobby on the right, and the “no” lobby on the left.

They file through where they are counted by specially selected MPs known as “tellers”.

They then go back into the Commons and hand the result to the Speaker to read out.

Snuff box

Smoking has been banned in the House of Commons since 1694.

So, to keep MPs craving a cigarette from cracking up during marathon debates, snuff was made available.

And bizarrely, it still is to this day with a stash provided at the doorkeepers’ box by the entrance to the Chamber, though it is unclear if any of them still take it.

Crossing the floor

To cross the floor in Parliament means to change sides: to leave one political party and join another.

It was most famously done by Winston Churchill in 1904, and by Mark Reckless, who joined Ukip after defecting from the Tories in 2014.

Reckless then re-joined the Conservatives in 2017, saying it was “job done” after the party “achieved” its “joint aim, a successful referendum to leave the EU… Article 50 has been triggered”.

These days they no longer literally cross the floor but would sit with their new party when they next entered the Chamber.

Manor of Northstead and the Chiltern Hundreds

Technically, an MP is not allowed to resign – the only ways out of the Commons without losing an election are to die, be expelled, or to become disqualified.

One of the ways you can be disqualified is by taking the position of The Steward and Bailiffs of the Chiltern Hundreds, and of the Manor of Northstead – two nominal titles which bar someone from being an MP.

The most recent person to use it was SNP MP Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) in March 2021, because of a controversial rule change imposed by the Scottish party.

Dragging the Speaker to the Chair

Another bizarre ancient custom dictates that when a new Speaker is elected – or the old one is returned to the role after a General Election – he had to be physically dragged to the chair.

The reason is that traditionally the Speaker’s role was the take the Commons’ message to the monarch – and if they didn’t like it, the Speaker might return to Parliament without their head – hence why there was sometimes a reluctance to take on the role.

‘Who goes home?’

Two Doorkeepers simultaneously shout “Who goes home?” when the House rises, which harks back to the day when there were dangerous unlit fields between Westminster and the City of London.

It was a suggestion to MPs to band together to travel home in groups or hire boats on the Thames to save the individual fares.

No wearing of armour

It has been illegal to wear a suit of armour in the House of Commons since a law passed in 1313 under King Edward II named Statutum de Defensione portandi Arma (Statute Forbidding the wearing of Weapons).

Swords were also banned at the same time, and to this day MPs are given a loop next to their coat hook in the members’ cloakroom to hang it up.


The process by which an MP talks on and on and on about things completely unrelated to the topic of the debate, in a bid to waste time allotted to the bill.

The process is also known as “talking out” a bill, where there is only a short amount of time to discuss it and hold a vote.

Some MPs have become known for this process, such as Tories Philip Davies and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who once spent hours wasting time talking about a fictional pig, the Empress of Blandings, in a bid to block a livestock bill.