The start of a happy chase began with a letter from reader Sheila Fletcher. She grew up in the north of England, and remembered that whenever she asked an unwanted question, her mother would reply, "Layers for meddlers." "I had no idea what that meant," Fletcher said, "other than telling me it was none of my business, but I did picture 'layers' as little mousetraps set to catch inquisitive fingers probing the inside of the bag." Later, when she was reading The Moviegoer, a great novel by southern U.S. author Walker Percy, she came across the expression with this spelling: "Larroes catch medloes."
If there's one thing the reference books agree on, it's that an expression of this sort exists and, indeed, is used by parents to avoid answering their children's questions. But that's about all they agree on.
In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge says the expression "lareovers for meddlers" emerged in Britain in the 1700s and meant "an answer frequently given to children, or young people, as a rebuke for their impertinent curiosity." It was later spelled "layers for meddlers" and "layover for meddlers." But his separate definition of lareover (or lay-over) seems to have no bearing on the longer expression: "a word used instead of one that must, in decency, be avoided." This may be a reference to the sexual synonyms for lay, or
So, on to the United States, where Volume 3 of the Dictionary of American Regional English pegs the expression as "chiefly southern" and defines it in a familiar way: "used as an evasive answer to a question, especially 'What's that?'" It gives the variations as "layos to catch meddlers" and "layovers to catch meddlers," mentioning in passing laros, larovers, larrows and lay rows. John R. Bartlett, in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, said, "I have never heard it except in New York." By 1926, The American Mercury, which used the spelling "lay rows," was assigning it to Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Author Mary Noailles Murfree, who spent most of her life in Tennessee, wrote this passage in her 1886 book In the Clouds: "But when asked what she was talking about she would only reply in enigmatical phrase, 'Laros to ketch meddlers.' And shake her head unutterably."
So, we have established its range. But what on Earth is a laro (etc.) in this context? There are two answers, mutually exclusive. Neither definition is supported by the Oxford English Dictionary, but both are satisfying.
The first comes from Fletcher, who did a bit of digging and found a 1996 article in England's Bolton Evening News. Brian Clare, described as an authority on Lancashire dialect and humour, had read a reference in the newspaper to the phrase "layers for meddlers," described as "one of those sayings of forgotten origin that passed into Lancashire folklore." Not so, Clare wrote. The phrase, still in use, is in fact "layholes for meddlers." And a layhole, in the old Lancashire dialect, may be translated as a lie hole, or grave. "Used in answer to inquisitive children's questions," Clare wrote, "it implied that if they continued 'meddling' they could finish up in a 'layhole.' The phrase aligns itself with the gentler but still pointed phrase that ' childther shud bi seen un not herd.' "
If you don't like the notion of suggesting to children that they'll be killed for being curious, much as curiosity killed the cat, there is the second option. William and Mary Morris, in their Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, offer the phrase as "layover to catch meddlers," and define layover this way: "a trap for bears or other unwary animals, made of a pit covered with boughs." Presumably, one lays the boughs over the top. The Morrises even record a one-word version for convenience: "larofamedlers."
Maybe so. But "children should be seen and not heard" is easier to spell.