1. When applied to people, it means narrow at the shoulders and wide at the hips. This use goes back to at least 1815.
2. When said of someone’s voice, “pear-shaped” means rich and sonorous. The Oxford English Dictionary dates this use to 1925.
3. The third use is a British expression indicating that something has gone horribly wrong, or has fallen apart, usually in the phrase “It’s all gone pear-shaped.” It’s a catch-all expression of dismay, that encompasses everything from “this situation has not turned out quite the way I planned,” to “everything is ruined,” and all points in between.
The origin is unclear, but one theory says that it is RAF slang (from the 1940s) relating to the difficulty of performing aerobatic loops, which were described as “pear-shaped” if executed imperfectly.
Many plausible explanations have been put forward for where it might have come from. It seems there are hundreds of occasions in which it’s important to draw a perfect circle, and as many opportunities for dismay when it turns out to be fatter at one end than the other.
Here are just a few possible origins of the phrase:
— A badly thrown circular pot.
— A badly blown glass ball.
— A badly blown cathode ray tube.
— Two-day old party balloons which have become saggy.
— A gun barrel failing, and becoming swollen as the pressure buckles the metal.
— Worn or badly made metal bearings in large stationary engines.
— A crashed bi-plane, which buckles into a pear shape.
— Ship construction in the 1950s using hot rivets. If the rivets were allowed to cool, they assumed a “pear” shape and were unusable.
— And, of course, RAF pilots in the 1940s failing to achieve a perfect mid-air loop.
Another theory posits the source as the shape of a gas balloon when it loses pressure. Gas balloons are spherical due to aerostatic pressure, but when they leak the gas rises to the top of the balloon, causing it to look like an upside-down pear. Thus the phrase may have originated in Victorian England when gas balloons first became popular.
Wherever and whenever it originated may always be a mystery, but I like the phrase. Being reminded of delicious pears is not a bad thing!