Life is not “all beer and skittles” because life is not all entertainment and leisure. Of course you would never drink beer along with Skittles (the candy). Well, maybe you would, but I sure wouldn’t. But the phrase “beer and skittles” is much older than the candy. It comes from at least the 1800’s. In those days, skittles was a game that was a bit like nine-pin bowling, in which players attempted to knock over pins with a ball using as few throws as possible. It is said that in Britain, this was often played in pubs, and was a favorite past-time of working men, who would while away evenings drinking beer and playing skittles. An alternative porter and skittles, also shows up in publications of the time (porter is a type of beer).
The phrase expresses the obvious observation that there is more to life than idle entertainment, and that not everything will be easy or to our liking. It is similar to life is no bed of roses, a more well-known phrase. An even more obscure version of this sentiment is life is not all cake an ale.
The phrase shows up in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) by Thomas Hughes: “Life isn’t all beer and skittles, but beer and skittles, or something better of the sort, must form a good part of every Englishman’s education.”
The alternative porter and skittles shows up in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers: “‘Ah, that’s just the wery thing, sir,’ rejoined Sam, ‘they don’t mind it; it’s a regular holiday to them—all porter and skittles…'” The character speaking is Sam Weller, by the way.
The game of skittles cam to Britain from Germany. Many other games evolved from it, and at times, these games were banned for the lower “serf” classes, as a useless distraction. The pins, at which a ball or even a bowl was thrown, were once made of bones, but were later made of wood. During the middle ages, the game was called quilles, names after the pins, quills or “kayles.” The pins came to be called kittle-pins and then skittle-pins.2 Today, there are still many local versions of the game played. You can read more about the traditional game of skittles at The Online Guide to Traditional Games – Skittles – History and Useful Information. 1 2 3
- Tomlinson, Alan. A Dictionary of Sports Studies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.
- Strutt, Joseph, and William Hone. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England … London: Printed for Thomas Tegg, 1838.
- Manser, Martin H. The Facts On File Dictionary of Proverbs / Martin H. Manser ; Associate Editor, Rosalind Fergusson. United States Facts on File 2002.: Facts on File, (Infobase), 2002.