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The phrase "beer and skittles" refers to something that is easy, relaxing or fun. It is most commonly used in a negative context, as in "life’s not all beer and skittles," meaning that life isn’t always easy. The origins of the phrase are British, and it appears in literature beginning in the early 1800s.
In the US, the word "skittles" in the phrase "beer and skittles" is often assumed to refer to a popular candy of that name. This seems logical, as both candy and beer are commonly assumed to be enjoyable things. In actuality, however, the term refers to a British game dating back to the 1700s.
The game of skittles is the forerunner to bowling. It is most similar to candlepin bowling, which is still popular in New England and in parts of Canada. Skittles has many versions and may be played as an individual game or a team sport. It can be played in an indoor alley or outdoors on a lawn. At its most basic form, the game involves rolling a heavy ball toward a quantity of smallish pins, with the goal of knocking down as many as possible.
Skittles was and is a popular pub game. Since the primary purpose of going to a pub is to drink ale or beer, this might easily be a game played while doing so. This explains the correlation between beer and skittles.
The concept behind the phrase "beer and skittles" is unrelated to the actual act of drinking beer or playing skittles, however. The connotation is relaxing, having fun or taking it easy. If someone were to say "it’s all beer and skittles," he would not mean that he was actually drinking beer and playing skittles. He would mean that he was taking it easy or living a life of luxury.
Several other similar phrases are used to express a similar sentiment. Both "wine and roses" and "fun and games," can be substituted for "beer and skittles" and mean virtually the same thing. A person might also use "bed of roses," "the life of Riley" or "easy street" to connote a life of ease.
When someone says that something is not all beer and skittles, he is generally making the point that it is harder than it appears. A job that appears to be easy, for example, might require more work than some might think. Likewise, someone who may appear to live a life of luxury might, in fact, work long hours to afford his lifestyle.
Beer and skittles is one of my favorite idiomatic phrases. It doesn't come up all that often these days but you hear it from time to time, especially if you are in the company of a Brit.
It is a wonderful sounding phrase and an important idea to remember too. We would all like to have fun all the time but the simple fact is that nothing would get done. There is a time for play, and also a time for work.
My dad used to use that phrase all the time. He took almost every opportunity he could to remind me that life was not easy and it required a lot of hard work. He would tell me all the time when I complained about something, "I bet you would like everything to be beer and skittles."
For the longest time I didn't even know what it meant. But I knew that it wasn't good. He was a great dad but he was tough.