Would You Adam And Eve It – Part Two


Some more slang expressions and colloquialisms for parts of the body, starting off with the phiz, short for fizzog or physog which was an 18th century abbreviation for a person’s physiognomy or facial features or appearance.

The brainpan is probably the oldest such expression we will come across, the first record of its usage dates back to the 8th century. Like its companion braincase it was used to describe the casing which surrounded your brain, namely your skull.

Twopenny owes its derivation to rhyming slang and was used to denote the head since around 1800. For those trying to work it out, it is a twopenny loaf which is itself derived from a loaf of bread which rhymes with head – simple!

Trap has been used to denote the mouth since at least the 18th century and it is easy to see why – the upper and lower jaws operating like the jaws of a trap which are operated by a coiled spring and a triggering mechanism. Other variants on trap have been used to denote the mouth such as potato trap – as Francis Grose illustrates it in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, “shut your potato trap and give your tongue a holiday” – a gin-trap, a gingerbread-trap and a kissing-trap.

Staying with the mouth, the tongue has been nick-named a clapper since at least the 17th century and it is easy to see why. A bell is silent until the clapper hits its side. Similarly the mouth needs the tongue to stir into action before intelligible sounds emerge from it.

A bowsprit was a long pole extending from the prow of a boat, to which various sails and stays were tied. Naturally, its prominence on a boat led it to be associated with the most prominent feature of the phiz, the nose. And so it became slang for the nose around the mid 18th century.

Not unsurprisingly, when wearing spectacles became popular in the Victorian era, the expression spectacle seat became associated with the bridge of the nose, the spot where the glasses rested.

Three-quarters is another example of rhyming slang used to describe a body part. The derivation is from the old unit of measurement of a peck which was the equivalent of two gallons or a quarter of a bushel. Three-quarters of a peck symbolised a neck.

The small hollow between the collarbones at the base of the neck were known as salt cellars from around the 19th century, apparently a reference to the small bowls or basins of salt that were commonly used in kitchens at the time.

And to round off, until the next time, here are a couple of slang expressions which owe their derivation to the Scots dialect. A hause denotes a narrow valley or passage between two mountains or hills. It became associated in the vernacular with the throat, a passage either side of your neck, and a hause-pipe denoted your windpipe. The Scots used the verb keek to mean a quick glance or glimpse and it was often used in a context indicating that the person sneaking a look wasn’t really supposed to. Not surprisingly then, a keeker became both an eyeball and a peeping Tom.

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Eight


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

“Beatrix Potter, Baden-Powell/ Beecham’s Powders, Yorkshire pud (Yorkshire pud)”

The English are known as animal lovers and have a tendency to anthropomorphise the little furry creatures. Much of the blame for this regrettable tendency can be laid at the door of Helen Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943) who unleashed upon the grateful world a series of children’s books featuring the likes of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin and the like. Part of the charm of the books lay in the illustrations that accompanied the text as well as the sense that the author was not being condescending. The Tales of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 and became an overnight sensation. In all, Potter published 23 of the little books, around two or three a year, the last being Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes. She was also a famous breeder of sheep and leaving almost all of her property to the National Trust is credited with preserving much of the land which now makes up the Lake District National Park.

Another enormous influence on the young of England was Robert Baden-Powell whose principal claim to fame, at least these days, was the creation of the Boy Scout movement. The first scout camp was held at Brownsea Island in 1907 and the publication of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys in the following year kick-started what became a significant youth movement. A scout rally held in 1909 at Crystal Palace was attended by some girls dressed in Scout undiform (horror of horrors) and to accommodate them Baden-Powell and his sister created the Girl Guides. Despite the movement’s quasi-militaristic overtones children were soon dib dib dibbing throughout the land and, indeed, the world.

It may be the changeable weather but the English are martyrs to coughs and sneezes. What better when you are feeling a bit moby than to take some Beecham’s powders, a staple component of the English medicine chest. In powder form and consisting of aspirin – credited with reducing fever by affecting that part of the brain that controls body temperature – and caffeine which is a mild stimulant useful in reducing fatigue – they started out as Beecham’s pills in 1848, designed as a cure-all but particularly effective as a laxative. So universal were Beecham’s products that Cockney rhyming slang adopted Beecham’s pills to designate a photographer’s still.

If there was one dish that characterised the English in the popular imagination it is Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pud. The Yorkshire pudding is made from batter consisting of eggs, flour and milk and swimming in gravy it is the perfect accompaniment to roast meat. Some even eat it as a dessert. It is not known what its exact origin is but the first printed recipe for the pud appeared as far back as 1737.

Without question these four are quintessential representatives of what it means to be English.

What A Way To Go – Part Twenty


Continuing our occasional series of unusual (and amusing) ways to meet one’s maker.

Consider the fate that befell one Henry Taylor in November 1872. He attended a funeral, being one of the designated pall-bearers, and once the church service had finished the funeral cortege made its stately way to the deceased’s final resting place in Kensal Green Cemetery. It had been raining that day and the ground was damp which meant that the hearse could not get as close to the graveside as was originally intended. So the pall bearers lifted the coffin, a four pound leaden one, out of the hearse and proceeded to carry it down a path which was only three feet six inches wide. The bearers were ordered to do a sharp turn so that the coffin would approach the freshly dug grave head first.

Alas, tragedy struck. Whilst performing the move Taylor’s foot struck a side stone and he stumbled. The other bearers, to protect themselves, let go of the coffin which struck the unfortunate Taylor with such force that it fractured his jaw and ribs.. The grieving widow, not unsurprisingly, went into hysterics and the 60 year old pall bearer was carted off to University College Hospital where he died of his injuries.

The coroner’s court, recording a verdict of accidental death, recommended that straps should be affixed to coffins which would make it easier to manoeuvre them and prevent a recurrence of the tragic events.

We are rather blase about operations and surgeons and forget that in the 19th century when knowledge of matters hygiene was more rudimentary and medicos were really feeling their way to understanding the human anatomy, medical procedures could be dangerous for patient and surgeon alike. Consider the fate of poor John Phillips Potter, an anatomist, who contracted pyaemia from a wound sustained whilst dissecting a pelvis. Despite the ministration of five doctors who drained three pints of pus from his sacral region and two pints from his chest, he expired. The official report on his death sagely concluded that it was folly to rush into a dissecting room without having your breakfast, a full stomach aiding the absorption of noxious substances. Advice we would all do well to heed, methinks!

Open fires and flowing garments were always a dangerous mix as a certain Mrs Tremaine found out to her cost on 18th April 1836. Visiting a bed-ridden neighbour the do-gooder got too close to an unguarded fire and her bustle caught alight. Instead of rolling on the floor as the invalid recommended, Mrs Tremaine opened the door to rush outdoors, the effect of which was to fuel the fire and she became a fireball. She failed to recover from her injuries and died three days later. A sad postscript to this unfortunate tale is that some enterprising thief picked the pockets of those who rushed into the street to help her. Some things never change!

The Streets Of London – Part Ten


Broadwick Street, W1F

If you walk down Broadwick Street, tucked in Soho and running parallel to the southern side of Oxford Street at the bottom of Poland Street, you will come across a water pump. It you look closely at it, one thing will immediately strike you – it doesn’t have a handle. And thereby hangs a fascinating tale.

In mid-19th century London standards of public hygiene left a lot to be desired. The crowded, insanitary conditions meant that disease was rife, life expectancy low and infant mortality high. Outbreaks of water-borne diseases were common place and when they struck were devastating in their effect.

In Victorian London Broadwick Street was known as Broad Street and the thoroughfare gained notoriety on 31st August 1854 when a major cholera epidemic broke out in the vicinity. Within three days of the outbreak 127 people on or near Broad Street had died and by the next week the area was like a ghost town as the majority of the residents had fled for their lives. Alas, by the end of the outbreak 616 souls had lost their lives.

Medical theory at the time attributed these regular and devastating outbreaks of epidemic disease to miasmas or polluted air. London was so foul-smelling – the Thames and its tributaries being used as a cesspit – that it is easy to see why the medical brains of the day may have been attracted to the theory. However, the hero of this salutary tale, John Snow, was having nothing to do with this nonsensical theory. Conducting on the ground research with the assistance of the Reverend Henry Whitehead, Snow quickly realised that the common denominator in the majority of the cases of cholera was proximity to and usage of the public water pump at Broad Street. It had been a hot summer and the residents were drinking the water straight from the pump as it was cool instead of boiling it as was their normal habit. So convinced was he of this linkage that he persuaded the local authorities to remove the pump’s handle thus taking it out of use. Shortly after this action was taken the outbreak finished, although it may have been on the wane already.

Snow had a bee in his bonnet and set about compiling statistics and maps to demonstrate the connection between the quality of the source of water and cholera. His case was strengthened by the anomaly posed by a monastery adjacent to Broad Street. None of the monks there succumbed to cholera – on investigation, the reason was clear. They didn’t drink the water, preferring (sensibly) to quaff only beer brewed on the premises!

Snow’s methodical and scientific approach to epidemiology dispelled once and for all the miasma theory, enabled scientists and medics to get a better understanding of the causes of disease and kick-started a massive serious of public endeavours to improve the quality of water supply and drainage in central London.

The pump, alas, is not the original – it was erected in 1992 – but it is minus a handle in honour of Snow. Alas, too, the modern pump is thought not to be in the exact spot of the original, the site of which was closer to the John Snow pub on the intersection between the then Broad Street and Cambridge Street and is marked by a red paver.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Fourteen


Sing a song of sixpence

This rather jolly rhyme starts off, “Sing a song of sixpence/ a pocketful of rye/ four and twenty blackbirds/ baked in a pie/ When the pie was opened,/The birds began to sing;/ Wasn’t that a dainty dish,/ To set before the king?” The rhyme goes on to focus on the activities of the king (counting out his money), the queen (eating bread and honey) and the maid (pegging out the washing) when doubtless in revenge for being baked in a pie a blackbird swooped down and pecked off her nose.

As usual the rhyme first appears in printed form in Tommy Thumbs’ Pretty Song Book of 1744, although in that version the blackbirds had been replaced by naughty boys. However, the concept of associating singing and sixpence dates back to at least the Elizabethan era. The bard of Stratford in his Twelfth Night references it in the line, “Come on, there is sixpence for you; let’s have a song,” and slightly later in 1614 in Bonduca by Beaumont and Fletcher we find the line, “Whoa, here’s a stir now! Sing a song of sixpence!” So it may be that sixpence was the going rate for a song.

It is not just Heston Blumenthal who is pushing out the boundaries of gastronomic and culinary good taste. He is just following a tradition which was established in the middle ages around Europe, that of creating an entremet. Dinners and feasts were elaborate, prolonged and, probably quite tedious affairs and so to liven up proceedings an enterprising host would introduce an entremet or entertainment dish between courses. Some creations were elaborate and imaginative – for example, elaborate models of buildings with fountains of wine or food modelled to represent allegorical scenes – and cooks were sometimes minded to conceal a surprise, whether animate or inanimate, underneath a pastry crust. In an almost exact parallel an Italian cookbook of 1549 and translated into English in 1599 features a recipe “to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up”.

The rhyme then goes on to describe the aftermath of the meal, the king and queen at leisure, the maid working away and the pay off- the revenge of the blackbird. So there we have it, an easily explainable and charming story of a banquet with an entremet and its aftermath.

The only unexplained element is the substitution of naughty boys for black birds in the original printed version. This has prompted some to hypothesise that the subject of the rhyme was the pirate Blackbeard whose MO was to hide his raiding party and spring on his victim, taking them unawares. But there is so much else in the rhyme that this version would leave unexplained.

Others focus on the fact that the number twenty four equates with the number of hours in a day and, perhaps, the king and queen are the sun and the moon. Again, so much else falls outside of this explanation. Others seek to embellish it further by associating the king with Henry VIII, the queen with Catherine of Aragon and the maid with Anne Boleyn. Henry appropriated Catholic property and to appease the monarch the abbot of Glastonbury sent the monarch a pie with the manorial deeds of twelve properties inside. But we are dealing with twenty four things inside! Two dozen is a perfectly understandable number of birds to have in a dish fit to put before the king, even if the queen has to supplement her meal with bread and honey.

No, for me, the literal meaning is the most logical and satisfying.