What Is The Origin Of (259)?…

Beyond the pale

If your behaviour is described as being beyond the pale, it is unacceptable and beyond the accepted norms of decency. The pale in question is a noun, not the adjective to denote a whitish colour, and means a stake or pointed piece of wood. It comes via the Middle French word, pal, from the Latin palus. But why compare behaviour to a stake?

The answer becomes clearer when you realise that pale in English had another meaning, an area enclosed by a fence or a load of pales and, by extension, aa distinct area subject to a particular jurisdiction. Until its imperialistic expansion from the 17th century onwards England had very little in the way of overseas territories, particularly after the Hundred Years’ War, the territory of Calais, which it hung on to from 1337 until 1453, and Ireland.

The Irish had always been a thorn in the English side and only four counties, those of Louth, Meath, Dublin, and Kildare, remained loyal(ish) to the king. The king’s turf was marked by a wooden turf, later turned into a more impressive ten-foot-deep ditch surrounded by eight-feet banks and thorny bushes. Those who lived inside the perimeter of the ditch were under the protection of the English and abided by their laws and customs. Those outside the ditch were outside the boundaries of what was considered then to be civilised society.

Perhaps the most infamous pale was the Pale of Settlement established by Catherine the Great which lasted between 1791 and 1917 and denoted areas of Russia and Russian-occupied Poland within which Jews were required to live. Sometimes Jews were allowed to live beyond the pale.

It was not until the 17th century that the term began to be used figuratively to mean a sphere of influence or activity. The time lag between the English pales and its usage makes it difficult to be certain that there was a direct connection or whether it was just an etymologist’s retro-fit. It is in this figurative sense that Shakespeare used it in The Winter’s Tale from around 1610 in describing the onset of spring; “for the red blood raigns in the winter’s pale”. Sir Walter Scott extended the Bard’s concept of the term pale to denote a boundary of behaviour and brought back the sense of a physical boundary by imagining someone leaping over it. In The Search after Happiness, a poem from 1817, he wrote; “Italian license loves to leap the pale”.      

Beyond the pale seems to have first appeared in a lyric poem entitled The History of Polindor and Flostella by John Harington, published in 1657. Ortheris has retired to the country for some peace and quiet but soon falls in love and “both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-Walk”. The expression was slow to take off and there are only a few citations, one of the earlier one being as late as November 6, 1809 in a poem in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle, rather sensationally entitled Stanzas, on hearing a wretch exclaim there is no God; The opening stanza concludes with the following lines, “yet specious pleas the wretched being frames,/ beyond the pale where common sense is found”.

When the phrase was used, it more usually came with a form of explanation or limitation of the pale. A classic example is to be found in the rather splendid A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats of Both Sexes, compiled by Captain Alexander Smith and published in 1719. In describing Acteon, the good Captain wrote, “while he suffered his eye to rove at pleasure and beyond the pale of expedience”.  

Modern usage has reverted to Harington’s formulation. Some users seem oblivious to its origin spelling pale as pail as in a bucket. Now that really is beyond the pale.

Gin O’Clock – Part Eighty Five

The second and final gin I picked up at Vancouver airport’s duty-free shop was a bottle of Victoria Premium Cocktail Gin, in for a cent in for a dollar, as they say. The ginaissance has spawned a wide variety of categorisations for gin, some less helpful than others, and this is supposed to be New Western or New Wave or New American, take your pick. There is no formal, or should I say legal, definition of this style but in essence the juniper element is toned down and other botanicals, not normally associated with London Dry Gins, are deployed.   

The Victoria Distillery is now to be found in Sidney, a town on the southern tip of Victoria Island in British Columbia, although when it first started operations it did so in Victoria. The move was made in 2016 and coincided with a rebrand and relaunch of the gin. Victoria Distillery is one of British Columbia’s oldest distilleries and gin making started in 2008 under the direction of Ken Winchester. However, the gin was revamped and the recipe recalibrated in 2009, the upshot being that the juniper element was reduced and some of the original botanicals changed.  

The bottle is bell-shaped and cylindrical, with a long neck a brassy-coloured top and a synthetic cork stopper. The labelling is long and thin with a large V in a bronze colour, the name of the gin and the batch number; mine is from number 187. The label at the rear gives some information about the gin, namely that “the world’s finest botanicals are lovingly distilled and blended with pure Canadian water”. Some claim. A nice touch is that the clear parts of the bottle contain motifs of hearts, glasses and the like. A nice touch.       

Yet again, though, the labelling is schtum on what the magic ingredients are that constitute the world’s finest botanicals. I will have to rely upon my jaded palate and senses. On opening the bottle, the aroma seemed to be missing that heavy, distinctive juniper smell. Instead, it seemed quite light in comparison with many gins that I had tried with quite a bit of citrus. In the mouth, this impression was confirmed. There was juniper in there but it was not dominant, a fair amount of citrus in play and some coriander.

Then came a spicy element and what I can only describe as a toffee-like flavour became apparent. The aftertaste was principally of spice and pepper but not excessively so. And, I guess, that was my overall impression of the gin. It seemed a bit undercooked with little in the way of a distinctive taste. It relied on other elements such as ice and/or a tonic to give it that whoosh that made it come alive. With an ABV of 42.5% it should have had enough power to stand on its own glass stem but it didn’t.  

It was somewhat disappointing, perfectly acceptable for drinking but with little of what I look for these days in a gin. Each to their own, I suppose.

Until the next time, cheers!   

Book Corner – November 2019 (4)

The Amateur Cracksman – E W Hornung

It is good, every now and again, to turn literary conventions on their head. The classic crime novel has a detective, often an amateur sleuth, together with faithful sidekick, solving nigh on impossible crimes which have baffled all and sundry and bring the felons to justice. Ernest William Hoffnung’s crime creation, on the other hand, is a gentleman thief, who uses his cunning and position to pull off astonishing robberies and evade detection.

Arthur J Raffles, together with his friend, Bunny Manders, is the yin to the yang of Hornung’s brother in law’s famous creation, Sherlock Holmes and the ever faithful Dr Watson. Indeed, this collection of eight stories, first published in 1899, was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Our hero, if he can so be described, is a pillar of Victorian society, an excellent cricketer who plays regularly for England and at Lord’s but a spendthrift who rarely has enough money to live on. His answer to his regular cashflow problems is to use his position in society, it allows him access to all the rich houses in the capital, to commit the odd robbery or two and live off the earnings of his work. In the first story, The Ides of March but originally published as a short story in 1898 as In the Chains of Crime, Raffles happens upon Bunny, the narrator of the tales a la Watson, down on luck and initiates him into his line of work.

The third story, Gentlemen and Players, introduces two characters who are going to make life difficult for the duo, Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard and a notorious criminal, Crawshay. In the seventh story, The Return Match, Raffles manages to get the dangerous Crawshay off his back but in doing so reignites the suspicions of Mackenzie.

The last story, The Gift of the Emperor, sees Raffles at his most audacious but his plans come unstuck when the stalwart detective boards the ship he is travelling on at Genoa and a search reveals that Raffles has the stolen jewel. Raffles jumps overboard and neither Bunny nor the then reader knows whether he made it to the shore or not, surely a nod to Doyle’s The Final Problem and Holmes’ encounter with his nemesis, Moriarty, at the Reichenhach Falls. The modern reader knows that this isn’t the end of Raffles, just as Holmes survives his tussle – you don’t kill off the goose that lays the golden egg – but you can imagine the impact on the readers at the time.   

In truth, these stories are barely credible, laced with the arrogant snobbery of the Victorian upper classes, very politically incorrect, racist and sexist, but if you are prepared to put up with that, then they are entertaining, undemanding reads. Perhaps troubled by the thought of a gentleman thief, Hornung goes to great lengths to show that Raffles has a code of conduct. He would never stoop to murder and will only steal out of financial necessity. However, in the heat of a robbery, his steadfastness sometimes slips.

There are moments of comedy too and poor old Bunny is the stooge to the great man, never really let into what is going on, there to provide the muscle and, when he does use his initiative as in Nine Points of the Law, he nearly wrecks the plan. This means that the reader is, along with Bunny, behind the action, a device that some readers may find irksome. As Bunny states with some justification, “You lay your plans, and never say a word, and expect me to tumble to them by light of nature”.    

Still, take the stories for what they are and you will spend an enjoyable evening.  

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty

The Princess Caraboo hoax of 1817

The bucolic calm of the Gloucestershire village of Almondsbury was disturbed on April 3, 1817 when the local cobbler came across a young woman, seemingly disoriented, wearing exotic clothing and babbling in a strange language. Taking her to his home and communicating by sign language he soon determined that she wanted food and drink and somewhere to sleep. The cobbler’s wife, though, was not happy to have this strange woman under her roof and told her husband to take her to a Mr Hill, the Overseer of the Poor.

One of Mr Hill’s tasks was to take anyone suspected of vagrancy to the local Justice of the Peace, which he duly did. Samuel Worrall, who lived in nearby Knole Park House, was the magistrate for the area, took pity on the woman and with the help of his wife, Elizabeth, tried to make some sense of what the woman was saying. These enquiries came to naught save for deducing that the woman called herself Caraboo.

Her arrival had put the Worralls in a spot. They had their position in society to think of and harbouring a woman who, for all they knew, could have been a criminal wasn’t on. Saw Elizabeth arranged for the local pub, The Bowl, to give her rooms. On the walls of the pub were prints of exotic fruits, all the rage at the time, and Caraboo astonished the local topers by pointing to a pineapple and saying Nanas, the Indonesian word for the fruit. Caraboo’s stock rose dramatically, the good folk of Almondsbury being convinced that she was from the East, and she was invited back to stay with the Worralls.

To say that Caraboo was not an easy house guest is no understatement. She slept on the floor rather than in a bed, would only eat vegetables and drink tea, and would insist on clambering up on to the roof to say her prayers to a god she called Allah-talla. Her appearance was disturbing to contemporary eyes with her exotic clothing and strange markings on her head.

The mystery of Caraboo seemed to have been solved when she was introduced to a Portuguese sailor, Manuel Eynesso, who seemed to understand her language. He told Mr Worrall that she was a princess from an island called Javasu, had been captured by pirates, had escaped by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel and swum ashore. Transformed instantly from a vagrant to an exotic princess whose escape from the pirates appealed to the Worrall’s anti-slavery sentiments, Caraboo was someone to cherish and boast about.

The Worralls were not shy in letting all in the locality of their exotic house guest. Her eccentricities were now something to behold with wonder and she wowed onlookers with her skills with the bow and arrow and her exotic dancing. She would swim unclothed in the lake, away from prying eyes, at least so we are told. Drawings were made of her and stories were written about her in the local press. Samuel Worrall sent some of her strange writings to Oxford to be analysed and a Dr Wilkinson, using a copy of Edmund Fry’s Pantographia, attested to the authenticity of her language and stated that the markings on her head were the work of oriental surgeons. Caraboo even had a ball held in her honour in Bath.

Caraboo’s moment of fame lasted for around ten weeks before her bubble was rudely burst by a Mrs Neale, a boarding-housekeeper from Bristol. Recognising Caraboo’s picture in the Bristol Journal as that of Mary Willcocks, an itinerant servant girl from the Devon village of Witheridge, she blew the whistle on her deception. Caraboo was a figment of Willcocks’ imagination, her language a mix of imaginary words and Romany, and the marks on her head were the scars from a cupping operation performed in one of London’s poorhouse hospitals. Worse still, the academics from Oxford reported that the writings Worrall had submitted for examination were of a “humbug language”, a popular term in Oxford it would seem.

The British press seized on the hoax as a tick with which to beat the naivety and gullibility of the rural middle classes. Quite why Willcocks carried out the hoax, other than to see how far it got her as she had nothing else to lose, is not clear but after a stint in America she returned to Blighty and tried her luck in the theatre as Princess Caraboo. Her stage career did not take off and she returned to the West country, supplying and selling leeches, until her death in 1864.        

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (258)?…

A snowball’s chance in hell

I’m back on the trail of phrases which denote impossibility and a snowball’s chance in hell is both perfectly understandable in its figurative and almost certainly an Americanism. In popular imagination hell was typified as a place where eternal fires burned. A snowball, of course, is prone to melt once temperatures rise above freezing point. Naturally, therefore, a snowball subjected to the fires of hell would be transformed into a pool of water in pretty short order. Likening one’s chances to that of the survival of a snowball in such circumstances is tantamount to saying you don’t stand a chance.

It was in the 1880s that the pairing of a snowball and hell hit the printed page and all the examples are American. The Detroit Free Press of April 9, 1880, reporting the withdrawal of the support of former Secretary of State, George Gorham, from Rutherford Hayes, the 19th US President, to Ulysses Grant, noted that he had considered under Hayes’ administration, “a Republican in the South had about as much chance as a snowball in hell”.

It cropped up again in the Las Vegas Daily Gazette of March 27, 1884. The journal remarked that “there is no more show for the people of New Mexico to have a word to say in reference to the laws that shall be enacted during the next nine days than there is for a snowball in hell”. It is intriguing that the earliest examples reflect powerlessness in politics. This may simply be a coincidence. Whilst the meaning of the phrase is pretty clear, the fact that it is used without a gloss is suggestive of the fact that the phrase was in common parlance before the 1880s.

For those with more sensitive religious sensibilities, there was a variant. A report of an electoral dispute in the November 24, 1890 edition of The Atlanta Constitution records that the lawyer acting for the defendant, one Mr Norman, gave the rationale for his client switching his vote as “he saw that Northwood’s chances were about like a snowball’s chances in the lower regions”. The substitution deprives the phrase of its force, I feel.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the phrase also was used to describe speed, perhaps a more natural interpretation of the allusion. Many things are unlikely to escape the fires of hell for long, not least the souls of the damned, but it is the sheer rapidity of the demise of a snowball that is the point. The Rio Grande Republican picked up a report of a fire in a bakery in the San Marcial Times on January 27, 1883, noting that “the bakery melted away like a snowball in hell”.

It may have wormed its way into the consciousness of the paper because on November 3rd that year it reported that “a snowball in hell will not disappear more quickly than your friend if you ask him to drink at any other saloon than the Commercial”. And the Omaha Sunday Bee, great name, ran a short story on March 6, 1887 entitled A Wyoming Wedding, in which a character says, “that rheumatiz is a pesky thing, ain’t it? A man can’t last no longer than a snowball in hell, ridin’ with that in him”.

The Americans have their snowball in hell and we have not a cat’s chance in hell, two variations on a theme.