Twenty Of The Gang

It’s a fair cop is heard even today in dramas that have no pretensions to any literary merit, a phrase mouthed by a felon who has been caught red-handed or bang to rights. The origins of the phrase are not quite what you might have expected. Fair means thorough while cop is an Early English verb meaning to catch.

A fake pie, James Ware informs us in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, also known as a resurrection pie was a pastry made towards the end of the week when all “the orts, overs, and ends” went into it. If the thought of eating that did not tempt you to fall in the thick, nothing would. Thick was a term for a black beer and also mud. To fall in the thick was one of many terms for being dead drunk, lying prostrate in the gutter. At least he would have avoided finding cold weather, being bounced out of expelled from a public house into the bracing fresh air.

Alternatively, you might be tempted to eat some fall-downs which were fragments of puddings that had fallen off the dessert as they were being carved up for sale. A plate full of these crumbs would be sold for a halfpenny.

They might have tasted better than Field Lane Duck, a satirical name given to baked bullock’s heart, the nearest the poor of London got to tasting duck, especially those living in Field Lane, which was near Saffron Hill and prime Fagin territory. The “delicacy” was eaten as a savoury as was Poor man’s goose aka baked liver with sage and onions.

I spent most of my working life commuting up to London. In the late 19th century, I would have been known as a fish-bagger, a “contumelious term applied to those who live in good suburbs without spending a penny there beyond rent”. Its origin, Ware avows, was derived from the habit of these city workers taking home food, especially cheap fish, in their respectable briefcases. Nothing m uch changes!

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