Twenty-One Of The Gang

There were plenty of epithets and slang phrases for the state of being drunk. Another to add to the collection is five or seven, a reference to the usual sentence given to a drunk brought before the magistrate, either a fine of five shillings or seven days in jail. James Ware informs us in his Passing English of the Victorian Era that it was so abbreviated by a Mr Hosack, a magistrate, presumably used to and tired of handing down such sentences.

Students are past masters at spending at wasting their time. A game that was popular in the mid-19th century amongst those trying to attain their degree was fly loo, a summer sport. Each participant put some money into a pot and then each took either a lump of sugar or a bit of honey in front of them. The student who attracted the first fly scooped the pot.

The Irish have an endearing sense of poetry in their speech. One of my favourites is a footless stocking without a leg, which sounds so much better than the brutal “nothing”.

Xenophobia or even just plain suspicion of foreigners has lain not too deeply below the Englishman’s skin. Foreigneering coves, Ware declared, “was the most graphic dislike to others than British that has ever been invented”. It strikes me as better than Frenchy, a pejorative term directed towards anyone who seemed to have adopted foreign airs.

A fourpenny cannon was a beef-steak pudding. It cost four pennies but the cannon may have been a reference to its shape – it was round like a cannon ball – or to the hardness of both the contents and the casing of the pie or perhaps both. Either way, it was best washed down with four thick, four pence a quart beer, the cheapest and the muddiest on offer.

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