Twenty-Two Of The Gang

One of the problems of basing a bit of slang on a contemporary figure who earned notoriety for some reason is that once that person has had their fifteen minutes of fame, the reference loses its immediacy and the clever allusion falls into disuse. A case in point is gambetter, a word used to denote bamboozling or humbugging, as in “Don’t gambetter me”. James Ware, in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, informs the puzzled reader that it is a reference to a French politician, Gambetta, who was at the peak of his popularity between 1870 and 1876. It was then that other politicians began tot have doubts about his honesty and sincerity, his name becoming from 1879 a byword for double-dealing.

Perhaps in the same vein is Go to Hanover, popular with Jacobites as an imprecation, the equivalent of “go to hell”. For Jacobites the idea of life under Hanoverian rule was a vision of hell. Go to Hell or Connaught was a term used by Protestants in Ireland, the equivalent of “Be off with you”. Its originates from a law passed by Parliament in 1653-4, driving away all the people of Ireland who owned land from Ulster, Munster, and Leinster.

Another obscure reference is the name that was given to St Alban’s church in Holborn, the Go-between. It earned this name, according to Ware, from a court case in which a woman was questioned as to her religion. She was neither Protestant nor Catholic but went to St Alban’s which was very high, a go-between. The name stuck, at least for a while.  

Technological innovations are also reflected in slang. To get up steam meaning to become energetic owed its origin to the steam locomotive. Even George Eliot, who generally eschewed anything approaching slang, used it in 1846 in her Life, vol 1, p150: “I do not know whether I can get up any steam again on the subject of Quinet – but I will try”. I know the feeling.

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