What Is The Origin Of (235)?

Darby and Joan

There are some benefits to growing old. Admittedly, the limbs are not as supple as they once were, there are more aches and pains and the faculties are not as sharp, but it is a pleasure to be able to do what I want at a pace of my choosing. My wife and I are in danger of becoming that archetypal elderly couple, Darby and Joan, spending our final years, decades I trust, in contentment. Where does the phrase come from and who were Darby and Joan, if anyone?

There is a tendency, as we have seen, in etymological researches to seek to identify a phrase with real people, often erroneously. That may be the case here. The starting point is a reference that the eccentric lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, in the Literary Magazine in 1756 to a ballad about Darby and Joan. Johnson may have had in mind an anonymous poem, printed in the weekly journal, the Gentleman’s Magazine, in March 1735, entitled The Joys of Love never forgot. It contains these lines; “Old Darby, with Joan by his side,/ You’ve often regarded with wonder:/ He’s dropsical, she is sore-eyed,/ Yet they’re never happy asunder.

The devoted couple are thought to have been John Darby and his wife, Joan, a printer who lived and worked in Bartholomew Close in London. The poem is ascribed to Henry Woodfall who worked for him. However, in The Literary Janus, edited by J Wilson and published in the early part of the nineteenth century, there is a similar poem by the title of The Happy Couple. The only difference in the text is you’ve is replaced by I’ve in the second line and in the fourth line reads “and yet they are never asunder.” The couple are supposed to be long-standing residents of a Yorkshire village, three miles from Tadcaster, called Healaugh, and the poem is attributed to Lord Wharton, who was Lord of the Manor of the village.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. A reason to doubt the Woodfall story is that Darby the printer is thought to have died in 1704. Is it likely that he would have waited thirty years to laud his master and his devoted wife? The Yorkshire Darby and Joan seemed to have lived an idyllic life, Darby smoking his pipe and quaffing his ale while Joan “in all the garrulity of age, relating tales of days long passed away” and going to church on Sundays. Are these the prototypical happy, contented couple? I’m not sure it matters.

What is clear is that by the beginning of the nineteenth century the phrase was well established. The Times noted in its edition of May 26, 1801 that a new dance by the title of Darby and Joan was being “received with loud and general plaudits” and in June there was a ballet of the same name doing the rounds. On February 1, 1802 the Thunderer announced that what it termed as a “comic divertissement” was being performed at London’s Royalty Theatre by the name of Darby and Joan; or The Dwarf.

By the middle of the century Darby and Joan was being used to describe a seemingly devoted couple. In He Knew He Was Right, published in 1869, Anthony Trollope wrote, “when we travel together, we must go Darby and Joan fashion.” The verbose Henry James, writing in The Golden Bowl, published in 1904, described a couple thus; “their silence eked out for her by his giving her his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and contentedly, like some old Darby and Joan…” Darby and Joan were the names given to the devoted couple who provide hospitality in Herman Melville’s Omoo from 1847.

There was a popular song in the 1890s, written by Frederic Weatherly, entitled Darby in Joan in which Joan serenades her hubby with these words; “Darby dear we are old and grey,/ Fifty years since our wedding day./ Shadow and sun for every one,/ as the years roll by.” The couple also made an appearance in Hammerstein and Kern’s 1937 classic song, The Folks Who Live on the Hill.

Whoever they were, they have been an enduring symbol of a long and happy marriage and long may it continue.


There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Five

Angela Ruiz Robles (1895 – 1975)

Books do furnish a room.

You can tell a lot about a person by the presence or absence of books in their house. When I encounter a bookshelf, I feel drawn towards it, as if I am answering the siren call. There is something magical about the physical properties of a book, the feel, its weight, the cover, the spine, its illustrations, the layout of the text, even the type selected.

Beautiful as they undoubtedly are, they are heavy and take up a lot of room.

I’m a voracious reader and get through books by the dozen. I have a few favourites, which I return to from time-to-time, but most of my reading matter is engorged once and once only. And one of my personal nightmares is being away from home, travelling or on holiday, and running out of reading material.

To me and, I’m sure, many others, the e-reader is a Godsend, allowing me to have almost instantaneous access to hundreds of books in a portable rectangular device. Aesthetically pleasing it is not and unlikely to revolutionise the way books are delivered as the format’s early evangelists once claimed, but it is convenient and, for bookworms like me, an invaluable support prop.

The concept of an automated reading device dates back to the 1940s, the brainchild of the director of the Instituto Ibanez Martin in Ferrol in Spain, Angela Ruiz Robles. Her vision was to make teaching easier and to enable her students to maximise their knowledge with the minimum of effort.

Fundamental to achieving this aim would be the development of a mechanical book, which contained all the texts that a student would need. Instead of volumes of battered text books, all their satchels would contain would be a light-weight, portable, easy-to-use mechanical reader.

Angela worked away on her idea and by 1949 had come up with a pastel-green coloured metal box which she called, snappily, I feel, Procedimiento mecánico, eléctrico y a presión de aire para lectura de libros or, in English translation, “a mechanical, electrical and air pressure procedure for reading books”.

Inside were a series of tapes on interchangeable spools, some containing text and others illustrations, all protected by a transparent and unbreakable sheet. It came with a magnifying lens and a light so that it could be used in the dark. The mechanical encyclopedia even had an audio component, which brought the text to life.

Angela had considered a wider application for her book than just Spain, proposing alphabets and texts in a number of languages. Content could be read from start to finish or the reader could skip to a new chapter by pressing a button. She even envisaged an interactive index and a list of installed works, which the student could move between by pressing one or more buttons.

To entice the publishers, Angela proposed a standard size for cartridges and, of course, some of the production costs associated with book production, such as pasting and binding, would be eliminated.

What was there not to like?

Satisfied with her prototype, Angela applied for a patent. On December 7, 1949 she was awarded Spanish patent 190,698 for what was described as a mechanical encyclopedia. She paid the annual renewal fee up until 1961 but was unable to attract sufficient funding or interest from publishers to make her vision of an alternative to a book a commercial reality.

Undaunted, on April 10, 1962, Angela applied for and received a patent (No 276,346) for an “apparatus for diverse readings and exercises”. Although it contained many of the components of the original mechanical encyclopedia, it had a slightly more streamlined design. Be that as it may, it still met the same fate as Angela’s original machine. No manufacturers or publishers would back it with cash to bring it into production.

And, so, the idea of a mechanised book or reader as we would now call it withered and died, only to be picked up again by Michael Hart in 1971 with the prototype of a truly electronic reader.

Belatedly, Angela’s contribution to the development of e-reader has begun to be recognised but she missed out on the commercial gains of her brainwave. A version of her early prototype, a splendid affair made from bronze, wood, zinc, and paper can be seen to this day at the Science and Technology Museum of La Coruna.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (234)?…

A wild goose chase

I have been on many a metaphorical wild goose chase in my life but have never attempted to catch a goose, tame or otherwise, for real. I assume, like any sensible creature, it is reluctant to give up its liberty but why do we use this phrase to describe a futile exercise?

The starting point for our investigation is William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, written between 1592 and 1594 and first published in an unauthorised quarto in 1597, and in particular Act 2 scene 4. As a schoolboy I read the play in an unbowdlerised edition and well remember the scene for containing one of the Bard’s bawdiest jokes.

More germane to our enquiries, though, is the battle of wits between Mercutio and Romeo. Coming off second-best, Mercutio threatens to call upon Benvolio for assistance. Romeo responds by saying that he will declare himself the winner, “switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I’ll cry a match.” The beaten Mercutio responds, “nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.

Whilst generally accepted as being the first usage of the phrase, does it really refer to chasing a wild goose? That it may refer to something else can be seen from the context in which the Bard uses it. Romeo opens the exchange with an equestrian term, switch and spur, which meant at full speed, the switch being a type of whip and, along with spurs attached to the rider’s boots, was used to goad the horse into moving more quickly. As Mercutio was in a battle of wits, it would be reasonable to assume that he would respond with a reference to the world of horses.

That this is the case is confirmed by a passage from Nicholas Breton’s poem of 1602, The Mother’s Blessing; “esteeme a horse, according to his pace/ but loose no wagers on a wilde goose chase.” Indeed, it was a type of horse race, described in some detail by Nicholas Cox in The Hunter: A Discourse of Horsemanship, published in 1685. Two or more horses set off side by side for the first “twelvescore yards”, at which point, they were then free to jockey for the lead. The horses behind were obliged to follow as closely the route taken by the leader and to stay within “a certain distance agreed by Articles” of the leader. When the leading horse had outpaced the others by more than the distance stipulated in Articles, it was declared the winner. As a result, the race’s length and duration was uncertain.

Helpfully, Cox gave a derivation of the race’s name; “the wildgoose chase received its Name from the manner of the flight which is made by Wildgeese, which is generally one after another.

In his Sporting Dictionary of 1803, William Taplin was astute enough to recognise that the term, wild-goose chase, had equestrian origins, he was a sportsman, after all, but, interestingly, he didn’t attribute its name to the flight of wild geese as Cox had. Instead, he saw it as a reference to the uncertainty, both of duration and distance of the event; “wild-goose chase – is neither more or less than a metaphorical allusion to the uncertainty of its termination. This originated in a kind of chase (more properly a match)…

But others were not as perceptive as Taplin. During the seventeenth century, the phrase was being used figuratively to describe erratic behaviour, particularly where one follows their own impulses. In the tragicomedy, The Spanish Gipsie, first performed in 1623 and written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Diego tells Lewys, “I have had a fine fegary,/ the rarest, wild-goose chase,” fegary being a version of vagary. By the time that the great but eccentric lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, came to compile his Dictionary of the English Language in the mid-eighteenth century, it had lost its associations with horse racing and we were stuck geese; “a pursuit of something as unlikely to be caught as a wildgoose,” and have been ever since.

Going back to Shakespeare’s use of wild goose in Romeo and Juliet, it is possible to detect both senses in play, not surprisingly as Mercutio is trying to demonstrate the sharpness of his wits. The first almost certainly refers to the horse race but the second may relate to the characteristics of the wild goose. Whatever the case, the racing connotation was lost to the mists of time and we are left with the image of someone vainly trying to grasp a goose.

The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Nine

Austin Friars, EC2

As you look northwards, the second tine of the fork that makes up the junction where Throgmorton Street and Old Broad Street meet is Austin Friars. It is a curiously shaped thoroughfare which works its way around the Dutch church northwards before joining London Wall via Austin Friars Passage.

There is no mystery in the origin of its name, taking it from the Augustinian monastery that stood nearby, albeit in abbreviated form. Given its position in the heart of London’s financial district what was a temple of God is now firmly in the hands of Mammon. The priory was built in 1253 by Humphrey de Bohun, England’s Constable, who had come into contact with the Augustinians on his way back from the Crusades. It incorporated the existing parish church of St Peter-le-Poer as a private chapel and then was further extended in 1354.

The Augustinian settlement never seemed terribly popular with the locals, perhaps because they seemed more reluctant to make outward displays of their vows of poverty than other orders and/or because they engaged in periodic bouts of land-grabbing. In 1321 the Augustinians were accused of building walls without permission in the parishes of Allhallows on the Wall and St Peter’s Broad Street. There were other land disputes in the first half of the fourteenth century. It may be that this animosity towards them prompted an attack on the priory during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Thirteen Flemings were dragged by the mob from the priory’s sanctuary and beheaded.

The hospitality provided there may have not been up to much. The Dutch humanist, Erasmus, lodged there in 1513, complaining of the quality of the wine served there and departing without settling his bill. Conditions may have been more conducive for Miles Coverdale who worked on his translation of the Bible there in 1529. When a Lutheran preacher gave a sermon there in 1538, the writing was on the wall for the monastery and in November 1539 the prior, Thomas Hamond and his twelve friars, surrendered the establishment to the forces of the Reformation.

After its dissolution, most of the manor was bought by Richard Rich for £40 while Sir William Paulet bought part of the cloisters for £43. One of the notable residents in the area at the time was Thomas Cromwell and, until his downfall in 1540, it would have been one of, if not the principal, seats of political power in Tudor England. Once Cromwell had been detached from his head, the house was sold to the Worshipful Company of Drapers in 1543. The current Drapers’ Hall still stands on the site but is the third rebuild, the original building being destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666 and its replacement burning down in 1772.

The Dutch church occupies the site of the old friary church but is not the original building. Granted to the Dutch immigrant Protestant community in 1550 by Edward VI, even though “they do not conform with the rites and ceremonies used in our Kingdom,” it miraculously survived the Great Fire. However, it was destroyed by fire in 1862, was repaired and then severely damaged in a bombing raid in 1940. The current church was built between 1950 and 1956.

The church of St Peter-le-Poer also survived the Great Fire, albeit some ash landed on an open prayer book and obscured the text, falling into disrepair in the early eighteenth century. Rebuilt by Jesse Gibson between 1788 and 1792 but was demolished in 1908, when the parish merged with St Michael Cornhill. The font and pulpit, though, were rescued and taken to St Peter-le-Poer in Friern Barnet.

A fascinating area and one which shows that fire and regeneration are a constant feature of the streets of our great metropolis.

What Is The Origin Of (233)?…

A nation of shopkeepers

This phrase is a description of England with rather negative connotations, suggesting that the inhabitants are small-minded. Surely not?

Be that as it may, is it true these days? Wandering along the high street of our local village, as I do from time to time, there is very little in the way of what I would call real shops. Yes, we have charity shops, hairdressers, nail bars, betting shops, cafes, estate agents, and solicitors but what may be termed as a real retail experience is limited to a supermarket and a newsagent. I’m sure the Frimley retail experience is replicated the country over.

Of course, this sad state of affairs, the consequence of the development of mega-superstores, on-line retailing and ever rising rates, was not always thus. Casting my mind back no more than twenty years ago, the high street had a wide range of shops. The heydays of small, specialist retail shops, though, is to be found earlier, reaching its acme in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Then a reverse in the fortunes of small shops set in, one, I’m afraid, is unlikely to be reversed.

I had originally thought that our phrase was originated by Napoleon Bonaparte but it just shows how wrong I can be. The plaudits, if that is what the remark deserves, belong to Josiah Tucker and Adam Smith.

Welshman Tucker was the Dean of Gloucester who, as well as attending to his religious duties, was a prolific pamphleteer, holding strong anti-American sentiments and hostile to Methodism, as well as being a supporter of free trade. In 1766, he wrote, “and what is true of a shopkeeper is true of a shopkeeping nation.” Interestingly, he is thought to have had a profound influence on the development of Adam Smith’s economic and political thought.

The Navigation Acts of 1651 gave a monopoly to merchants and shopkeepers in England over the produce that came from its colonies. Half way through his influential book, The Wealth of Nations, the Scottish economist, Adam Smith, focused his guns on the Acts, writing “to found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

The phrase was born, although its sense is hardly pejorative. This is where the French came in, possibly.

A View of Universal History by John Adams, published in 1794, attributes to the French revolutionary, Bertrand Barere de Viuezac, in a speech to the National Convention on June 11, 1794, the phrase “let Pitt then boast of his victory to his nation of shopkeepers.” Whether Napoleon, who was more of an army man than a politician at the time, was at the meeting to hear Barere is far from clear. Barry Edward O’Meara, Napoleon’s surgeon while he was in exile in St Helena, though attributes his patient as saying, “you were greatly offended with me for having called you a nation of shopkeepers.

If O’Meara’s testimony is to be relied upon, it suggests that Boney did call England a nation of shopkeepers, that he did so earlier than his exile, that the English got to hear of it, and were miffed. But there is no other attestation that Napoleon uttered the phrase, “une nation de boutiquiers.

Perhaps betraying the little English attitude that one Frenchman looks very much like another and that Napoleon was more (in)famous than Barrere, the insult was attributed to Boney, despite attempts to set the record straight. The Morning Post of May 28, 1832 was one such, fulminating that “This complimentary term, for so we must consider it, as applied to a Nation which has derived its principal prosperity from its commercial greatness, has been erroneously attributed, from time to time, to all the leading Revolutionists of France. To our astonishment we now find it applied exclusively to Bonaparte. Than this nothing can be further from the fact.” They ascribed its pejorative use to Barrere.

But, hey, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Double Your Money – Part Forty Two

Henri Lemoine and the synthetic diamond scam of 1905

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”, goes the song from the Broadway show, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, from 1949, although the version best known is Marilyn Monroe’s performed in 1953. Whether that is true or not, they are pricey, not because they are a rare gem, but because suppliers manipulate the market, and thereby keep the price up, by drip-feeding diamonds on to the market. There are warehouses around the world filled to the gunwales with the things.

But wouldn’t it be great if you could create your own diamonds?

This was Henri Lemoine’s idea and he set out to exploit his idea for all it was worth. In 1905, he contacted the firm, De Beers Diamond Mines, who were, and still are, the largest diamond merchants in the world. In particular, Henri targeted Sir Julius Wernher who, as well as being a director of De Beers, was a well-known and respected British banker. Lemoine’s story was simple. He had found a way to produce gem-sized diamonds out of coal. Would Wernher be interested?

Wernher was. Lemoine, though, needed some money to refine his manufacturing process and if Wernher was prepared to stump up, De Beers would have exclusivity on the process. This was too appealing to pass up, allowing De Beers to further tighten their hold on the diamond market and eliminate what might have been a threat to their position. However, Wernher wanted to see the process for himself, before committing.

Lemoine was happy to oblige, inviting Wernher to a demonstration in his Parisian laboratory. Wernher did not go on his own, taking another De Beers executive, Francis Oats, and a couple of associates with him.

The demonstration was an astonishing spectacle. Lemoine invited them into the lab and then disappeared, returning, doubtless to the consternation of his esteemed guests, without a stitch on. The reason for this eccentric behaviour was to demonstrate that he did not have any diamonds secreted on his person. He then proceeded, I cannot ascertain whether he was still in the nude, to mix a concoction of substances, including coal and iron filings, into a crucible, which he then set alight.

After about a quarter of an hour, Lemoine opened the tray at the bottom of the crucible and after it had cooled down, lo and behold, there were a few small diamonds at the bottom of the tray. The audience were amazed and the deal was struck. De Beers were to have exclusive access to the formula, which Lemoine agreed to deposit in a London bank, and they would fund the development of a factory in the Pyrenees. In all, Lemoine got £64,000 out of them, about £7.5m in today’s terms.

It took three years for De Beers to smell a rat. There seemed to be little progress on building the factory and Lemoine was evasive as to what was really happening. In order to force his hand, De Beers pressed charges for fraud on Lemoine. He was promptly arrested in Paris and put on trial.

For several weeks the trial was the talk of the town. Was Lemoine a clever imposter or a misunderstood genius of a scientist? In the courtroom Lemoine was unable to recreate the results of his experiment and there was worse news still for him. A Parisian jeweller testified that he had sold some diamonds to Lemoine just ahead of the demonstration, they were sourced from De Beers, a delicious irony, and upon examination, this proved to be the case. They had been secreted in a false chamber in the crucible.

The secret formula was taken out of the deposit box of a London bank and proved to be a mix of powdered carbon and sugar. However, before the jury could pass judgment, Lemoine did what all self-respecting fraudsters do, he scarpered, never to be heard of again.

Marcel Proust was fascinated by the case, he is thought to have had a financial involvement, losing his chemise into the bargain, and wrote a series of accounts of the affair in pastiches of the style of a number of French literary luminaries, published as The Lemoine Affair in 1919.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (232)?…

Lark about

I remember during my far and distant schooldays that our poor unfortunate teachers would often be driven to such distraction by their unruly pupils that they would exhort us to stop larking around. By this they meant playing around, acting the fool, doing anything other than what we were supposed to. The warning was usually enough to restore order. But where does lark come from?

As is often the case with etymological searches, there are a couple of contenders. The most obvious is the skylark, once a common sight and sound in the English countryside but now one that is pretty rare. I cannot recall the last time I heard one sing. On the ground they are not much to look at but once they are airborne, they soar and hover and treat us to a long, unbroken song which can last two or three minutes a time, delivered with a clear, distinctive warble.

So enchanting and distinctive was the lark’s song, that it inspired poets and composers to laud their praises, most notably Percy Bysshe Shelley in his To A Skylark and George Meredith’s wonderful The Lark Ascending from 1881, which formed the basis for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ composition of the same name. “He rises and begins to round,/ he drops the silver chain of sound,/ of many links without a break,/ in chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,/ for singing till his heaven fills,/ ‘tis love of earth that he instils.

An exaltation of larks, the collective noun for larks which dates back to at least the 15th century, must have been a wondrous thing to hear and see.

So common a sight were they and so distinctive and playful was their behaviour that their name was used to describe children who played and scavenged around the banks of rivers, mudlarks, and slightly older youths who played around on the rigging of ships, skylarks. The Student’s Comprehensive Anglo-Bengali Dictionary of 1802 picked up the latter, defining skylarking as “the act of running about the rigging of a vessel in sport; frolicking.

But there is an alternative derivation, from the northern English dialect word lake or laik, which first appeared in the early 14th century, meaning to play. It almost certainly owed its origin to the Old Norse word leika, which was used to describe play, as opposed to work. It was used in the English translation of 1350 of the French romance poem, Guillaume de Palerme; “he layked him long while to lesten at mere.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was used by the sporting fraternity such as jockeys and grooms, making an appearance in Francis Robinson’s A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases collected in Whitby and the Neighbourhood in 1835 as lairk. The conjecture is that the intrusive r is the work of southern Englishmen trying to make sense of the impenetrable Yorkshire accent.

The Lexicon Balatronicum; a dictionary of buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence of 1811 – if you are going to be dipped, it is as well that the thief be eloquent, I feel – defined lark as “a piece of merriment. People playing together jocosely.” Alas, it gives no clue as to whether it is derived from the bird or the Yorkshire dialect word.

What is clear, though, is that usage from then onwards associated lark with playfulness and frolicking. To prove that the transition of a noun into a verb is not a modern affectation, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Hawker wrote in his diary in 1813, “having larked all the way down the road” and by 1844 The Living Age, an American magazine, was describing a Mr Larkins as “eternally larking about somut or other.

Although I am attracted to the skylark theory, I find it hard to ignore the dialect term, laik or lairk.