What Is The Origin Of (244)?…

Pay through the nose

We all like a bargain. There is nothing worse than when you have handed over your hard-earned cash to buy the object of your desires, you find that you could have got it cheaper elsewhere. If you find that you have paid a considerable amount more, you might consider you have paid through the nose. We use this phrase to convey the sense of paying excessively for something or to be charged exorbitantly but where does it come from?

Probably where it doesn’t come from, contrary to popular opinion, is the novel approach to tax collecting adopted by the Danes in Ireland in the 9th century. Anyone who refused to meet their demands met with a gruesome punishment, their nose was slit. Whether this actually happened or not is one thing, the other is that there is an unexplained gap of around eight centuries before the phrase made its appearance in print and, in any case, you might have expected a reference to the slitting of the nose.

Our old friend, the anonymous B E Gent, defined the term for us in his invaluable A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew from 1699, as to pay “excessively, or with Extortion”. That it was in common parlance, not just amongst the lower orders characterised by the canting crew, can be seen from this reference in the anti-Papist tract, The rehearsal transpos’d, of politician, Andrew Marvell, published in 1672; “The Fanatiks had bought it all up,, and made them pay for it most unconscionably, and through the Nose”.

There is an even earlier usage to be found in the translation of Giovanni Torriano’s A common place of Italian proverbs and proverbial phrases digested in alphabetical order from 1666. There he noted, “oft-times Rich men engrossing commodities, will make one pay through the nose, whereas they might sell the cheaper”. Nothing ever changes, not least the meaning of our phrase.

There were some earlier variants which featured the phrase through the nose. To bore someone through the nose was to deceive them. In Cervantes’ last novel, The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda, translated into English in 1619, a couple of princes, dressed as poor pilgrims, are bargaining with a painter. The governor of Rome becomes suspicious of the trade and intervenes. The result – “the painter was bored through the nose, seeing his hopes vanished, the chains in another man’s hands than his own, and his portrait in the justice’s hands”.

The Brits have always been suspicious of foreigners and their ways. In 1642 the historian, James Howell, made his particular contribution to the nation’s xenophobia by writing Instructions for Forreine Travel. It is full of advice and cautionary tales for the traveller. In warning against overpaying, Howell sagely remarks, “I have known divers Dutch Gentlemen grossly guld by this cheat, and som English bor’d also through the nose this way, by paying excessive prices for them”.

The playwright, John Fletcher, used a variant in his play, The Night Walker or the Little Thief, published posthumously in 1640; “But I’ll take my order she shall ne’er recover to bore my nose”. He was taken by nose because in his comedy, The Woman’s Prize, from around 1611, he gives one of his characters the lines, “but when I have done all this, and think it duty/ Is’t requisite another bore my nostrils?/ Riddle me that!” A parody of a church service, A Lenten Letany, by John Cleveland, published, perhaps sensibly, posthumously in 1662 contains another variant; “that it may please thee to suppose/ our actions are as good as those/ that gull the People through the Nose”.

It is quite clear that in the seventeenth century the use of the phrase through the nose in a variety of forms was indicative of someone being tricked or cheated. Paying through the nose fits that formula to a tee. There is no need to think it has a reference to the tax collecting methods of Danes whose activities if known at the time were form a distant past. It is more likely to owe its origin to the custom of attaching nose rings to large domestic beasts by which to lead them around and divert them from doing what they would have preferred to have done.


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

Walter Hunt (1796 – 1859)

If you stop and think about it, and few of us do, the safety pin is a piece of design perfection. It is a pin with a spring mechanism and a clasp which fastens the pin to whatever it is to be attached to and prevents the user from pricking their finger. The design is so simple and effective that it is hard to envisage how it can be improved upon. It has stood the test of time and has barely changed since the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Walter Hunt, came up with the idea.

The story goes that fretting over a $15 debt, Walter was fiddling with a bit of wire. In a flash, the idea of a covered pin came to him and within a few hours, had completed his design. Although he patented the design, he sold it on for somewhere between $100 and $400, a fraction of what he could have earned from it.

And that in a nutshell is the story of Hunt’s career; he was a serial inventor but was so strapped for cash that he sold the patents on often for a modest sum, swapping uncertain future income for the certainty of immediate cash. By the early nineteenth century a vibrant secondary market for patents had emerged where companies or individuals would buy the exclusive rights to inventions. Hunt sold the rights of most of his inventions this way.

Born in Martinsburg, in upper New York state, Walter Hunt trained as a stonemason but ended up working in a local flax mill. He had an inquisitive mind and an inventive streak, he went on to become a serial inventor, and began to potter around to see if he could develop a more efficient form of flax spinner.

Naturally, Walter could and sufficiently encouraged by his model, he applied for and was granted a patent in 1826. Recognising that his machine was a game changer, he wanted to build a business around his invention, but there was one problem. He didn’t have the financial resources to bring his plans to fruition. The solution was to treat his patent as a commodity and sell it to the highest bidder. This became Walter’s modus operandi throughout his career.

And a prolific career it was too.

Among his many inventions, the list is too exhaustive for this vignette, were a coach alarm system, which allowed a coachman to warn pedestrians of oncoming horses, a nail-making machine, a ship which broke up ice, a knife sharpener, a rope-making machine, and a street sweeper. Where they were patented, Walter soon sold them on.

Another of Walter’s brainwaves was to develop a repeating rifle and cartridge system, the design of which would be used by Smith and Wesson. Naturally, Walter saw little financial reward for this innovation.

Some of Walter’s inventions were off the wall, or not, in the case of what was known as an “antipodean apparatus”. Despite its odd name, it was a pair of shoes, which allowed the wearer to walk up walls and ceilings. It went down a storm amongst circus performers. It continued to sell and be used until well into the 1930s, but despite its apparent success, Hunt was on his uppers.

In what must be an early example of inventor’s remorse, wishing that he could put the genie he had released back into the bottle, Walter made a significant breakthrough in the development of the sewing machine. In 1833, he came up with what was the first workable sewing machine. He was concerned that if the machine took off it would damage the employment prospects of seamstresses and so, true to form, sold the rights to a businessman.

The businessman struggled to manufacture the machine commercially and gave up, crucially omitting to patent the design. That seemed to be the end of the story until, in 1846, Elias Howe was awarded a patent for his sewing machine.

Howe was disputatious and launched a series of lawsuits against other sewing machine manufacturers to protect and assert his patent rights. This alerted Walter to the fact that Howe’s design was not dissimilar to the one he developed thirteen years earlier. After a legal battle, Hunt was recognised as the inventor, but the absence of a patent meant that Howe got to keep the intellectual property rights to the machine.

Now enter Isaac Singer.

His iconic sewing machine, the prototype of the machine we know today, incorporated elements from Hunt’s and Howe’s design. Howe took Singer to court for Patent Infringement. In his defence, Singer claimed that Howe had ripped off Hunt’s design. The absence of a patent on Hunt’s machine counted against Singer, who had to pay Howe substantial damages.

As a by-product of this case, Singer eventually agreed, in 1858, to pay Walter $50,000 for incorporating elements of his design in his machine but then fate intervened. Walter died of pneumonia in 1859, before he had received a cent from Singer.

That, I suppose, is the lot of the inventor and why, Walter, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (243)?…

Sell down the river

Slavery in all its manifestations is abhorrent and, rightly, there is a concerted attempt to raise awareness of the evils of the trade and the ill-gotten gains resulting from this iniquitous practice. But the fact remains that from time immemorial those in power have sought to exploit those they perceive to be weaker and as the practice was so embedded into the way many societies operated that, inevitably, it has left vestiges in the idioms that pepper our language. Take the phrase to sell down the river which in modern parlance means to betray someone usually for your own benefit, for example.

Although the Atlantic slave trade was officially abolished by Britain and other countries in 1807, the demand for slaves to work on the cotton plantations in the southern states of America was so voracious that it is estimated that a quarter of all of the slaves enslaved between 1500 and 1870 were transported illegally across that ocean after 1807. Within the United States, the increasing was met by the development of an internal market where slaves in the north, in the so-called slave-growing states like Kentucky, were sold to plantation owners in the south.

Perhaps the most famous fictional character to suffer this phase was the eponymous hero of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tom, raised in Kentucky, was sold in middle-age by his owners to help pay their mounting debts. He is transported down the Mississippi in a river boat and ends up in the hands of a sadistic owner, Simon Legree. To give a sense to the extent of the internal slave market it is estimated that In the decade from 1830 nearly a quarter of a million slaves were transported over state lines and that by the start of the Civil War the slave population numbered some 4 million.

The river in question in our phrase is the Mississippi and the original version of the phrase, to go down the river, meant to be sold and transported to a plantation on the lower reaches of the river. Aaron S Fry in his journal for April 1835 reported a truly horrific suicide of a slave; “A Negro man of Mr Elies, having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself”.

To sell a slave down the river was to sell them to a plantation lower down the Mississippi and was in currency in 1836. A letter from a J.F.C published in The Christian Register and Boston Observer on September 3rd of that year, noted that the proposed abolition of slavery in 1840 would have one of its consequences that “all who chose could sell their slaves down the river.” And many did and did very well out of it, the Ohio Repository noting in May of the following year, “one man, in Franklin County, has lately realised thirty thousand dollars, in a speculation on slaves, which he bought in Virginia, and sold down the river”. Literally and figuratively.

It was only a matter of time that the phrase would be divorced from its distasteful origins and be used in a figurative sense. The Chicago Daily Tribune, commenting on the controversial sale by Chicago Nationals of a baseball player, Pat Moran, in their edition of May 12, 1910 noted “Pat has been sold “down the river””. And P G Wodehouse, who had a wonderful ear for idioms American or otherwise, wrote in The Small Bachelor, published in 1927, “when Sigsbee Waddington married for the second time, he to all intents and purposes sold himself down the river”.

We use the phrase these days without realising its dark origin.

The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Two

Horseferry Road, SW1

The modern-day Horseferry Road is shaped rather like an alum key, running from Greycoat Place to Millbank where it leads on to Lambeth Bridge. Whilst it is regularly name-checked in the media as the address of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, it has a more fascinating history.

Until 1750 when Westminster Bridge was completed, there was only one bridge across the river Thames, London Bridge. There were plenty of boats shuttling up and down and across the river for foot passengers to hire or to transport goods but if you arrived at the riverbank with a horse and cart, you had to find another means of getting across, a horse ferry.

These were little more than rafts, wide enough to accommodate a carriage and long enough to allow the horse to travel whilst still harnessed to its load. They would have been very heavy and difficult to manoeuvre, probably by pole rather than oars, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the Thames was tidal and had strong currents. It is highly likely that the ferries only operated when tidal and weather conditions were just so. A ferryman would have been a skilled operator, one who knew precisely when the window of opportunity presented itself. For the customer, it often meant a long and frustrating wait on the bank, although there were taverns positioned at either side of the river to enable them to while their time away and get some Dutch courage.

There were a number of such ferries along the Thames, including one at the eastern end, plying its trade from Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs and one in the west connecting the villages of Putney and Fulham. But the most important, primarily because of its connection with the seat of political power, ran from close by St Mary’s church in Lambeth to the banks of Westminster and from which our street takes its name.

It is difficult to date precisely when the ferry first started operations. The earliest specific reference to it dates to 1513 when the Archbishop granted the ferry rights from Lambeth to Westminster to one Richard Trevilyan for a rent of 16d per annum and the proviso that the Archbishop’s entourage and goods went free. But the suspicion is that it is much older and may even pre-date the building of London Bridge in 1176 and, possibly, even was a Roman crossing point.

Accidents were not unknown. The arrival of Archbishop Laud at Lambeth was marred by the sinking of the ferry heavily laden with his goods, chattels and servants. No one died but the accident was taken as an omen presaging Laud’s eventual demise. A similar accident befell Oliver Cromwell in 1656. From the time of the Civil War to the restoration the Archbishop lost the rights to operate the ferry but when he got them back, true to form, he rented them out again. With the rights to operate the ferry came some obligations to maintain the adjacent streets, something, judging by the complaints from local residents at the turn of the eighteenth century, that a Mr Leventhorp failed to do, instead he preferred to pocket all of the profits.

On the night of December 9th to 10th, 1688, Mary of Modena, James II’s wife, together with her baby son and two nurses, made good their escape following the overthrow of the Stuarts by the horse ferry. It was a stormy, dark night and accounts suggest that the passengers could barely see each other as they made their perilous crossing of the river.

An Act of Parliament, passed in 1700, allowed the ferry to operate on a Sunday. However, the watermen’s earnings on the Lord’s Day had to be donated to the “poor, decayed watermen and their widows of the parish of St Margaret, Westminster”.

The building of Westminster Bridge in 1750, it was originally planned to replace the ferry at where Lambeth bridge now stands but the location was moved, put a severe dent into the demand for the ferry but it struggled on for another century. Lambeth Bridge was constructed in 1862 on the site of the ferry and that was the end of a dangerous and uncomfortable means of crossing the Thames. The Archbishop was given £2,000 in compensation for lost income but the watermen had to find alternative employment.

What Is The Origin Of (242)?…


Tradition has it that a cockney is, as Nathan Bailey defined it in his Universal Etymological Dictionary of 1731, someone “born and bred in the City of London or within the sound of Bow Bell; also a Foundling Child born in the City”. In 1851 the bells, the sound of which reputedly persuaded Dick Whittington to abandon his plans to leave London, could be heard as far south as Southwark and across north and east London. These days, they can only be heard in the City and Shoreditch and as there is no maternity ward within earshot, cockneys are a dying breed. The term, though, is still in use, often accompanied by an alliterative adjective like cheerful, as an alternative term for a Londoner. Where did it come from?

Our story starts with Geoffrey Chaucer and The Reeve’s Tale. Oswald, the eponymous reeve, laments, “and when this jape is tald another day,/ I sal been halde a daf, a cokenay”. Used in this context, poor Oswald had been the victim of a prank, it had the sense of a weakling or someone who was easily taken in. A century later an English-Latin dictionary, Promptorium parvolorum sive clericorum from 1440, defined cockney (or kokeney) as “little darling, pet, or poppet; and these two words are insincere, and said derisively; pampered child”. To be described as a cockney was not a string to your bow in those days.

The poet and agriculturalist, Thomas Tusser, also provides some invaluable assistance in tracing the development of this word. In his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry together with a Book of Huswifery, dating from around 1561, he observed, somewhat drily, “some cockneys with cocking, are made very fools/ fit neither for ‘prentice, for plough, nor for schools”. To cock was to spoil or pamper, a temptation many a parent falls into with their little darlings, and probably came into the English language from the French verb coqueliner. Our old friend, Randle Cotgrave, defined the phrase coqueliner vn enfant in his Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, published in 1611, as “to dandle, cocker, fedle, pamper, make a wanton of, a child”.

Alternatively, it could come from the old French word coquiné. The Century Dictionary from 1904 noted that it was used variously to describe a “a vagabond who hangs around the kitchen or a child brought up in the kitchen, or a child fed in a kitchen, a pampered child”. Either way we get back to the concept of a spoilt brat.

Cotgrave, though, throws a bit of a curve ball into our considerations by defining coquine as “a beggar woman; also a cockney, simperdedockit (a wonderful word denoting a coquette), nice thing”. And Arthur and Sebastian Evans use cockney in the sense of a dainty, affected woman in their Leicestershire Words, Phrases, and Proverbs of 1881; “shay’s a cockney little thing, shay woon’t ate no fat”.

In trying to make sense of all of this, I think what we are seeing is a country town divide. Those living in cities are so enervated in comparison with the good old English yeoman stock growing up in the countryside that they are positively namby pamby. That this may be the case is suggested by the philologist, Hensleigh Wedgwood, in his Dictionary of English Etymology from 1859. In the pages of this tome he opined that “the original meaning of cockney is a child too tenderly or delicately nurtured, one kept in the house and not hardened by out-of-doors life; hence applied to citizens, as opposed to the hardier inhabitants of the country, and in modern times confined to the citizens of London”.

That being the case, it is curious that these days Londoners take the description as a badge of honour, proof positive, if any were needed, that our language evolves in both form and meaning.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twenty Four

The spaghetti tree hoax of 1957

In some ways life was a lot simpler in 1957. There were just two television channels and Britons, freed from the restrictions of rationing which ended when the restrictions on the sale of meat and bacon were lifted on July 1, 1954, still eschewed what were seen as foreign foods.

Take spaghetti, now a staple fare in our diet. Only the adventurous were eating it and precious few knew where it came from and how it was produced. Panorama was one of the most prestigious programmes in the BBC’s stable, featuring documentaries on newsworthy stories and current affairs, hosted by one of the most revered public figures of the time, Richard Dimbleby. It went out on Monday evenings. April Fool’s Day in 1957 fell on a Monday and one of the show’s cameramen, Charles de Jaeger, a notorious practical joker, came up with a wheeze to hoax the great British public.

Taking as his theme the English saying, “x doesn’t grow on trees” he came up with a plan to do a short piece for the programme showing spaghetti being harvested – from trees, naturally. Granted a budget of £100 from the show’s producer, Michael Peacock, de Jaeger was allowed to extend his trip to Switzerland to film the piece.

Finding his perfect location, a hotel in Castiglione by Lake Lugano, surrounded by laurel trees, de Jaeger bought twenty pounds of uncooked, homemade spaghetti to hang from the branches of some of the trees. But he immediately encountered a major problem – the strips of spaghetti quickly dried out and would not hang up. His solution was to cook the pasta but this had the effect of making the pasta slippery and the strips rather ungracefully slid off the branches on to the ground.

Eventually, the problem was solved; uncooked spaghetti was wrapped up in damp cloth to keep it sufficiently moist for when it was to be hung on the trees. De Jaeger hired some local girls, dressed in national costume and carrying wicker baskets, to climb ladders and harvest the pasta, which was then laid out in the sun. The spaghetti was then cooked and de Jaeger shot some footage of the locals enjoying the product of their agricultural endeavours.

The piece was the last item on the show, following an item on wine production, and Dimbleby introduced it by saying, “And now from wine to food. We end Panorama tonight with a special report from the Swiss Alps”. When the report was over, Dimbleby signed off by noting with particular emphasis on the final phrase, “Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April”. If you want to see it, follow the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVo_wkxH9dU

As we would say these days, the report went viral. The Beeb was inundated with telephone calls from viewers, either congratulating the broadcasters for a delicious joke or asking for assistance in settling arguments between those who thought that spaghetti grew on trees and those who considered it to be the product of flour and water. That Dimbleby had done the voiceover encouraged many to take the hoax as gospel. Even the Director-General of the Beeb, Sir Ian Jacob, was taken in and sought the answer from the internet of the time, the Encyclopedia Britannica, only to be thwarted because spaghetti didn’t even merit an entry.

Such was the furore that the BBC issued an explanation before the close of that night’s transmission but the outcry was meat and drink to the broadcaster’s army of critics. Some cried foul over the timing, by tradition April Fool’s jokes should be made before noon.

Panorama never broadcast another hoax story but the spaghetti tree story lived long in the memory and spawned a number of imitators. In 1978 San Giorgio ran an advert featuring a spaghetti farm where the pasta grew with the strap line “nobody grows spaghetti like San Giorgio”,


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


What Is The Origin Of (241)?…

In Dicky’s meadow

I was born in Lancashire and I still have some slight vestiges of that distinctive accent in my everyday speech, principally the flat a in words such as grass and bath which mark out the northerner from those from the south. I also retain some Lancastrian phrases like in Dicky’s meadow, fortunately one that I have not had to utter too often.

The Day to Day in Liverpool column in the city’s Daily Post and Mercury of March 20, 1916 gives us a charmingly succinct explanation of the phrases meaning; “No, that would land us in Dicky’s meadow. What does that expression mean? was the natural query. The clerk’s interpretation was that the saying implied a state of difficulty or trouble. He learned it in his boyhood, but he knew nothing it as to its origin”.

The column took pains to point out that the clerk was born and educated in mid-Lancashire as opposed to Liverpool and so it can be assumed that the phrase was unknown to or at least rarely used by Liverpudlians. It also reveals that Liverpool has never really considered itself to be part of Lancashire and most Lancastrians are happy for that to remain so.

That it was a phrase originating in Lancashire is confirmed by a quaint article found in The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express of December 27, 1890, entitled Sum Lankisher Sayins. It is written in Lancashire dialect or, at least, a phonetic representation of it. The piece about Dicky’s meadow begins; “It’s a quare shop to find yo’rsels in, is Dicky’s meadow, becos ther isn’d th’ ghost ov a chance on yo’ geddin eawt ageean when wonst yo’ve getten in”. The nightmare for all good working folk of the time was to get in such financial straits, either because of lack of work or sickness, often the two went hand-in-hand, that they ended up in the workhouse. Dicky’s meadow was a more pleasing synonym for that grim place.

But who was Dicky?

There is a temptation in etymological searches to assume that a phrase bearing a name alludes to an actual character. Dicky’s meadow is one such case. One theory goes that the Dicky is Richard, Duke of York, who was killed in one of the major battles of the War of the Roses, the Battle of Wakefield, on December 30, 1460. His demise shows that the Duke was really in a difficult situation and historians conclude that he was ill-advised to engage with troops loyal to Henry VI on that field at Sandal Magna.

But there a couple of reasons why this derivation is unlikely. The first is that there is such a long passage of time between the battle and the phrase emerging in mid-nineteenth century Lancashire that it smacks of convenient retro-fitting. And Wakefield is in Yorkshire. The rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire is legendary, easily surpassing that between Liverpool and the rest of Lancashire. Why would Lancastrians reference a place in Yorkshire, although you can see the attraction from a pejorative perspective? They may just as easily have referenced the car park attendant, Richard III, who came to a sticky end in the fields of Bosworth in 1485.

There may be a more prosaic explanation at hand. In the early nineteenth century dicky or in its alternative form dickey was an adjective used to describe something that was uncertain, hazardous, or critical. Interestingly, the Preston Herald of June 23, 1866 reports that a crowd of workers, protesting at the importation of labourers from the south, shouted, “We’ll see ‘em in Dickey meadow first”. Whilst it may be a misprint the use of Dickey as an adjective rather than the genitive of a person’s name may suggest that it isn’t necessary to consider identifying a real person. Dickey was indicating that it was simply a terrible position to be in.

There is a more widely used phrase to indicate being in dire straits, queer street. The Burnley Express on October 23, 1920 joined the two; “we shall never be anywhere else nor I’Queer-street or Dicky’s meadow under t’present system”. The inevitable conclusion is that Dicky’s meadow is the Lancastrian version of Queer Street.