What Is The Origin Of (261)?…

According to Cocker

It is rare in my etymological researches to be have nailed the origin of a phrase but I am pretty confident I have done so with this phrase I stumbled upon when reading one of R Austin Freeman’s Thorndyke detective stories, Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke from 1931. It means something that is done properly and in accordance with established rules and methodologies. But who was Cocker?

Edward Cocker, that’s who, who lived between 1631-75.,His Cocker’s Arithmetick, published posthumously in 1677, was to become the bane of the lives of many a schoolboy (and the odd lass) for centuries to come. So successful was the book to become that there were 112 editions of it, reaching its 20th edition by 1700 and its 52nd edition in 1748. Freeman would almost certainly have sampled its delights as a boy.

The delicious irony, of course, is that Cocker, although a master at a grammar school in Southwark, was better known for his penmanship and his mastery of the art of engraving in his time rather than his mathematical prowess. He appears several times in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, particularly as the only man the diarist knows who has the skill to engrave some tables on his new slide rule. On August 10, 1664 the diarist noted, “so I find out Cocker, the famous writing-master…well pleased with his company and better with his judgement upon my Rule, I left him and home”.   

We can only deduce that Crocker perfected his skills in drumming mathematical techniques into the unwilling skulls of his pupils whilst teaching. Part of his Arithmetick phenomenal success was due to the extremely practical approach to teaching the subject, concentrating specifically on the techniques and skills that tradespeople, builders and the like would need to go about their daily lives. The playwright, Arthur Murphy, gave it an early namecheck in The Apprentice in 1756 in this exchange between a despairing father, Wingate, and his reckless son, Dick; “Wingate: Let me see no more Play-Books. Dick: Cocker’s Arithmetick, Sir? Wingate: Ay, Cocker’s Arithmetick – study Figures, and they’ll carry you through the World”.  

Well-meaning men would give a copy of the book to children. Samuel Johnson, whilst visiting the Isle of Skye in September 1773, recorded in a letter that a little girl he had met “engaged me so much that I made her a present of Cocker’s Arithmetick”. Her reaction to this gift is unrecorded. And James Boswell recorded in his Life of Samuel Johnson that the great man, when asked why he travelled with a copy of Cocker’s, pontificated thus; “when you have read through a book of entertainment, you know it, and it can do no more for you; but a book of science is inexhaustible”.      

Inevitably, Cocker’s name, and by inference his methodology, became the yardstick of mathematical accuracy. The Town and Country Magazine of March 1785, reporting on a failed attempt to raise the stakes in a card game, noted that “she never played for above sixpences, and added, that her husband had calculated, according to Cocker, that an alderman might be ruined in a month, if his wife cut in for shillings”.  

It was also used in newspaper articles to confirm the veracity of a calculation. The Morning Post on October 25, 1816 reported that “the Dividend payable at the Bank upon 23l. 8s. is (according to Cocker) 23s. 22d. per annum”. By the time of Tom Brown at Oxford, written by Thomas Hughes and published in 1861, it had become a general bit of slang, used to denote what should happen; “According to Cocker. Who is Cocker? Oh, I don’t know; some old fellow who wrote the rules of arithmetic, I believe; it’s only a bit of slang”. In the negative, as Freeman used it, it meant something was not quite right; “there was no sign of the driver, and no one minding the horse; and as this was not quite according to Cocker, it naturally attracted his attention”.

The phrase has almost disappeared from sight these days. Now that can’t be according to Cocker.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty One

The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals

Perhaps it is because I am not a pet owner but I am constantly astonished by how much the British spend on pets. The Pet Food Manufacturing Association claim, and they should know if anyone does, that there are nine million dogs and 8 million cats in the country and Mintel calculated in 2015 that we spend an astonishing £18 billion on our four-footed friends. Even more baffling to me is that, according to Groomarts, British cat and dog owners spend almost £200 a year on clothes for their pets and that 22% of the respondents to their survey admitted to spending up to £20 a month on outfits. And there was me thinking that nature had provided them with a perfectly adequate means of protecting them and keeping them warm, their fur.

It is undeniable, though, that when you are out in the countryside with your family, you may see animals being animals and for those of a sensitive or prudish disposition, being confronted by a priapic bull in flagrante delicto is a bit of a shock and takes some explaining to the children. Wouldn’t it be great if animals were required clothing to hide their private parts and avoid upsetting those of us of a gentle disposition?

That was the idea behind The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), rather inaptly named as what they were trying to do was to stamp out what they perceived to be the affront to common decency of animals going around as nature intended them. Their mission was to clothe all animals standing over four inches tall and over six inches long. The organisation developed a number of catchy slogans, including “A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse”.

In 1959 articles began to appear in the press about their aims and objectives and they seemed to have struck a chord with the nation. SINA’s President, one G. Clifford Prout, claimed that they already had 50,000 members and were receiving around 400 new applications to join a week. It didn’t cost anything to join, all you had to do was to promise to out neighbours who insisted in parading their animals unclothed.

Prout began to appear on TV, wowing audiences by demonstrating a range of Bermuda shorts for horses, slips for cows and trousers for kangaroos. Stunts were organised including street parades to get the general public used to the idea of animals wearing clothing and bundles of clothes were airdropped into fields so that farmers could slip them on to their herds. Demonstrators even picketed the White House, exhorting the then First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, to clothe her horses.

SINA seemed to have hit the jackpot when Prout was invited to appear on the influential Walter Kronkite television news programme on CBS on August 21, 1962. It proved to be SINA’s equivalent of Icarus flying too close to the son because some of the studio crew recognised Prout as the comedian, Buck Henry. Although the interview went out on air, it soon transpired that SINA was nothing more than a giant hoax. Kronkite was reportedly furious that he had been conned. Time magazine ran an exposé of the hoax in 1963.

The brains behind the hoax was serial hoaxer, Alan Abel, who played the role of the organisation’s executive vice=president, Bruce Spencer. Henry was Abel’s able accomplice, willing to front the operation. Abel claimed to have got the idea after driving past a couple of cows mating and wondered how far such a ludicrous idea, which would appeal to the American moral brigade, would run.

Quite some way, it would appear. Astonishingly, he was able to keep the hoax running for a few more years via a newsletter sent to those who were oblivious to the fall-out from the Kronkite show or the detailed expose in Timemagazine.   

Quite what he would have thought of the current trend to clothe pets is anybody’s guess but I’m sure he would have had a chuckle.

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


What Is The Origin Of (260)?…


There is a lot that is mysterious and intriguing about the phrase cloak-and-dagger and that is appropriate as it denotes the sense of subterfuge, deceit and acting underhand. The first point of controversy is whether it should be hyphenated. The grammarians amongst us would contend that it should as it is used adjectivally in front of a noun. Alas, modern usage and the wilful disregard for the grammatical niceties of our wonderful language means that it is often seen without hyphens.

The second area of controversy is where it came from. Some authorities point to similar expressions, de cape et d’épée, in French, and de capa y espada, in Spanish, which described a form of drama, popular in the 18th century, featuring characters who, unsurprisingly, wore cloaks draped around the arm to act as an impromptu shield and a sword with which to fight. It may have drawn its inspiration from a fencing move called Rapier and Cloak, described in Alfred Hutton’s Old Sword-Play: The Systems of France in vogue during the XVIth, XVIIth, and XVIIIth centuries, published in 1892.   

That the name of this dramatic art form made its way into the English language when Henry Vassall-Fox wrote his Some Account of the Life and Writings of Lope Felix de Vega Carpio in 1806, as Carpio was a pre-eminent playwright. Interestingly, though, Vassall-Fox wrote, “the plays…acquired the name of Comedias de Capa y Espada, Comedies of the Cloak and Sword, from the dresses in which they were represented”. Note that it was a sword, not a dagger, a small point, perhaps, but one that casts a scintilla of doubt as to whether it is the origin of our phrase.

Cloaks and daggers can be found in use in English print in the 18th century without any direct reference to continental drama. In a letter printed in an edition of The Derby Mercury from July 1769 entitled A Speech of a Nobel Earl to a Great Personage, the correspondent gave a dire warning about attempts to dissolve the Union of Great Britain, which, in these troubled times, we would do well to heed; “and those that endeavour to dissolve it, carry a dagger under the cloak of patriotism, to stab their country in the heart”. The sense of this figurative usage is clear; cloaks and daggers denote underhandedness and menace.

Cloaks and daggers were used in a figurative sense in The Examiner on May 26th of the same year, when it ruminated over the judgment in a court case, fulminating that, “Sir Vicary Gibbs will insist that you do it as a blind, as a cheat for the unwary, a cloak for some dagger that you are carrying about you”. A similar usage is to be found in the Morning Post of September 1836; “carrying a dagger against the Church, under the capacious cloak of economy”.

It was not until the early 19th century that cloaks and daggers were associated here with a form of melodramatic play. Bell’s Weekly Messenger of February 3, 1811 reviewed a play in which one of the protagonists, an assassin by the name of Montalvi, “drops his cloak, mask and dagger”. Charles Dickens clearly had this cliched stage device in mind when he wrote, in Barnaby Rudge, from 1841, “it was given to him by a person then waiting at the door, the man replied. With a cloak and dagger? Said Mr Chester. With nothing more threatening about him, it appeared, than a leather apron and a dirty face”. With Dickens’ imprimatur, the phrase took off.

It is difficult to know what to make of all of this. My sense is that cloaks and daggers were well established as a description of a form of menace before their usage as a stage device in Britain. However, it was probably Charles Dickens’ use of the phrase that firmly established it in popular speech.

But I may be wrong and that is the beauty of attempting to trace the origin of phrases.

The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Eight

Angel Court, SW1

I have a bit of an affinity with Angel Courts as I lived in one when I was at University. This Court, though, is to be found in the St James’s district and links King Street with Pall Mall. Quite when it was constructed is not certain. It certainly appeared in Richard Horwood’s Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster Shewing every House, a Google Maps of its time, an ambitious project, which occupied him from 1792 and 1799, and one not repeated again until the 1930s. In Horwood’s map it is a dead-end rather than the thoroughfare linking two streets that it is today.

The long, tall, thin pub, with its richly decorated late Victorian frontage, guarding one side of the Court at the King Street end, the Golden Lion, was built in 1762. I haven’t been there for a while but I seem to recall that it was a bit pokey at ground level but there was more space upstairs. One of its more famous drinkers was Oscar Wilde and, being a boozer, it naturally has its own resident spirit, a barmaid who was murdered by the landlady in 1823.

There is a record from the archives of the Old Bailey of a fatal stabbing in the alley on December 7, 1692. Knife crime is not a new phenomenon in the metropolis. Having accused the defendant, J-K, of lewd conduct in the alley, the unfortunate and interfering Richard Towers was run through with a rapier. As St James’s was developed in the late 17th century for the aristocracy to reside in, it seems reasonable to assume that the Court was part of the original development of the area.         

Horwood’s map shows a house with a garden at the end of the Close. This may well have been a hotel called Nerot’s which had long since been abandoned and was in a poor state of repair. It was demolished in 1835 to make way for the St James’s Theatre. It was the brainchild of John Braham, an operatic star of the time, and the project was described in Old and New London in 1878 as “one of those unaccountable infatuations which stake the earnings of a lifetime upon a hazardous speculation”.

It seemed ill-fated from the beginning. Braham sunk £28,000 of his money into the project, quarrelled frequently with his architect, and struggled to get it licensed. As a piece of architecture, it was impressive, with a neo-classical exterior and an interior modelled on a Louis XIV style, three storeys high, with three bays at the front with shops on the ground floor. For Braham, though, it was a money pit and after three years, he retired, seriously out of pocket.

The theatre changed hands frequently, gaining a reputation as unlucky, and not prospering until the 1880s. Under the stewardship of the actor-manager, George Alexander, from 1891 to 1918, it grew a reputation for putting on cutting-edge plays including premieres of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. Following Alexander’s death the theatre went through a succession of hands until, in 1950, Lawrence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, took over its management. In 1954 Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables ran for 726 performances in 1954, a record for the theatre.

But disaster struck in 1957 when a property developer acquired the freehold from under Olivier’s feet and obtained permission to demolish it and replace it with an office block. Despite protests at this rather underhand behaviour, the theatre closed in July and was demolished in December. Some decorated panels were preserved and were affixed to the frontage of the office block but when it too was demolished, in 1980, they were moved into the alley where they remain today.

Many a street in our metropolis has a tale or two to tell, it seems.

What Is The Origin Of (259)?…

Beyond the pale

If your behaviour is described as being beyond the pale, it is unacceptable and beyond the accepted norms of decency. The pale in question is a noun, not the adjective to denote a whitish colour, and means a stake or pointed piece of wood. It comes via the Middle French word, pal, from the Latin palus. But why compare behaviour to a stake?

The answer becomes clearer when you realise that pale in English had another meaning, an area enclosed by a fence or a load of pales and, by extension, aa distinct area subject to a particular jurisdiction. Until its imperialistic expansion from the 17th century onwards England had very little in the way of overseas territories, particularly after the Hundred Years’ War, the territory of Calais, which it hung on to from 1337 until 1453, and Ireland.

The Irish had always been a thorn in the English side and only four counties, those of Louth, Meath, Dublin, and Kildare, remained loyal(ish) to the king. The king’s turf was marked by a wooden turf, later turned into a more impressive ten-foot-deep ditch surrounded by eight-feet banks and thorny bushes. Those who lived inside the perimeter of the ditch were under the protection of the English and abided by their laws and customs. Those outside the ditch were outside the boundaries of what was considered then to be civilised society.

Perhaps the most infamous pale was the Pale of Settlement established by Catherine the Great which lasted between 1791 and 1917 and denoted areas of Russia and Russian-occupied Poland within which Jews were required to live. Sometimes Jews were allowed to live beyond the pale.

It was not until the 17th century that the term began to be used figuratively to mean a sphere of influence or activity. The time lag between the English pales and its usage makes it difficult to be certain that there was a direct connection or whether it was just an etymologist’s retro-fit. It is in this figurative sense that Shakespeare used it in The Winter’s Tale from around 1610 in describing the onset of spring; “for the red blood raigns in the winter’s pale”. Sir Walter Scott extended the Bard’s concept of the term pale to denote a boundary of behaviour and brought back the sense of a physical boundary by imagining someone leaping over it. In The Search after Happiness, a poem from 1817, he wrote; “Italian license loves to leap the pale”.      

Beyond the pale seems to have first appeared in a lyric poem entitled The History of Polindor and Flostella by John Harington, published in 1657. Ortheris has retired to the country for some peace and quiet but soon falls in love and “both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-Walk”. The expression was slow to take off and there are only a few citations, one of the earlier one being as late as November 6, 1809 in a poem in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle, rather sensationally entitled Stanzas, on hearing a wretch exclaim there is no God; The opening stanza concludes with the following lines, “yet specious pleas the wretched being frames,/ beyond the pale where common sense is found”.

When the phrase was used, it more usually came with a form of explanation or limitation of the pale. A classic example is to be found in the rather splendid A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats of Both Sexes, compiled by Captain Alexander Smith and published in 1719. In describing Acteon, the good Captain wrote, “while he suffered his eye to rove at pleasure and beyond the pale of expedience”.  

Modern usage has reverted to Harington’s formulation. Some users seem oblivious to its origin spelling pale as pail as in a bucket. Now that really is beyond the pale.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty

The Princess Caraboo hoax of 1817

The bucolic calm of the Gloucestershire village of Almondsbury was disturbed on April 3, 1817 when the local cobbler came across a young woman, seemingly disoriented, wearing exotic clothing and babbling in a strange language. Taking her to his home and communicating by sign language he soon determined that she wanted food and drink and somewhere to sleep. The cobbler’s wife, though, was not happy to have this strange woman under her roof and told her husband to take her to a Mr Hill, the Overseer of the Poor.

One of Mr Hill’s tasks was to take anyone suspected of vagrancy to the local Justice of the Peace, which he duly did. Samuel Worrall, who lived in nearby Knole Park House, was the magistrate for the area, took pity on the woman and with the help of his wife, Elizabeth, tried to make some sense of what the woman was saying. These enquiries came to naught save for deducing that the woman called herself Caraboo.

Her arrival had put the Worralls in a spot. They had their position in society to think of and harbouring a woman who, for all they knew, could have been a criminal wasn’t on. Saw Elizabeth arranged for the local pub, The Bowl, to give her rooms. On the walls of the pub were prints of exotic fruits, all the rage at the time, and Caraboo astonished the local topers by pointing to a pineapple and saying Nanas, the Indonesian word for the fruit. Caraboo’s stock rose dramatically, the good folk of Almondsbury being convinced that she was from the East, and she was invited back to stay with the Worralls.

To say that Caraboo was not an easy house guest is no understatement. She slept on the floor rather than in a bed, would only eat vegetables and drink tea, and would insist on clambering up on to the roof to say her prayers to a god she called Allah-talla. Her appearance was disturbing to contemporary eyes with her exotic clothing and strange markings on her head.

The mystery of Caraboo seemed to have been solved when she was introduced to a Portuguese sailor, Manuel Eynesso, who seemed to understand her language. He told Mr Worrall that she was a princess from an island called Javasu, had been captured by pirates, had escaped by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel and swum ashore. Transformed instantly from a vagrant to an exotic princess whose escape from the pirates appealed to the Worrall’s anti-slavery sentiments, Caraboo was someone to cherish and boast about.

The Worralls were not shy in letting all in the locality of their exotic house guest. Her eccentricities were now something to behold with wonder and she wowed onlookers with her skills with the bow and arrow and her exotic dancing. She would swim unclothed in the lake, away from prying eyes, at least so we are told. Drawings were made of her and stories were written about her in the local press. Samuel Worrall sent some of her strange writings to Oxford to be analysed and a Dr Wilkinson, using a copy of Edmund Fry’s Pantographia, attested to the authenticity of her language and stated that the markings on her head were the work of oriental surgeons. Caraboo even had a ball held in her honour in Bath.

Caraboo’s moment of fame lasted for around ten weeks before her bubble was rudely burst by a Mrs Neale, a boarding-housekeeper from Bristol. Recognising Caraboo’s picture in the Bristol Journal as that of Mary Willcocks, an itinerant servant girl from the Devon village of Witheridge, she blew the whistle on her deception. Caraboo was a figment of Willcocks’ imagination, her language a mix of imaginary words and Romany, and the marks on her head were the scars from a cupping operation performed in one of London’s poorhouse hospitals. Worse still, the academics from Oxford reported that the writings Worrall had submitted for examination were of a “humbug language”, a popular term in Oxford it would seem.

The British press seized on the hoax as a tick with which to beat the naivety and gullibility of the rural middle classes. Quite why Willcocks carried out the hoax, other than to see how far it got her as she had nothing else to lose, is not clear but after a stint in America she returned to Blighty and tried her luck in the theatre as Princess Caraboo. Her stage career did not take off and she returned to the West country, supplying and selling leeches, until her death in 1864.        

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


What Is The Origin Of (258)?…

A snowball’s chance in hell

I’m back on the trail of phrases which denote impossibility and a snowball’s chance in hell is both perfectly understandable in its figurative and almost certainly an Americanism. In popular imagination hell was typified as a place where eternal fires burned. A snowball, of course, is prone to melt once temperatures rise above freezing point. Naturally, therefore, a snowball subjected to the fires of hell would be transformed into a pool of water in pretty short order. Likening one’s chances to that of the survival of a snowball in such circumstances is tantamount to saying you don’t stand a chance.

It was in the 1880s that the pairing of a snowball and hell hit the printed page and all the examples are American. The Detroit Free Press of April 9, 1880, reporting the withdrawal of the support of former Secretary of State, George Gorham, from Rutherford Hayes, the 19th US President, to Ulysses Grant, noted that he had considered under Hayes’ administration, “a Republican in the South had about as much chance as a snowball in hell”.

It cropped up again in the Las Vegas Daily Gazette of March 27, 1884. The journal remarked that “there is no more show for the people of New Mexico to have a word to say in reference to the laws that shall be enacted during the next nine days than there is for a snowball in hell”. It is intriguing that the earliest examples reflect powerlessness in politics. This may simply be a coincidence. Whilst the meaning of the phrase is pretty clear, the fact that it is used without a gloss is suggestive of the fact that the phrase was in common parlance before the 1880s.

For those with more sensitive religious sensibilities, there was a variant. A report of an electoral dispute in the November 24, 1890 edition of The Atlanta Constitution records that the lawyer acting for the defendant, one Mr Norman, gave the rationale for his client switching his vote as “he saw that Northwood’s chances were about like a snowball’s chances in the lower regions”. The substitution deprives the phrase of its force, I feel.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the phrase also was used to describe speed, perhaps a more natural interpretation of the allusion. Many things are unlikely to escape the fires of hell for long, not least the souls of the damned, but it is the sheer rapidity of the demise of a snowball that is the point. The Rio Grande Republican picked up a report of a fire in a bakery in the San Marcial Times on January 27, 1883, noting that “the bakery melted away like a snowball in hell”.

It may have wormed its way into the consciousness of the paper because on November 3rd that year it reported that “a snowball in hell will not disappear more quickly than your friend if you ask him to drink at any other saloon than the Commercial”. And the Omaha Sunday Bee, great name, ran a short story on March 6, 1887 entitled A Wyoming Wedding, in which a character says, “that rheumatiz is a pesky thing, ain’t it? A man can’t last no longer than a snowball in hell, ridin’ with that in him”.

The Americans have their snowball in hell and we have not a cat’s chance in hell, two variations on a theme.