What Is The Origin Of (294)?…


Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes, from the erudite to the crude. At the far extreme of the comedy spectrum is slapstick, a form of knockabout humour, often featuring horseplay, exploiting ridiculous situations and carrying the menace of violence. In the hands of masters of the form, like the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and more recently Rowan Atkinson in the guise of Mr Bean, as well as that seaside favourite, The Punch and Judy show, it can be an effective and amusing form of comedy, more so than the politically correct, virtue signalling, diatribes that pass as comedy now.

The origin of the word is straightforward. In the period between the 16th and 18th centuries, one of the dramatic forms that flourished, initially in Italy. Possibly in Venice, and then through other European countries was the Commedia dell’Arte. It was known over here as Italian comedy. A mix of scripted dialogue and improvisation, it featured stock characters, each with their distinctinctive costumes. The harlequin, known as Arlecchino, carried a stick with which to assault some of the other players.

When physical assaults on actors were considered to be a breach of even the rudimentary ‘elf and safety standards that prevailed at the time, assaults were mimed, and the accompanying sounds were created backstage. To achieve that satisfying whacking sound, a device was developed, consisting of two flat pieces of wood, joined together at one end. It made a glorious noise and was given a vaguely onomatopoeic name, the slapstick.

As it was normally deployed in pantomimes and other forms of what were termed as “low comedies”, the name of the instrument was attributively given to that type of drama, sometimes used adjectively with the addition of comedy. A rather lukewarm review of a play called The Kindergarten appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer on April 27, 1885; “as a satire we must in justice pronounce it a failure, but as the vehicle for the introduction of lots of fun of the slap-stick order the “thing” jogs along as merrily as the old one-horse shay”.     

The temptation to enhance the sound produced by a slapstick was sometimes too much for enterprising showmen to resist, occasionally with unintended and potentially lethal results. The Chicago Sunday Tribune on May 31, 1908, reported an incident involving a clown, James Balno, at New York’s Hippodrome. “A slapstick with a blank cartridge between the boards”, it noted, “was to be used in the act, and to test it Balno struck it against the edge of a door. The cartridge exploded and a piece of the metal shot into Balno’s shoulder, severing an artery”. Balno lived to tell the tale.  

By the start of the 20th century the word was beginning to be used as a noun to describe a farce or a piece of drama that relied on physical humour. The New York Times, on May 1, 1904, reported that “boys have laughed at their slapsticks, literal and linguistic”. The composer, Gustav Mahler, gave the slapstick an air of respectability when he scored an appearance for it in the original version of his Sixth Symphony.

As early as the second decade of the 20th century, the demise of slapstick was being signalled, the Albuquerque Evening Herald, on August 29, 1912, reporting the views of a movie actor, John Bunny, had him opining that “comic cinematograph scenes will hereafter turn from the prevailing style of slapstick humour towards the subtler laugh”. Mercifully, he was wrong.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Six

Rudolph Fentz, the accidental time traveller, 1950

Occasionally, I allow myself the luxury of fantasising about being a time traveller. I find it interesting to speculate what life would really be like at some time in the past or, indeed, in the future. This was the premise behind the successful TV drama, Dr Who, which has been going long enough to suggest that others are fascinated by this fantasy. Of course, I realise that it is the stuff of science fiction and there are little or no grounds to think that it could ever be achieved, but you never know. Take the curious case of Rudolph Fentz.

Around 11.15pm in the middle of June 1950, a strange figure appeared in the centre of New York’s Times Square. He cut quite a dash, wearing a tall silk hat, a tight coat and waistcoat. But it was his thick mutton-chop sideburns and his expression of bewilderment, as if he had never seen buildings so tall or such density of traffic or traffic lights. He seemed frightened by the experience and ran into the middle of the road, straight in front of one of the Big Apple’s famous yellow taxis and was killed outright.

When the police examined his body, they found in his pocket a stock of business cards identifying him as Rudolph Fentz with an address on Fifth Avenue. More astonishingly, Fentz was carrying in his pocket a copper token redeemable for a beer worth five cents at a bar no one had heard of, round $70 in old bank notes, an invoice for the ”feeding and stabling of one horse” at a stable on Lexington Avenue that was unknown, a letter dated June 1876 from Philadelphia, and a medal for coming third in a three-legged race. None of these artefacts showed any evidence of ageing. It was all a mystery. Just who was Fentz and where had he come from?

Captain Hubert Rihm from NYPD’s Missing Persons Department began to make enquiries. Fentz’s fingerprints were not on record and he was not known at the address on his business card. Rihm did get a breakthrough, finding the name, Rudolph Fentz Jr, in a phone book. He rang the number, only to find out that he had died around 1945, but that his wife was still alive.

What Fentz Jr’s widow had to reveal, though, was truly astonishing. Her father-in-law, Rudolph Fentz Sr, had disappeared without trace in 1876, leaving his house for an evening constitutional and never returning. Rihm checked the description of Fentz and the clothing he wore at the time of his disappearance and they tallied. The case was closed, marked as unsolved.

For paranormalists, though, the astonishing disappearance and reappearance of Fentz after seventy years, fresh as a daisy without any apparent ageing, was proof positive that man could time travel. What might have appeared to be an astonishing news story didn’t appear in any of the papers at the time and only gained currency when the Journal of Borderlands Science published an account in its May/June 1972 edition. The story then took off, cited in several articles, books and on the internet as factual, including, in 2000, in the Spanish magazine, Más Allá. This prompted Chris Auckleck, a bit of a spoilsport, to dig further.

What Auckleck discovered was that, surprise, surprise, there was no basis for believing that the Fentz had any basis in fact. He discovered a short story by the science fiction writer, Jack Finney, he of Invasion of The Body Snatchers and Time and Again fame, published in Collier’s magazine on September 15, 1951. The story, narrated by a police officer, Captain Rihm, tells of a 19th century man, named Fentz, making an unexpected appearance in Times Square.

Fentz’s time travelling was little more than a literary hoax, a clever one nonetheless, seized upon by those desperate for evidence that substantiated their theories. Time travel is just a pleasant fantasy, it would seem.

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


What Is The Origin Of (293)?…

Neither fish nor flesh

Rather like the later phrase, betwixt and between, neither fish nor flesh and its alternative formulation, neither fish nor fowl, means something that is indeterminate or difficult to classify, something that is neither one thing nor another.

For Christian folk, at least until the schism between Catholics and Protestants, fasting was part of their religious observances. During Lent and on every Friday throughout the year, they were meant to restrict their intake to one full meal which excluded meat. It was therefore of importance to determine what fell into what category and the ecclesiastical authorities helpfully categorised foodstuffs into flesh, meaning the flesh of land animals, fish and fowl. Thomas Aquinas, writing in his influential Summa Theologica in the 13th century, summed up the church’s attitude to meat. As animals were more like man in body, they gave greater pleasure as food and were, therefore, inimical to the purpose of fasting, namely “to bridle concupiscences of the flesh”.

Over time, though, what constituted a fish, particularly important to those following a pescatarian diet during Lent, became more open to interpretation. The Bishop of Quebec, in the 17th century, decreed that a beaver, of which there was a plentiful supply in the area, were fish and as recently as 2010 the Bishop of New Orleans advised his flock that “alligator is considered in the fish family”. These vagaries of classification gave rise to our phrase.

However, the earliest recorded instance of its usage, to describe Cardinal Wolsey and the Catholic clergy in a satire entitled Rede me and nott be wrothe for I say no thynge but trothe by William Roy and Jerome Barlow in 1528, is as an insult; “whom they call Doctour Standisshe/ wone that is neither fleshe nor fisshe/ at all tymes a comen lyer”. The transposition of the terms is merely to preserve the rhyme. I suspect Henry Standish, one time Bishop of St Asaph, was singled out because of the rhyming quality of his surname.

The epigrammatist, John Heywood, provided an extended version of the phrase in his A dialogue conteinying the number in effect of all the prourbes in the englishe tongue, published in 1546. There he records, “she is nother fishe nor fleshe nor good hearyng”. Apparently, herring cured in saltpetre turns a reddish colour.

One of Shakespeare’s best characters, in my humble opinion, is the bluff and boastful, John Falstaff. In Henry IV Part 1, Act 3, scene 5, when discussing the charms and qualities of mine hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly, he compares her with a beast. When asked by the concerned Quickly which beast, we are treated to this exchange, Prince Hal making up the threesome; “Falstaff: What beast? Why an Otter. Prince: An otter sir John, why an otter? Falstaff: Why? Shees neither fish nor flesh, a man knows not where to haue her”. Interestingly, Shakespeare plays on the fluid status in the theological system of the taxonomy of creatures that look animals but spend a good proportion of their time in the water. The Bishop of Quebec may have taken note.

A later development, perhaps, of the phrase was to turn into an expression denoting the making of an invidious choice or to show partiality by adding or implying the verb to make to it. A correspondent to the Fife Free Press on December 3, 1892 has been outraged by the decision to arraign a draper, one Mr Skinner, for displaying his goods on the pavement. “Why should”, he fumed, “they pounce upon any one individual to make a test case of, while others, who offend more heinously, are allowed to continue unmolested? This, however, is generally the way in Kirkcaldy, Fish of one, flesh of another”.         

These days, though, we talk of neither fish nor fowl b ut the principle and the original derivation is the same.

The Streets Of London (112)

Gower Street, WC1

Running from Euston Road at its northerly end to Montague Place at its southern end where it becomes Bloomsbury Street, Gower Street boasts one of the longest sets of Georgian terraces in the capital. They were not universally admired when they were built, John Ruskin, prompted to go all Prince Charles, calling them “the nec plus ultra of ugliness in British architecture”. To relieve the boredom of the brown-bricked frontages some stuccoed entrances were added. By the standards of many of the London streets I have looked at, Gower Street is relatively modern, being initially laid out in the 1780s. It takes its name from Lady Gertrude Leveson-Gower who, in 1737, became the second wife of Bloomsbury landowner, the 4th Duke of Bedford aka John Russell.   

The street had a part to play in the development of the railway. Near what is now Gower Place a circular track was built in 1808 to allow the engineer, Richard Trevithick, to display his new-fangled steam locomotive, a Hazeldine and Rastrick single cylinder engine imaginatively called Catch Me Who Can. The intrepid could, for a fee of 2 shillings, sit in a carriage, originally designed for road travel, and experience the thrill of being pulled along, making it the world’s first steam locomotive to pull a carriage of fare-paying passengers. Unfortunately, the experiment did not last long, the engine and carriage being too heavy for the brittle tracks and after a few weeks, following a derailment, Trevithick had to admit defeat.       

Gower Street also had a part to play in London’s developing underground system. The Metropolitan Railway opened the first line in 1863 and a station at the northern end of the street was one of the original stations. It was renamed Euston Square on November 1, 1909.  

At the northern end of the road, too, a plot of land was taken in the 1820s to build an alternative university to the Anglican dominated institutions at Oxford and Cambridge. It was known as “the godless institution of Gower Street” and its first building, the Wilkins Building, opened its doors in 1828. What is now the University College of London gradually expanded over time to occupy much of the eastern side of the street, including the land behind.

On the west side of the street a teaching hospital, initially known as the North London Hospital and later University College hospital, opened its doors in 1834 to provide clinical training for the “medical classes” of the university, its development prompted by the refusal of the governors of the Middlesex Hospital to allow students access to its wards. The first major operation using ether as an anaesthetic in Europe was performed there on December 21, 1846. The teaching hospital brought a mix of qualified surgeons and doctors and medical students to the area. The students, when not busy at their studies, found time to develop a form of slang known as Marrowskying or Medical Greek or the Gower Street dialect. Essentially it was a form of Spoonerism, swapping around the first or first two letters of words in a phrase, doubtless to confuse those not in the know. So, a mutton chop would become a chutton mop, and smoking a pipe poking a smipe. You get the picture.

These days many of the buildings not used by the university of hospital are so-called boutique hotels, following a tradition from the middle of the 19th century when many of the houses were illegally converted into boarding houses. The Bedford Estate fought a losing battle to close them down in a desperate attempt to preserve the area’s reputation for providing “genteel residences”.

One famous resident was Charles Darwin who rented number 110 on December 29, 1838, moving in two days later. According to his daughter, Etty, Darwin christened the house Macaw Cottage, “laughing over the ugliness of their house in Gower Street and the furniture in the drawing-room, which he said combined all the colours of the macaw in hideous discord”. He worked on his theories of evolution there, before his health forced him to move to Down House in Kent in 1842. The was damaged during the Blitz and became part of the University’s Biological Sciences building in 1961 and the garden part of a car park. An evolution of sorts.

What Is The Origin Of (292)?…


I worked for most of my career in the insurance industry in London. During my time that curious mix of private and corporate capital channelled into annual businesses called syndicates operating under the organisational umbrella of Lloyd’s was considered to be the bee’s knees when it came to underwriting and accepting risks. I was never quite so convinced that it really merited its world-class reputation, but after nearly driving itself into financial oblivion in the late 80s and early 90s and ruining many of its private investors along the way, Lloyd’s managed to pick itself up and regain much of its former glory.

It all started at Edward Lloyd’s coffee house, opened originally in 1688 in Tower Street, before migrating to Lombard Street. Although Edward died in 1713 the coffee shop continued to thrive. In 1760 a group of merchants, who met there to swap information and strike deals, formed an independent society by the name of the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping with the aim of surveying ships to ensure that they complied with designated standards of construction and maintenance. Their annual publication, The Register, which first saw the light of day in 1764, was designed, through a survey of the physical structure and equipment of merchant ships, underwriters and merchants some idea of the quality of the vessels they were respectively insuring and chartering.

By the 1775-6 edition a more systematic approach to characterising the quality of a ship, wooden in construction, by using a combination of letters of the alphabet, interestingly just vowels, and numerals. As the Register itself elucidated in its edition for 1800, “the vessels marked A are of the first class, E the second, I the third, O the fourth and U the fifth. The Materials of the Vessel with the Figure 1 are of the First Quality, with 2 of the Second Quality and 3 of the Third Quality”. A vessel rated as A1 was of the highest quality.

The phrase was originally A1 at Lloyd’s and was worn as a badge of honour by shipowners, eager to convince passengers of the quality and seaworthiness of their vessel. An example is this advert placed by Messrs Bain, Grahame & Co in The Daily Southern Cross, a newspaper in New Zealand, on June 25, 1859 promoting their latest vessel which was travelling to Sydney: “The fine new fast sailing Brig “Prince Edward” A1 at Lloyd’s. 170 tons register, Nowlan, Commander, will load alongside Queen-street Wharf, and have immediate despatch”.

Inevitably, this shorthand descriptor for the finest quality moved outside of the world of insurance, sometimes losing the reference to Lloyd’s along the way. Sam Weller and Mr Roker, discussing a man after my own heart in Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, published in 1837, had this exchange: “One of ‘em takes his twelve pints of ale a-day, and never leaves off smoking, even at his meals. “He must be a first-rater”, said Sam. “A,1”, replied Mr Roker”.

However, the Lloyd’s reference remained in nautical contexts. In Edward Oxenden’s poem entitled A1 at Lloyd’s, published in The Leeds Times on March 19, 1892, a sailor is extolling the virtues of his inamorata, Sue: “there are lasses, lads, that a tar can love;/ there are lasses a tar avoids;/ But my darling Sue is sweer and true -/Aye, she’s classed A1 at Lloyd’s”.

With the introduction of iron ships and to avoid confusion with a rating system that had stood the test of time for a century, Lloyd’s introduced in 1872 a classification in the format of 100A1 to describe the quality of construction of these more modern vessels. A1, though, usually without any reference to Lloyd’s, is the shorthand still used today to refer to something or someone of the finest quality.