What Is The Origin Of (270)?…

Return to our muttons

According to the inestimable Yogi Berra, “it was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much”. A good conversation is a joy but often someone strays off the subject to the despair of the others. It is time to remind them to return to our muttons, the subject in hand. At first blush it is a strange phrase and one, frankly, that is rarely heard these days but it has a long pedigree.

The Roman epigrammatist, Martial, was a pithy and often scurrilous commentator on Roman society and mores. We owe almost as much to him as the Roman graffiti writers for our knowledge of Latin slang and obscenities. This side of the classical world which he and Aristophanes illuminated for schoolboys like me was almost worth the hard slog of learning Latin and Ancient Greek.

In Epigram 6.19 Martial is engaged in a legal case concerning three goats. He writes in despair at the rhetorical grandiloquence of his lawyer, Postumus, and begs him to get back to the matter in hand; “Iam dic, Postume, de tribus capellis”, translated as “it is time, Postumus, to say something about my goats”. You can feel his sense of frustration.

Martial was an influential role model in the French and Italian renaissance and it is tempting to think that he may have been instrumental in inspiring the anonymous writer of the popular farce, La Farce de Maistre Pierre Pathelin from around 1457, to put the following words into the mouth of a frustrated judge, anxious to get a litigant back to the matter in hand; “sus! Revenons ā ces moutons”. As the subject matter of the case was sheep, it is easy to explain why Martial’s goats were transformed.

Whether the anonymous farceur coined the phrase or used something that was already established in the common vernacular is unclear but, suffice it to say, the phrase crops up in Guillaume Coquillart’s Monologue of the bundle of straw from around 1480 and moving into the 16th century Rabelais used it on several occasions.  

Interestingly, when the phrase crossed the channel to Blighty, it was used in its French format. John Chamberlain, a prolific correspondent, writing to Sir Dudley Carleton, a Secretary of State and diplomat, on February 22, 1617 used the phrase pour retourner ā nos moutons to get back to the matter in hand. The novelist, William Makepeace Thackery used the phrase in History of Pendennis, published in 1850; “His brougham – O ay, yes! – and that brings me back to my point – revenons ā nos moutons. Yes, begad! Revenons ā nos moutons”.

Some English writers, though, could not abide the prospect of tainting their delicately wrought prose with a dash of the French language and so faithfully translated the phrase into English. The novelist, Maria Edgeworth, was one such. In a letter dated November 5, 1820 she wrote, “But to come back to our muttons – the wind not being fair we did not sail to Dover but we are in hopes it will change before tomorrow”.     

The phrase never seemed to gain much favour amongst native English-speaking writers, perhaps because it is somewhat quaint and it is not immediately obvious what it refers to or we prefer to stop someone beating about the bush. Still, it does crop up from time to time. In one of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn mysteries, Black As He’s Painted from 1974, we read, “But I digress, he said accurately. Shall we return to our muttons? Yes, Alleyn agreed with heartfelt relief. Yes. Let’s”.  

I shall make it my business to use it from time to time. All I need is a conversationalist who digresses. How hard will that be to find?!

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Three

Tower Court, WC2

It’s hard to credit now but what is one of London’s most important tourist centres, Covent Garden, was once open field land, owned by the Worshipful Company of Mercers.

The area which is now occupied by Tower Court, a pedestrianised alley linking Earlham Street and Tower Street and running parallel with Monmouth Street, was part of a patch of land known as Cock and Pye Fields. It took its name from a local pub whose pièce de resistance was a peacock pie. I’ve never had peacock so I have no idea what it would have tasted like, but it was certainly a pie to tickle the eye if not the palate. The head and the tail of the unfortunate bird were displayed on the outside, above the pastry crust, at either end of the pie.

The pressure for living accommodation was such in the late 17th century that the Mercers saw that they could make more money from selling or leasing the freehold of the land to builders and developers than from allowing cattle to munch their way through the grass. There were two factors, however, that meant that the area now occupied by Tower Court was slower to be developed than other parts of Covent Garden. Firstly, it was a notoriously wet and boggy piece of land. A deep ditch, known as Cock and Pye ditch, ran down what is now Monmouth Street and St Martin’s Lane before hanging a left and emptying its contents in the Thames around where Embankment station stands.

The ditch was covered over in the 1670s as part of the construction of the Southampton Sewer. There was a bit of a stink shortly after the sewer was opened when a local builder, Richard Frith, after whom Frith Street was named, was discovered to have connected illegally the sewer from his development in the Soho area to the Cock and Pye ditch, causing an overload of effluent. Frith was forced to disconnect his pipes and start again.

The second problem was that the area was used as a laystall, an area where cattle were held prior to going to market and, by extension, and area where the dung from cattle, horses, and humans was collected. It is salutary to think that some of the elegant houses built during Thomas Neale’s development of the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden stood on what was once a dung heap.

Tower Court was built during the 1690s as part of Neale’s development of the area. It originally consisted of two streets, Lumber Court to the east and Lumber Street to the west. At some point it was renamed as Tower Court, although quite when I have been unable to determine. The buildings in the Court date from the late 18th century and today serve as housing. If you look carefully at Nos. 5 and 7 you will see the original wooden shop fronts, although, according to English Heritage, they have been altered for domestic use. Still, you can get a sense of what the area would have looked like a couple of centuries ago.

What was originally a Victorian school became the headquarters of The Really Useful Group, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company, although the building has now been converted into flats.

If nothing else, this little alley shows that you never quite know what you are walking on as you explore London’s warren of streets.

What Is The Origin Of (269)?…

Moving the goalposts

One of the (many) pleasures of being retired is that I have escaped the dread pall of management speak. “You’ve moved the goalposts” was the cry of many a manager when they realised that budgets and targets painstakingly agreed at the start of the year had been adjusted by fiat and that their chances of getting their bonus had gone out of the window. Moving the goalposts is a figurative way of describing that a target has been changed to give one side an advantage.

Some authorities seem to think that it is a very recent neologism, basing their claim on a report in the Jamaican newspaper, the Gleaner, which quoted the British Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, Nigel Lawson, as saying, “I see no reason to move the goalposts at all”. But that is not the start or the end of the matter.

Some of most popular team sports like football, rugby (both codes) and American football, use goal posts positioned at either end of the pitch, and the object, either in whole or in part, is to get the ball inside or over them. The posts are supposed to be perfectly aligned with each other and sporting maestros perfect their techniques to be able to put the ball into the requisite spot from all angles and parts of the pitch. If one set of goalposts are out of line then that puts the team defending them at an advantage.

The most infamous occurrence in professional football occurred in September 2009 when IFK Gothenburg goalkeeper, Kim Christensen, was pictured nudging the goalposts he was guarding with his shoulder to make it less than the regulation width of eight yards. In Sweden goalposts rest on the ground rather than sunk into the earth. The referee, Stefan Johansson, only noticed the discrepancy midway through the first half and as he wasn’t sure it was Christensen who was the culprit, he took no action other than moving them back to the right width.

Those of us who follow teams blessed with players who couldn’t hit the proverbial elephant’s backside with a banjo often console ourselves when a shot goes flying into the stands missing the target by a country mile that someone must have moved the goalposts. Alternatively, to accommodate a collection of wayward shooters, the posts could be shifted to an area that the incompetents might be able to reach. This seems to have been an idea popular with Scottish football supporters. A match between Forfar Athletic and Montrose, it finished goalless of course, was notable for the waywardness of the Montrose forwards, leading the Forfar Herald, in its edition of February 21, 1946, to observe; ““Shift the goalposts”, said someone as the seasiders repeatedly finished wide of the mark”.          

The Forfar forwards were not averse to demonstrating their own incompetence. When they were playing Stirling Albion, the Forfar Herald, in their report on March 11, 1948, was left to remark that there were “occasions when the old gag, “shift the goalposts”, could justifiably be applied to the home finishing”.

We rarely hold general elections in December. The one held in 1923 was significant in that it marked the end of the Liberal Party as one of the two main political parties in parliament. Disenchanted with the first-past-the-post system, they tried to introduce a bill promoting proportional representation. In the ensuing debate the Socialist MP for Glasgow, Springburn, George Hardie, was reported in The Scotsman on May 3, 1924 as saying, “the Liberals, having been beaten, not only wanted to change the rules of the game, but wanted to shift the goal posts because they could not play any more”. They are still trying.   

What are we to make of all this?

The phrase has probably been around since at least the beginning of the 20th century, in popular speech if not in the written form, and is likely to have existed almost as long as organised games involving fixed goalposts. It is more than likely, too, that it was Scottish in origin.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Five

The Great Balloon Hoax of 1844

Edgar Allan Poe is one of my heroes, not just a great and innovative writer but also a bit of a prankster. This is one of my favourite hoaxes of his.

Being able to fly long distances was just a pipe dream in the 1840s. The concept of powered flight in an aeroplane was still half a century away and what experimentation in the field of aeronautics was confined to the hot air balloon. Imagine, therefore, the sensation that was caused when news broke, courtesy of The New York Sun in its midday edition of April 13, 1844, of an astonishing feat. The famous European balloonist, Monck Mason, had not only flown across the Atlantic Ocean but had achieved the feat in just 75 hours.

Not that Monck had intended to get to America, the piece reported. He was just trying to fly from England to Paris in his balloon named Victoria but, thanks to a problem with the craft’s propeller mechanism, he had veered off course rather dramatically and finally landed on terra firm on Sullivan’s Island close to Charleston in South Carolina. This was the first time that the Atlantic had been crossed by balloon. The article included a diagram and specifications of the craft.

Thomas Monck Mason was a real person, an Irish flute player, impresario and a pioneer of long-distance ballooning. In 1836 he flew from London to just outside the German town of Weilburg. It took him eighteen hours and he published a book about his exploits two years later, entitled Account of the Late Aeronautical Expedition from London to Weilburg. Monck was name-checked by the poet, Thomas Hood, in his Ode to Messrs Green, Hollond and Monk; “write then Messrs Monck Mason Hollond Green/ and tell us all you have or haven’t seen/ twaa kind when the balloon went out of town/ to take Monck Mason up and set him down”.      

A sense of the sensation that the supposed derring-do of this accomplished balloonist’s derring-do can be gained from Poe’s later account of events in The Columbia Spy. When the news broke, he wrote, “the whole square surrounding the ‘Sun’ building was literally besieged, blocked up—ingress and egress being alike impossible, from a period soon after sunrise until about two o’clock P.M…. I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as the few first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the newsboys, who made a profitable speculation beyond doubt. I saw a half-dollar given, in one instance, for a single paper, and a shilling was a frequent price. I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy.”

As well as trying to secure a copy of the paper at face value, Poe is said to have tried to tell anyone and everyone that the story was fake news. No one would listen to him but soon the truth came out. The New York Sun published a retraction in its edition of April 15, 1844, stating “we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous. The description of the Balloon and the voyage was written with a minuteness and scientific ability calculated to obtain credit everywhere and was read with great pleasure and satisfaction. We by no means think such a project impossible”.

The question is: what motivated Poe to perpetrate this hoax?

Well, he had a long-standing beef with the newspaper. They had been taken in by the Great Lunar Hoax of 1835 (see https://windowthroughtime.wordpress.com/2018/03/26/youre-having-a-laugh-part-ten/) which, although it had nothing to do with Poe, he claimed that it ripped off the plot of one of his less successful stories, The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall, published in 1835 and intended to be an elaborate lunar hoax itself, running over several episodes. Poe reckoned that The Sun had made a lot of money from the hoax, but he hadn’t seen a cent. He waited nine years for his revenge but got it in spades.

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


What Is The Origin Of (268)?…

Like snuff at a wake

If burning a strip of tobacco in a paper casing seems a daft idea, then taking a pinch of tobacco between your thumb and index finger and snorting it up one nostril, ensuring the other is closed, and then repeating the exercise with the other is even more ludicrous. Snuff taking is very much out of fashion these days, but you can always tell when a pinch has been taken because a loud, stentorian sneeze resounds around the room. But taking snuff was once a fashionable way of getting your nicotine fix and has spawned several phrases with which we pepper up our language. One such is like snuff at a wake which is a simile for describing liberality or generosity.

It originates from Ireland, like many a colourful phrase, and specifically relates to a custom at a wake. A bowl of snuff was placed on the chest of the deceased. This custom served three purposes, one, as snuff was a rare and desirable commodity, it brought mourners closer to the coffin, and, once there would encourage them to say a prayer for the deceased’s  immortal soul, two, to prevent the mourners from falling asleep during the night vigil and , three, if it rose and fell, it gave a pretty good clue that the incumbent in the box wasn’t dead. There is no recorded instance of anyone being saved from an early internment because of a moving snuff bowl but it was often the case that the bowl of snuff had to be replaced. In parts of England this custom was observed, although the snuff was replaced with bread and a bowl of salt.

Perhaps the first case of the phrase being used in a figurative sense, with a meaning akin to from pillar to post, was in a humorous piece, ostensibly a report of a court case, appearing in the Freeman’s Journal, a Dublin magazine, on June 19, 1844, in which the unfortunate prisoner is reported as saying, “is that any reason why I am to be robbed of my liberty, strapped on a stretcher, and thrown about from policeman to policeman like snuff at a wake”. This rather negative connotation with the phrase was echoed by James Joyce in his account of O’Callaghan on his last legs in Chapter six of Ulysses; “Terrible comedown, poor wretch! Kicked about like snuff at a wake”.

However, by the time Bloom uses the phrase again, in Chapter 13 during the Nausicaa section, it has a more positive connotation; “others in vessels, bit of handkerchief sail, pitched about like snuff at a wake when the stormy winds do blow”. It is with a more positive connotation that it is used in earlier sources, this one, from the Emigrant Soldier’s Gazette of February 19, 1859 almost exactly echoed by Joyce’s second usage; “the masts bindin’ like switches an’ the sails in smithereens, an’ the life bouys flyin’ about like snuff at a wake”.   

The sense of liberality or generosity appears in the phrase’s usage in the Illustrated Dublin Journal of December 28. 1862; “new buckskins, as my grandfather was a gentleman; new brogues, new coat, new everything – the signs of money flying about him like snuff at a wake”. The phrase crossed the Atlantic, presumably with the Irish migrants, appearing in the United States Investor of May 14, 1898; “advice to take up Americans, pay for them, and hold them, is “flung about like snuff at a wake”.

Whether used in a positive or negative sense, it is a wonderfully evocative phrase and one that deserves to be used like snuff at a wake.

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Two

Chichester Rents, WC2

I am rarely impressed by modern architecture, but I was walking northwards up Chancery Lane, on the left-hand side just beyond Carey Street, I came across a glass and steel structure which I can only describe as an overbridge, linking two buildings across an alleyway. Each storey of this steel and glass construction is angled but at a different angle from the storey below or above, making for an interesting and striking feature, as well as providing additional space. There is a thoroughfare below, presumably less airier than it once was, with an intriguing name, Chichester Rents. What was that all about?

In mediaeval times Bishops were in the habit of acquiring land in the City of London for their headquarters when they, and their considerable retinue, were up in the metropolis on official business. In around 1226 the then Bishop of Chichester, Ralph de Neville, acquired some land in the Chancery Lane area for his London residence. What was unusual about the plot was that it was dissected by Chancery Lane, the mansion being built on the west side and a garden planted on the eastern side, the area now occupied in part by Chichester Rents.   

By 1422, though, the Bishops of Chichester had got fed up with their gaff and rented it out to apprentices of Common Law at nearby Lincoln’s Inn. The name of this alley is presumed to derive from the fact that it was rented out by the Bishopric of Chichester. Their lordships occupied a number of residences in the City of London and Westminster, including a house in Tothill Street (1508) and one at what is now known as the parish od St Andrew by the Wardrobe, near St Paul’s (1533).

Save for the name, nothing remains of the mansion or the gardens and we can only speculate as to their fate. The 16th century saw the area around Chancery Lane transformed with many more buildings being constructed and, perhaps, the land was redeveloped. When the alley that bears the name of Chichester Rents was developed is also shrouded in mystery. It does appear, though, in outline, but not named, in John Ogilby and William Morgan’s invaluable large-scale map (100 feet per inch) of the City as Rebuilt by 1676, produced that year.

The Chancery Lane underwent three major redevelopments, in the 18th century, towards the latter part of the 19th century and in the 1980s. At least the last redevelopment had the good sense to retain a few of the facades of the Victorian building phase and with a bit of imagination we can get a sense of what it may have looked like at the time.

At either side of the entrance to Chichester Rents stood two pubs. On the southern end stood The Old Ship Tavern and Chop House, which Charles Dickens took as his model for the Sol’s Arms in his novel, Bleak House. Sadly, it is now a Pret a Manger sandwich bar and coffee shop. The building at the northern end looks more like a pub, it once was The Three Tuns, shouting its final last orders in 1987, and is now, too, a coffee shop.

These days the alley is rather anonymous but its name reveals a fascinating facet of London’s history and its crown a fine of modern architecture at its best.

What Is The Origin Of (267)?…


I am in the process of getting my fourth book, this one is called The Fickle Finger, ready for its forthcoming publication in April and one of the (many) tasks this entails is producing some blurb. By this we mean a short piece, usually no more than a paragraph or so, designed to extol the merits of the book and entice potential purchasers to part with their hard-earned cash. But, why blurb and where did it come from?  

An American scholar by the name of Brander Matthews, to whom some authorities have erroneously attributed the term, spilled the beans in an article on the subject, published by the New York Times on September 24, 1922. “Now and again”, he wrote, “in these columns I have had the occasion to employ the word “blurb”, a colourful and illuminating neologism which we owe to the verbal inventiveness of Mr Gelett Burgess”.

So, how and why?

Prior to the annual dinner of the American Booksellers’ Association in 1907, Burgess had published a book entitled Are You a Bromide? which was selling reasonably well. In conjunction with his publishers, B.W Huebsch, they hatched a plan to give each of the diners at the shindig a special edition of the tome, complete with a specially designed cover. For this Burgess took a picture of a young lady from a dental advert who was in the act of shouting. It was the custom at the time for covers of books to feature young women in an attempt to lure male readers. Burgess called his woman Miss Belinda Blurb and claimed that she had been photographed “in the act of blurbing”.

The jacket proclaimed, ”Yes, this is a “Blurb”! All the Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We?” The copy then went on to extol the virtues of the book in terms that would make a modern-day publisher blanche. “We consider”, it went on, “that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked int o the coal-bin, telephoning for “Information”…it has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck”. Readers exposed to other blurbs will recognise the superiority of this one, it boasts. After all, “this book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!

Whilst Miss Belinda Blurb sank into obscurity, publishers, who were puffing the wonders of their latest offerings, gratefully took up Burgess’ word and it has never looked back since. Not content to let a good thing go, Burgess cemented its place in the jargon of the book publicist and with a wider audience by defining it in his Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, published in 1914. Blurb as a noun was defined as “a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial” with a secondary definition of “fulsome praise; a sound of a publisher”, while blurb as a verb was described as “to flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself”.  

Burgess wasn’t just content with introducing blurb to the unsuspecting world. Bromine was used at the time as a sedative but the noun a bromide, used in the title of his book, was an invention of his. Burgess defined it as someone “who does his thinking by syndicate and goes with the crowd”, ensuring that he is trite, banal, and arbitrary. The antonym to a bromine, he posited, was a Sulphite.

Bromides and Sulphites as descriptors for human traits didn’t make the same impression as blurb and have all but vanished. When I put the finishing touches to my book’s blurb, I will give thanks to Gelett Burgess.