What Is The Origin Of (197)?…

To be in someone’s bad books

To be in someone’s bad books is to be in disgrace or out of favour. It is not a situation many of us would choose to be in but on occasions it happens. Often it is a phrase used to chide a child but what are these books and why are they bad?

In times of strife and civil turmoil it is not uncommon for one side or the other to draw up lists of people they would like to get out-of-the-way. The Roman dictator, Sulla, compiled a list of what were known as proscriptions in 82 BCE and around forty years later the ill-starred triumvirate of Octavian, later to become Augustus, Mark Antony, and Lepidus also drew up their lists. Cicero was unfortunate enough to find himself on one of these scrolls and that was the end of him.

Given the influence of the Roman way of doing things on Western thought, culture and language our phrase could be a throwback to this way of identifying and eliminating your opponents. Mercifully, these days anyone who finds themselves in someone’s bad book is unlikely to be killed but they face some form of social ostracism, albeit temporary.

Whether this is the origin of our phrase is speculation but what is clear is that the noun book was used in the early 16th century for certain, and probably earlier, to indicate the extent of one’s interest and concern. In the poetic tract, The Parlyament of Deuylles (Devils), printed by W de Worde in 1509, we find the passage, “he is out of our bokes and we out of his.” It is perhaps an early example of if you are not on the list, you can’t come in.

Soon book gathered an adjective to accompany a possessive pronoun. The first such adjective seems to have been black. Robert Greene wrote Black Book’s Messenger, published just before his death in 1592, in which he layed “open the life and death of Ned Browne, one of the most notable cutpurses, cross-biters and cony-catchers that ever lived in England.” Greene was not as exhaustive in his listing of Browne’s felony as his preamble led the reader to believe because he then noted that “Ned Browne’s villanies..are too many to be described in my Blacke Book.

By 1771, though, books, black in colour, were being used to record the indiscretions of those in the armed forces and supposedly studying at universities. It was defined thus; “a book kept for the purpose of registering the names of persons liable to censure or punishment, as in the English universities, or the English armies.” But by that time it was also being used in a figurative sense. The inestimable Francis Grose recorded in his Dictionary of the Vulgar the following definition; “He is down in the black book, that is, has a stain in his character.”

Qualitative adjectives were a later development. Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839, used the figurative good book when Miss La Creevy says to Mr Noggs, “If you want to keep in the good books in that quarter, you had better not call her the old lady.” Wise advice, I’m sure. And its antonym, bad books, made an even later appearance, first used in George Perry’s History of the Church of England, published in 1861; “the Arminians, who at that time were in his bad books.

Since then, most of us have appeared in figurative books, whether they be black, good or bad.


Book Corner – September 2018 (2)

Brolliology – Marion Rankine

Perhaps because I attempt to write them myself, I have a penchant for off-beat, wacky works of non-fiction and Marion Rankine’s paean to the culture of the umbrella must be right up there amongst the wackiest.

I have never had much of an attachment to the umbrella or, perhaps, it is the other way round. Our acquaintance, sadly brief, comes to an end when I absent-mindedly leave it on a train or forget to pick it up from the restaurant rack. I am not alone – some 35,000 sit in London Transport’s Lost Property Office at any one time. And one of the eeriest and heart-rending parts of Rankine’s book are the photos of discarded, mangled, and broken umbrellas she found while wandering around the streets of London.

Brolliology gives the factoid-junkie their fix. As you breeze through the book you learn that bits of an umbrella were found in a Chinese tomb dating to 25 BCE and that the kasa-obake, in Japanese folklore, were evil, sentient umbrellas. Robinson Crusoe’s one luxury item on his desert island was an umbrella – it was the first thing he made. And that illustrates the dual purpose of the brolly. Whilst in temperate climes we use it to protect ourselves from the rain, in the tropics it is used as a protection against the rays of the sun. The parasol was a symbol of power and prestige in ancient times and the sense of providing shade is retained in the English term from it. The French, perversely, use a term, parapluie, which fixes its use firmly in the wet, dank climes of western Europe.

There is a transient quality about the brolly. Because so many are identical, they are easily swapped inadvertently or by mistake. It was an umbrella, “appalling…all gone at the seams”, that was taken at the Beethoven concert in E M Forster’s Howard’s End which sends Leonard Bast’s life spiralling into tragedy. And a transformative quality. It can be used as a weapon or a source of support or, if you are Mary Poppins, it can be used to transport you up into the skies. P L Travers’ conceit was rooted in fact – in 1779 Joseph-Michel Montgolfier put a sheep in a basket attached to an umbrella-shaped canopy, pushed it off a tower and saw it glide gracefully to the ground.

One of the earliest records of the use of a brolly as a guard against the British rain is Jonathan Swift’s Description of a City Shower, published in 1710. Early British umbrellas were unsatisfactory, leaky and used almost exclusively by the fairer sex. A celebrated wielder of the brolly was Charles Dickens’ wonderful creation, Mrs Gamp. So associated with the Dickensian character was the brolly that they were known in popular idiom as gamps. It was only when the brollies became cheaper and more effective that they were used by chaps – early adopters had to run the gauntlet of the jeering mobs – but in its furled state it soon became an obligatory accessory, along with the bowler, of the well-dressed city chap.

Rankine draws extensively – too extensively for my taste in what smacks as a form of padding – from literature to illustrate her points and is in danger of straying into Pseuds Corner with some of her observations on the social, psychological and cultural significance of this everyday item.

That said, it is an easy read and can be polished off during an extended break for rain at Lords. There is enough to satisfy even the most exacting of reader and when you have done with it, you can put it on your head as protection against the elements!

Book Corner – May 2018 (1)

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800 – 1906 – David Cannadine

Most historians, charting Britain’s (temporary) rise to the top of the world pile in the 19th Century, tend to start after the Battle of Waterloo and end at the outbreak of World War One. As is increasingly fashionable amongst historiographers, Cannadine takes a different slice of the temporal pie, preferring to start with the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 and finishing with the Liberal electoral landslide of 1906. Mathematically unsettling as this may be, it puts Ireland in the centre stage and the mainland’s relations with the Emerald Isle were a troublesome sideshow throughout the 19th century (as it was in the 20th and still is today).

The Act of Union which created what was known as the United Kingdom for the rest of the century was a rather botched affair and was passed for primarily defensive purposes. Corresponding legislation to deal with the internal governance of Ireland was dropped and this proved the blight that made relations with the predominantly Catholic population problematic. Anti-Catholic sentiments and the eugenic feeling that the Irish were an inferior race (although not as inferior as those races whose countries we would take over with gay abandon during the course of the century) proved too hard to dislodge.

Cannadine’s account is a tour-de-force and a rattling good read. His mastery of the subject matter is breath-taking and many an interesting insight. (Unusually for a history book) there are no footnotes, heightening the sense that he knows all there is to know and there is no sense in thinking otherwise. For the non-historian this is satisfying but one can’t help thinking that there are many other interpretations which may have some validity. The only concession to doubt Cannadine allows is provided by a prodigious usage of parantheses. I don’t think I have read a book with so many brackets sprinkled about, as if someone is whispering into your ear (sotto voce, no doubt) that there may (or may not be) other things to consider.

Aside from the Irish question, the take-aways (for me) from the book is how the empire grew through the actions of individuals in situ rather than through central fiat – indeed, for most of the century the government’s view was to constrain, if not reduce, expenditure and commitments in relation to overseas territories – and the dependence, even then, on the ability to trade with our European neighbours for economic prosperity rather than with the lands brought under the British yoke – an insight we might do well to heed.

The political colossi such as Gladstone, Disraeli, Pitt the Younger, the under-appreciated Earl of Derby (at least today) and Palmerston bestride the stage – what we would give for one or two of them now – but my admiration for Robert Peel grew as I turned the pages. It was a century when the extent of suffrage widened but still swathes of the population, including all women, were deprived of the vote and when parliamentary reorganisation finally rooted out the democratic abuse that were rotten boroughs.

On a macro-level it was a century of enormous progress – industrial, economic, cultural – but at a micro-level the lives of ordinary folk were a continual struggle in insanitary and disease-ridden conditions of squalour. Cannadine’s choice of epigrams to describe the period covered by his thoroughly enjoyable book are apt – Dickens’ opening line of A Tale of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, the worst of times” and Karl Marx’s observation that men and women “make their own history, but they do not do so … under conditions of their own choosing.”  The 19th century in a nutshell, methinks.

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy Two

Millbank, SW1P

Millbank runs from the end of Abingdon Street by the Black Rod Garden along the north side of the Thames to the junction with Vauxhall Bridge Road. Today it is a road lined with impressive buildings overlooking the River Thames, including the Tate Britain gallery, the Chelsea College of Art and design and government offices. It is all rather pleasant and up-market but it wasn’t always so.

The street takes its name from a watermill which was situated near what is known as College Green and owned by Westminster Abbey – it is referred to in John Norden’s map of London, dating from 1593. However, it seems to have been the only redeeming feature in an area that was described as a place of plague pits and a “low, marshy locality” suitable only for having a pop at the snipe which frequented the “bogs and quagmires.

By the mid 17th century the area was known as Tothill Fields, or Tuttle Fields as Pepys called it, and following Cromwell’s crushing victory at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, it was used as a holding area for 4,000 Royalist prisoners before their enforced migration to the West Indies to serve on the sugar plantations. The area was so insanitary that around 1,200 prisoners died before they could be shipped off. During the Great Plague of 1665-66 it served as a communal burial ground for the victims. Pepys noted in his Diaries, “I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in open Tuttle Fields, pretending want of room elsewhere.

The mill was demolished by Sir Robert Grosvenor around 1736 to make way for a grand house, which was itself demolished in 1809 to make way for the world’s first modern prison, reconnecting the area with incarceration. The design was unusual, with its walls forming an irregular octagon, enclosing seven acres of land. There was a stagnant moat running around the walls, the vestiges of which can be seen in the ditch running between Cureton Street and John Islip Street. Within the walls there were six buildings running off like spokes from the central hub which was the Governor’s house. The idea was that the design made it easier for the warders to keep an eye on what was going on but the labyrinthine corridors meant that they often got lost! And the marshy conditions caused considerable engineering difficulties which racked up the costs.

The prison opened for business on 26th June 1816, its first batch of prisoners being women, later joined by the first group of men in January 1817. Its primary purpose was to serve as a staging post for those prisoners who were to be transported to Australia – one origin of Pom is that it is an acronym of Prisoner of Millbank. Along the riverside you can still see some of the capstans to which the prison vessels were moored. Transportation officially ended in 1868 but by then Millbank had been superseded by the latest in prison design that was Pentonville, opened in 1842.

Dickens, in David Copperfield, described the exterior of the prison as “a melancholy waste … A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls” while Henry James, in his novel, the Princess Casamassima, published in 1886, went one better by describing the interior as having “high black walls whose inner face was more dreadful than the other’, ‘grey, stony courts’, ‘steep unlighted staircases’ and ‘circular shafts of cells.” The inmates, he wrote, were “dreadful figures, scarcely female.

The prison closed in 1890, demolished two years later. Tate Britain was built on the site in 1897, across the road from the Royal Army Medical School where the first typhoid inoculation was developed, reinforcing the area’s link with disease, and some of the bricks from the prison were used between 1897 and 1902 to build social housing for over 4,000 residents on the Millbank estate. The angularity of the modern streets in the area are a testament to the old prison and the rather splendid Morpeth Arms is worth a visit, built originally for the prison warders and underneath which run a warren of tunnels used to ferry prisoners from the river to the prison and back. It is even said to be haunted.

A fascinating area.

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy

Puddle Dock, EC4

It was not just the Great Fire of 1666 or the German bombers in the early 1940s that wrought a significant change to the topology of London – it was also the town planners in the 1960s. One victim of their zeal to reclaim the foreshore of the Thames and to make Upper Thames Street a main road was Puddle Dock, now a pale shadow of its former self linking the reconfigured road with Queen Victoria Street. As its name suggests it was once the site of a dock, although what was stored and conveyed there was not the usual merchandise.

Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, published in 1864/5, has the Thames running through it as one of its major motifs and the memorable opening scenes feature Lizzie Hexam and her father, Jesse, rowing along the river on the look-out for dead bodies to fish out. But it wasn’t just bodies that found their way into the water. For a city with a population that was growing like topsy and with rudimentary sanitation at best, the Thames was a convenient receptacle for the detritus and excrement accumulated during the day. At Puddle Dock was sited a laystall which is where cattle were held before they went to market and where dung and other forms of detritus were stored before being disposed of by the fives barges which operated from the dock somewhere downstream into the Thames. It must have stunk to high heaven.

As often is the case, John Stow, in his invaluable Survey of London, published in 1598, gave some insight as to what went on there and the origin of the name. He wrote, “then there is a great Brewhouse, and Puddle wharf, a water gate into the Thames, where horses use to be watered and therefore filed with their trampeling, and made puddle, like as aso of one Puddle dwelling there: it is called Puddle Wharfe.”  The dock is shown on John Rocque’s 1746 map and marked as Dung Wharf. A newspaper article from 5th July 1722 gives a sense of the hustle and bustle of the area and the tragedies that could befall the unwary – the use of the pronoun another suggests that it was not unusual. “Another Misfortune happened Yesterday at Puddle-Dock, where a little Boy was killed by a Cart loaded with coals. The Child was stooping down to take up some thing from the Ground when the Cart Wheel ran over his head, and crushed it to Pieces. The Carman is absconded”, the report noted ruefully.

William Maitland’s The History of London, published in 1756, provides a succinct summary of what went on there at the time; “on the banks of the River Thames are the Wharfs of Puddle-dock, used for a Laystall for the Soil of the Streets, and much frequented by Barges and Lighters for taking the same away, as also for landing of Corn and other Goods.” A sense of the stench and inconvenience to all is provided in a report of a case, the King v Gore, to be found in the Evening Mail of 25th November 1836. There we read that “the affidavits of several persons residing near Puddle-dock were read, in which they stated that their health was impaired in consequence of the stench arising from the filth which was allowed to accumulate at this dock.” The defendant argued that “he was obliged, by the covenant of his lease, to allow all persons to place any filth they chose there” and that there had been “a laystall ever since the great fire of London.” The case was unresolved.

In more recent times, the Mermaid Theatre could be found there until it closed in 2003. Now it is just a nondescript, if considerably more fragrant, street but one with a fascinating history.

What Is The Origin Of (165)?…


While we are on the subject of pejorative terms for our social superiors, we may as well look at toffee-nosed. It means snobbish, supercilious or stuck-up, never a good look. From an etymological standpoint, it has nothing to do with toffee. In fact, the derivation is from tuft via toff.

Our voyage of discovery starts among the dreaming spires of Oxford University. During the 18th and 19th centuries sons of the landed aristocracy were allowed to wear ornamental gold tassels on their mortar boards. Very fetching they must have looked too. These were known as tufts and, by extension, the wearers were known as tufts. By the 1870s wearing tufts went out of fashion, although there were some who tried to cling on to the tradition. The Westmoreland Gazette reported in March 1894 that “Lord Rosebery was one of the last undergraduates of Christ Church who wore the gold tassel, known by the name of tuft.”  And the tradition was sufficiently well-known amongst the hoi polloi for WS Gilbert to lampoon the fashion in Princess Ida, written in 1884; “you’ll find no tufts/ to mark nobility, except such tufts/ as indicate nobility of brain.

At some point during the early to middle 19th century the noun tuft, used to describe these scions of nobility, morphed into toff, almost certainly via toft. Quite how, no one knows. What seems clear, though, was that it was a term used by the lower orders to describe stylishly or fashionably dressed men. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, reported, “if it’s a lady and gentleman, then we cries “A toff and a doll”.” The adjectival form, toffy, soon followed and through etymological ignorance this was transformed into toffee, to trick the unwary in later years into thinking that it has something to do with the sugary brown sweet that plays havoc with your fillings.

The phrase toffee-nosed, though, emerged during the First World War as a description of officers who adopted a superior air. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of its usage is from TE Lawrence’s account of war-time life, The Mint, published in 1922 under the pseudonym of JH Ross. There he wrote, “China got into disgrace there. ‘I wasn’t going to f**k about for those toffy-nosed buggers, so I got back after f**king twelve, and they shoved me on the fizzer!” The ever useful Notes and Queries defined in an article entitled English Army Slang as Used in the Great War on 10th December 1921 toffee-nosed as stuck up, as did Fraser and Gibbons in their 1925 book, Soldier and Sailor Words.

Stuck-up had a longer legacy, appearing in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839. Mrs Squeers describes the eponymous hero to her husband thus; “he’s a nasty stuck-up monkey, that’s what I consider him.” The idea behind the image of stuck-up is that of haughtiness, being superior to others, perhaps even to avoid the whiff of the great unwashed. This is the sense of nosed in our phrase.

Before we leave this subject completely, for collectors of obsolete but rather splendid words, I leave you with tufthunter. This was a noun used to describe those who fawned before and sucked up to the aforementioned tufts. Thackeray was spot on when he wrote of one, a Mr Brandon, in Shabby Genteel Story, published in 1840; “Mr Brandon was a tufthunter of the genteel sort; his pride being quite as slavish, and his haughtiness as mean and cringing, in fact, as poor Mrs. Gann’s stupid wonder and respect for all the persons whose names are written with titles before them.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Three

Ali Ahmed’s Treasures of the Desert

The development of trade and the expansion of the British Empire meant that the world was a smaller place in Victorian times. As a consequence there was a certain mystique about things oriental and this gave the practitioner of the art of quackery a fertile source to tap into. One such was the curious tale of Ali Ahmed and his cough pills.

Ahmed was said to be of Persian origin but had to flee to Aleppo where he flourished “between the years of the Herah 420 to 488.” There he discovered many wonderful secrets which he passed on to his family on his death bed. They were discovered by “an excellent and philanthropic Englishman” who (natch) considered it his duty to make them available to the folks at home. And so, within the fourteenth instalment of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House containing chapters 43 to 46 was to be found an eight page advertising supplement extolling the virtues of Ahmed’s cough pills.

The advertising copy gave a bit of local colour by way of background, claiming that the pills were so famous in Aleppo that anyone running furiously was said to have “ran as though he were running for the celebrated cough pills.” The supplement was decorated with swirls and squiggles, perhaps to mimic Arabic calligraphy, and featured a couplet which roughly translated read, “Men of all ages, four score years or nigh/ run to the mart old Ali Ahmed’s Pills to buy.” Then there were testimonials, from a man in Damascus and another in Bangkok who vouched that a course of Ahmed’s pills was enough to cure the cough that had plagued Prince Choo Fan of Siam whereas all other medicaments had failed. There was even a specially carved bust of Ahmed on display at the depot in St Bride’s Avenue, off London’s Fleet Street, where the pills could be procured in boxes of varying sizes with prices ranging from thirteen and a half old pennies to 10 shillings and sixpence.

The advert went on to warn against the noxious compounds developed by the European medical profession. Instead of strychnine and morphine, Ahmed’s drugs were “simple and pure; the mountainside furnishes him with herbs and roots and the plains are bountiful in bulbs.” The drugs were described as “the kindest gifts of nature to suffering humanity.” What not to like?

In addition to the Pectoral Antiphthisis Pill which was designed to fight off colds, coughs and consumption, there were two other remedies available from the Ahmed range. The Sphairopeptic Pill was designed to deal with liver and digestive complaints whilst the Antiseptic Malagma was a type of plaster to be used on ulcers and wounds and to deal with gangrene.

So what was in them and did they work? The Pectoral Pills, according to Cooley’s Cyclopaedia, contained myrrh, squills (which can be toxic in large doses but acts as an expectorant), ipecacuanha (another expectorant), white soft soap, aniseed oil and treacle whilst the Sphairopeptic Pills contained aloes, colocynth pulp, rhubarb, myrrh, scammony (yet another expectorant), ipecacuanha, cardamom seeds, soft soap, oil of juniper and treacle. The presence of the Central American ipecacuanha seems to give the lie to the claim that these were Ahmed’s original recipes. The Malagma consisted of a calico strip smeared with a mix of lead plaster, a sort of thickened turpentine, salad oil and beeswax.

As to efficacy, the expectorants may have helped but Punch suggested at the time that it was only by following the lifestyle adopted by Ahmed that they may have induced them to work. So probably not, then.