What Is The Origin Of (217)?…


When I first came down to London to make my fame and fortune and soon discovered that the streets were not paved with gold, I lived in digs. It was a humble room in a house in Streatham with a fearsome landlady who served up hot meals to her paying guests. I didn’t stay there long but long enough to wonder where this strange description of what was, essentially, a glorified long-term bed, evening meal and breakfast gaff.

The word is an abbreviation of diggings which meant a place of excavation. It is used in this sense as early as 1538 in John Leland’s The Itinerary; “on the south side of Welleden…ys a goodly quarre of Stone, where appere great Diggyns.” The word was transported to countries where there was frantic and feverish excavation of minerals, such as the United States and Australia.

William Gilmore Simms, in his account of the gold rush in Georgia in the 1820s. Guy Rivers, published in 1834. There he uses the term diggings to describe the mine or excavations that the men are working, a fairly literal and prosaic use of the term; “we miners of Tracy’s diggings struck upon a fine heap of the good stuff, and having been gathering gold pretty freely ever since.

One usage by Simms is particularly interesting, at least from our etymological point of view; “The regular lodgers of the tavern were not numerous therefore, and consisted in the main of those labourers in the diggings who had not yet acquired the means of establishing a household of their own.” The term, diggings, was used exclusively to denote where theses impoverished, itinerant men worked, not lived.

This was the sense that Dickens used the term in Chapter 21 of The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, published in 1844. There we find Martin in conversation with his new (and swindling) business partner in America; “She won’t be taken with a cold chill, when she realises what is being done in these diggings, said the stranger, No, no, said Martin.

Prior to penning the novel, Dickens had been to America and may have decided to sprinkle some Americanisms into the dialogue to give it some authenticity. The context in which diggings is used is ambiguous but it is more likely to contain a sense of place, as in Simms’ usage, than of a place of abode. The unglossed usage may mean that it was a word that British readers would be familiar with, although, equally, some incomprehensible language would heighten the sense that a foreigner was speaking.

But some six years before Dickens, the term, diggings, began to change its meaning. The New Hampshire born humourist, Joseph Clay Neal, wrote in 1838 in Charcoal Sketches, “Look here, Ned, I reckon it’s about time we should go to our diggings; I am dead beat.” I suppose you could argue that the context is ambiguous and diggings could refer to a mine but the suggestion that it is somewhere in which to sleep encourages me to think that it is used to mean, specifically, lodgings.

Quite why the meaning of diggings morphed thus is the subject of speculation. Perhaps it was because, as Simms pointed out, that the main users of lodging homes, at least in the mineral rich parts of the United States, were miners who had been working in diggings. They were moving from their daytime diggings to their nocturnal ones. Or perhaps there is the sense of nestling down, burrowing in to make oneself comfortable, which could be conveyed by the verb dig and its present participle. Who knows?

What is clear is that the word took off on both sides of the Atlantic to describe temporary accommodation, used principally by itinerant types. In Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889, the three comrades arrive in Datchet and set out “to look for diggings.

And digs?

This first appeared in the May 11th 1893 edition of The Stage, a British publication; “being in the know regarding the best digs can only be attained by experience.” Perhaps this abbreviation started out in the theatrical world but it soon broke out to be adopted by a wider audience.


What Is The Origin Of (212)?…

To be in a cleft stick

Rather like to be between a rock and a hard place, to be in a cleft stick is indicative of the fact that you are in a tight spot where either of the two options in front of you will have adverse consequences.

Before we get into the derivation of the phrase, the word cleft is worthy of some examination. In the days when axes were swung around with considerably more gay abandon than they are today, the verb cleave was used to describe the splitting of an object, often an opponent’s head, into two pieces, the blade of the axe making a V-shaped incision into it.

Those of us who love to parse verbs will know that cleft is the past participle of cleave and so, a cleft stick is one which has been cleaved into a V-shape. Such are the vagaries of the English language, though, that cleave has another form of past participle. This one is cloven, used, for example, to describe animals with hooves split into two.

A cleft stick, ergo, is one which has been split down the middle to a particular point so that the two sections can be prised apart slightly, a jolly useful arrangement for transporting a candle as Jonathan Swift noted in his playfully satirical Directions to Servants from around 1745; “you may conveniently stick your candle in a bottle, or with a lump of butter against the wainscot, in a powder-horn, or in an old shoe, or in a cleft stick.

A century later, candles were still being carried in cleft sticks, as Charles Dickens testifies in Oliver Twist (1838), when describing Mr John Dawkins aka the Artful Dodger: “he bore in his right hand a tallow candle stuck in the end of a cleft stick.” Presumably a narrower incision enabled a Government Runner encountered by the American author, Stewart Edward White, in East Equatorial Africa to carry a letter, “stuck in a cleft stick”, as described in his 1913 travelogue, The Land of Footprints.

The point of using a cleft stick, severed along the grain, to transport something is that the grip was vice-like and the object wouldn’t fall or slip. It is not surprising, therefore, that the phrase began to be used figuratively to describe being in a position where movement was difficult if not nigh impossible. Thus William Cowper wrote in a letter dated 1782 in what is probably the first instance of its figurative use in printed form; “we are squeezed to death, between the two sides of that sort of alternative which is commonly called a cleft stick.” Cowper’s use of commonly suggests that it was already in regular use in speech.

It is clear from the Records of the Town of East-Hampton from 1639 to 1680 that cleft sticks were used as a form of punishment to curb the tongues of unruly women. An entry for 2nd February 1652 noted that “it is ordered that Goody Edwards shal pay 3 Lb or have her tongue in a cleft sticke for the Contempt of a warent.” Another early use of a cleft stick was to catch a rattlesnake with. The doubtless intrepid Captain Silas Taylor noted in A Way to Kill Rattlesnakes, contained in the Review of the Works of the Royal Society of London of 1751, “procure a cleft Stick, and put into the Notch of it, a Quantity of the bruised Leaves of wild Pennyroyal..”, advise we would all do well to heed.

These two passages have led some to argue that one or other were the antecedents of the figurative usage of our phrase. But I do not see that this is necessarily the case. From their context they are prosaic descriptions of the use of a cleft stick to ensure that the object it is holding doesn’t move. The figurative sense is clear in Cowper’s use and it is an obvious development from an everyday object which was put to use in a variety of ways.

Book Corner – January 2019 (1)

No Name – Wilkie Collins

What you need during the long, dark winter evenings is a book that will suck you in and make you fight long and hard to put it down and go to bed. No Name, published in 1862 after serialisation in Dickens’ magazine, All The Year Round, is just that.

Collins is an under-rated writer, tarred by the literary disdain of sensational novels, and No Name, which appeared between The Moonstone and The Woman in White, is shamefully neglected these days. Like many a good Victorian novel, the plot centres around what to modern eyes seems a very abstruse and unfair point of law. Mr Vanstone made an unfortunate marriage, as they say, abroad, left his wife and upon return to England lived with a woman who bore him two daughters, Norah and Magdalen.

News came from abroad that the original Mrs Vanstone had died and so the couple rushed to London to be wed. Alas, Mr Vanstone did not change his will to acknowledge the status of his daughters – they were born out of wedlock, after all – and before he could rectify his status he was killed in a train crash and within twenty-four hours, his wife, who conveniently was pregnant, died in childbirth.

The law at the time meant that the daughters could not inherit, the estate, some £80,000 or just over to £9 million today, which went to Vanstone’s elder brother. Naturally, Vanstone senior detested his brother and took delight in casting the daughters out from their family home to make their own way in the world.

Norah accepted her fate to become a governess but Magdalen goes to enormous lengths involving disguise, false identities, shady deals, duplicitous marriage and astonishing coincidences to get her hands on what she believes is rightfully hers.

Unlike the other Collins’ novels I have read, there is no mystery to be revealed. Instead we follow the twists and fortunes of Magdalen as she strives to regain her inheritance, the suspense and mystery provided by the fact that we don’t quite know what will happen next. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the story other than to say that events suggest that both women get what they want in the end in a rather roundabout way.

The tale contains some fine characters, none more so than the self-styled moral agriculturist and roguish Captain Wragge, who ultimately makes his fortune selling quack medicines  and the fiendishly, devious (foreign, of course) servant, Mrs Lecount. Their plots and counter-plots are fascinating as they engage in a battle of wits and subterfuge to get the upper hand for their respective parties. For me this was the best part of the book. The latter part of the book seemed a bit rushed and patchier than the early part, reflective of the fact that Collins was in poor health and fighting against deadlines.

Structurally, the book consists of eight acts – Magdalen has a dalliance with the stage which signals to the reader that she is not an ordinary, demure girl – with interludes between each consisting of epistolary exchanges between the principal characters which move the story along. It is an unusual arrangement but works well.

For the modern reader it is instructive to see how powerless women were at the time, entirely at the mercy of men and with limited options to make their way in the world in a respectable way, other than getting married or working as a governess, little more than a paid skivvy in someone else’s house. The portrayal of a forthright, independent Magdalen would have been a shock to the average Victorian reader but Collins uses the populist form of the sensation novel to address major social concerns.

At over 700 pages No Name is not for the faint-hearted but it is a fascinating and rewarding book.

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.