Tag Archives: George Gascoigne

What Is The Origin Of (254)?…

Leading apes in hell

In these so-called enlightened days the decision to remain unmarried and/or not to have children is what is known as a lifestyle decision and rarely excites much in the way of comment. Turn the clock back a few centuries and a woman who chose a life of celibacy was contravening God’s command, as documented several times in the book of Genesis, to “be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it”. There was a special fate reserved for these unfortunate women upon their death, to lead apes in hell.

The phrase first appeared in print in the poet George Gascoigne’s A Hundred Sundrie Flowers, published in 1573. Lady Pergo laments, “I am afraide my marriage will be marred, and I may goe lead Apes in hell”. Five years later John Lyly, in his didactic romance entitled The Anatomy of Wyt, has Ferardo advising his daughter, Lucilla, thus; “I had rather thou shouldest leade a lyfe to thine owne lykeinge in earthe, then to thy greate torments leade Apes in Hell”. Somewhat enamoured by this image, Lyly then has Lucilla say to Euphues, “I will eyther leade a Uirgins lyfe in earth (though I leade Apes in hell) or els follow thee rather then thy giftes”.

It has been suggested that the concept of a spinster being condemned to leading apes in hell after her death originated during the Reformation in an attempt to dissuade women from lamenting the loss of a contemplative life in a nunnery and to do their duty as women and have children. There is no specific evidence that this is so, save that the phrase, in print at least, appears post-Reformation. Its use in the The London Prodigall, written anonymously in 1605, suggests that it had proverbial status; “but tis and old prouerbe, and you know it well,/ that women dying maides, lead apes in hell”. This may suggest that it predates the Reformation.

Whatever the case, Shakespeare was enamoured with the concept, using it twice, once in The Taming of the Shrew from 1591, in which Katherina chides her father for allowing her younger sister to marry before her; “I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day/ and for your loue to her, leade Apes in hell”. In Much Ado about Nothing from 1600 Beatrice tells her uncle she will not marry; “I am not for him, therefore I will euen take sixpence in earnest of the Berrord, and leade his apes into hell”.

Shakespeare may well have been enamoured by the phrase because it gave him the opportunity for a double entendre. To lead in Tudor times was a term used to describe the act of sexual intercourse. A woman who declined to have sexual intercourse with a man whilst alive was condemning herself to have an ape as her partner in her afterlife. You can imagine the audience guffawing at the prospect.

The phrase soon dropped out of fashion, perhaps the PR campaign to dissuade women from following the contemplative life of a nun had been successful, but it still raised its ugly head on occasion. A Valentine card from the 1850s contained these heartless verses; “you would like to wear them dearly,/ and in faith, you mean to try,/ but, old girl, I’ll tell you truly,/ your attempt is ALL MY EYE./ It will not fit, my downy one,/ so fairly I would tell,/ you had best but take the duty,/ of leading APES IN HELL”.    

We have to assume that the hapless recipient would have understood the allusion even if today it would have left us scratching our heads.

What Is The Origin Of (246)?…

All Greek to me

One of the, admittedly few, advantages of learning ancient Greek is that I cannot with any degree of honesty use this phrase. Figuratively, though, it is used to denote total incomprehension. But why Greek?

Before I unmask the origin, I need to debunk a commonly held misconception. As great a dramatist as William Shakespeare was and as inventive a user of the English language as he undoubtedly was, it is almost inconceivable that all the phrases that came into common currency in the Elizabethan era owe their origins to him. It is true that the Bard used the phrase in an exchange between Casca and Cassius in the play, Julius Caesar, dating from 1601. Casca reporting on a speech of Cicero’s says “I, he spoke Greeke”. When asked what the great orator said, Casca reported, “those that understood him, smil’d/ at one another, and shooke their heads; but for mine/ owne part, it was Greeke to me”.

There are, however, some earlier examples of the phrase in print. The poet, George Gascoigne translated the prose comedy of the Italian playwright, Ludovico Aristo, under the Anglicised name of Supposes and it was performed at Grays Inn in 1566. Balia, after asking Polynesta to explain herself, comments, “this geare is Greeke to me; either it hangs not well together, or I am very dull of understanding: speak plaine, I pray you”. Even if we don’t understand the word geare, it means talk, the meaning of the phrase is crystal clear. Interestingly, Gascoigne introduced the phrase into the text, it not being there in the original.

The Scottish historie of Iames the fourth, slaine at Flodden, written by the English author, Robert Greene and published posthumously in 1598, contained the phrase, “tis Greeke to me”. A year before Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Thomas Dekker includes this exchange in his play, Patient Grissel; “asking for a Greek poet, to him he fails. I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue./ Why, then it’s Greek to him”. This usage is relatively rare, it is normally Greek to the speaker rather than a third party, but nonetheless there is sufficient evidence to debunk the attribution to Shakespeare and to suggest that it was in currency from at least  the middle of the sixteenth century.

Indeed, it is likely that the origin comes from the commonplace marginalia of a frustrated monk who cannot make head nor tail of the text that he is laboriously copying, Graecum est, non potest legi. In case that is Greek to you, it means it is Greek, it cannot be read. The phrase escaped the confines of the cloisters, perhaps aided by the destruction of the monasteries during the Reformation. And why Greek? The language was less well known and understood even among the educated classes, particularly in comparison with the lingua franca of the time, Latin. And the Greek script can be off-putting to a beginner to get their head around.

In the eighteenth century variants emerged. John Wesley, in Advice to a People called Methodist from October 1745, wrote, “To ninety-nine of them it is still heathen Greek”. And amongst the lower orders, at least according to Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, there was St Giles’s Greek, defined as “the slang lingo, cant or gibberish”. This was picked up in the rather snooty editorial introduction to a letter written in the vernacular which Jackson’s Oxford Journal deemed to publish on March 4, 1786; “we are desired to publish the following intercepted Letter to the Informer of the Robbery at Magdalen College, written, as it appears, by one of the Gang, in the Language which they call St Giles’s Greek”.

Unadulterated Greek won out, though. The Dutch have a similar phrase although the object of their incomprehension is the Latin tongue, whereas the Italians are baffled by Arabic and the French Chinese. Even the few speakers of Esperanto profess to be perplexed by Volapukaio. We all have our crosses to bear, it would seem.

What Is The Origin Of (218)?…

Pull out all of the stops

You will have realised by now that I regularly pull out all of the stops to bring you interesting and accurate insights into some of the phrases and idioms with which we pepper our everyday speech. By this I mean that make every possible effort, leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of etymological veracity.

For those of us who visit churches for things other than spiritual comfort, one of the wonders on display is the church organ, with its impressive array of pipes and its equally attention-grabbing stentorian roar.

The organ has a long and impressive history. Its invention is credited to Ctesibius of Alexandria, who, in the 3rd century BCE, constructed what was known as hydraulis. Using pumps and water regulators, water pressure controlled the flow of air to a set of pipes, allowing different notes to be played and, in the hands of an accomplished player, a tune to be created. In the 2nd century CE an inflated leather bag replaced the water regulators and by the 6th century air was supplied by bellows.

The first organ to appear in the West was presented to Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, by the Byzantine emperor, Constantine V, in 757, and Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, installed one in chapel in Aachen in 812, establishing the tradition of organs in Western churches.

As the technology around organs developed and improved, the flow of air to the pipes was regulated by a series of buttons or stops. An accomplished organist is a bit of a virtuoso, having to tinkle the ivories on the keyboard, pressing pedals furiously with their feet and opening and shutting stops. By pulling out a particular stop, the volume of that note increased. In Spinal Tap speak, pulling out all of the stops on an organ would be the equivalent of setting the volume dial to eleven.

So, is this the origin of the phrase?

Well, probably, although in the 16th century the word stop was used to denote a musical note or key. George Gascoigne, in his satire entitled The Steele Glas, published in 1576, wrote, “but sweeter soundes, of concorde, peace and loue,/ are out of tune, and iarre in euery stoppe.” The problem with thinking that this meaning of stop is the origin of our phrase is that musical notes are not pulled. Stops on an organ are. I think we have to accept that the phrase refers to the way that the volume of an organ can be regulated and enhanced – by pulling out all of the stops.

The phrase began to be used in a figurative sense much later. Probably its first usage is to be found in Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, published in 1865; “knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that…somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Arnold’s usage is that even though he clearly uses it in a figurative sense, he had to anchor his reference to the musical world, in general, and the organ, in particular. It probably confirms that the origin of stop was the organ stop and that his readers would not understand his point without reference to the instrument.

It was not until the 1950s that you could play an organ at home, when Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer began to market a small, electronic organ in the United States.