The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Two

Half Moon Street, W1

Running from Curzon Street in the north to Piccadilly in the south, Half Moon Street is a thoroughfare associated with London’s literary life and has more than a little whiff of scandal about it.

Built from around 1730, the street took its name from the pub which stood on the corner with Piccadilly and one can easily imagine, given its location, that it was a lively and thriving place, the Gazetteer recording on September 6th 1758 the death on the previous Friday of “Mrs Winter, who many years kept the Half Moon Ale-house, in Piccadilly, in which it is Said she acquired near 8,000:, which she has left to her poorest relations.

The Public Advertiser for March 11th 1768 announced that “yesterday, James Boswell Esq, arrived from Scotland at his lodgings in Half Moon Street,” where he entertained, amongst others, his old mucker, Samuel Johnson. One of the capital’s great actors at the turn of the 19th century, Mr Pope, lived at No 5, which is where his first wife and actress, the former Miss Young, died at the age of 26. The celebrated physician, Samuel Merriman, was to be found at No 26 from 1813 to 1825, arriving rather too late to help the unfortunate Mrs Pope.

Percy Bysshe Shelley lived on the street, and according to a description of him by his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, in his biography of the poet, published in 1858, he cut a dash sitting by a window “book in hand, with lively gestures and bright eyes; so that Mrs N said he wanted only a pan  of clear water and a fresh turf to look like some young lady’s lark hanging outside for air and song.

Much of the street was taken up by private houses and what were termed in the 19th century as bachelor’s chambers where young single male tenants, who had come to the metropolis to seek their fame and fortune, could obtain accommodation. Among the many illuminati who found accommodation in these establishments over the years were the dress designer, Raoul de Veulle, the novelist Hugh Walpole, Aubrey Beardsley, Osbert Sitwell and the poet, Wilfred Owen.

A rather larger than life resident in the 1840s was Lola Montez. Irish born, although she claimed to be Spanish, she was a dancer whose lack of technique was more than made up by enthusiasm. Her piece de resistance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothing. Lola was arrested at the street in 1849 on a charge of bigamy and had a string of lovers, including Franz Liszt and Ludwig, King of Bavaria.

But the street is particularly associated with Oscar Wilde and in its day it was the acknowledged epicentre of London’s bohemian and theatrical quarter. Wilde places one of the principal characters of The Importance of being Ernest, Algernon Moncrieff, in bachelors’ chambers with “luxurious furnishings.” in the street. Wilde’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment saw the arty set move further east to Soho.

And who can forget that PG Wodehouse’s wonderful creations, Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, lived in Half Moon Street? Another fictional figure, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, lived at 60a.

But back to reality. The street is home to Fleming Hotel, founded by the eponymous Robert Fleming, former valet to the First Marquis of Anglesey, in 1851. The hotel’s founding is commemorated in a rather splendid stained-glass window depicting the Great Exhibition of that year.

The street, now a run of expensive hotels and even more expensive properties, has a fascinating history.

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What Is The Origin Of (194)?…

Curmudgeon

Are all old men curmudgeons? I mentioned this word en passant last time out as the only example of a word in the English language ending in -mudgeon.

It is a wonderful word and is used today to describe someone who is gruff, grumpy, cantankerous, stubborn, set in their ways, and generally old. Curmudgeons, as is the modern way, even have their own day – 29th January which marks the birth of that self-confessed practitioner of the art of curmudgeonry, W C Fields.

But the commonly accepted usage of a curmudgeon is a fairly recent Americanism, I regret to say. On this side of the pond its primary sense was that of a miser rather than someone lacking in social graces. A churlish miser was described as “a clownish curmudgeon” in the late 16th century and the word was sufficiently well-known, in certain circles at least, for Philemon Holland in his translation of Livy’s history, published in 1600, to attempt a rather lame play on words. He described someone who hid or hoarded corn as a “cornmudgin.” Collapse of stout parties, indeed.

The Right Honourable Henry, Earl of Monmouth, found the time to translate I ragguagli di Parnaso by the Italian satirist, Trajano Boccalini, into English in 1656. In it we find the passage, “certain greedy curmuggions, who value not the leaving of a good name behind them to posterity.”  Avarice is their principal character trait. By the time Samuel Johnson set about compiling his eccentric and entertaining Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, cantankerous was used to describe an “avaricious churlish fellow; a miser; a niggard; a churl; a griper.”  Clearly in his mind the love of money was the foremost characteristic.

Johnson, though, can be a little unreliable when it comes to matter etymological. He took at face value a suggestion from an unnamed correspondent that the origin of the word was “a vitious manner of pronouncing cœur méchant,” another case of the English mangling a French phrase, perhaps. A coeur méchant was a bad or evil heart and vitious was an archaic spelling of vicious. Most etymologists these days think that Johnson was sorely misled but the entry did have one amusing consequence.

John Ash drew heavily upon Johnson’s work when he was compiling his own New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language, which saw the light of day in 1775. Ash followed Johnson’s etymological theory but made a hash of it by translating Coeur as unknown and méchant as correspondent, an error which cast doubt on the reliability of his lexicon.

Perhaps the good doctor should have sought advice from his mate, James Boswell, because there is a strong suspicion that the word, or at least its last two syllables, has a Scottish origin. In Lowland Scots we find murgeon which means to mock or to grumble and mudgeon which means to grimace. If there is anything to this theory, then the first syllable, cur, would be what the grammarians call a reinforcing prefix which strengthens and emphasises the word that it precedes. Ker in kerfuffle and ca in caboodle serve this purpose and it may be that cur is a variant of this prefix. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with a dog or a rogue.

So it could be that the original curmudgeon was a big mudgeon, someone who grumbled a lot whilst sitting on his pile of cash. It was only in the middle of the 20th century that the American sense of a curmudgeon, a cantankerous old so and so, supplanted the British meaning, which, alas, sank into obscurity.