Tag Archives: Nicholas Nickleby

Twenty-Seven Of The Gang

James “Jem” Mace was a Norfolk-born boxing champion who operated, primarily, during the bare-knuckle era. He held the English Welterweight, Middleweight, and Heavyweight titles between 1860 and 1866 and was World Heavyweight Champion from 1870 to 1971 while fighting in the United States. He lent his name to a bit of slang, macing, which was a severe but regulated thrashing. Both he and the word that commemorated his prowess have fallen into obscurity.

To be marwooded was to be hung, a phrase deriving its origin from the Victorian executioner, William Marwood, whose other claim to fame was that he developed the long drop technique in 1872, a more scientific approach which took the height and weight of the prisoner into consideration in calculating the drop. In his nine years as an executioner, he hung 176 people including Charlie Peace and Henry Wainwright, the murderer of Harriet Lane. He also spawned the popular piece of doggerel; if Pa killed Ma/ who killed Pa/ Marwood. Marwood died in 1883.  

A fictional character whose name was enshrined in the argot of the time was Alfred Muntle, a handsome man with a black, bushy moustache, who appeared in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. The husband of a milliner, he changed his name to Mantalini on the supposition that Muntle would be bad for business and lived off his wife. From the 1840s Mantalini was the name give to a male milliner.   

How times have changed. In the 1890s made in Germany was used as a term used to signify something that was bad or valueless, thanks to the vast quantity of inferior goods imported from Germany, notes James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era. The term increased in its usage when it was required by law to be stamped on the goods.

More slang anon.

Wedding Anniversaries

Just over half, 50.4%, of the population aged sixteen or over in England and Wales were married or in civil partnerships in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics. While much of the focus is on the big day, around £14.7bn is spent on weddings each year, wedding anniversaries afford an opportunity to reminisce, take stock, look to the future, and celebrate. Cards and gifts are exchanged and some anniversaries bear names which act as a reminder of the type of gift that should be given.

To reach fifty years of marriage is a considerable achievement, even more so when life expectancy was much lower than now. In 18th century Germany couples who reached this milestone were given a wreath made of gold by their friends in a ceremony witnessed by a correspondent of The Belfast Newsletters, whose account appeared in its edition of October 27, 1852.

“It was usual” he wrote, “for them to be married again, and this is called the golden wedding…the priest pronounces a simple blessing…the whole ends by a dance and a supper, to which all the friends and relations of the parties are of course invited”. He also noted that “there is another custom, too, called the celebration of the “silver wedding” (silberne hochzeit), which takes place after twenty-five years of wedlock; but it is of not such universal observance”.  

Counting the years was not exclusive to the Germans. The Morning Chronicle in 1825 noted that Mr and Mrs Gerred of New North Road in Exeter had, on January 25th, celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of their wedding, a rarity worthy of especial note. More mundanely, in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1838, the Kenwigs celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary by hosting a gathering for their friends and acquaintances. It suggests that anniversaries were marked, even if they were not major milestones.

As well as noting the Gerred’s achievement, the correspondent of The Morning Chronicle helpfully tabulated the names of the key wedding anniversaries that prevailed at the time; cotton (first), paper (second), wooden (fifth), woollen (seventh), tin (tenth), silk and fine linen (twelfth), crystal (fifteenth), china (twentieth), pearl (thirtieth), and ruby (fortieth), not forgetting silver and gold for the twenty-fifth and fiftieth respectively.

The point of controversy lay with the Diamond wedding. “Contrary to a very general misconception”, the correspondent noted trenchantly, “this requires 75 years of marital companionship”, rather than sixty as it is now. Queen Victoria’s commandeering of the name to celebrate her sixty years on the throne in 1897 cemented it in the public’s consciousness. Clearly, it was used interchangeably to refer to both the sixtieth and seventy-fifth anniversaries, despite a rear guard effort on the part of compilers of anniversary tables throughout the century. The distinction, in truth, was probably moot.

The choice of symbols reflected the development of a marriage, starting with a blank canvas (cloth and paper), before it gained more solidity (wood) and strength and flexibility (tin). Crystal and china reminded the couple of the fragility of their bonds while the radiance and value of long and happy relationship was reflected in silver. Marriages of longer duration were rarer, reflected in the choice of pearl, while the inner flame of a ruby represented the passion that remained after so many years.

By the mid-19th century, the list was extended to include coral (35th), associated with magic and protective powers, for the thirty-fifth, and sapphire (45th), whose deep blue colouring signified profound love. Platinum symbolised the seventieth while oak with its strength and powers of endurance was adopted for the eightieth.

During the twentieth century the celebration of anniversaries became increasingly commercialised, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the American Retail Jewellers Association, who, lamenting the long wait until the golden and diamond anniversaries, compiled lists of gifts, mostly jewellery of course, appropriate to each of the fifty years of marriage. These were published in 1937 and, with minor regional variations, form the lists we use today.

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.

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.