Tag Archives: Notes and Queries

What Is The Origin Of (200)?…

Have no truck with

Those of you who have persevered with my two hundred etymological searches into idioms and phrases with which we pepper our wonderful English language will know that I have (or perhaps brook) no truck with fanciful or unlikely theories. When we say we have no truck with something, we mean that we no longer have any dealings with or time for something.

These days truck appears with a negative but when it first made its appearance in the Middle Ages it had no negative limiter. Coming from the French word, troque, it was used to describe a form of business transaction which involved the exchange of goods without the transfer of money; in other words, bartering. The Vintner’s Company Charter in the Patent Roll of Edward III, dating to 1364, describes the securing of some wine “by truke, or by exchange.

By the 17th century, the meaning of truck had broadened from the narrow constraints of trade to a more general sense of having dealings with, associating with or communicating with someone. It appears to have only been conjoined with a negative from the 19th century. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society noted, in 1834, that “theoretically an officer should have no truck with thieves.” Sage advice, for sure, but the theoretically suggests that this was not always possible.

Henry Cockton in his novel The Steward, published in 1850, suggests that the expression was used by the lower sorts; “Do what yow like, replied aunt Ann. It makes no odds to me; I’ll ha’ nothing to do with him! – I’ll have no truck with a tocksicated man.” The phrase crossed the pond to appear in Mark Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, the True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – “it was just like I thought. He didn’t hold no truck with me” – and aficionados of Sherlock Holmes may recall its use in the Sign of the Four (1890); “But I tell you now that if it is anything against the safety of the fort I will have no truck with it, so you can drive home your knife and welcome.”

Trucking shops were a feature of 19th century life for itinerant workers such as navvies. They were often working in areas away from towns and villages and so their obliging employers set up shops from which they could buy the necessities of life, often exchanging tokens or vouchers supplied by their ever obliging employers. William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, published in 1825, observed that “in the iron country… the truck or tommy system generally prevails.

Of course, it wasn’t for philanthropic reasons that the trucking system was established. The unscrupulous companies sought to further exploit their impoverished workers by ripping them off with extortionate prices. It was only with the passing of the Truck Act in 1887 that this egregious practice came to an end.

Truck also appears to have been countryside slang for an association, courtship or dalliance with a member of the fairer sex. Notes and Queries commented in 1866 that in Suffolk “a man who has left off courting a girl, says that he has no more truck along o’har.

And now to brook.

Brook comes from the Old High German word, bruhhan, via the Middle English brouken, and meant to use. When it is used in the context of truck it acts as an intensifier and means to tolerate. So brooking no truck means to have absolutely no association with something.

Glad we’ve cleared that up.

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.

What Is The Origin Of (163)?…

Fight like Kilkenny cats

A little while ago someone, in describing a spat, described the adversaries as fighting like Kilkenny cats. I have never been to Kilkenny in the south-east of the Republic of Ireland and so cannot verify how aggressive the moggies there are. The sense of its figurative usage is pretty clear, describing a couple of particularly tenacious opponents who are diametrically opposed in their views and will never agree. Think Brexiteers and Remainers. But why cats from Kilkenny?

A clue to understanding the genesis of the phrase is to be found in a limerick attributed to that most prolific of poets, Anon. There are a number of variants but this version gives the general sense; “there once were two cats of Kilkenny/ each thought there was one cat too many/ so they fought and they hit/ and they scratched and they bit/ ‘til (excepting their nails/ and the tips of their tails/ instead of two cats there weren’t any!” It must have been some scrap. Although limericks are strongly associated with Ireland, there is no clue as to why these ferocious cats came from Kilkenny, other than the felicitous rhyming of their town of origin with many.

Etymologists like to ascribe the origin of a word or phrase to some historical event or person and there are three theories, each of which appeared in the pages of Notes and Queries during the middle of the 19th century, relating to Kilkenny cats. The first, appearing in an edition from 1850, refers to the factional disputes between the English and Irish contingents in Kilkenny during the period between the 14th and 17th centuries. There was much to fall out over – after all, the English were the occupiers and the native Irish the oppressed. Following Henry VIII’s schism with Rome, there were religious differences. And to cap it all, there was no clarity in statute as to the respective roles and rights of each community. The result was three centuries of bickering which ended up putting the town in Queer Street. It is said that our phrase is an allegorical representation of this tempestuous and ultimately ruinous relationship.

A second attempt was made to explain the origin appeared in an edition of Notes and Queries from 1864. According to this explanation, a group of German soldiers were stationed in Kilkenny at the turn of the 19th century and to relieve the monotony of garrison life, they used to arrange fights between a couple of moggies that were tied together by their tails. One day an officer, alerted by the noise, went to see what was going on and in an attempt to hide the evidence one soldier cut off both tails to allow the cats to escape. Holding the tails, he explained that the fight was so fierce that the elongated pieces of fur, bone and cartilage in his hand were all that was left.

A third version tells of a battle in the 18th century between two bands of cats, a thousand strong each side. The fighting was so vicious that all the cats were killed on both sides. This sounds very much like a particularised version of the first explanation. All have elements of a shaggy dog story (or should it be shaggy cat?) about them. The disputes between Irishtown and Englishtown, as the two disputatious communities were called, may have a scintilla of truth about them but I have a sneaking suspicion that Kilkenny may just have easily have been selected because of its rhyming qualities. As with many of these enquiries, no one really knows.

What Is The Origin Of (122)?…


Keep your hair on

One of my favourite recreational hobbies is watching football live and in particular my team, Shrewsbury Town, a labour of love if anything is. Occasionally, in sheer frustration, usually, when the latest inept striker misses an open goal, I am known to throw down my hat in exasperation. On such occasions, I am encouraged to keep my hair on, to calm down.

It seems as though, inadvertently, I am acting out an age old ritual which goes some way to explaining the origin of our phrase. According to a discussion on the subject in the magazine, Notes and Queries, of 12th July 1902 we are informed that “this expression is common or frequently heard in Gloucestershire. Its origin is supposed to be coeval with wigs or the wig period. Irascible and aged gentlemen” – me to a T – “when mad with passion, have been known not only to curse and swear, but to tear their wigs from their heads, and to trample the under their feet, or to throw them into the fire….if a man wished in his passion to be emphatic, he threw off his wig”. An amusing image, to be sure.

Passing English of the Victorian Era, published in 1909 by the lexicographer J Redding Ware, which was a useful dictionary of slang and phrase, dated our idiom to 1800 and onwards and associated it with the lower classes. His definition of Keep yer ‘air on – the dropping of the aspirant is a sign of the lower orders if there ever was one! –  is “a favourite monitory proverb recommending patience as distinct from impatience, and tearing the ‘air off”. Barriere and Leland’s Dictionary of Slang, jargon and Cant of 1889 gives an example, albeit undated, of its usage, from the Sporting Time, “with the most perfect good temper the new-comer answered the expostulations of the hat woman with a “Keep your hair on, Lizer””. The figurative sense of calming down is crystal clear.

What is interesting about our phrase is when it appears in print there are contemporary examples from all around the world. The South Australian Register of 18th October 1879, quoting the Glasgow Weekly Mail of 18th August, describing the scramble for luggage when a boat lands, reported, “..and a wordy combat with porters and railway servants who,, should you get excited, coolly tell you to keep your hair on”. The New Zealand Observer of 18th November 1882 commented, “Mary, the buxom cook at a certain hotel, says she would go for anybody if he were to put anything about her in the Observer. Keep your hair on, old girl”.

In 1882 David Murray made a pun of the idiom in his Val Strange, A Story of the Primrose Way, “keep your hair on, returned Hiram, in a tone of soft expostulation. You’re in no hurry to get bald”. The immortal bilk, Bret Harte, used the phrase in 1885 in his A Ship of ’49, “keep yer hair on, remonstrated the old man with dark intelligence”. Looking for earlier examples of its usage I found reference to a comic song, described as “very laughable”, called Keep Your hair On which was in the repertoire of a certain Ted Callingham around 1873.

It is tempting to see the development of this phrase as, initially, the rather eccentric and amusing behaviour of wig wearers who got steamed up and found some expression of their anger by dashing their syrup to the ground. It then moved into popular speech and then suddenly, and almost universally around the English-speaking world, found its way into print in the late 1870s and 1880s. I’m sure this is the norm but it is interesting to see such suppositions confirmed.