Up the spout
When I was a young lad, I remember being fascinated by even by the standards of the time an old fashioned grocery store at the top of Pride Hill in Shrewsbury called Morris’. Entering the emporium your olfactory senses were assaulted by the aromas of fresh coffee, cheese and spice. I was particularly taken by the tubular system along which canisters of money and change shuttled back and forth between, presumably, the cashier and the sales counters. I could have watched it for hours.
Our phrase when used with the verb to go in all its tenses conveys the sense that something has been ruined or has failed. It also has a secondary meaning, when associated with the verb to be – that of being pregnant. In the days before credit cards and payday loan companies, often the only way to generate some readies to tide you over – other than larceny or pick pocketing – was to visit your local pawnbroker. You handed over some of your worldly possessions and in return you would get a few coppers. If you failed to redeem your goods by paying back the amount you had borrowed plus usurious interest, you lost the goods you had pledged.
Pawnbrokers needed a lot of space to store the tat against which money had pledged and often deployed the upper storey of their premises for the purpose. This arrangement, satisfactory, for sure, in keeping the premises in some kind of order, meant that they needed a way of conveying goods up and, occasionally, down again which involved the minimum of effort. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they used a chute, perhaps more like what we now know as a dumb-waiter rather than Heath Robinson-like chutes at Morris’ to accomplish the task.
Pierce Egan on page 366 of his Real Life in London, published in 1821, provided a useful explanation. “Up the spout or up the five are synonymous in their import and mean the act of pledging property with a Pawnbroker for the loan of money – most probably derived from the practice of having a long spout, which reaches from the top of the house of the Pawnbroker (where the goods are deposited for safety until redeemed or sold) to the shop, where they are first received; through which a small bag is dropped upon the ringing of a bell, which conveys the tickets or duplicates to a person above stairs, who, upon finding them (unless too bulky) saves himself the trouble and loss of time of coming down stairs, by more readily conveying them down”.
For the pledger, the sight of some of their more precious possessions disappearing up the spout must have been distressing as there was no certainty that they would ever have the brass to reclaim them. So, naturally, what started as a prosaic description of the pawnbroker’s art developed the more figurative sense of disaster, doom and failure.
Pedants bemoan the modern trend of turning nouns into verbs – the most egregious example, to mind, is the verb to medal which litters sporting commentaries. But it was ever thus and it is perhaps no surprise to find that the verb to spout, usually as a present participle, meant the act of pawning an object. Charles Manby Smith in his Curiosities of London Life of 1853 recorded a tailor going into a pawnbroker and saying “here..I’ve got six waistcoats to make, and I must spout one to buy the trimmings; let’s have three shillings”.
Not all pregnancies are wanted or happy events and so it is easy to see how the expression was used as a slang expression, possibly Scottish in origin, to describe an unwanted pregnancy which may have ruined the mother’s life.