Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson


Words come into fashion and fade into obscurity all the time in our wonderful language, some shining in the firmament longer than others. While its ability to absorb like a sponge and to loosen its grammatical structure are strengths of the language, English as she is spoken now has lost of its richness and inventiveness. Take invectives. We all use a few choice words from time to time, with the emphasis on few, but our vocabulary is not as rich or as inventive as it once was.

I came across slubberdegullion when I was searching through Samuel Butler’s 17th century mock-heroic satire on Puritanism, Hudibras. He wrote ”Quoth she, though thou has’t deserved/ base slubberdegullion, to be serv’d/ as thou did’st vow to deal with me/ if thou had’st got the victory”. Dr Samuel Johnson included it in his dictionary, defining it as a noun to describe “a paltry, dirty, sorry wretch”. The great doctor could not hazrd a guess as to its origin, placing it as an example of the rich argot of the canting classes.

It appeared in an alternative spelling, slabberdegullion, in Sir Thomas Urquhart’s 1653 translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Some etymologists think that slubber may owe its origins to the Dutch and Low German verb, slubbern, which meant to gobble. Its similarity to the English slobber is almost too close to resist. As for the second part of the word, it is anybody’s guess. Some think that it might be derived from cullion which meant testicle and shares the same root as the French couillon and the Spanish cojones. Alternatively, it may just come from the Scots dialect word gullion which means a quagmire or pool of mud.

Wherever it came from, it was never widely used and now is languishing in obscurity. It is a shame as it is a colourful way to describe a slovenly person.

The Devil’s Dictionary (11)

Money, according to Ambrose Bierce in his The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in book form in 1906, is “a blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it. An evidence of culture and a passport to polite society”. A mouth, meanwhile, is “in man, the gateway to the soul; in woman, the outlet of the heart”.

An opportunity is “a favourable occasion for grasping a disappointment”. It may provoke someone to oppose, “to assist with obstructions and objections”.  If you persist, there will be an outcome, “a particular type of disappointment. By the kind of intelligence that sees in an exception a proof of the rule the wisdom of an act is judged by the outcome, the result. This is immortal nonsense; the wisdom of an act is to be judged by the light the does had when he performed it”.  

You may want to consign a disaster to oblivion, the state or condition in which the wicked cease from struggling and the dreary are at rest. Fame’s eternal dumping ground. Cold storage for high hopes. A dormitory without an alarm clock”.  

It may all lead to a request for pardon, which if granted is “to remit a penalty and to restore to a life of crime. To add to the lure of crime the temptation of ingratitude”.

Bierce is bold enough to correct the great Dr Samuel Johnson. In his definition of patriotism, Bierce calls it “combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first”. Quite.

The Lost Game Of Snap-Dragon

Those who bemoan the influence of ‘Elf and Safety on the way we conduct ourselves may lament the disappearance of the wacky game of Snap-dragon which was particularly popular around Christmas. It is fascinating to speculate how many hosts sent their guests to bed on Christmas Eve nursing blistered hands and scorched tongues. The game, which one contemporary noted “provided a considerable amount of laughter and merriment at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors”, was simple enough and even merited a definition in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.

All you needed was a bowl, some brandy, and raisins. First you placed the raisins in the bowl and then poured the brandy in. Your guests, trembling in anticipation of the excitement and perils ahead of them, would be commanded to stand around the bowl, which was strategically positioned in the centre of the table to protect the players from the inevitable splashes of burning brandy. The brandy would then be set alight and the object of the game was to plunge your hand into the fiery liquid, extract a raisin and eat it.

Johnson defined it more eloquently; “a play in which they catch raisins out of branding brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. Richard Steele game some colour in his piece for Tatler, commenting “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit”. To jolly things along and heighten the tension even more, you could chant a rhyme at the start of the proceedings; “with the blue and lapping tongue/ many of you will be stung/ Snip! Snap! Dragon!/ For he snaps at all that comes/ snatching at his feast of plums/ Snip!, Snap! Dragon!

The game’s origins date back to at least the sixteenth century, gaining name checks in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) and Henry IV Part II (1598). The 18th and 19th centuries saw it at its height of popularity. Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny Austen Knight, wrote in 1806 “different amusements every night? We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon and…we danced or played cards”. The game of Snap-Dragon is mentioned in such disparate literary sources as Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. Indeed, the game was part of the Yuletide tradition until its popularity was extinguished early in the 20th century when people became a little more attuned to thinking that singeing guests was not playing cricket.

So popular was the game that the distinguished scientist, Michael Faraday, was moved to give a chemical explanation of the Snap-Dragon phenomenon in his The Chemical History of the Candle, published in 1860. His thesis was that the raisins acted like miniature wicks, and rather like when you pour brandy on a Christmas pudding, it is hot but not hot enough to incinerate the fruit. Even so, for the unwary there was a nasty treat in store.

If you did not have any raisins to hand, almonds would do and any flammable drink could replace brandy. A variant of the game involved the placing of a lighted candle in a cup of ale or cider and the player was invited to drink without singeing their face. A beard or moustache would be a distinct handicap. In the United States the game was associated with Halloween as much as Christmas.

To add extra spice to the proceedings, one of the raisins had a gold button attached to it or, failing that, was designated as the lucky fruit. Whoever succeeded in extracting the special raisin was given a favour or treat of their choosing. In another variant, whoever extracted the most raisins was predicted to meet the love of their life within the next twelve months. I wonder if they did.

What Is The Origin Of (299)?…

To cock a snook

As a gesture, much beloved by schoolchildren, you press the tip of your nose with your thumb and spread your fingers. For extra effect, you can waggle your fingers. The Americans, prosaic to the last, call it a five-fingered salute. It is intended to show contempt by aiming a mildly insulting gesture at your victim. Its figurative meaning echoes the gesture. It is not certain how deeply ingrained cocking a snook is in English culture but on the continent it can be traced back until at least the 16th century, meriting a mention in the writings of Francois Rabelais from 1532 and depicted in Pieter Brueghel’s drawing, La Fête des fous, from 1560. The equivalent phrase in French is faire un pied de nez.

If we were to dissect the English phrase we would find that the verb to cock meant to turn up or stick up, rather as a cockerel does with its crest. Samuel Johnson defined the verb, in his A Dictionary of the English Language from 1755, as “to set erect; to hold bolt upright, as a cock holds his head”. Snook, is a kind of North American fish and it is also a term used to describe a promontory of land which juts out. The latter definition fits the description of the gesture, but it is fair to say that it is not a common word and there is no direct attribution of this word it. Some argue that it is a derivative of snout, but snout is such a common word you would think that it rather than an obscure variant would be used in the phrase.

One of the earliest examples of the phrase appeared in Wynne’s Diary, compiled by Elizabeth Wynne Fremantle. In her entry for December 7, 1791 she reports of the behaviour of some peasant children, as she calls them, towards a local worthy, Mr Cimador; “they cock snooks at one on every occasion”. Almost a century later, Augustus Hare in his The story of my life, published in 1879, reports on a demonstration given by a bishop; “if I put my hands so (folding them together) no one can reproach me, but if I put them so (cutting a snooks), they might reproach me very much”.

What is clear from Hare’s example, emphasised by his use of snook in the plural, is that the bishop was using both hands, presumably with the thumb of the first hand pressed to his nose and the thumb of the other to the finger of the first. This was also called taking a double sight. Theodore Hook, in his Gilbert Gurney of 1850, described it thus; “she proceeded to place her two hands extended in a right line from the tip of her nose, in the direction of his lordship’s seat, after the fashion of what is called “taking a double sight””.         

Another name for the gesture was taking a sight at a person. John Hotten helpfully defined it in his A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words from 1860 as “a vulgar action employed by street boys to denote incredulity, or contempt for authority, by placing the thumb against the nose and closing all the fingers except the little one, which is agitated in token of derision”. The gesture even made the pages of the Thunderer, the Times reporting in 1904 that “the young monkey puts his tongue in his cheek and cocks a snook at you”. Curiously, there is no specific reference to a hand gesture and it may be by this time cocking a snook was a portmanteau phrase to describe a gesture of derision or contempt.

Nowadays, though, in its literal sense it is restricted to a specific hand gesture, but in a metaphorical sense, it is used to express general contempt. But what a snook is is anybody’s guess.

The Streets Of London (114)

Bond Street, W1 – Part Two

Most of the properties in Old and New Bond Streets were principally shops, but to boost income many shopkeepers rented out the upper floors. It was a fashionable area for young, single men to reside. Amongst those who stayed in Old Bond Street were Jonathan Swift, Edward Gibbon, Pitt the Elder, and Henry Fielding who wrote Tom Jones during his time there. James Boswell also had rooms there where he hosted his famous literary soirees, attracting the likes of Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Sir Joshua Reynolds to dazzle all and sundry with their wit and repartee.

Lord Nelson, between 1797 and 1798 and again between 1811 and 1813, lived in New Bond Street, residing at four different addresses during that time, perhaps reflecting his tempestuous private life, sometimes with his wife in tow and sometimes with his mistress, Lady Hamilton. Both ladies would run errands to the chemists, Savoury & Moore, at No 143, New Bond Street to get unguents to soothe his wounds. The chemists were famous for a bespoke laxative known as Seidlitz Powders and in 1853 won the contract to make medical supplies the troops fighting in the Crimean War.

Although the Bond Streets’ popularity as a des res waned as the 19th century progressed, what it lacked in the glamour of its residents it made up for in the quality of its retail establishments. By 1840 the area boasted 22 tailors, 17 milliners and shirt-makers, 12 hatters, 12 wine merchants, 12 booksellers, not to mention suppliers of porcelain, glass and china, gunsmiths, goldsmiths and cabinet makers. 37 of its shops boast Royal Warrants and after shutting herself up for 25 years mourning the death of her Albert, Queen Victoria decided to go shopping for the first time there. As the century progressed it also hosted several auction houses, Sotheby’s eventually relocating their headquarters into the street in 1918.

The streets also provided other attractions. For the pugilist, you could pop into No 13 Old Bond Street, lucky for some, and take a boxing lesson from Gentleman John Jackson, the celebrated boxer who became the 17th bare-knuckle boxing champion of England when he defeated Daniel Mendoza on April 15, 1795. Alternatively, you could pop next door and practise fencing in the academy run by Henry Angelo senior. When Angelo put his épée down for the last time in 1817, his son, also Henry, took over its management.

For those who liked a rather racier form of entertainment, there were several select gambling houses along the street as well as what were known as “sporting hotels”. Catering for wealthy gentlemen, they were little more than high-class knocking shops. Perhaps because of the presence of these establishments, it was not done for well-bred ladies to be seen on the streets after five o’clock and, if they went shopping before the self-imposed curfew, they were chaperoned.      

Although the streets attracted the wealthy, the life of a shopkeeper was precarious to say the least. A gentleman, or a lady, for that matter, rarely carried money with them and the purchase of goods was done on a rather informal credit system, the retailer relying upon the customer’s status and reputation. This meant that often an honest retailer had a long wait for the money to come in. Sometimes their only resort was to take action and threaten a reluctant payer with a spell in the debtors’ prison.

One of the most notorious debtors was Wicked William Long-Wellesley whose debts and failed political career finally forced him into exile, making him the poster boy for Regency excess. By the age of 16 in 1804 he had run up debts of around £600 with various Bond Street fashion establishments and his father was so exasperated that his father banished him to the wilds of Suffolk until the retailers were repaid.

Nowadays, retailers will not part with their goods until they have seen the colour of your credit card. How times have changed.