What Is The Origin Of (288)?…

A nail in the coffin

There are several variants of this phrase in use, another, an additional and the final being particularly common. They all mean pretty much the same thing, something that contributes to or hastens the demise of the person or thing being referred to. Coffins were made of wood and the sides and lid were fixed into place by driving nails in. There was a sense of finality to the proceedings as the physical remains of the occupant were not intended to get out, leaving the odd grave robber or premature burial to one side.

John Wolcot, an English satirist, who used the splendid nom de plume of Peter Pindar when he published his Expostulatory Odes to a Great Duke in 1789, is credited with the first usage of the image of a nail being added to a coffin. In his Ode XV he wrote, “care to our coffin adds a nail, no doubt;/ and ev’ry grin, so merry, draws one out”. It is a striking image and clearly struck home in the popular imagination, particularly in, but not exclusively, the United States.

Thomas Paine, he of the Rights of Man fame and a failed bridge builder to boot, was passionately against the maintenance of strong trading relationships with Britain and railed against the Federalists who espoused this policy. In an open letter to the American public, his eighth such, he wrote of John Hulbert, according to the Aurora General Advertiser of June 7, 1805, “in his late unprincipled speech…he has driven another nail in the coffin of the federal faction”. The Americans watched the early triumphs of Napoleon with interest from a distance, the Wilmington Gazette moved to note, in its edition of January 27, 1807, “every battle which is fought and won by the French is an additional nail in the coffin of the liberties of the world”.    

It would be wrong to get the impression that Wolcot’s Pindaric image was adopted exclusively by the Americans. Contemporaneously it was in use in England, as this passage attacking William Cobbett, the political reformer and founder of Cobbett’s Political Register, in The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of September 3, 1812 shows; “no wonder that Mr Cobbett is angry with Mr Elton, who, by exposing the obliquity of his personal feelings and the dereliction of his public duty, has clenched the nail in the coffin of the Political Register”. Accusations that politicians and political commentators were less than mindful of the truth are nothing new. The newspaper’s prediction of the Political Register’s demise was a tad premature. It lasted another 24 years, only folding in 1836, a year after Cobbett’s death.

Surprisingly but somewhat amusingly, Isaac Coffin, a former officer of the Royal Navy and MP for Ilchester, was associated with the phrase by The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of April 1, 1822 – I hope the date is not significant – in a report of a parliamentary debate on the Salt Tax; “Sir I. Coffin was anxious to drive a spike nail into the coffin of the oppressive tax”..  

The temperance movement or, at least, those who wished to moderate the consumption of strong liquors were keen to adopt the image, it nicely playing on the idea that you were hastening your demise by drinking the stuff. Some hardened topers in the belief that they were diluting the effects took a glass of porter to accompany their dram, transforming the spirit into what we now call a chaser. According to the journalist, Pierce Egan, in his Life in London, published in 1821, this was only a false precaution; “too many individuals, hard drinkers, flatter themselves that, from such sort of care, they are keeping the nails out of their coffins, till the trembling hand, the diseased appetite, and the debilitated constitution, lamentably point out the fatal error, too late to be corrected”.           

Over in the States, dram drinking was also associated with putting another nail in the coffin, as this helpful definition from the Lansingburgh Gazette from January 24, 1809 reveals; “it is usually said of dram-drinker, that every dram they take, is another nail driven into their coffins”.  

Little notice of such sage advice do we take!

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 (142)?…

The Great Wen

Regular readers will be aware that I spend a little time exploring some of the highways and byways of our metropolis, London. I find its history fascinating and still miss, albeit fleetingly, my daily commute up to the Smoke. For some, though, the hustle and bustle, the noise and the dust is so off-putting that they would do anything to avoid it. They might be tempted to refer to the capital as the Great Wen, a rather uncomplimentary, if archaic, sobriquet that it has earned in certain quarters.

But what is a wen? Its origin is from the Old English noun, wenn, which was used to describe a tumour or a wart, coming into our language from the Proto-Germanic wanja. Specifically it was the best type of tumour to have, if you were unfortunate enough to have one as I do, one that is benign and was generally situated on the scalp. By the Middle Ages it was beginning to be used to describe any form of protrusion and in a figurative sense as a form of insult, a kind of medieval version of a big lump. Shakespeare used the word in this sense in Henry IV Part 2, first performed in 1600. Prince Hal uses it pejoratively to describe his free-booting companion, Falstaff, who was a little on the chunky size; “I do allow this Wen to be as familiar with me, as my dogge.

By the 18th century, though, wen started to be used as a descriptor for a city. Cities were beginning to increase in size as more and more people fled the countryside in search of employment and those mythical streets paved with gold. Men of sensitive dispositions were appalled at the squalor and noise of these conurbations, full of ramshackle tenement buildings and streets, not to mention rivers, full of rubbish and excrement. One such soul was the Dean of Gloucester and economic theorist, Josiah Tucker, who wrote in his Four Letters of National Importance, published in 1783, of London “if therefore the increase of Building, begun at such an early period, was looked upon to be no better than a Wen, or Excrescence, upon the Body-Politic, what must we think of those numberless streets and squares that have been added since?”  The gloss on Wen may lead us to conclude that even then its meaning was beginning to be lost in the mists of time.

It was William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, published in 1822, who specifically nailed London as the great wen when he wrote, “but what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called by the silly coxcombs of the press, the metropolis of the empire?” For the next thirty years the custom was to use the phrase, the great wen of London, but by the 1850s the phrase that was sufficiently well known that the possessive was dropped and capital letters at the start of each word were used to denote that they were talking about London.

In a game of word association, I would probably respond to great wen with Big Yin, a phrase used by our Scottish friends to describe anyone of above average height, although these days most people associate the phrase with the comedian, Billy Connolly. Its antonym is a wee bauchle, which is used to describe a short-arse, often one who was shabby in appearance. A bauchle, after all, was a shabby, down-at-heel shoe.

Rural Rides (26)


The Cotswolds

After far too long the metaphorical Mr Cobbett was able to release his trusty (and rusty) steed and head off towards that beautiful part of England around Chipping Campden in the heart of the Cotswolds. We spent a couple of nights in village of Mickleton at the Three Ways House, home of the world-famous Pudding Club. Coincidentally, we timed our visit with a Pudding weekend – it meant that parking spaces were at a premium – but were able to sample their wares. My spotted dick with a huge jug of custard was delicious.

One of the principal attractions of the gaff was that it was within walking distance – a couple of miles or so as the crow flies across the undulating fields – of one of my favourite gardens at Hidcote Manor. The walk was pleasant enough and not too arduous and we were blessed with fine weather and firm dry conditions underfoot. One of the benefits of arriving by foot is that you feel amply justified in taking advantage of the many benches dotted around the garden and take in the wonderful scenery and drink in the floral scents.

The garden was originally designed by an American, Lawrence Johnston in around 1910 and is heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Parsons and Gertrude Jeckyll. The clever use of stone walls, box hedges, hornbeam and yew creates a series of areas or outdoor rooms, each with their own theme – the White Garden, the Fuchsia Garden (magnificent on our visit) and the like. Each time you go through an archway or turn a corner you encounter new delights and a different vista. It is well worth a visit.


Just down the lane is to be found Kiftsgate Court Gardens which, unlike the National Trust run Hidcote, is privately owned and only allows the great unwashed to tramp around between 2 and 6 o’clock. Perched high up the garden offers wonderful views of the vale of Evesham and the surrounding countryside.

The gardens are the work of three generations of women. Heather Muir started work in the 1920s creating a paved formal garden in front of the portico of the house. The steep slope was tackled and a summer house was built half way down. A path leads you on to the Lower Garden complete with a semi-circular pond. The views are stunning. Muir’s work was carried on from 1950 by Diany Binny and then her daughter and current owner, Anne Chambers, bore the responsibility from the 1980s.

Surrounded by a magnificent yew hedge, planted in the 1930s, is now a rather incongruous pool with water feature, adding a touch of modernity to what is otherwise a garden with a traditional feel. It was originally a tennis court but the upkeep proved too expensive. The other notable feature of the garden is the Kiftsgate Rose – alas, it had finished flowering by the time of our visit – which, at over 50 feet high and 80 feet wide, is the largest climbing rose plant in Britain.

We retraced our steps and rewarded ourselves with a couple of pints at the Kings Arms in Mickleton where TOWT was stung four times by a wasp which managed to inveigle its way into her trousers. At least it gave us the opportunity to rediscover the delights of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.

The countryside can be a dangerous place at times.