London Fables 2


Some more gems from Brewer’s London Phrase & Fable…

When it goes off and people start ‘avin’ a pop at each other, this is known as ‘the devil among the tailors’. The devil was a spinning top knocking down pins called tailors. It came to mean a fracas because in 1830 a benefit performance of a burlesque called ‘The Tailors: A Tragedy for Warm Weather’ started a massive row outside the Haymarket Theatre when tailors complained that the show was a slur on their trade.

Devil’s Gap was a high archway beside Lincoln’s Inn Field until 1756. Its resident was a lawyer and money lender with a reputation for ruthlessness who fought a young rival over a rich and beautiful heiress, in the process of which the scaffolding collapsed and they both fell to their deaths. There are a lot of London phrases concerning death and the devil. ‘As sure as the devil is in London’ was used by visiting provincials from both sides of the Atlantic.

My father used to say ‘as black as Newgate’s knocker’ even though Newgate Gaol was demolished in 1904. Here’s a vulgar exclamation, ‘the repartee of a St Giles fair one, who bids you ask her backside’. She would say ‘Ask cheeks near Cunnyborough!’

How did Bethnal Green’s notorious ‘Blind Beggar’ pub get its name? (The cover of ‘Psychoville’ was shot outside it). From the Blind Beggar of Bednall Green, obvs. This was a ballad that became several plays, about a beautiful girl with four suitors, who told them they must obtain permission for her hand from her father, the aforesaid visually challenged knight of the road. Only one of the four, an actual knight, took up the challenge and was rewarded with a huge dowry because – surprise – her father was in operating disguise to weed out the chancers. He was Henry, son of Sir Simon de Montfort. Proof that money always marries itself. There’s a statue of him not far from the pub.

‘I went down to the drugstore to get my prescription filled’ – you can hear Sir Mick Jagger singing that, can’t you? The Chelsea Drugstore wasn’t just a bar and ‘discotheque’ in the King’s Road but also a real pharmacy, modelled on a counterpart in Paris. Immortalised in ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, it had a gigantic impact on swinging London, yet lasted only three years because the fusty old NIMBYs of Chelsea complained about the noise. Like everything unique and wonderful in London it eventually became another junk food joint – McDonald’s.

Conan Doyle is rhyming slang for a boil, apparently, commonly known as a ‘Sir Arthur’, although who has boils anymore? Not to be confused with an ‘Arthur’, which implies something altogether different. On the subject of rhyming slang, the most complicated one I know is ‘Ari’. It derives from the rhyme of ‘Aristotle’ and ‘bottle’, then ‘bottle and glass’, and finally to ‘arse’. Aristotle invented logic, so it’s nice to see him the subject of something so illogical!

11 comments on “London Fables 2”

  1. Nick says:

    I always understood there was a further link:

    Plaster (Plaster of Paris = Aris)
    Aris (Aristotle = bottle)
    Bottle (Bottle & glass = arse).

    Thanks to The Goodies!

  2. snowy says:

    “Aristotle and Bottle” has always seemed, [to my ear], too complicated and convoluted a construction, esp. in a language that already had hundreds of alternatives. [A possibly simpler explanation is that it is a contraction of ‘arris’ an architectural term for the meeting point of two surfaces].

    The usual dictionaries of slang make no mention of it, but they are neither particularly accurate or reliable. [And they have a habit of wandering away from the point and collecting folk tales.] That tailors come in nines seems to be quite common and even older than 1830.

    “Nine taylors make a Man”, an ancient and common saying originating from the effeminacy of their employment; or as some have it from nine taylors having been robbed by one man; according to others from the speech of a woollen draper meaning that the custom of nine taylors would make or enrich one man. A London taylor rated to furnish half a man to the trained bands asking how that could possibly be done, was answered, by sending four journeymen and an apprentice.

    [From ‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue By Francis Grose (1785)’]

  3. snowy says:

    Some other definitions offered by Grose would certainly not survive a modern edit.

    Bread and cheese toasted. See rabbit. A Welch rare bit, the Welch are said to be so remarkably fond of cheese, that in cases of difficulty their mid wives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the janua vitae to attract and entice the young Taffy, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth.

    [Having anybody stuff half a pound of molten Gouda down your gusset, [no matter how caerphilly], is not an operation to be countenanced under any circumstance.]


  4. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I thought the nine tailors referred to church bells rung for a death – nine ‘tellers’ or tolls for a man, six for a woman, three for a child – so nine tolls informed people that a man had died, or made a man.
    Have I been reading too much Dorothy L. Sayers?

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I’ll go with Cornelia, although I have a feeling that origins shift with time and usage. Who was it said that “words mean what I say they mean”?

  6. John Howard says:

    Wow, as a kid in school we used the word Aris for the very thing mentioned here but I never knew the origin of it. It was just one of those words we used rather than the ‘rude’ one.

  7. Dave Kearns says:

    Helen Martin –

    I believe you’re referring to Humpty Dumpty in _Through_the_Looking_Glass –

    ‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” ‘

  8. Roger says:

    The Welsh were traditionally said to be fond of toasted cheese. According to a sixteenth century joke, heaven was overrun with Welshmen until St. Peter had the idea of shouting “Toasted cheese!”
    outside the Pearly Gates, whereupon they all ran out and he locked the gates behind them.

    You can see why people took up witch-hunting as a hobby if that was the standard stand-up line.

  9. Bruce Rockwood says:

    My daughter edited the last free standing Brewer’s Phrase and Fable before Harrap closed the historic Chambers publishing office in Edinburgh. I gather there are newer editions, but not from Chambers. Maybe with Brexit some independent publishers can return.

  10. admin says:

    I’m sure you know that Harrap was a Scottish company which moved to Paris, Mr Rockwood, and the chance of independent publishers returning because of Brexit is highly unlikely, as we (Harrap included) depend on European territories for sales.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Dave. I don’t seem to be able to modernize to the extent of googling quotes for their sources. I had a feeling that that one had a dark source and perhaps that is as dark as it needs to be. It is a very unsettling statement.

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