Mad Jack Churchill

This week my delve into the weirder side of Wikipedia brought up the story of Jack Churchill – a fearlessly eccentric British warrior.

Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming “Jack” Churchill, DSO, MC & Bar (1906 – 1996), nicknamed Fighting Jack Churchill and Mad Jack Churchill, was a British soldier who fought throughout WWII. He is known for the motto “any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly armed.”

An international standard archer in his youth,  Churchill became the only British soldier known to have felled an enemy with a bow and arrow during the war, when he ambushed a German battalion in Northern France and shot their commanding officer as a signal to attack. After picking up a gunshot wound himself in the fighting at Dunkirk, he volunteered for the newly formed Commandos as soon as he had recovered.

Churchill was installed as second in command of No. 3 Commando. On a raid in Norway in December 1941, he leapt forward from the first landing craft ramp – having previously been playing a rousing tune on his bagpipes, before throwing a grenade and running into the fray, sword drawn.

Churchill (far right) emerging from his landing craft, broadsword in hand

Further action in Sicily in 1943 saw Churchill increase his notoriety as he again fearlessly spearheaded attacks with his trademark Scottish broadsword, a longbow and arrows around his neck and his trusty bagpipes. The slightly unusual thing about all this is that Churchill was not in any way Scottish – he just liked Scottish history and tales of brave Scottish chieftains.

In early 1944 he led the Commandos in Yugoslavia, where they supported Tito’s partisans as they attempted to take the Adriatic island of Vis. Only Churchill and six others managed to reach the objective, but as they got there a mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill, and within minutes he used up the last of his revolver ammunition.  Knowing that escape was futile, and having no further means of killing the enemy at hand, Churchill took up his bagpipes and played a lament until he was thrown unconscious by a grenade and taken off to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp by his bemused captors.

In September 1944 Churchill and an RAF officer escaped and attempted to walk to the Baltic coast. They were recaptured a few miles from the sea and transferred to a PoW camp in Austria. When the floodlights at the camp failed one night he escaped again, and, living on stolen vegetables, walked alone across the Alps near the Brenner Pass before making contact with an American reconnaissance column in the Po Valley.

As the war in the pacific was still on, Churchill asked to be sent to Burma, post haste, as he felt there was still more he could contribute to the war effort. Unfortunately for him by the time he reached India, Hiroshima had been bombed and the war had finished.

After World War II ended, Churchill qualified as a parachutist and later ended up in Palestine as second-in-command of 1st Battalion, the Highland Light Infantry, and was involved in frontline fighting there in 1948, helping 700 Israelis to safety.

In later years, Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became a skilled surfer. Back in England, he was the first man to ride the River Severn’s tidal bore and, being ahead of the curve by many years, shaped his own surfboards. In retirement, however, his eccentricity continued. He startled train conductors and passengers daily on his journey home from London to Surrey by violently throwing his attaché case out of the train window each day. Eventually it transpired that he was tossing his case into his own back garden so he wouldn’t have to carry it from the station.

Heroes of Slang 19: Henry Mayhew

Jonathon introduces Henry Mayhew: contemporary of Dickens, literary phenomenon, pioneer sociologist and hero of slang…

The lexicographer records the vocabulary of slang, but, unless their dictionaries also  offer citations, they cannot properly record its use. The sources for 19th century slang are widespread but a relatively small proportion of these report the language as spoken, the actual sound of the street. One group who did may be termed the pioneer sociologists, or as some prefer it, given that the discipline was still unformed, the higher journalists. Of these none, even his direct successor James Greenwood, could rival Henry Mayhew, whose bicentenary passed last Sunday.

Mayhew, born in 1812 and thus Dickens’ exact contemporary, was one of London’s literary phenomena. One of 17 children he rejected his father’s wish that he enter the law and aged 16 turned instead to writing. He edited variously Figaro in London (1835–8), Punch, of which in 1841 he was a co-founder though he departed a year later, the Comic Almanack (1850–51), and the Morning News (1859). He was a widely published freelance. He wrote for the stage – the farce The Wandering Minstrel (1834) plus a number of productions co-written with others – and with his brother Augustus humorous novels – notably Whom to Marry and How to Get Married, or, The Adventures of a Lady in Search of a Good Husband (1848) – and works of travel literature. In portraits he resembles the paradigmatic genial (old) buffer, but he seems less so in life. No-one appeared so sympathetic to the urban poor, yet he castigated those he met and deemed immoral or ‘licentious’ and campaigned, not especially successfully, against their pleasures: the cheap theatre and, even if the realities he would catalogue might at times seem far more lurid, the melodramatic popular fictions known as ‘penny dreadfuls’.

His triumph, and the one piece of work for which he is remembered, was London Labour and the London Poor (4 volumes, 1861-5) . This was based on some eighty-two articles, published between October 1849 and December 1850, entitled ‘Labour and the Poor’, in the Morning Chronicle of which Mayhew was the metropolitan correspondent. Mayhew was not an original – the early 18th century’s Ned Ward and Tom Brown had also walked the London streets bringing their inhabitants to life for an interested audience – nor was his focus on the London poor unique – the 1840s government was looking hard at poverty, and produced a series of Blue Books devoted to sanitation, housing, health, burial and much more. (And Mayhew described his work as ‘the first “blue book” ever published in twopenny numbers.’) The condition of England, and specifically that of its impoverished citizens was becoming of interest: Carlyle had taken a look in his piece ‘Signs of the Times’ in the Edinburgh Review in 1829 and Disraeli’s Sybil (1845) was subtitled ‘The Two Nations’ and showcased the grimmer conditions of the working class. Dickens, who knew Mayhew and may even have drawn on his work, was of course, among so much else, among those pioneer sociologists.

Yet in London Labour and the London Poor, subtitled ‘A Cyclopædia Of The Condition And Earnings Of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot  Work, And Those That Will Not Work’, and expanded by a fourth volume devoted to Prostitution (although others were enlisted as its writers), Mayhew offered a picture of poverty-stricken London that had never been attempted. Writing in Punch Mayhew’s Morning Chronicle colleague Thackeray, picturing Mayhew as an anthropologist travelling in ‘the poor man’s country’, told how ‘a clever and earnest-minded writer […] reports upon the state of our poor in London; he goes amongst labouring people and poor of all kinds — and brings back what? A picture of human life so wonderful, so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like to it; and that the griefs, struggles, strange adventures here depicted exceed anything that any of us could imagine.’ The flow of praise continued long after Mayhew’s death. E.P. Thompson, writing in 1967, called London Labour  ‘the fullest and most vivid documentation of the economic and social problems, the customs, habits, grievances, and individual life experiences of the labouring people of the world’s greatest city of the nineteenth century.’

Not everyone has been convinced. The critic Gertrude Himmelfarb has savaged the work, maintaining that its title is misleading, it’s ‘sample’ interviewees unrepresentative and its contents and statistical tables unreliable, tainted throughout by ‘fallacies, including arithmetical miscalculations, questionable sources, data pertaining to different periods, and categories added together as if they were all distinct and mutually exclusive.’  And for her the very depiction of the ‘poor man’s country’ was not so much too good to be true, but over-selective,  excessively lurid, too journalistic to be sociologically valid.

Urban anthropologist, journalist or sociologist, whatever Mayhew’s motives, however meretricious some might find his presentation or invalid his statistical evidence, no one would deny the excellence of his interviews. The power of these interviews, and the language in which they are recounted, is at the heart of the work’s success. It was, as he explained, ‘the first attempt to publish the history of a people, from the lips of the people themselves — giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own “unvarnished” language; and to pourtray [sic] the condition of their homes and their families by personal observation of the places, and direct communion with the individuals.’[1]

As faithful transcription of the interviews required, they are dense with slang, at least 1250 discrete terms.  Mayhew’s interest in specific occupations, and his coverage of those who lived on the margins of, if not wholly beyond the law, means that there is a high volume of cant. Mayhew’s lexis overlaps with Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (1859) on over 530 occasions, and it is possible, given the original newspaper publication of the work in 1851, that his are the first examples of many of the words that appeared in the lexicographer’s work.


This post is a modified extract from my forthcoming Sounds of the Street: A History of Slang (to be published by Atlantic Books)

[1] Mayhew op. cit. Preface p. xv

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

Heroes of Slang 18: Eric Partridge

The leading lexicographer of slang salutes his predecessor…

How embarrassing. There he is. Always has been. Right under my nose. Or at least right behind me. And I never noticed. My very own predecessor: without whom and all that stuff. Really. I had better make amends.

Eric Honeywood Partridge was born in 1894 on a farm in the Waimata Valley, near Gisborne, North Island, New Zealand. He moved with his family to Brisbane, Australia, in 1907 and there attended grammar school. His love of literature showed itself early: aged thirteen he had already written a novel (an English public school story) and a number of short stories. His translations from French poetry began appearing in 1914. He was also, thanks to a literary father, able to use dictionaries – ‘those… sources of sober, never-disillusioning entertainment’ – from the age of seven. He won a scholarship to the University of Queensland  but as it did for so many of his contemporaries, the First World War interrupted his studies, and in April 1915 he joined the Australian infantry. He served successively in Egypt, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front where he fought in that sub-section of the battle of the Somme known as ‘the second Pozières’. More than 15,000 ANZACs died fighting for this single ridge; Partridge was wounded but he survived.

Back in Australia he returned to university, took his BA, then departed for Oxford University where he read for his MA in eighteenth-century English romantic poetry and for a BA in comparative literature. In 1927, after some desultory teaching experience, he launched himself on a new career: that of  ‘man of letters’.

To back this he founded the Scholartis Press (a blend of ‘scholarly’ and ‘artistic’); it survived until 1931 when, like so many small businesses, it foundered in the Depression, leaving its proprietor bankrupt. There were nearly 100 titles in all. Twenty-two came from Partridge himself, either as author or editor. Most, including three novels by ‘Corrie Denison’ (Partridge’s pseudonym), were ignored by the literary world but three of them indicated an important new interest for the editor-in-chief: Songs and Slang of the British Soldier, Partridge’s edition of Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1931) and a British edition of Godfrey Irwin’s American Tramp and Underworld Slang (1930).

In 1932 Partridge went freelance and a year later came his first essay at lexicology: Words, Words, Words! This was swiftly succeeded by his first look at the topic that would dominate his professional life: slang. Commissioned by Routledge, where the publisher Cecil Franklin had noticed his language-related Scholartis publications, Slang To-day and Yesterday appeared in 1933: it was the first exhaustive attempt at a history and analysis of slang since Hotten’s introduction to his Modern Slang and Cant of 1859. The book that sprung from these relatively tentative explorations into the topic, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, was published in 1937. It was based on, but expanded far beyond Continue reading

Heroes of Slang 18: John Cleland

This week Jonathon Green salutes the author of Fanny Hill, a book with a single aim: ‘to write about a whore without using the language that was seen as part of her stock in trade’…

It is my intention to review, perhaps next week, Emily Brand’s new study of the Georgian Bawdyhouse. My failure as yet to read the text should not, were I a professional (let alone a sock-puppet), stand in the way, but I am foolish and feel the need to peruse. Instead I offer as an amuse-bouche a few words on the era’s John Cleland, author in 1748 of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (generally known as Fanny Hill) and as such perhaps the only writer have created a pornographic book which is completely without obscenity.

Not that there was yet a proper definition of ‘pornography’ (its first use is in 1842) nor yet the sort of ‘obscene publications’ legislation that was passed in 1857 and revised in 1959. That said, the printers of Cleland’s book, which appeared in 1748, were charged with producing an obscene work, and were found guilty. Cleland himself renounced the novel as ‘a Book I disdain to defend, and wish, from my Soul, buried and forgot’ and it was removed from circulation, remaining off-limits until 1966. It was alleged that Cleland was paid off to avoid his writing any more ‘obscenity’ with a government pension of £100 a year for life. If so he must have squandered it: he died poor in 1786.

Such was the future. In 1748 he had a single aim: to write about a whore without using the language that was seen as part of her stock in trade. He does not, of course, escape slang’s inevitable themes. Thus the penis (‘an object of terror and delight’) is variously an axe, a battering ram (with, like all the erections we encounter, a scarlet ‘head’ be it ‘ruby,’ ‘vermilion,’ ‘flaming red’ or whatever), a red-headed champion, a ‘delicious’ stretcher, a ‘stiff, staring’ truncheon, and a ‘terrible’ weapon. It can also be an engine (invariably ’wonderful’, ‘thick,’ or ‘enormous’), a machine (whether ‘unwieldy’ or ‘formidable’), an instrument, a picklock (the labia being ‘soft-oil’d wards’ which it opens) and a wedge. If the penis is a conduit-pipe (and elsewhere a pipe), then the vagina is the pleasure conduit. It can be a staff of love, a sensitive plant (a contradictory image, since the standard version shrinks rather than grows when touched), a wand, a white staff, and, less obviously a fescue (an old term that plays on its standard meaning: ‘a small stick, pin, etc. used for pointing out the letters to children learning to read; a pointer’) one of the wide selection of penis as pointed instrument images. Morsel is also on offer, but doubtless Fanny is only being figurative (in one thing Cleland is faithful to the porn tradition: no-one is ever under-endowed), and the morsel is being ‘engorged’ by her delicate glutton or nether mouth.

Fanny, being a professional, is obliged to be ‘up for it’ but she differs from most of her peers, at least as recorded, in enjoying the sex and having orgasms. But as slang (and pornography), even euphemised, makes sure, the over-riding image is of the submissive female, even slightly Continue reading

Heroes of Slang 17: Rudyard Kipling

His soldier Tommy is one of the great English archetypes. But did Kipling invent or merely popularise him? Mr Slang investigates…

Kipling, by allusion, has cropped up regularly in these posts. Enough of the oily rags. It is time for the engineer.

Yet Kipling is not at first sight a particularly ‘slangy’ author. In his children’s tale ‘How the First Letter Was Written’ he (as Tegumai) admonishes Taffy (his daughter Josephine) for using ‘awful’ to mean ‘great’. ‘Taffy,’ said Tegumai, ‘how often have I told you not to use slang? “Awful” isn’t a pretty word.”.’ Nor, really, was it slang, and Kipling may have preached but he did not practice.  There are hundreds of slang words and phrases in the works, as well as a wide range of job-specific jargon, typically in his sea stories. He uses it for the most basic of reasons: to confer authenticity. He is not a coiner, but a recorder, and his slang lexis is that of the contemporary world, leavened, as in the conversations of the Soldiers Three, by the specifics of a given background. He claimed himself to be implacable in his choice of terms: ‘I will write what I please. I will not alter a line. If it pleases me to do so I will refer to Her Gracious majesty – bless her! – as the little fat widow of Windsor and fill the mouth of Mulvaney with filth and oaths.’ But there were limits. He suggests that ‘Thomas [i.e. Tommy Atkins] really ought to be supplied with a new Adjective to help him express his opinions’ but we never read it and see only blanks. (Judging by the evidence of Frederick Manning’s Her Privates We and other World War I memoirs one may assume it was ‘fucking’ — ‘bloody’ being claimed by Australia). He was also happy to accommodate his audiences. The language of stories originally written in India, where his readers would have had a good smattering of what a newly published new dictionary of Anglo-Indian imperial pidgin termed ‘Hobson-Jobson’ , had to be simplified for those ‘at home’. Though such changes are not mandatory and Soldiers Three – where it would have been foolish and anomalous to put standard English into the mouths of men who rarely speak it – is full of pidgin, e.g. jildi, mafeesh, dekko, chee-chee, pukka, peg and baksheesh.

It was Kipling’s use of English that drew most comment. ‘Among Mr. Kipling’s discoveries of new kinds of characters,’ said his fan, the poet and critic Andrew Lang, ‘probably the most popular is his invention of the British soldier in India.’ Kipling was less grateful than Lang might have expected. A letter of 1890 states how ‘the long-haired literati of the Savile Club are swearing that I “invented” my soldier talk in Soldiers Three. Seeing that not one of these critters has been within earshot of a barrack, I am naturally wrath.’ Kipling had not invented it. He had picked it up, along with the prototypes of his characters in such oases of ex-patriate tedium as the barracks at Mian Mar where as a journalist he had enjoyed relatively privileged access.

The ‘soldier talk’, his creation or otherwise, came to exemplify a type. As Mafia dons and ‘soldiers’ apparently began modelling themselves on The Godfather trilogy, so did the British trooper take on Kipling’s fictions as exemplars. The former subaltern Sir George Younghusband recalled in A Soldier’s Memories (1917), ‘I myself had served for many years with soldiers, but had never heard the words or expressions that Rudyard Kipling’s soldiers used [...] But sure enough, a few years after, the soldiers thought, and talked, and expressed themselves exactly like Rudyard Kipling had taught them in his stories [...] Kipling made the modern soldier.’ Perhaps. Rigorous checking will find much of the language already available. But kudos goes to the populariser.

Whether, as the academic P.J. Keating claims, Kipling’s rendition of Tommy Atkins (a nickname he had not invented but popularised as never before) also made ‘a complete break with convention and provides English fiction with a new cockney archetype’ is debatable. Kipling, as noted, was a recorder, his slang terms are there for character delineation. He is not, Raj-isms aside, displaying much in the way of counter-linguistic neologism. In his one excursion to the East End, ‘The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot’ (1893) there is slang, as there needs to be, but it is unexceptional.

Of the Soldiers Three one is Irish, and something of a stage Irishman too, one from Yorkshire, and thus dialectal, and Ortheris, the Cockney, is relatively quiet, or at least as compared with the loquacious Mulvaney, on whom the burden of tale-telling rests.  His vocabulary is far smaller and far more mundane than is that of the self-consciously worldly ’Arry, but his background is much poorer, while ’Arry is more lower-middle than truly working-class.

Kipling’s most prolific use of slang came in Continue reading

Green’s Heroes of Slang 16: A.J. Liebling

Today’s hero of slang is “a literary, literate fat man” who loved food and French girls’ legs…

I can write better than anybody who can write faster than me;
and I can write faster than anybody who can write better than me.

He should have lived hereafter, but instead, born in that annus mirabilis of 1904 (too young for the first one, too old for the second) he was gone in 1963 when Muhammad Ali – what a match-up that would have made – could still be called Cassius Clay. He was a literary, literate fat man, like Samuel Johnson and Cyril Connolly and in his case the surplus poundage saw him off. He was a Jew – far from self-hating but simply self-ignoring (and was there ever man less willing to submit himself to the laws of kashrut?) – who wrote for the arch-WASP New Yorker, an American never happier than in Paris, a pampered Ivy League drop-out (expelled, actually, when he preferred lie-ins to chapel) who found himself writing the best boxing coverage since his own hero Pearce Egan, and – one incongruity further – covering US troops in World War II, a conflict whose quartermasters were unable to find him a sufficiently capacious uniform. His love-life – there was a schizophrenic wife, though he allegedly found a final four years’ happiness elsewhere – floundered, and he wrote lyrically of French girls’ legs. He also wrote of Broadway, of its old-timers, its conmen and its strugglers, and of the food of every menu – and there seemed an endless supply – that he came to sample.

Food was so important, and he sympathetically noted the sparse commons meted out to pugs on their managers’ orders. For himself he preferred excess. He had, so he claimed, tricked his father into sending him to Paris in 1926 by inventing a forthcoming marriage to an ageing, possibly pregnant widow. He was given $200 a month – not vast but the exchange rate was remarkably kind – and spent a year of bliss. He made sporadic appearances at the Sorbonne, walked the right bank streets (‘I was often alone but seldom lonely’) – Hemingway and Co. were self-aggrandizing across the river but Liebling was too young for that fast company and, though he never set fiction to platen, dare I suggest a far superior artist than them all. Mainly he ate, and remembered it all in the wonderful Between Meals, which concentration of the primacy of knife and fork indicates the man’s priorities. (A small sample can be found at When he returned in 1944 the great yet cheap restaurants that had informed his palate were gone and he mourned them even as he celebrated Liberation.

Food impinged on other worlds. Thus his assessment of Proust, that consumer of madeleines: ‘In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiner’s Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island Duck, he might have written a masterpiece.’

Back in New York he tried for a job on Pulitzer’s New York World, which involved hiring a sandwich-man to parade a sign demanding ‘Hire Joe Liebling’. The job came, though through other, simpler methods, and lasted until the paper was gobbled up. Meanwhile Liebling began perfecting his art, which in 1935 took him to the New Yorker. Here, along with his friend Joe Mitchell, another newspaperman and another still worth reading, he produced pieces that transmuted love for and knowledge of the city into would now be termed the higher journalism. The ‘new journalism’ would wait 30 years for its christening, but Liebling and Mitchell were surely its chief progenitors. For 28 years at the magazine he wrote fast, high and wide, and above all with enjoyment; passers by his room would see him chortling with pleasure as he pulled successive sheets from the typewriter.

Unlike Mencken, an older contemporary and another glorious prose stylist (and trencherman), Liebling is rarely if ever cruel. He prefers the subtle implications of irony to Mencken’s brimstone savagery. His topics drew on what his hero Egan would have termed the ‘sporting’ world, which as well as actual sportsmen – jockeys, prizefighters, the ancillary world of both – meant that of gamblers and chancers of every hue, of criminals (mainly minor) and above all of those who Continue reading

Dabbler Heroes: Fred Astaire

Nige pays tribute to the greatest dancer…

Fred Astaire – especially when dancing with Ginger Rogers – is (and I admit to a sizeable blind spot in the area marked Dance) almost the only dancer I can watch with that rush of aesthetic pleasure, the tingle at the nape of the neck, the amazed gasp that signify the presence of great art. Why him? I think it’s the sheer effortless elegance; he is the least muscular of dancers. He doesn’t throw himself into a dance – he stroll into it.

This, I think, is because he is always dancing – whether he’s ‘dancing’ or just moving around, walking, running, lighting a cigarette, lifting a glass, patting his hair, anything. Every part of his body is engaged in a kind of continual dance – every part except that extraordinary, outsize, lantern-jawed head that hangs above the action, quite detached – embodying (as I see it) the detachment of the true artist, the cool still centre.

Similarly, I think Astaire was a very great singer – not a very good one in a technical sense (he has little ‘voice’), but he slips into song as easily and beautifully as he slips into dance. Again his style is entirely unforced and unshowy, he does enough and no more, his phrasing is perfect, and as a result he is devastatingly effective at putting a song across – which is why he was so popular with songwriters. Watch him in action with Ginger Rogers here, and marvel…

This sequence never fails to take my breath away – and what an ending! The look on Ginger’s face… Something much more than a dance has happened here.

Viv Richards: A Meeting with the King

Jon Hotten meets his cricketing hero and finds himself saying exactly the one thing he had been determined not to say…

When he went to the ring, he was often smiling. He knew that when the heavyweight champion of the world defended his title, it was a solemn moment, but he found it hard to forget how strong he was.

Good that, isn’t it… AJ Liebling wrote it about Rocky Marciano, but it might just as well be about Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards walking out to bat. He was usually chewing gum instead of smiling – although the flash of teeth from underneath that Roman nose sometimes gave the impression of one – and his journey to the wicket was inordinately slow for the entrance of a gladiator.

‘Hurry up,’ someone in the Yorkshire crowd once heckled. ‘That’s why,’ Richards said, ‘when you look at records and things, and you see the record of Vivian Richards against Yorkshire, I could be high up where averages and runs are concerned’.

I met him last year. It was on a flat, cold morning at the University of Surrey, and he’d come straight from the airport to a reception to promote the Antiguan Olympic team’s use of the facilities there come 2012. The room was full of journalists and local radio and TV people, and I heard him before I saw him. He was talking to a young and beautiful radio reporter standing somewhere towards the side of the bar. ‘My full name,’ he was telling her slowly, ‘is Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards… It’s a very long name, isn’t it…’ He left an arch pause before breaking into that unmistakable, high laugh.

He was 58 then, almost 59, but aside from the smallest fleck of grey in his goatee, he looked the same as he had when he retired from cricket in 1991, head shaved, face unlined, eyes bright and dark, stomach washboard flat and shoulders and waist still ascribing the perfect ‘V’ of a middleweight boxer. He’d famously never been inside a gym, but those boxing references just kept on coming. Some who knew him well called him ‘Smokey’ after Smokin’ Joe, with whom he’d shared such indomitable spirit. To everyone else though, he remained simply King Viv, destroyer of bowlers, avatar of modern batsmanship. Even the knighthood, which he shrugged off ['Hi man, hi... call me Viv'] didn’t seem quite enough. King Viv it was, and is.

I’d known for a while that I might be able to speak to him, and I knew exactly what I was not going to say: that the Continue reading

Green’s Heroes of Slang 15: Tom Brown

This week Mr Slang salutes the man who gave us such terms as Tom, Dick and Harry, tub-thumper and, ahem, buttered bun

‘I do not love thee Dr Fell
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.’

The verse we know. The author, probably not. His name was Tom Brown, born the son of a Shropshire farmer in 1663. Like the better-known Ned Ward, still remembered for his London Spy (1699-1700), he flourished in the early 18th century and established himself as a chronicler of contemporary metropolitan life, notably in his Amusements Serious and Comical (1700). At the time his reputation exceeded his contemporary’s – he was a professional writer, Ward primarily a publican – but he has vanished into the mists. He deserves better.

Brown penned his parody of Martial’s epigram 1.32 (‘Non amo, te, Sabidi’) around 1680, in an attempt to save his career at Oxford, where he had antagonised his college dean, Dr John Fell. The dean, fortunately, was amused and Brown, on the verge of being sent down, was reprieved. He arrived in London in 1684, published a poem, then moved into satire with the first of several attacks on Dryden: Reason of Mr Bayes Changing his Religion.

Hack is not recorded of writers until 1774; Grub Street was, and Brown was a leading citizen. In an era when for the first time a writer could attempt to exist without patron or private wealth, he would claim ‘I am one of the first of the Suburban class that has ventur’d out without making an application to a nobleman’s porter, and tiring him out with showing him his master’s name.’ Brown survived by producing a wide range of material, often at his booksellers’ dictate. He produced prose, verse, squibs and pamphlets, as well as three stage plays: Physic Lies a Bleeding, or, The Apothecary Turned Doctor (1697), The Stage Beaux Toss’d in a Blanket (1704), and The Dispensary (1697), and in 1692 co-authored a journal, the short-lived Lacedemonian Mercury. He was the first person to adopt what would become the default satirical style: removing the vowels from proper names when their use might have brought legal problems. Thus in 1717 Addison commented in the Spectator ‘Some of our Authors indeed, when they would be more Satyrical than ordinary, omit only the Vowels of a great Man’s Name, and fall most unmercifully upon all the Consonants. This way of writing was first of all introduced by T-m Br-wn of facetious memory, who, having gutted a proper name […] made as free with it as he pleased without any danger of the statute.’

Yet Addison, and others including Swift, are now seen to have been indebted to Brown, whose own work may have vanished, but whose method lies behind a number of their own more polished and incisive productions. Swift mentions Brown in the introduction to A Treatise on Polite Conversation (1738). Writing as ‘Simon Wagstaffe, Esq.’ he boasts of having read ‘Mr. Thomas Brown’s works entire,’ and even having had ‘the honour to be his intimate friend, who was universally allowed to be the greatest genius of his age.’ But Swift was being satirical in his turn and he had Continue reading

Heroes of Slang 14: Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty

This week, a hero of slang who showed that size does matter – in this case, the size of your list of terms for the you-know-what…

Of the many canards that assail the object of my life’s toil and linguistic affections is that of verbal inadequacy, the mockery by the loquaciously well-endowed of the size of one’s lexis. To use slang, they sneer, is to demonstrate communicative inadequacy. You and whose dictionary, ripostes the lexicographer, brandishing 125,000 slang variations. The counter-language is in fact vastly inventive, creative some might suggest, given its admitted focus on certain themes, to the point of satiety.

It is true that this may not have been apparent in slang’s earliest days, when faint hearts omitted it from the printed page, but earliest days pass, and come the hour comes the man. Slang, as I have attempted to demonstrate, has many such. Thus, our  fourteenth such hero,  the word-obsessed courtier and author Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611-60). This ‘logofascinated spirit’ as he described himself, took upon himself in 1653 the publication of ‘The Works of Master Francois Rabelais doctor in physick … now faithfully translated into English.’ Rabelais (c. 1494-1553) was French and had written in a contemporary version of that language the work known as Gargantua and Pantagruel, the first books of which appeared in 1534 authored by one ‘Alcofribas Nasier’ – an anagram of the author’s name. The literary merits of his work (among other things one of the more censored productions of the last half millennium) are irrelevant here. What matters is the language he used, or more properly the language into which Urquhart, a devotee of  ‘metonymical, ironical, metaphysical and synecdochical instruments of elocution’ – or ‘meaningful words’, as the less circumlocutious might put it – rendered it in his translation.

A good example is this list, all items of which refer to what Urquhart initially terms the ‘you know what’, a piece of careless vaguery applicable to many aspects of sex, and in this case the giant Gargantua’s penis, which is being dandled by an enthusiastic gaggle of court ladies. So gross a member doubtless merited so extensive a list: ‘One of them would call it her pillicock, her fiddle-diddle, her staff of love, her tickle-gizzard, her Continue reading