Words at Play

Words With London Origins

A must read if you think the Brits have a way with words.


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These gaslights are charming, to gaslight someone is not.

Photo: ClaudineVM

In 1938, a Victorian-era thriller titled Gas Light opened in London. The play, which was titled Angel Street in the United States, is about a husband who attempts to drive his young wife mad by causing her to doubt her own grip on reality. Its title alludes to the dimming of the gaslights in the house when the husband uses the lights in the attic while searching for hidden jewels. When the wife tells her husband about the dimming lights as well as the accompanying noises upstairs, he insists that she is imagining things and leads her to believe that she is going insane.

The play was made into a movie in 1944, starring Charles Boyer as the villainous husband and Ingrid Bergman as the distraught wife. The film version apparently prompted the use of gaslight as a verb meaning "to attempt to make (someone) believe he or she is going insane." The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a record of use in a speech from 1956 in which a woman defines gaslight in a way that reflects the above definition and gives its source as being the movie. The term is commonly used today as a verb and verbal noun.

With doors opening when they're not supposed to and strange messages appearing on computer screens, Claire gets nothing but gaslighted….
— Susannah Breslin, Film Threat, 22 Jul. 2000

Then her psychiatrist (Gary Sinise) and her husband (Anthony Edwards) tell her she never had a son—she imagined young Sam, manufactured nine years of memories. The movies, clippings and photographs vanish. Is Telly bonkers or are they gaslighting her?
— Eric Harrison, The Houston Chronicle, 24 Sept. 2004

Gaslighting, one of the most psychologically damaging types of harassment, is when serial abusers present false information or a false narrative to make you doubt your own memory, perceptions, sanity, or professional knowledge.
— Anita Sarkeesian, Marie Claire, 1 Mar. 2015

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If your backyard looks like a no-man's-land, it might be time to start gardening.

Photo: ShaunWilkinson

In the early 14th century, the term no-man's-land referred to the unowned land outside the north wall of London where criminal executions took place. For many years, criminals were beheaded, hanged, or impaled there, and oftentimes their lifeless bodies were left on display as a grim warning to would-be lawbreakers. Since no one wished to claim land where executions were held, the area was left uninhabited and came to be known as no-man's-land.

The term was soon applied to other desolate places or places of death and carnage. For instance, one historian wrote of a mass burial ground for those affected by the plague called No Man's Land:

A great pestilence entering this island ... at length came to London, and overspread all England, so wasting the people, that churchyards were not sufficient to receive the dead...; whereupon Ralph Stratford, bishop of London, in the year 1348, bought a piece of ground called No Man's Land, which he inclosed with a wall of brick, and dedicated for burial of the dead.... About this, in the year 1349, the said Sir Walter Manny ... purchased thirteen acres and a rod of ground adjoining to the said No Man’s Land.... In this plot of ground there were in that year more than fifty thousand persons buried, as I have read in the charters of Edward III.
— John Stow, A Survey of London, 1598

In the mid-19th century, the term began being applied to the deadly area between opposing armies. Accounts from the battlefield detail how the dead could be seen scattered throughout no-man's-lands, much like they were seen in the original no-man’s-land.

Here and there in that wilderness of dead bodies—the dreadful ‘No-Man's-Land’ between the opposing lines—deserted guns showed up singly or in groups.
Blackwood's Magazine, December 1908

It was also during the 19th century that the term began being associated with areas of uncertainty, ambiguity, or indefiniteness, such as the no-man's-land between good and evil or between art and science.

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If you want to dress as the Brits do (according to old Sherlock miniseries) wear tweed!

Tweed denotes a rough-textured woolen fabric with a twill weave that was originally made in Scotland. The weave is made by passing weft threads over one and under two or more warp threads to give an appearance of diagonal lines, rather than over and under in regular succession as in a plain weave. This weave can form a number of different patterns, such as herringbone, houndstooth, and tattersall.

The proper name for the fabric is tweel, which is the Scottish word for "twill" and the source of tweed. The alteration to tweed occurred sometime in the first half of the 19th century as a misreading of the Scottish word by London cloth merchants. It just so happens that much of the twilled fabric from Scotland was produced in the area of the River Tweed, and the coincidence of the two words, for coincidence was all it was, apparently served to lock the misnomer into place.  

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Maybe the third "Legally Blonde" film will see Elle Woods become a barrister.

Photo: BrianAJackson

In the Middle Ages, the legal system in England was still based largely on Roman law, and it was Roman law that was taught in the universities. One way to learn the fundamentals of the growing body of English common law was by personal service as the clerk of a judge or other high official in the courts. There also existed in London several "Inns of Chancery" at which students were taught the rudiments, but not the theory and refinements of English law.

As the legal system became more complex, there came a need for a more thorough, practical grounding in the law, and from this need arose London's Inns of Court, which provided training to resident students and became the only route to becoming a lawyer capable of pleading a case in the courts. The training at the Inns included not only lectures but practice in conducting cases in mock trials. In the practice courtrooms, as in the real ones, the judges and presiding officers were separated from the rest of the hall by a railing or barrier known as the bar. As students gained experience and advanced in their class, they were "called within the bar" and were allowed to help preside over the mock trials. These students became known as barristers—the -ster is probably influenced by legister, an obsolete word for "lawyer." Today, the designation refers to a lawyer in Britain who has the right to argue in higher courts of law.

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Now the song will be stuck in your head all day.

Photo: ricardoreitmeyer

The earliest known suggestion of blue moon comes from a 1528 satire in verse by theologians William Roy and Jerome Barlow, directed against Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, whose power in early 16th-century England was second only to that of King Henry VIII himself. The satire contained the line, "If they say the moon is blue, we must believe that it is true"—thus, "to believe the moon is blue" came to mean "to believe in something absurd."  

The earliest written record of blue moon to mean "a very long period of time" appeared in 1821 in a book called Life in London by Pierce Egan. The book, which colorfully depicted the lifestyles of all strata of London society, presents one character who says, "How’s Harry and Ben?—haven’t seen you this blue moon." A footnote in the book to blue moon states that "this is usually intended to imply a long time." It can reasonably be inferred from the note that blue moon was a slang term on the streets of London back then, but more about its origin is unknown. This meaning of blue moon has nevertheless remained the most common one in the expression once in a blue moon.  

As for literal blue moons: certainly, people have used blue moon for the phenomenon, which is caused by dust particles in the atmosphere that may be caused by large forest fires or volcanic eruptions. The earliest written evidence of such use dates to the early 1700s. Blue moon to mean the second full moon in a month originated in the early 1900s. We have to conclude then that the already existing term was applied to what is, in fact, ​the rare occurrence of two full moons in a month, and not that this rare occurrence provided the origin of the expression once in a blue moon.

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Then, after a long history, the word became the title of a successful reality show.

Photo: KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Several colorful stories circulate concerning the origin of cop, meaning "police officer." One is that it was shortened from copper, a name given to law enforcement personnel because the first London police officers wore large copper buttons on their uniforms. Another version has these officers wearing star-shaped copper shields. Details of such word origins vary freely, as the stories are their own justification and people who repeat them seldom see a need to offer supporting evidence. An entirely different approach to cop is through the first letters of a phrase, such as "constable on patrol" or "constabulary of police" or (least likely of all) "chief of police." This story has it that, in signing reports, long-ago policemen (presumably the same ones who wore the copper buttons or shields) abbreviated the official phrase and wrote "John Smith, C.O.P."

The truth is simpler, if less entertaining. Around the year 1700, English gained the slang verb cop, meaning "to get hold of, catch, capture" and perhaps borrowed from Dutch. By the mid-1800s, cop is recorded in print as being used to refer to what police do to criminals, though it is probably somewhat older in speech. In very short order, the -er suffix was added, and a policeman became a copper, one who cops—that is, catches or arrests—criminals. The connection with the metal copper must have been made almost at once in the popular mind, for a British newspaper reported in 1864 that "As they (who is not stated) pass a policeman they will ... exhibit a copper coin, which is equivalent to calling the officer copper."

The "police" sense of copper is attested in print earlier than the synonymous noun cop, which means we must confess that the noun cop is indeed a shortening of copper (just not the metallic copper).

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A sure sign of a swindler is someone making promises with one hand behind their back.

Photo: MagMos

One would hardly think that a dizzy or giddy person could be convincing enough to perpetrate a swindle. However, the original meaning of the German noun Schwindler was "a giddy person." Such a person is often given to flights of fancy, and so the Germans applied the word as well to a fantastic schemer, a participant in shaky business deals, and then to a cheat. The word Schwindler ultimately derives from the Old High German verb swintan, meaning "to diminish, vanish, or lose consciousness." This gave rise to the verb schwindeln, first used to mean "to be dizzy" and then "to cheat." From this verb, the German noun Schwindler was formed.  

The first use of the loanword swindler in English was in the 18th century. It was supposedly used by lower-class Londoners as a name for the German Jews who were set up in London in the 1760s. About a decade later, the word was being used to refer to a person who obtained credit, money, or property by fraud or deceit.

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This loyal shaggy dog would listen attentively to all your stories.

Photo: LottaVess

There are two basic kinds of shaggy-dog stories: a long, drawn-out circumstantial story concerning an inconsequential happening that impresses the teller as humorous but the listener as boring and pointless, or a similar humorous story (or movie or TV show) whose humor lies in the pointlessness or irrelevance of the punch line.  

Of course, such stories have probably been around since language began, but they weren't known as shaggy-dog stories until the 1930s—that, at least, is the decade from which we have the earliest example of the term used in print.  

One of the more sporting ways of finding out which ones are not [sane] is to try shaggy-dog stories on them.
— J. C. Furnas, Esquire, May 1937

It appears that the shaggy-dog story got its name from one such popular story itself, or more than one. In any case, a shaggy dog is featured. The trouble is that there isn't much agreement as to just how the original story goes. Here's a sort of abridged composite based on three versions:  

A man in London (or Scotland) is looking to buy a very shaggy dog (or he's lost his own). He advertises in the The Times, and a man from New York (or Montreal or Australia), after searching high and low, believes he has found just the dog. After enduring a long and complicated journey, the man arrives with the dog, only to have the man who advertised slam the door in his face, muttering "Not that shaggy!"

Whatever the origin of shaggy-dog story, at least we have a term for a long, drawn-out story that is pointless but amuses in its pointlessness.

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Are they bringing down the house, or just clapping to be polite?

Photo: Rawpixel Ltd

British playwright James Miller's drama An Hospital for Fools was first performed in 1739 at​ London's Theatre Royal (Drury Lane), which was a wooden structure at the time. It opens with the following exchange:

Actor: Sir—Madam—for Heav'n's sake let us begin.

Actress: What's the matter?

Actor: Why, they are pounding ready to bring the House down.  

The last line may be the earliest record for the expression bring the house down (or bring down the house). Pounding refers to foot stomping, which contemporary theater audiences were known to do in impatience or applause. The line seems to be simply part of the script, and we don't know if the audience really was ready "to bring the house down." As far as we know, no theater house was ever brought down by impatient pounding—or by a furor of laughter or applause, for that matter. Nevertheless, the expression is used nowadays when a great amount of laughter or applause is brought about (perhaps to a decibel level that could bring the house down), and Miller may have had a hand in introducing it into the English language.

Night after night Rosenblatt brought down the house, but he was never there to take the applause: he never waited for it, but simply walked out of the theater after his final note.
— Ruth R. Wisse, The New Republic, 1 May 2000

… Williams, the clown, danced more slowly in oversized shoes, pulled sad faces, and seldom failed to bring down the house.
— Darryl Pinckney, The New York Review of Books, 13 July 2006

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The next hot trend in retro weddings—fleet marriage.

Photo: aldomurillo

Fleet marriage is a term used for marriages performed during the 17th and 18th centuries in or near the Fleet prison in London without public notice, witnesses, or consent of parents. The prison was primarily for debtors, and some of the prisoners were allowed to take lodging and perform trades outside the prison itself, in an area near the prison known as the Rules of the Fleet.

Fleet marriages were usually performed by imprisoned or disgraced clergymen, in the prison chapel or in houses or taverns nearby. These clandestine weddings often involved alcoholic intoxication or other disreputable circumstances (it is said that when sailors were in port, hundreds of Fleet marriages took place each week), but they were legally binding and were sometimes sought for perfectly legitimate reasons.  

The Marriage Act of 1753 outlawed Fleet marriages, but it didn't put an end to quickie weddings. From that point on, folks seeking to marry in haste headed to Gretna Green, a village in Scotland near the English border.




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