Compiled by Tim Riley.
Baronet. The lowest hereditary rank taking precedence next below a baron and above a knight.
Disendowed. A charity which no longer fulfils its intended purpose may have its funds legally withdrawn and put to better use.
Workhouse door. Workhouses were institutions run by parishes, providing accommodation and employment for those otherwise unable to support themselves. Abandoning an unwanted baby at the door of a workhouse was not uncommon. Workhouses were abolished in 1930 in favour of less austere forms of poor relief.
Marquis. More usually spelled ‘marquess’ – the second highest rank of the British peerage.
I would fain consult you. I would like to consult you.
Welkin. The arc of heaven; the firmament.
Revenue sloop. A naval patrol ship deployed to prevent smuggling.
Cape Finistere. The most westerly point of mainland France is in the departement of Finistère. One of the most westerly points of mainland Spain is Cape Finisterre. Despite the spelling Gilbert probably referred to the latter.
Merchantman. Civilian ship carrying merchandise.
Frigate. A warship, which in the 19th century would carry between 28 and 60 guns on the main deck.
Up with her ports. Opens the apertures in the ship’s side through which a cannon is then pointed.
A thirty-two. A 32-pound gun.
Strike. To lower a sail or flags as a sign of surrender.
Fal-lal. Finery or frippery; a showy adornment in dress.
We up with our helm. Upping the helm brings a ship to leeward, enabling the sails to catch the wind.
Scuds before the breeze. Move briskly with the wind behind.
Stow my jawing tackle. Stop talking.
Vast heavin’. ‘Avast heaving’, that is, stop sighing.
A-cockbill. Naval imagery of sorrow, deriving from an anchor when it hangs at the cathead ready for dropping, or from the yards of a vessel, when placed at an angle with the deck.
To’gall’n-m’st. Topgallant mast, the highest part of the mast. The Royal Navy traditionally uses eccentric pronunciations of many words, and Richard’s ‘to’gall’n-m’st’ is correct.
Fore-stay. Rope holding the mast upright.
Binnacle. Housing for a ship's compass.
On a bowline. Sailing close to the wind.
Bos’n’s mate. A boatswain (traditionally pronounced as by Richard here) was a senior crew member, below officer rank, in charge of the deck, sails, ropes and anchors of a ship. His assistant was the boatswain’s (or bosun’s) mate.
A Crichton. James Crichton, nicknamed ‘the Admirable Crichton’ (1560–1582) was a child prodigy who in his teenage years displayed exceptional skill as a classicist, linguist and poet, together with an astounding memory.
Ovid and Horace. Publius Ovidius Naso and Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Latin poets of the Augustan age.
Swinburne and Morris. Algernon Swinburne and William Morris, English poets (and in Morris’s case, designer and architect) of the Victorian era.
Took flat aback. At a sudden halt.
Parbuckle. Nautical term for lifting objects by means of a looped rope.
False colours. Flags to which one is not entitled, or which deliberately mislead.
Blue-jacket . Sailor, from the traditional navy blue uniform.
Lothario. A shameless libertine, from the name of such a character in William Davenant’s play Cruel Brother (1630) and Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent (1703).
Turning-in a dead-eye. Rigging a block and tackle, a lifting device.
Cot . Cottage.
Daft Madge! Crazy Meg! Mad Margaret! Poor Peg! Madge, Meg and Peg are all traditional contractions of the name Margaret.
Cytherean posies. Cythera, the Latinised form of Kythira (Κύθηρα), one of the Ionian Islands, traditionally the island of Aphrodite, goddess of love.
It is the accusative after the verb. Referring to Rose’s pedantic correction of Margaret’s technically incorrect but natural-sounding use of the nominative ‘who’ rather than the formally correct accusative case, ‘whom’.
An Italian glance. Authorities vary on the meaning and derivation of the phrase, but its context suggests a seductive and probably cynical ‘come-hither’ look.
Affidavit. A statement in writing sworn before a qualified lawyer.
Elysian. In Greek mythology Elysium is the home of the blessed in the afterlife.
Amaryllis. Latin version of the Greek name Άμαρυλλίς: a country-girl in Theocritus’s Idylls, Ovid’s The Art of Love, and Virgil’s Eclogues.
Chloe. Shepherdess in the Greek pastoral romance, Daphnis and Chloe, attributed to the writer Longus.
Phyllis. Shepherdess found in classical Latin and English Tudor literature. Gilbert earlier used the name for his shepherdess in Iolanthe.
Becalmed in the doldrums. Equatorial regions noted for calm periods when the winds drop completely, leaving sailing ships immobilised.
Stand off and on. Hesitate – from nautical usage meaning cautiously tacking in and out along the coast.
Bring her to. Stop her.
Elision. Dropping or suppressing a letter or syllable in pronunciation, as in the pronunciation of ‘Ruthven’ as ‘Rivven’.
Valley-de-sham. Mangled version of valet-de-chambre, a man’s personal attendant.
Footpads. Highway robbers.
Mop and mow. Grimaces.
Lantern chaps. Gaunt cheeks.
Bank holiday. In Britain, a public holiday, on which by law banks are not open. Almost all British public holidays are bank holidays, and the terms are generally used interchangeably.
I shot a fox. In Victorian England it was not illegal to shoot a fox, but doing so was viewed by adherents of foxhunting as unsporting, depriving them of the pleasure of the chase.
Black-and-tan. A kind of terrier dog, with black hair on its back, and tan (yellowish brown) hair on the face, sides, and legs.
Galoshes. Rubber overshoes.
Bohemian. Term for those, such as creative artists, who lead an unconventional lifestyle, ignoring social respectability.
Satyr. Minor Greek woodland gods, in form part man and part beast, known as companions of Bacchus. A byword for debauchery.
The Times. England’s oldest national newspaper, founded in 1785 as ‘The Daily Universal Register’, changed in 1788 to the present title. All other newspapers with ‘Times’ in their title, from The Times of India to The New York Times, derive their titles from the original.
Old Bailey. Common name (origin uncertain) for the Central Criminal Court in London where many of the most serious criminal cases are heard.
Thimble-rigging. A game – usually a swindle – played with three thimbles and a pea. Bystanders would be challenged to guess under which thimble the pea had been placed, and to bet on their choice. The sharper’s sleight of hand usually ensured that the pea was in fact under none of the thimbles.
The three-card delusion at races. A card trick also known as ‘Find the Lady’, much practised by racecourse sharpers. A queen and two other cards are spread out face down; bystanders are invited to bet which is the queen. As with ‘thimble-rigging’, above, sleight of hand is generally used, ensuring that none of the three is actually the queen.
Athenæum. Originally an academy in Ancient Rome, named in honour of the goddess Athene, later used as the name for literary or scientific institutions and for gentlemen’s clubs.
Linen-drapers. Retailers of linens, laces, calicos and other articles of textile manufacture.
A dab. An expert.
Penny readings. Wholesome entertainments provided for the poor, with admission charged at a penny.
National School. One of many schools founded in 19th century England by the National Society for Promoting Religious Education, providing elementary education on Anglican lines.
Barley-water. A drink, made by the decoction of pearl barley, frequently given by Victorians to invalids.
Deadly nightshade. Atropa Belladonna, a toxic shrub, and the poison extracted from it.
Basingstoke. A town in Hampshire, 48 miles south-west of London.
Mickle. Gilbert, like many people, evidently thought ‘mickle’ means ‘little.’ It is so used here, but it is in fact an Old English word meaning ‘great’ or ‘many.
Suicide is, itself, a crime. Suicide or attempted suicide was a criminal offence in England until 1961.
Like the mousie in the fable. Aesop’s fable of The Lion and the Mouse tells of a lion, trapped in a net, freed by a mouse who gnaws through the netting.
Pipe my eye. Weep.
Bread and cheese and kisses. Phrase coined by Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) to describe a bachelor lifestyle.
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