Sunday, 31 October 2010

Rat me! I Do Love A Good Oath!

Gadzooks! Split me! and Stap me vitals!

I have always had a fondness for Restoration oaths. These days, alas, nobody apart from pantomime pirates and members of the Royal Family (Prince Phillip, apparently exclaimed “Gadzooks!” upon viewing a portrait of himself) uses them.

I have no idea why the these fine exclamations flourished with such vigour in the Restoration. They appear with great frequency and in great variety in the works of Restoration dramatists such as Vanbrugh, Congreve, Etherege and Farquhar. A great many of these oaths end with the word ‘me’ as in: Split me! Stap me! or (as Captain Brazen says in Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer and Lord Foppington says in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse) Rat me!

Split me!, I suppose, might be taken literally (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang gives “Split my windpipe!” as a variant); Stap me! is sometimes given as an affected pronunciation of “Stop me!” though I can’t help wondering if “Stap me vitals!” (a favourite expression of Vanbrugh’s Lord Foppington) suggests ‘stab’ rather than ‘stop’? (I’ve just discovered that at least one actor who has played Lord Foppington agrees). But as for ‘Rat me!’ – I am at a loss to account for its meaning. Cassell' s Dictionary compares the expression with the simple Rat! which is given as an alternative to Drat! which is said to be a euphemism for “God rot it!” - though why anyone should have wanted to say “God rot it!” in the first place I cannot imagine.

This brings me to some of the best known oaths: Zounds! and Gadzooks! These generally derive from blasphemous expressions such as “God’s wounds” and “God’s hooks” (the ‘hooks’ in question often explained as being the nails used in the crucifixion, though I am not aware of any conclusive evidence for this). At any rate, there is a whole bunch of similar oaths: 'Sbody, (God’s body), 'Snails (God’s nails), 'Sblud or 'Splood (God’s blood!) Od’s bodkins (God’s body) and so on.

There are even a few oaths of this sort which survive to this day as in, for example, Struth! or Strewth! (God’s truth) and “Gawd, Stone The Crows” which I have always assumed to be an elaboration upon "God’s stones" (testicles) though this is merely surmise.

What is clear is that fashionable oaths go out of fashion rather quickly (in more recent times, we’ve seen this with once-trendy exclamations such as “Groovy!” and “Fab!”). In Farquhar’s Love and a Bottle, there is a lovely scene in which Mockmode (‘a young Squire, newly come from the University, and setting up for a Beau’) tries to learn how to “swear the most modish oaths”.
“Pray,” he asks, “What are the most fashionable oaths in town? Zoons, I take it, is a very becoming one.”

Rigadoon (a dancing master who, presumably, keeps up with fashion) replies: “Zoons is only used by the disbanded officers and bullies: but zauns is the beaux’ pronunciation....

"Yes, sir, we swear as we dance; smooth, and with a cadence. – Zauns! - ‘Tis harmonious, and pleases the ladies, because ‘tis soft. – Zauns, madam! – is the only compliment our great beaux pass on a lady.”

A few moments later, after taking snuff, Mockmode tries out the fashionable pronunciation: “Zauns, I must sneeze!” But, having sneezed, he makes the error of exclaiming “Bless me!”

Rigadoon at once corrects him – “Bless me!”, it seems, is distinctly not à la mode: “O fy, Mr. Mockmode! what a rustical expression that is! – Bless me! – You should on all such occasions cry Dem me! You would be as nauseous to the ladies as one of the old patriarchs, if you used that obsolete expression.”

Thursday, 28 October 2010

BBC News - 'Haitch' or 'aitch'? How do you pronounce 'H'?

BBC News - 'Haitch' or 'aitch'? How do you pronounce 'H'?

Some interesting observations on the changing pronunciation of British English from the BBC. Personally, I am very much an 'aitch' person.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Green's Dictionary of Slang - from raspberry to rannygazoo

I have the Partidge Dictionary and I have the Cassell Dictionary. Now, however, it looks as though the new gold standard in dictionaries of slang will be the new three-volume Green's Dictionary. Writing in The Telegraph, Jeremy Noel-Tod (a contributor to the dictionary) describes how it was compiled from a variety of sources including the works of P G Wodehouse:
Training began with a pile of early PG Wodehouse novels. These related the adventures of Psmith, the man about town who revelled in such phrases as “last night’s rannygazoo” several years before Bertie Wooster began to bounce them off the silver-plated English of Jeeves.

Rannygazoo (“nonsense; irrelevant, irritating activity”) was an easy spot. And because Wodehouse is full of such exuberance, marking up the books seemed a breeze. I remember my disappointment when I learnt that I was regularly missing useful citations.

When you begin to study it, much more familiar language reveals itself as slang. A few pages on in the new dictionary, for example, Wodehouse yields a citation for the “coarse, dismissive, jeering noise” that most people would call a “raspberry”. As the definition indicates, it doesn’t have another name – I had always dimly thought of it as a more fruity sort of “rasp”. But it actually derives from rhyming slang, where phrases are often shortened to exclude the rhyme that reveals the word intended – and, in this case, the thing imitated (“raspberry tart”).
I would love to have a copy of Green's Dictionary. As it costs almost £300, however, I may have to do without - unless some kind Bertie Wooster-type Aunt decides to buy her beloved nephew a copy for Christmas, that is....

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Oscar Wilde and Heroin

“Will he be all right?” asked Gabrielle, as Oscar helped her up into our waiting carriage.
Oscar laughed. “I think the heroin will see him through.”
I was reading Gyles Brandreth’s book, “Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile” (a rip-roaring page turner in which Oscar Wilde solves some dastardly crimes) when I read the words quoted above. Brandreth is normally very good at period details but one particular detail struck me as a bit fishy - namely Oscar’s reference to heroin.

Given the fact that the book contains numerous references to cocaine, opium and tincture of laudanum, why not heroin? The answer is simple: the events of the book are set in 1883 but the name ‘heroin’ was not used until 1898 (see, therefore Brandreth’s use of the name ‘heroin’ at that period is anachronistic.

The history of heroin turns out to be quite interesting. Initially, it was marketed by the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, as a cough medicine. The chemical name of the drug is diacetylmorphine but Bayer decided to give it the catchier name, ‘heroin’, to emphasise its heroic medicinal qualities . Towards the end of the 19th Century, morphine was widely used to treat coughs, and heroin was thought to be a safer alternative (being, in theory, less addictive than morphine). Initially the biggest market for heroin was the USA where it was used in many popular cough medicines . But it soon became apparent that heroin was becoming a favourite tipple of many people without coughs - and its claim to be non-addictive was thrown into considerable doubt.

As a side-note, while it may seem odd that Bayer were so wrong in their belief that heroin would prove to be a safe ‘wonder cure’, they were pretty much spot-on with another drug which they were promoting at the same time. This was a drug called acetylsalicylic acid for which Bayer coined the name, Aspirin.