One of the dialogues in Jonathan Swift’s work titled A complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738) runs as follows:
Neverout: Why, Miss, you are in a brown study, what’s the matter? Methinks you look like mumchance, that was hanged for saying nothing.
Miss: I’d have you know, I scorn your words.
Neverout: Well, but scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings.
Miss: My comfort is, your tongue is no slander. What! you would not have one be always on the high grin?
Neverout: Cry, Mapsticks, Madam; no Offence, I hope.
This is a delightfully polite conversation and a treasure house of idioms. To be in a brown study occupies a place of honor in my database of proverbial sayings (see a recent post on it). I am also familiar with scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings, but high grin made me think only of the high beam (and just for the record: mumchance is an old game of dice or “a dull silent person”). But what was Neverout trying to say at the end of the genteel exchange (see the italicized phrase)?
The first correspondent to Notes and Queries who wrote on the subject—and the problem was being thrashed out in the pages of Notes and Queries—suggested that it means “I ask pardon, I apologize for what I have said” (4 October 1856). Two weeks later, it was pointed out that mapsticks is a variant of mop-sticks, but no explanation followed this gloss. When fourteen years, rather than fourteen days, passed, someone sent another query to the same journal (8 May 1880), which ran as follows: “Like death on a mop-stick. How did this saying originate? I have heard it used by an old lady to describe her appearance on recovery from a long illness.” Joseph Wright did not miss the phrase and included it in his English Dialect Dictionary. His gloss was “to look very miserable.” Although the letter writer who used the pseudonym Mervarid and asked the question did not indicate where she lived, Wright located the saying in Warwickshire (the West Midlands). We will try to decipher the idiom and find out whether there is any connection between it and Swift’s mapsticks ~ mopsticks.
As could be expected, the OED has an entry on mopstick. The first citation is dated 1710 (from Swift!). In it the hyphenated mop-sticks means exactly what it should (a stick for a mop). The next one is from Genteel Conversation. Swift’s use of the word in 1738 received this comment: “Prob[ably] a humorous alteration of ‘I cry your mercy’.” This repeats the 1856 suggestion. After the Second World War, a four-volume supplement to the OED was published. The updated version of the entry contains references to the dialectal use of mopstick, a synonym for “leap-frog,” and includes such words pertaining to the game as Jack upon the mopstick and Johnny on the mopstick (the mopstick is evidently the player over whose back the other player is jumping), along with a single 1886 example of mopstick “idiot” (slang). The supplement did not discuss the derivation of the words included in the first edition. By contrast, the OED online pays great attention to etymology; yet mopstick has not been revised. I assume that no new information on its origin has come to light. In 1915 mopstick was used for “one who loafs around a cheap or barrel house and cleans the place for drinks” (US). This is a rather transparent metaphor. Mop would have been easier to understand than mopstick, but mopstick “idiot” makes it clear that despised people could always be called this. Johnny on the mopstick also refers to the inferior status of the player bending down. The numerous annotated editions of Swift’s works contain no new hypotheses; at most, they quote the OED.
I cannot explain the sentence in Genteel Conversation, but a few ideas occurred to me while I was reading the entries in the dictionaries. To begin with, I agree that Swift’s mapsticks is a variant of mopsticks, though it would be good to understand why Swift, who had acquired such a strong liking for mopsticks and first used the form with an o, chose a less obvious dialectal variant with an a. Second, I notice that the 1738 text has a comma between cry and mapsticks (Cry, Map-sticks, Madam…). Nearly all later editions probably take this comma for a misprint and therefore expunge it. Once the strange punctuation disappears, we begin to worry about the idiom cry mopsticks. However, there is no certainty that it ever existed, the more so because the sentence in the text does not end with an exclamation mark. Third, mopstick, for which we have no written evidence before 1710, is current in children’s regional names of leapfrog, and this is a sure sign of its antiquity (games tend to preserve local and archaic words for centuries). A mopstick is not a particularly interesting object, yet in 1886 it turned up with the sense “idiot” in a dictionary of dialectal slang. Finally, to return to the question asked above, to look like death on a mopstick means “to look miserable,” and we have to decide whether it sheds light on Swift’s usage or whether Swift’s usage tells us something about the idiom.
I think Swift’s bizarre predilection for mopsticks goes back to the early years of the eighteenth century. In 1701 he wrote a parody called A Meditation upon a Broomstick (the manuscript was stolen, and an authorized edition could be brought out only in 1711). It seems that after Swift embarked on his “meditation” and the restitution of the manuscript broomsticks never stopped troubling him. At some time, he may have learned either the word mopstick “idiot” (perhaps in its dialectal form mapstick) and substituted mopstick ~ mapstick for broomstick; a broomstick became to him a symbol of human stupidity. To be sure, mopstick “idiot” surfaced only in 1886, but such words are often recorded late and more or less by chance, in glossaries and in “low literature.”
Swift hated contemporary slang. The last sentence in the quotation given above (Cry, mapsticks, Madam; no offence, I hope) seems to mean “I cry—d–n my foolishness!—Madam…”). The form mapsticks is reminiscent of fiddlesticks, another plural and also an exclamation. The dialectal (rustic) variant with a different vowel (map for mop) could have been meant as an additional insult. If I am right, the comma after cry remains, while the idiom cry mapsticks, along with its reference to cry mercy, joins many other ingenious but unprovable conjectures.
The phrase to look like death on a mopstick has, I believe, nothing to do with Swift’s usage. In some areas, mopstick probably served as a synonym of broomstick, and broomsticks are indelibly connected in our mind with witches and all kinds of horrors. Here a passage from still another letter to Notes and Queries deserves our attention.
“Fifty years ago [that is, in 1830] I recollect an amusement of our boyish days was scooping out a turnip, cutting three holes for eyes and mouth, and putting a lighted candle-end inside from behind. A stake or old mop-stick was then pointed with a knife and stuck into the bottom of the turnip, and a death’s head [hear! hear!] with eyes of fire was complete. Sometimes a stick was tied across it, to make it ghostly and ghastly….”
Those who have observed decorations at Halloween will feel quite at home. The recovering lady looked like death on a mopstick, and we now understand exactly what she meant. In 1880 the letter writer (Mr. Gibbes Rigaud) resided in Oxford. Oxfordshire is next door to Warwickshire, and of course we do not know where our “heroes” spent their childhood.