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As black as what?

All words, especially kl-words, and no play will make anyone dull. The origin of popular sayings is an amusing area of linguistics, but, unlike the origin of words, it presupposes no technical knowledge. No grammar, no phonetics, no nothin’: just sit back and relax, as they say to those who fly overseas first class. So here is another timeout. I have recently discussed the simile as clean as… and decided that its opposite or near opposite, namely, as black as… might also be interesting to our readers. Once again I have chosen only such phrases that are represented fairly well in my database. And true to my pattern, I will not attempt to solve the origin of the similes. My goal consists in presenting the material for the entertainment of the public, with the usual expectation that some people know more about those similes than I do and will share their knowledge with us.

As black as Itchul. The saying was (or perhaps still is) known in Sussex, though, seemingly, not only there. The question is familiar: “Who or what is itchul?” An ingenious explanation, redolent of folk etymology, runs as follows. Sailors were in the habit of saying as black as hell, but in those days when certain words “offended the ears of children and tittering spinsters,” hell was often spelt h—l  and pronounced as aitch-el; hence itchul, to my mind, a creature possibly related to the spotted and herbaceous backson.  On the other hand, Old Engl. ysel meant “ember, spark.” Is itchul a garbled reflex of that noun? I also wonder: Can Itchul (with capital I) be a “corruption” of the name of some witch or of a name like Isabel ~ Isobel? The fisherman’s wife in the Grimms’ tale was called Ilsebill.

As black as Newgate Knocker. At one time, this simile was known quite well. In his often-consulted dictionary of slang (1859), John Hotten wrote that Newgate knocker is “the term given to the lock of hair which costermongers and thieves usually twist back towards the ear. The shape is supposed to resemble the knocker on the prisoners’ door at Newgate—a resemblance that carries a rather unpleasant suggestion to the wearer.” Why street vendors dealing in fruit and vegetables treated their hair like thieves and why thieves revealed their identity in such a conspicuous manner remains unclear, but assuming that Hotten’s information is true, we still do not know why the color of the said knocker (not a particularly memorable heavy ring) inspired the ominous simile.

This is the Newgate knocker of ill repute.

According to a suggestion made in 1940, the reference was probably not to Newgate prison, where felons were incarcerated after conviction, but to the turreted Newgate, part of the City wall that spanned Newgate Street, slightly east of Giltspur Street and the Old Bailey. Burned down in 1666, it was rebuilt in 1672 and demolished in 1777 as an obstruction to the traffic. It was here that those committed for trial would be conducted and a stream of solicitors, proposed witnesses, and relatives would come to aid prisoners in preparing their defenses. Visits after conviction, the correspondent adds, were probably strictly limited. Does the epithet black refer to the despondency of the prisoners or of those who made those visits?

My sources provide no answer to this question, but perhaps the next item has been explained convincingly. Not too long ago, some people used the simile as black as Newker’s (or Nook’s) knocker or simply as black as Newker. The identity of Newker puzzled people no less than that of Itchul. But this riddle has been solved: Newker is the stub of Newgate. This is what happens to long words! The place name Sevenoaks has become Snooks and bicycle has yielded bike. One never knows how to pronounce English place and proper names. Only naïve foreigners think that they can look at Magdalene (or Caius) College or Strachan and guess their pronunciation. However, the reference to the blackness of the famous knocker remains unaccounted for. Perhaps, after all, it was not as black as it was painted.

As black as soot or as black as itchul?

Finally, there is as black as the Devil’s nutting bag. In discussing the phrase to hang out the broom (February 10, 2016), I noted that in this area we find ourselves at a crossroads between etymology and folklore. It is the custom that needs an explanation, for the phrase may then take care of itself. In 1777, John Brand brought out his deservedly famous book on popular antiquities. It has frequently been reprinted with additions and in different shapes. The story of the nutting bag can already be found there, along with the rhyme “Tomorrow is Holy-rood day, / When all a nutting take their way.” Later, the custom connected with nutting on the 21st of September (though some informants gave the date as September 14) was discussed in Notes and Queries and elsewhere by those who had first-hand knowledge of it. The often repeated statement that the festival and the phrase have currency mainly or exclusively in Suffolk is wrong.

We know for certain that about the time when hazel nuts are ripe, the festival of Nutting Day was kept. In some places the celebration was accompanied by great disorder. The superstition has Christian overtones, though it probably has roots in pagan antiquity. Among other things, it is said that on that night the Devil met the Virgin, or that nutting is prohibited on Holy Cross Day (also called Hally Loo Day; Loo appears to be an alteration of Rood). Allegedly, the Devil used to wander in the woods on Nutting Day, and, judging by the saying, he had a bag of his own and did gather nuts. The allusion, at least in Berkshire and Somersetshire, was “to the devil’s use of a nuthook as a catchpole or bailiff (remember what is said about hooks and crooks in the June “gleanings”?), and to the necessarily sable hue of the devil’s appurtenance.” Perhaps so, though a hook is not a bag. The part that concerns me is “the necessarily sable hue of the bag.” Strangely, we again learn a lot of interesting things but the color of the Devil’s nutting bag is taken for granted (compare the story of the Newgate knocker). Why should the bag used on Nutting Day be different from the bag the Fiend carries on other occasions?

Bats are not particularly warm, are they?


Owls are certainly not stupid. In Greek mythology, as is known, the owl served the goddess of wisdom.

A look at similes shows that beside the absolutely transparent ones (for instance as plain as the nose on your face, as bright as day, or as black as night) some are totally incomprehensible. Consider as good as Portuguese devil, as sick as a landrail, and as ignorant as a carp. I have chosen those three because they are not listed in any book I’ve had the chance to consult, because neither rhyme nor alliteration justifies their existence, and because, as far as I can judge, the carp is not more ignorant than any other kind of fish.  (Was the Portuguese simile coined in reference to some war and the second at the time of the first railways?) People enjoy adding the most incongruous words at the end of the as…as phrases. Some such sayings have been discussed with dubious results (for example, as sure as eggs is eggs). Others contain obvious irony. Among them is as white as a witch (witches are supposed to personify darkness). Many go back to the customs and occasions at present beyond reconstruction. Once their origins have been found, the researcher feels warm as a bat. On other occasion, the poor scholar feels and looks as stupid as an owl.

Image credits: (1) “Doorway” by bonoflex. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Dirt Patterns” by Monik Markus. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (3) “Square-townsend-fledermaus” by Velho at English Wikipedia. CC ASA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Owl Bird” by Kaz. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. Feature image credit: “Spooky Moon” by Ray Bodden. CC By 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Traruh Synred

    black is not the opposite of clean. The opposite is dirty — usally brown or greenish.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    “Newgate–a house of entertainment for rogues of every description, detained for trial….or for ultimate transportation…’As black as Newgate,’ is said of a street lady’s lowering countenance, or of her muslin-dress, when either is changed from the natural serene….’Debtors’ door o’ Newgate’ is still used in the London cries of last dying speeches….” That’s according to Slang. A dictionary of the turf, the ring, the chase, the pit, of bon-ton…. (London, 1823) p. 124.

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