Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Tom, Dick, Harry, and other memorable heroes

Why Tom, Dick, and Harry? Generic names? If so, why just those?  From Suffolk to Yorkshire people speak about some Laurence and some Lumley, whose fame rests only on the fact that both have alliterating lazy dogs (as lazy as L.’s dog, as laid him down to bark). Other farmers had worse luck. Consider all in a heap like Brown’s cows. What happened to Mr. Brown’s cattle to make their case proverbial? I am afraid no one will ever be able to enlighten us. Perhaps Mr. Brown and his animals never existed, so that the owner of the smitten kine belongs with the concerned but unnamed parent in Sam Weller’s pronouncement: “Out vith it, as the father said to his child who swallowed a farden.” But one never knows. Several more or less reasonable hypotheses have been offered to explain why to dine with Earl Humphrey means “to stay without dinner, to go hungry.” The hero of the phrase Hobson’s choice was a real individual, and his “choice” was indeed limited, to put it mildly. Mary Palmer, the heroine of the idiom as hot as Mary Palmer, may also be real, though her identity and the circumstances that gave rise to the phrase have not been disclosed.

Let a sleeping dog lie: it may be lying to bark.
Let a sleeping dog lie: it may be lying to bark.

So-called personal proverbs are countless. Some of them have a good deal in common with nursery rhymes. To be sure, Mary, the owner of a little lamb, belongs with Jack and Jill. They have no prototypes. By contrast, Jack Spratt and Tom Horner are less hazy, and The Annotated Mother Goose has something to tell us about them. About a hundred year ago, people understood the phrase All Sir Garnet “all right.” According to the explanation I have read, the reference was to Sir Garnet Wolseley’s winning the battles in Egypt in the 1880’s. (Why should it always be Egypt?). Some time in the past, I discussed the enigmatic simile as black as Itchul (17 August 2016; is Itchul a name?), and my bibliography on all my eye and Betty Martin (see the post for 23 November 2016) keeps growing without becoming more interesting.

Some phrases with seemingly or evidently concrete references work like substitution tables. Such are L.’s dog; all on one side, like Takeley Street; all on one side like Bridgenorth election, and a few more of the same type. The reference in the all on one side idiom is supposedly to a real street or to things going constantly awry. As a rule, each phrase is known locally, but the existence of a pattern shows that this manner of speaking enjoyed popularity beyond one village or one town. Even when a story is told about the event that allegedly gave rise to such a phrase, it can be an ingenious product of folk etymology. However, if you happen to read stories about the famous Paignton pudding (Paignton is in Devonshire; g is mute, as in poignant and diaphragm: English loves to embellish words with extra letters) and see the simile as big as a Paignton pudding, believe every word of it, though people are ungrateful creatures and the two stories best remembered about this marvel of monstrous cooking are about the disasters connected with eating and dividing it. Takeley Street and Bridgenorth election are also real.

Although I have long since despaired of meeting Betty Martin, I have not lost hope in learning something about Throp’s wife. The idiom is as busy as Throp’s wife who hanged herself (in her garter). The few tales explaining why she was busy and why she committed suicide are obvious nonsense. For the sake of alliteration throng and thrang (both meaning “busy”) sometimes occur instead of busy. A short search revealed a general sentiment to the tune of “don’t indulge in trifles”; it did not end in the discovery of the unfortunate lady’s biography. To make matters worse, I have also stumbled into as busy as Beck’s wife. Another substitution table? The richest source of such phrases is the north of England. My database covers about three hundred years of British and American idioms, which I have written out solely for the sake of their origin (for otherwise such collections, old and recent, are numerous), and I cannot judge whether any of the sayings recorded, in, say, 1850 is still current or even remembered.

Some idioms containing personal names have attracted a good deal of attention. One of them is as deep as Garrick. Garrick has often been explained as a folk etymological alteration of carrick “a submarine rock” (a word current on the coast of Cornwall), but the phrase also turned up outside Cornwall. The famous eighteenth-century actor David Garrick seems to have nothing to do with the depth of Garrick, though the influence of his name cannot be ruled out. In Wiltshire (also a county in the southwest), deep is used in the sense of “artful.” A. Smythe Palmer, a prolific and, on the whole, quite reasonable philologist (he was Skeat’s contemporary), devoted a long article to the phrase as deep as Garrick in the periodical The Nineteenth Century (a good periodical; unsurprisingly, it later gave way to its sequel The Twentieth Century). In his opinion, Garrick goes back to Gerard, one of the Devil’s many names, whose origin may be sought in Norse mythology. I cannot remember such a name of the Devil in Norse myths or Scandinavian folklore. The variant as deep as garlick (!) is a clear case of folk etymology.

This is the celebrated actor David Garrick. He was very deep.
This is the celebrated actor David Garrick. He was very deep.

Non-anonymous alcoholics turn up regularly in such idioms. As drunk as Blaizers is allegedly a tribute to the worshipers of St. Blaize. (The spelling Blaise is more common.) According to legend, “Blaizers,” the participants in the procession honoring St. Blaize, used to get more than ordinarily drunk. In 1880, the sign on a pub in Nottingham read: “Old Bishop Blaize”; the hint was for the initiated. Incidentally, the same sign still graces some pubs. Blaizers does not look like a facetious coinage, but the idiom drunk as blazes, whose origin is not quite clear, invites caution: perhaps the venerable saint’s name was used in vain and conjured up from a vulgar turn of speech? Who has not been accused of intoxication (inebriation, as Romantic posts used to call it)! As drunk as Chloe (is the notorious drunkard in Prior’s poems meant? Matthew Prior: 1664-1721). As drunk as Davy’s sow. Davy’s sow might have been acquainted with Cox’s pig (as fess [fierce?] as Cox’s pig) and even with Waltam’s calf (as wise as Waltam’s calf, an old and venerable character). Vices and virtues have been divided unevenly among proverbial animals.

You need not be a saint or a general to pass into a proverb. Sometimes it is enough to have a lazy dog.
You need not be a saint or a general to pass into a proverb. Sometimes it is enough to have a lazy dog.

One could go on forever in this vein. As noted, some such phrases center on totally obscure figures, for instance, gain like Matty Murray’s money (said about the growth of an infant; Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales), while the heroes and heroines of others are famous, for instance Hooky Walker “an expression of ridicule and disbelief.” Countless are sayings like “Crack me that nut,” quoth Bolton; “Gip!” quoth Gilbert to his mare,” and “I am on the road now,” says Conway. I can return to Mr. Pickwick’s servant and compare idioms based on names with wellerisms (I am sure you have not missed the OUP’s delightful A Dictionary of Wellerisms).

An etymologist hopes to discover the origin of every word and every phrase. This is a rainbow that should be chased with caution, for pride and ambition killed Tom Peel’s dog, and may its fate be a warning to all excessively ambitious individuals in human and animal form.

Image credits: (1) Dog Sleeping Pet by StockSnap, Public Domain via Pixabay.  (2) “Portrait of David Garrick” by Thomas Gainsborough, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “la Godivelle : stained glasses the ‘Saint-Blaise’ in the church corbels (Puy-de-Dôme, France)” Photo by Romary, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Major General Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley KCMG CB, engraving from Illustrated London News” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Featured image credit: “la Godivelle : stained glasses the ‘Saint-Blaise’ in the church corbels (Puy-de-Dôme, France)” Photo by Romary, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Mary Carroll

    More usually ‘dine with Duke Humphrey’?

  2. Jake Guttormsson

    I think I might have found a source for “Gerard being one of the names of the Devil”:


Comments are closed.