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English idioms and The British Apollo

In 1708, London witnessed the appearance of The British Apollo, or Curious Amusements for the INGENIOUS. To which are Added the most Material Occurrences Foreign and Domestick. Perform’d by a Society of GENTLEMEN. VOL. I. Printed for the Authors, by F. Mayo, at the Printing-Press, against Water-Lane in Fleet-Street.

This is Apollo, though not the British one.

As far as I know, no Volume 2 followed this remarkable publication. Volume 1 ran into several editions and is now available on the Internet. Not being a specialist in the history of English journalism, I came across this remarkable book by chance, through a reference in a footnote. (But such is the way of all scholarly flesh.) One cannot imagine a more unusual product by a society of gentlemen. In a way, The British Apollo looks like a forerunner of Notes and Queries (launched in 1849): it contains questions and answers, but the answers are provided by anonymous authors, while in Notes and Queries, all contributions are signed, though often by initials or fanciful names. The pages in the Apollo are large and unnumbered.

In the beginning, one believes that the whole is a joke: the pompous or humorous forms of address, versified questions, and facetious (occasionally also versified) answers, but it soon becomes clear that most letters, even when silly, were written in earnest, that the numerous correspondents interested in theology received professional responses, and that this mixed bag of “curious amusements” is not nonsense. As always, some questions dealt with the origin of popular sayings. I cannot do better than quote some of them, with the spelling and punctuation of the original kept intact. English proverbs and idioms were collected long before 1708, but I doubt that earlier records of popular opinions appeared in any periodical. What follows will appeal to the readers fond of antiquarian dust.

Q. From whence did that saying arise, of 9 Taylors making a Man? (I decided to reproduce this answer because my post on 6 April 2016 was devoted to this saying. There I quoted only part of what will appear below. At that time, I copied the passage from Notes and Queries and dated it to 1726. However, 1726 is the year of the third edition of The British Apollo. Now I am copying from the original.)

Even one bespoke tailor can make a man.

A. It happened (‘tis no great Matter in what Year) that eight Taylors having finish’d considerable Pieces of Work at a certain Person of Quality’s House (whose Name Authors have thought fit to conceal) and receiving all the Money due for the same; a Virago Servant Maid of the House; observing them to be, but Slender-built Animals, and in their Mathematinal [sic] Postures on their Shop-board, appearing but so many Pieces of Men, resolved to encounter and Pillage them on the Road; The better to compass her design, she procur’d a very Terrible, Great Black Pudden; which (having waylaid them) She Presented at the Breast of the foremost; They mistaking the Prop of Life for an Instrument of Death at least for a Blunderbuss, readily yielded up their Money; but she not contented with that, feverishly disciplined them with a Cudgel she carry’d in th’ other Hand, all which they bore with a Philosophical Resignation. Thus, eight, not being able to deal with one Woman, by consequence could not make a Man, on which Account a Ninth is added. ‘Tis the Opinion of our curious Virtuoso’s, that this want of Courage ariseth from their immoderate eating of cucumbers, which too much refrigerates their Blood; However, to their Eternal Honour be it spoke of Canables, to whose Assaults they are often subject, not fictitious, but real Man-eaters, and that with a Lance, but two Inches long, nay and altho’ they go arm’d no further than their Middle-Finger.

Q. What is the meaning of the Phrase, to break Priscian’s head, and whence came the Expression?

A. Priscian was a learned Grammarian, who flourished at Constantinople in the Year 525, he was so Accurate in Grammar, that to speak false Latin was as Ungrateful to him as to break his Head. And indeed it is even Now customary with Many, when very much offended at any proceedings of Another, to cry out, I had rather, you had broke my Head. [More or less the same explanation turns up in Brewer and in later books.]

The next idiom has also appeared in this blog (20 May 2015).

Q. Why, when any thing is Burnt to, it is said the Bishop’s foot has been in it?

A. We presume ‘tis is a proverb that took its Origin from the unhappy Times when every thing that went wrong, was thought to have been spoiled by the Bishops.

Q. Gentlemen, I have a long while desired to know the Original of this Proverb, viz. Like Hunt’s Dog, neither go to Church nor stay at home, and could think of none fitter to resolve this Question than the BRITISH APOLLO. Your speedy Answer (since I am going into the Country) will very much Oblige Yours, &c. [This query provoked the longest answer on a linguistic topic.]

AOne HUNT, a Labouring Man, at a small Town in Shropshire, kept a Mastiff, who was very fond of following his Master up and down. Now HUNT was a Religious Man, and every Sunday in the afternoon went to Church, with all his family, and lock’d his Mastiff in the House till he came back again.

This is presumably Mr. Hunt’s disgruntled dog.

The Dog, it seems, unwilling to be left alone complain’d in melancholy Notes, of such a dismal sound, That all the Village was disturb’d by his incessant howling; This made HUNT resolve to take his  Dog to Church next Sunday.

The Dog, however, who perhaps had formerly been beaten by the Sexton for disturbing the Congregation, cou’d be brought no further than the Church Door, for there he hung behind, and tug’d the String, by which the Master held him. HUNT grew angry at the obstinacy of his Mastiff, and after having beat him soundly, and let him go, and with uplifted hands and Zealous Accent, cried, half- weeping, Oh! what will this world come to? my very Dogs have learned to practice wickedness, and are neither contented to go to Church, or stay at home, Good Lord, deliver us. The People, pleased to see a Man so serious upon such an occasion, laugh’d Poor HUNT and his dog into a common proverb.

And here is something for a final flourish.

Q. Why is the Female Sex attributed to a ship?

Is this why a ship is referred to as she?

A. Because as Ship Carries Burdens, and therefore resembles a Pregnant Woman. And this resemblance is more remarkable with regards to the Modern dress, since the sails of a Ship are somewhat agreeable to a Woman’s Toppings. And perhaps the Author of this Denomination might design it as a satyr upon the sex, as thinking, that a wavering Ship, that is toss’d up and down by every wind, was no unsuitable Emblem of their reputed Inconstancy.

Image credits: (1) “Michelangelo, apollino 01” from Umberto Baldini, Michelangelo scultore, Rizzoli, Milano 1973, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “Dog spring animal beast” by 947051, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “A Splendid Spread” by George Cruikshank, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (4 and Featured Image) “Sailing Ship on Flensborg Fjord” by Elgaard, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    A somewhat similar and earlier periodical was The Athenian Mercury (London, 1690-97, John Dunton ed.). This was reprinted and supplemented as The Athenian Oracle: being an entire collection of all the valuable questions and answers in the old Athenian mercuries. Intermix’d with many cases in divinity, history, philosophy, mathematics, love, poetry; never before publish’d. To which is added, an alphabetical table for the speedy finding of any questions. (London, 1728, 4 vols.) It is available at hathitrust.org

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