“Then the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake scuffled down from the bank and said: ‘My young friend, if you do not now, immediately and instantly, pull as hard as ever you can, it is my opinion that your acquaintance in the large-pattern leather ulster’(and by this he meant the Crocodile) ‘will jerk you into yonder limpid stream before you can say Jack Robinson’. This is the way Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snakes always talk.” Alas, my students have never read Kipling’s Just So Stories and don’t know how the Elephant’s Child got its trunk. Unlike them, I have known this story since my early childhood, but only decades later did I understand the joke. Of course, the Python mixed such pompous language with slang and used “reduplication” (immediately and instantly) because it was bi-colored! From this tale I learned the phrase about Jack Robinson, and I have never met anyone who does not understand it. Among other things, there was an amusing comment on that gentleman in the post for December 12, 2018.
Also, on March 8, 2017, I wrote about Tom, Dick, Harry, and a few other heroes of our idioms. Some characters (for example, Hobson of Hobson’s choice) had prototypes. But what do we know about most of the others? Poor Betty Martin (all my eye and Betty Martin “nonsense!”) has been researched high and low and roundabout, but, in all probability, she never existed. Dick, Jack, and many other similar names are so common that looking for the men behind them holds out little promise (yet Dick’s hatband, for example, has been discussed with some success).
Place names may also give us pause. Take, for example, all of a motion, like a Mulfra toad on a hot showl [that is, shovel]. Mulfra is in Cornwall, but what is so peculiar about its toads? Who was there so cruel to animals as to put toads, all the superstitions notwithstanding, on hot shovels? In Pembrokeshire West (Wales), when an infant grows very fast, they say (or said in the middle of the nineteenth century) that it gains like Matty Murray’s money. I tried and failed to discover the story behind that simile. Finally, take as wise as Waltham’s calf. Yes, I know: that idiot of a calf ran nine miles to suck a bull, and its fame predates Shakespeare. But who was Waltham, the calf’s owner?
Such phrases are countless, and they are not specific to English. In Russian, a certain Sidor (the name rhymes with consider), another animal hater, had a goat, and it was beaten so mercilessly that the act passed into a proverb. The plot thickens with Kuz’ka (the diminutive of Kuz’ma, stress on ma). His mother was a regular termagant. To show one Kuz’ka’s mother means “to treat someone with extreme severity.” By contrast, at Malan’ya wedding there was an overabundance of food; hence the idiom to cook as though for Malan’ya’s wedding. Finally, the otherwise insignificant Makar (the name rhymes with cigar) drove his calves so far that a more distant place does not exist. What folklore or reality gave rise to those sayings?
The recent exchange about the mysterious Jack Robinson made me think of Robin Hood, the hero not only of ballads but also of a few idioms. One of them is to sell Robin Hood’s pennyworths. Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) wrote History or the Worthies of England, a huge but entertaining book, very patriotic and in some places fiercely partisan. It appeared posthumously (1662) and is now available online. Fuller gave the following most uncomplimentary explanation (it will be found on p. 315): “To sell Robin Hood’s pennyworth. It is spoken of things sold under half their value; or, if you will, half sold, half given. Robin Hood came lightly by his ware, and lightly parted therewith; so that he could afford the length of his Bow for a yard of Velvet. Whithersoever he came, he carried a fair along with him, chapmen crowding to buy his stolen commodities. But seeing the receiver is as bad as the thief, and such buyers as bad as receivers, the cheap pennyworths of plundered goods may in fine prove dear enough to their consciences.” According to an old song: “All men said, it became me well, / And Robin Hood’s penny worth I did sell.” Later, a good pennyworth turned into an idiom, with no mention of Robin Hood left.
John Heywood, another great collector, wrote in his book of proverbs (1562; I’ll retain his spelling): “Tales of Robyn Hode are good for fooles.” I know and also remember that “many talk of Robin Hood that never shot in his bow,” but will nevertheless continue. I A few sayings seem to be still alive, at least in the northern counties, traditionally connected with Robin Hood. Thus, a cold wind during a thaw is called a Robin Hood wind, because Robin Hood was said to bear any wind but a thaw wind. It is indeed a piercing wind, and Robin Hood, as well as his merry men, lived in the open and, naturally, suffered from bad weather. “One correspondent of the Manchester City News suggests that the expression belongs originally to the neighborhood of Rochdale, and refers to the bitter north and east winds that come from the direction of Blackstone Edge, a predominant feature of which hill is Robin Hood’s Bed” (Notes and Queries, Series 11, vol. X, 1922, p. 378).
There once existed the proverbial saying to go all round Robin Hood’s barn, that is, “to go all over the place.” (“I must have gone all round Robin Hood’s barn before I lighted upon the place” or “Where have you been today? –All round Robin Hood’s barn! I have been all about the country, first here, and then there.”) The idiom still seems to be known. As early as 1878, an explanation was given, which I find repeated on the Internet and in at least one reliable modern book. The gist of the explanation is that Robin Hood had no barn; consequently, the ironic phrase meant walking all the way around the cornfields in his district.
Perhaps so, but I have some doubts about this etymology. In any case, I have run into another one. As early as 1559, William Cunningham brought out a book titled The Cosmographical Glasse…, in which he referred to Robin hodes (sic) miles, such miles being several times the ordinary length. Hence to go round by Robin Hood’s barn may suggest the longest way around. The reference to the fields is perhaps not implausible, but Robin Hood lived in the forest, and nothing suggests his proximity to any fields.
Let me finish with a sixteenth-century greeting: “Good even, good Robin Hood!” and promise a continuation next week.
Featured image credit: Illustration at p. 73 in Just So Stories (c1912) by Kipling, Rudyard, Gleeson, Joseph M. (Joseph Michael), or Bransom, Paul, 1885- (ill.). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.