When one reads the obsolete phrase go to, go to, the meaning is still understood quite well. After to, one “hears” the word hell. However, directions vary, and the origin of the idioms beginning with go to is less trivial than it may seem. One goes to Bath, to Banff, to Jericho, to Hanover, to Halifax, to Husham, to Putney, to Tunbridge, to Freuchie, and probably to many other places with the same results. How did they get their ignominious reputation? I’ll offer a few remarks only about the idioms represented with some fullness in my database, but would be happy if the denizens of those places sent us local anecdotes or conjectures about the circumstance that gave rise to this (quite possibly undeserved) opprobrium.
We may begin with Bath. In the past, I have had a chance to refer to Thomas Fuller’s once popular book History of the Worthies of England, published posthumously in 1662 (excellent but very slow reading, and its outline—the celebrities are discussed according to their place of birth: one county after another—is inconvenient). In the chapter on Somerset, Fuller mentioned Bath as a favorite haunt of beggars. Bath, it will be remembered, is a town in southwest England made famous by Chaucer’s wife of Bath; its ancient abbey is a tourist attraction. Fuller wrote: “Whither should fowl flock in a hard frost, but to the barn-door? Here, all the two seasons, being the general confluence of gentry. Indeed laws are daily made to restrain beggars, and daily broken by the connivance of those who make them; it being impossible when the hungry belly barks and the bowels sound to keep the tongue silent….” Very eloquent, but did the status of beggars’ resort justify equating Bath with hell? One correspondent to Notes and Queries proposed this connection, but Fuller did not. It also appears that the original saying was longer or at least had a longer variant, namely: “Go to Bath and get your head shaved.” Allegedly, “in former days, persons who showed symptoms of insanity were sent to Bath to drink the medicinal waters; the process of shaving the head being previously resorted to.” Bath may have been a euphemism for “hell,” but did the name of the town ever stand for “madhouse”? Or was originally bath rather than Bath meant? There is a mysterious link between English beggars and words beginning with a b: the place where they met was called beggars’ bush (the name is still very much alive).
By far the best-researched idiom of this type is go to Jericho! Here we have a clue to the origin, because Jericho is a town often mentioned in the Bible. The earliest researchers of this idiom gave the explanation that has been repeated many times. A rather inconspicuous mansion at Blackmore, a little village in Essex, was King Henry VIII’s house of pleasure disguised by the name of Jericho. “The Cam rivulet, which flows through the village, is still called Jordan by the old inhabitants.” Frank Chance, a first-rate student of word history, after quoting an old source to this effect, continued (May, 1876): “I was at Blackmore myself a short time ago accidentally. And I saw this house, which is an old-looking one of red brick, and close to the church, and I can testify that the names ‘Jericho’ and ’Jordan’ are still current here, and not only among the old inhabitants…. ‘To wish one in Jericho’ would, therefore mean merely to wish one well out of the way.” As stated in another publication, the courtiers, when the king was suddenly missing from Court, were in the habit of saying that His Majesty had gone to Jericho “and from this circumstance arose the cant phrase, in vogue to this day.”
The go to phrases often alternate with those beginning with send to. The most important contribution to the history of this idiom was made by the indefatigable Walter W. Skeat, though, as he pointed out, the idea had been clear to several of his predecessors. According to the biblical story, when David’s servants had half their beards cut off and were therefore not presentable at court, the king advised them to “tarry at Jericho till their beards were grown.” Thus, the phrase to tarry at Jericho meant ‘to live in isolation’ and was applied to such young men as were particularly instructed to keep themselves to themselves until they had been endowed with a visible sign of their wisdom. The initial saying seems to have insinuated a charge of inexperience. The person sent to Jericho was considered not good enough for the company. As far as I can judge by the examples at my disposal, the advice to go to Jericho did have the sense “go to hell!” and for this reason it became a vulgar expletive.
Even though Skeat believed that he had settled the question once and for all, another suggestion about the origin of this idiom exists. It was noted that the phrase bears the meaning of consignment to perdition or penal exile: Jericho has been attested with the sense “prison” and also “an improper quarter of Oxford” (if an area frequented by prostitutes is meant, then we are again close to “a house of pleasure”). Could Henry’s Jericho be a ribald allusion to “brothel”? Also, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we read that a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by robbers. One of the contributors to the discussion in 1901 even heard the curse: “Go to Jericho and fall among thieves.”
I cannot abstain from quoting still another author, who offered his suggestion to Notes and Queries in 1901: “There used to be a little witticism perpetrated by the ‘slangy’ newspapers about sixty years ago: ‘The King of Prussia has gone to Pot(sdam)’. Perhaps in time to come this may be quoted as being the origin of the expressions ‘Gone to pot’.” An extremely apt observation! Folk etymology is constantly at work, and, if I find enough material, in the future, I may discuss the origin of the phrase go to pot.
Incidentally, there are quite a few places in England called Jericho, with the river Jordan flowing by. With regard to Henry VIII’s house of pleasure, it remains unknown who coined its name. Was it the lascivious king himself? His courtiers? Young Mistress Blount, the mother of the hapless Henry Fitzroy? As most of us will remember, according to Joshua, the walls of Jericho fell from the sounds of the soldiers’ trumpets. Did some wit suggest that the walls of the king’s secret resort did not guarantee his privacy (blow hard, and they will collapse)? In retrospect, it seems that joking with and about Henry VIII was not a good idea.
Featured image credit: The Good Samaritan by David Teniers the younger after painting by Francesco Bassano. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.