Would you like to be as learned as Dr. Doddipol? Those heroes of our intensifying similes! Cooter Brown (a drunk), Laurence’s dog (extremely lazy), Potter’s pig (bow-legged), Throp’s wife (a very busy person, but so was also Beck’s wife)—who were they? I have at least once written about them, though in passing (see the post for October 28, 2015). They show up in sayings like as drunk as…, as lazy as…, as busy as…, and so forth. Many people have tried to discover the identity of those mysterious characters. In the late eighteen-seventies, Notes and Queries, an outlet for the wise, the ignorant, and the curious, published many letters on so-called personal proverbs. Antiquarians, professional linguists, historians, and ingenious amateurs contributed to the solution of the mystery. To be sure, of equal interest is the identity of the likes of little Jack Horner (the pie-eater), Jack Spratt (who, by contrast, could eat no fat), and even Mary (the owner of a little lamb). Although the characters of nursery rhymes have been investigated much more often and with better results than Throp’s wife (let alone Potter’s pig), Cooter Brown and his boon companions are also worthy of a biography. Sometimes we are lucky. For instance, the word doddipol, gracing the title of this post, meant “dotard, fool,” so that a person as learned as Dr. Doddipol (honoris causa?) should be no one’s role model.
Domestic animals figure prominently in such sayings, so that Potter’s pig is no exception. Thus, one can (could?) be as coy as Croker’s mare. No one has encountered either this mare or its owner and hardly ever will. Yet one detail about the couple arouses our suspicion: Croker alliterates with coy. And indeed, the earlier variant was as coy as a crocker’s mare (the indefinite article and crocker, not Croker). According to an old suggestion: “It may perhaps be interpreted as quiet as a crocker’s or crock-dealer’s horse, inasmuch as a restive jade would smash all the earthenware hawked round in such carts. Crocker meant also a seller of saffron, which is less appropriate.” Indeed, “crocks or earthen pots hawked about for sale in panniers on an animal’s back, required a steady-going one.” Have we buried the ghost and solved the riddle? Perhaps.
By the way, mares are common characters in idioms. Probably the most famous and the most enigmatic saying is the grey (gray) mare is the better horse (said about a henpecked husband; the color epithet makes this pronouncement particularly obscure). On the other hand, no etymology is needed for understanding the saying money makes the mare go. It alliterates throughout and could occur in some old poem, but, regardless of the source, its lesson is clear. In Croker’s mare we face the same problem as with Dr. Doddipoll: a common or a proper name? With numerous family names like Potter, Smith, Cooper, Baker, and Plummer one never knows.
Finally, we wonder at taken napping, as Mosse [or Morse] caught his mare. The farmers of South Devon sang a ballad, whose last line of each verse was “As Morse caught the mare,” but who Morse was and what happened to his mare is enveloped in obscurity. At least we have an inkling of the source. Quite a few catch phrases originated in popular songs, including those made famous by the music hall.
Dr. Doddipol was learned. He was not alone: Waltham’s calf was wise. Whenever folklore (and sayings of this type are part of folklore) calls somebody clever or learned, rest assured that such a character is a fool. Conversely, when a youngster has the reputation of a dullard (like the third son in fairy tales), we expect him to outsmart his rivals and marry the princess (a boon eagerly sought after). Therefore, since the proverbial phrase refers to someone as wise as Waltham’s calf, we suspect that the calf was not a paragon of quick wit (of infinite resource and sagacity, as Kipling would put it). And indeed, we are told of “Waltham’s calves to Tiburne needs must go/To sucke a bull and meete a butcher’s axe.”
The reference to this stupid calf was known as early as the middle of the seventeenth century and has been recorded in several variants, a usual situation in folklore. Here, the point is that Waltham seems to refer to a place, rather than a person (-ham is “home”; walt is, most probably, “forest”; Modern Engl. wold “a piece of uncultivated forest or moor” is a well-known component of place names). Whether the seat of the famous Waltham Abbey is meant, or the phrase contains a veiled allusion is the infamous place of execution is unclear and, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.
Ours are not the merriest of all times (never mind the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities: it has been trodden to death), so to buoy the readers’ spirits, here are a few more moderately funny idioms of the type discussed above. As drunk as Chloe (the lady of this name is often mentioned in the poems of the witty and prolific Matthew Prior, 1664-1721), but perhaps Prior knew the saying and abstracted Chloe from it? Somewhat less dignified, but in the same vein, is the simile as drunk as Davy’s sow. Predictably, no reliable information about Davy, let alone about his alcohol-addicted sow, has turned up. The same holds for the long-suffering Mr. Wood of the phrase as contrairy as Wood’s dog. Stubborn animals in such idioms are usually said neither to go out nor stay at home.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift uses the simile as big as a Dunstable lark. We are informed by experts that Dunstable larks “were highly esteemed by epicures by reason of their plumpness and savor.” Dunstable, a town in Bedfordshire, in the east of England, as well as its neighborhood, was as late as 1913 still noted, “though not to the extent as formerly, for the number of larks that congregate there.” Occasionally we receive letters from England. Perhaps someone in Bedfordshire reads this blog and will tell us more about whether its larks have survived two great wars and are still as plump and savory as in days of yore.
Phrases with like in the middle are of the same type. Compare like Hunt’s dog, neither go to church nor stay at home. The saying puzzled people at the beginning of the eighteenth century and, one can expect, earlier (oral tales, naturally, exist for some time before they appear in print), but only apocryphal stories about Hunt’s troubles circulated in the public. May his recalcitrant beast enjoy the companionship of Laurence’s dog (they probably belong to the same litter), Davy’s sow, and Hick’s horses. The last-mentioned phrase alludes to: “Like Hick’s horses, all of a snarl.” This saying is or was (my source goes back to 1878) known in Somersetshire, a county in South West England, when a skein of thread is entangled, “a bystander will remark, ‘Oh, that is like Hick’s horse, all of a snarl’, and by way of parenthesis adds, ‘they say he had only one’. It is then explained that the said horses or horse got entangled in the harness.” A letter from Somersetshire with a comment will be greatly appreciated.
Should every story have a moral? Mine is that idioms are among the most entertaining sources of folklore. They are humorous, caustic, and playful. Studying them makes people wiser and happier.
Feature image credit: Waltham Abbey, interior. Photo by Poliphilo. CC SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.