This I Have Learned

Curious About British Words and Sayings?

Mary Jo Bellner Swartzberg

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to England. We were there during the Queen’s Jubilee—what lifelong memories.

I am nothing if not enamored of England. London was amazing—and traveling through the countryside was as if we walked into a painting by Gainsborough.

Patchwork pastoral farms and grazing sheep dotted the countryside. Of course, the scenery would not be replete without the occasional crumbling castle in the background. Suffice it to say, England has my heart.

We heard some quirky British words, with interesting histories, while we were there. And here are some others, too.

That’s a Lot of Rigmarole

The word came into prominence in the mid-18th century in England. Initially, the word rigmarole meant a rambling discourse or an incoherent harangue, but the word rigmarole was an altered word that originated in the late 13th century. At that time, it had two meanings: a “document recording accusations,” as well as an “accuser.” But by the middle of the 18th century, the word was transformed to mean a legal document that lists offenses. As late as 1939, the word became synonymous with a commotion or a foolish activity.

The Bowler Hat

This chapeau for men has been in vogue for more than 170 years. The hat was designed to protect the heads of the gamekeepers who worked on the British estate of nobleman Edward Coke, to shield their heads from the branches of thorny or low-hanging trees. Originally, top hats were worn and would often get damaged as they were knocked off heads.

A prototype was made by hatmaker Thomas Bowler, which is why we refer to it as the Bowler hat. However, the hat is also referred to as the “Coke,” as Coke had the hat commissioned.

The Bowler/Coke, made popular during Queen Victoria’s reign, initially was a hat for the working class, but later gained popularity with bankers and civil servants. Most will remember Paul Newman wearing a Bowler hat in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance the Kid.

He’s in the Clink

There is a street in London, near the Thames, called Clink Street, and in the Middle Ages, it was a locale of debauchery, entertainment, and “easy virtue.” The Bishop of Winchester owned the land area, and he was judge and jury when it came to the law. He developed a jail, which became known as the Clink. Some believe that the word “clink” is onomatopoeic in nature, as it is the sound of prison doors striking metal or the sound of the rattling chains the prisoners wore.

What/Like the Dickens

Full disclosure. This phrase has nothing to do with Dickens—Charles, that is. In England the word “dickens” is an alternate word for “devil,” as some people try to avoid saying the word devil for religious purposes. The word “dickens” first appeared in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, dating from 1600, in Act 3, Scene 2, where Mistress Pages exclaims, “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is ….”

This I have learned …