The perception that most people have of London’s contribution to the English language is restricted to Cockney Rhyming Slang, in reality the only place you’re likely to hear rhyming slang these days is on the set of BBC TV’s Eastenders. But with a little research you discover that the derivation of many of our words and sayings in English sometimes come from a most unlikely quarter as I’ve discovered:
Derrick’s big idea
In the 18th century Ben Johnson – who incidentally was buried standing upright in Westminster Abbey – was sentenced to hanging for murder. The sentence was commuted to branding on his thumb when he proved that he could both read and write, and was thus given the Benefit of the Clergy.
Many weren’t so lucky and would meet Thomas Derrick at Tyburn; in fact Derrick was probably the last person they would meet here on Earth. London needed a hangman and as there hadn’t been many applicants, the Earl of Essex pardoned a rapist and rather unsavoury character by all accounts, on condition that he would fill the post.
Hanging Days were public holidays and as the condemned had been saved up for the purpose, it made the day for Derrick rather long and arduous, for the method of despatch at that time was slow strangulation having had the cart upon which they were standing pulled away from under their feet.
Derrick’s genius was to invent a gallows using ropes and pulleys that could despatch a dozen at the time; in fact it was this method that he used to hang the man who originally gave him his job, the Earl of Essex. The irony of this tale is that the Earl’s name has long been forgotten, while Derrick’s name is used to describe a modern derrick crane.
Quicker than you can say “Jack Robinson”
Sir John Robinson was Constable of the Tower of London who from 1660 until 1679 was in charge of executions and who by all accounts was a stickler for efficiency rather than solemnity. The prisoner was marched out, put on the block and shortened without any opportunity for any famous last words. He did not even have the time to appeal to the overseer by crying “Jack Robinson”.
Being at Sixes and Sevens
Only in London would you find an institution dedicated to the making of clothes, which for over 300 years have had nothing to do with tailoring instead its members devote their time to personal networking and charitable works, for like most of London’s guilds the Merchant Tailors are now run by the men in grey suits. Merchant Tailors who were later joined by the Linen Armourers, originally actually made clothes, its most famous being the gambeson, a thick padded jacked worn under a suit of armour by the nobility or on its own by foot soldiers when going into battle. But when swords and pikes gave way to firearms this piece of apparel became redundant and they moved on to produce tents for the army, until even that became a pointless exercise.
Receiving its charter in 1327 it became as a result one of the 12 great livery companies in the City, so named for the distinctive clothing (or livery) that members of these venerable institutions would once wear. Early in their history the guilds fought for their place in the order of precedence during any progress of the Lord Mayor of London. After many years of arguments with the Guild of Skinners about who should take sixth place and who seventh in the order of precedence, the Lord Mayor issued an order in the late 15th century to the effect that the Skinners and Merchant Tailors would alternate in precedence; odd-numbered years Merchant Tailors would be sixth in order, while in even-numbered years Skinners would take sixth and Merchant Tailors seventh. Hence the phrase – to be at sixes and sevens. This alternating precedence continues to this day.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul
As Michael Caine might say not a lot of people know that Westminster Abbey’s official name is “The Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster”. During the reign of Edward VI after his father’s Reformation that ended Britain’s thousand-year monastic tradition and put power, and money, back into the hands of the Monarch, the churches were dependent on the largess of the reigning King. But St. Peter was forever asking for endowments so much so that the King decided to punish the abbey by taking away the revenue St. Peter had long enjoyed from the proceeds of the Manor of Paddington and gave them to St. Paul’s which had always been known, as nowadays, as London’s cathedral. Thus a Royal church had lost out to the London cathedral, and hence robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Break a Leg
If you want to wish an actor good luck with their performance theatrical tradition has it that you hope they “break a leg”. This curious phrase comes from a time when all London theatres had to have a licence which could only be granted by the Crown. Samuel Foote took over the running of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket but because its previous owner had published a number of pamphlets attacking the government and the Crown the King refused to grant a licence. Foote tried every means he could to curry favour with the King and in desperation found a loophole around the problem. The punters could get in for free but were expected to purchase food and drink at hugely inflated prices, a practice carried on today without the free admission.
The King’s brother the Duke of York overheard Foote boasting about his horsemanship and in revenue for making a fool of the Crown decided to seek revenge. The Duke of York challenged Foote to ride with him the following morning. The next day the Duke had brought with him a horse that had never been ridden, Foote inevitably was thrown from the horse and was badly injured, he broke a leg and had to have it amputated.
Stricken with remorse and wishing to make up for what he had done the Duke granted Foote the Royal licence for which he had waited for so long. In 1766 the Little Theatre became the Theatre Royal, Haymarket a title it has enjoyed ever since. The phrase “break a leg” is now used by the acting fraternity to wish one good luck, but maybe it should be “break a Foote”.