The Grammarphobia Blog

A charlady at Margate

Q: I’m reading The Goshawk, T. H. White’s 1951 book about falconry. In describing how silly his goshawk looked while taking its first bath, White compares it to “a charlady at Margate.” Later, he describes a falconer “nasconded some fifteen yards away” from a lure. I can’t find either “charlady” or “nasconded” in the Oxford English Dictionary, let alone the significance of “Margate” in this context. Help!

A: You’re right. The OED doesn’t have an entry for “charlady,” but it does have one for “charwoman,” defined as “a woman hired by the day to do odd jobs of household work,” as opposed to a live-in servant. The word dates back to 1596.

The “char” portion of the compound is an archaic form of the noun “chore,” according to the OED, and dates back to the early 1300s, when it meant “an occasional turn of work, an odd job, esp. of household work.”

Words like “charlady,” “chargirl,” “charboy,” “charmaid,” and “charfolk” are variations on the theme of “charwoman.” Here’s an 1895 citation for “charlady,” from the Westminster Gazette: “She had a good post to offer to the charlady.”

Margate is an English seaside resort town, so “charlady at Margate” is probably an imaginative reference to a charwoman on holiday at the beach, gingerly easing herself into the water.

As for “nasconded,” I can’t find it (or “nascond”) in any of my English dictionaries. However, there is an Italian verb, nascondere, which means to hide or conceal or disguise. The expression niente da nascondere means “nothing to hide.”

So if an English writer were to borrow the verb “nascond” from Italian (as White seems to have done), it would presumably mean the same thing, and “nasconded” would be the past tense (“hid”) and past participle (“hidden”).

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