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Christmas English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin Writing

A belated Christmas carol

Q: I got stuck on one word when I read A Christmas Carol to my family on Christmas Eve. What is the story behind the boy’s use of the exclamation “Walk-ER!” when Scrooge asks him to buy a big turkey? I’ve looked for the etymology, with no success whatever.

A: The use of the name “Walker” as an exclamation expressing skepticism showed up in the early 19th century, originally as “Hookee Walker.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the origin is uncertain, but the usage apparently comes from “the name of Hookey (or Hooky) Walker, although no person of this name has been positively identified.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the interjection is from a slang dictionary: “Hookee Walker, an expression signifying that the story is not true, or that the thing will not occur” (Lexicon Balatronicum, 1811).

In the OED’s next citation, the name “Walker” appears by itself: “Walker, an ironical expression synonymous with bender and used in the same manner.” From “A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language” in Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, Written by Himself (1819).

(“Flash” is an obsolete term that refers to thieves, prostitutes, or the underworld, especially their language. Vaux was an English convict transported to Australia three times. In his “Comprehensive Vocabulary,” he defines “bender” as “an ironical word used in conversation by flash people.”)

As for the skeptical use of the term “Walker” in A Christmas Carol (1843), Scrooge asks a boy on Christmas Day if a prize turkey is still hanging in the window of the neighborhood poultry shop.

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”
“Walk-ER!” exclaimed the boy.
“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest.”

Dickens used the exclamation a few years earlier in one of his “Mudfog Society” stories: “Sir Hookham Snivey was proceeding to combat this opinion, when Professor Ketch suddenly interrupted the proceedings by exclaiming, with great excitement of manner, ‘Walker!’ ” From “Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Society for the Advancement of Everything” (Bentley’s Miscellany, September 1838).

We’ve seen several questionable theories about the source of “hookey walker”—that it comes from the name of a popular song or a celebrated horse or a theatrical character or a clerk with a hooked nose. However, the OED notes that the interjection appeared in print before all those other usages were recorded.

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Christmas English language humor Writing

Jeeves and the festive spirit

[Note: In observance of the holidays, we’re publishing an essay by Pat that appears this month in the Christmas issue of the Literary Review, London.]

The Ghost of Christmas Presents Past
P. G. Wodehouse & the Art of Regifting

By Patricia T. O’Conner

Remember that P. G. Wodehouse story where Jeeves shimmers into the presence on Christmas morning in a Santa suit, waking Bertie with a steaming cup and a sonorous “What ho-ho-ho, sir! God bless us, everyone”?

Neither do I. Never happened. As seasons go, Yuletide did not recommend itself to Wodehouse. His favorite carol, he once said, was “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” He tended not to write about Christmas, but around it.

Maybe that’s one reason I find myself binge-reading him as Christmas hoves into view. The whole seasonal ballyhoo, the gift racket in particular, taxes the equilibrium, and Wodehouse has a calming effect, soothes the fevered brow, knits up the ravell’d nerve.

But while the holiday season does not loom large in the Wodehouse oeuvre, one can’t escape it entirely. He couldn’t write ninety-something books and more than two hundred short stories and get off scot-free. In one tale, “Jeeves and the Greasy Bird,” Christmas figures as a plot device, or rather a subplot device (the greasy bird of the title is not a Christmas goose but a crook who’s fond of hair oil).

As the story opens, Bertie sets the festive mood, observing, “we would soon be having Christmas at our throats.” Towards the end, the principal action having been disposed of, the subplot takes centre stage. On a visit to his Aunt Dahlia’s country house, Bertie is blackmailed into playing Santa at her annual party for neighbouring children. The prospect—man goggling in padded suit before gang of young thugs armed with ripe fruit—curdles the Wooster blood and has him quivering like an aspen. Enter the resourceful Jeeves, who not only extracts Bertie from the cast list but lands his arch nemesis, Sir Roderick Glossop, with the role. The Santa gimmick, however, merely affords Wodehouse a satisfactory ending. That story first appeared in a Christmas issue of Playboy, and one suspects that the Yule angle was bunged in as a sop to the editors.

But even in his story “Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit,” which at least has some Y-t S in the title, Christmas is merely an excuse for some frostiness between Bertie and Jeeves. Bertie decides to holiday at home in England, the better to woo his latest love interest, though he’d promised Jeeves they’d go to Monte Carlo. Jeeves’s silence speaks volumes. Bertie argues, “Does one get the Yule-tide spirit at a spot like Monte Carlo?” To which Jeeves responds: “Does one desire the Yule-tide spirit, sir?”

Clearly, we don’t look to Wodehouse for Christmas reading that warms the cockles. But as it happens, we find something better: solid practical advice on gift-giving.

In “Christmas Presents,” an essay written in 1915, Wodehouse makes his case succinctly: “Presents must be bought, and the only thing to do is to try to get off as lightly as possible.” So how is this dodge to be managed? “The first rule in buying Christmas presents,” he writes, “is to select something shiny.” This advice seems puzzling but makes more sense in light of rule number two, which follows: “Select something which shall be capable of being passed on to somebody else.” Aha! Here we have the keystone of the Wodehouse system. Ungenerous? Not in the least! As he says, gift-giving is all about “humaneness and consideration for others.” And what could be more humane, more considerate, than enabling a friend or relative to present a future gift without that expenditure which “it is always so pleasant to avoid”?

While Wodehouse doesn’t explain the “shiny” rule, I get it. A shiny gift is easier to pass on. After a year in the cupboard, it can be buffed to look new. It won’t go bad, like fancy edibles. And one size fits all. If it’s successfully regifted often enough, it may even come back to you, like the “Smoker’s Ideal Companion,” a contraption complete with brass cigar cutter that Wodehouse says he received for Christmas in 1903, gave away in 1904, got back in 1908, regifted in 1909, received for Christmas in 1914 and then forwarded to a pal in Australia, “whither, I feel sure, it has never yet penetrated.”

What a shining (literally) example of the system at work! A loathsome exhibit in itself, the gift moves Wodehouse to “a not unmanly wave of sentiment” each time it reappears on his doorstep, reminding him as it does of the humaneness and consideration of that long chain of givers who’ve neither shelled out for it themselves nor required others to shell out in turn. “Much misery has been caused in an infinite number of homes by the practice of giving presents which cannot be treated in this way,” Wodehouse warns. He does not exaggerate.

A case in point: at the first Christmas following our marriage, my husband and I received a gift that failed to meet the Wodehouse criteria. While it was more loathsome than even the “Smoker’s Ideal Companion,” it was neither shiny nor regiftable. It was sent by distant friends who’d been traveling in Asia and missed the nuptials, so this was both wedding and Christmas gift. It arrived in a big box, surrounded by foam peanuts and layered in tissue paper. As we began peeling away the layers, we were met with an odd smell, musty and a bit smoky. Dust rose from the tissuey depths. Coughing slightly, I opened a window. What eventually emerged was a roundish, globular lump of something that looked like dried mud, about a foot in diameter, flattish on the bottom, with a hole on top.

“What is it?” said Stewart.

“There must be a note,” I said. There was: a small printed card explained that this was a vase of rare black clay, handcrafted by contemporary artisans using 10,000-year-old pottery techniques and fired, unglazed, in an earthen pit. “Bumps and irregularities are part of its natural beauty. Do not wash. Dust with dry cloth.”

I picked it up. Then I put it down. My hands were covered in rare black clay dust. The thing was shedding. A small pool of grit had settled around its base.

“What do we do with it?” said Stewart, fanning the air. “Do we have to keep it? What are the chances they’ll come to visit?”

“Stay calm. We’ll think of something.” Our eyes began to water.

“You know them better than I do,” he said. “Could it be a joke?”

“No, they’re artsy-craftsy types. They probably think it’s gorgeous,” I replied. “Maybe we can just tuck it away somewhere indefinitely. But in the meantime I don’t care what the instructions say, I’m washing it.” I went into the kitchen for apron and gloves.

“How slippery is it?” Stewart asked.

“Not at all, why?”

“Well, when you’re washing it, with your hands soapy and all, you might happen to … um … accidentally drop it.”

We looked at each other for a while.

“That could happen,” I said.

∗ ∗ ∗

[Note. On Dec. 26, 2021, a reader of the blog commented: “I was charmed to listen to Wodehouse’s ‘Jeeves and the Y-t S’ and read your Jeevish derivative, but I was horrified to read that ‘Christmas hoves into view.’ As a sailor, I am familiar with the maneuver in which a ship heaves to, and the subject of your regifting story certainly deserved the old heave-ho, but grammatical misbehavior is a bit Woosterish, don’t you think?”

Pat’s reply: This expression in various forms (“hove/hoves/hoving into view”) is a frequent P. G. Wodehouse usage, comically ungrammatical, as in “the moment we hove in view” (Carry On, Jeeves), “she gave me rather a jaundiced look as I hove in sight” (Right Ho, Jeeves), and “Ginger suddenly hoves into view” (The Adventures of Sally).

The OED says that in modern English, “heaved is now the general form [of the past tense], though hove remains in certain uses.” And according to Oxford Reference, the present-tense use of “hove(s)” is a “common journalistic variant” of the proper “heave(s).” I can’t say that it’s common, but it certainly is identified with Wodehouse and familiar to his fans. I used it humorously for that reason.]

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Categories
Christmas fiction humor Writing

Letter From Barsetshire

[One of our favorite authors, the 20th-century British novelist Angela Thirkell, was not fond of Christmas. In observance of the holiday season, we’re reprinting an essay Pat wrote about her for the December-January issue of the Literary Review in London.]

GOOD GAD!

Patricia T. O’Conner

I’m always reminded of Angela Thirkell as Christmas casts its thick gloom (her word, not mine) upon a weary world. ‘No one has ever yet described with sufficient hatred and venom this Joyous and Festive Season,’ she once wrote. A rector in her Barsetshire novels privately regards the Second World War as ‘little but an intensification of Christmas’. And a mother of four grown sons with delightful families determines ‘to have mild influenza from the middle of December till after the New Year’.

How can you not love a novelist who sees licensed gluttony in the celebratory feasts, naked greed in the joyful faces of little children? These are sentiments that comfort and refresh. As long as we behave well, Thirkell seems to say, we’re free to think the worst of people.

I first read Thirkell in the 1980s as a staff editor at the New York Times Book Review. Publishers were starting to revive her novels in paperback and part of my job was to write a paperbacks column. The day a Thirkell (Pomfret Towers) landed on my desk, I was sucked in. Soon my husband was too. We are still obsessed. We have all twenty-nine of her Barsetshire novels, and whenever a certain longing reaches critical mass we read all twenty-nine again, straight though.

Her attraction is unmistakable but hard to explain to the uninitiated. Reading her, I feel like that lady in the old New Yorker cartoon. She looks up from her book, puts it down, leaves her chair in search of a pencil, returns to her chair, takes up the book and writes, ‘How true!’ in the margin. The characters and situations in these novels are often ridiculous, but they’re utterly true.

Born in 1890, Thirkell wrote thirty-three novels between the 1930s and her death in 1961, most of them set in Barsetshire, the fictional English county she borrowed from Trollope and updated for the 20th century. Many of her families are descended from Trollope’s, with names like Crawley, Gresham, Dale and Palliser (her bishop and bishopess are not Proudies, but they’re just as bad). Trollope’s towns and villages, plus some new ones, surround the county seat, Barchester, where the setting sun still glints on ‘the most beautiful cathedral spire in England’.

This genteel world was familiar territory to Thirkell, who grew up in a home full of art, music and books. Her father, John W Mackail, was a distinguished Scottish classicist and her maternal grandfather was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Rudyard Kipling was a cousin, as was Stanley Baldwin, and her parents’ and grandparents’ circle of friends included William Morris, J M Barrie (her godfather) and many prominent authors, scholars and artists.

Her love for Trollope, she once said, began in childhood when she was ill in bed and her mother read to her from his books. She had other literary loves as well, including Scott, Austen, Tennyson, Thackeray and, particularly, Dickens, because, she said, he made her laugh. But she found Russian novels so dull that ‘they make me squint’.

As for sex, her characters don’t have it – at least not on the page. But she sneaks it in through the back door. Public school boys who torment their teachers are ‘master-baiters’. Moviegoers flock to the Barchester Odeon to see their favourite star, Glamora Tudor, in steamy productions like Burning Flesh, Honka Tonka Bodyline, One Night in the Vatican and the astonishingly titled Legs Round Your Neck. (Glamora’s hunky leading men are invariably Americans, with names like Hash Gobbett, Hake Codman and Croke Scumper.)

Two of Thirkell’s funniest and most shrewdly drawn characters are a lesbian couple who appear in many of the novels and are at the centre of village social life. The dashing Miss Hampton, always in an elegantly tailored coat and skirt and carrying a long cigarette holder, writes pornographic novels with titles like Chariots of Desire (about the sex lives of lorry drivers) and Temptation at St Anthony’s (set in a boys’ school), a selection of the Banned Book of the Month Club. Always in search of fresh material, Miss Hampton grills new acquaintances about their occupations: ‘Much vice?’

She’s helped in her research by the plumper and messier Miss Bent, who dresses in shapeless frocks accessorised with strings of clanking beads. Miss Bent tells their new neighbour, a rear admiral, ‘I would like to pick your brains about the lower deck’, and boasts of a forthcoming book, ‘It will be strong meat. Can England take it?’ At the close of a drinks party, of which they host a great many, the two excuse themselves on the grounds that Miss Hampton was up late the previous night, finishing a book. Miss Bent explains, ‘Hampton does plunge so in bed when she is Writing.’

Gay men also appear, but they’re treated with less affection. While the two women are accepted matter-of-factly, nobody can stand Fritz Gissing, ‘a totally unworthy object’ who does petit point and ‘ought to be in the Army’. Then there’s Lionel Harvest, a conceited BBC announcer who ‘reads Coventry Patmore quite perfectly’ on the air. ‘Queer boy, Lionel,’ one mother comments. ‘I’d let my girls go out with him, but I don’t know that I’d let my boys.’

For the 21st-century reader, political incorrectness and racial insensitivity stick out all over. A recurring character is ‘the village idiot, a person without whom no village is complete’. A common theme is illegitimacy among the lower classes, who cheerfully produce ‘children of shame’ at regular intervals. And an offstage character is an African princeling, newly graduated from Balliol, who returns to Mngangaland and ritually slays scores of relations ‘to the tune of the Eton Boating Song, with an accompaniment of native drums’.

But Thirkell was a product of her time and her class. For her there are no sacred cows, barring those that win ribbons at the Barchester Agricultural. Despite her Argyll heritage, she satirises Scotland. A Scot visiting Barsetshire says his family seat, Aberdeathly, lies ‘on the slopes of Ben Gaunt, just above Loch Gloom, and about ten miles by road from Inverdreary’. Not even religion is out of bounds. One of her vicars is appointed the head of St Ælla’s Home for Stiff-Necked Clergy, named after a ‘rude Saxon swineherd’ who was martyred for refusing to feed and water his pigs during Lent.

Thirkell often uses crotchety old men to puncture literary and artistic pretensions. Notable among them is Lord Stoke, who still drives a dog cart in the 1950s, remembers the Army and Navy Stores when it ‘was the Army and Navy Stores’ and is immune to literature that postdates Dickens (Trollope, of course, doesn’t exist in Barsetshire). When a lady says over tea, ‘There is one of Thomas Hardy’s depressing little contes –’ Lord Stoke interrupts: ‘Thomas Who? Never heard of the feller. And what’s a cont? Never heard of one.’ When occasion arises, curmudgeonly types actually say ‘Pah!’ and ‘Bah!’ and ‘Tut, tut’ and ‘Good Gad!’

Thirkell delights in skewering her characters’ obsessions – Icelandic sagas, drains, Roman ruins, dubious Viking remains, 12th-century Provençal verse, birdwatching and the propagation of rare and hideous plants. Scholars, too, come in for their share of gentle mockery. They’re deep into critical studies of Fluvius Minucius, the analects of Procrastinator, or Hippocampus, a sixth-century bishop of Rhinoceros. One donnish young man is writing a book about the Reverend Thomas Bohun, a 17th-century canon of Barchester who wrote ‘a number of very erotic poems’, including To his Mistrefs, on feeing fundrie Worme-Caftes.

One of Thirkell’s charms is her tendency to divagate. She took an unusually long time to write a particular passage, she says, because it was composed ‘with frequent intervals to look out of the window and watch the workmen painting the house opposite a most revolting shade of shrimp-gamboge’.

Thirkell had no illusions that her books were Great Literature. She freely admitted that she wrote ‘nice’ middlebrow novels solely to make a living and educate her son, the youngest of three resulting from two disastrous marriages. ‘I expect to write the same book every year until I die,’ she said. But in the process she recorded, in real time, a social history of England in the mid-20th century and chronicled the seismic upheavals that forever changed a people, a landscape, a culture.

She often expressed great affection for her ‘Cloud-Cuckoo-Land’ and its inhabitants. In an introduction to a 1958 edition of Trollope’s Barchester Towers, she wrote, ‘I have loved Barsetshire now for more than fifty years. I should like to think that it waits for me somewhere, with all the old friends alive and as they were.’ As this grim year draws to a close, a year Thirkell would have called ‘too foully dispiriting,’ it’s time I booked a return ticket to Barsetshire.

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