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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Some odd phrases and their origins

Some of these phrases were extant in the Regency as well as in the Renaissance/Middle ages; some, like ‘currying Favel’ had disappeared and the modern version, ‘currying favour’ had replaced it.  The ‘twinkling of a bedstaff’ had become ‘twinkling of a bedpost’ being no more than an expression used without meaning. My thanks to Brewer’s ‘Phrase and Fable’; an excellent book.

Curry Favel
To curry is to groom a horse, in this case the horse is a centaur named Favel, from one of the many fables of the middle ages, a fourteenth century satire.  Favel symbolises cunning and bestial degradation and to curry this ill natured creature is to murmur flattery or to act in a sycophantic fashion.

Twinkling of a bedstaff
A typical medieval bed was a frame raised on legs, the middle of the bed filled with ropes woven back and forth, which would have been pre-stretched, ie used ropes so they did not stretch and sag but provided some give. Above this would be a tick filled, according to the status of the owner, with hay, straw, flock or down.  The flock would be throwster’s waste, the ends cut away from a loom, or poor quality wool not suitable for weaving, or ends of cloth too small or poor quality to use as patches and shredded.  This palliasse was held in place at the sides of the bed by bedstaffs, which were removable, to allow removal and turning of the mattress, and were also used to beat the mattress as both flock and down are inclined to clump; the removal of an uncomfortable lump in the bed was dealt with in the twinkling of a bedstaff. 

To know a Hawk from a Heronshaw
A Heronshaw [aka harns’aw [Suffolk], heronsew, hernshaw] is the English mangling of the Old French herounçel, a young heron [Chambers English Dictionary and several Medieval cookbooks]; this is obviously a prey animal: the hawk is as obviously a raptor.  To know a hawk from a heronshaw means not to be fooled by the fact that both have feathers and to see further than a specious argument or seeming fact.  Shakespeare’s version is to know a hawk from a a handsaw [Hamlet] suggests that either the word had fallen into disuse with the saying remaining, or it had just become further mangled; note the Suffolk dialect version which could easily be so mangled.  Later reintroduction of the word heronshaw is confused by the ‘shaw’ part [‘strip of wood at edge of field] to define it as a place where herons nest.

The saints go marching in for several phrases:

To follow like a Tantony Pig
St Anthony was patron saint of pigs among other things, and his followers were also hospitallers.  They were customarily gifted the cab pig [runt] of a litter which was permitted to root around freely in towns, and would follow around anyone they thought might feed them. 

Bartholomew poppet [doll]/pig/baby
St Bartholomew’s Fair [24th August and surrounding days, usually a three day fair, later stretching to 2 weeks] was where one might buy many fine goods like dolls usually over-dressed to attract little girls [so no different to Barbie and Sindy then]  leading to a Bartholomew poppet, later baby, later doll, being a term for a tawdry [see below] overdressed woman.   A Bartholomew swine/hog/pig is a very fat person as the swine were fattened for Bartholomew’s Fair.   The later term ‘Bartholomew baby’ for a young, overdressed man superseded its use for a woman.

 A contraction of St Audrey, which name is itself a contraction of the Saxon saint Etheldreda.  Audrey is the name used from the end of the 15th century/beginning of the 16th so the word dates back no further than that. It probably stems from the fashion in the late 17th century of selling cheap lace necklaces at St Audrey’s Fair which have association with the saint who is supposed to have died of a neck tumour [goitre?] as God’s punishment for a youthful addiction to showy necklaces [Bede].


  1. tawdry, of course, is a word that has completely entered the American vocabulary (as in "tawdry affair")...and "currying favour" is something we also use all the time...I'm amused because I didn't associate it with "The Romance of Favel" and so now I've learned something...thanks!!!! But what fascinates me is the way these expressions convey concepts that other idioms---in American, in other languages...whether it's trailing someone for favors and food...or not knowing one thing from another...the interesting thing is the way urge Catholic calendar of saint's days and feasts structured an apprehension of these "overarching insights"--although for this reader, Saint Bartholomew's day will forever be the massacre of Protestants that would shock the world in 1572, and animate Voltaire's fulminations against religious intolerance, centuries later....

    thanks for this analysis,

  2. My computer lost part of my earlier post, but I just wanted to indicate that the author's forthcoming "Poison Pen" novel...the first in her excellent "Felicia and Robin" series, is filled with saints days, and tidbits of sixteenth-century social and political plenty to look forward to, for readers who like a little substance mixed insight eir entertainment!!