22 September 2016

Gleanings from The Pickwick Papers

I've recently returned from a four day trip, during which I had time finally to read the 900 pages of my paperback copy of Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.  I have kept that book on my shelf since the 1960s, primarily to be able to cite the many references to Joe ("the fat boy") as an example of obstructive sleep apnea.   It's quite a remarkable first novel, written at age only 24 (am I the only person who reflexly pictures Dickens as an old man, even though he didn't start out so?)  I'll defer the sleep apnea references for now in order to share some other observations from the book.

The etymology of "fall" as a season seems intuitive, but I've never seen the term fleshed out in full detail like this:
"My uncle's great journey was in the fall of the leaf, at which time he collected debts..." (from "the story of the bagman's uncle" in chapter 49).
The term reportedly came to denote the season in 16th century England, as a contraction of Middle English expressions such as "fall of the leaf."

This was the first time I've seen the word "fellow" used as an insult (chapter 15):
"And if any further ground of objection be wanting," continued Mr. PIckwick, "you are too fat, sir."
"Sir," said Mr. Tupman, his face suffused with a crimson glow, "this is an insult."
"Sir," replied Mr. Pickwick in the same tone, "it is not half the insult to you that your appearance in my presence in a green velvet jacket with a two-inch tail would be to me."
"Sir," said Mr. Tupman, "you're a fellow."
"Sir," said Mr. Pickwick, "you're another!"
Mr. Tupman advanced a step or two and glared at Mr. Pickwick.  Mr. Pickwick returned the glare...
One dictionary lists this as a secondary definition: "A man without good breeding or worth; an ignoble or mean man."

The phrase "... man is fire and woman tow" implies that "tow" is flammable material.  I found it listed as a secondary meaning: "An untwisted bundle of fibers such as cellulose acetate, flax, hemp or jute.

Other new words (for me):

Conversable    disposed to converse; sociable.
Wharfinger    the owner or manager of a wharf.
Chummage    payment made by prisoner to induce roommate to vacate a shared cell.
Jorum        large vessel for drinking usually alcoholic beverages (cf. jeroboam, jar).
Pipkin        three legged cooking pot of earthenware or metal.
Srub         alternative form of “shrub” = a drink of fruit juice and spirits (<shrub=liquor).
Somerset      somersault (<French somber (“over”) + salt (“jump”)).
Rampacious    rampageous (<rampage, orig Scottish); violent and boisterous.
Imperence     colloquial form of impertinence.
blucher       leather half-boot or high shoe (from Prussian Field-Marshal von Blucher).

Embedded image scanned by Philip V. Allingham and posted at The Victorian Web.


  1. I wonder if that's the same "tow" as "towhead"

  2. Interesting. I have heard the word "somerset" used a lot instead of somersault. I had thought it was simply a colloquialism of the Deep South.

  3. I wonder if that's the same Blucher in Frau Blucher ;)

  4. There are a couple types of drinks called "shrubs". In fact with the so called foodie crowd the drinking vinegar type has had something of a renaissance recently.

  5. To rocky: I think it probably is. I'm familiar with the word "tow" from flax processing - it refers to the short fibers removed when flax is heckled (combed), leaving you with the long fibers best for spinning. Flaxen-haired <==> towheaded

    -Jean K.

    1. And a new usage for "heckle" - excellent.

      "Transferred usage of hekelen ‎(“to comb flax or hemp with a heckle”), from Middle English hekele ‎(“a comb for flax or hemp”), from Middle Dutch hekelen ‎(“to prickle, irritate”), from Proto-Germanic *hakilōną. Related to hackle."

      With an obvious connection to the conventional use of "heckle."

      You learn something every day.

    2. Definitely related. See also touw, the Dutch word for "rope".

    3. Interesting that we tow broken-down vehicles with a tow-rope, but in other contexts it's just rope.
      cheers another phil

  6. From "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" on The Beatles' album "Sgt. Pepper": "...will demonstrate ten somersets he'll undertake on solid ground...".

  7. In Ukrainian, most of the month names are descriptive of the weather or nature events that take place in that month.

  8. Gable: "Your hair always been that color?"
    Harlow: "Uh huh. Always been a towhead."
    -- "Red Dust"

  9. you can find the PP as an ebook: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54pp/index.html those guys have nicer versions of ebooks than other sites.


  10. Hi,
    I guess we think of Dickens as an old man as prior to photography you would have to pay a portrait painter, and that would only happen once you had spare money, or were famous - usually later in life.

    In the UK we always use the word autumn, rather than fall.
    cheers another phil

  11. Hi - I am the author of the novel Death and Mr Pickwick, published by Random House in 2015, which tells the story behind the creation of The Pickwick Papers. One of my fans has drawn my attention to this blog post of yours, and so I have posted the link to it on my novel's facebook page www.facebook.com/deathandmrpickwick I do hope you will check out Death and Mr Pickwick, if you get a chance. All the best Stephen Jarvis


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