Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Jay

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 9, 2015

Now that Idiomation has tracked down jaywalking, jay driving, and jay town, the matter of what a jay is still remains to be solved!  Thanks to ongoing thorough research, the expression flap a jay cropped up.

To flap a jay is to swindle someone who is easily fooled, where flap means to manage adroitly and turn over … at least that’s according to the “Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant.”   This dictionary was compiled and edited by Albert Barrère (died 1896) — author of “Argot And Slang” — and American humorist and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland (15 August 1824 – 20 March 1903) — author of “The English Gypsies And Their Language” and other novels — and published in 1889.  The book included English, American, and Anglo-Indian slang as well as pidgin English, Gypsy jargon and what Messrs. Barrère and Leland considered to be irregular phraseology.

In the December 19, 1884 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette, warning words of wisdom were shared with readers about jays, not meaning the birds.  In fact, readers were warned of the dangers of larcenists who preyed upon gullible people.

The intending larcenist will strike up a conversation with a likely looking jay in a public conveyance and win his friendship.

While it wasn’t an expression that was used at great length over the generations, it is one that survived intact over the years.

Elizabethan dramatist, poet, and translator George Chapman (1559 – 12 May 1643) influenced the Stoicism movement.  It was his translation of “Homer” that was the standard English version for generations.  And it was Chapman who found himself imprisoned along with Ben Jonson and John Marston in 1605 by order of King James I of Britain because the king found their play, “Eastward, Ho!” offensive to their countrymen.

On November 16, 1632, the play “The Ball” by George Chapman and James Shirley was performed for the first time, licensed by Sir Henry Herbert.  The play centers on Lady Lucina who finds amusement in mocking and ridiculing her unwanted suitors.  The play makes the most of how easily it is to play those who are easily led to believe things that aren’t as they seem, thereby taking advantage of them.  The following happens in Act Two of this play.

LUCINA
You will see me again.  Ha, ha, ha!  Scutilla.

SCUTILLA
Here, madam, almost dead with stifling my laughter.  Why, he’s gone for a licence; you did enjoin him no silence.

LUCINA
I would have ’em all meet, and brag o’ their several hopes, they will not else be sensible, and quit me of their tedious visitation.  Who’s next?  I would the colonel were come, I long to have a bout with him.

SOLOMON
Mr. Bostock, madam.

LUCINA
Retire, and give the jay admittance.

Enter Bostock

BOSTOCK
Madam, I kiss your fair hand.

LUCINA
Oh, Mr. Bostock!

William Shakespeare’s play, “Cymbeline” published in 1623 was set in Ancient Britain and is based on legends that were well-known at the time.  In Shakespeare’s play, Imogen (the daughter of King Cymbeline) runs off and marries Posthumus (who is below her status) instead of Cloten (who is of equal status to Imogen).  Posthumus is exiled to Italy where he meets Iachimo who bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen.  It’s a familiar enough scenario when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays.

In Act III, Scene iv which takes place in the country ner Milford-Haven, a discussion takes place between Piranio and Imogen in which Imogen says:

IMOGEN
    I false! Thy conscience witness: Iachimo,
    Thou didst accuse him of incontinency;
    Thou then look’dst like a villain; now methinks
    Thy favour’s good enough. Some jay of Italy
    Whose mother was her painting, hath betray’d him:
    Poor I am stale, a garment out of fashion;
    And, for I am richer than to hang by the walls,
    I must be ripp’d:–to pieces with me!–O,
    Men’s vows are women’s traitors! All good seeming,
    By thy revolt, O husband, shall be thought
    Put on for villany; not born where’t grows,
    But worn a bait for ladies.

What this shows is that jay in Shakespeare’s play and in George Chapman’s play was a word that was known to their audiences.  This means it is accepted that the word and its associated meaning goes back to at least 1600, and most likely to the mid to late 1500s.

It also seems that the word and the behavior attributed to those who are accused of being jays is related to the European bird, Garrulus glandarinus, which was more commonly known as the jai in Old French from the Late Latin word gaius which means a jay.

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