Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Posts Tagged ‘medieval England’

Jailbird

Posted by Admin on December 3, 2010

A prisoner, an inmate, a convict, an habitual criminal, someone with more than one experience of prison as an inmate and not as a guard or warden, a lifer, a felon.

The original spelling of the word jail is gaol and so one must hunt down the term “gaol-bird” to see how far back the term goes. Once we begin searching for the term “gaol-bird” a number of published references show up.

The New Zealand Tablet published a news story on February 1, 1900 entitled “Slattery and His Bogus Ex-Nun” where it reported that:

“[the scam] was inaugurated by two lewd creatures who had never been members of the Church whose alleged enormities they professed to disclose.  The male partner in the conspiracy was a low roué; his inevitable female companion was a thief, gaol-bird and prostitute.”

In the Daily Southern Cross published on March 4, 1871 an article entitled “Gaol Life at Mount Eden” and it reported:

“Instead of emptying the rubbish in the usual corner, [the inmate, Wilson] marched straight with his load to the authorities of the gaol, placing it at the feet of the chief warder, Mr. O’Brien …Wilson made a rush for the door, in his impetuosity, knocking over Warder Young, who happened to be stationed just outside … [the inmate, Wilson] whiningly pleaded the excuse that it was all meant for a “lark;” but the authorities could not see the point to the joke, and the “gaol bird” that so much desired to be like a “lark” was put under stricter surveillance — orders being issued to the sub-warders to keep an eye on him, and so prevent such propensities to sly amusement in the future.”

In the Southland Times, the June 11, 1982 publication carried a news story dated March 6, 1872 that stated:

“Jules Favré asserts that a deputation from Lyons awaited on him, whose mandat impératif was that no deputy should be elected unless he avowed and signed himself an atheist!  It was a sad mistake to make patriots of the inmates of the prisons — 20,000 gaol birds in the army of Paris!”

The origin of the word jailbird — or rather gaol bird — can be traced back at least to medieval England, where convicts were oftentimes locked in iron cages that were then suspended several feet above the ground.  Visible to passersby, it was strongly suggested by those in charge that the passersby refer to them as jailbirds (gaol birds) since the suspended iron cages somewhat resembled bird cages.

The earliest published mention of prisoners as gaol birds that I could find dates back to the Spanish Inquisition where records show that in 1647, a gaol-bird imprisoned in Valladolid provided information to his jailers of an alleged secret congregation in Cuidad Real.  He claimed that the leader of the alleged secret congregation was the Paymaster of the army on the Portuguese frontier.  The informant’s hope was that this information would be enough to have him released from prison.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Jack Of All Trades

Posted by Admin on August 3, 2010

The phrase “Jack of all trade, master of none” has been around for quite some time and still finds its way into conversations even today.   It’s an interesting phrase without a doubt that hails from the 18th Century.

Port Folio was a Philadelphia literary and political magazine, published from 1801 to 1812 by Joseph Dennie and Asbury Dickens.  In Port Folio 1.38, one of the journalists wrote:

… a Jack of all trades is good at none.

But like other idioms at Idiomation, the first reference found isn’t always the first published reference for an idiom. 

In 1704, the Boston News-Letter made its debut, “Printed by Authority,” and publication continued for 72 more years. It was the first true newspaper published in Boston, and in the colonies. The initial issue bore the date of April 24, 1704.  It was published by John Campbel, postmaster of Boston, and son of Duncan Campbel, the organizer of the Postal System in America.

In 1721, that phrase — with minor changes — was used in an article in one of their newspapers:

Jack of all trades and it would seem, good at none.

The phrase came from England, however.  The phrase appeared in Geffray Mynshul’s book Essays and Characters of a Prison written in 1612 and published in 1618:

Jack of all trades, master of none, though ofttimes better than master of one.

 However, with one more jump we learn that in 14th Century Medieval England, where Jack was any common fellow and so a jack of all trades was a common fellow who could do many different jobs.

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Choke

Posted by Admin on April 21, 2010

Whether at a sports match or in a serious life situation, sometimes the front runner chokes and loses to his or her opponent.  Since no one is literally choking, the word must be part of a longer idiom.  And so it is.

In medieval England, when an individual was accused of a crime, he or she was given a piece of cheese and consecrated bread to eat to prove guilt or innocence.  If the individual was guilty, he would choke on the bread when the Angel Gabriel came down from Heaven to stop his or her throat.  Surely an innocent man (or woman) would be the winner and not choke when put to the test!

Thus the oath many would utter was, “May I choke if this is not true.”  Over the years, only the word choke remains of the idiom.

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »