Daily Express, Wednesday, October 28, 1903
(By P. G. Wodehouse)
On the fore-top-gallant spanker
Of a first-class cruiser’s anchor, 1
Sat a handy-man of Plymouth, 2
And he warbled “John Bull’s Store.” 3
With a face like a tomato
He had reached the pizzicato, 4
When a parrot, perched beside him,
Said “Your food will cost you more.”
the tar in keen derision 5
(After praying that his vision
Might be totally destroyed) “I 5a
Never heard the like before.
Can’t a gentleman start singing,
If he likes, without a-bringing
Bloomin’ parrots down upon him
With their ‘Food will cost you more’?
my timbers! Tack to starboard!
Blow my dickey! Luff to Larboard!” 6
(I can’t quote him in extenso, 7
For I grieve to say he swore);
And the bird, in consternation,
At the close of the oration
Very slowly answered, “Well—I’m—
I mean—‘Food will cost you more’!”
This poem employs genuine nautical terms in a nonsense fashion. The fore top-gallant is one of the top sails on the foremast of a square-rigged sailing ship, while the spanker is a sail, often triangular in shape, that is set at the bottom of the mizzen (or rearmost) mast: the two sails are thus at diagonally opposite ends of the vessel. And neither has any connection with the anchor.2
While the term ‘handy-man’ is now commonly used to refer to someone who is useful at a variety of odd-jobs, it was also used as a term for a sailor.
Plymouth, in Devon, has long been associated with sailors and the sea: the English fleet that confronted the Spanish Armada in 1588 was based at Plymouth; it was from Plymouth that the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower made their final departure in 1620; and in June 1944 it was an important embarkation point for troops taking part in the Normandy landings.3
“The John Bull Store” was a political song written by B. Fletcher Robinson in mid-1903. It was subsequently set to music by Robert Eden and was given its first public performance on 12 October at the Canterbury music-hall and, later the same evening, at the Alhambra, on both occasions sung by George Whitehead.4
This is another piece of nonsense. In music, the term ‘pizzicato’ refers to the action of plucking the strings of a stringed instrument with the fingers instead of using the bow; it has no relevance to singing.5
‘Tar’ is another nickname for a sailor.5a
In other words, swearing “Blimey!” (“Blind me!”) [NM]6
“Smash my timbers!” is a variant of the more common “Shiver my timbers!”, which is most closely associated with Long John Silver, the pirate in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped. Both “Smash my timbers!” and “Shiver my timbers!” are found in the works of Frederick Marryat. The phrase is used as a mock oath and usually expresses surprise or annoyance.
A ‘dickey’ was a loose linen over-jacket, or flannel smock-frock, worn by waggoners and other workmen; one meaning of ‘blow’ is to “expose, betray, inform upon” (OED), as in ‘blow the gaff’. From this, Jon Bee’s Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-Ton and the Varieties of Life (1823) explains “Blow my dickey!” as expressing the humiliation that would be experienced by someone found to be wearing such an item. An alternative, but similar, explanation may be hinted at in a passage from Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs (1848): “. . . surely we ought to hold as miserable, envious fools, those wretched Beaux Tibbs’s of society, who sport a lace dickey, and nothing besides”—here, a ‘dickey’ is a false shirt front, the wearer of which would presumably not wish to have the fact known. The phrase “Blow my dickey!” occurs in several historical novels by Arthur Conan Doyle (e.g. Rodney Stone, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard and Tales of the Ring and the Camp) and Jeffrey Farnol. It has no close nautical associations.
“Tack to starboard!” is an order to change the sailing direction of a vessel. If the vessel is sailing with the wind angling from left ahead, it is said to be on the port tack. To tack to starboard—that is, to bring the vessel on to the starboard tack (with the wind angling from right ahead)—requires that the bow of the vessel be swung from right to left, this being accomplished by moving the helm (tiller) in the opposite direction, an action initiated by the order “Helm a-lee!”.
Larboard is another word for the port (i.e. left) side of a ship, the opposite of starboard. In a sailing vessel, luffing is the action of bringing the vessel’s head closer to the wind, often in preparation for a tacking manoeuvre. Thus, “Luff to Larboard!” has the same effect as “Tack to starboard!”7
in extenso: Latin, meaning “in full”. The term is used in a legal sense to refer to, say, an article or a case decision that is reprinted in full, not in an abbreviated form.