Fishing in the market

by Gemma Bardsley

by Gemma Bardsley,

Once a general market which probably sprung up in the 13th century, Billingsgate became a fish market in the 17th century.  In Old English, “Billingesgate” refered to the gate of or belonging to the man named Billings, and may have been a gap (gate) in a Roman wall along the river.  Perhaps Billings fished the river and brought his catch up through the gap to hawk it to passersby!  Who knows?

But of what interest is a market to a word nerd?  Well, because the market was once known for the foul, coarse language of the fishmongers who sold their wares in the market, the name of that market has become synonymous with such language.  According to, billingsgate is a noun from:

         1670s, the kind of coarse, abusive language once used by women in the Billingsgate market on the River Thames below London Bridge.

Billingsgate is the market where the fishwomen assemble to purchase fish; and where, in their dealings and disputes they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand. [“Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” 1811]

And in case you think it doesn’t get bandied about any longer, here is a quote I found from a 2008 newspaper article:

“Kitty Warren is articulate when needed but when threatened or challenged, guttersnipe dialect and billingsgate dominate.”
Ted Hadley; Shaw Play Masterfully Tackles Taboo Topics; Buffalo News (New York); Jul 25, 2008

This tendency of the fishwomen of Billingsgate to use such language also gave rise to the word “fishwife,” a coarse, vulgar woman, likely to outswear a sailor!

So the next time you are in the market for fish, do mind your tongue!






He was, as found in Wikipedia, the “first international animal superstar, and the first African elephant to reach modern Europe alive,” and the largest elephant in captivity!  He was a constant attention-getter wherever he appeared, and caused worldwide mourning when he was killed in a railroad accident.  He was Jumbo, born in East Africa, travelling all over Europe, and finally ending up as part of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth.’  But..

He also added to our modern day lexicon!  Because of his size and the furor, the fads, the attention he garnered during his lifetime and after, his name, Jumbo, became symonmous with huge, enormous, gigantic, etc.! So, the next time you’re asked if you want the jumbo size at your fast-food place, remember who started it all!


Gerrymandering for all you’re worth

In this most contentious of times (which unfortunately repeats itself every 4 years!) I remembered an odd word from middle school/high school history classes.  While I remembered that it had to due with redrawing voting district boundaries, often in an attempt to weight the outcome in favor of one party or the other, and that is was a take on someone’s name, I didn’t remember much else.  SOOO, hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to Wikipedia for answers!



Here’s what it had to say:

The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on 26 March 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced /ˈɡɛri/; 1744–1814). In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.[1]

The original gerrymander, and original 1812 gerrymander cartoon, depict the Essex South state senatorial district for the legislature of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.[2]

Now, that must have been some election!


Byron breaks the ice

‘T is the whole spirit brought to a quintessence;frozenriver
And thus the chilliest aspects may concentre
A hidden nectar under a cold presence.
And such are many — though I only meant her
From whom I now deduce these moral lessons,
On which the Muse has always sought to enter.
And your cold people are beyond all price,
When once you have broken their confounded ice.

Who knew that a phrase as common as ‘breaking the ice’ had such literary origins?  The first general use of this phrase is attributed to George Gordon, Lord Byron, in his epic, unfinished poem Don Juan. (Canto XIII, Stanza XXXVIII) The gist of this section of the poem concerns a woman and her husband who have received Don Juan at their English house party, and which Byron  “sees this whole party as English ennui.” (Wikipedia)

So what does it mean in general usage?  According to, it has the following meanings:

(1) to relax a tense or formal atmosphere or social situation; (2) to make a start on some endeavor.

This came into general use, in sense (1), in English through Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” (1823) in the lines:

And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you’ve broken their confounded ice.
The ice in question is metaphorically that on a river or lake in early spring. To break the ice would be to allow boats to pass, marking the beginning of the season’s activity after the winter freeze. In this way, this expression has been connected to the start of enterprise for about 400 years.

So the next time you meet a group of people you don’t know well, start the enterprisebreak the ice, but don’t fall in the river! You might freeze to death!

George Gordon, Lord Byron

George Gordon, Lord Byron

Staying dry can land you in hot water!

The Shambles, York

In a vain attempt to stay dry, he pressed close to the house, thankful for the wider than usual overhang. Sounds from the street mingled with those from inside the building in a cacophony of noise.  Suddenly a brawny hand clamped down on his shoulder.

“‘Ere, now. Spyin’, are ye? I’ll ‘ave the law on ye now!”

Imagine our poor hero’s surprise to find himself on the wrong side of the law just for trying to get out if the rain! But, considering the building methods back when our story takes place, it’s easy to see, or rather, hear, that conversations inside would easily be heard through the thin walls and floors. Accirding to OxfordDictionarires, ‘eavesdrop’ came into the current usage in the 17th century, having originally meant ‘the water dropping from the eaves (overhang) of a building.’

ListVerse gives the following description of the change in meaning:

“Before the invention of guttering roofs were made with wide eaves, overhangs, so that rain water would fall away from the house to stop the walls and foundations being damaged. This area was known as the eavesdrop. The large overhang gave good cover for those who wished to lurk in shadows and listen to others’ conversations. Since the area under the eaves was considered part of the householder’s property you could be fined under Anglo-Saxon law for being under the eaves with the intention of spying.”

So the next time you duck under the eaves, make sure you’re wearing earplugs!