W.S. Gilbert was a master of the English language. His verses flow in rhythmic cadences that smoothed Sullivan’s task of generating suitable scores. Gilbert had an enormous vocabulary, and we have good reason to believe that he was in love with words. Above all, he had every right to be in love with his own words. He toiled over his librettos and he wanted his audiences to hear, to understand, and to laugh at what he had to say. That is why I am sure that Gilbert would approve of this book: a lexicon specifically tailored to help his admirers appreciate his skillful manipulation of the language.
Semanticists warn that a word is a poor substitute for a thought, especially as passing years, cultural differences, and geographic distances effect their “silent alchemy.” As a result, and I may as well confess it here, there are probably at least a few booby traps I have missed altogether — words that have quite different meanings on the two sides of the Atlantic. I happened to discover enough to make me suspicious that there might be more. For example, until I undertook this task I had assumed that the lady from the provinces who dresses like a guy was one who wore men’s clothing. I had pictured mustard and cress as a jar of mustard and a dish of watercress; and I always assumed that the coster who jumped on his mother was an accoster (i.e., a hold-up man). I know better now and so will you after you have gone through this book.
Although Gilbert generally aimed to amuse his listeners with easily caught wit, there are many cases where the humor is in the phonetics rather than in the meaning. In such instances, hanging too heavily on word definitions will simply obscure the thought. I try to warn you when that is the case. In other instances Gilbert exhibits a penchant for incongruous combinations: “semi-despondent fury” and “modified rapture” are two examples. Again, precise meanings are not called for and only tend to spoil the fun.
Several older Gilbert and Sullivan glossaries, dictionaries, and concordances were available during my studies, and I acknowledge my thorough browsings therein. I have, however, tried as much as possible to make this effort independent of those earlier works. Nearly all of them were aimed at English, rather than American, audiences. As a result, the earlier publications frequently omitted terms that Americans need to have explained. Moreover, there are several cases where my research convinces me that the older publications contain mistakes.
One must admit, of course, that no amount of research can uncover all of Gilbert’s meanings. Where multiple interpretations seem possible, I call them to your attention — and, where necessary to make a choice, I usually recall Occam’s razor and go for the simple version. (Remember, Gilbert wanted you to catch on.) In a paper presented before the Popular Culture Association Meeting on April 23, 1976, Professor Earl F. Bargainnier made this pertinent observation:
Gilbert was a popular writer, and he was never ashamed of that fact. He wanted to entertain his audiences, not to uplift them. In an interview in 1895, he said, “I am not ambitious to write up to epicurean tastes, but contented to write down to everybody’s comprehension. For instance, when I am writing, I imagine it is for one particularly dull individual not quick to grasp an idea; so I make nothing long and explanatory, but short, sharp, and clear.” (The internal quotation is from an article by Joseph Anderson in the January 18, 1895, issue of the Boston Transcript.)
As one who has had no little difficulty in dredging up some of Gilbert’s meanings, I must comment that he may have overstated himself in claiming to write for “one particularly dull individual.” Nevertheless, his claim is one to keep in mind whenever we may be tempted to read some obscure meaning into his words.
The terms in this lexicon are arranged in their written order. That is, the book contains one chapter for each opera, with those chapters placed in the sequence in which the operas were written, while the individual entries are listed in the order in which they first appear in the libretto. The only exceptions are Burnand and Sullivan’s Cox and Box, and Stephenson and Sullivan’s The Zoo, which tag along at the end as encore numbers. I believe the sequence I have used will make it easy for you to seek out any given term in the libretto and to make the context more evident, much as in a concordance. Having distaste for footnotes and appendices, I have chosen to clutter my definitions with various elaborations. All references are collected in a single list on a separate tab. In place of an Index, the Online Edition allows you to search for any term or part of a term. The Search box is particularly valuable for those readers who may be curious about a term but have no idea where it may occur within the canon. Please note that the lexicon includes terms from the stage directions as well as from the lines themselves.
I believe I can justly claim that what follows is a scholarly exposition. My background studies have been exhaustive, I have subjected my manuscripts to the scrutiny of real experts in the Gilbert and Sullivan world, and I have carefully cited my many sources of information. The work is not pedantic, however, in that it avoids turgid prose. Indeed, like Bunthorne, I have endeavored to blend amusement with instruction. (And be warned, in some instances I have written with tongue in cheek.) As Jack Point so wisely said:
When they’re offered to the world in merry guise,
Unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will—
For he who’d make his fellow-creatures wise
Should always gild the philosophic pill!
The several published versions of the operas are not altogether uniform. My principal source was the Oxford University Press two-volume set called The Savoy Operas (1962 and 1963). I have, however, drawn on several other versions so as to include many verses or spoken lines that happen to be omitted in the Oxford set.
So here they are: some twenty six hundred words or phrases that should help you better understand and appreciate the unique and pleasurable genius of Sir William S. Gilbert, extraordinary gilder of the philosophic pill.