Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for HMS Pinafore

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Act II

Regent [Bright regent of the heavens]

An acting ruler.

Sixes or sevens [why is everything either at sixes or at sevens?]

The origin of this phrase (more commonly “sixes and sevens”) is obscure. It applies to a state of confusion; or of persons, unable to come to an agreement. Brewer (55) says the phrase comes from dicing. Another explanation proposes that the term arose from the ranking in importance of medieval guilds in London. The tailors and the skinners had equal claims to sixth rank in annual processions. To compromise the conflict they agreed to switch sixth and seventh places each year. The expression has been found in literature dating about as far back as 1340 (115).

Court martial

In this case a gathering of naval officers convened for the trial of a person charged with violating naval law. (We think Sir Joseph is bluffing.)

Staunch [you are staunch to me]

Pronunciation: Rhymes with launch.

Firm, constant, loyal, true, and trustworthy –– like a Boy Scout.

Fain [I would fain see you smile]


Aloof [You hold aloof from me]

The term means to maintain a distance, and is derived from a nautical expression meaning to stay upwind (56).

Highlows [Highlows pass as patent leathers]

Highlows are variously described as high shoes reaching over the ankles, and as low boots. In the present context we can take them as being workaday shoes.

Jackdaws [Jackdaws strut in peacock feathers]

Walters (301), who is an ornithologist as well as a Savoyard, explains that jackdaw is “the English name for Corvus monedula, a small species of crow. The allusion is to Aesop’s fable of the jackdaw who dressed himself in peacock feathers to appear better than he really was, and was rejected both by his own kind and those whom he sought to emulate.”

Logs [Storks turn out to be but logs]

Brewer (54) reminds us that this alludes to Aesop’s fable of King Log and King Stork (1, 2). In the story, some frogs asked Jupiter to give them a king. Jupiter responded by throwing a log in the water. The frogs didn’t admire the log’s style and asked Jupiter for a more active leader. The replacement was a stork, who proceeded to eat his subjects. Moral: be satisfied with a passive ruler.

Bulls [Bulls are but inflated frogs]

This pertains to Aesop’s fable of the frog and the ox (8, 170). In the story a mother frog wants to impress her children by making herself as big as an ox that is grazing nearby. She puffs herself up beyond the bursting point, and the story comes to a sudden climactic and tragic denouement: Pop!

Drops the wind and stops the mill

The windmill will stop when the wind dies. I presume, this is another hint to the captain that he may be in for a change, and not for the better.

Turbot and brill [Turbot is ambitious brill]

Turbot and brill are related varieties of flatfish. The turbot, however, is a distinctly bigger and tastier fish, and more fashionable. One serves turbot at dinner parties but (horrors!) never brill. Knight (177) mentions that brill have scales while turbot do not.

Farthing [Gild the farthing if you will]

A British coin of minimum value, withdrawn from circulation in 1960 (294), it was worth a quarter of a penny (under the old system). “Farthing” means one fourth (56). Bosdêt (43) states that gilding a farthing was a common method of deceiving foreigners and drunks since, if well done, it could easily pass for half a sovereign.


An equivocal pronouncement. See also The Sorcerer.

Once a cat was killed by care

From an old expression, “Hang sorrow –– care’ll kill a cat.” Brewer (54) ascribes this to Ben Jonson’s Everyman in His Humour (a play produced in 1598). There’s a moral: Although a cat has nine lives, care can wear all of them out.

Wink [Wink is often good as nod]

Brewer (54) cites the proverb, “A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.” This can be taken to mean a hint is useless if the other party does not catch on.

Spoils the child who spares the rod

From the Biblical injunction, “He that spareth the rod hateth his son,” or the more recent, but now unfashionable “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Lambs [Thirsty lambs run foxy dangers]

This brings to mind Aesop’s fable of the lamb who was accosted by a wolf while drinking from a stream. The story ends with the wolf eating the lamb (8, 170). Captain Corcoran is such a ganglion of irreconcilable antagonisms at this point that he can’t tell fox from wolf.

Dogs are found in many mangers

This alludes to Aesop’s fable about the dog who insisted on napping in the straw that was intended for the ox’s meal. The disappointed ox observed that people sometimes begrudge to others what they cannot themselves enjoy.

Paw of cat the chestnut snatches

This alludes to the ancient fable about the monkey who persuaded a cat to pull chestnuts from the fire. The cat burned his paw in so doing, while the monkey ran away and ate the nuts. The term “catspaw” has come to mean someone who is used for another’s benefit.