Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for HMS Pinafore

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Act I

Foremast hand

A common sailor. The term derives from the practice of housing the officers aft (i.e., near the stern) and the common seamen in the forecastle. See drawing of nautical terms.


That part of the upper deck extending from the main mast (near mid-length) to the stern. The officers, being accommodated in the stern, consider the quarterdeck “their” territory. Unlicensed seamen avoid the quarterdeck unless called there in the line of duty. See drawing of nautical terms.

Fore-yard arm [who lays out on the fore-yard arm]

See drawing of nautical terms. Item No. 6 is the fore mast, and Item No. 7 is one of the fore-yard arms: i.e., a yard arm on the fore mast. Sailors must “lay out” on the yards in order to handle the sails. See Item No. 11.

Main-truck [he hoists his flag at the main-truck]

The very top of the main mast –– the highest point of the entire ship, and a suitable place for the highest officer to display his flag. See drawing of nautical terms, Item No. 8.

Hoists … his slacks

In his children’s version (132) Gilbert explains that “hoisting his slacks” means hitching up the waist-band of his trousers to put them in their proper place.

Peer [Though related to a peer]

In general, a nobleman. More specifically, “a member of any of the five degrees of the nobility in Great Britain and Ireland, namely duke, marquis, earl, viscount, and baron” (250). As Asimov (11) observes, when one is related to a peer, one finds ways to work it into the conversation. See also Iolanthe, The Gondoliers, Utopia, Limited, and The Zoo.

Hand [I can hand, reef, and steer]

In this case, hand means to take in and furl a sail. See the OED (228). The expression “hand, reef, and steer” is an old nautical cliché describing the skills required of an able seaman.


Reduce the area of a sail exposed to the wind by partially furling it. Item No. 9 shown on the drawing of nautical terms is an example of a reefed sail.

Ship a selvagee [and ship a selvagee]

Smyth’s Sailor’s Work Book of 1867 defines selvagee as “a strong and pliant hank, or untwisted skein of rope-yarn marled together, and used as a strap to fasten round a shroud or stay, or slings to which to hook a tackle to hoist in any heavy article.” This is as quoted in the OED (228). To ship a selvagee is to place it in working position.

Ancestral timber [That ever blossomed on ancestral timber]

The family tree.

Tackle [She does not seem to tackle kindly to it.]

From the context, the word means take, i.e., accept. The question is how it should be pronounced. I have always heard it pronounced, on stage, to rhyme with shackle. Yet, I wonder. Seamen traditionally pronounce it TAY-kill in “block-and tackle” and similar applications. If Corcoran elects to pronounce it the authentic seagoing way (TAY-kill) the audience will more easily understand the meaning; so why not?

Own [Sad are the sighs that own the spell]



To regard with reverence.

Gilded [Not to some gilded lordling?]

Brewer (54) defines Gilded Youth as “Wealthy and fashionable young men, principally engaged in the pursuit of pleasure.” That seems reasonably close to what Captain Corcoran must have had in mind. In his children’s version (132) Gilbert adds a footnote: “I should have thought he would have liked a gilded lordling, but you never can tell.”

Fie [Oh fie!]

Brewer (56) avers that the exclamation is appropriate when reproving something exceptionally dirty or indecent.

Solecisms [he would commit solecisms that society would never pardon]

Pronunciation: SAHL-eh-sizms

A solecism is a badly worded, ungrammatical expression that may range from the absurd to the vulgar. Or it may mean a breach of etiquette. Again, in his children’s version Gilbert has Corcoran aver, “He would drop his h’s and eat peas with a knife.” Brewer (55) says the word comes from the Greek soloikos, which means to speak incorrectly, and derives from the town of Soloi, the residents of which spoke a debased form of Greek.

Barge [Sir Joseph’s barge is seen]

This would be a large oar-propelled boat with cushions within a wood or canvas shelter in the stern for the honored passenger’s comfort –– and that of his guests.


A deck forming the top of a superstructure in the aft part of a ship. The term is derived from the Latin puppis, meaning the stern of a ship. See drawing of nautical terms Item No. 5.


The original meaning was a boating song of the Venetian gondoliers, but now it means any boating song. Barca is Italian for boat.

Nine-pounders [Bang-bang the loud nine-pounders go]

Cannon firing a nine-pound ball. This was a relatively small cannon, but well suited, as in this case, to firing blanks as a salute. British ships of the period carried batteries of cannon firing balls weighing 9, 18, or 32 pounds (7). But, this brings up the question of to what degree the Royal Navy fired salutes for a civilian bureaucrat such as Sir Joseph. Gilbert, in any event, has given him a “bang-bang” and Sullivan has given him accompanying thumps on the tympani.

Royal N.

The Royal Navy.

Pennants dipping

Pennants are long, narrow streamer-like flags flown at the mast heads of a war ship. Dipping them is a form of courteous salute to an approaching dignitary. See drawing of nautical terms, Item No. 10.

Writs [I served the writs with a smile so bland]

To serve a writ means to deliver a summons ordering a person to appear in court (142). To be effective, a writ must be delivered to the recipient’s hand (60).

Articled clerk

Pronunciation: Make that second word rhyme with bark.

Sketch of Articled clerk

An apprentice who has signed articles of indenture (or covenant) to a law firm. The apprentice is bound to serve for a fixed number of years, during which time he (or she) learns law. Burgess (60) says that at the time the opera was written the articled clerks paid a fee for the privilege, whereas today they are paid a salary.

Pass examination

An examination to be successfully completed before becoming a solicitor (112). The term solicitor is explained in Trial By Jury.


Terry (286) explains that “The Incorporated Law Society’s Hall … was colloquially known as the Law Institute.” Bradley (46) states that the Law Society is the governing body for solicitors and handles the qualifying examinations for entry into the profession. Goodman (140, 141, 142) adds that the Institute is situated in London’s Chancery Lane, No. 113, indeed.

Pocket borough

A borough is a town represented in Parliament (167). A pocket borough was one that was effectively under the voting control of an individual or family. British laws now make the term obsolete.


Chained at the ankles. More broadly: shackled.

Patronize [Don’t patronize them, sir]

Pronunciation: The pat in <em>patronize</em> rhymes with rat.

Assume the air of a superior to one you are addressing.

Smarter [There’s not a smarter topman in the navy]

Ralph isn’t claiming superior intelligence, but he wants to be known as an agile (and probably highly motivated) seaman.