Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for HMS Pinafore

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Act II

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A British coin of minimum value, withdrawn from circulation in 1960 (294), it was worth a quarter of a penny (under the old system).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.

Worn out garments show new patches

Knight (177) recalls the Biblical saying, “No man putteth a piece of new cloth into an old garment.”

Only count the chick that hatches

This is from the ancient advice about not counting chickens before they’re hatched. Evans (113) says the expression is derived from one of Aesop’s fables, although there is also the possibility that the fable was derived from the advice.

Catchy-catchies [Men are grown-up catchy-catchies]

After mouthing a string of platitudes, Corcoran uncorks this mystic expression. Some authorities (21, 149, 286) hypothesize that the term refers to babes in arms. (That’s what you say when you toss the kid up and catch him, we hope.) Rees (251) ventures the opinion that the term is derived from what you say when you tickle a baby under the chin: “Kitchi-kitchi.” Halton’s guess is that the allusion is to a game of tag (147), while Walmisley (299) and Dunn (100) hedge their bets and suggest either alternative. Let’s just say men are nothing but oversized kids.

Gilbert’s note [Captain/Buttercup duet]

In his children’s version (132) Gilbert follows the Captain/Buttercup duet with this comment:

Captain Corcoran –– though very uneasy at her portentous utterance –– was rather disposed to pat himself on the back for having tackled her on her own ground in the matter of stringing rhymes, and (as he thought) beaten her at it. But, in this he was wrong, for if you compare her lines with his, you will see that whereas her lines dealt exclusively with people and things who were not so important as they thought themselves to be, his lines were merely chopped-up proverbs that had nothing to do with each other or with anything else.

Dissemble [I’ll dissemble]

The OED (229) defines dissemble as “To alter or disguise the semblance (of one’s character, a feeling, design or action) so as to conceal, or deceive as to, its real nature.” I have heard it argued, however, that it should be defined in the narrower sense of pretending that some fact is not true; the opposite, to feign, is to pretend that something is true when it is not. For example, Buttercup is dissembling when she hides what she knows about the captain’s babyhood: Sir Joseph is feigning when he pretends to be of exalted birth. (That he started his career sweeping floors and polishing handles reveals his humble origins.)

Creep on apace [The hours creep on apace]

Gilbert has fed Josephine an oxymoron to deliver. The OED (229) defines creep thus: “To move softly, cautiously, timorously or slowly; to move quietly and stealthily so as to elude observation; to steal.” It defines apace as “With speed; swiftly, quickly, fast.” Consider her extreme youth and forgive her.

“Blue and white” [“Blue and white” Venetian finger glasses]

This presumably refers to the oriental ceramics that were then all the rage in England. But where do “Venetian finger glasses” come in? They were more likely to be red or orange. Stedman (274) and Walters (302) believe there should be a comma after “blue and white.” I think they are right.


Finger bowls (for rinsing fingers after a meal).

Gillow’s [And everything that isn’t old, from Gillow’s]

A smart London store for furniture and gewgaws. Walters (301) adds that the store is now named Waring and Gillow.

Pudding basin [dinner served up in a pudding basin]

This implies that family members will not eat off individual plates, but will convey food directly from a communal basin to their mouths exactly the way Chekov describes the everyday life of Russian peasants (73). Irish peasants ate that way as well (89).

Brown right hand

This implies an outdoor life indicative of lower class working conditions.

Organs [Where organs yell]

Josephine is complaining about the loud, incessant, and crude decibels arising from a grind organ (sometimes called a barrel organ). For an illustration see the entry for “Organ boys” in Princess Ida.

Lordship [Though his lordship’s station’s mighty]

Sir Joseph was First Lord of the Admiralty, a political appointment (245). One must not assume that he was a peer of the realm. He would not be correctly addressed as Lord Porter, or even Lord Porter, K.C.B. Being a social climber, however, he probably did nothing to discourage people from committing that solecism.

Jurisdiction [I admit the jurisdiction]

The bounds of legal authority.

Elysian [The prospect is Elysian]

Delightful. Elysium was the Greek equivalent of Heaven, where “the shades of the virtuous lived a life of passive blessedness” (75).


A whip made of nine lead-tipped leather thongs joined at a handle. The traditional persuader of the British navy, it was abolished in the Royal Navy in 1879 (201). Bosdêt (43) says the expression “not room enough to swing a cat” refers not to a real cat, but to a cat-o’-nine tails. Brewer, in the 1895 edition (55), says it refers to a once-popular sport of swinging cats by their tails. In the 1970 edition, however, the cat-o’-nine tails version is favored (42). In short, we really don’t know. Forgive this digression.

Boat cloak

A long cloak worn by ships’ officers.

Pull ashore

Means to pull on the oars and row ashore

Hymen [Hymen will defray the fare]

The Greek god of marriage and nuptial solemnities (75).


Cover the cost.