Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Mikado

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About the Opera

The Mikado

All friction between Gilbert and Sullivan was dissolved -- at least for a time -- when Gilbert hit on the idea of setting the next opera in Japan, turning his back on topsy-turvydom and the magic lozenge -- also at least for a time. Although the setting was Japanese, the butt of Gilbert's wit was very much English, albeit kimono-clad. Everything about The Mikado fell perfectly into place. The story line is clever, the characters are nicely drawn, the lines are witty, and the music is of enduring beauty and perfectly suited to the words.

The Mikado opened at the Savoy on March 14, 1885, and ran for a record-breaking 672 performances. It remains the most popular of all the Savoy operas and may well claim to be the most-often-performed theatrical work in world history (182).



An honorific title for the emperor of Japan. The word is made up of the Japanese words mi (honorable) and kado (gate -- of the imperial palace) (250). Knight (178) says the term is used in a spiritual, indirect sense, the spiritual emperor being held in such awe that a direct mention of his name would be impossible. More prosaically, we may mention that we have visited two towns that bear the name. One, in Michigan, was founded in 1885 but no official name was assigned until 1888, when the Assistant Postmaster General (apparently a noble G&S fan) chose to name it after the opera. The other, in Saskatchewan (Canada), was founded by expatriate Russian settlers. They chose that name as their way of thumbing their collective nose at the Tsar during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). In Michigan the natives pronounce it "muh KAY doe"; in Saskatchewan they call it "muh CAD oh."


Pronunciation: As set to music, the name is best pronounced yum-YUM in some places and YUM-yum in others.

In his children's version of the story (133) Gilbert gives this tongue-in-cheek translation of his heroine's name: "The full moon of delight which sheds her remarkable beams over a sea of infinite loveliness, thus indicating a glittering path by which she may be approached by those who are willing to brave the perils which necessarily await the daring adventurers who seek to reach her by those means." As Gilbert goes on to remark, still tongue-in-cheek, the Japanese language is exceptionally compact.


Bradley (48) claims that the word has at least 37 meanings in Japanese, depending on how it is pronounced. MacPhail (194) and I, however, have independently concluded that Gilbert probably intended no meaning, but might well have taken inspiration from what was then a widely advertised hair tonic. Von Eckhardt (297) shows a photograph of a London horse-drawn wagon embellished with bold signs reading "Koko for the Hair." Contemporary advertising claimed the tonic would keep hair from turning gray or falling out. Stanley DeOrsey (260) adds that the tonic was made by the Koko-Maricopas Company of London. There are other suggested sources as well. Aurora (15) nominates the character Ko-ko-ri-ko in Offenbach's operetta Ba-ta-clan. Walters (303) suggests another candidate: Ko-kil-ko, a shopkeeper in Thompson and Hervé's Aladdin. The subject is now declared beaten to death.


The name has come to be synonymous with any important personage (especially one who is all puffed up about it) and, indeed, you will find it entered in some dictionaries. In the Boundary Waters of Minnesota there happens to be a Poobah Lake, but that is supposedly an Indian name and has nothing whatsoever to do with the opera (304).


A name that marries two exclamations of contempt. Stone (284) mentions that Gilbert's Bab Ballad "King Borria Bungalee Boo" has a character referred to as "the haughty Pish-Tush-Pooh-Bah." This is but one example of how Gilbert used components of his ballads in the Savoy operas.


This noble lord is listed in some editions of the libretto but not others. (He is a bass singer who is used in the madrigal in place of Pish-Tush if the latter cannot hit the low notes.) The expression is a bob-tailed version of "Go to ______" (fill in to suit your mood). Brewer (54) says it is an "exclamation, often of impatience or reproof, or as an exhortation like 'Come'." Shakespeare used it in Julius Caesar. More to the point, Gilbert has both Pooh-Bah and Katisha saying it in The Mikado. Prestige (245) says it is a mild reproof similar to "pish" or "tush."


Victorian baby talk for "pretty thing."


This is not only the reverse of Bo-Peep, but is also what English parents may say instead of "Peekaboo!" (56).


These are minors under the court-appointed guardianship of an adult.


Pronunciation: Burgess (60) recommends pronouncing it "catty sha," which seems appropriate.

Act I

Obi [He carries … a bundle of ballads in his obi]

A Japanese cummerbund. (In some editions no mention is made of Nanki-Poo's obi; the stage directions say he carries the bundle in his hand.)

Minstrel [A wandering minstrel I]
Sketch of Adopting the disguise of a Second Trombone

A musician, singer, or poet. In this case a struggling trombonist who is also an accomplished tenor who accompanies himself on a native guitar.

Shreds and patches

Scarecrows have been called "figures of shreds and patches." Brewer (54) notes that Vice used to be personified as a mimic king in motley garb. Shakespeare has Hamlet refer to his villainous uncle, the king, as "A vice of kings! A cutpurse of the empire and the rule … A king of shreds and patches." Well, Nanki-Poo is really a prince of shreds and patches, so it fits right in.


Stories in verse set to music.


Bits and fragments of song.

Cut and dried

Already prepared.

Serried [in serried ranks assembled]

Shoulder to shoulder.

Capstan [We'll heave the capstan round]

A manually operated reel for hauling in ropes aboard a ship. See the entry for "Handspike" in The Pirates of Penzance.

A-trip [Her anchor's a-trip]

This means the anchor has been broken out of the mud and is ready to be hauled aboard so the ship can sail.

A-lee [her helm's a-lee]

This means that the rudder has been turned so as to swing the ship's bow into the wind and perhaps head her in another direction.

To lay aloft

To climb into the rigging, usually in order to raise or lower sails.

As the fiddler swings us round

The work of heaving up the anchor with a capstan was often given tempo by a man playing a fiddle. One more opportunity for you students of music.

And a rumbelow

The OED (229) tells us this is a meaningless set of syllables used as a refrain, originally by sailors when rowing. In some editions the word is mistakenly split into "rum below," which may have resulted from wishful thinking on the part of some thirsty typesetter. (But, see the entry for "Grog" in HMS Pinafore.) In his children's book The Story of The Mikado (133), Gilbert appends this footnote:

I have no idea what a "rumbelow" may be. No doubt it is some nautical article that is extremely useful on-board ship, for it is so often alluded to in sea-songs. It seems to hold the same place in a sea-song that the "old plantation" does in negro minstrelsy.

Protestations [to listen to my protestations]

Assurances, in this case of undying affection.

Reprieved [reprieved at the last moment]

Given temporary suspension of a sentence, in this case, of death.

Succinct [in words succinct]

Brief and to the point.

Connubially [Unless connubially linked]
Sketch of The youth who winked a roving eye

An adverb implying a state of being married.


Gilbert's poetic license applied to decapitated, i.e., beheaded.

Pre-Adamite [of Pre-Adamite ancestral descent]

Brewer (26D) informs us that this was the name given by Isaac de la Peyrère to a race of men whom he thought to have existed before the days of the Garden of Eden. He thought that only Jews are descended from Adam and Eve and that Gentiles derive from Pre-Adamites.