Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Mikado

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Act II

Permanent walnut juice

In case you didn't know it, walnut juice leaves brown stains on your skin that may last for days or weeks depending on how often and with what vigor you wash. As pointed out in Thespis, a dark complexion was considered a distinguishing mark of the lower classes.

Buffer [We only suffer to ride on a buffer]
Drawing of a Buffer

One of those big shock absorbers you see on the ends of British railroad cars. If you've never seen one, you may rest assured they are not meant for riding.

Parliamentary trains

In 1844 the British Parliament decreed that each workday every railroad company had to run at least one train in each direction, with stops at every station, and run at least twelve miles an hour. The law was changed in 1883, but those minimum-fare parliamentary trains were still slow and uncomfortable (48, 178).

Music-hall [The music-hall singer]

Music halls were a unique feature of Victorian England. They were in effect glorified saloons. Food and drink were served along with musical entertainment. Catering to a working class audience, the performers were not necessarily top-rate, nor were their selections of the highest order (or least Gilbert didn't seem to think much of them).

Masses [Of masses and fugues and "ops"]

A mass is a composition for mixed choir, generally with instrumental accompaniment. The text is in Latin and follows a set pattern of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Originally intended for worship services, masses may also be performed in secular settings.


Musical compositions in a strict style involving counter-play between various voices or groups of instruments. See also The Pirates of Penzance.


This is presumably meant to be the plural of the contraction of opus (meaning a musical work) (164). The audience would surely be familiar with it as the standard abbreviation seen in their concert programs. Gilbert might also have meant it as an abbreviated form of opera (294). Either interpretation fits the context.


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): The great German organist and composer. Bradley (48) points out that Sullivan inserts at this point the first twelve notes of Bach's Fugue in G Minor, to be played by clarinet and bassoon.


This is Ludwig (or Louis) Spohr, a German composer (1784-1859) who produced a goodly number of oratorios, symphonies, chamber works, and operas. There was a time when many musicians considered him to outrank Beethoven (8).


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Another great (perhaps the greatest) composer, also a German.

Monday Pops

Popular concerts. Jacobs (163) explains the term as being short for "Classical Monday Popular Concerts." They were established in 1858 by the music publishing house of Chappell and were held in St. James's Hall, on the site of the present-day Piccadilly Hotel. See Goodman (140) for many more details.

Sharp [The billiard sharp]

Among the many meanings of sharp are "artful" and "dealing cleverly but unfairly." A billiard sharp, like a card sharp, reflects these characteristics while wakefully working his wonderful wiles to win wrongful wagers from witless wretches. The modern term is "hustler."

Barred [On a spot that's always barred]

I interpret this as meaning behind bars. On the other hand, Bradley (48), Halton (147), Terry (286), and Walmisley (299) propose that the term refers to a rule of billiards. Terry puts it thus: "… after the red ball has been 'potted' (= pocketed) a number of times, that stroke is barred. The balls, on being taken from the pockets, are placed on spots on the table: hence the term." I invite them to rethink the context: "He's made to dwell in a dungeon cell on a spot that's always barred. And there he plays extravagant matches … " In Rees's view, Gilbert may have intended the second meaning to be taken as a pun (251). Karr (171) and Kesilman (174) concur. Perhaps we can all accept that compromise, which gives double value to the term.

Finger stalls
Drawing of a Finger stall

The OED (229) says a finger stall is a protective covering for an injured finger. Several other sources (56, 171, 181, 302, and 320) support this. Halton (147) says it is a cue bridge, i.e., one of those scalloped fittings on the end of a stick for guiding the cue when you are too portly to bend over the table. Knight (177) endorses this. The fact remains, however, that none of my English friends professes to having heard the term used in that sense. MacPhail (194) has uncovered a reference to a tailor-made device that Gilbert purportedly used on the fingers of his left hand to act as a cue guide. MacPhail believes that is what Gilbert meant by a finger stall. Be that as it may, I have yet to see any evidence that Gilbert or anyone else ever called the device by that name. My vote is with the OED.

Cloth untrue

An imperfectly stretched green baize cover on the playing surface of a billiard table, possibly wrinkled.

Elliptical [elliptical billiard balls]

Oval-shaped. As Goldberg (210) points out, elliptical pertains to two-dimensional shapes. Gilbert might better have said "ellipsoidal."


A legal officer responsible for investigating deaths, particularly ones that are violent, sudden, or suspicious.

House [Very good house]

The expression is a theatrical term for a well-filled auditorium.

Gurgled and guggled

They both mean he made a bubbling, choking noise.

Sketch of I drew my snickersnee

An old, jocular word for a long knife or small sword; the term is from the Dutch snik and snee, a sailor's knife (115). It has also been ascribed to the musical chord emitted by a well-swung vorpal blade (67).

True [the sabre true]

Well suited to the purpose, or well aimed, or both.

Cervical vertebrae

Pronunciation: Make it rhyme with "did he"

Neck bones.

Deference [the deference due]


Bolted [bolted from our Imperial Court]

Rushed away and escaped.

Visiting card [on presentation of visiting card]

Something akin to our modern business cards but without details pertaining to employment or e-mail address.

Circulation [As for my circulation, it is the largest in the world]

Katisha is referring here to the blood supply for her generous proportions. Hyder (161) adds a second, less obvious meaning: the large number of admirers who come to view her charms, as one would refer to a newspaper's circulation. MacPhail (194) recalls that Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (published in London 1849-1902) boasted in a line beneath its mast-head: "Largest Circulation in the World."


A prominent street in London, which gave its name to the section of town in which there was a Japanese exhibition at the time Gilbert wrote the libretto. Goodman (140) gives a detailed description of the street and the exhibition. Any gag location may be substituted. MacPhail (194) observes that Gilbert gave express written permission for changing the locale. As far as we know that is the only example of Gilbert putting such a general sanction into writing.

Tiresome [this is very tiresome]


Compassing [I forget the punishment for compassing the death of the Heir Apparent]

Pronunciation: COME-pess-ing

Contriving, bringing about, or becoming involved in any way.

Slovenly [That's the slovenly way]

Careless, negligent, sloppy.