Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Gondoliers

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Act I




Peasant girls! (Remember, the girls are speaking here –– demurely coy.)





Poveri gondolieri!

Pronunciation: POE-very

Just poor gondoliers! (Now it’s the men’s turn to be modest.)

Vagary [But that’s a vagary]

A caprice.

Honorary [It’s quite honorary]

Without reference to pay. In their opening duet Marco and Giuseppe are saying in effect, “Ostensibly we earn our living as gondoliers, but truth to tell we do it just for amusement, and the resulting income is strictly incidental.”

Short-coated [Since we were short-coated]

The OED (229) and Collins (75) associate short coating with infant attire. Chambers (72), on the other hand, notes that gondoliers wear short coats; so the expression may refer to their becoming gondoliers. That seems a more likely interpretation, given that in their next line they refer to being devoted to [feminine] beauty.

Nooning [At summer’s day nooning]

The OED (229) offers three alternative meanings, any one of which would fit the context: (a) noontide, (b) a noonday meal, (c) a mid-day interval for rest or food.

Weary lagooning [When weary lagooning]
Sketch of Weary lagooning

This is short for “when weary of lagooning,” which is short for “when weary of propelling our gondolas on the lagoon.” (The lagoon is the sheltered water surrounding Venice.)

Thrum [We lazily thrum]

“To play on a stringed instrument, as a guitar, by plucking the strings, particularly in an idle … manner” (250).


Church bells announcing the evening service of the Roman Catholic Church.

Fate [let impartial Fate]

The mythological irresistible power controlling human destiny.


Pronunciation: vee-VAH!

Three cheers!

Three horses [My papa he keeps three horses]

This expression doesn’t need to be defined, but a few comments would seem in order. First, a question: Why would any Venetian want to keep even one horse? Second, since these are peasant girls, those horses are probably used to work the farm, so there is no hint of snobbery such as that associated with keeping one’s carriage. I think we can conclude that the girls are simply singing a nursery rhyme originally sung to city children. (See the entry for “Carriage” in Patience.) Hyder (162) adds that he finds it amusing that Sullivan’s tide of Italian-flavored music suddenly descends to the very English, very childlike tune that accompanies the words.

Dapple grey

A horse with a coat marked with different shades of gray in irregular pattern.

Take your courses

Set off in the direction of your choice.

Conjugal [Conjugal and monetary]

Pertaining to married life.


Pertaining to money. Apparently the brides are promising to find ways to generate income in their spare time.

Venetia’s [To Venetia’s shores have come]

Pronunciation: Veh-NEE-shahs

The Roman or Latin word for Venice.

Drum [own particular drum]
Sketch of His Grace's Private Drum

An archaic meaning of the word, as you might guess, is one who drums (250).

Castilian [As a Castilian hidalgo of ninety-five quarterings]

A native of the Spanish province of Castile, a region noted for the haughtiness of its nobility. There are those who aver that members of Castilian noble families affect a lisp in their speech. This leads some directors to ask members of the ducal party to do likewise. I suspect Gilbert would not approve. Authenticity is admirable, but not if it gets in the way of clear enunciation.


Pronunciation: ee-DOLL-go

“A Spanish nobleman of the lowest rank” (75, 250). (Gilbert has slipped up here, having already told us that the duke was a grandee.)


The number of families included in one’s coat of arms. You would need a magnifying glass to appreciate the full extent of the duke’s family connections. In the second act he stumbles and almost lets drop that he is ninety five quarters behind in his payments.

Equestrian [equestrian exercise is impracticable]

On horseback.

Suite [Where is our suite?]

The train of attendants of a distinguished person. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., had his lovely bevy of sisters, cousins, and aunts. Reginald Bunthorne had twenty love-sick maidens. The Duke of Plaza Toro, in straitened circumstances, can afford only one: the drummer, Luiz, who is probably pleased to work for a niggardly wage for reasons soon to be revealed.


The humblest sort of servant, one assigned to the most degrading duties. See also The Sorcerer and HMS Pinafore.

Plebeian [his plebeian position]

Related to the common herd. See also The Grand Duke.


Guardsmen armed with halberds: those combination spears and axes one sees in romantic movies or in the hands of the Swiss Guards at the Vatican.


Sordid, interested only in money.