Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Gondoliers

Primary tabs

Click a term to expand the definition; Search for a term; Select other Opera Chapters; Go to the Lexicon menu for introductory and afterword content..

Enter part of a term; e.g., "gill" for Gillow's.

Act II

Xeres [Xeres we’ll drink –– Manzanilla, Montero]

Pronunciation: SHAY-res, although the Cartes pronounced it ZER-es

This is sherry. The OED (229) assures us that sherry is: “Originally the still white wine made near Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera, a town in Andalusia, near Cadiz); in modern use extended to a class of white wines of similar character.” Walmisley (299) explains further that the English used to refer to the wine as Jerez-wine, pronounced Sherez-wine –– and that led to the term “sherry.” The Spanish pronounce it HEH-res, but an Anglicized SHAY-ress is more appropriate on the stage.


Pronunciation: mahn-zah-NEE-yah

“Light-brown dry sherry” (75).


The context leads to the inference that this must be some kind of wine, but pinning it down has proven difficult. Kesilman (174), Walmisley (299) and Asimov (11) call it a sherry. Green (145) is “reasonably certain” it is a sherry. Dunn (100), Halton (147), Hardwicke (149), and Bradley (46) all define it simply as a Spanish wine. Walters (301) suggests that Gilbert may have meant Montilla, “a fairly ‘fresh-tasting’ sherry, somewhere between a true sherry and manzanilla.” Knight (177) thinks Gilbert invented the name to rhyme with bolero. Stone (283) has this suggestion: “There are two Italian wine-country villages, Monterosso and Monteroberto, both of which have given their names to wines, and either of which Gilbert may have had in mind and shortened to Montero to make it rhyme with bolero.” There is a “Montero” wine from near San Severo in Italy, but it has been produced for no more than the past forty years. My tentative guess is that Walters is right: Gilbert had Montilla in mind. The Spanish would pronounce it mon-TEE-yah, and shifting to “Montero” to rhyme with bolero seems eminently logical. Montilla wine is a Cordoban variant on Elizabethan Sack. It takes its name from a region of Spain in the Sierra Nevadas midway between Cordoba and Granada. (I dare say Gilbert would have enjoyed a nice chuckle over all the inconvenience this single word has caused.)

Groom [I saw a groom dancing, and a footman]

A servant. See also The Mikado.


A male servant, often decked out in livery, and performing such menial chores as waiting at table or helping his lord and lady in and out of carriages. The position has been traced back to ancient Rome. Romans associated the left side with bad luck and so stationed a servant at the entry door to the house to make sure visitors entered with right foot first (12). That is as specialized a job as street sweeper in a one-horse town.


People of gentle birth and breeding; the class immediately below the nobility (229). (I suspect Don Alhambra is being sarcastic and pulling a full-fledged sneer.) See also Ruddigore.

Lord Chamberlain

In England, a peer of the realm who conducts the business affairs of the royal household (75). To this, Knight (178) adds that the Lord Chamberlain “keeps on file all the officers under the crown and would know that the titles bestowed by Marco and Giuseppe on members of their court are not possible.” See also The Mikado and Utopia, Limited.

Rusk [A plate of macaroni and a rusk]

Stedman (273) cites a Victorian cookbook to the effect that Italian rusk is made by baking small slices of stale Savoy or lemon cake until brown and hard. Prestige (245) describes it as “a kind of hard biscuit.”

Lord High Chancellor

In England the Lord Chancellor is roughly equivalent to the Chief Justice of the United States, and is about as likely to be seen playing leapfrog with his own cook.

Tuppenny [Of being told to tuck in his tuppenny]

Brewer (54) explains that the expression means “mind your head!” It is a schoolboy’s warning to the child over whose back the leap is being made in playing leapfrog. “Tuppenny” is a slang word for the head (108), and that is the common way of pronouncing “two-penny.”


Pronunciation: WREN-ish

From the vineyards of the Rhine Valley. Barker (27) suggests that Gilbert’s audiences probably recognized lines from Hamlet that involved Rhenish wine (and the trumpet’s bray as well). Knight (178) comments that German wines were popular in England, and all were likely to be referred to as “Rhenish” even though they might have come from other regions of Germany. He adds that Hochheim on Rhine was a major exporting port and in more recent years the term “Rhenish” has been replaced by “Hock,” a contraction of “Hochheim.”

Junket [That some, at junket or at jink, must be content with toddy]

Merrymaking, a feast, or picnic.


Short for high jinks: boisterous fun; merry capers.


A drink of whisky or brandy, sugar, and hot water.

Lord Chancellors [Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats]

See the entry for “Lord High Chancellor” above.


A small fish related to the herring and pilchard. The term is associated with anything of little consequence.

Shovel hats
Sketch of a Shovel hat

Those clerical hats with broad brims rolled up at the sides but sticking out flat in front and back like a shovel.

Prime Ministers [Prime Ministers and such as they]

In England the prime minister is the elected leader of the party holding the most seats in the House of Commons. He (or she) and his (or her) cabinet are charged with governing the nation. The position is roughly equivalent to the presidency of the United States.

Small beer [Small beer were Lords-Lieutenant deemed]

Trivial or petty (115). Persons or things of small consequence (54).


Pronunciation: lords lef-TEN-ent

These are high officials appointed directly by a sovereign to represent the sovereign in each county (245). In some instances in former years they served as head of magistrates of the county (75). Their principal duty today would be to accompany any member of the Royal Family passing through their territory. Gilbert was a Deputy-Lieutenant for the County of Middlesex (142).

Cloth of gold

“A heavy rich brocade woven from materials which include gold wire” (285).


Cheap, inferior fabric made of reclaimed wool. See also The Grand Duke.

Illustrated papers

Illustrated newspapers were still relatively new in England when the opera was written, but were still far in the future when the opera was set (1750).

Mount Vesuvius

The volcano near Naples that buried Pompei in A.D. 79.

Vulgar fraction [one can’t marry a vulgar fraction]

Also called a “common fraction,” is one with a numerator above and denominator below a horizontal or diagonal line. Both numerator and denominator are integers. Such fractions are called “vulgar” because they are in the form commonly used by most people. (The Latin word for people is vulgus.)


Foolish, cabbage-headed (115).

Duck [distinctly he’s a duck]

A colloquial term used in admiration or endearment (115).

Trice [I can prove it in a trice]

An instant. One definition in the OED (229) is a sudden action.

Flea in her ear

Brewer (54) says this means she is sent off discomfited by a reproof or repulse; as a dog with a flea in his ear runs off in terror and distress. The expression dates back at least five hundred years in English and even earlier in French (55).

Messer [If she married Messer Marco]

A variation of the Italian Messere, an archaic word meaning sir or master (151).