Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Pirates of Penzance

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Act I



Parsonified, conjugally matrimonified

Some of Gilbert’s finest creations, which you may interpret as referring to marriage before a parson. These serve to remind us of Bierce’s definition of marriage: “The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two” (39).

Doctor of divinity

A person who has earned the highest educational degree in theology. See also The Sorcerer.

Caravanserai [Ere your pirate caravanserai proceed, against our will, to wed us all]

A strongly protected Arabian hostelry with a large courtyard for caravan beasts of burden. Perhaps the best interpretation we can place on it is to call it a poetically embroidered form of caravan –– which we can interpret broadly as a gathering of wayfarers, in this case piratical rovers. We may also suspect that Gilbert was digging deep for something (anything!) to rhyme with Wards in Chancery.

Wards in Chancery

Wards of the Court of Chancery, i.e., persons under that court’s protection. This perhaps explains why Major-General Stanley could be the father of so many lovely girls all between the ages of 18 and 22. How he managed to have this charming collection farmed out to him has never been explained. Bradley (48) advances what seems to me to be a rather unlikely hypothesis; but you may look it up if you’re curious.

Marathon [From Marathon to Waterloo]

In 490 B.C. the Athenians and Spartans defeated the Persian army in a decisive battle on a plain near the village of Marathon, about 26 miles north-east of Athens.


Napoleon met his final defeat in 1815 in a battle against British and Prussian forces just south of the Flemish town of Waterloo.

[Note: The allusion here is to Creasy’s book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World from Marathon to Waterloo (81), first published in 1851.]

Categorical [in order categorical]

According to type or class. Creasy presents his fifteen battles in chronological order, so the major-general has seemingly taken the trouble to rearrange them by type (e.g., naval vs. land) before committing them to memory.

Equations, both the simple and quadratical

A simple equation is one in the form of Y = aX + b, where Y is the unknown value, X is a variable value, and a and b are fixed values. For example if you want to convert a temperature reading from centigrade to Fahrenheit, you would use this simple equation:

Degrees Fahrenheit = (9/5) times (degrees centigrade) + 32

A quadratic equation is one in which the highest power of the unknown quantity is a square. Quadratical is a Gilbertian original term, but his meaning is clear.

Binomial theorem

A theorem is a mathematical statement that can be proven to be true. A binomial is an algebraic expression containing two terms joined by a plus or minus sign. A + B and A - B are two examples. The binomial theorem is a general equation for finding the product of a binomial expression multiplied by itself any number of times.


A hypotenuse is the longest leg of a right triangle, i.e., the one across from the 90 degree corner. The “many cheerful facts” alludes to the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (582-507 B.C.) and his theorem, which states that you can find the square of (the length of) the hypotenuse by summing the squares of the lengths of the other two sides.

Integral and differential calculus

The calculus is a useful branch of mathematics that approaches problems by considering the behavior of small increments of the object under study. Integral calculus finds cumulative values such as areas or volumes. Differential calculus deals in differences in values such as rates of change. For a comprehensive exposition, see Asimov (11).

Beings animalculous

Adjective form of animalcule: a minute or microscopic animal. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who first observed bacteria, called them animalcules (little animals) (89).

Sir Caradoc

The name Caradoc and variations such as Caradog and Garadue are not uncommon in various British encyclopedias (93, 103, 104, 223, 288). In the context, however, the exceptionally valorous Sir Caradoc of King Arthur’s round table is the strongest candidate.

Acrostics [I answer hard acrostics]

A composition, often in verse, in which the first (or perhaps last) letters of the lines form a word or phrase when taken in order. Brewer (54) explains that the word comes from the Greek akros for outermost, and stichos for line of verse. We are sure Major-General Stanley knew this, and so you should, too.

Paradox [I’ve a pretty taste for paradox]

A statement that sounds self-contradictory or absurd, and yet is in fact correct.

Elegiacs [I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus]

Pronunciation: ell-eh-JIE-acks

Stedman (273) kindly provides this definition and commentary –– with guidance from the OED (228): “This refers to the classical verse form, the elegiac, in which elegies (mournful verses) were written. The elegiac distich consisted of an hexameter and a pentameter, and the metre was dactylic. So it is appropriate for the major-general, because it is classical and also relatively difficult and abstruse; but I suppose he had a classics master at school who made him put things into elegiac verse!” Cameron (66) adds that setting a passage into Latin elegiacs was a standard exercise for English schoolboys. Dealing with the life and fate of Heliogabalus was no doubt considered a cautionary lesson. But press on.


Roman emperor A.D. 218-222. His name is also spelled Elagabalus. He imposed the worship of false idols upon the Roman world, appointed misfits to high office, and executed more than his share of dissident generals. Above all, he outraged public opinion with his openly homosexual orgies. He was killed by the Praetorian Guards after a short but newsworthy reign. See the paragraph on the fellow in Utopia, Limited. More crimes exposed to the public gaze!

Conics [In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous]

Pronunciation: Rhymes with tonics.

Study of the geometric properties of a cone cut by imaginary planes (i.e., parabolas, circles, ellipses, and hyperbolas).


To conquer, as in wrestling.


Pertaining to parabolas. Gilbert’s variation on parabolic.

Raphaels [I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies]

Paintings by the Italian master Santi Raphael (1483-1520). Some of his murals adorn the Vatican. He is looked upon as the first of the great religious painters. Some Victorians looked upon him as a symbol of the start of the decline of art. Our next chapter has more to say about how they revolted against his influence.

Gerard Dows

Dutch painter from Leyden (1613-75). A student of Rembrandt, famous for his rich coloring and excellence of detail. Dow is an anglicized version of his real name: Dou. Stedman (274) comments that his paintings were not at all like Raphael’s.


Johann Zoffany (properly Zaufelby): Bavarian-turned-British painter (1733-1810). One of the original members of Britain’s Royal Academy, founded in 1769.

The Frogs [the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes]

A witty comedy produced in 405 B.C. in Athens. The framework for the story involves the god Dionysus’s descent into hell to find a competent poet, there being none left on earth. This leads to a comical competition between the shades of Aeschylus and Euripides, each finding fault with the other’s works. This competition inspires much ribald commentary from Dionysus. “The whole is enlivened by the grotesque costumes and the brek-ke-ke-ke coax refrain from the chorus of frogs, whose original habitat was the precinct of Dionysius in the marshes” (105). Now you, too, know something about the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes. How many of your neighbors can make that claim?


Greek writer of satiric plays, some more ribald than others. He lived around 450-380 B.C.


Let me avoid this thicket by quoting Elson (102): “It is a composition in the strict style, in which a subject is proposed by one part and answered by other parts, according to certain rules.” By subject he means a musical theme (tune). By parts he means different musical instruments or singers. The major-general, you may be sure, could not by himself do justice to a fugue by humming. But, who among the pirate band was about to challenge him on that delicate point?

Washing bill [I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform]

A laundry list.


Wedge-shaped writing (on clay tablets) of ancient Babylon, etc. It is possible that the reference was inspired by an exhibition of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities that had recently been exhibited by Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (207).


An early British king who fought a series of delaying battles against the Roman invaders in the first century A.D. Whether he ever wore a uniform is open to considerable doubt (302). Bradley (48) avers that his usual battle dress was simply body paint. His final defeat, in A.D. 47, led to his capture. Taken before the Roman emperor Claudius, his eloquence won him his pardon. His children became Christians and introduced that religion into Britain.

There is some confusion about his name. Bradley (46) says Caractacus was the Roman translation of the British name Caradoc (but not to be confused with the Sir Caradoc of Arthurian legend mentioned earlier in the song). Perhaps it is a coincidence, but his final defeat occurred “probably at Caer Caradoc,” in the region of Shropshire (105). Further light (or is it shadow?) is cast by The Encyclopædia Britannica (104), which insists that the name should be spelled Caratacus. I have a feeling this is more than you really thirsted to learn.