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

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Act I

Sally [sally forth]

To set out on a voyage or excursion.


Taking regard of all aspects of a situation. In short, prudent.

Custom House [Can it be Custom House?]

This refers to the customs bureau, charged with collecting import or export taxes. (It is somewhat equivalent to the U.S. or Canadian Coast Guards, but includes on-shore patrols.)

Dower [What is such a dower]

Contribution of wealth (or, in this case, affection) a woman brings to a marriage.

Take heart of grace

Brewer (54) defines this as meaning to pluck up your courage. It may be based on Paul’s teaching that we should rely on God’s grace (His freely granted favors) for strength. Moral courage was at one time believed to reside in the heart (55).

Lowers [Take heart; no danger lowers]

Pronunciation: Rhymes with cowers.


Tether [Free them from their tether]

A rope or chain to keep an animal from getting away. Figuratively: “Give them their freedom.”

Glass [The glass is rising]


Pianissimo [the Girls continue chatter pianissimo]

Very softly.

Homely duty

Domestic life.



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.