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

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 I

Mamelon [when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”]

A hillock or mound, presumably a low earthen wall or fort, in the present context. Brewer (56) defines it as a mound in the shape of a woman’s breast, making this perhaps the raciest word in the entire canon.


A detached outer-work for protecting the ramparts of a fort.

Mauser rifle

A firearm featuring a repeating magazine. It was invented by a German, Paul von Mauser (105), and was used by the Prussian army (48).

Chassepôt rifle [A term used rather than “Mauser rifle” in earlier editions.]

Pronunciation: SHAHS-POE

A French Army rifle introduced in 1866 (89).

Sorties [When such affairs as sorties and surprises]

A sortie is a sudden movement of troops from a besieged place to attack the besiegers.


Sudden attacks without warning.


The army’s supply department.


The science of positioning military units to best advantage against an enemy. From the Greek phrase ta taktika, meaning matters of arrangement (266).

Sat a gee [You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee]

Stedman (273) assures us that in nineteenth-century England “gee” was a commonly used slang word for horse. Farmer and Henley (115) say the same. Walters (301) adds that in England “gee-gee” is still a popular children’s word for a horse. Expressions such as “sat a horse with skill” were not uncommon a hundred years ago (208). So “sat a gee” simply means rode a horse.


A curse. Quite the opposite, we can assure you, of the benediction you receive in church.



[Note on omitted verse] [Verse sung opening night]

The last two terms are from a verse that was supposedly used on opening night (3) but which has since been dropped. It is sung by the pirates after the Major-General sings about telling a terrible story:

If he’s telling a terrible story,
He shall die by a death that is gory ––
One of the cruelest slaughters
That ever was known in these waters;
And we’ll finish his moral affliction
By a very complete malediction,
As a compliment valedictory,
If he’s telling a terrible story.

For what, we ask, is life …

You don’t need to have those words explained; I merely want to call to your attention the presence of those commas around we ask. A good lesson here on the importance of punctuation and careful proofreading.

Gildest [Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade]

Make more attractive.

Sketch of Emollient

Something that soothes or assuages –– like reading this book.

Auspiciously [Should it befall auspiciously]

Under favorable circumstances. Abundantly propitious.

Dimity [We display to lace and dimity]

A thin cotton fabric reinforced with corded stripes, popular for dressmaking in those days. The allusion, of course, is to the ladies who wear “lace and dimity.” The word comes from the Greek dimitos, meaning double thread (55).

Act II

Martial [that martial cheek]

Military or warlike.

Darksome [darksome dangers]

The OED (229) says this is “now chiefly a poetic synonym of dark, of vaguer connotation.” (I dare say you might have guessed.)

Escutcheon [for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon]

A family shield displaying heraldic insignia.


Simulated sound of a trumpet. In a letter to Sullivan dated August 6, 1879, Gilbert explained that the word serves as a “talisman” to help the police maintain their courage. (The stage directions instruct the policemen to hold up their truncheons to imitate trumpets or bugles when they sing the word) (181).

Emeutes [For when threatened with emeutes]

Pronunciation: eh-MUTES

From the French word émeutes, meaning riots.

Heart in boots [And your heart is in your boots]

Pronunciation: BEUTS

Sketch of Heart in boots

In low spirits. Brewer (56) says the expression suggests that your heart or spirits have sunk into your boots allowing you to run away.

Cornish [and every Cornish daughter]

Pertaining to Cornwall, the county in which Penzance is located.

Alloy [mercy should alloy]

Diminish or make less extreme.

Cranks [For cranks and contradictions queer]

Twists of language. Example: A cross-eyed cyclops. Most meanings of crank pertain to something bent (266).

Astronomer Royal

“Official title of the head of the Greenwich Observatory, established 1675” (75). Bradley (46) says the title has not been used since 1972.

Tremorden Castle

General Stanley’s baronial mansion. Bradley (48) says, “This is a fictitious location, but a perfectly plausible name for a place in Cornwall. The Cornish word tre means hamlet or homestead and is found at the beginning of many place names in the county.” One example is pointed out by Aurora (18): Trematon Castle, near Saltash, in Cornwall.

Dire [my vengeance dire]

Horrible, dreadful, calamitous, disastrous, threatening, formidable, or immoderately fierce. (How can such a short word have so many elongated synonyms?)

Roundelay [This joyous roundelay]

Originally a round or country dance, the term has come to mean a short, simple song (273).