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

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Act II

Sooth [He will be faithful to his sooth]
Sketch of Sooth


Family descent

Pride and sense of honor arising from a long and distinguished family heritage.

Constabulary [constabulary duty]

Pertains to constable. The term has several meanings all concerning the maintenance of law and civil order.

Coster [When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother]

Coster is usually defined as short for costermonger: a street vendor of fruit, fish, vegetables, and so forth. The examples of usage shown in the OED (229) strongly imply that costermongers enjoyed a reputation for uncouth, bullying behavior. Knight (177) calls attention to the line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI : “Virtue is of so little regard in these costermonger times.” Samuel Johnson, in his 1756 dictionary (165), defines coster-monger as a seller of apples. Bosdêt (43) says they originally sold only French apples, which were far juicier than English apples and enjoyed a much longer shelf life. But, I wander.


Carefree, boisterous , and hearty. See also The Sorcerer and Patience.

Poaching [on the manor poaching]

To poach means to trespass onto another’s property to take game or fish without permission. Here we can interpret it as meaning to encroach or invade. The manor would be the grounds of Tremorden Castle.

Plate [We are not coming for plate or gold]

Objects such as tableware made of precious metal. See also The Gondoliers.

Crowbar [Here’s your crowbar and your centrebit]

A heavy metal rod, tapered and bent at one end, and used to force open doors or windows.


A device used to cut out circular plugs in wood or metal. Bradley (48) suggests that burglars use such tools to cut holes in doors, thus allowing the burglar to reach through and release internal locks or bolts.

Life-preserver [Your life-preserver –– you may want to hit!]
Sketch of Life preserver

Brewer (54) says this is “a loaded short stick for self-defence.” In his Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” Conan Doyle mentions someone who “took down a life-preserver from the wall” (in order to intimidate the intrepid detective). The incident is shown in an illustration that appeared when the story was first published. It shows a club a little over a foot long with about a three-inch diameter knob on the working end (96). Three of Gilbert’s revised Bab Ballad cartoons show robbers equipped with similar weapons (126). A copy of one is shown below. In his Bab Ballad “Gentle Alice Brown” Gilbert includes these lines: “He took a life-preserver and he hit him on the head / And Mrs Brown dissected him before she went to bed.” Given that clue, I would argue with Brewer about their function being confined to self-defense. They were perhaps called “life-preservers” because they could stun a victim without killing him –– equivalent to a blackjack. Halton’s view is much the same, except that he mentions a flexible shaft (147).

Silent matches

Friction matches as we know them have gone through many evolutionary developments since their invention in the early 1800s. Until the 1860s all matches had an unfortunate tendency to ignite with a tiny explosion, often spewing about bits of burning phosphorus. The most effusive specimens were referred to as “sneezy” matches. The problem was first solved, apparently, by an Austrian firm. Their matches were “distinguished above all others for excellence of quality and elegance of form, as well as for their ready inflammability, noiseless regular combustion, without scattering of the inflammable mass” (95). Not too long thereafter, the Diamond Match Company in the United States offered for sale a new variety of match called “Lu-Mets: The new silent lighters –– Heads don’t fly ––Contain no phosphorus” (53). That is presumably the sort of thing Gilbert had in mind when he has Samuel pass out “silent matches.”

Dark lantern

A portable light source with a sliding shutter for confining the emission of light.

Skeletonic key

Refers to a skeleton key: one “with part of the webs filed away, designed to open or pick a lock by avoiding the impending wards” (75).

Falsehood unatoned

A barefaced lie.


Valley, or at least a low place between hills.

Rover [Yet, the breeze is but a rover]

Strictly speaking, one who wanders. In this case a fickle flirt.

Doing and undoing

The expression can have many meanings. Asimov (11) suggests that it means cheating and seducing. He may be right, but apparently the censorious Lord Chamberlain took a more benevolent view, perhaps something akin to kiss and tell.

Rogue [That the rogue could tell]

The word has many interpretations ranging from a mischievous rascal down through a sly knave or cheat. In the context I think “sly knave” is about right.

Sketch of Peignoirs

Dressing gowns.

Unshriven [Is he to die, unshriven –– unannealed?]

Unconfessed and unabsolved.


Without having received extreme unction (i.e., last rites).

Trow [for well we trow]


Central Criminal Court

Pirates, fittingly enough, would be brought to trial under admiralty law. In England those cases were tried at the Central Criminal Court, more commonly known as “Old Bailey,” at the corner of Old Bailey and Newgate Streets in central London. See Goodman (140) for details.

Mien [with humbled mien]

Demeanor, appearance, or general bearing.

Bar [Away with them, and place them at the bar]

Take them to court and confine them in the dock (142).

Hymeneally [Hymeneally coupled, conjugally matrimonified]

Married, after Hymen, the god of marriage. This is from the closing scene as presented on opening night (3) but now seldom used.

House of Peers

A peer is “a member of any of the five degrees of nobility in Great Britain and Ireland, namely duke, marquis, earl, viscount, and baron” (250). The House of Peers, more usually known as the House of Lords, is one of Britain’s two legislative bodies, the other (and more influential) being the House of Commons. All English peers of age 21 or older are qualified to sit in the House of Lords. In Gilbert’s day only limited numbers of peers from Ireland and Scotland were qualified (245). (At the present time the House finds itself being pushed toward drastic reform.)