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

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


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).

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).