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

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Act II

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.)