Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Ponsonby-Baring Language

Maurice Baring with his
pet budgerigar 'Dempsey'
This private language, known as 'The Expressions,' was used by the writer Maurice Baring (1874 -1945) and his family and friends. It was started by his mother and her sister, Lady Ponsonby, when they were very young and developed over two generations. It is mentioned in Emma Letley's biography of Baring and there are a few pages on it in Sir Edward Marsh's A Number of People (London, 1939.) Marsh writes: '..in the course of two generations (they) had developed a vocabulary of surprising range and subtlety, putting everyday things in a new light, conveying in nutshells complex situations or states of feeling, cutting at the roots of circumlocution. Those who had mastered the idiom found it almost indispensable, and my stable-companion at the Colonial Office, Conrad Russell, when asked if he knew anyone who knew the Baring language, answered: 'I spend all my days with a Baring monoglot.' One or two words have already passed into the language: 'Pointful' (the opposite to 'pointless') which Desmond MacCarthy constantly uses in his critical writings, is of Baring origin…'

 Some of the words are a little site-specific but could still have their uses (e.g. 'a Shelley Plain' for the sighting of a famous person*) others like 'loser' seem quite current, although M.B.'s 'loser' is more of a cad than a failure. Here is a glossary based on Letley/ Marsh:

Antrim Boat: 'To be in the Antrim Boat' meant to take a lot of trouble for nothing. Derived from a family incident.††

Arch Baker: a boring discourse.

Aunt Sister: the shirking of a social duty.

Bird: happy.

Block: to put someone or something on the block: to bring up a subject: to discuss.

Brain-Stoppage: 'explains itself.' (Marsh)

A Connaught-Clock: an unjustified inference.**

Culte: (French pronunciation):someone very nice and loveable; to have a culte = to have a crush on someone.

Curlingtoes: an attack of extreme shyness.

Dentist: a heart-to-heart talk.


Dewdrop: a compliment.

Dog: very, extremely.

An Edmund: after Edmund Gosse =a display of undue touchiness (similar to an Ethel? - see next entry). As in 'Don't have an Edmund'.

An Ethel: an undue display of rage.

Floater: Marsh says '..roughly anything which gives rise to an awkwardness.'†

Fou-Rire: (French pronunciation):uncontrollable laughter.

Mrs Hunter: vulgarity, lewd conversation.

Heygate: second rate.

Hubert: named after Hubert Cornish - never being quite ready, and running upstairs to fetch something at the moment of starting for a walk etc. Cornish was a Victorian vicar and father of Francis Warre Cornish scholar, writer and father of Molly MacCarthy (wife of Desmond MacCarthy who was a user of 'The Expressions.')

Ibsen: ordinary, straightforward, what everybody has always said or thought.

Leveson-Gower: a sudden, mad plan (etymology unknown, possibly from the cricketer H.D.G. Leveson-Gower.)

Loser: a cad, someone third rate.

Molly-corkering:  a hasty and superficial tidying, derived from a Ponsonby housemaid (Molly Corker) whose idea of putting a room to rights was to shove everything that looked out-of-place under the sofa.

Molasse: something very nice, a treat.

Padlock: a secret, keep secret.

Punch: to have a go at something, to do something with enthusiasm.

Pink Tights: to become a Roman Catholic, to be a Roman Catholic.

A Rawlinson-plait: a sudden intimacy. Edward Marsh explains: '..Mrs. Rawlinson...went to a tea-party where she knew no one. The hostess sat her down on a sofa with another guest, and on looking round a few minutes later to see how she was getting on, was reassured to perceive that she had taken her new friend's hand in hers, and was plaiting the fingers together.'

Relever (French): to talk about, to talk over, to gossip (sometimes 'rel'.)

Robespierre: shabby.

Ridge: depression.

Sir Giles:  derived from Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts = anything excessive, 'like the later (and indeed some of the earlier) poems of Swinburne..' (Marsh)

Sobheart: a comforter, a confidante, a sympathetic person.

Spike: a 'dig' at someone.

Tea: as in 'great tea' - a very good thing.

Type: (French pronunciation): used as a preface to almost anything, as in 'Type Rio', 'Type novel.'

Umble: used as a suffix. MB sometimes known as 'Mumble,' for example (or, possibly 'Mumble Bumble.')

Underreach: something which falls short.

La viellesse du grand roi: the tragedy of life, the sadness of things. Marsh writes '…it was a lovely synonym for the lacrimæ rerum -- of 'old unhappy far-off things' -- because one of Maurice's sisters had burst into tears when she came to those words in her history lesson on Louis XIV.' Literally 'the old age (the decrepitude) of a great king.'

Washed: got rid of.

Wolseley: a General.

Sir Edward Marsh (1872-1953) one of Wikipedia's many polymaths, was private secretary to Winston Churchill and it is possible the great man picked up some of 'The Expressions' (or 'Baringese' as it is sometimes known.) Marsh gives a good example of the private language in use: "... 'to 'find' is to please, to 'lose' is the opposite: a 'finder' is that which finds, a 'loser' that which loses; and to 'wash' a thing is to get rid of it. Maurice wrote: 'You have got finding and losing on the brain. Wash it -- it's a loser.' Nothing could have been more salutary or more efficacious. I saw in a flash what a bore I must have been, and 'washed it'."


*From Robert Browning's lines:
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak with you?

†Marsh adds-'...As this word ('floater') has also been used by P. G. Wodehouse, it is now qualified for admission to the dictionary, and deserves an etymological note. It was originally 'float-face', which meant the flickering shade of disapproval, dissent or surprise which was registered by a face; and it came to mean the action which caused the
flicker.'

** Marsh explains a Connaught Clock: " 'What a pretty clock!' said a visitor whom Lady Ponsonby was showing over her house at Windsor. 'Yes, isn't it? The Duke of Connaught gave it me.' Then in the next room: 'There's another pretty clock. Did the Duke of Connaught give you that too?' Thereafter a 'Connaught-clock' signified an unjustified inference."

††Marsh writes: "The Antrim family gave a river-party on the Thames, to which the Barings went at some inconvenience, but on the wrong day: hence 'to be in the Antrim Boat' meant to take trouble for nothing -- an 'expense of spirit is a waste of virtue.' Maurice wrote to me about a false alarm of an earthquake in Florence, which caused several persons to let themselves down out of their bedroom windows, 'only to find themselves in the Antrim Boat at the bottom.' "

1 comment:

  1. Hamilton AcademicalFebruary 10, 2015 at 1:18 AM

    The Germans call this 'Coterie-Sprache' - I guess the French do to. Great piece btw.

    ReplyDelete