Patron Saint of Lexicography.

Jonathon Green, the great slangographer I have posted about many times (e.g. here and here), reports on his search for a patron saint of lexicography. After dismissing Saint Nicholas, Bibiana, St. Francis de Sales, and various other candidates (I was struck by “the great Ambrogio Calepino, a lexicographer-monk, and still memorialized in the French calepin: a notebook”), he settles on St. Giles:

After all, doesn’t St Giles Greek itself mean slang, while a St Giles’s bird is a criminal and thus one of St Giles’s breed, while a St Giles buzzman is a pickpocket who specializes in stealing handkerchiefs and a St Giles’s carpet a sprinkling of sand on the street, presumably to mask the puddles of blood and vomit.

St Giles was the 18th and early 19th century’s most notorious criminal slum, found at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. […] By 1750 merely impoverished St Giles had become notoriously criminal St Giles. It was the first, or most celebrated rookery, which meant a criminal slum and plays either on some metaphorical, avian criminality (and perhaps blackness), or on the verb rook, to cheat.

There are lively descriptions of the low life found there (one local entertainment was called the buttock ball), and it ends:

Like Egan’s fictional Tom and Jerry (of Life in London) Dickens – as Boz – visited St Giles but less tolerant than Egan, or more bound to the evangelical moralising of his time, he shuddered at the ‘filth and squalid misery’ but admitted to the excellence of its gin palaces, selling ‘The Cream of the Valley’, ‘The Out-and-Out’, ‘The No Mistake’, ‘The Good for Mixing’, ‘The Real Knock-Me-Down’, ‘The Regular Flare-Up’ and ‘a dozen other, equally inviting and wholesome liqueurs’. But by Dickens’ time St Giles was already suffering architectural assault: New Oxford Street was driven through in 1847, removing as it came the riper alleyways. That Mudie’s, the epitome of Victorian sanctimony, established its first lending library there is suitably ironic. Its reputation is slightly improved by the weekly appearance of the scholar Frederick Furnivall who recruited at the local ABC teashop for the rowing eight of shop-girls whom he coached on the Thames. While thus employed Furnivall did other things, among them founding the Oxford English Dictionary.

Following which there’s a delightful photograph of Furnivall with his rowing eight. Thanks, Yoram!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Alas none of the recorded doings (including those that are historicity-challenged in the view of modern wet blankets) of the historical St. Giles (born circa 650, died circa 710) have anything to do even loosely with lexicography — unless one thinks that lexicographers, as a class, are sufficiently analogous to the beggars, lepers, and similarly marginalized social types that St. Giles has been understood to be patron of since medieval times.

  2. January First-of-May says

    I guess the patron saint of complicated etymology could be St. Æthelthryth, perhaps best known as the etymon of tawdry

    (The patron saint of etymology in general is very obviously Isidore of Seville, the author of the Etymologiae; though Google gives no results for the exact phrase “patron saint of etymology”, and “about 0 results” for “patron saint of etymologists” – which is actually 1 result, about Isidore of Seville.)

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    BTW, while the notorious “rookery” St. Giles district under discussion is the old civil parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields some distance west of the City of London proper, after some poking around it appears that the onetime location of the historical Grub Street (associated with “harmless drudges” like Sam’l Johnson) was in the northerly bit of the City of London proper, and may have in prior centuries been within the old boundaries of the entirely different and unrelated (except by onomastic coincidence) civil parish of St. Giles-without-Cripplegate.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, St. Isodore is definitely the patron of the field of bogus etymology, which has continued to thrive under his patronage over the centuries …

  5. Since William Chambers, the publisher of Chambers’ English Dictionary, was himself one of the Grey Monks of St Giles, the link seems extremely solid!

  6. Very nice, thanks for that poem!

  7. The verb rook used to be a frequent part of my speech when I was a kid, but it seems to have disappeared about twenty or twenty-five years ago. I suspect that it was killed off because of its similarity to gyp, which I discontinued because it was based on a racial slur. I got in the habit of stopping myself when I thought was about so say something that might have ended up as either “gyp” or “rook”; so I ended up not saying either.

    I had always assumed that the verb rook comes from the word for a crow, and according to the OED, indeed it does. The intermediate steps are use of rook as a derogatory term for a “disreputable, greedy, garrulous, or slovenly person” and then a “cheat, swindler, or sharper, esp. in gambling.”

    In modern English, rook only refers to a large crow, not any other variety of corvid. While Balin the dwarf threw rocks at crows, he was, of course, a friend to the ravens of Erebor led by Roäc. This name seems odd, but Tolkien knew that the older Germanic form suggested by “Roäc” would actually have referred to any corvid, not just the modern rook.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Very nice, thanks for that poem!

    Where, in the Google book? I have no access to that at all, I’m only allowed to see a small picture of the title page.

  9. Three years later: do a Google Books search on [poem “st orage”] and hopefully you’ll get the poem “St. Orage,” which begins: “Preserve us, St Orage, you whose image stares down/ on our weed-snagged railway sidings and choked factory yards…”

    Here’s a link that works for me:,+st+orage%22&pg=PA6&printsec=frontcover

  10. on our weed-snagged railway sidings and choked factory yards

    That’s an interesting line. It scans fine, but manages to pack a lot of consonant clusters in (d-sn, d-ch, d-f). Not quite dysphonious, but not easy to recite. Are there any well-known English-language poets who regularly revel in this kind of writing?

  11. David Marjanović says

    Was this even deliberate? I didn’t notice it, and it’s not Russian…

  12. For me there is no d-ch because I wouldn’t pronounce the d, but g-d-r is another bumpy cluster.

  13. January First-of-May says

    the John Glenday poem “St Orage”

    Unfortunately I’ve forgotten (though I’ve looked it up a few years back) what the English translators of Karel Čapek have done with the story of Dr. Ovosek (Dr. Voštěp in the original Czech). Russian is close enough that most of the words translate directly…

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