The humour of Good Queen Bess did not suit the tailors

Memorable extracts from an article by Edmund Akenhead, former Crossword Editor, Saturday, August 20th 1977

While a compiler’s reference books should, in the case of the ordinary daily crossword, serve merely to supply supporting authority for what he or she already knows, I delight in straying through some of their highways and byways and extending my rag-bag collection of fascinating trivia. For instance, years ago I learnt from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable that “Nine tailors make a man” which is a gross slur on Savile Row, I’m sure, but an entertaining one, and supported by the nursery rhyme “Four and twenty tailors went to kill a snail” (they were apparently put to rout when the snail put out her horns). However, it was not until comparatively recently that, while checking a reference to Good Queen Bess being turned out of the Realm in her petticoat, I came across her greeting to a delegation of 18 tailors, quoted from Chamberlin’s Sayings of Queen Elizabeth as “Good morning, gentlemen both”, which shows that the Good Queen had an excellent sense of humour and might well have made a good crossword-compiling team with Francis Bacon (famed for his Honorific . . . etc 27-letter anagram).

Should I rely on an incorrect reference? – crossword solvers will be quick to enlighten me. One anonymous puzzler sent a kindly “tut-tut” after I had used “the hoi polloi” in a clue. Our gentle readers will need no reminding that “hoi polloi” is ancient Greek for “the many” so that “the” in “the hoi polloi” is superfluous, or, as one-up-men in the Wordmanship game would no doubt prefer to call it, downright pleonastic: nevertheless Dryden used “the hoi polloi”, and so did Gilbert in Iolanthe. No doubt the advice given in Fowler’s Modern English Usage is best: if one omits “the”, one will be accused of pedantry; if one uses “the”, one will be jumped on by the purists; so it is wiser to avoid the expression (at least in “Hoi Chronoi”) altogether.

My reference books do not tell me everything I should like to know. There is, for instance, the custom handed down from generation to generation of apostrophizing certain furry animals first thing in the morning on the first day of the month, for luck. I wondered whether this was a universal custom in these islands or whether the creatures apostrophized were different in different parts of the country, such as “Weasels” in Wessex, “Badgers” in Bedfordshire and “Squirrels” in Suffolk. On the first of May nearly a hundred crossword addicts from Cheshire and the adjoining counties were assembled in Chester to compete in a crossword regional final, so I took the opportunity of asking them what was the magic word which they had said, or should have said, first thing that morning (could it, I asked myself, be “Cats”?): with no dissentient voice they replied “Rabbits” except for a few (I hope they were not racialists) who said “White Rabbits”. So perhaps the “Rabbits” custom is nationwide. One wonders how it originated – some remnant of an old fertility invocation, perhaps?

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