This week’s word: “merry-andrew”

trying to, everyday!

I am a merry-andrew, about many things.

It’s true.

Starting with writing about rugby; I happened to be going to the Royal-Navy-Cambridge game on Wednesday night, and was drafted by the sports editor at The Cambridge Student to write something about it. Their real sports reporter couldn’t make it; I was silly enough to mention that I was going to be there.

“Do you want cover the match, Will?” my editor asked, turning from his computer to face me.

“You do realize I know nothing about rugby, having never seen a live match, or any sort of match, for that matter?” I implored.

“Oh, that’s fine, it’ll be fun!” he enthused, adding, “it’ll be an experience!”

“But I don’t even know the rules!”

“Oh, just write down who scores what and when,” he assured me, “and just do your best.”

So your vainglorious etymology columnist set off to write not only his first story about rugby, but his first sports story, ever.

With lots of help from my editor, and my friend Werner, who came to the game with me and who used to play rugby, and was thus a sort of interpreter,  it turned out all right (indeed, a far more experienced sports-reporting friend of mine said I exercised some “1920s sports writer lingo”). I should also give a shout-out to the Green family from Tennessee; they were part of our little group too. Their dad, Dr. Brad Green, is here on sabbatical at Tyndale House.

he's not a merry-andrew

Regarding the word, I was inspired to write about it after recalling a scene from Kate and Leopold (and yes, it’s a romantic-comedy, but I’m still manly … I have a beard … that makes me manly, right?). You can find it in its usual spot, on the left-hand side of p. 16 (the rugby story is on the back, on p. 32) as posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site, but also here:

“In the film, Kate and Leopold, Hugh Jackman’s character (the titular Leopold) warns his friend Charlie that he is acting the part of a “merry-Andrew.”

“A what?” asks Charlie, who, unlike Leopold, was not born in the 19th century, literally.

“Everything plays a farce to you,” replies the debonair duke. “Women respond to sincerity. No one wants to be romanced by a buffoon.”

Certainly not! Hello there, fellow word-fans; taking a break from our etymological trek into contemporary idiom, let us spend a few minutes pondering … buffoonery.

The Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) identifies this (apparently) formerly proper noun with the antics of a crowd-pleasing clown, a foolish jokester or a mountebank’s assistant (more on that in a moment). While I am sure we have all felt like merry-andrews (or Merry-Andrews) at one time, or even acted like one, the actual origin of the phrase, and its connection to clownish behavior, can be traced back to London’s infamously rowdy Bartholomew Fair.

Held in Smithfield, in the ward of Farringdon Without, from roughly the 12th to the mid-19th centuries, this was not an innocent country fair, but rather a rancorous gathering of all manner of crazy entertainments, including prize fights, acrobatic exercises, music and puppets. Yes, puppets, as well as bawdy ballads, an especially silly character from which probably inspired the original idea, which had enough popular cachet by 1668 to be recorded by that prolifically observant diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), when he noted in his entry for Aug. 29, “I … took her and Mercer and Deb to Bartholomew-fair, and there did see a ridiculous, obscene little stage-play called ‘Mary Andrey’, a foolish thing but seen by everybody.”

The word’s use by a  pair of poetical playwrights, John Dryden (1631-1700) and Aphra Behn (c. 1640-1689), shows how it had caught on by the end of the century, with the former using it in a 1684 poem with the line, “Th’ Italian Merry-Andrews took their place, And quite Debauch’d the Stage with lewd Grimace.” The latter used it in a more descriptive sense, with this line from the 1678 play, Sir Patient Fancy, “I am made a John A-Nokes of, Jack-hold-my-staff, a Merry Andrew Doctor to give Leander time to marry your Daughter.”

As for acting like a mountebank’s assistant, to understand that, you should know that historically, a “mountebank,” as related by the OED, was “an itinerant charlatan who sold supposed medicines and remedies, frequently using various entertainments to attract a crowd of potential customers.” The word comes from the Italian phrase, “monta in banco,” or “mount on bench,” as such roguish tricksters were wont to do as they sold their quackery, and a merry-andrew or two could come in handy.

You definitely do not want to be a merry-andrew, or worse, a mountebank’s sidekick.  Having been forewarned, if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

Finally, here’s the group of us from the rugby match:

my friend and the other Will, Werner and the Green family at the rugby match
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