Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable

Russ Willey

In the great tradition of Brewer’s, the Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable shines a welcome light into the enticingly shadowy corners of London’s language, culture and history.

From Boudicca to Boris Johnson, the Bloomsbury Group to the Camberwell Carrot and Darkplace Hospital to Sodomite’s Walk, Brewer’s London takes you on the scenic route through the landmarks, language and lore of this great city. More than 2,000 entries encompass words, phrases, historical events, notable London characters (both real and fictional), customs and ceremonies, institutions, artistic and literary works, celebrations and events, inventions, streets and districts, anecdotes, names and nicknames, terminology and slang.

Russ Willey is a native Londoner whose family’s London roots date back 200 years. He is the author of Chambers London Gazetteer.

Sample Entries

aris ‘Arse’ in the only instance of doubled cockney rhyming slang in common usage. It derives from the rhyme of ‘Aristotle’ with ‘bottle’, as in ‘bottle and glass’, and the latter’s rhyme with ‘arse’. The matter is further complicated by the occasional extension to ‘April (in Paris)’, for ‘aris’.

bale of hay It is often claimed that London taxi drivers are, in theory, compelled by an archaic law to carry a bale of hay in their vehicles at all times. Others say the law in question was repealed, but not until 1976. Alternative versions assert that it is a Public Carriage Office licensing requirement that there be sufficient room for such a bale beside the driver or in the boot. In fact, the driver of a horse-drawn cab was merely obliged, if and when he fed his animal in the street, to do so ‘only with corn out of a bag, or with hay which he shall hold or deliver with his hands’. This stipulation, from the London Hackney Carriage Act (1831), aimed to prevent feed remnants being scattered all over the highway and was indeed repealed in 1976. Cab drivers are also said to retain the legal right to urinate in public against the rear offside wheel of their vehicles but this too has no basis in fact. Nevertheless, all this misinformation continues to be propagated on the internet, where it can be found on dozens of websites of the ‘world’s dumbest laws’ variety. The Law Commission attempted to debunk the hay myth on its own website in 2006: ‘… any taxi driver who travels around accompanied by a bale of hay does so purely for his own amusement and not in compliance with any legal requirement.’

forty fousand fevvers on a frush A catchphrase serving as a litmus test of the traditional cockney pronunciation of ‘th’ as ‘f’ or ‘v’. With full phonetic spelling, ‘thousand’ must be rendered something like ‘fahzn’. The phrase probably originated in the 1920s and has several numerical variations, of which the most popular is ‘firty-free fousand fevvers on a frush’, which is why ‘feathers’ can signify a score of 33 in darts. Other versions refer to a ‘frush’s froat’, sometimes with no reduction in the feather count.

Giro the Nazi dog The pet terrier (not an alsatian, as some have claimed) of the German ambassador to the court of St James’s in 1932–6, Leopold von Hoesch, who was in fact said to have disliked the Nazis. When Giro was accidentally electrocuted in February 1934, Hoesch had his remains buried in the gardens of Carlton House Terrace, part of which was home to the German Embassy until the outbreak of the Second World War. The ‘Nazi dog’ appellation has been popularized in the context of Giro’s diminutive tombstone, which has lately become a destination for those seeking out London’s most obscure and offbeat sights. The dog’s memorial reads, ‘Ein treuer Begleiter!’ (A faithful companion). The grave is located behind railings near the Duke of York’s column.