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The Madness of Crowds

The Madness of Crowds

Mackay’s book was first published in 1841. For an early Victorian lawyer he has a straightforward style – but he does go on a bit. The edition I found on Eddy’s stall runs to 724 pages. Yes, I have read every one. Its continuing fascination today has to do with financial bubbles (the term came into use during the South Sea Bubble scandal of the early 1700s). There was a similar phenomenon in France around the same time – The Mississippi scheme. These were soon followed in Holland by tulipmania. That’s the first hundred pages taken care of. Chas then goes on at great length to look at alchemy (the philospher’s stone which changed base metals into gold), prophecy, magnetisers, the crusades, witches, poisoners, haunted houses, relics. The bit I found funniest was “Popular follies of great cities”. This categorises mostly London catch phrases – and what a crazy collection they are:


When a disputant was desirous of throwing a doubt upon the veracity of his opponent, and getting summarily rid of an argument which he could not overturn, he uttered the word Quoz, with a contemptuous curl of his lip and an impatient shrug of his shoulders. The universal monosyllable conveyed all his mean­ing, and not only told his opponent that he lied, but that he erred egregiously if he thought that any one was such a nin­compoop as to believe him. Every alehouse resounded with Quoz; every street-corner was noisy with it, and every wall for miles around was chalked with it.


Then “bad hat” 

"What a shocking bad hat!" was the phrase that was next in vogue.   No sooner had it become universal, than thousands of idle but sharp eyes were on the watch for the passenger whose hat shewed any signs, however slight, of ancient service. Immediately the cry arose, and, like the war-whoop of the Indians, was repeated by a hundred discordant throats.   He was a wise man who, finding himself under these circumstances "the observed of all observers," bore his honours meekly.   He who shewed symptoms of ill-feeling at the imputations cast upon his hat, only brought upon himself redoubled notice. The mob soon perceive whether a man is irritable, and, if of their own class, they love to make sport of him.   When such a man, and with such a hat, passed in those days through a crowded neighbourhood, he might think himself fortunate if his annoyances were confined to the shouts and cries of the populace.    The obnoxious hat was often snatched from his head and thrown into the gutter by some practical joker, and then raised, covered with mud, upon the end of a stick, for the admiration of the spectators, who held their sides with laughter, and exclaimed in the pauses of their mirth, "Oh, what a shocking bad hat!" "What a shocking bad hat!" Many a nervous poor man, whose purse could but ill spare the outlay, doubtless purchased a new hat before the time, in order to avoid exposure in this manner.

Surely this carried on for a hundred years. Toffs often referred to low lifes as “bad hats” – you would not be surprised to come across it in Wodehouse or Waugh 

Hookey Walker, derived from the chorus of a popular ballad, was also high in favour at one time, and served, like its predecessor Quoz, to answer all questions.   In the course of time the latter word alone became the favourite, and was ut­tered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, a sharp turn upon the last.   If a lively servant girl was importuned for a kiss by a fellow she did not care about, she cocked her little nose, and cried "Walker!"   If a dustman asked his friend for the loan of a shilling, and his friend was either unable or un­willing to accommodate him, the probable answer he would receive was, "Walker!"   If a drunken man was reeling about the streets, and a boy pulled his coat-tails, or a man knocked his hat over his eyes to make fun of him, the joke was always accompanied by the same exclamation.   This lasted for two or three months, and "Walker!" walked off the stage, never more to be revived for the entertainment of that or any future generation.

Eye out 

The next phrase was a most preposterous one. Who in­vented it, how it arose, or where it was first heard, are alike unknown. Nothing about it is certain, but that for months it was the slang par excellence of the Londoners, and afforded them a vast gratification. "There he goes with his eye out!" or "There she goes with her eye out!" as the sex of the party alluded to might be, was in the mouth of every body who knew the town. The sober part of the community were as much puzzled by this unaccountable saying as the vulgar were delighted with it. The wise thought it very foolish, but the many thought it very funny, and the idle amused themselves by chalking it upon walls, or scribbling it upon monuments.

 Has your mother sold her mangle? 

Another very odd phrase came into repute in a brief space afterwards, in the form of the impertinent and not universally apposite query, "Has your mother sold her mangle?" But its popularity was not of that boisterous and cordial kind which ensures a long continuance of favour. What tended to impede its progress was, that it could not be well applied to the older portions of society.

 Does your mother know you’re out? 

The next phrase that enjoyed the favour of the million was less concise, and seems to have been originally aimed against precocious youths who gave themselves the airs of manhood before their time. "Does your mother know you're out?" was the provoking query addressed to young men of more than reasonable swagger, who smoked cigars in the streets, and wore false whiskers to look irresistible. We have seen many a con­ceited fellow who could not suffer a woman to pass him without staring her out of countenance, reduced at once into his nat­ural insignificance by the mere utterance of this phrase.

 Who are you? 

Every new comer into an alehouse tap-room was asked unceremoniously, "Who are you?" and if he looked fool­ish, scratched his head, and did not know what to reply, shouts of boisterous merriment resounded on every side. An author­itative disputant was not unfrequently put down, and pre­sumption of every kind checked by the same query. When its popularity was at its height, a gentleman, feeling the hand of a thief in his pocket, turned suddenly round and caught him in the act, exclaiming, "Who are you?" The mob which gathered round applauded to the very echo, and thought it the most capital joke they had ever heard, the very acme of wit, the very essence of humour.


Your modern oik seems to have forsaken this trope – although catch phrases were in order in the forties and fifties – propagated by radio progs like ITMA and the Glums. Chas has put his finger on a true oik mystery. Why do these things catch on? Yes, we can still read Grossmith and Oscar Wilde and have a larf but this stuff? It’s absolutely, mindlessly bonkers.

If you’d care to read Chas’s chapter in full (it’s not that long) I attach it as an appendix. The book is still in print and can be had cheap but you’d have to be banged up in Strangeways to read it all. Popular Follies of Great Cities