THE CRAZY OIKLET 24
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:
disputant was desirous of throwing a doubt upon the veracity
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
Then “bad hat”
shocking bad hat!"
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!"
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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