We might expect ‘as thick as thieves’ to be a variant of the other commonly used ‘thick’ simile ‘as thick as two short planks’. The fact that the former expression originated as ‘as thick as two thieves’ gives more weight to that expectation.
As you may have guessed from that lead in, the two phrases are entirely unconnected. The short planks are thick in the ‘stupid’ sense of the word, whereas thieves aren’t especially stupid but are conspiratorial and that’s the meaning of ‘ thick’ in ‘as thick as thieves’.
‘Thick’ was first used to mean ‘closely allied with’ in the 18th century, as in this example from Richard Twining’s memoir Selected Papers of the Twining Family, 1781:
Mr. Pacchicrotti was at Spa. He and I were quite ‘thick.’ We rode together frequently. He drank tea with me.
Like all ‘as X as Y’ similes, ‘as thick as thieves’ depends on Y (thieves) being thought of as archetypally X (thick). The thieves had some competition. Earlier versions were ‘as thick as’… ‘inkle weavers’, ‘peas in a shell’ and ‘three in a bed’, all of which were examples of things that were especially intimate (inkle-weavers sat at looms that were close together).
These variants have now pretty much disappeared, leaving the way clear for ‘as thick as thieves’.
The association of thieves with conspiratorial and secretive language was well established in England in the 18th century. Many of those on the fringes of society, for example poachers, homosexuals, street hawkers and thieves, used secret words and phrases to converse furtively amongst themselves.
Backslang was one example of this, the best known survival of backslang being ‘yob’ for ‘boy’. Several lexicographers had published dictionaries used by those on the wrong side of the law, notably the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, 1698.
The ‘canting crew’ were the various vagabonds and coney-catchers (conmen) that inhabited the streets of British cities. The dictionary explained how to decipher the language of “the tribes of gypsies, beggars, thieves, cheats etc.”, so that people could “secure their money and preserve their lives”.
Given that thieves were established as being ‘thick’ by the late 17th century it is surprising that ‘as thick as thieves’ didn’t emerge until a century or so later. The records of the Old Bailey, which list transcripts of cases held there since 1674 and which might be just the place to find this phrase, don’t list it until 1874.
The first example that I can find of it in print is from the English newspaper The Morning Chronicle, in a letter dated March 1827, published in February 1828:
Bill Morris and me are as thick as two thieves.
So there you have it; proverbially at least, planks are stupid but thieves (unless you include bankers) aren’t.
Johann Schleyer on a harp given to him as a 50th birthday present by his colleagues at Sionsharfe, a magazine devoted mainly to Catholic poetry, which Schleyer edited and in which he first published on Volapük in 1879 –
Johann Schleyer was a German priest whose irrational passion for umlauts may have been his undoing.
The German alphabet consists of 26 characters plus 3 umlauts: ä, ö and ü. Umlauts are used as independent characters in the German language.
During one sleepless night in 1879, he felt a Divine presence telling him to create a universal language.
The result was Volapük. It was designed to be easy to learn, with a system of simple roots derived from European languages, and regular affixes which attached to the roots to make new words.
Volapük was the first invented language to gain widespread success.
By the end of the 1880s there were more than 200 Volapük societies and clubs around the world and 25 Volapük journals.
Over 1500 diplomas in Volapük had been awarded. In 1889, when the third international Volapük congress was held in Paris, the proceedings were entirely in Volapük.
Everyone had at least heard of it. President Grover Cleveland’s wife even named her dog Volapük.
Though Schleyer was German, a large part of the Volapük vocabulary was based on English.
“Volapük” was a compound formed from two roots, vol (from “world”) and pük (from “speak”).
However, it was often hard to spot the source of a Volapük word because of the way Schleyer had set up the sound system of the language.
“Paper” was pöp, “beer” bil, “proof” blöf and “love” löf. He had rational reasons for most of the phonological choices he made. For simplicity, he tried to limit all word roots to one syllable.
He avoided the ‘r’ sound, “for the sake of children and old people, also for some Asiatic nations.” The umlauts, however, were there for löf.
It is widelyacceptedthattheterm“billycan” is derivedfromthelargecansusedfortransportingbouilli or bullybeef on Australia-boundships or duringexploration of theoutback, whichafteruseweremodifiedforboilingwaterover a fire.
Howeverthere is a suggestionthatthewordmay be associatedwiththeAboriginal word for water billa.
In Australia,thebillyhascome to symbolisethespirit of exploration of theoutback.
IMAGE By WALTER CRANE, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 1875.
We take the phrase “once upon a time” for granted, but if you think about it, it’s quite oddball English.
Upon a time—? That’s just a strange construction. It would be pleasant to know its history: When, more or less, does it get up on its legs? Around when does it become standard procedure? My researches into this question, however, have yielded nothing conclusive.
Forget “upon a time.” Look at the “once.” That part really is standard from the beginning, and not only in English. Just this past weekend, I paged through fifteen volumes of the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, and I’m here to tell you:
The word once is in the first sentence of almost every single folktale every recorded, from China to Peru. There is some law of physics involved.
Folktales get right down to business, no fooling around. Once there was an old king who had two sons. Once there was a poor lace merchant who decided to make a trip. And if it doesn’t say “once,” it will say “a long time ago.” A long time ago, the fox and the hen were good friends. A long time ago, there was a man who had a shaving brush for a nose and who had two daughters, et cetera.
Why should it always be a long time ago. That’s easy. If you said, “When I was a girl, there was an old man in this village … ” you’d be opening yourself up for interruptions. Where is that old man now? Where are his two sons? But if the story took place a long, long time ago, or simply in undefined and undefinable history (“once”), interruptions will be … fewer.
I want to mention that not one story in Grimms’ Fairytales actually begins “once upon a time.” German doesn’t have that expression. They just say “once.”
Peter Mark Roget was born on 18 January 1779 in London, the son of a Swiss clergyman. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University and graduated in 1798.
As a young doctor he published works on tuberculosis and on the effects of nitrous oxide, known as ‘laughing gas’, then used as an anaesthetic.
Roget worked in Bristol and in Manchester and for a time was a private tutor, travelling with his charges to Europe.
In 1808, he moved to London and continued to lecture on medical topics.
He was made a fellow of the Royal Society and from 1827 to 1848 served as its secretary.
In 1814, he invented a slide rule to calculate the roots and powers of numbers. This formed the basis of slide rules that were common currency in schools and universities until the age of the calculator.
Later in his life, he attempted to construct a calculating machine. He also wrote on a wide range of topics.
In 1840, Roget effectively retired from medicine and spent the rest of his life on the project that has made his name, ‘Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrase’, which was a dictionary of synonyms.
As early as 1805 he had compiled, for his own personal use, a small indexed catalogue of words which he used to enhance his prolific writing.
His thesaurus was published in 1852 and has never been out of print.
Whilst conducting research into my family tree, I discovered a small collection of little girls born around between 1897-98 who were named either ‘Diamond’, ‘Jubilee’ or ‘Diamond Jubilee’, in honour of Queen Victoria’s landmark anniversary.
Looking a bit closer and going for a wildcard search, I found that it was a very popular phenomena!
Even the boys didn’t escape; you have to feel a bit sorry for ‘Jubilee Frederick’.
There were also a large number of children, again of both genders, given “Jubilee” as a middle name (at least was easier to hide), and the same thing had happened ten years earlier for the Golden Jubilee!
It wasn’t just anniversaries that were marked in such a way.
Nowadays it’s fairly common for a woman to either keep her maiden name when married, or double barrel it for her children.
Wind things back and such a practise was socially unacceptable; when you married you took your husband’s surname and that was that. But there were women who didn’t want to lose that connection.
My boyfriend discovered one of his direct ancestors was named ‘Inman’. After a quick search of marriage record, he discovered the boy had been given his mother’s maiden name.
Likewise my own grandfather was given the name ‘Avery’. My Mum was under the impression it was after his mother’s brother, in fact it was his paternal grandmother’s maiden name.
We should not forget the tradition for naming the occasional child born at sea.
After all, the voyage to a new life in Australia took several months and if your good wife was already expecting before you set off, then there was a chance she would ‘be delivered of a child’ onboard.
When this happened, it was only natural to name the child after the ship itself. Of course, this is fine if your daughter is born on the good ship Martha, but if that ship is called ‘Ostara’, are you really blessing your child, or cursing them?
People like to use the past as an excuse to change the way we behave in the future.
But if we started using any kind of official list, we’d be robbing ourselves of a tradition that many are ignorant of.
Little Gandalf may be quite proud of his name in the future…
If your child really hates their name, they can change it by deed poll when they’re eighteen.
In the mean time at least you can point out ‘Jubilee Frederick’, and remind them that it could have been worse.