Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 20 October 2007

When the postal strike was in full spate we heard quite a bit about ‘Spanish practices’, or at least we did sometimes.

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When the postal strike was in full spate we heard quite a bit about ‘Spanish practices’, or at least we did sometimes.

On one morning the BBC referred to ‘Spanish practices’ in the nine o’clock news and merely to ‘practices’ in its later bulletins, presumably for fear of offending any Spaniards who were listening in.

‘It used to be old Spanish customs in my day,’ said my husband, stirring in his armchair like a badger on a sunny winter’s day. But he was right about the grey years when unions would come out over the slightest disagreement over demarcation. They stayed true to old Spanish customs.

To be sure, practices is well enough established in a pejorative sense, having been in use for the past 500 years. In parallel it applied to a professional avocation. John Aubrey says in his Brief Lives that the notable lawyer John Selden (1584–1654) ‘had got more by his prick than he had done by his practice’, for, according to his version of events, the Countess of Kent ‘would let him lie with her, and her husband knew it’. After the Earl’s death, Selden married her, Aubrey asserts, though there is no public record of this; the most we have is the Countess’s will, in which she describes herself as ‘late wife’, not ‘widow’, of the Earl.

A play on the professional and the moral senses of practice allowed Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne some time before 1967 to say, ‘We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.’

The OED has not noticed the coupling of Spanish and practices, and it is in the dark about the precise origins of old Spanish customs, saying vaguely that the phrase is ‘used jocularly to justify a long-standing practice which is unauthorised or otherwise irregular’. Indeed its earliest citation of the phrase, from 1932, comes from Notes and Queries: ‘Could any reader tell me the origin of the phrase, “An old Spanish custom”, as applied, in a jocular sense, to any unauthorised practice?’ It does not appear that any reader could, satisfactorily.

Many ills have been blamed on Spain, from Spanish pox to Spanish flu or Spanish tummy. Their customs, like their proverbs, have been regarded as arcane and numerous. In a note written a few years before the Armada, Lord Walsingham wrote: ‘The French king will mislike, that, by any Spanish practice, she should be drawn to violate her faith.’ But here practice means ‘scheming’ or ‘trickery’, a step beyond a mere old Spanish custom.