Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 30 July 2005

A Lexicographer writes

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‘It’s a Welsh rare bit,’ said my husband carefully, staring at some toasted cheese on toast. What, I asked him, would a ‘rare bit’ be like that wasn’t Welsh? He was unable to come up with a satisfactory answer.

It is strange that people not only insist on spelling Welsh rabbit as Welsh rarebit, but also think that by doing so they are performing some sort of explanatory task.

Dear old Hannah Glasse knew all about it. ‘To make a Welch-Rabbit,’ she says in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), ‘Toast the Bread on both Sides, then toast the Cheese on one Side, and lay it on the Toast, and with a hot Iron brown the other side.’

It is of interest that this is identical to her recipe for Scotch Rabbit, except that here she directs that the cheese be toasted on both sides. This is not, I feel, a vital distinction.

It is plain and easy enough to see that Welsh rabbit and Scotch rabbit belong to the large genus of items distinguished from their unWelsh and unScotch counterparts by being a bit funny. The terminology is jocular, even if you don’t see the joke.

A Welsh comb is the fingers used to arrange the hair. A Welsh pearl is a fake one. A Welsh carpet is floor bricks coloured in a pattern. A Welsh cricket is a louse. A Welsh ambassador is a cuckoo, or sometimes an owl. A Welsh mile is a long and tedious distance.

A Scotch fiddle is the itch. Scotch chocolate is brimstone and milk. Scotch marriages seldom turn out well. Scotch hands are butter pats. A Scotch prize in the Navy was a mistaken one. A Scotch woodcock is certainly not a woodcock. The days of such coinages are not lost. A Glasgow kiss is a butt in the face.

Who, then, introduced the red herring (or Yarmouth capon) of ‘Welsh rarebit? No one knows who the popular etymologiser was, but the mechanism is a common one. The earliest culprit in print was Francis Grose (who was as fat, if not as coarse as his name suggests) in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), where he defines Welch rabbit as ‘bread and cheese toasted, i.e., a Welch rare bit’. I suppose the vestigial jocularity is that even bread and cheese was a rare bit for a Welshman to dine on. It might have been a explanation that Grose had heard from his army acquaintances. But the mere concoction of an explanation is no guarantee that it has foundation in fact.