Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 4 January 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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I lapped up Liza Picard's Dr Johnson's London on holiday, and now someone (not my husband) has given me her Restoration London for Christmas.

In a small section on the words used in the Restoration period, she brings in two expressions that she has come across in contemporary books, not in secondary sources such as dictionaries. The first is 'hoping to cure himself with the hair of the dog that bit him', said of a man with a hangover going to the bottle again. This was in Dr Willis's Oxford Casebook, she says. Is that Dr Thomas Willis (1621-75)?

No doubt it was in use in his time, for John Heywood, writing in 1546, has: 'I praie the leat me and my felowe have a heare of the dog that bote us last nyght.' (I like bote as the past tense of bite.) And Cotgrave in 1611 notes the same witticism from 'our ale-knyghts'.

Pepys, whose diary is spot on Mrs Picard's decade, is puzzled by the principle of the thing. He notes on 3 April 1661: 'Up among my workmen - my head akeing all day from last night's debauch. To the office all the morning; and at noon dined with Sir W. Batten and Pen, who would needs have me drink two good draughts of Sack today, to cure me of last night's disease - which I thought strange, but I think find true.'

By 1738 Swift is including 'the hair of the dog' in his catechism of clichZ, the Genteel and Ingenious Conversation. In 1973 I heard someone facetiously suggesting 'the hair of the dog that bit you' as a suitable response to the Psalm in the new-look English liturgy. So it is a stayer.

The other expression that struck Mrs Picard comes in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic, of a man who escaped the fire of London 'with the skin of his teeth'. This is from the book of Job (xix:20): 'My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.' It is a none too clear Hebraism; the Vulgate translates differently. People almost always misquote it as 'by the skin of my teeth'. But it is in the nature of well-known phrases to misquote.

Now I find that all I have done is pick holes. I really do enjoy Liza Picard's books, and make my remarks only as a fellow rummager through old lumber.