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Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 7 June 2008

Dot Wordswoth on pens and puns<br type="_moz" />

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Dot Wordswoth on pens and puns

‘Why,’ asked my husband, looking up from his book, ‘is Joseph Gillott a very bad man?’

‘What?’ I said.

‘Because,’ he replied, as if I had acknowledged defeat, ‘he wishes to accustom the public to steel pens and then tries to persuade them that they do write.’

By the way that he was slapping his thigh and spilling his glass of whisky, I could see that he thought this was a joke. There was, it appeared, a double play on words: steel and steal, and do write and do right. Who Joseph Gillott was, perhaps I should have known, but didn’t.

He was, it turns out, the perfecter of the steel pen nib. ‘It was said to be doubtful,’ remarks the ODNB, ‘if any article of such wide and universal use was ever so identified with the name of one man.’ Except, of course, that it isn’t now.

Gillott (1799–1872) managed to make hard steel flexible enough to emulate a quill. The price of his nibs fell quickly, and by the 1860s his 450 workers, whom he treated benevolently, were turning out five tons of nibs a week in Birmingham.

It was in 1867 that the joke that so pleased my husband was published, in a book called Puniana. It contains hundreds, of the most contrived kind. ‘A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket,’ said the critic John Dennis, of some forgotten pun. Some people suppose Samuel Johnson made the remark. Dennis, who died in 1734, got there first.

Puniana was compiled, with dozens of his own drawings, by the Hon. Hugh Rowley, perhaps the one who in 1859 had sued for perjury the wife who’d divorced him; perhaps not. He also wrote Advice to Parties About to Marry, though I’ve never seen a copy and suspect it is the same book as Gamasogammon, or Hints on Hymen, for the Use of Parties about to Connubialize.

Rowley was an obscure hack writer for that shop-soiled whirlwind of energy John Camden Hotten, best known for his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1859). Hotten pirated books, and was probably a peddler of pornography, but was bursting with initiatives. In the 1860s, while Gillott was turning out steel pens, Hotten was turning out popular paperback fiction at 6d a volume.

Puniana is as relentless in its production as the pen-factory. This, which my husband failed to get, is a fair sample: ‘What shape is a kiss?’ ‘A-lip-tickle.’