These are most famous Wodehousean words

The Edwardian era was when Wodehouse entered his 20s and came of age, and a lot of his words are redolent of that era

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 18 May 2023, 6:30 PM

Last week we looked at some of the 1756 words that the immortal P.G. Wodehouse, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, either invented or popularised. This time we doff our cap to some more of his lexical triumphs.

Wodehouse’s linguistic influences were varied. There was school slang: “biff” for hitting someone (“he biffed the bounder”) sounds like a word he might have picked up at school in Dulwich College. We all know longish words can be abbreviated, but some never were till Wodehouse took to them. Thus ‘perspiration’ took a new form in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923): ‘The good old persp was bedewing my forehead in a pretty lavish manner.’ Referring to an Archbishop as “archbish” may have come straight out of irreverent public school lingo. And unusual slang can be made respectable: the word ‘potty’, not for a child’s toilet but for being slightly off one’s rocker, became a noun in Wodehouse’s hands: ‘It was not primarily his pottiness that led him to steal [a pig called] the Empress.’

But beyond school, Wodehouse’s early years in lower-middle-class suburbia may have helped influence his vocabulary. Robert McCrum theorises that it was the atmosphere of suburban life, including commutes by Tube to the city, that prompted Wodehouse’s use of “giving someone the elbow”, in the sense of pushing someone aside, from his experience of taking a commuter train to the City. Suburban slang may also have prompted Wodehouse’s use of “chassis” for the human body (“he had the chassis of a heavyweight”), and jocular descriptions of someone’s beard as a “fungus” and moustaches as “soup strainers”.

The Edwardian era was when Wodehouse entered his 20s and came of age, and a lot of his words are redolent of that era: “gave me the pip” (irritated me); “restored the tissues” (had an alcoholic drink); “off his onion” (unbalanced); and “pure applesauce” (fanciful nonsense). Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones used a lot of Edwardian slang—like “cove” for a person, “blighter” for someone you are referring to negatively, “snifter” for a small drink, and “pip pip” instead of goodbye. (Also other equally Wodehousean words: “In that case,” said Archie, relieved, “cheerio, good luck, pip-pip, toodle-oo, and good-bye-ee!”)

Then Wodehouse migrated to the United States and the prevalent terms infected his writing: zippiness, hotsy-totsy, ritzy, dude, lame-brain, zing, and rannygazoo all feature in his novels. But the most famous Wodehousean words are inimitably English: “right ho”, to express agreement or acquiesce (“She right-hoed like a lamb”); “rummy” (not for a card game but as a synonym for “odd” or “strange”, as in “she has a rummy effect on me”); “shimmy”, to move lightly and swiftly (“Jeeves shimmied in”); “bally”, as a softer form of the mildly offensive “bloody” (“the whole bally scheme has blown a fuse”); “squiggle-eyed”, to view askance (“There is a certain stage in the progress of a man’s love when he feels like curling up in a ball and making little bleating noises if the object of his affections so much as looks squiggle-eyed at him”); or “nosebag“ for a meal (a British term for the canvas bag used for feeding animals by fastening it over their snouts, used to hilarious effect when describing aristocrats having a fancy meal).

The other Wodehouse technique was to convert perfectly ordinary words into unusual usages, often for comic effect: thus “burglarious” for “like a burglar”, “opprobrious” rather than saying “deserving opprobrium,” and “unscramble” for restoring a situation to order. He may have put something of himself into his memorable character Psmith (‘the P is silent as in psalm”) since both love quoting from the classics (and occasionally deliberately misquoting them).

Wodehouse, like Psmith, was never lost for words — his own, or other people’s. He had the uncanny gift of always coming up with the mot juste, an expression borrowed from the French (and meaning “the right, appropriate word”): “She legged it, and for a moment silence reigned. Then Bobbie said, “Phew!” and I agreed that “Phew!” was the mot juste.” (from Jeeves in the Offing, 1960). And of course, if he didn’t have the mot juste at hand, he simply invented it. For more, you must simply read the Master yourself!

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