On those sadly rare occasions when I happen upon the word haberdasher, I think of Harry S Truman. As a boy I was mildly obsessed with the American presidents, and the first book I wrote was a collection of their potted biographies, concluding with our then-president, John F. Kennedy. I knew from my researches that when Truman returned from World War I, he and an army buddy opened Truman & Jacobson, a haberdashery in Kansas City that remained in business for almost three years. Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary defines haberdasher as “one who sells small wares; a pedlar.” Over the centuries the word’s meaning evolved, and in the U.S. by Truman’s time it came to mean a dealer in men’s clothing. In my young mind, the sound of the peculiar word (from the Anglo-Norman) was swanky, implying fancy duds, the sort of clothing the men in my family never wore.
From a story at the BBC by Fiona Macdonald I learned of a book new to me – the wittily titled A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) by Francis Grose. Judging by an engraving, Grose was a man of Falstaffian girth who lived up to his surname. His form and demeanor recall Robert Morley’s and Zero Mostel’s. Dictionaries and other reference books with pretensions to comprehensiveness make the best reading, and I was fortunate to find that my library has a facsimile edition of Grose’s dictionary published by the Scolar Press in 1968.
But to get back to haberdasher: Grose doesn’t collect that word but does give us the marvelous haberdasher of pronouns, which he defines as “a schoolmaster, or usher.” The OED reminds us that in Grose’s day, a haberdasher was “a dealer in small articles appertaining to dress, as thread, tape, ribbons, etc.” It took wit to redirect the word from trifles of dress to trifles of grammar – folk cheekiness. Present is a hint of condescension, a patronizing suggestion that a teacher is peddling sundries. Usher reinforces the theme but may require a gloss. The OED gives an earlier meaning now judged rare: “an assistant to a schoolmaster or head-teacher; an under-master, assistant-master.” This brings to mind the “Etymology” Melville places before the main text of Moby-Dick, a prologue he attributes to a “Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School”:
“The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”
Grose’s dictionary confirms my hunch that you can start anywhere in English, select any word, and with sufficient time, attentiveness and imagination, you can end up anywhere. Our language is at least as big as our world. Take words from a single page in Grose’s book, and let them carry you away:
wooden ruff: “the pillory”
wooden habeas: “a coffin”
wood pecker: “a bystander, who bets whilst another plays”
woman of the town: “a prostitute”
woolbird: “a sheep”
woolley crown: “a soft headed fellow”
And my favorite:
word pecker: “a punster, one who plays upon words”