At last, the truth about the alphabet has come to me

Whereas last week I was floundering in the dark, I am suddenly in possession of knowledge

LAST WEEK I referred in a column to the comic alphabet taught me by my father which starts " 'Ay for 'Orses, Beef or Mutton, Cephos Salt, Deferential..." and then asked if any readers could help fill in the gaps in my memory.

I should have known better.

I have been deluged by a hundred or more letters on the subject, some didactic but most written by people who had been told the alphabet by their father or mother, or colleagues in the forces, and triggered off by my remarks into a fit of nostalgia.

Luckily, one of the letters was just plain helpful. It came from proof- reader and copy editor Simon Adams, and said: "You need no website. David Crystal's The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language makes mention of several comic alphabets, but he himself is dependent on Eric Partridge's Comic Alphabets (1961)..."

It was followed through the post by a letter from none other than David Crystal himself, summarising the history of the comic alphabet for me (following Eric Partridge) and then, from a kind Mr Godden in Bristol, a loan copy of Mr Partridge's now hard-to-find book, which I devoured.

So whereas last week I was floundering in the dark, I am suddenly in possession of knowledge and can tell you that this alphabet grew from larking around in the Great War among signallers but was first formalised by a comic duo called Clapham and Dwyer in about 1929 in a BBC broadcast.

When Partridge went to the BBC to have a look at the original script of Clapham and Dwyer's broadcast in the archives he was told that all the material had been destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War, which makes it sound as if Hitler had personally given orders for this alphabet to be eliminated. But Partridge was able to piece together more or less the original alphabet from stuff published in the 1930s, and prints various versions of it.

He is the first to say, and I am the first to agree, that there is no authentic version of this alphabet. Like a lot of folk art, it changes with the period and with the performer. And, I may say, with the reader's letter, so without further ado, I am going to follow your suggestions through the alphabet and let you choose your preferred version.

A. Not much variation here. Everyone liked " 'Ay for 'Orses" except for a brave few who preferred "Ava Gardner".

B. "Beef or mutton" was the clear favourite here. Nobody liked my "beef or lamb", thinking it was far too modern. Other ideas which cropped up were "Beaverbrook", "bee for honey", "beef or mince", "before my time" and "B for Hugo". Before you go, I guess. I did, however, invent one myself here, which I was very proud of. "B for castle". Get it? "Belvoir Castle". Well, never mind.

C. Nobody liked my "Cephos Salt" either. The clear leader was "Seaforth Highlanders", though "C for yourself" was quite popular.

D. I couldn't detect a clear swing here. I was offered Differential, Deferential, D for Kate, Deaf or dumb, D for glory, Defer Payments, and Dee for Salmon. Several people insisted that Deaf or dumb was all right, because "deaf" was pronounced "deef" in the North-east, and I bet it is.

E. Eve or Adam, Eva Bartok, 'Eave a brick, Ether gas, Evolution, Eva Peron, Eva Braun, Eave oh, my hearties. I am not sure I like any of them terrifically, but there they are.

F. "Effervescence" seemed the clear favourite, though "efflorescence" cropped up quite a lot. "F for lasting" was suggested. So was "F for green", which I didn't understand until I spoke it out loud and got "evergreen".

G. Apparently, quite a lot of your parents got round the letter G by using it as a mild expletive. "Gee, for Gosh sake!", "Gee, forget it!", "Gee for crying out loud!" were all popular. Clapham and Dwyer's version, it seems, was "G for y Toye" which is incomprehensible till you learn that Geoffrey Toye was an impresario of the time. Still pretty feeble, though. The best one by far, as most of you agreed was "G for police" (Chief of Police). One or two tried "Jeefer Screepers". I wish you hadn't.

H. A lot of versions of the letter H turned on the fact that "aitch" sounds like "age". So I was offered "H for consent", "H for retirement", and so on. The best of these, possibly, was "H for beauty". Other versions heard H more like "ache" or "itch". Mr Stabb wrote from Cornwall to say that in a Cornish accent "Aitch for Scraitching" was quite all right. But I think the best was "H for Himself" (occasionally followed by "and run like mad!").

Good heavens, I've run out of space. Second half of the alphabet tomorrow.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own