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
Wednesday 06 January 1999
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.
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