The Words of Downton Abbey

Courtesy of

Downton Soup: The Words of Downton Abbey, Season 3

Downton.DowntonAbbeyAs avid watchers of Downton Abbey, haven’t we all sat up, perked our ears and, scratching our heads, muttered:

“Huh? What did Mrs. Hughes just say?”
“What was Lord Grantham talking about?”

Wordnik to the rescue! In her February 14 Wordnik Blog post, Angela Tung elucidates those words and phrases: “If you’re like us, you’ve been closely following the trials and tribulations of the Granthams and those who serve them … We’ve also been collecting words and phrases from the show, some perfectly ordinary, others more unusual, and all with interesting stories about how they came to be.”

Blimey (Episode 4)
Sybil: “Mary, you know what I said about the baby being Catholic. I’ve just realized the christening will have to be here, at Downton.”
Mary: “Blimey.”
Blimey is a British expression many of us are familiar with. It’s used to express anger, surprise, excitement, etc., and originated around 1889 as a corruption of “(God) blind me,” says etymonline. Gorblimey is a variant.

Chu Chin Chow (Episode 6)
Mrs. Hughes: “Then your dinners would be grand enough for Chu Chin Chow.”
Chu Chin Chow is a musical comedy based on Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves in which “the wealthy merchant Kasim Baba (brother of Ali Baba) [gives] a lavish banquet for a wealthy Chinese merchant, Chu Chin Chow, who is on his way from China.” The show premiered in London in 1916 and ran for five years.

cock-a-hoop (Episode 8)
Hugh: “Nield is cock-a-hoop.”
Cock-a-hoop means “exultant; jubilant; triumphant; on the high horse,” as well as “tipsy; slightly intoxicated.” The term comes from the phrase “to set cock on hoop,” which literally means “to turn on the tap and let the liquor flow,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and figuratively, “to drink festively.” Cock in this context refers to “a faucet or valve by which the flow of a liquid or gas can be regulated,” while a hoop is “a certain quantity of drink, up to the first hoop on a quart pot.”

Debrett’s (Episode 5)
Cora: “Not everyone chooses their religion to satisfy Debrett’s.”
Debrett’s is a British publisher of etiquette guides and Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage, a “genealogical guide to the British aristocracy.”

gippy tummy (Episode 8)
O’Brien: “Something different. I could fancy that.”
Wilkins: “Not me. All sweat and gippy tummy.”
A gippy tummy is, according to the OED, “diarrhœa suffered by visitors to hot countries,” where gippy is slang for Egyptian. Gippy tummy may also be an anachronism: the OED lists the earliest use of the term as 1943, 23 years after this episode takes place.

hobbledehoy (Episode 1)
Carson: “Miss O’Brien, we are about to host a society wedding. I have no time for training young hobbledehoys.”
A “raw, awkward youth,” the word is very old, originating in the 16th century. The first syllable hob probably refers to “a hobgoblin, sprite, or elf,” while -dehoy may come from the Middle French de haye, “worthless, untamed, wild.”

in someone’s bad books (Episode 2)
Daisy [to Mosely about O’Brien]: “I wouldn’t be in her bad books for a gold clock.”
To be in someone’s bad books means to be in disgrace or out of favor. The phrase originated around 1861, says the OED. An earlier phrase (1771) is to be in someone’s black book. A black book was “a book kept for the purpose of registering the names of persons liable to censure or punishment, as in the English universities, or the English armies.” So to be in someone’s black book meant to be in bad favor with that person.

in the soup (Episode 2)
Daisy [to Mosely]: “You’re in the soup.”
To be in the soup means to be in difficulty, according to the OED. The phrase was originally American slang, originating around 1889.

Johnny Foreigner (Episode 3)
Robert: “But there always seems to be something of Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics.”
Johnny Foreigner is a derogatory term for “a person from a country other than those which make up the United Kingdom.”

left-footer (Episode 6)
Robert: “Did you hear Tom’s announcement at breakfast? He wants the child to be a left-footer.”
Anachronism alert! Left-footer, which is slang for a Roman Catholic, didn’t come about until 1944, according to the OED, 24 years after this episode takes place. The term seems to come from the belief that “in the North of Ireland that Catholic farm workers use their left foot to push the spade when digging, and Protestants the right.”

plain cook (Episode 4)
Mrs. Bird: “She says there’s plenty of work for a plain cook these days.”
A plain cook, says the OED, is “a cook who specializes in, or most frequently prepares, plain dishes.” Plain dishes are “not rich or highly seasoned,” and have a few basic ingredients.

rich as Croesus (Episode 1)
Mary: “He’s as rich as Croesus as it is.”
Croesus was, in ancient Greece, the last king of Lydia “whose kingdom, which had prospered during his reign, fell to the Persians under Cyrus.” Croesus came to refer to any rich man by the late 14th century.

squiffy (Episode 6)
Robert: “I’m very much afraid to say he was a bit squiffy, weren’t you, Alfred?”
Squiffy means tipsy or drunk, and is of “fanciful formation,” according to the OED.

stick it up your jumper (Episode 6)
Anna: “They’ll have to give Thomas his notice.”
Bates: “Mr. Barrow.”
Anna: “Mr. Stick It Up Your Jumper.”
The full phrase is oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper!, and is “an expression of contempt, defiance, rejection or dismissal.” It may have originally been “a meaningless jingle chanted jocularly or derisively” from the 1920s. The phrase makes a famous appearance in the Beatles’ song, I Am the Walrus.

tuppence (Episode 6)
Isabel: “She couldn’t give a tuppence about Ethel.”
Tuppence is an alternation of twopence, two pennies or a very small amount. One who doesn’t give a tuppence doesn’t care at all.

Downton.MagicalMysteryTour.580x580.albumcoverNever one to miss an opportunity to talk up a musical reference, Lollapalingo returns you now to the previously mentioned, I Am the Walrus. A 1967 song by the Beatles, written by John Lennon and credited to Lennon–McCartney, it appears on the album, Magical Mystery Tour. According to Mark Lewisohn in his book, The Beatles: Recording Sessions (Harmony Books NY 1990), a group of professional studio vocalists, the Mike Sammes Singers, took part in the recording of I Am the Walrus, variously singing Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, ha-ha-ha”, “oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper!, “everybody’s got one” and making a series of shrill whooping noises.

Blimey, I daresay those verses make more sense when one is a bit squiffy and feeling cock-a-hoop, not that we give a tuppence what anyone thinks.

Wordnik Logo: Wordnik
Downton Abbey Photo: Carnival Films via The Chicago Maroon


  1. I love this post! I’m an avid Downton Abbey watcher and this makes me want to go back and watch it again (not that I need an excuse) now with better understanding. THANK YOU!

  2. Robin Freund -Epstein says:

    This is great. I will forward to aunt Thelma so she can enjoy the fun

    Sent from my iPhone

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