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Home > Fun stuff > Period glossary

Discover the origin of a word or expression from the period of the two Napoleons!

For further details on this section, please contact Peter at hicks(at)napoleon(dot)org.

 Longest palindrome in English

By common consent the longest palindrome (i.e., a word or phrase that reads the same forwards as backwards) is Napoleonic, namely, Able was I ere I saw Elba.


During the height of the Napoleon scare, 1803-1805, when the Camp de Boulogne was in full swing and Napoleon really seemed to be about to invade the British Isles, propaganda in Britain painted Napoleon as the devil incarnate. They called him Boney, which itself became corrupted to Bogey and Bogeyman, as the following nursery rhyme shows.
'Baby, baby, naught baby,
Hush! you squalling thing, I say;
Peace this instant! Peace! or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way.
Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Black and tall as Rouen's steeple,
Sups and dines and lives reliant
Every day on naughty people.
Baby, baby, if he hears you
As he gallops past the house,
Limb from limb at once he'll tear you
Just as pussy tears a mouse.
And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you all to pap:
And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Gobble you, gobble you, snap! snap! snap!'
Source: Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock, County Folk-Lore, vol. 5:  Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire (London: Folk-Lore Society, 1908), pp. 383-384.
Although it is an English lullaby, sometimes the name "Menshikoff" is used in place of Bonaparte.  In another version of the poem, the ogre is named Wellington. Variants include "And he breakfasts, dines, rely on't" and "every morsel snap, snap, snap."  A Japanese website contends that this lullaby had been around since the early 1600s, using the names of Cromwell and Charles I as "ogres". Be that as it may, ever since Napoleon, parents wishing to encourage recalcitrant children have threatened with the words 'The Bogeyman'll come and get you'.
Details courtesy of Elaine Hutchison, independent scholar

 Damned nice thing

The expression 'close run thing' derives supposedly from Wellington's remarks after the very late victory at Waterloo. The expression is widely used - even in the title a book (Allan Mallinson, 1999). What the generalissimo actually said was 'it has been a damned nice thing', as related by Thomas Creevey (1768-1838), a Whig MP, who incidentally also noted down Wellington's other famous remark, that, if he had 'enough of that article', gesturing towards a British soldier, he would overcome Napoleon. (Thomas Creevy, The Creevey Papers, ed. John Gore, 1938, p.136)
Sir Arthur Bryant records the moment in his book The Great Duke: 'So many of his [Wellington's] staff and general officers had been killed or wounded that, with their places to fill and urgent orders to be given for the pursuit of the French, at 5 a.m. the Duke, with his dispatch unfinished, mounted his horse and rode to Brussels. Here all the bells were ringing and the reprieved people shouting in the streets. Sitting at the open window of his hotel room, Wellington resumed his task. There was a crowd outside, including Thomas Creevey, who recorded for posterity what happened. 'Upon recognising me, be immediately beckoned to me with his finger to come up. . . . The first thing I did was to put my hand out and congratulate him upon his victory. He made a variety of observations in his short, natural, blunt way, but with the greatest gravity all the time, and without the least approach to anything like triumph or joy. "It has been a damned serious business," he said, "Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing - the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. Blucher lost 14,000 on Friday night, and got so damnably licked I could not find him on Saturday morning; so I was obliged to fall back to keep up communications with him." Then, as he walked about, he praised greatly those Guards who kept the farm (meaning Hougoumont) against the repeated attacks of the French; and then he praised all our troops, uttering repeated expressions of astonishment at our men's courage. He repeated so often it's being "so nice a thing – so nearly run a thing", that I asked him if the French had fought better than he had ever seen them do before. "No," he said, they have always fought the same since I first saw them at Vimiero." Then he said, "By God! I don't think it would have done if I had not been there."' Sir Arthur Bryant, The Great Duke; or, The invincible general, London: Collins, 1971, p. 453, after Creevey, The Creevey Papers, ed. cit., I, 23-67.
Source: NicholasDunne-Lynch, independent scholar

 England expects...

According to Captain John Pasco, Flag Lieutenant on Victory, the famous signal was given as follows (Dispatches and Letters of Nelson, ed. N. Nicolas, 1845, vol. VII, p. 150): 'His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signal to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, 'Mr Pasco, I wish to say to the Fleet, 'England confides that every man will do his duty';' and he added, 'you must be quick, for I have one more to make, which is for Close Action.' I replied, 'If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the expects for confides, the signal will soon be completed, because the word expects is in the vocabulary, and confides must be spelt.' His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, 'That will do, Pasco, make it directly.' When it had been answered by a few ships in the Van, he ordered me to make the signal for Close Action, and to keep it up: accordingly, I hoisted No. 16 at the top-gallant mast-head, and there it remained until it was shot away.'


 En flute

A ship 'armée en flûte' is one which has no guns on it at all.


The word 'grog' (which first appeared in English in the mid-eighteenth century) is an abbreviation of the mid-sixteenth century word 'Grosgram' (itself a corruption of the French expression 'gros grain', literally 'coarse grain cloth'). 'Old Grog' was the name given to Admiral Vernon (1684-1757), famed for his bold taking of Porto Bello (Panama) from the Spanish (21 November, 1739). And he received it because of his habit of wearing a 'grogram' cloak when walking the deck in bad weather. Whether out of parsimony or in order to have seamen less inebriated, Admiral Vernon famously ordered that the neat rum which his sailors used to receive should be cut with water (some also say citrus juice). This new drink was baptised with the nickname of its first 'perpetrator'.

 Kiss me, Hardy!

On being hit by a sniper's bullet at 1:25pm on 21 October, 1805, Nelson collapsed on to the deck of Victory. He was carried below deck to be tended by distraught shipmen and Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy (1769-1839), an old friend of Nelson's. Just before the admiral died, he called Hardy and famously requested an embrace with the (now often ridiculed) words 'Kiss me, Hardy'.


In the 19th century, trenchwork or defensive dugouts were referred to as lines. Hence the huge complex of forts, ditches, inundations and other obstacles built by Wellington in 1809 just behind Lisbon were known as the 'Lines of Torres Vedras'.


The 'darned Mounseer' of Gilbert and Sullivan fame was British Navy slang for Frenchmen, itself a corruption of 'Monsieur'.

 Press gang

Founded long before the Napoleonic wars, the Impress service came into high profile during the wars with Revolutionary France. The word impress was derived from the old French word 'prest', modern 'prêt' or loan/advance, in other words, each man 'impressed' received the loan of a 'shilling' (that is he paid the 'King's shilling' to enlist) and became a '(im)prest man'. The service, also known as the Press Gang, was present in every major port in the kingdom. The service's offices were called 'Rendezvous' with a Regulating Officer in charge, and he hired local hard men as 'gangers'. These thugs would thus roam the countryside attempting to 'encourage' men aged between 18 and 55 to join the navy. No-one was safe from the gang, and often the only escape route when captured was to bribe the gang or to join it. A preferred target for the pressgang was the merchant navy, so it was not infrequent to find special hiding places on merchant vessels. Also, the return of prisoners of war from France was also seen as the perfect moment to impress crewmen, such that very often the returning POWs were turned round and pressganged even before they set foot once more on home soil. The captains of merchant vessels frequently took pity on those they were repatriating and tried to let them land in places far from the ports and the pressgangs.
Hence the expression to be 'pressganged' into doing something, meaning to be forced into doing it.


A sheltered piece of water near a shore where ships may ride at anchor in safety. Often found in naval writings of the period to describe anchorages.

 To take the King's shilling

The expression 'to take the king's shilling, meant to sign up to join the army. Rather like with the 'prest' money for the 'impressed' man, a bonus payment of a shilling was offered to tempt lowly paid workers to leave their trade (an average daily wage during the Napoleonic period was 2p (at 12p to a shilling, this represented six days wages in one go). Once the shilling had been accepted, it was almost impossible to leave the army.
Since the army was not seen as an attractive career, recruiting sergeants often had to use less than honest methods to secure their 'prey', such as getting the recruitee drunk, slipping the shilling into his pocket and then hauling him before the magistrate the following morning (still hungover) to get him to accept the fact that he was now in the army. Sometimes the 'King's shilling' was hidden in the bottom of a pewter tankard (having drunk his pint, the unfortunate drinker found that he had unwittingly accepted the King's offer). As a result, some tankards were made with glass bottoms. Other recruits came from the courts, where a criminal's sentence could be commuted to service in the army - still the case (apparently) with the Blackwatch Regiment.
In fact the bounty for joining the army was much larger than a shilling. New recruits received £23.17s.6d, but out of this they were obliged to buy their uniform - a not inconsiderable expence.
Source: Richard Callaghan, Curator of the Redoubt Fortress Museum at Eastbourne, Sussex, on the BBC Education site

 Nation of shopkeepers

One of Napoleon's most famous remarks for the English-speaking world is 'England is a nation of shopkeepers', ('L'Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers'). Whilst Bourrienne, Napoleon's faithful secretary from 1795 to 1802, gives a version of it in his Mémoires (vol. 1, (Paris: Ladvocat, 1831) p. 274 - "Angleterre...a people which he [Napoleon] so disdainfully used to call a nation of shop-keepers ('peuple boutiquier') which hates us", it does not appear in the standard compilations of Napolenoic quotes. The only quotations which have at least documentary backup are those which appear either in the Correspondance of Napoleon or in the Memorial de Sainte-Hélène by Las Cases. A screensaver of authentic quotations (in French) can be downloaded here on the site.
Other 'spurious' Napoleon quotations include:
'A picture is worth a thousand words'
'An army marches on its stomach'.

 I really do not see that signal

At the Battle of Copenhagen 1801, Nelson was under the orders of the old admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Out of concern that the British fleet was getting the worst of it, Parker (who was anchored far from the action) ran up the signal flag for Nelson to disengage. Colonel William Stewart recounted Nelson's reaction (The Dispatches and Letters of Nelson, ed. N. Nicolas, 1845, vol. iv 308 n.). "Lord Nelson was at this time, as he had been during the whole action, walking on the starboard side of the quarter-deck; sometimes much animated, and at other heroically fine in his observations. A shot through the mainmast knocked a few splinters about us. He observed to me, with a smile, 'It is warm work, and this day may be the last to any of us at any moment;' and then stopping short at the gangway, he used an expression never to be erased from my memory, and said with emotion, 'but mark you, I would not be elsewhere for thousands'. When the signal; No. 39 (to discontinue the engagement), was made, the Signal Lieutenant reported it to him. He continued his walk and did not appear to take notice of it. The Lieutenant meeting his Lordship at the next turn asked, 'whether he should repeat it?' Lord Nelson answered, 'No, acknowledge it.' On the officer returning to the poop, his Lordship called after him, 'Is the No. 16 (for close action) still hoisted?' the Lieutenant answering in the affirmative, Lord Nelson said, 'Mind you keep it so.' He now walked the deck considerably agitated, which was always known by his moving the stump of his right arm. After a turn or two, he said to me, in a quick manner, 'Do you know what's shown on board the Commander-in-Chief, No. 39?' On asking him what that meant, he answered, 'Why, to leave off Action.' 'Leave off Action!' he repeated, and then added with a shrug, 'Now, damn me if I do.' He also observed, I believe, to Captain Foley, 'You know Foley, I have only one eye - I have a right to be blind sometimes; and then with an archness peculiar to his character, putting the glass to his blind eye, he exclaimed, 'I really do not see the signal'."

 British Tommy

The name Tommy Atkins, used to describe the typical British soldier, probably originated in a War Office publication of 1815. This pamphlet showed how a Soldier's Book should be made out, and gave Pte Thomas Atkins as its example. Some have suggested that the Duke of Wellington suggested the name himself, in memory of a soldier in his regiment who had been killed in Flanders in 1794. The nickname had wide currency by the 1880s, and was universal in World War One.

 To meet your Waterloo

'To meet your Waterloo' means to come to a final disaster. Most recent high profile usage of the expression was in the ABBA hit single of the late 70s 'Waterloo'.

 Wellington boot

There is no evidence that the Duke of Wellington invented the boot that now carries his name. The first 'Wellington boots' were made of leather and used at the battle in 1815. It is not clear when the boots were first made of rubber. The first company to sell rubber boots started in 1865, but earlier in 1857 by Mr Lochigton patented a boot that used rubber and leather.
Source: Science Net

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