Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

ITS TIME for some Advent season congratulations to you for solving the great bumtaffy conundrum. If that seems familiar, I can assure you that we have made astonishing progress since my last report.

It started when I quoted a sentence from Smollett in illustration of the phrase spend a penny. By the way it chanced that we stumbled over this other puzzling word bumtaffy. Smollett had put it in the mouth of the character Tabitha Bramble, a Welsh servant. That she is Welsh is relevant, since she tends to render the letter d as a t; and, as a servant, the unkind Smollett makes her guilty of malapropisms, as they weren't yet called in 1771.

Mr Richard Rose wrote in with the suggestion that the word was a version of baume de vie, but he could not say if such a phrase existed. The OED had no citation, but some readers in France then found it in a French dictionary.

Now Mr Robin Vick has found an advertisement in the Oxford Gazette for 26 May 1788, which he says he just happened to be reading. The baume de vie was a panacea, of course: `This celebrated and long established Medicine fortifies the stomach and bowels, purifies the blood and juices, and gives to the whole system its natural equilibrium. …

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