Monday, January 5, 2015


There can be few things more embarrassing than old people using the words of young people.  When the attempt is made it is usually behind the cultural curve, so if I were to attempt a phrase like "What up dog?" it would sound inherently ridiculous and also be years out of date.  Which considering the majestic breadth and sweep of the English language a few years does not seem like much to me, but to younger ears anything more than a month or two in current use becomes mildewed and stuffy.

So to be on the safe side I am trying to use words appropriate to old people.  And to be very much on said safe side I try to give myself a few extra centuries for margin of error.

The other day I referred to one of my archeology pals as a "jackanapes".  He is a first rate fellow and deserves a first rate taunt.  Jackanapes is just that.

The history of the word goes back to at least the mid 15th century.  It is a slurring together of several words, indeed of several concepts.  As best I can tell it combines elements of "Jack" as a kind of generic term for "guy"; Naples, the great Italian port city, Ape, and perhaps Nape, the back of one's neck.

The current meaning of Jackanapes is a mischievous, impertinent rascal, usually but not exclusively a young boy.

Naples was an important trade connection for England, it was a place where goods from the rest of the Mediterranean world were traded and transshipped.  Supposedly there was actually a monkey named "Jack of Naples", or Jack'anapes,  performing on London streets,  He would presumably have a collar and chain and would certainly earn his peanuts by being an impertinent rascal.

But oddly there also was a historical figure whose nick name was Jack Napes, and some sources alternately attribute the term Jackanapes to him.

William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Sussex was a professional soldier in the Hundred Years war.  He later got mixed up in politics which eventually did cost him his head.

As a military commander he did about as well as can be expected for the era.  England was stomping around in France to no particular good effect.  Battles were won and lost, eventually he had to surrender to the French-Scottish forces led by Joan of Arc.  He spent three years as a prisoner before being released. There was some dark whispering that he had - scandalously - not paid his ransom and that he might be in league with the French.

Certainly he stayed on decent terms with them.  In fact the Earl of Sussex is a fairly noteworthy character in Shakespeare's Henry the VI plays.  In them he is correctly cast as the go between who arranged the marriage of Henry to a French princess, Margaret of Anjou.  Margaret was a strong queen wedded to a weak king.  This blog has been on her tracks once before in visiting The Queen's Cave in Northumberland. (As previously noted, the fact that the story of Queen Margaret commanding a bunch of ruffians - dare we say jackanapes? - to shelter her as she fled a crushing military defeat is too good to pass up, even if it was historically a bunch of nonsense!

The Earl of Sussex continued to tinker in politics.  This was never a good idea in Olde England and when there was a power vacuum from war and royal weakness it always ends badly.  When trying to flee to France he was arrested, given a perfunctory trial and then beheaded.

I think phrases that become popular enough to last for half a millennium must have quite a bit of cultural boost behind them.  So Jackanapes probably had several etymological "springs" from which it arose.  One has to assume that the original sense of a monkey on a leash had at its heart an actual monkey.  And the detail of being from Naples makes perfect sense.

William de la Pole, 1st Earl of Sussex was certainly a rascal of the first order.  Although not really one of the mischievous type.  He was a political wheeler-dealer and may in fact actually have been a traitor. Just how he got associated with a contemporary simian street performer is hard to say.  A simple insult from those he had wronged would suffice.  The Sussex coat of arms featuring a collar and chain was both ill chosen and an open invite to being compared to a monkey on a leash.  Perhaps the final cementing of the connection was made when the executioner's axe fell on the nape of his neck?

You may ask, how likely is it that a political insult from the 1400s would still be widely recognized in the 21st century?  Well, having Bill Shakespeare write you into a couple of plays does help.....
 Note:  I went looking for The Queen's Cave on a break from archeological digging in the summer of 2013.  My companion on the trip?  The very fellow I mention early in this post.  I submit to you:  This is the face of a Jackanapes!

1 comment:

mooseandhobbes said...