Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Mikado

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Act I

A-lee [her helm's a-lee]

This means that the rudder has been turned so as to swing the ship's bow into the wind and perhaps head her in another direction.

To lay aloft

To climb into the rigging, usually in order to raise or lower sails.

As the fiddler swings us round

The work of heaving up the anchor with a capstan was often given tempo by a man playing a fiddle. One more opportunity for you students of music.

And a rumbelow

The OED (229) tells us this is a meaningless set of syllables used as a refrain, originally by sailors when rowing. In some editions the word is mistakenly split into "rum below," which may have resulted from wishful thinking on the part of some thirsty typesetter. (But, see the entry for "Grog" in HMS Pinafore.) In his children's book The Story of The Mikado (133), Gilbert appends this footnote:

I have no idea what a "rumbelow" may be. No doubt it is some nautical article that is extremely useful on-board ship, for it is so often alluded to in sea-songs. It seems to hold the same place in a sea-song that the "old plantation" does in negro minstrelsy.

Protestations [to listen to my protestations]

Assurances, in this case of undying affection.

Reprieved [reprieved at the last moment]

Given temporary suspension of a sentence, in this case, of death.

Succinct [in words succinct]

Brief and to the point.

Connubially [Unless connubially linked]
Sketch of The youth who winked a roving eye

An adverb implying a state of being married.


Gilbert's poetic license applied to decapitated, i.e., beheaded.

Pre-Adamite [of Pre-Adamite ancestral descent]

Brewer (26D) informs us that this was the name given by Isaac de la Peyrère to a race of men whom he thought to have existed before the days of the Garden of Eden. He thought that only Jews are descended from Adam and Eve and that Gentiles derive from Pre-Adamites.


Pertains to the substance from which all plant and animal life are formed. Bradley (48) reminds us that when the opera was written Darwin's theory of evolution was still relatively new and, whereas traditionalists argued that Darwin was demeaning mankind, Gilbert turns the debate around and shows that Pooh-Bah takes great pride in his family tree that extends back even beyond 1066.


Original form of any matter.


A small sphere of matter.

Lord Chief Justice

Title given to heads of the courts of King's Bench and Common Pleas. Now given to the President of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court (141). Note that the term "Chief" in the title implies the position of presiding officer in a court of several judges (75).

[Note: For authoritative explanations of all Gilbert's legal and political terms you cannot do better than refer to Goodman (141).]


Top officer in the army.

Lord High Admiral

Top officer in the navy.

Master of the Buckhounds

Person in charge of the monarch's hunting dogs.

Groom of the Back Stairs

The term "groom" is not confined to a servant who takes care of horses. He may also be a household officer. Back stairs allow servants to go from floor to floor without disturbing the upper class inhabitants or their guests. A "Groom of the Back Stairs" is mentioned in Vanity Fair (287). Paget (230) says that until late in the eighteenth century English royal palaces had special "back stairs" guards. These discreet Yeomen of the Guard, on "back stairs duty," admitted private visitors to the monarch. The visitors, whether ministers or mistresses, entered the palace through an inconspicuous door and mounted the back stairs. This is the source of the phrase "back stairs influence." Isn't it delightful what titillating gems one can pick up in a lexicon? Incidentally, for what it's worth, a 1991 newspaper article (13) mentions a Page of the Back Stairs then currently employed in Buckingham Palace.

Archbishop of Titipu

The chief bishop in the region of Titipu. You may be sure that is an imaginary position.

Lord Mayor

The civic head of the town.