Benford's Gilbert & Sullivan Lexicon

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Ralph MacPhail, Jr., Editor. Click the Operas tab to explore opera chapters.

To all
who might appreciate
the gilded philosophic pill.


About Harry Benford

Harry Benford leads a double life. By day he is a long-retired Professor of Naval Architecture at the University of Michigan. As the shades of night fall over Ann Arbor, however, a sinister transformation takes place. His teeth lengthen into fangs, his hair (what's left of it) bristles in all directions; his hands turn into paws (but only after he has unbuttoned his spats), his eyebrows grow together over his nose, and he becomes a Gilbert & Sullivan fiend of the most rabid kind.

This strange affliction has its roots in 1956, when he and his first wife, Betty (now deceased), started serving as faculty advisors to The University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Harry is now less actively involved with the student group, having seen the responsibility more-than-amply taken over by  another faculty couple: Karl and Ann Zinn. Harry recalls with satisfaction  having founded the Society's friends group, FUMGASS, and having for thirteen years published its journal, GASBAG (Gilbert & Sullivan Boys & Girls).

Harry still maintains correspondence with G&S fans around the world and takes particular pleasure in accompanying his great granddaughter, Bonnie Betty Benford, to UMGASS Saturday matinees. Harry endured a significant loss when his first wife, Betty, died suddenly in 2005, but then had the great good fortune to find Kathy, a second wife of singular virtues, who fits right in with his Geeandessian views and Geeandessian friends.

​About Kenneth Sandford

Kenneth Sandford, who wrote the foreword is, arguably, the greatest singer-actor ever to grace the D’Oyly Carte name. He was associated with the works of Gilbert & Sullivan from 1957, when he joined the illustrious company as a young man. For more than forty years he set a standard of performance that proved inspirational to fellow-professionals and amateurs alike. Until his death in 2004 at the age of 80, he continued to delight audiences with his lovely singing, and took every opportunity to pass on to the next generation of Savoyards the benefits of his vast experience.

He was a man of unfailing modesty, wit, and good humor. Happily, his legendary interpretations of the "Pooh-Bah" roles are preserved for posterity courtesy of his many fine recordings and also my biography of this great artist.

Kenneth Sandford’s Gilbert and Sullivan legacy will last for many decades to come -- not bad for a north-country lad who had set out to be a painter!

--Roberta Morrell

About Geoffrey Shovelton

Geoffrey Shovelton, who designed cover and chapter frontispiece illustrations for the Second, Third, and Online Editions,​ first performed G&S in a 1961 production of The Pirates of Penzance, when he was still a geography teacher.

In 1971 he became a full-time professional singer and, two years later began to sing G&S again, with Thomas Round and Donald Adams in G&S for All (in the UK) and The World of Gilbert and Sullivan (in Australasia and North America). TheD’Oyly Carte Opera Company offered him his first contract in 1975 and he became principal tenor, touring the UK and North America with the company, and recording with Decca.

After the company’s closure, in February 1982, Geoffrey’s freelance career included G&S, which he performed at the Gawsworth Summer Theatre, the Buxton International G&S Festival (in the UK and the USA) and with G&S a la Carte – a company created by former D’Oyly Carte performers. He sang the G&S tenor leads, as a guest artist, for many companies in the UK and for the Washington (DC) Savoyards during 1992-94. 

From 1984 Geoffrey toured North America for Byers-Schwalbe Inc., as singer/manager with The Best of Gilbert & Sullivan, a company he formed to include D’Oyly Carte principal colleagues. In 1993 the group changed to the Riles Agency and continued to tour until 2005, with Geoffrey’s wife, Deborah Clague, as principal soprano.

Geoffrey and Deborah now live amid the lakes and forests of the Western Mountains of Maine, where he devotes much of his time to artwork and writing. As a custodian of his family’s history, he is writing his life story – illustrated, of course - for his six grandchildren in the UK.

​About Ralph MacPhail, Jr.

Ralph MacPhail, Jr., is Professor emeritus of Theatre, Bridgewater College of Virginia, where he taught and directed for 33 years. 

Still residing in Bridgewater "in retirement," he serves as Artistic Director of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin (, and enjoys an active schedule of speaking on, writing about, and directing the Savoy operas.

An avid collector of anything related to G&S, he also enjoys corresponding with fellow Savoyards: [email protected].

What in the world is a Groom of the Back Stairs? or a Chancery Lane young man? or spleen and vapours? or Dithyrambic revels? or Time’s teetotum? or asinorum pons? And how does one tuck in one’s tuppenny? These are words or phrases that I have carefully mouthed hundreds of times in my forty-one-year professional career as a performer of the Savoy operas. I had at best only some vague idea of what they meant. And, to be frank, I seldom had the time to find out what Mr Gilbert really had in mind. Then, in 1978 Harry Benford published the first edition of this book and the full genius of Gilbert’s creativity began to come to light. Harry brought out a second edition in 1991, which enlarged the scope of coverage. Now, in this third edition he has provided not only an even greater scope, but a significant increase in the depth of understanding. Each of these editions has given me a heightened appreciation of the G&S librettos and enhanced my pleasure in performing my parts.

Gilbert’s skill as a word-smith deserves much of the credit for the continuing popularity of the comic operas he and Sullivan brought forth. But Gilbert’s genius is seldom fully appreciated because new nuances of meaning have crept into the language during the more-than-hundred years that have passed since he wrote the lines. Even when the operas were freshly minted, admirers in the United States and Canada continually ran across unfamiliar, unfathomable terms. Now, however, this book opens the door to a complete understanding of Gilbert’s genius, hence an enhanced pleasure in the Savoy operas. You could even derive a new appreciation of Sullivan’s musical genius in matching Gilbert’s words.

I have made extensive use of the book and recommend it to all G&S admirers, whether in the audience, on the stage, or behind the scenes.

--Kenneth Sandford

When my first edition appeared, in 1978, it attracted a fair share of friendly criticism for its mistakes and omissions. In 1991, with the second edition, I sought to satisfy the critics; but, alas! I once again failed to attain perfection. In like manner the carefully edited third edition (1998) attracted further suggestions for refinement. Moreover, there are still several terms in which Gilbert’s meaning is obscure. Examples include rig, grig, gondolet, Montero, and daphnephoric bound. We must also watch out for those few cases where Gilbert may have been careless – as when he says “first take off his boots with a boot tree,” but his picture shows a boot jack. Then, too, poetic license must be granted. As Gilbert once noted, “when people lapse into poetry you can never be quite sure what they mean.” In light of all of the above, I have concluded that there will always be room for improvement, and therefore the lexicon should be treated as a living, work-in-progress, an ever-improving reference. That aim, however, introduces the problem of financing a continual stream of newly printed editions in the face of a limited market.

In addition to the problem outlined above, I have to consider my advancing years, now in the nineties. This has led me to seek an editorial successor, and I have had the good luck to find the ideal individual for the assignment: Professor Ralph MacPhail, Jr., who–figuratively speaking–combines the manners of a Marquis with the morals of a Methodist, as far as this particular responsibility is concerned. He is well known to G&S enthusiasts around the world; he has the required intellectual skills in abundance; he is serious about defending the purity of the English language (in both British and American versions): and he brings considerable enthusiasm to the job. Moreover, being newly retired from his notable academic career, he should hope to find the time required to keep the lexicon alive.

​Rafe has made an excellent suggestion: that we abandon the thought of publishing another conventional book, but make the intellectual content freely available in an electronic, online edition. The beauty of this is that he can easily effect improvements on a continuing basis, and future references to the work can be made to the Online Edition with the date of access.

There are other advantages to this scheme for making continual improvements. First, Gilbert's amazing vocabulary gives a fertile field for sowing our intellectual seeds; as time goes on, we can expect to find additional facts to enrich our existing entries. Second, by switching to the Internet, we have no incentive to overly-minimize wordage to hold down printing costs. Third, in the far future our readership may develop in ways that may suggest the need for defining terms that today need no such help.

I am sincerely grateful to Rafe for his enthusiastic willingness to take over as editor. I am sure the lexicon will prosper under his devoted guidance.

--Harry Benford (Ann Arbor, 2008)

A Postscript—and An Invitation

Five years: it seems so long! Various projects have delayed the appearance of Harry’s Lexicon online, but another real stumbling block has been my ignorance of HTML coding.

So I was very pleased when Ted Spencer expressed interest, just over a year ago, in the challenges of converting the Lexicon to an online resource for Savoyards everywhere and in hosting it at his website, It is due to Ted’s knowledge, cleverness, creativity, and perseverance that Harry’s generous gift is now up and running.

Ted joins me, however, in echoing Harry’s comment above that this is a work-in-progress. Ted and I both have plans for making the Lexicon even more useful as we adapt it to this dynamic new medium and continue to amplify and tweak it. These plans include more options for searching; cross-referencing terms used in more than one opera; full libretti with hyperlinks to definitions; and even audio pronunciation aids for some entries.

I also hope in time to restore definitions and corroborative details deleted from the first and second editions because of space limitations in printed books. In addition, Harry has been sending me corrections and updates to the third edition for years now, and these will eventually be incorporated into the work. With the help of you, the online users, additional corrections and amplifications will be made.

So suggestions, corrections, and feedback are welcome; please send them to [email protected].

I am very grateful for the trust Harry has placed in my editorship of his classic reference work in this new medium; ‘tis an honor to be associated with it—and a pleasure, too. With your help and Ted’s, Benford’s Lexicon will live on and continue to provide insight and delight to that special brand of folk who love the Savoy operas.

--Ralph MacPhail, Jr. (Bridgewater, July 2013)

Acknowledgments to the First Edition [1978]

I have relied heavily on the opinions of many of my friends who also happen to be Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts and scholars. Some have carefully reviewed and criticized all of my early-draft efforts. Those individuals merit special acknowledgment, including fanfare and laurel wreaths. Here they are, in alphabetical order: Tantantara!

George Applegate (now deceased)
H.D. Cameron
Terence Rees
Jane W. Stedman
John Stell (now deceased)
Michael Walters

I also want to recognize advice given in response to specific questions by the following fellow-enthusiasts (again, in alphabetical order): Michael Andrewes, Isaac Asimov (deceased), Earl F. Bargainnier, Betty Benford, Gloria Bennish (deceased), J. Stuart Bradshaw, Diana Burleigh, Warren Colson (deceased), Vivian Denison (deceased), James Drew, Aidan Evans (deceased), J.C.G. George, Andrew Goodman, Sara Kane, Wilfred Kaplan, Phyllis Karr, Daniel S. Knight, Ralph MacPhail, George McElroy, Gershom Morningstar, Ronald Orenstein, Christopher Orr, Elinor Parker, Patricia and Thomas Petiet, Beverley Pooley, Colin Prestige, Dorothy Raedler, Thomas G. Robinson, Vicki Rise, Jesse Shereff, Sir Alfred Sims (deceased), Constance Thompson, Blanca Torres, Albert Truelove (deceased), Richard Walker (deceased), Claude A. Walmisley, Em Ware, and Peter Zavon.

--Harry Benford

Acknowledgments to the Second Edition [1991]

I want to pay particular tribute to these dozen acknowledged G&S scholars who kindly criticized both the first edition and, later, a "dress rehearsal" of this second edition. And I must confess that every one of them would be better qualified than I to write this book. In alphabetical order they are: Andrew Goodman, John Huston, William Hyder, Tony Joseph, Daniel Kravetz, Ralph MacPhail, Colin Prestige, Terence Rees, Marc Shepherd, Jane W. Stedman, David Stone, and Michael Walters.

To gain the reaction of more typical readers, I elicited suggestions from James and Mary Anne Wilkes, and John Cederquist, and his wife, Meg Kennedy-Shaw. Their suggestions have done much to improve the readability of this book.

My eagle-eyed wife, Betty, served the double function of full-time consultant and fastidious proof-reader.

Isaac Asimov (deceased) was kind enough to revise his original foreword to bring it up to date, and to give the latest score on the number of his publications. Geoffrey Shovelton has designed the front cover and prepared another of his clever cartoons as a frontispiece for The Zoo. I am grateful to both of those talented friends.

Five good friends submitted many detailed suggestions on how to improve the first edition. I am pleased to recognize the value of their contributions. They are; George Applegate (deceased), James Devlin, Aidan Evans (deceased), Phyllis Karr, and George McElroy.

Many other friends submitted less extensive suggestions. They can be sure their ideas were warmly received. Here they are: Gordon Barnett, Michael Bernitsas, Stuart Bradshaw, Gladys Breuer, John Caldwell, H.D. Cameron, Sarah Cole, Warren Colson (deceased), Ronald and Jean Fava, Silvano Gandusio, Charles Hayter, Arthur Jacobs (deceased), David E. Jones, Sylvan Kesilman, and Daniel S. Knight.

The list continues: Mitchell Krieger, Gershom Morningstar, Roberta Morrell, Roy Jay Nelson, Anastassios Perakis, Beverley Pooley, Ronald Orenstein, Rosemary Russell, Jesse Shereff, George Shirley, Edward Stasheff, Leslie and Joyce Thurston, Albert Truelove (deceased), William Venman, Jocelyn Wilkes, George Williams, and Fredric Woodbridge Wilson.

Toward the end of my lexicographic struggles, I enjoyed the privilege of spending an hour absorbing the advice of six professional Savoyards: Patricia Cope, Lorraine Daniels, Alistair Donkin, David Mackie, Kenneth Sandford, and Geoffrey Shovelton. They kindly explained the meanings of some twenty terms that had been causing me prolonged difficulty.

Finally, particular praise must be directed toward Paula Bousley, whose nimble fingers and even-more-nimble mind forged this opus into its final form.

--Harry Benford

Acknowledgments to the Third Edition [1999]

While I was working on this third edition I was surprised by the number of kind-hearted volunteers who sent me suggestions for improvements, or found other ways to advance the project. Let me list their names: Forrest Alter, Janet Jeppson Asimov, John Atkinson, Anne S. Benninghoff, Lisa Berglund, Stuart Bradshaw, Diana Burleigh, Phillip Cameron, Marion Leeds Carroll, Kenton Chambers, William Chase, Andrew Crowther, William Dahms, Eleanor De Lorme, Stan DeOrsey, Timothy Devlin, and Howard Dicus.

There were yet more volunteers: Geoffrey Dixon, James Drew, David Duffey, Leta Hall, David Hawkins, George W. Hilton, Doreen Jensen, Hal Kanthor, David Mackie, Alexander MacPhail, William McCann, Derrick McClure, Paul McShane, Rica Mendes-Barry, Mark Mullinax, Ronald Orenstein, Eugene Ossa, Christopher Papa, and Peter Parker,

And the list goes on to Janet Pascal, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Satterfield, John Schultz, Meg Kennedy-Shaw, Thomas Shepard, Jesse Shereff, Jane W. Stedman, Selwyn Tillett, Julia Turnbull, William Venman, Christopher Wain, Fred Walker, Philip Walsh, Em Ware, Douglas Whaley, Derek E. Williams, F. W. Wilson, R. Clive Woods, and John B. and Ann Woodward.

A long-suffering crew helped settle the question of the meaning (if any) of "Lalabalele" and those other strong words uttered by Tarara, the Public Exploder in Utopia Limited: Patricia Belcher, Byron Bender, David Cookson, David Craven, Gavan Daws, Jeffrey G. Heath, Raymond C. Kelly, Peter Kline, Ernest Lee, Gene Leonardi, Jocelyn Linnekin, Daniel Lufkin, Pamella Miller, Judith R. Neale, Karen Peacock, Edward Six, Richard Rames, Theodore Rice, Arthur Robinson, Constance Thompson, Daniel Weaver, and Duane Wenzel.

A few exceptional individuals deserve special mention: Geoffrey Shovelton, obligingly created a new front cover and modified two of the chapter-head illustrations. Mary Bosdêt (deceased) submitted many excellent suggestions based on her extensive knowledge of British history. Daniel S. Knight freely provided expert guidance in many pertinent matters, particularly concerning British law and courts. Terence Rees was a continuing source of information and good-natured encouragement. Elinor S. Wright contributed several cogent points in the still simmering debate about the meaning of a daphnephoric bound.

I am indebted to Kenneth Sandford for contributing the perceptive Foreword, and to Roberta Morrell for writing Ken’s brief biographical outline.

Several well-known G&S authorities were good enough to read and criticize drafts of nearly fifty radically changed definitions. These were: Silvio Aurora, John W. Barker, Ian Bradley, David Eden, Mitchell Scott Gillette, Andrew Goodman, William Hyder, Gareth Jacobs, Ralph MacPhail, Jr., Marc Shepherd, Elizabeth Thomson, and Michael P. Walters.

Three highly qualified critics kindly reviewed semi-final manuscripts and submitted valuable suggestions for enhancing the final product: Daniel Kravetz, David Stone, and Stephen Turnbull. Their carefully considered advice led to many vital improvements in the outcome of my labors.

As usual, my able and willing wife was always ready with suggestions when I found myself stuck on some grammatical point or recollection of some pertinent fact. More importantly, however, she was always the very model of patience in the face of the neglect inherent in the wife of a conscientious author.

As in the second edition, Paula Bousley played an important role in the design of this finished product.

I am sincerely grateful to all of the above; and as is customary in these matters, while expressing this public thank-you, I simultaneously declare that any and all mistakes within these covers are of my own creation and design.

--Harry Benford

Acknowledgments to the Online Edition [2013]

The conversion of Harry Benford's printed book The Gilbert & Sullivan Lexicon into this online resource available to all is the work of founder and webmaster Ted Spencer, who has worked tirelessly on this complex project. Harry and I are both delighted with the result, and thank Ted for his initiative, creativity, expertise, and good humor.

Ted and I are grateful to the following for offering feedback, suggestions, counsel, and revisions for the site during the developmental phase before the it went online: Harry Benford, Arthur DiBianca, Roberta Morrell, Marc Shepherd, Geoffrey Shovelton, Sam Silvers, and J. Donald Smith.

--Ralph MacPhail, Jr.

Sketch of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, 1836 - 1911

W.S. Gilbert was a master of the English language. His verses flow in rhythmic cadences that smoothed Sullivan’s task of generating suitable scores. Gilbert had an enormous vocabulary, and we have good reason to believe that he was in love with words. Above all, he had every right to be in love with his own words. He toiled over his librettos and he wanted his audiences to hear, to understand, and to laugh at what he had to say. That is why I am sure that Gilbert would approve of this book: a lexicon specifically tailored to help his admirers appreciate his skillful manipulation of the language.

Semanticists warn that a word is a poor substitute for a thought, especially as passing years, cultural differences, and geographic distances effect their “silent alchemy.” As a result, and I may as well confess it here, there are probably at least a few booby traps I have missed altogether — words that have quite different meanings on the two sides of the Atlantic. I happened to discover enough to make me suspicious that there might be more. For example, until I undertook this task I had assumed that the lady from the provinces who dresses like a guy was one who wore men’s clothing. I had pictured mustard and cress as a jar of mustard and a dish of watercress; and I always assumed that the coster who jumped on his mother was an accoster (i.e., a hold-up man). I know better now and so will you after you have gone through this book.

Although Gilbert generally aimed to amuse his listeners with easily caught wit, there are many cases where the humor is in the phonetics rather than in the meaning. In such instances, hanging too heavily on word definitions will simply obscure the thought. I try to warn you when that is the case. In other instances Gilbert exhibits a penchant for incongruous combinations: “semi-despondent fury” and “modified rapture” are two examples. Again, precise meanings are not called for and only tend to spoil the fun.

Several older Gilbert and Sullivan glossaries, dictionaries, and concordances were available during my studies, and I acknowledge my thorough browsings therein. I have, however, tried as much as possible to make this effort independent of those earlier works. Nearly all of them were aimed at English, rather than American, audiences. As a result, the earlier publications frequently omitted terms that Americans need to have explained. Moreover, there are several cases where my research convinces me that the older publications contain mistakes.

One must admit, of course, that no amount of research can uncover all of Gilbert’s meanings. Where multiple interpretations seem possible, I call them to your attention — and, where necessary to make a choice, I usually recall Occam’s razor and go for the simple version. (Remember, Gilbert wanted you to catch on.) In a paper presented before the Popular Culture Association Meeting on April 23, 1976, Professor Earl F. Bargainnier made this pertinent observation:

Gilbert was a popular writer, and he was never ashamed of that fact. He wanted to entertain his audiences, not to uplift them. In an interview in 1895, he said, “I am not ambitious to write up to epicurean tastes, but contented to write down to everybody’s comprehension. For instance, when I am writing, I imagine it is for one particularly dull individual not quick to grasp an idea; so I make nothing long and explanatory, but short, sharp, and clear.” (The internal quotation is from an article by Joseph Anderson in the January 18, 1895, issue of the Boston Transcript.)

As one who has had no little difficulty in dredging up some of Gilbert’s meanings, I must comment that he may have overstated himself in claiming to write for “one particularly dull individual.” Nevertheless, his claim is one to keep in mind whenever we may be tempted to read some obscure meaning into his words.

The terms in this lexicon are arranged in their written order. That is, the book contains one chapter for each opera, with those chapters placed in the sequence in which the operas were written, while the individual entries are listed in the order in which they first appear in the libretto. The only exceptions are Burnand and Sullivan’s Cox and Box, and Stephenson and Sullivan’s The Zoo, which tag along at the end as encore numbers. I believe the sequence I have used will make it easy for you to seek out any given term in the libretto and to make the context more evident, much as in a concordance. Having distaste for footnotes and appendices, I have chosen to clutter my definitions with various elaborations. All references are collected in a single list on a separate tab. In place of an Index, the Online Edition allows you to search for any term or part of a term.The Search box is particularly valuable for those readers who may be curious about a term but have no idea where it may occur within the canon. Please note that the lexicon includes terms from the stage directions as well as from the lines themselves.

I believe I can justly claim that what follows is a scholarly exposition. My background studies have been exhaustive, I have subjected my manuscripts to the scrutiny of real experts in the Gilbert and Sullivan world, and I have carefully cited my many sources of information. The work is not pedantic, however, in that it avoids turgid prose. Indeed, like Bunthorne, I have endeavored to blend amusement with instruction. (And be warned, in some instances I have written with tongue in cheek.) As Jack Point so wisely said:

When they’re offered to the world in merry guise,
  Unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will—
For he who’d make his fellow-creatures wise
  Should always gild the philosophic pill!

Harry Benford 2013 (Photo by Kathryn Benford)The several published versions of the operas are not altogether uniform. My principal source was the Oxford University Press two-volume set called The Savoy Operas (1962 and 1963). I have, however, drawn on several other versions so as to include many verses or spoken lines that happen to be omitted in the Oxford set.

So here they are: some twenty six hundred words or phrases that should help you better understand and appreciate the unique and pleasurable genius of Sir William S. Gilbert, extraordinary gilder of the philosophic pill.

Drawing of English geographic places mentioned in the Lexicon.Key to map locations

1. Banbury
2. Basingstoke
3. Bath
4. Birmingham
5. Brighton
6. Canterbury
7. Dover
8. Dunstable
9. Gravesend
10. Harwich
11. Hastings
12. Isle of Man
13. Isle of Wight
14. London
15. Margate
16. Penzance
17. Portsmouth
18. Ramsgate
19. Salisbury Plain
20. Spithead (strait)
21. Stonehenge
22. Thames River (mouth)
23. Wellington
24. Wells
25. Windsor
26. Worcester

Drawing of English counties mentioned in the Lexicon

​(Names and borders are as of a century ago.)

Reference: Bartholomew (29).