Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for Iolanthe

Primary tabs

Click a term to expand the definition; Search for a term; Select other Opera Chapters; Go to the Lexicon menu for introductory and afterword content..

Enter part of a term; e.g., "gill" for Gillow's.

Act I

Quandary [Distort to rhyme with vagary]

A predicament or state of perplexity.



Andersen's library

Refers to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, with library twisted to rhyme with fairy. Hyder (162) points out that in Gilbert's time some English language editions were actually titled Hans Christian Andersen's Library.

Ladies' Seminary

A school for refined young women.


Shepherds' crooks, those long poles with loopy hooks for snaring sheep. You see them in every Christmas pageant.


The Whigs were the forerunners of the Liberal party.

Grouse and salmon season

According to Bradley (46) the legal grouse hunting season in Great Britain runs from August 12 (hence "the glorious twelfth") to December 10. The legal fishing season for salmon runs from February 1 until the end of August. The Queen of the Fairies should have made season plural, but let it pass.

Friday nights [He shall end the cherished rights you enjoy on Friday nights]

Here is a well-chewed bone. Some authorities (11, 145, 147, 149, 171, 320) believe the "cherished rights" refer to the privilege of offering private bills, as opposed to those backed by one of the parties. Such a right would be cherished because private bills were likely to benefit the M.P.'s constituency. Other authorities (46, 142, 177, 242, 245, 286, 299) argue that Gilbert had in mind "early rising" (i.e., quitting at 7 PM instead of midnight or later). A key clue in this debate is that when the opera was written (1882) the line read "Wednesday nights." In 1902, however, some amendment to the law apparently caused Gilbert to change the libretto to read "Friday nights." The question then is what was amended? The answer is found in May's authoritative tomes (204, 205). They lead to these conclusions: (i) To begin with, the threat could not have been directed at the House of Lords because they did not meet at all on Wednesdays, so it must have been directed at the House of Commons. (ii) The threat could not have been directed at private bills because in 1882 private bills could be introduced on Tuesdays and Fridays as well as on Wednesdays. (iii) That leaves the threat as being directed at the Commons' custom of "early rising," which in 1902 was indeed changed from Wednesdays to Fridays. So, if only the Commons are under the gun, why do the peers cry "No! No!"? Collegial loyalty I suppose; but Prestige (245) has an alternative explanation: The Scottish and Irish peers who were not among the ranks of Representative Peers were eligible to run for election in the House of Commons. Those peers, at least, would have cause for alarm.

Marriage with deceased wife's sister

This refers to a long-standing legislative feud between the two houses of Parliament. The bill allowing such a marriage was finally passed in 1907, after some half a century of debate. Without such a ban, it was argued, an unmarried woman might be tempted to poison her married sister and then snare her bereaved brother-in-law. A more likely explanation is given by Stedman (273): "Presumably the ban was related to incest -- Hamlet is outraged at his mother's incest, she having married her deceased husband's brother. Interestingly enough, marriage with deceased wife's sister was permissible in the colonies. In Shaw's Major Barbara Adolphus Cusins is legitimate in Australia, but a bastard in England because his father did [that]."

Common Councilmen

Members of the City of London's municipal council, holding a rather modest level of influence and prestige.

Fig [We do not care a fig]

We don't give a hoot (generally enriched with a snap of the fingers). See The Yeomen of the Guard for sordid details.

Canaille [with base canaille!]

Pronunciation: Gilbert probably wants you to say "kah-NILE" to rhyme with style.

French for "the scum of the earth," the kind who profess to loathe the Savoy operas. Ugh!

Plebs [of vulgar plebs!]

In ancient Rome, the ordinary people.

The οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi)

Hoi Polloi. Greek for the common herd. Halton (147) notes that οἱ means "the," so Gilbert is guilty here of a tautology. Nevertheless, it's an accepted idiom.

Act II


Guard duty.

M.P.'s [When in that House M.P.'s divide]

Members of Parliament.


The method of voting described earlier under "Division."


The back lobe of the brain.

Equanimity [No man can face with equanimity]

Pronunciation: EE-kwah-nimity


Blues [in the blues]

Dismayed and dispirited.

A-muck [running a-muck of all abuses]

Attacking without discrimination. Applegate (8) noted that the word is Malaysian (amok) and refers to a person who goes into a murderous frenzy and attacks people at random. Brewer (56) proposes a less violent definition: someone who expounds on a subject of which he is ignorant.

Kettle of fish

An old expression indicating a muddle. It dates back at least as far as 1750 (115).


Someone under the care or protection of another. There is often an implication that the mentor offers encouragement, too (167).

Pickford [He's a Parliamentary Pickford]

A well-known British moving and delivery company, whose slogan used to be "We Carry Everything." In case you need to know, its present slogan is "The Careful Movers" (284).

Queen Bess [in good Queen Bess's time]

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603): Daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. During her eventful reign (1558-1603) England gained prestige through the naval exploits of Sir Francis Drake and the voyages of discovery of Sir Walter Raleigh. Her reign, too, is looked upon as England's golden age of literature thanks to the works of Spenser and Shakespeare. One school kid wrote of her: "Queen Elizabeth was the 'Virgin Queen.' As a queen she was a success" (185).

Bays [Yet Britain won her proudest bays]

Alludes to the laurel wreaths of victorious heroes, the bay shrub being a member of the laurel family.

Wellington [When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte]

Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852): The Duke of Wellington. Trained as a military officer he spent eight years in India successfully putting down native insurrections and winning high honors. After a time in politics he was called upon for military service fighting Napoleon's troops in Spain and Portugal. After several successful campaigns he was appointed field-marshal. His armies pushed the French troops back into France and their eventual defeat at Waterloo (in Belgium) in 1815. He was made Duke of Wellington and spent the rest of his life in politics, serving one two-year period as prime minister.


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821): The famous French military and political leader. From his modest Italian origins in Corsica, he rose to crown himself Emperor of France (and scourge of Europe). He spent his final years in exile on the island of St. Helena.

King George [In good King George's glorious days!]

George III (1738-1820), who reigned during the Napoleonic wars and the American War of Independence. History affirms that George III was, indeed, a good man and popular with his subjects. Unfortunately, he was insane during the final nine years of his life. The "glorious days" were those that saw England's triumph over Napoleon.

Representative Peer [give me a British Representative Peer!]

A Representative Peer (note capital R) is one who, in the House of Lords, represents his compatriot Peers in Scotland or Ireland. But is that what Gilbert meant? Possibly not. Quoting Prestige (243):

I think here Gilbert got confused. In my view the libretto should be printed with a small (lower case) "r" for Representative, which would then clearly make Celia say "give me a typical British peer." I think it most unlikely Gilbert was attempting anything so subtle as to imply that Celia was referring specifically to a Scottish or Irish peer, a group of whom used to sit in the House of Lords as representing the general bodies of Scottish and Irish peers (in distinction from the English and United Kingdom peers, who sat in the House of Lords as of right).

Evans (112), on the other hand, noted that Tolloller and Mountararat both have Irish tenants, so they are probably from Ireland and may, indeed, be Representative Peers. The nice thing about this argument is that few singers can enunciate well enough to allow the audience to distinguish a capital letter from a lower case letter.