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Aunt Sally

Q From Paul Bowers, London: It’s not referenced in the Collins Dictionary, but it is in common use around our work environment — this is a bit of an Aunt Sally. What does it mean and where does it come from?

A An Aunt Sally in its popular sense today is a person or thing that’s been set up as an easy target for criticism, abuse or blame, in political circles often to deflect attention from the real issues and waste opponents’ time.

Iraq was set up by the neocons as an Aunt Sally, and its weapons of mass destruction were as much a figment of the imaginations of Messrs Bush and Cheney as they were a figment of Saddam Hussein’s.

New Statesman, 17 January 2008.

The original Aunt Sally was a game, popular in Britain under that name from the middle of the nineteenth century at fairgrounds and racetracks.

London, Saturday, March 31st, 1866. Yesterday was Good Friday, which in England is a close holiday. The streets are full, the omnibuses crowded; there are railway excursions, the Crystal Palace is thronged — forty or fifty thousand were there yesterday — and multitudes gather in the parks and play kiss in the ring or Old Aunt Sally. Aunt Sally is a big black doll on a stick, with a pipe in her mouth, and an orange or some toy for a prize, which you win by hitting her with a stick if you are lucky.

The New York Times, 16 April 1866. The delay in printing the correspondent’s report was because it had to be sent by steamship across the Atlantic; the first fully working telegraph cable across the ocean was opened that year but it would have been too expensive for anything except hot news. The writer might have added that the objective was to knock the pipe out of Aunt Sally’s mouth. Close holiday is an old term for a public holiday on which businesses close; the modern British term bank holiday didn’t appear in the language until 1871.

From the fairground sense the term moved on, as the result of a moderately obvious process of thought, to became our modern figurative expression. The game itself is still played under that name in pubs in some southern counties of England, notably Oxfordshire, where the Oxford & District Aunt Sally Association was founded before World War Two. However, the game today instead uses a stubby white skittle, called a dolly, perhaps as the result of greater racial sensitivity.

The aunt part of the name may refer to an old black woman, a term employed both by blacks and whites in the USA from the eighteenth century onwards but also known in London; aunt could also be applied familiarly to any elderly woman.

The direct influence, according to J Redding Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era of 1909, may have been an 1820s black-face doll that derived from a low-life character named Black Sal who had been created by Pierce Egan in his series Life In London of 1821–28. Ware says that it was probably adopted “owing to the popularity of that work, precisely as in a later generation many of Dickens’s characters were associated with trade advertisements. Very significant of Pierce Egan’s popularity, which from 1820 to 1840 was as great as that of Dickens, whose fame threw Egan into obscurity.”

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Page created 29 Apr 2000; Last updated 22 Aug 2009