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Q From Adrian Cook: I have come across a reference to Jericho in the Diary of a Country Parson (1758 – 1802) by James Woodforde. He remarks on the building of a fence in the garden of his parsonage in Norfolk, “so that those working in the kitchen can not see who goes to Jericho.” He makes no further reference, presumably knowing that all who read it would understand it. It made no sense to me until I started to think of the word applied to chamber pots when I was a wee lad (no pun intended), the jerry. He must be referring to the outside privy. Any thoughts?

A You’re almost certainly right in your supposition.

It’s a very clergymanly joke, since it’s a reference to scripture, specifically to an event told in the second book of Samuel. Jericho is the place in Palestine where — as you may have heard — the walls once came tumbling down, the story of which is told in another Old Testament book, Joshua. The book of Samuel relates that King David sent ambassadors to King Hamun of Ammon, who treated them with insolence and humiliated them. The King James Bible of 1611 says:

Wherefore Hanun took David’s servants, and shaved off the one half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks, and sent them away. When they told it unto David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed: and the king said, Tarry at Jericho until your beards be grown, and then return.

From about 1650 onwards Jericho could mean a place of retirement or concealment, or a place far distant and out of the way.

There is a persistent tale about Henry VIII that seeks to explain this meaning. He is said to have had a country retreat, Jericho Priory, at Blackmore in Essex. The 1894 edition of Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says it “was one of the houses of pleasure of Henry VIII. When this lascivious prince had a mind to be lost in the embraces of his courtesans, the cant phrase among his courtiers was ‘He is gone to Jericho’. Hence, a place of concealment.” It is true that Henry’s bastard son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, was born there in 1519 to his mistress, Elizabeth Blount, but that had been specially arranged as a quiet place of retreat by Cardinal Wolsey. The priory wasn’t dissolved until 1525 and even in those slack days you can hardly imagine that the monks allowed unrestrained hanky-panky on the premises. It’s clear that the tale is built purely on the coincidence of names.

The expression go to Jericho could be used as an extremely impolite request to go away, pretty much the same as “go to hell”. William Makepeace Thackeray employed it like that in The Virginians in 1858: “‘Some one below wants to see master with a little bill,’ says Mr. Gumbo. ‘Tell him to go to Jericho!’ roars out Mr. Warrington. ‘Let me see nobody! I am not at home, sir, at this hour of the morning!’” It also appears in an Irish novel of 1899, Light O’ The Morning by L T Meade: “‘Molly! Molly!’ here called out Linda’s voice; ‘mother says it’s time for you and Nora to come in to wash your hands for tea.’ ‘Oh, go to Jericho!’ called out Molly.” It still occasionally turns up today.

But as you surmise, James Woodforde was using it more directly for “a place of retirement or concealment”. He must indeed have meant the privy. It was usual, before modern sanitation, to put it at the bottom of the garden, as far away from the house as possible. Woodforde was ensuring the modesty of the members of his household by building a fence so that they could visit the privy without being observed.

What immediately came to my mind, as it did to yours, was the pot which in Britain is slangily called a jerry. Might this indeed be from Jericho? It would be good to think so. The dates are right, since jerry starts to appear in the middle of the nineteenth century, after Parson Woodforde wrote his diary entry.

However, all the authorities argue — though they do so tentatively — that jerry is in reality from jeroboam, a double magnum, a bottle of wine four times the size of a standard bottle, whose name — to continue the Biblical associations — is named after a king of Israel mentioned in the first book of Kings. This origin feels a bit too clever and highfalutin, as jeroboam has never been a household word, though you may guess that the colour of the jerry’s contents helped the association.

Spurred by your question, I decided on a practical test, perhaps in the process inventing the sub-discipline of experimental etymology. We have here an old china jerry or po (another British term, of the late nineteenth century, which was borrowed from French pot de chambre). This was handed down years ago from my wife’s grandmother and now forms the base of an informal umbrella stand. A quick test shows that its capacity is exactly the equivalent of four bottles of wine. This may be coincidental, but it’s intriguing.

I can find no examples of Jericho as the name for a privy, although Alan Royal tells me that Farmer and Henley’s Historical Dictionary of Slang, published a century ago, says that it was so used. There is also an tantalising reference on a Web site, which says that The road to Jericho is the path to the privy. That would suggest a different Biblical link, a punning reference to the story of the Good Samaritan who came to the relief of the traveller on that road. But I can find no other example of road to Jericho in this sense, so if anything the mystery deepens!

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Page created 11 Aug 2007; Last updated 18 Aug 2007