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Q From Neil Makar: Near the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Scrooge tells a young boy to go and buy the prize turkey at a nearby poulterers. The boy replies ‘Walk-er!’ What did he mean by that?

A He might instead have said something like, “Are you pulling my leg, Guvner?” In standard English, he was incredulous, seriously in doubt that Scrooge actually wanted him to go and buy that turkey. That’s why Scrooge had to reply, “No, no, I am in earnest.”

The full expression was originally Hookey Walker, which starts to appear in the early nineteenth century (the OED records it from 1811). It was an exclamation of disbelief or of an opinion that something was all humbug. In 1838, to take just one example, it is in Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities, by Robert Smith Surtees: “‘Ladies and gentlemen — my walued friend, Mr Kitey Graves, has announced that I will entertain the company with a song; though nothing, I assure you — hem — could be farther from my idea — hem — when my excellent friend asked me,’ — ‘Hookey Walker!’ exclaimed someone who had heard Jemmy declare the same thing half a dozen times.”

Charles MacKay wrote about Hookey Walker in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions in 1841:

In the course of time the latter word alone became the favourite, and was uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last. If a lively servant girl was importuned for a kiss by a fellow she did not care about, she cocked her little nose, and cried “Walker!” If a dustman asked his friend for the loan of a shilling, and his friend was either unable or unwilling to accommodate him, the probable answer he would receive was “Walker!”

There are several stories about where it came from. MacKay says it “derived from the chorus of a popular ballad”. In the 1894 edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Dr E Cobham Brewer included a note on it by John Bee, a pseudonym of John Badcock, who wrote some dictionaries of sporting slang in the 1820s. Badcock said:

John Walker was an outdoor clerk at Longman, Clementi, and Co.’s, Cheapside, and was noted for his eagle nose, which gained him the nickname of Old Hookey. Walker’s office was to keep the workmen to their work, or report them to the principals. Of course it was the interest of the employés to throw discredit on Walker’s reports, and the poor old man was so badgered and ridiculed that the firm found it politic to abolish the office, but Hookey Walker still means a tale not to be trusted.

In The Annotated Christmas Carol, Michael Patrick Hearn records a couple of other theories, including “a London Magistrate with a hooked nose that gave the title of ‘beak’ to all magistrates”; and “an aquiline-nosed Jew named Walker who lectured on Astronomy and invited his pupils to ‘take a sight’ at the heavenly bodies; the doubting pupils imitated behind his back his actions in ‘taking a sight’ at his nose”.

Badcock’s theory, despite its wealth of circumstantial detail, seems to be a classic example of folk etymology and the others have no support that I know of in contemporary accounts. MacKay’s view appears more probable, except that — so far as I can discover — no such ballad predating 1811 is known.

[Thanks to James Pickford for pointing out the notes in The Annotated Christmas Carol.]

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Page created 31 Dec 2005; Last updated 07 Jan 2006