Q From Gary Whale, Australia: Following up your item on sky-blue pink, my grandmother used to use a phrase of similar meaning, sandy-grey russet. Ever heard of it? She was born in 1891 in Sydney, Australia, but her parents were Cornish and lived in New Zealand en route to Australia. Nancy Keesing, in Lily on the Dustbin, a collection of Australian women’s and family slang, speaks of dandy grey russet, “the colour of a field mouse’s tit”. She attributes it to “a family of Cornish and Scottish descent who came to Australia from New Zealand”. Coincidence?
A Probably not. Your mother’s version isn’t recorded (though I’ve found it online as the title of a song, also from Australia), so it’s most likely a mishearing of the other form you noted, dandy grey russet, an odd phrase but one with an interesting history.
It would have been known to settlers because it was recorded in Britain before 1800. It’s in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1811: “Dandy grey russet. A dirty brown. His coat’s dandy grey russet, the colour of the Devil’s nutting bag.” It’s also in a description written by the Reverend Jacob Bailey in 1799 of his escape in poverty to Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the American Revolution in 1779.
The phrase was known in various English dialects during the 1800s, though neither Cornwall nor Scotland is mentioned in the standard reference books. It’s listed in an East Anglian glossary in 1825 and, in the form dandy-goo-russet, in Alfred Heneage Cocks’ Records of Buckinghamshire at the end of the century. He says it meant “of nondescript colour, of no colour in particular”. As dandy-go-russet, it’s in the English Dialect Dictionary of the same period, defined as “articles of clothing; old, worn-out, faded, rusty-coloured”.
A more recent appearance was in a recitation performed in the 1920s by the surreal music-hall comedian Billy Bennett (he billed himself as “almost a gentleman” and his stage costume included a large moustache and down-at-heel tails):
I brought home a monkey from there for my girl
Of attraction she soon was the centre
For the monkey was dandy-grey-russet one end
And the other end ... pink and magenta.
We now think of russet as meaning a reddish-brown colour, but its first sense was of a coarse homespun woollen material that peasants and country people used for their clothing. This was often enough brownish in hue that its name was borrowed for the colour in the sixteenth century. However, the cloth was as often grey as brown and grey russet referred to that specifically. The phrase is at least as old as the poem Piers Plowman of 1377: “a goune of a graye russet”. Various books in the nineteenth century record the phrase. George Northall’s A Warwickshire Word-Book of 1896 says it was “a coarse kind of grey, woollen cloth”.
How dandy came to be attached to it isn’t at all clear, since a dandy wouldn’t be seen dead in a homespun material. Perhaps it was said to be so because it so obviously wasn’t, especially when old and faded, so it might have been a deliberate or ironic inversion. The dandy-go-russet form may have come about because the original expression had been misunderstood to mean clothes that had once been dandy but had gone rusty with time and wear.