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A reader from Australia told me he had been trying to solve a crossword clue in The Age, “1000-ampere rain shedders”. He didn’t get any help from me, because I’m quite useless at crosswords, but he solved the clue anyway — the answer was gamps. (The compiler was presumably thinking of the abbreviation g for a grand, a thousand dollars or pounds. I’d normally take the prefix g to mean giga-, a thousand million.)

A gamp is indeed a rain shedder, more prosaically an umbrella, one particularly suited to this apology for a summer we’re currently having in Britain. But we Brits are inured to rain. As The Times commented in April 2011, “When the clouds open we will bring out brollies, beach parasols, golf umbrellas, gamps, sou’westers, oil-skins, gaberdines and rain-ponchos.”

Mrs Gamp
This image of Mrs Gamp, with large bonnet and unruly umbrella, was created by Kyd, real name Joseph Clayton Clarke.

Brolly is, all the best authorities assure us, a clipped and altered form of umbrella, supposedly beginning its life as university slang at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1870s (it’s also sometimes known as a brelly, which makes a little more sense). But gamp had preceded it into the printed record for what a writer described in 1864 as “a large, bulgy, loosely tied cotton umbrella”.

We are once again indebted to the fertile mind of Charles Dickens. Mrs Sarah (Sairey) Gamp appeared in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit in 1846. She had a large umbrella, “in colour like a faded leaf, except where a circular patch of a lively blue had been dexterously let in at the top”, which entered into so many adventures during the course of the story that it almost become a character in its own right.

Mrs Gamp, a disreputable drink-sodden widow, first appears when she is engaged as a night watcher to sit up with the body of Anthony Chuzzlewit during the week before his funeral; she claimed also to be a midwife, though she was really what was then called a monthly nurse, one who stayed with and looked after women for that period after childbirth. (The modern equivalent is sometimes called a doula, from the classical Greek word meaning a female slave.)

Gamp is not now much used, even in the country of its birth, but it’s still in the dictionaries and it’s well enough remembered that a crossword setter in Australia could base a clue on it and expect it to be solved.

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Page created 07 Jul 2012