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Gas and gaiters

Q From Bob Ashforth: In the P G Wodehouse novel, Joy in the Morning, Bertie Wooster uses the expression, everything is once more gas and gaiters. Could you enlighten us on the origin and relevance of the expression and its terms?

A It’s a delightfully typical Wodehousian expression. It also turns up in Ice in the Bedroom, for example, published in 1961:

She cries “Oh, Freddie darling!” and flings herself into his arms, and all is gas and gaiters again.

But the original is in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby of 1839, in which a mad old gentleman who has been paying his addresses to Mrs Nickleby arrives precipitously down the chimney of an upstairs chamber dressed only in his underwear. Then Miss La Creevy comes into the room, whom the old man immediately mistakes for Mrs Nickleby:

“Aha!” cried the old gentleman, folding his hands, and squeezing them with great force against each other. “I see her now; I see her now! My love, my life, my bride, my peerless beauty. She is come at last — at last — and all is gas and gaiters!”

This must have been incomprehensible to Dickens’s readers, who will have wondered what vapours and protective leg coverings had to do with the matter in hand. But when you consider what the old man had said immediately beforehand, incomprehensibility comes as no surprise:

“Very good,” said the old gentleman, raising his voice, “then bring in the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew.” Nobody executing this order, the old gentleman, after a short pause, raised his voice again and demanded a thunder sandwich. This article not being forthcoming either, he requested to be served with a fricassee of boot-tops and goldfish sauce, and then laughing heartily, gratified his hearers with a very long, very loud, and most melodious bellow.

Despite its being nonsense (or possibly because it was), all is gas and gaiters became a well-known interjection. The original sense — as you will realise — was of a most satisfactory state of affairs. This is how nineteenth-century speakers used it and also clearly what Wodehouse meant by it. But another sense grew up in the twentieth century in which gaiters referred to the senior clergy — such as bishops and archbishops — because of their traditional dress that included those garments, and gas alluded to their supposedly meaningless eloquence. So all gas and gaiters has come to mean mere verbiage.

There was a BBC television and radio programme in the late 1960s with the title All Gas and Gaiters, about the goings-on at a cathedral, starring Robertson Hare and Derek Nimmo, for which an alternative title might have been “fun with the clergy”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 Feb. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 24 February 2007.