Monday, 21 February 2011


Here is a picture of Goldsmith's Hall in the City of London. Why is that of interest? Because once upon a time, if you had a bit of gold or silver that you wanted to sell, you had to take it to the Goldsmith's Guild where they would test its purity. They would then stamp it with the mark of the Goldsmith's Hall, which guaranteed its value to a buyer.

In the racy classic An Exact Abridgement of All the Statutes of King William and Queen Mary (1700) it says:

Any Persons, Natives or Foreigners, who by themselves or others shall bring any sort of Wrought Plate between 1 Jan 1696. and 4 November, 1697. to any of his Majesty's Mints, or to such Persons as shall be Authorized to Recieve the same, shall be then and there paid for such Plate at 5 s. 4 d. per ex. And all such Plate, having the Goldsmiths Hall Mark and Workman's Mark, shall be Received as Sterling Silver*

And that, my child, is where the word hallmark comes from. It's the mark of quality given out in Goldsmith's Hall. It's also why the building in the picture is the origin of all those greetings cards and the American TV channel.

Well, in fact, that building wasn't erected until the 1820s. In William and Mary's time it looked like the picture below.

By 1809 the word was being used figuratively to mean a characteristic stamp. So a sermon could have the hallmark of orthodoxy. Thus the cards.

*The OED doesn't have a citation for hallmark until 1721, and nothing for the figurative use until 1864. Do I get a prize?


  1. 'a sermon could have the hallmark of orthodoxy'. Could? Should, surely, or else the preacher would be defrocked, or otherwise pilloried.

    Have you done 'pilloried' yet?

  2. Yes, in fact, you receive the ‘Eureka’ ‘prize’ for not only finding an earlier citation, but one with your beloved embedded quotation marks.

  3. You should tell the OED about your citation!
    From the OED Online FAQ:

    How can I best contribute to the dictionary?

    We are always pleased to receive details of

    * antedatings of words and senses;
    * variant forms not currently recorded;
    * new words and new senses of existing words.

    The information about a contribution should always include

    * date of publication;
    * author (of a book, but not a newspaper or journal article);
    * title of the work, with chapter and page reference;
    * a quotation long enough to show how the word is being used.

    We continue to prefer evidence drawn from print publications.

    In general we do not need

    * postdatings for first edition entries (we usually have evidence on file);
    * additional citations for revised entries;
    * quotations from famous authors (we can gather these from databases).