Thursday, 17 November 2011

Queer Carey Street


Those of you who follow the news (and, as Evelyn Waugh said, News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it. After that it's dead.) will, likely as not, have come across the fabulous outrage occasioned by Robert Peston referring to insolvency as "Queer Street".* This has led to lots of people talking about the etymology of the phrase. So I shall throw my proverbial hat into the lexicographic ring.

Queer Street first pops up at the beginning of the nineteenth century and is defined in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as:

Wrong. Improper. Contrary to one's wish. It is queer street, a cant phrase, to signify that it is wrong or different to our wish.

However, by the mid-nineteenth century it had come to mean broke, insolvent, penurious and heading for bankruptcy. I would take a guess that this shift in meaning comes down to the Bankruptcy Court which was established on Carey Street in London in the early 1840s. There was certainly a phrase, listed in the OED and Brewers of "being on Carey Street" meaning that you were heading for bankruptcy. The OED doesn't record this phrase until the 1920s, but I just found this description of an artist's predicament from the 1880s:

For the moment, he keenly felt the disgusting cramped situation of Carey Street, which compelled him to peep at his objects, through the rails of his apartment : for the moment, also, he felt the immediate necessity of procuring the gold talismanic key to give him once more liberty, again to wander amidst the beauties of nature : it was then that MORLAND painted for money...

And if I can backdate the phrase forty years, somebody else ought to be able to take it further.
So I shall stick my neck out and make a claim for convergence. An existing term, Queer Street, became an alternative name for the site of the new Bankruptcy Court, Carey Street. All of which allows me to use this photograph.

It's a rich man's world, but a poor man's heaven.


*Phew, what a jormungandrian sentence.
P.S. Photographic credits to The Antipodean.

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