Philobiblon: New old words

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

New old words

Having discovered a new exclamation - Zounds, see post below - I've also stumbled across another long-term word survivor, Alsatia. I recently emailed someone on this subject:

"The designation "Alsatia" in London is most commonly used for the area north of the river that was covered by the White Friar's monastery (to the south of the west end of Fleet St). That had, it is commonly said, arisen because the Alsace/Alsatia area of continental Europe was also lawless. (No idea if that was true or not, but it was what London thought.)

This Alsatia was a constant source of trouble well into the 19th century. In one case, in 1691, the benchers of the Inner Temple ordered that the gate between the two areas be bricked up. The "Alsatians" attacked the workers and killed one of them, and when the sheriff arrived at the scene they knocked him down and stole part of his chain of office."

The term's origins seem to be lost in the mists of time; it is probably approaching 1,000 years old. But the term, used more generally, also survived, I've just found, well into the 20th-century. From Margery Allingham's The Tiger in the Smoke (first published in 1952).

"It was a market, Geoffrey saw, one of those small Alsatias which are still dotted about the poorer parts of the city, protected by ancient custom and the independence of their patrons. Ramshackle stalls roofed with flapping tarpaulin and lit with naked bulbs jostled each other down each side of the littered road; their merchandise, which ranged from whelks to underwear, was open to the sooty air, while behind them tottering shops, open-fronted and ill lit, cowered odorously."
(p. 95 in my 1953 Reprint Society edition)

Living as I do on Leather Lane in central London, in which just such a market survives, I recognise the description immediately, although the "tottering shops" here have been, or are being, gentrifed, and the council chases out the pirate software vendors.


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