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shameless pleading

Like one o’clock / Strike out a line

And hold the bangers.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m currently directing a production of Hay Fever by Noel Coward, and there are two phrases in the play that I can’t find reference to anywhere.  I don’t know if Coward just made them up or if they were standard British phrases in 1925.  We kind of know what they mean in context, but it would be great to know more exactly — can you help?  The first is when the housemaid Clara says that Amy, the scullery maid, has toothache, and says, “the poor girl has been writhing about in the scullery like one o’clock.”  The second is later in the play when, at breakfast, Richard says he’s having haddock, and Myra says, “I’ll have the haddock too — I simply couldn’t strike out a line for myself this morning.”  Any clarification would be most appreciated! — Jeanie Forte Smith.

Thanks for an interesting question.  I’ve never seen “Hay Fever,” so I went to Wikipedia looking for a summary, and Wikipedia replied, “Best described as a cross between high farce and a comedy of manners, the play is set in an English country house in the 1920s, and deals with the four eccentric members of the Bliss family and their outlandish behaviour when they each invite a guest to spend the weekend.”  It sounds like the sort of thing I’d enjoy, since I’m a total sucker for the “madcap weekend at an English country house” genre.  I have, in fact, an application on file for reincarnation as a character in a P.G. Wodehouse story.

Before we begin, a quick show of hands:  who knows what the “scullery” is?  That’s right, Nigel, it’s the division of the household staff that deals with dishes, pots, silverware, etc., in the “scullery,” a room like a pantry that takes its name from the Latin “scutella,” meaning “serving platter.”  A scullery maid is the lowest ranked, and usually the youngest, member of the maid staff at a large house.

Noel Coward didn’t, as it happens, invent either of the phrases you folks have, understandably, found so puzzling.  When the housemaid says that the scullery maid “has been writhing about in the scullery like one o’clock,” by “like one o’clock” she means “vigorously, energetically, without stopping.”  The phrase “like one o’clock,” which can also be used to mean “enthusiastically” or “excellently,” has been in use in Britain since at least the mid-19th century (“He had a taste for literature, and we got on together like one o’clock,” 1901).  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the phrase began as a reference to the speed necessary to eat lunch in the middle of a workday.  That makes sense to me, especially since the phrase originated in a time when the idea of a full hour for lunch for the average worker would have been considered a wild fantasy.

When the character Myra picks the haddock (yuck) for breakfast and notes, “I simply couldn’t strike out a line for myself this morning,” the explanation is a bit simpler.  “To strike a line” or “strike out a line” has, since the mid-19th century, meant “to pick a direction or course of movement,” as if in reference to a course plotted on a map.  So she was simply saying that she didn’t have enough energy to bother choosing from the available options for breakfast, and preferred to simply “go with the flow.”  I’d have picked the waffles, personally, and I must remember to amend my reincarnation request with the proviso “No fish for breakfast.”

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