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shameless pleading

Merry Andrew

Too good a time was had by all.

Dear Word Detective: I’m reading “Five Weeks in a Balloon” by Jules Verne. A character is described as “the jester and merry-andrew of the boatswain’s mess.” I understand what a “merry-andrew” is, but can’t find out where it came from. Please help. — Jan.

I’ve never read “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” though I probably should have during my Jules Verne phase (roughly when I was between 12 and 14). I must admit that the title has always made me a bit uneasy. I’m not claustrophobic at all, but I am acrophobic, and the thought of being aloft in a balloon for five minutes, let alone five weeks, gives me the wimwams. In any case, Verne’s novel describes a trip across Africa (where he had never been) by hot-air balloon (about which, according to the killjoys at Wikipedia, he got all sorts of technical details wrong). But looking for factual accuracy in a Verne novel is, to put it mildly, missing the whole point. After all, Verne’s talent managed to make Captain Nemo, who never existed, immortal.

As you have deduced (and is implied by the quotation you included), a “merry-andrew” is a jester, a cut-up or card who amuses people with a steady stream of jokes and comic banter. In extended use, “merry-andrew” is sometimes used to mean simply “fool or idiot” or, as an adjective, “foolish” or “clownish.” The first appearance in print of “merry-andrew” used in a generic sense was in the late 17th century (“Th’ Italian Merry-Andrews took their place, And quite Debauch’d the Stage with lewd Grimace,” Dryden, 1684).

There has been uncertainty (and debate) over the origin of “merry-andrew” for several centuries. The most popular theory identifies the original “merry-andrew” as Dr. Andrew Boorde (circa 1490–1549), personal physician to Henry VIII. Dr. Boorde apparently was known for his humorous bedside manner and love of a good joke (although he did not, as some accounts have it, actually publish a popular joke collection). Dr. Boorde’s prominence and well-known sense of humor would make him, at first glance, a good candidate for being the original “merry-andrew.” Unfortunately, there is no actual evidence for this theory; it was simply declared as a fact in 1735 by the historian and antiquarian Thomas Hearne (1678–1735), and subsequent attempts to bolster the Boorde/”merry-andrew” equation have been fruitless.

That leaves us with the explanation suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which traces “merry-andrew,” based on early citations, to the Bartholomew Fair, a large summer fair in London that was held every year from 1133 to 1855. (That’s an annual fair held for 700 years, which is pretty amazing. According to the City of London website, “The Fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and wild animals. Also common at the fair was the selling of wives.” Apparently the city authorities pulled the plug on the Fair in 1855 because it had “degenerated” too far into debauchery. One can only imagine what line they finally crossed.)

The OED suggests, quite reasonably, that the original “merry-andrew” was a particular performer at the Bartholomew Fair in the mid- to late 17th century, most likely one, as the OED puts it, “whose persona was that of a fool” and whose stage name was actually “Merry Andrew.” The OED supplies supporting citations from the period, including one dating to 1688 from the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys (“I … took her and Mercer and Deb to Bartholomew-fair, and there did see a ridiculous, obscene little stage-play called ‘Mary Andrey,” a foolish thing but seen by everybody.”) Other quotations make it clear that the performer was, in fact, male (“Arch Merry Andrew will rend out his voice: Though his looks are but simple, & his actions the same, …By playing the fool he does get store of Coyn” (circa 1680) and “Let’s … step to Fair of Bartlemew… Here Merry-Andrew with his Babble, Diverts the crouds of gaping Rabble” (1691)). So “merry-andrew,” today meaning a person who behaves like a clown or fool, almost certainly came from the stage name of a very successful “fool.”

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