Before beginning this week’s notes, I must address a couple of issues. The first concerns both the range of stolen goods Ted offers, and the impunity with which he distributes them, which some readers have suggested are beyond the bounds of credibility. After consulting my focus group, I can confirm that the distribution of stolen goods was not uncommon in the early 1970s workplace. The same people who called for the perpetrators of crime to be flogged, were apparently more than willing to buy perishable goods of dodgy provenance at a discount.

The second issue concerns Frank’s attitude towards MM, which has lead some readers to conclude that he is a bully. Although I can’t disagree with them, I feel obliged to make two observations. The first is that Frank’s behaviour, misguided and insensitive though it is, does not seem to be deliberately cruel. His fault is his failure to understand how anyone could be distressed by what he thinks of as jolly japes. My second is that standards of workplace behaviour were considerably different in the 1970s, when regrettably, bullying of all kinds went largely unchallenged. This includes the bullying justified by so-called initiation rituals, which nowadays would warrant prosecution .

Now that’s dealt with, let’s get on:

Gasbagging – talking. Often used pejoratively – a gasbag is someone who talks a great deal about matters of little or no importance. 

Double yellows

Double yellow lines along the side of the road mean no waiting at any time. They were introduced into the UK as part of the Road Traffic Act of 1960, though some sources suggest that use of the double yellow line began in North Yorkshire in the late nineteenth century.

Half-inched – rhyming slang for pinched, meaning stolen.

Packaging Monthly

Though there are a surprising number of magazines, either virtual or actual, devoted to packaging – including Packaging News, Inside Packaging, Packaging World, Packaging Today, Packaging Digest and the Packaging Gazette – I can find no reference to Packaging Monthly. Perhaps the world of packaging moves too fast for a monthly publication to be viable.

Departmental Production Board

Nowadays production planning is a complex, semi-scientific process. Frank plans Beech Brothers’ production, however, with a lump of hardboard, a handful of plastic pegs and some bits of string.

While the cat’s away… the mice will play. A proverb with a long history, ranging from Latin to fourteenth century French to Henry V.

Playing pocket billiards

Frank is suggesting that MM has put his hand in his pocket to play with himself.

Oxtail soup

This is not proper oxtail soup, but an instant powdered variety which used to be an option in some workplace coffee machines. It’s hard to imagine, I know, but presumably there were people who preferred it to coffee, tea or chocolate. As I can find no record of a coffee-machine being manipulated in the way the author describes, I presume he has invented this for comic effect.

Pro tem

A shortened form of the Latin expression pro tempore, meaning for the time being. MM is misusing this phrase, either because he doesn’t know what it means, or as a means of caricaturing Captain Frank by suggesting he’s using a fancy phrase that he doesn’t understand. If the latter, MM probably overestimates his audience’s knowledge of Latin. For anyone pedantic enough to care, the correct phrase in this context would actually be instanter.


Frank uses prat here to mean a fool or an idiot, though as anyone who follows the link will see, the word has an extraordinarily complicated etymology and many other possible meanings. These include buttock or buttocks, as evidenced by the song The Maunder’s Praise of his Strowling Mort, which was included in John Shirley’s 1707 collection, The Triumph of Wit:

No gentry mort hath prats like thine

No cove e’er wap’d with such a one.

Reluctant though I am to include a further note within a note, I feel compelled to refer you to the full text of this work, complete with explanatory notes, which is as extraordinary as the couplet above suggests.

During the course of my research, I was surprised to discover that this work is also quoted in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where it is attributed to Richard Head’s The Canting Academy  In this volume – which was published in 1673 and therefore pre-dates Shirley’s collection – Head translates the so-called cant of the criminal underworld of the seventeenth century. Head quotes the song as an existing example of cant, which means it probably has an oral history preceding the publication of his book.

Knock it off

Here the phrase is a command meaning stop it, but to knock something off can also mean to steal it. A knock-off can also mean a cheap or tawdry imitation, used either as a noun or an adjective, and a further meaning of knock off is to stop working (Is it five o’clock already? Let’s knock off.). The only way to tell which meaning is intended is the context in which the phrase is used. This is one of the many wonders of English.

Knocking them off – stealing them (but see above).

Cat got your tongue?

An expression used when someone might be expected to react, but is speechless – either through fear, shock, guilt or for some other reason. The origins of the phrase are uncertain, but possible candidates include Ancient Egypt, witchcraft and sadistic naval practices.

The union

All the factory workers would almost certainly belong to a trade union, many of them to one of the smaller, craft-based unions which were common at the time. In the early 1970s there might be several unions with members in the same factory, but union membership amongst office staff would be much less likely. At this time the division between manual (blue-collar) and office (white-collar) workers was more marked – some office staff considered themselves a cut above the manual workers, and would do nothing so common as to join a trade union.

Show her the ropes – teach her the basics (probably derived from sailing).

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