Glossary of Obscure Words 

One of the charms of Gilbert's dialogs and librettos is his use of unusual and obscure words. Some of these were obscure even when the shows were written, and others have left common usage in the century that followed. Herewith are some of the more interesting ones.

Trial By Jury

be firm, my pecker This means "keep a stiff upper lip," American 20th Century slang notwithstanding.
Tink-a-Tank This is onomatopoeia, for the sound of a guitar being plucked
reversed in banc the judges opinion was reversed by the bench of a higher court.
Ancient Bailey Old Bailey, the chief criminal court of London. Poetic license enforced, here.
rich as the Gurneys The Gurneys founded a banking house that later went bankrupt. but like the executives of Enron, they escaped very rich.
fudge does not yet mean a candy, but utter nonsense
passing fair very lovely indeed
Camberwell and Peckham boring suburbs, rather like Levittown
concentrated otto attar of roses
al a Watteau Jean-Antoine Watteau, a French painter of pastoral scenes
nice dilemma nice dilemma means one requiring close reasoning

 

HMS Pinafore

Pinafore A little girl's washable bib, pinned in front of her garments. A ridiculous name for a ship, suggested by Sullivan
quarterdeck rear upper deck, where the officer's quarters are.
Boatswain "Bos'n," in charge of anchors, rigging and ropes
excellent jacky rum soaked chewing tobacco
treacle molasses
soft tommy bread
cony a rabbit
poloney boloney or bologna
Ralph pronounced "Rafe."
ship a selvagee put a hank of rope to its proper use
KCB Sir Joseph is a Knight Commander of Bath, an appointed position and apparently is lower in social status than the Captain, who appears to be from a wealthy family.
solecism any mistake in grammar or idiom
First Lord of the Admiralty An administrative appointee. He need not know anything about the navy, and this is what Gilbert is spoofing.
grog rum, diluted 5:1 to prevent the sailor from getting drunk too quickly
What cheer How did you do? Also, a town in Iowa.
Fain would be glad to
Highlows leather shoes that lace above the ankle.
ambitious brill a small flat fish, smaller than the turbot it is being compared to.
cat's paw an old tale tells of a monkey using the paw of a nearby cat to pick a hot chestnut out of the fire, sparing his own paw.
Gillow's Waring and Gillow, a London store specializing in furnishings. (The London store is no more)
Hymen The god of marriage
celerity speed. The standing theater joke is that "go to your cabin with Celerity" is followed by the arch question, "who's playing Celerity tonight?"
no telephone... The telephone was invented in 1876, so this 1878 mention may be the first in musical theater.
baby farming baby sitters or child care providers, including wet nurses.

References, see:

 Asimov's Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan

  A Most Ingenious Paradox : The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan