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Radical Translations

La Guillotine, or George's Head in a basket.png
Spoof (April fool) playbill for an imaginary farce, 'La Guillotine, or George's head in the basket!' Googlebooks

In 2015, the OED put out a public appeal for information leading to an earlier etymological origin of ‘numpty’ than 1988, citing Michael Munro’s second volume of Glaswegian dialect, The Patter: Another Blast (Canongate) and asking if “Glaswegians were really the first to call people numpties” or whether the term existed earlier in other parts of the UK? (https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13412719.oxford-english-dictionary-launches-search-original-numpty/). In 2007, it was voted Scotland's favourite word (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6520353.stm). As a result, its first usage was backdated to 1985, in Philip First’s novel, The great pervader (Panther).

Now, the KCL ‘Radical Translations’ team have backdated its earliest usage to 1794, after noticing its appearance – albeit "numpy" rather than "numpty" – in a spoof, satirical playbill advertising an imaginary farce called, “LA GUILLOTINE; Or GEORGE’S HEAD IN A BASKET!”, to be performed, “For the benefit of JOHN BULL, at the FEDERATION THEATRE, in EQUALITY SQUARE, on Thursday the 1st of April, 4971”, and featuring as Dramatis personae, “Numpy the Third, by Mr. GWELP (Being the last time of his appearing in that character), Prince of Leeks by Mr. GWELP, junior etc.… The whole to conclude with A GRAND DECAPITATION OF PLACEMEN, PENSIONERS AND GERMAN LEECHES… Vive la Liberté! Vive la République!”

Yet a mystery still remains, for the playbill in question, which was produced as evidence against Thomas Hardy during the infamous Treason Trials of 1794, appears to have vanished, like a puff of smoke, into thin air. We only know its contents thanks to its existence in the various transcript accounts of the trial, which were taken down in shorthand at the time. Hardy was the founder of a federation of political clubs campaigning for the democratic reform of Parliament, known as the London Corresponding Society (LCS), and his trial, which lasted for nine days, from 28 October to 5 November 1794, was the longest and most expensive trial for high treason in Britain to that date.

Cited during the Crown's cross-examination of the witness John Edwards, a fellow LCS member, its existence is also confirmed within the draft interrogation records of LCS members Jean-Baptiste Roussell and John Baxter (20th May and 8th July 1794). The fact that no tangible copy appears to have survived in the records might suggest that it was either suppressed extremely effectively, or that it was devised and planted by a government informer to strengthen the government’s case – being the only evidence it could produce of regicidal intent – as was proposed in court at the time by Hardy’s defence counsel, Thomas Erskine, K.C.

While the first recorded usage of ‘Numpy’ actually dates back to Penelope Aubin’s 1733 play, The Merry Masqueraders; or the Humorous Cuckold, as a term of mocking endearment for a cuckolded husband, this would appear to be its first usage as satirical abuse directed against a specified person. Derived from "numps", a 16th-century term for someone characterized as silly or stupid, it appears to be referencing the king’s intermittent, and publicly known, mental condition. "Gwelp" is a humorous variant on Guelph (or Welf), the original branch from which the House of Hanover dynasty was descended.

The later addition of a ‘t’ to make a more satisfying sound probably derives from the assonant phrase ‘Humpty Dumpty’, defined in Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) as, "a short clumsy person of either sex; also ale boiled with brandy". The well-known rhyme appeared soon after in English composer Samuel Arnold’s collection of nursery rhymes set to music, Juvenile Amusements (1797), in which Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall and had a great fall before, “Four score men and four score more, Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before”. This follows a long tradition of the humorous use of reduplicative words, such as the characters Noodle and Doodle, Queen Dollallolla and Princess Huncamunca from Henry Fielding’s popular play, The Tragedy of Tragedies; or the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (1731).

Hardy’s eventual acquittal by the jury was due in large part to the appearance of an anonymous polemic by William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist, in The Morning Chronicle on 21 October, a week before the trial, whose arguments would be adopted by Erskine during his defence. Its striking demolition – it was immediately republished as Cursory Strictures on the Charge delivered by Lord Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, October 2, 1794 (1794) – of the spurious legal basis for equating the LCS demands for parliamentary reform with high treason was such, that one of the prosecution lawyers was forced to deny in court that their case depended on any such argument. Godwin’s shrewd dissection ended with the lines, “Thus every part of the transaction appears to be uniform, and marks an administration, calloused to public character, and determined to apply all means indiscriminately to effect their sanguinary purposes”.

When the publisher C. & G. Kearsley discontinued its sale after government threats, the radical publisher Daniel Eaton brought up the remaining print run and reprinted it at half the price. Another defendant, John Horne Tooke told Godwin that he held himself indebted for his life to this pamphlet, while William Hazlitt, in The Spirit of the Age (1825), would later note that, “the sharpness of Mr Godwin’s pen cut the legal cords with which it was intended to bind them [the defendants]”.

The OED has confirmed they will record this new antedating when they release their next set of updates in September.

[Appeal to Readers: In an ideal world, we would have found a translation into French or Italian of Godwin’s Cursory Strictures, possibly the most influential text he wrote, taken from either the original article, or subsequent pamphlet, but sadly none appears to exist unless they are buried deep within a library catalogue or someone's research notes. If anyone knows of any such version, please contact the team leader Sanja Perovic on sanja.perovic@kcl.ac.uk.]

Annotated cover Godwin's Cursory Strictures.jpeg
Cover of Godwin's 'Cursory Strictures etc.' with ministerial note that "K (Kearsley) promised immediately to stop the sale – 23 Oct 1794, 8 p.m." National Archives (TS 11/952)
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Transcript for Thomas Hardy's trial for high treason at the Old Bailey between October and November, 1794. Googlebooks

Further reading:

The Trial of Thomas Hardy for high treason, at the Sessions House in the Old Bailey… October [and] November, 1794… Taken in short-hand by Joseph Gurney, 4 vols (1795, Martha Gurney), ii: 291-295.

National Archive Kew, Privy Council Papers: Draft minutes, including examinations of those accused of revolutionary designs, PC 1/22/36 A (1794)

John Barrell, Imagining the King's Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-1796 (2000, OUP), pp 215-216.

James Epstein & David Karr, ‘Playing at Revolution: British "Jacobin" Performance' (Journal of Modern History 79 (September 2007): 495-530 (p.521).

George Woodcock, William Godwin: A biographical study (1946, Porcupine Press), p.112.