Down, sir!

Down, sir!

In Brief

As Stephen walks down to the swimming hole, he hears Mulligan engaged in some new kind of clowning: "Behind him he heard Buck Mulligan club with his heavy bathtowel the leader shoots of ferns or grasses. / — Down, sir! How dare you, sir!" It would seem that Joyce has dreamed up this fanciful way of addressing vegetation, but in fact he (and perhaps Gogarty) took it from a common British fashion for addressing dogs and other domestic animals.

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In a note on JJON, Harald Beck observes that "Sir" was "a common term of address to a dog." He cites examples from several 19th century works. Chapter 30 of Frederick Marryat's Masterman Ready (1836) has these lines: "'Down, Romulus, down, sir,' said he to the dog, who had jumped up at the kids. 'How dare you, sir? Down, I say'." Francis Butler's Breeding, Training, Management, Diseases, &c. of Dogs (1860) recommends that the trainer "Gently press the dog down, repeating 'Down! Down Sir!' hold over him a twig or a whip; if he resist, (as most probably he may,) use the whip very lightly, and increase in severity, according to the obstinacy of the animal" (73). Chapter 20 of Marie Corelli's Sorrows of Satan (1893) shows a woman thus training a dog: "'Let me hold him! He will obey me!" she cried, placing her little hand on the great dog's neck. 'Down, Emperor! Down! How dare you! Down sir!'"

Beck also quotes from a letter that Karl Philipp (Charles) Moritz, a German man traveling in Britain, wrote on 15 July 1782 and included in his Travels (2nd ed., 1797). Moritz noted the extraordinary variety of social interactions in which Englishmen used this form of address: "The word Sir! in English has a great variety of significations. With the appellation of Sir, an Englishman addresses his King, his friend, his foe, his servant, and his dog.…Sir! in a surly tone, [signifies] a box on the ear at your service! To a dog it means a good beating" (260).

Not only does Joyce show Mulligan drawing on this peculiar British locution, but he had already used it his earlier fiction. In The Dead,  Gabriel Conroy tells the story of Patrick Morkan's mill-horse circling the "statue of King Billy." "'Round and round he went', said Gabriel, "and the old gentleman, who was a very pompous old gentleman, was highly indignant. 'Go on, sir! What do you mean, sir? Johnny! Johnny! Most extraordinary conduct! Can't understand the horse!'" Mulligan's pomposity is delightfully comic, but it is of a piece with his many other adoptions of stuffy British ways of speaking.

JH 2021
John Charles Dolman's The Dogs' Home, in a 27 February 1875 issue of The Pictorial World held in Philip Howell's personal collection. Source: