A caution to rattlesnakes

A caution to rattlesnakes

In Brief

When Bloom runs into an old friend of Molly's in whom he once took a romantic interest, a little whirlwind of Irish expressions erupts from Josie, most of them still current in Dublin speech: "Go away," "grand," "on the baker's list," "don't be talking," "heartscalded," and, most strikingly, "a caution to rattlesnakes." Bloom's own idiomatic contributions to the conversation are drawn from more standard English: "in the pink," "like a house on fire."

Read More

In a personal communication, Senan Molony observes that Josie's reaction to the news of Milly's employment in Mullingar, "Go away!," is "pure Irish idiom." Pronounced G’way, like the Australian G’day, it expresses "amused amazement" and means pretty much the opposite of what it says. Similarly, he observes that “Don’t be talking!” does not mean "do not be talking," but something more like "My goodness!" or "Do tell!" Terence Dolan cites its appearance in Lestrygonians as an example of the Hiberno-English habit of putting "be" in front of progressive verbs. ("Be starting your tea, otherwise it'll get cold.") When Josie, after saying "Go away!," exclaims, "Isn't that grand for her?," she again sounds a distinctively Irish tone. Dolan gives the synonyms "fine; splendid. 'That's a grand day!'"

Saying that people are "on the baker's list," as Josie says of her children, means that they are well. Gifford attributes the expression to the ability to eat solid food, and Slote quotes from P. W. Joyce's English As We Speak It in Ireland: "I am well and have recovered my appetite" (109). When Bloom remarks that Molly is "in the pink," he is saying something similar in a more standard English way. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines it as meaning "In excellent health" but does not give the derivation that one might expect: a rosy complexion. Instead, the saying seems to have condensed longer ones like Shakespeare's "the very pink of courtesy," Goldsmith's "the very pink of perfection," and Burns' "the pink o' womankind." The OED defines this sense of "pink" as "The 'flower', or finest example of excellence; the embodied perfection (of some good quality)."

Bloom's description of Milly "Getting on like a house on fire" at the photographer's shop in Mullingar repeats an expression from England that has become commonplace in English-speaking lands as far away as America and South Africa. It clearly means "very quickly," but Brewer's dictionary enlivens the cliché by suggesting an origin in vividly concrete sensory experience: "The old houses of timber and thatch burned very swiftly." (Considering the great many thatch-roofed peasant homes that have been burned in Ireland during uprisings and evictions, it would be interesting to know if this expression gained a particular currency there!)

Of Josie's declaration that Dennis Breen "has me heartscalded," Gifford notes that this is "A still-current Dublinism." Slote too identifies it as a Hiberno-English expression, and cites P. W. Joyce's comment that it means "to experience 'a great vexation or mortification'." In 2013, Alphie McCourt, the younger brother of Frank McCourt, published a memoir called Heartscald.

The vivid language that Josie uses of her husband two sentences earlier, "He's a caution to rattlesnakes," is unfamiliar today but appears to have been standard fare in Joyce's time, judging by three uses that Molony has located in Irish and English newspapers dating from 1870 to 1901. The provenance and significance of the expression are open to debate, however. Of several possible meanings, all could be challenged on contextual grounds.

One might surmise that "He's a caution" would mean "He's a danger," especially given the mention of rattlesnakes. The full sense of Josie's statement, on this hypothesis, would be that not even dangerous animals are safe from her husband. But Joyce suggests only that Dennis Breen is eccentric, not dangerous; furthermore, I have not seen this sense of "caution" documented in reference works. Another possibility is less appealing to common sense but much better attested. Brewer writes that "So-and-so's a caution" can mean that "he is odd in his ways, likely to do something unexpected, often with a quaint twist to it. The phrase is originally American." The OED too identifies as American slang the meaning "Anything that staggers, or excites alarm, or astonishment; an extraordinary thing or person," and the American Heritage Dictionary offers the slang definition "Someone or something that is striking or alarming." It is easy to imagine Josie making such a comment about her very odd husband. Still, saying that Dennis' behavior would astonish rattlesnakes, as Gifford does, sounds somehow implausible.

Molony suggests a third meaning of "He's a caution" that is still current in Irish speech today: "He's very funny," a wry equivalent of the American idiom "He's a scream." This meaning would fit the ridicule that Dennis Breen attracts from Dubliners, though it is difficult to imagine why it would have been adapted to rattlesnakes, even in a spirit of comic hyperbole. (Are they even more impervious to laughing at human beings than other animals—a tougher audience?) It is almost as hard to imagine Josie inviting the ridicule. Would a loyal wife protective of her reputation (even one "heartscalded" by her long marriage to a lunatic) say that he deserves to be the butt of jokes?

Nevertheless, this may well be the operative sense of the expression. An 1901 article in a Bristol, England newspaper applies it to the "American Patter Comedian" R. G. Knowles: "the way he rolls off his latest wheezes is a caution to rattlesnakes.... the audience is kept in a boisterous roar all the time he is before them." An 1870 article in a Clonmel, Ireland paper describes a woman who made her way from New Ross to the poor-house in Clonmel seeking relief, noting that her "volubility and scowling look were 'a caution to rattlesnakes'." At first glance the writer's use of this phrase might seem to imply that the woman's appearance was daunting ("caution" in the sense of "a danger"), but the anecdotes that follow emphasize her risibility. Asked how she came "all the way from New Ross," she replies, "I travelled it all." And why did she come? Why, "to come in here (laughter)." Whether intentionally or by accident, she is a natural comedian. Dennis Breen is, certainly by accident, a source of great comic relief to his fellow citizens.

JH 2021
Source: www.thesimplestencil.com.
Source: www.goodreads.com.
Detail from a letter to the editor in the 7 August 1895 issue of the Cork Constitution. Source: www.findmypast.com.
Detail from an article in the 31 October 1901 issue of the Bristol Magpie. Source: www.findmypast.com.
Detail from an article in the 11 June 1870 issue of the Clonmel Chronicle. Source: www.findmypast.com.