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Q From Laurelyn Collins: I’ve just read Josephine Tey’s book The Expensive Halo, published in 1931. She referred to a character being able to wear her diamond fender to an evening affair. I can’t find this term anywhere else — a tiara? A necklace? What would it be?

A The word is poorly recorded in print and there are too many other sorts of fender to make searching for examples easy, even though few incorporate diamonds, apart from the occasional “blinged-out” Fender Stratocaster. However, I’ve found my way to the origin.

The full quotation you mention is this:

Mother goes because the opera is the only place in London nowadays where you can wear a diamond fender without looking a fool.

We may deduce from this that a fender is jewellery of a rather old-fashioned sort, albeit elegant or upper class. This next appearance shows that you are right to suppose it is a kind of tiara, one of a particularly grand and expansive nature:

“Eleanor always says that when she puts on the Mershire diamonds she feels the respected shades of her ancestors-in-law closing around her,” said Esther, still smiling; “and that with a diamond fender on her head and a diamond poultice on her chest a woman can face anything.”

Her Ladyship’s Conscience, by Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, 1913.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for fender, which fails us utterly by not mentioning the jewellery sort, does include a citation from the Temple Bar magazine of 1893. Some delving shows that this came from the serialisation of a novel:

Presently she moved away with Lord Frederick in the direction of Madeleine, who had installed herself at the further end of the room among the fenders, as our latter-day youth gracefully designates the tiaras of the chaperones.

Diana Tempest, by Mary Cholmondeley, 1893.

We may presume that the youth of late Victorian times referred to the tiaras as fenders because their wearers’ function was to defend their charges from unwanted male attention. We may guess that the tiaras were substantial enough to be figurative battlements.

Since we are in an urban environment in the days before motor cars, the most likely fender for the allusion would be the sort placed around open fires to protect the room from cinders and to prevent children from getting too close. This next extract confirms both the allusion and the monumental nature of the tiaras:

“I will wear what Jack calls the family fender,” said Dodo. “Tiara, you know, so tall that you couldn’t fall into the fire if you put it on the hearthrug.”

Dodo Wonders, by E. F. Benson, 1921.

What is odd about it is that no editor of any dictionary of slang of the period has thought to include this sense of fender, though it was well enough known that authors expected readers of the period to understand it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 6 April 2013.