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Friend and pitcher

Q From John Townley: There’s an old meaning of pitcher that seems neither to come from baseball nor from a person who applies pitch, let alone from the vessel. It appears in the form friend and pitcher in The Poor Soldier, an opera by William Shield and John O’Keefe, dated 1785. Having a friend and pitcher is clearly a mighty nice thing, but why?

A A search through old books and newspapers has turned up more than enough examples to show that friend and pitcher was quite widely known and used from the late eighteenth century on and even survived until the early twentieth century.

I’ve found it, for example, in Deacon Brodie, a play of 1884 by William Henley and Robert Louis Stevenson: “[A]ll I hope is, that our friend and pitcher, the Deakin, will make a better job of it than he did last night”. The Dubuque Daily Herald wrote about it in 1896: “The queer phrase ‘My friend and pitcher’ was still sometimes heard in Maryland and Virginia — also, I am told, in Pennsylvania, until within recent years, but would seem now to be obsolete hereabouts. Is it still in use elsewhere? ‘Pitcher’ had the meaning of chum, crony, or familiar acquaintance — preferably, perhaps, said of, or to, one of the opposite sex.”

The dating shows that the phrase was almost certainly taken from the sentimental song in the opera, which had the title My Friend and Pitcher and which was popular long after the opera had been forgotten:

My friend so rare, my girl so fair!
With such, what mortal can be richer?
Give me but these, a fig for care!
With my sweet girl, my friend and pitcher.

Blessed if I know where it comes from, though. Dictionaries are no help at all. None I’ve looked at contain any reference to a phrase like friend and pitcher. Pitcher here can’t come from the idea of it being somebody who pitches in, who gives help in need, because that’s less old than the phrase. It seems unlikely that it is from a member of a farm gang pitching hay on a cart, or from a market pitch, or from any of those meanings you give in your question. At the time of the opera, pitcher did have a low slang meaning of vagina, but that could hardly be the sense meant in the song, which wasn’t in the least bawdy.

Subscribers came up with two intriguing ideas. Many ingeniously suggested that the line “With my sweet girl, my friend and pitcher” didn’t consist of two phrases in apposition (with “friend and pitcher” being equivalent to “my sweet girl”) but a serial list of three items. This would make it a close parallel to Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of a line in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread — and thou”, with “pitcher” standing in for “jug”. However, the complete lyric shows it’s directed solely at the singer’s one true love. Another intriguing suggestion was that it might be linked with the expression to pitch woo, meaning to court, utter affectionate pleasantries to, or pay one’s addresses to, a member of the opposite sex. This was new to me and sounded possible, but fell foul of the evidence, since it only appeared in the 1930s — in the USA and Australia — about 150 years too late to have been an influence.

Either we have a meaning that has escaped all record, or John O’Keefe intended some figurative sense that is now unknown.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Sep. 2006

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Last modified: 16 September 2006.