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Jolly hockey-sticks

Q From Kathy Sinclair, Australia: My colleagues and I are puzzled as to the origins of the phrase jolly hockey-sticks, used, it seems, to describe old-school-tie-type high jinks or behaviour. Can you elucidate how this phrase began?

A It’s not especially surprising that you’re puzzled, since you are half a world away from the British girls’ schools that provoked this parodic phrase, and in attitudes even further, if that were possible.

It is a very British expression, gently dismissive of the hearty, games-playing, unscholastic tone of many girls’ public schools, in which the game of hockey is a favourite sport. (Footnotes for non-Brits: public schools in Britain are actually fee-charging private schools separate from the state-run school system; they are patronised by the moneyed middle and upper classes, and the popular consciousness attributes an atmosphere of snobbery and privilege to them, not without cause. Also, hockey here is the field sport, not ice hockey.)

Such schools for girls were late on the scene compared with their counterparts for the male of the species. Early examples, in the middle nineteenth century, set up in deliberate imitation of public schools like Winchester and Eton, were the North London Collegiate School and the Cheltenham Ladies’ College. These institutions were headed respectively by firm friends Miss Frances Buss and Miss Dorothea Beale, thus provoking the anonymous rhyme:

Miss Buss and Miss Beale
Cupid’s darts do not feel.
How different from us,
Miss Beale and Miss Buss.

By the early years of the twentieth century, there were enough such girls’ schools in existence for a new genre of writing to evolve, of which the most celebrated early exponent was Angela Brazil. She and her successors and imitators did much to further this hearty, adventurous and sporting image.

A BBC radio comedy programme from 1950 was called Educating Archie and featured the ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews. (Unkind people said that, as a ventriloquist, Peter Brough’s ideal medium was radio — when he appeared on TV people could see his lips move. His American counterpart Edgar Bergen had similar problems and he, too, was most successful on radio.) Though the show, even viewed in rose-tinted retrospect, was fairly dreadful, it was also extremely popular, in part because its producer was a genius at spotting up-and-coming new talent. The list of Archie’s tutors and supporting cast reads like a Who’s Who of British talent from the fifties and sixties — Harry Secombe, Hattie Jacques, Benny Hill, Sid James, Max Bygraves, Tony Hancock, Alfred Marks, Dick Emery, Robert Moreton, Bernard Miles and Julie Andrews, among others.

One of Archie’s tutors was Beryl Reid, who played the part of a ghastly schoolgirl named Monica, a parody of the sporty public-school type. She invented the phrase jolly hockey-sticks! on the show because, as she said once, “I know what sort of thing my characters should say!” Her phrase struck a chord and it has passed into the language.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 May 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 May 2002.