Q From Gill Sher: I recently read an Agatha Christie short story How Does Your Garden Grow? from 1937, and in it is the phrase soft sawder which I have never heard before. Please could you explain it?
A It’s has very much the same meaning as blarney, soft soap, or buttering up — flattery that has the aim of persuading or cajoling you to do something for someone else. We’ve all been on one end or the other of the process at some time, but we probably didn’t call it soft sawder, because that way of describing it has gone out of use since Agatha Christie’s day.
Tracking it down was an interesting process, and led me yet again to Thomas Chandler Haliburton (Judge Haliburton) of Nova Scotia. He was well-known in the nineteenth century for his comic writings, which first appeared in book form in The Clockmaker; or the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville of 1836. Judge Haliburton — a real judge — is sometimes described as the founding North American humorist. In his stories, Sam Slick was a maker and seller of clocks who accompanied a visiting English gentleman on a tour of early 19th-century Nova Scotia. Judge Haliburton is said to have got the character from a real clock salesman who appeared before him, who used gross flattery to sell his clocks to local people.
Thomas Haliburton has appeared here before in connection with the phrase mad as a hatter. He’s also credited with creating soft sawder and it was because his writings about Sam Slick were so hugely popular that the term came into the language. The term first appeared in the story The Trotting Horse in that first collection, in which Sam Slick says of a sour innkeeper’s wife: “If she goes to act ugly, I’ll give her a dose of ‘soft sawder,’ that will take the frown out of her frontispiece, and make her dial-plate as smooth as a lick of copal varnish”.
But where does it come from? Sawder is just a variant way of writing the usual North American pronunciation of solder (it looks odd to modern British English speakers, who pronounce the l — we didn’t at one time, but the “speak as you spell” movement has triumphed). Soft solder (it’s called that because it melts at a lower temperature) is, as its name suggests, easier to apply than the hard variety, though it sets as solid, binding parts together as tightly as a salesman would wish to bind his customer to him. Solder would have come quickly enough to the mind of a clockmaker at that period, as the reference in its first appearance in print shows.
It seems from the evidence that soft sawder very quickly caught on in North America, and soon enough across the Atlantic in Britain, too. It was common right down to Agatha Christie’s time, turning up in works by Galsworthy and E M Forster among others. However, soft soap and other phrases have displaced it permanently. Few people now know what soft solder is, nor what connection it might have with flattery.