“None so knowing as he, / At brewing a jorum of tea!”, wrote Sir William Gilbert in one of his Savoy Operas, The Sorcerer. The vicar was in the process of brewing a pretty potent potion.
A jorum, as you may have gathered, is an old word for a large bowl or jug used for serving drinks such as tea or punch. By Gilbert’s day, the word had been around for about 150 years. It appeared for the first time in another lyric, in a play by Henry Fielding, The Author’s Farce and the Pleasures of the Town, first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1730.
Dickens loved the word
Nobody knows for sure where Fielding got it from. It has no clear connection with any other word in the language. The experts point, a little cautiously, at this as a possible source:
Then Toi sent Joram his son unto king David, to salute him, and to bless him, because he had fought against Hadadezer, and smitten him: for Hadadezer had wars with Toi. And Joram brought with him vessels of silver, and vessels of gold, and vessels of brass.
Second book of Samuel 8:10, from The King James Bible, 1611.
(This may remind readers of the names for sizes of wine bottle, in partricular, jeroboam, that I’ve written about previously.)
Charles Dickens was very fond of it. He used jorum in five of his novels — The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit and Oliver Twist — as well as in several of his other works, including Pictures from Italy and The Seven Poor Travellers. The nineteenth century seems to have been the heyday of the word, on both sides of the Atlantic:
The amiable creature beguiled the watches of the night by brewing jorums of a fearful beverage, which he called coffee, and insisted on sharing with me; coming in with a great bowl of something like mud soup, scalding hot, guiltless of cream, rich in an all-pervading flavor of molasses, scorch and tin pot.
Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott, 1863. This account of her time as a nurse at a hospital in the District of Columbia was a popular success.
The word was for a while used in the American slang phrase jorum of skee, meaning a shot of whisky (where skee is an elided form of whisky). That usage was revised in the 1990s:
Chicago overcoats, Harlem sunsets, a jorum of skee, a chippie with boss getaway sticks, giving a canary the Broderick.
Cadillac Beach, by Tim Dorsey, 1994. In this and later books, the author created the character of a deranged cop who thinks that he is a 1940s private dick, with vocabulary to suit. A Chicago overcoat is a block of concrete encasing a victim; a Harlem sunset is the blood-red line on freshly razor-slashed skin; a chippie is a young woman of questionable character, whose getaway sticks are her legs, here considered boss, or excellent; a gangster who is giving a canary the Broderick is giving an informer a severe beating.
Otherwise it is now rarely encountered.
Page created 26 Sep. 2009
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