I like to collect and research idioms, although I’m not too sure how to describe them. I suppose a phrase that is used where a meaning is not deducible from the words in it, something like “Over the Moon” for example, to convey happiness.
To feel or to look like a proper Charlie is one that I have heard used in my family and generally throughout my entire life, possibly not so much now, but I think most people would get the inference; to feel or look like an idiot. Something occurred in my last post that made me think about the phrase’s origins.
The two modern terms can be discounted. The American emanating from the Vietnam war for their opposition known as the VC (Victor Charlie in the military alphabet) and the term used for Cocaine.
Most internet searches will throw up the same answers, but as these mostly appear word for word it looks as if cut and paste was the easy option for their authors. The main argument is that the term derives from Cockney rhyming slang. There’s three, Charlie Hunt, which we’ll move on from quickly, Charlie Ronce and Charlie Smirke.
The first one, rather obscene and a version I’ve never encountered before to my mind isn’t correct. I believe that the actual usage is “Berk” as in Berkshire Hunt or sometimes Berkley Hunt.
The Charlie Ronce one does have a bit of traction as it’s connotation is the word “Ponce”, as in a man who lives off a prostitute’s earnings, a word that was in use in the mid 19th century and I would put the idiom down to well before the 20th century, but it is a stretch to make it fit the meaning and I’ve also seen the usage of Johnny, Freddy, Bill and Harry as a prefix.
This last one appears to be an actual person, a jockey in the 1930s through to the 1950s and a very successful one, so why the inference to an idiot? I can’t see it, and to feel or look like a champion jockey is not something that I have ever likened myself or anyone else to. Possibly it could be a derogatory term used by Bookmakers, but I can’t see that passing into common parlance.
One link that fits perfectly is that of circus clown, Charlie Cairoli. A clown, an idiot, it’s a good link, but this Charlie’s heyday was again the 1930s and 40s and I’m now certain that the idiom is even older than the Ponce reference. The reason for this certainty is that which I mentioned earlier, something I came across in my last post.
I was telling the story of an incident that happened in 1789 and involved a Night Watchman called Caught with your trousers down. I wanted an image to convey what such a person looked like and in doing so found this engraving, which reads in the footnote “A “Charley” or London Watchman of the 18th century“
Back in the 18th century and well before the job of Nightwatchman was usually foisted onto some local inhabitant of an area, in very rare cases someone would volunteer, but it was not a position that was coveted. So, in most cases the watchman who in most cases was very badly paid, if at all, was shall we say a little tardy in his duties. They were mostly old men, not at the peek of physical fitness and with a habit of sleeping while on duty. This earned them a certain amount of contempt for their laziness and ineptitude in catching wrong doers and they were usually held up to public ridicule as not being fit for purpose. This image of the lazy, incompetent watchman goes back a l further two hundred years to the time of Shakespeare, who made them comic figures in his play Much Ado About Nothing. Just to add to this it appears that the last of the Nightwatchman to hang up his stick and lantern was none other than a Charlie Rouse.
Charlie Rouse, Brixton 1875
I have not managed to find any published article linking the idiom to the job of Nightwatchman, but I’m content with my assumption and will confidently tell anyone who will listen, but publish my findings? Not on your Nelly! I might end up looking like the title of the piece or worse!
NB. I inadvertently seem to have found my next idiom topic, as I have no idea who Nelly was or when she was about. My Gran was called Nelly, but I doubt it’s her.