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Hurlothrumbo: Maggoty Johnson, Lord Flame, Mark Twain and the World's First Washing Machine: A Word Found and Lost

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Some future edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will include the obscure, long-forgotten noun and adjective hurlothrumbo, first brought to life as the title of an eponymous opera staged in London's Haymarket "Little Theatre" in the spring of 1729. The piece ran for about a month to a cheerfully supportive mob of enthusiasts who pledged themselves to applaud from beginning to end. The most memorable character among the "Persons of the Drama" was the author himself who played the part of Lord Flame, "sometimes in one key, sometimes in another, sometimes fiddling, sometimes dancing, and sometimes walking on stilts." The production was a tangle of nonsense concocted by one of England's last jesters, Samuel Johnson (1691-1773).

It made him, briefly, the talk of the town. Johnson (he predates his famous namesake by about fifty years) made an itinerant living in the big houses of Cheshire putting on little plays, telling stories, and acting the fool for the amusement of the gentry.

The startling success of his play defined him. Off stage he was called Lord Flame and people dutifully addressed him as "M'lud." Rattlebrained and whimsical in old age he ended his days in the village of Gawsworth under the name of Maggoty Johnson. Over his grave was placed a stone with a florid inscription commemorating him under both his own name and that of Lord Flame. By its side another stone was afterwards erected with an inscription of a reproachfully pious cast.

A Dancing Master, too, in Grace he shone,

And all the arts of Opera were his own:

In Comedy well skill'd he drew Lord Flame,

Acted the Part and gain'd himself the Name.

The ghost of the buried man is said to have long haunted the spot.

An initial attempt to have hurlothrumbo included in the OED failed because, in the editor's opinion, the word was only a proper noun.

Not so.

Hurlothrumbo was first referenced by John Byrom, an early 18th-century diarist: "... if people talk of a thing as inconsistent in any manner, the word is now a mere hurlothrumbo." Nathaniel Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum (1736) defines the word as meaning a bawling, noisy preacher or orator "who lays about him violently, using much action and gesture; also one that uses many extravagant expressions and rants." By the 1930s the word had crossed the Atlantic and found its way into Roget's Thesaurus where it means a "bug bear or monster." The American science-fiction writer Jack Vance put it to work as the title of a game of chance in his novel Ports of Call, and as the description of a monstrous mechanical centipede in The Killing Machine.

Shown the evidence, OED editors conceded the point, going on to say that they would insert hurlothrumbo when they get around to revising section H. Since they are now at "R" we think that may not be for a while yet.

Joshua Norton immigrated to San Francisco from England when gold was discovered. In 1841, he built a steam yacht and named her Hurlothumbo. Joseph Potter, colleague and fellow Englishman, reluctantly concluded that Hurlothrumbo would be more valuable to her master if she were scrapped. Potter believed that equipment on Hurlothrumbo could be put to profitable use in California's gold mines and with Norton's blessing dismantled the yacht.

With a Chinese partner he set up a laundry and bath house using Hurlothrumbo's steam engine, pumps and boiler. Potter may have invented the first clothes-washing machine, but no details of his design survive. We do know he offered a "free clean shirt and bath" to anyone who bought one of his cigars, and he had no shortage of customers.

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Eric Dietrich-Berryman Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

German-born (1940) immigrant (1958). US Army 1958-1964. Vietnam 1962-1963. USN 1969-1993. Hofstra University BA 1966; University of New Mexico MA (1968), PhD (1971). Fully retired. Married. Five children, three grandchildren. Resident in (more...)

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The word hurlothrumbo in its theatrical sense as a stage role could easily stand as a metaphor of life, mine in particular. Hurlothrumbo is the name given to a turgid part played "sometimes in one key, sometimes in another, sometimes fiddling, sometimes dancing, and sometimes walking on stilts."

Submitted on Friday, Nov 1, 2019 at 3:51:11 AM

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