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On a wild goose chase for the origin of wayzgoose

Here in the UK we have been enjoying the hottest summer since 2006. For many, this has meant getting together with friends for day trips and outings in the sunshine. For employees at Oxford University Press there have been a variety of organized events for staff to enjoy, from sports evenings to open-air Shakespeare. But Press outings aren’t quite the same as they were in the days of the annual wayzgoose holiday.

As silly as a goose

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the wayzgoose was originally an entertainment given by a master-printer to his workmen to mark the beginning of the season of working by candlelight. In later use, it meant an annual festivity held in summer by the employees of a printing establishment, consisting of a dinner and (usually) an excursion into the country. Traditionally this was held on or around 24th August, Bartholomew-tide, St Bartholomew being the patron saint of bookbinders (amongst other things) – coincidentally this was also the date on which Gutenberg completed his bible in 1456. Over time, however, the date of the wayzgoose varied to any day in late summer. Here is an advert for an OUP wayzgoose held in July 1900 – it’s worth bearing in mind that printers in those days usually worked at weekends!

 

Wayzgoose notice

 

A wild goose-chase

The origin of the term wayzgoose is still shrouded in mystery. Earlier evidence of the word suggests it was originally waygoose, without the z. The earliest evidence currently for waygoose in the OED is from Mechanick Exercises by Joseph Moxon (1683) – “the Master Printer gives them a Way-goose; that is, he makes them a good Feast, and not only entertains them at his own House, but besides, gives them Money to spend at the Ale-house or Tavern at Night”. The spelling with the z is not found until the late 19th century, with one exception, Nathaniel Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1731. Bailey believed that the word stemmed from the meaning of wayz as a bundle of straw or stubble, hence wayz-goose or stubble-goose, i.e. a goose fattened on stubble fields after harvest. (A further theory was that a stubble-goose was served at the holiday’s feast, although no link has been proven.). In the 19th century people began using Bailey’s spelling alongside the traditional waygoose, and it seems to have stuck.

Editors on the first edition of the OED were clearly keen to ascertain the correct etymology. With the OUP print shop on their doorstep, they had an obvious source of information to tap. Dictionary archives show that in 1923 OUP’s head printer Frederick Hall wrote to editor William Craigie about the origin of the term wayz-goose; an image of the letter can be seen below. Hall’s successor John Johnson wrote again in 1930, this time to supplement editor Charles Onions about the variant spelling wayze-goose. Neither response was particularly enlightening.

 

Wayzgoose letter

 

One’s goose is cooked

In the end, the editors took a cautious approach and gave a summary of the various theories in their etymology of the word. They stated, however, that Bailey’s assumptions, and also the link to the eating of a stubble-goose, seemed unlikely. The entry featured in the fascicle for WAVY-WEZZON, published in July 1926. One of the dictionary slips for the etymology can be seen here. Curiously the last passage about the wake-goose spelling (and its possible link to the dialect verb wake, meaning to work by artificial light) was omitted from the published version, presumably due to lack of evidence. Interestingly, Harry Carter’s History of Oxford University Press vol.1 (1975) also makes reference to the print shop holiday as a wake-goose, quoting rules of the Bible Press from 1709 with reference to “Christmas, Easter, and the Wake-goose”.

Wayzgoose slip 2

Goose bumps

In any case, wayzgoose events at OUP seem to have been rather jolly and sometimes raucous affairs. In 1919, in the first issue of the staff magazine The Clarendonian, a potted history is given. It begins “Prior to the year 1851 the Wayzgoose was an afternoon affair at some local inn…followed by a supper, which, if the accounts given by our seniors are to be trusted, did not invariably end in harmony.” It goes on to say that the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the opening up of the railways led to the wayzgoose becoming more of a holiday than a day trip. An extract given from a local newspaper for the 1854 wayzgoose states “On Saturday, July 15, the men and boys employed on the Bible Side of the University Press enjoyed their annual holiday. The former, through the liberality of their employers and by an arrangement with the Great Western and the South Western Railway Companies, were enabled to spend a day or two on the sea-shore, arriving at Portsmouth about noon on Saturday and returning on the Monday evening following.”

Although some wayzgoose trips were made by train, many were made by bus. The bus used, from the mid-19th century until the early 20th century, was usually a charabanc, another evocative word. This one has a much simpler etymology though. It originates from the French char-à-bancs meaning carriage with benches, as the vehicle contained rows of benched seats. Originally charabancs were pulled by horses, but motorized versions later emerged. They were usually open-topped, sometimes with a folding canvas roof, and were especially common for sightseeing and work outings.

Kill the goose that lays the golden egg

Departmental excursions at the Press remained popular until the 1960s, when a trip to the country or seaside by bus or train became less appealing. The wayzgoose was resurrected, however, on the occasion of OUP’s quincentenary in 1978, when 340 print shop employees were taken to the theme park Alton Towers over three Saturdays. The word itself still has currency, preserved as a quaint archaism to describe printing and literary events in the main, but also social events in a wider context.