Enid Blyton in the OED
Enid Blyton (1897 – 1968) was an English writer of children’s books published from 1922 until her death in 1968. Among her literary creations are Noddy, The Naughtiest Girl in the School, The Faraway Tree, school stories set at St Clare’s and Mallory Towers, and the adventure series featuring the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. As well as selling over 600 million books, Enid Blyton has left her mark on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), where her works are quoted under a number of entries.
Adventures and messing about
Most fittingly, the OED includes a quotation from the Famous Five novel Five Run Away Together (1944) under the headword adventure, ‘a novel or exciting experience’, in which the tomboy George scolds Anne for her lack of daring: ‘Go back! Leave an adventure just when it’s beginning!’ said George, scornfully. ‘How silly you are, Anne.’ Another entry that typifies the Famous Five spirit (though it actually comes from a different work, Mountain of Adventure) is don’t carish: ‘I feel rather don’t-carish now—not scared any more’. When not foiling smugglers or unmasking criminal gangs, the Five are free to while away the long holidays (or hols) away from boarding school as they please. The phrase mess about, defined by OED as ‘To pass time in a pleasantly desultory way’, is quoted from Five Run Away Together: ‘The children messed about that day, doing nothing at all’.
The school stories
Where Blyton’s Famous Five books appear under headwords concerned with holiday adventures, her school stories are cited in entries relating to the return to class. The problem of gearing back up to study with the return to school is evoked in the OED entry for rusty ‘lacking in fitness and alertness’: ‘Their five weeks’ holiday had made them rusty, and it was difficult to get back the habit of concentration again’ (Summer Term at St Clare’s, 1943). The restlessness caused by being cooped up in a classroom all day is evoked in a citation from the same work in the OED entry for work off, ‘get rid of surplus energy’: ‘Carlotta worked off some of her restlessness in the playgrounds, but still had plenty left by the time the bell went for classes again’.
Blyton’s school books are also quoted in entries relating to the negotiation of school friendships. The headword make friends with cites Summer Term at St Clare’s, although – as is too often the case in these stories – the friendship has ulterior motives: ‘Now she’s making friends with Sadie because one day she’ll be rich. Nasty little humbug!’ The same book supplies the citation for the synonymous verb pal up, used in a context further suggestive of a connection between friendship and money: ‘Our cousin Alison has palled up with one of them—an American girl, stiff-rich, called Sadie Greene’. The complex politics of schoolgirl relationships is evoked in additional quotations from Summer Term at St Clare’s under the entries for laugh up one’s sleeve, ‘to laugh to oneself’: ‘She was annoyed to think that her class might be laughing up their sleeves at her’, and good-tempered, which witnesses to the fickleness of such friendships: ‘I suppose Prudence split on me?’ said Janet, her good-tempered face suddenly flushing.’ The phrase split on is a 19th-century slang term meaning to turn informer on someone. Someone who splits on another is a tell-tale, another term that is illustrated with a citation from Blyton’s work in the OED: ‘I’ll pay her out all right! I’ll make her squirm. The nasty little tell-tale.’
Cripes! Beastly swanking
Today Enid Blyton’s books are best-known for the use of jolly-hockey-sticks expressions such as By Golly (in origin an 18th-century euphemistic substitution for By God), Cripes, Crikey (both euphemisms for By Christ), Mercy me, Blow, Rather, Pooh, and What ho, intensifying adverbs like jolly, frightfully, awfully, adjectives like wizard ‘excellent’, and the lashings of ginger beer that accompanied their picnics. Slang terms typical of early 20th-century schoolchildren include the phrase Bags I, used to assert a claim to something on the grounds of having spoken up first, swotting ‘working hard’, cribbing ‘cheating’, snitching ‘informing on someone to a teacher’, swanking ‘showing off’ – originally a Midland dialect word, distantly related to swing and sway – and of being priggish ‘self-righteously well-behaved’. Typical insults include beastly, potty (an early 20th-century term meaning ‘eccentric’) and barmy: originally the same word as balmy ‘mild and soothing’, which developed the sense ‘soft, weak-minded’ in London street-slang of the 19th century. The spelling switched to barmy as it became associated with barm ‘the froth or “head” on beer’. These words, which were popular among schoolchildren in the 1920s, now have a rather dated feel, and tend to be associated with old-fashioned, upper-class, usage.
A 21st-century Blyton?
In 2010 Hodder, the publisher of the Famous Five books, decided that their outdated terms presented a barrier for modern schoolchildren and took the controversial step of updating the language. So references to housemistresses were changed to teachers, school tunics were swapped for school uniform, bathing-drawers for swimming-trunks, jerseys for jumpers, and Mother and Father became plain old Mum and Dad. Other replacements were designed to tone down pejorative labels such as tinker, which became traveller, and to change names with inappropriate connotations. So Nobby the circus boy was rechristened Ned; though – somewhat surprisingly – Aunt Fanny and Dick remain.