Monday, 9 January 2012
Tipping the lion
More on the Mohocks (I’m interested in the way that street gangs were taking their names from what were perceived to be violent Americans at this early date – another London gang 1711-14 called themselves Hawkubites, derived from the name of another American Indian tribe). Further research regarding the 'fish-hook through the cheek outrage' mentioned by Gay in The Mohocks (1712), indicates that the other traceable mention of this offence appears in An Argument, proving from History, Reason, and Scripture, that the present Race of Mohocks and Hawke-bites are the Gog and Magog mentioned in the Revelations; and therefore that this vain and transitory World will shortly be brought to its final Dissolution. Written by a Reverend Divine, who turns out to be John Gay, writing in 1712.
But, lest anyone should think this is trivialising the whole business (which many felt at the time was being whipped up by the two political parties to discredit their opponents), it must be remembered that the panic that kept Londoners indoors was brought about by some very real physical assaults. One offence perpetrated by the Mohocks was ‘tipping the lion’, found in The Spectator, No 324, 12 March 1712 and in Gay’s The Mohocks. Jonathan Green’s new Slang Dictionary (2011) gives references for the phrase from between 1785 and 1823, but Hotten (1865) does not include it at all, so it may have gone by then. Francis Grose in The Vulgar Tongue (1785) interpreted ‘tipping the lion’ as ‘to flatten a man’s nose with the thumb, and at the same time to extend his mouth with the fingers, thereby giving him a sort of lion-like countenance’. Not pleasant at all, and none too safe for the perpetrator, who would be likely to have his fingers savaged. Richard Steele, writing in March 1712, gave a definition of a much more aggressive action – ‘Some are celebrated for a happy Dexterity in tipping the Lion upon them; which is performed by squeezing the Nose flat to the Face, and boring out the Eyes with their Fingers’. The editors of the OED were evidently so affected by this phrase that they used it as an illustration both for ‘tip’ and ‘bore’, the only occasion I have found where a quotation is used for more than one word.
While I can see that the act described in Grose may give the impression of a lion’s face, something about it does not ring true. Daniel Statt (The Case of the Mohocks: rake violence in Augustan London, Social History, Vol 20 No 2, 1995) examines the extreme physical violence, with fists and feet rather than weapons, used by the Mohocks against women rather than men, and points out that the few men indicted for Mohock violence had recent military combat experience; but he does not mention ‘tipping the lion’ or whether it was carried out against men or women. In Gay’s The Mohocks, while the captured watchmen are being paraded before the justices by the Mohocks pretending to be watchmen, the phrase is ‘tip the lion upon five several of her Majesty’s true-born subjects’, similar to the way Steele uses it. ‘Tip’ here was used in the sense of ‘give’ – ‘tipping the lion’ would mean ‘giving someone [the characteristics of] a lion’. Poking someone’s eyes while squashing the nose would inevitably produce a screwed up face, raised upper lip and a roar of pain.
Despite the moral outrage of the government and city authorities very few of the Mohocks were indicted, tried or found guilty. For four of those wealthy gentlemen who were found guilty of assault and riot, the punishments were modest fines, in one case of three shillings and four pence; the fines were, as Statt points out, given ‘at the same session in which [the court] was meting out penalties of a day in the pillory and whipping at the tail of a cart to women and men who had committed petty property offences.’ Statt points to this as evidence of one level of punishment for offences against the person and another for offences against property, as well as a sense of certain classes of society being above the law.
Perhaps not unlike some recent discrepancies in sentencing.