Monday, August 31, 2015

Word of the day: coster

As Cherry Beamish, Mrs. Allison was a music-hall performer. From Willa Cather’s “The Old Beauty” (1948):

“Remember her in that coster song, Mother? It went round the world, that did.”
The Oxford English Dictionary explains: coster is short for costermonger , from costard , “an apple,” and monger , “dealer, trader”: “orig. An apple-seller, a fruiterer; esp. one that sold his fruit in the open street”; “Now, in London, a man who sells fruit, vegetables, fish, etc. in the street from a barrow.” The Dictionary lists several compound words with coster : coster-boy , coster-ditty , coster-girl , coster-song . An 1892 citation mentions Albert Chevalier: “Long before the days of Mr. Chevalier and his excellent songs, there was a coster-ditty, which,” &c.

Google Books gives further help. A 1905 item from The Ludgate Monthly, “Albert Chevalier and His Songs: A Chat with His Publisher,” by Ernest Alfieri, quotes music publisher R. W. Reynolds:
“Before ‘The Future Mrs. ’Awkins’ came out, ‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road’ had had the largest sale, closely followed by ‘The Coster’s Serenade’; but ‘My Old Dutch,’ which is not a coster song — it belongs to the genus cockney, of which the purely coster song is only a species — bids fair to outrival them all.”
So a coster song is a kind of Cockney song. I’d like to know though how one tells the difference.

You can hear, courtesy of YouTube, two recordings of Albert Chevalier singing “My Old Dutch,”: 1, 2. Also at YouTube, versions by Peter Sellers and Herman’s Hermits. It’s easy to imagine the Beatles trying this song in the Get Back sessions.

Some other Chevalier songs: “The ’Armonic Club,” “The Coster’s Courtship,” “The Nipper,” “Wot cher!,” “Wot’s the Good of Hanyfink? Why, Nuffink.”

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