Mysterious appearance of the gentleman in the small-clothes
illustration by “PHIZ” for the first edition of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
“It’s all right, Bertie.”
“She loves you still?”
“She wept on my chest.”
“And said she was sorry she had been cross. I said ‘There, there!’ and everything is once more gas and gaiters.”
from Joy in the Morning (1947), by the English writer P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)
– a satisfactory state of affairs
– empty, meaningless or pompous talk or opinions; nonsense
The phrase all is gas and gaiters, meaning all is well, was coined by the English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70) in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839) as part of an extended comic passage in which the speaker, who is supposed to be of unsound mind, makes a series of nonsensical statements. Mrs. Nickleby and her daughter, Kate, are at home in London with Miss La Creevy, the artist, and Mr. Linkinwater. While they are engaged in conversation, a muffled voice singing in melancholy tones issues from a neighbouring room. They find a pair of legs in grey worsted stockings dangling from the chimney; when these are sharply pulled, a gentleman in small clothes appears and says:
“Bring in the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew.”
Nobody executing this order, the old gentleman, after a short pause, raised his voice again and demanded a thunder sandwich. This article not being forthcoming either, he requested to be served with a fricassee of boot-tops and goldfish sauce, and then laughing heartily, gratified his hearers with a very long, very loud, and most melodious bellow.
It happened that Miss La Creevy [...] bustled into the room while the old gentleman was in the very act of bellowing. It happened, too, that the instant the old gentleman saw her, he stopped short, skipped suddenly on his feet, and fell to kissing his hand violently: a change of demeanour which almost terrified the little portrait painter out of her senses, and caused her to retreat behind Tim Linkinwater with the utmost expedition.
“Aha!” cried the old gentleman, folding his hands, and squeezing them with great force against each other. “I see her now; I see her now! My love, my life, my bride, my peerless beauty. She is come at last—at last—and all is gas and gaiters!”
Very early, the nonsensical expression gas and gaiters came to be used to mean empty or meaningless talk. For instance, The Daily News (London) of Tuesday 7th June 1859 published the following:
(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)
FORT YALE, MARCH 7.
As I write, intelligence has come up river that Colonel Moody, with a staff of engineers, is engaged in laying out the site of our future capital, at the mouth of Pitt River, which empties into the Frazer, eight miles nearer the sea than Langley, on the opposite side. This selection (the Express agent says) has added fuel to the rage of the Victorians, who were also large lot owners at Langley; but I should think the Lieutenant Governor was guided in his choice by strategical considerations, for Langley is on the American side, only six miles from the frontier, and without any natural facilities for fortification. As to the lot owners’ grievance about the government breaking faith with them, he has effectually stopped their mouths by the arrangement that when the new city lots come to sale they will be allowed credit to the full amount of their purchases in the condemned capital. The mortified citizens of Victoria are endeavouring to extract solace for their disappointments, crumbs of comfort in their anguish, from all sorts of natural and unnatural sources. Amongst the many palpable objections to having a port of entry in Frazer River they assert there is this insuperable difficulty, that vessels coming through the Straits of Fueca never can carry a heading wind beyond the parallel of Esquimault, being invariably met in the Gulf of Georgia with baffling squalls and sudden gales, which render the navigation of these waters so tediously difficult and imminently dangerous, that large merchant ships will be constrained, ‘nolens volens,’ to make Esquimault the port of destination, whence all merchandise must be necessarily conveyed by steamers to the “great port of entry,” as they derisively designate it. Now, all this special reasoning, if I may import a comprehensive Oriental expletive, is simply and entirely bosh*, which translated into our vernacular signifies gas and gaiters. Baffling squalls and sudden gales are not the characteristics of either the Straits or the Gulf—quite the contrary; the winds, especially in the latter, are remarkable for steadiness—not, be it misunderstood, from year’s end to year’s end, but steadiness for periods after seasonal shifts. However, even if a northern prevailed all the year round, a vessel, after beating up through the narrow gut of Fueca, could surely hold her wind in the comparatively open waters of the Golf. In fact the assertion is utterly groundless.
(* bosh: empty or meaningless talk or opinions; nonsense – from Turkish boş, empty, worthless)
The expression has the same meaning in the following from The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of Friday 26th September 1884:
England has just been witnessing with amusement, not unmixed with a spice of contempt, one of those outbreaks of Continental journalism to which we are periodically treated. [...] The surest antidote is John Bull’s stoical tolerance and immovable patience. Perhaps it may be his smug self-sufficiency; perhaps it may be that the thing has been overdone; perhaps it is his understanding how disproportionate is the smoke to the fire; perhaps he knows how essentially it is “all gas and gaiters”—anyhow none of the hard things move him.
However, in the Taunton Courier of Wednesday 12th December 1888, the expression is used to mean a satisfactory state of affairs:
Trade is still maintaining its improvement. There was one month of anxiety—the month of September. Owing mainly to the sudden falling off of yarns and textile fabrics but largely also to the decrease in the foreign use of English metals and manufactured articles, our trade fell off in a single month by nearly a quarter of a million. The following month showed a retrieval of the balance, and the month of November gives us a total addition of £2,373,614 in the imports, raising them to such a point that an increase of more than 21 millions may be recorded, while the exports for the month show an accession of £617,319, making the total improvement for the eleven months very nearly 7 per cent. It is not all “gas and gaiters.” There are indications which might make pessimists uneasy. The import of raw material for textile manufacture is still on the decline. The exports of yarns and textile fabrics are declining still more.
It is often said that the phrase gas and gaiters was originally used to denote a satisfactory state of affairs and that it was only later, in the 20th century, that it came to mean verbiage, gas supposedly referring to the meaningless eloquence of the senior clergy and gaiters to their traditional dress that included those garments.
This is clearly a ludicrous theory, as the latter meaning, which is not necessarily the later in common usage, appeared in the second half of the 19th century and without any reference to clergymen but simply because a nonsensical expression came naturally to be used to mean nonsense.
This folk etymology might have arisen from the fact that All Gas and Gaiters was the title of a BBC television comedy series about a bishop and his clergy, broadcast from 1966 to 1971.