cover of The Great Panjandrum Himself (1885), a picture book based on the text attributed to Samuel Foote, by the English artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-86) – photograph: Aleph-Bet Books
a pompous self-important official or person of rank
The word is supposed to have been coined in 1754 or 1755 as part of a farrago of nonsense composed by Samuel Foote (1720-77), British actor and dramatist, to test the memory of the Irish actor and dramatist Charles Macklin (1699?-1797), who had asserted that he could repeat anything after hearing it once.
However, a contributor to Notes and Queries of 16th November 1850, signing himself ‘L’, attributed the composition of the passage to the English actor of Irish descent James Quin (1693-1766); he wrote that Quin
is said to have betted Foote a wager that he would speak some nonsense which Foote could not repeat off-hand after him.
In 1828, several English and Irish newspapers had run the following story, apparently first published in the Coventry Herald of Friday 27th June:
A person was boasting, in Foote’s presence, of the extraordinary facility with which he could commit any thing to memory. [The circumstances of the wager and the text attributed to Foote follow]. Such a mass of unconnected nonsense defied memory, and the wit won his wager.
The first published version of the nonsensical paragraph supposedly composed by Foote is found in Harry and Lucy Concluded; being the Last Part of Early Lessons (1825) by the Anglo-Irish novelist and educationist Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849):
“It is much more difficult to learn nonsense than sense,” continued Harry: “there is something in sense to help one out.”
“Unless it be droll nonsense,” said Lucy; “but when it is droll, the diversion helps me to remember.”
Harry doubted even this.
Their father said he would, if they liked it, try the experiment, by repeating for them some sentences of droll nonsense, which were put together by Mr. Foote, a humorous writer, for the purpose of trying the memory of a man, who boasted that he could learn any thing by rote, on once hearing it.
His father, as fast as he could utter the words, repeated the following nonsense, abruptly beginning with —
“So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, to make an apple pie; and at the same time a great she-bear coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. ‘What! no soap?’ So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.”
Maria Edgeworth had used the term earlier in the novel to denote a particularly showy flower:
An old gardener [...] began to praise his carnations, which he said were the finest in the county, and he pointed out his favourites. There was the Prince Regent, and the Duke of Wellington, in full glory, these every body knew; but beyond these, he had two superlative new favourites. One he called, The pride of Holland, or the great Van Tromp. The other, The envy of the world, or the great panjandrum.
However, the story of Foote challenging Macklin seems to have only appeared for the first time in The Quarterly Review of September 1854:
Old Macklin, weary of his doubtful successes on the stage, has actually set up a tavern of his own near the Bedford, on the present site of the Tavistock, where, by the alternation of a three-shilling ordinary with a shilling lecture, at both of which he is presiding deity, he supplies at once the bodily wants and what he conceives to be the mental deficiencies of the day. He is to make everybody orators, by teaching them how to speak; by way of teaching them also what to speak, he presents himself every other night with a discourse on some subject wherein he thinks the popular mind insufficiently informed; and whatever his subject, the harvest of ridicule for Foote is unfailing. The result was that people went to hear him rather than the lecturer, for, it being part of the plan to invite the audience to offer hints on the subject-matter and so exhibit their progress in oratory, the witty sallies and questionings of Foote became at last the leading attraction.
His topic one evening was the employment of memory in connection with the oratorical art, in the course of which, as he enlarged on the importance of exercising memory as a habit, he took occasion to say that to such perfection he had brought his own he could learn anything by rote on once hearing it. Foote waited till the conclusion of the lecture, and then, handing up the subjoined sentences, desired that Mr. Macklin would be good enough to read and afterwards repeat them from memory. More amazing nonsense never was written. ‘So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf, to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. “What! no soap?” So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.’ It is needless to say that the laugh turned against old Macklin, as it has turned against many younger and livelier people since who have read these droll sentences in Harry and Lucy, and who, like Miss Edgeworth’s little hero and heroine, after mastering the great she-bear and the no-soap, for want of knowing who died have never arrived at the marriage with the barber, or perhaps, even after proceeding so far, have been tripped up by the Grand Panjandrum with the little round button at top.
One of the earliest transferred uses of panjandrum is in The Essex Standard of Friday 27th November 1840; a satirical article about a certain John Thorogood, “a furious politician and a blockhead”, contains the following:
It having been resolved to get up the farce [sic] of a public meeting, a deputation was posted off to Chelmsford to engage that eminent performer, John Thorogood, to take a principal part. They arrived at Chelmsford in the night, roused the sleeping innocent from his bed, and bore him and his wife off to Leicester in triumph. On the Monday morning the public meeting was held, and John was dubbed the great Panjandrum, or Chairman.