Dear Word Detective: Some time ago I was reading My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, a treasure trove of obscure and quaint idioms and slang terms as I’m sure you know. In the chapter “The Unbidden Guest,” Bertie describes an unannounced visitor as “measuring about 6 feet from the O.P. to the prompt side.” While it’s clear from the rest of the paragraph that she is, shall we say, a full-figured woman, what precisely are the “O.P.” and “the prompt side”? — Andrew Buckland.
Thanks for a great question. The stories of P.G. Wodehouse are indeed a rich source of obscure and nearly obsolete words and expressions, as well as being enormous fun to read in their own right. I was reluctant for many years to venture into the world of, as I thought at the time, “some rich twit and his butler.” But after a friend convinced me to take the plunge, I didn’t come up for air until I had read a hefty chunk of what Wodehouse wrote (and we’re talking about a man who wrote more than ninety books). I left off reading Wodehouse about fifteen years ago, but it may be time to start again. There certainly isn’t anything on TV.
Not to make my job sound easier than it is, but something quite serendipitous happened when I began to research this question. I already had a strong hunch about what Wodehouse meant by “from the O.P. to the prompt side,” but on a whim I plugged the whole phrase into the full-text search engine of the Oxford English Dictionary. Lo and behold, there was the same quotation from My Man Jeeves listed as a citation for the abbreviation “O.P.” That, kiddies, is what we call “on a silver platter.”
Both “prompt side” and the abbreviation “O.P.” come from the theatrical stage. Especially in amateur productions, even the best actors are apt to forget a line occasionally, and the task of rescuing the moment by “prompting,” giving visual or audible clues, falls to the “prompter” (or sometimes the stage manager) standing offstage in the wings. Traditionally, the prompting is done from the left side of the stage (as one faces the audience), also known as “stage left.” The abbreviation “O.P.” stands for “opposite prompt,” meaning the other side of the stage, i.e., “stage right.” Both terms date back at least to the 18th century.
Thus, when Wodehouse described his character, Lady Malvern, as “measuring about six feet from the O.P. to the Prompt Side,” he was leavening an otherwise bland exaggeration with the sort of clever turn of phrase that makes his stories so addictive.