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shameless pleading

Eggbeater & Bands

Of the firm Vole, Vermin and Bungalow?

Dear Word Detective: I am directing an Agatha Christie play, “Witness for the Prosecution” and have come across some words that we would like to print the definitions for in our playbill. One is “eggbeater,” which someone told me is British slang for an automobile. The other is “bands,” which I believe is the name of the neckties British judges and barristers wear. — Cathy Van Lopik.

Good questions. I’ve never read (or seen) the play “Witness for the Prosecution,” but the movie version, made in 1957, is one of my all-time favorites. It stars Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a barrister in precarious health, Elsa Lanchester as his nurse Miss Plimsoll, Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, accused of murdering an elderly woman for her money, and Marlene Dietrich as Christine, Vole’s duplicitous (to put it mildly) German wife. I’ve seen the film at least six times, but I’d gladly watch it again just for the remarkable cast and the cleverness of the story.

The slang of any culture can pose puzzles for an outsider, and I’m not an expert in that of Britain, but your question about “eggbeater” raises two possibilities. Literally, of course, an “eggbeater” is a handheld kitchen implement used for beating, mixing or whipping, usually involving a crank turning rotating blades. As slang, “eggbeater” has most often, since about 1930, been applied to either a helicopter or an autogiro (an early form of helicopter using a standard aircraft propeller for forward movement). According to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, “eggbeater” has also been used to mean an old car, perhaps one that rattles like an eggbeater, but the usage seems fairly rare.

However, I’m wondering exactly where in the play (to which I do not have access) the use of “eggbeater” that puzzles you occurs. Early on, Leonard Vole (wonderful name, isn’t it?) explains to Robarts, et al., that he fancies himself an inventor and has just developed a revolutionary new eggbeater. If that’s the instance of “eggbeater” in question, Vole definitely means the kitchen implement. If there is a later reference, I suppose it could be coy use of the slang term for “car,” helicopters being notable in the play by their absence.

As for “bands,” you’re right on the money. Sometimes called “barrister bands,” they are the two hanging strips of white fabric worn as neckwear in court by British barristers and judges. These “bands” evolved from the simple neckbands worn under formal “ruffs” in the 16th century, and represent a stage in the development of male fashion, long abandoned outside the courtroom, that eventually produced the modern necktie.

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