The nose speaks.
Dear Word Detective: Long ago and far away from here, for my hair is white where it remains, and my beard is full to hide the sparseness of teeth to fill out my jowls, I was introduced to the words of Marriott Edgar by the voice of Stanley Holloway. These recordings played at 78 rpm, and brought great puzzlement to a young Canadian ear. Time and repetition and valiant puzzlement brought a modicum of understanding, but one phrase remains lost to me to this day. The tale title is “Three Ha’pence a Foot” and the expression for which I seek assistance is “So Sam put his tongue out at Noah and Noah made long bacon at Sam.” What say ye, sir, to this, my tale? Hopefully I remain expectant of an answer swifter than the back hand of my Mam when I asked her if it were a rude comment. — Mikey, who is much older than the name suggests.
Have no fear. I almost never physically strike my readers, and I can’t imagine what your mother was thinking. But I must note that one need not be elderly to remember Stanley Holloway’s wonderful recordings of Marriott Edgar’s monologues rendered in a heavy Northern English accent. I especially adored “The Lion and Albert,” the story of a lad visiting the zoo who annoyed the King of Beasts with his “stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle” (horse’s head handle) so much that he was “et” right up. (“Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence, And didn’t know what to do next, Said, ‘Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert,’ And Mother said ‘Eeh, I am vexed!’”). An apparently complete collection of Marriott’s monologues, I am happy to report, is available at http://monologues.co.uk/Marriott-index.htm.
In “Three Ha’pence a Foot,” a builder named Sam Oglethwaite is arguing with Noah over the price of maple for Noah’s ark, and negotiations stall over Sam’s stubborn insistence on three half-pence per foot. Sam’s deployment of his tongue as an insult is familiar to any schoolchild, but Noah’s “long bacon” must have puzzled even many of Marriott’s contemporaries.
Evidently, “long bacon” is Northern English slang for “thumbing one’s nose” or “cocking a snook,” but done with two hands. “Cocking a snook” is performed by spreading the fingers of one hand, touching the tip of your nose with your thumb while sighting your opponent along the tips of your other fingers, and waggling your fingers in the most annoying way possible. “Long bacon” adds the other hand for extra emphasis, thumb touching the little finger of the first.
Such a gesture is certainly elaborate and “long” as such things go, but why “bacon”? My guess is that it’s the resemblance of the finished product to a crisp strip of bacon with its waving ridges. It’s less clear why the single-handed version is called “cocking a snook,” but the “cocking” may refer to the “comb” on the head of a rooster (which vaguely resembles a hand with extended fingers), and “snook” may be related to “snout.”