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shameless pleading

Have gun, will travel

Have servants, will simper?

Dear Word Detective:  In the first episode of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, Cora says, “I’m one of those resilient Americans … ‘Have Gun Will Travel.’” Since this is set in the 1920s, this seemed about as anachronistic as a reference to Leave It To Beaver. Ye Olde Wikipedia says that the construction, “Have X Will Travel” dates to the early 1900s, as in “Have Tux Will Travel.” But didn’t “Have Gun…” originate with the Western TV show? References in  Eric Partridge & Paul Beale’s “A Dictionary of Catch Phrases” and “Shorter Dictionary of Catch Phrases” by Rosalind Fergusson (page 46) fail to dispel my confusion. — Andrew Martin.

Ah, Downton Abbey, the gift that keeps on giving, at least to language columnists. Are we really in Season 3 now? My, the years just whiz by. But it’s all jolly good fun, even when Mr. Fellowes & Co. deploy the hoariest soap-opera tropes in the book (“I can feel my legs … and other bits!”), as long as one doesn’t take it seriously. As a chronicle of early 20th century life among Britain’s wealthy, I suspect that P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are actually closer to the mark. What this show needs is more newts in the bathtub.

I did actually catch Cora’s “Have gun will travel” proclamation, and I was, like you, jolted by it. Downton Abbey has, over its first two seasons, become mildly famous for its linguistic anachronisms. (The most complete and authoritative collection is lexicographer Ben Zimmer’s entry at Visual Thesaurus: www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/downton-abbey-tracking-the-anachronisms/).

But most of the anachronisms in the first two seasons didn’t jump out at you. They were of the “Did they really say that then?” sort (“I’m just sayin’,” “Step on it,” “Get shafted,” “Push comes to shove,” et al.), and though the answer was “no” (“Get shafted,” for instance, apparently first appeared in a 1951 Mickey Spillane novel), the scriptwriters could be forgiven for their lapses. “Have gun, will travel,” however, sounded like a real gong clanger, probably because for many of us it conjures up the 1957 US horse opera of the same name starring Richard Boone. I half-expected Cora to spit on the floor and light a cheroot.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists expressions of the form “have A, will B” (“indicating willingness to travel, etc., because one possesses an essential object, etc.”) as dating to around 1954 (“Have Tux, Will Travel” was the title of comedian Bob Hope’s autobiography published that year), but the late etymologist of slang and popular speech Eric Partridge traced the phrase “Have gun, will travel” itself much further back. In his Dictionary of Catch Phrases, he asserts that it first appeared in the “personal ads” section of The (London) Times around 1900, and was a popular catch phrase before 1920 (although he admits that he “didn’t often hear it” prior to World War II). Unfortunately, we have only Mr. Partridge’s recollection to go on here, but while he sometimes was known to propose fanciful origins for words and phrases, I doubt that he would simply invent this story. He might, of course, be dramatically wrong about the time frame of his memory, but it seems likely that the phrase was common before World War II, and possibly around the time of World War I, which puts the gang at Downton Abbey provisionally in the clear.

What seems certain is that the particular form “have gun, will travel” predated the US TV series, and that the general “Have A, will B” form may be much older, as Bob Hope indicates in his book: “Hoofers, comedians and singers used to put ads in Variety. Those ads read: ‘Have tuxedo, will travel.’ This meant they were ready to go any place at any time.” The TV series “Have Gun, Will Travel” apparently did reinvigorate what was already a fading catch phrase by 1957, leading to such variants as “Have talent, will travel” (1960) and “Have towel, will strip” (1961), and the “Have A, will B” trope seems to be alive and well today (“Have passport, will travel under new Cuban law,” news headline, 1/13).

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