I don't understand the meaning in which the count noun word "barrer" is used in William Henley's poem 'Liza (the italics are the author's):

’Liza’s old man’s perhaps a little shady,
’Liza’s old woman’s prone to booze and cringe;
But ’Liza deems herself a perfect lady,
And proves it in her feathers and her fringe.
For ’Liza has a bloke her heart to cheer,
With pearlies and a barrer and a jack,
So all the vegetables of the year
Are duly represented on her back.
Her boots are sacrifices to her hats,
Which knock you speechless—like a load of bricks!
Her summer velvets dazzle Wanstead Flats,
And cost, at times, a good eighteen-and-six.
Withal, outside the gay and giddy whirl,
’Liza’s a stupid, straight, hard-working girl.

I understand pearlies to mean either pearly-white teeth or mother-of-pearl buttons. A jack is probably some mechanical part the bloke uses to bruise 'Liza's back with ("all the vegetables of the year").

But barrer is a mystery. Could it be the Cockney pronunciation of "barrow"?

  • 4
    Almost certainly the East-London was of saying Barrow as you surmised. – Marv Mills Oct 31 '14 at 20:09
  • 2
    Yes that is exactly what it is. A 'barrer-boy' is a hawker of fruit and vegetables from a barrow in the street. – WS2 Oct 31 '14 at 21:22
  • 1
    I thought maybe pearlies might be pearl onions, but Google Ngram suggests that this name was not used during Henley's lifetime. – Barmar Oct 31 '14 at 22:21
  • 1
    It'd be pronounced ba-ra. Common English speakers often do that with words that end with ow, pronouncing window as windah and so on. – Carl Smith Nov 1 '14 at 3:02
  • Thanks for all the answers! @Barmar, I've found this page that probably bears relation to the pearlies of the poem. – CowperKettle Nov 1 '14 at 9:00

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961), may be citing this very passage in his entry for pearlies:

pearlies. (The singular hardly exists.) Pearl buttons, esp. on a coster's clothes : from ca. 1885 : low coll. Henley.

A coster or costermonger, Partridge says, is "orig. costard-monger, at first a seller of apples, then of any fruit, finally of fruit, fish, vegetables, etc.., from a barrow," which clarifies the "barrer" part of the line.

Unfortunately, jack has so many slang meanings—including, Partridge says, "A single carnation (sold as a choice carnation) : horticultural s[lang] (—1878)" and "A variety of tea-rose : coll. : abbr. Jacqueminot : 1883"—that I have no idea which one Henley intended here. The carnation would go with the mother-of-pearl buttons, you might think, but there are numerous other possibilities.

As for "all the vegetables of the year" being represented on Liza's back, perhaps she wears the seasonal leftovers from the barrow on her hats each day, thereby justifying the simile "like a load of bricks."

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.