Jan 192020
 

My grandfather enjoyed many of the British “Music Hall” performers and would sometimes quote from their routines.

One piece he enjoyed was a sesquipedalian version of the children’s poem “The House that Jack Built”. It began, “This is the domiciliary edifice erected by Master John.” He had once memorized it, I think, but by the time I knew him, when he was in his seventies and eighties, he only remembered the first few verses. I’ve been searching for this poem for a few years, but recently, as the amount of material on the internet continues to expand, I’ve found a few variations popping up.

Here’s the original poem, with its ponderous translation:

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the domiciliary edifice erected by Master John. 

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the farinaceous grain that was deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by Master John. 

This is the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the noxious vermin that masticated the farinaceous grain… etc. 

He remembered a few scraps. “This the feline creature that exterminated…”

In an article from 1964 “The Users and Uses of Language”, the British linguist MAK Halliday referred to this poem as an example of a certain type of linguistic humour based on “the inappropriate choice and mixing of registers.” By register, he means the type of language appropriate for a certain situation. He said the poem was recited fifty years earlier (ie, around 1914) by the music hall comedian George Robey.

In the snippet that Halliday quotes from George Robey, the poem ends like this:

…that disturbed the equanimity of the domesticated feline mammal that exterminated the noxious rodent that masticated the farinaceous produce deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by Master John.

However, the poem doesn’t seem to have originated with him. Robey was born in 1869, and started performing around 1890, but there are printed versions of this poem from before that. The following version comes from the Sonoma Democrat of 16th August 1884, where it appears to be a piece of comedy filler.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. 
1. This is the domiciliary edifice erected by John.
2. This is the fermented triticean byne deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.
3. This is the soricinian rodent of predatory instincts, who greedily devoured the fermented triticean byne deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.
4. This is the muricidal digitigrade and feline animal who successfully obliterated the soricinian rodent of predatory instinct,
who greedily devoured the fermented triticean byne deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.
5. This is the remorseless hound of harassing propensities who ruthlessly disturbed the equanimity of the muricidal digitigrade and feline animal,
who successfully obliterated the soricinian rodent of predatory instincts
who greedily devoured the fermented triticean byne deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.
6. This is the cavicornic ruminant with the corrugated frontal appendage of osseous excretion, who forcibly transferred to the further side of the foenicularian granary the remorseless hound of harrassing propensities,
who ruthlessly disturbed the equanimity of the muricidal digitigrade and feline animal,
who succcessfully obliterated the soricinian rodent of predatory instincts,
who greedily devoured the fermented triticean byne deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.
7. This is the juvenile and accomplished female whose prevailing idiosyncracy was depression, who daily dispoiled of the lacteal fluid the cavicornic ruminant with the corrugated frontal appendage of osseous execretion,
who forcibly transferred to the further side of the foenicularian granary the remorseless hound of harrassing propensities, who ruthlessly disturbed the equanimity of the muricidal digitigrade and feline animal,
who successfully obliterated the soricinian rodent of predatory instincts,
who greedily devoured the fermented triticean byne deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.
                  * * * * * * *
(The asterisks replace the next two stanzas, which would begin as follows.)
8. This is the the impecunious individual in the lacerated habiliments,
who considerably osculated the juvenile and accomplished female…
9. This is the reverend and tonsured functionary
who formally united in the bonds of holy matrimony
the impecunious individual in the lacerated habiliments…
10. This is the ubiquitous chanticleer whose antisomniferous matutinal carol disturbed the reverend and tonsured functionary
who formally united in the bonds of holy matrimony the impecunious individual in the lacerated habiliments,
who considerably osculated the juvenile and accomplished female whose prevailing idiosyncrasy was depression,
who daily despoiled of the lacteal fluid the cavicornic ruminant with the corrugated frontal appendage of osseous excretion,
who forcibly transferred to the further side of the foelicularian granary the remorseless hound of harrassing propensities
who ruthlessly disturbed the muricidal digitigrade and feline animal,
who successfully obliterated the soricinian rodent of predatory instincts,
who greedily devoured the fermented triticean byne deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.
Some of the words here are either very obscure or have been invented. The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary has no knowledge of “byne”. Triticean is probably an invented adjective related to triticum (cereal grasses).
Here’s another version, this time from the children’s pages of the Australian newspaper The Queenslander, from May 22, 1909. This is closer to the version my grandfather quoted, and the words seem more like something you would find in a large dictionary.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT.

A NEW VERSION.

This is the domiciliary edifice erected by John.

This is the fermented grain deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.

This is the obnoxious vermin that masticated the fermented grain deposited in the domiciliary edifice erected by John.

This is the domesticated creature of the feline family
That annihilated the obnoxious vermin, &c.

This is the sagacious scion of the canine species of ‘brutality
That disturbed the equanimity of the domesticated creature, &c.

This is the graminiverous and lactiferous female of the bovine race with its curvilinear and corrugated protuberances considerably elevated the sagacious scion, &c.

This is the young damsel, solitary and secluded, who extracted a nutritious beverage, denominated lacteal fluid, from the graminiverous and lactiferous female, &c.

This is the humble individual of scanty and unseemly attire who sought honey from the lips of the young damsel, &c.

This is the ecclesiastical gentleman whose periocranium was deprived of hirsute appendages, who united in the bonds of holy matrimony the humble individual, &c.

This is the superior being of the cock-a doodle-doo tribe, that with shrill vociferation awakened from his matutinal slumber the ecclesiastical gentleman, &c.

This is the professional agriculturist who disseminated the germs of cereal crops and retained undisputed possession of the superior being of the cock-a-doodle-doo tribe, &c.

A very similar version is found in a book of recitations from 1893, “The Encore Reciter: Humorous Serious and Dramatic Selections” by F. E. Marshall Steele.

The poem seems to have done the rounds for years and to have been well known. This next version is one of the oldest I’ve found so far, and is well-written. It comes from the pages of the North Lincoln Sphinx, a newspaper for Royal Lincolnshire Regimen, printed around 1861. The poem opens with an explanatory letter to the editor.

To the Editor of the North Lincoln Sphinx

Weymouth, 4th August 1861

Sir, My attention having been for sometime past, called to the modern refinements of the English language in daily use among a certain educated class, I venture to offer for insertion in your useful periodical, the following new version of an old story, which I htink you will agree with me, is a specimen of a style more suitable than that of the original, for the rising generation of our rapidly-advancing race.

I have the honour to be, Sir,

&c. &c.

Young England

The introduction gives some indications about what made the poem funny in its day. It is mocking a trend towards more widespread education, which had been growing since Dickens’ day, as more people became middle-class, and wanted to adopt the language and etiquette of the ruling class.

On the left side of the page is the original poem. On the right is the “Improved Reading” version.

The Domiciliary Edifice that John Erected

1. This is the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

2. This is the fermented grain deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

3. This is the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice, that John erected.

4. This is the domestic feline animal, that exterminated the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

5. This is the canine quadruped, that disturbed the equanimity of the domestic feline animal, that exterminated the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

6. This is the vaccine maternal parent, with a corrugated protruberance, that violently elevated the canine quadruped, that disturbed the equanimity of the domestic feline animal, that exterminated the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

6. This is the damsel completely dejected, that expressed the lacteal fluid from the vaccine maternal parent, with a corrugated protruberance, that violently elevated the canine quadruped, that disturbed the equanimity of the domestic feline animal, that exterminated the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

7. This is the masculine individual, with laniated and rent habiliments, that saluted, with an osculatory embrace, the damsel completely dejected, that expressed the lacteal fluid from the vaccine maternal parent, with a corrugated protruberance, that violently elevated the canine quadruped, that disturbed the equanimity of the domestic feline animal, that exterminated the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

8. This is the sacertotal personate, entirely tonsured and free from pilosity, that united, in the holy bonds of matrimony, the masculine individual, with laniated and rent habiliments, that saluted, with an osculatory embrace, the damsel completely dejected, that expressed the lacteal fluid from the vaccine maternal parent, with a corrugated proturberance, that violently elevated the canine quadruped, that disturbed the equanimity of the domestic feline animal, that exterminated the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

9. This is the gallinaceous biped, that intoned a matutinal lay, which aroused, from his nocturnal slumbers, the sacertotal personate, entirely tonsured and free from pilosity, that united, in the holy bonds of matrimony, the masculine individual, with laniated and rent habiliments, that saluted, with an osculatory embrace, the damsel completely dejected, that expressed the lacteal fluid from the vaccine maternal parent, with a corrugated protruberance, that violently elevated the canine quadruped, that disturbed the equanimity of the domestic feline animal, that exterminated the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

10. This is the agriculturalist, that seminated the cereal germs, that possessed the gallinaceous biped, that intoned a matutinal lay, which aroused, from his nocturnal slumbers, the sacertotal personate, entirely tonsured and free from pilosity, that united, in the holy bonds of matrimony, the masculine individual, with laniated and rent habiliments, that saluted, with an osculatory embrace, the damsel completely dejected, that expressed the lacteal fluid from the vaccine maternal parent, with a corrugated proturberance, that violently elevated the canine quadruped, that disturbed the equanimity of the domestic feline animal, that exterminated the muristic vermin, that consumed the fermented grain, deposited in the domiciliary edifice that John erected.

This version still follows the order of the original poem (“that John erected” rather than the version used in most later versions, “erected by John”). Some word choices are interesting – “laniated” (for tattered) is interesting. It uses “fermented grain” – not really an accurate description of the kind of malt a rat might eat – it is germinated but not fermented – but the word persists through many later variations. The later “farinaceous” is better.But most other words are good literary choices. “Gallinaceous biped” seems a more eloquent choice than the variation found later – “superior being of the cock-a doodle-doo tribe”. The use of “vaccine” in its original meaning as related to cows comes from an era before medical vaccinations were common. (The first vaccinations used cowpox.)

 Posted by at 5:44 pm