There's a joke in Archie Armstrong's Banquet of Jests (1641) that turns on wordplay between "frying bacon" and "fyring a beacon" (a statute I was able to find a contemporary reference to).

It's easy to understand "bacon" and "beacon" in light of the Great Vowel Shift then underway, but is there a phenomenon or dialect would explain "frying" and "fyring"? For example, were /frV/ and /fVr/ commonly metathesized in 17th-century England, as /prV/ and /pVr/ are today (prescribe/perscribe, etc.)?

Or is the joke only on "bacon/beacon" and Archie is just stretching it a little to create a context that works for the main pair?

Archie Armstrong frying bacon joke

Of Frying Bacon. [pp. 329-331]

A Justice of Peace bearing a spite to a Countrey fellow, had a curious eye over him, to take him in one trap or other. At length one of his Intelligencers brought him word, that hee found him sitting in an Alehouse, frying of Bakon. O Trayour! saith he; here is my warrant, seek out an Officer, serve it upon him presently, and without bayle or Maine-prise carry him to prison. His authority was obeyed, and there the poore man lay, till th next generall Assises: then amongst other great offenders, it came to this fellowes turne to be called to the Barre: when the Judge asked him what his offence was, and why he was committed? The poore man answered, for nothing else, but for frying of Bacon. The Judge was somewhat startled at his answer, and askt who had committed him. The Justice presently rising up, told him he was the man, aggrivating the offence, and affirming that in so doing, he had committed felony by the statute. The Judge asking him by what Statute, for it was beyond either his reading or knowledge: he told him by such a Statute, made in the yeare of Reigne, of such a King. The Judge desirous to be instructed in a point of Law, which he never heard of before, commanded the Statute Booke to be brought, and the Clarke of the Peace to reade it openly; where it was found, that the fyring of a Beacon, &c. was in such and such degrees punishable. Those which before wondred, now laughed outright; the Justice was flouted; the poore man acquitted; and ever since it had beene lawfull to eate fryed Bacon without prejudice to any Statute.

  • Not an answer because similar metathesis may well exist (examplify, please), but could the laughing matter be a riff on fucing, which in Scouse dialect would sound a lot like a dry unvoiced -r- to southern ears? I mean, laws against beastiality are easier to imagine than culinary prescriptions, and c / r look so similar in blackletter anyway.
    – vectory
    Aug 12 '21 at 5:14
  • @vectory Interesting thought, though I should have added to the question that I was able to find several references to a contemporary statute against "fyring of a beacon" (in the context of sounding alarms, blaring a trumpet, etc. without cause so as to trouble the people), so I think it is indeed a play on that. Aug 12 '21 at 13:10
  • The /r/ metathesis in modern-day English (it’s not a liquid metathesis as such, because /l/ doesn’t take part) is more specifically for /Crə ~ Crɨ/, and usually limited to pretonic syllables: cremation becoming /kɚˈmeɪʃn̩/ in AmE is quite common, but cremate never becomes /**ˈkirmeɪt/ (posttonically, the metathesis is complete after consonants, and /rə/ only occurs after vowels). In the case of frying/fyring, the difference would be /iːr/ vs /riː/ at the time, and I can’t think of any other cases where metathesis involves a long vowel like that, so it’s probably just an eye-pun. Aug 12 '21 at 16:56

Your Answer

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

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.