I happen to adore this week’s Word of the Week. I’ve been taller than average since my eight-week, well-baby checkup. I’ve been asked how the weather is up there, to put things up or take things down from high shelves, and I wore flats when I married.
But from whence did this week’s slang arise?
Well … it’s a sobriquet that has no definitive origin, but plenty of definitive documentation. It first appeared in a play, but it’s unclear whether the term was the creation of the writer, or an allusion to a real person. So unlike other words I’ve chosen, this slang term has always been slang. It’s merely been moved from the realm of the written into the physical.
Long Meg (noun)
A very tall Woman [sic]. Also a jeering name for a very tall woman: from one famous in story, called Long Meg of Westminster.
The Admiral’s players (actors Alleyn, Jones, and Singer, supported by Lord Admiral, Charles Howard) premiered “Long Meg of Westminster” on 14 February 1595. Performances spanned the spring and fall seasons and, according to Henslowe’s thorough record-keeping, we know the returned receipts avereaged more than 34s. “Long Meg” returned to the stage sporadically over the next several years before fading into obscurity.
The next incarnation of Long Meg turned narrative: The Life of Long Meg of Westminster (1635) is the oldest extant copy of literary Long Meg. The book features eighteen adventures of Meg, “a woman … of late memory, and well beloued, spoken on of all, and knowne of many. This tome is valuable in itself for the fantastic subtitle alone:
“The life of Long Meg of Westminster: containing the mad merry pranks she played in her life time, not onely in performing sundry quarrels with divers ruffians about London, but also how valiantly she behaued her selfe in the warres of Bolloingne”
Our next visit from Meg sounds thorough: The Whole Life and Death of Long Meg of Westminster (1750). Ironically enough, while this edition brings terrific illustrations, there are actually fewer “mad merry pranks.”
This incarnation does include the stories from the original stage play, but omits five of her adventures.
So we have Long Meg of the written world, but what of the physical?
According to 17th Century English historian Thomas Fuller, the term “Long Meg” is applicable to anything “of hop-pole height, wanting breadth proportionable thereunto.”
The large, blue-black marble over the grave of Gervase de Blois is known as the “Long Meg of Westminster Abbey.” According to the site’s searchable database, Gervase de Blois was the natural (i.e., illegitimate) son of King Stephen, and served as abbot of Westminster from about 1137 until he was deposed in 1157. He has no effigy, so I could not find this allegedly tall drink of marble.
The Mons Meg of Scotland, that mightiest of medieval bombard cannons, sits proudly outside St. Mary’s Chapel at Edinburgh Castle. “Mons” from the city in Belgium where it was forged; “Meg” from the vertically blessed Long Meg. This siege cannon dates from 1449, when Phillip III, Duke of Burgandy, ordered its manufacture. It has fantastic associated folklore:
When James the Second arrived with an army at Carlingwark, to besiege the Castle of Threave, the McLellans presented him with the piece of ordnance now called ‘Mons Meg.’ The first discharge of this great gun is said to have consisted of a peck of powder and a granite ball nearly as heavy as a Galloway cow. This ball is believed, in its course through the Castle of Threave, to have carried away the hand of Margaret de Douglas, commonly called the Fair Maid of Galloway, as she sat at table with her lord, and was in the act of raising the wine-cup to her lips. Old people still maintain that the vengeance of God was thereby evidently manifested, in destroying the hand which had been given in wedlock to two brothers, and that even while the lawful spouse of the first was alive. (from The True Story of the Mons Meg; link below)
In The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the September 1769 Edinburgh Antiquarian Magazine writes of “Peter Branan, aged 104, who was six feet six inches high, and was commonly called Long Meg of Westminster.” Now that’s and insult!
Finally, in Penrith, Cumbria, we find a circle of 67-77 stones (depending on what year you count them), some up to six feet in height. Off to the southern side, by itself, is a single stone some seventeen feet tall. For the purposes of this post, I won’t speculate on origin, purpose, or potential alien involvement. I’ll simply mention the arrangement has been dubbed Long Meg and Her Daughters.
Stand tall, Long Megs! (Pun intended)
- Slang definition taken from Pascal Bonefant’s 18th Century and Regency Thieves’ Cant.
- Find all the historical documentation for the play, Long Meg of Westminster at Lost Plays Database.
- Read “The life of Long Meg of Westminster: containing the mad merry pranks she played in her life time, not onely in performing sundry quarrels with divers ruffians about London, but also how valiantly she behaued her selfe in the warres of Bolloingne” from 1635 at archive.org.
- Check out The History of the Worthies of England (in three volumes!) by Thomas Fuller.
- Learn more about the Mons Meg from entertaining tidbits related in The True Story of the Mons Meg.