WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ To Couch a Hogshead

This week’s word (or rather, phrase) is the second post brought to you by my incessant fascination with James Gillray. Like I mentioned last week, I love to look at James Gillray prints, and the National Portrait Gallery has 881 items on file.

It’s a huge time suck and and I highly recommend it.

So this week I took inspiration from the second in his two-part series from 1806, Fast-Asleep.

Fast-Asleep by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey 1 November 1806, National Portrait Gallery.

This gentleman is out, spirits and tobacco forgotten, puffing a snore as his periwig flies at half-mast. Some have coined the phrases “sleep like a baby” or “sleep like the dead,” but perhaps this painting conjures a new expression: “sleep like a Regency gentleman.”

To Couch a Hogshead

To lie down to sleep. Cant.

Gillray’s painting made me wonder at slang terms for sleeping, and To Couch a Hogshead was too evocative to pass up. And because my granddaddy was Scottish, I know a hogshead is a type of barrel used to age scotch. Like Sherlock, this made me retreat to my mind palace and surmise that the cant phrase likely represented those who climbed into a barrel to catch some winks after a long hard day (and night’s) worth of disreputable behavior. And as the engraving below shows, a Hogshead held just about anything, including sugar and unruly children.

The Sugar Hogshead From the Original Picture in the Possession of M.W. Collins, 1846, British Museum.

The Hogshead, or “hoggie,” actually refers to the size of the barrel, meaning it holds 53 Imperial Gallons. The Scots age their elixir in oak that is preferably between 100-150 years of age, which makes the barrels rather as precious as their cargo. When casks begin to leak or need repair, coopers break them down into individual planks and reassemble the stalwart ones into new Hogsheads.

It’s a beautiful thing.