origin of the Irish-English phrase ‘up the pole’ (‘pregnant’)

One of the meanings of the phrase up the pole is pregnant, i.e. expecting a baby (cf. up the stick, of same meaning). Apparently, this was originally an Irish-English usage; at least, it is first recorded in Ulysses, by the Irish author James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1941), as published in The Little Review (New York, N.Y.) of March 1918:

—Seymour’s back in town, the young man said, grasping again his spur of rocks. Chucked medicine and going in for the army.
—Ah, go to God! Buck Mulligan said.
—Going over next week to stew. You know that red Carlisle girl? Lily.
—Yes.
—Spooning with him last night on the pier. The father is rotton [sic] with money.
—Is she up the pole?
—Better ask Seymour that.

The phrase seems to refer to pregnancy regarded as an awkward condition, since the sense pregnant is only one of the acceptations of up the pole (also occasionally up a pole), which has been used since the late 19th century, in British English and Irish English, to describe various situations characterised by difficulty, trouble, confusion, error.

The underlying image is apparently of being in an uncomfortable position at the top of a pole, at least according to the following from The Daily Telegraph (London) of Monday 21st March 1904, where up the pole means crazy:

King’s Bench Division.
Before Mr. Justice Darling and a Common Jury.
Widowed Lovers’ Quarrels.

The hearing was resumed of the action for breach of promise brought by Mrs. Georgine [misprint for Georgina] Ada Frasier, a widow, aged forty-six, described as a costumier and tobacconist, of Shaftesbury-avenue, against James Outridge Spindelow, a widower, of the same age, who since the commencement of this action has married another widow just thirty years of age. Notwithstanding the rigid order of the Court against any demonstration, there was frequent and irrepressible laughter in the course of the evidence.
Mr. Dickens, K.C., for the defendant, proceeded to cross-examine the plaintiff […].
[Mr. Dickens:] There was a quarrel about a man in the shop?—While defendant was in the parlour a gentleman squeezed my hand. I told him not to as my father was in the next room. (Laughter.) He treated it as a joke, and squeezed me all the more. Defendant became very angry, and banged about.
Did you tease him, and tell him other men did things twenty times as bad as that?—l did not.
He referred to it in a letter, saying he was at the “giddy height at the top of the pole”?—I forget.
Mr. Justice Darling: What is the meaning of “up the pole” used in his letter?
Plaintiff: It is a music-hall expression frequently used in the neighbourhood, meaning crazy. I believe Dan Leno¹ introduced it. (Laughter.)

¹ Dan Leno (George Wild Galvin – 1860-1904), English music-hall comedian; he appears in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994), a novel by the English author Peter Ackroyd (born 1949), adapted as The Limehouse Golem (2016), a film directed by Juan Carlos Medina (born 1977), starring the English actors Olivia Cooke (born 1993), Bill Nighy (born 1949) and Douglas Booth (born 1992).

In its account of the same trial, The St James’s Gazette (London) of Monday 21st March 1904 mentioned an additional meaning of up the pole:

Plaintiff’s definition of the phrase “up the pole” differed from that of her cousin, called on Friday, who said it meant being drunk. Mrs. Frasier said that it was a music-hall expression—“Dan Leno’s or somebody’s”—which meant being crazy. (Laughter.)

On Saturday 19th December 1908, The Wicklow News-Letter, Arklow Reporter & County Advertiser (Wicklow, County Wicklow, Ireland) also mentioned up the pole in the sense drunk:

DRUNK AS A LORD.”

A glossary will have to be compiled of slang words that have obtained judicial sanction, particularly of those euphemisms with which humanity has attempted to cover its little weakness for the bottle. For instance, there was the expression “up the pole,” which a witness used last week before Mr. Justice Grantham as a synonym for partial intoxication; while not long ago a witness in a police court described a prisoner as being as “drunk as David’s sow.” An aged couple also quite recently confessed to Mr. Plowden that they had been just “a little toddly,” and not as the policeman brutally characterised it, “blind drunk.”
No slang description of inebriety is, however, so well rooted as the classic phrase, “as drunk as a lord,” which can be traced back to a period before the Gin Act was passed in the eighteenth century. That this happy condition could then easily be arrived at by common mortals is proved by the notice: “Drunk for 1d.; dead drunk for 2d.; clean straw for nothing,” which Hogarth sketched from an actual sign at an inn in Southwark, and reproduced in a famous picture².

² This is a reference to Gin Lane (1751), by the English painter and engraver William Hogarth (1697-1764), in which the advertisement for the gin cellar called Gin Royal (bottom left) is:

Drunk for a Penny
Dead drunk for two pence
Clean Straw for Nothing.

Gin Lane (1751), by William Hogarth

image: Beer Street and Gin Lane – Wikipedia

 

The sense of the phrase, in the form up a pole, is blameworthy in the following from The Daily News (London) of Wednesday 1st April 1896:

At the Marylebone Police Court yesterday, […] Robert Payne, 51, a whitesmith, of Earl-street, Edgware-road, was charged with having assaulted Mrs. Mary Ann Metcalf, a lodger in the same house.—The prosecutrix, whose face bore marks of violence, said she heard the prisoner and his wife having a heated altercation; and, having ascertained that the sole cause of the dispute was that the wife had provided eggs instead of bacon for her husband’s tea, she remonstrated with the latter, and told him he was “up a pole”—i.e., in the wrong. That aroused his anger, and he struck her brutally about the face and body, finally throwing her down on the stairs and kicking her dangerously.

In the following from The Lincolnshire Chronicle (Lincoln, Lincolnshire) of Friday 31st March 1899, up the pole means in difficulty:

Early in the week a story was published in the daily papers of an attack by French sailors upon British tars, who belonged to H.M.S. Venus. […] Several of our chaps have had letters from the old people, hoping that they were not included in the party that was upset by the Frenchmen, and telling them they ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting Frenchmen get the better of them. No doubt they are very good hands, but when there are 19 Frenchmen to four Englishmen they were slightly up the pole. Nineteen, you know, were rather too many for them. Now if, say, there had been ten, they would have managed it quite comfortably.

 

In the British-English and Australian-English phrase up the stick, meaning pregnant, the image is probably also of being in an uncomfortable position at the top of a long thin piece of wood.

Among other synonyms for pregnant, Arthur Smith, Mirror science correspondent, mentioned both up the pole and up the stick in the following book review published in the Daily Mirror (London) of Tuesday 1st April 1969:

22 ways a girl can say: I’m going to have a baby

Women in Britain have twenty-two ways of telling their doctors they are pregnant—without actually saying so.
For most mothers-to-be, it seems, are too bashful to walk into a surgery and simply announce: “I’m pregnant.”
They would rather say they are “up the pole,” “up the stick” or even—as their great-grandmothers coyly used to whisper—in an “interesting” or “delicate” condition.
Most doctors will know what they are trying to get across.
But for doctors from overseas the variations can be bewildering. Now, to help them get the message, a book listing twenty-two popular expressions has just been published.
The doctors will now know exactly what women mean when they say they have been “caught” or are “in pig,” “in pod,” “in the club,” “in the pudding club” or “in the family way.”
They will also be able to diagnose correctly “a bun in the oven” and “a touch of the sun.”
                                                                    Virus
In Scotland, women might announce a happy event by saying they are “away the trip.”
Or use terms like “to be so,” “catch on,” “catch the virus,” “click,” “cop it” and “fall for a baby.”
The book—“A Manual of English for the Overseas Doctor,” published by E. and S. Livingstone and priced at 15s.—is written by Miss Joy E. Parkinson, a lecturer at Kennington College, London.

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