an investigation into the origin of the phrase ‘an old Spanish custom’

CONTENTS
MEANING
EARLIEST UNAMBIGUOUS INSTANCES OF THE PHRASE
EARLIER UNCLEAR USES OF THE PHRASE
ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE: MUSIC-HALL SONG(S)?
STEREOTYPES ABOUT SPAIN
ATTRIBUTION OF THE PHRASE TO HERMAN CYRIL MCNEILE
 

 

MEANING

 

The phrase an old Spanish custom denotes a questionable or unorthodox practice that has long been established.

 

EARLIEST UNAMBIGUOUS INSTANCES OF THE PHRASE

 

The earliest clear instance of the phrase that I have found is from The Midland Daily Telegraph (Coventry, Warwickshire) of Tuesday 22nd March 1932:

AN OLD SPANISH CUSTOM

A resolution from the Retail Traders’ Committee was brought up, warning traders against certain weekly papers which published illustrated business articles and then charged heavily for the photographic blocks.
Mr. Oubridge: I am rather surprised at anyone being caught by that old Spanish custom.
Lieutenant-Colonel Holbrook remarked that manufacturers could have put the retailers wise.

David E. Keir punned on the phrase in his column Notes of the Week, in The Hawick News and Border Chronicle (Hawick, Scotland) of Friday 30th September 1932:

ANOTHER FACT FOR FREE TRADERS.

British tariffs were to be the means, said their introducers, of reducing foreign tariffs. Time and again in this column I have been able to show the miserable failure of this plea. Holland was the proof last week. Italy a short time ago. This week we have the proof of an old Spanish custom, since the Spanish Government has decided, according to Reuter, to limit the purchase of British coal by tariffs or prohibition. So much for another Protectionist argument.

 

EARLIER UNCLEAR USES OF THE PHRASE

 

However, an old Spanish custom occurs earlier with connotations that are now difficult to determine.

For example, in this passage from the column So this is Life!, in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire) of Friday 30th May 1930, it is difficult to know why Spanish, rather than a different adjective, was chosen:

Now, more than any other in the year, is the time for what’lling. Many who what’ll every day may think I am referring to an old Spanish custom, or to a new dance, but that is only because they cannot read themselves, as others hear them. What’ll is a universal colloquialism. More correctly it may be a contraction or an elision, but we won’t argue about that.

Likewise, in the following from Some Say One Thing, by ‘Gadfly’, published in the Daily Herald (London) of Wednesday 12th November 1930, it is difficult to know why the author employs an old Spanish custom instead of the simpler an old custom—he writes about the Lord Mayor’s Show, which takes place in London every November:

It’s an old Spanish custom, or words to that effect? Well, as it happens, it isn’t. At the risk of offending those bright young people who affect a pash1 for the Middle Ages, the Lord Mayor’s Show is quite a recent invention.

(1 pash: a brief infatuation—abbreviation of passion)

Also unclear is the allusion to what is presented as an established “phrase” in this extract from an article about political revolutions published in The Illustrated London News (London) of Saturday 2nd May 1931:

Spain, which has provided a new example (I hesitate to say the latest), has had some little previous experience, though hardly enough, perhaps, to justify the phrasean old Spanish custom.” It remains to be seen whether history will describe the recent occurrences as the Spanish Revolution.

In the following article from The Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette (Sunderland, Durham) of Friday 4th December 1931, it is difficult to know to which old Spanish custom another old Spanish custom is likened—the context is of “an unorthodox practice”, which would point to an early reference to the phrase in its current sense, but the last two paragraphs in particular seem to allude to a stereotypical Spain:

ANOTHER “OLD SPANISH CUSTOM”?
NO TIPS FOR LONDON TAXI DRIVERS TO-NIGHT

If there is a taxi driver in London who expects to make a fat tip out of the members of the Spanish football team which is due to arrive at Victoria to-night he may be disappointed.
He may get a Spanish cigarette or a cigar, but otherwise he will be expected to take it as an honour that he has been privileged to drive a Spaniard in his cab.
The cigarette or the cigar will not be given as a tip but as a sign of friendship.
Curious though it may seem to some Englishmen, the Spanish taxi driver regards his “fare” as his friend, and any attempt to press a tip upon him is taken as an insult.
This may sound like anotherold Spanish custom,” but it is more than that—it is a point of honour.
And what the Spaniards regard as honourable the English as their hosts might be expected to regard as honourable too.
And the Spaniards will not seek any parallel to such a gory spectacle as a bull-fight.
They will be more than satisfied with a pleasing musical comedy in which romantic music, a dash of colour and some dancing, with a touch of old Seville in it, helps them, says Reuter.

Finally, it is equally difficult to account for an old Spanish custom in the following from the column Pencillings of the Week, in the Linlithgowshire Gazette (Linlithgow, Scotland) of Friday 15th January 1932:

Yes, it may be anOld Spanish custom,” as the Bo’ness2 people are saying about Linlithgow’s centuries old fusty petty customs, but the fact remains they are there by undisputed Royal Charter.

(2 Bo’ness: Borrowstounness, in West Lothian)

 

ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE: MUSIC-HALL SONG(S)?

 

A clue as to the origin of the phrase might be provided by the following from “Salt, Mustard, Vinegar—” A Little Talk About Flavours, published in the Daily Herald (London) of Thursday 21st May 1931—the author explicitly states that the phrase originated “in the words of a song”:

“The art of flavouring—it is an art—depends upon other condiments than salt, mustard and pepper.
“Soup, for instance, is more appetising if celery salt is added instead of the common kind, and freshly ground black pepper has much more ‘kick’ in it than white.
Old Spanish Custom
“By the way, just try a little black with your next boiled or fried egg. In the words of a song, ‘It’s an old Spanish custom,’ which I think you’ll adopt.”

In the words of a song” probably alludes to either of the following successful British music-hall songs:
It’s an Old Spanish Custom (1930);
It’s an Old Spanish Custom in the Moonlight (1931).

The earliest mention of the latter song that I have found is from an advertisement published in The Stage (London) of Thursday 19th March 1931, in which B. Feldman & Co., 125, 127, 129, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W.C.2., announced the publication of “the super comedy foxtrot sensationIt’s an Old Spanish Custom in the Moonlight. That song was included in several musical productions in 1931. (“In the Moonlight” probably refers to serenading, but I have unfortunately not found the lyrics of that song.)

The former song, It’s an Old Spanish Custom, which met with huge success, was published in 1930 by Campbell, Connelly & Co., Ltd., 10-11 Denmark Street, London W.C.2., a publishing firm founded by James Campbell (1903-67) and Reg Connelly (1898-1963).

The score and lyrics of It’s an Old Spanish Custom were published in an advertisement for that publishing firm in The Stage (London) of Thursday 30th January 1930—the first verse, about “the Spaniards”, does indeed jocularly refer to “a questionable practice”:

score and lyrics of ‘It’s an Old Spanish Custom’ (Campbell and Connelly) - The Stage (London) - 30 January 1930

The Spaniards are peculiar folk,
And, according to the rumour,
They slit your windpipe for a joke,
But that’s just their sense of humour.

Chorus.
It’s an old Spanish Custom,
It’s an old Spanish Custom,
It’s gone on now for years and years,
It’s an old Spanish Custom.

A Frenchman went to church in Rome,
Just to listen to the sermon
He might as well have stayed at home,
For the sermon was in German.

Now Taffy was a Welshman bold,
And he married pretty Sally,
Indeed to goodness, now I’m told,
That there’s twelve in Rhondda Valley.

The cockneys take the blinking cake,
Telling stories that are funny,
The papers they have had a break,
They have turned them into money.

A woman who took washing in,
Once caught up in a tangle,
She mixed the washing with her chin,
And the lot went through the mangle.

The French girls really are so sweet,
And their ways are oh! so nice,
But should you dine out tete-a-tete,
Don’t forget Ma’s good advice.

The Sheiks beneath the desert sky,
Go from tent to tent all night,
And if you ask the reason why,
The say Turkish Delight.

On Thursday 6th February 1930, in the same newspaper, The Stage (London), Campbell, Connelly & Co., Ltd. mentioned this in Publishers’ Song Notes:

Ballad vocalists should note a new ballad, “My Fate Is in Your Hands,” which is likely to be one of the big hits of the year. The attention of comedians is similarly directed to “It’s an Old Spanish Custom,” which has plenty of extra verses, each full of laughs. […]
[…] Miss Mundy will shortly introduce the new comedy hit, “It’s an Old Spanish Custom.”

Many artists interpreted It’s an Old Spanish Custom that year; for example, the following is from The Era (London) of Wednesday 26th February 1930—C. and C. stands for Campbell and Connelly:

In Alf E. Dodds’ record-breaking show, “Something New,” four C. and C. numbers are being featured with great success, the songs being the terrific comedy riot “It’s An Old Spanish Custom,” also three big hits from the film “Sunnyside Up,” namely: “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?” “Sunnyside Up,” and “Turn On the Heat.”

It’s an Old Spanish Custom was so successful that Campbell, Connelly & Co., Ltd. declared this in The Era (London) of Wednesday 2nd April 1930:

Reports from all over the country proves [sic] that “It’s An Old Spanish Custom” is one of the greatest comedy numbers we have ever handled, and without doubt will be the biggest comedy concerted item in Concert Party this coming season.

The song was soon put on disc; the following is from the list of the new Columbia records in The Clifton and Redland Free Press and Clifton Chronicle (Bristol, England) of Thursday 20th February 1930:

Concerning the new dance records, there is one at least which will be talked about—“Give Yourself a Pat on the Back,”3 treated in a decidedly novel manner by Jack Payne and his B.B.C. Dance Orchestra, with which is coupled “It’s an Old Spanish Custom,” in which various nationalities make typical fun out of the subject. The double purpose of a dance and entertainment record is very clearly combined (5739. 3s.).

(3 Give Yourself a Pat on the Back was also published by Campbell, Connelly & Co., Ltd.)

It’s an Old Spanish Custom also featured in a motion picture; on Friday 18th July 1930, the Advertiser and Echo (Ramsgate, Kent) announced the screening of a new film at the Royal Victoria Pavilion, Ramsgate:

The Duncan Sisters are featured in “It’s a Great Life,” an all-talking comedy.
The song hits include “Following You,” “Sailing on a Sunbeam,” “The Hoosier Hop,” “Won’t You be my Lady Love?” and “It’s an Old Spanish Custom.”
The film, which includes a great variety of entertainment, pathos, comedy, satire and spectacle, tells a human story of back-stage life. A special feature is the photography, which includes technicolour sequences.

 

STEREOTYPES ABOUT SPAIN

 

Perhaps independently from the success of the above-mentioned songs, the phrase an old Spanish custom was frequently used in the early 1930s with reference to a stereotypical Spain.

For example, the following is from the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire) of Saturday 18th April 1931:

Chedworth and District Nursing Association will benefit from an entertainment organised by Miss Joan Milford at the Red Triangle Hut.
[…]
Lois and Sara Slatter (Eastington) shared acting honours in “An Old Spanish Custom,” a jolly affair of a Spanish “grandee” who was in reality an onion-seller.

Likewise, on Friday 11th December 1931, The Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds, Yorkshire) published this letter:

A TYPIST’S SOS.

Sir,—Would you be so good as to publish this letter on behalf of the young lady who lost a bouquet of flowers from a third storey window in The Headrow this afternoon?
The accident was due to an open window, a gust of wind and an unsteady vase; it had nothing to with the charms of the delighted recipients, two unknown young men, who seemed to regard the event as an old “Spanish Custom”: anyway, despite frantic appeals they departed with the booty.
Perhaps if they see this SOS they will be chivalrous enough to return the trophy which erstwhile gladdened the jaded eyes of a typist and her comrades.—Yours, etc.,
                                                                                                                      A TYPIST.
     Leeds, December 10.

 

ATTRIBUTION OF THE PHRASE TO HERMAN CYRIL MCNEILE

 

The anonymous author of The Symbolic Significance of the Annual Festival, published in the Nottingham Journal (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire) of Tuesday 15th April 1930, attributed the phrase it’s an old Spanish custom to the British author Herman Cyril McNeile (1888-1937), who wrote under the pseudonym of Sapper:

That versatile writer of thrillers, the one and only Sapper, creator of Bulldog Drummond and other husky heroes, coined a “priceless” catch phrase in one of his rough-neck sagas. This was “It’s an Old Spanish Custom.” Unfortunately the words were generally used when something unusually unpleasant was about to happen such as the release of an enraged cobra. Still we may Anglicise the phrase, and apropos of the coming season of Easter for which the shops of Nottingham are now decking their windows in thoughtful anticipation, and remark “It’s an old English custom!”

I have, however, not found in which of McNeile’s books the phrase appeared.

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