‘English as she is spoke’: meaning and origin

The phrase English as she is spoke designates broken English, i.e., English spoken falteringly and with many mistakes, as by a foreigner.

This phrase refers to English As She is Spoke: or A Jest in Sober Earnest (London: Field & Tuer, 1883), the title given to a book intended as a Portuguese-English conversational guide.

The publication of this book was announced in February 1883; for example, the following is from The Evening Telegraph (Dundee, Angus, Scotland) of Friday the 16th:

Messrs Field & Tuer announce, under the title of “English as She is Spoke; or, A Jest in Sober Earnest,” the immediate issue of No. 1 of a new vellum-parchment series of miscellaneous literature. The price of each volume is to be one shilling.

The first reviews appeared in March 1883; here are two:

1-: From the column Mustard and Cress, by ‘Dagonet’, published in The Referee (London, England) of Sunday the 4th:

“English as she is Spoke” is a charming little vellum parchment brochure, published by Messrs. Field and Tuer, and ought to take first rank among the books of humour of the season. It is a reprint of a “Guide to English Conversation,” published seriously by a Portuguese professor as a guide to the English language for Portuguese students. Thus concludes the learned linguist’s preface: “We expect them who the little book (for the care what we wrote him, and for her typographical correction) that may be worth the acceptation of the studious persons, and especially of the youth at which we dedicated him particularly.”
“The youth at which we dedicate him” will probably grow up to old age firmly believing that the diseases of Englishmen are “the apoplexy, the scrofulas, the melancholy, the megrime, the whitlow, the rheumatisma, and the vomitory”; that his “eatings” are “some black pudding, some wigs, a chitterling sausages, a little mine, hog fat, and some marchpanes”; his drink “some orgeat” and “some paltry wine”; his favourite flowers “the bluebottle, the turnsol, the milfoils, and the husk”; and the perfumes with which he renders himself, like comparisons, odorous “benzoin, perfume pan, pomatum, and storax.”
Of the excellence of the vocabulary and its use to young Portuguese gentlemen travelling in England the reader can now judge for himself. With a few extracts from the “conversations” I will take leave of the excellent and most worthy Senhor Pedro Carolus. Let us accompany our guide “for to see the town.” “Anthony go to accompany they gentilsmen do they see the town.” “We want to see all that is remarkable here.” “Admire this master piece Gothic’s architecture.” (The new Law Courts, evidently.) “There is it also hospitals here. It not fail them.”—“With a watch maker”: “I had the misfortune to have fall down the instant when I did mounted, it must put again a glass.” “Don’t you live me her proof againts ? I shall not accept that this condition.”
The book concludes with a few “Idiotisms and Proverbs,” which I cannot resist quoting. “There is not any ruler without a exception.” “Its are some blue stories.” “The stone as roll not heap up no foam.” “He is beggar as a church rat.” “Burn the politenes.” “To buy cat in pocket.” “To make paps for the cats.” These are but a few of the lovely “idiotisms.” After carefully studying the English language according to the Senhor, I have managed it sufficiently to say “That what more is funny never eyes that head my are in to did it to see not can.”

2-: From The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Wednesday the 7th:

“English as She is Spoke” is the promising title of a little book which provokes merriment in every line. It is one of the vellum-parchment shilling series of Miscellaneous Literature, published by Field and Tuer, and is literally, as it claims to be, “a joke in sober earnest.” Senor Pedro Carolino has had the excellent intention of promoting the study of English by his Portuguese fellow-countrymen. But though he indulges the belief that he has kept it “clean of galicisms and despoiled phrases,” English readers will thank him for having constructed it so evidently from a Portuguese-French phrase-book and a French-English dictionary. Nothing so utterly funny could have come from any other source. His advice to the youth of his country is, “Apply you at the study during that you are young;” and he asks, “How do you can it to deny?” “This girl have a beauty edge” has in it the piquancy of a puzzle, and quite beats the “Mrs. —— has a very fine leather” of Longfellow’s Hyperion out of the field.
In our “degrees of kindred” the ingenious Senor Pedro Carolino discovers “the gossip mistress” and “the quater-grandmother;” amongst our servants “a spendth.” The furniture of our beds contains “the feet’s bed,” and “the pillar’s bed;” of our tables, “some knifes, some groceries,” and “some crumb;” whilst amongst our “Eatings” are to be found “some wigs,” “a chitterling sausages,” “a little mine,” and “an amelet.” “On the Church” there are “the sides of the nef” and “the boby of the church,” and amongst its “dignities” “a theologist.” Our “Chivalry orders” include “Saint Michaelmas” and “Very-merit;” and amongst our “Degrees” are “a parapet” and “a general to galeries.” What the items of conversation are may perhaps be imagined from “He burns one’s self the brains,” “He do the devil at four,” and “They fight one’s self together.” These are rivalled by “The rose-trees begin to button,” “All trees have very deal bear;” or under the headings “For to wish the good morning,” “How does your father do? He is very well. I am very delight of it. Were is it? I shall come back soon. I was no came that to know how you are.”

The earliest occurrence that I have found of English as she is spoke used as a phrase is from the following review, published in The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of Thursday 9th August 1883:

“Eberhard; or, The Mystery of Rathsbeck.” By Katherine Clive. Three vols. (Tinsley Brothers.)—It is not a little difficult to accept the inherent improbabilities of a story in which the fortunes of English girls, who speak little German, are mixed up with those of German professors and students who speak less English. If this can be accomplished, the book is readable. It displays some originality, and the mystery is elucidated in a manner peculiarly novel, although the authoress claims for it a foundation of fact. Grace Hartley, an English governess in a German school, loves and is beloved by Eberhard, a German student. Herr Evers, Eberhard’s uncle, is robbed of a considerable sum of money, and immediately after the discovery Eberhard returns, from a clandestine interview with Grace, through the window. He is arrested, tried, and convicted. The puzzle is to find the thief. Fräulein Schwarzkopf, who keeps the school, and her brother, Professor Schwarzkopf, are consistently odious through the three volumes. Grace possesses plenty of English pluck, and is eventually rewarded by securing her lover’s release from prison. Hedwig Evers, who loves Eberhard, but marries Albrecht von Lustfeldt, is an attractive example of a German girl of the middle class. She is chiefly occupied in falling in love with her own husband, in which she eventually succeeds. This is a refreshing feature in a novel nowadays. Pastor Steinenberg is a fine character, but we cannot see the necessity for rewarding his chivalrous devotion to Grace by bestowing upon him the hand and fortune of her sister Nelly, who is 20 years his junior, even though we are aware of the delusion prevalent among novelists that all their characters ought to pair off like actors called before the curtain. The book gives a glimpse of German student life. Its stilted phraseology is probably to be attributed to the difficulty with which Miss Clive had to contend in teaching most her characters to speak English. She would, too, have been better advised if she had not attempted to imitate the inimitable varieties of Englishas she is spokein Germany.

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found of English as she is spoke used as a phrase is from the following review, published in The Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Friday 17th August 1883. However, here, although the phrase seems to designate correct English instead of broken English, this review immediately follows that of English As She is Spoke: or A Jest in Sober Earnest, so that I wonder whether “one would rather have the “English as she is spoke”” may allude to the latter book:

Elements of Sylviculture: a Treatise on the Scientific Culture of the Oak and other Hardwood Trees. By the late G. Bagneris. Translated by E. E. Fernandez and A. Smythies, B.A. [London: William Rider and Sons, 14, Bartholomew Close.]
This is a practical manual, not pretending to be literature at all, and it primarily relates to the soil, climate, and species of another country; but those who are interested in the subject will doubtless find it serviceable to them. The English of the translators is rather loose in texture, and such curious phrases abound as “the wood cannot be used as timber, and all the more so,” &c. They probably do not obscure the sense any more than “yow must dew summat” would do; but one would rather have theEnglish as she is spoke.” The matter of the book seems to be well-arranged, giving in compact form the principles of the treatment of forest trees, as the author has learned to know them in the course of his experience as Inspector of Forests and Professor at the Forest School of Nancy.

The phrase then occurs in The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily Telegram (Exeter, Devon, England) of Tuesday 4th September 1883:

English, as she is spokeby the Indians seems to be almost as curious as the English “clean of gallicism” “dedicated,” in the famous little book, “at studious portuguese and brazilian youth.” The boys of an Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pa., have lately started a school paper, called the Morning Star, from which the New York Critic gives some extracts. A column or more of the paper consists of letters from the school children, which, at any rate, give a vivid idea of their occupations. “We have clean the corn,” writes one boy, “about forty bushes in three hours, and I have been work hard and make sweat of my face.” “After I done noon work,” says another, “I came in house to eat my dinner, then I went down the field with horses to roll, and after I get done roll I get the horses to harrow that same field what I had been working at. Do you think that is good bit done for to-day?” In one of the letters there is a curious instance of the extended use of the verb “to build.” “I have watch how make butter, and I will try to do myself how build butter when I go back, and I saw everything how planted when I grow to be a man I will farm to myself.”


There soon were U.S. editions of English As She is Spoke: or A Jest in Sober Earnest. For example, The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) announced the following on Monday 2nd April 1883:

In accordance with arrangements with the English publishers, Messrs. G. P. Putnam’s Sons will publish an edition of […] “English as She is Spoke,” a reprint of the famous “Portuguese Grammar.”

And the following is from the Buffalo Morning Express (Buffalo, New York) of Tuesday 29th May 1883:

A curious coincidence in the publishing business has occurred in connection with the absurd little book issued eight years ago and called the Portuguese Grammar, which has been liberally quoted by the press. An English house announced an edition of “English as She is Spoke,” and Messrs. Putnam arranged with them to buy the plates, and announced their intention of publishing the book last March. Some time later they heard that James R. Osgood & Co. were preparing an edition with an introduction by Mark Twain *. Soon after this another edition was announced by Messrs. Appleton. The Appleton and Putnam editions appeared last week, while the Osgood edition is still in the press. Thus after eight years three publishers have brought out, or announced, the same book at one and the same time.

(* Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens – 1835–1910) was a U.S. novelist and humorist.)

This is the title page of English As She is Spoke: or A Jest in Sober Earnest (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1884):

title page of English As She is Spoke; or A Jest in Sober Earnest (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1884)