"sable gentry" (was: "shoot the pit"...)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jul 21 16:10:42 UTC 2011

On Jul 21, 2011, at 10:39 AM, George Thompson wrote:

> A few days ago, I came upon a story from an 1825 newspaper relating to a
> breach-of-promise suit brought in New Paltz by a slave-woman against a black
> man; I posted it here at the time.  I also sent it to a friend, Shane White,
> of the Univ. of Sydney, who has written a number of books on the 18th & 19th
> C black community of NYC.  He replied that he had seen it, and sent a
> follow-up story.  This story gives an appr. 90 year post-dating of the
> expression "shoot the pit", as well as giving it in an American context.
> *New York Spectator* May 10, 1825.
> *Breach of the Marriage Promise*. -- A gentleman from Ulster county, who was
> present at the trial of the sable gentry

Talk about your euphemistic avoidance—“the sable gentry”!  Apparently this was not uncommonly used at the time (judging from Google 

OED has this for adjectival “sable”:

2. gen. Black. Chiefly poet. and rhetorical. 
a. Of material objects, persons, animals, etc. At one time applied joc. to black people. 

his sable majesty (also his sable excellency): applied to a dark-complexioned potentate; spec. the Devil.

Jocular in origin, no doubt, but “sable gentry” seems to have become a conventionalized euphemism with or without intended jocularity.  (The OED lacks any specific entry for this collocation.) There are 187 hits in Google books, most or all exemplifying or citing 19th c. usage.  In one book, Louisa Anne Meredith, who recorded her travels in Tasmania in the 1840s, characterizes “sable gentry" as an instance of “that false elevation of language, a preposterously inflated lexis, deliberately employed to mock”. 


> for a breach of the marriage
> promise, the report of which originally appeared in this paper, says, that
> when the jury awarded ten dollars damages, Cuff darted out of court -- shot
> the pit as the fancy call it -- and was pursued through the village by Coon
> Crook, the constable, and half the boys, when he was caught and brought
> back. Cuff has been admitted to the privileges of the limits at Big
> Sopus. *N.Y.
> Nat. Adv*.
> A I 4 †*c.* to shoot the pit : of a fighting cock, to rush out of the
> cockpit from cowardice. Often *fig.* *Obs.*
> 1675    A. Marvell *Let. to Sir H.
> Thompson<http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:31797/view/Entry/178501?rskey=7roKNU&result=1&isAdvanced=true>
> *,   He hath a month ago shot the pit‥he hath thought convenient to passe
> over into Holland.
> 1681    *Heraclitus
> Ridens<http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:31797/view/Entry/178501?rskey=7roKNU&result=1&isAdvanced=true>
> * 30 Aug. 2/2   Two or three more such stroaks will make them shoot the Pit.
> *a*1734    R. North
> *Examen<http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:31797/view/Entry/178501?rskey=7roKNU&result=1&isAdvanced=true>
> * (1740) ii. v. ⁋19 327   Which made the whole Party shoot the Pit and
> retire, as not caring to be pointed at with ill-favoured Reflections.
> -- 
> George A. Thompson
> Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ.
> Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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