Definition of term lexis

The lexis of a language refers to the lexemes that belong to that language’s lexicon, its word-stock. The lexicon is the complete dictionary of all the words in the language – but it is impossible to compile, partly because languages are oral entities and what gets written down is only a subset, and partly because languages are continually in a state of flux, with words coming and going. The terms word and vocabulary are often synonymous with lexeme, but the usefulness of the technical term lexeme is that it covers all the derived forms too. To take the example happy: happiness, happily, unhappy, unhappiness, unhappily all belong to the lexeme happy. Lexemes are word families. In this unit I will mostly use word and vocabulary, unless there is a reason to be more technical. Whilst it’s important to understand the meaning of technical terms, it’s also important to use them precisely, and if a common term will do the job, then that’s the one to use.

By and large, the element of language study that students of literature need least help with is vocabulary, as you will have built up a sensitivity to what is usual and what is unusual for a given period, and you know how to use the Oxford English Dictionary . This unit is about what to do when you suspect that a given word in a text is interesting for some reason, and presents you with some resources.

Demonstration of lexis in action

Here’s a popular poem by G. K. Chesterton – popular when it was written, in 1913, and ever since. Read it and see if any particular word or words catch your eye.

The Rolling English Road

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,

The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,

And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;

A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread

The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,

And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;

But I did bash their baggenets because they came arrayed

To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,

Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,

The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run

Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?

The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,

But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.

God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear

The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,

Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,

But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,

And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,

Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.


The word which strikes my eye here is baggenet, because I don’t really know what it means (you can roughly guess, but that’s not the same as knowing). And there may be others that are unfamiliar to you – do you know what a sexton is? Do you know where the places are, and why Kensal Green is mentioned in the last line?

The first step is to gather up as much information as possible about the biography of the poem: what we can glean from reading it, about the context in which Chesterton wrote it, and the events of the period. Without knowing any context at all, we can gather that the poem has a humorous, gentle, old-fashioned tone – whatever baggenets are, we no longer use them, neither do we drink from ale-mugs – and much of the humour stems from the ‘fourteeners’ rhythm, the alliteration, and the rhyme-scheme. It’s apparent that the poem is in defence of the rolling English drunkard, but that he was a youth who was drunk on specific merry occasions, rather than a chronic alcoholic. The last stanza makes it clear that we are older now and no longer enjoy the escapades of youth, but look back on them with fondness and a generosity for the excesses of high spirits. The last couplet has an optimistic tone, and you need to know that Kensal Green is one of the large Victorian cemeteries built to reduce pressure on inner-city London churchyards in order to make sense of why it might be an interim stop on the way to Paradise. You also need to have a sense of the geography of Britain in order to see the humour of the routes taken by the rolling drunkard.

You can also glean, without further research, that there’s something rather southern about the poem, as we can marshal Rye, Severn, Beachy Head, Glastonbury, Goodwin Sands, Brighton Pier and Kensal Green against Birmingham and Bannockburn. The drunkard sounds like he might have been a southerner.

Now we turn to the context, and for this, the first step is to discover where the poem was first published. A moment on Google reveals that it was first published in 1913 in a weekly journal, so we need to see this journal and look at why Chesterton chose to publish it there. The journal is called New Witness and its pronounced purpose was to expose political corruption and criticize the party system. There aren’t very many copies extant, but Cambridge University Library has it, and you can order it in the West Room. I couldn’t find a precise date via Google, so I ordered up the issues for the whole year and leafed through.

I found that Chesterton had begun a series of drinking songs under the title Songs of the Simple Life. In Issue No. 12 in January he published the Song of Strange Drinks, which is against tea and cocoa and soda-water. In No. 14 he published the Song of the Temperance Hotel, in which the Saracen’s Head has been turned into a tea-shop. In No. 16 came the Song of the Strange Ascetic, which is against drinking tepid milk instead of wine. In No. 17 is the Song of the Second Deluge, about Noah worrying that water will get into the wine. No. 17 is explicitly against Teetotallers, and, renamed Old Noah, it appeared on the back cover a year later with a caricature of Chesterton waving a wine glass, advertising Napier Johnstone’s Old Highland Whisky. In No. 21, Chesterton’s great friend Hilaire Belloc published a Sonnet upon God the Wine-Giver. And in No. 47 comes Songs of the Simple Life No. 13, A Song of Temperance Reform.

So there were a dozen earlier drinking songs, all humorous, and in March 1914 someone wrote and criticized Chesterton for denigrating temperance and seemingly promoting alcohol. He replied in an article called My Temperance Tract An Egoistic Article. He said “my drinking songs are probably the only drinking songs that are also temperance songs.” And he explained:

And if anyone ask why putting hops in an abnormal chemical fuss into your mouth should be a proof of political freedom, I answer in entire confidence: “Precisely because of the truths told again and again upon Temperance platforms.” Because fermented drink is “not at all necessary” – as the ladies say on Boards of Guardians. Because it is a luxury: like music. Because it contains a peril which each man must decide for himself whether he will avoid or control. Because it is as aimless as a canoe and as dangerous as an aeroplane. Because, in short, it is just that sort of taste, or (if you will) caprice which cannot be forbidden to a citizen; but can be forbidden to a slave.

What Chesterton was objecting to was not the curtailment of the English drunkard’s right to get drunk, which is rather what The Rolling English Road sounds like out of context, but his loss of civil liberty. It’s because we have the freedom to do so, that we can get drunk. If sales of alcohol are banned, that freedom is removed.

So now we need to find out about the background to the temperance movement, and again my starting-point is Google and Wikipedia. From the information there I glean the following:

The Temperance movement had been gaining force in Britain since the 1830s in attempt to alleviate alcoholism in the very poor.  The first Total Abstinence Society was set up in Preston in Lancashire in 1832, and from this society comes the term teetotal. It was coined in 1832 by a man named Dicky Turner in a speech advocating that people give up alcohol T-totally, not just spirits.

1847: The Band of Hope was founded in Leeds, to save working class children from the perils of alcohol.

1864: the Salvation Army was founded in London to minister to the working class and encourage them to give up alcohol.

1898: the Inebriates Act was passed to give treatment to repeat offenders rather than to keep putting them in prison.

1906: the Eugenics Education Society was founded in London to promote the mental, moral and physical improvement of the race. In the early years this society was mainly concerned with alcoholism of women.

1910: the Women’s Total Abstinence Union announced: “According to figures recently published regarding an investigation dealing with children attending some of the London County Council Schools, 40 per cent, of the children under eight years of age were said to drink alcohol more or less regularly.”

Legislation began in Scotland; the Temperance (Scotland) Act was passed so that Scots could vote on whether drinking alcohol in public should be permitted in their area or not. In America in 1913 prohibition was beginning: Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act, which forbade the transport of alcohol into dry states.

So we can conclude that temperance was very much a public concern at the time Chesterton published his Song of Temperance Reform, and that he had written on the topic before. Finally, we need to discover what we can about G. K. Chesterton’s biography. For this, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the best place to start.

It tells us that Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in 1874 at 32 Sheffield Terrace, Campden Hill, London. His father was an estate agent. He went to St Paul’s School and University College London, and then got a job as a publisher’s reader, and started a career as a contributing journalist to the many different dailies and weeklies then in existence. Over his career he wrote poetry, novels, short stories, detective stories, essays, criticism, religious writing – he left an enormous body of work, not all of it signed, so it’s difficult to know exactly what and how much. Chesterton was an archetypal Fleet Street journalist in terms of frequenting the Fleet Street pubs, to the point that, because he was forever stopping for a glass of beer and a pork pie, his wife made them move out to Beaconsfield.

Literary Exercise

We now need to find out what we can about the word baggenet.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,

And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;

But I did bash their baggenets because they came arrayed

To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,

Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,

The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

Start with the Oxford English Dictionary and Google and see what you can discover. Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


You’ll have found that you need to try different spellings – baggenet, baggonet, bagonet, bagnet – and if you found the Online Scots Dictionarybaignet. We can call these the word-medial –g– forms, which form a sub-field of the bayonet lexeme. Baggenet is thought to be a form of the word bayonet, which might be from the name of the city Bayonne, the weapon having been made there, or used there, or, it might be from the Old French word bayon meaning ‘an arrow’. But whichever, it seems to be from French and it originally meant ‘a short flat dagger’, and then ‘a steel dagger attached to the muzzle of a musket’. The word bayonet is attested from the early 1600s. The form baggenet isn’t easy to account for as a phonological development, and isn’t known in French. It might be on analogy with the dialect term bagging hook, which was a curved knife for reaping crops. But the term bagging hook was limited to the middle and south of England and was never used in the North and Scotland, whereas the term baggenet is or was found in many dialects and in Scotland and Ireland and America.

So where did Chesterton get the word from, and why did he use it? To answer this question, we need to search journalism and literature, and in particular to look at how the word was used in texts written between 1874 when he was born and 1913 when he wrote The Rolling English Road. Some databases to search are:

Relate your findings to the poem. Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


Before the early 1800s, use of the word baggenet seems to have been literal:

Richard Jones of the Parish of St. Paul's Covent-Garden , was Tryed for Killing one Thomas Jones a Chair-man , on the 17th. day of September last, with a Baggonet, value 6 d. giving him one Mortal Wound on the left side of his Body, of the length of one Inch, and of the depth of six Inches, &c. of which he immediately Died . The Evidence declared in the general, that the Prisoner was found going along Covent-Garden Plazza, Swearing that he would Kill the next Man he met, and was seen to pull his Baggonet from under his Coat, and thrust it into the Side of the Deceased Jones; and then after he was taken and the Baggonet being produced, which he had dropt in his pursuit, he owned it to be his own, shaking his Head and Cursing Brandy and Women, &c. He had not much to say, but would have insinuated to the Court that the Deceased fell upon his Baggonet when they were Scuffling together; yet the Jury found him guilty of willful Murther., 10th October 1688, Reference Number: t16881010-3.

“it is a beefeater; don’t you see his baggonet?”

Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, Sat Oct 27, 1787

However, from the early nineteenth-century until just after the First World War, uses seem to be limited to speakers of regional dialect:

“And when Father Killala got to the sick man, he said, that though we’d so long called him Mick Walsh, his real name was Johnny O’Rourke; and that he’d seen a sight that day, which drove him to do what he’d long been thinking of; namely, – confessing that he was the murderer of Big Dick Blaney, the Hearthmoneyman, who was found, with an ould baggonet in his breast, among the prushaugh vooe by the road-side, away up the country, twenty years before. “And,” says he, “I can’t live with the load on mee heart;– whether I lie abroad or at home I’m always tossing about in a bed of prushaugh vooe, wid the baggonet glimmering like a flash of lightning over mee head: so you’ll deliver me up at once, that I may suffer by man for raising mee hand against man, and God help me to through it!”

Three Courses and a Desert, William Clark, George Cruikshank, 1830. “The Weed Witness”, p. 231.

In particular, the American author James Fenimore Cooper uses baggenet in several works:

“He was a soldier in revolution times, and sarved his seven years with Washington. The English used to boast that the Americans wouldn’t ‘stand up to the rack,’ if the baggonet was set to work; ‘but this was before we got our own toothpick,’ said the old man. ‘As soon as they gave us baggonets, too, there was no want of standing up to the work.’ It seems to me, corporal, you overlook the fact that Injins carry no baggonets.”

“Every army uses its own weapons. If an Injin prefers his knife and his tomahawk to a baggonet, it is no affair of mine. I speak of a charge as I see it; and the soldier who relies on a tomahawk instead of a baggonet, should stand in his tracks, and give tomahawk play.”

James Fenimore Cooper. 1848. The Bee-Hunter; Or, The Oak Openings.

“They now both listened intently, for a little while, during which the irregular reports became less brisk, and suddenly heavy and repeated volleys followed. –

“They’ve been at the baggonet,” said the pedlar; “the rig’lars have tried the baggonet, and have drove the rebels.”

“Ay! Mr. Brich, the bayonet is the thing for the British soldier, after all!” shouted Henry with exultation. “They delight in the bayonet!”

“Well, to my notion,” said the pedlar, “there’s but little delight to be taken in any such pokerish thing. But I dare say the militia are of my mind, for half of them don’t carry the ugly things. – Lord! – lord ! – Captain, I wish you’d go with me once into the rebel camp, and hear what lies the men tell about Bunker Hill and Burg’yne; you’d think they loved the baggonet as much as they do their dinner.”

James Fenimore Cooper. 1822. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground.

“And why can the pale-faces march in large armies, with cannon, and horses, and bayonets, and the red-man not do the same?”

“’Cause he no got ‘em – no got warrior – no got gun – no got baggonet – no got nuttin.”

James Fenimore Cooper. 1845. The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts.

“She cry half ‘e time, sah – Den she look up bold, and resolute, just like ole Masser, sah, when he tell he rijjement ‘charge baggonet,’ and seem as if she want to go right into T’ousandacres’ huts. Lor’ bless me, sah, Masser Mordaunt – if she ask me one question about you to-day, she ask me a hundred!”

James Fenimore Cooper. 1845. The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts.

“Reach from here to mill – t’ree, two deep, cap’in. All farmer; no sodjer. Carry gun, but no carry baggonet; no carry knapsack. No wear redcoat. Look like town-meetin’; fight like devils.”

James Fenimore Cooper. 1843. Wyandotte; Or, the Hutted Knoll.

And there are more, this list is not exhaustive. James Fenimore Cooper put the word baggonet into the mouths of veterans, Red Indians, black servants, a pedlar, soldiers from the rank and file, and a corporal repeating the words of an old man. In his novels, speakers of higher status use the form bayonet.

So we can hazard that some time around 1800, baggenet dropped out of use in Standard English, where bayonet prevailed, but baggenet remained in non-Standard, dialectal usage. In the second half of the nineteenth century, baggenet seems to have been marked for comedy:

“In battle’s wild commotion

“I shouldn’t at all object

“If Sambo’s body should stop a ball

“That was coming for me direct

“And the prod of a Southern bagnet,

“So generos are we here,

“I’ll reseign and let Sambo take it

“On every day in the year.

“So hear me all boys, darlins,

“Don’t think I’m tippin’ you chaff

“The right to be killt we’ll divide with him,

“And give him the largest half.”

The Times, Mar 23, 1864; pg. 9; Issue 24827; col D. This is a verse supposedly written by an Irish soldier in the Army of the Potomac.

“I heard a shriek that went through me like a baggonet”.

Manchester Times, Feb 18, 1871. Note that this is a figurative use, so the word must have been of relatively high frequency.

[“Correspondents complain of the vexatious character of the restrictions imposed on telegrams, alleging that they cannot always find at the right moment a staff officer with the time and inclination to countersign them, or ready to incur the responsibility.” – Times]

Scene – Lahore.

Correspondent. I want to send this telegram, major. Will you have the kindness to countersign it?

Major. Can’t do it now. Just going to have a brandy pawnee. Most unreasonable. Call again in half an hour.

(Calls again.)

Correspondent (to Orderly). Where’s Major Baggonet?

Orderly. Gone to Shuggurnarghil, sir. Won’t be back till to-morrow morning.

Correspondent. Good gracious! Is Captain Epaulet anywhere about?

Orderly. Just having a brandy pawnee.

Funny Folks, Dec 21, 1878: ‘The Trials of Afghan Correspondents’. A brandy-pawny was the Anglo-Indian name for brandy and water (Hindu pani ‘water’).

“When I was a sodger in the Royal Tayvistock Volunteers I had a red coat, and a zword, and a baggonet. I knowed your father before ‘ee. I mind when you was christened; I was drunk wan whole week that time. I was keeping company with a maid, and I went to the parson. Says I to he, ‘I want your honour to promise me wan thing.’ ‘I’ll do anything I can for ‘ee,’ says he: ‘what is it?’ ‘I want you to promise me,’ says I, ‘never to marry me to thickee there maid when I be drunk.’ He zaid he’d promise me that, quite sure. ‘Thank ‘ee, your honour,’ zaid I: ‘then I’m all right, for I’ll take good care you never do when I’m zober!’

Pick-Me-Up, Nov 17, 1888 “West Country Tales”


The Sporting Times, Feb 29, 1896; “Brandy and Soda” by Nathanial Gubbins

From the 1870s onwards, baggonets, alcohol and humour recur together. It turns out that Chesterton was following a tradition of humorous writing, one that his readership would have recognized. It enables the reader to place the rolling English drunkard in the social hierarchy. Partridge Slang Online says it was “often heard among the Tommies 1914-1918”, so the abandonment of baggenet postdates World War I.

Teaching Point

If, when you are reading, a certain word strikes you as unusual or interesting for some reason, your first port of call is to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary . This will probably establish whether you are right, and the word is interesting, or whether you were merely unaware of its usage. If you were right, you next need to establish how other people used the word during the same period. This can only be done by corpus-searching, and nowadays there are many corpora to search. We have seen that the lexeme bayonet includes the forms with word-medial –g– (baggenet, bagganet, baggonet, bagnet, baignet …), but that the word-medial –g– forms were marked from the second half of the nineteenth century (at least) as dialectal and comedic. They were not rare, or unusual, but formed part of an author’s stock-in-trade of comic regionalisms and provincialisms.

Hornet and the beetle

Verse 1

A harnet zet in a hollow tree,

A proper spiteful twoad was he,

And merrily zung while a did zet,

His stinge as sharp as a baganet,

'Oh, who's so bowld and vierce as I,

I vears not bee, nor waspe, nor vly.


'Oh, who's so bowld and vierce as I,

I vears not bee, nor waspe, nor vly.

Verse 2

A Bittle up thuck tree did clim',

And scarnvully did luk at him,

Zays he, 'Zur Harnet, who giv' thee,

A right to zet in thuck there tree?

Although zings so nation vine,

I tell 'e it's a house of mine.


Although zings so nation vine,

I tell 'e it's a house of mine.

Verse 3

The Harnet's conscience felt a twinge,

But growin' bowld wi' his long stinge,

Zays he, 'Possession's the best law,

Zo here th' shasn't put a claw,

Be off and leave the tree to me,

The Mixen's good enough for thee.'


Be off and leave the tree to me,

The Mixen's good enough for thee.'

Verse 4

Just then a Yuccle passin' by,

Was axed by them their cause to try,

'Ha! Ha! It's very plain,' zays he,

'They'll make a vamous nunch for me.'

His bill was sharp, his stomach lear,

Zo up a snapped the caddlin' pair.


His bill was sharp, his stomach lear,

Zo up a snapped the caddlin' pair.

Verse 5

All you that be to law inclined,

This leetle story bear in mind,

For if to law you ever gwo,

You'll vind they'll allus zarve 'e zo,

You'll meet the vate o' these 'ere two,

They'll take your cwoate and carcass too!


You'll meet the vate o' these 'ere two,

They'll take your cwoate and carcass too!