Widow Twankey
Posted: 26 March 2007 04:26 AM   [ Ignore ]
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It’s not in dispute that the Widow Twankey, mother of Aladdin in the traditional English pantomime, is derived from Twankay tea, a variety of cheap green China tea popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.  I had always assumed that the name was chosen just because it was something Chinese that would be familiar to the audience; this idea is supported by various websites on the history of panto which state that the character had previously been known by several other cod-Chinese names such as Wee Ping and Chow Chow, and that some 19th-century versions include another character called Pekoe.

I have just been told by a friend that a BBC documentary on the history of the tea clippers stated that the sailors on ships bringing Twankay tea were known as “Twankys”, and that the ships were driven so hard that many of them sank, with the result that the trading ports of Britain were full of these sailors’ bereaved wives, known as “Twanky widows”, and that this is the origin of the character’s name. Googling “twankys widows” finds a couple of sites that repeat the tale, but none of them cites any evidence or gives me any feeling that they are trustworthy.

This smells strongly of the work of CANOE to me; I simply don’t believe it. Can anybody find a verifiable instance of 19th-century tea clipper seamen being called Twankys or Twankays, or of their wives being called Twanky or Twankay widows?

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Posted: 26 March 2007 06:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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No cite for it in OED. Interestingly there is a cite of Twanky being frequently used as slang for gin from 1900.

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Posted: 26 March 2007 06:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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OED is unaware of any such usage, defining only as green tea and a slang term for gin.

Here’s the entry, with etymology:

Twankay Also twanky. [ad. Chinese Tong (or Taung) -ké (or -kei), dialect form of Tun-ki or Tun-chi, the name of two streams (and a town) in An-hui and Chi-kiang, China. Authorities differ as to which of these is the real source of the tea; S. Ball refers it generally to the ‘district’ of Tuon Ky (Twan-kay) in the province of Kiang Nan.]

A variety of green tea (in full Twankay tea), properly that from the place so called (see above), but also applied to blends of this with other growths.

b. slang. (See quot.)
1900 F. ADAMS in N. & Q. 9th Ser. VI. 163/1 A friend mentions ‘twankay’, properly denoting a kind of green tea, as a name by which gin is frequently called.

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