In Chapter 16 of Nicholas Nickleby, Mr Gregsbury is supposed to have a “Gammon tendency”. He is “a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good Member.” He is an MP, and at this point in the book, his constituents have called on him to resign. (You are dissatisfied with my conduct, I see by the newspapers) When he hears what they are calling him, however, he says,
“The meaning of the term, gammon, is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark.”
It is worth noting Dickens’ punctuation here- he adopts two commas rather than interted commas to isolate the word. I was amused to hear today that the ubiqity of “like” in street-english is simply a vocal comma. Think about it!
Anyway, the word “Gammon” has re-appeared in print. The novelist, Ben Davis, was annoyed by the number of Brexiteers on Question Time and wrote that “the Great Wall of Gammon has had its way long enough.”
The word “Gammon” was always about jingoism, describing now a right-wing white male who probably supports Brexit; it is clearly prejorative, but then there are many words that are abusive in the English language, and Gregsbury is positively proud of the insult. It does not make these words any the less authentic, or negative but it does mean we should be careful about how they are used. There is some debate about whether the word “Gammon” is today itself racist. I think not though I am sure that many “Gammon” may well be.
Nicholas Nickleby meets Mr Gregsbury when trying to get employment as a Parliamentary secretary. Gregsbury thinks he is being generous when he offers him 15 shillings and goes on at length about his various duties; Nicholas thinks the job is beyond him and says so.
‘Good-morning, sir,’ said Nicholas.
‘Door, Matthews!’ cried Mr. Gregsbury.