I thought today’s mail would bring resolution. It did not--keep that in mind because this is a bit of a long journey to nowhere new.
You might recall that I wrote about a neat 1932 RKO mystery film called The Phantom of Crestwood a few weeks ago. The character played by Ricardo Cortez in the movie was a shady fellow who spent the first half of the movie giving his name as Farnesbarnes.
There was no doubt Cortez was lying when he provided this as his name. It was tongue-in-cheek with a wink the entire way. Sure enough Cortez reveals himself as the far less exciting Gary Curtis later in the film.
But early on Cortez wears his perpetually smarmy smile and says the name with such exaggerated long a’s that even the other characters know he’s playing with them as he either claims Farnesbarnes as his name or as the name of the person he's seeking out.
The first time Cortez goes with it as his name the character he speaking to, a suspicious detective, asks him, “How do you spell it?”
“Same way you pronounce it,” Cortez replies.Being a Ricardo Cortez fan I found this absolutely hilarious. He wore his usual grin, a toothy smirk, but the addition of this completely nonsensical name to one of his always overconfident characters made it feel like he was flipping off the world with a bit of extra enthusiasm this time around.
If anything I probably paid more attention to Farnesbarnes in my coverage of The Phantom of Crestwood than I really should have.
But after I wrote about The Phantom of Crestwood I forgot all about Farnesbarnes.
For a couple of days.
A few nights later I pressed play on a marathon of Richard Dix movies that TCM had recently aired. I started to nod off during my third feature, The Public Defender (1931).
The Public Defender features Boris Karloff, just a few months before Frankenstein, as a Dix underling.
The Dix character is involved with a woman played by Shirley Grey, whose father has lost the family fortune. The contents of their home are being auctioned and all of our characters are in attendance of the sale.
During the auction Dix sits with Grey to discover which of the auctioned items she can't live without. Karloff is seated with the bidders. Dix flicks his cigarette ash as a signal to Karloff to bid on those goods that the Grey character would especially like to keep. Swell guy that he is, Dix later surprises Grey with a present of these possessions she had thought lost.
Anyway, after Karloff wins his first bid the auctioneer asks him his name:
“Farnesbarnes,” says Karloff.
I was more asleep than awake the first time I heard this.
Proving myself as geeky in my unconscious as in my waking hours I shot straight up and fumbled for the remote. I'm not kidding.
What had been humorous in The Phantom of Crestwood just a couple of days earlier had suddenly become very intriguing at a very late hour during The Public Defender.
I rewound the scene:
“Sold for twenty five dollars to Mr.—”
“Farnesbarnes,” says Karloff, stretching it out as well as Cortez had in the other movie.
The auctioneer looks a bit stupefied by the name. He takes a long pause before repeating in a somewhat stern voice, “Mr. Farnesbarnes, twenty five dollars.”
The next lot comes up and Dix signals Karloff again.
“Sold to Mr. Barnesfarnes—”
Boris interrupts to correct the auctioneer: “Farnesbarnes,” he says, removing his spectacles for emphasis as he speaks.
“Farnesbarnes,” the auctioneer repeats as a few of the auction attendees cackle with laughter.
All right, what gives?
My first thought was that I must have been overlooking some obvious reference and likely had made a complete fool out of myself by writing of Farnesbarnes with such wonder in my Phantom of Crestwood post.
Almost, but no.
But I continued to doubt myself until today’s mail.
That night, the night that The Public Defender startled me from my sleep, was over. It was a little before 4 am and I was at my desk digging online for answers.
I expected to find a simple answer within a few minutes and have this silly post up in time to email to subscribers by seven that morning.
Google’s first result turned out to be the most helpful. Or at least it would have been most helpful had I been satisfied with today’s mail. But I am not.
On the Guardian’s website, HERE, was a page labeled “Semantic Enigmas.” I’ll say so.
Who was Charlie Farnes-Barnes? The name was in common use (quite) a few years ago as a substitute for "what's his name" or "Fred Fernackapan". I note its use by your correspondent Derek Brown twice in the last three years.
Ah, Charlie, I’ve got a first name. And I’m with you, who was he?
Unfortunately my next two leads were links to the aforementioned Derek Brown articles. They were of no help. He tossed about the Farnesbarnes name as if we all knew exactly what he meant.
The most helpful answer made reference to a 1940’s BBC radio series, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, but alas, as the most recent comment on the page (It wasn't there a few weeks ago and strangely it's from a fellow Long Islander. Not me, I swear!) points out, that program didn’t come around until years after our pair of movies.
But I had nothing else to go on so I did look into the radio series just to make sure it didn’t have earlier origins. Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh aired from 1944-54 and the character called Farnsbarns was kind of an in-joke in himself as he was referred to by other characters, but never actually heard to speak.
A phantom of sorts.A British television series, actually titled The Charlie Farnsbarns Show, aired on ITV for a year in 1956, but not only is that well after our American references, it is acknowledged as a spin-off of sorts from Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh.
And so I Googled on, also hitting all of my favorite newspaper archives as I went. The sun rose.
I searched for variations of Charlie Farnesbarnes from simple old Farnesbarnes to “Farnes Barnes” split into two separate words to the same, hyphenated—”Farnes-Barnes”—like so, to both "Farnsbarns" and “Farns Barns” dropping both e’s and on to variations including an e on one half or the other.
I can tell you there was a racehorse named Charlie Farnsbarns active from 2008-09, but since I don't know anything about horses beyond my brief annual interest in the Triple Crown races I really couldn't tell you if his 133.25 rating is good, great or terrible.
I felt foolish all over again as I bumped into several—-or perhaps all the same—-Nigerian scammers using Farnesbarnes as their signature.
A few folks use a variation of Farnsbarns as their handle on social media sites. Perhaps they’re Nigerian?
At any rate I’ve convinced myself that even the Nigerian scammers have adapted the name from the ‘40s BBC radio series because other than these two early 1930s American made movies I could find no reference predating Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh.By the this point I understood the usage of Farnesbarnes or Farnsbarns. And everyone used it with that same little Ricardo Cortez wink that now seemed to leave me out. I went from getting a kick out of Farnsbarns to feeling like the joke was on me.
I followed the other bit of advice on the Guardian page:
See Nigel Rees, "Phrases and Sayings", rev. ed., Bloomsbury Reference, 1997.
Of course, any such Farnesbarnes entry was not available to be previewed on the internet. I couldn’t even pay to see it instantly anywhere and I would have paid a pretty price that morning.
But my only option was to pay much less and wait.
I got the book for only about a buck plus shipping, but I swear I didn’t go for the absolute cheapest copy of the book I could find. I was prepared to go to $20 if Amazon had any available with 2-day Amazon Prime shipping as an option--I probably would have even gone a little higher if I had to.
Without any copies being offered via Amazon Prime I went for the nearest option. Said to be shipping from New York.
I have ordered and received packages from Britain in the time it took for my copy of Phrases and Sayings to arrive. The seller was in New York, yes, but he didn't mention that the book was being dropshipped from Britain.
Would “Farnesbarnes” even be an entry? I ordered this thing blind off a vague reference by a random somebody made on a website. We’ll see!
I tore the package open Friday afternoon and thumbed directly to the F entries, stopping in the appropriate place to see:
Farnsbarns. - See CHARLIE.
What a tease!
Deep breath. Oh man, I bet this page is going to be torn out. This is never going to end!
No, there it is:
Charlie Farnsbarns. - A twit whose name one can’t remember. Noting that this moderately well-known expression had escaped Eric Partridge and his reviser, Paul Beale (Note: Rees lists both men in his acknowledgments. Beale revised the DICTIONARY OF SLANG AND UNCONVENTIONAL ENGLISH and DICTIONARY OF CATCH PHRASES, both originally by Partridge), I mentioned it to Beale in November 1985, suggesting that it sounded military, even pre-Second World War, though I had heard the comedian Ronnie Barker use it in a monologue quite recently. Beale came back with: ‘Charlie Farnsbarns was a very popular equivalent of e.g. “Mrs. Thing” or “old Ooja”, I.e. “Old whatsisname”. Much play was made with the name in MUCH BINDING IN THE MARSH, but whether murdoch and horne actually invented it, or whether they borrowed it “out of the air”, I’m afraid I don’t know, they would mention especially, I remember, a magnificent motorcar called a “farnsbarns special” or something like, say, a “farnsbarns straight eight”. This was in the period, roughly, 1945-50, while I was at school - I recall a very jolly aunt of mine who was vastly amused by the name and used it a lot.’
CHARLIE is a name given to an ordinary bloke; ‘Farnsbarns’ has the numbing assonance needed to describe a bit of a nonentity. I suspect the phrase came out of the services (probably RAF) in the Second World War. Denis Gifford, incidentally, in The Golden Age of Radio (1985), says the name was used by ‘Sam Costa in Merry-Go-Round (1946)’ - but the RAF edition of that show was the forerunner of MUCH BINDING IN THE MARSH.
This is defeat. For now.
Nigel Rees, an English writer and television personality, has written several books cataloging obscure word and phrase origins such as Charlie Farnsbarns. Unfortunately, he gives us nothing we didn’t already have.
Though I do have to admire him for doing so in as long-winded a fashion as I have done here myself!
My best guess is that any current popular usage, from innocent Twitter handles to nefarious Nigerian requests for wire transfers, derives from the 1940s BBC radio program, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh.It’s a reference I never have and probably never will become directly acquainted with.
But we’ve got it much earlier in two different movies, both RKO films: The Public Defender (1931) and The Phantom of Crestwood (1932).
Is there anybody out there with an earlier Farnesbarnes origin story? Something to pre-date our 1931 Hollywood, USA reference?
Calling Mr. Rees, perhaps, with an updated entry to my 1997 Revised Edition of Phrases and Sayings?
You can bet I’ll keep my eyes open but if you’ve anything to add, even just a lead, please comment below.