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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Hooky Walker!

(inj.) expressing doubt at something you have just been told

Fish hook in water, as in the origin of the expression hooky walker

Okay, this is a strange one.

In fact, it’s even stranger when you find out that people not only used Hooky Walker! as an expression of incredulity, but that saying Hooky Walker! was often apparently accompanied by making a hook shape out of your index finger and holding it up in front of you, or by cocking your nose upwards to give yourself a ‘hooked’ appearance:

Hookey Walker, derived from the chorus of a popular ballad ... served ... to answer all questions. In the course of time the latter word alone [i.e. just “Walker!”] became the favourite, and was uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last. If a lively servant girl was importuned for a kiss by a fellow she did not care about, she cocked her little nose, and cried “Walker!” If a dustman asked a friend in the profession for the loan of a shilling, and he was not willing to comply, he would in all probability, receive for his answer, “Walker!” This lasted a few months.
Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)

The Scottish writer Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions was a landmark psychological work in which he discussed, described, and often debunked many of the crazes and follies of the day. In his description of Hooky Walker, however, Mackay wasn’t being an entirely reliable source.

He might not have felt, personally, that Hooky Walker! lasted particularly long as a catchphrase in nineteenth century English, but Mackay was patently wrong. Some thirty years before his Extraordinary Popular Delusions was published, Hooky Walker! appeared as “Hookee Walker” in an early dictionary of London slang, Lexicon Balatronicum (1811), in which it was defined as “an expression signifying that the story is not true, or that the thing will not occur.” Not only that, but Hooky Walker! endured long enough to find its way into one of the Victorian era’s most famous novels, and into a scene that likely needs no introduction—but which perhaps ends with a line that, thanks to its obscurity today, you probably won’t have heard in any adaptation you’ve ever seen:

“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day?” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can! ... Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad. “
An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me? ... It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy. “Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”
“Walk-ER!” exclaimed the boy.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

Yep, even Dickens got in on the Hooky Walker! catchphrase, and immortalized it in one of his most memorable scenes, some two years after Mackay’s somewhat misguided description.

So Mackay might not have been right that Hooky Walker! disappeared within “a few months”—but was he right that Hooky Walker! derived from an old music hall ballad? That, alas, is a more difficult question to answer. There numerous explanations purporting to account from where Hooky Walker! emerged in the early 1800s, from a hook-nosed magistrate who became renowned across London for his unusual appearance, to an equally aquiline astronomy lecturer, whose students mercilessly mocked behind his back. Another theory claims that Hooky Walker! was in fact a noted nineteenth century spy, named John Walker. And yet another claims that John Walker was in fact a sharp-featured clerk, working at a musical instrument manufacturers in Cheapside, London. As for Mackay’s theory that the craze was actually sparked by the lyrics to an old music hall ballad? Unfortunately, no such song has yet been discovered.

So Mackay might not have been right about much in his explanation—but that’s not to say that we know very much else about one of the nineteenth century’s most peculiar expressions.


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