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I came across this following series of phrases while reading H.G. Wells's Kipps and I promptly have no idea what they mean:

There were times when Kipps would lie awake, all others in the dormitory asleep and snoring, and think dismally of the outlook Minton pictured. Dimly he perceived the thing that had happened to him—how the great, stupid machine of retail trade had caught his life into its wheels, a vast, irresistible force which he had neither strength of will nor knowledge to escape. This was to be his life until his days should end. No adventures, no glory, no change, no freedom. Neither—though the force of that came home to him later—might he dream of effectual love and marriage. And there was a terrible something called the "swap," or "the key of the street," and "crib hunting," of which the talk was scanty but sufficient. Night after night he would resolve to enlist, to run away to sea, to set fire to the warehouse, or drown himself; and morning after morning he rose up and hurried downstairs in fear of a sixpenny fine. He would compare his dismal round of servile drudgery with those windy, sunlit days at Littlestone, those windows of happiness shining ever brighter as they receded. The little figure of Ann seemed in all these windows now.

I think these expressions may be retail jargon because retail has been the focus of the book so far. But apart from that, I am stumped. Any insight would be much appreciated.

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  • I have no idea what you mean by "promptly".
    – user14111
    Mar 24, 2023 at 4:26

2 Answers 2

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These are references to the condition of homelessness.

THE KEY OF THE STREET

IT is commonly asserted, and as commonly believed, that there are seventy thousand persons in London who rise every morning without the slightest knowledge as to where they shall lay their heads at night. However the number may be over or understated, it is very certain that a vast quantity of people are daily in the above-mentioned uncertainty regarding sleeping accommodation, and that when night approaches, a great majority solve the problem in a somewhat (to themselves) disagreeable manner, by not going to bed at all.

People who stop up, or out all night, may be divided into three classes:- First, editors, bakers, market-gardeners, and all those who are kept out of their beds by business. Secondly, gentlemen and 'gents,' anxious to cultivate a knowledge of the 'lark' species, or intent on the navigation of the 'spree.' Thirdly, and lastly, those ladies and gentlemen who do not go to bed, for the very simple reason that they have no beds to go to.

The members of this last class - a very numerous one - are said, facetiously, to possess 'the key of the street.' And a remarkably disagreeable key it is. It will unlock for you all manner of caskets you would fain know nothing about. It is the 'open sesame' to dens you never saw before, and would much rather never see again, - a key to knowledge which should surely make the learner a sadder man, if it make him not a wiser one.

Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859

I can’t find appropriate references for the other two, but as one phenomenon is being described by all three terms, the meaning is certain.

‘Crib’ retains the meaning of a rudimentary dwelling or home or confined space, and hunting for such would be desirable if one has no fixed place to sleep.

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    The OED has a relevant entry for swap: – n. II, 2c. slang. to get (or have) the swap: to be dismissed from employment." So not quite the same thing as the key of the street, but very much related to it.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 5, 2020 at 15:56
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    And if you sleep in a dormitory provided by your place of employment, as Kipps seems to, the swap and the key of the street are indeed essentially the same thing.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 5, 2020 at 16:20
  • Very helpful, Spagirl and Peter Shor! Thank you both so very much. Dec 6, 2020 at 13:59
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Looking in Eric Partridge’s dictionary of slang, I find, for “the swap”:

have or get the swap or swop. To be dismissed from employment: from before 1890. Barrere & Leland.

Eric Partridge (1939). A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 3rd edition, p. 851. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

This is the entry in Barrère & Leland:

Swop (popular), to get the swop, to be dismissed from one’s employment. Especially used among linendrapers’ assistants.

Charles Godfrey Leland and Albert Barrère (1897). A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, volume II, p. 318. London: George Bell & Sons.

For “have the key of the street”, I find:

have the key of the street. To be shut out for the night; to have no home: from ca. 1835: coll[oquial], till C. 20, then S[tandard] E[nglish]. Dickens in Pickwick.

Partridge, p. 452.

This is the cited passage from Dickens:

‘There,’ said Lowten, ‘it’s too late now. You can’t get in to-night; you’ve got the key of the street, my friend.’

‘Never mind me,’ replied Job. ‘I can sleep anywhere.’

Charles Dickens (1837). The Pickwick Papers, chapter XLVII. Project Gutenberg.

For “crib hunting”, I did not find any evidence that this was a phrase prior to Wells. There is an earlier appearance in the short story ‘A Catastrophe’ (1895):

A shop assistant who has once set up for himself finds the utmost difficulty in getting into a situation again. He began to figure himself “crib-hunting” again, going from this wholesale house to that, writing innumerable letters. How he hated writing letters! “Sir,—Referring to your advertisement in the Christian World.” He beheld an infinite vista of discomfort and disappointment, ending—in a gulf.

H. G. Wells (1895). ‘A Catastophe’. In The Plattner Story and Others, pp. 243–244. London: Methuen.

Wells also uses “swap” and “crib” in several other passages in Kipps, for example:

His little tin box upstairs was no longer big enough for his belongings, he would have to buy another, let alone that it was not calculated to make a good impression in a new ‘crib.’ Then there would be paper and stamps needed in some abundance for answering advertisements and railway fares when he went ‘crib hunting.’ He would have to write letters, and he never wrote letters. There was spelling, for example, to consider. Probably if nothing turned up before his month was up, he would have to go home to his Uncle and Aunt. […]

“Curious thing,” said Buggins, “but every time I’ve had the swap I’ve never believed I should get another Crib—never. But I have,” said Buggins. “Always. So don’t lose heart, whatever you do.” […]

There’s lots of shops going,’ said Buggins, ‘Lots!’ And added reflectively, ‘But not this time of year, perhaps.’ He began to recall his own researches. “Stonishing lot of chaps you see,’ he said. ‘All sorts. Look like Dukes, some of em. High hat. Patent boots. Frockcoat. All there. All right for a West End crib.’

H. G. Wells (1905). Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, pp. 91–92. London: Collins.

These passages make it clear that Wells is using “crib” in the sense:

crib 5. a ‘berth’, a situation, job: 1859, H. 1st ed.

Partridge, p. 191.

and not in the senses “3. abode, lodgings” or “4. bed”, but no doubt all three of these senses contribute to the effect of the phrase in Kipps. The reference “H” in Partridge is J. C. Hotten’s dictionary of slang. I could not find the 1859 edition online, but the 1864 edition has:

CRIB, house, public or otherwise; lodgings, apartments; a situation. Very general in the latter sense.

John Camden Hotten (1864). The Slang Dictionary, p. 112. London: John Camden Hotten.

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