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From The Riverside Villas Murder by Kingsley Amis:

‘Good.’ The colonel worked his bell-push. ‘Thank you for coming, Peter.'

‘Oh no, sir, thank you for a sawney tea. And the music.’

Kingsley Amis (1973). The Riverside Villas Murder, p. 161. London: Cape.

What is a “sawney tea”? The OED says that “sawney” means “foolish; foolishly sentimental; canting, wheedling”, none of which seems remotely appropriate in context. Eric Partridge adds the sense “bacon” (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, p. 729) which might just about be made to fit the context, but I would want to see some evidence that this usage is plausible in Amis’ period and setting (1936, England).

My other thought is that “sawney” might be a misprint, for example, for “lovely”, though it is hard to see how this could have happened, unless the book was set directly from Amis’ manuscript, his handwriting was execrable, and the proof-reader slipped up. All the editions of the book that I found online, including a 2012 edition, have the same wording in this passage.

A contemporary reviewer expressed a similar puzzlement:

The American publishers have left all the Briticisms in, which is an added mystery. I know what a “John Thomas” is, and I know that our brothers use “recce” for reconnaissance, and their use of “quieten” doesn’t bother me. But what does it mean when a character says, “Thank you for a sawney tea”? Or, “He had momentary trouble sorting out feece and pear”?† Partridge on slang doesn’t help me. Nor Mencken, nor the OED, nor a couple of English friends. Information please?

William Cole (1973). ‘Booked Ahead’. In World 2:17 (14 August 1973), p. 35.

† I can explain “feece and pear” (p. 91). This is eye-dialect for the French words fils and père, indicating the difficulty the character has in interpreting them.

(This puzzle was brought to my attention by the excellent Clothes in Books blog.)

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  • Why misprint? Do you know it's a misprint, or are you speculating? If the former, I assume a self-answer is being brewed.
    – verbose
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 1:41
  • I'm only speculating. Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 8:30
  • If it is a misprint, could it be "sarney" meaning sandwich?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 19:49
  • @Randal'Thor It doesn't seem remotely plausible to me. The register is wrong (too slangy for the situation in the novel), the word is anachronistic for the setting (not attested before 1961, though I suppose Amis might not have known that), and even if "sarney tea" were a phrase ever used in this sense, it does not seem adequate to describe the meal in question (see p. 153: "there was everything on the table bar roast turkey and Christmas pudding"). Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 11:30
  • But keep the suggestions coming — I appreciate the creativity even if I don't think they are plausible! Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 14:07

3 Answers 3

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I think that sawney is, like "feece and pear" mentioned in the question, another eye-dialect for a French word, specifically soigné (soignée), which in English is pronounced "swahn-YEY" (IPA / swɑnˈyeɪ /).

This adjective is defined variously as:

  1. carefully or elegantly done, operated, or designed.
  2. well-groomed.

Source: dictionary.com and Collins Dictionary

well-groomed; elegant

Source: Collins Dictionary

Dressed, adorned, tended, or prepared with great care and attention to detail; well-groomed.

Source: Oxford English Dictionary

1: well-groomed, sleek
2: elegantly maintained or designed

It ... can be used to describe such things as an elegant wardrobe, a fancy restaurant, or the extravagant meal one might enjoy at such a restaurant.

Source: Merriam-Webster

In the quoted passage, Peter is using sawney to mean fancy or elegant, and by tea he doesn't mean just the beverage but the occasion: "Thank you for the fancy occasion at which we drank tea and talked."

Poet Juanita Stroud Phillips uses the phrase "soignée tea" in her poem Gerontoprof's Lament:

When I was young, verbose and erudite,
Sweet Heloise words came to me, by day, by nite,
It mattered not the place where I might be --
In lecture hall, at church, or at soignée tea.

While it's not about actual tea, per se, the Manhattanville College Tower Yearbook of 1949 describes a tea-dance as soignée in the sense of elegant:

The Senior Prom on April 30th, and the very soignée tea-dance at the Cotillion Room the next day drew all our thanks, to the Alumnae and to Marie and to Marie's committee, for providing this year's crowded social calendar with such a piece de resistance.

The June 20, 1928, issue of Punch contained the following blurb:

Women in particular should be encouraged to think, for the long hours during which the bread-winner is away from the home give ample scope for reviewing the purpose of existence while perhaps the busy fingers are employed on one of The Daily Dope's crochet patterns described on p. 6.
Thought too provides a far better basis for the soigné tea-party than the mere tittle-tattle of idle gossip about our neighbours' affairs.

It's not a stretch to think that a character who pronounces fils and père as "feece and pear" might pronounce soignée as "sawney."

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  • 1
    not a stretch to think that a character who pronounces… might pronounce soignée as "sawney." It’s not the same character. Nor is it necessarily that ‘fils’ and ’père’ are incorrectly pronounced it can as easily be how their sound is first perceived by someone relatively unfamiliar. The character who hears ‘feece and pear’ is a police officer, (who has ‘never tasted champagne’), the recipient of the Sawney tea is a public schoolboy, whom one might expect to be more au fait with French pronunciation. If you can explain why the ‘w’ would move to after the vowel, you may be into something
    – Spagirl
    Commented Mar 12 at 14:01
  • An ingenious theory! I like it, but am not convinced, for the reasons given by Spagirl. Commented Mar 12 at 21:18
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Another speculative idea. "Sawney" is a variety of cardamom (see Black Cardamom). Cardamom "is consumed as a hot beverage in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, and Trinidad and Tobago" (see Cardamom on Wikipedia).

So it is plausible that a British Colonel, who might well have spent time in India, has a taste for Cardamom tea.

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  • As author of the other speculative answer it perhaps ill behoves me to question, but if it referred to a beverage, wouldn’t it be more natural for the speaker to thank their host for the Sawney tea rather than a Sawney tea?
    – Spagirl
    Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 9:35
  • An ingenious suggestion, but Spagirl has a good point, also it would be nice to have some evidence that anyone ever used the phrase "sawney tea" in this suggested sense. Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 9:37
  • Does one use black cardamom in tea? In my experience tea is made with green cardamom.
    – verbose
    Commented Mar 11 at 19:29
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I’ll be upfront, this is a guess. The term has the air of public school slang about it (Peter’s class militates against ‘bacon’ being the meaning as that appears to be primarily a lower class slang or thieves’ cant, with many of the references being to ‘pulling down Sawney’ ie stealing sides of bacon hung up outside shops and Green defining ‘sawney-hunter’ as one who steals bacon or cheese from grocers’ shops.) and I wonder if at some point (and I can find no evidence) there was a vogue in some schools for some edgy clever clogs to substitute ’Sawney’ for ‘beano’ or ‘beanfeast’, in a reference to the character ‘Sawney Bean’, a famous Scottish cannibal, who may of may not have existed in the 16th century.

Alexander "Sawney" Bean was said to be the head of a 45-member clan in Scotland in the 16th century that murdered and cannibalised over 1,000 people in 25 years. According to legend, Bean and his clan members were eventually caught by a search party sent by King James VI and executed for their heinous crimes.

Chambers defines ‘Beano’ as

A beanfeast, a rowdy jollification

Angela Brazil used the term ‘Beano’ in reference to that staple of Public School stories, the midnight feast.

The confederates had decided to wait until the magic hour of midnight before they began their beano. A PATRIOTIC SCHOOLGIRL | ANGELA BRAZIL

So it would not seem a huge leap for a kind of rhyming slang to turn ‘Beanfeast/Beano’ to ‘Bean’ and then to substitute ’Sawney’ by association.

Edit: Just to add a clarification, I have throughout this answer interpreted ’tea’ as a meal rather than a beverage. Specifically ‘an afternoon meal or light refreshment at which tea is generally served’ (Chambers dictionary). Peter is invited for tea in several homes, but this is the tea with the most sumptuous supply of food.

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  • A valiant attempt! Partridge says that "Sawney" is a diminutive of "Alexander" and so a nickname for a Scotsman (like "Taffy" for a Welshman, from "David"). But I think we need some evidence that the word was employed in your sense. Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 17:19
  • @GarethRees Evidence would indeed be lovely and I don’t have any, but it was far too much speculation for a comment, so here we are. I’m aware of Sawney being equivalent to Jock, or the recent ’Sweaty’, but can conjecture no route from a slur to a slap-up tea.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 17:56

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