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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
    Sep 16, 2023 at 1:41
  • I'm only speculating. Sep 16, 2023 at 8:30
  • If it is a misprint, could it be "sarney" meaning sandwich?
    – Rand al'Thor
    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"). Sep 17, 2023 at 11:30
  • But keep the suggestions coming — I appreciate the creativity even if I don't think they are plausible! Sep 17, 2023 at 14:07

2 Answers 2

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Another speculative idea. "Sawney" is a variety of Cardamom (see https://allnepaltea.com/). Cardamom "is consumed as a hot beverage in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, and Trinidad and Tobago" (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardamom).

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
    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. Sep 17, 2023 at 9:37
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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. 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
    Sep 16, 2023 at 17:56

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