Not long ago, I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in a printed copy, on paper—the relevance of which I'll explain later), and was struck by this bit:

He'd always said it of Mr. Leamas, always would, he was a gent. Not public school, mind, nothing arsy-tansy but a real gent.

So I got curious and looked up “arsy-tansy,” only to discover that it's a hapax legomenon: in the entirety of the web as indexed by Google, the only occurrence of that term is in the Google Books search result from that book.

(After I post this entry, of course, that will no longer be true.)

I thought maybe it was a misspelling of a more common word, so I tried searching again without the quotation marks. The only other relevant result was this:

“We used to think Bennington girls were artsy-tansy dykes,” counters the former captain of the debating team.

Except that that's an OCR error; the original text (from Jay McInerney's story “Philomena”) says “artsy-fartsy.” So that's no help.

There's another occurrence of “artsy-tansy” in an unrelated Google Books result, but that too is an OCR error for “artsy-fartsy.” (Looking at the shapes of the words “tansy” and “fartsy,” you can see how a computer might misread one for the other.)

I thought for a moment that “arsy-tansy” in the Le Carré book might also be an OCR error, but recall that the copy I was reading was printed on paper.

Still, it's possible that the book was OCRed at some point before the edition I have, which is the first Pocket Books trade paperback edition, from 2001.

So, if any of you have an older edition of the book, could you take a look? The sentence in question is near the beginning of chapter 11, in the midst of the very long second paragraph of that chapter.

And coming at it from the other side: have any of you encountered the word “arsy-tansy” in other contexts?

One Response to “arsy-tansy”


    Two thoughts… one is that a typesetter had difficulty reading the original handwritten manuscript, which might have read “artsy-fartsy” or could even have been mis-scrawled as “arsy-fartsy.” The omission of the first T gives it a British spin; somehow once you go “arsy” the “tansy” sounds lovely and maybe the typesetter felt no need to question the author’s use of it. Another idea is that the “fartsy,” in particular, might have been considered too crude/low/common for print, and the publisher crafted a near-miss substitute that readers in the know would certainly recognize, akin to the use of “fug” in whatever-book-it-was… The Naked and The Dead. OCR error sounds most probable, though, and I’d place my bet on a hard copy from early years being scanned before being used to produce your 2001 reprint. I wonder if my dad has an old copy from pre-OCR days? Seems likely. -Lane.


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