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Well, then, coming home by Drinker's Alley to get a new shirt which a French Vicomte's lady was washing to take the stiff out of (I'm always choice in my body-linen) a lame Frenchman pushes a paper of buttons at us. He hadn't long landed in the United States, and please would we buy. He sure-ly was a pitiful scrattel--his coat half torn off, his face cut, but his hands steady; so I knew it wasn't drink. He said his name was Peringuey, and he'd been knocked about in the crowd round the Stadt--Independence Hall.

This is from "Rewards and Fairies" "A Priest in Spite of Himself" by Kipling. http://pinkmonkey.com/dl/library1/digi300.pdf

What is the meaning of:

"to take the stiff out of (I'm always choice in my body-linen) a lame Frenchman pushes a paper of buttons at us."

I can not understand the meaning below.

  • to take the stiff out of
  • be always choice in one's body-linen
  • push a paper of buttons at

I am glad if someone kindly teach me.

2 Answers 2

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Get the stiff out of — new linen is stiff; it takes repeated washings to make it soft.

Be choice in my body-linen—to be choice is 18th-century idiom for being 'picky', demanding something be just to one's taste. Body-linen is linen garments worn next to the body: for an 18th-century woman her shift, for an 18th-century man his shirt and possibly drawers.

Pushed a paper of buttons—buttons are still typically sold in multiples, stitched to a paper or card; the lame Frenchman is scraping out a meagre living by selling buttons in the street, much as refugees today hawk DVDs and t-shirts and caps on the sidewalks of European and (when they can get in) American cities.

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I believe the washing is to remove the starch that has been used to stiffen the cuffs and collar of the shirt. I think the reference to "new shirt" means a "fresh, clean shirt".

So in the text

to take the stiff out of (I'm always choice in my body-linen) a lame Frenchman pushes a paper of buttons at us.

we are left with

  • "always choice" - always choosey in modern usage
  • lame Frenchman - a man limping on a damaged leg
  • paper of buttons - as the first respondent mentioned, a set of buttons was usually sewn onto a card or bit of paper to be sold as a collection

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