Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

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Gobsmacked

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 14, 2014

If you’ve ever been gobsmacked, you know that whatever happened absolutely and completely astonished or astounded you … and not necessarily in a positive way either!  That means that you’re speechless due to surprise.

On November 19, 2013 the Valley Advocate published an entertainment article written by Chris Rohmann about local readings of Court Dorsey‘s new play. The play was inspired by James Douglass‘ 2010 book “JKF and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.”  The article was entitled, “Stagestruck: Gobsmacked By History.”

In the 1980s, the word was used by Alan Bleasdale in his television series about five Liverpudlian tarmac layers titled, “Boys from the Blackstuff” and in the daytime soap opera, “Coronation Street” which was set in a fictional suburb of Manchester.

Jack Reynolds wrote the book “A Woman of Bangkok” which was first published in 1956, then republished in 1959, and subsequently reprinted by Monsoon Books (Singapore) in 2011.  The Asian Wall Street Journal touted the book as being “among the ten finest novels written  about Asia” and reviews are a mixed bag of polarized opinions.  The following is found early in the book:

I’m so amazed that only the Malderbury dialect can express my condition: I’m ‘properly gob-smacked.’  I’d been thinking I was holding my own in this male company.  I’m drinking as fast as they are.  With two well-chosen words I created the biggest laugh of the evening — and in a foreign language, too.  But there is more to being a man than being a good fellow.

So what exactly is a gob?  In the July 1912 edition of the Ossett Observer it was reported that William Henry Hayes, aged 56, and a pit deputy had been killed at Wrenthorpe pit which was part of the Low Laithes Colliery.  The article read in part:

Ezra Ramsden, of 11 East Parade, Eastborough, Dewsbury, coal miner, said that the accident happened on Friday at 12:30 p.m.  In a few minutes he would have finished the job of filling up a “gob.”  There had been a fall of roof three or four days before in the Silkstone seam, and deceased, who was assisting to remove the dirt, was working about half a yard from the witness.  Suddenly, a stone fell down on the deceased, who was sitting on his right foot and left, and was in the act of using his shovel.  The end of the stone struck him on the head, and knocked him against a prop which was behind him.

The expression, as you can see, appears to have its roots in coal mining lingo.  The space left behind by mining is known as the gob and it is packed with waste rock and left to collapse.

Gob In Mining_IMAGE

The term gob was used in Volume 2 of “Mining: A Journal Devoted to the Interests of Miners and Mining Students” which was published in 1894, and in Volume 5 of “Transactions of the Federated Institution of Mining” published in 1893 by the Federated Institution of Mining Engineers, in an article by Joel Settle entitled, “Spontaneous Combustion In Coal-Mines.”

The term was included in the 1883 book by William Stukelby Gresley, “Glossary Of Terms Used In Coal Mining.” It was identified as an alternate word for “goaf” or “goave” and meant:

That part of a mine from which the coal, etc., has been worked away and the space more or less filled up.

The term was in use at the early coal mines of Newcastle in the district county of Northumberland in New South Wales in 1804.  Connecticut settlers in the Wyoming Valley began mining in 1762, and knowingly left gobs as they went.

History points to the fact that before the Industrial Revolution, coal was mined from two types of mines, both of which made for easy coal mining:  drift mines and bell pits.  But in 1700, the demand for coal increased dramatically and coal shafts began to read hundreds of feet into the ground in search of coal seams.  Once a coal seam was found, it was mined horizontally thereby creating gobs.

As mentioned previously, the space left behind by mining was known as the gob or goaf and it was packed with waste rock where it was left to collapse.  What this meant was that it was expected that at some point the gob would inevitably collapse albeit without prior notice of the impending collapse.   Since gobs retained moisture to varying degrees (sometimes 9 and 12 inches of water) in each of these caves, when a gob roof collapsed, it smacked the ground.   If you’ve been in a cave, you know how loud the smallest noise can be as it reverberates against the walls. Miners who were startled when a gob roof caved in were said to be gobsmacked.

Based on historical information and the accepted use of the word gob by miners and professional engineers coupled with factual information on the collapse of gobs and their impact on miners, Idiomation pegs the idiom to 1700.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hot As A Two Dollar Pistol

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 10, 2014

Sometimes similar sounding idioms have different meanings.  Sometimes those similar sounding different meaning idioms have a common root.  Sometimes the idiom hot as a two-dollar pistol refers to how angry someone is.  Sometimes it means that others find that person attractive.  And in some cases, it refers to the weather.

In Gary C. Walker‘s 2008 novel, “Son Of The South” the idiom is used to describe a third party’s frame of mind.

It was late afternoon Thursday before Hank called me into the office. “Guess you know I went to see Lawrence?”  I nodded that I did.  Hank continued, “We talked for some time.  He was as hot as a two-dollar pistol at you.  You embarrassed him in front of his guests.  You cased him to lose face.  He thought you had deceived him by making believe you could read.  He was hoping he would never see your face around Anchor and Hope again.”

In Laurie Norlander‘s 2013 novel, “Mirror Images” the image is used to describe a third party’s physical attributes.

Frank shook his head.  “It’s hard to imagine someone like Chris killing himself.  What with all his money and a wife as hot as a two dollar pistol.”

And in Jessie Fernandes‘ 2011 novel, “Rough Ride On A High Horse” it describes the weather.

The next morning, I rose exhausted from a humid night filled with nightmares about Billy. It was as hot as a two-dollar pistol again.  The minute I opened the kitchen door, Buck raced out across the yard and into the pasture.  Cleo acted as lethargic as I felt and refused to leave the kitchen.  As soon as I finished setting Edna and Claude up for the day, Buck and I also sought the comfort of indoors.  Ceiling fans were adequate, but sometimes I envied Lynn’s air-conditioning.

The idiom was used in the 1944 movie “Trocadero.”  An interesting but little recognized bit of pop culture came about in this movie about a newspaper columnist in search of a good news story for his Sunday column.  In the story, the club decides to move from the traditional big band sound to add a swing band — a genre of music that was hot back east but not nearly as well known on the west coast.  Slipped into the dialogue, you’ll hear the comment about someone being as hot as a two-dollar pistol.

Did any handgun ever cost two dollars?  From what Idiomation found in the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue, pistols sold for anywhere between sixty-eight cents and up.  Here’s an image of the less expensive pistols available by mail order.

IMAGE 1
The mid-range pistols can be seen in this image from the Sears Roebuck catalogue of 1897.

IMAGE 2

In the Scientific American magazine (established in 1845) published an article in the December 13, 1879 edition that made reference to two-dollar pistols (and not in a complimentary fashion either) in an article entitled, “The Scientific American As An Educator Of The Young.”

The intellectual society which young people enjoy tells upon their moral and mental character not how powerfully than do their social affiliations.  The devourer of sensational stories is as little likely to excel in studies requiring patient effort and sobriety of mind, as the habitual reader of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is to run away with a two-dollar pistol and a brierwood pipe, to hunt buffaloes and slay Indians on the plains.

The recognized marked brand names in the United States were Colt (1836), Remington (1848), Smith & Wesson (1857) and Winchester (1866).  They were promoted via print advertisements among other promotional and marketing avenues.  But with success comes knock-offs, and it wasn’t long before customers were being warned about counterfeits and patent infringements.

To combat this, Colt published a flyer called, “Simple Reasons For Preferring Colt’s Arm To All Others.”  It listed 14 reasons why Colt was the brand to buy.  Among those reasons, #5 and #7 addressed the issue of inferior quality of counterfeits and those that infringed on Colt’s patents.

5.  They leave no burning paper in the barrel after a discharge, to block the next cartridge into your face, as do the guns which open from behind.

7.  They are made of the best steel that can be procured for money, and have the strength to resist the explosive force of gunpowder, while the mongrel imitations and cheap arms are clumsily made of cast iron or inferior materials, and are more dangerous to their owners than they are to all others.

Obviously, a poorly made gun that kept burning paper in it would become hot at best (and blow up in your face at worst) with each shot fired.  And a poorly made gun would be one the manufacturer intended to sell at a cut-rate price.

History relates that a good pistol cost the equivalent of nearly a month’s wages for a cowboy; in the 1870s, a cowboy generally earned $25 per month.  Back in 1873, the Colt Peacemaker — also known as the gun that won the West — sold for $17.

A pistol that sold for $2 wasn’t much of a pistol at all.  In fact, it was a bargain basement pistol that no self-respecting cowboy would be seen carrying.

In the end, the expression — whether it’s used to mean hot as in the weather or hot to the touch or hot as in temperament — originates from the very real problems created by $2 pistols with their heated barrels and potential to explode when used.  For this reason, Idiomation pegs the expression to the 1850s when Colts, Remingtons, Smith & Wessons, and Winchesters were doing brisk sales, and counterfeiters were trying to muscle in on those sales.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Two-Gun Sam

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 7, 2014

Today’s idiom is one that is found in a conversation between Frannie Goldsmith and her father, Peter, in Chapter 6 of “The Stand.”

“I don’t know. I never had a pregnant daughter before and am not sure just how I should take it. Was it that Jess?”
She nodded.
“You told him?”
She nodded again.
“What did he say?”
“He said he would marry me. Or pay for an abortion.”
“Marriage or abortion,” Peter Goldsmith said, and drew on his pipe. “He’s a regular two-gun Sam.”

When Stephen King wrote about two-gun Sam was he thinking of the Yosemite Sam cartoon character?  You know the one. He’s the short cowboy with a fiery red handlebar mustache and huge voice who is known to have a hair-trigger temper, and who brandishes two guns most of the time.  Bugs Bunny has made quite the sport of antagonizing Two-Gun Sam at every turn.

In any case, just because Yosemite Sam is a literal two-gun Sam, does this mean that the idiom originated with the cartoon character?

Friz Freleng created Yosemite Sam (whose animation real name — as opposed to his animation nickname — is Samuel Michelangelo Rosenbaum) in 1944 for the animated short, “Stage Door Cartoon” where the character appeared as a southern sheriff.  The following year, he appeared in “Hare Trigger” alongside Bugs Bunny.

Fourteen years before Yosemite Sam was created, Volume 1 of “The Haverfordian” published in November 1930, made mention of Two-Gun Sam.  The magazine was a monthly publication that focused on fostering “the literary spirit among the undergraduates.”  Contributions were solicited, and considered for publication solely on their merits. The editor, Lockhart Amerman advised the Haverfordian readership of the following:

Beginning with this number and continuing for several more numbers, the HAVERFORDIAN will shoulder the white mans burden and publish “Uncle Bob’s Kiddies’ Page,” by Harris Shane, author of “Two Gun Sam,” “Blood on the Desert,” “The Maverick Murderers” and “Dainty Desserts for Summertime.

Going back to 19264 and a book of short stories titled, “Counter Currents.”  The stories were written by Elsie Janis and Marguerite Aspinwall and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.  In one of the short stories, the idiom was used a handful of times including, but are not limited to, page 149:

“Two of them,” Jinny decreed. “You can borrow mine if you haven’t an extra one. You’re to be Two-Gun Sam  — how’s that for a name?  Wear them low on your hips like that tin-horn gambling cowboy at Bar 13 last year.

And page 155:

“This, ladies and gentlemen,” turning on the room at large with a flourish, “is Two-Gun Sam, the Bad Man of the Stillwater Range.  Kind of short on patience and long on straight shooting.”

During the Civil War, a large side-wheel steamer known as the Uncle Sam was commissioned by the Union Navy and renamed the USS Black Hawk.  It was an impressive river gunboat armed with the following guns: two 30-pounder Parrot rifles, two 12-pounder Parrott rifles, two heavy 12-pounder Parrott rifles, two Union repeating guns, and one B&R gun.  It’s easy to see why it was colloquially referred to as the two-gun Sam.

In a song book compiled by George Stuyvesant Jackson entitled, “Early Songs Of Uncle Sam” the song “The Battle of Stonington” is included.  As students of American history know, the Battle of Stonington was part of the War of 1812.  While the book was published in the 20th century, it has a bibliography that proves the authenticity of the songs.  One of the verses of the “Battle of Stonington” figures two guns prominently.

What many may not know is that during the War of 1812, the cartoon character of Uncle Sam was first used to symbolize the United States government.  In September 1813, the name “Uncle Sam” began to appear in newspapers by journalists who opposed the war, using the term as an insult to American soldiers and government officials alike.

Why was calling anyone “Uncle Sam” an insult?

Because Sam was considered a euphemism in polite society for the devil.  If an individual linked Sam with something or someone he or she believed was evil, the implication was that the devil was obviously involved.

Idiomation therefore pegs two-gun Sam to the War of 1812 without a doubt.  Sorry about that, fans of Yosemite Sam.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

If Ifs And Ands Were Pots And Pans

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 31, 2014

When wishing for things that are useless, you may hear someone respond to wishful thinking with if ifs and ands were pots and pans. The expression in modern times is more commonly known as ifs, ands or buts because language, as we know, is always evolving. However, over the generations, the idiom has oftentimes been reduced to merely ifs and ands.

In 1929, James Milton Carson published a 16-page booklet entitled, “The Ifs and Ands of Race Track Gambling In Florida.”  While Idiomation hasn’t had occasion to read the publication, the title says it all, don’t you think?

Just a touch over a century before that, the expression is found in the “Melodist, and Mirthful Olio: An Elegant Collection of the Most Popular Songs, Recitations, Glees, Duets, Etc.” The Olio was the work of actor John Pritt Harley (February 1790 – 27 August 1858), edited by Charles Dixon, and printed and published in 1828 by H. Arliss of Cutter Lane in Cheapside. John Pritt Harley was known as an actor of great versatility as well as the manager and principal actor at the St. James’s Theatre in London where the comic burletta, “The Strange Gentleman”  – written by Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) – was first performed. The song in the Olio is entitled, “A Song Of Ifs And Ands” and begins with this verse:

If ifs and ands were pots and pans,
‘Twould cure the tinker’s cares;
If ladies did not carry fans,m
They’d give themselves no airs.

In the book “Letters from Hudson Bay” published by the Hudson’s Bay Record Society, an R. Staunton is quoted in 1723 as having written:

… Mr. Myat giving him but a very indifferent character, and not to have stocked one new gun this year; which made me call him to know what he can undertake in one year besides overhauling the English and mending the Indians’ guns that hunts for the factory. He replied with a great many ifs and ands.

English theologian and philosopher Ralph Cudworth (1617 – 26 June 1688) published his principal philosophical work, “The True Intellectual System of the Universe” in 1678. He was considered one of the most important of the Cambridge Platonists, a group of philosophers from the University of Cambridge who promoted rationalistic theology and ethics. The group also included such historical figures as Henry More (1614–1687), Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683), Peter Sterry (1613–1672), John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651), and John Worthington (1618–1671). In his book, he wrote:

Thus, therefore, the idea of God, or an absolutely perfect being, including in it not an impossible, nor a contingent, but a necessary schesis, or relation to existence, it follows from thence absolutely, and without any ifs and ands, that he doth exist. For as of things contradictions, having therefore in the idea of them an impossible schesis to existence, we can confidently conclude, that they never where, nor will be.

In the play “Spanish Tragedie” Act II Scene, written by Thomas Kyd (6 November 1558 – 15 August 1594) and published in 1587, there is a brief exchange between Pedringano, servant of Bel-imperia and Lorenzo, Don Ciprian’s son (Don Ciprian being the Duke of Castile) as well as Bel-imperia’s brother. The play is one of many revenges, including Balthazar’s affirmation that he intends to kill Horatio for stealing Bel-Imperia’s love from him after hearing that Bel-Imperia has supposedly has feelings for Horatio, and Lorenzo spurs his friend on. The quick exchange between the servant and the brother is as follows:

PEDRINGANO
Oh stay, my lord!

LORENZO
Yet speak the truth, and I will guerdon thee
And shield thee from what-euer can ensue,
And will conceale what-euer proceeds from thee;
But, if thou dally once againe, thou diest!

PEDRINGANO
If madame Bel-imperia be in loue—

LORENZO.
What, villaine! ifs and ands?

PEDRINGANO
Oh stay, my lord! she loues Horatio!

And the expression is found in the account “Beheading of Lord Hastings” in the book “The History of Kyng Richard the Third” by Sir Thomas More, published in 1577. The account is alleged to have been written by Sir Thomas More in 1513, and describes an event that took place in 1432.

What quod the protectour thou servest me, I wene, wi ifes and with andes, I tel the thei haue so done, and that I will make good on they body traituor.

The story also implies that Richard III (2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485) was familiar with the nursery rhyme:

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,
If turnips were swords I’d have one by my side.
If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans
There would be no need for tinkers’ hands!

This would, indeed, seem to be the case since he used the shortened version in 1432.  Since the first recorded nursery rhyme dates back to the 13th century, and many nursery rhymes were recorded in English plays by the 16th century, it is reasonable to believe that the claim that Richard III was familiar with this specific nursery rhyme.

That being said, the most reasonable date for this idiom is somewhere between 1425 and 1450, when adults raising Richard III would have had occasion to recite the nursery rhyme to him as a child.

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

800 Pound Gorilla

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 26, 2014

When a corporation, group, or individual is so powerful that it feels it can act without regards for the rights of others, or feels it is above the law, it’s said that the corporation, group, or individual is an 800 pound gorilla … or a 900 pound gorilla or even larger,depending on the source.

On June 15, 2012, A.J. Kohn at marketingland.com wrote about the previous seven days that had been dominated by Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter. Between the study about the percentage of company twitter account followers that were bots, Apple’s passbook app, Google’s Wallet 2.0, Facebook’s mobile acquisition, and more, all other news seemed locked out of news feeds and news outlets. The title of the article was aptly titled, “The Week Of The 900 Pound Gorilla.”

An example of a person fitting the bill is found in the article by John Friedman of MarketWatch published on February 11, 2011 where he discussed what was going on at CBS. Sean McManus had been heading up the news and sports divisions at CBS News up until that point. He surrendered his news division responsibilities which were immediately shouldered by David Rhodes who had previously been with Fox News.

Katie Couric, who was the evening news anchor, had come to CBS from NBC’s top-rated “Today” show, and even though CBS was in third place among the networks at the time, it was felt that her star power was the WOW factor other networks craved but couldn’t deliver. Keeping Katie Couric as the CBS Evening News anchor was crucial to CBS’ plans to move up the ladder. The article was titled, “Katie Couric: CBS’s 900-Pound Gorilla.”

Over the years, the gorilla’s weight has swung wildly as evidenced by these magazine and newspaper quotes:

I’m the 400-pound gorilla on defense policy, said [House Armed Services Committee chair Les] Aspin.”
~ Los Angeles Times, April 1991

One reluctant program director, Malcolm Wall of station KETA in Oklahoma City, called [The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour] a 3,000-pound gorilla.
~ The New York Times, December 1987

Like the proverbial 2,000 pound gorilla, IBM can sit anywhere it wants to in the computer industry.
~ Modern Office Technology, April 1986

Sometimes trouble leaps up in your face like a 500-pound gorilla.
~ National Law Journal, July 1984

Much in the manner of 300-pound gorillas, ex-secretaries of state can do about anything they choose, of course.
~ The Washington Post, September 1982

Some online sources claim that the idiom is part of a joke dating back to 1971 although no comedian or comedy show reference is included with the information. That being said, in the book, “The Psychology Of Being Human” by Elton B. McNeil and published by Canfield Press in 1974, the following passage is found on page 363.

As the old joke goes: “Where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere he wants to.” It’s the same with inducing the hypnotic trance, You can do it anywhere you want to. The usual methods of focusing attention on an object or telling people they are getting sleeping are helpful, but unnecessary.

For the author to refer to the joke as an “old joke” it can hardly be one that was first told in 1971 as some sources claim. The fact of the matter is that the expression is found in Chapter 3 “Identity” of Lee Thayer’s book, “Communication!” published in 1968, where the author writes:

“Identity” is frequently the 800-pound gorilla in communication. It is as complex as it is potent, as we will see. It always plays a role in communication.

The joke shows up in “The Railway Clerk” of 1968 and published by the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees.  And the idiom shows up in the 1956 “Congressional Quarterly” on page 267 of this publication as follows:

“It’s like having a 500-pound gorilla locked up in the room with you,” noted one Republican Senate aide. “You can’t control it, and you can’t get it out because people want it there. So you have to try to replace it with something that will look as fierce …”

Despite hours of research, no earlier published version of this idiom was found, however, that it was used in 1956 and that it was expected that the sense of the idiom would be understood. Idiomation is able to track the expression to at least 1950.  Idiomation welcomes any linkage to earlier published versions of this idiom. And so, Idiomation pegs this expression to 1950, with reservations.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

White Elephant

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 24, 2014

If you have a white elephant, what you’ve got is a valuable but burdensome possession you just can’t unload (no matter how much or little you’re asking for it) that’s costing you an arm and a leg to keep.

In the book, “Marjorie Daw, and Other Stories” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (published in 1969 as a reprint from the 1885 edition), the story, “A Rivermouth Romance” made great use of the idiom.

If Margaret Callaghan, when she meditated matrimony, indulged in any roseate dreams, they were quickly put to flight. She suddenly found herself dispossessed of a quiet, comfortable home, and face to face with the fact that she had a white elephant on her hands. It is not likely that Mr. O’Rourke assumed precisely the shape of a white elephant to her mental vision; but he was as useless and cumbersome and unmanageable as one.

It was indeed an idiom that was understood as it was used by Reader Charles (1814 – 1884) in his book “The White Elephantthat was published the year he died. The first chapter of the book began with this:

In the month of April 1828, Mr. Yates, theatrical manager found his nightly receipts fall below his nightly expenses. In this situation a manager falls upon one of two things — a spectacle or a star. Mr. Yates preferred the latter, and went of to Paris and engaged Mademoiselle Djek.

Mademoiselle Djek was a White Elephant of great size and unparallele sagacity. She had been for some time performing in a play at Fransconi’s, and created a great sensation in Paris.

In Volume 12 of “The Friend Religious and Literary Magazine” edited by Robert Smith and published in 1938, the story entitled, “Court Of Siam” was included. Written by John Crawford, it was originally published ten years earlier under the title of “Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-General of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China” and was dated April 8, 1822.

Upon enquiring into their history, we found that they were all either from the kingdom of Lao or Kamboja, and none from Siam itself, nor from Malay countries tributary to it, which last, indeed had never been known to afford a white elephant.

The rareness of the white elephant is, no doubt, the original of the consideration in which it is held. The countries in which it is found, and in which, indeed, the elephant in general exists in the greatest perfection and is most regarded, are those in which the worship of Buddha and the doctrine of the metempsychosis prevail.

Kings were usually the only ones able to afford white elephants as the upkeep for an elephant is an expensive undertaking for anyone, even a king. But if a king was displeased by a member of his court, the gift of a white elephant, while being a great honor, was also intended as a punishment in that the financial burden crippled the households of those with inferior monetary revenues and assets.

Between 1839 and 1873 — when a Letter to the Editor was published in the New York Times edition of May 28th — the term white elephant became known as a situation or an item that was costly. In the case of the Letter to the Editor, the white elephant in question had to do with the case of George Francis Train (24 March 1829 – 5 January 1904) that had been dragging on in the courts for months by that time.   Train had been charged with “issuing obscene publications.

Now, Train was not unknown to the American public. In fact, he was a well-known American entrepreneur who had been instrumental in establishing Credit Mobilier in the United States in 1864 as the Transcontinential Railroad was being built, and he had already made his name as a Civil War reporter.  The year his fortune was built by Credit Mobilier was the same year he began referring to himself as “Citizen Train.” He ran as an independent candidate for the office of President in 1872, and in 1873, he began charging admission fees to his campaign rallies where his primary focus was on attaining the position of Dictator of the United States.

Initially, the attempt was to have Mr. Train committed to an insane asylum, but on March 20, 1873 the following was reported:

Dr. Hammond, one of those commissioned by District Attorney Phelps to examine into his mental condition, says, with some reluctance, that the commission found Train to be a man of good education, of brilliant intellect, but undoubtedly of unsound mind. When, however, the usual form of commitment was presented for signature, Dr. Hammond refused to sign it, as he does not believe that Train can at all be considered a person dangerous or likely to do bodily harm either to himself or anybody else. The usual commitment will not be signed, and, of course, he cannot be transferred to the asylum. His latest assertion is that in thirty days not one stone in the bastile shall be left standing on another, and that the streets ot Sew York are to run with blood. Should this come to pass he may be dangerous enough, but his assertions are regarded only as idle words.

Six weeks later, it was reported on May 7, 1873 that the previous day the courts had ruled as follows:

The investigation which has been going on for the past few weeks before Chief Justice Daly and the Sherriff’s jury into the mental condition of George Francis Train was concluded this evening by a verdict rendered that he was, and is, sane and responsible for his acts. The District Attorney will now prosecute Train on the indictment found against him for publishing obscene literature in connection with the Woodhull-Ciaflin matter.

But the author of the Letter to the Editor, whose patience seemed to have reached an end, stated his opinion succinctly, writing:

For months the Courts have been trying to get rid of this dreadful person, but in vain. . . . In the meantime he is in the public hands, a white elephant of prodigious expensiveness in judicial time, patience and dignity.

In early 1864, and just weeks after the Gettysburg Address of November 1863, as the Civil War raged on, Ward Hill Lamon wrote about a discussion he had with Abraham Lincoln.

Jumping up from his reclining position he advanced, saying: “You know better than any man living that from my boyhood up my ambition was to be President. I am President of one part of this divided country at least; but you look at me! I wish I had never been born! It is a white elephant on my hands, and hard to manage. With a fire in my front and rear; having to contend with the jealousies of the military commanders, and not receiving that cordial co-operation and support from Congress which could reasonably be expected; with an active and formidable enemy in the field threatening the very life-blood of the government — my position is anything but a bed of roses.”

And it’s known that Belle Boyd — the famous Confederate spy who, when she was arrested and taken to General Patterson‘s headquarters for having shot a Union soldier for insulting her mother — was quoted in the Northern papers as saying that “like a white elephant” she was pointed out to thousands of troops coming into Virginia as being the most dangerous Rebel in the country.

Back in 1851, Geraldine Endsor (G.E.) Jewbury used the expression in “Letters.”

His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt.

What is known about the idiom is that just about 40 years earlier, the idiom white elephant had positive connotations. In fact, Josef Semmelweiss (1788 – 1846) opened a wholesale business specializing in spices and general consumer goods in 1806 and named it zum Weißen Elefanten (at the White Elephant). By 1810, the business had made Josef Semmelweiss a rich man.

NOTE: Josef Semmelweiss was the father of Ignaz Semmelweis (1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865) who is regarded as the pioneer of antiseptic policy and prevention of nosocomial disease.

Somewhere in the forty or so years between the establishing of Josef Semmelweiss’ successful business where the idiom white elephant had a positive association and G.E. Jewbury’s use of the idiom which had a negative association, the shift in perception happened. Without proof of an earlier published reference, however, Idiomation is unable to take this idiom back any further than this point.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 14, 2014

Most of us have heard the expression measure twice, cut once and although it makes sense in a literal sense, in a figurative sense it also makes sense. If you’ve heard this said, it was probably said as a warning to another to plan and prepare for something in a careful, thorough manner before taking action. In other words, think before you act.

Whether it’s a mistake cutting a piece of wood or a mistake of another sort, not taking the time to make sure of what you’re doing will cost you time or money, and most likely both.

On page 76 of the book “Bible 2.0” by Nathan Smithe, published on 20 April 1969, the expression appears in such a way that the meaning is clear-cut. The book itself, however, is a little less clear. It’s a rewriting of the Bible in what is supposed to be satire. In fact, if you look it up online, the book’s description alleges that it’s the story of “God and Jebus and The Holy Toaster and Gilberto McCheasyfries the Sheep and a slew of others.”

Some will say it’s sacrilegious while others will say it’s the best version of the Bible yet. But regardless of where you sit in the religious discussion, the book certainly shakes things up with the first verse that begins very simply with: “In the beginning there was nothing, and then God was all like, “Wassup …” Well, you get the idea.

But you know what? Skip the coffee. I don’t trust you to get it right. You’d probably spit in it but you’d spit in a wrong amount. There’s a wrong and a right way to do everything. ‘Measure twice, cut once‘ that’s what Jeffrey Duhmur would always say. Boy that guy has some stories. Fascinating guy. His breath stinks though. Seriously get that guy a tic-tuc! And another …” God said.

While the expression is measure twice, cut once is an English proverb, the Russian proverb is measure seven times, cut once. But in the book “A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases Based On MacIntosh’s Collection” first published in Edinburgh in 1785, it states that the idiom is based on the older Gaelic expression: Better measure short of seven, than spoil all at once.  For those who familiar with kilts, a kilt for a grown man takes seven yards and so it’s easy to see why it would be important to measure the yardage twice lest an unfortunate situation arise.

Numerous sources state that the adage is from Medieval times, and was used by carpentry guilds as much as by tailors, however, none provided proof to substantiate their claims. That being said, it was listed in books at the end of the 19th century as a Cheshire proverb that was used in 1688 as “score twice before you cut once” … again without a reference as to where this information was found.

However, Idiomation found the autobiography of Italian goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier and musician, Benvenuto Cellini (3 November 1500 – 13 February 1571). Benvenuto Cellini started writing his autobiography in 1558, and just before his last trip to Pisa in 1563, he stopped writing. It can be assumed that in 1560, the idiom existed but with seven as the magic number for measuring, and not two. The idiom was found in this passage:

While he and the others were inspecting them, taking up now the dies and now the medals in their hands, I began to speak as submissively as I was able: “If a greater power had not controlled the working of my inauspicious stars, and hindered that with which they violently menaced me, your Holiness, without your fault or mine, would have lost a faithful and loving servant. It must, most blessed Father, be allowed that in those cases where men are risking all upon one throw, it is not wrong to do as certain poor and simple men are wont to say, who tell us we must mark seven times and cut once. Your Holiness will remember how the malicious and lying tongue of my bitter enemy so easily aroused your anger, that you ordered the Governor to have me taken on the spot and hanged; …

Idiomation was unable to trace back earlier than 1560. That it was used in a biography during the Medieval era, however, proves that this was indeed a maxim that was well-known and to which guilds adhered. The exact date of the idiom in any of its incarnations is unknown. If readers or visitors to this blog are able to share an earlier published version of measure twice, cut once, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 12, 2014

When you hear someone say lefty loosey, righty tighty it’s a way for that person to remember that the threads on a screw, nut, or bolt or such that you turn them to the right to tighten them and you turn them to the left to loosen them. There are, of course, some exceptions such as old propane cylinders and some pipe fittings, but for the mot part, the saying is a good rule of thumb to go by. But the expression doesn’t just have to do with tightening and loosening screws or nuts or bolts.

Strange as it may sound, it’s also a quest in the World Of Warcraft game. Yes, Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty — according to the WOW Wiki — is an assassination mission in the Distress Call quest chain.

On January 18, 2010 Professor of History, Claire B. Potter, wrote an article that was published by the Chronicle in which she discussed New York Times reporter, Patricia Cohen’s interpretation of a study done by sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse. The title of the article was:

Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty: Socioligists Try To Explain The Political Orientation Of The Academy

The 1983 movie, “Fandango” is about five college buddies in 1971 who are from the University of Texas. With uncertain futures, and the Vietnam War a real possibility for some, they decide to head off on one final road trip odyssey across the Mexican border. The movie starred Kevin Costner, Judd Nelson, and Sam Robards. Idiomation located the script at http://www.script-o-rama but which characters speak which lines was not identified (click HERE to follow along).

00:34:01 And much obliged for that body job. That is first-rate work.

00:34:09 The other way, bud. Remember, it’s lefty loosey, righty tighty.

The first standard screw was created by English engineer, Sir Joseph Whitworth in 1841. However, factory production of screws used as fasteners for thin pieces of material, dates back to the mid-1700s. However, as threaded items, 1841 is the pinned date for screws.

In 1908, Canadian P.L. Robertson invented the square drive screw 28 years before Henry Phillips patented the Phillips head screw. The Robertson (or square drive) design became the standard in Canada and the United States, and was preferred over the slot-head screw for a number of reasons.

When the Phillips head screw was patented in 1930, this allowed screws to provide tighter fastenings as the screw was able to take on greater torque. But with tighter fastening came the problem of loosening.

Although no proof has been found that provides an exact date as to when the expression lefty loosey, righty tighty was first used, one of Idiomation’s readers or visitors is sure to have more information to prove when the idiom first came into use. For now, the expression can only be attributed to the 20th century, and sometime after 1930.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Manifest Destiny

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 10, 2014

When you hear talk of manifest destiny, what you’re hearing is someone discussing a policy of imperialistic expansion defended as necessary or benevolent. In fact, it was believed in the 19th century that God had given the United States of America not only a right, but a duty, to expand across North America even that expansion was at the expense of those who already inhabited the land.

Recently, the GAP offered T-shirts with the phrase Manifest Destiny emblazoned on them, and due to public outcry, they removed them from shelves quickly.  Why?  Because manifest destiny was the excuse used by non-Natives to abuse and destroy the livelihood, culture, heritage and way of life of the North American Indian who welcomed Europeans to North America’s shores.

In the book, “Providence and the Invention of the United States: 1607 – 1876” by Nicholas Guyatt and published in 2007, the author wrote:

Finally, and in the hands of more cynical exponents, manifest destiny could be used to make controversial objectives seem not only assured but consistent with the course of American history. During the Mexican War, as overzealous expansionists argued for the extension of the United States to the isthmus and even for the replacement of the existing Mexican population with a new wave of American settlers, this cynicism was assailed in the halls of Congress and threatened to contaminate the providential idiom entirely. But taken as a whole, manifest destiny proved remarkably durable over the ambiguousness and shifting ground on which manifest destiny’s proponents had briefly united.

In a speech by one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives, Robert Charles Winthrop (12 May 1809 – 16 November 1894), as representative for the state of Massachusetts, to the House of Representatives on January 3, 1846, the following was said with regards to a resolution that had been table with regards to the termination of the joint occupation of Oregon:

I mean that new revelation of right which has been designated as the right of our manifest destiny to spread over this whole continent. It has been openly avowed in the leading Administration journal that this, after all, is our best and strongest title — one so clear, so re-eminent, and so indisputable, that if Great Britain had all our other titles in addition to her own, they would weight nothing against it. The right of our manifest destiny!

The idiom was one that American columnist and editor, John L. O’Sullivan (15 November 1813 – 24 March 1895) used in an editorial he wrote for the New York Morning News entitled, “Manifest Destiny” published on December 27, 1845 — one week before the expression was first introduced to Congress by Robert C. Winthrop. The editorial read in part:

To state the truth at once in its neglected simplicity, we are free to say that were the respective cases and arguments of the two parties, as to all these points of history and law, reversed — had England all ours, and we nothing but hers — our claim to Oregon would still be best and strongest. And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.

John L. O’Sullivan had used the idiom earlier in an article he wrote for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in the summer of 1845. The article was entitled, “Annexation.” In that editorial, he wrote that Americans had certain rights described as follows:

… by right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federatative self-government entrusted to us.

Many believe that John L. Sullivan coined the phrase, and while it’s true that he used the idiom, he did not coin it.

When American preacher and theologian, Andrews Norton (31 December 1786 – 18 September 1853) published his book entitled, “A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity” on July 19, 1839 — one that was entered according to Act of Congress in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts — he had something to say about manifest destiny.

There is a favorite phrase, of frequent use in popular addresses — manifest destiny. It is said to be the manifest destiny of this race to spread over this whole continent, carrying with it its laws, institutions and enterprise. The expression is unfortunate, and requires qualification … Destiny implies a tendency to a fixed end without the power of any agent to prevent.

From this, the fact emerges that the idiom was used often in 1839 and with the expectation of being understood by those who heard it said or read it in published works.

Four years earlier, in a book entitled, “A Discourse Upon The Life, Character, and Services of the Honorable John Marshall” authored by U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Story (18 September 1779 – 10 September 1845) and published on October 15, 1835 — also entered according to the Act of Congress that year by the publisher, James Munroe & Co., in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts — the following passage was included, attributed to Mr. Winthrop. The speech was made to the House being in Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union, and having to do with appropriations for the improvement of specific rivers and harbors.

We rejoice, too, that the great West is waking up to a consciousness of her own interests, and her own rights, in relation to the exercise of this power. We rejoice that she is rapidly reaching a strength and a maturity, when these interests must be consulted, and these rights allowed. We hail her advent to the political mastery over our affairs as most auspicious,in this respect at least, to the general welfare of the nation. We will go with her in the fulfillment of her “manifest destiny” in this way, if in no other. We look to her mighty and majestic voice, as it shall come up, at no distant day, from a vast majority of the whole people of the Union inhabiting her rich and happy valleys, to command the resumption of a policy which has been too long suspended; to overrule both the votes and the vetoes by which it has been paralyzed …

Years before, with the publication in 1821 of a book entitled, “In Commemoration of the First Settlement of New England” by Congressman for Massachusetts, Daniel Webster (18 January 1782 – 24 October 1852) and dated December 22, 1820 the following not only speaks of manifest destiny but speaks passionately about its place American society.

If otherwise, who is there in the whole breadth and length of the land, that will care for the consistency of the present incumbent of the office? There will then be new objects. Manifest destiny will have pointed out some other man. Sir, the eulogies are now written, the commendations of praise are already elaborated. I do not say everything fulsome, but everything panegyrical, has already been written out, with blanks for names, to be filled when the Convention shall adjourn. When manifest destiny shall be unrolled, all these strange panegyrics, wherever they may light, made beforehand, laid up in pigeon-holes, studied, framed, emblazoned and embossed, shall all come out, and then there will be found to be somebody in the United States whose merits have been strangely overlooked, marked out by Providence, a kind of miracle, while all will wonder, that nobody ever thought of him before, as a fit and the only fit man to be at the head of this great Republic!

It is most probable that with the use of the idiom in 1820, that it comes from some time after the American Revolutionary War between the United States and Great Britain when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. Five years later, the United States Constitution was adopted after New Hampshire ratified it. The concept of manifest destiny began to be seen in earnest with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 (thereby doubling the size of the United States), the manifest destiny expansion of the North American continent was in full swing.

Idiomation pegs the idiom to sometime between 1783 and 1803, although the concept seems to have been around considerably longer. Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published mention of manifest destiny than Daniel Webster’s use in 1820.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, North American Indian | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Pink Elephants

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 5, 2014

If someone accuses you of seeing pink elephants, it means you are suffering from hallucinations … mostly likely caused by a state of inebriation.

In 1992, the “Confrerie van de Roze Olifant” (Brotherhood of the Pink Elephant) was founded to promote the Belgian beers made by the Huyghe Brewery aka Brouwerij Huyghe. The brewery has been in operation since 1654 and its best known beer is called Delirium Tremens (which is Latin for “trembling madness“). It has an alcohol content of 8.5% and was named “Best Beer In The World” at the 2008 World Beer Championships held in Chicago, Illinois.

In the May 14, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal, journalist Jean Spender wrote about former Alaska governor’s speech at a fundraising breakfast for the Susan B. Anthony List in Washington, D.C. She was quoted as having said:

Look out, Washington. There’s a whole stampede of pink elephants coming this November.

So where does this idiom come from, and what’s with all this talk of pink elephants as opposed to blue or green or bright yellow elephants?

Back in 1953, a Looney Tunes cartoon named “Punch Trunk” referred to pink elephants when a drunk looks at his watch and then says to a tiny grey elephant “You’re late!” Staggering away, he adds as an aside for the audience’s benefit,”He always used to be pink.”

Aha! What this means is that before 1953, there were pink elephants in some idiomatic form or another. And, of course, there was. In Disney‘s 1941 animated feature, “Dumbo” Timothy Q. Mouse and Dumbo the Elephant accidentally find themselves inebriated when they drink water that’s been spiked with champagne. Thanks to this mishap, they hallucinate pink elephants singing, dancing and playing marching band instruments. It would be easy to stop there and say it was obviously an expression that originated with Dumbo but that’s not quite right.

In the December 1938 edition of Action Comics #7, Superman lifts an elephant over his head while performing at the circus. As with most stories, there has to be an non-believer in the crowd and in this case, it’s a drunk. Upon witnessing Superman‘s feat of strength, the drunk says, “I don’t mind seeing pink elephants, but (hic) this is too much!

The expression appears in the National Provisioner, published by the Food Trade Publishing Company and heralded as the “official organ of the American Meat Packers Association.”  In the October 17, 1908 edition, the following excerpt is found with regards to the Packers’ Convention in Chicago. In fact, the following is attributed as being part of the “aftermath of the convention.”

Listen to the gentle dill-dill bird carolling sweet lays and the voice of the placid niph blending his voice in beatific unison. And see — see the pink elephants with green mosquito jockeys astride racing over the walls — what’s that? It’s 11 o’clock. Say, send a boy up with a pitcher of ice water, will you? In a hurry please.

In Chapter II of Jack London’s novel “John Barleycorn” published in 1903, the author provides an excellent definition of how alcohol and pink elephants are associated.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.

But are there such things as pink elephants? As a matter of fact, yes. In fact, albino elephants — which are far more common in Asian elephants than African elephants — are reddish-brown or pink. In Thailand, they are called chang phueak which, when translated, is pink elephant.

In 1877, Queen Victoria became the Empress of India even though India had been under British control since 1858.  Six years after Queen Victoria was crowned the Empress of India, Toung Taloung, wintered for a time at the London Zoological Gardens before continuing its journey to join the Barnum, Bailey and Hutchison Circus in New York City. While in London, journalists and citizens were disappointed to learn that the alleged “white” elephant wasn’t white at all, but rather a reddish-brown — or rather, a dirty dusty rose.

Sometime between 1883 and 1903 — twenty years between Toung Taloung‘s appearance at the London Zoological Gardens and Jack London’s story — pink elephants, while very rare, were associated with the hallucinations of those who partook of alcoholic beverages.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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