Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

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Till The Cows Come Home

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 16, 2014

You’ve probably heard people from your grandparents’ generation add until the cows come home to some of their conversations.  It generally means something will be stretched over a very long period of time, and oftentimes it’s used to describe an activity that’s perceived as being futile or unproductive.

On December 16, 2003 the Business Wire sent out a press release about the new Ben & Jerry’s minisite.  It was cleverly titled, “Macromedia Studio MX 2004 Takes Ben & Jerry’s From Cow To Cone.”  The site was set to create what it hoped would be a “euphoric user experience” thanks to the extensive use of Flash video.  The second paragraph included the idiom.

“Macromedia can talk about great experiences until the cows come home, but once you see a well designed site in action, it really makes an impact,” said Al Ramadan, executive vice president of marketing, Macromedia. “Ben & Jerry’s utilizes the professional tools in Studio MX 2004 to effectively communicate the playfulness of their brand and deliver an interesting educational experience.”

During the 1960s, Clyde McPhatter recorded for Mercury Records.  Billboard magazine included a comment in the February 6, 1961 edition on his latest release, “Tomorrow Is A-Comin’” with a nod to the flip side, “I’ll Love You Till The Cows Come Home.”  The quip let readers know that both songs had the strong Clyde Otis touch (which was a favorable comment).

And of course, as many of you already know, the idiom was used in the 1933 Marx Brothers movie, “Duck Soup,” where Groucho Marx says:

I could dance with you till the cows come home.  Better still, I’ll dance with the cows and you come home.

Back in 1932, American author, Thorne Smith (27 March 1892 – 21 June 1934) wrote a book entitled, “Topper Takes A Trip.”  Topper was Thorne Smith‘s most popular creation, and sold millions of books in the 1930s, and again in paperback form in the 1950s.  Many people remember the original Topper story, about the middle-aged, henpecked banker, Cosmo Topper (the book was published in 1926).

“I don’t care if he can do himself into a pack of bloodhounds,” replied Mr. Topper.  “Where have you been all this time?  Answer me that.”

“All right,” said Marion in an injured voice.  “Don’t bite my head off.  I don’t mind about the hair.  You can chew on that till the cows come home.”

“I don’t care to chew on that until the cows start out even,” said Mr. Topper.  “I’m not a hair chewer.”

It’s in the Boston Review of October 1805 that the poem in three parts, “The Powers of Genius” written by John Blair Linn, co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia is reviewed.  The reviewer, seemingly unimpressed with the poem, included this comment in his review.

Now, to use a rustick phrase, a man may make lines like these “till the cows come home.”  Mr. Linn, too, is frequently adjectively vulgar.

In Exshaw’s Magazine, the story, “The Adventure of the Inn” published in 1778 is where this passage is found.

“By Jafus,” answered Dermot, enraged at the word lie, “but if you was my godfather’s own brother, but I’d smite your eye out for that.”  And brandishing a large cudgel, let it fall so emphatically upon the hard head of the sturdy Boardspeg, that he reeled Aeneas, beneath the ponderous pebble, flung by the brawny backed Diomed, and bit the dust.  “Take that till the cows come home,” said the athletic hero, ready to repeat his blow, had not his furious arm been arrested by the hand of Wilson.

Prior to that Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), the Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin (Ireland) wrote “Polite Conversation:  Dialogue II” published in 1736.  The main characters are Lord Sparkish, Lord and Lady Smart, Miss Notable, Sir John Linger, Lady Answerall, Mr. Neverout, and Colonel Atwitt.  At one point in the discussion, the following exchange occurs.

NEVEROUT
O my Lord, I know that ; why Brandy is Latin for a Goose, and Tace is Latin for a Candle.

MISS NOTABLE
Is that Manners, to shew your  Learning before Ladies ? Methinks you  are grown very brisk of a sudden ; I think the Man’s glad he’s alive.

SIR JOHN LINGER
The Devil take your Wit, if this be Wit ; for it spoils Company :  Pray, Mr. Butler, bring me a Dram after my Goose ; ’tis very good for the Wholsoms.

LORD SMART
Come, bring me the Loaf; I sometimes love to cut my own Bread.

MISS NOTABLE
I suppose, my Lord, you lay longest a Bed To-day.  

LORD SMART
Miss, if I had said so, I should have told a Fib ; I warrant you lay a Bed till the Cows came Home : But, Miss, shall I cut you a little Crust now my Hand is in?

Now, Alexander Cooke (who died shortly before 25 February 1613 — that date he was buried according to St. Savior’s Southwark parish records) was an actor in the King’s Men as well as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that were the acting companies of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  He also wrote a play, “Pope Joan” in 1610 that was based on the mythical female pope described in 13th century writings.

If there be any lazy fellow, any that can not away with work, any that would wallow in pleasures, he is hasty to be priested.  And, when he is made one, and hath gotten a benefice, he consorts with his neighbour priests, who are altogether given to pleasures; and then both he, and they, live, not like Christians, but like epicures; drinking, eating, feasting, and revelling, till the cows come home, as the saying is; playing at tables, and at stool-ball; and when they are well crammed and tippled, then they fall by the ears together, whooping, and yelling, and swearing damnably, by God and all the Saints in Heaven.

While Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom than the one in Alexander Cooke’s play, there is an undated saying from Wigan, Lancashire:  Her con fradge till ceaws come wom.  The translation is this:  She can talk till the cows come home.

So while the saying obviously dates back considerably further than 1610, a specific date cannot be set in stone. Idiomation therefore feels it is safe to state that it was undoubtedly a common phrase used in the 1500s, and most likely long before that.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Throw Down The Gauntlet

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 9, 2014

When someone throws down the gauntlet, they’re challenging someone to defend a belief, a comment, a principle, or another person. The expression exists to this day even though few people seem to know what a gauntlet is.  The word gauntlet is from the Old French word gantelet which means glove.

On October 3, 2014 the Guardian newspaper reported on the Conservative Party in Britain’s threat to no longer be a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention. If the happens, this could complicate life for those living in Britain who wish to file human rights complaints against their government. The article was titled, “Tory Plans for European Human Rights Convention Will Take UK Back 50 Years” and the second paragraph in the news story read:

The Conservative plans, outlined in an eight-page paper, throw down the gauntlet to the Council of Europe, the 47-country body that enforces the convention. Either the council accepts that the policy is a legitimate way of applying the convention, or the UK will withdraw from it.

In the 1902 and 1906 editions of “A Thesaurus Dictionary of the English Language Designed to Suggest Immediately Any Desired Word Needed To Express Exactly A Given Idea” compiled by Francis Andrew March, LL.D., L.H.D., D.C.L., Litt.D., and his son, Francis Andrew March, Jr., A.M., Ph.D., the idiom was listed both as throw down the gauntlet and fling down the gauntlet.

Their resource book, however, was based on the 1852 edition of the “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in An Composition” by British physician, natural theologian, and lexicographer, Peter Mark Roget (18 January 1779 – 12 September 1869). He published his thesaurus in 1852, and for generations afterwards, students and scholars have reached for their “Roget’s Thesaurus” to help them find the right word when writing.

Back in 1850, in the book by Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870), “David Copperfield,” the author used the expression in Chapter 28 titled, “Mr. Micawber’s Gauntlet.”

‘And here is Mr. Micawber without any suitable position or employment. Where does that responsibility rest? Clearly on society. Then I would make a fact so disgraceful known, and boldly challenge society to set it right. It appears to me, my dear Mr. Copperfield,’ said Mrs. Micawber, forcibly, ‘that what Mr. Micawber has to do, is to throw down the gauntlet to society, and say, in effect, “Show me who will take that up. Let the party immediately step forward.”‘

I ventured to ask Mrs. Micawber how this was to be done.

‘By advertising,’ said Mrs. Micawber – ‘in all the papers. It appears to me, that what Mr. Micawber has to do, in justice to himself, in justice to his family, and I will even go so far as to say in justice to society, by which he has been hitherto overlooked, is to advertise in all the papers; to describe himself plainly as so-and-so, with such and such qualifications and to put it thus: “Now employ me, on remunerative terms, and address, post-paid, to W. M., Post Office, Camden Town.”‘

The idiom was indeed well-known in the years leading up to “David Copperfield” being published and can be found in a Letter to the Editor of the London Magazine (also known as the Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer) written and published in Volume 51 in December 1782. The author of the letter took issue with parallels that had been drawn between Hume and Bolingbroke, in the September edition article, “Hume and Bolingbroke, A Parallel.” Perhaps the author objected to this comparison:

Bolingbroke’s genius was bold, picturesque, splendid, and oratorical, that of Hume seemed more acute, concise, and penetrating. The one is distinguished by a lofty and daring imagination, by an inexhaustible brilliancy of ideas, and by a diction peculiarily full, expressive, and tropical, the other by a clear and subtile understanding, by deep and accurate thinking, and by a stile uniformly emphatical and elegant.” 

In his Letter to the Editor, the author wrote:

We here throw down the gauntlet, and bid defiance to his most credulous and most admiring flatterers, to produce a theory, a dissertation, or even a single thought, which we cannot trace to the source, and refer to the original owner. To invent and to embellish; to create and to clothe; are very different operations. The ranks of the master and of the scholar are never to be confused.

The idiom was also in use in the early 1700s as shown in the book “Sermons Upon Several Occasions” by John Scott, published in 1704.   This sermon was preached before the Artillery Company of London at St. Mary Le Bow on September 15, 1680.  In Sermon III — based on Proverbs 28 — the following can be read.

Reason to love, not to desire any thing but what he hath fair hope to enjoy, not to delight in any thing but what is in his Power to possess and keep, it being, I saw, in his Power to be effected as he pleases, and to regulate his own Motions according as he thinks fit and reasonable; he may chose whether he will be a Coward or no, and should the grimmest Danger stare him in the Face, yet supposing him to have such a Command of himself, as not to desire what he cannot have, not to dread what he cannot prevent, not to grieve and vex at what he cannot avoid; he may throw down the Gauntlet to it, and defy it to do its worst.

Now some sources claim that the phrase originated as a result of something William de Haverford is said to have done in 1462. However, the only person by that name who may qualify for having been the person in the claim was approved by Henry III as Prior of Carmarthen back in 1253. It’s doubtful that nearly 200 years later, that Sir William de Haverford was having a wage dispute with Geoffrey Clare. And yet, perhaps the story was accurate with only the name of the person throwing down the gauntlet being incorrectly identified. Except that Geoffrey Clare was born in 953 and died in 1015, calling the story with the 1462 date into question unless it refers to another William de Haverford who was in the employ of another Geoffrey Clare.

Equally interesting is the fact that the spelling of the word gauntlet wasn’t always with the “u” included, and can be found in documents from the 1540s as gantlet.  The use of the “u” when spelling the word gauntlet first appeared in the book “A Brief History of the War With the Indians in New-England” by Reverend Increase Mather (1639 – 1723) which was published in 1676. His book presented his interpretation of the fighting between the English colonists in New England (and their Indigenous allies) and the Wampanoag, Naragansett, and other Indian nations of the region … a war that began in 1675.

What is known is that during Medieval times, full plate armor was in use by the end of the 14th century, with single plate protection for joints and shins worn over full chainmail armor being fashionable in the late 13th century. In fact, gauntlets were worn by knights in armor during the late 13th century and the gauntlet was used as a token to signify the knight’s personality and reputation. It was not uncommon, in French terms for a knight to “tender son gantelet” which means to present his gauntelet representing his word, his honor, and his reputation.

It was 15th century German fencing master, Hans Talhoffer (1410 – 1482), who wrote in his manuscript published in 1459 entitled, “Ms.Thott.290.2º “ that despite the fact that the Church disapproved of duels as a way to resolve conflicts between two parties. During the Renaissance, from the 14th to the 17th century, were increasingly accepted as the manner in which respectable gentlemen resolved disputes.  Respectable gentlemen, however, did not wear armor on a day-to-day basis.  They did, however, carry gloves, and with that a man’s word, honor, and reputation was transferred to his gloves.

With this information, Idiomation believes that the figurative act of throwing down the gauntlet dates back to the mid-1400s, and the literal meaning came into play in the early 1500s based on documentation from the 1550s that describes throwing down the gauntlet to defend one’s honor and reputation.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

End Crowns The Act

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 7, 2014

The idiom the “end crowns the act” has come full circle, with the modified version being most common these days while the original proverb being firmly entrenched in coats of arms.  What it means is that the ends justify the means, and so, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with a course of action, if the end result if the best result possible, the means will be overlooked in favor of focusing on the success.

The idiom proved difficult to track down at first, with the first hint of it finally found in a newspaper article over 100 years ago.

In Volume 97, Number 102 of the San Francisco Call newspaper dated March 11, 1905 the story of George A. Janvrin was feted. He had saved 4-year-old Ramona A. Brunje from certain death where, had he not acted, she would have been trampled by a team of runaway horses.  For his bravery, he was awarded a bronze medal on which was engraved: “Presented to George Janvrin in recognition of his bravery in saving the life of a child.”  The medal was suspended from a bar had engraved on it: “The End Crowns The Act.”

In the American Journal of Numismatics, Volumes 33 through 35 that were originally published between July 1898 and April 1899, the idiom appears on page 145.

The end crowns the act, whether good or bad. Another very curious piece has on the obverse an escutcheon surmounting a lily cross, the points of which appear at the sides and base of the shield, the crook of a Bishop’s pastoral staff appears

With some effort, the phrase in modified form was found in “The Southern Review.”  In Volume V published in May of 1830, an article written by Thomas Moore entitled, “Lord Byron’s Character and Writings” includes this passage:

It is, however, not without some degree of reluctance, that we hazard an opinion as to its merits, before we have fairly heard the author out with his story.  The end not only “crowns the work,” as the proverb expresses it, but it does something more.  It explains, illustrates, reconciles all the parts, and, by discovering fully their relation to each other and to the whole, often shews the fitness and propriety of what, perhaps, at first appeared questionable or unsatisfactory.

This version using the word “work” instead of “act” was indeed the phrase most used during this period.  In fact, the idiom is found in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Charles Dickens, published in 1870, where this passage is found.

“But proof, sir, proof must be built up stone by stone,” said the Mayor.  “As I say, the end crowns the work.”

A hundred years prior to “The Southern Review” being published in 1830, the book by William Fleetwood (also known as the late Lord Bishop of Ely) entitled “A Plain Method of Christian Devotion” — translated from a book written by Pierre Jurieu — enjoyed its 26th printing.  Undoubtedly, this book was very popular with readers.  Not only was William Fleetwood (1 January 1656 – 4 August 1723) the Lord Bishop of Ely, he was regarded as the best preacher of his generation, and had the respect of Queen Anne (6 February 1665 – 1 August 1714).  Economists and statisticians credit him for creating the price index, as presented in his book “Chronicon Preciosum” published in 1707.

Pierre Jurieu (24 December 1637 – 11 January 1713) was a French Calvinist controversialist who became a professor of theology and Hebrew at the Protestant Academy at Sudan in 1674 which is the year he published “Traité de la dévotion.”   His writings were considered unorthodox, however, he was considered a tireless worker for all aspects of the Calvinist cause.  It’s in the translated text that the idiom is found.

When once the man is come to that, he cannot be converted to God, he cannot be received but by cries and tears, and the voice of our Lord that worketh wonders.  This methinks should make us sensible of the interest we have in thinking upon God betimes, and consecrating our first years to devotion.  I know very well; that the end crowns the work; but I know also, that ’tis of the utmost important to begin well to end  happily.

Stepping back in time to 1641, again the phrase is modified in “Experience Historie and Divinitie:  Divided Into Five Books” by Richard Carpenter, Vicar of Poling, which the author and publisher described as “a small and obscure village by the seaside, neere to Arundel in Sussex.”  This book was published by Order from the House of Commons.  In this book, the idiom is also found.

The matter of the Action must be good: the manner of the performance good, and the End good.  Which thought it be extrinsecall to the Action, is intrinsecall to the goodnesse of it.  I suppose, if the matter and manner be indifferent, they are good in some degree; but the End crowns the goodnesse of the work; for, it is the most eminent of all that stirre in it.

The expression, again in modified form, also appeared in Act IV scene v of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Troilus and Cressida” written in 1602 and published in 1609.  The play is set during the Trojan War, and scene takes place in the Grecian camp when Hector speaks with Ulysses.

HECTOR
I must not believe you:
There they stand yet, and modestly I think,
The fall of every Phrygian stone will cost
A drop of Grecian blood: the end crowns all,
And that old common arbitrator, Time,
Will one day end it.

It has been mentioned in a number of texts that the idiom is a proverb, and indeed it is.  The end crowns the work in Latin is finis coronat opus and was incorporated into the Baker Coat of Arms in England during the 8th century.  As an interesting side note, the family name Baker prior to the 8th century was Boeccure.

While Idiomation would love to be able to pinpoint the exact era from which the Latin idiom was first used, the best that can be offered is that the idiom is from the Roman and Greek era.  Idiomation can say, however, that the more familiar version of this idiom these days is this:  The end justifies the means.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Think, Thank, Thunk: SPIN

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 3, 2014

ITEM #001_ SPIN (SPUN or SPAN)_small

Posted in Language | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Dead Man’s Hand

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 10, 2014

The tall tale told about the dead man’s hand is that one night, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok  was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota Hickok when he was shot dead while holding a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights.  The fifth card was … unknown.  You see, as the story’s told, Wild Bill had discarded his fifth card and was about to draw his fifth card when he was shot in the head by a buffalo hunter by the name of John McCall.

The reconstructed original saloon displays the Nine of Diamonds as the fifth card.  The Lucky Nugget Gambling Hall displays a Jack of Diamonds instead.  The Adams Museum in Deadwood has the Queen of Hearts, and the old Stardust Casino in Las Vegas claimed it was a Five of Diamonds.

Now, while the story is a good bit of yarn spinning, Frank J. Wilstach wrote a book in 1925 titled,”Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince Of Pistoleers.”  He claimed to have interviewed the town barber and impromptu undertaker at the time, Ellis T. “Doc” Pierce, and this is what was written in the book.

Now, in regard to the position of Bill’s body, when they unlocked the door for me to get his body, he was lying on his side, with his knees drawn up just as he slid off his stool. We had no chairs in those days — and his fingers were still crimped from holding his poker hand. Charlie Rich, who sat beside him, said he never saw a muscle move. Bill’s hand read ‘aces and eights’ — two pair, and since that day aces and eights have been known as ‘the dead man’s hand’ in the Western country.

The reason I call that a good bit of yarn spinning is because that story was told to Frank fifty years after the incident happened.  Interestingly enough, back in 1886, every poker player worth his weight knew that the dead man’s hand consisted of three Jacks and a pair of tens — none of the cards that were in Wild Bill’s hand when he died on 2 August 1876.

For those who may be wondering how Idiomation knows this, it’s because the St. Paul Daily Globe of 17 April 1886 carried an article entitled, “Big Games of Poker at Washington: $6,000 Won on One Hand.”  It was a reprint from the New York Mail and Express newspaper and stated in part:

I was present at a game in a Senator’s house one night and saw him win $6,000 on one hand.  It was the dead man’s hand.  What is the dead man’s hand?  Why, it is three jacks and a pair of tens.  It is called the dead man’s hand because about forty years ago, in a town of Illinois, a celebrated judge bet his house and lot on three jacks and a pair of tens.  It was the last piece of property he had in the world.

And to whom was this expression attributed?

When his opponent showed up he had three queens and a pair of tens.  Upon seeing the queens,the judge fell back dead, clutching the jacks and tens in his hand; and that’s why a jack-full on tens is called the deadman’s hand.

Perhaps the idiom could be found in tracing the history of five-card draw poker which was written about by an English actor by the name of Joseph Crowell who wrote about watching the game played on Mississippi steamboats in 1829.  By the 1830s, the game had been modified into the version of five-card draw poker known to this day.  As a side note, it was during the 1830s that the straight and flush were introduced into the game.

Between the date the game became known and a decade later when the judge mention in the news story of 1886 played the fateful hand (sometime in the 1840s), the moniker was tagged to three jacks and two eights.

What this means is that some time after 1830, someone tagged three jacks and a pair of tens as the dead man’s hand.

However, Idiomation was unable to find the idiom in any publications of the day.  In 1843, author Jonathan Harrington Green published his book “An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling: Designed Especially as a Warning to the Youthful and Inexperienced, Against the Evils of That Odious and Destructive Vice.”  An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to poker, including four-handed poker, three-handed poker, and two-handed poker, and the many ways in which players are cheated of their money.  But there’s no mention of the dead man’s hand.

His book was obviously a great success as the author published another book on the topic in 1857 entitled, “Gambling Exposed:  Full Exposition of All the Various Arts, Mysteries,and Miseries of Gambling.”  The dubious title of “by the Reformed Gambler, Jonathan H. Green” was included.  In both books, poker was blamed for being responsible for the death of many a good man who could otherwise rebuff vices and temptation.

But there’s something to be said about good poker players.

President Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809 – 15 April 1865) placed his faith in Ulysses S. Grant (27 April 1822 – 23 July 1885) who was a brilliantly skillful poker player with a reputation for being able to anticipate his opponents’ moves.  And while he did indulge in drink and he was a gambler, when he became the 18th President of the United States, it was said that he rarely touched a drop of alcohol and rarely gambled.

Another bit of trivia for the books is the fact that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department: Homicide Division uses a pair of aces and a pair of eights as their logo.  What do they investigate?  Why homicides and suspicious deaths, of course.

As for those who are curious about Will Bill’s poker hand —  whether the fifth card was the Queen of Diamonds, the Jack of Diamonds, the Five of Diamonds, the Nine of Diamonds or the Queen of Clubs (all of which have been suggested in various contexts) — it is likely that Hickok was already holding the winning hand and that the fifth card wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game.  In the end, all that can be said was that a pair of aces and a pair of eights were one dead man’s hand, but not the hand that poker players of the day knew to be the dead man’s hand.

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

A Vocal Fry That Could Cook Eggs

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 3, 2014

To understand the expression a vocal fry that could cook eggs, you have to understand what a vocal fry is.  A vocal fry is a term that entered vocal music pedagogists vocabulary in the early 1970s.  The vocal fry is produced by allowing the voice to slide down the register until it reaches the low vibrations that sound, according to many, just a little creaky and creepy.  And, what most people don’t know, is that the vocal fry actually causes vocal cord damage.

It’s used by lead singers of heavy metal bans to produce aggressive growls and screams.  It’s used by some bass singers in American country and gospel music.  It’s found in choral music when true basses are missing from the chorus, and tenors and contraltos find themselves “frying” the low notes in order to sing SATB arrangements.

The opposite of a vocal fry is falsetto.

So a vocal fry that could cook eggs is a very descriptive phrase that came about some time after the early 1970s, and it means a harsh and irritating voice that is very extreme and lasts for a long time.

The only time Idiomation has heard the expression used was in a conversation with author William Storke.  Idiomation was also unable to find any published versions of this expression.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ish Kabibble

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 9, 2014

Ish Kabibble.  It’s an expression that’s used to answer serious questions that has its roots in the Yiddish phrase nisht gefidlt that translates into English as it doesn’t matter to me.

The name is found in the song by George W. Meyer and Sam Lewis titled, “Ishkabibble (I Should Worry)” published in 1913.  The following year, Harry Hershfield‘s cartoon strip Abie The Agent was syndicated in the Hearst newspapers and feature a car salesman by the name of Abraham “Abie” Kabibble.  The year after that, it showed up as Ish Ga Bibble  and Ish Ka Bibble on postcards.

Ish Ka Bibble

Ish Kabbible was a real person — sort of — whose real name was Merwyn Alton Bogue (January 19, 1908 – June 5, 1993).  He was born in North East, Pennsylvania and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania.  He studied law at West Virginia University, but is far better known for his comic antics as a cornet player with the Kay Kyser Orchestra from 1931 through to 1951.  He was also the orchestra’s business manager.  In the 1930s, Kay Kyser had a radio show called Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, and Merwyn played a character by the name of Ish Kabibble. The name stuck.

The Kalamazoo Normal Record, published monthly by the Faculty and Students of the Western State Normal School in Kalamazoo, Michigan, reprinted a poem for their May 1916 edition.  The poem was copied from another weekly paper named “The Searchlight” published by the students of the Junior High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In the poem title, “English As She Is Spoke” the following stanza is found.

And should you read a mild reproof
Beneath the poet’s scribble,
I hear you say, “Go chase yourself!”
“Forget it!” “Ish-ka-bibble!”

That same month, on May 27, 1916 the newspaper “The Standard: A Weekly Insurance Newspaper” printed the address of Mr. Cunningham to fire insurers in which he speaks of the “Ish Ka Bibble” hazard.  In fact, he begins using the idiom at this point in his address.

I wish that the tenure of office of these state officials was less subject to political caprice, and I have sometimes been so unpatriotic as to regret that we have so many states.

Much more might be said to show that the present generation of fire which can best be described in the vernacular as the “Ish-Ka-Bibble” hazard — popularly translated — “I should worry.”

In the December 29, 1914 edition of the Stark County News in Lafayette, the following was reported:

Thursday afternoon, December 17, Mrs. E.G. Eltzroth entertained the ladies of the Ish Ka Bibble Club. Owing to bad weather there were only a few present. Iona Maginn served the dainty two-course luncheon. We were reminded of the approaching Christmastide by favors of holly, dainty place cards, and the proverbial Christmas pie which contained a gift for each guest.

In fact, the expression is found in an article in  February 1914 published in “The Bank Man” which was a monthly publication for the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Banking.  In the short article by Thomas E. Doonan titled, “First National Bank Of Englewood” the writer gave a quick update on various employee activities.  One had just returned from a vacation at the beach in Jackson Park, while another had just left for a week’s vacation out East.  One had left the employ of the bank for greener pastures in other fields, and yet another was back at his old job in the Collection Department.  The last comment was this:

Whenever Margaret is out in the checking bunch, all that she says is, “Ishkabibble.  Eckel is around.  He will find it, so why should we worry?”

Shortly before that, in “The Florists’ Review” published on January 29, 1914 the following news bite can be found on page 114.

Wm. Salman, the eminent Race Street flower seller, recently capture the robber who broke the show window of the jewelry store on Race Street.  He sits back with an “Ishkabibble” air while others are fighting for the reward.

The idiom in this form doesn’t seem to appear in earlier published forms — either books or newspapers — however since it was a recognized slang term in 1913, it is reasonable to believe that this expression comes from the turn of the century.

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Where The Bear Sits In The Buckwheat

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 5, 2014

WARNING:
THE FOLLOWING POST MAY NOT BE
SUITABLE FOR MINORS DUE TO CONTENT.

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Where the bear sits — or stands — in the buckwheat means that the speaker is being very direct and straightforward in explaining a position that the speaker feels addresses an important matter.  Not surprising, there’s a variation on the idiom that substitutes a ruder word for sit.

Connecticut psychotherapist, Gary Greenberg used the ruder form of the idiom as the title of a blog article on his site on September 4, 2013 as he wrote about his book titled, “The Book Of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.”

In Vyvyan Rothfeld-Brunst‘s poem “The Bear In The Buckwheat” the ruder version is used in the second stanza:

And sure, it could be that for him
there was no connection.
When he came out with the line one morning
at a sales meeting, off-hand and slightly abashed,
like a good Canadian, it was:
“So I told him where
the bear sh*ts in the buckwheat.

What’s interesting is that the poet claims in the first stanza that Cape Breton (Canada) is the “only place” she “tracked the phrase.”

James P. Leary, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Scandinavian Studies Department and the Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies, used the ruder version in his essay, “Hanging Out:  Recreational Folklore In Everyday Life” published in 1983 in “Handbook of American Folklore” edited by Richard Mercer Dorson.  In his essay, he included this passage:

Men at the Ritz and related establishments shake dice, make bets over six packs, buy each other drinks, share “snoose,” and, most importantly, talk.  Discussions and good-natured arguments over politics, economics, morality, meteorology, and athletics are invariably localized, fattened with expressive language (“That’ll show ‘em where the bear sh*ts in the buckwheat“), and punctuated by witty aphorisms (“My home is in heaven; I’m just here on vacation”).

While Idiomation was able to find a vast number of anecdotal stories about the origin of the idiom, published versions were nearly impossible to find.  Idiomation is therefore unable to peg a general date when this idiom first came into use.

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Groovy

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 12, 2014

With nostalgia films leaning back into the 1960s these days, words like groovy are making a limited comeback.  Groovy was to the sixties what tubular was to the eighties.  In other words, it means that something or someone is excellent or awesome.

However, for those who are tech savvy, groovy is a dynamic object-oriented programming language for the Java virtual machine, and can be used anywhere Java is used.  It’s also used as a scripting language for developers who are new to the Java platform.  Groovy is similar in format to Perl, Python, Ruby, and Smalltalk.

But generally speaking, when you hear the word groovy being used, it’s in the context of awesome or excellent, cool or tubular.

Now while it’s true that the word groovy has become synonymous with the sixties, the word didn’t originate in the sixties.  In fact, it’s an extension of the slang word groove — from the phrase in the groove — that was a well-known jazz expression meaning that meant something had been well done.

Jimmy Dorsey (of Dorsey Brothers fame) had a hit for Decca Records (Decca 3721) in 1941 with his song “Man, That’s Groovy” that can be downloaded from http://www.archive.org by clicking HERE. In fact, in 1943, a motion picture shortMan, That’s Groovy” was produced, with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra recording featuring Helen O’Connell on vocals on its sound track.

That being said, the term is also found in an article by A.E. (Albert Edward) Wilson entitled, “King Panto: The Story Of Pantomime” published in 1935.  In this article, the author wrote:

After a long spell of popularity pantomime had, in fact, become “groovy” and it began to look as if it needed some kind of revivifying process.

In an article dated August 2, 1933 in Fortune Magazine, the reviewer had this to say about a performance by a group of jazz musicians.

The jazz musicians gave no grandstand performances; they simply got a great burn from playing in the groove.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published used of the word groovy than Albert Edward Wilson’s article in 1935 where groovy was used in quotation marks.  However, that it was used in 1935 shows that the word was used and understood by a segment of society prior to 1935 hence the use of the quotation marks for those who may be unfamiliar with the word and the context in which it was used.  This indicates that the word was in use in the arts industry during the early 1930s.

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With A Grain Of Salt

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 28, 2014

When you take something with a grain of salt, you don’t take what’s being said or written as being completely factual or true.  In fact, it could be said that you aren’t taking it at face value.

Interestingly enough, it sometimes appears as a Latin phrase as in the news article entitled, “Republicans Smell Blood In Presidential Race” written by Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake for the Washington Post on August 10, 2011.  The article spoke about data collected from the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center that looked at whether Americans wanted Obama to face a primary challenge.  Along with the statistics and the poll results, the writers added:

Polls are, of course a snapshot in time and are rightly taken cum grano salis. But, it’s not hard to read between the data points on this particular survey.

Of course, the expression was also used in English as in the article by NFL National Lead Writer, Ty Schalter when he wrote, “Detroit Lions’ Success: Take It With A Grain Of Salt” published a bit more than a month later on September 22, 2011.  He even included the idiom in the article.

As fans, we are tempted to tap the brakes. To pull back on the reins. To take this early success with a grain of salt.

In 1935, Robert Harry Lowie wrote and published a book titled, “The Crow Indians.”  As you can imagine, the book was about the Crow Indians living on a reservation near the core of the tribal territory southeast of Billings, Montana and northwest of Sheridan, Wyoming, and were identified in the book as being related to the Sioux of the Dakotas.  In describing the politics of the camp the author wrote about, he wrote the following.

Appointed by the camp chief, the police were considered subordinate to him; and he could thus, according to Leonard, a fur trader of the thirties, veto every one of their acts.   However, the statement must be taken with a grain of salt.  The chief himself was not an autocrat, and the constabulary normally acted only on special occasions, such as those mentioned above.  Apart from these, the people hardly felt the weight of authority.

Nearly 100 years earlier, in “The Baptist Magazine” a letter was published, dated July 13, 1836 where the author was identified by only an initial, E.  The letter was published with the title, “Baptists In Scotland.”

I had almost forgotten to take notice, as I intended to do, of one of your correspondent’s statements, in detailing some of the principles of the Scotch Baptists, in the first paragraph of his letter.  He says, they “contend for a plurality of elders,mutual exhortation by the brethren on the Lord’s day, and disapprove of pastoral support.”  The first peculiarity here stated may possibly be held by many of us as a principle, but being so often departed from in practice, the assertion requires to be qualified with a grain of salt; a plurality of elders being rather looked upon as desirable, than as absolutely indispensible.  The exhortation of the brethren is generally practised, although not, I hope, in every possible case, dogmatically insisted upon; but the third statement in the above quoted sentence, that we disapprove of pastoral support, I positively deny without any qualification at all.

Interestingly enough, in Italy there is an expression:  avere sale in zucca.  Zucca (meaning pumpkin) is a humorous reference to one’s head and one’s intelligence and ability to reason.  When one is told to have salt in their pumpkin, they’re being reminded to use a little bit of intelligence and common sense to reason things out.  In other words, good judgment and some intellect is reflected in reference to the grain of salt needed to do so.

And since Italian is a romance language that derives from Latin, the connection between avere sale in zucca and cum grano salis is easily made.  In fact, up until the 20th century, the Latin cum grano salis was preferred over the English variant with a grain of salt.

But why salt?  What is the importance of salt that it should be linked to intellect and judgement?

In ancient times, salt was a necessity of life and was used as a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a unit of monetary exchange, and in ceremonies.  In fact, in 2 Chronicles 13, verse 5 the covenant of salt (one which can never be broken because it is an irrevocable pledge that promises undying fidelity to God) is spoken of thusly:

Should you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave the dominion over Israel to David forever, to him and his sons, by a covenant of salt?

Even Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) spoke of the need for salt when he wrote:  A civilized life is impossible without salt.  Strangely enough, Pliny also mentioned the last line in a formula of 72 ingredients that were to be taken as an antidote for poison in his book Historia Naturalis.  The formula was found at the palace of King Mithridates VI in 63 BC when it was seized by the armies of Rome by General Pompey aka Pompey the Great (106-48 BC).  And what was that last line of this amazing formula, you ask?

Pliny translated the formula with this last line included:  To be taken fasting, plus a grain of salt.

Medieval writers, transcribing the writings of Pliny the Elder understood this to mean that Pliny was skeptical of the account given by General Pompey (106-48 BC) — also known as Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus — regarding the poison antidote and the many ingredients therein.  However, Pliny the Elder used the Latin term most associated with his era which would have been addito salis grano.  Instead they attributed the Medieval Latin equivalent which was cum grano salis.

What this appears to mean is that with a grain of salt was first used in Medieval times with the meaning we use these days.   That being said, the value of salt, continues to be as important to our lives now as it was centuries ago, and you don’t need to take that comment with a grain of salt.

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