Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

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Down To Earth

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 18, 2014

Someone who is down to earth is sensible and practical just like something that is down to earth is sensible and practical.  It’s also not a permanent state.  If someone or something is down to earth at the onset, there’s no guarantee that the person or the thing will remain so in the future.  It also doesn’t mean that someone or something that is unrealistic or foolhardy now won’t be down to earth at some point in the future.

This past weekend, supermodel Kate Upton arrived at LAX with Detroit Tigers baseball superstar Justin Verlander after a five-hour flight out of JFK.  The pair looked well-rested, and rather than put on airs, they walked through the airport like every other passenger.  The Mail newspaper ran the story with this headline:  Supermodel Kate Upton Proves She’s Down To Earth As She Wheels Her Own Luggage Through LAX With Beau Justin Verlander.

Back in June 2008, Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian newspaper in the UK wrote about Wayne Dyer‘s books as he reviewed the most recent (at the time) book on the stands.  What this journalist found troubling was what he called a confusing swing between eastern spirituality and Christian beliefs where contradictions in philosophy were commonplace.  To give readers a frame of reference, he spoke about the author’s unpretentious beginnings and where he went from there.

Dyer’s rags-to-Maui tale began in 1976 when, as a young psychotherapist, he published Your Erroneous Zones, a down-to-earth work of pop psychology; when it didn’t sell, he travelled the US, hassling bookshops and giving radio interviews until it became a hit. He’s produced more than 30 books since, each less down-to-earth than the last, along with CDs, TV shows and decks of “affirmation cards.”

When George H.W. Bush was elected the 41st President of the United States back in 1988, his wife Barbara Bush (who was also the mother of the 43rd President of the United States as well as the mother of the 43rd Governor of Florida) made an impression not only on the American people but on journalists as well.  One such journalist was Andy Rooney whose column was syndicated in a number of newspapers across the U.S.  On January 10, 1989 his article, “Barbara Bush Will Be A Down To Earth First Lady” he began his article by writing:

We sure don’t know much about what kind of a first lady Barbara Bush will be.  She seems down-to-earth and normal.  She certainly isn’t clamorous, but I think people would take down-to-earth over glamorous every time.  The best of both worlds, of course, would be down-to-earth and glamorous but that’s a rare combination.

The Miami Times decided to go with a story on November 30, 1965 that spoofed the subject’s profession.  Written by William J. Cromie, the story was about Astronaut Frank Borman who, at 37, was the sort of man movie stars are made of:  He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who the journalist felt came across like an All-American high school football coach more so than the command pilot for the Gemini-Titan 7 spacecraft that was to be launched the following Saturday.  The interview was cleverly entitled, “Spaceman’s Family Is Down-To-Earth.”

The Herald-Journal of May 8, 1938 ran a large advertisement for the Carolina Theater for the movie, “In Old Chicago” starring Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche.  Just below that grand announcement was a smaller one for the movie, “Doctor Rhythm” starring Bing Crosby, Mary Carlisle, Beatrice Lillie and what the newspaper ad referred to as “a hundred other funmakers.”  This movie was playing at the theater on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  Not being as big a movie as the Chicago movie, a testimonial was included.

Dear Dr. Rhythm:  You never saw anybody as bored as I was.  I couldn’t see.  I was in a rut.  I was living on burrowed time.  I’m down to earth again, thanks to you, and feel like digging in again!

The testimony was signed Mollie Mole … an apt name for a letter writer who claimed she was “living on burrowed” time.

Eighty before the Bing Crosby movie, in 1853, “Earlswood:  Or, Lights and Shadows of the Anglican Church” was written and published by 19th century English novelist, social and religious writer, composer and lyricist, Charlotte Anley (17 February 1796 – 6 April 1893).  She was an interesting woman in that she was an English Quaker to whom Protestants and Catholics alike listened.

Surely, in all this, there is no keeping back the blessed doctrine of atonement?  The work of our redemption is, indeed, a mystery far beyond the limits of human intelligence, but its announcement to man is clear and simple, brought down to earth in language suited to the meanest capacity.

And nearly a hundred years before that, in July 1759, an essay was written and published in Volume 21 of “The Monthly Review, or, Literary Journal by Several Hands” compiled by Ralph Griffiths and George Edward Griffiths.  The essay addressed the “substance of several discourses preached before the University of Cambridge” by W. Wefton, B.D. Fellow of St. John’s College.

The first advice he gives us is, to resolve to be serious; for simple as this remedy may seem, he says, it will in the end effectually root out, one of the most dangerous maladies that has infected the state, viz. that profusion of wanton and indiscriminate banter, which has taken possession of the appetites, the reason, and the heart.  The affections of men chained down to earth, and devoted to sense, are not more averse, we are told, to heavenly things, than the present age, abandoned to laughter and ridicule, is abhorrent of sedate and sober reflection.

The devotion to sense and being down to earth were easily linked in this passage, making it clear that being down to earth was the opposite of being abandoned to ridicule and laughter — qualities which were not well thought of by the author.

While several dictionaries attest to the phrase having come into existence in 1932, Idiomation found the phrase used in publications from the mid-1700s and as such, since it is used in publications with the same spirit as how the idiom is used today, it most likely was understood with this meaning in the early 1700s.

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

Down With That

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 13, 2014

When someone says they are down with that, or down with it, this means they are in agreement with, or have knowledge of, what is being said or done.  The idiom saw a resurgence in popularity in the nineties thanks to rap and hip hop, however, its popularity in the seventies and in jazz circles cannot be overlooked.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of May 28, 2003 published an OpEd piece by Maureen Dowd titled, “Bushies Get Down And Dirty” where she talked about George W. Bush and his associates, whom she referred to as the then-President’s posse.  The article began with this introduction to the piece:

By rolling over Iraq, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld hoped to deep-six the 60s.  President Bush was down with that.  He never grooved on the vibe of the Age of Aquarius anyway.

Over at Wordsmith.com, a transcript of a chat held on February 6, 2008 with author of eight books and hundreds of articles, reviews, and chapters in books, Seth Lerer (he was also a professor at Stanford University at the time) had Seth Lerer use the idiom in a response.  When user Bellingham asked the question as to how his generation of college students would know if their use of language was correct, Seth Lerer replied:

As long as they know the rules when they’re in my class, I’m, as they say, down with that.

In the January 1972 edition of Ebony magazine the idiom was used as part of a quote on page 107, as part of the article by Bill Rhoden, “Pros Donate Talent To Help Black Youth.”  The article covered the story about the first annual 21st Century Professional Basketball Tournament held in Madison Square Garden the previous summer that was produced and sponsored by a black-founded-and-operated philanthropic organization that focused its efforts on economic development and education.

Buffalo’s Randy Smith, a former NSSFNS [National Scholarship Service For Negro Students] recipient, said he was determined to make the tournament, with or without his club’s blessings.  “That’s how most of the players felt,” said Smith.  “The tournament is designed to help black youngsters, and anytime there is something I can do to help the cause, hey, I’m down with it.”

The “Jazz Lexicon” by Robert S. Gold, and published in 1957, pegs the expression to 1935 although no proof is provided to substantiate that specific date.  The “Jazz Lexicon” does, however, have this to say about the jazz musician’s slang from the depression era.

The jazz slang speaker’s aloofness is tacitly justified by his feeling that only those who are down with the action ( aware of what is going on ) should have access to the speech of those who have paid their dues (suffered an apprenticeship in life generally and in the jazz life in particular.)

A definition for the idiom is found in the 1944 edition of Dan Burley’s book on page 15 of his “Original Handbook of Harlem Jive” which does, however, substantiate the assertions made in the “Jazz Lexicon.”

That being said, the word down with the sense of being aware dates back to 1812 as found in the “Flash Dictionary” by J. H. Vaux.  The dictionary states that down is sometimes synonymous with aware, and includes the many ways in which down makes reference to being aware, including, but not limited, to this example.

To put a person down to any thing, is to apprize him of, elucidate, or explain it to him.

It could then be said that someone who is down with that information, is one who has knowledge of the subject matter, and he will either be in agreement or disagreement this information.

Indeed, this is true, as evidenced by the comment in Sporting Magazine edition XXXIX published in 1812 where the following comment is found on page 285.

He supposed he was down (had knowledge of it).

The 1898 edition of “The English Dialect Dictionary” compiled by Joseph Wright, M.A., Ph.D., D.C.L., Deputy Professor of Comparative Philology at the University of Oxford claimed the use of the word down meaning to be aware is found in the 1811 edition of “Lex Balantronicum.”

For the spirit of the idiom to be found in 1811 indicates that the sense of the idiom was used in the late 1700s, and that is proved by its inclusion in Joseph Pearson’s “Political Dictionary” published in 1792 which “contains original anecdotes faithfully collected from his posthumous papers by two of his literary friends.”  You see, in this dictionary, the word down is also used in the sense of being aware.

So, being down with anything has been around for far longer than most of us would have thought.  That’s cool to know because Idiomation is down with that.

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

Hitting On All Sixes

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 11, 2014

When you’re working on something and everything’s going well, you might hear your grandpa tell you that you’re hitting on all sixes.  It’s a compliment, and it means you’re doing everything right.  So what does the number six have to do with doing things right?

It’s a car reference of course, referring to six cylinders.  When everything was aligned, there was no back firing, no jerking, no sudden stopping, and the car made its way down the street with no troubles at all.  In fact, a car that fired on all cylinders was a marvel to behold.

Back in 1948, in the Electrical Workers’ Journal, Labor Union 420 in Waterbury, Connecticut started their column off with some happy news about their union president.

Our venerable president, Walt Wright, has been laid up with midwinter illness, but by now should be out hitting on all sixes.

The Depression era of the 1930s saw a number of difficulties, not the least of which were between the police and criminal types.  Not to worry though because this was published in the 1933 edition of the “Police Yearbook” published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The defy that the average hoodlum has given to the country has been accepted by the law enforcing officers.  We here in the city feel that we can and will cope with the situation. We feel that we have a police force that are hitting on all sixes.

We know that we are having a little bad luck in losing some of our policemen.  That is an indication that every policeman is on his toes; he is willing to shoot it out with the fellow that heretofore was willing to take a chance with the judge.

The Michigan State Dental Society bulletin Volume 9 printed in 1927 found a creative way to use the idiom as well as evidenced by this announcement.

Speaking of mongrels, let me introduce Ed. Giffen; enuf Scotch to spend little and sufficient Hebrew to take all.   Ed goes to a Thanksgiving Keno party, guys a card for the usual two bits and walks off with a turkey, a good and a duck.  I claim that’s hitting on all sixes.  Ed certainly knows his proteins.

Some sources claim that the expression is from the 1920s, however, Idiomation found the idiom used in the a professional engineer magazine dated January 1918.  The magazine was known as “The Monad” and was the official published magazine from the American Association of Engineers, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois.  It was billed as being devoted to the social and economic welfare of the technical engineer.  The column dedicated to the Valparaiso chapter included this comment.

“Montana” Calkins then proceeded to apply his highly specialized mechanical touch to the picture machine with the result that it finally got tired of stalling and started hitting on all sixes.

A year earlier, on March 29, 1917, the National Underwriter — the official weekly newspaper of the insurance industry — published this advertisement.
The National Underwriter_Volume 21_1917The advertisement was published in the April 3rd, April 12th, April 19th, and May 10th editions as well.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the idiom than those found in 1917, however, since the reference is rooted in automotive history, note that cars hail from the 1860s when they had up to four cylinders!

Cosmopolitan magazine published a car guide in 1906, which listed a number of cars with specs.  This is where the first six cylinder — forty horsepower — car is mentioned, manufactured by Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan.  At this point in time, it should be noted that gaskets hadn’t been perfected yet, and so the seal between cylinders and cylinder heads was a real hit-or-miss situation that relied on T-heads resulting in valve life that lasted only a few hundred miles before it repairs were needed.  By 1909, there were about eighty car manufacturers who used the six cylinder engine in their cars.

It’s easy to see then how hitting on all sixes was a reference to all going well, and based on car history, Idiomation can state that the expression came into being some time after 1906.

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

Enough To Give A Gopher Heartburn

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 6, 2014

The idiom it’s enough to give a gopher heartburn is one that describes how bad times are.  Science has proven that gophers, like all rodents, can suffer from digestive disorders, but it takes a lot of the wrong sorts of food to cause heartburn in a gopher.   So the idiom means that times have to be pretty terrible before it results in the unimaginable (in this case, a gopher with heartburn).

The November 30, 1976 edition of the Brandon Sun used the idiom in the column Sunbeams.  The journalist (who appeared to have a lot of news to cover in his column that day) wrote in part:

Thought of this last week when  just east of Sidney, I saw a demonstration of how a farmer can live with the wind … as Jake used to say in the W.O. Mitchell stories, “The wind she was blowin’ hard enough to give a gopher the heartburn on the north side of the highway the farmland had a heavy layer of combine trash spread evenly across it from one fence line to the other … south of the highway there were graders working on the new right-of-way and the loose material they were stirring up was turned into a black blizzard.

The idiom seems to be a Brandon Sun favorite as it was used five years earlier — on April 15, 1971 — when the fictional character and the idiom were included in a news story that included:

If Jake were still around he’d exclaim that it was “enough to give a gopher the heartburn.”

And back on February 25, 1961, the Medicine Hat News included the idiom when it published a news story that stated:

In moments of desperation, he would say:  “Things are bad enough to give a gopher the heartburn.”  Right at this moment not only the gophers but also the two-legged prairie dwellers are in danger of this particular unpleasantness at the thought of grain companies closing down their grain elevators.  The forecast of such action was made a week ago by the chief statistician of the Board of Grain Commissioners.

The newspaper gave credit to the CBC radio series, “Jake and the Kid” where the scripts were written by W.O. Mitchell.

Canadian author, W.O. Mitchell (13 March 1914 – 25 February 1998) wrote the world recognized novel, “Who Has Seen The Wind” published in 1947.  It was the story of four-year-old Brian O’Connal growing up on the Canadian prairies (in the town of Weyburn, Saskatchewan), and the people who made up his world:  his father (a druggist), his mother, his Uncle Sean, his Scottish grandmother.  The story drew upon some of the author’s personal childhood memories with equal measures of humor and reality tying the story together.

In 1950, CBC Radio tapped W.O. Mitchell to write scripts for the series, “Jake and the Kid.”  In all, he created more than 300 radio scripts for the series between 1950 and 1958, and everything took place in the fictional community of Crocus, Saskatchewan. While many of the stories were compiled in book form and published in 1961, during those either years when the scripts were being broadcast as radio teleplays, some very unique idioms originated with the author.

As these were the days when there was censorship and many words couldn’t be broadcast over the airwaves, oftentimes what was originally written had to be re-written to fit the censors.  Since cursing was forbidden, W.O. Mitchell had to create swearing without actually swearing.  Originally, the gopher idiom made mention of his backside, which producers (and the author) knew wouldn’t fly past the censors.  In the re-writing, the expression became, “It’s enough to give a gopher the heartburn.”

In the book “Jake and the Kid” the idiom was found in this passage on page 264.

Mr. Candy stood where his new red barn had been. Sammy and Brian halted; they stared at the utter, kindling ruin of what had once been a barn. No stick stood. In the strewn wreckage not even the foundation outline was discernible … Certainly the Lord’s vengeance had been enough to give a gopher the heartburn.

The idiom, therefore, is easy to peg to 1951 and was first uttered by a character created by W.O. Mitchell.   When all is said and done, you have to admit that Canadian authors have a way with words and quirky visualizations, don’t you agree?

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

Kick The Bucket

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 4, 2014

If someone has kicked the bucket, they have shuffled off this mortal coil and gone on to the afterlife.  Yes, when someone kicks the bucket, they have died.

Some will tell you that it’s a reference to the days when someone intent on committing suicide would stand on a bucket, slip the noose around his or her neck, and then literally kick the bucket.  Some will tell you that it’s a reference to the bucket of holy water that was placed at the feet of a corpse that had been laid out for viewing.  And some will say that back in the sixteenth century the beam from which a butchered pig was hung was called a buquet (not to be confused with a bouquet which is an arrangement of flowers).  So where did the idiom come from since there are so many different stories about its origins?

If you believe the Spokane Daily Chronicle of May 30, 1911, the expression comes from England and first appeared in print in 1725.  The news bite alleged the following:

… it dates back to Old England, when about the year 1725, one Balsover hanged himself to a beam while standing on the bottom of a bucket, and then kicked the bucket away, says the New York Times.

It was a believable explanation because three years later on November 26, 1914, the Toledo Blade newspaper carried an almost identical explanation to the question:  What is the origin of the saying “to kick the bucket?”

Now, where the New York Times got the story back in 1911 is unclear, however, the Meriden Daily Republican published a similar story in July 20, 1880 edition of their newspaper, so the story was circulating long before the New York Times grabbed hold of it.  It could be because the Boston Evening Transcript of January 24, 1878 used the term in this clever bit of reporting.

Ah Chung, a San Francisco murderer, has kicked the bucket, literally as well as metaphorically.  On Jan. 13 a prison-keeper found him hanging by the neck in his cell.  He had passed a cord through the air-holes at the back of his cell, fastened that end, and made a noose of the other end, put out the gas, and planted himself upon a water bucket.  Then he kicked the bucket.

The expression was used in jokes published in a number of magazines and newspapers in the early 1800s, oftentimes recounted as such:

Two gentlemen were walking in the High-street, Southampton, last week, about that hour which the industrious damsels of the mop and brush usually devote to cleansing the pavement before the door.  It happened that the bucket used upon such occasions was upon the stones, and one of the gentlemen stumbled against it.
“My dear friend,” exclaimed the other, “I lament your death exceedingly!”
“My death!”
“Yes, you have just kicked the bucket.”
“Not so,” rejoined his friend.  “I have only turned a little pale (pail).”

The idiom was also found in the “Standard Recitations for the Use of Catholic Colleges, Schools and Literary Societies” published in 1800.  The following was determined appropriate recitation for junior pupils.

He never did a decent thing
He was’t worth a ducat;
He kicked and kicked until he died,
And then he kicked the bucket.

In Francis Grose’s 1785 edition of the “Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” the definition for kick the bucket is as follows.

To die.  He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day.  To kick the clouds before the hotel door; i.e. to be hanged.

It would seem that kicking and buckets and death have had a long association, as the spirit of the expression is found in William Shakespeare’s Play “Henry IV Part II” in Act IV, Scene 2.  The play was published in 1597.  Bear in mind that a gibbet meant to hang.

Here shall charge you, and discharge you with the motion of a pewterer’s hammer; come off, and on, swifter then the gibbets on the brewer’s bucket.

When you look at gibbets (to hang) and bucket in this context, it’s all about dying.  Whether it’s about an animal being slaughtered or a person committing suicide, the beam (or bucket, as the beam was called) is what ties them together.

Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the mid-1500s since it was used with such ease by William Shakespeare.

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

Hair Of The Dog

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 23, 2014

For decades, it was said that the hair of the dog was the surefire cure for hangovers cause by drinking too much alcohol the night before.  In time, the expression came to mean any alleged cure-all whether it related to overindulgence in alcohol or addressing the most serious of business difficulties.   The full expression is actually the hair of the dog that bit you, and while it’s doubtful that a dog bite will cure your hangover, the idiom itself has an interesting past not only in literature, but in folklore as well.

In the February 19, 2009 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henniger’s views on the stimulus package that Barack Obama signed into law.  Among many aspects of the stimulus package, was the Making Work Pay tax credit that phased out for individuals earning $75,000 or more and couples earning $150,000 or more jointly.  Journalists referred to is as the hair of the dog strategy, and in fact, this specific article was titled, “Obama’s Hair Of The Dog Stimulus:  The President’s Spending Plan Asks Us To Go Against Instinct.”

In the book, “Bent’s Fort” by David Sievert Lavender, published in 1954.  The story was about Charles and William Bent, who established Bent’s Fort, and the trappers, traders, and mountain men that were part of the old Santa Fe trail.   The idiom is used in this passage.

Perhaps there was a post-wedding fandango on Saturday, May 2, or it may have been only a gentlemen’s gathering that cause Frank Blair to wake up Sunday morning feeling in need of the hair of the dog that had bitten him.  One eye-opener called for another.  Soon he was so tanked that George had to help him navigate toward home.  AS they crossed the plaza, they passed a crowd of loafers, some thirty or so, congregated about Steve Lee’s store.

It’s in the October 2, 1852 edition of “Notes and Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc.” where a short definition for hair of the dog is found that reads as follows:

The hair of the dog now means the “wee sup o’whiskey” which is taken as a cure, by one who has been a victim of “dog’s nose.”

Of course, back in 1774, an author identified simply as Fidelio wrote and published “The Fashionable Daughter, Being A Narrative of True and Recent Facts By An Impartial Hand.”  In this book, the author spoke of the hair of the dog thusly.

This affair mortified his pride and emptied his purse not a little, though the universal opinion was that it doubled his cunning, while it increased hot his honesty.  As the suit had cost him money, he followed the old Caledonian proverb; and applied for a remedy to the decrease of his substance, which he ever reckoned the greatest evil, “a hair of the dog that bit him.”

Based on this passage, the idiom was considered an old Caledonian (meaning Gaelic) proverb.  However, a French and English dictionary composer by Randle Cotgrave and published in 1673 had not only the idiom but a definition included.

To take a remedy for a mischief from that which was the cause thereof; as to go thin clothes when a cold is taken; or in drunkeness to fill a quaffing, thereby to recover health; or sobriety, near that which sense our Ale-knights often use this phrase and say, give us hair of the dog that last bit me.

In Samuel Pepys diary, on April 3, 1661, he also spoke of the hair of the dog that bit him, describing his overindulgence in alcoholic beverages the night before.

Up among my workmen, my head akeing all day from last night’s debauch. To the office all the morning, and at noon dined with Sir W. Batten and Pen, who would needs have me drink two drafts of sack to-day to cure me of last night’s disease, which I thought strange but I think find it true.

Nearly 100 years prior to that entry, John Heywood spoke of the idiom in the 1562 edition of his book, “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood.”

A pick-me-up after a debauch:  apparently a memory of the superstition, which was and still is common, that, being bitten by a dog, one cannot do better than pluch a handful of hair from him, and lay it on the wound.  Old receipt books advise that an inebriate should drink sparkingly in the morning some of the same liquor which he had drunk to excess overnight.

In fact, in the 1546 edition of “A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue” by John Heywood, the following ditty is included.

I pray thee let me and my fellow have
A hair of the dog that bit us last night
And bitten were we both to the brain aright.
We saw each other drunk in the good ale glass.

As amusing as all that is, the fact of the matter is that the idiom has its roots in the Roman saying, similia similibus curantur which translates to mean like things cure like.  In other words, they believed the best antidote for whatever ailed you, was to have more of the same.

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

Unfriend

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 21, 2014

Social media platforms have been responsible for the rise in new words such as tweeting and tweeple, but it’s also given rise to the return of old words such as unfriended and unfriending.  It may seem odd that before Facebook, that unfriending and being unfriended happened.  Now the question is this:  How long have people been unfriended and unfriending?

The poem, “Easter Week” by Erik Axel Karfeldt is included in a poetry anthology entitled, “Arcadia Borealis.”   The book was published in 1938 at the University of Minnesota.  I don’t know what possessed me to read the poem, but read the poem I did.  Imagine my surprise when I came across this passage in the poem.

Imprisoned in the grave, my friends are banished –
I have an unfriend in the days long vanished;
God’s peace be over
The house from which I then was rudely thrust!

Surprised to find such a modern word in a poem written and published over 75 years ago and long before technology was a common occurrence in almost every household, I began to wonder about the history of the word unfriend.  If someone was an unfriend (and not an enemy), then at one point had they been friends?  It was a question that nagged at me until I took matters into my own hands and began hunting down the answer.

Research uncovered a Letter to the Editor in the archives of the Pall Mall Gazette.  The letter writer was Oscar Wilde, and his letter was published under the heading, “Half-Hours With The Worst Authors.”  The famous playwright took exception to what he called the “extremely slipshod and careless style of our ordinary magazine-writers” and he used an article written by George Saintsbury (who had published a book on prose style) that had recently been published in the January 1886 edition of Macmillan’s magazine. It was in point 9, that the word was used.

9.  He certainly was an unfriend to Whiggery.

That certainly carried, not only the spelling, but the sense as well, of being unfriended.

The comment reinforced by belief that if one could only be unfriended, that could only happen if they had previously been friends, and it stands to reason that if two people had been friends at one point, one or both could be unfriended.

But would history bear this out?  Indeed it did as it was found in the writings of Patrick Abercromby, M.D., in his book “The Martial Atchievements of the Scots Nation: Being An Account of the Lives, Characters, and Memorable Actions of Such Scotsmen as Have Signaliz’d Themselves by the Sword at Home and Abroad” in Volume 1 published in 1711.

William, King of Scotland, thought himself unconcern’d with these Transactions:  ‘Twas not his Business to determine who had best Right to the Crown of England; yet he made no haste to Recognize King John’s Title:  And it seems he was by that Prince’s Party consider’d as an Unfriend; for his Brother, Earl David was one of these suspected Peers that summond to Court, and by many fair Promises cajoll’d into a Submission.

In other words, William, King of Scotland, was a frenemy in the eyes of King John of England … someone who King John had considered a friend, but whom he now considered an unfriend.  Yes, it would appear that King John unfriended King William.

Sneaking back into the previous century, the next document I found was used in a letter written by English church historian, Thomas Fuller, to Peter Heylin.  It was dated 1659, and is found in “The Appeal of Injured Innocence.”

I hope, sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

There is was in black and white, and using the old-fashioned, obsolete version of today’s screenshot.  Printed proof that unfriending could, and did, happen back in the 17th century!  So how far back did this unfriending activity go?

Back in 1566, according to the State Paper Department of Her Majesty’s Public Record Office, they have in their possession a collection of documents entitled, “Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth I.”  You see, the passage on page 118 of Volume 8 makes a clear delineation between a friend, an enemy, and someone who was once a friend … someone who was unfriended.

The King confessed that reports were made to him that Murray was not his friend, which  made him speak that which he repented. The Queen said that she could not be content that either he or any else should unfriend Murray.

I don’t know for certain who Murray may have been (though I suspect the reference may be to the Earl of Murray, the illegitimate son of James V), but it would appear that the King and others had unfriended him.  Not nice, you historical figures, you! That’s,you know … technology-free cyberbullying!

That’s where the trail ran cold, however, the fact of the matter is that the word unfriend was known and used in the mid-1500s with no worry that the others wouldn’t understand the word’s meaning.  It was very clear what unfriending was.

Now all of that is interesting, however, in the context of today’s technology, unfriending someone on Facebook isn’t a new activity that came about as a result of technology.  People have been unfriending others for centuries with and without computers, with and without Facebook, with and without a written account of the actual unfriending!

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of unfriending or unfriended than the State Papers of 1566, however, it is reasonable that because the word was used by royalty in 1566, it was understood by the general population.  Idiomation therefore pegs it to at least the beginning of the 1500s, with the likelihood that it pre-dates that date as well.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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