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Making sense of it all!

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  • October 2014
    S M T W T F S
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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.

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

Where The Bear Sits In The Buckwheat

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 5, 2014



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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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.

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

Back To The Salt Mines

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 24, 2014

Going back to the salt mines idiomatically means that you are resuming work on a task that you don’t find very appealing, whether you’re talking about work, school, or some other activity.  The implication is that the work is requires long hours and is taxing on the person doing the work.  And it shouldn’t be mistaken to mean the same as thing as going back to the drawing board.

Before Idiomation looks at the origins of the expression, an interesting side note is that the word salary has its roots in the word salt.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, salary is from the Latin word salarium.

ad. L. salarium, orig. money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay; subst. use of neut. sing. of salarius pertaining to salt, f. sal salt.

When it comes to salt mines, the best known and most productive ones are in Poland (on the north side of the Carpathians); in Salzburg (on the north side of the Alps); in Valentia, Navarre, and Catalonia in Spain; in Cheshire, England; and in Transylvania, Hungary, Bavaria, Switzerland, and Russia.

John W. Dean and Barry M. Goldwater Jr. wrote the biography “Pure Goldwater” published in 2008.  The book was compiled from the late Senator’s letters and journals as well as guest editorials he wrote and various radio addresses.  John W. Dean and Barry M. Goldwater Jr. admit in the book’s Preface to correcting typos, spelling out abbreviations, adding appropriate punctuation, and including minor editorial clarifications where needed.     The following excerpt is from page 93 in Part II titled, “The Senate Years: 1952 – 1965” in Chapter 7, “Learning How Washington Worked.”

After only a day in Arizona I returned to Washington, back to the salt mines.  Committee work had started on Banking and Currency, and surprisingly, I am finding the work to be delightful.  My business background and training is proving to be most valuable … We haven’t started work on the labor committee yet, but that comes up probably in two weeks …

In the Volume 42, Edition No. 3 edition of “Boy’s Life: The Boy Scout Magazine” published in March 1952, the short story titled, “Rattlesnake Country” by Arnold Bateman and illustrated by Frank Vaughn was published on page 11, and continued on page 48.

The wagon came up at noon and they sprawled in its shade to eat. Barney stayed close to Max, so Nate had no choice to talk any more slow-down stuff.  But when Max grunted and said, “All right, boys, let’s get back to the salt mines,” Nate drifted closer, his eyes hard.

“Not so fast, this afternoon, get it?” he muttered.  “Get some sense in your noggin.  The more we do, the more we’ll have to.  I’ve told Lewis’s gang a few things; they’d better not make us look too bad.  We get paid whether we do a little or a lot.  Watch it, now!”

In the book “Murder Day By Day” by American author, humorist and columnist, Irvin S. Cobb (23 June 1876 – 11 March 1944) published in 1933 he referenced the idiom in all its variations by omitting the specifics and just going with the rest.  The Duke of Paducah from Paducah, Kentucky published 60 books and 300 short stories.  When he became the youngest managing editor at the age of nineteen when he took on the job at the  Paducah Daily News.  In other words, he knew how to write, and how to write effectively.  In this novel, the following passage with the abbreviated idiom was included:

“That would be Terence,” he said.

“Well, Gilly, it’s back to the mines for me, and this day I’ll need to have my brain grinding in two — three different places at once.”

It’s a fact that mining salt has been around for centuries — at least 800 years in North America and before that, stretching back to ancient civilizations.  It’s possible that those who worked the salt mines back in the day used the idiom as well but without evidence, it’s only a guess.

What is known is that in ancient Roman times, prisoners were given the task of salt mining.  It’s also a fact that the life expectancy of prisoners working in salt mines wasn’t very long.  The reason for this was because a prisoner working in the salt mines suffered ongoing health issues (not unlike the physical impact experienced by lepers as well as mental impact experienced by those with Alzheimer’s) that eventually led to death.

But since the idiom back to the salt mines seems to be a variation — with overlapping use in literature — of back to the grindstone and back to the jute mill and back to the boiler factory and back to whatever other industry incorporated hard work and drudgery, Idiomation was unable to identify when this expression came into vogue.

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


Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gob In Mining_IMAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hot As A Two Dollar Pistol

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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