Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Archive for March, 2010

Since Hector Was A Pup

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 31, 2010

This phrase first began to appear in North American newspapers around 1906 and became a catchphrase in the 1920s, especially among flappers.  It was an extension of an earlier idiom — “as dead as Hector” — which was widely used in the 1860s.

The reference is to Hector, the son of King Priam of Troy and his second wife Hecuba — a symbol of the consummate warrior — and one of the chief participants in the tale of the siege of Troy by the Greeks in Homer’s epic The Iliad.  King Priam, as we all know, was killed in single combat by the Greek champion Achilles.

Hecuba was responsible for the murder of Polyxena, who was the murderer of Hecuba’s older son, Polydorus.  The gods turned Hecuba into a dog as punishment for taking Polyxena’s life which, literally speaking, made Hector his mother’s pup.

What’s more, by the early twentieth century, “pup” was well established as a mildly dismissive comment that referred to a young person who was particularly inexperienced in the ways of the world.

Posted in Greek, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Never Cast A Clout Until May Is Out

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 30, 2010

Ne’er cast a clout till May be out is an English saying with a long and difficult history.  In 1855, F. K. Robertson’s Whitby Gazette published the following rhyme:

The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out
.

The earliest published version of the rhyme can be found in Dr. Thomas Fuller’s  “Gnomologia” published in 1732. 

Since at least the early 15th century ‘clout’ has been used to mean a fragment of cloth or clothing and was spelled as clowt, clowte, cloot, or clute.   It’s here that the saying took on two meanings rather than just the original.  The new meaning was a reminder not to be too quick to shuck the warmer winter clothes before cooler days during the month of May were most likely over.

That being said, English farm-workers working the fields in their winter clothes throughout the month of May could suffer from heat exhaustion if they kept all their winter layers on until the end of May!   The flowering of the hawthorne (May) tree was a more reliable guide to the state of the weather.

This means that the original meaning goes back even further than the 15th century and indeed, it can be traced back to the 12th century.  During Medieval times in Brittany, a man proposed to his beloved by leaving a hawthorne (also known as a Mayflower) branch at the door of his beloved on the first of May. By leaving the branch at the door she accepted his proposal.

Traditionally, it was taboo to bring hawthorne into the house in Medieval England because it was feared it would bring death with it.  This is because the hawthorne blossom has a distinctive fragrance and in medieval times, the blossom was said to carry the ‘stench of death’.  (This is due to the trimethylene that the flowers give off as they deteriorate.) 

The exception to that rule was during May-Day celebrations (for one day only) when it was permitted to bring flowers into the house for decoration.  No marriages were allowed during the month of May and it was considered unlucky to marry in the hawthorne month since most people during Medieval times rarely bathed, June was usually one of the months in which most people had baths.  The exception to the rule, of course, would be those who lived in castles. 

It would make sense for the general population to keep at least some (but not all) of their winter clothes on until they could bathe and be fresh for any wedding celebrations coming up during the month of June.  This is verified by another English saying:  “Marry in May and you’ll rue the day.”  What’s more, washing in May was not a favoured activity as evidenced by yet another English saying:  “Wash a blanket in May; wash a dear one away.”

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 15th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

No Man’s Land

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 29, 2010

There are those who will tell you that the phrase “no man’s land” is a military term from WWI that represents the unoccupied and dangerous strip of land between opposing trench systems.  However, the first recorded us of the phrase dates back to 1320 in England.  The name of ap iece of land used as an execution ground found just outside the north wall of London was referred to as “no man’s land.”

In 1349, “no man’s land” was a communal — hence the reference of belonging to no one in particular — burial ground near Smithfield and was for the victims of the Black Death that killed one third of England’s population that year.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cried All The Way To The Bank

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 26, 2010

Liberace was the first to use this phrase that has caught on in popular culture.  He leveraged his fame in 1953 through hundreds of promotional tie-ins with banks, insurance companies, automobile companies and food companies. Liberace was the perfect pitchman as the vast majority of his audience was housewives.

One particular critic wrote an unfavourable review of Liberace that took on his gimmicky act,  showy but careless piano playing, non-stop promotions, and gaudy display of success in a review of Liberace’s concert at Madison Square Gardens.  He wrote a letter to the critic, stating, “Thank you for your very amusing review. After reading it, in fact, my brother George and I cried all the way to the bank.”

Years later, Liberace retold the anecdote to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and finished it by saying “I don’t cry all the way to the bank any more — I bought the bank”.

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

Garbage In, Garbage Out (or GIGO)

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 25, 2010

This term is from old-school computer days.  In 1964,  the term was shortened to GIGO.  Both the term and the acronym refer to the fact that a computer will process any input data regardless of whether it makes sense and what results is gibberish for output.  A well written compute program will reject input data that is obviously incorrect however such programs require considerably more effort to create.

The term and the acronym is the response most IT people will use when a non-IT person complains that a program didn’t perform as anticipated despite the fact that incorrect information was inputted.  Over the past few years, the term and acronym have also been used to describe misfires in human decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

This looks like something Katie shot at and hit!

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 24, 2010

This expression comes from the Czechoslovakian saying, “Potrefená Husa nejvíc kejhá” which, literally translated, is:  “A shot goose gabbles the most!”   The English equivalent is, “A guilty conscience needs no accuser.”

In 1744, Matthew Bishop used the English expression in his book, “The Life and Adventures of Matthew Bishop of Deddington in Oxfordshire.”  However, there are earlier versions of this phrase including the Scottish proverb recorded in 1721 that states:  “A guilty Conscience self accuses. A Man that has done ill shews his Guilt” and in 1597 in Elizabethan anthology, Politeuphuia in the passage that read:  “A Guilty conscience is a worme that bites and neuer ceaseth.  A  guiltie conscience is neuer without feare.”

It goes back farther than that and a version of the expression is found in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales written in 1390 in the story, “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue.”  In this tale, Chaucer writes:  “For Catoun  seith that he that gilty is Demeth alle  thyng be spoke of him.”

However, all of those are a rewording of a passage from the Bible  from the book of Genesis  that speaks of the situation between Joseph and his brothers:   “And the men were afraid, because they were brought into Joseph’s house; and they said, Because of  the money that was returned in our sacks at the first time are we brought in; that he may seek occasion against us, and fall upon us,  and take us for bondmen, and our asses.” (Genesis 43:18)

So if a shot goose gabbles the most, then someone who speaks as if he or she is guilty is certainly going to look like “something Katie shot at and hit!”

Posted in Bible, Christian, Idioms from the 14th Century, Jewish, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Red Tape

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 23, 2010

This phrase was first noted in historical records in the 16th century, when Henry VIII sent Pope Clement VII approximately 80 petitions regarding his request for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  Keeping with the custom of the day, each one was sealed and bound with the obligatory red tape.

The tradition continued through to the 18th century.   The binding of documents and official papers with red tape was popularized in the writings of Thomas Carlyle who protested against official inertia.

In the U.S., all American Civil War veterans’ records were bound in red tape, and the difficulty in accessing them led to the current negative use of the term.

In 1996, Congress passed the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act referred to as the Red Tape Reduction Act.  In 1998, the province of Ontario saw the Red Tape Reduction Act receive Royal Assent on December 18, 1998.  Other provinces in Canada have followed suit with their own Red Tape Reduction Acts being enacted.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Kangaroo Court

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 22, 2010

The term “kangaroo court” is an expression that compares the jumping ability of kangaroos to a court that jumps to conclusions on an invalid basis. Such courts are set up in violation of established legal procedure, and are characterized by dishonesty and/or incompetence.

Despite the fact that a kangaroo is from Australia, the term is American and dates back to the California Gold Rush of 1849. Gold miners established kangaroo courts comprised of their fellow gold miners in order to deal with claim jumpers.

The first recorded use being in Texas in 1853.  The term “kangaroo court” was used interchangeably in Texas with the term “mustang court.”

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

Toe The Line

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 19, 2010

Toe the line, meaning to conform to rules and authority, is a term with disputed origins.

There is documentation to support the claim that it originates from a time when a ship’s company were mustered for victualling or pay.   Each sailor stepped forward to a line marked on the deck or along a crack in deck planking.

That being said, the longest-running use appears to be from the British House of Commons where sword-strapped members were directed to stand behind lines that were better than a sword’s length from their political rivals in order to restore and maintain decorum.

When heated exchanges broke out, the Speaker would direct members to “Toe the line!”  This call from the Speaker quelled growing conflicts and returned order to the House of Commons.

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

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 18, 2010

Absence makes the heart grow fonder … or so they say.

But who first spoke these words and why? Some think it was first written by T. H. Bayly Isle in 1844 in his poem “Isle of Beauty” that appeared in his two-volume publication “Songs, Ballads, and Other Poems.”

While it’s true that Bayly used the line, it’s even older than that. Even before Bayly, in 1650, James Howell’s “Familiar Letters” observed that “Distance sometimes endears friendship, and absence sweeteneth it.”

Shakespeare spoke of this very thing in his 1604 play “Othello” (Act 1, scene ii), when Desdemona confessed, “I dote upon his very absence.”

But originally the first line of an anonymous poem which appeared in Francis Davison’s “Poetical Rhapsody” in 1602 read: “”Absence makes the heart grow fonder — of somebody else!”

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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