Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Archive for April, 2010

His Name Is Mud

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 30, 2010

When John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln dead in 1865, he broke his leg trying to escape.  Booth sought — and received–  medical attention from a Dr. Samuel Mudd.  Now even though Mudd was convicted of being Booth’s co-conspirator in Abraham Lincoln’s death, and while it would be easy to conclude that the phrase came about as a result of this historic event, the fact of the matter is that the phrase “his name is mud” was already in use four decades before Lincoln was assassinated. 

Writing under the pen name John Bee, John Badcock’s book “Slang – A Dictionary of the Turf” published in 1823 stated:

“And his name is mud!” ejaculated upon the conclusion of a silly oration, or of a leader in the Courier.

What’s more, the “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” also referenced the phrase in its 1820 edition and stated that the phrase indicated an individual who was “utterly disgraced or defeated.”

However, an even earlier published record, the phrase can be found in the book by Tuus Inimicus entitled “Hell upon earth: or the most pleasant and delectable history of Whittington’s Colledge.”   This book was first published in 1703.

The phrase, however, goes back even farther to St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-390) — an unopposed advocate, along with Didymus and Diodorus of Tarsus, of universal redemption — who wrote in his “Sermo Catecheticus Magnus” that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become God.”

Posted in Christian, Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 4th Century, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In The Closet

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 29, 2010

The phrase “in the closet” is an abbreviated form of the phrase “skeleton in the closet.”

It’s said that if someone has a “skeleton in the closet” it’s understood that the individual has an embarrassing secret about himself or herself that he or she would prefer to keep quiet.

The expression dates back to the early 1800s when medical doctors in Britain were not permitted to work on dead bodies.  When an Act of Parliament passed in 1832 permitted physicians to dissect bodies of executed criminals for medical and medical research purposes, the population in general regarded this as a gruesome and possibly unGodly practice.

Even though the execution of criminals was commonplace in 18th century Britain, physicians rarely came across many corpses during his working life. It became common practice when a physician was fortunate enough to have the corpse of an executed criminal to keep the skeleton for additional research purposes.

It was public opinion, rather than law, that did not allow doctors to keep skeletons on open view in their workplace and so they hid their skeletons from view.  However, just because no skeletons could be seen didn’t mean to most people that  doctors weren’t keeping skeletons hidden somewhere in their homes or offices.  The most logical of places to hide a tall but skinny skeleton was in the closet and thus was born the phrase “skeletons in the closet.”

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

It’s A Gas

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 28, 2010

Scientist Humphrey Davy noticed that nitrous oxide produced a state of induced euphoria which led to laughter followed by a state of stupor and, finally, a dreamy and sedated state.  Seeing no harm in the use of the gas, he introduced nitrous oxide to the British upper class as a recreational drug in 1799 at gatherings that were quickly coined “laughing parties.” 

At these “laughing parties” guests would take a whiff of nitrous oxide and then throw themselves in what were referred to as “nitrous oxide capers.”   These capers led guests to stumbling about, slurring their speech and falling down.  Davy noted that some people at these “laughing parties” found themselves in a state of induced euphoria due to the gas.

It didn’t take long for the term “it’s a gas” to become a sort of code for what one could expect if they attended a certain British upper class gathering.

It wouldn’t be until 1835 that nitrous oxide would be used medically but by then, the term “laughing gas” had stuck even with medical professionals.

While the “laughing parties” and “nitrous oxide capers” are things of the past, the term “it’s a gas” continues to imply that the event or activity is sure to amuse and bring gales of laughter to those attending the event or participating in the activity.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

In The Limelight

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 27, 2010

Long before electricity lit the stages of Victorian theatres for actors and performers, lime was used as a source of illumination, especially in lighthouses.   For generations it was known that the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen on a lime surface produced a very bright light.  English chemist Goldsworthy Gurney discovered the limelight effect in the 1820s.  London’s Covent Garden Theatre was the first venue to use limelight on stage in 1837.  The use of limelight was meant to augment —  and not replace — the traditional theatre lighting of gaslights and torches. 

Within a decade, limelight was the lighting choice of theatres around the world.  However, as bright as this light source was, the entire stage could not be lit up all at once.  It could only provide spot lighting albeit excellent spot lighting.  What this meant was that, during performances where more than one actor or performer was on stage,  only some actors or performers could logically be in the spotlight while others were in the background.

Of course, the more well-known and the more talented actors and performers routinely found themselves in roles that required that they be in the limelight.  And, of course, those who routinely found themselves in the limelight enjoyed a certain level of “fame” for being in the limelight.

Even though Thomas Edison‘s electric lighting rendered limelight obsolete by the late 19th century, the term continues to this day and refers to any position of public attention in which an individual may find himself or herself.

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

It’s A Doozy

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 26, 2010

The Duesenberg was an Auburn, Indiana based luxury automobile company active in various forms from 1913 to 1937.    Originally founded in Des Moines, Iowa in 1913 by German-born brothers Fred and August Duesenberg, the Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company, Inc. built its vehicles entirely by hand. 

The company was most famous for its high-quality passenger cars as well as its record-breaking racing cars.    In 1914, Eddie Rickenbacker drove a “Duesy” to finish in 10th place at the Indianapolis 500, and a Duesenberg won the race in 1924, 1925, and 1927. 

Over time, the name of the car went from “Deusy” to “Doozy.”  Because the car was so impressive and had accomplished so much in such a short period of time, the term “doozy” came to mean anything deemed to be excellent or powerful.

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

A Chain Is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 23, 2010

It’s true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  The phrase is something wrongly attributed to Vladimir Lenin prior to the Revolution of 1917 concerning why the Bolsheviks were agitating the Russian Proletariat.

Cornhill Magazine published an article in 1868 that contained this bit of advice:  “A chain is no stronger than its weakest link; but if you show how admirably the last few are united … half the world will forget to the security of the … parts which are kept out of sight.”

However, the phrase can be traced back to a comment written in a letter from C. Kingley dated December 1, 1856 that states:  “The devil is very busy, and no one knows better than he that nothing is stronger than its weakest part.”

And earlier than that, in 1786, Thomas Reid wrote his “Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man” wherein he stated:  “In every chain of reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest.”

And so while there are those who believe this phrase is a translation of an older Latin proverb or that it comes from the Bible, the fact is that it appears that the only proverb that is remotely similar to this is a Basque saying;  “Haria meheenean eten ohi da” which translates into “A thread usually breaks from where it is thinnest.”

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

Too Many Irons In The Fire

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 22, 2010

Blacksmiths of the past had to work hard at hammering iron into shape. The iron was first heated in the fire until it was red-hot and malleable. The blacksmith would then remove the iron from the fire and shape by way of repeated blows from his anvil.

It was imperative that they work quickly before the iron cooled because once the iron was cool, it became brittle and could no longer be hammered into shape.  However, once the iron was removed from the fire, the iron would cool very quickly.

Since it took longer to heat the iron until it was red-hot than it took for it to cool, blacksmiths kept multiple pieces of iron in the fire to heat simultaneously. In that way, the blacksmith always had a piece of iron red-hot and ready for hammering. 

However, if the blacksmith had too many in the fire at the same time, he couldn’t keep track of them all and he could not attend to them properly as they needed his attention.  When this happened, it was the sign of an inefficient blacksmith or one who had an unskilled apprentice working alongside him.

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

Choke

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 21, 2010

Whether at a sports match or in a serious life situation, sometimes the front runner chokes and loses to his or her opponent.  Since no one is literally choking, the word must be part of a longer idiom.  And so it is.

In medieval England, when an individual was accused of a crime, he or she was given a piece of cheese and consecrated bread to eat to prove guilt or innocence.  If the individual was guilty, he would choke on the bread when the Angel Gabriel came down from Heaven to stop his or her throat.  Surely an innocent man (or woman) would be the winner and not choke when put to the test!

Thus the oath many would utter was, “May I choke if this is not true.”  Over the years, only the word choke remains of the idiom.

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 20, 2010

The phrase is attributed to Frederick R. Barnard but that’s not quite correct.  The phrase is actually an amalgamation of two advertising campaigns and not, as is oftentimes claimed, solely from a 1927 advertisement in the advertising trade journal, Printers’ Ink

In the December 8, 1921 issue, the slogan was: “One Look is Worth A Thousand Words.”    It referred to the benefits of advertising with pictures on street cars.

In the March 10, 1927 issue, the slogan was:  “One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words.”   This referred to a baking soda ad campaign conducted by Barnard’s firm.    To give the ad more kick, Barnard’s firm claimed it was a Chinese proverb so that people would take it more seriously.  And, as was the case in the early 20th century, Chinese proverbs were immediately credited to Confucious because he is the best known of all Chinese philosophers.

However, even with amalgamating both ads from Printers’ Ink together, Barnard is not the first person to come up with this idea.  That honour goes to newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane of the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club.  In March 1911 — a decade before Barnard’s 1921 advertisement — Brisbane gave an instructional talk wherein he stated:  “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

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

Southpaw

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 19, 2010

Southpaw came into vogue in 1885 thanks to Finley Peter Dunne aka Mr. Dooley, a famed Chicago sports journalist and humorist … and it had everything to do with the great all American pass time, baseball.

All major league baseball diamonds are laid out so the afternoon sun is to the batter’s back so he can see the ball coming at him from the pitcher’s mound.  This means that the batter faces east.

Of course, since the batter is facing east, the pitcher must be facing west.  Since science claims that 85% of people are right-handed, these leaves 15% of the population to be left-handed.  And when a left-handed pitcher is on the mound, his throwing arm is, of course, facing south.

Since a left-handed pitcher pitches with his ‘south paw’ those who routinely use their left hand to write were soon referred to as ‘southpaws.’

While that incident certainly helped to popularize the word, the term south paw referring to a person’s left hand is attested as far back as 1848 in the slang of pugilism.  A boxer who leads with the right hand and stands with the right foot forward, using the left hand for the most powerful blows was known as a southpaw almost 40 years before Finley Peter Dunne aka Mr. Dooley used the term.

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

 
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