Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Archive for June, 2010

Wing It

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 30, 2010

This expression comes from the theatre in reference to an actor studying his part in the wings (the areas to either side of the stage).  Such an actor may find himself or herself suddenly called on the stage to replace another actor slated to be on stage or currently on stage who cannot complete his or her role. 

The term was eventually extended to other kinds of improvisation based on unpreparedness including prompters who fed lines to entertainers on stage who had either forgotten their lines or who did not know them well enough in the first place but who found themselves on stage anyway. 

In Philip Godfrey’s 1933 book “Back-stage: A Survey of the Contemporary English Theatre From Behind the Scenes” the author wrote:

He must give a performance by ‘winging it‘ – that is, by refreshing his memory for each scene in the wings before he goes on to play it.”

By the mid-1900s, the phrase meant any performance — prepared or not — where improvisation takes the lead and all else (and everyone else) follows in the hopes that they will get to the anticipated destination or goal.

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

What’s Done Is Done

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 29, 2010

It’s true that William Shakespeare used the phrase “what’s done is done” in his play, MacBeth (written some time between 1603 and 1607) in Act 3, Scene 2.

LADY MACBETH
With them they think on! Things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done, is done.

However, Shakespeare is not responsible for the phrase.  The phrase uses done in the sense of “ended” or “settled” which is a usage dating back from the first half of the 1400s.   It’s actually a derivative of the early 14th Century French proverb:  “Mez quant ja est la chose fecte, ne peut pas bien estre desfecte.”  Translation: ” But when a thing is already done, it cannot be undone.”

That being said, the spirit of the phrase is even older than the early 14th Century, dating back to the works of the Latin poet from the Republican period, Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 BC – ca. 54 BC).  In his poem Carmen VIII, he wrote:

LATIN:
Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire
Et quod vides perisse, perditum ducas.

TRANSLATION:
Poor old Catullus, stop your whining
What you see is over, accept it’s really over
.”

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Idioms from the 14th Century, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

When Pigs Fly

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 28, 2010

The phrase “when pigs fly”  is one of my favourites and is a common humorous euphemism for the word “never.”  It dates back to the early 1600s when more than a few writers alleged that pigs could fly with their tails pointed forward … quite an impossible feat.

The Walrus in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland pondered the possibility of ‘whether pigs had wings’ which implies an unspoken question as to whether pigs could fly hence the wings reference.  It is  most likely that this question happened in Mr. Carroll’s book due to the 1862 publication The Proverbs of Scotland where the following can be found:

If a pig had wings, it could fly.

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

Wheel and Deal

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 25, 2010

This term comes from gambling in the American West where a wheeler-dealer was a heavy bettor on the roulette wheel and at cards.  In time, it grew to mean to take part in clever but sometimes dishonest or immoral business deals. 

Anyone who could “wheel and deal” in this way was certainly someone who could operate, manipulate and control situations for his or her own interest, especially in an aggressive or unscrupulous way.

By the 1940s, this colloquialism came to be mean the unsavory business dealings associated with perceived and actual big-time operators.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

It’s In A Wewoka Switch

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 24, 2010

Wewoka is a small town in Oklahoma and situated at the junction of State Highway 56 and U.S. Highway 270.  The town was originally located in 1849 in what was considered to be the Seminole Nation, Indian Territory (I.T.).   After the U.S. Civil War, Elijah J. Brown, was selected by the U.S. government to lead Seminole refugees from Kansas to the Seminole Nation, Indian Territory.

Not too much later, in 1895, the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad (the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway after 1902) ran its line from McAlester to Oklahoma City, passing through Wewoka.  They also installed side tracks.

In the early 1900s, freight would oftentimes go missing once a train had been redirected to the side tracks, and items that went missing were said to be “lost in the Wewoka Switch.”

In the 1920s, when thousands of freight shipments destined elsewhere went missing, they were soon found hidden at the Wewoka Switch.  Soon, the railroad company made it a policy to check Wewoka first whenever they were advised of a lost shipment.   It got to be such a habit that soon a rubber stamp was created that read: “Search Wewoka Switch.”

It didn’t take too long before the saying became: “It’s in a Wewoka Switch” meaning that whatever or whoever was involved in questionable — possibly illegal — activities was quite obviously tangled up in a tight spot.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Get Your Dander Up

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 23, 2010

The phrase “get your dander up” is Dutch in origin.  The Dutch phrase “op donderen” means to burst into a sudden rage. and “Donder op!” in Dutch means “Get out of here!”

The first published reference to the phrase “get your dander up” can be found in an entry in the 1831 edition of The American Comic Annual by Henry J. Finn, where he wrote:

A general roar of laughter brought Timmy on his legs. His dander was raised.”

The first published version of a closer version of this phrase can be found in The Republican Banner newspaper of March 1834 where the journalist wrote:

He wound up by bringin’ his fist down on the table …  and the Gineral’s hat on the table bounced up, I tell you; and says he, “there must be a change, Gineral”… but that didn’t go good, and that got the Gineral’s dander up.”

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

Iron Out The Kinks

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 22, 2010

Kink” is derived from the Dutch word “kink” which means to twist or  twirl  — as in a rope, wire, or a lock of hair — to such a degree as to create  especially a noticeable obstruction.   The phrase to “iron out the kinks” was well entrenched in American English as evidenced by various newspaper articles from the turn of the 20th Century.

The phrase was used by candidate William Randolph Hearst as reported in an article in the New York Times on October 23, 1906.   He reportedly said that he would spend the greater part of the week “in the city in an effort to iron out the kinks in the local situation and try to get his fusion to fuse.”

His opponent, Patrick E. McCabe, member of the State Committee and leader of the Democratic organization in Albany, was less convinced of Hearst’s ability to do so. 

However, the phrase is much older than this.  The Calendar Act passed in 1751 in the British Isles and her Dominions and in North America caused the loss of eleven days.  It was written that this Act presented to the British Parliament by Lord Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, was passed by the British Parliament in order to “iron out the kinks” in the Gregorian calendar.

The phrase to “iron out the kinks’ is an old expression that still fits all modern day mental, emotional and physical connotations.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Heavens To Murgatroyd

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 21, 2010

The phrase “Heavens to Murgatroyd” is considered to be a mild oath even though Snagglepuss from The Yogi Bear Show was known to use the phrase on a regular basis.  Before Snagglepuss, Bert Lahr  — the actor who played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz — spoke the phrase in the 1944 film Meet the People starring Dick Powell and Lucille Ball.

But who was Murgatroyd and what did he do that made him so famous that his name is known to this very day?

The surname is derived from the Medieval personal name Margaret and the Middle English word “royd” which means “clearing.”  So Mergatroyd is actually Margaret’s clearing.

Murgatroyd is a family name in the English aristocracy, found written down in books in Yorkshire where the family held a seat as Lords of the Manor prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.    The language of the courts after the Battle of Hastings was french for the next three centuries however, the name resurfaced in 1379 when John Mergetrode was listed as holding estates in the shire.

So when you hear someone say “Heavens to Murgatroyd” that’s quite a distance from beautiful place to beautiful place!

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Fly Off The Handle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 18, 2010

The metaphoric expression “fly off the handle” is an Americanism that goes back to pioneer days when frontiersman whittled their own handles and attached axe heads to those handles.  The axe heads were shipped from the industrialized East coast which meant that if a frontiersman wasn’t much of a carpenter, the axe head may not be as securely attached to the handle as one might hope it would be.

Because of this, axeheads were known to “fly off the handle” while being used and if anyone was nearby, there was a fairly good chance that either the bystander or the axeman would be injured by the flying axe head. 

The expression was recorded in John Neal‘s 1825 novel Brother Jonathan as “off the handle.”  The version of “fly off the handle” happened in Canadian author, Thomas C. Haliburton‘s book The Attaché also known as Sam Slick in England, which was published 18 years later in 1843.

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

Call Of The Wild

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 17, 2010

American author, Jack London (1876 – 1916) was a pioneer in the then-burgeoning world of commercial magazine fiction, he was one of the first Americans to make a lucrative career exclusively from writing.

Prospectors intermittently discovered gold in the Yukon region of Canada in the 1870s and 1880s. News of their finds attracted modest numbers of other prospectors hoping to find great deposits of the precious metal.  Jack London was among those prospectors. Although he didn’t strike gold, London did return from the Great White North with the “The Call Of The Wild” manuscript, published in 1903 and that based on his experiences while he was a prospector.  

The Saturday Evening Post who purchased the manuscript on January 26, 1903 insisted on having 5,000 words cut from the original and London complied with that request.

London calls the law of survival in the untamed wild northlands as “the law of club and fang.”  What’s more, the novel puts forth that heredity and environment are the major forces that shape human beings and inborn instincts influenced by economic, social, cultural and familial factors dictate how people react in any given situation.

The phrase “Call of the Wild” originates with Jack London.

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

 
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