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Archive for October, 2010

Whiter Than White

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 26, 2010

Cleaning one’s clothes “whiter than white” has oftentimes been promised by laundry detergent manufacturers in all sorts of print and broadcast commercials over the decades.

In 1903, Professor Herman Giessler and Dr Herman Bauer from Stuttgart, Germany created the world’s first soap powder with a bleaching agent -– Persil.  It was launched in the UK in 1909 with the a slogan that made the most of the fact that it was an ‘Amazing Oxygen Washer.’  Persil went on to become the first laundry detergent to feature a man in TV advertising and it kept claiming that it would make your whites “whiter than white.”

But Persil didn’t coin the phrase.  That honour seems to go to a poem written by William Shakespeare in 1593 entitled “Venus and Adonis.”  One of the stanzas reads:

Who sees his true-love in her naked bed, 
Teaching the sheets a whiter hue than white
But, when his glutton eye so full hath fed, 
His other agents aim at like delight? 
Who is so faint, that dare not be so bold 
To touch the fire, the weather being cold? 

And so, it was William Shakespeare, once again, who coined a phrase that has made its way into today’s English.

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

Ace In The Hole

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 25, 2010

Whether you’re talking poker or the game of life, having an “ace in the hole” is definitely an advantage.  So how did this phrase come to mean someone has a hidden advantage?

Back in the 1920s, when stud poker was a very popular game, the rules were such that after each round of betting, players were dealt an additional card face up.  The only one who was dealt a card face down was the last player.  This card was referred to as the “hole” card.

The winner of the game was decided by the highest as well as the lowest scoring hand, and those two would then divide the winnings in the pot.

If you were the last player and the card that was before face down in the “hole” position just happened to be an Ace, that player most definitely had a hidden advantage that no one … not even the last player … knew he had.

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

In The Doghouse

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 15, 2010

The phrase “in the doghouse” has been around longer than most people care to remember but is it really that old? 

On October 13, 1946 the Los Angeles Times wrote an article on General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell on his death from an incurable ailment of the liver.  Over the years, Stilwell had risen to the rank of general, having served in the Philippines, with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I, and as an instructor at West Point.  In the article outlining his outstanding career, a journalist wrote: “The Army was in the doghouse then, with the pacifists riding high.”

Oddly enough, however, the phrase “in the doghouse” isn’t much older than that.  The phrase was first published in 1904 in J.M. Barrie‘s story Peter Pan .

It began in 1902, when J.M. Barrie introduced Peter Pan in several chapters of The Little White Bird.  Very early on in the Peter Pan mythology, he was a  as a birdlike infant.

By 1904, the story had become a play and it premiered in London, England (UK) with Nina Boucicault originating the title role. This established the Neverland mythology, however, it also spoke of Mr. Darling living in the doghouse because of his behaviour towards Nana.  He is allowed out of the doghouse and back into the matrimonial home only after his children return home from Neverland.

Before Peter Pan, it would appear there was no mention of anyone being “in the doghouse.”

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

Sick As A Dog

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 14, 2010

Over the years, dogs have been subjected to incredibly bad press linguistically speaking so it comes as no surprise that the phrase “sick as a dog” goes back several hundred years.

Voltaire – the pen name of François-Marie Arouet — was born November 21, 1694 to a middle class family. As a child and through his whole life Voltaire was always ill. In a letter dated 1732 written to his friend Tieriot, Voltaire wrote:

My health and my affairs are shaken to an incredible degree.  I was not born to live in a city.  There is no health for me save in the solitude of La Rivière; I feel as if I were in hell when in this wretched city of Paris.  I finish by assuring you I am as sick as a dog, in other words, the most unfortunate creature in the world.

But in August 1592, playwright and dramatist Robert Greene — a colleague of William Shakespeare — over-indulged in Rhenish wine Robert and pickled herrings while dining with his friend, Thomas Nashe.  For a month afterwards, Greene was very ill — which eventually led to his death — and while sick, Gabriel Harvey penned the following ditty:

A rakehell, a makeshift, a scribbling fool:
A famous bayard in city and school.
Now sick as a dog, and ever brainsick:
Where such a raving and desperate Dick?

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

Shaggy Dog Story

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 13, 2010

Have you ever had to sit through a long, drawn-out anecdote with an ending so absurd or anticlimactic for a punch line that there’s nothing to amusing about the story when all is said and done?  That’s a shaggy dog story!

The phrase “shaggy dog story” is an American idiom. In May of 1937, Esquire magazine published a story where in the following line is found:

One of the more sporting ways of finding out which ones are not [sane] is to try shaggy-dog stories on them.

Just 6 years earlier, Eric Partridge‘s story “The Shaggy Dog Story” appeared in the weekly left-wing British political magazine, The Statesman, in 1931. You may recognize his name as he is also the author of Slang Today and Yesterday, published in 1933, as well as his well-known Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English published in 1937.

Isaac Asimov published a short story in 1991 entitled “Shah Guido G.” When a reader protested that the story with its anticlimactic ending was “nothing but a shaggy dog story,” the author pointed out that the title “Shah Guido G.” could also be read as “Shahgui [i.e. shaggy] Dog,” indicating this had been his intention.

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

Dog Days

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 12, 2010

When someone talks about dog days, they either mean those blisteringly hot days in the dead of summer or they’re referring to a period of stagnation.  Either way, dog days are draining days.

The traditional “dog days” of summer fall between early July and mid-August and are noted for their extreme heat and humidity.  In the Mediterranean, this period coincided with hot days that were plagued with disease and discomfort.

Sirius is the “dog star” from the constellation Canis Major (Latin for “Big Dog”), hence the name.  Sirius, the “dog star,” is within the constellation Canis Major and is the brightest in the heavens.

During this time of year, the star Sirius is at its brightest and can be seen rising alongside the sun.  In fact, the feast day of Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs, just happens to be August 16.  

Natalie Babbitt’s book, The Prologue of Tuck Everlasting was published in 1975 and is set in the first week of August.  In the novel, the author wrote:

These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.

There is a very descriptive use of the phrase “dog days” in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel,  A Christmas Carol, that states:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

And in William Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII written in 1613, Porter and his Man are talking in the Palace Yard in Act 5, Scene 4.

MAN
The spoons will be the bigger, sir.  There is a fellow somewhat near the door, he should be a brazier by his face, for o’ my conscience twenty of the dog-days now reign in’s nose.  All that stand about him are under the line; they need no other penance.”

The phrase actually dates back to the Egyptians.  They believed that the star gave off extra heat and humidity to augment the already formidable heat of the sun.  In fact, dog days coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile which was important for a good harvest.

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

Package Deal

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 8, 2010

In The Times-News newspaper published in Hendersonville, North Carolina the following article was published on November 13, 1963:

PACKAGE DEAL SET FOR JACKSONVILLE – A big weekend football package involving three Southeastern Conference teams and Navy is now in the works for Jacksonville, Fla., area next fall, it was reported today.

But this wasn’t the first time the phrase “package deal” was used.  In an article entitled “Democratic Candidates Wary of Package Deal: Top Bourbon Nominees Trying to Shake Loose as Signs of Dissension Evident” published in the Los Angeles Times on August 22, 1946 the article stated:

Weevils of dissension seem to have crept into the Democratic “package deal” for candidates in the coming election.  It Was Bob Kenny who, in the late lamented primary wrapped Democratic candidates in a package deal, hailed it as a novel idea and put it out in California’s political show windows as a leader in campaign merchandising.

But as far back as 1887, the phrase “package deal” was in use.  When Nikola Tesla applied to the U.S. Patent Office for a single patent covering his entire electrical system, the U.S. Patent Office informed him in writing that he was to break his application into seven parts rather than submit the “package deal” he had submitted.  By April of 1888, Tesla had applied for five patents which were granted and by the end of that year, he had submitted another 18 patent applications.

However, Thomas Cook, the first tour operator is actually responsible for the first published “package deal.”  Thomas Cook was a strict Baptist and prominent member of the local temperance society.  In 1841, he arranged an excursion to a temperance meeting in Loughborough, taking advantage of the newly opened Midland railway line from Leicester.  He advertised a “package deal” where, for one shilling (5p), his customers got their rail ticket and lunch on the train.

The concept proved to be such a popular one, that the Association for the Protection of Immigrants in Texas began offering a package deal to Europeans in 1846 that included as part of the package deal:

1,000 francs, passage and meals from Bremen, German to Castroville; transport of 300 pounds of luggage; a small log cabin; two oxen and yokes; two milk cows; twelve chickens and a rooster; a plow; and a “Mexican” wagon.  In return, the settled agreed to live on, and work, the land for a minimum of three years.

Were there package deals before this?  There have been package deals throughout history.  However, the phrase itself only came into vogue after Thomas Cook.

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

Pandora’s Box

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 7, 2010

When someone opens a “Pandora’s box” it means they have started a series of events that will result in a number of unexpected problems.  The phrase is based on an old Greek story in which a woman named Pandora opened a box containing all the troubles the world has experienced

In the original story, Zeus — the king of the Greek gods — gave Pandora a box as a gift but with strict instructions that she never open the box no matter how tempted she may be to do so.  In time, curiosity got the better of her and she opened the box just a little to sneak a peek inside.  Once opened, however, all of the box’s contents spilled out, these being all of the evils of the world.  According to legend, the only thing remaining in Pandora’s box was Hope.

On April 21, 1803 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush in which he stated:

It is my opinion that the man in California does not value Liberty, may be lacking in a conscience, and has opened a Pandora’s Box that will eventually bite him in the ass.

During a debate at the Paris School of Medicine in 1699, Louis X!V’s court physician, Fagon delivered an eloquent speech about nicotine addiction, describing tobacco as fatal yet irresistible habit.

Who is the rash man that first tasted a poison that is more dangerous than hemlock, deadlier than opium? When he opened his snuff-box, did he not know that he was opening Pandora’s box, from which would spring a thousand ills, one worse than another? Assuredly, when we try it for the first time, we feel an uneasiness that tells us that we have taken poison.

However, the first use of the phrase goes back more than 500 years.  Dutch Renaissance philosopher and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) who wrote on ecclesiastic subjects as well as those of general human interest published a book, “Adagia” in 1500.   The book contained a number of idioms and adages including two of his own: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” and “Pandora’s box.”

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

It’s In The Bag

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 6, 2010

The term “it’s in the bag” means that something is virtually secured.  An American colloquialism, it came into being in the early 20th century.

The current version was coined because of a tradition of the New York Giants baseball team. In Ohio, The Mansfield News reported in May 1920 that:

An old superstition was revived at the Polo grounds, New York, recently when Eddie Sicking was dispatched to the clubhouse with the ball bag at the start of the ninth possession of one run lead. This superstition originated during the run of twenty-six consecutive victories made by the Giants in 1916, the significance of it resting in a belief that if the bag is carried off the field at that stage of the game with the Giants in the lead the game is in the bag and cannot be lost.

And it continued to be used in the 1920s, especially with regards to sporting events.  On July 17, 1927 the Los Angeles Times reported:

“In the bag, big boy, it’s in the bag.”  Thusly has the sport fan spoken for lo, these many years, whenever the probably outcome of any wrestling match was discussed.

It was part of The Hartford Courant article on September 21, 1930 with regards to a boxing match where it was reported:

The following remark has been heard time and time again, “It’s in the bag.” Now that the featherweight champ Bat Battalino and Louie “Kid” Kaplan are matched to go over the ten round route I have heard the above remark, as I have said, time and time again, meaning that Bat will win the match.

And so, when you hear it’s in the bag, this Americanism means it’s over and done with — and decided — before the main event even takes place, whether it’s sports or any other competition.

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

Hit The Sack

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 5, 2010

The phrase “hit the sack” and the phrase “hit the hay” are actually variations on the same theme with both of them being American colloquialisms.  The expression referring to hay is from the early 1900s and the variant referring to a sack is from the 1940s.

It all started with Olympic heavyweight, Sam Berger who announced to reporters of the The Oakland Tribune in July 1903 that he was sleepy and, what’s more, “he was going to hit the hay.”

At the time, it was common for mattresses, or sacks, to be stuffed with either hay or straw, therefore “hitting the hay” was a literal thing.

The phrase “hit the sack” was in vogue during WWII.  In fact, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote on Saturday, December 6, 1941 that it was payday for the enlisted men.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, this is how payday went for those enlisted men:

By the time various deductions were made, John Joniec and his Army buddies in Schofield Barracks had little mad money left. So they spent the day hanging out, shooting the breeze. About 11 p.m., they hit the sack.

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

 
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