Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Archive for December, 2010

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 31, 2010

The old saying, let sleeping dogs lie, means more than just to let sleeping dogs lie, which is very sound advice in the first place.  It also means that one ought not instigate trouble.  In other words, people should leave situations or people alone else it might cause them trouble.

The Atlanta Constitution newspaper reported on a court case on August 6, 1909 that dealt with a Mr. Jerome who had menaced a Mr. Carvalho who had threatened Mr. Jerome.  The article read in part:

“You’d better let sleeping dogs lie, Mr. Jerome,” exclaimed the witness, before the district attorney had said a word. As he spoke the expert’s eyes flashed and he pointed an agitated finger at Jerome.

In November of 1870, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Russia and India: The Frontier of the Russian Empire.”  The article asked whether England was on the verge of losing its Asiatic possessions.

Let us consider why Russia has gained enough to suppose she is sufficiently strong to infringe the wholesome rule to “let sleeping dogs lie” when applied to the English. The Crimean War showed her plainly that her people were barbarians, and that her strength lay in brute force.

The saying “let sleeping dogs lie” was a favourite of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, who exercised considerable influence over King George I as well as King George II from 1721 through to 1742.  He was quoted as saying this on more than one occasion regardless of whether it had to do with matters of the King’s Court, the American Revolution or any other situation where difficulties had arisen.

Geoffrey Chaucer used a similar phrase in his story, Troilus and Criseyde, published in 1374.

It is nought good a sleepyng hound to wake.

It’s recorded in French even earlier in the 14th century, as found in the Proverbia Vulgalia et Latina, where the saying is:  “Ne reveillez pas le chien qui dort.”  Translation: Do not wake the dog that sleeps.

As the phrase is referenced in the Proverbia Vulgalia et Latina, it is most likely that it comes from the Latin saying, “Quieta non movere” which means “Do not move settled things.”

That being said, the Book of Proverbs (26:17) says:

He that passes by, and meddles with strife belonging not to him, is like one that takes a dog by the ears

In other words, the saying “let sleeping dogs lie” has its roots in the Christian Bible.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Idioms from the 14th Century, Religious References, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Helter Skelter

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 30, 2010

The phrase helter skelter means that something happens very quickly but in a disorganized and confused way.  The phrase has existed since long before Charles Manson or the Beatles used the phrase. 

In fact, on November 18, 1922 the Evening Post newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand ran an article about a very successful revue that read in part:

Helter-Skelter” was an apt name for the entertainment planned and presented last night at the Concert Chamber in aid of the Mayor’s City Improvement Fund by Mr. Pat Ward, who had gathered around him apt exponents of mirth and music. 

Almost a decade earlier, on September 14, 1914, the Poverty Bay Herald in New Zealand published a news story about WWI.  The headline read:

HELTER SKELTER RETREAT CONTINUES: British and French Vigorously pursuing five days incessant Fighting – Evidences of German Rout and Demoralisation

In the previous century, Bentley’s Miscellany authored by W. Harrison Ainsworth, Esq., and published in 1841, contained the following passage:

Mr. Rasp promised to comply, and moreover to set forth his friend’s military prowess to the best advantage.

“I think,” said he, “your division stormed the Press-yard, and captured the whipping-post, during the Loyal Aldersgate Street Volunteer campaigning in 1805.”

“Right, brother Ralph,” replied the comical coffin-maker, “and when the Finsbury awkward squad routed your left wing in the City Road, and you all ran helter-skelter into the boiled buttock of beef shop in the Old Bailey, we valiant sharp-shooters protected your flank, and covered your inglorious retreat!”  And he entertained the company with this appropriate recitation.

A little over a century before that, in 1731, Irish poet Jonathan Swift wrote “Helter Skelter” which is also known as “The Hue And Cry After The Attorneys Upon Their Riding The Circuit.”

Thomas Nashe made good use of the phrase helter skelter in his ‘Four Letters Confuted’ published in 1592:

Helter skelter, feare no colours, course him, trounce him.

In the end, E. Cobham Brewer wrote in his book, “The Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of Difficult Words”  that helter skelter is an Old English phrase that means “in tumultuous confusion.”   Old English is defined as English used up until the middle of the twelfth century or about 1160.  While the book itself was published in 1870, Brewer was a fastidious researcher therefore identifying the earliest known date for the phrase helter skelter to Old English was not done without great effort and fact-checking on Brewer’s part.

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

Shotgun Wedding

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 29, 2010

Rumour has it that Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII had a shotgun wedding in 1532.  And records show that it’s very likely that William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had a shotgun wedding as their daughter, Susanna, was christened just 6 months after their wedding.

On October 30, 1667, it was recorded in Plymouth Colony court records that America’s first shotgun wedding was between Mary Alden and Thomas Delano, the son of Philip Delanoye, one of the original settlers of Duxbury, Massachusetts.  The groom was fined ten pounds “for having carnal copulation with his now wife before marriage.”  The judge who meted out punishment was John Alden, Thomas’s father-in-law and neighbour.

And then there’s the story of one William Marion who, along with John Cameron, went on a trip to Kansas in May 1872 to visit Marion’s in-laws. After a few days, Marion returned home alone to Nebraska. Eleven years passed and a boy allegedly wearing clothing identified as Cameron’s was found walking about. Marion was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to be executed for murder.

Though he was given a new trial due to lack of sentencing by a jury, a new jury convicted him as well and he was allegedly killed on March 25, 1887 by firing squad.  Oddly enough though, in 1891, four years after the execution, Cameron turned up alive and well.  He explained that he had run away to Mexico to avoid a shotgun wedding. Marion was pardoned six years later in 1897.

The New York Times ran a review on February 23, 1928 of a play entitled “Rope” by David Wallace and T.S. Stribling, and based on a novel by T.S. Stribling.  The reviewer, J. Brooks Atkinson reported that the duo had “fashioned a stirring melodrama Rope mounted at the Biltmore last evening.”  Mr. Atkinson referenced mischief makers, furtive meetings, loose gossip and a shotgun wedding among other things.  All in all, it would appear that the play was a great success in the reviewer’s eyes … or so he told the readers of the New York Times.

A year later, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on February 16, 1929 with the headline:  “Nevada Wrestling Match Rivals Shotgun Wedding.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune ran an article on February 20, 1937 with the headline:  “Charges Shotgun Wedding in Plea for Annulment.”  The story told was of one Charles F. Lyons, 20 years old, of 211 West Jackson Boulevard who claimed  his marriage to Miss Elizabeth Enright, 21 years old, of 3918 Flournoy Street was a shotgun wedding that began with the father of the bride kidnapping the groom and taking him to wed his daughter.  He filed suit in Superior Court to have the marriage annulled.

By the time WWII was underway, shotgun wedding also had a political meaning as shown by an article that ran in the Tuscaloosa News on April 9, 1943 entitled “Background of Peace” that dealt with WWII and the arrival of a Mr. Wilson in Paris in 1918.  It was a reprint from the Chicago Daily Tribune and read in part:

The guaranty was a note signed by Great Britain, France and Italy before the armistice accepting the fourteen points and supplemental conditions as a specific formula for the peace.  It was a sort of shotgun wedding, inasmuch as Lloyd George and Clemenceau had been told that Mr. Wilson might go to congress for a separate peace on that formula if they undertook to disappoint the hopes they had raised.  Shotgun or not, the diplomatic rites had been solemnized and the pledge was holy.

It would appear that the phrase shotgun wedding is an Americanism from sometime in the early to mid-1920s, being used with ease by newspapermen and playwrights by the time 1928 came around.

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

Swing For That

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 28, 2010

In the story “The Poacher’s Wife” written by Eden Phillpotts and published in 1906, the reference to “swing for him” is made and references being hanged for a crime against the character, Henry Vivian:

I’ll pay him well for his bananas, and I’ll pay him better for something else, which is to help me against that young bloodhound, Henry Vivian. I don’t care what I do against him, for he’ll ruin me if he can ; and if I was guilty I’d say nought, but I’m innocent. And if I’ve got to swing, I’ll swing for him.

The New York Times ran a story on September 15, 1895 entitled “Jim Talbot To Be Tried For Murder Done Fourteen Years Ago: Tracked By His Victim’s Brother.” It was to be a famous trial for murder held at Caldwell, KS with a number of interested parties, from curious spectators to vengeful adversaries, attending.  The article read in part:

Were it not for the hounding of John Meagher he would get free, so many years having elapsed since the tragedy, but the twin brother of the dead Mayor of Caldwell swears that Talbot will either swing for that or that he will shoot him on sight if the man is released.

The first published version Idiomation could find was in a copy of The Lady’s Magazine, published 1787. The reference comes in the dialogue of a comedy called The Embarrassed Husband:

“Murder him? No, no – it is not worth while to swing for him.”

And so whether someone is willing to “swing for that” or “swing for him” or “swing for her” the meaning is clearly that the person in question is willing to be hanged for a criminal — or perceived criminal — act they are about to commit.

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

Toss Your Cookies

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 27, 2010

Whether it’s toss your cookies or shoot your cookies or snap your cookies, it doesn’t matter how you say it — none of those phrases sound any better than the real word to which they refer.  The phrase toss your cookies is so prevalent in society that in 2007, a board game from Gamewright with that very name hit the market.

The earliest published reference to “toss your cookies” that Idiomation could find was from a review published on March 11, 1986 with regards to the CBS sitcom “Tough Cookies” written by Golden Girls’ writers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas. 

Sometimes, when it’s not making you laugh, it can make you toss your cookies. The trouble with the show is that it’s trying to be believable, when the characters are unbelievable, to the point of being sappy.

In the book “The Real Nick and Nora: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett” by David L. Goodrich and published in 2001, the following reference to “snap your cookies” is found on page 213, attributed to sometime in 1954:

Frances once wrote him saying she’d searched through shops in New York, London, and Paris for a gift to thank him with but had finally realized that no mere object could suffice.  Albert put his thanks another way:  “I know that if we spill over with love and gratitude you will probably snap your cookies all over that beautiful suite of offices you have.  So we will try to contain ourselves.”

The term “cookie” first appeared in print around 1703 according to The Oxford Companion To Food and so it’s a safe bet that no one was tossing, shooting or snapping cookies before 1703.

However, at the turn of the 20th century, newspapers oftentimes printed helpful hints for harried housewives that suggested giving sick babies soft cookies because they were more easily digested than other foods.  One can garner from that advice that a baby who didn’t keep the cookie down was a very sick baby indeed.

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

Sunday Driver

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 24, 2010

When you’re in a vehicle following another that is holding up traffic because it appears to be driven aimlessly, with no destination in mind and very slowly, the driver of that vehicle is said to be a Sunday driver.

The Norwalk (Connecticut) Hour newspaper published an article on July 20, 1933 entitled, “Saturday Driver Worse Than Sunday.”  The article read in part:

Saturday, not Sunday, is the most dangerous day to operate an automobile on the highways of the state, statistics collected by the State Motor Vehicle Department show.  For long years, the “Sunday driver” has borne the blame of his fellow drivers as the cause of the most of the week end crashes.  Has the “Sunday driver” started driving Saturday since the depression?

Sunday drivers have been the bane of travellers around the world for a number of decades it would appear. In a letter to the Editor of the New York Times, J. Martin Haas wrote the following on October 12, 1932:

It has been my custom for a number of years to take my family each Sunday on little trips on the suburban roads surrounding New York City.  My observations made on these drives lead me to believe that the crying need is not for more traffic regulations but for education, if possible, of the so-called “Sunday driver” than which there is no greater menace.

Four years earlier on March 11, 1928, another New York Times reader wrote the Editor on the subject of the Sunday driver.  In his letter he stated:

The “Sunday driver” is, in fact, often a nuisance and sometimes a danger on the road. When father and the family pile into their Sunday-go-to-country car for the weekly outing, whoever drives –and it’s just as likely to be mother or daughter as father or son — may lack the calm assurance required.

A tongue-in-cheek piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on May 10, 1927 entitled “Traffic Rules for the Sunday Driver.”  It began with this:

On account of only taking out your car on Sundays, you are entitled to a lot of special privileges.  For one thing, you can drive anywhere on the road you please.  This entitles you to select your own ditch.

In 1898, Alexander Winton started selling the first commercially successful gasoline cars in the US.  By the end of 1899, he had sold 22 cars.  With only 22 cars on the roads entering the 20th century, Sunday drivers didn’t appear to be a concern to other drivers. 

By 1903, one could purchase a gas Oldsmobile for $650, a Stanley steam Runabout for $650, a Cadillac for $750, the first model A Ford for $750, and a Baker electric Runabout for $850.  Ten years later in 1913, Henry Ford began making his cars on assembly lines. 

This made the motor car more affordable to the average American.  Ford began paying his loyal employees $5 per day and the price of Ford cars dropped down to $290 per car.  That year, 250,000 Ford cars were sold!

With 97,225,000 Americans in the US in 1913, that meant that 1 in about 400 Americans owned a Ford vehicle.  As car manufacturing increased, so did the number of car owners. 

On July 18, 1917 the Chicago Daily Tribune carried a story about a William Butterfield Sunday entitled “Billy Sunday Hits Trail to Court; Driver Is Fined.”  The 96 word news bite read in part:

For violating a traffic ordinance, Motorcycle Officer Frank Ervin took Sunday and his car to police headquarters The case was booked in the name of William Butterfield Sunday.  He was fined and Sunday promised to pay more attention to traffic rules in the future.

Perhaps this is where the term “Sunday driver” originated however that is only conjecture on the part of Idiomation.

While the earliest published reference to a Sunday driver that Idiomation could find dated back to 1928, based on how the term was used in the New York Times letters to the Editor, it appears to have been a relatively new term that was entering the American jargon with great ease.  Somewhere in the 15 years between 1913 and 1928, the annoying and dangerous “Sunday driver” was born.

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

Harvest Moon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 23, 2010

The harvest moon is a lunar phenomenon that takes place during autumn, with the full moon closest to the Fall equinox, and roughly around traditional harvest time. The moon is much closer to the earth at that point, and takes on a very different yellow hue.  This is primarily due to the dust in the earth’s stratosphere. 

In the Wall Street Journal of November 23, 1955 the newspaper published an article with this intriguing lead:

A week from now the harvest moon of song and story will be big and golden as a Thanksgiving pumpkin in the sky. And a man on Long Island ha started to slice it up. For $1, Mr. Robert Coles. with the Hayden Planetarium, will sell you a deed to n one-acre plot in Copernicus Crater.

What many don’t know is that the Harvest Moon is part of American history.  It was a steam operated gunboat that was part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  It left Boston on February 18, 1864 and arrived just off Charleston, South Carolina, February 25 1864, and the day after it arrived in Charleston, Rear Admiral John Adolphus Dahlgren made the steamer his flagship. A little over a year later, on March 1, 1865 the Harvest Moon struck a torpedo in Winyah Bay, South Carolina,  where the bulkhead shattered and then sank.

In 1747, Scottish Astronomer James Ferguson published his first work entitled “A dissertation on the Phenomena of the Harvest Moon” for the Royal Society of London; he later became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in November 1763.

On October 27, 1415, Hottric Abendon gave a sermon at the Council of Constance — the 15th ecumenical council recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, held from November 16, 1414 to April 22, 1418 — that cried out for the reformation of the Church of England.  In the text of the sermon, the Harvest Moon was referenced by stating:

When the harvest moon comes and the barns are full, then those beneficed men will be at home.

The term was part of everyday language in 1415 which means it was in use at least the generation prior to this sermon being given by Dr. Abendon.

The Asian Mid-Autumn or Harvest Moon Festival, also known as the Moon Cake Festival, fell on September 21 this year.  The bearing of lanterns and the origin of mooncakes that are central to this festival date back to a 14th century revolt by the Chinese against the Mongols. 

In 1376, the Chinese overthrew the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1280-1376) in an uprising brilliantly devised and carried out by lantern-bearing messengers who delivered mooncakes with hidden messages inside.

The Moon Cake Festival itself dates back to the Tang dynasty in 618 AD so one could say that the Harvest Moon, known by many names, has been around since at least 618 AD.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, China | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In A Jiffy

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 22, 2010

A jiffy is a length of time whose length no one seems to agree on. 

Yes, a “jiffy” is the length of time between successive microprocessor clock cycles if one is discussing the computer engineering “jiffy.”  Words has it that a 2-gigahertz microprocessor has a 0.5 nanosecond jiffy whereas a 3-gigahertz microprocessor has a 0.333 nanosecond “jiffy.” 

And just as correctly, a “jiffy” is the length of one alternating-current (AC) utility power cycle. In the United States and Canada, this “jiffy” is 1/60 second and in many other countries, this “jiffy” is 1/50 second.

For some, a “jiffy” is the length of time it takes for a beam of light to travel one foot in free space — about 1 nanosecond.  And for others, a “jiffy” refers to the length of time it takes a ray of light to travel 1 centimeter in free space.  There are even some for whom a “jiffy” is the length of time it takes a photon to travel from one side of a nucleon to the other.

Everyone, however, agrees on the fact that a “jiffy” is an indeterminate period of time.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune newspaper published a full page advertisement with an unusually large and detailed artistic image on August 23, 1970 entitled, “The Great Crochet Put-Ons: Make and Wear in a Jiffy – New 10-Styles-in-One Kit.” 

The ad started off with stating:  “What’s in gear for fall with the new mini, midi, or longuette?  Add-ons, that’s what.  Eye-catching crochet separates you can make yourself  — often in an afternoon!”  The kit contained patterns for 2 fringed vests, 2 skirts, 1 poncho and hat, 2 pull-overs, 2 regular vests, and 1 scarf and hat … all for $3.98!

Back on August 19, 1938 the Spokane Daily Chronicle ran an advertisement from the Porter Scarpelli Macaroni Company of Portland, Oregon that promised:

Warm Weather Menus Solved In A Jiffy!  

Yes, the Porter Scarpelli Macaroni Company promised:  “Soups, salads, meatless meals — all ready in a few moments!  Tasty! Cheaper! At your grocer’s — wrapped in cellophane!”

And on July 4, 1917 the Eugene Register Guard ran an advertisement for the Standard Oil Company’s New Perfection Oil Cook Stove.  The advertisement announced proudly: 

Cook with Pearl Oil.  A New Perfection Oil Cook Stove means kitchen comfort and convenience.  Ask your friend who has one.  Used in 1,000,000 homes.  Inexpensive, easy to operate.” 

And yes, they were easy to use as the larger print announced: 

Ready to cook in a Jiffy!  Just the touch of a match and your New Perfection Oil Cook Stove is ready for cooking.   No waiting for the fire to burn up.  Easier to operate than a coal or wood stove: No smoke or odor; no dust or dirt.  Bakes, broils, roasts, toasts — all year round.

In 1882, the old and most trusted friends of Elizabeth Prentiss decided that her memoirs should be written and so “The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss: Author of Stepping Heavenward” was published by Anson D. E. Randolph & Company.  From the diary entry of March 18, 1841 the following can be found:

Headache — Nannie sick; held her in my arms two or three hours; had a great fuss with her about taking her medicine, but at last out came my word must, and the little witch knew it meant all it said and down went the oil in a jiffy, while I stood by laughing at myself for my pretension of dignity.  The poor child couldn’t go to sleep till she had thanked me over and over for making her mind and for taking care of her, and wouldn’t let go my hand, so I had to sit up until very late — and then I was sick and sad and restless, for I couldn’t have my room to myself and the day didn’t seem finished without it.

The phrase appeared in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796 as “in a jiffy” as well as “in a jif.”

The earliest published use is in Rudolph Raspe’s book, “Baron Munchausen’s Travels” published in 1785 in which the following passage is found at the onset of Chapter 23:

In short, having given a general discharge of their artillery, and three cheers, I cracked my whip, away we went, helter skelter, and in six jiffies I found myself and all my retinue safe and in good spirits just at the rock of Gibraltar. Here I unhooked my squadron, and having taken an affectionate leave of the officers, I suffered them to proceed in their ordinary manner to the place of their destination. The whole garrison were highly delighted with the novelty of my vehicle; and at the pressing solicitations of the governor and officers I went ashore, and took a view of that barren old rock, about which more powder has been fired away than would purchase twice as much fertile ground in any part of the world!

The next time someone tells you they’ll be with you “in a jiffy” or that they’ll get to something “in a jiffy” it might be a good idea to clearly define how long their “jiffy” is.  It may not be the same “jiffy” as your “jiffy.”

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

Bosom Buddies

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 21, 2010

There was the song “Bosom Buddies” from the 60’s musical “Mame” and the 80’s TV show “Bosom Buddies” with Tom  Hanks and Peter Scolari playing men who cross-dress to successfully rent a room in an all-female building, but the phrase bosom buddies goes farther back than that!

It’s an updated American version of “bosom friend” or “bosom pal.”  The phrase “bosom buddy” has become more widely used because of the alliteration.  The term buddy is an Americanism.

In the book Anne of Green Gables written by Lucy Maud Montgomery and published in 1908, Anne refers to her friend, Diana Barry as her bosom friend

In the book  A Dictionary Of Biography by Richard Alfred (R.A.) Davenport published in 1832, the term bosom friend is used no fewer than 5 times in such passages as:

Peter Artedi, a Swedish physician and naturalist, born in 1705, was drowned at Amsterdam in his thirtieth year.  He was the fellow student and bosom friend of Linnaeus, who, in honour of him, gave the name of Artedia, to one class of umbelliferous plants.  His only work is the Ichthyologia, or History of Fishes, which was published by Linnaeus, after the author’s death.

The poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) alluded to his student and English pastoral poet, William Browne (1591-1643) in a poem published in 1615 where he wrote:

Then the two Beaumonts and my Browne arose,
My dear companions whom I freely chose
My bosom friends; and in their several way
Rightly born poets.

The phrase bosom friends is used with such ease in this poem as to imply that the phrase was already used in every day English of the Elizabethan era.

Before its use in literary circles, the British had a saying that went like this:   “A bosom friend afar brings a distant land near.”   This saying was a direct translation of the Chinese phrase “Hǎi nèi cún zhī jǐ tiān yá ruò bǐ l.”

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

Basket Case

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 20, 2010

The term basket case usually refers to a person who is a nervous wreck.  It also refers to a country or organization as evidenced by a story run by the Los Angeles Times on September 23, 1994.  The headline read:

Haitian economy, infrastructure a basket case
Nation lacks everything, needs repair from ground up

However, back in 1971, due to the war for independence that Bangladesh waged against Pakistan, Bangladesh was labeled by an official in Henry Kissinger’s U.S. State Department as an “international basket case.”

A year earlier, in 1970, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was suffering from severely degraded ecosystems.  The U.S. National Park Service considered the park to be an “ecological basket case.”  Over the years, the damage was reversed but this does not negate the fact that 40 years ago, it was an “ecological basket case.”

Before that, it was a grim slang during World War I, referring to a person who is physically disabled in all four limbs because of paralysis or amputation.  This bulletin was issued by the U.S. Command on Public Information in March 28, 1919 on behalf of Major General M. W. Ireland, the U.S. Surgeon General and read in part:

The Surgeon General of the Army … denies … that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated … of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.

The Syracuse Herald newspaper carried the story in March 1919 and added the following explanation to its readers:

By ‘basket case’ is meant a soldier who has lost both arms and legs and therefore must be carried in a basket.

The term was retired after WWI and resurrected in WWII when a denial from the Surgeon General Major General Norman T. Kirk was issued in May 1944 which stated:

… there is nothing to rumors of so-called ‘basket cases’ – cases of men with both legs and both arms amputated.

It is therefore easy to see that until the latter quarter of the 20th century, the term basket case referred to quadriplegics whose catastrophic wounds were as a result of a battle in which they were involved. 

The term basket case in this instance has been around since about the American Civil War.  In fact, there are American museums who have wicker body baskets, circa 1870, now on display.  It is believable that these baskets were indeed the basket cases in question and that the term originated with these baskets as the following item dated November 6, 1875 in The Constitution newspaper published in Atlanta, Georgia contained this as part of the advertisement:  12 Stylish Basket Case Suits $14.

References to basket cases prior to this date could not be found by Idiomation.

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

 
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