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On The Cuff

Posted by Admin on April 23, 2022

Recently an Idiomation subscriber mentioned how different on the cuff and off the cuff were from each other. What they knew of the idiom was that on the cuff meant free of charge or on credit. A quick check with established and well-known dictionaries confirmed such an expression exists and that it means just that (and is quite different from something that is off the cuff).

In the Norman Phillips (November 1921 – 28 June 2021) novel Throw A Nickel On The Grass published in 2012 and based on the true story of the author who became a decorated fighter pilot and rose to the rank of colonel, the idiom is used when speaking of the main character’s younger years. This excerpt uses the idiom and clearly demonstrates what it means.

Rick had seen a white jacket in Nate Fox’s window display, and now he could try one on and tell Nate to hold it for him. It needed a minor alteration that Nat wouldn’t do unless Rick made a five-dollar down payment. After wheedling Grandma, she advanced the five dollars, and Rick got the jacket in time for the prom. The white shoes were easy. Breller’s let him have the shoes on the cuff. He could pay for them later when he had the money.

French novelist, polemicist and physician, Louis-Ferdinand Céline whose real name was Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches (27 May 1894 – 1 July 1961) included it in his book Death on the Installment Plan which was a companion volume to his earlier novel, Journey to the End of the Night. Originally published in the mid-1930s (and republished in the 1970s), these two novels told the story of the author’s childhood growing up in the slums of Paris (France), and serving in WWI. It is said that Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s fiction was the forerunner of what became known as black humor.

The first ones to make a stink were the grocers on the rue Berce … They refused to give us any more food on the cuff … They came around with their bills … We heard them coming up … We didn’t answer …

As mentioned, the idiom was still very much in use at the time these novels were reprinted in the 1970s. In April of 1976, the Honorable Louis Arthur “Skip” Bafalis (28 September 1929 – ), a representative in Congress from the State of Florida, submitted this as his statement regarding food stamps and the cost to taxpayers with regards to the Peanut Act of 1976 at hearings before the Committee on Agriculture. In part, this is what he had to say on the matter.

We may see the day when for every American working hard and losing his shirt to the taxman, another American is living on the cuff.

When that day comes, and it could come, you will see a revolt — a middle American revolution. The working man is going to stop working. After all, what is he gaining for himself by working hard, if the taxman takes it all.

And when middle America quits working and paying taxes, a lot of those now living high on the cuff are going to get a rude awakening. Some may starve for they’ve forgotten how to work.

I know this sounds far-fetched. I hope it is. But I am afraid it could happen.

This indicates that the English version of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s book was not a bad translation from the French version. The idiom was known to those who spoke English.

A decade earlier, the Business Review of April 1960 saw one of its articles titled, “$52 Billion On The Cuff: How Burdensome is Consumer Credit?” included in the Consumer Credit Labeling Bill of 1960. The article began by stating that slightly less than $52 billion dollars of outstanding consumer credit was outstanding, not including mortgages, and there was concern that, with the fast rise in consumer credit since the end of WWII in 1945, the situation could negatively impact the housing economy and mortgage markets not dissimilar to what happened in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s.

In 1942, the expression was used in the discussion of the purchase of old vessels and the sale of new vessels from the Waterman Steamship Corporation under section 509 of the Merchant Marine Act, and dating back to 8 June 1940. The Committee on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries was led by the Chairman Schuyler Otis Bland (4 May 1872 – 16 February 1950) of Virginia, and included, among others, Herbert Covington Bonner (16 May 1891 – 7 November 1965) of North Carolina, James Hardin Peterson (11 February 1894 – 28 March 1978) of Florida, investigator for the Washington D.C. office of General Accounting Harry S. Barger (26 September 1882 – 1954), General Counsel James Vincent Hayes (1900 – 13 May 1985), The debate includes this exchange of words.

THE CHAIRMAN: I think wherever it is used it ought to be borne in mind that it has an invidious meaning whenever used in any public document.

MR. BONNER: What does on the cuff mean?

THE CHAIRMAN: Yes; what does on the cuff mean?

MR. BARGER: These are expressions used in the memorandum.

MR. BONNER: Does it mean a private understanding between people?

MR. BARGER: It could, Mr. Congressman. I would rather not interpret it.

MR. PETERSON: Let us read that little portion again.

MR. HAYES: What Mr. Peterson desired to have read was the on the cuff reference back of that.

MR. BARGER: The first clause is “Neither implied nor on the cuff understandings with respect to the purchase of old vessels from Water –“

MR. HAYES: What is the beginning of that sentence?

MR. BARGER: The whole sentence?


MR. BARGER: It begins with the word “Neither.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The only vessel of the C3-S-DX1 design, SS Schuyler Otis Bland was the final vessel ordered by the U.S. Maritime Commission, and the first vessel launched by the newly-created Maritime Administration. The vessel’s name honored the late U.S. Representative Schuyler Otis Bland of Virginia, sponsor of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. During construction, however, the vessel was surpassed by the C4-S-1A “Mariner” design and Schuyler Otis Bland was the only vessel built. The ship was ready for service in July 1951 and chartered to American President Lines for which it completed two globe-encircling journeys while engaging in commercial trade. Transferred to the U.S. Navy on August 4, 1961, the ship provided logistical support during the Vietnam War, until struck from the Naval Vessel Register on August 15, 1979. (Source: US Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration)

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Herbert Covington Bonner rose to the position of chairman of the House Marine and Fisheries Committee and was dubbed the father of the first nuclear-powered merchant ship, the Savannah. He was well known for backing the social programs of the Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations, and was an original member of the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: James Hardin Peterson helped to draft the G.I. Bill of Rights, and was instrumental in making the Florida Everglades into a national park. He and Lawton Mainor Chiles (3 April 1930 – 12 December 1998) worked as law partners until the late 1960s (Chiles went on to be a Senator from 1971 through 1989 and then the governor of Florida from 1991 through to 1998), after which time, he practiced on his own.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: James Vincent Hayes was an anti-trust lawyer who graduated from Fordham Law School and went into practice in 1926. He became the assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of New York before he was appointed special assistant to the United States Attorney General in 1938.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: In 1944, Harry S. Barger’s boss was John Joseph Sirica (19 March 1904 – 14 August 1992) who is best remember for being the Federal district judge at the trial of the Watergate burglars in the 1970s. Judge Sirica was nicknamed “Maximum John” because he was known for handing out tough sentences.

At this point, things get obscured. While it’s true that on the cuff referred to placing something on credit or getting something for free and was reportedly a popular slang expression in the 1920s and 1930s, especially among flappers, this doesn’t mean it is the same thing as what was meant at the end of the 19th century in the U.S., where the practice of penciling debts in shops and bars on celluloid cuffs was very real. Just because something appears to have a connection does not mean the connection can be proven.

In 1942, Looney Tunes put out a cartoon titled, Eatin’ On The Cuff where the moth eats his fill at everyone else’s expense (which is definitely in keeping with the meaning of the idiom). For your enjoyment and courtesy of YouTube, here’s that cartoon!

In Volume 133 of Bankers Magazine published in 1936, the subject of using credit to pay for holidays was addressed. The idiom found its way into the article thusly:

But like all sports and all vacations … it takes money. A skimpy vacation, one you ‘put on the cuff‘ is like sailing with a dragging anchor. No matter how much fun, there is still a reckoning. Let’s be smart and do it all beforehand.

In the August 1930 edition of Boys’ Life, there was a story about newspapermen and how one the Chicago Herald’s ace cameraman, Connie Layor, had been fired in front of all his colleagues despite the fact he had an exclusive shot at breaking a story about a man named Darucci who was on trial in Judge Cardigan’s court along with three other men who had been arrested with him and charged with various crimes. Bay McCue was a recent addition to the staff reporters, and had met up with Connie Layor at the court house. The short story by Alvin E. Rose and illustrated by Frank Spradling (1885 – 18 August 1972) was titled, The Man in the Door.

“You can’t tell. It might have helped a little, enough maybe have got us a lay-off instead of a permanent vacation without pay,” McCue moaned disconsolately.

“You don’t know the ‘old man,'” Layor growled. “Be quiet! I don’t feel socially inclined.”

“But I’m broke, Connie,” said McCue, “and, come to think of it, hungry. You couldn’t put me on the cuff for a few bucks, could you?”

Layor reached mechanically into his pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar bill.

“Thanks, Santa, “McCue brightened; “haven’t got a job in the other pocket, have you?”

Although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom, clearly in 1930 it was an expression understood by young readers of Boys’ Life and, as claimed by numerous dictionaries, it appears to be an expression from the 1920s. It also explains why the Senators (who were middle aged men at the time) struggled with the idiom’s meaning in 1942, and why Bankers Magazine used the idiom in quotation marks in 1936.

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Posted by Admin on April 9, 2022

Bologna is a large city in Northern Italy. Bologna (pronounced baloney) is also a processed meat that is a combination of ground pork, beef, chicken, and turkey. So where does baloney — as in nonsense, rubbish, or foolishness — come from and is it somehow related to the city or the processed meat?

The Herald newspaper of Everett (WA) published a story on 28 May 2009 about the Twitter account held by cwalken that was suspended due to strange activity. Some believed the account was that of American actor Christopher Walken but it wasn’t. The photo that accompanied the account name was that of Christopher Walken, but the Twitter account wasn’t that of the actor. The article was titled, “That Famous Twitter Feed Could Be Baloney.”

As a reminder, Twitter verification was introduced in June 2009 and became Twitter’s way to distinguish real celebrity accounts from unverified celebrity accounts. Twitter closed down Twitter verification requests in 2017 but after a four-year absence, as of May of 2021, Twitter has reinstated it.

University of California Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson (18 June 1940 – 2 November 2019) wrote “Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds” which was published in 1997. The title to Chapter Three was “Tuning Up Your Baloney Detector.” This chapter spoke about the need, even in science, to suspect baloney in claims that appear to be easily debunked. He stated that Carl Sagan’s own baloney detecting kit was instrumental in directing the scientist to quickly identify con artists and conspiracy theorists who purported to be all about the science.

What we need to protect ourselves from such false beliefs, Sagan writes in his book, “The Demon-Haunted World” is a well-equipped “baloney detector kit” A baloney detector is simply a good grasp of logical reasoning and investigative procedure.

In 1979, the United States Department of Agriculture published “What’s to Eat? and Other Questions Kids Ask About Food.” According to the Foreword, it was written mostly because 1979 was designated as the International Year of the Child by the United Nations, and it was felt that publishing a kid friendly book would be the thing to do that year.

Among the contents was an article titled, “Truth or Baloney About Oranges.” There were two sets of questions — one about growing oranges and the other about processing oranges — comprising of 5 statements each to which readers were to check one of two boxes: Truth or Baloney. The quiz was followed by a diagram showing the correct answers.

In “The Supplemental Appropriation Bill, 1958” published by the United States Congress, House Committee on Appropriations, the matter of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Tennessee River component of the Ohio River was a hot matter of discussion. The Tennessee River system at the time contributed to the floods on the Ohio River. Money had been borrowed by the TVA, and was being repaid to the Treasury Department. Senator Joseph Landon Evins (24 October 1920 – 31 March 1984) of Tennessee claimed the total repayments up until 1958 had far exceeded the 40-year statutory annual requirements, but some senators didn’t believe that was an accurate representation of the situation.

MR. JENSEN: You can cut it any way you want to, but it is still baloney, Mr. Evins. It is still baloney to me.

MR. EVINS: It happens to be a fact — a true fact. I am sure the gentleman would consider anything TVA as baloney, but what I have given him are the true facts of the situation. TVA has paid back into the Treasury more than would be required by interest payments.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Joseph Landon Evins was named a staff attorney for the Federal Trade Commission in 1935 and rose to the position of the Federal Trade Commission Assistant Secretary in 1938. He held that position until the U.S. entered WWII where he was commissioned in the United States Army Judge Advocate General Corps where he served until 1946, at which time he returned to private practice. He was a Senator from 1953 through to 1977.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Senator Evins was preceded by Senator Albert Gore Sr, the father of Senator Al Gore Jr who went on to become Vice-President of the United States of America under President Bill Clinton.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Benton Franklin Jensen (16 December 1892 – 5 February 1970) was the Senator from Iowa served thirteen consecutive terms as the U.S. Representative from Iowa. Before being elected to the House of Representatives, he managed a lumber company for twenty years. Prior to that he was a second lieutenant in WWI, and before that he was a yardman and an assistant auditor at a lumber company.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: He was shot in the back near his right shoulder on 1 March 1954 in Washington DC when four Puerto Rican nationalists — Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero, and Irvin Flores Rodriguez — promoting the cause of Puerto Rico’s independence from the US fired 30 rounds from semi-automatic pistols onto the legislative floor from the visitors’ balcony above.

It seems that baloney was a favored word if one goes by government documents. It was repeated several times in the “National Labor Relations Act: Hearings Before the Special Committee” in 1940 where a clear definition is provided by attorney Edmund M. Toland. On Saturday, 27 April 1940 Edmund M. Toland, general counsel to the Congressional Committee investigating the National Labor Relations Board and Herbert Fuchs (20 September 1905 – 1988), attorney for the National Labor Relations Board sprinkled their comments liberally with the word.

MR. TOLAND: Notwithstanding the fact that the charge against this company was a violation of section 8 (2), that it had sponsored, dominated, or instigated, or all of the violations of section 8 (2) with respect to this union, and this witness, being called by the respondent, after being cross-examined by the Board, then the attorney for the independent union questions him, and asks him whether or not the company had ever interfered with, dominated, or sponsored the organization so are as he knew, and his answer was “none whatever” and you took that testimony as to be immaterial to the issues in this case, and therefore concluded that the testimony of this witness, under oath, was baloney!

MR. FUCHS: Oh, I don’t think I intended to characterize it as untrue. You might get a lot of people to testify that they hadn’t seen one person kill another.

The use of the word baloney was used a number of times by both Edmund M. Toland and Herbert Fuchs.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Herbert Oscar Fuchs was a former American Communist who joined the National Labor Relations Board in 1937. In November 1948 he left the National Labor Relations Board over the increased attention being paid to the Alger Hiss (11 November 1904 – 14 November 1996) and Whittaker Chambers (1 April 1901 – 9 July 1961) case.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 3: Whittaker Chambers was a senior editor at Time magazine and in August 1948, he testified under subpoena before the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee that Alger Hiss, who had worked as an attorney for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration as well as the Nye Committee before moving to the Department of State in 1936, was a spy for the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Back in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a plan to go off the gold standard. The Depression wasn’t letting up and inflation was only making matters worse. The passage of the Gold Reserve Act allowed the Federal Reserve to increase the amount of money in circulation to the level the economy needed, but not before New York Governor Alfred Emmanuel Smith (30 December 1873 – 04 October 1944), took to the newspapers with an open letter to the New York State Chamber of Commerce. In his letter he wrote:

I am for gold dollars as against baloney dollars. I am for experience as against experiment.

The government was concerned citizens would use the term baloney dollars instead of the high-sounding term compensated dollars. Senator George Norris of Nebraska tried to offset the damage by stating to the media, “Even baloney is pretty good food for a starving individual.”

During the 1936 presidential, Governor Smith backed Roosevelt’s opponent with the memorable refrain, “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.”

But was the governor the first to talk about baloney that way? Not at all.

Idiomation found a joke of sorts in Volume 99, Issue 2275 of The Judge published on 6 June 1926.

HE: I love your eyes with their lustrous rays focused lovingly into mine.

SHE: Baloney; those are just words, nothing more.

HE (very much put out): What did you expect them to be? Sandwiches?

It was attributed to a publication recognized as the Texas Ranger.

Throughout the 1920s, newspaper comic strips American engineer, inventor, author, sculptor and cartoonist, Reuben Garrett Lucius “Rube” Goldberg (4 July 1883 – 7 December 1970) featured wonderfully complicated mechanical contraptions. They also often included the word baloney to mean nonsense as in “that’s the baloney” or “it’s a lot of baloney” or just plain old “baloney” all on its own.

The word was found used with ease in this published letter in the Vaudeville newspaper dated 30 June 1922.

Idiomation was unable to find any earlier published versions of baloney meaning nonsense, rubbish, or foolishness. It is therefore pegged at the beginning of the flapper era even though baloney as a prepared meat sausage was available long before then.

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Off The Hook

Posted by Admin on April 2, 2022

Imagine this scenario: You are in a room when someone says or does something wrong, unlawful, awkward, or unpleasant. No one calls that person out on what has been said or done. Everyone has let that person off the hook. Yes, when someone is let off the hook, they are free of blame or trouble that might have otherwise come from their actions.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: In rap culture, off the hook means something that is exciting, out of control, or that has been extremely well executed, and is usually in reference to a performance or party. Most people, however, do not use this idiom in that sense.

For example, on 16 April 2019, the Hartford Courant newspaper reported on Hartford’s $573 Million dollar city budget which included funding a tree planting program, a rodent control program, increased school funding, more police officers, and more. The newspaper reported the city was both off and on the hook.

Hartford is off the hook in terms of paying back money the city borrowed for infrastructure projects and other reasons because of a deal struck two years ago where the state agreed to pay off the city’s $550 million in general obligation debt.

The city is on the hook for payments related to the construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park, which cost nearly $72 million.

All kinds of people from the very poor to the very powerful have been let off the hook over the years. In Volume 1 of “The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Reaffirmation Act of 1987: Committee on the Budget” it was reported that when Amendment No. 631 was being discussed that Senator Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. (April 3, 1930 – December 12, 1998) used the expression his comments.

Mr. President, I just want to say in the same vein that my distinguished colleague from North Dakota has asked about the $150 billion. I think that we should look at why the administration would support the Domenici version. I think it is because it tends to let them off the hook on the deficit.

On 31 July 1987 in “The Increase in Statutory Limit on the Public Debt – G-R-H” Mr. Johnston began with commenting on the amendment proposed by Mr. Gramm et al and what he felt the amendment was intended to do.

What I find is that this amendment really takes the White House off the hook. It is the take-the-White-House-offthehook amendment, or you might call it the sweep-it-under-the-run amendment, or you might call it pin the tail on the Democrats.

Later on, Senator Ernest Frederick “Fritz” Hollings (1 January 1922 – 6 April 2019) from South Carolina was reported as saying to the Presiding Officer, Mr. Breaux.

Arriving here on the floor, I listened to the Senator from Louisiana saying we are letting the President off the hook.

I am astounded. Of course, I’ve been trying to get him on the hook. If it were possible, I would have long since done it.

I thought we found a way last June when we had the House-Senate conference on the budget. The distinguished Senator Louisiana agreed to the conference report. We had to voice vote it late that evening. The Senator from Ohio, Senator Glenn, and I, paired on the floor there around midnight, objecting because the assumptions, the economic projections were all kiltered in favor of letting the President and the Congress off the hook.

Truth be told, the senators made quite a bit of use of the idiom which, of course, is how politics happens it would seem.

The 5 May 1947 edition of Life magazine published an article titled, “The Racing Racket” written by well-known and respected New York newsman Earl Brown (1903 – 1980). The focus of the article was on how the only winners when betting on horse races were the track-owners, crooked horsemen, and grafting bookies. It even stated that political machines and police officers protected bookies from the law, and track officials looked the other way when the public was robbed on fixed races. They weren’t pointing fingers only at New York, but Chicago and Kansas City as well as other locations around the U.S.

Occasionally all of a bookmaker’s customers, acting on mass instinct, will bet on the same horse in a race. Or some wealthy customer, feeling a strong hunch, will place a bet of gigantic size. Or a crooked horse-owner or jockey will overload the book with bets on a “Sure thing.” Whenever this happens, the bookmaker stands to be wiped out at one blow if a certain horse wins. Some way or other he has to get off the hook by “betting off” some of the money he holds.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Virginia native Earl Brown became a political activist, and was known for his battles with legendary Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Before entering politics, he was the managing editor of the New York Amsterdam News, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and a Life magazine editor.

The Trial of Mary Dugan” was made into a movie in 1929, but before that it was a successful Broadway play about a Broadway showgirl charged with murder in the knifing death of her wealthy lover. Her brother Jimmy is a newly licensed attorney who defends her. The Time magazine review of 20 February 1925 implies the idiom has related to fishing.

The Trial of Mary Dugan —A blooming blonde from the Follies wriggles OFF THE HOOK of murder in the first degree.

While it became more and more difficult to find published examples of the idiom, it was found in a number of newspapers in August of 1909 in article about an unnamed London music hall belle who had successfully “landed” a mature wealthy nobleman and who, at about the same time, had sued a music hall manager for non-payment of wages. She won her case against the music hall manager, and to add insult to injury (or so she hoped), she sent a nice selection of congratulatory telegrams to the music hall manager.

Some of the comments were “Good for you, old girl” and “Congratulations on your splendid haul!” One telegram event stated: “Don’t let him off the hook.”

As an added note, the music hall manager left it up to patrons of his establishment to determine if the telegrams regarding the engagement kerfuffle was about her professional or matrimonial engagement. Unfortunately for him, the article advised readers there was another action for damages against the manager pending.

Idiomation found a great many articles in newspapers from the 1890s about ships and whales being found off the Hook, meaning Sandy Hook in New York state.

Idiomation also found that off the hook should never be confused with off the reel which means something completely different but which many also assume is an idiom connected to fishing. Neither of these idioms are.

According to the “Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases” compiled by Professor of English Literature in the Imperial University of Japan and Scottish author, James Main Dixon, M.A. F.R.S.E. (1856 – 27 September 1933) and published in 1891, to be off the hook meant to be in disorder or flurried.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: James Main Dixon was the secretary of the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo (Japan) from 1879 to 1886, and a professor of English at the Imperial University of Japan from 1886 through to 1892.

He then moved on to become a professor of English literature at Washington University in St. Louis (MO) from 1892 to 1901, and in 1902, he was made Chairman of the Library and Museum Committee of the Burns Cottage Association for the St. Louis World Fair that year. From 1905 through to 1911, he was a professor of English literature at the University of Southern California. He also became the editor of West Coast Magazine in 1908.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: His sister, Mary, married Scottish physicist and mathematician Cargill Gilston Knott (30 June 1856 – 26 October 1922) who became a Fellow of the Royal Society, Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and President of the Scottish Meteorological Society.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: Knott’s Equations in geophysics are named after Cargill Gilston Knott and describe the partition of energy between reflected and refracted seismic waves.

Being on one’s own hook meant to be independent, and to hook it meant to run away.

Somewhere between 1891 and 1909 off the hook took on a new meaning. However, by 1909 it did mean what we understand the idiom to mean in 2022. Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to the turn of the century — around 1900 — for the meaning of the idiom to have changed and for the change to be accepted by society in general.

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Burn Rubber

Posted by Admin on March 19, 2022

When someone in a car burns rubber it means they have accelerated so quickly the wheels have spun causing smoke to come off the tires. In most countries, burning rubber and burnouts are against the law with punishment for doing so varying in degree of severity. Of course, burn rubber often enough and the tires and brakes on that car are going to have to be replaced.

When no car is involved, burning rubber means to leave a place or situation as quickly as possible.

In the 2018 book “Soaring with the Eagles” by former corporate pilot Ron Little, in the segment titled “Waller Administration 1972 – 1976”, the author wrote:

Landing at an airport in north Mississippi with the governor once, a Trooper met us to take the governor to a meet with town officials. There was a dirt road from the airport with a turn off about a mile to the paved main road. The governor up front and pilots sat in the back. Waiting for instructions from the boss, the governor asked, “Can you drive?” The Trooper replies, “Yes, sir.

The governor said, “Come on, man. Burn some rubber, we’re late.”

Off we went, as the speed passed seventy, we in the back seat could hear the gravel hitting the wheel wells and thought, “This is it, we are goners.”

Cameron Tuttle wrote in the “The Bad Girl’s Guide to the Open Road” published in 1999 with another edition published in December 2012 that “no one will mess with a chick who burns rubber.” The author then goes on to describe how to burn rubber when the car is an automatic and how to burn rubber when the car is a stick-shift.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: This isn’t Cameron Tuttle’s only Bad Girl guidebook. There are three others: A Guide to Getting What You Want, A Guide to Getting Personal, and A Guide to the Party Life. This particular book has a 4 1/2 out of 5 stars rating with helpful positive reviews.

The Gap Band released a song in 1980 that was on their album The Gap Band III titled “Burn Rubber.” The song wasn’t about cars or racing. It was about a woman who did a man wrong. One of the most telling parts of this romance gone wrong were these lyrics:

You told me to go up the block
To get you a strawberry pop
When I got back to the flat
You had burned rubber out the back.

I went to the closet and saw no clothes
All I saw was hangers and poles
I went to the phone and called your mother
And told me that you had burned rubber on me, Charlie

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson originally named their band the Greenwood, Archer and Pine Street Band in 1967 in their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The group shortened its name to The Gap Band later on.

In Volume 176, Number 6 of Popular Science published in June 1960, the literal sense of burning rubber was eloquently described in describing the Dart in the article “Torture-Testing Cars for Police Patrol” by Bill Carroll. The article described in detail how Lt. Ron Root of the Pomona Police Department and Officer Gordon Browning of the Los Angeles Police Department put the following cars through their paces: Plymouth, Dart, Dodge, Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Ford.

The Dodge Dart was in production from 1959 through to 1976 with model years from 1960 through to 1976. The 1960 – 1962 models had a 118-inch wheelbase, which was four inches smaller than the usual Dodges. It had long rear quarter panels with red reflector buttons set into the bad edges of each fender just above the tail lights.

From a standstill he crosses the quarter-mile timing line at 80 m.p.h., reaches 115 on the 0.7-mile straight, brakes to 75 for the first sweeping left turn and to 60 for a right-angle bend, slams into second gear for a dangerous reverse left under a bridge. Full throttle now, rear wheels biting deep to burn rubber around a rough left at 75 and ease right between too-close telephone poles. Then up to 90 on the short back straight, brake again, drift right over a spring-bending hump, hold 80 around a sweeping “U.” The short straight is good for 100; brake to 65 for Turn 11 and again up to 100 — 110 — 115 on the long straight. Brake to 75 and start another lap.

In seven minutes, the Dart finishes four laps.

This description makes the Dart sound almost romantic in an automotive sense, don’t you think? It’s easy to see how burning rubber could become popular with teens and young adults in the 1960s.

But burning rubber was happening long before then. In fact, in a letter from the War Department Air Corps dated 6 April 1942 and addressed to all Americans, Colonel R. J. Jones of the Air Corps spoke about ways to help the war effort which had created shortages in crude and synthetic rubber. Among the items that required these were car tires.

Don’t speed around curves. Fast turns burn rubber off tires.

This means Americans were aware that burning rubber was happening during the WWII era and they knew how burning rubber happened. But they weren’t the first generation of drivers to burn rubber.

In an advertisement placed in the September 1933 edition of Popular Mechanics promoting the use of Ethyl at the pump, the copy began with: “Yessir, I used to burn rubber with the best of ’em. Now all the wife lets me do is read the news of the tracks. But I still use Ethyl in any car I drive.”

Idiomation couldn’t imagine this expression go back this far much less further yet, however research found the term used in an April 1921 article “Traffic Perils and the Law: How Can Safety be Assured to Motorist and Pedestrian?” written by Bailey Millar, author of Paradoxes of Prohibition and published in Volume 46 of Sunset Magazine.

A ball is tossed into the street and half a dozen little chaps run after it, stringing out in such a way that a motorist, driving at twenty miles an hour, finds it impossible to dodge them all, while the ever-so-quick setting of the brake, particularly on a down-grade, is of no avail. The driver may burn rubber for ten yards and yet have to endure the soul-sickening experience of running down and maiming or slaying one of that merry little party, all innocent of a fact, which looms like an Alp to most motorists, though many parents will not concede it, that in these days of the flying car and delivery truck no child should be permitted to play in the street.

Yes, it may seem darkly humorous that burning rubber and only driving twenty miles an hour are found in the same sentence, but readers need to remember cars were new-fangled contraptions back then, and not the technologically advanced transportation cars are these days.

Prior to this article, Idiomation was unable to find the expression as it refers to operating cars, tires, and speed. Idiomation did find, however, a number of articles throughout the 1910s that spoke of the process of vulcanization used to makes tires where it was repeatedly stated that the process did not burn rubber.

Idiomation therefore pegs the first published mention of burning rubber as we understand it to mean in 2022 to the article published in Sunset Magazine in 1921 which indicates that some time in the 10 years preceding this article, the term came to be understood to mean what it means today.

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Knock On Wood

Posted by Admin on March 12, 2022

Have you noticed some people say something about a future occurrence followed by the expression knock on wood? If you have ever wondered what the means, that person doesn’t want to tempt fate after making a favorable claim, so they tack knock on wood to the end of their declaration. If you knock on wood, the superstition is that you should be able to avoid bad luck.

In the UK the idiom is touch wood while in the US the idiom is knock on wood but finding the origins of either idiom was wrought with all sorts of twists and turns along the way.

During the Victorian era, there was a children’s game called Tig Touch Wood which is now known as Tag. While it’s not the origin of the UK idiom, it’s an interesting fact worth keeping in mind. We will get back to this later on in this entry.

Back in the 18th century in the U.S., it was common practice for someone loading a rifle to knock on the wooden stock of that rifle to ensure the gun powder would settle properly. It increased the chances of the ensuing shot being a clean shot instead of backfiring on the shooter. But as with the Tig Touch Wood information, it’s not the origin of the US version of the idiom.

Interestingly enough, knock on wood wasn’t published in any books or magazines before 1892, but touch wood first began to appear in books in 1742, and when it did, it wasn’t the touch wood we know today.

Idiomation decided to track down the idiom touch wood first and found the Victorian era game in “The Boy’s Own Book: A Complete Encyclopedia of All the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative of Boyhood and Youth” compiled by William Clarke (1800 – 17 June 1838) and published in 1829 through an American publishing press, Munroe and Francis in Boston, and by Charles S. Francis in New York. The game was known as Touch and in some cases, Touch-iron or Touch wood.

It was accepted that in the North Country of England, the game of Touch Wood was known as Tig Touch Wood (mentioned earlier in this entry) — a derivative of the Saxon phrase tillan meaning to touch and ligbaere meaning flame or fiery. The game, however, was the same: Children chased after each other but were exempt by law of the game from capture while touching wood.

While that is amusing, stepping back even earlier, Idiomation learned that in the early 1800s tigwood was a rotten piece of wood used to catch the fire struck from a flint according to the Samuel Johnson and William Perry tome published in 1805 titled “The Synonymous, Etymological, and Pronouncing English Dictionary.” This is further confirmed by a poem by English poet and writer Charles Cotton (28 April 1630 – 16 February 1687) from over 150 years earlier titled, “Scarronides: Or, Virgil Travestie: A Mock Poem on the First and Fourth Books of Virgil’s Aeneid, in English Burlesque” wherein this stanza is found.

For each man had his flint and touch-wood
The world besides could shew no such wood:
The sticks they gather, leaves and briers,
And fall a making them good fires;
Then skellets, pans, and posnets put on
To make them porridge without mutton.

And in English philologist and lexicographer Nathan Bailey’s “An Universal Etymological English Dictionary” first published in 1730, touch wood is included and defined as a rotten wood for starting fires. Even the “Dictionnaire Royal François-anglois et Anglo-françois” published during that same time period agreed that Touch Wood was rotten wood used to start a fire.

Somewhere between the earlier meaning of rotten wood and the boys’ game, Touch Wood had a change of heart from being rotten wood with which to start a fire to part of the rules for playing the game, and all in the space of one generation or so it seems.

Additionally, the only good luck tied to touching wood seems to be in the children’s game more so than in starting fires.

The research took back Idiomation back to knock on wood, and in 1932, the expression was used in the Records and Briefs of the United States Supreme Court in the case between M. C. Schaefer Appellant, and Sam Macri et al Appellees, in the County of Multnomah, Oregon. Mr. Schaefer had requested and paid the official court reporter, Glen W. Walston, for three copies of a transcript of the proceedings, and upon checking the copies, he found them to be inaccurate. He brought this to the attention of the official court reporter in a letter dated, 1952. The complaint listed the series of events, including this:

You then said, ‘I’ve had an awful time on this; the girl I had on the first part of this work was drunk and we really had quite a time of it. I’ve made only one mistake in the last three years, and that wasn’t on my part; the typist typed “did” instead of “didn’t” in a brief.’ Your wife then, coming toward your office from another office, said: ‘Don’t say that; I heard that, you know what will happen when you say a thing like that.’ And you said, ‘Yes, I know, I should knock on wood. I think that should cover all the errors, and I will check my notes and write up all additional changes and mail this with the certificates to you in a few days.’

An excellent explanation of how people buy into the concept of knocking on wood being a call to good luck appeared in Volume 29 of Advertising and Selling magazine in the 15 May 1920 edition. The President of the Manternach Company, Michael C. Manternach (1884 – 3 July 1977), wrote an article titled, “Why the Summer Layoff Is Founded On Fallacy: What an Agency Head Things of the Custom of Dropping July and August Out of the Advertising Schedule.” Almost immediately, the writer took on facts and reason versus beliefs and superstition.

For instance: thousands of good, sensible American men and women “knock on wood” when sickness, loss of money or any other misfortune is mentioned. Or course, they do not really believe that “knocking on wood” can avert evil. The slightest reasoning would dispel such belief; the most superficial examination of facts would disprove it. Nevertheless, this custom positively controls the actions of thousands of sensible people because they do not submit it to the tests of reason and of fact. They “knock on wood” because others “knock on wood.”

A few years earlier in 1910, at the afternoon session of the Fifth Annual Report of the Railroad Commission of Indiana conducted by Commissioner McClure who opened the session by mentioning Item #6 on the program titled, “Whether It Is Advisable to Establish on the Railroads Committees of Safety: The Chicago and Northwestern Plan.” The plan was not original in that it was shared the plan was based on that devised by the United States Steel Corporation where the results of the plan were labeled wonderful.

Chairman Wood stated for the record that the E.J. & E. Railways had a similar safety plan, and he suggested Mr. Kirk, the representative for E.J. & E. Railway, a division of the Illinois Steel Company, enlighten everyone on their safety plan. In the transcript of this session, the following was recorded:

CHAIRMAN WOOD: Mr. Chairman, just another word. What I want to protest against is that there is so much here — there are so many fatalists amongst us. Every time I tell the superintendents about these accidents that happen they “knock on wood” but that is just about all they do. Now what Mr. Richards said about this is true and what do we do but “knock on wood.” Now can’t we do something? That is what this convention is for.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Chairman Wood was William J. Wood, Railroad Commissioner for Evansville, and Commissioner McClure was John F. McClure, Railroad Commissioner for Anderson.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: The E.J. & E. Railway was the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway that ran between Waukegan, Illinois and Gary, Indiana. The railway became part of CN (Canadian National) Railway through a merger in 2009 when it became part of its Wisconsin Central (WC) subsidiary.

The idiom was in quotation marks which indicates it wasn’t a well-known idiom among railway men at least back in 1910 however it did exist as American Folklore as mentioned in the 1892 edition of the Journal of American Folklore.

Many people will not step across a tethered cow’s rope. They will go around the cow, or lift up the rope and go under. Many will not go under a ladder, even the masons at work.

If your right hand itch, you will get money. You should knock on wood, according to the saying.

That indicates that in 1892, knocking on wood for good luck was already a saying but no matter how much research was done, Idiomation was unable to trace the idiom further back than the mention in 1892.

Some will say the expressions date back to pagan times based solely on conjecture, and others say the expression dates back to a time when people believed good spirits lived in trees. Some even believe the woodstock on a firearm mentioned previously in this entry is the origin of the idiom.

The fact of the matter is that the origin of these two idioms which are related in spirit but perhaps not in origin remain unknown at this time. Idiomation will continue to search for the definitive answer for both these idioms which appear to be related but until then, this idiom is listed as unknown.

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Jump The Shark

Posted by Admin on March 5, 2022

When someone or something jumps the shark it means the person or thing has hit a new low in delivering quality, relying on gimmicks to hold people’s attention. Yes, when jumping the shark, whatever the action, it is perceived by others as a seriously misguided attempt to regain attention for someone or something that is no longer as popular as it once was.

Over the past few years, a number of politicians have allegedly been jumping the shark according to mainstream media including, but not limited to, President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump at the top, to Connecticut Governor Edward Milner “Ned” Lamont Jr. on through to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In 2021, Harvard University elected its first-ever atheist chaplain and earned the reputation as being the first Ivy League University to jump the shark by electing an atheist chaplain to lead their religious community. Yes, the man who described himself to the media and followers as being a “devout atheist” was named president of chaplains at Harvard University.

Opinion contributor Bernard Goldberg saw his OpEd piece published in The Hill on 21 October 2021 with the headline “What Will It Take To Get The Woke Folks to Jump The Shark?” The piece began with this tidbit of information:

On Sept. 20, 1997, Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, better known as “Fonzie,” or simply the “Fonz,” made history — of sorts. That’s the day he jumped the shark.

Bernard Goldberg was actually mistaken about the date Fonzie jumped the shark. That happened twenty years earlier on 20 September 1977.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News.

However, in 1997, Jon Hein created a website registered as, Jump The Shark, where he published a long list of television shows that had, in his opinion, jumped the shark, indicating at what point that had happened.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Jon Hein sold Jump The Shark Inc. for over $1 Million USD in 2006. According to an interview with Jon Hein, the website was always something he did in his spare time, and was never his day job. It was never his intent to make money from the website however when he was offered $1 Million USD by Gemstar (the owners of TV Guide) on 20 June 2006, he decided it was a fair offer and accepted it.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Jon Hein graduated from the University of Michigan in 1989 with a double major in communications and history.

On 23 October 2009, Steve Duran used the phrase in the title of his article “Who Or What Caused The NFL To Jump The Shark: Was It Goodell or London?” for the Bleach Report. It was the year after the housing crisis of 2008 in the US which was, at the time, considered to be the worst economic downturn in almost 80 years, and the NFL was charging fans and arm and a leg to attend games and watch them on pay-per-view.

There is an old saying in television, it’s called, “Jumping the Shark.” Fonzie jumped a shark while wearing his leather jacket and from that point forward the show stopped being relavent [sic]. Granted it was a long spiral down, but most assuredly the direction was down.

Just a few years earlier, Washington Post staff writer Ann Hornady reviewed Angeline Jolie’s movie “The Cradle of Life” and when her review was published on 25 July 2003, it wasn’t a particularly favorable one. It wasn’t completely unfavorable either, however it did end with this commentary.

There’s a phrase for franchises that have outlived their freshness: “jumping the shark,” referring to an infamous “Happy Days” episode featuring Fonzie on water skis. In “The Cradle of Life,” Lara Croft doesn’t jump the shark — she’s much too refined for such blatant pandering — but she does manage to take it for a ride.

Everything points to the television show “Happy Days” as being the moment when the spirit of jumping the shark came alive with character Arthur “Fonzie aka The Fonz” Fonzarelli played by American actor Henry Winkler jumped over a shark with water skis while wearing his trademark leather jacket.

But jumping the shark at that point in time was just a scene in a television episode and not an idiom.

According to Chris Hutchins of Cox News Service, that happened later. In an article printed in the Chicago Tribune on 20 March 2002 titled, “When Shows Jump The Shark” the journalist stated: “Jumping the shark was coined by Jon Hein of New York City.”

This led Idiomation back to Jon Hein who, as we knew at this point, was responsible for creating the Jump The Shark website in 1997. This meant that it was agreed by all parties that the phrase was coined sometime between the episode in 1977 and the creation of Hein’s website in 1997.

Tropedia indicates that Jon Hein coined the term with his college friends in the mid-1980s while still in college, and a number of reputable websites including IndieWire support that assertion based on an interview on the Howard Stern show in the summer of 2006.

The IndieWire article reported that Jon Heim created the site a decade after the idiom was coined, which means the idiom came about sometime in 1987.

However, other sources claim the idiom was coined by Jon Heim and his roommate Sean Connolly, not solely by Jon Heim, and not by Jon Heim and a group of college friends, in 1985 while they were attending the University of Michigan.

In fact, in an interview with the University of Michigan newspaper Michigan Today on 19 February 2016, Jon Heim shared with reporter Alan Glenn how the idiom came about.

I was sitting with my buddies at 807 South Division and we were talking about when our favorite shows started to go downhill. A couple examples came out, and somebody said, “Happy Days.” My roommate of four years, my freshman roommate all through graduation, Sean Connolly, who’s an ROTC guy, and very, very funny, said — not in a joking way — “When Fonzie jumped the shark.” There was a pause in the room because we all knew exactly what he meant … Throughout college, we’d use the phrase.

Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to late 1985 and attributes it to Sean Connolly as does Jon Hein.

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Down The Rat Hole

Posted by Admin on February 26, 2022

Last month, Idiomation posted about going down the rabbit hole, and along the way we found out about going down the rat hole which isn’t at all the same as going down the rabbit hole. When someone goes down the rat hole, it’s for a worthless purpose or reason and is a complete waste of money as well as resources.

Now the rathole being researched isn’t the rathole that’s known in poker playing circles. When a rathole refers to cards, that means to leave the table with a profit, and to return later on with a minimum buy-in after pocketing that big win. While ratholing is a great way to ensure a gambler doesn’t lose all the money they won previously, it’s not something most gamblers or casinos look kindly upon.

With the difference explained, let’s return to going down the rat hole.

The Military News published a story on 5 March 2021, it was reported that the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee questioned how the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program fit into the Defense Department’s future strategy. With the program’s total cost projected to surpass $1 trillion USD over a 50-year service lifetime, Democratic representative Adam Smith referred to the program as throwing money “down that particular rathole.”

Jordan Ross Belfort, the infamous American entrepreneur, former stockbroker and convicted felon who pleaded guilty to fraud and related crimes in connection with stock-market manipulation, created, by way of his crimes, the perfect example of throwing money down the rat-hole.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The major motion picture by Warner Brothers, “Wolf of Wall Street” is based on Jordan Ross Belfort and his time on Wall Street.

Back on 1 October 1981, the New York Times reported on U.S. Federal bureaucrat and whistleblower Al Louis Ripskis, who tasked himself with tracking down the waste and malfeasance in his own agency and root it out. It was stated that Mr. Ripskis past crusades resulted in Congressional hearings and publicity that embarrassed and humiliated officials. This time, he railed against the ways his agency could have researched water conservation without spending $500,000 USD in the process.

From his office in a ninth-floor cubbyhole at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Al Louis Ripskis whispers into the phone. “The brazenness. The gall. They’re pouring money down a rat hole!”

Even Time magazine made use of the expression, reporting it in an article titled, “Political Note: Rat Hole” published on 3 February 1930. The article dealt with Chicago’s public debt with no money in the City Treasury, none in the Cook County Treasury, and none in the School Board Treasury. Twenty-three park boards were penniless.

There was $500,000 outstanding on coal and because of that, coal dealers were refusing to deliver more coal to schools. Over $7 million was owed to provision merchants supplying food, and 13,000 teachers had not been paid at all in 1930, not just in the current school year. Nearly 4,000 Cook County employees were owed over a million dollars in back pay, and that wasn’t all that was going on.

No taxes had been paid in the city or county in 20 months as a result of the 1928 rebellion of property owners against discriminatory assessments. Tax warrants had been issued but Chicago bankers refused to advance any more cash on the $189,000,000 worth of tax warrants that had been issued.

The State Tax Commissioner William H. Malone had suggested the sale of $50,000,000 tax warrants to Chicago railroads, industries, and large landed corporations, but Chicago railroads, industries and large landed corporations objected on the basis that the city already owed all of them millions of dollars in services rendered.

Prominent Chicago lawyer, Silas Hardy Strawn (15 December 1866 – 4 February 1946), was an organizer of a Citizens’ Committee who understood all too well the desperate straits in which Chicago’s politicians had placed its citizens. The magazine reported that Silar Hardy Strawn stated clearly:

“Everyone stays asleep. . . . They talk politics, of getting somebody out of office. . . . They saw they would be putting their money down a rat hole with the present politicians in office.”

Chicago Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson (14 May 1869 – 19 March 1944) marginalized Silas Hardy Strawn’s comments, blaming “reformers” and Chicago newspapers for the troubles Chicago was experiencing.

Virginia’s Norfolk Post newspaper of 5 August 1921 used the expression in a headline: “Money Down The Rat-Hole.” At the time, the Shipping Board was alleged to have a hostile attitude towards labor and that hostile attitude resulted in a strike which allegedly cost millions. It was claimed in the article if honest practices were forced by the Shipping Board, there would be a saving of $18.50 out of every $100.00 spent in operations instead of the $2.25 out of every $100.00 by way of the Shipping Board’s wage reduction and ship lay-offs decision.

B.C. Butler, manager of general advertising for four daily newspapers published in Omaha, St. Paul, Des Moines, and Kansas City, took on newspapers in a letter that was published in a number of other newspapers and magazines in 1906. It was published in the Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers in Volume LVI Issue Number 6 on 8 August 1906. The letter began as follows:

Geo. P. Rowell says circulation is the number of perfect papers printed.

Thus doth the venerable authority mislead the advertiser into one of the worst “rat-holes” that ever ruined an advertising campaign.

This “rat-hole” is unpaid circulation, and down this “rat-hole” the advertisers of America have poured millions of dollars.

He was on a roll, and after a few more pointed comments were made, he ended his letter thusly:

In closing I wish to say that the St. Paul Daily News has only quality circulation to sell, and we guarantee advertisers that its total net paid up circulation every day is larger than any other newspaper in St. Paul, without regard to any circulation figures that are now printed and accepted by advertisers and agency directories to the contrary.

This is a pretty strong claim, but we want somebody to disprove it. It may start the fur flying but we will locate the “rat-hole” while we are on the subject of advertising “rat-holes.”

In an article titled, “Success in Manufacturing” published in Volume 21 of The Manufacturer and Builder: A Practical Journal of Industrial Progress published in July of 1889, quick mention was made of the Westinghouse Machine Company of Pittsburgh that had sent fully equipped experts out to visit a number of prominent manufacturing establishments so they could test the consumption of power by each machine. The question was asked why economize in wages and in the cost of raw materials when there was waste of fuel and power happening. The article ended stating the following:

Few people in this country seem to realize the amount of money that can be wasted in a year, through the steam pipe. The proverbial ‘rat hole’ will not compare with it. The manufacturer who has learned to economize at the steam pipe, has learned one of the most important secrets of success.

Fifteen years earlier, on 23 February 1874, the Daily Republican newspaper of Little Rock, Arkansas reported on page 1:

The ways and means committee, as well as the people, state they would like to see how that $30,000 was appropriated before they pour any more money down the rat-hole.

Twenty years earlier, on 18 July 1854, the Georgia Telegraph reported this on page 2 of its newspaper.

The Memphis Appeal thinks it a pretty good sign of hard times “when you see a (illegible) worth seventy thousand digging for two hours with a pickaxe for a five cent piece that had rolled down a rat hole.

But Idiomation came across an interesting article in the Litchfield Enquirer of 28 July 1842. It isn’t so much the passing of Mr. South that was interesting but rather where he had hidden his money.

The Norwich Courier of Tuesday states that a Mr. South, for many years the keeper of a drinking and oyster shop in that city died on the previous day in a fit. On searching his premises about four thousand dollars in specie was found stowed away in old segar and raisin boxes, in bags and old shoes, in every rat-hole about the shop.

Another article from 02 February 1842, the Camden Journal in South Carolina reprinted an article from the Charleston Courier newspaper about money found.

In removing some logs which had been lying for a year post upon Commercial Wharf, the laborers found, in a rat hole, about four hundred dollars in bills of the Georgetown Bank. One man found nearly two hundred dollars, including three 50 dollar bills.

It seems to Idiomation that hiding paper money down rat-holes may have been something done in the mid 1800s which would certainly explain the idiom of throwing anything of value down the rathole was a bad idea as rats, like any rodent, are more than happy to shred money to make a comfy nest for themselves.

Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to the 1850s with a strong nod to the fact that rat holes and bank notes made strange bedfellows long before that time and no idea who published the idiom first.

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Do A Houdini

Posted by Admin on February 12, 2022

When you do a Houdini or pull a Houdini it means you have left the scene — you know, disappeared — or somehow managed to wiggle out of a bad situation. It’s obvious this is a reference to the great magician Hungarian-American illusionist, stunt performer, and mysteriarch Harry Houdini (24 March 1874 – 31 October 1925) who could break locks, escape from submerged boxes, get out of straightjackets, slip out of water torture cells, walk through brick walls, make elephants disappear, and more.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Harry Houdini’s real name was Ehrich Weisz, son of Rabbi Mayer Weisz and Cecilia Steiner, who reworked the name of his idol, French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and anglicized his given name to be more American thereby becoming Harry Houdini. Although he was born in Budapest, he claimed he was born in Appleton (WI) where he was raised.

The question is whether the idiom came about after Harry Houdini’s passing or if it came about during his lifetime.

Imagine Idiomation’s surprise when the following was found in Volume 75 of Collier’s National Weekly magazine for 18 April 1925 in an article titled “When Magic Didn’t Work” written by Houdini! But before getting to the article, the publishers inserted a large announcement that began thusly:

“Stop payment on that check. It did a Houdini!” Mr. Houdini wired us recently from Pittsburgh. The wizard (he modestly says he isn’t one) had been robbed!

This begged the question: Did the expression exist prior to the publisher’s note in Collier’s National Weekly magazine? The answer to that question is YES.

In Boy’s Life: The Boy Scouts’ Magazine, a short story by New York City author and teacher Wilbur S. Boyer titled “Music Hath Charms” was published in the November 1918 edition. At the time, Woodrow Wilson was the Honorary President, and Theodore Roosevelt was an Honorary Vice-President of the Boy Scouts of America as were William H. Taft and Daniel Carter Beard. Daniel Carter Beard was also a member of the Editorial Board.

Placing one end of the long scantling under the edge of the roof, he grasped the lower end and lifted and pulled the scantling towards an upright position. He was delighted to find that with his leverage he was able to raise the roof away from the side walls until he had a space of over a foot clear.

“Oh, joy, oh, boy! Where do we go from here?” he chuckled. “Here’s where I do a Houdini. Hey, Caruso?”

Mention of the dog made him pause.

Years earlier, the general public and the media as well as the illusionist himself referred to Harry Houdini as the Handcuff King and Jail Breaker. In fact, in an article titled, “A Mechanical Wizard” published in Volume 8, Number 3 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine published in March 1906, the article described him in this way but with the additional of the word ‘international.’ The news story reported that Harry Houdini had performed an escape in two minutes from a jail cell at a United Stated jail in Washington, broken into a second jail where his clothes were locked up, dressed, then proceeded to release all the prisoners that had been moved to the ground floor to leave him to perform his escape in the first place. The warden was gobsmacked that in the space of twenty-one minutes, Harry Houdini had succeeded so spectacularly.

It was, without a doubt, a legendary feat to escape from such a cell even the warden believed was escape-proof.

We know from Houdini’s biography that he began performing magic tricks in public when he was 17 years old, back in 1891, along with his friend “Dash.” They called themselves “The Brothers Houdini.” A year later, Harry fell in love with a dancer named Bess, they married, and Harry and Bess established a new magic act together as “The Houdinis” with Beth acting as Harry’s assistant.

In 1899, Hungarian-American vaudeville impressario and theater manager Martin Beck (31 July 1868 – 16 November 1940) took Harry Houdini under his wing, and by 1904 Houdini earned the title of Handcuff King when, in an hour, he got out of an escape-proof set of handcuffs that had been fashioned by a blacksmith in England who had devoted five years to creating the unbreakable handcuffs.

It was two years after this that the Washington jail event happened.

On 5 Januay 1907, in the “Reports of Proceedings of the City Council of Boston for the Twelve Months Commencing 1 January 1906 and ending 5 January 1907” the term was used in what appears to be the first published version of the term.

Alderman Fred James Kneeland spoke eloquently about the report of the committee titled, “County of Suffok House of Correction, Deer Island” and had questions about the use of the word escape in the report. Within his statement, the following was spoken by Alderman Kneeland:

I remember quite distinctly that the County Commissioners went to the Suffolk County Jail sometime during the past summer and it was decided by the County Commissioners that the Committee on Prisons, when they made their report, would give all the information to the public that was necessary. On pages 5 and 6 of this report we find “Suffolk County Jail.” There is nothing said on either of those pages about escaped prisoners whatsoever. The returns are signed by Fred H. Seavey, Sheriff. So far as my memory serves me, the two gentlemen spoken of by Alderman Linehan were fetched back to the jail; but in the case of the man who walked out, who did the Houdini, as the Alderman says, so far as I know, that man has yet to come back to Mr. Seavey. If this is going to be a public document, is going down into history as a report of the Committee on Prisons, and is going to be the official statement of Mr. Fred H. Seavey, I at least would like to ask Alderman Baldwin why some note has not been taken of the escaped prisoners at Charles Street Jail, and whether or not all the prisoners who have escaped have been returned to the jail?

The Chairman whom Alderman Kneeland addressed was Tilton Stuart Bell. Alderman Baldwin was John Edward Baldwin, and Alderman Linehan was Frank J. Linehan.

Idiomation pegs the idiom to 1906 — after the Washington jail break and before the Boston City Council meeting of 5 January 1907 — although who to credit for the idiom is unknown. Idiomation knows it was an expression that was understood by the Boston (MA) City Council members at the time so the idiom was part of every day language at this point.

That being said, the idiom obviously it met with Harry Houdini’s blessing for him to use the idiom himself in 1925.

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Posted by Admin on February 5, 2022

It wasn’t very difficult to track down the meaning or history of the word MacGyverism mostly because it was a straight road to where you might think it would lead. According to the Collins Dictionary, MacGyverism refers to any person who uses the resources at hand to successfully resolve a situation in which they find themselves.

Angus MacGyver, played by American actor Richard Dean Anderson, always found ingenious ways to get out of what seemed to be impossible situations from 29 September 1985 through to 21 May 1992 on the U.S. television show MacGyver. He was a fictional secret agent and a strong ally to social and environmental causes who relied on the practical application of scientific principles and on-the-spot inventiveness using everyday items at his immediate disposal.

To most fictional characters in the series as well as viewers watching the show, MacGyver used random and useless pieces, tying them together to create an unexpected and effective way to counteract inevitable danger certain to spell his demise.

The items he used most often were his Swiss Army knife, a roll of duct tape (which he conveniently kept in his back pocket and flattened so it would fit without creating bulk), a sturdy plastic ID card, a Timex watch, strike-anywhere matches, paper clips, chewing gum, and a flashlight. The character was a multilinguist fluent in English, Russian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and American Sign Language, and he know International maritime signal flags as well as Morse code.

All this was possible for MacGyver in light of the fact his character was written as having a genius intellect and a penchant for improvisation and adaptability.

The term MacGyverism is derived from the television character and his amazing ability to overcome dangerous situations most others would be unable to survive.

On 19 October 2006, Hudson Street Press published “What Would MacGyver Do? True Stories of Improvised Genius in Everyday Life” by Brandon Vaughan. The book, according to the blurb, was inspired by the fictional character Angus MacGyver and included this passage:

Inspired by television’s Angus MacGyver (played by Richard Dean Anderson), a secret agent who relied on his brains and scientific prowess – not to mention duct tape and a Swiss Army knife to save the day, the “MacGyverisms” recounted range from the concrete (using Chex Mix to provide traction in an icy parking lot) to the intangible (saving a relationship with the perfect turn of phrase).

The term has also led to the verbs “to MacGyver” and “MacGyverize.” In fact, “to MacGyver” was courtesy of Stephen Lunch on 1 August 1997 in his article published in the Orange County Register.

To fix something without benefit of tools or a manual is called “to MacGyver” a solution after the television show in which Richard Dean Anderson disarmed nuclear bombs with paper clips.

In an interview with MacGyver producer and writer Stephen Downing for the Christian Science Monitor published on 24 December 1987, David R. Francis wrote this:

“[MacGyver] relies on his ingenuity and knowledge, rather than violence, to complete dangerous missions. [Downing] calls the use of science techniques as “MacGyverisms.”

It sounds to Idiomation that those who enjoyed the television series took to MacGyverizing because they liked what the main character stood for and how he didn’t have to rely on violence to get himself out of scrapes.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Stephen Downing retired from the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980 after more than 20 years of service. He rose to the title of Captain of Detectives, and he established homicide investigation techniques that continue to be used to this day. He was a Commanding Officer of the Juvenile Division and then the Commanding Officer of the Southwest Area where he designed and implemented the first functionally integrated police operation in law enforcement dealing with gang activity.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Stephen Downing’s son, Michael P. Downing has also served as an LAPD Deputy Chief, and served as the Commanding Officer of Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations, becoming the interim Chief of Police after Chief William J. Bratton stepped down in 2009.

However, it was a year earlier in 1986, in the second-season episode 3 titled, “Twice Stung” that the character of Joanne Remmings (played by Pamela Bowen) used the term. Later on in an episode of “Stargate SG-1” the character of Samantha Carter (played by Amanda Tapping) used the term.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Richard Dean Anderson played the role of Colonel Jack O’Neill in “Stargate SG-1” which aired on 27 July 1997. The series was a spin-off from the movie “Stargate.”

There was a MacGyver reboot (23 September 2016 to 30 April 2021) that ran for four seasons which starred American actor, model, and producer Lucas Till in the role of Angus MacGyver. As you can well imagine, the MacGyverisms continued.

And so Idiomation has pegged the term to 1986 and episode 3 of MacGyver as the source of the term. The next time someone says you’re guilty of a MacGyverism, smile. You’re being compared to a genius-level who adapts well to unexpected situations.

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

Down The Rabbit Hole

Posted by Admin on January 29, 2022

There are many times when Idiomation has found itself going down the rabbit hole while researching an idiom, expression, phrase, or word, and the results are always interesting albeit unexpected. When someone says they are going down the rabbit hole, they are embarking on an adventure into the unknown.

When speaking with Robert Brundage of Robert Teaches English back in November, when going down the rabbit hole was mentioned, Robert guessed the expression was probably first used in the Lewis Carroll aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898) book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” published in 1865 when Alice falls down a hole where the White Rabbit had disappeared and finds herself in a very strange world indeed.

Up until that point, Idiomation hadn’t researched down the rabbit hole and was unable to confirm or rule out whether Robert’s guess was correct. What Idiomation knew is that going down the rabbit hole is nothing like going down the rat hole (which will be covered at a later date).

Using Lewis Carroll’s book as the starting point, the first chapter of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is titled, “Down The Rabbit-Hole.” Having read the book often as a child, the adventures that ensue from Alice going down the rabbit hole establishes the meaning associated with the idiom, and it is the starting point for all of Alice’s adventures in the story.

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.

When “Alice Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” was published in 1872, it was during a season that was seen as having been comparatively dull and unproductive for books, and the good news was this according to reviewers:

“Alice” is alive again, or rather has been to sleep again ; this time she has gone through the looking glass instead of down the rabbit’s hole, but she is the same Alice, and her adventures are as delightful as ever.

The review went on to state:

“If people will ask whether the second book is as good as the first, we can only answer that the second can never have the charm of novelty, which is a peculiar element in the success of its forerunner. We shall be glad to hear even more of Alice’s dreams — though, perhaps, even of them, we may some day get tired.

It would appear, based on this review in Volume 18 of “The Month: An Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Science and Art” published in February 1872, that going down the rabbit-hole was a comment that spoke well of the adventures Alice went on to have in her first book, and the hopes for her adventures in the second book.

Two years before the second Alice book was published, in “Amy’s Wish and What Came of It” written by Mrs. George Tylee (1811 – 1897) with illustrations by G. Wigand, published in 1870, Lewis Carroll’s book and character were mentioned.

I saw a new book lying on papa’s table, all about a little girl that had the most wonderful adventures ‘ she went down a rabbit-hole, and sometimes she grew so tall she touched the ceiling, and then she grew so short again that her chin knocked against the floor. Oh! how I should like to be just like that little girl.

There was no question which book the main character had spied on her father’s table. It was obviously “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” All the author had to do was to mention going down the rabbit-hole, and her readers knew exactly which book she meant.

Two pages later the main character’s mother admonishes her for discarding the proverb of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush by way of claiming she hasn’t any birds of which she is aware. Her mother responds thusly:

Think again : you have a happy home, kind parents, many little daily pleasures, and I think you often lose those ‘birds’ and let them fly away from you, while you are wishing to be Alice down the rabbit-hole, or Cinderella in her golden carriage.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: English author Mrs. George Tylee was Catherine Elizabeth Tylee née Ward who married Lieutenant-General George Tylee (11 November 1807 – 1865) of the Bengal Army in 1857. As a widow she wrote “Amy’s Wish and What Came Of It” which was published in 1870 and “Hurree de Fontenay or All Lost Save Honour” in 1876. Catherine Elizabeth Tylee was the daughter of Seth Stephen Ward of Camberwell (26 December 1766 – 10 March 1845).

A little more research uncovered that until the 18th century, rabbits were the young offspring of coneys which was the term for rabbits beginning in the 13th century.

Coney-wool was made from the fur of rabbits at the onset of the 18th century, and was used in the making of hats, and of course, they all lived in coney-holes until the onset of the 18th century when they started living in rabbit-holes.

This indicates that going down a rabbit-hole wasn’t possible before then. If you were going anywhere, you are going down a coney-hole which is an expression Idiomation did not find in any of the published materials of the time.

Regardless of how much effort has been put into researching this idiom, it appears that Lewis Carroll is indeed responsible for coining the phrase where people go down the rabbit-hole with the definition we continue to use to this day. That puts its first published date squarely to 1865.

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