Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fill The Bill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 11, 2016

Idiomation shared the history behind foot the bill and fit the bill.  This time around, we’re looking at the history behind fill the bill, and what this expression means.  To fill the bill is to supply exactly what is needed to meet the needs of a specific situation.

On November 19, 2015 the HR Gazette website published an article about HR managers, and how to pick the one that’s best for your company.  The article discussed non-traditional graduates as opposed to traditional college students, and the advantages and disadvantages therein.  The article was titled, “Hiring An HR Manager: Can You Fill The Bill?

On February 1, 2000, the Latin Trade magazine decided to publish an article about fraudulent companies in South America.  Costa Rica correspondent Julie Dulude’s story began with an article published in the magazine Business Insurance that had been published in March 1999, and focused on a business calling itself Camelot Insurance Company, S.A.  The reporter’s investigation turned up a handful of companies with Camelot in their names.  The problem is that addresses are listed as local landmarks followed by compass directions, and so every lead was investigated by the reporter.  When she used the idiom, this is what she wrote.

Finding the next two addresses turned out to be a wild goose chase. The tenants at an apartment complex that seemed to me “exactly 75 meters west of the Colegio Metodista” knew nothing. “Ay corazon, since the school occupies the whole block, it could be on either this street or the parallel one,” offered the gardener.

Next door was a vacant lot and across the street a cemetery, so I headed for the parallel street. A yellow house next door to a construction site appeared to fill the bill. “Let me find my glasses,” said a middle-aged woman who came out to help. And then: “The problem is that it doesn’t say whether they mean the elementary or the high school. You see, the Colegio Metodista has a high school in Sabanilla, which is considered part of San Pedro.”

Filling the bill is something that was known nearly 100 years earlier.  In the book “The Lair of the White Worm” by Irish author Abraham “Bram” Stoker (8 November 1847 – 20 April 1912) published in 1911 the expression fill the bill was used.

There is only one other person whose good opinion she could wish  to keep — Edgar Caswall. He is the only one who fills the bill. Her lies point to other things besides the death of the African. She evidently wanted it to be accepted that his falling into the well was his own act. I cannot suppose that she expected to convince you, the eye-witness; but if she wished later on to spread the story, it was wise of her to try to get your acceptance of it.

Nearly twenty years earlier, in 1890 a passionate Letter to the Editor was published in Volume 34 of “Manford’s Magazine” reader James Billings of Hico, Texas.  The title of the letter was “Fill The Bill” and Mr. Billings to the expression fill the bill to task and wrote a passionate letter on the subject.

Shall that sinner be given up, as a subject beyond the reach of the mercy, and the love and power of God?  Is there no arm of infinite love, and goodness that can be stretched out to life this poor soul into the life of repentance, and to feel God’s forgiveness?  Is there no balm of mercy in Gilead to save?  Is there not mercy and goodness enough in God’s divine purposes to fill the bill, in every case?  God is love; and as it is an inexhaustible fountain, there is compassion sufficient to fill all bills, to meet all demands, and redeem all souls.

SIDE NOTE 1:  James Billings (15 November 1811 – 2 November 1898) was the new Universalist missionary in Texas, and had a noticeable presence as both a Universalist minister and a publisher.  In Hico, Reverend Billings and his wife, the thrice married and thrice widowed Mary Charlotte Ward Granniss Webster Billings (11 July 1824 – 2 March 1904), made a number of sound real estate investments on behalf of the Texas Convention, and opened All Souls Church in Hico, Texas in 1889.

Some sources state that fill the bill is American theatrical slang that dates back to 1882 where a lead performer’s name was the biggest name on the show’s poster with lesser performers listed in smaller letters and engaged to round out the program.  Idiomation doesn’t doubt that this may be true, however, the idiom was used in slightly more than twenty years earlier by the Illinois State Agricultural Society, and in the context we understand it to mean today.

On page 471 of Volume 4 of the “Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society” for 1859, there was a vote on whether to go with Wilson’s Albany, Necked Pine, Early Washington, or Iowa for general cultivation.  Notes were taken at this meeting and these words were attributed to Dr. Warder with regards to the best strawberry plants for farmers.

The Iowa is not a good bearer.  Only on in ten of its blossom produce fruit usually.  It runs too much and need thorough harrowing, which done, it bears well.  It has a high flavor but requires rough treatment.  It bears early, is good to have, though a little soft.  Austin or Shaker’s Seedling, Dr. W. hopes well from because of its great vigor, but doubts if it fills the bill.  Instead of the berries weighing at the rate of twelve to the pound, it take fifty weight a pound.  Has more confidence in Downer’s Prolific.  Downer is a reliable man, and the fruit and plant are both exceedingly satisfactory.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference however the term was used easily by Dr. Warder with the expectation that his colleagues would understand the meaning of fill the bill.  We therefore peg this expression to the early 1800s.

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Fit The Bill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 6, 2016

When someone finds something that fits the bill, that person has found something that, or someone who, is suitable for a specific purpose.   The person or object doesn’t have to be perfect for the situation, but the person or object has to do the job for which he/she/it has been selected.

Just last month, Headlines and Global News (HNGN) reported on the break-up between Zayn Malik (former member of boy band One Direction) and Victoria’s Secret model, Gigi Hadid.  Supposedly Zayn’s mother was behind the break-up, and going with that rumor, the headline read, “Zayn Malik’s mother to Gigi Hadid: She Doesn’t Fit The Bill.”

Back in 1986, when technology was ramping up in the music industry, Electronic Musician published an article in their May edition that talked about the Mac computer.    The editors informed their readership that if they wanted their “introduction to computers to be absolutely painless” the Mac would “probably fit the bill.”  As it was, back in 1986, the Mac did just that and revolutionized a large part of the live performance and recording aspects of the industry.

In 1890, the idiom was used in an article on page 426 of “The Kansas City Medical Record: Volume VII, No. 11.”  The magazine began publication in 1884 and continued through to 1911.  In all, there were twenty-eight volumes with illustrations published by the Kansas City (MO) publishers, Ramsey, Millett & Hudson.

Thus one writes in making his application: ‘I am a graduate of the Medical College of, and I think I can fit the bill. Is there any vacancies now? Is the examination as rigid as reported? I am a lover of surgery and hope I will fit the bill.

SIDE NOTE:  Ramsey, Millett & Hudson was a business owned by John H. Ramsey, H.S. Millett, and Frank Hudson, and they promoted themselves as printers, lithographers, binders, wood engravers, and book publishers.

While the idiom fit the bill was published in 1890, prior to this date, Idiomation has found many references to filling the bill with the same sense as fitting the bill, but fit the bill was conspicuously absent in newspapers, magazines, and books.

Fill the bill was an expression modified in the space of one generation, where fill was replaced with fit to become the expression we use today.  It would seem the idiom isn’t as old as one might think, but perhaps fill the bill will fare better next Tuesday on Idiomation.

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Foot The Bill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 4, 2016

The person who, or organization that, foots the bill is the person who, or organization that, pays the bill or settles the outstanding debt.  Yes, whoever foots the bill is the one who is responsible for payment due.

Just last week, on September 27, 2016 WFLA Channel 8 reporter Mark Douglas reported on what was going on with the Largo Building Department.  From those who were under state investigation to a whistleblower action against the city, Mark Douglas shared that taxpayers are on the hook for paying the legal defense costs for the department.  The article on the website was titled, “You Paid For It: Taxpayers Once Again Foot The Bill For Building Officials Accused Of Breaking Laws.”

Forty years earlier on September 5, 1976, Elaine Dundy, writing for the New York Times, reported on the 90-minute animated film based on psychoanalyst and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Erik Erikson’s eight stages of man.  According to Erik Erikson (15 June 1902 – 12 May 1994), every stage carried with it a crucial conflict that needed to be resolved before the individual could move on to the next stage.  Any unresolved stage supposedly resulted in an emotional crisis.

The stages according to Erik Erickson were as follows:

  1. Hope: trust vs. mistrust (infancy, 0 to 2 years)
  2. Will: autonomy vs. shame and doubt (early childhood, 2 to 4 years)
  3. Purpose: initiative vs. guilt (preschool, 4 to 5 years)
  4. Competence: industry vs. inferiority (school age, 5 to 12 years)
  5. Fidelity: identity vs. role confusion (adolescence, 13 to 19 years)
  6. Love: intimacy vs. isolation (early adulthood, 20 to 39 years)
  7. Care: generativity vs. stagnation (adulthood, 40 to 64 years)
  8. Wisdom: ego integrity vs. despair (maturity, 65 through to death)

Faith and John Hubley (well-known for their work on “Mr. Magoo” and other cartoons) were saddled with running every storyboard past an advisory panel of psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, educators, students, and network executives before moving on to the next stage.  The idiom was used in this paragraph describing the situation.

“Everybody Rides the Carousel” has been in the works for 10 years. First, permission from Erikson himself has to be obtained, then the rights from his publisher and last but not least the money to underwrite the project. After several failed attempts by the husband-and-wife team with both public television and other commercial networks, CBS agreed to foot the bill — with a condition.

SIDE NOTE 1:  William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) identified seven stages in his play, “As You Like It” in Act 2, scene 7 in a monologue delivered by Jaques.  Shakespeare identifies the stages as follows: Infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, old age, and second childhood.

Australian historian and professor at the University of Melbourne, Sir Ernest Scott (21 June 1867 – 6 December 1939) edited, “Australia: A Reissue of Volume VII, Part I of the Cambridge History of the British Empire” which was published in 1933.  The expression is found on page 357 of this publication.

Queensland would set the other colonies an example in dealing with a procrastinating mother country and save Australia from the “irremediable disaster” of further foreign occupation in New Guinea.  She offered to foot the bill.  But the elderly parent was not to be bolted by her youngest child.  Lord Derby first enquired of the Foreign Office whether he could be assured that no foreign Power would set up a claim to the territory Queensland had annexed, and on receiving an answer that Lord Granville thought no such action intended by any foreign Power, he declined to approve the annexation.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Originally from Northampton, England, Sir Ernest Scott migrated to Australia in 1892 where he lived until his death.  Upon his death, his widow, Emily Scott (who was also his second wife) funded the establishment of the Ernest Scott Prize for History that continues to be awarded annually for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand.

In Chapter XIII of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), and published on December 10, 1884, the author made use of the idiom.  The story is set sometime between 1835 and 1845, and takes place on the Mississippi River running through Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas, with specific attention to St. Petersburg, Missouri.  At the time, slavery was legal, and the dilemma Huck faced in the story was whether to turn in his friend (and runaway slave), Jim.  The expression appears in this passage in the story.

“Why THAT’S all right. Miss Hooker she tole me, PARTICULAR, that her uncle Hornback –“

“Great guns! is HE her uncle? Looky here, you break for that light over yonder-way, and turn out west when you git there, and about a quarter of a mile out you’ll come to the tavern; tell ’em to dart you out to Jim Hornback’s, and he’ll foot the bill. And don’t you fool around any, because he’ll want to know the news. Tell him I’ll have his niece all safe before he can get to town. Hump yourself, now; I’m a- going up around the corner here to roust out my engineer.”

SIDE NOTE 3:  It took Mark Twain seven years to write “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” mostly because he wrote the majority of it in 1876 and didn’t pick the story back up (to finish writing the story) until August 1883.

In 1844, the idiom appeared in the “Report of the Superintendent of Common Schools of the State of New York.”

And yet this monstrous power has been conferred upon those officers, subject to no control from any quarter, and the board of supervisors is obliged, without the least exercise of its own discretion, to foot the bills.  Some amendments, therefore, I repeat, are imperiously demanded.

Three years earlier on December 13, 1841, the Directors and Superintendent of the Ohio Lunatic Asylum presented their third annual report on the condition of the institution to the Fortieth General Assembly.  The Superintendent was listed as William M. Awl, M.D., with the following listed as directors:  Samuel Parsons, M.D.; Colonel Samuel Spangler; Adin G. Hibbs, Esquire; N.H. Swayne, Esquire; and Dr. David L. McGugin. Three others were listed along with the Superintendent and Directors, these being Dr. Samuel M. Smith, M.D. (Assistant Physician), George S. Fullerton (Steward), and Mrs. C.W. Atcherson (Matron).

In Document No. 14, under “Labor and Employment,” the expression was used with the meaning it has today.

And here is the amount of this labor, as estimated by a committee of themselves, which we should think exceedingly moderate, if we had to foot the bill:  “As near as can be calculated, three acres of ground on the east half of lot, in front of L.A., have been filled up to the average depth of nine inches, amounting to 3,637 cubic yards.  And taking into consideration the extra labor of leveling the same, together with leveling the same, together with leveling the ground from whence the earth was taken, it should probably be estimated at sixteen cents per yard, which will amount to five hundred eighty one dollars and ninety two cents.”

It showed up in Part I of Volume XII of the Gales & Seaton’s Register “Debates In Congress.”  The debate in question was dated March 17, 1836 and dealt with a Land Bill put forth in the Senate.  The Senate was urged to proceed with a Bill to appropriate, for a limited time, the proceeds from the sale of public lands.  The Bill was not popular with everyone, and the issue was hotly debated.  The idiom appeared here:

As might be expected, after making a decision against these claimants, the Judiciary of Virginia deemed it expedient, inasmuch as the United States, and not Virginia would ultimately be obliged to foot the bill, to reverse that decision, and the claimants, and children and heirs of claimants, come in forty years after the service was performed, and obtain scrip for incredible quantities of public lands; from four to six, and, I believe as high as ten, thousand acres to each person.

Sliding back to the winter of 1818, is the book by American lawyer, Estwick Evans (1787 – 1866) titled, “A Pedestrious Tour of Four Thousand Miles Through The Western States and Territories.”  The book claimed to be “interspersed with brief reflections upon a great variety of topics: Religious, moral, political, sentimental, etc., etc.”  The tome was printed by Joseph E. Spear of Concord, New Hampshire in 1819.  According to Payton R. Freeman, Clerk for the District of New Hampshire, the book was deposited in the Office of the District of New Hampshire on December 10, 1818 (the forty-third year of the Independence of the United States of America).  It was resubmitted on January 18, 1819 to correct typographical and other errors in the preceding work that Peyton r. Freeman stated were “few and inconsiderable” and “not deemed worth while to notice them.”  On page 183 of this book, the following is found:

When I arrived at Buffalo, I had travelled twenty-four miles, without meeting any habitation, excepting a very few scattering log huts.  Some of these were destitute of provisions; and at others of them a piece of bread, and a drink of water cost me two York shillings.  Not far from this place, my dogs, knowing no law but that of nature, and having forgotten my lecture to them upon theft, helped themselves to the first repast presented, leaving their master to foot their bills.  According to the phraseology of our Grand Juries, they very modestly “took, stole, and carried away” a piece of beef of the weight of three pounds, with an intention to convert the same to their own use.

Foot, meaning to add up and set the sum at the bottom of a column, is attested to in the late 15th century.  In “Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV: Office of the Stable and Gifts Disbursed” for 1480, the meaning of foot referring to a total sum is found.

Velvet, xxxij yerdes grene and blac; bokeram longe, xij yerdes*
*Here follows in the MS a general inventory of all the articles mentioned in the preceding pages, entitled “The foote of the deliveree of stuff.”

Because the foote was the total sum owed for what was delivered and registered in the Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV in 1480, the spirit of footing the bill (paying what was owed) is found in this accounting.

What this means is that as early as 1480, footing meant to add up a column of numbers to arrive at the final sum in reference to monies owed to a merchant.  Footing the bill was to confirm the exact amount owed to another with the intent of paying said outstanding amount.

Undoubtedly, the idiom appeared in print sometime between the accounting of Edward IV’s wardrobe accounts and Estwick Evans’ unfortunate incident with his dogs.  Idiomation suspects a published version of this idiom can be found dating back to before Estwick Evans’ book in 1818. It just hasn’t been uncovered to date.

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Miss A Trick

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 29, 2016

The word miss — in the sense of “fail to perceive” — has been around since the late 1600s, and the word trick — in the sense of “a quick or artful way of getting a result” — has been around since the early 1600s.  Oddly enough, the expression miss a trick has not been around since the 1600s even thought it means to fail to take advantage of an opportunity.

The Princeton Union-Eagle newspaper used the idiom in an OpEd piece by Luther Door writing about the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie split that was published in the paper on September 25, 2016.

Or, as USA Today (never one to miss a trick on such an important matter) put it in a headline on one of its TWO stories on Wednesday, “That’s all, folks: Brangelina’s 12-year run comes to an end.”

For those of you who remember Peter Falk’s Columbo on television during the 1970s, perhaps you also remember Mrs. Columbo played by Kate Mulgrew (she of Star Trek: Voyager fame).  Back on November 15, 1979, the UK edition of the TV Times ran an article on Kate Mulgrew that included this tidbit.

“It was bliss when I moved to New York by myself and put down a lipstick and came back half an hour later to find it still there,” she says with a laugh. It’s a strong, raucous laugh and it matches her deep voice and strong face. She’s eating, drinking, smoking, talking and wise-cracking non-stop and she doesn’t miss a trick. You somehow get the feeling Peter Falk would approve of Kate Mulgrew, even if he doesn’t approve of Mrs. Columbo.

Years earlier in 1943, in the book “The Gastronomical Me” by M.F.K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher — a book about food, and eating and drinking — she used the idiom in one of her chapters.  The chapter was dated two years earlier in 1941, and the author was en route to Guadalajara (Mexico).  Once at the hotel with the rest of the hotel guests she’d met on the plane, five or six of the passengers at a table asked her to sit and have a drink with them (feeling sorry for her as she was travelling alone).  The discussion that ensued was one where everyone planned on making the most of their first night in town.

They were making plans for “seeing the town” after dinner, and asked me to go with them.  I said I was going to bed, and they looked strangely at me.  “You’ve been here before, then?” they asked, and when I said no, they laughed again, daringly, and said they weren’t going to waste any time in bed; they weren’t going to miss a trick.

Thirty years earlier, “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine” saw the expression used in a story by American social reformer and author, Mrs. John (Hall) Van Vorst (1873 – 18 May 1928) formerly Bessie McGinnis.  The story was published in the April 1913 edition (as well as in the North Carolina Christian Advocate on March 27, 1913), in the story “Don’t Trifle With Money.”

“All is fair in love and the detective business.  And look here, Miss Boyd” — Silverton lifted his forefinger.  “Don’t support, because you refuse, that the matter’s going to be dropped.  It’s going to be pushed right straight through, and just think what a feather it would be in your cap to face Mr. Walton with his crime!  It’s a nice little job, and we aren’t going to leave a stone unturned.  I guess we’ll have the public sympathy in our favor, and we’re not going to miss a trick.  Understand?”

SIDE NOTE 1:  Bessie Van Vorst was also the author of “Bugsby’s Daughter” and “Sacred Quality” among other titles. When she wasn’t writing as Mrs. John Van Vorst, she was publishing stories under the pseudonym Esther Kelly.  After the death of her first husband, she married French Senator and author Henri Robert “Hughes” Le Roux.

The idiom also appeared in the story, “Miss Devereux of the Mariquita: A Story of Bonanza Days in Nevada” by American military officer and author of more than 40 adventure books, Richard Henry Savage (12 Jun 1846 – 11 October 1903) published in 1895.  This paragraph in Chapter II titled, “Mr. Robert Devereux Declines A Drink” made it clear that missing a trick then meant the same thing is means these days.

Mr. Berard noticed as he drove back along C Street several knots of earnest looking men eagerly eying his great roan trotter.  He never fancied that they objected to the carmine-cheeked, mouse-eyed little French queen of Faro at his side.  But, even cool gray-eyed sports can miss a trick, now and then.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Richard Henry Savage was the author of “My Official Wife” as well as “The Flying Halcyon” and “The Masked Venus” among other novels.

Missing tricks are something people were warning against fifty years before that!  In 1844, American novelist and dramatist Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie (5 March 1819 – 21 July 1870) published a book titled, “The Fortune Hunter, Or, The Adventures Of A Man About Town.”  Now, Anna had an interesting history in that she was born in France and died in England, but her father was an American merchant, and her mother was the granddaughter of Francis Lewis, a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence.  Perhaps this is why she wrote as she did.

“Certainly — certainly:  Brainard, my dear fellow, hope to find you better when I call again — must get well — good morning, Mr. Ellery — Brainard, good morning my dear fellow, speedy recovery to you — speedy recovery!”

“And now, Brainard,” said Ellery, “play your cards well; be sure you don’t miss a trick.  I believe in my soul, that if you had not made such a fool of yourself about that Miss Walton, you would have been married to Esther before this.”

“Miss Walton — ah! do not mention her!”

“What! so tender on the subject yet?  A pretty fool you would have made of yourself if you had married her!”

SIDE NOTE 3:  Francis Lewis (March 21, 1713 – December 31, 1802) was born in Llandaff, Wales, and was a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence as a representative of New York.  He was a member of the Committee of Sixty as well as of the New York Provincial Congress, and signed the American Articles of Confederation which was an agreement serving as the first constitution of the United States.  The thirteen original states signed this agreement which was created on November 15, 1777 and ratified on March 1, 1781.

An earlier published version of this saying could not be found.  However, the ease with which it was used in Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie’s book in 1844 indicates that the expression was understood by society.  Idiomation therefore pegs this to at least one generation earlier, putting in the 1820s and perhaps earlier.

It’s certain that it wasn’t an expression back in the 1600s though even if both miss and trick together would imply the spirit of the expression we know and use today.

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Cool As A Cucumber

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 27, 2016

Did you know that even in hot weather, cucumbers are about 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) cooler on the inside than the air around it is?  Crazy right, but this is absolutely true, and was confirmed (thanks to a scientific study) in 1970.

SIDE NOTE 1:  The study was conducted by James M. Lyons and John K. Raison.  Both the Plant Physiology Unit of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Division of Food Preservation in Ryde (Australia) in conjunction with the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney (Australia) oversaw this research which was peer-reviewed.What’s more, the American Chemical Society’s own scientists have confirmed that cucumbers regular body temperatures and help to avoid dehydration during heatwaves.  So cucumbers keep you cool and refreshed and hydrated.  Isn’t that amazing?

Cucumbers, it would seem, are very cool indeed.  Guess what else you might not know about cucumbers?  They’re not vegetables.  Cucumbers are fruit!


Historically speaking, cucumbers weren’t always called cucumbers.  Back in the 17th century, they were called cowcumbers and they were to be avoided.  In fact, Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) wrote in his diary on August 22, 1663:

This day Sir W. Batten tells me that Mr. Newburne (of whom the nickname came up among us forarse Tom Newburne) is dead of eating cowcumbers, of which, the other day, I heard another, I think Sir Nicholas Crisp’s son.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Sir William Batten (1600 – 1667) was an English naval officer as well as a Surveyor of the Navy.  He was the master and part-owner of Charles of London by 1630, and sat in the House of Commons from 1661 to 1667.

SIDE NOTE 3:  Sir Nicholas Crisp (1598 – 26 February 1666) was an English Royalist who was also a member of Parliament from 1640 to 1641, a member of the Council of Trade beginning in 1660, and was made a baronet a year before his death in 1665.  Beginning in 1625, he invested in a trading company known as “The Guinea Company” and three years later, he became a controlling stock holder.

Back in the 17th century, cucumbers weren’t held in high esteem at all regardless of how one spoke of them.  In fact, in the play “Cupid’s Revenge” by English dramatist Francis Beaumont (1584 – 6 March 1616) and Jacobean playwright John Fletcher  (20 December 1579 – 29 August 1625), cucumbers were used to insult some lovely ladies in their play.

I do remember it to my Grief,
Young Maids were as cold as Cowcumbers
And much of that Complexion:
Bawds were abolisht; and, to which Misery
It must come again,
There were no Cuckolds.
Well, we had need pray to keep these
Devils from us,
The times grow mischievous.
There he goes, Lord!

SIDE NOTE 4:  The play was written in 1607 or 1608, but was only registered into the Stationers’ Register on 24 April 1615.

Getting back to Samuel Pepys and his diary entry:  Sometime between the horrible pronouncement that cucumbers were responsible for the passing of Mr. Newhouse (and others) in 1663 and today, the idiom cool as a cucumber came into play in a positive way.  But when (and how) did it stop being a felonious fruit to remake itself a good gourd?

The first published version of cool as a cucumber meaning what it does today is found in the poem “A New Song of New Similes” by English poet and dramatist John Gay (30 June 1685 – 4 December 1732).  John Gay is best remembered for his ballad opera titled, “The Beggar’s Opera” which was first performed on 29 January 1728.   That being said, “A New Song of New Similes” began with these stanzas.

My passion is as mustard strong;
I sit all sober sad;
Drunk as a piper all day long,
Or like a March-hare mad.

Round as a hoop the bumpers flow;
I drink, yet can’t forget her;
For though as drunk as David’s sow
I love her still the better.

Pert as a pear-monger I’d be,
If Molly were but kind;
Cool as a cucumber could see
The rest of womankind.

SIDE NOTE 5:  If “The Beggar’s Opera” sounds vaguely familiar to you it may be because it Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill transformed it into “The Threepenny Opera” (originally written as “Die Dreigroschenoper”) in 1928.

People have been as cool as cucumbers since 1732 thanks to John Gay.  That being said, some real life cool as cucumbers criminals are responsible for some humorous moments.  Such moments include one from 2014, when German authorities a shipment of drugs worth $56.28 million USD (€50 million Euros) headed to Iran from Germany.  The drugs were being smuggled in jars of pickles so it could be said that the both the drug smugglers and the drugs found themselves in a pickle.

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Cool Beans

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 22, 2016

When you hear someone comment with cool beans (aka kewl beans, kool beans, and cool beanz), it means that the speaker approves of the comment or the situation that prompted him/her to say cool beans.  Not only is this an idiom, according to Time magazine, it’s been in the Oxford dictionary since 2014.

For fans of the sitcom, “Full House” which aired from 22 September 1987 through to 23 May 1995, DJ Tanner used the expression so often that fans and followers of the show followed suit.  But the writers of “Full House” weren’t the originators of the expression.

The idiom shows up in Marlene Fanta Shyer’s book “Grandpa Ritz and the Luscious Lovelies” published by Scribner Books (an imprint of Simon and Schuster) in 1985.  There on page 30, this appears:

“It’s cool beans!” That’s what Betsy always says when she thinks something is fantastic, and I couldn’t help wondering what she’d say if she could see me now.

In the 1960s, quaaludes, amphetamines and barbituates known as uppers and downers were referred to as cool beans because they resembled jellybeans. They were also known as beans, wacky beans, and cool beans.

The drug-induced positive reaction would therefore be attributed to cool beans thereby creating a positive impression of cool beans.

The reference to cool beans didn’t appear elsewhere in Idiomation’s research. While cool beans as an item is from the 1960s, the expression indicating approval is from sometime between the 1960s and 1985 when it appeared in Marlene Fanta Shyer’s book.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Love Many, Trust Few

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 20, 2016

Last Tuesday, paddle your own canoe was shared with Idiomation’s fans, followers, and visitors.  The entry mentioned an autograph book inscription that included the canoe comment:  Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.

While we were able to track down the second half of that autograph book inscription, the first half left people hanging.  With no further ado, let’s take on the first half of that expression.

The quote is a variation on a line from the William Shakespeare so-called problem play, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”   Many consider this play a problem play because it’s neither a comedy nor a tragedy.  It was written sometime between 1601 and 1608.

The play takes place in the French court of Rousillon, and is about a young woman named Helena who seeks to catch the eye of, and marry, a man of higher social standing than her current social standing.  She is the daughter of the recently deceased court physician, and her mark is Bertram, a young nobleman who is morning for his late father, the Count of Rousillon.

The expression is used in Scene I, Act I.  The Countess of Rousillon, her son Bertram, Helena, and LaFeu enter, dressed in black. The audience quickly learns that the Countess of Rousillon has just buried a second husband (explaining the black garments).

Be thou blest, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners, as in shape! thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright! Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none: be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key: be cheque’d for silence,
But never tax’d for speech. What heaven more will,
That thee may furnish and my prayers pluck down,
Fall on thy head! Farewell, my lord;
‘Tis an unseason’d courtier; good my lord,
Advise him.

So the original saying was actually love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.  At what point did the saying become love many instead of love all?

In 1846, the expression was still as William Shakespeare had written it.  In “The Christian Pioneer Monthly Magazine” edited by Reverend Joseph Foulkes Winks (12 December 1792 – 28 May 1860), the idiom was included without proper attribution in the section titled, “Facts, Hints, and Gems.”

By 1870, the “Saint’s Herald: Volume 17” (published as a semi-monthly magazine by te Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) dropped the one-letter word between trust and few, and the saying was published as love all, trust few, do wrong to none.

Nine years later, in 1879, it was no longer love all, trust few, do wrong to none.  It was now love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.

Where and how the paddle and canoe were added during the decade between the “Saint’s Herald” and the autograph book inscription is still a mystery.  If anyone knows the answer, we’d love to read all about it in the comments below.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Step On A Duck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 15, 2016

To step on a duck is to fart, but not just any old fart.  The step on a duck fart is said to be one that is so loud that it sounds like the squawking of a duck in distress.  The idiom is usually spoken by a bystander wishing to point out the fart to everyone nearby and not an attempt by the person to deflect his or her embarrassment at the indelicate passing of gas.

The expression seems to be so well-known that Jim Dawson published a book in 2010 titled, “Did Somebody Step On A Duck: A Natural History of the Fart.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Jim Dawson is a California-based writer who specializes in American pop culture.  A decade before publishing “Did Somebody Step On A Duck” he published “Who Cut THe Cheese: A Cultural History of the Fart” which went on to become a top-seller.

Oddly enough, thirty-five years ago, Rodney Dangerfield’s character, Al Czervik, asked if somebody stepped on a duck when he broke wind loudly at dinner in the 1980 movie, “Caddyshack” starring Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Scott Colomby.  The movie was written by Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, and Douglas Kenney of National Lampoon magazine fame.

The history of this expression is difficult to trace.  Idiomation’s research found a recipe for a duck fart shot consisting of Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Crown Royal (and poured in that order) hailing from Anchorage, Alaska.  It was created by bartender Dave Schmidt while working at the Peanut Farm Bar and Grill (on the corner of Old Seward Highway and International Street) in December 1987.  The media covered the story of the shot in an article in the Anchorage Daily News newspaper.

Oddly enough, before White Sox announcer and former professional baseball player Hawk Harrelson (born September 4, 1941) made the term more family friendly in the 1980s, the duck snort was called a duck fart.  And what is a duck snort or a duck fart in baseball terms?  It’s a ball that softly hit ball that goes over the infielders and lands in the outfield for a hit.

And in the 1940s, according to “Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang” compiled and published by Jonathon Green, a duck fart referred to the plopping sound a stone made when it fell into the water.

But there doesn’t seem to be any indication how stepping on a duck came to mean farting loudly.  To this end, the expressions seems to reach back only as far as 1980.  However, there’s a lot of history behind the concept, not the least of which is a political connection.

As many of us know, there’s a certain juvenile humor when it comes to farting, not the least of which is a popular poem that was written as a result of an unfortunate incident on March 4, 1607 involving Henry Ludlow in the House of Commons.  The poem (which was endlessly copied, recopied, and shared liberally) published in 1607 was titled, “The Censure of the Parliament Fart.”  The incident happened as Sir John Crooke was giving a speech, and he took the fart as a personal insult.  For readers’ amusement, this is the opening volley of the poem.

Never was bestowed such art
Upon the tuning of a Fart.
Downe came grave auntient Sir John Crooke
And redd his message in his booke.
Fearie well, Quoth Sir William Morris, Soe:
But Henry Ludlowes Tayle cry’d Noe.
Up starts one fuller of devotion
Then Eloquence; and said A very ill motion
Not soe neither quoth Sir Henry Jenkin
The Motion was good; but for the stincking
Well quoth Sir Henry Poole it was a bold tricke
To Fart in the nose of the bodie pollitique.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  Sir John Crooke sat in Parliament in 1584, 1597, and 1601.  Henry Ludlow sat in the 1601 and 1604 Parliament as a member of the Inner Temple.  In other words, the two were in Parliament together in 1601.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  The poem became so famous by 1610 that it was cited in Ben Jonson’s play, “The Alchemist.”  The play (which opens with a fart) includes a reference to the poem by Sir Epicure Mammon.

All this being said, the connection between stepping on a duck and loud farts is one that escaped Idiomation’s research.  Perhaps one of Idiomation’s readers has proof as to who first wrote or said this, or where it first appeared in print.

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Paddle Your Own Canoe

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 13, 2016

Back when autograph books were popular among schoolgirls, it was a given that one page would say love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.  In fact, F.G. Bosse suggested the phrase as an appropriate inscription in his book “Selections For Autograph and Writing Albums” published by Charles A. Lilley in 1879.

To paddle your own canoe means to be in control of your life and to set your own course.  It was used in the article “8 Tips For Starting Your Own Agribusiness” on February 15, 2016 on the Farmers Weekly website.  The writer interviewed Hanna Moule, 34, who launched her rural surveying firm in 2010 with nothing more than a laptop, a car, and a few clients.  Her first tip was this:

1.  Paddle your own canoe — “I took on my second employee to do cross-compliance and record keeping,” Hannah says.  “It’s bread-and-butter work that many land agents wouldn’t take on, but it builds a relationship that leads to return work.”

The expression has been around for a long time, and is still in use today.  It’s a proverb that’s found its way into many songs such as the one by Indiana pioneer poet Sarah Tittle (S.T.) Bolton (18 December 1814 – 5 August 1893) titled “Paddle Your Own Canoe” published in 1854.

Where’er your lot may be
Paddle your own canoe.

There was also a song mentioned in the Laura Ingalls Wilder (7 February 1867 – 10 February 1957) book titled, “By The Shores Of Silver Lake” where paddle my own canoe or paddle your own canoe is found in the verses shared in the book.  The lyrics were sung to the tune of “Rosin The Bow.”


I’ve traveled about a bit in my time
And of troubles I’ve seen a few
But found it better in every clime
To paddle my own canoe.

My wants are few. I care not at all
If my debts are paid when due.
I drive away strife in the ocean of life
While I paddle my own canoe.

The love your neighbor as yourself
As the world you go traveling through
And never sit down with a tear or a frown
But paddle your own canoe.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  The fifth book in the series, “By The Shores of Silver Lake” covered Laura’s childhood when the family lived near de Smet, South Dakota in 1879.

The phrase was used in 1865 by American writer and politician Charles Henry Smith using the pseudonym Billy Arp (15 June 1826 – 24 August 1903) in his book titled, “Billy Arp, So Called: A Side Show of the Southern Side of the War.”  It was registered with the Metropolitan Record Office in 1866.

Charles Henry Smith adopted his pen name, Billy Arp, in April 1861 after President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering Southern rebels to retire peaceably.  He wrote the equivalent of an Open Letter to the President under his pen name, and that letter made him a household name.

In one letter, to Mr. John Happy (which he titled, ‘Billy Arp To His Old Friend‘) he began by saying:

I want to write to you personally about some things that’s weighin on me.  I look on you as a friend, and I feel lik dropping a few lines by way of unberthening my sorrowful reflections.  For the last few years you have travelled round right smart, and must have made a heap of luminous observations.  I hear you are no wliving in Nashville, where you can see all sides of every thing, and read all the papers, where you can study Paradise Lost without a Book, and see the devil and his angels, without drawing on the imagination, and I thought maybe you might assist me in my troubled feelings.

Yes, that was all one sentence.  Regardless, Billy Arp then launched into asking when the government was going to quit persecuting his people, and other important matters affecting those living in the Southern states.  At one point, he talked about the Constitution which, he said, had been smuggled into an “abolishun mush.”  The phrase appeared in this passage:

They built a fence around the institution as high as Haman’s gallows, and hemmed it in, and laid siege to it jest like an army would besege a city to starve out the inhabitants.  They kept peggin at us untell we got mad — shore enuff mad — and we resolved to cut loose from ’em, and paddle our own canoo.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  Bill Arp had a weekly column in the Atlanta Constitution that was syndicated to hundreds of newspapers.  At the time, no one had more verified regular readers than Bill Arp.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  Bill Arp wrote 30 such letters over the course of the war, and into the early 1870s.  The theme of his letters was unwaivering in its support of the Confederacy, and its dislike of Union policies.

Back in 1807, Sicnarf (a pseudonym for the real author, and coincidentally, Francis spelled backwards) published “The Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present” in which he mentioned that in Malaysia, rather than loan money to entrepreneurs starting their own coffee plantation, they would let them make their own way.   It was, quite literally, a sink-or-swim scenario for those who started their own businesses.

They let each poor fellow paddle his own canoe, and if he capsizes and stretches out his hand in despair for someone to save him, offers all he posses — all his money, all his property only to save him from ruin, they won’t do it.  He may die and perish.  There are hundreds of thousands of things, which the Planters’ Association could do; but they don’t do them.

There’s no published mention of paddle your own canoe prior to its use in this book from 1807.  Somewhere between 1807 and 1865, the expression paddle your own canoe came to mean you were in charge of your destiny.  All this leads Idiomation to wonder what this might have to do with loving many and trusting few as F.G. Bosse suggested as a proper inscription for autograph books.

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

Bat Shit Crazy

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 25, 2016

Heather E. Johnson asked Idiomation where bat shit crazy came from, and what made bat excrement crazier than any other rodent’s.  The expression means that the person accused of being bat shit crazy is acting in a threatening manner that is devoid of all reason and that borders on insanity.  In other words, someone who is bat shit crazy so irrationally (and possibly violently as well) that reasonable, sane measures of dealing with the situation at hand are ineffective.

Scientifically speaking, the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum is found in bat guano and when the fungus infects the brain (a possibility, not a given), it leaves the infected person or animal behaving in a psychotic manner.

Until the early 1950s when Histoplasma capsulatum was finally being diagnosed correctly, sufferers were usually misdiagnosed with tuberculosis.  Placed on antibacterial antibiotics, the medication worsened the disease.  Why?  According to medical studies, once the bacteria in the body was killed off, the fungus had nothing to stop it from taking over completely.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  Histoplasmosis can even be fatal in some cases.   This article by S.T. Darling published in 1906 provides insight into this.  Darling, S. T. 1906. A protozoan general infection producing pseudotubercles in the lungs and focal necroses in the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes. JAMA 46:1283-1285.  This article by R.J. Parsons and C.J.D. Zarafonetis published in 1945 supports this as well.  Parsons, R. J., and C. J. D. Zarafonetis. 1945. Histoplasmosis in man, report of seven cases and a review of seventy-one cases. Arch. Intern. Med. 75:1-23.

Economically speaking, bat guano has been an international commodity as a fertilizer for about 200 years, and the best source is from Peru’s islands:  The Chincas, the Ballestras, the Lobos, and the Macabi and Guanape Islands.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  There are other islands off Africa, in the Carribean, and some Pacific Islands that also have excellent and abundant stores of guano, however, guano from Peru is believed to be superior to all other guano.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  Guano is high in nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium which are essential nutrients for plant growth.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 4:  Archeologists have discovered that guano has been used as an agricultural fertilizer by the Andean people over 1,500 years.  Documentation by Spanish explorers indicate that Incans restricted access to guano and considered guano a valuable commodity to be protected from overuse and misuse.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 5:  It’s believed that Peruvian seabird guano (since guano isn’t always from bats) used in 1842 in Ireland and Great Britain was responsible for the virulent strain of potato blight that was responsible for the Irish Potato Famine (1845 – 1852).

In 1909, Peru established the Guano Administration (we kid you not) to preserve their reserve of guano, and to continue to use guano for agricultural purposes in Peru.

Last month, the CBC reported on Emmanuel Kahsai, 30, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his 54-year-old mother, Selma Alem, and second-degree murder in the death of a 25-year-old female.  Those who know the accused have stated to the media that they believe the accused is faking a psychiatric illness to escape criminal responsibility.  The article, published July 18, 2016 was titled, “Emmanuel Kahsai playing ‘bat-shit crazy card,’ says Selma Alem’s friend.

Batshit was used in the June 1983 movie, “Trading Places” starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy.  The movie tells the story of a snobbish investor and a street savvy con artist who see their fortunes reversed as a result of a bet made by two millionaire brothers, Randolph and Mortimer Duke of the fictional commodities brokerage firm, Duke & Duke.

Exactly why do you think the price of pork bellies is going to keep going down, William?
Okay, pork belly prices have been dropping all morning, which means that everybody is waiting for it to hit rock bottom, so they can buy cheap and go long. Which means that the people who own the pork belly contracts are going batshit, they’re thinking, “Hey, we’re losing all our damn money, and Christmas is around the corner, and I ain’t gonna have no money to buy my son the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip! And my wife ain’t gonna f… my wife ain’t gonna make love to me if I got no money!” So they’re panicking right now, they’re screaming “SELL! SELL!” ‘cos they don’t wanna lose all their money, right? They’re panicking out there right now; I can feel it.
He’s right, Mortimer! My God, look at it!

It would seem that while the word crazy is implied, it wasn’t part of the idiom in 1983.

In 1971, William J. Calley Jr. published a book with the help of John Sack titled, “Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story.”  The book was marketed as “America’s most infamous soldier tells all.”  In his book, he used the expression batshit without tacking on the word crazy but as with the movie, “Trading Places” it’s implied.

Most of America’s males were in Korea or World War II or I. They killed, and they aren’t all going batshit.

This seems to show that bat shit, up to at least 1983, wasn’t coupled with the word crazy.

In 1988, the term appeared three times in the book, “Runaway” by author and English professor, Stephen Gresham — on pages, 85, 91, and 122.  The story is about 13-year-old Mark Blackwood who comes from a rich family but because he’s a runaway,he finds himself living at Redemption House under the watchful eye of Brother Bob who is far more dangerous than his name or title implies.

Man, what’s wrong with him?
He’s crazy.  Bat-shit crazy.

Stephen Gresham retired from Auburn University in 2008 as a full professor and currently resides in Auburn (AL).  Since Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of bat shit crazy, Idiomation has sent a communiqué to Stephen Gresham asking him where he first heard the idiom or if the expression originates with him.  As soon as we know, Idiomation fans and followers will be the next to know.  Stay tuned!

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