Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

All And Sundry

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 12, 2015

When someone uses the expression all and sundry, it’s just another way of saying everyone and/or everything, individually and collectively.  An example of using this idiom correctly would be to say, “All and sundry love Artie Q‘s music.”

For example, just today in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus newspaper, Walter Carpenter of Montpelier wrote a Letter to the Editor that made use of all and sundry.  His letter was in response to comments by David Sunderland, Chair of the Vermont Republican Party, in a commentary published in the October 29, 2015 edition and titled, “Democrats Are Driving Workers Away.”

It should be known by all and sundry now that oil companies like Exxon Mobile, for example, have poured millions of dollars into the denial of climate change to protect their vast profits, earned largely by gouging us at the gas pumps. Mr. Sunderland ignored this.

In the book “Canada and the Russian Revolution: The Impact of the World’s First Socialist Revolution on Labor and Politics in Canada, Volume 2” by Tim Buck (6 January 1891 – 11 March 1973) and published in 1967, the author used the idiom in describing the events that transpired at the Toronto Labor Temple hall on Church Street in Toronto (Ontario, Canada) in 1918, after the October Revolution (also known as Red October, the October Uprising, and the Bolshevik Revolution) of November 1917.

The squad was composed mainly of men who were on active service and in uniform.  It included a few demobilized veterans who were wearing civilian clothes.  Armed with baseball bats and headed by an officer, the squad marched across the center of the city announce to all and sundry its intention to “Beat up the Reds and the Pacifists!”  Not on police officer questioned them or warned them — or considered it  necessary to warn their intended victims.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Tim Buck was one of the top leaders of the Joseph Stalin-era Communist International (2 March 1919 – 15 May 1943) also known as the Third International.  This was an international communist organization that advocated for world communism.

Tim Buck was also the general secretary of the Community Party of Canada, later known as the Labor-Progressive Party, from 1929 through to 1962.  The party name was changed in 1943 when it refounded itself after the Communist Party of Canada was banned in 1940.  After the provincial elections in Ontario in 1959, the party renamed itself the Communist Party of Canada and continues to exist to this day.

The story “Grand Spring Opening” by Zoe Hartman (who only published stories between 1905 and 1920) — illustrated by Bert N. Salg (September 1881 – 19 May 1937) — published in the April 1924 edition of “Boys’ Life” was all about Newt Crumper, the hired boy, and Miss Cate who had just opened a millinery shop across the street from the Altenburg grocery store and two doors south of Jake Knapp’s store.

A. Sid McVay, the Unicorn (that’s the name of the brand, not what he’s selling) salesman with the vivid handkerchief comments on the store’s grand opening.

Meanwhile, McVay’s prediction to Newt, “These sleepy galoots are going to laugh; but oh, boy! watch us block traffic on this corner to-day!” was almost literally fulfilled.  Mercantile Pockville held its sides with Homeric laughter, a grocery “opening” was too exquisite!  All and sundry stopped to gaze and giggle and point their fingers at the spectacular show window.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Zoe Hartman (a junior at the time) won the Guilford Essay Prize at Cornell University at the 38th Annual Commencement for the 1905 – 1906 scholastic year at Cornell University.

A hundred years earlier, in the book “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner” whose author identified himself only as himself.  The book was about George Colwan, a man who was married to the sole heiress and daughter of Baillie Order of Glasgow, and this George Colwan inherited the estate of his father (also named George Colwan).  The estate had been in the family for at least 150 years at the time of the inheritance.

As with all legal documents, what was granted to George Colwan of Dalcastle and Balgrennan, his heirs and assignees whatsomever, heritably and irrevocably (according to the Registrate of the Court of Whitehall on 26 September 1687) was considerable.  However,  His Majesty the King, as prince and steward of Scotland, and with the advice and consent of his foresaids, knowledge, proper motive, and kingly power was provided for in this legal document as well, and read in part:

 … with court, plaint, herezeld, fock, fork, sack, sock, thole, thame, vert, wraik, waith, wair, venison, outfang thief, infant thief, pit and gallows, and all and sundry other commodities.

This passage proves that the phrase was used in legal papers in the 17th century.  But how much older is the phrase than 1687?

In 1615, all and sundry appears in the “Foedera, Conventiones, Literae et Cujuscnque Generis Acta Publica Inter Reges Angliae et Alios Quosvis” in the “Proclamatio contra Comitem de Bothwell.”  The proclamation addressed the actions of Frances (referred to in the document as the sometimes Erle of Bothwell).  The document referenced is dated 1591 A.D. and reads in part as follows:

Wherefore his Majestie, with Advise of the Lordes of his secrett Counsell, ordeynes Letters to be directed, charging Officers of Arms to passe and make publication and intimation hereof, by open Procolmation, at the Mercat Crosses of the hed Burrowes of this Realme, and other places needfull, wherby none may pretend Ignorance of the fame; as also to command and charge all and sundry his Highnes Lieges, That none of them take upon hand to Receit, Supplie, Shew favor, Intercomon, norfurnish him Meat nor Drinck, House or Harbery under whatsoever Colour or Pretence, under the Payne to be repute holden and pursued as art and partakers with him in all his treasonable Crymes and wicked Dedes.

The phrase also appears in Volume 15 of “The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland” from 1523.  It should be noted that these rolls run from 1264 through to 1600 (23 volumes all tolled), and Cardiff University has a catalog record of these documents.  The exchequer developed from the King’s chamber that oversaw the royal finances and as such, it’s one of the earliest government departments in Scotland.

In 1420, King James I divided the duties between the Comptroller (also known as the Receiver General) and the Treasurer.  One controlled the revenues from Crown lands and burghs while the other controlled the revenues from taxation and profits from justice (in other words, fines levied against by a court of law).

The excerpt from 1523 reads thusly:

Witt the ws with avise, autorite, and consent of our darrest cousing and tutour Johnne duke of Albany etc. protectour and governour of our realme to have sett and for maile lettin and be thir our lettres settis and for maile lettis to our weelbelovit brother James erle of Murray, his airis and assignals ane or maa all and sundry oure landis of the erledome of Ross and lrdschip of Ardmanach with the milnys of the samin with thar pertinentis liand within our schirefdome of Invernes, togidder with the keping and capitanery of oure castellis of Dingwall and Reidcastill.

Now the meaning of the word sundry meaning several dates back to 1375 in the “Scottish Legends of the Saints” where we find written in II. Paulus:

In a creile he was latin fall;
and in Ierusalem he was bofte,
spyit, waitit, and bundyn ofte;
and eftere in sesaria
bundyne, and tholit panis ma;
and sailand in Italy
In parelis wes he stad sindry.

The word also appears in Book V of epic poem, “The Bruce” by Scottish poet and churchman John Barbour (1325 – 13 March 1395), Archdeacon of Aberdeen during the reigns of David II and Robert II of Scotland.   He is sometimes called the father of Scots literature.

In 1357, as Archdeacon of Aberdeen, he was involved in the negotiations that would allow Scotland to pay England ransom for the return of David II who had been their prisoner since his capture in 1346 in the Battle of Neville’s Cross. His poem, “The Bruce” was the first major work of Scottish literature and documented Scottish political history from the death of Alexander III in 1286 through to the burial of Bruce’s heart in 1332.  The poem was published in 1375.

And for to mak in thair synging
Syndry notis, and soundis sere,
And melody plesande to here.

And so somewhere between 1375 and 1523, the word sundry became the expression all and sundry.  With 148 years between the two dates, and allowing for how long it would have taken in the 14th century for a phrase to catch on, Idiomation split the difference and suggests that 1450 would be about the time that all and sundry began to make its way into the English language, eventually making its way into legal documents by the early 1500s.

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Break A Leg

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 3, 2015

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard the expression break a leg although they may not always recognize it as a wish of good luck to another.  But it is.  The idiom is a theatrical superstition where performers believe that wishing a person “good luck” is considered bad luck, and so they wish them bad luck instead by way of broken bones.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE:  The industry standard when it comes to stages is for the stage to be sloped one inch per foot of stage space.  Data shows that theatrical productions with the maximum stage slope account for the highest percentage of injuries from sprains to fractures among performers.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune published a news article by Mary H. Williams in the column “Charlotte Life” on January 23, 1992 where the idiom introduced the writer’s comments about Jan Brandes of Port Charlotte and her debut with the Players of Sarasota.

Break a leg!” is a traditional parting phrase for performers preparing to go on stage.  Of course, this isn’t as brutal as it sounds.

It’s considered bad luck to wish an actor good luck, and somehow this phrase has taken hold in the thespian world.

Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article titled, “A Defence of Superstition” in the October 1, 1921 edition of the British liberal political and cultural magazine, New Statesman.  In his opinion, the theatre was the second-most superstitious institution in England with horse racing being the top most superstitious. It was Lynd’s assertion that one should wish participants something insulting such as ‘May you break a leg!‘ as wishing a participant luck was considered, according to superstition, bad luck.

Four years after this article was published, American romance and women’s fiction author, Faith Baldwin (October 1, 1893 – March 18, 1978) used it in her novel “Thresholds” published in 1925 as proven by this excerpt:

Rupert said, smiling a little: “Isn’t that a Teutonic expression employed before the chase?”

She laughed, lazily, over the lifted glass. “Not exactly. I believe that would be bad luck or something. You say, ‘I hope you break a leg’ — or your neck — or some such hope of calamity.”

In German, the saying is “Hals und Beinbruch” or break your neck and leg.  It’s been reported in numerous historical documents that German Air Force pilots used the phrase during the First World War.

In French, one says “Merde!” which translates into “Sh*t!” or, for those who are too shy to use such a coarse wish,  “cinq lettres” or “five letters” … one for each letter in the French word they don’t want to say.

In Spanish, the phrase is “mucha mierda” or “lots of sh*t.”

Some believe it’s a misheard version of the Yiddish phrase “Baruch aleichem” which means “bless you” and when said aloud, it sounds similar to break a leg (bah rak a lay kem) to those who don’t speak Yiddish.

But back in 1684, according to “A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English” to break a leg was to seduce someone.  According to John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley who were responsible for creating this seven-volume work published in 1905, their tome states that this is what was meant by break a leg way back when.  Their dictionary was a result of researching multiple dictionaries that dated back as far as 1440 and included, but weren’t limited to, the works of John Palsgrave (1530), John Withals (1553), Peter Levins (1570), Cladius Hollyband (1593), John Bullokar (1616), Thomas Blount (1656), Richard Head (1674), E.B. Gent (1696), Nathan Bailey (1737), Francis Gross (1785), John Jamieson (1808), John R. Bartlett (1848), Charles Pascoe (1881), and Albert Barrere (1887).

Going with the definition of break a leg from 1684, what better luck could you wish a performer headed on stage than that he should seduce the audience that awaited him?

However, the meaning of the idiom as we understand it today, dates back to 1921 regardless of how well it applied to the theatre in 1684.  So the next time you find yourself in front of an audience, don’t be shy:  Break a leg!

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Let Your Mouth Overload Your Back

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 15, 2015

When someone warns you to not let your mouth overload your back, it’s one of many similar idioms including the colloquial Texas phrase that became popular in the 1920s: “Don’t let your alligator mouth overload your hummingbird ass.”  It’s also related to the expression that you shouldn’t let your mouth write a check that your butt can’t cash.  Or make promises you can’t keep.

In other words, someone who lets their mouth overload their back will talk the talk but prove unable to walk the walk (which is also an idiom).

On April 12, 2015 Tom Aswell’s article in the Louisiana Voice took on the matter of Bobby Jindal’s comments about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well as the Hilary Clinton email server scandal.  The article opened with this paragraph.

My granddad had an admonition for someone (more than once, that someone was me) who he thought was running his mouth off a little too much: “Don’t let your alligator mouth overload your jaybird ass.”

In the Evening News edition of September 7, 1990 the question was asked by a journalist whether President Bush and the United Nations had overstepped their boundaries with comments about Iraq.  At the time, Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and both the U.N. Security Council and President Bush immediately denounced Iraq’s actions.  They demanded an immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces, and the restoration of the government of the emir of Kuwait.  Carl Rowan began his article with this paragraph.

When I was a schoolboy, saying bravely that I should “teach that schoolyard bully a lesson,” I always had a wise pal who would say, “Never let your mouth overload your ass.”

In Volume 11 of the Georgia State Bar Journal published in 1974, the idiom was used on page 32 when the author of the article stated that in his enthusiasm to propose a grand program a year earlier, he had forgotten the old adage about letting his mouth overload his butt.

What this shows is that the idiom in its many variations is as popular now as it’s been in the past regardless of the varying descriptors used to describe the mouth or what the mouth may be overloading.

Because there are many variations of the idiom found over the centuries, Idiomation searched long and hard for the spirit of the idiom.  It was found in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 5:6.

“Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?”

The Bible passage warns that you shouldn’t let your mouth overload your abilities otherwise you’ll get yourself into trouble when it comes time to back up those words.

What’s your favorite version of this expression?  Feel free to share in the Comments Section below.

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Argue With A Fence Post

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 13, 2015

Someone who would argue with a fence post is someone who enjoys arguing for argument’s sake.  In fact, they’re so argumentative and so stubborn that they don’t care who their opponent is.  Someone who will argue with a fence post is someone who will argue with anyone at any time … and sometimes with everyone all the time.

Robert Reno’s column in the News-Journal of November 18, 1993 took on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and what Bill Clinton was up to at the time.  While  he could have stated his position with more bite, he chose to say that Clinton’s first year as president taught Americans that their President was a master of the art of moving target politics.  The article titled, “Clinton A Moving Target” made good use of the idiom in this paragraph.

And where did they find him this week?  In their own bed, on NAFTA at least.  Clearly — unless he self-destructs from the weight of his own style — the Republicans are never going to defeat this guy by debating him.  That’s his briar patch.  He’d argue with a fence post.

The idiom was also used in an article in the “Lutheran Society for Worship, Music and the Arts” magazine published in 1961 by the University of Virginia.

Has the church neglected the Upper Ten?  We have.  We have piously sat back on our own justification by faith and said:  “Poor fellow! Just educated himself right out of his faith.  Read too much, heard too much, intellectualized too much.  I really feel sorry for him”; or “Well, after all, you can’t argue with a fence post, and he doesn’t want the truth; he only wants an argument.”

Philip Beaman published a book of idioms titled, “Eastern North Carolina Sayings: From Tater Patch Kin to Madder than a Wet Setting Hen” in February 2014.  For those who haven’t heard of the author, he comes from a family of nine children, and was raised on a tobacco farm in rural East North Carolina.  Despite holding four college degrees and having invested 35 years as an educator, he continues to live in rural North Carolina.  Philip Beaman’s book is filled with idioms he heard as a child.  Born in 1936, that means that what he heard was were established sayings members in the community understood in the 1940s including the one about arguing with a fence post.

It’s difficult to trace back this idiom although it’s considered to be primarily a southern expression.  That being said, Idiomation came at this challenge from the other direction.  What society understands a fence to be is found in legal documents in England as early as the 1600s, and the term as we understand it to mean, was used in laws that were made in Virginia beginning in 1631.

By 1646, fence laws were such that the legal definition of a lawful fence was one that was four and a half feet above ground and at least a half-foot below ground.  In other words, the fence, by law, had to be substantial at the bottom, and it had to be a sturdy fence.  Fence posts were to be no farther than twelve feet apart, and on the forty-two inches that were above ground, they were to have at least three boards firmly attached to them.  The fences were to be made of timber which was plentiful in most of western Virginia.

What’s more, the laws that were enacted at the time were strict and could not be argued because of the great amount of detail that was part of the law on fences.  Additionally, any filed fence agreements between landowners were binding between successive generations and successive landowners.

In other words, once a fence was erected and once there was a filed fence agreement between neighbors, nothing could be done to bring that fence down.  It was to stay up and it was to be maintained by both property owners who shared the fence between them.

If the idiom in its entirety is considered, it would seem that the idiom sprung from the fence laws of Virginia.

He would argue with a fence post, then pull up the post and argue with the hole.

Based on the fence laws, arguing with the fence post or the hole in which it was sunk would have no effect on the fence post or the hole, no matter how much the other person argued the point.  If someone argued over the fence laws of the day, they weren’t going to get anywhere and they knew they weren’t going to get anywhere. it would have to be someone who loved to argue to argue any aspect of the fence law.

While Idiomation was unable to peg an exact date when the idiom was first used, the reason for the idiom seems to lead directly back to the fence laws of Virginia in the early 1600s.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Slick Willie

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 6, 2015

Slick Willie is a term that, upon hearing it, is understood to mean something uncomplimentary towards the person to whom it refers.  Those who are called Slick Willies are cunning and deceptive people who are superficially appealing and polished, but who are shallow and glib, and able to deftly execute convincing arguments that favors the con man and defrauds the mark.

While watching a rerun of Season 3 of Shark Tank,  founder, president and chief executive officer of FUBU, Daymond John used the term when referring to one of the people pitching to the sharks, and then categorically that he was out.

In Norwalk (CT), in the April 3, 1992 edition of The Hour newspaper, an article by Walter Mears addressed the situation with Bill Clinton.  He mentioned that on NBC-TV’s “Meet The Press” that a questioner had stated that Bill Clinton was tagged with the name Slick Willie as far back as when he was still a governor in Arkansas.  From the Monica Lewinski affair to his Vietnam draft status, from business dealings long before he was a political force to his business dealings once he was a political force, and many situations over the years, the term Slick Willie seemed to be tied to Bill Clinton’s reputation.  The article began with this paragraph:

Long before his scarred presidency, Richard Nixon wrote the book on political image problems.  Now Bill Clinton is struggling with a sequel, Tricky Dick, meet Slick Willie.

Slick Willie was also the name given to a bank robber who began his career in 1919 and continued until well past his media reported death on September 6, 1951.  William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton (30 June 1901 – 2 November 1980) was infamous for his carefully planned bank robberies and jailbreaks for which he was notorious.  He supposedly died from wounds inflicted in a holdup according to the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 6, 1951, and allegedly Philadelphia’s underworld  was atwitter over Slick Willie‘s misreported demise.

William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton was known by a number of names.  While his birth certificate stated he was William Sutton, his many aliases included William Bowles, James Clayton, Richard Courtney, Leo Holland, Julian Loring, Edward Lynch, and many others.  How famous was Slick Willie?  On March 9, 1950, he led his team of three into a branch of the Manufacturers Trust Company in New York City at 8:30 AM and strolled out of the branch with $63,942 USD (the equivalent of $636,202 USD in 2015 terms) in hand.

He was also incorrectly credited for masterminding the million dollar Brinks Express Company robbery in Boston on January 17, 1950.  The caper netted the group over $1.2 million USD in cash and over $1.5 million USD in checks, money orders, and securities.  Billed as the crime of the century by the media as well as law enforcement, it was the work of an eleven-member gang.  When the case was cracked, it was revealed that Joseph ‘Big Fernand’ McGinnis was actually the man behind the heist, and not William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton.  But that Slick Willie had been originally tagged as most likely to have pulled the caper off speaks loudly to Slick Willie‘s reputation.

The article reporting on Slick Willie‘s passing — which appeared in newspapers across America — was titled, “Slick Willie Dead Says Philly Paper.”  As mentioned earlier in this article, news of Slick Willie‘s death was premature.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  William ‘Slick WillieSutton didn’t die in 1951.  In fact, he died in 1980 aged 79.  True to the slickness of his character, when he was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”  

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  In 1970, William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton promoted the new photo credit card program in a television commercial he did for the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company, not long after his release from Attica State Prison on Christmas Eve 1969.

Now, back as early as the mid 1800s, the term slick meant something rendered smooth on the surface, and generally referred to oil on water, or to the oilyness — or slickness — of a person’s character.

It was used by Canadian politician, judge, and author Thomas Chandler Haliburton (17 December 1796 – 27 August 1865) in his first book titled, “The Clockmaker, or, The Sayings And Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville” which was published in the Nova Scotian as a serial in 1835 and 1836.  In the novel, Sam Slick was a Yankee clock peddler who used his vast understanding of human nature to make sales.

Haliburton’s novel was Canada’s first international bestseller, and was extremely popular not only in Canada, but in the U.S. and Britain as well.  Sam Slick’s take on Canadians (and Canada) and Americans (and America) mocked everyone equally in the comic fiction.  Sam Slick was so popular that Haliburton went on to publish a number of memorable Sam Slick books.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3:  It should be noted that the first Sam Slick novel established Thomas Chandler Haliburton as one of the founders of North American humor.

Perhaps it’s due in some small measure to the success of Haliburton’s character Sam Slick and his behavior that Cambria County politician, William Slick, was derisively called Slick Willie by some at the Constitutional Convention of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where proposals for amendments to the American Constitution were discussed at Harrisburg in May of 1837.

And back in 1590, the term slick referred to someone or something that was clever in deception.

So the meaning of the word slick has a long history when it comes to slippery characters.  While it’s true that Sam Slick was the original term, within two years of the name being published, Slick Willies were being outed in America.  This puts the earliest known version of Slick Willie to 1837 with many nods to the definition for slick, in the spirit of the idiom, in the 250 to 300 years preceding Slick Willie making it into the lexicon.

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Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 1, 2015

If you’re from the city, if you call someone a Jasper, you’re referring to that person as uneducated rustic
simpleton.  If you’re talking Smoky Mountain English, a Jasper is an outsider.  A stranger.  Someone not from the mountains.

In Donald Goines book “Black Gangster” published in 1977, the author used the more insulting version of the word.

Dot is just as cold, or colder, than any jasper we could put on the case.

It was in used in an article published in the New Yorker magazine in 1970.

What’s with those jaspers?

January 1, 1963, publisher Angus & Robertson issued “Why Do Women …?” written by pulp fiction author Mark Corrigan.  While Mark Corrigan was a prolific author, he was far more prolific than most realized as this was a pen name for prolific British author Norman Lee (10 October 1898 – 2 June 1964) who also wrote under the pseudonyms Robertson Hobart, Raymond Armstrong, and wrote one novel under the pseudonym, J. Earle Dixon in 1960.  It’s believed that the novels by Norma ‘Nicky’ Lee published in 1953 and 1954 were also written by Norman Lee.  On page 173 of this novel, the following line was included:

If that dark jasper calls on you again, try and keep him here.

Now one might mistake that to mean someone who with a dark complexion except that “The Theatre Dictionary: British and American Terms in the Drama, Opera, and Ballet” written by Wilfred Granville and published in London by Andre Deutsch in 1952 asserted the following to be term of the term Jasper.

Jasper: Traditional name for the villain of the piece in melodrama.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Wilfred Granville, along with Francis Gerard Roberts, also published the “Dictionary of Forces Slang: 1939 – 1945) which proved to be a comprehensive dictionary of terms used by the British Armed Forces during World War II.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Wilfred Granville published another dictionary related to military life in 1962 entitled, “Dictionary of Sailors’ Slang.”

In the book, “Flying U Ranch” written by American Bertha Muzzy Bower Sinclair Cowan (15 November 1871 – 23 July 1940) under her pseudonym B.M. Bower and published in 1914, the term was used in this passage.

“Well, now, you hain’t runnin’ this here show.  Honest to grandma, I’ve saw that time when a little foot-warmin’ done a sheepherder a whole lot us good; and, it looks to me, by cripes, as if this feller needed a dose to gentle him down.  You git the fire started.  That’s all I want you t’do, Happy.  Some uh you boys help me rope him — like him and that other jasper over there done to Andy.  C’me on Andy — it ain’t goin’ to take long!”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3:  Bertha Muzzy’s second husband (whom she married in 1912) was Canadian author Bertrand William Sinclair (9 January 1881 – 20 October 1972) and was also known as William Brown Sinclair.

But it was in the book “Checkers: A Hard Luck Story” by American writer, lyricist, composer and author Henry Martyn Blossom (1867 – 23 March 1919), writing as Henry M. Blossom Jr., and published in 1896 (and dedicated to the author’s friend Ellis Wainwright) that the term (with quotation marks around it) first appeared in print.

“I got in here at six to-night, and I’m going to get away at one.  After supper (Supper! I’ll tell you about that later!) I went over to the only shanty in the place that looked like a store, and opened the door.  There were a lot of ‘Jaspers‘ sitting around the stove, chewing tobacco and swapping lies.  I asked the guy that got up when I came in where he kept his stock (he had nothing in sight).  He lighted a lantern, walked me a quarter of a mile, and showed me four ‘mooley-cows’ — say, I was sore.  But I’m square with him — I gave him a couple of ‘Mexicans.'”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4:  Henry Blossom had a number of successful musical revues and musical comedies for which he was known, from “Sally In Our Alley” to “The Velvet Lady.”  He wrote songs for the musical revue “The Wizard Of Oz” which opened at the Majestic Theater on January 20, 1903, closed on October 3, 1903, and ran for a total of 293 performances on Broadway.  It re-opened in New York on March 21, 1904 and continued through to November 25, 1905 at three theaters in New York City:  Majestic Theater, Academy of Music Theater, and New York Theater.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the word jasper in this context than 1896 although the term jasper has been used in the United Kingdom to refer to wasps over the years.  That being said, wasps are not the sort of jaspers that are meant when the term is used in America.

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

Shilly Shally

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 10, 2015

If someone is shilly shallying, they are acting irresolutely.   In other words, those who shilly shally can’t be pinned down one way or another to an action or a decision leaving others with no idea where that person stands.

The Glasgow Herald published a Letter To The Editor written by Alex C.M. MacNeill in March 4, 1977 where the author voiced his displeasure at the inaction of the political parties.  He took issue with the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal parties equally as the first (and only) sentence of his brief letter made clear.

The present attitude in Scotland to the shilly-shallying of the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal parties over devolution recalls to mind the saying attributed to one of the German conductors of the old Scottish Orchestra who was having trouble with a recalcitrant or incompetent brass-player:  “With your damn nonsense will I twice once put up.  But always?  Sometimes?  Never!”

In the October 16, 1942 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, Joseph Shechtman wrote about shilly shally and willy nilly.  According to him, these phrases came about as a corruption of how the real words were pronounced.  For those who asked, “Shall? Shall I?” that became shilly shally.

The Boston Evening Transcript used the expression as part of the title on an article that was published on July 28, 1915 in its recounting what Sheriff Kinkead had done just hours earlier in front of what the newspaper referred to as “plenty of witnesses.”  Yes, Sheriff Kinkead and his men settled a strike by appealing to the strikers sense of patriotism for the United States of America as many who were striking were foreigners who had come to America to find a better for themselves and their families.  The article was entitled, “Busting Through Shilly-Shally.”

Interesting Side Note:  The writer of this article stated that Mrs. Wendell Phillips of Boston (MA) invented the phrase shilly shally.

In Chapter 20 of a serialized story published in The Age newspaper on June 29, 1901 the word was used in this passage.

“Mr. Vickers, have you heard of Pyrotid?” inquired Christ, confidentially.

“Sir,” said Mr. Vickers with dignity, “I am not a betting man.”

“It is not the name of a horse, but of a singular mineral,” said Chris.  “It is worth four pounds a ton, and there are two hundred thousand tons of it on Drellincourt Farm.  I found that out by the aid of a little shilly-shallying; but I admit that I got my cue regarding its existence from Mellor, for, Mr. Vickers, in the profession to which I belong it is absolutely necessary for one to understand men.”

The Deseret News published an extended article on March 5, 1889 about U.S. President Harrison’s message which, it was believed, would please his party and not disappoint the opposition.  The President delivered his message the day before, and within a day, even the British press was complimentary in its comments about his message.

The “Tribune” this morning says the strong and patriotic appeal will go to the hearts and convictions of the American people and will produce results hereafter.  The “Times” finds nothing impressive in the President’s remarks.  It thinks the tone and manner commonplace.  The “World” regards it as the deliverance of a sincere and extremely clear-minded man, and says there will be no shilly-shally foreign policy.

In Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Chapter X of the serialized story “On The Church Steps” by Sarah C. Hallowell (1833 – 1914) was published.  The author used the expression in such a way as to indicate that it was an expression that people from every social class knew and used.

Hiram kept the watch faithfully till five that morning, when I too was stirring. One or two teams had passed, but no Shaker wagon rattling through the night. We breakfasted in the little room that overlooked the road. Outside, at the pump, a lounging hostler, who had been bribed to keep a sharp lookout for a Shaker wagon, whistled and waited too.

“Tell you what,” said Hiram, bolting a goodly rouleau of ham and eggs, “I’ve got an idee. You and me might shilly-shally here on this road all day, and what surety shall we hev’ that they hevn’t gone by the other road. Old gal said there was two?”

Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743 – 4 July 1826) used this expression in a letter dated October 1792 where he discussed George Washington’s comments about transforming the American government into a monarch (which he did not support, but which was strongly considered as an option by more than the handful the President dismissed there might be).  He wrote of a dispute between General Schuyler (20 November 1733 – 18 November 1804) on one side of the table (who favored hereditary descent), and Charles Cotesworth “C. C.” Pinckney (25 February 1746 – 16 August 1825) and Thomas Jefferson on the other (who opposed hereditary descent).

I told him, that though the people were sound, there was a numerous sect who had monarchy in contemplation; that the Secretary of the Treasury was one of those; that I had heard him say that this Constitution was a shilly-shally thing, of mere milk and water, which could not last, and was only good as a step to something better.  That when we reflected, that he had endeavored in the convention, to make an English constitution out of it, and when failing in that, we saw all his measures tending to bring it to the same thing, it was natural for us to be jealous; and particularly, when we saw that these measures had established corruption in the Legislature, where there was a squadron devoted to the nod of the Treasury, doing whatever he had directed, and ready to do what he should direct.

The expression found its way into the book, “The Eagle and the Robin: An Apologue” translated from the original Aesop fable by H.G.L. Mag, and printed and sold by H. Hills in Black-fryars near the Waterside in 1709.

You are suppos’d to undermine
The foe, in some immense design.
A pen can bite you with a line;
There’s forty ways to give a sign,
Well, all on fire away he stalk’d
Till come to where the Eagle walk’d.
Bob did not shilly-shally go,
Nor said one word of friend or foe;
But flirting at him made a blow,
As game-cocks with their Gauntlets do.

The earliest version of the expression Idiomation found is in the comedic play, “The Committee, Or The Faithful Irishman” by Sir Robert Howard, and published in 1665.  English playwright and politician Robert Howard (January 1626 – 3 September 1698) was the son of Thomas Howard, First Earl of Berkshire, and his mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Second Earl of Exeter.

His play was published (along with three others) in his book, “Four New Plays” although there are indications that the play had been performed long before it was finally published in 1665.  In fact, Pepys wrote about taking in a performance of “The Committee” on June 12, 1663, and other diaries mention the play being performed before an audience in 1662.

Well, Mrs. Arabella, I hope you have considered enough by this time.  You  need not use so much consideration for your own good; you  may have your estate, and you may have your Abel; and you may be worse offered.  Abel, tell her your mind; ne’er stand, shilly-shally. Ruth, does she incline, or is she wilfull?

I was just about the point when your honor interrupted us.  one word in your ladyship’s ear.

You see, forsooth, that I am somebody, though you make nobody of me.  You see I can prevail.  Therefore pray say what I shall trust to; for I must not stand shilly-shally.

You are hasty sir.

Unable to find an earlier published version for shilly-shally, and given that it was used in Sir Robert Howard’s play published in 1665 (and performed earlier), it is reasonable to assume that it was a commonly used expression in England in the 1600s.  Idiomation therefore sets the date for this expression to at least 1600.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Common Sense Is Not So Common

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 1, 2015

It seems that more and more often, people are saying and posting on social media that common sense is not so common.  Although the concept has seen a resurgence in this era, it’s possible that the search for common sense which is not so common has been an ongoing activity among the human race.

In the July 12, 1992 edition of The Telegraph, Weisman & Tesser Associates placed an advertisement that told readers of the expert guidance in financial investment and planning people could expect from their firm.  The ad concluded with the statement that “common sense means getting help from the right source.”  The point put to readers was that Weisman & Tesser Associates was that right source.  The headline that drew readers’ attention to the advertisement was this: “Common sense is not so common.”  The quote was attributed to Voltaire.

There are those who will argue that it was actually American author and humorist Mark Twain (30 November 1835 – 21 April 1910) who uttered those words albeit in a less grammatical form:  “I’ve found that common sense ain’t so common.”

Except that American cowboy, performer, social commentator, actor and humorist Will Rogers (4 November 1879 – 15 August 1935) is also credited for having said the same thing.  But does it matter if it was Mark Twain or Will Rogers who is responsible for that version of the quote?

Indeed, French author, historian, satirist, and philosopher Voltaire (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778) — whose real name was François-Marie Arouet  —   did publish this quote in his book “Dictionnaire philosophique portatif” in 1764.  His book, however, was not without controversy as the Magnificent Council of Geneva ordered all available copies (which had been sold under the counter as opposed as in the traditional way of legitimate book shops) of his book seized on the basis that it directly challenged the authenticity of Revelation.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE #1:  François-Marie Arouet adopted the pseudonym, which is based on the Latinized spelling of his name, in 1718.  The name was derived from the anagram of “Arovet Li.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE #2:  It is claimed that Voltaire had a minimum of 178 pen names throughout his lifetime.

So even though Voltaire first wrote this common sense is not so common, he wasn’t the first to express this thought.  English poet and political writer Nicholas Amhurst (16 October 1697 – 27 April 1742) wrote “Terræ-filius or The Secret History of the University of Oxford In Several Essays” published in 1726, in which is found the following:

Common SenseWhat this shows is that even Nicholas Amhurst knew that there was not a more uncommon thing in the world than common sense which, of course, is just another way of saying that common sense is not so common.

But long before Nicholas Amhurst, there was the Roman poet Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis (known in English as Juvenal) who wrote this in Book III of his collection of satirical poems, “Satires.”

Rarus enim ferme sensus communis.
Common sense is generally rare.

Juvenal died in 130 A.D. and as Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to common sense not being common, Idiomation gives a nod to Voltaire for coming up with the exact wording based on the writings of Juvenal.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 2nd Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

From Pillar To Post

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 18, 2015

When someone is said to be running from pillar to post, it’s another way of saying the person is running around in circles. In other words, they’re getting the run around and getting nowhere at all.

When Linda Kay Barber of Deer Park (WA) wrote a Letter to the Editor, the Spokesman-Review published it in their June 11, 1990 edition. She took issue with parents who weren’t putting their children first, whether they were dead beat non-custodial parents or parents who walked the picket line outside the Office of Support Enforcement. A line from her letter was plucked and became the letter’s headline: “Kids Kicked From Pillar To Post.”

When Hollywood was casting for the comedy series, “McHale’s Navy” starring Ernest Borgnine (24 January 1917 – 8 July 2012), producer Edward Montagne (20 May 1912 – 15 December 2003) saw Bobby Wright’s audition for another series titled, “It’s A Man’s World.” He cast the 20-year-old in the role of Radioman 2nd Class Willy Moss (credited as John Wright), and the story published in newspapers on Sunday, April 14, 1963 shared Bobby’s new-found fame in an article entitled, “From Pillar To Post.”

NOTE 1: Bobby Wright aka John Robert Wright Jr. (born 30 March 1942) is the son of Johnnie Wright (13 May 1914 – 27 September 2011) and country singer Kitty Wells (30 August 1919 – 16 July 2012), and the younger brother of country singer Ruby Wright (27 October 1939 – 27 September 2009) and Carol Sue Wright Sturdivant (born 12 June 1941).

Back on January 31, 1930 a story out of Washington dealing with prohibition was multifaceted. The upswing (or downswing depending if you were a Republican or a Democrat) of the discussion within the House Expenditures Committee about transferring dry enforcement from Secretary Melton’s bailiwick to that of the Attorney General was reported in the article.  On a related note, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the Jack Daniel Distillery Company of St. Louis was rendered when it was determined that the government failed to prove that whiskey in a bonded warehouse had been stolen by anyone associated with the Jack Daniel Distillery Company.  The article was headlined as “Dry Law Bounced From Pillar To Post As Capitol Talk Continues” and this was the first sentence in the article.

The prohibition discussion continued to bounce from pillar to post in Washington today, but concrete developments were few.

NOTE 2: Lemuel Motlow, nephew of Jasper “Jack” Daniel, moved part of the Jack Daniel Distillery Company operations to St. Louis (MO) after Tennessee adopted state prohibition in 1910.

Thieves made off with 16 barrels of whiskey and 118 cases of bourbon from the warehouse in December 1922, and then siphoned 893 barrels of whiskey through 150 feet of hose, and into waiting trucks in August 1923. The barrels (save for one that was left untouched for inspection) were refilled with water and vinegar. The stolen whiskey was resold on the bootleg market.

Lemuel Motlow was charged by the police in what was later come to be known as the “whiskey milking case” but the case against Lemuel Motlow never went to trial. Twenty three others, including former St. Louis circuit clerk Nat Goldstein and William J. Kinney, brother of a state senator who at the time was responsible for the Jack Daniel’s inspection, were tried a year later in Indianapolis and sentenced to time in the Leavenworth (KS) jail. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the distillery returned to its roots in Tennessee, setting up shop in Lynchburg.

The Sunday Herald of December 29, 1895 shared a news story of a middle-aged woman by the name of Mrs. Lizzie Bowen, and her 19-year-old boarder, Maude Mersin (whose real name was Mary Sheridan) who were known to cause considerable troubles for their neighbors. Maude, according to the news article, had a way of becoming acquainted with a great many young men, and was well-known in drinking establishments around town. She also spent an inordinate amount of time on the streets which was a polite way of reporting that she was a street-walker (which was the polite term for prostitute at the time).

Mrs. Bowen was no stranger to bad behavior herself and saw no problem with what neighbors were upset over. The trouble, however, cause the duo to be forced from their apartment on Elm Street, moving to new lodgings on White Street, where their troubles followed them. Forced to move from their apartment on White Street, they relocated to North Main Street where neighbors, familiar with the pair, continue to keep an eye on them.  The article was aptly entitled, “From Pillar To Post.”

NOTE 3: The article included an interesting saying Idiomation had not previously heard: “Give a dog a bad name and you might as well hang him.”

According to Brewer’s “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” the original idiom was from post to pillar and was in reference to the tennis courts. It may seem strange to think of tennis as being a game of a certain age, however, it is, and historical documents speak of the game of court tennis in 13th century literature. A new addition to the game of tennis happened during the reign of King Henry VIII when tennis rackets were introduced into the game.

It was found in “Contention Between Liberality And Prodigality” published in 1602 where it was written:

Every minute tost, like to a tennis-ball, from pillar to post.

When Richard Stanyhurst published his book “Thee First Foure Bookes Of Virgil His Aeneis Translated Into English Heroical Verse” back in 1582, the game of tennis and the phrase were tied to each other as well.

Free thee poast toe piler with thoght his rackt wyt he tosseth.

Long before the tennis racket came into play, there were other elements that were integral parts of the game (which have long since disappeared) and tennis was an intricate game of strategy and endurance. Among the structures were galleries, grilles, tambours, and dedans. The net (which was nothing more than a rope) was tied to a post at one end and to one of the pillars supporting the galleries at the other end, and thus, the idiom from post to pillar began.

How do we know that this? We can thank John Lydgate (1370 – 1451) for writing the following in his work, “The Assembly Of The Gods” published in 1420.

And when he thedyr came, Humylyté hym took
A token and bad hym go to Confessyon,
And shew hym hys mater with a peteous look.
Whyche doon, he hym sent to Contrycion.
And fro thensforth to Satysfaccion.
Thus from poost to pylour was he made to daunce,
And at the last he went forthe to Penaunce.

But it does seem odd that if someone was going post to pillar, as John Lydgate wrote, that person would be doing so for penance. So if this reference hasn’t anything — or much of anything — to do with royal tennis, then the reference must have to do with being taken from the pillory to the whipping post as mentioned in John Ray’s book “A Hand-Book Of Proverbs” published in 1670 where he included, “To be tost from post to pillory.”

The spirit of the idiom, however, is first found in the book by John Heywood (1497 – 1580) entitled “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies” published in 1562. In Part II, Chapter II of the section titled, “Proverbs” the following is found:

And from post to pillar, wife, I have been tossed
By that surfeit. And I feel a little fit
Even now, by former attempting of it.

Also in this same book, John Heywood also included the following:

Tossed from post to pillar: thou art a pillar strong;
And thou hast been a pillar, some say, too long.

And so it seems that the idiom was recognized and understood in 1562 (and meaning what the idiom means today) which indicates that back in the mid-1500s, from pillar to post (or actually from post to pillar) was already understood by the general population in England.

This indicates that somewhere between 1420 when the phrase first appeared in “Assembly Of The Gods” by John Lydgate and 1562 in “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies” by John Heywood, the spirit of the idiom became set to mean going from one thing to another, and not getting anywhere.

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century, Tennis | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In A Pickle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 13, 2015

When you find yourself in a pickle what that means is that you’ve found yourself in a position where you don’t know what to do, and where whatever you decide to do, you will probably have to deal with some unpleasant consequences.

On April 28, 1994, John N. Grigsby of the Toledo Blade newspaper published an intriguing story in his column “The Street Where You Live” all about the name of a street in Oregon Township. The column started by announcing that for years, residents in Oregon Township had wondered how Pickle Street got its name. Usually streets are named after early settlers, but in this case, not one settler named Pickle had ever lived in the township.

While there had been a farmer named Pickle at some point in the township’s history, by the time he settled in Oregon Township, the street had been named long before. Pickle Street had been known as County Road 183 and Brand Street and Stevens Street and Freedom Street, cut county commissioners decided in 1919 to settle on naming it Pickle Street. The column headline read, “Oregon Residents Caught In A Pickle Over Naming Of Thoroughfare.”

The Reading Eagle published a story back in 1934 by author Thornton W. Burgess in his column, “Nature Stories.” This one was titled, “Peter Rabbit Is In A Pickle.” The word pickle was used often throughout the story, including in this passage:

So, now you see what a pickle Peter was in. He was afraid to go over to that machine on account of the man, and he was afraid not to go because all the other little people would call him a coward and a boaster.

A little more than a century earlier, in 1820, Harry Broom (which was a pseudonym the author used) wrote a series of plays under the heading, “King In A Pickle.” The entire series was a satirical recounting of current affairs and lampooning King George IV and fellow royals, very much in the style of William Shakespeare.

SIDE NOTE:  The author was also responsible for another humorous book entitled, “A Nursery Guide For Ministers’ Wives.”

Speaking of Shakespeare, the bard used in a pickle in Act 5, Scene 1 of his play “The Tempest” published in 1610.

And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?
How camest thou in this pickle?

I have been in such a pickle since I
saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of
my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.

But it’s an odd little poem from in the book “Proverbs and Epigrams” by John Heywood and published in 1562 that the words appears in the sense of a pickle being a difficult situation.

Time is tickell
Chaunce is fickell
Man is brickell
Freilties pickell
Poudreth mickell
Seasonyng lickell

This is the earliest published version Idiomation could find for in a pickle referring to a difficult situation, and for it to be cleverly used in John Heywood’s work indicates that the phrase was understoodin 1562 to mean a difficult situation. It’s reasonable to believe that at least a generation earlier, the idiom took on this meaning. Idiomation therefore pegs in a pickle to the early 1500s.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »


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