Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

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.

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

TRINCULO:
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 »

Many A Mickle Makes A Muckle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 11, 2015

Until recently, Idiomation wasn’t aware of the idiom that proclaimed that many a mickle makes a muckle. As the idiom was researched, it was learned that mickle and muckle are different forms of the same word meaning much or large.

The saying is actually many a pickle maks a mickle, which some mangled into many a pickle maks a muckle. This in turn became many a mickle makes a muckle.

But what exactly did it mean to use pickle in this sense if mickle meant much or large? In Scotland, where the idiom originated, pickle meant a small quantity. So the idiom actually meant that many little things gathered together made for a lot.

On February 13, 1985, the Wilmington Morning Star published the usual assortment of Letters to the Editor. The first letter was from Henry Stone Jr. of Supply, North Carolina. The focus of the letter was military spending, or rather, military misspending. In his letter, he pointed out that when ten million in military spending couldn’t be accounted for, it was understandable given that ten million was only one half of one hundredth of one percent of the $200 billion budget. But it was still ten million dollars of taxpayers’ money. His last sentence was modified and became the headline for the Letters to the Editor that day: Many A Military Mickle Makes A Muckle.

Over in Australia, The Age newspaper ran an advertisement in the May 24, 1951 edition for the State Savings Bank of Victoria. Using a story about a little raindrop, the hope was that readers would bank with them. The first paragraph in the copy titled “Said The Raindrop!” was this:

Little by little makes more and more, or as the saying goes, “Many a mickle makes a muckle.”

The Milwaukee Sentinel of May 18, 1924 published an advertisement placed by the First Wisconsin National Bank — a bank that proudly announced that it had capital and surplus of ten million dollars, and boasted a clientele of over 59,000 customers. The advertisement was intended to encourage readers to save money at their bank, stating that every little bit, added to what one already had, made for a little bit more. The advertisement was titled, “Many A Mickle Makes A Muckle.”

In the May 20, 1916 edition of the Milwaukee Journal a small tidbit of information was tucked neatly between comments about Germany, and the House Committee’s decision to authorize seven capital ships (three dreadnaughts and four battle cruisers), and an OpEd piece by H. Addington Bruce discussing the drawbacks of being a dilettante.

The nugget praised France for making the most of little things, and was titled, “The Power Of Little Things.” The article ended with this paragraph.

Many a mickle makes a muckle, but America has just begun to learn the lesson. Many a small waste added to the great current makes a vast drain of hundreds of millions of dollars. France, above all nations, can teach us the undreamed power of little things combined into stupendous wholes.

When George Washington (22 February 1732 – 14 December 1799) heard the expression used, he misremembered it and introduced it to America as many mickles make a muckle. It would appear that the misremembered expression was first used in a letter he wrote to William Pearce on December 18, 1793 in which he wrote:

Nothing will contribute more to effect these desirable purposes than a good example, unhapply this was not set (from what I have learnt lately) by Mr. Whiting, who, it is said, drank freely, kept bad company at my house and in Alexandria, and was a very debauched person, wherever this is the case it is not easy for a man to throw the first stone for fear of having it returned to him: and this I take to be the true cause why Mr. Whiting did not look more scrupulously into the conduct of the Overseers, and more minutely into the smaller matters belonging to the Farms; which, though individually may be trifling, are not found so in the agregate; for there is no addage more true than an old Scotch one, that “many mickles make a muckle.”

But George Washington wasn’t the only American to share a misheard version of the idiom. In fact, in the writings of Benjamin Franklin (17 January 1706 – 17 April 1790), a variation appears. In Volume II of “The Writings of Benjamin Franklin” collected and edited by Albert Henry Smith and covering the years 1722 through 1750 inclusive, the following is said to have been published in The Pennsylvania Gazette on July 24, 1732 under the pseudonym of Celia Single. In the letter, a discussion is recounted and includes this:

“I knit Stockins for you!” says she; “not I truly! There are poor Women in Town, that can knit; if you please, you may employ them.” “Well, but my Dear,” says he, “you know a penny sav’d is a penny got, a pin a day is a groat a year, every little makes a muckle, and there is neither Sin nor Shame in Knitting a pair of Stockins; why should you express such a might Aversion to it? As to poor Women, you know we are not People of Quality, we have no Income to maintain us but what arises from my Labour and Industry: Methinks you should not be at all displeas’d, if you have an Opportunity to get something as well as myself.”

For those who prefer George Washington’s variation, many mickels make a muckle dates back to George Washington and 1793. For those who prefer Benjamin Franklin’s variation, every little makes a muckle dates back to Benjamin Franklin and 1732.

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

Cute As A Button

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 6, 2015

Children are said to be cute as a button although every once in a while someone might refer to a young woman in this way. What it means is that the person who’s said to be cute as a button is charming and attractive while implying the person is small or young, like a child is.

On March 30, 2014, snlgamers.com published an article from writer, David Graham that discussed Nintendo’s history. The article was titled, “Hanafuda: Nintendo’s Past” and gave a detailed accounting of where Nintendo began and how it became what it is a hundred years later. Along the way, the writer included this passage.

We think of Nintendo as the wholesome video game company. Mario and Kirby are as cute as a button and the company in general feels squeaky clean, especially compared to other industry titans.

Back on October 30, 1995, journalist Tony Kronheiser’s story, “Those 15 Minutes Of Fame Will Ruin The Kid” about 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier from Old Tappan in Bergen County (New Jersey) hit the newsstands. It’s not that Tony wasn’t aware that his comments might not be appreciated by some, however, as a journalist, he felt compelled to write the story nonetheless.

The boy in question had leaned over the right field railing at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the American League Championship at the bottom of the 8th inning with one out and the Orioles leading 4 to 3. He stretched his baseball gloved hand out over Tony Tarasco, and gave the New York Yankees a home run in the process.

The journalist knew that his comments would be unpopular with a segment of the population but that didn’t stop him from writing about the situation as it was. And he predicted that some of his detractors might even think this of him:

Tony, this is the lowest you’ve ever sunk. He’s a 12-year-old boy, and he’s cute as a button. So what if he hurt the Orioles? Stop pandering to the Washington audience. All the kid did was try to catch a fly ball. You’d have done the same thing yourself.

As it was, the Baltimore Orioles lost the pennant that year, and over the years, Jeffrey Maier went on to play high school and college baseball, and then worked for minor-leagues baseball teams. And the journalist was right: Jeffrey Maier never escaped from being forever thought of as The Kid.

In the Deseret News edition of April 16, 1954 stores were in full swing with spring fashions and nothing said cute as a button for a little girl than a strappy little patent leather number as seen in this newspaper advertisement.

Cute As A Button_1954
In the book, “The Best Plays of 1938 – 39” edited by Burns Mantle, the idiom appeared in “Kiss The Boys Good-Bye.” It was a comedy in three acts, written by American author (and later U.S. Ambassador) Clare Boothe  (10 March 1903 – 9 October 1987) and later known as Clare Boothe Luce after marrying Henry “Harry” Luce (3 April 1898 – 28 February 1967), the founder of Time and Fortune magazines.

BREED
The Old South, the last illusion of the New North —

CINDY LOU
Lift me down (TOP lifts her down.)

BREED
… destroy that — and comes the Revolution!

CINDY LOU
I declare you’re strong …

BREED
Personally, I think she’s cute as a button

CINDY LOU
Why, you damn Yankee pole-cat! Here I come!

The idiom as we know it is actually an abbreviated version of cute as a button quail. For those who aren’t familiar with button quail, they’re tiny, extra-fluffy, docile members of the quail family. They have an extensive vocabulary with multiple chirps and coos that are understood by other button quail, and yet, their chirps and coos are very quiet … perhaps so as not to disturb others in the vicinity.

The proper name for button quail is Chinese Blue Breasted Quail (Excalfactoria chinensis) and are native to only a few provinces in southeast China. European tourists visiting China in the late 1800s and early 1900s fell in love with them and took them back home with them to add to their persona aviaries.

American soldiers during WWI encountered them in these homes in Europe. Soon afterwards they were brought to America. However, rather than arrive with their proper name, American soldiers reported that these little birds were about the size of their uniform coat buttons when they first hatched, and that’s where the idiom began.

Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the 1920s.

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

In High Cotton

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 4, 2015

It’s not often that you hear of someone living in high cotton, but when you do, you know that person is living the easy life and is doing well financially.

The roots of this idiom are found in the southern United States in the years before the American Civil War. When cotton grew high and was abundant (in other words, a bumper crop), a good price could be had for that cotton leaving the farmer flush with cash. That same cotton crop came with bonuses for field workers as well by way of shade courtesy of the high cotton, which spared field workers from the harsh rays of the scorching sun overhead.

Just this month, the idiom was used in an article on August 4, 2015 on San Antonio’s Express-News website. The article was about how the Lubbock wineries were defying all odds and producing some amazing wines. A photo of owner, Vijay Reddy standing alongside some of his vines on his 100 acre vineyard showed how well the venture was doing. The article included this intriguing paragraph.

Vijay Reddy, a soil expert, emigrated to West Texas from India and wound up in high cotton himself. But, although there’s no history of grape-growing or winemaking in his family, Reddy’s relatively newfound passion has led him to plant more than 20 varietals over about 100 acres on his spread near Brownfield.

About twenty years ago, nationally syndicated columnist, Charley Reese wrote about the state of affairs in Washington in an article entitled, “Budget Balancing Act All An Act.” His column took on the issue of $1.4 trillion in federal spending couples with another $800 billion in state and local spending. When all was said and done, it was clear that Charley Reese wasn’t impressed with what was going on in Washington. He kicked off the column with this statement.

If we could manage our own finances the way the Congress does the nation’s, we’d all be living in high cotton and eating high on the hog.

The column by James J. Kilpatrick that was published on July 21, 1970 in the Herald-Journal newspaper took Washington to task as well, this time on the issue of consumer protection, and Maryland Senator Joe Tydings Consumer Class Action Act.  The Act didn’t address the problem of bad workmanship or poor design or anything else along those lines. The operative words in the Act were “unfair” and “deceptive.”

It is more accurately an act to line the pockets of ingenious attorneys. If this bill passes, the lawyers will be in high cotton; their client consumers will be still hoeing the short rows.

On page 114 of Volume 170 of The Atlantic Monthly magazine published in 1942, the expression could be found in this short story.

You have been walking in high cotton for a long time; keep it up! I was born in the deep South, lived all over the U. S. A., and have seen and experienced much abroad.

The fact of the matter is that the cotton industry helped to grow the American economy in the 1830s and 1840s, and it wasn’t long before people cottoned on to the slogan, “Cotton is king.” After sugar and tobacco, cotton considered a luxury commodity around the world. By the time the mid-1800s rolled around, cotton was America’s leading export. What’s more, raw cotton had become essential to the European economy.

Cotton was to the economy then what oil has become to the economy now. Not only did cotton generate large revenues for plantation owners in the United States (and indirectly for the United States of America overall), it impacted on the American government’s ability to borrow money in the global market.

How much cotton was produced by America for the European market, you ask? Prior to the American Civil War, 77 percent of the 800 million pounds of cotton used by Britain came from the United States. It provided two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton outside of Britain.

And how was America able to provide so much cotton to the world’s economies? In 1793, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had teeth with which it could comb out and separate the seeds from the cotton. Because of this, cotton became an extremely profitable cash business that eventually surpassed even tobacco production. Once cotton became a lucrative crop, many plantation owners in the Antebellum South amassed impressive fortunes.

Back in 1860, cotton sold for $0.10 cents a pound, but by 1864, cotton sold for $1.89 a pound. Understandably, the better the crop, the higher the price that could be demanded for that crop.

And this is how in high cotton came to mean an easy life with more than enough money to rely on.

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

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 30, 2015

It’s perhaps not an idiom that’s heard very often, but if someone is told to bloom where he or she is planted, that means they should do their best under the current set of circumstances.  It doesn’t mean a person can’t be transplanted elsewhere at a later date, and bloom in the new location.  It means that just because the current location may not be all a person would like it to be is no reason not to do your best and thrive where that person is.

The Basin Republican Rustler of May 24, 2007 in Wyoming published an advertisement from the Wyoming Real Estate Network that painted an idyllic picture of ten acres of land just waiting for the right person to build a dream home. Smartly priced at $120,000 the realtors hoped to catch people’s attention with the headline, “Bloom Where You’re Planted.”

The Ocala Star Banner of August 29, 1987 ran the Paul Harvey column dealing with the issue of blooming where one is planted. From a religious as well as a political standpoint, the writer spoke about people, churches, and nations exceeding their grasp. He wrote about American adopting the good neighbor policy and all the while neglecting that one of the most important aspects of being a good neighbor is to mind one’s own business.

Paul Harvey was of the opinion that if the United States started minding its own business that other countries might be inspired to follow suit, leading to affection and not resentment towards America and Americans. The article was title, “Bloom Where You’re Planted.”

Over the generations, people have attributed bloom where you are planted to the Bible, and while that’s not exactly correct, the idiom does have a connection to the Catholic Church. The Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) is credited with having said the following:

Truly charity has no limit; for the love of God has been poured into our hearts by His Spirit dwelling in each one of us, calling us to a life of devotion and inviting us to bloom in the garden where He has planted and directing us to radiate the beauty and spread the fragrance of His Providence.

And while the idiom may not appear in the Bible word for word, the spirit of bloom where you’re planted is found in a number of Bible passages including, but not limited to, 1 Corinthians 7:7-24 as well as Psalm 92:13 and Jeremiah 17:7-8.

Later American graphic artist and children’s book illustrator Mary Engelbreit (born 5 June 1952) made the phrase popular when she included it — as well as artwork based on the phrase — in her book, “Mary Englebreit: The Art and the Artist“published in 1996.

As we know, Paul Harvey used the phrase a decade earlier than the publication of Mary Engelbreit’s book, and it was used in a way that demonstrated that the readers of his column knew what it meant to bloom where one was planted.

In fact, the American Church in Paris (France) has sponsored the “Bloom Where You’re Planted” full-day seminar since 1970.

What all this means is that the spirit of the idiom has been around for centuries, but no matter how much research was done, Idiomation was unable to find a definitive date for when this exact phrase was first published.

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Gay Blade

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 21, 2015

While many these days default to thinking of the term gay blade as an offensive comment made about flamboyant homosexuals, the word gay didn’t just one day adopt that meaning.   The word has always had a second meaning that dates back to 1637 where the secondary meaning was defined as being addicted to social pleasures and dissipation. In other words, the gay life was a life of loose morals and so males and females who were inclined to leading immoral lives were said to be gay. It only took three hundred more years for the word to refer to male homosexuals.

When the term gay blade first began showing up in literature, it had nothing to do with being addicted to social pleasures. It referred to a gallant young man who was usually adept as a swordsman. Even though there were other connotations for gay blade over the years, the more chivalrous meaning still managed to survive into the 20th century.

Back on May 27, 1981 newspapers were sharing the news that George Hamilton refused to change the name of us upcoming Zorro movie even when the people backing the movie objected to its title. He made it clear that as far as he was concerned, the movie was about a happy turn-of-the-century swordsman and that the movie title had a “nice turn-of-the-century ring to it.” And so, moviegoers were treated to antics of George Hamilton, Lauren Button, Brenda Vaccaro and Ron Leibman in the very successful and very funny movie, “Zorro: The Gay Blade.”

In a Sundance, Wyoming advertisement titled, “What Kind Of Lad Is Your Dad” published in the Sundance Times of June 9, 1960, four stereotypes were suggested: Ranger Rider, Strong Silent Father, Snappy Pappy, and Gay Blade. Regardless of what kind of dad described your dad, Spearfish Clothier had an ensemble worthy of your dad.  The definition written up for the Gay Blade dad was one that easily fit a heterosexual male, a metrosexual male, or a homosexual male.

IMAGE 1

On April 21, 1944 the Deseret News published a story about American baseball Left fielder, Emil Frederick Meusel (9 June 1893 – 1 March 1963) nicknamed Irish. He began his career with the Washington Senators in 1914 and played on game before moving to the minors. He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1918, and then to the New York Giants in 1921.   The article in the Deseret News – which really was just a list of baseball players and some relatively innocuously scandalous facts about them — began with this tidbit.

Irish Meusel, as gay a blade and dangerous a hitter as was ever trailed by John McGraw’s detective staff.

SIDE NOTE 1: Irish Meusel’s brother, Robert William “Long Bob” Meusel (19 July 1896 – 28 November 1977) played for the New York Yankees from 1920 to 1922, and his career ended with the Cincinnati Reds in 1930.

The term was found in a story in Volume 39 of “New Catholic World” back in July 1884. The magazine was published by the Paulist Press   and the term was used in the short story, “A Tragi-Comedy” by American writer, Catholic journalist, literary critic, novelist, and diplomat Maurice Francis Egan (24 May 1852 – 15 January 1924).

It was the happiest day of her life. Jack Dempsey, careless, free-and-easy Jack, looked at her wrinkled hands and sighed. What a glory it was to have a mother! He laughed and joked, kissed his hand out of the car-window right and left; but, for all that, he missed none of the tender, prideful glances that the worn, tired woman cast upon her son.   Jack, in his heart, felt sad; it seemed to him that a mother’s love is born to suffer – of all earthly things the nearest to heaven, yet of all earthly things most pathetic in its disappointments.

“He’s a gay blade,” said Mr. Devir.

“There’s no thought about him at all,” answered Mrs. Devir as Jack Dempsey bade them good-by. “They say his uncle wants to make a priest of him. He’ll never do it!”

It was in the short story, “The Farmer’s Daughter” by William Howitt and included in the anthology, “Heads of the People: Portraits of the English” illustrated by Joseph Kenny Meadows (1 November 1790 – August 1874), engraved by John Orrin Smith (1799–1843), and published in 1841.

She was altogether a dashing woman. She rode a beautiful light chestnut mare, with a switch tail, and her brother Ben, who was now grown up, with the ambition of cutting a figure as a gay blade of a farmer, was generally her cavalier. She hunted, and cleared gates and ditches to universal amazement. Everybody was asking, “Who is that handsome girl, that rides like an Arab?”

The anthology was filled with short stories by noted authors such as English dramatist and writer Douglas William Jerrold (3 January 1803 – 8 June 1857), English poet and critic Richard Hengist Horne (31 December 1802 – 13 March 1884), English writer and editor Thornton Leigh Hunt (10 September 1810 – 25 June 1873), and English novelist and satirist William Makepeace Thackery (18 July 1811 – 24 December 1863).

SIDE NOTE 2: Thornton Leigh Hunt was the son of English critic, essayist, poet, and writer, James Henry Leigh Hunt (19 October 1784 – 28 August 1859).

As previously mentioned, a gay blade in the 17th century was a gallant young man usually adept as a swordsman. Don Juan (1582 – 21 August 1622) from the late 16th century and early 17 century – his full name being Don Juan de Tassis y Peralta, Second Count of Villamediana — was considered a gay blade by his peers.

The word blade is from the Middle English word blæd which meant sword in the late 1300s, and referred to a man by the 1590s, hence the play on words. The word gay is also from the Middle English word gay which meant impetuous, lively, and merry. From this comes the expression gay blade and yes, many gallant young men who were unusually adept as swordsmen back in the day were impetuous, lively, and merry as well as skilled.

Idiomation was unable to find any earlier mention of gay blade than the 17th century and therefore pegs the expression to the early 1600s.

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Whippersnapper

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 16, 2015

A whippersnapper is an inexperienced person who is irritatingly overconfident with his or her abilities, sometimes to the point of being offensive.  Yes, whippersnappers usually act as if they’re very important and believe themselves to know better than their elders. What’s more, they’re usually impolite and brazen, lazy, and lack motivation.

Even though the death knell was sounded for the term whippersnapper back in newspaper columns of the 1960s, the word cropped up in an article by Gary Borders entitled, “Modern Billingsgate Betrays Puerile Imbecility Of Pundits” which was published in the Rome News-Tribune on March 4, 2006. The article took on the subject of television news programs that features guests and hosts yelling angrily with each other instead of discussing matters in a logical fashion with facts to back up their opinions.

In his article, he wrote about the elderly Presbyterian minister, the Reverend James Russell (died 10 August 1847) who was the last editor of the Red Lander newspaper in San Augustine, Texas.

Russell had been running the newspaper for about a year when a young whippersnapper started a competing weekly, The Shield. Henry Kendall, who had a bad habit of stealing Russell’s hired help, owned the paper. His editor moonlighted as president of the other university in town, started by the Methodists. San Augustine could support neither two newspapers nor two universities.

The Reverend James Russell began to print some nasty comments in his editorials with increasing intensity. He was responsible for some of the insults that we still hear thrown about in the media today: right-wing, liberal, secularist, and religious right.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: When the Reverend James Russell used his newspaper to state that Henry Kendall’s mother was a “woman of easy virtue” and his father was a liar and a murderer, Henry Kendall was incensed at the audacity the Reverend had to publish such insults. Ten days after the insults were printed in the Reverend’s newspaper, Henry Kendall shot him dead as the Reverend walked out of his office. The killing was noted as the first editorial killing in Texas.

In the Milwaukee Journal edition of June 28, 1967, even journalist Robert W. Wells lamented the demise of the term in his column, “All Is Wells.” In the column published that day he decried the fact that the literary pendulum had swung in favor of one syllable nouns and verbs drawn from graffiti of the day. With regards to whippersnapper, he wrote:

Thirty years earlier, on May 30, 1937, the St. Petersburg Times published O.O. McIntyre’s regular column, “Whip Snaps Of A Whippersnapper” where O.O. McIntyre reflected on a number of things. He wrote about the “best darned quartet you ever heard – there’s five of them.” He wrote about a woman’s model husband who “doesn’t drink, smoke or run after woman – just sorta stupid.” He wrote about how many residents in France were against the reduced utopian 40-hour work week that left people with too much time on their hands to do nothing. And that’s just some of what O.O. McIntyre wrote in his column of May 30, 1937.

There was an era when some crusty character — the heroine’s father, usually — could be relied on to open every discussion of juvenile delinquency by shouting: “You young whippersnapper!”

This confrontation between youth and age made for tense drama, but it has been abandoned. The whippersnapper is apparently as extinct as the New Zealand moa.

Whippersnapper was a favorite expression of English novelist, journalist, editor and educationalist George Manville Fenn (3 January 1831 – 26 August 1909) and appeared in many of his novels. It was also a favorite expression of influential poet, critic and editor William Ernest Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903). And it was a favorite expression of English popular novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (4 October 1835 – 4 February 1915), author of her sensation novel “Lady Audley’s Secret” published in 1862.

In the third volume of the Association Medical Journal of 1855 edited by Dr. John Rose Cormack, M.D. and published by the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association of London (England) the expression was used in the article, “Medical Practice Among The Poor.” It had originally been published in “Household Words” on October 21, 1854.

There are the young men entitled whippersnappers; to whom the poor are said by Messieurs Souchong, Sirloin, and Wick, to be shamefully and neglectfully handed over. Mr. Souchong, Sirloin, and their friends refuse on their own parts to take counsel of a whippersnapper; so do their betters with considerable unanimity. They wait until he has more experience; that is to say, until he has tried his prentice hand sufficiently among the poor. He would be happy enough to attend viscounts and bankers; but he is bidden by society to try his hand first among beggars.

Going back to 1742, English author and magistrate Henry Fielding (22 April 1707 – 8 October 1754) wrote, “The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams” which included whippersnapper in his book.  The book is written in comic prose, and tells the story of the absent-minded parson Abraham Adams and his foot man, Joseph Andrews as they travel home from London.

“What dost thou think of Ms. Andrews?”

“Why, I think,” says Slipslop, “he is the handsomest, most properest man I ever saw; and if I was a lady of the greatest degree, it would be well for some folks. Your ladyship may talk of customs, if you please; but I am confidous there is no more comparison between young Mr. Andrews, and most of the young gentlemen who come to your ladyship’s house in London – a parcel of whippersnapper sparks; I would sooner marry our old parson Adams. Never tell me what people say, whilst I am happy in the arms of him I love. Some folks rail against other folks because other folks have what some folks would be glad of.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Henry Fielding, along with his half-brother, Sir John Fielding (16 September 1721 – 4 September 1780) who was also a magistrate as well as a social reformer, founded London’s first police force.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: British author, Sarah Fielding (8 November 1710 – 9 April 1768) was Henry Fielding’s sister. She wrote “The Little Female Academy” which is considered the first novel in English written especially for children.

In the 1600s, whipperginnie was a derogatory term for a woman, and snippersnapper was a derogatory term for a man.

It’s most likely that people blended whipperginnie and snippersnapper together during the mid-1600s and the new word was whippersnapper. It would make sense since the definition for whipperginnie (female) and snippersnapper (male) are the same, and both whipperginnie and snippersnapper share an identical definition with whippersnapper.  By the time Henry Fielding was using the word in his novel of 1742, the word was recognized among the general population which means that it was established in the English language as being a legitimate word with a recognized definition.

Idiomation therefore pegs whippersnapper to the late 1600s in light of these facts.

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Weak As Water

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 14, 2015

When someone says another person is weak as water, it could mean it usually means the other person is easily influenced.  After all, water always chooses the path of least resistance in nature, and likewise, if someone is weak as water, they won’t want to cause waves.  They’ll also choose the path of least resistance.

It was in the newspaper The Age of Thursday, March 23, 1978 that news of the Australian federal government’s decision to free Queensland Aborigines from state laws governing the administration of Aboriginal reserves. According to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister at the time, the legislation would override the Queensland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Act. But not everyone was impressed with the announcement.

The Queensland state government last night declared it would use every weapon available to block the legislation. The acting Queensland Premier, Mr. Knox, said he was astounded by the move. “We will oppose this attempt both politically and in the courts,” Mr. Knox said.

In Hong Kong, the Queensland Premier, Mr. Bjelke-Petersen, said the Federal Government’s actions were “as weak as water.”

On July 30, 1951 an Associated Press story written by William F. Arbogast went national and reported on the final congressional approval for an economic controls bill that President Truman would then be expected to sign even though he disagreed with the bill. If the bill wasn’t signed into law by the next evening, all existing government controls over things such as wages, prices, and rents would come to a screeching halt. Added to the situation was the fact that there wasn’t even enough time for the President to veto the vote by Congress. The article was aptly titled, “Weak As Water Controls Bill Nears Final Approval By Congress Once More Leaving Consumers Holding The Bag.”

Of course, sometimes newspapers and books yield up interesting situations such as the one mentioned in the Palm Beach Post newspaper of May 18, 1923 that ran a full-page under the headline, “Questions For Consideration At Mass Meeting Tonight To Discuss Municipal Ownership of Public Utilities.”   The issue at heart was that of the water supply to West Palm Beach, and included such questions as these:

Will they sell the water plant at actual cost and deduct the $20,000 or more estimated losses they will incur each year during the next eight years?

Who has been trying to enact a law in the State Legislature to take away power of increase and reduction of public utilities rates from municipal authorities and place this power with the State Railroad Commission?

Can three men who reside in Tallahassee fix public utility rates for all Florida and do justice to all concerned?

Did anybody ever try to put a yellow rope around Lorenzo Garland’s neck?

Is the request of the Water Company for an increase in rates as weak as water?

Who is willing to be the goat and stand up against the corporations who own public utilities and their agents, hirelings, and retained attorneys?

The Bryan Times of June 29, 1882 published a story by Rose Terry Cooke entitled, “Just Like A Man” that shared typical male and female interactions as seen through the eyes of the author. Halfway through the story, Sarah and her mother segue into this part of their discussion.

“Bless your soul and body,” Put in her mother; “I never see the thing yet you wa’n’t afeard of, Sary, horse or not.”

“Oh I know it, ma, but I am awfully afeard of a skittish horse; Tom, he don’t really sense it, and he says Jenny ain’t ugly, she’s just full of play; and I s’pose she is; she’s knowing as a dog, and I give her a bite of somethin’ every time he fetches her ’round, and she knows me real well, but she will jump and lash out and sky sometimes, and it makes me just as weak as water, so’t I don’t never drive her if I can help it.”

Reaching back into history, the expression is identified as a proverb in John Ray’s “A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs” that was first published in 1674. John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) was a Fellow of the Royal Society as well as the author of “Historia Plantarum.”  Since John Ray has identified this as a proverb, a quick search of the Christian Bible reveals that, indeed, it does appear in the Christian Bible in Ezekiel 21.

 “As for you, son of man, groan; with breaking heart and bitter grief, groan before their eyes.   And when they say to you, ‘Why do you groan?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that it is coming. Every heart will melt, and all hands will be feeble; every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it is coming, and it will be fulfilled,’” declares the Lord God.

On a related parallel note, water isn’t actually weak. Water determines its own path in nature (and sometimes in the city as well). It can be transformed into liquid, gas, or a solid (ice). It can erode stone, concrete, and other hard substances. It can sustain bacteria and other living organisms. In other words, water is anything but weak.  But Idiomation digresses on the matter of the idiom at hand.

Back on topic, the Book of Ezekiel is found in the Old Testament, so it’s more than two thousand years old. What history tells us is that Ezekiel was taken to Babylon in the first captivity and served as a religious counselor to the Hebrews that lived along the banks of the Kebar River around 597 B.C. Portions of the Book of Ezekiel, however, were written prior to Jerusalem’s fall in 586 B.C. This puts the expression to the time the Book of Ezekiel was written. It may be older than that, but Idiomation was unable to find an earlier version of this expression.

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Catfishing

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 2, 2015

Catfishing is when someone creates a false online identity for the express purposes of luring someone into a romantic relationship.

The term was used in the 2010 pseudo-documentary, “Catfish.”  It chronicles the story of Nev Schulman who met a woman on Facebook and a romantic relationship developed between them.  She led him to believe that she was young and available. He tracks her down in real life and finds out that she’s in her forties and married.

In this pseudo-documentary, a fake story is included from the early 1900s that states that catfish are the natural enemy of cod, and that fishermen shipping live cod from Alaska to China used to throw catfish into the barrels along with the cod to keep the cod active.  In keeping the cod active (as they allegedly swam for their lives in the barrel) this made the cod flesh firm and tasty instead of mushy.

This is an urban myth.

Firstly, seals, and not catfish, are enemies of cod.  Secondly, while transporting the cod from Alaska to China, the cod would need to be fed to stay alive while the catfish would supposedly have an endless supply of food thanks to the cod in the barrels with them.  Upon arrival, how many cod would still be alive and thriving in those barrels?  Thirdly, saltwater catfish are scavengers which excludes cod as their prey.

The urban myth, however, arises from a short story “The Catfish” by British war correspondent, campaigning journalist, political commentator, and suffragist Henry W. Nevinson (11 October 1856 – 9 November 1941) in his book “Essays In Rebellion” published in 1913.  Near the end of the story — which reads more like a sermon than a short story — the author wrote this:

At present in this country, for instance, and, indeed, in the whole world, there seem to be more catfish than cod, and the resulting liveliness is perhaps a little excessive, a little “jumpy.”

All that aside, the title of the pseudo-documentary “Catfish” stuck with popular culture, and the subject of the pseudo-documentary took on the title.

As an interesting side note, however, there have been bait-and-switch situations involving catfish, that harken to the spirit of the catfishing, and that have nothing to do with the pseudo-documentary.  This includes, but isn’t limited to, the investigation reported in the Boston Globe newspaper in 2011.  At restaurants and in fresh fish markets there was a hoax of another color (pardon the reworked idiom)!  Flounder fillet, which was priced at $23 per pound, turned out to be a Vietnamese catfish, priced at $4 per pound, and known as the nutritionally inferior swai.

When you reflect on the fact that catfish are typically bottom-feeder, the description is particularly apt in many respects.  After all, only a low-life bottom-feeder would lure someone into a relationships by means of a fictional online persona, right?

What this proves is that some idioms like catfishing have very abbreviated histories that date back a few short years.  In this case, catfishing dates back to 2010 and no further.

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