Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

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.

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


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 »

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.

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

Lift me down (TOP lifts her down.)

… destroy that — and comes the Revolution!

I declare you’re strong …

Personally, I think she’s cute as a button

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.

Posted in Christian, Religious References, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


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