Historically Speaking

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Article: Unintentional Changes

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 13, 2016

Living languages are fluid.  New words are added while archaic words are left to gather dust on the shelf.  Sometimes new words are a result of invented words authors have created to fit their stories.  Sometimes new words are a result of misspelling.  And in the case I’m about to share, should this word ever become a new word included in the dictionary, it will be as a result of ignorance and social media oversharing.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) published a story on their website that has its roots as much in politics as it does in social media with a side trip to whole language reading and writing, and illiteracy.  Earlier this week, Kevin O’Leary offered to invest $1 Million CDN into Alberta’s energy industry on the condition that Premier Rachel Notley resign.  This in turn led to a number of spirited discussions on social media, with some defending O’Leary, and others defending Notley.

One of these discussions yielded this exchange among some Facebook people.

kudatah-facebook-2

Needless to say, the “new” word kudatah is actually a misspelling of the real phrase (which is made up of two words), coup d’état which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means a “violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.”  The pronunciation of this phrase is kü-dā-ˈtä or phonetically speaking koo-day-tah.

It’s easy to see how someone who struggles with a language (even if it’s the person’s mother tongue) could spell the word with quotation marks as Maure Kyle did.

INTERESTING NOTE 1:  Maure Kyle has since deactived his Facebook account.

Tyler Bienderra came to Maure Kyle’s defense when others pointed out Maure Kyle’s spelling mistake.  He insisted that Maure Kyle was using the English spelling and not the French spelling of the word (points to Tyler for creativity), dragging misspellings of his own into the discussion.

When the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) published an article on their website about the discussion, Tyler defended his use of the word spelt by arguing that it could be spelled that way and be correct.  Except that Tyler is from Grande Prairie, Alberta in Canada and because of this, his defense fails miserably.

If you live in Canada or the U.S., the accepted use is spelled.  If you live in the UK, the accepted use is spelt although spelled is generally accepted.  Spelt is used in North America to refer to a kind of wheat.  But regardless of how he chose to spell the phrase — spelled or spelt — what made his comment humorous was the fact that coup d’état in French is written exactly the same way in English.

This situation has yielded a great many memes included this politically charged meme poking fun at both the misspelled word and the suggestion made by Maure Kyle.

Kudatah Happening Soon

There was also this meme that incorporated a nice Lion King Disney feel to it for added political punch.

Kudatah Matata

This meme had Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” deliver the message that the word in question didn’t exist.

Kudatah_Princess Bride

And, of course, if you’re going to lay claim to using the UK spelling of the word spelled, and you insist on defending the murder of a perfectly good phrase like coup d’état, the Queen of England absolutely must weigh in on the matter, meme-wise.

Kudatah_Royal

Whole language reading and writing is a sight-based only method that leaves the individual without strategies for reading unknown words.  It also relies heavily on guessing, and encourages “invented” spelling.

Studies have proven the phonics instruction is superior to whole language instruction as those who were taught phonics have strong word identification, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension skills which are very weak in those who were taught whole language instead.

However if social media and the #kudatah hashtag are sufficiently influential, it’s possible that within a few years, the word could find its way into the dictionary regardless of whether language purists agree.  Still, this is the way words,phrases, idioms, expression, clichés, sayings, et al change over the generations.

Elyse Bruce
Owner and Author
Idiomation: Historically Speaking

P.S.  Kudatah, I am led to believe, is the name that J.J. Abrams considered for Princess Leia and Han Solo’s son before he settled on Benjamin Kylo Ren — or Ben Ren to his friends.

Posted in News | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Pleased As Punch

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 7, 2016

When you’re pleased as punch, you’re more than just happy, you’re very satisfied with the end results of a situation or accomplishment.  And who wouldn’t be?  After all, isn’t punch (as in the beverage served in a large bowl at gatherings) pleasing?  But wait a minute!  Is the punch of the expression pleased as punch the same punch as the punch found in a punch bowl?

Senator Hubert Horatio Humphrey (27 May 1911 – 13 January 1978) — and later on Vice-President of the United States of America — was particularly fond of saying he was pleased a punch.  In fact, he was so fond of the idiom that it was called his catch phrase.

However, back when Hubert Humphrey was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, newspapers began to use his catch phrase to paint him in a different way.  The Sarasota Herald-Tribune of March 12, 1972 published an article about his campaign, delighting readers with their description of Hubert Humphrey being a “tireless hand shaker, a skilled busser of babies, a man trying very hard to show that he’s still a viable leader.”  The opening paragraph said it all.

Sen. Hubert Horatio Humphrey of Minnesota is not saying he’s “pleased as punch” much anymore, but he is definitely in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Of course, this was followed up with pointing out that he had tried for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 and lost because he wasn’t much competition for the charming and charismatic John F. Kennedy.   The next comment was that he had won the nomination in 1968 and lost the election.  Oh my!  When his political life is framed in this way, there’s definitely a lot less to be pleased as punch over!

SIDE NOTE 1:  In the United Kingdom, insults and accusations are exchanged between rival members of Parliament, in what is referred to as “Punch and Judy politics.” Prime Minister David Cameron used the phrase in a speech he gave in 2005.

In the July 4, 1938 edition of Life magazine, the column “Life On The Newsfronts Of The World” led with a story about U.S. President Roosevelt.  Coming out of the Depression Era, things were looking up for America.  The New York Stock Exchange had recently posted six successive million-plus-shares days that say stock prices rise by fourteen percent.  The article began thusly:

Pleased as punch, President Roosevelt smiled contentedly into a battery of news cameras on the evening of June 24 as, according to custom, he posed for the press immediately before delivering his thirteenth fireside chat.

Roosevelt’s fireside chats — thirty in all — were first radio and then television addresses where the president spoke directly to Americans the way one imagined the president spoke with close friends.  The first one, on March 12, 1933 addressed the banking crisis after which public confidence was temporarily restored in some small measure.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Harry Butcher, a reporter for CBS News, coined the term “fireside chat” in time for Roosevelt’s address of May 7, 1933, and the term stuck, in large part because it was in keeping with the informality of Roosevelt’s addresses to the American public.

In Volume 121 of Harper’s Monthly Magazine published on June 1910 carried the story, “The Wild Olive” trumpeted as a novel by the author of “The Inner Shrine.”  Chapter XX titled, “Part IV: Conquest” opened with Evie and Miriam, and the situation of who Evie may or may not be engaged to — Herbert Strange or Norrie Ford.  Her uncle was of the opinion she was engaged to one and not the other, but Evie wasn’t so easily convinced.

“Well, I mean to be true to him — a while longer,” she said, at last, as if coming to a conclusion.  “I’m not going to let Uncle Jarrott think I’m just a puppet to be jerked on a string.  The idea!  When he was as pleased as Punch about it himself.  And Aunt Helen said she’d give me my trousseau.  I suppose I sha’n’t get that now.  But there’s the money you offered me for the pearl necklet.  Only I’d much rather have the pearl — Well, I’ll be true to him, do you see?  We’re leaving for Newport the day after to-morrow.  They say there hasn’t been such a brilliant summer for a long time as they expect this year.  Thank goodness, there’s something to take my mind off all this care and worry and responsibility, otherwise I should pass away.  But I shall show Uncle Jarrott that he can’t do just as he likes with me, anyhow.”

In Volume 2 of the book, “My Friend Jim” written by English novelist and short story author, William Edward Norris  (18 November 1847 – 1925) and published in 1886, the phrase comes up in a conversation between two friends discussing affairs of the heart as it has to do with a common friend of theirs, Beauchamp, and Lady Mildred (whose father is Lord Staines).  Chapter XVI begins by telling readers that murder will out, and that scandal (no matter how small) in time become public property despite all efforts to keep things quiet.  As the friends gossip about the situation at hand, the duplicity of relationships comes to light.

“Not yet; but he may do it any day.  In fact, it is quite certain that he has come here in order to do it.  He wrote to Lady Mildred, offering himself for a week, which he would hardly have done unless he had meant business.  From what he has let fall, I suspect that he has had a quarrel with Lady Bracknell, and has decided to cut himself off from her.  Old Staines is as pleased as Punch; he looks upon the thing as settled.  Harry, what the deuce am I to do?”

During this time period, pleased as Punch and proud as Punch were used interchangeably with the same meaning.  The Volume 38 of the “London Charivari” published on May 5, 1860, the poem, “The Little Man and the Little Plan, or, The New Reform Coach” is found.  The poem has no attribution, and so the poet’s name is unknown to readers.  What is known is that there was no love lost between the author and the Whigs in British parliament.

Proud as Punch, craned to catch the public praise, praise, praise,
But, to his great surprise, instead of cheers and cries,
Of “Bravo, Johnny Russell!” from the crowd, crowd, crowd,
All was scorn and sneer and scoff — “Throw him over!” “Pull him off!”

SIDE NOTE 3:  The “London Charivari” was also known by it’s other name — Punch magazine.

Charles Dickens himself used the expression in his 1854 novel, “Hard Times – For These Times” published in 1854.  It was the tenth novel by Charles Dickens, and the shortest of all the novels he wrote.  What’s more not one scene was set in London, having been set in the fictional town of Coketown (a generic milltown that was similar in some ways to Manchester as well as to Preston).  The novel was serialized in his weekly publication, “Household Words” between April 1854 and August 1854.

In Chapter VI, the action opens at Pegasus’s Arms, a public house in town. Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby arrive and, greeted by the young girl, Sissy, they are shown to a room where Sissy goes from room to room afterwards in search of her father, Signor Jupes.  It’s not long before they are joined by Mr. Childers and Master Kidderminster.

“When Sissy got into the school here,” he pursued, “her father was as pleased as Punch.  I couldn’t altogether make out why, myself, as we were not stationary here, being but comers and goers anywhere.  I suppose, however, he had this move in his mind — he was always half-cracked — and then considered her provided for.”

Miss Godfrey (half-sister of the husband of Anna May Chichester aka Lady Donegall who also corresponded with Thomas Moore) wrote a letter to Thomas Moore dated February 22, 1813 to Thomas Moore in which she described Bessy’s gown.  Interestingly enough, not only does she use the idiom pleased as Punch, she refers to the fact that poets use the expression as well!

We had a grand ball here the other night, and you cannot imagine the sensation that Bessy excited; her dress was very pretty, and ‘beautiful,’ ‘beautiful,’ was echoed on all sides.  I was (as the poet says) as pleased as Punch!

In Act I of “Secrets Worth Knowing: A Comedy In Five Acts” by English playwright, Thomas Morton (1764 – 28 March 1838), published in 1802, and performed at the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden, England the idiom appears near the beginning of the play.  The conversation is taking place between the valet, the butler, the coachman, the cook, and the footmen as the audience learns that the master they knew has died, and they await the arrival of his heir.

COACHMAN
I pulls with you, Mr. Valet — young master must in the main be glad, for we all know that the old gemman, seeing that he run skittish, kept him upon low provender beyond sea.  So my verdict is, Mr. Butler, that we all smiles agreeably.

BUTLER
So say I.  Dam’me, I’ll look as pleased as Punch, ha! ha!

VALET
Softly.  And will you, Sir, who have but thirty ponds a-year, dare to be as pleased at seeing your master, as I, who have fifty?  No, no — subordination is every thing.

The idiom pleased as Punch is found in William Gifford’s, “The Baviad, and Maeviad,” published in 1797.

Oh! how my fingers itch to pull thy nose! As pleased as Punch, I’d hold it in my gripe.

While the earliest published version of pleased as punch that Idiomation found was from 1797, the fact of the matter is that the spirit of the idiom dates back to the 1660s, and can be traced directly back to the Punch and Judy shows.  This is because many of the early references — whether it’s proud as Punch or pleased as Punch — capitalize the word Punch.  This means that the word Punch isn’t actually a word, but rather a proper name.

The Punch and Judy puppet shows began popping up across Britain just as the restoration of the English monarchy began in 1660.  Under the reign of Charles II (14 May 1660 – 1685) and that of his brother, James II (1685 – 1688), the English, Scottish, and Irish monarchies were restored under one rule.  Charles II was a supporter of the Punch and Judy shows, that in October of 1662, Charles II ordered a royal command performance at Whitehall in the Queen’s Guard Chamber.

One might say that Charles II was pleased as Punch with the performance as the creator of the Punch and Judy show, Signor Bologna alias Pollicinella, was rewarded by Charles II with a gold chain and medal, along with a gift worth £25 at the time (according to online calculators, they put the equivalent of that amount to £3,500 in 2015 currency).  With that level of compensation from a King of England, it would be a good guess that Signor Bologna was also pleased as Punch.

Punch the puppet delighted in hurting others and getting away with hurting others.  Every time he physically assaulted another character and got away with it, it came with Punch‘s catchphrase, “That’s the way to do it!” which was always done in a sing-song voice.   In other words, Punch was proud to have done what he did, and he was pleased with the outcome of his assaults.

SIDE NOTE 4:  Two other phrases that came from the Punch and Judy shows are punch line and slapstick.

SIDE NOTE 5:  May 9 is International Punch Day.

So while Idiomation was only able to trace the first published version of pleased as Punch to 1797, it’s a safe bet that the term was in use long before 1797.  Idiomation’s guess is that shortly after the Punch and Judy shows received great praise from Charles II, the idiom pleased as Punch came into being in conversational English, and then in written English.

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

The Dickens

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 10, 2015

Whether it’s something you have a dickens of a time doing or something is happening like the dickens, most people don’t give a second thought as to what the dickens are in the first place.  What people do know is that the dickens seems to mean a lot.

The Chicago Tribune ran an article on December 8, 2015 titled, “How Kitchen Tools Revolutionized American Cooking” written by Megan McArdle.  The article began with introducing readers to centenarian Chuck Williams who passed away on December 5.  Were it not for his trip to France in the 1950s, many of the fancy kitchen gadgets that are part of the kitchen arsenal may not have found their way into American kitchens as early as they did.  In the article, the writer shared this with readers:

I mean, yes, I know how to chop onions just fine. But doing so makes me cry like the dickens, unless I wear goggles.

A little over a hundred years ago, the idiom was found in literature including Issue No. 604 of the Secret Service series titled, “The Bradys’ Chinese Clew or The Secret Dens of Pell Street” by A New York Detective (that was the only identity given the author” and published August 19, 1910.  The publisher, Frank Tousey, was located in Union Square in New York City.  The words were used in this passage:

“Sit down,” replied Old King Brady.  “You are terribly wet, my boy.”
“Yes, it’s raining like the dickens.”
“Won’t you have something to eat?  A cup of coffee.  You get good coffee here.”
The boy sat down with a shudder.

In 1852, London publishers, Hope and Co., on Great Marlborough Street, published a book by the author Eireeneespaid’ published a book with an equally strange title, “Eireeneespaid’ Agathoontegigantaisophilos, the Good Natured Giant.”  This passage in the story used the dickens three times to make its point.

Absorbed in his own thoughts, he struggled on unconscious for a little while, though something or other, ever and anon, gave a nudge at the calf of his leg.  The outward man at length gave the alarm.  “What the dickens?” (it was an old expression of surprise handed down from his ancestors, but without any explanatory note or comment) “what the dickens?”  He put his hand to his attacked calf; it was a fat calf, a very fat calf, of course, Mr. Jarvis being a very fat man.  There was tangibly a sort of slimy moisture on the surface, “What the dickens?”

Some will insist that the idiom has to do with English writer and social critic, Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) but history easily disproves this.  Even if one disregards what Eireeneespaid’ wrote in his book in 1852, it’s difficult to believe that the idiom was an oblique reference to Charles Dickens.

Yes, it’s true that he wrote and published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 and that the last name of the story’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is used to describe miserly people, the same cannot be said of Charles Dickens’s last name.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  In 1840 the U.S. Federal Census Data showed that Dickens families were found mostly in Tennessee and New York.  By 1920, the Dickens families were found mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina.  The dickens you say!

In Volume 2 of “The Humourist: Being Essays Upon Several Subjects” in the essay titled, “Of Hopers” the idiom is used.  The book, published in 1725, predates Charles Dickens’s birth by nearly a century so it’s a fact that the dickens used in any form obviously has nothing to do with Charles Dickens.  The author of this collection of essays is identified as John Thomas Hope, however, he is also identified elsewhere as Thomas Gordon.

He would needs make me seat my self in his own Place within the Chimney, an Honour which I was at first determin’d to decline ; but I found him invincible in his Complaisance:  Pugh, said he, you are too modest,  Sir you don’t know me ;  what the Dickens!  Have not I been whip’d at the Cart’s Tail too?

In Cocker’s “English Dictionary” compiled by scrivener and engraver Edward Cocker (1631– 22 August 1676), identified as the late famous practitioner in Writing and Arithmetick, with the second edition published in 1715 by John Hawkins.  The first edition, published in 1704 also included the dickens.   The following definition is provided for the word dickens.

Dickens, a Corruption of Devilkins, or little Devils; as, the Dickens take you.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Edward Cocker was mentioned by Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) in 1664, who described him as “very ingenious and well read in all our English poets.”  When Edward Cocker died in 1675, it’s said that his last poem was titled, “Cocker’s Farewell To Brandy.”  The poem contained these lines:

Here lyes one dead, by Brandy’s might power,
Who the last quarter of the last flown hour,
As to his health and strength, was sound and well

In Act III, Scene ii in “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” by William Shakespeare (April 1564 – 23 April 1616) takes place on a street where Mistress Page and Robin (the page to Sir John Falstaff) are met by Ford (a gentleman living at Windsor).  The play was written in 1597 and published in 1602.

FORD
Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?

MISTRESS PAGE
Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?

FORD
Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company. I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.

MISTRESS PAGE
Be sure of that — two other husbands.

FORD
Where had you this pretty weather-cock?

MISTRESS PAGE
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?

ROBIN
Sir John Falstaff.

FORD
Sir John Falstaff!

Around the same time of Shakespeare’s play, the play “Edward The Fourth” by English playwright, actor, and author Thomas Heywood (1575 – 16 August 1641), published in 1599, also used the term.  In Act III, scene i, Hobs, the Tanner of Tamworth and the Duchess share this exchange.

HOBS
Do you demand what’s dear?  Marry, corn and cow-hides.  Mass, a good nug lass, well like my daughter Nell.  I had rather than a band of leather she and I might smouch together.

DUCHESS
Cam’st thou not down the wood?

HOBS
Yes, mistress; that I did.

DUCHESS
And sawest thou not the deer imbost?

HOBS
By my hood, ye make me laugh.  What the dickens?  Is it love that makes ye prate to me so fondly?  By my father’s soul, I would I had job’d faces with you.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the dickens, however, since it was used by both William Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood in their respective plays, it indicates that the dickens was common usage at the time.  This puts the dickens to at least the mid-1500s.

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

Never Trouble Trouble Till Trouble Troubles You

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 3, 2015

If you think something or someone might cause problems, don’t address it until it actually causes problems, and that’s what’s meant when you hear someone say never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you!  In this respect, it’s related to let sleeping dogs lie, don’t meet troubles halfway, and don’t cross the bridge till you come to it.

On September 10, 2010, SB Nation (a grassroots network of fan-centric sports communities) added “Schadenfreude Fridays” to their regular offerings.  The first article in the new column took a look at some of the lesser games that were available back in the 8-bit days of the NES gaming system.

In reviewing the game “Bad Street Brawler” the reviewer stated that the video game wasn’t fun to play and that it was one of a small handful of games that were outright terrible.  The review of the game began with this comment.

BSB greeted players with protagonist Duke Davis’s motto, “Never Trouble Trouble ‘Til Trouble Troubles  You.”  On the strength of that alone we could probably include this game on the list, but its awfulness goes so much deeper.

Robert N. St. Clair thought the idiom should be the title of a play, and so he wrote, “Never Trouble Trouble: A Rollicking Face In Three Acts” in 1938.  A prolific playwright of comedic dramas, this play was part of the collection of plays he wrote in this genre.  While it was one of his earlier works, it was one worth noting for its humor.

Idiomation found the idiom in a poem by Fanny Windsor, titled, “Never Trouble Trouble” and published in Volume XIX, Number 5 of The Manifesto from May 1889.  The magazine was published in Shaker Village, New Hampshire.

My good man is a clever man,
Which no one will gainsay;
He lies awake to plot and plan
‘Gainst lions in the way.
While I, without a thought of ill,
Sleep sound enough for three;
For I never trouble trouble till
Trouble troubles me.

That same year, Volume 2 (from M to Z) of “The Salt-Cellars: Being A Collection of Proverbs Together With Homely Notes Thereon” by Charles Haddon Spurgeon and published by Alabaster Passmore and Sons in London (England) included the idiom found in Fanny Windsor’s poem.

It was also part of the advice that Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809 – 15 April 1865) gave Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley’s daughter, Frances Mary Gurley (9 July 1841 – 22 August 1907), and her husband, Civil War Union Officer, Major William Anthony Elderkin (15 May 1839 – 1 January 1900), when they married on June 9, 1861.  The Reverend Gurley (12 November 1816 – 30 September 1868) was the chaplain of the United States Senate as well as the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

A man needs a wife as much in war as he does in peace. I think he needs her more.  Stay with your husband when you can. Don’t let a third party interfere between you two; stay by yourselves. Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.

In the Dunstable New Hampshire Telegraph newspaper edition of July 20, 1836, the expression showed up in a bit of advice about the weather.

The Weather – After all, the weather seems to be such as to promise something to the farmer.  We shall have no famine at present.  Grass, grain, fruit, potatoes, and a thousand other things look well and promising.  Corn is backward, but has changed its color within a day or two, and shot up surprisingly.  No use in long face.  “Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you,” was good advice, coming from a good source.

In November 1779, the United States Congress voted unanimously to nominate John Adams (30 October 1735 – 4 July 1826) on a mission to negotiate the end of the war and a peace treaty with Britain as well as a commerce agreement.  His diplomatic assignments took him to Paris in 1779 and later on, to the Netherlands in 1780.

At the time, John Adams (who later became the second President of the United States) had to negotiate with France as well as with Britain because of the Treaty of Alliance which stipulated that, until the allies agreed jointly to ending the war, in the eyes of signatories to the Treaty of Alliance, the war was not ended.

On May 12, 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, that including the proverb.

Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you. I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

The proverb was included in the 1741 edition of Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”

The proverb is actually a rewording of an earlier proverb found in John Ray’s “A Handbook of Proverbs” published in 1670.  John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) was a clergyman, biologist, and naturalist, and is called the father of English natural history.  The proverb upon which this proverb is based is this:

Let your trouble tarry till its own day comes.

And before that, the spirit of never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you is found in a quote by Roman philosopher, playwrite, orator, and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. – A.D. 65).  Seneca was a tutor to Nero, and Nero kept him on as an advisor when he became Emperor in 54 A.D.  He retired as Nero’s advisor in 62 A.D., and three years later, Nero accused Seneca of conspiring against him, forcing his former tutor and advisor to commit suicide.  In his works, Seneca wrote this:

Quid iuvat dolori sui occurrere?
What help is it to run out to meet your troubles?

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you prior to 1741.  This indicates that somewhere between 1670 and 1740, the proverb was reworded.  Idiomation therefore pegs the date to 1740, with a nod to Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

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

Wash Your Mouth Out With Soap

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 1, 2015

It wasn’t all that long ago that children had to give serious concern to the threat of having their mouth washed out with soap!  These days, the threat of having someone wash your mouth out with soap is said to draw attention to a rude or offensive word or comment that someone else has made.

In the past, a child’s mouth was washed out with soap for swearing, lying, biting, verbal disrespect, and using tobacco.  Although it’s supposedly no longer an acceptable form of punishment, in July of this year, a 23-year-old man in Great Britain was ordered to pay 100 GBP after washing a six-year-old’s mouth out with soap after the child kicked a pensioner’s walking stick and used foul language towards the senior.

In 2000, when President Bill Clinton announced that he hoped to make American debt free for the first time since 1835, Vice-President Al Gore added to that proclamation by saying that the U.S. should continue to pay down the debt even when the economy slows.  Economist and Nobel laureate Robert Solow had this to say about Mr. Gore’s pronouncement.

He should wash his mouth out with soap.

Some of you may be familiar with the movie, “A Christmas Story” in which nine-year-old Ralphie Parker, who had the misadventure of helping his father change a flat tire.  The family had gone out to buy the yearly Christmas tree after supper, and on the way home, the suffer a flat tire. While Idiomation won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet, suffice it to say that things go awry, and Ralphie says:

Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

The end result is that once home, safe and warm, Ralphie’s mother has him chomp down on a new bar of Lifebuoy soap.  And you’ll never guess who he blames for having said the word he had spoken.

The April 1937 edition of Boys’ Life magazine published a humorous cartoon of a little old lady, a pastor, and a parrot.  The little old lady was pleased to share with the pastor that she had washed the parrot’s mouth out with soap.  One can only wonder where the parrot heard the bad words (and from whom) that led to the punishment.

Boys' Life_1937
In the October 1916 edition of Young Men magazine (Volume 42) an article titled, “The Cordon of the Inner Circle” talked about adolescent males across the United States who were feeling the “tightening cordon of common high ideals for their school and their own thinking, speaking, and doing.”  These young men, through Bible study groups, were standing up for their principles and putting them across to their peers.

After creating public sentiment against profanity among their high school mates, members of one Inner Circle determined that the only remedy for one of the leaders was to “treat him like a kid.”  So they captured him and washed his mouth out with soap and water.

The magazine was a publication of the Young Men’s Christian Associations — or what we’ve come to know as the YMCA.

In 1892,a collection of child study pamphlets were collated and printed under the title, “Collection of Pamphlets on Child Study.”  In one particular case, a study conducted by Margaret E. Schallenberger of Stanford University addressed the fictional scenario of a child named Jennie whose actions were well-intended but ill-conceived.

The set-up was that Jennie, having received a beautiful new box of paints, painted all the chairs in the parlor one afternoon while her mother was away on errands.  Upon her return, Jennie ran to meet her, and said, “Oh, mamma, come and see how pretty I have made the parlor.”

The respondents were children and adolescents who were not yet parents, and they were asked what they would have said or done if the respondents were Jennie’s mother.  The study reported the following:

Often the feeling of revenge is shown in the piling up of punishments, as in the following:  “If I had been Jennie’s mother, I would of painted Jennie’s face and hands and toes.  I would of switcher her well.  I would of washed her mouth out with soap and water, and should stand her on the floor for half an hour.”

For those who are interested, of the 2,000 respondents under the age of six, 1,102 boys and girls said they would whip Jennie.  Out of 2,000 respondents asked who were eleven years old, 763 said they would whip Jennie.  And of 2,000 respondents who were sixteen years old, only 185 would whip Jennie.  The data from the study showed a decline (although it wasn’t a uniform decline) from year to year, and indicated that as children matured, they were less likely to consider whipping as a best method of punishment.

Interestingly enough, of those same children under the age of six, none considered explaining to Jennie why what she had done was wrong.  At eleven years of age, 181 thought to explain things to Jennie, and at sixteen, 751 thought that explaining what she had done wrong would be effective.

Back in 1832, the practice of putting soap in another person’s mouth as punishment was alive and well in England, not just in America.  The case in question was one of a man (identified as Mr. Smith from the town of Rugby) whose wife left him and took up with Frank Treen (from the town of Harborough just three miles away from the town of Rugby), with whom she had a child.  Frank Treen demanded support money to pay from the husband for his wife.  The husband thought he was obligated to give Frank Treen support money for his wife, so he did.

However, he was informed by another source that while his wife lived in adultery, there was no obligation on him to pay for her, and so he stopped paying.  But when his wife’s lover died, the courts determined that not only was he responsible for paying for his wife (whom he had not divorced during the time she lived with Frank Treen), but for the bastard child as well.  The information about the situation included the following factual commentary.

It appeared that he had not lived with his wife for about seven or eight years; that when they lived together, they were constantly quarrelling; and that one evening, on the man’s return home, he found his wife intoxicated; upon which, being a miller, he threw his wife into the mill pond.  Be he dragged her out again immediately.  However, perceiving a piece of kitchen soap lying on the ground near the spot, he crammed it into his wife’s mouth, saying, “She has had plenty of water to wash with, she ought now to have a little soap.”  However they lived together for a year after this fracas.

It could be said that somewhere along the line someone decided that because the adage was that cleanliness was next to Godliness, Proverbs 21:23 should be taken at its word.

Whoever guards his mouth and tongue, keeps his soul from trouble.

That being said, while the punishment was very real for a very long time, with the move to a kinder, gentler parenting approach has led to the rise of the expression as the actual activity disappears from parenting options.

Idiomation has been unable to put an exact date on when the threat moved into idiom territory.  Perhaps one of our readers or visitors has the answer and is willing to share it in the Comments Section below.

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All And Sundry

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The excerpt from 1523 reads thusly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Break A Leg

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let Your Mouth Overload Your Back

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Argue With A Fence Post

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slick Willie

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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