Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

  • Archives

  • Pages

  • Subscribe

  • Meta

Archive for September, 2010

Backhanded (Left-Handed) Compliment

Posted by Admin on September 30, 2010

Back-handed is synonymous with left-handed and so a backhanded compliment is no different than a left-handed compliment.  A backhanded or left-handed compliment is a compliment with an insult at the centre. 

In the Presbyterian Review published in 1880 and edited by Samuel J. Wilson, James Eells et al, it was reported that:

But other Jewish Rabbis, as Gratz and Friedlander, have since repeated the view of Geiger.  Delitzsch proves the preposterous folly of this left-handed compliment to our Lord. Rabbi Hillel, who died about A.D. 10, was, no doubt, the greatest of Jewish Rabbis and Pharisees, even if we deduct from the fabulous traditions about his learning and wisdom. 

Thomas Henry (T.H.) Huxley (1825 – 1895) wrote about Scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume in his book “Hume (English Men of Letters Series)” published in 1879. 

Ten years later, he cannot even thank Gibbon for his History without the left-handed compliment, that he should never have expected such an excellent work from the pen of an Englishman.

In the Scientific American Journal, Volume 1007, Issue 19 published on November 8, 1862, on page 295, the following was reported:

Left-Handed Compliment – When Mr. Whiteside finished his five hours’ oration on kars, Lord Palmerston replied that the honorable gentleman’s speech was highly creditable to his physical powers.

But the term left-handed has a definition in the sense of questionable or doubtful that dates back to the early 1600s.  In 1614, Ranald Oig seized Edinburgh Castle, that led to Thereon Angus Oig, a younger brother of the imprisoned Sir James Macdonald of Islay, to set about recovering the castle “for the king.”

One of his kinsman was a man by the name of Left-handed Coll Keitache.  It is said that Ranald Oig escaped by sea, and Thereon Angus Oig retained the castle, offering to restore it to the Bishop of the Isles on conditions.  Sir James Macdonald went to Lochaber, Morar, and Knoydart, and then to Sleat to continue his mission.  In the end, he fled from the island and Left-handed Coll Keitach found himself employed by his enemies against his former associates, which he did to the best of his abilities.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tooth And Nail

Posted by Admin on September 29, 2010

Back in June 1960, Tooth And Nail showed impressive prospects for the $125,000 Belmont Stakes when he scored an eight-length victory in the New Rochelle Purse at Belmont Park.  That’s what the Hartford Courant newspaper reported.

Several years before race horses were named such things as “Tooth and Nail” Longs Peak Valley became home for Enos Abijah Mills who settled there in 1884 and lived there until his death in 1922.  He was the founder of Rocky Mountain National Park and kept year-round vigil on the ponds and beavers nearby.  In a book he wrote in 1913, entitled “Beaver World” Enoch Mills wrote about beavers, stating that:

“He works not only tooth and nail, but tooth and tail.”

However, over a century before that, Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford wrote a letter to Sir Horace Mann, Britannic Majesty’s Resident at the Court of Florence (1760 to 1785) on July 31, 1767 in which he recounted:

“The very day on which I wrote to you last was critical.  A meeting of the two factions was held at Newcastle House, where the Duke of Bedford was agent for the Frenvilles; and the old wretch himself laboured tooth and nail, that is, with the one of each sort that he has left, to cement, or rather, to make over his friends to the same influence.”

Figurative use of the expression in England goes back as early as the beginning of the 16th century, but in the end, the phrase goes back another 15 centuries to modern day Turkey.

There, Assyrian rhetorician and satirist Lucian of Samosata (125 to 180) wrote the “Dialogues of the Dead” and in Chapter XI, readers will find this passage:

Of course; they had no receptacle for such things as we could give; luxury had made them so leaky–as full of holes as a worn-out purse. Put wisdom, frankness, or truth into them, and it would have dropped out; the bottom of the bag would have let them through, like the perforated cask into which those poor Danaids are always pouring. Gold, on the other hand, they could guard with tooth and nail or any other way.

Posted in Idioms from the 2nd Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

An Arm And A Leg

Posted by Admin on September 28, 2010

When someone says it cost “an arm and a leg” to gain possession of something, they usually mean it cost more than it was worth in the long run.  The expression became widely known during the Depression era but its roots are deeper than the 1930s.

It grew out of 19th century American slang expression “if it takes a leg” which meant that regardless of the price, there was desperate determination involved in securing what the person wanted.

George Pickering‘s book “Memories of the United States Secret Service” published in 1872 provides this sentence:

He goes straight to New York, and will have satisfaction out of these villains, if it takes a leg, or the last dollar he has in the world.

The local Horicon, Wisconsin newspaper called the Horicon Argus published a story on February 17, 1860, in which it reported that:

The true Republicans … are bound to have him defeated if it takes a leg.

There are those who will claim that the earliest known published use of the expression “an arm and a leg” dates back to 1956, in Billie Holiday‘s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues.” In her biography, she wrote:

Finally she found someone who sold her some stuff for an arm and a leg.

Seven years earlier in a cartoon published by the Nebraska State Journal on October 3, 1949, the caption read:

It never fails!  That new wardrobe that costs an arm and a leg … 85 fish! Wow!  That’s more than I figured on spending but I guess it’s worth it!  Wrap it up!

So the expression, in its entirety, has been around some 60 years at this point.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Broad In The Beam

Posted by Admin on September 27, 2010

This phrase “broad in the beam” is actually a nautical term beam that describes the widest point of a ship.   It originated in the 17th century and the word.

Back in the day, part-owner Captain Christopher Jones called the Mayflower a square-rigged brigantine, double-decked, broad in the beam, with upper works rising high in the stern.

For nearly 300 years, the phrase “broad in the beam” referred to a ship.  However, as the 20th century came about, the phrase referred to a woman’s hips.

The New York Times published an article by Henry Norman on December 30, 1900 entitled “The Beauty of Georgian Women.”  In his article, he wrote:

When they become matrons, which is at an early age, they are stout and broad , in the beam for beauty, but in their youth, I should see from glimpses at windows and passIng faces, there may well be extraordinary loveliness among them — the loveliness of perfectly chiseled features …

By 1939, the phrase “broad in the beam” was established with its negative connotation.  On Tuesday, January 24, 1939 an article entitled “Designing Women:  How Can I Look My Best?” published in The Pittsburgh Press, the journalist reviewed a book by Margaretta Byers and Consuela Kamholz on the subject.  The journalist wrote:

Pleats are no panacea although they do help the thigh.  Because they tend to make you look broad in the beam. As for culottes, it is a popular fallacy to suppose that they are as becoming as skirts.  They aren’t and they never will be. 

A divided skirt lets in fullness at the front and back rather than over the hips.  So culottes, like pleated shorts, don’t do much for the derriere.

It continued to be an insult when, on June 23, 1948  Robert C. Ruark wrote in Philadelphia’s The Evening Independent newspaper:

It may be my dewy innocence speaking but there seems to be more lady delegates than men delegates.  Back in the days of Mark Hanna, I understand, this was not so, but in this fevered clambake, you are drenched in the languorous scent of toujours lasqueeze and a fine film of powder hangs in the air.  And for some odd reason, all the distaff delegates seem to be awful broad in the beam.  This is probably a symbol of the times.

While the expression has fallen out of favour in nautical circles, it lives on in the current day negative description of women’s hips.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Admin on September 24, 2010

When a situation is awkward and uncomfortable, people sometimes say it’s “gauche.” But being “gauche” is so much more than just that. Being “gauche” is to be lacking in social polish, to be lacking in good taste, to be graceless, to be unpolished (or ill-mannered) or to be tactless in action, manner or expression.

So how is that the French word for “left” came to be part of the English lexicon?

The word “gauche” comes from the Old French word gauchit meaning to turn aside. Etymologists claim that the Old French word is Germanic in origin and can be traced back to the Old High German word, wankōn which means to stagger.

The first recorded use of the word “gauche” in English dates back to at least 1763 when Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist and then-secretary to the British Embassy in Paris, David Hume (1711 – 1776), was discussed in letters exchanged between various members of High Society.

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

Trompe l’œil

Posted by Admin on September 23, 2010

A “trompe l’oeil” is a painting rendered in such great detail as to deceive the viewer into believing it is reality.  The phrase literally means “tricking the eye” and the best examples of “trompe l’oeil.”

The story of how the style of painting came about is one that can neither be confirmed nor denied.  The story goes that in ancient Greece, there were two rival painters.  One was named Zeuxis (born circa 464 BC) and the other was named Parrhasius.  One day, to prove who was the master of his art, it was decided they would each paint the most perfect illusion of the real world on canvas with nothing more than paint and paintbrushes. 

It’s said that Zeuxis painted a likeness of grapes on his canvas that was so natural that birds flew down to peck at them.  Parrhasius brought in his canvas covered in a cloth.  Parrhasius invited Zeuxis to unveil the painting whereupon Zeuxis learned he had lost the contest. What at first glance appeared to be a cloth covering the canvas was, in reality, Parrhasius‘ painting.

The phrase was used to describe perspectival illusionism art in the Baroque period, however it is found in Ancient Greek and Roman murals such as those depicting Pompeii.  This genre of perspective drawing was mastered by Italian Renaissance painters of the late Quattrocento era.  The American 19th century still-life painter William Harnett specialized in “trompe l’œil” and prior to CGI use in films, trompe l’oeil traveling mattes in such movies as “Star Wars” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

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

Au Contraire

Posted by Admin on September 22, 2010

The phrase “au contraire” means to strongly  suggest that the opposite of what is being presented is really the case.  However, over the decades, the phrase has taken on a slightly campy context and is found in cartoons, books, plays, films, etc., when drama and humour are meant to tackle an impossible situation as presented by the character.

The first major struggle in England was to get legal texts into English instead of in French or Latin.  The problem of using English came about in 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.  In defeating the Anglo-Saxons, William became the King of England.  William and his followers spoke a type of French and all of their legal documents were in Latin, and French.  

English, by contrast, was considered the language of the defeated class who was also considered to be of lower class than that of their vanquisher. 

Even though English was the language of the common man in England, all legal proceedings were in French until the Statute of Pleading was enacted in 1362.  This statute stated that all pleas were to be “pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English Tongue.” 

So while the phrase “au contraire” has been used by anglophones for centuries, it became part of the English language some time after 1362 despite its humble French beginnings.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Savoir Faire

Posted by Admin on September 21, 2010

In a New York Times article published on November 24, 1929, journalist Edwin Clark wrote: 

Good Queen Anne, a dull and stubborn woman, resigned during a celebrated period of English history, a period comparable to that of Elizabeth or Victoria. The second oldest daughter of James II. she lacked the Stuart charm, intelligence and savoir faire.

The phrase “savoir faire” was in reference to the more genteel nuances of well-mannered behaviour.  Even those of modest upbringing could aspire to a certain “savoir faire” without appearing pretentious to those above and below their social class.

In 1850, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to Mrs Jameson, stating:  

I have read “Shirley” lately; it is not equal to “Jane Eyre” in spontaneousness and earnestness. I found it heavy, I confess, though in the mechanical part of the writing – the compositional savoir faire – there is an advance.” 

In fact, throughout the 1800s, it appears that the phrase “savoir faire” was well known and well used.   W.P. Robertson wrote in a letter dated 1838 to Thomas Fair, Esq. that: 

Monsieur and Madame Bonpland arrived in Buenos Ayres from France.  The fame, the talents, and the science of the one — the accomplishments and fascinating matters of the other — and the savoir faire and unaffected urbanity of both — made their society to be generally sought in the capital of the provinces of the River Plate.

However prior to the 1800s, the term was used solely by the French.

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

Fait Accompli

Posted by Admin on September 20, 2010

A “fait accompli” is an irreversible action that has happened before those affected by it know of its existence and even once the change is found out, the change cannot be undone.  In other words, it’s a done deal. 

One might think that the expression “fait accomplijumped from France to England centuries ago during one of the many royal marriages or battles but it would seem that the jump had nothing to do with France at all.

In “The History of Lloyd’s and of Marine Insurance in Great Britain” by Frederick Martin, author of the “Statesman’s Yearbook” and published in 1876, the following passage is found on page 120:

This notice is continued till October 2, 1770, after which it appears slightly varied.  Instead of “have been so kind to promise to continue the Ship News,” the alteration, which evidently refers to a fait accompli, appearing for the first time on the 5th of October, 1770.

But 31 years earlier, in 1845, Richard Ford published “A Handbook For Travellers in Spain” which, to this day, is considered to be a classic of travel writing. Ford wrote:  “This is now a fait accompli.”

The use of the phrase “fait accompli” in its current sense was used in this way in French as far back as 1222.  The Société d’histoire de la Suisse Romande has in its possession a document that states:

Le partage de ses seigneuries entre ses fils laïques, fait par Ebal (IV) de Grandson, était ainsi un fait accompli dans l’année 1222, du moins quant à ses deux fils aînés, puisque nous venons de voir Henri, sire de Champbent, prêter présence lors de l’hommage de Richard de Belmont.

Translated this reads:

The division of his seigniories by Ebal (IV) of Grandson between his sons, was thus a fait accompli in the year 1222, at least with regards to his two oldest sons, as observed by Henri, Lord de Champbent lending his presence to pay homage to Richard de Belmont.

Posted in Idioms from the 13th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Manna From Heaven

Posted by Admin on September 17, 2010

From time to time, you hear people who get unexpected help or something very good they didn’t expect say that it’s “Manna from Heaven.”

The reference is to the food God gave to the Israelites after the food they had brought with them out of Egypt had run out.  In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites found it one morning after the dew had evaporated. 

Upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground.  (Exodus 16:15)

Manna was the name given by the Israelites to the food they found.  In the Quran, the Arabic word for manna is “manna-o-salva.”

The Ark of the Covenant is believed to be the most sacred and revered object of ancient Israelite worship. Built under the direction of Moses, it is said to contain the original tables with the Ten Commandments written upon them, some of the Manna from Heaven sent to the Israelites as they fled Egypt, and the rod of Aaron. 

Historical documents show that the Ark of the Covenant was installed in a Temple by King Solomon around 950 BC.  After the dedication of the Temple by King Solomon, there are two references to the Ark of the Covenant in the entire Old Testament.

Put the holy ark in the house which Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built; you need no longer carry it upon your shoulders.  (II Chronicles 35:3)

And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the Lord, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord.” It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; it shall not be made again.  (Jeremiah 3:16)

A mural painting in All Saints Church, Friskncy, Lincolnshire, England painted around 1542 bears the title “The Descent of the Manna from Heaven.”  This painting shows manna on a hill-side, the slope of ground being from the right to left of the picture.  In strong relief against the distance, represented by a dark crimson background, a group of people is engaged in gathering the manna.

In a United Press International (UPI) article entitled “The Irish Famine: A Hunger For History” dated April 13, 2001, the author wrote: 

Well written history is like manna from heaven, it is intellectual nourishment for the soul.

And so we can see how it is that the phrase “Manna from  Heaven” now refers to something very good the person felt he or she needed that came to the person unexpectedly.

Posted in Bible, Christian, Jewish, Quran, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »