Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Screw Loose

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 3, 2011

The phrase “screw loose” likens a mental weakness to a machine in which a part is not securely fastened.

Back on May 4, 1970 the Eugene Register-Guard ran an article by Jack Gould of the New York Times about children’s programming.  In his article, “Programs For Children Make Little Sense” he wrote:

There is a screw loose in television’s approach ot programming for children.  The deservedly successful “Sesame Street” is fine enrichment of the morning hours and there’s been erratic improvement in the Saturday morning schedules of the commercial networks.  But the major need does not exist solely in the mornings, helpful though such morning diversion is, and the emphasis on Saturday morning programming is overstressed; that is the one period of the week when a family actually has a chance to get together.

In the Letters to the Editor at the New York Times on  August 4, 1900, Walter H. Lewiston had a fair bit to say to New Yorkers as well as the newspaper in his letter entitled, “How To Obtain Party Recruits.”  In it he wrote:

That it is necessary to urge the district leaders to do their duty is a proof that there is a screw loose somewhere, and to show how it got loose and why it remains so is the object of this communication, which I ask you to publish, as, notwithstanding your open opposition to the Democratic National ticket, I look upon The New York Times as being a Democratic paper.

In Anthony Trollope’s book “The Eustace Diamonds” published in 1870, in Chapter 69, a wedding is called off which means that the wedding breakfast booked at a hotel is cancelled.  The passage in the book reads:

Lady Eustace carried her message to the astonished and indignant bridesmaids, and succeeded in sending them back to their respective homes. Richard, glorious in new livery, forgetting that his flowers were still on his breast,–ready dressed to attend the bride’s carriage,–went with his sad message, first to the church and then to the banqueting-hall in Albemarle Street.

“Not any wedding?” said the head-waiter at the hotel. “I knew they was folks as would have a screw loose somewheres. There’s lots to stand for the bill, anyways,” he added, as he remembered all the tribute.

Now back in 1824, the Department of War, acting in what it claimed was “in the interest of peace, and restoration of good feeling between the Citizens and Indians of the [Washington] territory” brought a number of North American Indian chiefs to Washington, DC — an undertaking funded entirely by the Department.  Funds were juggled from a number of sources and to this day, it’s unclear why that might be.  However, it wasn’t something that was looked upon favourably by Department of War employees. In fact, one employee wrote  :

The derangements in the fiscal affairs of the Indian department are in the extreme.  One would think that appropriations had been handled with a pitchfork.  There is a screw loose in the public machinery somewhere.

The phrase comes from the cotton industry and dates back to 1793 with the industrial revolution.  For the first time, mass production of textiles was made possible thanks to the invention of the cotton gin. However, like all automated services, machines didn’t always run properly.  Machines that broke down or produced defective cloth were said to have a “screw loose” somewhere.

In 1798, Eli Whitney invented a way to manufacture muskets by machine so that the parts were interchangeable. Interestingly enough, when there was a misfire in the manufacture of the muskets or with the muskets themselves, a “screw loose” somewhere was the first thing that popped into people’s minds.

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One Response to “Screw Loose”

  1. […] Entry:  “Screw Loose” from March 3, […]

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