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Archive for October, 2011

Skin Of His Teeth

Posted by Admin on October 17, 2011

If you know someone who tells you that something happened to him or her by the skin of his or her teeth, it means that person either narrowly escaped a negative experience or narrowly managed to succeed,  and it all happened at the last minute! 

In Ontario, the recent provincial election at the beginning of October (2011) was a real nail biter in some regions.  In fact, it was reported on the website www.viewmag.com that some candidates barely won their seats.

In Thunder Bay–Atikokan, Liberal Bill Mauro held on again by the skin of his teeth, although this time he increased his plurality to 452 votes over the NDP.

The Democratic Convention back in 1956 also had its nail biting moments during their primaries.  In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the following in an article entitled, “Adlai Skins His Teeth” in their May 31, 1956 edition:

By the skin of his teeth, Adlai Stevenson has taken 22 of Florida’s 28 Democratic convention votes in an apathetic primary contest with Senator Estes Kefauver.  The closeness of the vote, however, will soon be forgotten.  The important thing is that Mr. Stevenson won.

It seems that the world of politics like to use the phrase moreso than others.  The phrase is found in the New York Times article of June 22, 1912 in an article entitled, “Democrats’ Method Of Nomination Best” where the following appears:

The Democratic way is really the better way.  It prevents a mere majority, by whatever means obtained, by bribery or force or promise, from compelling the party to accept the leadership of the candidate chosen by the skin of his teeth to do battle for the party.  Better make the choice of candidates a little harder than subject the party to defeat, even for the sake of making an Oyster Bay holiday.

On April 11, 1846 the Courrier de la Louisiane published a news story entitled, “Whig Victory” where the newspaper reported the following in part:

But in all the multitudinous and infinitely diversified changes and shiftings of political parties ever imagined, who expected to hear S.J. Peters affect to exult over a triumph of the Second Municipality?  And what is the triumph over which he exults?  He is re-elected by the skin of his teeth Alderman in the second ward, and two sound Democrats are elected in the same ward, where, four years ago, Peters would have told any man he was made who should have thought of opposing him or his Whig followers: Crossman is elected Mayor although is in a very small minority — other branch of this magnificent “triumph of the people!”

Now the phrase did appear in the King James Bible of 1611 with the entire verse being:

Yea, young children despised me; I arose, and they spake against me. All my inward friends abhorred me: and they whom I loved are turned against me. My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.

However, before the King James Bible, the phrase appeared in 1560 in the Geneva Bible, where, in Job 19:20, the literal translation of the original Hebrew is given as being:

I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.

That being said, the phrase appears in Latin in the Medieval Latin Bibles produced by hand before the invention of printing and in Greek in Greek texts.  And so, the phrase dates back to Biblical times but how far back? 

Based on information provided in the Book of Job, readers know that it happened well after Noah and the flood and it happened in the time of Esau who was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham.  The name of Job is found in the Amarna letters of 1350 B.C. and in the Egyptian Execration texts of 2000 B.C. 

So while Idiomation is unable to put an exact date on the first use of the phrase skin of his teeth, it absolutely dates back far enough for readers to know it’s a very ancient saying.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Greece, Jewish, Religious References, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Done Like A Frenchman

Posted by Admin on October 13, 2011

William Shakespeare is described by some as the only Elizabethan dramatist to write at length in a foreign language, and he certainly does nothing to prove his critics wrong in the play Henry V where an entire scene is played completely in French!  In the play Henry VI, William Shakespeare does nothing to change his English audience’s opinion of the French.  In fact, the only two lines in French in Henry VI are specifically used to underscore a treacherous lie.

What’s more, back in William Shakespeare‘s time the jargon of thieves was called “broken French” and “pedlar’s French” which implied that the French in Shakespeare’s plays underscored the belief held by most Englishmen at the time that the French were broken, thieving pedlars.  To add insult to injury, the only characters who do not speak proper English are cowards.

In Part 1, Act III, Scene iii the French noblemen appeal to Joan to help them turn the tables on the English who have taken Rouen. Joan says that this can be done if the noblemen can convince the Duke of Burgundy to forsake the English in favour of their side however she has her doubts about the Duke of Burgundy and his sincerity should he decide to side with French.

Duke of Burgundy:
I am vanquished; these haughty words of hers
Have batter’d me like roaring cannon-shot,
And made me almost yield upon my knees.
Forgive me, country, and sweet countrymen,
And, lords, accept this hearty kind embrace:
My forces and my power of men are yours:
So farewell, Talbot; I’ll no longer trust thee.

Joan la Pucelle:
[Aside] Done like a Frenchman: turn, and turn again!

Charles, King of France:
Welcome, brave duke! thy friendship makes us fresh.
Bastard of Orleans:
And doth beget new courage in our breasts.

And so, while the expression done like a Frenchman doesn’t seem to be a popular idiom in written English, it enjoys, and has enjoyed, a healthy life in spoken English as an insult towards the French.

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

Take French Leave

Posted by Admin on October 12, 2011

To take French leave means that someone has left a gathering without asking or announce he or she is leaving. The English and Portuguese attribute this bad behaviour to the French while the Russian, Hungarian, Czech, Italian, and French have an expression that blames it on English while the Dutch and Finnish lay blame on thieves.  What is particularly interesting with this expression is the finger-pointing that is associated with it.

That being said, until at least World War II, the British Army used the euphemism to take French leave when referring to a soldier deserting his company.  According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, to take French leave comes from an 18th century custom in France where guests left a reception without thanking the host or hostess for having invited them.  The dictionary states that the first known use of this phrase to take French leave dates back to 1771.

On July 23, 1942 the Lawrence Journal World newspaper published Harry Grayson‘s column “The Scoreboard.”  The article read in part:

Ed Barrow and Joy McCarthy don’t care for ball players who take French leave, especially when an injury has left the outfit with no one else for the position.  Rosar’s offense was particularly flagrant inasmuch as he was receiving and swinging for the everwilling Bill Dickey, out with a torn ligament in his shoulder.

In 1920, Edith Wharton published a book entitled “The Age Of Innocence” which had this passage in Book I, Chapter XVII:

“Look at him — in such hot haste to get married that he took French leave and rushed down to implore the silly girl on his knees!  That’s something like a lover — that’s the way handsome Bob Spicer carried off my poor mother; and then got tired of her before I was weaned –though they only had to wait eight months for me! But there — you’re not a Spicer, young man; luckily for you and for May. It’s only my poor Ellen that has kept any of their wicked blood; the rest of them are all model Mingotts,” cried the old lady scornfully.

In the Robert Louis Stevenson book “Treasure Island” published on May 23, 1883 after having been published in a children’s magazine in 1881 and 1882 as a serial story,  the expression to take French leave is found in Part V, Chapter 22 entitled, “My Sea Adventure.”

As for the scheme I had in my head, it was not a bad one in itself. I was to go down the sandy spit that divides the anchorage on the east from the open sea, find the white rock I had observed last evening, and ascertain whether it was there or not that Ben Gunn had hidden his boat, a thing quite worth doing, as I still believe. But as I was certain I should not be allowed to leave the enclosure, my only plan was to take French leave and slip out when nobody was watching, and that was so bad a way of doing it as made the thing itself wrong. But I was only a boy, and I had made my mind up.

The Colonist newspaper in New Zealand published the column “Spirit Of The Press” on December 21, 1858 with the following interesting bit of information about taking French leave.

We read that “the Bombay Geographical Society announce in their proceedings, that they have received a specimen of the Walking leaf from Java.”  A person who walks off is said to take French leave.  You may be sure that this tree is originally in France, and not liking a soil that was subject to so many political up-heavings, it took French leave, and walked off.  Hence, probably the origin of that term; or perhaps, the phrase of “cutting one’s stick” may be owing to the habits of this Walking-leaf.  It “cuts its stick” and walks away.  We think we have very cleverly explained two very vulgar idioms, the exact meaning of which has never till now been properly accounted for.  By-the-by, the Birnam Wood that walked into Macbeth, must have been a perambulating forest of these Walking-leaves.

Eliza Southgate Bowne was known for the many letters she wrote in her lifetime.  They were compiled by Clarence Cook and published in a book in 1887 entitled, “A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago.”  In a letter dated Sunday, May 25, 1806 to Miss Miranda Southgate, Eliza Southgate Bowne had written in part:

Now for news, which I suppose you are very anxious to hear.  Iin the first place — Miss Laurelia Dashaway is married to Mr. Hawkes.  On Saturday morning, 8 o’clock, Trinity Church was opened on purpose for the occasion; something singular, as it would not be like Miss Laurelia.  But what do you think — Mr. Grellet has taken French leave of New York — sailed for France about a fortnight ago, without anybody’s knowing their intention till they were gone.  There are many conjectures upon the occasion not very favorable to the state of their finances.  “Tis said his friends were very averse to her going with him.  If she had not, I suspect she might have sympathized with Madame Jerome Buonoparte and many other poor Madames that have founded their hopes on the fidelity of a Frenchman.

In the book “Letters from America” which is a compilation of the letters written by William Eddis.  In a letter to his wife written at Annapolis on September 26, 1775, William Eddis wrote in part:

Mr. L, who had actually embarked for England, with full permission from the ruling powers, has been obliged to relinquish his intention, and return on shore, some clamours having been excited by the populace to his prejudice; and it being though necessary he should remain to vindicate his conduct.  Many of our friends have found it expedient to take French leave.  I trust you will speedily meet them in perfect safety.

However even earlier than this, there are written discussion in the late 1760s on the meaning of the phrase and its origins.  Since a guest is not bound by etiquette to seek leave from the party’s host or hostess, it is proper protocol to seek out the host or hostess when one is about to leave.  It was determined that the phrase implies that the person who uses it or of whom it is used has done something that, strictly speaking, should not have done or for which the person should be ashamed.

Since the Merriam-Webster dictionary attributes the first use of the expression to take French leave to 1771, it appears the expression was alive and well in the years leading up to 1771.  Idiomation guesses that the earliest use may have been sometime in the 1760s.

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

Pardon My French

Posted by Admin on October 11, 2011

When someone asks you to pardon their French and they’re not speaking French, what they really mean is that they would like listeners to excuse their use of inappropriate, taboo or swear words.

For example, on September 11, 2009 the Daily Record of Glasgow, Scotland published an article by Grant Lauchlan entitled, “Cookery Kookery” which reviewed the movie “Julie and Julia.”  The lead off paragraph read:

Pardon my French but if you don’t know your poulet sauté aux herbes de Provence from your pissaladire, then you probably won’t have heard of Julia Child. She was America’s answer to Delia Smith and Fanny Craddock combined, a national treasure who wrote Mastering The Art Of French Cooking.

On August 24, 1987 the Milwaukee Journal ran a story written by Calvin Trillin for his column “Uncivil Liberties” entitled, “French Verbs? You Can Get Along Beautifully  Without ‘Em.”

My two years of high school French seemed to consist mainly of looking through the Kansas City Star for articles mentioning France, cutting them out and gluing them into a scrapbook — an experience that left me with few verbs but a nearly tournament-level skill in gluing.  We didn’t have any Francophones in our family — although anytime my Uncle Oscar used words that caused my mother to say, “Oscar! The children!” he followed them quickly with “Pardon my French.” 

Maybe the Milwaukee Journal was more partial to running stories with pardon my French in it than other newspapers.  In the July 22, 1939 edition carried the column written by Louella O. Parsons, Motion Picture Editor for the International News Service. Among the tidbits of news was this:

The exhibitors from Maine to California who have been raising heck (pardon my French) with MGM because Greer Garson hasn’t started a picture since her success in “Mr. Chips” will be glad to know that she faces the camera on Monday, with Robert Taylor as her co-star and Lew Ayres importantly featured.  The paying customers will see the captivating lady with the red hair in “Remember” authored and directed by Normal McLeod, with Milton Bren producing.

Back on August 2, 1908 the New York Times ran a story entitled, “Cock Of The Walk” that used a variation of the expression pardon my French.  In the story, the following exchange happens between Bridget the cook and the master of the house.

“I haven’t accused you of anything of the sort.  All I want to know is what became of that bottle, Bridget!”

“Then Oi’ll tell ye about that bottle, and then, mind ye, Oi’ll leave.  Last night Oi had company in the kitchen.  ‘Twas the cook and another iv the serants from the Van Bullion house across the street.  Oi had been telling them how much leeway Oi had in this house, even to being considered as one above the pale iv servants in any mansion, not excludin’ the White House.  There was a sneer on the face iv the Van Bullion cook, Sir, that Oi was tempted to efface wid a smash iv me fist; but, as is becoming a cook iv yours, Sir, Oi held my dignity and resolved to rub it in.  Excuse my French, Sir!”

However, the expression seems to have first appeared in the March 1895 edition of Harper’s Magazine in a story by Francis Hopkinson Smith entitled, “A Waterlogged Town.”  The story read in part:

“Do not the palaces interest you?” I asked inquiringly, in my effort to broaden his views.

“Palaces be durned!  Excuse my French.  Palaces!  A lot of cave-in old rookeries; with everybody living on the second floor because the first one’s so damp ye’d get your die-and-never-get-over-it if you’d lived in the basement, and the top floors so leaky that you go to bed under an umbrella; and they all braced up with iron clamps to keep ’em from falling into the canal, and not a square inch on any one of ’em clean enough to dry a shirt on!  What kind of holes are they for decent — Now see here, “haying his hand confidingly on my shoulder, “just answer me one question — you seem like a level-headed young man, and ought to give it to me straight.  Been here all summer, ain’t you?”

Now even though Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the expression, that it would be used so easily in Harper’s Magazine in 1895 suggests that it was a common expression for the era and as such it is not unreasonable to place it at a generation or more prior to this, dating it to least 1875.

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