Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Accidentally On Purpose

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 18, 2013

When someone does something they intend to do but pretends it was an accident, it’s said that what was done was done accidentally on purpose. It’s a contradiction since something that’s done on purpose can’t possibly be an accident and something that’s an accident can’t be done on purpose. However, the phrase has found its way into the English language and carved out a niche for itself over the years.

On June 21, 2009, the Racing Post (which is published in London, England) published an article by Phil Agius entitled, “Why Baby Schumi Is Nothing Like The Old One.” The article began with this bit of information:

The man threatening to do a Schumacher chose an interesting race to put in his worst qualifying performance of the season, allowing the man dubbed the next Schumacher to grab pole for today’s British Grand Prix.

Except don’t think for a minute that Sebastian Vettel is anything like Michael Schumacher. Yes, the charging Red Bull driver is super-fast and German, with an already apparent ability to get his team working behind him and the natural talent to pull out a quick lap exactly when required.

But it’s fairly safe to say you won’t ever see the chap the German press call Baby Schumi barging rivals off the track in a bid to win world titles, or indeed parking his car accidentally on purpose on the racing line in order to preserve a pole position.

The Milwaukee Sentinel used the expression in a sub-heading in Lloyd Larson’s column of the January 5, 1973 edition. Discussing the Miami-Pittsburgh AFC title battle, under the sub-heading he wrote:

Players have been known to fumble accidentally on purpose, so to speak, in scoring territory on fourth down. The rule is designed to prevent such happenings.

During WWII, whimsical stories sometimes found their way into newspapers and such was the case with the Windsor Daily Star on February 4, 1941 when the newspaper published a story that was humorous but unattributed. It began:

“Boomps!” exclaimed Miss Sadie Shortskirts, as she bounced her bustle on the old horse pond. “The things I do for Canada!”

Our Nosing Reporter, who had been an interested spectator of an exhibition that would hardly make Sonja Henie green with envy, hurried forward, but the sturdy little figure was already back on her feet. And almost as quickly back on her back again.

“What do you mean when you say you’re doing this for Canada?” the reporter wanted to know. “What benefit will the Dominion derive if you break your neck?”

Break my neck? Phooie!” exclaimed Miss Shortskirts. “Can’t you see I’m not learning to skate? I’m learning not to skate. I’m striving for perfection in the art of falling realistically, so that every tumble will have patriotically commercial possibilities.”

The story continues for a number of paragraphs and ends well. And do you know what the title of the story was?

Starbeams: Accidentally On Purpose

Years earlier, on page 2 of the Poverty Bay Herald, in Volume XXX, Issue 9654, the newspaper published a fine short story by Henry Humiston on January 31, 1903. It was the story of mix-up and mayhem in true Victorian fashion and had to do with a Miss Helene Elizabeth Martin, a rogue by the name of John Lassiter and envelopes each of them received with letters addressed to other people. The title of the story?

Accidentally On Purpose

In the book “Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, Diaries and Correspondence, Volume I” the following is found in Chapter X entitled, “Thomas Dermody – The Poor Scholar” on page 90:

Among her guests she frequently numbered the young Marquis of Granby, the son of a former brilliant and well-remembered, lord-lieutenant, who was quartered in the garrison. On the occasions of a fête given specially for him by Mrs. Austen, she commanded her young poet laureate to compose an ode in favour of the vice-regal reign of the Duke of Rutland, with a well-turned compliment to his handsome son. Dermody neglected the order — perhaps “accidentally on purpose” — he thought the desire fulsome, and he had become restive. Mrs. Austen, indignant at the negligence, considering it as the refusal of an upstart dependent, made us of some expression that struck his Irish pride on the life nerve; she ordered him to leave her house and never return, he accepted the command and did not reappear, in the expectation of being sent for.

The expression showed up nearly 100 years prior to the publication of Lady Morgan’s Memoirs in a book by José Francisco de Isla (April 24, 1703 – November 2, 1781). A Spanish Jesuit, humorist and satirist, he wrote, “The History Of The Famous Preacher Friar Gerun de Campazas” in which this passage is found:

Tell us what is Modesty of Voice, for you happened accidentally on purpose to drop this word, and I don’t rightly know what it signifies.

Because of the satire in the book, the book was banned by the Inquisition in 1760, and it was forbidden not only to publish the book but to discuss its contents. Seven years later, José Francisco de Isla was expelled from Spain. But as is the case with all good literature, the book continued to be published by a number of brave souls. The book is now considered a literary masterpiece.

Despite all attempts to find an earlier version of this phrase, Idiomation found nothing before its publication in “The History Of The Famous Preacher Friar Gerun de Campazas” and so the first use of the phrase goes to at least 1760 … the year the book was banned by the Inquisition.

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