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Archive for February, 2013

Fuzzy Math

Posted by Admin on February 27, 2013

When you read or hear about fuzzy math, what’s being suggested is that the arithmetic doesn’t add up. It’s a phrase that’s oftentimes used to dispute government programs and taxes.

Paul Krugman wrote about fuzzy math in his book, “Fuzzy Math: The Essential Guide To The Bush Tax Plan” published in 2001, and the phrase has appeared in a number of newspaper headlines over the past decade.

On July 3, 2010 the Boston Globe published a Letter To The Editor written by J. Whitfield Larrabee of Brookline, that addressed the subject of the risks of using painkiller medication. The article was entitled, “Fuzzy Math Used To Help Make Case” and the first sentence read:

Even though I am just a lawyer and not a mathematician, it seems to me that biotech entrepreneur Christoph Westphal used some fuzzy math in his recent op-ed, “The Myth Of The Perfect Drug,” June 28.

The L.A. Times opinion staff (yes, that’s the actual designation) provided an OpEd piece on June 22, 2007 that discussed fuzzy math and the court system. It compared how the New York Times viewed the court decision arrived at with regards to challenging a sentence that fell within the guidelines issued by the United States Sentencing Commission, and how the L.A. Times editorial board viewed the court decision. The editorial was aptly entitled:

Fuzzy Math At The Supreme Court

In an Editorial published in the Providence Journal on June 3, 2000 entitled, “Beware Fuzzy Math” the dangers the latest math (newer than new math) were discussed. The Editorial began with this commentary:

In recent years, elementary schools across the nation have increasingly adopted a newer version of the “new” math that was such a widespread disaster in the 1960s. The latest fad is called the “constructivist” method. Critics, both enraged parents and troubled mathematicians, refer to it, sardonically, as “fuzzy math. According to a long report in The New York Times (April 27), they have begun rebelling against it. May their tribe increase.

Safire’s Political Dictionary by William Safire states that the expression was promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989. Whole math (as it was known) no longer required students to memorize those math functions that could easily be handled by a calculator (for example, multiplication) and focused on discussions of word problems instead. When parents proved to educators and administrators that students were oftentimes unable to perform the basics of adding and subtracting, the Council moved away from the approach.

But no one popularized the expression more than George W. Bush when he took on Vice-President Al Gore in Boston back in 2000. So while the expression actually came about in 1989, this one has to go to George W. Bush in 2000 for making it part of the lexicon.

Posted in Idioms from the 21st Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Admin on February 25, 2013

From time to time, you may hear the term gerrymander or gerrymandering and wonder what it means. The expression is both a verb and a noun: the action of shaping a district to gain political advantage, and any representative elected from such a district by that method.

On March 1, 2006 the New York Times ran an Editorial that addressed the issue of the redrawn election districts in Texas in 2003. It was alleged that the new boundaries gave an unfair and unconstitutional edge to the Republican party and allegedly violated the Voting Rights Act. The piece was entitled:

The Texas Gerrymander

Backing up to January 24, 1961 the Deseret News published a news article about a decision arrived at by U.S. Judge Irving R. Kaufman with regards to school district lines for the 1961-1962 school year. Parents of Lincoln School felt that their constitutional rights, as well as their children’s, had been violated. The article was brief and stated:

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the New Rochelle, N.Y. board of education gerrymandered school district lines to establish an all-Negro school in that suburban Westchester County City.

The expression wasn’t just used in American newspapers, and found its way into the Sydney Morning Herald of February 17, 1927 in a news story about the House of Lords in London, England two days earlier. Readers were greeted with this introduction to the matter:

In the House Of Commons to-day during the debate on the Estimates a discussion arose about reform of the House of Lords. Colonel Gerald Hurts (Con.) moved a motion in favour or reducing the hereditary character of the Upper House. Professor Lees Smith (Labour) moved an amendment declaring that the proposed changes in the House of Lords were intended to gerrymander the Constitution in the interests of the Conservative party.

When the Quebec Saturday Budget newspaper of November 19, 1892 ran a story entitled, “Looks Like A Gerrymander” readers were treated to detailed information about the official returns of the U.S. Presidential election. Among many details provided were these:

It is worthy of remark that at the election Cleveland’s total of pluralities in all the States combined amounted to 576,158, while Harrison’s was only 478,141. That in face of this Harrison secured about 50 per cent more votes than Cleveland in the electoral college would seem to show that the Republicans are well posted in the mysteries of the gerrymander. The showing was something similar at the present election.

But while the term was understood in the major English-speaking countries, history proves that the term gerrymander was inspired by an 1812 Massachusetts redistricting scheme that favored the party of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry.

In April 1812, one of the redrawn election districts (created by members of Governor Gerry’s party in 1812) reminded newspaper painter Gilbert Stuart so much of a salamander, that he added a head, wings, and claws to the outline. The creature was quickly dubbed by the Editor of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper as a Gerrymander and not a salamander.

Originally, the term referred only to the district, however, within the month on May 12, 1812 the Massachusetts Spy newspaper reported:

An official statement of the returns of voters for senators give[s] twenty nine friends of peace, and eleven gerrymanders.

This is the definitive starting point for the word gerrymander.

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

White As A Hound’s Tooth

Posted by Admin on February 22, 2013

Similar to the expression clean as a hound’s tooth (and sometimes used interchangeably with that expression), white as a hound’s tooth refers to the flawlessness of a person’s character or the perfect attributes of an item (large or small).

If it’s a romantic twist of phrase you’re looking for when it comes to using the expression, there’s not too many out there that than the piece entitled, “On Winter’s Trace” in Florence Fisher Parry’s column “I Dare Say” in the March 23, 1943 edition of the Pittsburgh Press. It read in part:

Dark shadows winnowing under the sea, seeking out death. Metal birds banking in the sky, seeking out death. Ships, no longer white as a hound’s tooth, seeking out death. Men and machines, seeing out death ….


So I walked out where the air was cold against my forehead  I walked around what a few years ago had been swarded rows of proud old mansions. But now, along the noble facade of the street, great weedy gaps, piled with mossy rubble, gaped like empty cavities where once had smiled a pearly row of teeth … razed for taxes .. razed because there must be an end of wealth, and end of the steeples in the temperature-chart of the New World Doctors.

It’s always interesting to see how the expression is used and when it was found in the book, “Diseases Of Occupation And Vocational Hygiene” edited by George M. Kober, M.D., LL.D. et al, and published in 1916, the connection was with arsenic. In fact, this is what was included in the text:

In order to obtain white arsenic (arsenious acid) the ore is roasted and the arsenic so volatilized is collected in flues and chambers. This so-called “arsenic soot,” in the collection of which elaborate precautions in the shape of overalls and respirators are necessary to guard against the effects on the skin, is again submitted to heat in a refining furnace and the fumes again deposited in flues as white as a hound’s tooth.” Subsequently, the material is ground and packed in barrels usually by automatic arrangements preventing dust.

When the Newark Sunday newspaper of May 22, 1892 ran a story entitled, “The Large Ships.” The iron ship certainly sounded amazing.

She is 333 feet long, 48 feet broad, and 28 feet deep. Her four masts are each square-rigged, but she is far from clumsy aloft, is easily handled, and has run fourteen knots an hour for a while day. We are much impressed by her exceptional size; but for beauty she compares unfavorably with such a ship as the Thermopylae, or a large wooden-built ship of America having bright lofty spars and decks as white as a hound’s tooth. Iron decks do not lend themselves readily to adornment.

In the Irish Penny Journal, No. 1, Volume 1 published on July 4, 1840 a story written by Mrs. S. C. Hall and entitled, “The Irish In England: The Washerwoman” gives a birds’ eye view of how the Irish washerwoman, Biddy, and the English in the house, from the Mistress through to the other servants employed by the house.

The only regular washerwomen extant in England at this present moment, are natives of the Emerald Isle.

We have—I pray you observe the distinction, gentle reader—laundresses in abundance. But washerwomen!—all the washerwomen are Irish.

The Irish Washerwoman promises to wash the muslin curtains as white as a hound’s tooth, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” and she tells the truth. But when she promises to “get them up” as clear as a kitten’s eyes, she tells a story. In nine cases out of ten, the Irish Washerwoman mars her own admirable washing by a carelessness in the “getting up.” She makes her starch in a hurry, though it requires the most patient blending, the most incessant stirring, the most constant boiling, and the cleanest of all skillets; and she will not understand the superiority of powder over stone blue, but snatches the blue-bag (originally compounded from the “heel” or “toe” of a stocking) out of the half-broken tea-cup, where it lay companioning a lump of yellow soap since last wash—squeezes it into the starch (which, perhaps, she has been heedless enough to stir with a dirty spoon), and then there is no possibility of clear curtains, clear point, clear any thing.

In the “Journal of Llewellin Penrose: A Seaman” written by William Williams, and originally published in 4 volumes in 1783, the following is found:

I thought every minute of their absence an hour, so great was my anxiety. In about four hours they returned, and gave the following account of their expedition Bell said he found her to be Bermudian built sloop; she mounted guns, and had altogether a warlike appearance; her bottom was as white as a hound’s tooth. As they drew near her, he plainly heard some one say i English, “a rope for the boat,” with an oath tacked to the end of it. He then hailed them in Spanish, and was answered in the same language.

Without a doubt, the saying was used with great ease in 1783 and although it has probably been around for generations in maritime communities, Idiomation was unable to find the expression published any earlier than 1783. That being said, the phrase is definitely part of the 18th century with a great likelihood that it goes back a bit farther than that.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Clean As A Hound’s Tooth

Posted by Admin on February 20, 2013

The saying clean as a hound’s tooth means that an individual or group of individuals is above-board and honest, transparent and forthcoming. It can also refer to cleanliness and spotlessness … immaculate, in fact.

On February 16, 1971 the Lewiston Morning Tribune printed an article about the efforts put into bailing out the Penn Central railroad the previous summer, when it was experiencing financial difficulties. It came to light that Secretary of Commerce Maurice H. Stans had a substantial amount of his own money at stake in having the railroad subsidized with a federal loan guarantee, and since he was involved on both sides of the fence, a conflict of interest existed. The article was entitled, “Not As Clean As A Hound’s Tooth” and ended with this sentence:

It must be most embarrassing to President Nixon, who once made the old phrase, “clean as a hound’s tooth,” famous all over America.

The old phrase was also a favorite of Dwight Eisenhower according to the Spokesman-Review, in an article published on June 24, 1958 entitled, “Phrase-Makers Relax; Use Up Reserve Stocks.” The story, republished from the New York Times, referred to the previous week as one that would be remembered for its metaphor glue, and perhaps as the great cliché festival.

On that day in Chicago, Adlai E. Stevenson, who in 1952 came to prominence as an eschewer of the ready-made phrase in favor of originality, accused Adams of “holier-than-those self-righteousness.”

Stevenson also made contemptuous reference to President Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign promise of government “clean as a hound’s tooth” which, of course, was the President’s phrase, not Stevenson’s.

The expression was used in a newspaper advertisement in the Vancouver Sun newspaper on March 19, 1931 promoting the “utterly odorless” Canadian made Bon Ami powder and cake. It read in part:

Just try it. You’ll be amazed. A little Bon Ami — a damp cloth — a few months’ time — and your woodwork will be clean as a hound’s tooth.” It won’t be scratched either, nor will your hands be reddened.

In the story “Whirligigs” by American author, O. Henry (1862–1910) and published in 1910, the following passage can be found:

“My precinct is as clean as a hound’s tooth,” said the captain. “The lid’s shut down as close there as it is over the eye of a Williamsburg girl when she’s kissed at a party. But if you think there’s anything queer at the address, I’ll go there with ye.”

On the next afternoon at 3, Turpin and the captain crept softly up the stairs of No. 345 Blank Street. A dozen plain-clothes men, dressed in full police uniforms, so as to allay suspicion, waited in the hall below.

Jumping back just a few more years, when the November 9, 1897 edition of the New York Times reported in the article, “Street Cleaning For The Next Four Years” that:

The department must be kept as clean as a hound’s tooth.

Now American frontiersman, Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson (December 24, 1809 – May 23, 1868) lived in Taos, New Mexico from 1828 to 1831, and according to PBS and the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau at least one of Kit Carson’s acquaintances said that Kit Carson was clean as a hound’s tooth.

And in fact, American military officer and explorer, John Charles Fremont (January 21, 1813 – July 13, 1890) hired Kit Carson as a guide (at a $100 per month) to take his expedition through the South Pass in Wyoming. When asked his opinion of Kit Carson, he was quoted as saying that Kit Carson was as morally clean as a hound’s tooth.

In the “Journal of Llewellin Penrose: A Seaman” written by William Williams, and originally published in 4 volumes in 1783, the following is found:

I thought every minute of their absence an hour, so great was my anxiety. In about four hours they returned, and gave the following account of their expedition  Bell said he found her to be Bermudian built sloop; she mounted guns, and had altogether a warlike appearance; her bottom was as white as a hound’s tooth. As they drew near her, he plainly heard some one say i English, “a rope for the boat,” with an oath tacked to the end of it. He then hailed them in Spanish, and was answered in the same language.

The date for the expression clean as a hound’s tooth is therefore pegged at some time between 1783 and 1800, allowing for a few years so the new version could make its way into the English language.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

By Hook Or By Crook

Posted by Admin on February 18, 2013

When someone does something by hook or by crook, it means they did whatever was necessary (legal or otherwise) to get what they wanted.

On 14 January 2012, the Economist published an article about big shortfalls, slim their balance-sheets, and crippled credit flow in European economies as banks struggled to pull together the extra capital needed to build confidence the financial state of affairs. Despite creative accounting practices, banks appeared to be relying on “every trick in the book to avoid asking investors for more money” even though it appeared that the effort would prove fruitless. The headline read:

European Bank Capital: By Hook Or By Crook

Back on October 12, 1949 the Toledo Blade published an article entitled, “The Navy’s Day.” The news story was how the navy felt that the unification system administered by Defense Secretary Louis Johnson deprived the Navy of an essential role in the national defense. The first paragraph read:

Now that the Navy, by hook and by crook, has won for itself a hearing of its grievances before a congressional committee, we suggest that Defense Secretary Louis Johnson be consistent and place a gag rule on Louie Johnson. Let him follow through on his idea that public bickering is no good for unification.

Jumping back to December 27, 1890 the New York Times ran with a story entitled, “Farwell’s Bitter Fight: Long Jones Aiding Him In His Senatorial Struggle.” The concern was that Long Jones, Chairman of the Republican Central Committee, was out to oust “honestly-elected democratic State Senators.” With the General Assembly standing at 101 Democrats, 100 Republicans, and 3 Farmers’ Alliance, some politicians were convinced that Long Jones was set to snatch Democratic control of the Legislature by shelving John M. Palmer and electing Republican Charles B. Farwell instead. The story began with this announcement:

Charles B. Farwell means to be re-elected to the United States Senate if he and “Long” Jones can, by hook or by crook, bring it about.

The Morning Chronicle of Halifax, Nova Scotia shared with readers on June 6, 1865 that the New Brunswick Assembly had authorized the appointment of a delegation charged with traveling to England to correct impressions created by the Canadian Delegates with regards to where the maritime provinces stood on the question of a Federal Union of the British North America Colonies (this being 2 years prior to Confederation). The story was entitled, “A Move In The Right Direction” and reported the following in part:

It is quite clear that affairs have arrived at such a crisis in Canada that “something must be done,” and that very soon. The Canadian Delegates covet the resources and revenues of the Maritime Provinces — they envy our comparative freedom from taxation, Municipal and Provincial, and we may rest assured that, by hook or by crook, they will drag us into Confederation, if it be possible. With Mr. Cardwell’s declaration on record, however, that there was no intention on the part of the British Government to confederate the Provinces without their free consent, we feel that there is nothing to fear from that quarter.

In Chapter VII of “The Man In The Iron Mask” written by French playwright, historian, and author Alexandre Dumas (24 July 1802 – 5 December 1870) and published in 1848, the expression is found in the dinner scene. The Bishop of Vannes, M. de Baisemeaux, and Aramis (of musketeer fame) are sharing a meal together, and enjoying spirited conversation.

“Bravo!” said Baisemeaux; and he poured out a great glass of wine and drank it off at a draught, trembling with joy at the idea of being, by hook or by crook, in the secret of some high archiepiscopal misdemeanor. While he was drinking he did not see with what attention Aramis was noting the sounds in the great court. A courier arrived about eight o’clock, as Francois brought in the fifth bottle; and although the courier made a great noise, Baisemeaux heard nothing.

Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) wrote “The Fairie Queene” written between 1590 and 1596. The poem is an extended poem in three books. The first two books follows the journey of two knights, Redcrosse and Britomart, while the third deals with the destructive power of living an unchaste life. The pervasive theme throughout is that one can be transformed by evil as well as good, and in the end, Christian values and virtues are those which must be followed with unwavering faith. In Book iii, Canto i the poet wrote:

So as they gazed after her a while,
Lo where a griesly Foster forth did rush,
Breathing out beastly lust her to defile:
His tyreling iade he fiercely forth did push,
Through thicke and thin, both ouer banke and bush
In hope her to attaine by hooke or crooke,
That from his gorie sides the blod did gush:
Large were his limbes, and terrible his looke,
And in his clownish hand a sharp bore speare he shooke.

The expression also appears in the British Pamphleteer, Philip Stubbes’ (c. 1555 – c. 1610) book, “The Anatomie of Abuses in England” published in 1583 he addresses the subject of the “impudence of Harlottes” and writes:

But which is more vayn, of whatfoeuer their petticots be, yet muft they haue kyrtles (for fo they call them eyther of filk, veluet, grograin, taffatie, faten or fearlet, bordered with gards, lace, fringe, and I cannot tell what befydes. So that when they haue all thefe goodly robes vppon them, women feeme to be the fmalleft part of themfelues, not naturall women, but artificiall Women; not Women of flefh & blod, but rather puppits or mawmets of rages & clowtes compact together. So farre hath this cancker of pride eaten into the body of the common welth, that euery poore Yeoman his Daughter, euery Husband his daughter, & euery Cottager his Daughter, will not fpare to flaunt it out in fuche gownes, petticots, & kirtles as thefe. And not withftanding that their Parents owe a brafe of hunndred pounds more than they are worth, yet will they haue it, quo iure quaue iniuria, eyther by hooke or crooke, by right or wrong, as they fay, wherby it commeth to paffe that one can fearily know who is a noble woman, who is an honorable or worshipfull Woman, from them of the meaner forte.

Two hundred years before Philip Stubbes’ use of the expression by hook or by crook, it can be found in John Gower’s book “Confessio Amantis“, written between 1386 and 1390. The poem consists of a prologue, an epilogue, and eight books between the two. Because of the number of surviving manuscripts, historians feel that John Gower gave Geoffrey Chaucer of “Canterbury Tales” fame a run for his money, so to speak.

Perjurie is the fecond hote,
Which fpareth nought to fwere an othe,
Though it be fals and god be wrothe,
That one fhall fals witneffe bere,
That the other fhall the thing forfwere,
Whan he is charged on the boke.
So what with hepe, and what with croke
They make her maifter ofte winne
And woll nought knowe, what is finne
For covetife, and thus men fain,
They maken many a fals bargein.

Yes, as John Gower puts it, man is known to make bargains, even at the expense of his own soul, to get what he wants.

One of the earliest instances where the expression is used is found in one of John Wycliffe’s Controversial Tracts, written circa 1370 wherein he writes:

… sillen sacramentis, as ordris, and oere spiritualte, as halwyng of auteris, of churchis, and churche verdis ; and compellen men to bie alle this with hoke or croke.

The era of Middle English is between 1154 and 1485. During this time period, a crook was understood to mean a dishonest trick and a hook referred to metal bent at an angle. It is easy to see how someone who did something by hook or by crook would be someone who used everything at his disposal to get what he wanted.

Idiomation therefore puts the expression to something during the 1200s, with the earliest published version being John Wycliffe’s in 1370 — understanding that the expression was part of the vernacular long before the publication in John Wycliffe’s writings.

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

Straining At The Leash

Posted by Admin on February 15, 2013

When you read about someone straining at the leash , it means that person is eager to do something they are prevented from doing right now. It can also be understood that the verb “straining” refers either to a force that tends to pull or stretch something to an extreme or damaging degree, or to a severe or excessive demand on the strength, resources, or abilities of someone or something. In other words, context is everything when this phrase is in play.

Last year, on April 5, 2012 the Telegraph newspaper in the UK published a story that reported that it appeared almost inevitable that there wold be an attack on Iran unless Tehran changed its course on developing nuclear weapons. The headline read:

Israel’s Dogs Of War Are Straining At The Leash To Attack Iran: Can Barack Obama Stop Them?

On a more positive note, the Free Lance-Star published a story on February 15, 1977 entitled, “Straining At The Leash.” The first paragraph launched into the story by stating:

The space shuttle is not yet on the wing, but figuratively speaking it is now straining at the leash. The first orbiter, dubbed “Enterprise,” has been trundled across the desert to Edwards Air Force Base. After a series of more and more demanding ground and air tests, in July a two-astronaut crew will make the first crucial free-flight and landing attempts.

In Madras (the former name for the Capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu in South India), the Indian Express edition of October 18, 1941 reported on the resignation of the Japanese cabinet, indicating that it had been unable to reach agreement on vital questions connected with Japanese policy. The news story drew its headline from the last line of the story in the paragraph that read:

The Japanese will take no one unprepared but will find themselves embroiled in ventures the strain of which coupled with a severe economic boycott may well take them to the brink of catastrophe. It may still be that even a new Japanese cabinet inclined to throw its fortunes more openly into the Axis struggle, will watch and weigh before committing the nation to new perils brought on by Army and Navy chiefs who seem to be itching for action, straining like hounds at the leash.

When Associated Press Sports Writer, Paul Zimmerman wrote about the Columbia Lions and the Stanford Stars back on December 30, 1933, the Evening Independent carried the exciting story on the much-anticipated Rose Bowl game. The story was entitled, “Lions Eager To Enter Fray While Stanford Has Two Regulars Kept Abed By Severe Colds” and the first paragraph read:

Trained to the minute and straining at the leash, Columbia’s Lion gridsters restlessly awaited today their hour of departure for Pasadena where they will match their football skill against Sanford New Year’s Day.

Twenty years before that, the Meriden Daily Journal published a news article on October 8, 1903 on Russia’s answer to Japanese movement of troops into Korea. The story ran with the headline, “Czar Sends Ships To Corea To Offset Mikado’s Troops” and halfway through the article, the following was written:

With the dogs of war ready on both sides and straining at the leash, the diplomats of Russia and Japan are still trying to reach an amicable agreement. Negotiations are proceeding in Tokio, and, it is announced, that they are over the future of Corea and do not relate to the evacuation of Manchuria. Apparently this latter question has been settled to the satisfaction of the Russians. They are there and mean to stay.

Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) published a  story in 1825 entitled, “The Talisman.”   This passage in the story made use of the expression:

King Richard looked more than once at the Nubian and his dog; but the former moved not, nor did the latter strain at the leash, so that Richard said to the slave with some scorn, “Thy success in this enterprise, my sable friend, even though thou hast brought thy hound’s sagacity to back thine own, will not, I fear, place thee high in the rank of wizards, or much augment thy merits towards our person.”

In the prologue of Act I in the play, “Henry V” by William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616), the play recounts, in part, how Henry V is committed to going to war for ethical reasons while at the same time being restrained by the fact that he must show just cause for going to war. How can this be claimed? The character of Henry V asks himself, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” In other words, Henry V is weighing what is right according to his conscience before England wages war against another country. The passage about the hounds does not use the expression “straining at the leash” however it certainly carries with it the spirit of the expression.

The three hounds are famine, sword and fire, and the passage reads thusly:

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Although the figurative sense of straining at the leash is attested to from early in the 15th century, the reference to straining at the leash referring to a set of three is from the early 14th century and is found in sporting language. From this comes the archaic definition for straining as meaning that the individual or individuals are using their utmost effort.

So while Idiomation could only trace the exact wording of the idiom to Sir Walter Scott, the spirit of the idiom goes back to the 14th century.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

On A Short Leash

Posted by Admin on February 13, 2013

If you have someone on a short leash, you are restricting someone’s freedom, and keeping strict control of that person’s activities for the purpose of controlling behavior. The idiom is literal in that it is based on the very definition of what a leash is and what it does: it’s a length of rope or leather used to prevent an animal from getting away.  And it most definitely relates to control and maintaining control.

On April 1, 2011 the Belfast Telegraph ran a story on comedian Russell Brand who was providing voice-over talent in the family-friendly film, “Hop.” The story read in part:

“We had to keep him on a short leash for this movie!” James joked.

The actor explained: “He still gets to be Russell but he has to do it within the confines of [playing] the Easter Bunny.”

It’s the sort of expression that instantly provides a visual readers take seriously while chuckling at the implications. The Montreal Gazette published a news article on August 9, 1980 that stated that New York held the wallet for Canada’s biggest oil company, Imperial Oil Ltd. It stated that if any of Imperial Oil’s top managers in Toronto wanted to spend more than $5 million on a new project, they needed approval from someone in New York and that someone had to be from Exxon Corp of New York since it owned 69.9 percent of Imperial Oil. The headline read:

Canadian Company Kept On Short Leash

The Spokesman-Review of December 12, 1956 discussed the need for a strong military force in the Mediterranean Sea in a story they published entitled, “Strong Fleet Vital In Mediterranean.” The value of having a fleet in the Mediterranean was neatly summed up in the article that contained this comment in the article:

In this air age, the importance of maintaining a strong force of military planes is emphasized continuously, and rightly. But consider the advantages of having fleets such as the Sixth.

The fleet’s base is the United States. It has no base in the Mediterranean and wants non. As Admiral Brown said, “We like our independence … we do not run on a short leash.” The fleet can show up at a trouble spot without creating the alarm a flight of military planes over the same area might have. Further, it can disperse quickly if atomic attack is threatened. If caught in an atomic war, its vessels with their accompanying air power are better able to withstand shocks than can installations ashore, said Admiral Brown.

The expression seems to have changed over the decades, however the sense of the expression has remained unchanged as evidenced by the story in the St. Petersburg Times edition of February 17, 1927. The story was about the upcoming heavyweight fight slated for the following night between Jack Delaney and Jimmy Maloney. There had been, of course, the typical exhibition fights where each fighter took on sparring partners and reporters were eager to report on what they’d seen, stirring up excitement over the upcoming fight. The story ended with this paragraph:

Out of the exhibition there came to observes the conviction that Delaney is in the finest shape of his career, with every move indicating his knowledge of a bagfull of ring tricks, kept in leash to unloose any time he pleases. The Delaney who meets the charge of the Boston strong boy Friday night seemed more resourceful than ever — and bigger.

The earlier expression “kept in leash” appeared in a story in the Pittsburgh Press on February 2, 1908 entitled, “King And Crown Prince of Portugal Were Assassinated: Harry K. Thaw Now Behind The Bars Of Madhouse Cell.” The assassination of King Carlos and the Crown Prince, and the attempted assassination of the Queen and Prince Emmanuel on February 1, 1908 was reported in detail. Mobs were in control of the streets, and the growing severity of the measures of oppression and Premier Franco’s dictatorship were at the heart of the upheaval. The story read in part:

Deputy Almeida, former Deputy Costa, Viscount Rebeira — all level-headed men, were arrested several days ago for political activity and are in one of the several prisons here.

As a result of the long contest between people and police in which the former have been kept in leash by the arms of the latter, the city is a boiling cauldron from which anything may be expected if a determined leader rises and welds the hundred odd bands of Revolutionists into a compact army.

And before that, “kept in leash” and “held in leash” were used interchangeably while still maintaining the spirit of the expression. The New York Times of May 1, 1866 published an article about the Committee of Fifteen and the objections by Congress with regards to reconstructing the Union. The article entitled, “Reconstruction and Circumlocution” read in part:

While most of the propositions in this plan of reconstruction are just and sound, its leading purpose and design, viz.: the election of the President by a divided Union — is monstrously unjust, unwise, and impracticable, and if persisted in by majorities in Congress will lead to disastrous consequences. If, from unavoidable causes, the Union should be kept divided, the people would acquiesce. But when protracted disunion is deliberately contrived; when a measure, with this purpose, cropping out vividly, is put forth by a “Directory” which has thus far held Congress in its leash, it will NOT be endured.

In the essay by William Hazlitt (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830) entitled, “On Wit And Humour” and published in his book “Lectures on the English Comic Writers” in 1818, wrote that man is “the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.” In his essay, he wrote:

It is the gaiety of despair, the mirth and laughter of a respite during pleasure from death. The strongest instances of effectual and harrowing imagination are in the story of Amine and her three sisters, whom she led by her side as a leash of hounds, and of the ghoul who nibbled grains of rice for her dinner, and preyed on human carcasses. In this condemnation of the serious parts of the Arabian Nights, I have nearly all the world, and in particular the author of the Ancient Mariner, against me, who must be allowed to be a judge of such matters, and who said, with a subtlety of philosophical conjecture which he alone possesses, that “if I did not like them, it was because I did not dream.”

And so, even in this essay, we see people being held on short leashes in a very literal sense. The Arabian Nights story to which Hazlitt refers is entitled, “The Three Calendars and Five Ladies.”

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer confirms in his book, “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” that Amine was the wife of the character by the name of Sidi Nouman.  He, too, attributes the leash comment to the Arabian Nights.

The “Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms” edited by Ivan G. Sparkes claims that a leash of armies was used as early as 1705 and that a leash of days dates back to the early 1600s.  Indeed, the expression is found in a poem by Daniel Dafoe (1662 – 24 April 1731) entitled, “The Double Welcome: A Poem To The Duke Of Marlbro‘” in which readers find this passage:

From thence thro’ ravag’d Towns and conquer’d Plains
The Monument of Victory remains,
Augsburg and Munick trembl’d at your Name,
Tho’ not inform’d of your approaching Fame:
To Blenheim, happy Name! the Scenes advance,
There gathers all the Thunderbolts of France.
A Leash of Armies on thy Plains appear
Each fancied able to support a War,
And free a Nation from the Vanity of Fear.
We that at Distance saw th’ approaching Day,
Knew the Design, and saw the Bloody Way.

English dramatist, poet and actor Benjamin “Ben” Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637) used the word leash to describe several days in a row. The play in which it appeared is entitled, “Epicoene” written in 1609, and was among those that English Member of Parliament, Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) appreciated. The phrase can be found in this dialogue:

Yes, sir, anything I do but dream o’ the city. It stained me a damask tablecloth cot me eighteen pound, at one time; and burnt me a black satin gown, as I stood by the first at my Lady Centaur’s chamber in the college, another time. A third time, at the lord’s masque, it dropped all my wire and ruff with wax candle, that I could not go up to the banquet. A fourth time, as I was taking coach to go to Ware to meet a friend, it dashed me a new suit all over (a crimson satin doublet, and black velvet skirts) with a brewer’s horse, that I was fain to go in and shift me, and kept my chamber a leash of days for the anguish of it.

There are a number of other references that include the word leash, all of them dealing with control of some form or another.  In fact, the expression leash of hounds can be traced back to the early 1300s.  However, in the sense of control of humans, this round goes to Daniel Dafoe in 1705.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hug The Cactus

Posted by Admin on February 11, 2013

During the 25th Annual American Cinematheque Awards Ceremony, one of the recipients stated that one of the presenters had hugged the cactus long enough. The expression was vivid and visual, and put forth the concept that surely someone who hugs a cactus — regardless of whether it’s voluntary or involuntary — earns forgiveness and a second chance.

Gina Holmes, author of such books as “Crossing Oceans” and “Wings Of Glass” used the expression in a blog article she wrote and published online on July 18, 2005. She shared her top advice for prospective authors, and one of the many valuable pieces of information shared was this:

So, to recap, my advice: Join the toughest writer critique group you can find and hug the cactus. (That means embrace the painful critiques).

This concept is one that’s found in only a handful of newspaper articles such as the article entitled, “Taking A Chance On Dare” in the Kansas City Star edition of July 2, 2004. The dare in question was the movie “Love Me If You Dare” — the romantic and yet continuously platonic relationship that lasts three decades, from childhood through to adulthood. The reviewer felt the movie was beautifully made, and gave the actors kudos for their works, however, he indirectly referenced the expression when he wrote:

One may admire a cactus, after all, but nobody wants to hug it.

While it seems to be a rarely used idiom, when it is used, it an idiom that’s immediately understood. The expression impacted on family life educators and authors, David and Claudia Arp in 1999 and included it in the title of their bookSuddenly They’re 13 or The Art of Hugging a Cactus: A Parent’s Survival Guide for the Adolescent Years.”

In trying to track down the history of this expression, a Friend of Idiomation living in Texas claimed that it’s been around Texas for generations and refers to an individual going through hard times. To hug the cactus means the individual confronts life’s hard knocks head for the purpose of getting over them as quickly as possible and move on.  The meaning attributed to this saying in Texas is consistent with how Robert Downey, Jr. used it when speaking about Mel Gibson.

Even with that bit of information to go on, Idiomation was unable to make much headway in tracking down the history of this expression.

If anyone out there knows a bit of the story, please feel free to share what you know in the Comments section. We’d all love to get the inside story on where this idiom came from, or at least, the journey it took to make it onstage at the 25th Annual American Cinematheque Awards Ceremony.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Watershed Moment

Posted by Admin on February 8, 2013

A watershed moment is a critical point that marks a crucial change and results in profound effects due to that change. For example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria allowed the U.S. to emerge as a superpower.

Had the assassination not happened, there never would have been widespread shock across Europe. Had there not been widespread shock across Europe, there never would have been reason to write the July Ultimatum. Had the July Ultimatum never been written, there would have never been reason to issue a declaration of war. Had there never been a reason to issue a declaration of war, the Secret Treaty of 1892 obliging Russia and France to go to war against Austria, Hungary and Germany (and eventually Italy) making the war a World War. Had there not been a World War, the United States of America would not have had the opportunity to emerge as a superpower.

That’s a watershed moment!

On November 28, 2010, the Seattle Times published a column by guest columnist. Frederick Lorenz, senior lecturer at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and senior peace fellow with the Public International Law and Policy Group. The topic was the future of international justice and offered Mr. Lorenz’s opinion on the role that major powers should take in this matter. The OpEd piece was entitled:

Watershed Moment For International Justice At The Hague

Politics seems to be where most watershed moments are reported. The Spokane Daily Chronicle published an article by Smith Hempstone on June 7, 1976 that reported on Spain’s watershed moment. The headline read, “Spain Seeks Strong Ties With Americans.” Among many changes in Spain was the fact that the first free elections in more than 40 years was scheduled to happen the following year. This change in Spanish politics was a major turning point in history, and the newspaper reported the following:

At this watershed moment in Spain’s history, the U.S. Senate has before it a five-year treaty of friendship and cooperation and providing for continued American use of U.S. naval facilities at Rota and of air bases at Torrejon, Saragossa and Moron. In return, Spain would receive $1.05 billion in loans for the purchase of military equipment plus Export-Import Bank credits, and $170 million in grants for other projects. This represents a quadrupling of the funds previously made available to Spain and an upgrading from executive agreement to treaty of the relationship between the two countries.

In the August 6, 1959 edition of the Spokesman Review, the newspaper reported that the Republican right-wing was sensitive about comments being made about Vice-President Richard Nixon’s relationship with the Russians. Previous to the phrase being “watershed moment” it seems that what watershed was being discussed was made clear through added details as was done in this article.

Entirely apart from political considerations, there will also be Americans who find the change of direction emotionally difficult. Yet, it seems clear that another watershed of history is here and demanding exactly the kind of direction that the President proposes to give it.

The Regina Leader-Post published an article entitled, “Mankind On The Great Divide” on January 23, 1948 that reported on then-Saskatchewan Premier Douglas, and Walter Tucker’s address to the Rotary club on the subject of Russian policy of indirect aggression towards the Western world. The second paragraph of the story dealt with the position America had on this indirect aggression.

Undoubtedly the Marshall project, which came out of the much-maligned United States, is one of the greatest factors for peace in the world today, and it may well prove that Secretary Marshall’s Harvard speech was the true watershed of the post-war period.

On August 3, 1938 the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story entitled, “The Balkan States: Growing Fear Of Germany.” The story had to do with Austria’s loss of independence, the Balkan States were in danger of also being overtaken by Germany by way of complicated trade schemes and disregard for their independence. A basic overview of recent history was provided in the article and French commentator and essayist “Pertinax” aka André Géraud (18 October 1882 – December 1974) was quoted.

“March 7, 1936.” declares “Pertinax,” “appears as a decisive date in the diplomatic history of Central Europe — a watershed between two political continents. So long as the Rhine was free from German fortifications, the French Army at any time could bring irresistible pressure to bear on Hitler’s Reich. It could warn it to respect the independence of the Danubian States. It cold say ‘Thus far, and no farther.'”

Jumping back another decade, on October 18, 1925 the New York Times published an article entitled, “Locarno and The League.” The first paragraph read:

Mr. Austen Chamberlain called the Locarno Treaty “a watershed between war and peace.” It is a striking phrase — doubly significant as coming from the nation and from the man who have been roundly accused of “knifing” the Geneva Protocol. It recalls a prior saying, much ridiculed in the Senate of the United States.

And a decade before that, on July 14, 1916 the Montreal Gazette quoted British Minister of War, David Lloyd George in the article entitled, “Victory’s Tide Flower Towards Allies’ Arms.” The article printed that the Minister had said to reporters the day before:

“The overwhelming victories won by the valiant solders of Russia have struck terror into the hearts of our foes, and these, coupled with the immortal defence of Verdun by our indomitable French comrades  and the brave resistance of the Italians against overwhelming odds in the Southern Alps, have change the whole complexion of the landscape. Now, the combined offensive in the east and west has wrenched the initiative out of the hands of the enemy — never, I trust, to return to his grasp. We have crossed the watershed and now victory is beginning to flow in our direction. Why have our prospects improved? The answer is, the equipment of our armies has improved enormously and is continuing to improve.”

In fact, the 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary provided this as one of three definitions for watershed:

3.  a point in time marking an important transition between two situations, or phases of an activity; a turning point.

And so while the origins of the phrase are rooted somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century,the actual phrase does not appear in print until some time in the early 1950s.

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

Dollars To Dumplings

Posted by Admin on February 6, 2013

Just as with the expression dollars to doughnuts, the expression dollars to dumplings means the same thing: whatever you’re betting on is a safe bet.

Even though it’s not quite as popular as its cousin dollars to doughnuts, the expression hasn’t exactly fallen by the wayside either. In fact, in Greg Jarboe’s article of December 23, 2011 entitled, “From ‘Author Stats’ in Webmaster Tools to Newsknife’s Top Journalists,” and published in a number of reputable newspapers around the world, the expression made its presence known in this paragraph.

And if you want to tell your PR people something that probably they don’t know, then show them Newsknife’s list of top news sites by category. I’ll bet dollars-to-dumplings that they didn’t know the Washington Post was the top news site for health-related stories or that MSNBC.com was the top site for science-related stories.

On August 14, 1921 the Gazette Times of Pittsburg, PA, the popular column, “George Ade’s Modern Fables In Slang” shared an enchanting fable entitled, “The Night Watch and the Would Be Something Awful” where the second paragraph read thusly:

“Nothing doing at the Gate,” she would say, warningly. “It’s Dollars to Dumplings that the Girl Detective is peeking out to get a Line on my Conduct. She has her Ear to the Ground about four-thirds of the Time and if any one makes a Move, then Mother is Next. If Father takes a Drink from his Stock in the Locker at the Club and then starts Homeward on a fast Trolley, Mother knows all about it when he is still three Blocks from the House. What’s more, she is a knowing Bird and can’t be fooled by Cloves or those little Peppermite Choo-Choos. The only time when Mother kisses Father is when she wants to catch him with the Goods. Look out! This is our corner.”

The moral of the story was: Any system is okay if it finally works out

The Sunday Vindicator of Youngstown (OH) published a news story entitled, “The Local Bout” on February 4, 1900 that made brief mention of a fighter by the name of Bryant. It was unclear whether he had any staying power although it was acknowledged that he had natural talent as a pugilist. The article shared this tidbit about the fighter’s past:

In days gone by he may have been a daisy one and done just what his manager claimed for him: knocked out Kid McParland in one round in 1896. At present it would be dollars to dumplings that McParland could reverse that decision.

The expression appears in a Harper’s Weekly Magazine advertisement in the February 28, 1889 edition of the Bristol Bucks County Gazette.

Idiomation was unable to located the saying published elsewhere in newspapers or in books, and even Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang states that they believe it hails from the late 19th century, although no exact year is given.

That being said, the fact that it appears in a Harper’s Weekly Magazine advertisement in early 1889, the expression was obviously understood by the general public in 1889. Since it would take one to two decades for an expression to reach this level of recognition with the general public, Idiomation pegs this expression to about 1875.

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