Historically Speaking

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Archive for March, 2013

One Bad Apple Spoils The Whole Barrel

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 27, 2013

All it takes is one bad apple to spoil the barrel, and that’s because the one apple that’s gone bad gives off ethylene, speeding the ripening of all the other apples in the same barrel as the bad apple. But what does it mean when you’re talking about something other than a real apple?

If someone in a group is referred to as a bad apple, best be aware that this could be the downfall of the whole group. In other words, the negative influence of one in a group could prove to be the undoing of the entire group that would otherwise — without the negative influence — remain good.

Of course, it’s true that every group of people also has those who are malcontents, troublemakers, or dishonest. Unfortunately, if such people have sway or influence on others in their group, studies have shown that the standards of the group as a whole begin a downward trajectory towards the negative behavior.

The Windsor Daily Star chose to publish a Letter To The Editor written by Mrs. M. Starchuck of Sub P.O. No. 11, in their February 16, 1939 edition. The author of the letter entitled, “World Not So Bad After All” addressed the issue of complaints about how bad things are in the world. A realistic woman, she appears to also have been a woman of considerable optimism and warmth as she wrote in part:

Relief in some cases has been abused, making it harder for the honest persons to get justice. You know that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel. But cheer up. It can’t last forever, and it is always the darkest before the dawn. There are a good many big-hearted people in the old world yet, and willing workers to help the down-trodden.

And in the Chautauqua Farmer of June 20, 1894 printed a lengthy article on the world journey of Reverend Dr. Talmage whose sermon “Another Chance” addressed the matter of what was to happen to people when they passed away and moved on to that other plane when they left this mortal coil. The one chance given in life, according to Dr. Talmage, was the last change given before the verdict would be rendered on each of our earthly lives. There was no reversal of judgment in the next world, according to his sermon, and no hope of an opportunity to correct the mistakes of this life in the afterlife. His sermon stated in part:

The entire kingdom of the morally bankrupt by themselves, where are the salvatory influences to come from? Can one speckled and bad apple in a barrel of disease apples turn the other apples good? Can those who are themselves down help others up? Can those who have themselves failed in the business of soul pay the debts of their spiritual insolvents? Can a million wrongs make one right?

As readers of Idiomation know, the Poor Richard’s Almanack published by Benjamin Franklin oftentimes contained well-established sayings and the 1736 edition was no different where the following was found:

The rotten apple spoils his companion.

The saying hails from John Northebrooke in his book entitled, “A Treatise Wherein Dicing, Dauncing (etc.) Are Reproved” published in 1577. The passage exact passage was:

A penny naughtily gotten, sayth Chysostoms, is like a rotten apple laid among sounde apples, which will rot all the rest.

Long before John Northebrooke, however, there was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400).  In his “Canterbury Tales” readers come across the following passage in unfinished “The Cook’s Tale.”

Uppon a proverbe that seith this same worde:
“Better ys rotten appulle out of an hurde
Than for to let hem rote alle the remenaunte.”
And ryght so it fareth by a ryotes servaunte.

This passage loosely translates as this:

About an old proverb, the words that say:
“A rotten apple‘s better thrown away
Before it spoils the barrel.” That is true
When dealing with a bad apprentice too.

That Chaucer should refer to this saying as an old proverb indicates that he is not the original author of the expression.  Unfortunately, the proverb to which Chaucer refers has eluded research and as such, Idiomation tacks this expression to at least the 13th Century since it is alleged to be a proverb.  It’s suspected, however, that the saying is far older than this even though it cannot be proven at this point on the Idiomation blog.

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Posted in Idioms from the 13th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Cowards Die Many Deaths

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 25, 2013

It’s an expression that’s been used often — sometimes well, sometimes incorrectly — and packs a punch with its delivery.  What it means is that while those who are cowardly oftentimes experience the dread that comes from facing death whenever they are confronted with difficult situations they would rather not acknowledge or address. Those who are brave, however, face the challenges and obstacles that life throws at them and only experience the dread that comes from facing death when they actually face death.

The “many deaths” cowards experience is the repeatedly overwhelming fear that paralyzes the person emotionally (and sometimes physically as well if the level of fear is great enough), refusing to deal appropriately with the situation at hand. Those who are brave, deal with the situation at hand, and accept the roses and thorns that come with dealing with the situation at hand.

In a Letter to the Editor in the April 12, 1988 edition of the New York Times, Cameron S. Moseley of New York City wrote about a discussion he’d had with William Elwell of Waterbury (CT). Mr. Elwell talked about a visit from a former student of his who hadn’t excelled academically when he taught him. The former student was in the Army Air Forces and had this to say about his high school English class:

“I wanted to tell you that something I learned in your class helped get me through my missions as a tail gunner. I kept repeating it to myself over and over: Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”

He ended the story by stating that it was moments like that one that made teaching Julius Caesar worth the effort.

The Fielding Star newspaper of September 4, 1916 chose an intriguing way to showcase the quote from Shakespeare’s play, announcing it thusly:

Melbourne, September 4.
Probate to the amount of £29,662 was paid on the estate of Madame Melba’s father (Mr. Mitchell).

Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” – Shakespeare.

The oft-repeated quote is found in Act II, Scene II of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1599.

CAESAR:
Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

An earlier version of this concept is found in a manuscript by English poet, Michael Drayton (1563 – 23 December 1631) entitled, “Mortimeriados: The Lamentable Ciuell Vvarres of Edward the Second and the Barrons.” It was published in 1596 and contains this passage:

A person who lacks courage is disgraced each time he faces adversity.  

It appears to have been a common theme even back then. Since Shakespeare was the better known of the two, it’s understandable that Michael Drayton‘s version would be overlooked in favor of William Shakespeare‘s. That being said, it’s unlikely that the thought originated with either of these gentlemen and so while neither expression can be traced back any further than the 1590s, it’s not unlikely the expression was around since at least the 1550s and most likely long before then.

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

Like Ugly On An Ape

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 22, 2013

It’s not often that you hear an expression that’s so bold in its delivery, but like ugly on an ape is one of those expressions.  On October 30, 1988 the New York Times published an article by William Safire that opened with this paragraph:

“I knew the minute I said ‘card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U.,’” George Bush told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, “a couple of your best columnists would jump all over me like ugly on an ape.”

It must have made an impression on author, Larry Niven as his book “The Man-Kzin Wars 2” published in 1989 used it in the book’s description:

Born and bred to hunting, they had never encountered a species they couldn’t treat as prey – until they met the canny pseudo-pacifists from Planet Earth. They nearly overwhelmed humanity on first contact, but fast as you can say “Ghengis Khan” or “Alexander the Great” the seemingly harmless monkey boys were all over the pussycats like ugly on an ape, with space fleets and strategic thinking that left the Warrior Race quite dazzled.  But that was then and this is now.  The pain of lost battles has faded and the Kzinti are back, spoiling for a fight, Larry Niven’s Known Space is again aflame with war.

So where did this expression come from originally, and how did it make it into a former U.S. president’s every day jargon?

It’s a fact that Gunsmoke (a television program that ran from 1955 through to 1975) where Festus Haggin — a role played by Ken Curtis (July 2, 1916 – April 28, 1991) — was known to use a number of colorful and amusing phrases to express himself.  Among the many that made their way into American culture of the day was “I’ll get on to you like ugly on an ape.”

Now according to the Texas Monthly magazine and writer Anne Dingus in the December 1969 edition, like ugly on an ape is an old Texas saying.  A number of Texans confirm this to be a fact.

Like ugly on an ape appeared in the early part of the 20th century as ugly as an ape and was a common expression referring to the physical appearance of an individual or how he presented himself in polite society.  Contrary to popular misconception these days, it was not a comment on one’s cultural heritage and as such, was not intended to insult those of African descent.

On September 22, 1883 the saying was found on the front page of the New York Clipper and Theatrical Journal, founded by Frank Queen in 1853.  It was found in the poem “An Actor” written for the New York Clipper by Cupid Jones, that offered this up as the first verse:

He was ugly as an ape,
Stupid, and vain, and vicious;
He had no chic, he had no shape,
His style was meretricious.

And in the New York Evening Express of 1843, in an article entitled, “Purchasing A Husband” the following quick story was published:

Susan, a country girl desirous of matrimony, received from her mistress the present of a five pound bank note for a marriage portion.  Her mistress wished to see the object of Susan’s favor, and a very diminutive fellow, swarthy as a Moor, and ugly as an ape, made his appearance before her.

“Ah, Susan,” said her mistress, “what a strange choice you have made!”

“Lo, ma’am,” said Susan, “in such hard times as them, when almost all the tall fellows are gone for soldiers, what more of a man than this can you expect for a five pound note?”

In the end, it’s uncertain when this idiom became part of the American lexicon, however, it is claimed by Texans as a long-standing Texas saying.  As such the Republic of Texas came about in 1835 and the expression certainly dates to at least a generation prior to that when you consider when the Republic was established and the use of the expression in a northern newspaper in 1843.

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

Like White On Rice

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 20, 2013

When you hear someone say it’s like white on rice, what they mean is that the situation is as close as anything can be.   In other words, you’ve got it covered the way rice is covered in whiteness (unless it’s wild rice or brown rice or even red rice).

It should be noted that white rice evolved from wild red rice 10,000 years ago according to the Public Library of Science Genetics journal.  White rice was preferred for a number of reasons, the main ones being that white rice cooked faster than rice that retained color, and it was easier for farmers to spot insects and disease on white rice than on rice that retained color.

Whodini‘s 1984 dance hit “The Freaks Come Out At Night” used the expression thusly:

Now the party’s jumpin’, the place is packed
And when the crowd’s like this, I’m ready to rap
But before I could bust a rhyme on the mic
Freaks are all over me like white on rice.

Brent Checketts, sports writer for the Deseret News used the expression in an article published on June 7, 1976.  The story reported on what happened at the game between the Salt Lake Gulls and the Spokane Indians.  A comment was made about Spokane’s manager, Frank Howard that read:

Friday night Howard was all over ump Bill Lawson like white on rice, and at one point it seemed the 320-pound manager was going to literally chew up and spit out the 145-pound arbiter.  However was not thumbed, however.

American author, Lloyd L. Brown wrote “Iron City“ which was published in 1951.   The story was based on an actual court case and told the story of a black youth who was falsely convicted of the murder of a white businessman, and sentenced to death.  In the story, the following passage is found:

“Boy, you should have seen them!” And now Lonnie could laugh about it.  “Old Rupp damn near fell out of his chair and Big John jumped like I stabbed him.  But then the marshals were all over me like white on rice and I couldn’t see anything.  I’m telling you it was really something!”

While the expression was used in the book in 1951, like white on rice doesn’t seem to appear in any newspaper articles before this time although the expression like gravy on rice does appear in some stories published in the 1930s.

To this end, Idiomation is unable to secure a date earlier than 1951 for this expression with the codicil that its use in Iron City indicates that readers would understand its meaning and therefore, it’s pegged to a generation prior to the book’s publication, putting it to some point in the 1930s.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

A Leopard Can’t Change His Spots

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 15, 2013

You’ve probably heard someone say that a leopard can’t change his spots before and what it means is that no matter how hard someone may try to change that true nature, they’ll never succeed in changing who they are naturally. It’s another way of saying: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  As Popeye was famous for saying: “I am what I am.”

For example, in the August 25, 2008 edition of the Mirror, a quick write-up was provided about the upcoming episode of Coronation Street (a popular British soap opera). Summing it up in two lines, Jane Simon wrote:

A leopard can’t change its spots and it looks like Tyrone was right to be suspicious about his mum Jackie having turned over a new leaf. After Tyrone and Molly spend a worried night in the car waiting for Jackie to return, Tyrone’s mood turns to anger when she crows about pulling yet another scam.

In Sports Editor, Al Abrams’ column “Sidelights On Sports” published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 17, 1950, sports fans were abuzz about was Ezzard “No Hazard” Charles, the NBA heavyweight king of boxing. It was said that he fought just enough to win without taking unnecessary risks which cost him in box office appeal and popularity with what Abrams called “members of slug society who pay the fright to see him in action.” Throwing in his two cents worth, he wrote:

Ezzard, no hazard, like the leopard, can’t change his spots. There’s no denying he is a good fighter, the best heavyweight around until the night the aged Louis proves otherwise, but he could be a far greater and exciting one if he’d just “give” a little more. That he never will. We’re all convinced of that.

The Jeffersonian Gazette of November 1, 1900 had a similar take on the subject of politics in an article entitled, “Party vs. Principles.”  The story led off with this paragraph:

It is an old saying, that it is difficult for the leopard to change his spots. It semes from actual experience that it is almost as difficult for the old time republican to leave his party. With many of us upon whom party affiliation sits lightly; what we mean is that we care nothing for the name, it is principles we want; we can’t fully appreciate how a man who voted for Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, and that long line of illustrious heroes and statesmen, now dead,will put so much stress upon a party name.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer states that it was first recorded in English in 1546, but no source was provided. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t first recorded in English in 1546, only that Idiomation has not identified what that source may be.

What Idiomation could confirm is that a version of the idiom is found in the Bible in Jeremiah 13:20-25 where it states:

20 Lift up your eyes, and behold them that come from the north: where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?

21 What wilt thou say when he shall punish thee? for thou hast taught them to be captains, and as chief over thee: shall not sorrows take thee, as a woman in travail?

22 And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me? For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare.

23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.

24 Therefore will I scatter them as the stubble that passeth away by the wind of the wilderness.

25 This is thy lot, the portion of thy measures from me, saith the Lord; because thou hast forgotten me, and trusted in falsehood.

The Book of Jeremiah in the Bible was written between 630 and 580 BC, at a time when the Law Of The Medes and Persians was a forgone conclusion. The Mede were an Indo-European people who inhabited ancient Media, and who had established an empire during the 7th century. And as with the law of the Medes and Persians, it was believed that the laws of nature could not be altered or changed either.

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A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 13, 2013

If someone tells you that a penny saved is a penny earned, then you’re being encouraged to become thrifty and to watch your budget. In other words, saving a penny is as good as earning a penny … or the dollar you didn’t spend, is the dollar you still have.

Back on July 3, 2006 the San Diego Union Tribune published an article by Jeff Donn of the Associated Press, on Edmond Knowles of Flomaton in Alabama. It would appear that Mr. Knowles had hoarded pennies as a hobby for almost 40 years. When it came time to cash his collection in at the bank, the bank refused to the pennies all at once and so he turned to a coin-counting company looking for publicity. The article stated:

In the biggest known penny cash-in ever, they sent an armored truck last year, loaded his pennies and then watched helplessly as it sank into the mud in his yard.

His years of collecting brought him about $1 a day – $13,084.59 in all.

A penny saved was a penny earned for Knowles, but he took away another lesson from the experience: “I don’t save pennies anymore. It’s too big a problem getting rid of them.”

A hundred or so years before that, pennies were making the news as evidenced by the April 9, 1900 edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. On page five, a number of items were published under the heading, “City In Brief” including the following:

Ben Franklin, the philosopher, said: “A penny saved is a penny earned.” One dollar deposited each week in the savings department of the Spokane & Eastern Trust Co. will in one year amount to $52.78; in five $286.11; in ten $634.88; in twenty, $1678.33; in thirty, $2980.21; in forty, $5063.34.

But did Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706 – April 17, 1790) really coin the expression? Or was it around long before he published his Poor Richard’s Almanack?

The fact of the matter is that the concept existed long before Ben Franklin published his version. One of the most popular versions was this one:

A penny saved is two pence clear. A pin a-day is a groat a-year. Save and have.

Another version of the idiom is found in English dramatist, Edward Ravenscroft’s “Canterbury Guests, Or, a Bargain Broken: A Comedy” published in 1695. This comedy, written in five acts and in prose, had a variation on the theme in Act II, scene iv.

This I did to prevent expences, for a penny sav’d, is a penny got.

In 1661, Thomas Fuller wrote and published, “The History of the Worthies of England: Volume 2.”  In that book, the following passage is found:

John Yong was a monk in Ramsey Abbey at the dissolution thereof. Now, by the same proportion that a penny saved is a penny gained, the preserver of books is a mate for the compiled of them. Learned Leland looks on this Yong as a benefactor to posterity, in that he saved many Hebrew books of the noble library of Ramsey.

And an even earlier version is found in “Outlandish Proverbs” published in 1633 and compiled by George Hebert. In this instance, it read:

A penny spar’d is twice got.

In the end, if you wander all the way back to around 1535, to John Heywood’s book, “Of Gentleness And Nobility” you’ll find the spirit of the idiom there.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A Bad Excuse Is Better Than None At All

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 11, 2013

While most people would disagree with the concept that a bad excuse is better than none at all, the fact of the matter remains that in difficult times, some believe that a bad idea or decision is better than no idea or decision. The expression may have fallen out of favor over the years, but the concept is one that still exists today.

Over the years, the saying has transformed into “doing something beats doing nothing.”

In a sports article written by Kyle McCarthy on April 8, 2009 in his column “McCarthy’s Musings” entitled “If You Can Build It” and posted to Goal.com, the following was reported:

Better news arrived in San Jose as the City Council voted to give Earthquakes investor/operator Lew Wolff a $40 million discount on a proposed land deal near Mineta San Jose International airport after the price of the land fell sharply. The discounted price will cut into San Jose’s profit on the deal, but the deal may have been in jeopardy if the city hadn’t lowered the price of the land.

“Prices have come back to earth, and we have to face that reality,” Councilman Sam Liccardo told the Mercury News. “Doing something beats doing nothing in this economy.”

Walter Franklin Prince’s book, “The Case of Patience Worth” published in 1927, has this entry listed in the Chapter entitled, “Impromptu Proverbs.”

133. THE BOBBIN’S STICKING MEANETH NAUGHT TO THE PATTERN.

I hardly think that the significance of this is equivalent to None of my funeral (not in Putnam). Perhaps it means that the pattern cares nothing for any excuse the bobbin may make, even though A bad excuse is better than none at all. An old satirical saying, referring to excuses for not working, is I have a bone in my arm. Figure that one out. I mean, of course, that the meaning and application of a few of Patience Worth’s proverbs are not immediately clear; the same is the case with many of the proverbs which we have inherited.

In “The Memoirs of Thomas Papillon” by F.W. Papillon, a lineal descendant of Thomas Papillon (6 September 1623 – 5 May 1702), and published in 1887, a letter from David Papillon (Thomas’ father) to Jane Broadnax, written in March 1650. It read in part:

I wonder that my Cousin major should seek after these rocks of disparity, and shun the streams of parity.

There is such parity between my cousin and the bearer hereof in all these fore-cited circumstances, that two parallel lines in geometry are not more like one another ; and yet he refuseth his assent upon these weak arguments — imitating, it seems, the common proverb, ‘A bad excuse is better than none at all.’

In the “Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, Volume 9: 1599” the expression appears with the word shift substituted for excuse. The word shift referred to managing one’s self and one’s day-to-day affairs. To that end, the sense of the idiom remains unchanged.

I have sent this bearer Captain Leget as well to put your Lordships in mind of the great want both of ordnance and shot for the defence of this place as to bring these letters, whereby it may appear that the design of the enemy for England is for this year altered, and I beseech you some course may be taken for the supply thereof in time, inasmuch as the want is so evident to all men of any judgment. I will forbear to speak what shifts I have been forced unto for want thereof; yet according to the old saying, better a bad shift than none at all. Such ordnance as by your Lordships I was appointed to receive out of Corfe, this bearer can best deliver what answer he had, and what they Were that are there; for I entreated him to take the pains, inasmuch as I myself could not have leisure to have seen them shipped and sent to this place.— 25 August 1599.

It was a common phrase at the time and appears in “Two Angry Women of Abingdon” by John Henry, published in 1559. It’s described as a country piece with two comic characters, Dick Coomes and Nicholas Proverbes, and was published after Henry Porter’s death — allegedly at the hands of another playwright who “struck a mortal wound in the left breast with a rapier of the value of two shillings.”

‘Tis good to have a cloake for the raine ;
a bad shift is better then none at all ;
He sit heere, as if I were as dead as a doore naile.

But in the end, the final stopping place is with Nicholas Udall (1504 – 23 December 1556) whose comic play in 1550 “Ralph Roister Doister” is considered to be the first comedy written in the English language. The play is in five acts, with the story centering around a rich widow who is betrothed to a merchant but who catches the eye of Ralph Roister Doister. It’s in this play that we find:

Better they say a badde scuso than none.

And with this, Idiomation pegs the expression to 1550 when the play was written.

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A Word To The Wise

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 8, 2013

When someone adds the comment, “a word to the wise” in conversation or in writing, what’s implied is that smart people don’t need long, drawn out explanations to understand what’s being hinted at by the speaker or the author.

In the January 1, 2011 edition of the Jamaica Observer newspaper, journalist Mervin Stoddart wrote at length about his career as an educator, and the people in his life who had influenced him. As he began his story, he included this in the first paragraph:

Mr Dibbs taught wisdom and often ended his remarks to me with the adage, “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

In Jack London’s book, “The Red One” published in 1918, the following is found in Chapter 3 entitled, “Like Argus Of The Ancient Times.”

“If you think I’d give away on the old codger–” Charles began indignantly.

“You thought that,” Liverpool checked him, “because I never mentioned any such thing. Now–get me and get me hard: I don’t care what you’ve been thinking. It’s what you’re going to think. We’ll make the police post some time this afternoon, and we’ve got to get ready to pull the bluff without a hitch, and a word to the wise is plenty.”

“If you think I’ve got it in my mind–” Charles began again.

“Look here,” Liverpool shut him off. “I don’t know what’s in your mind. I don’t want to know. I want you to know what’s in my mind. If there’s any slip-up, if old dad gets turned back by the police, I’m going to pick out the first quiet bit of landscape and take you ashore on it. And then I’m going to beat you up to the Queen’s taste. Get me, and get me hard. It ain’t going to be any half-way beating, but a real, two-legged, two-fisted, he-man beating. I don’t expect I’ll kill you, but I’ll come damn near to half-killing you.”

It appeared in Charles’ Dickens book, “David Copperfield” which was originally published in monthly magazine installments from May 1849 to November 1850. In Chapter 26, where a discussion as to whether a certain young lady should or should not be compared to a barmaid, the character known as Mrs. Crupp mentions the expression in conversation.

‘Mr. Copperfull,’ returned Mrs. Crupp, ‘I’m a mother myself, and not likely. I ask your pardon, sir, if I intrude. I should never wish to intrude where I were not welcome. But you are a young gentleman, Mr. Copperfull, and my adwice to you is, to cheer up, sir, to keep a good heart, and to know your own walue. If you was to take to something, sir,’ said Mrs. Crupp, ‘if you was to take to skittles, now, which is healthy, you might find it divert your mind, and do you good.’

With these words, Mrs. Crupp, affecting to be very careful of the brandy – which was all gone – thanked me with a majestic curtsey, and retired. As her figure disappeared into the gloom of the entry, this counsel certainly presented itself to my mind in the light of a slight liberty on Mrs. Crupp’s part; but, at the same time, I was content to receive it, in another point of view, as a word to the wise, and a warning in future to keep my secret better.

Jumping back into the previous century, William Haughton’s play “Englishmen For My Money: Or A Pleasant Comedy Called, A Woman Will Have Her Will” was published in 1616 and in that book, the following conversation is exchanged between two characters:

ANTHONY
I beseech you, monsieur, give me audience.

FRISCO
What would you have? What should I give you?

ANTHONY
Pardon, sir, mine uncivil and presumptuous intrusion, who
endeavour nothing less than to provoke or exasperate you against me.

FRISCO [aside]
They say a word to the wise is enough. So by this little French
that he speaks, I see he is the very man I seek for. — Sir, I pray, what
is your name?

ANTHONY
I am nominated Monsieur le Mouché, and rest at your bon
service.

And this expression — although not exactly as “a word to the wise” — is found in a poem by William Dunbar entitled, “Of Discretioun In Asking” dating back to 1513 which reads in part:

He that does all his best servyis
May spill it all with crakkis and cryis,
Be fowllinoportunitie;
Few wordis may serve the wyise:
In asking sowld dicretioun be.

Now, remember Mervin Stoddart’s piece published in the Jamaica Observer of January 1, 2011 where he mentioned Mr. Dibbs? There was more to that comment than I previously shared. In fact, if you continued reading the article, you would have read this:

Mr Dibbs taught wisdom and often ended his remarks to me with the adage, “A word to the wise is sufficient.” Only he would say it in Latin.

What Mr. Dibbs would have been heard saying is “verbum sat sapienti” which translates to be: A word to the wise is sufficient.  And so it is.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fox In The Henhouse

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 6, 2013

If there’s a fox in the henhouse, you’ve got problems brewing. You see, in that one idiom, people are aware that someone has been put in a position where he or she can then exploit the situation to his or her own benefit. And what’s more, it’s not that the opportunity is there, waiting to be acted upon, it’s more likely than not that the person in charge absolutely will exploit the situation.

In other words, having a fox in the henhouse is no different from having a lunatic in charge of the asylum  or asking a thief to guard the bank vault, or expecting the wolf to guard the sheep, or asking a monkey to watch your bananas. They all mean the same thing, and in every instance, the watcher can’t be trusted to do the right job.

Back on December 24, 2002 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posted a Letter To The Editor from Don Van Kirk of Franklin Park. He was concerned about the potential for abuse of power from George W. Bush’s new appointee to the SEC. He was so concerned that the author was compelled to comment:

His appointment of William Donaldson as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Donaldson is part of the Wall Street Club; under his leadership nothing of any magnitude will be corrected or changed.

Jumping back one generation to January 11, 1973, a news story published in the Miami News was also concerned about potential problems in government in an article entitled, “Fox In The Henhouse.” The problem this time had to do with the Watergate scandal and ensuing prosecution. It was reported in part:

In the first place, the Justice Department is prosecuting the seven defendants who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters last July. That’s like having the fox watch the henhouse because the Justice Department is controlled by the national administration, which is generally believed to have been behind the spying on the Democrats.

Some say that the expression comes from “The Contre-League and Answere to Certaine Letters Sent to the Maisters of Renes, by One of the League who Termeth Himselfe Lord of the Valley of Mayne, and Gentleman of the Late Duke of Guizes Traine” published in 1589, and that this book gives the saying as the fox guarding the henhouse.

Some will say that the expression is implied in the nursery rhyme (but Idiomation disagrees) entitled, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” where the first verse reads:

Sleep, baby, sleep.
Thy father guards the sheep.
Thy mother shakes the dreamland tree.
Down falls a little dream for thee:
Sleep, baby, sleep.

The fact of the matter is that the expression is first alluded to in the Christian Bible in Luke 13:31-35 where the following is found:

31 The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.

32 And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to-day and to-morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.

33 Nevertheless I must walk to-day, and to-morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!

35 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

And before the Bible, it was a Latin saying: “Ovem lupo commitere.”  The Latin translates into “mettere un lupo a sorvegliare le pecore” which, in turn, translates into “to set a wolf to guard sheep.”   Whether the expression has to do with foxes and hens, or wolves and sheep, the meaning is the same and to this end, this confirms that the saying originated in Ancient Rome.

So what have we learned from today’s idiom? Don’t assign a job to someone who will then be in a position to exploit it for his or her own ends.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Religious References, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Agree To Disagree

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 1, 2013

We’ve heard more than a few people resort to that expression in the midst of spirited discussions or heated debates, and it’s straight forward. It means neither side is willing to relinquish their side of the argument, which leaves only one option: To agree to disagree.

In the Editorial section of the Worcester (MA) Telegram and Gazette published on October 22, 2009, the author spoke to the matter of the elections in Afghanistan. The Editorial Footnote included this commentary:

Mr. Karzai reportedly still disagrees with the methodology used to disqualify more than 1 million ballots allegedly cast in his name. Mr. Kerry deserves credit for helping the Afghan leader realize that it was time to agree to disagree, and move ahead with the only politically viable course available, a second vote under the watchful eyes of international observers.

This expression is oftentimes used successfully in matters of politics such as during the Cuban crisis in the early 60s. In fact, in a Special To The Times that ran in the New York Times on January 7, 1963, the headline was “They Will Agree To Disagree.” The article showed within the first two sentences that while there was considerable tension from both sides in the crisis, that cooler heads prevailed.

The Cuban crisis will come to a formal end this week when Soviet and American negotiators at the United Nations agree to disagree. The negotiators will submit to Security Council members separate statements saying that they cannot agree on how to close one of the tensest chapters of the cold war.

When Rudolph Valentino and his wife divorced, the difficulties prior to, and following,  the divorce were fodder for more than one columnist’s pen. The Youngstown Vindicator of November 15, 1925 contained another well-known expression and began with this paragraph:

“Never again” is Mrs. Winifred Hudnut Valentino’s attitude towards further matrimonial ventures. All artists should be unmarried, she said and added “children and domesticity are incompatible with a career, that’s all.”

Mrs. Valentino complained that it had taken Rudolph, who departed today for Paris, three years to develop his lack of appreciation for her ambition to become a motion picture star in her own right.

The article, which was carried by the Associated Press, was aptly entitled, “Valentino And Wife Agree To Disagree.”

When the Charleston Mercury of Mary 1, 1860 hit the streets, it carried news of the National Convention. It reported on the States of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, and a portion of Delaware, being denied in the platform, the recognition of Southern rights in the Territories and the protection of slave property by the General Government, seceded from the Charleston Convention. There was what the newspaper reporter called a “radical difference on a great principle.”

The U.S. Civil War raged from 1861 through to 1865 and began when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Fort Sumter, of course, was a key fort held by Union troops in South Carolina.

The article was lengthy and detailed, providing a historical background to readers and midway, the following comments made by Mr. Butler of Massachusetts were recorded:

Do you desire to send us home to be subjected to the sneers of the Black Republicans, telling us that we have gone and laid down our honor at the feet of the South, and point at us as they pass us in the streets? Is that to be done, for no good, to accomplish no advantage for you? Do you claim that of us? If you claim the relinquishment of personal honor, I tell you frankly you cannot have it. If you claim simply a compromise, we will see how far we can compromise; and if we cannot agree with you, gentlemen who have been with me will tell you that I know how to disagree with those with whom I cannot agree.

Anglican cleric and Christian theologian, John Wesley (1703-1791) who, along with his brother Charles Wesley founded the Methodist movement, held notable doctrinal and philosophical differences from those of his close friend, Anglican preacher George Whitefield (December 27, 1714 – September 30, 1770). In a letter to his brother dated August 19, 1785 he wrote:

I will tell you my thoughts with all simplicity, and wait for better information. If you agree with me, well: if not, we can, as Mr. Whitefield used to say, agree to disagree.

John Wesley spoke at the funeral services for George Whitefield in 1770 and among many things he said, was this:

And, first, let us keep close to the grand scriptural doctrines which he everywhere delivered. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may “agree to disagree.” But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials of “the faith which was once delivered to the saints;” and which this champion of God so strongly insisted on, at all times, and in all places!

And so, while many attribute John Wesley for this expression, John Wesley gives credit to his late friend, George Whitefield.  But surely, George Whitefield wasn’t the first to come up with the expression. As an Anglican preacher, isn’t it more likely than not that he found it in the Bible and began using it in conversationally?  The fact of the matter is that the expression agree to disagree is never found in the Christian Bible. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 1:10, the passage reads:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

In other words, there’s no place for agreeing to disagree if you are a Christian as the Bible is the final word on what is and is not expected of Christians.

So somewhere between the death of Jesus and the life of George Whitefield, someone brought forth the concept of agreeing to disagree, but it was George Whitefield who appears to be the inspiration for John Wesley’s use of the expression.

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