Historically Speaking

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Archive for August, 2013

Not For Nothing

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 30, 2013

As soon as the idiom right as rain was published to this blog, Brian Michael Stempien wondered what the back story on not for nothing might be.   Setting off to research this idiom, the many twists and turns along the way made this an intriguing idiom to track.  You can lay the blame for double negatives on Latin, where positive assertions are made by way of double negatives. For example, non nulli translates into not nobody but it means everyone.  No wonder this idiom gives so many people trouble!

The idiom not for nothing actually means what’s about to be said or done is not to be said or done in vain; what’s about to be said or done has a cause, a purpose, a reason, or a use. What’s more, the same expression is found in other languages such as French where you can hear people say, “C’est pas pour rien.”

In Time magazine, in the Science and Technology section, the article, “Gagarin’s Golden Anniversary: The High Price Paid By The First Man In Space” by Jeffrey Kluger was published on April 12, 2011. The article, of course, had to do with the Russian cosmonauts and the American astronauts. In this article, the journalist used the idiom, not once, but twice!

It’s not for nothing that Russia, the U.S. space community and most former Soviet republics celebrate every April 12 as Yuri’s Night, with speeches, parties and commemorative events. It’s not for nothing, too, that this year the list of countries joining the celebration has expanded to 71 — including Belgium, Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Greece, India, the Maldives, Malaysia and even Iran — or that the inevitable website complete with the inevitable online gift shop has been launched.

When the Reading Eagle of Berks County (PA) published the July 17, 1952 edition of the newspaper where it was reported that Democrats felt certain President Truman could be swayed to change his mind about stepping aside to allow another to run for the office of President. It was said that Mrs. Truman had to motives for returning to Washington: The first was because she missed her husband when he was away from her, and the second was to be on hand if the call should come asking him to run for President again. The article read in part:

As is well known, Mrs. Truman has been irrevocably opposed to another four years in what she consider a cruel kind of imprisonment. And not for nothing does the President refer to her as “the boss.”

Russian poet, musician and novelist, Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin (18 October 1875 – 1 March 1936) used the expression in one of his poems, “Alexandrian Songs for Nikolair Feofilaktov, II Love, #6” published in 1906.

Not for nothing did we read the theologians
and studied the rhetoricians not in vain,
for every word we have a definition
and can interpret all things seven different ways.

And slipping back 2 more years to November 5, 1904 to a story in the New York Times entitled, “The Mikado’s Birthday” the expression makes an appearance.  Reporting on Japanese strategists in Tokyo who hoped to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday in a very unique way, some history was rehashed and the following can be found:

But even a year ago, we repeat, when it became clear that Japan was prepared to fight the huge Muscovite Empire, as she had already successfully tackled the huge Chinese Empire, in vindication of what she believed to be her right to national expansion, which seemed to her equivalent to her right of national existence, there were not wanting skeptics to maintain that the clockwork precision and the dauntless valor which had marker her war against China went, if not for nothing, yet not for very much in the face of the fact that she had never encountered the troops of a “European” Power.

When Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer, Robert Louis Stevenson (November 13 1850 – December 3 1894) wrote and published “Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers” in 1881, he included this passage in Part 1.

Lastly no woman should marry a teetotaller, or a man who does not smoke. It is not for nothing that this “ignoble tobagie” as Michelet calls it, spreads all over the world.

It’s an expression that’s been used for centuries, and appears in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant Of Venice” that was published in 1596. The passage appears in Act II, Scene V.

LAUNCELOT
I beseech you, sir, go: my young master doth expect
your reproach.

SHYLOCK
So do I his.

LAUNCELOT
An they have conspired together, I will not say you
shall see a masque; but if you do, then it was not
for nothing that my nose fell a-bleeding on
Black-Monday last at six o’clock i’ the morning,
falling out that year on Ash-Wednesday was four
year, in the afternoon.

But as much as the word nothing came into the English lexicon in the 12th century, the expression not for nothing reaches back much more farther back. In fact, when newly baptized Christians were enslaved or massacred by Roman soldier, Saint Patrick (yes, the patron saint of Ireland) who lived from 385 to sometime between 462 and 493, wrote a “Letter To The Soldiers Of Coroticus” in the year 450. In this letter was written:

I grieve for you, how I mourn for you, who are so very dear to me, but again I can rejoice within my heart, not for nothing “have I labored,” neither has my exile been “in vain.”

Finally, the first published point was found with comic writer at the time of the Roman Republic, Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC – 184 BC).  His first play was produced in 205 BC and continued throughout his lifetime and beyond. In Act IV, Scene III of “Aulularia.”

It was not for nothing that the raven was just now croaking on my left hand.

The expression was used freely in this comedy and the audience knew what it meant. Idiomation is therefore led to believe that not for nothing was a common expression at the time, and its existence lies somewhere in the years before the play was written.  At the very least, it was a known expression around 300 BC, and possibly earlier than that.

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Right As Rain

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 28, 2013

An online friend was wondering what the expression right as rain really means and how it wound up being part of the English language. To answer her question, when something is right as rain everything is functioning optimally … perfectly, in fact.

USA Today sometimes has the most unexpected articles, and the one about Portland, Oregon on March 29, 2010 certainly surprised a number of readers. Portland’s storm sewer system, it was reported, was a tourist attraction for eco-friendly tourists interested in checking out Portland’s system of curbs, gutters, roofs and rain gardens. Who knew? Of course, the article was aptly entitled, “Portland’s Sewers Right As Rain.”

Back on July 17, 1952 the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper reported on how the Russian government in Moscow was unhappy about the upcoming conference in Honolulu that intended to set up a permanent Pacific defense council. The Russians were said to be against the prospect of such a defense council. In fact, the situation was such a hot button for both sides that the reporter wrote in part:

The Reds suspect that a treaty organization designed to prevent the spread of Communism in the Pacific world, similar to the existing North Atlantic Treaty Organization already service the same purpose in Europe, will come out at the Honolulu conference in August, and they are right as rain about that.

The Saskatoon Phoenix newspaper edition of July 3, 1915 carried a news article entitled, “Tommy Is An Optimist.” Written by a special correspondent with British Headquarters in the Field during WWI, the journalist rose above the horrors of war to include the personal side of global conflict. It’s not that he didn’t acknowledge that war was ugly business and that everyone suffered because of it, but rather, he chose to give insight into the humanity that still existed among soldiers. The article included an anecdote that happened between the chaplain and one of the soldiers brought in on a stretcher to be treated by doctors.

“Would you like to send your people a postcard, my boy?” said the Chaplain, and went on to the next stretcher. “Does — does this mean that I am going to die?” asked the lad, as he tried to scrawl a name across the front of the card.

“Nonsense,” retorted an orderly who was passing. “You’ll be as right as rain in a week.”

“Then I’ll wait before I write,” said the soldier. “There’s no use wasting the card. Besides, it says ‘I am wounded.’ I am not wounded — I’m full of this bloody gas, and as soon as me chest is clear I’m going back to ‘do’ for some of those Germans. Give us a drink!”

Some sources claim that the expression was first published in 1894 however Idiomation found a published version in a Boston Daily Globe newspaper dated March 21, 1893 in a serialized story entitled, “Fated To Suffer: The Mystery of the Blood Red Star.”  While Idiomation was unable to find an earlier publication of the phrase, that it is found in a newspaper dating back to 1893 indicates that it was already in use among the masses and as such, it can be assumed that it most likely dates back to at least 1880.

That being said, the qualifier right as has been used in a number of idioms before this date. Some of the alternatives include:

1.  Right as an adamant from “Romance Of The Rose” translated by Geoffrey Chaucer (1300 – 25 October 1400) from the poem by Guillaume de Lorris (1200 – 1240):

For by ensample tel I this,
Right as an adamant, ywis,
Can drawen to hym subtelly
The yron that is layde therby,
So draweth folkes hertes, iwys,
Syluer and golde that yeuen is.

2.  Right as a line from “Minor Poems” by John Lydgate (1370 – 1451) and published in 1430:

That heuenly spyce, hit is ful swete;
Help us perof, good bysshop Fermyae,
Sacred Cipriane, zif hit wold be gete,
With Cosme and Damane wold I dyne,
Lede us pederward as ryght as a lyne,
Seynt Myghel, to pat heuenly kyngdome
Helpyng the holy doctour Seynt Ierome.

3.  Right as is my leg from the translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660) of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” originally written by François Rabelais (1490 – 1553) and published in 1653:

I saw another surrounded by a Croud of two sorts of Women; some were young, quaint, clever, neat, pretty, juicy, tight, brisk, buxom, proper, kind-hearted, and as right as my Leg, to any man’s thinking. The rest were old, weather-beaten, over-ridden, toothless, blear-ey’d, tough, wrinkled, shrivell’d, tawny, mouldy, ptysicky, decrepit hags, beldams, and walking Carcasses.

4.  Right as my leg from “The Comical History of Don Quixote: As It Was Acted At The Queen’s Theater In Dorset Garden By Their Majesties Servants” in Part III, Act III Scene ii by Thomas D’Urfey (1653 – 26 February 1723) and published in 1696:

Jolly Ralph was in with Pegg,
Tho freckled like a Turkey-Egg;
And she as right as is my leg,
Still gave him leave to touse her.

5.  Right as my glove from “Antiquary” by Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) and published in 1816:

“Right, Caxon! right as my glove! By the by, I fancy that phrase comes from the custom of pledging a glove as the signal of irregragable faith — right, I saw, as my glove, Caxon — bet we of the Protestant ascendancy have the more merit in doing that duty for nothing, which cost money in the reign of that empress of superstition, whome Spenser, Caxon, terms, in his allegorical phrase.”

6.  Right as ninepence from “Frank Fairlegh: Scenes From The Life Of A Private Pupil” by Francis Edward Smedley (4 October 1818 – 1 May 1864) and published in 1850:

“Well, let her say ‘no’ as if she meant it,” said Lawless; “women can, if they like, eh? and then it will all be as right as ninepence. Eh! don’t you see?”

“Easier said than done, Lawless, unfortunately,” replied Coleman; “my fat rival is the son of an opulent drysalter, and last year he contrived to get rid of his father.”

And so while the idiom right as rain can only be traced back to the late 19th century, it would seem that what follows right as isn’t always important as long as it’s right as … as the many examples have proven.  So it’s actually right as that determines that everything is perfectly fine and good, and in the case of right as rain, it’s just a nice bit of alliteration as well.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Give Someone The Gears

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 26, 2013

Believe it or not, to give someone the gears means to harass or pester someone, usually in a teasing way, but not always. It’s a Canadian expression that shows up primarily in Canadian newspapers, but making some headway in American newspapers in the northern states in the past decade.

Every once in a while, the Globe and Mail will run a humorous essay by Kevin Bray. On July 26, 2011 the article “My Dog Has Seriously Cramped My Style” had readers howling at the author’s predicament. Being the proud owner of a poodle, this entailed the grooming that’s part and parcel of poodledom including the pantaloon-style legs and lion-style mane haircut. He told the story of an ornery old gent who made an unkind remark about his adorable canine and what followed was a defence of his dog against the cruelty of a human.

However, my confidence in the combined intelligence of two species – homo sapiens and canine – blinded me to the prescient wisdom of an old man that sunny day who got out of his boat-like car, looked straight at me and loudly pronounced, “Glad I don’t have a dog. It would cramp my style!”

I don’t know why I reacted, but I responded just as crankily, “What style?”

He harrumphed and tottered into the coffee shop without another word. I think I gave him the gears because I was worried that he had a vision of my future.

Ottawa Sun reporter Bruce Garrioch wrote an article entitled, “Heatley’s Pointed In Right Direction” where the possibility of Senators winger tying the NHL record for scoring in consecutive games that had been held by Wayne Gretzky since 1988 was palpable. The article stated in part:

Seriously, the former Atlanta Thrasher would be thrilled to put his name in the record book. His teammates have been giving him the gears about it, but the chase to equal Gretzky and beat his mark has created a lot of excitement.

On January 13, 1983 the Calgary Herald published a story out of Ottawa written by Charles Lynch and entitled, “Venom Boils When PM, Press Hit The Road.” He started the article off by stating that every few years, the longest running hate show on the international stage went on a road trip, and the main characters of this show were members of the national press corps and certain politicians.

The idea of politicians abroad being objects of abuse took hold in our media circles — so much so that when Joe Clark went traipsing around the world as Tory leader, a whole bunch of press people went along with him, and gave him the gears. Clark was polite to the press, but they wimped him anyway, leaving his image with scars that have never healed.

Because it’s such a recent addition to the English language, and because it was used to easily in the 1983 article, it’s safe to say that the expression dates back to about 1975 for it to make its way into the general lexicon by the time Charles Lynch made use of the expression.

And a Canadian expression at that! A first on the Idiomation blog that’s for sure!

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

On The Heels

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 23, 2013

Every once in a while, you’ll hear someone say that the police are hot on the heels or right on the heels of a suspected criminal. The idiom brings to mind one person in earnest pursuit of another and that’s exactly what this idiom means. When one person is hot on the heels of another, it means that person is following someone very closely, and perhaps has almost caught up to them and their actions. It can also mean that something comes very shortly after something else as can sometimes happen when laws are passed in government.

With the fast advancements in technology (especially over the past two decades), the New Straits Times in Malaysia published an article on April 12, 2000 about Sabeer Bhatia, a then-31-year-old high-tech guru who founded Hotmail. Hotmail made him independently wealthy, famous and hard at work trying to repeat his Hotmail success with a new venture: Arzoo.com. The article, of course, was entitled, “Hot On The Heels Of Hotmail.”

The Calgary Herald published a news story from the Ottawa bureau about Mike Pearson’s last day of campaigning in Canada. The story, published in the March 31 edition back in 1958, and written by Charles King, chronicled in a few quick words, what the Liberal party leader accomplished in his travels. The story was entitled, “Pearson In Top Form At Close” and opened with this teaser:

Mike Pearson’s last day of campaigning was unquestionably his best. The Liberal leader, following hot on the heels of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, outdrew the Conservative chief at every stop in a 300-mile sweep of Ottawa Valley points. Things looked so good for the Liberals that party hangers-on almost wept that the campaign was in its last hours.

An interesting and humorous news article was published in the Boston Evening Transcript about Mr. Carnegie, William Ellis Corey and Charles “Charlie” Schwab, the Carnegie Steel Company and the United States Steel Corporation. The story entitled, “The Head Of The Steel Trust” began with a subheading that read: Mr. Cory denies that he began to work for Mr. Carnegie for a dollar a day. It was less and he was only sixteen. William Ellis Corey had moved from Pittsburgh to New York, and newsmen quickly learned that he was a man of very few words. So few, in fact, that his friends were only willing to make two statements to print media about him, these being that “he will direct his energies wholly to the affairs of the corporation” and that “he does not speculate in any way, and never has.” Still, he was the subject of a great deal of media interest, and the article chronicled his history including this:

All the time Mr. Corey was following hot on the heels of Mr. Schwab, along every step of their common way, until he drew up on even terms when the highest goal in sight was reached — the presidency of the Carnegie Steel Company. Each of the two men was elected to this office, with its $50,000 salary in his thirty-fifth year. Then, in the race for the laurels of youthful supremacy, Mr. Corey has won by becoming president of the United States Steel Corporation at the age of thirty-seven; and there are times when he does not look a day more than thirty-five.

It was a term that was well-known and well-used by authors. In H.G. Wells’ novel “The War Of The Worlds” published in 1898 used vivid imagery to place his readers at the center of the excitement in his story. The idiom appeared three times without in this novel. The first time he used it here:

About six in the evening, as I sat at tea with my wife in the summerhouse talking vigorously about the battle that was lowering upon us, I heard a muffled detonation from the common, and immediately after a gust of firing. Close on the heels of that came a violent rattling crash, quite close to us, that shook the ground; and, starting out upon the lawn, I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down into ruin. 

The second time he used it here:

The thunderclaps, treading one on the heels of another and with a strange crackling accompaniment, sounded more like the working of a gigantic electric machine than the usual detonating reverberations. The flickering light was blinding and confusing, and a thin hail smote gustily at my face as I drove down the slope.

The third time he used it here:

So close on the heels of this as to seem instantaneous came a thud behind me, a clash of glass, a crash and rattle of falling masonry all about us, and the plaster of the ceiling came down upon us, smashing into a multitude of fragments upon our heads. I was knocked headlong across the floor against the oven handle and stunned. 

French novelist, poet and playwright Jules Verne (8 February 1828 – 24 March 1905) published “Around The World In 80 Days” in 1873. It came after publication of such classics as  “Journey To The Center Of The Earth” in 1864,  and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” in 1870. In the novel “Around The World In 80 Days” the author used the idiom on the heels in this passage:

The thought then struck Passepartout, that he was the cause of this new misfortune! Had he not concealed Fix’s errand from his master? When Fix revealed his true character and purpose, why had he not told Mr. Fogg? If the latter had been warned, he would no doubt have given Fix proof of his innocence, and satisfied him of his mistake; at least, Fix would not have continued his journey at the expense and on the heels of his master, only to arrest him the moment he set foot on English soil. Passepartout wept till he was blind, and felt like blowing his brains out.

And a generation before being found in Jules Verne’s book, Irish doctor and journalist, Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan (27 February 1797 – 29 May 1880) published a book entitled, “History of New Netherland Or, New York Under the Dutch: Volume II” published in 1848. He was a well-traveled man, born in County Cork in Ireland, studied medicine in Dublin (Ireland) and Paris (France), and finally immigrating to Canada in 1823 where he involved himself in the political reform movement. The idiom in appeared in his 1848 tome as follows:

In Holland, Van de Donck was still hot on the heels of Van Tienhoven. Prevented by the order of the States General from returning to New Netherland, the latter passed the winter in Amsterdam, where he succeeded in seducing a young woman, named Elizabeth Jansen Croon van Hoochvelt, under a promise of marriage, having represented himself as a single man.

William Shakespeare’s “History of Troilus and Cressida” published in 1609, carries a variation of the idiom using at instead of on as seen in this passage:

ACHILLES
Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set;
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels;
Even with the vail and dark’ning of the sun,
To close the day up, Hector’s life is done.

Ultimately, however, the version that seems to have started it all is found in the late 14th Century Middle English alliterative romance story, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The story takes place at Christmas time in Camelot when the Green Knight rides into the hall on horseback, whereupon he immediately challenges everyone there to a Christmas sport. It’s a fascinating tale in many respects and borders on the horror genre in its own way. That being said, this passage is found in the story:

As he spurred through a spinney to spy the shrew,
there where he heard the hounds harry him on,
Reynard came rushing through the rough grove,
and all the rabble in a race, right at his heels.

It’s doubtful that the expression existed much before this piece as the word heel was from the Old English word hēla back in the 12th century, and was a variation of the Old Norse word hæll. Idiomation therefore places this expression at sometime in the mid-1300s.

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Tar Heel

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 21, 2013

If you ever find yourself in a tar heel fight, you best be ready for a fight you won’t get out of anytime soon. There’s a certain stick-to-it attitude that’s part of a tar heel fight that you don’t get from other kinds of fights. To understand how a tar heel fight differs from other fights, you first have to understand what tar heel means.

On May 7, 2008 the Montreal Gazette published a news article that had to do with the Democratic primary in North Carolina. After weeks of controversy over his former pastor, Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the primary held in that state, which helped him tremendously by giving some momentum to his campaign. The story was entitled, “Obama Bests Clinton In Tar Heel State.

When you hear tar heel, it almost always has something to do with North Carolina. There’s no two ways about it. Wherever you hear talk of North Carolina, talk of tar heels is never far behind. In fact, the Spokane Daily Chronicle of March 12, 1957 carried an Associated Press story that talked about the North Carolina Tar Heels, a basketball team that seemed to specialize in winning close games. The title of the article was, “Winning Close Ones A Tar Heel Specialty.”

It was the Lewiston Daily Sun of October 12, 1928 published an article on Governor Smith’s train campaign along a route that took him through Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The article entitled, “Smith In Virginia and North Carolina: First Democratic Nominee To Make Personal Appeal For Southern Vote In Years” also reported on other nominees making similar train campaigns, and included this passage in the report:

Sen. Carter Glass, of Virginia, joined the train early in the morning at Washington. At Norlina and Henderson, the Governor received his first ovations in North Carolina, going to the rear platform to exchange greetings with well-wishers. At Norlina his train was boarded by Democratic leaders from the tar heel State who accompanied him to Raleigh.

Steuben Farmers’ Advocate newspaper reported on Chairman Daniel’s speech on July 15, 1896 — a speech that paid tribute to Senator Hill and made an eloquent plea for majority rule. He claimed that the Democratic party was ‘co-evil with the birth of sovereignty of the people‘ and said it could never die until the Declaration of American Independence was forgotten and sovereignty was crushed out. As he gave his speech, there were loud rounds of applause throughout, and more than a few when he was quoted as having said:

It sends forth pioneers from Plymouth Rock and waves over the golden wheat fields of Dakota. It has its strongholds in Alabama and Mississippi and its outposts in Minnesota, Florida and Oregon. It sticks like a tar heel down in the old north State and it writes sixteen to one on the saddle bags of the Arkansaw traveler.

In the diary of William B. A. Lawrence, the last narrative entry of February 6, 1863 also referred to tar heels, but as it pertained to soldiers from North Carolina. In this entry, the author wrote:

I know now what is meant by the Piney Woods of North Carolina and the idea occurs to me that it is no wonder we are called Tar Heels.

The manner in which William Lawrence used tar heels reflected respect, praise, and commendation for the soldiers from North Carolina. But he wasn’t the only one who felt this way about North Carolina’s soldiers. In fact, at the Battle of Murfreesboro in Tennessee in January 1863, North Carolina’s soldiers made an impression on the commanding General John S. Preston who, in addressing the troops, said:

This is your first battle of any consequence, I believe. Indeed, you Tar Heels have done well.

So how is it that residents of North Carolina came to be known as tar heels? North Carolina was the leader producer of naval stores (a category of building and maintenance supplies for sailing ships that included cordage, mask, turpentine, rosin, pitch and tar) from 1720 through to 1870. It makes sense then that the tar, pitch and turpentine for which they were known in particular would identify them.

In the end, tar heels can be tagged as being used in writing in early 1863 and because it was expected that soldiers would understand what General Preston meant when he used the expression when addressing his troops, the expression can be traced back another generation to sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s.

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

Head Over Heels

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 19, 2013

You may have heard someone you know say he or she is head over heels in love with someone or something. They may be standing right before you making it obvious they are literally head over heels, but what does the idiom mean? What it means is that they are completely enamored with a person or an idea or an item. They may be obsessed or infatuated or engaged or any number of things when it comes to that person, idea or item, but whatever the emotion may be, it’s intense and encompassing. In other words, it has turned the speaker’s world upside down … the opposite of what he or she is used to feeling.

When it comes to love, no one seems immune.  Of course, rumor has it that the bigger they are, the harder they fall!  On April 18, 2008 the New York Daily News ran with a story by feature writer, Nicole Carter, that made the world sit up and take notice of what was going on in Russia. It seemed that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was divorcing his wife at the time, was involved with an Olympic Gymnast named Alina Kabayeva. As with many scandals that erupt at the most inopportune time, it came with a snappy headling: “Why Vladimir Putin Fell Head Over Heels In Love With Gymnast.”

Considering that the words in love are added to the idiom indicates that there are times when someone can be head over heels and the expression has little (or nothing) to do with love.  As we have all heard, politics makes for strange bedfellows and back on January 25, 1956 the Lewiston Evening Journal shared the news that something odd was going on in the world of American politics. While few details could be pulled from the article entitled, quite simply, “For Nixon” it began with this eye-opener!

For whatever a poll is worth — the California Republicans are head-over-heels for Vice President Richard Nixon if President Eisenhower doesn’t rerun. So says the daily newspaper, Los Angeles Times. If Ike should run, majorities in both parties are for him.

Back in April 1922, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation released a movie to theaters that starred Mabel Normand, Hugh Thompson and Russ Powell. The movie told the story of three men involved in the life of a perky Italian acrobat who has come to America at a theatrical agent’s bidding. Interestingly enough, because the acrobat is such an adorable spitfire, there’s mayhem a plenty, and maybe more than even she expected when she falls for the theatrical agent’s partner. While it’s true this movie is from the silent movies era, the intertitles didn’t detract from the movie that was known as “Head Over Heels.”

The New York Times has always published articles of political interest to a wide cross-section of its readership. It’s a long-held tradition that can be seen in this article dated May 9, 1860 dealing with the American Anti-Slavery Society and it’s 27th anniversary held at the Cooper Institute. Most of the attendees who half-filled the institute were women. The gathering put forth resolutions condemning slavery. When Wendell Phillips stepped up to the podium to speak, he had a great deal to say about the situation including this quote attributed to a Mr. Seward:

Let it be marked that they (the Abolitionists) didn’t know anything, that they were turned head over heels with their passions — couldn’t see an inch beyond their own ignorance and mistakes — were mere boys — madmen — strong-minded men and women, who did not know anything.

When David Crockett wrote his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee” which was published by Carey, Hart & Co. in 1834. As he wrote about his early days as a young man, fond memories surfaced including this one:

The next day, I went back to my old friend, the Quaker, and set in to work for him for some clothes; for I had now worked a year without getting any money at all, and my clothes were nearly all worn out, and what few I had left were mighty indifferent. I worked in this way for about two months; and in that time a young woman from North Carolina, who was the Quaker’s niece, came on a visit to his house. And now I am just getting on a part of my history that I know I never can forget. For though I have heard people talk about hard loving, yet I reckon no poor devil in this world was ever cursed with such hard love as mine has always been, when it came on me. I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl, whose name the public could make no use of; and I thought that if all the hills about there were pure chink, and all belonged to me, I would give them if I could just talk to her as I wanted to; but I was afraid to begin, for when I would think of saying any thing to her, my heart would begin to flutter like a duck in a puddle; and if I tried to outdo it and speak, it would get right smack up in my throat, and choak me like a cold potatoe.

But he certainly wasn’t the first to use the idiom. In fact, the idiom in years leading up to Davey Crockett’s autobiography was usually intended to mean that an individual had been hit with such force that it toppled him over as evidenced in Herbert Lawrence’s book, “The Contemplative Man, or The History of Christopher Crab, Esq., of North Wales” published by J. Whiston in 1771. Rather than describe a romantic encounter, Herbert Lawrence wrote this:

He gave such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels.

Oddly enough, an earlier variant of the idiom head over heels appears to be heels over head as seen in the Medieval poem, “Patience” from the 14th century:

ORIGINAL TEXT
He [Jonah] glydez in by þe giles, þur glaymande glette … Ay hele ouer hed hourlande aboute.

TRANSLATION
He [Jonah] passed in by the gills, through sticky slime … All heels over head tumbling about.

In the end, however, the idiom seems to originate in Ancient Rome when Roman poet, Gaius Valerius Catallus (84 – 54 BC) wrote his seventeenth poem in “Catulli carmina.” It reads in part:

quendam municipem meum de tuo volo ponte
ire praecipitem in lutum per caputque pedesque,
verum totius ut lacus putidaeque paludis
lividissima maximeque est profunda vorago.

The passage per caputque pedesque translates to over head and heels. So while the more modern romantic version goes to Davey Crocket in 1834, while the original idiom goes to Catallus

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Heeled

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 16, 2013

While the expression “to be heeled” has fallen out of favor with gun lovers these past few decades, it lives on in newspaper articles and books. What it means to be heeled, is to be packing a pistol or two. Yes, if you’re heeled, you’re armed.

The expression was well-enough known during the 20s that it was included in a headline in the Spokesman Review of Spokane, WA of July 2, 1929 where readers read the story of a gentleman from Illinois who was riding on a bus with a number of ladies. He drew his pistol and said he intended to shoot the high heels off the ladies’ shoes on the basis that he did not approve of high heels. While he didn’t shoot any innocent high heels, that fact that he was heeled brought the Evanston, WY civil authorities to the bus to make a determination about the situation.

The reporter obviously had a sense of humor as he wrote: “The gentleman will be examined to see if he is sane, not that it makes much difference. Probably he is as sane, in his way, as the ladies who wort the high heels. Maybe saner.

The article was titled, “Heeled and Well Heeled.

The Independent newspaper in Miles City, MT published an article on April 3, 1907 that originally hailed out of San Francisco just a few days earlier. This was the story of Abraham Ruef who had been arrested at the Trocadero with regards to an ongoing bribery and graft investigation, and rumor had it that plans had been made by Mr. Ruel’s business associates to rescue him from the Elisor Biggy and his guards. When reporters asked Elisor Biggy if this was indeed true, he was quoted as saying:

Though I think the matter should not be exploited, it is a fact that every man openly identified with the prosecution of the bribers and grafters is ‘going heeled,’ and that some of the more prominent of them are employing bodyguards. Though it may sound sensational to those not familiar with the local situation, it is a fact that for a month we have been keeping a special lookout for an attempted rescue of Ruef, and we shall be happily surprised if these investigations and impending prosecutions end without a ‘gun play.’

Strangely enough, Mark Twain used the expression in his book, “Letters From Hawaii” dated April 1866 and written while he was in Honolulu.

And in Honolulu, when your friend the whaler asks you to take a “fid” with him, it is simple etiquette to say, “Here’s eighteen hundred barrels, of salt!” But, “Drink hearty!” is universal. That is the orthodox reply, the world over.

In San Francisco, sometimes, if you offend a man, he proposes to take his coat off, and inquires, “Are you on it?” If you are, you can take your coat off, too. In Virginia City, in former times, the insulted party, if he were a true man, would lay his hand gently on his six-shooter and say, ‘Are you heeled?’ But in Honolulu, if Smith offenders Jones, Jones asks (with a rising inflection on the last word, which is excessively aggravating), “How much do you ?” Smith replies, “Sixteen hundred and forty pound — and you?” “Two ton to a dot, at a quarter past eleven this forenoon — peel yourself; you’re my blubber!”

A number of excellent dictionaries have pegged this expression to the early 1800s and as coming from the Wild West. Even Peter Watt’s “Dictionary of the Old West,:1850-1900” has the expression pegged to the Wild West of the 1800s.  Unless one of Idiomation’s readers can offer a link to an earlier published version that the Mark Twain version, it would be greatly appreciated.

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Down At Heel

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 14, 2013

He’s down at heel. She’s down at heel. They’re down at heel. So what’s going on with those who are down at heel,or down at the heel? It means the opposite of well-heeled. In other words, those people are impoverished. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, those who are down at the heel are shabbily dressed because of poverty … shabby to the point of seedy.

The Glasgow Herald ran a story on February 25, 1960 about the salary increases for teachers in primary schools. It was suggested by some politicians that a marriage allowance such as the one provided to those in the Army should be considered. In fact, one politician was so distraught about the situation that the newspaper reported this:

Lieutenant-Colonel A. Forbes Hendry (West Aberdeen – Con.) said they should pay particular attention to the married teachers. It was not unusual to see young women teachers riding about in motor cars while the older, married teachers walked about looking very much down at heel — almost as down at heel as parish ministers.

The Deseret News edition of July 18, 1908 had an interesting tidbit on the American embassy in London as described by a businessman who had traveled extensively and visited various other American embassies in different parts of the world. He was quoted as saying:

Our embassy in London is one of the poorest business propositions I have ever come across. Besides the whole down-at-heel appearance of the place, it lacks certain necessities which even a second-rate business concern in a backwoods town would possess. There is not even a vault at the embassy to keeps state papers in; and the most valuable books and documents are placed promiscuously about the office where any one with a little ingenuity could abstract them if he wished. If there was a fire at the embassy, papers of the utmost importance would be lost simply for the want of the most ordinary business foresight.

In the novel “Little Dorrit” written by Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870),the idiom appears in Chapter 7.  The novel was originally published in monthly parts from December 1855 through to June 1857, and later as a complete novel. The story is a satirical look at government and society, and their respective shortcomings therein. The idiom appears in this passage in the book:

Tip tired of everything. With intervals of Marshalsea lounging, and Mrs Bangham succession, his small second mother, aided by her trusty friend, got him into a warehouse, into a market garden, into the hop trade, into the law again, into an auctioneers, into a brewery, into a stockbroker’s, into the law again, into a coach office, into a waggon office, into the law again, into a general dealer’s, into a distillery, into the law again, into a wool house, into a dry goods house, into the Billingsgate trade, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks. But whatever Tip went into, he came out of tired, announcing that he had cut it. Wherever he went, this foredoomed Tip appeared to take the prison walls with him, and to set them up in such trade or calling; and to prowl about within their narrow limits in the old slip-shod, purposeless, down-at-heel way; until the real immovable Marshalsea walls asserted their fascination over him, and brought him back.

Jumping back to 1732, the 10th edition of “A Gentleman Instructed In The Conduct Of A Virtuous And Happy Life” by English Jesuit theologian and writer, William Darrell (1651 – 28 February 1721) was published. Originally printed by E. Evets at the Green Dragon in St. Paul’s church-yard in 1704, the later edition includes this:

Sneak into a corner … down at heels and out at elbows.

Somewhere between William Shakespeare’s time and William Darrell’s time, however, the idiom changed slightly to become down at heels. Before that, it was said that those living in impoverished conditions were out at heels. The idiom is found in Shakespeare’s tragedy, “King Lear” published in 1608. Those of you studied this play in school remember that the title character goes mad after he is betrayed by two of his three daughters and his ill-conceived decision to disown his third daughter. Kent, is a nobleman who disguises himself as a peasant, and gets himself into a fair bit of trouble thanks to his outspoken ways. In Act II Scene ii, Shakespeare wrote this exchange between Kent and Gloucester:

KENT
Pray, do not, sir: I have watched and travell’d hard;
Some time I shall sleep out, the rest I’ll whistle.
A good man’s fortune may grow out at heels:
Give you good morrow!

GLOUCESTER
The duke’s to blame in this; ’twill be ill taken.

Just a few years before that play, Shakespeare’s 1602 comedy “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” hit the stage (although it’s believed it was written in 1597). The play was a snapshot of English life in a provincial town and seems to be based on the 1558 Italian play Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino.  In Act I, Scene iii, the following dialogue takes place:

NYM
The good humour is to steal at a minute’s rest.

PISTOL
‘Convey,’ the wise it call. ‘Steal!’ foh! a fico
for the phrase!

FALSTAFF
Well, sirs, I am almost out at heels.

PISTOL
Why, then, let kibes ensue.

FALSTAFF
There is no remedy; I must cony-catch; I must shift.

PISTOL
Young ravens must have food.

The expression goes back further than that even. When Elizabethan poet and dramatist, Thomas Dekker (1572 – 1632) wrote a play entitled, “North-Ward Hoe” in 1607.

DOLL: They fay Whores and bawdes go by clocks, but what Manafles is this to buy twelue houres fo deerely, and then bee begd out of ’em fo easily I heele be out at heeles shortly sure for he’s out about the clockes already : O foolifh young man how doest though fpend thy time?

But even in 1553, the expression was used in the book “The Art Of Rhetorique” authored by Sir Thomas Wilson (1520 – 1581). While Thomas Wilson was no stranger to the privilege of class, he had an interesting position from which to view the politics of class. At the time of the book’s publication, he was in the employ of Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk (widow of Charles Brandon who had been a close friend of Henry VII) as a tutor to her sons. It’s in this book that the idiom appears as out at heeles as shown in this passage:

Wherein me thinkes thei do like some rich snuges [misers] that havyng greate wealth, go with their hose [stockings] out at heeles, their showes [shoes] out at toes, and their coates out at both elbowes. For who can tell, if soche men are worth a grote [groat] when their apparell is so homelie, and al their behaviour so base? I can call them by non other name but slovens, that maie have good geare [clothes], and neither can nor yet will, ones [ever] weare it clenly. What is a good thing to a man, if he neither knowe the use of it, nor yet, though he knowe it, is hable [able] to use it?

For it to be used in this context in 1553, it is reasonable to believe that the term was an accepted figure of speech as early as 1500. Additionally, the word heel meaning the back of the foot became part of the English language some time during the 1400s and as such, once can assume that some time between 1400 and 1500, the idiom began to form.

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Well-Heeled

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 12, 2013

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know if you were well-heeled? Being well-heeled means you live in fortunate circumstances and are prosperous. The opposite of being well-heeled then would be to live in abject poverty, also known as being down at the heels.

Vrinda Gopnath wrote an article entitled, “Well-heeled American Travelers Discover India” for the Indian Express newspaper on September 10, 2005 that discussed the life experience stylists from a number of tour houses that comprised the Travel-Leisure Travel Agent Advisory Board.  With the exchange rate being favorable for American tourists to visit India coupled with the fact it was a politically safe destination, India became a hot spot for Americans looking for to escape to somewhere exotic. The article began by saying:

India has finally caught the attention of the well-heeled American tourist. A multi-million dollar industry in the US, high-end tourism is looking beyond Europe at Indian shores. An eight-member delegation of the Travel+Leisure Travel Agent Advisory Board, the ritziest travel magazine in the US, are in the capital to promote India as a high-end destination to American deep pockets.

In the Column In Brief published in the St. Petersburg Times of July 19, 1974, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak announced that well-heeled suburbanites were terrified of blue-collar workers during the inflationary times in which they lived. Upper middle class voters were said to have a mood of panic about the economy that was usually reserved for working class voters. What’s more, the residents polled in Westchester County were in favor of impeaching their President and wondered why Congress hadn’t done so yet. The article, of course, was entitled, “Well-heeled Suburbanites Turn Against Nixon.”

Back in 1956, readers of the Miami News wondered where Russians went on vacation and the July 18 edition of the newspaper provided answers to that question in an article entitled, “Well-Heeled Commies At Resorts.” Russians, it was reported, traveled south to the Caucasus Mountains, and settle in down in Yalta and Sochi on the Black Sea. What was interesting was the exchange that reporter Earl Wilson had with one Russian woman.

This is indeed a high-rent district they come to and there are many well-heeled Commies hereabouts. A woman bank manager about to retire on half pay told me she has a car, private home, and money in the bank.

“Why, you’re a capitalist,” I said.

“Yes, I suppose I am,” she laughed.

On November 27, 1922 the Rochester Evening Journal journalist Fay King had a go at financially secure widows whose behavior seemed to give Europeans the wrong idea of Americans. The article was entitled, “Fay King Lays Dollar Dumbells Who Disgrace U.S. Abroad” and the journalist spared no OpEd expense expressing an opinion on the subject of those who “packed themselves off bag and baggage to spend war profiteerings and bootlegacies in poor war-ripped France.” The article included this paragraph:

I cringe in my chair with humiliation every time I lamp a photograph showing some silly old dame dolled up in a comic valentine creation parading the bullebards of Paris and labelled “an American.” Or some other well heeled half-wit who lugs her deceased American husband’s fortune over and lays it at the shrine of some decayed family crest!

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary claims that the first known use of the word well-heeled is from 1897 but Idiomation begs to differ on that point.

Back on May 17, 1892 the Warsaw Daily Times reported on labor troubles at stone quarries in New England as 20,000 men were locked out by quarry owners with another 50,000 ordered by the labor leaders of New York to quit, and the prospect of another 30,000 sitting idle a real possibility before the strike was settled. The owners felt certain they could out wait the workers, but the workers felt differently about it.

At the Bay View works yesterday morning little knots of strikers were gathered near the polishing mill and the company’s office. They claimed that they were given a fifteen-minute notice of lockout, instead of three months, as agreed upon. “We are well heeled,” said one, “and will hang out as long as we can.”

One of the best examples of the use of the expression well-heeled was found in The Weekly Press of September 15, 1876 that went to great lengths to describe the assets of Saris Birchard of Fremont, Ohio. Poor Sardis had passed on and the newspaper printed his will dated January 29, 1874 in its entirety. But the crux of the story was that the will was the cause of considerable discord, with Governor Hayes, acting as executor of the will, weighing in on the matter by saying clearly the intent of the deceased was for money to exchange hands, not property. The judge, however, was concerned about the governor’s handling of the estate, citing that, contrary to the law, an account of the Governor Hayes’ stewardship as it pertained to the estate had never been filed as required by law. It was a difficult situation rendered all the more difficult by the vastness of the deceased man’s assets which were described in part at the onset of the article.

The fortune of Sardis Birchard was never definitely known by the people among whom he lived. There was a tradition that it crowded hard upon the heels of half a million  and there was never any disclaimer put out against such reports. It was known that he owned the controlling share of the First National Bank of this city, something like $30,000 or $40,000; that he held a cartload or less of mortgages, from which he derived a good income; that he had broad acres and limitless lots elsewhere beyond the borders of this county; that he made a pretty good thing on his third of the profits of the board of which he was president, and that, in short, Sardis Birchard was what would be generally designated as a man mighty well heeled.

At this point, Idiomation was unable to find further published examples of newspaper accounts or books using the expression. However, that it should be used within the context of the article published in 1876 indicates that he newspaper’s readers certainly understood its meaning. For this reason, Idiomation dates the expression to sometime in the 1850s.

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Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 9, 2013

If someone says you’re like a cat on a hot tin roof, it would seem that you can’t keep still. You’re restless. Imagine for a moment, if you will, what it might be like if you were actually a cat who was literally trying to walk about on a hot tin roof. You wouldn’t be still for very long and you’d probably be pretty jumpy about being up there in the first place.

Back in 1955, Tennessee Williams wrote a play by that name that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year. Its success was in part due to the play’s theme which dealt with how complicated the rules of social conduct were in the Southern U.S. at the time. But was the expression something Tennessee Williams came up with for the play or did it exist long before Tennessee Williams put pen to paper?

The idiom cat on a hot tin roof is actually based on the earlier version cat on hot bricks which means exactly the same thing.

NOTE:  Before continuing, note that the version using hot bricks is still in use today as evidenced by the news story by 3News out of New Zealand published on November 27, 2011 and entitled, “Joyce A Cat On Hot Bricks Before Election.”

On December 1, 1933 the New York Times published an article entitled,”Britain Is Assured On Our Money Plan: We Are As Safe From Unbridled Inflation As Are The British” The story was about Ambassador Robert W. Bingham who gave a speech (at the American Society in London) defending President Roosevelt’s monetary policies. Keep in mind that 1933 was right in the middle of the Great Depression that continue up until the outbreak of World War II, and so money matters — for individuals, for companies, and for governments — were a reason for being restless. The news story made use of the idiom in this way:

… exchange fluctuations to the benefit of everybody concerned and contrasts this with the dollar, “which jumped about like a cat on hot bricks. …

The Philadelphia Record edition of June 10, 1894 provided a description of British Prime Minister (5 March 1894 to 22 June 1895), Archibald Philip Primrose — the 5th Earl of Rosebery and 1st Earl of Midlothiany –that was in drastic contrast to the calm and collected demeanor that was expected of Lords. In fact, the description was one that the reporter described as “intensely agitated.” The article was entitled, “Hounding A Premier: He Went Wild Over The Derby.” Of course, that Lord Rosebery was the owner of the Derby winner that year certainly explains the behavior which doesn’t seem so outrageous in today’s terms.

“His Lordship could not keep still in his box, and hopped about from paddock to ring like a cat on hot bricks; Prime Ministerial dignity was not his forte just then. At that part of the race when Matchbox appeared to have the measure, his face moved convulsively. When his horse had passed the winning post, the Premier took off his hat, waved it wildly three times around his head in a dazed kind of manner, and then dashed onto the course to lead the favorite in.”

That being said, however, tin roofs were used in America at the turn of the 1800s when the Pennsylvania Statehouse — better known as Independence Hall — in Philadelphia was finished with tin shingles. Even Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned a study on tin shingle roofs, felt compelled to have tin shingles used when roofing Monticello. But the tin roof was most popular in America between 1860 and 1920.   It’s safe to say that Tennessee Williams didn’t coin the phrase, and picked it up in conversation.

Of course, before either cat on a hot tin roof or cat on hot bricks was in vogue, the idiom was to be a cat on a hot bakestone, which was found in Rev. E. Cobham Brewer’s “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” published in 1894, where idiom was explained as meaning a person was “in a great hurry to get away.” It further explained that the bake-stone in the north (of a house) was a large stone on which bread and oat-cakes were baked.

When English naturalist, John Ray also known as John Wray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) wrote his “Collection of English Proverbs” in 1670 which included the expression using the hot bake-stone reference. In fact, he recorded it as “to go like a cat upon a hot bake-stone.” And so, we know from this that the idiom dates back to before the publication of John Ray’s book since it’s included as a proverb.

It’s also cited as a Yorkshire proverb in literature of the day, along with the idiom, “as nimble as a cat on a haite backstane” which dates back to the 14th century.  At that point, the trail went cold. Idiomation feels that since it was a proverb in the 14th century that it most likely dates back to at least the beginning of the 14th century, and if it’s possible to trace it back to an earlier date, please feel free to add your comments and where you gathered the information.

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