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Archive for January, 2014

Back Forty

Posted by Admin on January 31, 2014

Every once in a while you’ll hear someone talk about the back forty. When you do, what they’re talking about is a remote and uncultivated or undeveloped piece of land of indefinite size, and not necessarily forty acres in size.

Malaysian born and University of Wisconsin educated Ken Chew is the mayor of Moraga in California, with this term being his second go at being Moraga’s mayor. He has a reputation for saying what he thinks and not mincing his words according to an article published in the January 1, 2014 edition of the Lamorinda Weekly newspaper. Among many subjects discussed in the article by journalist, Sophie Braccini, was a certain section of land leased to a local country club.

The preliminary list includes what is always the first goal in Moraga: fiscal sustainability and a balanced budget. Chew would like to see refinement of the capital improvement plan for all of the town’s assets. “We are doing very well with our roads, but the town owns other properties and we need to be very clear on the maintenance and/or future of these assets,” he said, including the land known as the “Back 40” that the town leases to the Moraga Country Club.

The book “A History Of Appalachia” by Richard Drake, professor emeritus of history at Berea College, published in 2001, discusses Appalachia, from the 1800s onwards, and in great detail, with numerous sources. In this book, the author included this passage:

Most sociologists and anthropologists who have looked into small Appalachian rural communities have found that the local community, apparently fairly democratic, is actually divided by family reputation, income differentials, and the degree of uban sophistication. Other useful analyses trace the distance from urban ways, placing the person closest to the city as “superior” with the rural “back forty” places next, and the remote “holler” as the poorest and least powerful.

In the book “A Stretch On The River: A Novel of Adventures on a Mississippi River Towboat” written by Richard Pike Bissell (1913 – 1977) and published in 1950, the idiom back forty was also used. The story is about the son of a wealthy family who, rather than being drafted to fight in the war, chose to work on a Mississippi River towboat.  The author weaves his tale of a typical trip up the river in such a way that reader is left with an accurate picture of the era when towboating on the Mississippi was an exciting and viable employment for eager, young men. On page 56 of the book, the following is found:

“I seen him. A forty-miler if I ever seen one. By the time we get to Rock Island lock he’ll decide he’s got to go home to help get the hay in or breed the bull or plow the back forty. I seen his brand a many times before.”

A newsletter out of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin known as “Our Boys” was published quarterly by the Wisconsin Home and Farm School Association. In Volume 10 published in January of 1916, under the keen eye of Editor and Business Manager, W.J.C. Ralph, and Associate Editor, R.M. Bradford, the following was announced:

Early in the winter a couple of acres of land was cleared up on the backforty.” The trees were cut into logs, posts and firewood.

Back in 1832, it was determined that 40 acres was the right amount of land that should be made available to settlers in the US Midwest as the population expanded westward. Forty acres was agreed by the government to be small enough and at a low threshold price to advance the frontier. This was in place until 1862 when the Homestead Act of 1862 (which was officially repealed in 1976) determined that 160 acres should be made available at no charge to anyone who would was willing to live on the land and cultivate it for at least five years. In other words, settlers were provided sweat equity in exchange for their land.

Shortly after the Homestead Act of 1862, during the spring and summer of 1865, in South Carolina, there was also a push to provide freed slaves with forty acres and a mule under Sherman’s Special Field Order, No. 15. As can be imagined, it was a highly successful program that provided freed slaves with the opportunity to own property. The concept began to take shape in 1816 when the American Colonization Society was formed and the issue of resettlement for freed African Americans was discussed.

A quarter section was half a mile by half a mile — 160 acres — and was made up of four quarters, each being 40 acres in size. The back forty was usually the forty acres furthest away from the homestead, and was definitely the last to be cultivated since it was the least likely to provide a bountiful crop if cultivated.

Forty acres was accepted by the mid-1750s as a sufficient amount of land with which a farmer’s needs could be reasonably supported. It was determined that forty acres of good land was all a farmer needed for a herd of two hundred sheep, or one of twenty cows, and that forty acres would result in a sufficient number of lambs and calves, wool, butter, cheese and other commodities, to make the land profitable for a farmer.

That being said, the back forty meaning an uncultivated or undeveloped piece of land is pegged to 1862 at the time of the Homestead Act.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Crazy As A Loon

Posted by Admin on January 27, 2014

For those of you who don’t know, a loon is a bird found in the northern regions with a short tail, webbed feet, and a cry that sometimes sounds like a madman’s howling. Likewise, a loon is usually associated with a crazy or deranged person. So when someone is crazy as a loon, are they making sounds like the bird or are they acting like a madman?

When someone is said to be crazy as a loon, you can rest assured that the person speaking means the other person is mad as a March hare or crazy as a Mad Hatter or as crazy as a coot (another bird with a strange cry).

The idiom appeared twice in the book, “Peyton Place” by American author Grace Metalious (8 September 1924 – 25 February 1964) and published in 1956 by the Julian Messner & Company publishing house after being turned down by every other major fiction publisher in New York. The book became one of the most notorious (and best-selling) novels of the 1950s.

Critics panned the book but it stayed on the New York Best Sellers list for 59 weeks and sales of 8 million copies in hardcover and 12 million in paperbacks were only surpassed by sales of The Bible. The year after the book was published, Hollywood came knocking and in 1957 it was made into a movie starring Lana Turner as Alison MacKenzie. In 1961, a sequel was filmed as “Return toTo Peyton Place” which led to the prime time television soap opera, “Peyton Place” starring Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. This is one of the two passages where the idiom is found:

“I hate, loathe and despise you, Nellie Cross,” cried Allison hysterically. “You’re crazy as a loon. Crazier than Miss Hester Goodale, and I”m going to tell my mother not to let you come here to work any more.”

The Nellie remembered the second reason that she was unable to forgive Allison. Allison had said she was crazy. That was it, thought Nellie. She had known it was something wicked like that.

“You’re so crazy that you should be locked up in the asylum down at Concord,” Allison shouted, her voice high and rough with anger, and hurt, and tears. “I don’t blame Lucas for running off and leaving you. He knew that you’d end up in a padded cell down at Concord. And I hope you do. It would serve you just exactly right!”

In the play “The Fan” by Carlo Goldoni, produced at Venice in 1764 and translated into English by Henry B. Fuller, the idiom appears in Scene XIII between Crespino, the shoemaker, and Giannina, a lowly peasant girl. The translated version was copyrighted in 1925, and was in the Samuel French catalogue of plays.

GIANNINA [as above]
You’re crazy.

[imitating EVARISTO]
Do not let your love for me fail, nor your kindness.

GIANNINA [as above]
You’re crazy, crazy, crazy!

I crazy?

Yes, you, you. You’re crazy, you’re crazy as a loon; and, on top of that, you’re — crazy!

In the “Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: A Work Of Universal Reference In All Departments Of Knowledge With A New Atlas Of The World in Ten Volumes” edited by William Dwight Whitney and Benjamin Eli Smith, and published in 1889, the idiom is included. Looning, as mentioned in the definition, is taken from a book by Walden Thoreau where he describes the sound a loon makes, and referring to it as “perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here.” The definition is found in Volume IV of the series as follows:

The wild actions of the loon in escaping danger and its dismal cry (see looning) suggest the idea of insanity; whence the common American similar “as crazy as a loon.”

When Volume II of “The Legendary, Consisting of Original Pieces, Principally Illustrative of American History, Scenery, and Manners” edited by Nathaniel Parker Willis, and published in Boston by Samuel G. Goodrich in 1828. In the story, “Leaves From A Colleger’s Album” written by the editor, Nathaniel Parker Willis, the following is found in the final paragraphs of the story.

Job turned to the titlepage. He had not understood a word of what he had read. Sure enough, it was a Universalist sermon. He gave Fritz a look of indescribable distress, hurled the sermon indignantly out of the cabin window, and rushed upon deck.

“Crazy! — crazy as a loon!” exclaimed the captain, as he stepped into the middle of the cabin to apologize. But we are Rochester, so,

Yours, my dear Tom,


It should be noted that the word loon was used to describe people who acted in a way that implied poor thinking. In the “Complete Works of Water Scott With A Biography and His Last Additions And Illustrations In Seven Volumes.” In Volume 4 by Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) a number of loon references are made including this one in “The Fortunes Of Nigel” published in 29 May 1822.

“Haud up your head — haud up your head, and listen to your ain kind native Prince. If there is shame, man, it comes na empty-handed — there is siller to gild it — a gude tocher, and no that bad a pedigree; — if she has been a loon, it was your son made her sae, and he can make her an honest woman again.” 

Also in “The Fortunes In Nigel” this is found:

“Ay, ay — vera true,” exlaimed the caustic old courtier — “Impertinent coxcombs they are, that thus intrude themselves on the society of their betters; but your lordship kens how to gar them as gude — ye have the trick on’t. — They had a braw sport in the presence last Friday, how ye suld have routed a young shopkeeper, horse and foot, ta’en his spolia optima, and a’ the specie he had about him, down to the very silver buttons of his cloak, and sent him to graze with Nebuchadnezzer, Kind of Babylon. Muckle honour redounded to your lordship thereby. — We were tault the loon threw himself into the Thames in a fit of desperation. There’s enow of them behind — there was mair tint on Flodden-edge.”

What this proves is that the idiom crazy as a loon was understood in writings published in 1828 and that the word loon — as associated with crazy behavior — was found in writings published in 1822. Further research indicates that in Shakespearian times, the term loon was an abusive term that implied the person was a lunatic, rendered mad by the power of the moon.

That being said, the earliest published version of the idiom crazy as a loon that Idiomation was able to find dates back to 1828. However, because the expression’s meaning was easily understood in 1828, Idiomation places the expression to at least the generation prior to the published date, pegging it at 1800.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Feet To The Fire

Posted by Admin on January 24, 2014

When you hold someone’s feet to the fire what you’re doing is causing someone to feel personal, social, political, or legal pressure on someone in order to induce him or her to comply with action that he or she previously would do. In other words, it is a forceful way of holding someone accountable for his or her actions, and hopefully to fulfill that commitment. It is not, however, akin to holding a gun to someone’s head.

In Kabul, Afghanistan the Pajhwok Afghan News published a story on April 8, 2011 that reported on the meeting between United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. Coupled with that story was information on U.S. Ambassador, Susan Rice, and her testimony before a Congressional committee on matters pertaining to the electoral processes in Afghanistan, and the death of UNAMA personnel in Mazar-e-Sharif. The newspaper reported the following:

“So this process is still dragging out in terms of efforts to review certain aspects of the 2010 polling, parliamentary electoral process, and I think the United Nations has been the sort of focal point of the international community’s efforts to hold feet to the fire and ensure that the processes are not manipulated for the political interests of any actor,” Rice told lawmakers.

On May 16, 2007 Senator Herb Kohl, Chairman of the US Senate Special Committee On Aging spoke to the matter of health care at a hearing before the Special Committee On Aging. What was said at the meeting was published by the US Government Printing Office in a document entitled, “Medicare Advantage Marketing And Sales: Who Has The Advantage?” and listed under S. Hrg. 110-207.  In his opening remarks as the chairman, he said:

As we know, the number of Medicare Advantage plans being offered to beneficiaries is growing rapidly. So we must remain vigilant in our oversight of these plans, and I intend to do so. If more hearings are necessary to hold feet to the fire, then we will do that. Cleaning up these marketing-and-sales practices is a high priority of mine. So let me be clear: This issue will not go away after this hearing; and, of course, neither will I.

In 1961, the National Council On The Aging published a report entitled, “Building For Older People: Financing, Construction, Administration” and was published by the University of Michigan. In this report, the following was stated:

A wise counselor will hold feet “to the fire” until housing cost considerations are realistically examined. It is surprising how few people actually have totalled up their present housing cost.

Of special note is the fact that in medieval Europe, trial by ordeal (also known as judicium Dei) was a trial based on the premise that God would help the innocent by performing a miracle and save the accused. One such trial was to hold the accused’s feet to the fire. If the feet were unburned, or if they healed within 3 days of being held to the fire, it was taken as a sign that God had intervened on behalf of the accused, thereby proving his or her innocence. Of course, most either confessed to the crimes to which they were accused or died as a result of the trial.  It was a favorite ordeal of the Spanish Inquisition (1478 – 1834) which replaced the Medieval Inquisition begun in 1184.

The fact that the idiom was used with quotation marks in the 1961 report indicates that it was an idiom that was not necessarily well-known although it was part of the language at the time.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that it came into vogue in the years leading up to 1961.  Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to some time after WWII, and most likely some time in the 1950s.

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

The Devil Is In The Details

Posted by Admin on January 22, 2014

The devil is in the details is one of those sayings that sound great but not too many people are able to figure out what it means. Its meaning is similar to the one implied when speaking about a ghost in the machine or deus ex machina. In other words, details are important and when details are overlooked, problems arise.

For example, if your grandmother is knitting you a sweater and she drops a stitch early on in the pattern, you can be guaranteed that when she’s finished knitting that sweater, it’s going to have a mistake in it and all because she overlooked that dropped stitch. If you or your grandmother claim that the sweater is perfect, that’s not quite true as will be borne out in the details (the dropped stitch).

Another example has to do with contracts and fine print. When handed a contract, a quick read through usually doesn’t send up any red flags. Later on, however, red flags might start going up when reading the fine print that’s an integral part of that contract. If you sign without paying attention to the fine print (the details), you could be in for a sorry surprise later on.  Why? Because the devil’s in the details.

Earlier today (22 January 2014), in screenwriter and columnist,Robert J. Elisberg’s article about Democratic Texas state senator, Wendy Davis and published on the Huffington Post website. There’s been considerable controversy of late with regards to her back story, and while the overall story is correct, there seem to be discrepancies in the details according to some. The article was aptly entitled, “The Devil Is in the Details.”

In 1996, Kenneth S. Brentner of the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virgina presented his paper at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference. His presentation was about the “accurate prediction of the aeroacoustic field generated by aerospace vehicles or nonaerospace machinery” that is necessary to control and reduce source noise. Idiomation doesn’t pretend to understand what was revealed in the presentation. The title of the paper, however, was “Numerical Algorithms for. Acoustic Integrals: The Devil Is In The Details.”

In 1978, journalist Robert Rowen reported on the meeting of European heads of state in Bremen, West Germany. His article was published in the Washington Post newspaper on July 8 and stated:

European heads of state yesterday announced agreement to study a new monetary stabilization system for Europe. . . The details will not be worked out at least until the December meeting of the council —and perhaps not by then. ‘There is an old German saying,’ an experienced hand here reminded, ‘that the devil is in the details.’

In the 520-page book entitled, “Weapon Systems Acquisition Process, Hearings Before The Committee of Armed Services: United States Senate” from December 1971. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the idiom was used in the publication.

They have no time for the details of their day to day operations. But, as you and I know, the devil is in the details. They do not appear to understand that no company has a license to stay in business forever.

And in 1937, German architect, poet, and writer, Erhard Horst Bellermann was quoted as saying the devil is in the details. But even he wasn’t the first to use this expression. Jumping back to two more generations, German philologist, philosopher, cultural critic, poet and composer, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900) is quoted as having said, “Der Teufel steckt im Detail” which translates directly to “the devil is in the details.”

This expression is found in a number of countries and is identified as a proverb. Italians know it as Il diavolo sta nei dettagli and the Spanish know it as El diablo está en los detalles. The Brasilians say O diabo está nos detalhes, while the Turks say Şeytan ayrıntıda gizlidir. However, at the same as this expression was being said in countries around the world, an opposite idiom was also being said.

Swiss architect, designer, painter, writer and urban planner, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret Gris (October 6, 1887 – August 27, 1965) aka Le Corbusier is quoted as having said often that God was in the details which is a direct translation of the French saying, le bon Dieu est dans le detail.  Le Corbusier’s colleague, German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (27 March 1886 – 19 August 1969) aka Mies was quoted in newspapers articles, saying that when it came to his buildings, God was in the details.

The saying was a favorite of French novelist, Gustave Flaubert (12 December 1821 – 08 May 1880) who is best known for his novel, “Madame de Bovary” which was published in 1857.

Despite in-depth research, Idiomation was unable to find the first published version of either the Devil is in the details or God is in the details, in any language. Idiomation is confident that some of our readers and visitors may hold clues to the history of this intriguing expression.

Posted in Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Fool’s Errand

Posted by Admin on January 15, 2014

The old Sherlock Holmes series starring Ronald Howard (7 April 1918 – 19 December 1996) as Sherlock Holmes and Howard Marion Crawford (17 January 1914 – 24 November 1969) as Dr. Watson, oftentimes saw Holmes sending Watson on a fool’s errand to keep him out of harm’s way. The idiom was very popular years ago, but has since fallen out of favor.

African-American writer, teacher, director, actress and playwright, Eulalie Spence (June 11, 1894 – March 7, 1981) wrote and published a one-act play in 1927 entitled, “Fool’s Errand.” The play was entered in the Fifth Annual International Little Theatre Tournament, and the esteemed Samuel French, became its publisher.

In an article published by the Overland Monthly in November 1891 and entitled, “A Fool’s Errand” the subject of the resolution passed at the Immigration Convention by a vote of 112 ayes to 21 noes was taken to task. The proposition was to ask Eastern railroad companies to extend their rail lines by a thousand miles, all the way out to California. It was thought by the author that there would be no help from said companies on the basis that a decade earlier “a wild delusion prevailed that this Coast was a cradle of traffic, and that all a new road needed to earn dividends was to secure a terminus on its golden shore.”

The gentlemen who are charged with the duty of inviting Eastern railroad companies to extend their lines into this State are not to be envied. They will depart on a Fool’s Errand.

American author, lawyer and judge, Albion Winegar Tourgée (2 May 1838 – 21 May 1905) wrote and published “A Fool’s Errand: By One Of The Fools” in 1879.  As a member of the 27th New York Infantry during the Civil War, his novel was based on his experiences in North Carolina after the war during the Reconstruction period, as well as his experiences as a carpetbagger.

When the book was republished in 1962, the North Carolina Historical Review wrote stated that it was a “significant and unusually original portrayal, criticism, and analysis of postwar southern society” and that the story offered “excitement, idealism, and romance.” Of note is the fact that this novel was originally published just two months after he had published another book entitled, “Figs and Thistles” and according to The Literary Digest of June 1905, publishing two novels in quick succession as he had done, made Albion Tourgée a “genuine sensation throughout the country.”

In John Jamieson’s four-volume tome, “Dr. Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary And Supplement In Four Volumes” published in 1841, the idiom was found under the entry Gowk’s Errand where the author wrote that Gowk’s errand was the same as to hunt the gowk, which meant to go on a fool’s errand. John Jamieson then added:

Both expressions signify, that one is intentionally sent from place to place on what is known to be a wild-goose chase. The first, although equivalent to a fool’s errand, does not seem immediately to originate from gowk, as denoting a foolish person, but from the bird which bears this name.

Finding it John Jamieson’s dictionary in 1841 indicates that people of the period had an understanding of the idiom, its meaning, and its usage. And indeed it was as it appeared in an earlier work by John Jamieson published in his two-volume tome published in 1808, entitled, “An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language: Illustrating The Words In Their Different Significations, By Examples From Ancient And Modern Writers.”

Jumping back to 1736, a fool’s errand appears in the “Dramatick Works of George Farquhar In Two Volumes” in Act III, Scene iv of the play, “The Constant Couple, or, A Trip To The Jubilee.” The idiom is used twice in this play, with this being the best example of how it’s used.

Speak, you Rogue. What are you?

A poor Porter, Sir, and going of an Errand.

What Errand? Speak you Rogue.

A Fool’s Errand, I’m afraid.

Who sent you?

A Beau, Sir.

And traveling back to 1616, the idiom is found in the book “The Fall Of Man, or the Corruption of Nature Proved By The Light Of Our Natural Reason” by the Anglican Bishop of Gloucester, Godfrey Goodman (28 February 1582 – 19 January 1656). At the time, naive simpletons were referred to as fools and as such, sending one on a fool’s errand was sure to yield no results at all … or none that would prove useful. Oftentimes, it was said that a fool had been sent on a sleeveless errand.

Indeed, in a book by John Heywood (1497 – 1580) published in 1563, entitled, “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood” the definition of a sleeveless errand is explained thusly:

… a sleeveless (= objectless, wanting cover or excuse, fruitless, fool’s) errand

The word fool in the 1500s was from the verb foolify which meant “to make a fool of” and based on the fact that the word foolify is from this era, it stands to reason that a fool’s errand would also be from that same time period, especially in light of the fact that it was used to define “sleeveless errand” in John Heywood’s dictionary published in 1563. Idiomation therefore feels it is reasonable to peg the first use of the expression fool’s errand to the turn of the century in 1500.

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

Don’t Spare The Horses

Posted by Admin on January 13, 2014

Whenever you hear someone add don’t spare the horses to a directive, what you’ve heard is someone being told to hurry up with what they’re doing.  It’s not a negative statement, but rather, one that expresses the importance of speeding things up rather than continuing at the current pace.

When Jane Simon, journalist for The Mirror in London, England wrote her April 26, 2010 article, “We Love Telly: Pick Of The Day” she included a bit about Iron Chef UK — a spin-off of the American show which was a spin-off of the original Japanese show. While the four chefs contestants take on are impressive, it’s Olly Smith that Jane Simon writes most enthusiastically about with this comment:

Hyperactive even when he’s presenting some quite sensible item on Saturday Kitchen, here he’s been told to go for broke and don’t spare the horses.

“I’m like a Spitfire coming through the clouds!” he booms as he dashes in to peer into a frying pan. Or, my personal favourite: “Join us after the break when we shall erupt in a frenzy of judgment!”

In the crime thriller novel by Catherine Aird aka novelist Kinn Hamilton McIntosh (June 20, 1930 – ) entitled, “The Complete Steel” and published in 1969, the adventures of Detective Chief Inspector C. D. Sloan and his sidekick, Detective Constable Crosby continue. The story was published in the US under the title, “The Stately Home Murder” and was the third book in the series.

Detective Constable Crosby turned the police car …

“Home James and don’t spare the horses,” commanded Sloan, climbing in.

“Beg pardon, sir?”

Sloan sighed. “Headquarters. Crosby, please.”

Don’t Spare The Horses” was also a popular song by American actor, composer and songwriter, Fred Hillebrand (1893 – 1963) in 1934. The main focus of the song is about a date night gone terribly awry. It was recorded by “radio sweetheart number oneElsie Carlisle (28 January 1896 – November 1977) with Ambrose and the Mayfair Hotel Orchestra the year it was written. The recording was re-issued in 1966 on the Pearl Flapper label in an Ambrose compilation. These lyrics were transcribed from the 1938 edition of Song Fest.


It was in the gay nineties
One night at a swell affair
She was dressed in her best Sunday bustle
And wore a rat in her hair.

Her hero was both young and handsome,
But he was a terrible flirt.
He spent the entire evening
Making up to every skirt.

And when she gently reproached him,
He heeded her not at all,
And she, in her best Sunday bustle,
Went flouncing out on the hall,

She swept down the stairs most majestic
To her footman waiting below.
She spoke in accents loud and clear,
And told him where to go.

Home James, and don’t spare the horses,
This night has been ruined for me.
Home, James, and don’t spare the horses,
As ruined as ruined can be.

It’s still in the gay nineties,
In fact the very next day.
Our hero is somewhat remorseful,
And don’t know just what to say.

He thinks he’d better do something
To win her again for his own,
For she was his very best sweetheart
She was always good for a loan.

He went right straight to her mansion
And said “Forgive me dear.”
But, when he tried to embrace her,
She gave him a boot in the rear.

He swept down the stairs most majestic
And the doorman, he booted him too,
And as he threw him in the street,
She said “Humph to you.”

Home, James, and don’t spare the horses,
My suitor is just a bit tight,
Home, James and don’t spare the horses,
He’ll sleep in the stable tonight.

The song puts the expression to the 1890s, and magazines such as “McBride’s Magazine” and “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine” corroborate this date with the publication of the story “Unc’ Ananias: A Virginia Story” written by American historian and author, Molly Elliot Seawell (October 23, 1860 – November 15, 1916) in July 1982.

“Certainly, certainly, my dear boy,” cried the Squire, taking Mrs. Cary’s arm. “I don’t wish to be informed of your and Patty’s private affairs, — not for the world; but — er — remember, you needn’t spare the horses. Of course I don’t know where you are going, as you haven’t seen proper to mention it, but — the sorrels are good for twenty miles before dark.” And in half a minute the Squire had whisked Mrs. Cary out of sight, although a crack in the door showed they were not out of hearing.

Not much further in this story, the following is written:

At this, Patty advanced and put her hand shyly in Jack’s. He led her out the door, calling out, —

“Good-by, Squire. I am to drive Miss Patty home, and afterwards — but never mind: I know you’d rather not hear.”

Don’t spare the horses, — don’t spare the horses, my boy,” shouted the Squire.

As Jack drove off in the trap with Patty, the gentlemen cheered, the ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and Squire Cary came out beaming, and asking right and left, “What’s all this? What’s all this?” Nobody volunteered to tell him.

And in “Erlesmere: or, Contrasts of Character” by L.S. Lavenu and published in 1862, this passage kicks off the first paragraph of the story:

“Drive hard, Nat, don’t spare the horses. My master gave particular orders that we should do the ten miles home in fifty minutes.” So speaking, Mr. Erle’s headgroom spring up behind Sir Fitzroy Herrode’s light barouche. The postilion touched the off horse, and the equipage plunged into the steam of a sunny December morning.

And “Ballou’s Monthly Magazine: Volume 2” published in 1855, there was a story entitled, “Courtship In The Dark” by Frederick Ward Saunders that included this passage:

“I suppose you want me to drive fast, don’t you, sir?” asked the coachman, in a significant tones, as he closed the door.

“Yes, drive like blazes, don’t spare the horses,” replied Cap. though for the life of him he couldn’t have told him where to drive.

The coachman mounted the box, cracked his whip, and off they went at a deuce of a pace, Mary crying like a watering-pot, and Cap. trying to comfort her, in which he succeeded admirably, for he had a peculiar knack of comforting good-looking young women in distress; and by the time they had gone a couple of miles, she became quite lively and chatty.

While the urban myth of Queen Victoria being responsible for the expression “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses” is widely recounted as the source for the idiom, it is nothing more than a fanciful tale … an urban myth. The habit of referring to coachmen as James dates back to the 1600s, with the name James being used as a name of convenience by those from wealthy or noble families when addressing the coachman.

With this information, the idiom can be pegged to the beginning of the 17th century. With that being said, “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.”

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Black Maria

Posted by Admin on January 8, 2014

In some circles, Black Maria is a form of whist in which players avoid winning tricks containing hearts or the queen of spades, but in other circles, Black Maria is a police van used for transporting prisoners. Black Maria is also referred to as Mother’s Heart because no matter how many are already in the van, there’s always room for one more.

On July 10, 1931, the Canberra Times carried a brief description of how the Black Maria came to be. The paragraph at the bottom of page 3 read:

The expression “Black Maria” with application to a prison van originated in America over 60 years ago. A big negro woman called Maria Lee kept a seaman’s “lodging-house” in Boston. the men were usually unruly and Maria was often called upon to help to get them under lock.

Travelling back twenty years, the Lodi Sentinel edition of October 22, 1912 attributed Black Maria to an African-American woman living in Boston, MA during Colonial times. Allegedly, it all began when Maria brought three drunken sailors to the lockup all at the same time because they were too much trouble to keep in her boarding-house. And the story goes that she became of greater and greater help to the police, especially when sailors in the area got so out of hand that even the police couldn’t subdue them. The article states this:

Few people know of Black Maria Lee as the boarding-house keeper of Colonial days, but she handed her name down as a menace to the vicious of future generations, in the modern jail wagon. To “send for the black maria” is as much of a threat now as it was in Maria Lee’s times.

A decade before that on January 31, 1902 the Amador Ledger carried the story about Black Maria. Also a brief story, it read thusly:

The following is given as the origin of the term “Black Maria.” When New England was filled with emigrants from the mother country, a negress named Maria Lee kept a sailors’ boarding house in Boston. She was a woman of great strength and helped the authorities to keep the peace. Frequently the police invoked her aid, and the saying, “Send for Black Maria,” came to mean, “Take him to jail.” British seamen were often taken to the lockup by this amazon, and the stories they spread of her achievements led to the name of Black Maria being given to the English prison van.

But that explanation disappears completely and is actually dispelled in the monthly magazine, The Guardian” in the February 1859 edition. The magazine was devoted to “the social, literary, and religious interests of young men and ladies.” when the editor, Reverend H. Harbaugh, wrote:

What do we mean by Black Maria? That is a proper question, and it shall be answered. It is not a colored woman, as the reader perhaps hastily supposed, that is to form the subject of our present article.

Not to prolong suspense we will at once proceed to define. Black Maria is the name given to a certain strangely constructed vehicle, used in some of our larger town and cities to convey prisoners from the prison to the court house and back again.

The editor’s research indicated that Mary (or Maria) in Hebrew meant bitterness, and then offered his opinion that “he who rides in [the police wagon] was made in the image of God, and designed for a better end.” By choosing the ways of crime, the accused, riding in disgrace through the streets courtesy of the Black Maria, was surely bitter about his disgrace of riding in the Black Maria.  The wagon, of course, was painted black hence the color reference.

According to the St. Louis Police Veteran’s Association website run by the City of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in Missouri, the City of Saint Louis Police Department purchased its first Black Maria in 1850 because it was too difficult for patrolmen to walk their suspects back and forth to jail.  It was a horse-drawn carriage, also painted black, with the carriage acting as a secure prison cell complete with iron bars on the windows and doors. Years later, on April 9, 1866, another Black Maria was purchased, and the idiom is used in the minutes of the board meeting of the St. Louis Board Of Police Commissioners.

In “The Knickerbocker” also known as the “New-York Monthly Magazine” in Volume 17 which was published in June of 1841, the magazine included a story entitled, “The American At Home: A Ride In An Omnibus.”  The story included this passage:

One of them I knew; and a better patriot, when he is not drunk, is not to be found in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. At the east wing was standing, pensive and melancholy, the Automedon of ‘Black Maria,’ the equipage used in carrying criminals to court and thence to their prisons, melancholy, no doubt, in apprehension of being turned out of office. These are fearful times! This public functionary is in the thief-taking line, and doubtless, availing himself of his official influence, has been meddling in politics, thereby subjecting himself to the displeasure of government. His black wagon stands just underneath the Philosophical Society, a conspicuous figure in the group; bearing about the same relation to the other equipages as the hangman to the rest of the community.

It’s a fact that magistrates Sir John Gonson, Sir Thomas De Veil, and, Henry and John Fielding were responsible for creating the first professional police and justice system in England in 1720. This resulted in a number of horse and foot patrols, at night and during the day, and this police presence deterred most criminals for committing crimes. Fifty years later, the Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 was responsible for the creation of seven police offices, and each office had three stipendiary magistrates plus six constables responsible for detecting and arresting criminals. Then in 1800, the Thames Police Office at Wapping opened with three stipendiary magistrates and one hundred constables.

With the passage of Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, the concept of policing was firmly entrenched in England. When the second Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1839, constables were no longer employed by the magistrates, and became a police organization instead. Somewhere between 1839 and 1841, police wagons came into use to aid officers on foot and horse patrol.

Idiomation therefore places believes it is reasonable to peg the idiom Black Maria to 1840, between the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 and the publication of the story on published in June of 1841 in the Knickerbocker magazine.

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Hairy Canary

Posted by Admin on January 6, 2014

If you hear of someone having a hairy canary, you can bet that they are having a temper tantrum, an emotional outburst, or find themselves in outright panic mode. It’s an expression with an interesting history that winds its way through a number of different paths.

In North Carolina, in the Lower Hawksbill on the Northern Blue Ridge Mountains that faces the northwest (its highest elevation is 4,020 feet), there’s a climb that’s been known as the Hairy Canary since the mid-1990s. It’s nestled among other creatively named rappelling climbs such as Star Trekin’, Lost IN Space, Swing Your Phaser, and Phaser On Stun.

In 1981, Chick Corea recorded an album that was marketed under the title, “Live At Montreux” and along with Chick Corea were jazz musicians Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone), Gary Peacock (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums). It was a live recording captured on July 15, 1981 while they were performing at the Casino de Montreux at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The second cut on the album is entitled, “Hairy Canary.”

And in 1973, Mattel Inc., was granted a copyright for Hair Canary in the “Catalog of Copyright Entries: Third Series” in Volume 27, Part 1, Number 2, Section 1. It took some deep digging to find out that Mattel’s Hairy Canary was a hand-powered super stunt plane that was billed as “easy to learn” and promised to give “hours of fun.” A bit more digging after that revealed that in Volume 29 of “Design News” and Volume 16 of “Power Transmission Design” — both of which were published in 1974 — Mattel’s Hairy Canary was the subject of an article entitled, “How Would You Keep The Hairy Canary Airborne?”

The Billboard edition of June 1, 1968 wrote about Hi Lit’s new progressive rock radio station WDAS-FM in Philadelphia, PA. It was reported that eighty percent of the programming at the radio station was album cuts, and that the material ranged from Steppenwolf to the Rotary Connection through to the Chamber Brothers. All pop music was banned. Then this little extra was included in the article:

The station uses the tag line of “Hy Syski Underground.” Syski is the nickname Lit has used for years. The station has also just issued a two-page newspaper called the “Hairy Canary” featuring gossip items about progressive rock artists, and a list of the major LPs’ it will be bi-monthly in schedule.

And back in 1946, California cultivated a fine ornamental clover for gardens by the name of Hairy Canary clover. It was a deterrent to soil erosion and considered a forage crop.

But none of that explains the idiom hairy canary.

On December 19, 2013 journalist Laurie Higgins wrote at article that was posted to the Illinois Family Institute website. It was about the suspension of Phil Robertson from the popular A&E Show “Duck Dynasty” for having made some politically incorrect statements. The article was entitled, “Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson: The Hairy Canary In The Rainbow Coal Mine.”

By removing the colorful jargon, the phrase became one of a canary in the coal mine. The definition for that idiom was of someone or something whose sensitivity to adverse conditions made the person or the thing a useful early indicator of adverse conditions. Whatever happened to the person or the thing, was an early warning of approaching greater danger or trouble. Beginning in 1911, (up until 1986), canaries were used in coal mines as early warning systems for toxic gases and fumes such as coal dust, methane gas or CH4.

When the canary was off-color, the workers in the coal mine knew that trouble was brewing and alerted them to the fact that they needed to get out of the mineshaft for safety’s sake. That being said, canaries were delicate birds and therefore not as reliable as thought, which resulted in more than a few false alarms with regards to toxic conditions for miners.

It would be reasonable to believe that a canary dying while down in the coal mines might cause a certain amount of panic in miners at the time, and their wives would also be aflutter with concerns every day their husbands were working down in the coal mines. The rhyming undoubtedly is an offshoot of cockney rhyming slang and since the expression canary in the coal mine appears to have started in the UK, it makes sense that the idiom would eventually be shortened to hairy canary. The earliest reference to hairy canary, as shown earlier in this entry, was in 1968 with the 2-page newspaper courtesy of WDAS-FM in Philadelphia, and indicates that the idiom was already part of the lingo used by listeners of progressive rock stations.

It is therefore reasonable to peg the idiom hairy canary to 1960 and possibly earlier. Perhaps readers and visitors who are aware of the use of hairy canary in conversation, news articles, or books will be share links to such use.

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Have Kittens

Posted by Admin on January 3, 2014

If you’ve wondered what the expression have kittens means, it means to be very worried, upset, or angry about something. It’s a somewhat dramatic way of expressing that worry, upset or anger, but it clearly underscores the degree to which a person is worried, upset, or angry. To have kittens is the same thing as to have a cow or to have a [hairy] canary, and the expression, while rarely heard, is known in every English speaking country around the world.

In the UK, the Independent newspaper of September 6, 2013 published an article entitled, “Who Profits From The Economic Recovery Decides Party Fortunes?” The article by Andrew Grice addressed the challenge both political parties have in convincing low income workers that their party is a friend to low income workers. The subject of the recommendations made by the Down Street Policy Unit have some alarmed to the point where the article stated:

The Treasury, which is said to be “having kittens” about Number 10’s work, will veto the “profits plan” as “unworkable and anti-aspiration.”  Business groups are nervous too. They want the focus to be on improving skills and are worried that a higher wages floor would cost jobs.

Dan Stannett’s book “Daniel and the Lion’s Den: The True Story Of An Eight-Hour Inmate” published in 2007 also made use of the idiom.   The story was based on the author’s experiences with the prison system in April 1976 in a Virginia prison that had fewer than 10,000 inmates in it. Not to be mistaken for one on the wrong side of the law, it must be noted that Dan Stannett spent 25 years in law enforcement. In his book, the following passage uses the idiom having kittens.

While Jim was being warm and happy waiting on his relief, he would be relieved early. The shift sergeant with a Kojak haircut came out and was having kittens while Jim England was giving the pissed off sergeant his best-looking John Wayne impression. “What the hell do you think you’re doing’?” the sergeant asked.

David Bealsey wrote a book entitled, “The Jenny: A New York Library Detective Novel” that was published in 1994. The year in which the story takes place is vague. The story states the night watchman makes $15,000 per year. We know that in New York City, a night watchman drew a salary of slightly overly $1,000 per year in 1884 based on newspaper accounts, and we know that a century later, in New York City, a night watchman drew a salary of just over $15,000 per year in 1985.  So it would seem that the story takes place in the latter half of the 20th century. In the story, the author wrote:

“Let’s go to your place,” I said as we got in.
Arbie gave her address to the driver.
“Storey saw me,” I gasped between breaths.
“I was having kittens,” Arbie said. “You were so long!”
“I heard Storey on the phone, “I explained. “After he left, the same guy called again. I picked up the receiver so he knew someone was there. He must have got in touch with Storey about it. But look!” I flicked on the light in the back of the cab. “We’ve got New’s stamps.”

In 1960, the P. G. Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) book “Jeeves in the Offing” (which was also known as “How Right You Are, Jeeves”) was first published in the United States on 4 April 1960 by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, and subsequently, in the United Kingdom on 12 August 1960 by Herbert Jenkins, London. It was the eighth Jeeves novel, and chronicled yet another visit by Bertie Wooster to his Aunt Dahlia at Brinkley Court. The idiom appeared in Chapter VII as follows:

‘Are you sure?’
I said that sure was just what I wasn’t anything but.
‘It is not possible that you may have overlooked it?’
‘You can’t overlook a thing like that.’
He re-gurgled.
‘But this is terrible.’
‘Might be considerably better, I agree.’
‘Your uncle will be most upset.’
‘He’ll have kittens.’
‘That’s right.’
‘Why kittens?’
‘Why not?’

Graham Seal claims that the expression goes back to at least the early 20th century. This appears to be correct as the expression is shared in Volume 5 of the “Dialect Notes” printed by the Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company of New Haven, Connecticut and published by the American Dialect Society, covering the years 1918 through to 1927. The idiom is attributed as an established idiom in 1918.

According to the BBC, particularly painful pregnancies were thought to be as a result of a witch’s curse. Instead of being with child, the woman was thought to have kittens inside her, clawing to get out. Women who believed this to be true and who were experiencing pain over the course of their pregnancy would become hysterical at the thought that they and their babies had been cursed by a witch.

In fact, there are records dating back to 1654 that show that a woman appealed to a Scottish court for permission to abort. Her reason for making the request was because she had ‘cats in her bellie.’ In fact, in the 1960s, it was reported that people in parts of the highlands of Banffshire dreaded cats for that very reason.

That being said, have kittens is difficult to find in newspapers, magazines and books with the trail going cold right before the turn of the century, in the late 1890s. Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to about 1900s.

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