Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

A Day Late And A Dollar Short

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 3, 2014

The other day, I heard someone say, “Diem sero, et una mina breva.” The English version of that idiom is a day late and a dollar short.  What the idiom means is that action taken was taken late and is of no use. An opportunity has not only been missed, but if it had been snagged, it would have been to no avail as there was inadequate preparations made that would have resulted in a favorable outcome. In other words, it’s the same thing as saying too little, too late.

People who are accused of being a day late and a dollar short are seen as disorganized, careless people with poor time management skills that inconveniences everyone else affected by such behavior.

A Letter to the Editor by Steve Kopa of Weirton, West Virginia to the Herald Dispatch on January 28, 2014 dealt with the recent spill where 7,500 gallons of coal-cleaning chemicals seeped into the Elk River. The corporation responsible for this filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy nearly immediately after this disaster. The first paragraph of Steve Kopa’s letter read:

Regarding the Elk River chemical spill, as usual our fearless leaders are using an old phrase: “a day late and a dollar short.” That means a missed opportunity and being inexcusably unprepared.

The U.S. Department of Commerce: National Bureau of Standards published a report for the 59th National Conference on Weights and Measures in July of 1973. The editors were Sandra J. Wilson and Richard N. Smith, and U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary, Frederick B. Dent, and National Bureau of Standards Director, Richard W. Roberts were listed on the front page of the report.

There is need to explain your work, your tools and your activities in order to gain public support and public understanding. With your guidance, the services of government need not be, as they have been many times in the past, a day late and a dollar short of the needs and demands of the public.

In the “Contact Point” newsletter of the San Francisco College of Physicians and Surgeons: School of Dentistry published in 1949, one of the contributors, identified as K.G.H., signed off on his column with the expression.

Must call this quits now, as I’m a day late and a dollar short with it now.

A syndicated one-panel cartoon was published in many American newspapers on March 3, 1939 using the expression as part of the punchline. The cartoon — known as “Out Our Way” — was drawn and written by Canadian cartoonist, J.R. Williams (March 30, 1888 – June 17, 1957).  The panel showed two men listening to an inventor describe his labor-free pick , for which he said he had applied to have patented. Two blue-collar workers are passing by and one says to the other:

No, he’s in the same fix as th’ rest of us. It’s called progress. I just learn about half the traffic rules an’ they change ’em. You can’t beat progress. You’ll always be a day late an’ a dollar short.

The Continental Congress of the United States authorized the issuance of the US dollar on August 8, 1786, however, Americans preferred gold and silver for currency. With the National Banking Act of 1863, the dollar become the only recognized currency in the U.S. It wasn’t until March 14, 1900 and the Gold Standard Act that it was decided that gold was the sole standard by which paper money would be redeemed.

As history has shown, suspending gold convertibility during the Great Depression of the 1930s worsened the situation with global economies, and America wasn’t exempt from the effects of this suspension. The effects on the American dollar were felt across the country and abroad.

While Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of a day late and a dollar short, that it was used so freely in the one-panel cartoon published in 1939 scant months before the start of World War II (1 September 1939 – 2 September 1945) may indicate that the expression has its roots in the Great Depression. This idiom is therefore reasonably pegged to some time in the 1930s.

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2 Responses to “A Day Late And A Dollar Short”

  1. mutanatia said

    You know, having roots in the Great Depression makes sense: people WERE a dollar short back then if they weren’t careful!

  2. Even if they were careful, they could find themselves a dollar short. 😦

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