Historically Speaking

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Archive for April, 2014

With A Grain Of Salt

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 28, 2014

When you take something with a grain of salt, you don’t take what’s being said or written as being completely factual or true.  In fact, it could be said that you aren’t taking it at face value.

Interestingly enough, it sometimes appears as a Latin phrase as in the news article entitled, “Republicans Smell Blood In Presidential Race” written by Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake for the Washington Post on August 10, 2011.  The article spoke about data collected from the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center that looked at whether Americans wanted Obama to face a primary challenge.  Along with the statistics and the poll results, the writers added:

Polls are, of course a snapshot in time and are rightly taken cum grano salis. But, it’s not hard to read between the data points on this particular survey.

Of course, the expression was also used in English as in the article by NFL National Lead Writer, Ty Schalter when he wrote, “Detroit Lions’ Success: Take It With A Grain Of Salt” published a bit more than a month later on September 22, 2011.  He even included the idiom in the article.

As fans, we are tempted to tap the brakes. To pull back on the reins. To take this early success with a grain of salt.

In 1935, Robert Harry Lowie wrote and published a book titled, “The Crow Indians.”  As you can imagine, the book was about the Crow Indians living on a reservation near the core of the tribal territory southeast of Billings, Montana and northwest of Sheridan, Wyoming, and were identified in the book as being related to the Sioux of the Dakotas.  In describing the politics of the camp the author wrote about, he wrote the following.

Appointed by the camp chief, the police were considered subordinate to him; and he could thus, according to Leonard, a fur trader of the thirties, veto every one of their acts.   However, the statement must be taken with a grain of salt.  The chief himself was not an autocrat, and the constabulary normally acted only on special occasions, such as those mentioned above.  Apart from these, the people hardly felt the weight of authority.

Nearly 100 years earlier, in “The Baptist Magazine” a letter was published, dated July 13, 1836 where the author was identified by only an initial, E.  The letter was published with the title, “Baptists In Scotland.”

I had almost forgotten to take notice, as I intended to do, of one of your correspondent’s statements, in detailing some of the principles of the Scotch Baptists, in the first paragraph of his letter.  He says, they “contend for a plurality of elders,mutual exhortation by the brethren on the Lord’s day, and disapprove of pastoral support.”  The first peculiarity here stated may possibly be held by many of us as a principle, but being so often departed from in practice, the assertion requires to be qualified with a grain of salt; a plurality of elders being rather looked upon as desirable, than as absolutely indispensible.  The exhortation of the brethren is generally practised, although not, I hope, in every possible case, dogmatically insisted upon; but the third statement in the above quoted sentence, that we disapprove of pastoral support, I positively deny without any qualification at all.

Interestingly enough, in Italy there is an expression:  avere sale in zucca.  Zucca (meaning pumpkin) is a humorous reference to one’s head and one’s intelligence and ability to reason.  When one is told to have salt in their pumpkin, they’re being reminded to use a little bit of intelligence and common sense to reason things out.  In other words, good judgment and some intellect is reflected in reference to the grain of salt needed to do so.

And since Italian is a romance language that derives from Latin, the connection between avere sale in zucca and cum grano salis is easily made.  In fact, up until the 20th century, the Latin cum grano salis was preferred over the English variant with a grain of salt.

But why salt?  What is the importance of salt that it should be linked to intellect and judgement?

In ancient times, salt was a necessity of life and was used as a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a unit of monetary exchange, and in ceremonies.  In fact, in 2 Chronicles 13, verse 5 the covenant of salt (one which can never be broken because it is an irrevocable pledge that promises undying fidelity to God) is spoken of thusly:

Should you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave the dominion over Israel to David forever, to him and his sons, by a covenant of salt?

Even Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) spoke of the need for salt when he wrote:  A civilized life is impossible without salt.  Strangely enough, Pliny also mentioned the last line in a formula of 72 ingredients that were to be taken as an antidote for poison in his book Historia Naturalis.  The formula was found at the palace of King Mithridates VI in 63 BC when it was seized by the armies of Rome by General Pompey aka Pompey the Great (106-48 BC).  And what was that last line of this amazing formula, you ask?

Pliny translated the formula with this last line included:  To be taken fasting, plus a grain of salt.

Medieval writers, transcribing the writings of Pliny the Elder understood this to mean that Pliny was skeptical of the account given by General Pompey (106-48 BC) — also known as Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus — regarding the poison antidote and the many ingredients therein.  However, Pliny the Elder used the Latin term most associated with his era which would have been addito salis grano.  Instead they attributed the Medieval Latin equivalent which was cum grano salis.

What this appears to mean is that with a grain of salt was first used in Medieval times with the meaning we use these days.   That being said, the value of salt, continues to be as important to our lives now as it was centuries ago, and you don’t need to take that comment with a grain of salt.

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Back To The Salt Mines

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 24, 2014

Going back to the salt mines idiomatically means that you are resuming work on a task that you don’t find very appealing, whether you’re talking about work, school, or some other activity.  The implication is that the work is requires long hours and is taxing on the person doing the work.  And it shouldn’t be mistaken to mean the same as thing as going back to the drawing board.

Before Idiomation looks at the origins of the expression, an interesting side note is that the word salary has its roots in the word salt.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, salary is from the Latin word salarium.

ad. L. salarium, orig. money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay; subst. use of neut. sing. of salarius pertaining to salt, f. sal salt.

When it comes to salt mines, the best known and most productive ones are in Poland (on the north side of the Carpathians); in Salzburg (on the north side of the Alps); in Valentia, Navarre, and Catalonia in Spain; in Cheshire, England; and in Transylvania, Hungary, Bavaria, Switzerland, and Russia.

John W. Dean and Barry M. Goldwater Jr. wrote the biography “Pure Goldwater” published in 2008.  The book was compiled from the late Senator’s letters and journals as well as guest editorials he wrote and various radio addresses.  John W. Dean and Barry M. Goldwater Jr. admit in the book’s Preface to correcting typos, spelling out abbreviations, adding appropriate punctuation, and including minor editorial clarifications where needed.     The following excerpt is from page 93 in Part II titled, “The Senate Years: 1952 – 1965” in Chapter 7, “Learning How Washington Worked.”

After only a day in Arizona I returned to Washington, back to the salt mines.  Committee work had started on Banking and Currency, and surprisingly, I am finding the work to be delightful.  My business background and training is proving to be most valuable … We haven’t started work on the labor committee yet, but that comes up probably in two weeks …

In the Volume 42, Edition No. 3 edition of “Boy’s Life: The Boy Scout Magazine” published in March 1952, the short story titled, “Rattlesnake Country” by Arnold Bateman and illustrated by Frank Vaughn was published on page 11, and continued on page 48.

The wagon came up at noon and they sprawled in its shade to eat. Barney stayed close to Max, so Nate had no choice to talk any more slow-down stuff.  But when Max grunted and said, “All right, boys, let’s get back to the salt mines,” Nate drifted closer, his eyes hard.

“Not so fast, this afternoon, get it?” he muttered.  “Get some sense in your noggin.  The more we do, the more we’ll have to.  I’ve told Lewis’s gang a few things; they’d better not make us look too bad.  We get paid whether we do a little or a lot.  Watch it, now!”

In the book “Murder Day By Day” by American author, humorist and columnist, Irvin S. Cobb (23 June 1876 – 11 March 1944) published in 1933 he referenced the idiom in all its variations by omitting the specifics and just going with the rest.  The Duke of Paducah from Paducah, Kentucky published 60 books and 300 short stories.  When he became the youngest managing editor at the age of nineteen when he took on the job at the  Paducah Daily News.  In other words, he knew how to write, and how to write effectively.  In this novel, the following passage with the abbreviated idiom was included:

“That would be Terence,” he said.

“Well, Gilly, it’s back to the mines for me, and this day I’ll need to have my brain grinding in two — three different places at once.”

It’s a fact that mining salt has been around for centuries — at least 800 years in North America and before that, stretching back to ancient civilizations.  It’s possible that those who worked the salt mines back in the day used the idiom as well but without evidence, it’s only a guess.

What is known is that in ancient Roman times, prisoners were given the task of salt mining.  It’s also a fact that the life expectancy of prisoners working in salt mines wasn’t very long.  The reason for this was because a prisoner working in the salt mines suffered ongoing health issues (not unlike the physical impact experienced by lepers as well as mental impact experienced by those with Alzheimer’s) that eventually led to death.

But since the idiom back to the salt mines seems to be a variation — with overlapping use in literature — of back to the grindstone and back to the jute mill and back to the boiler factory and back to whatever other industry incorporated hard work and drudgery, Idiomation was unable to identify when this expression came into vogue.

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Gobsmacked

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 14, 2014

If you’ve ever been gobsmacked, you know that whatever happened absolutely and completely astonished or astounded you … and not necessarily in a positive way either!  That means that you’re speechless due to surprise.

On November 19, 2013 the Valley Advocate published an entertainment article written by Chris Rohmann about local readings of Court Dorsey‘s new play. The play was inspired by James Douglass‘ 2010 book “JKF and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.”  The article was entitled, “Stagestruck: Gobsmacked By History.”

In the 1980s, the word was used by Alan Bleasdale in his television series about five Liverpudlian tarmac layers titled, “Boys from the Blackstuff” and in the daytime soap opera, “Coronation Street” which was set in a fictional suburb of Manchester.

Jack Reynolds wrote the book “A Woman of Bangkok” which was first published in 1956, then republished in 1959, and subsequently reprinted by Monsoon Books (Singapore) in 2011.  The Asian Wall Street Journal touted the book as being “among the ten finest novels written  about Asia” and reviews are a mixed bag of polarized opinions.  The following is found early in the book:

I’m so amazed that only the Malderbury dialect can express my condition: I’m ‘properly gob-smacked.’  I’d been thinking I was holding my own in this male company.  I’m drinking as fast as they are.  With two well-chosen words I created the biggest laugh of the evening — and in a foreign language, too.  But there is more to being a man than being a good fellow.

So what exactly is a gob?  In the July 1912 edition of the Ossett Observer it was reported that William Henry Hayes, aged 56, and a pit deputy had been killed at Wrenthorpe pit which was part of the Low Laithes Colliery.  The article read in part:

Ezra Ramsden, of 11 East Parade, Eastborough, Dewsbury, coal miner, said that the accident happened on Friday at 12:30 p.m.  In a few minutes he would have finished the job of filling up a “gob.”  There had been a fall of roof three or four days before in the Silkstone seam, and deceased, who was assisting to remove the dirt, was working about half a yard from the witness.  Suddenly, a stone fell down on the deceased, who was sitting on his right foot and left, and was in the act of using his shovel.  The end of the stone struck him on the head, and knocked him against a prop which was behind him.

The expression, as you can see, appears to have its roots in coal mining lingo.  The space left behind by mining is known as the gob and it is packed with waste rock and left to collapse.

Gob In Mining_IMAGE

The term gob was used in Volume 2 of “Mining: A Journal Devoted to the Interests of Miners and Mining Students” which was published in 1894, and in Volume 5 of “Transactions of the Federated Institution of Mining” published in 1893 by the Federated Institution of Mining Engineers, in an article by Joel Settle entitled, “Spontaneous Combustion In Coal-Mines.”

The term was included in the 1883 book by William Stukelby Gresley, “Glossary Of Terms Used In Coal Mining.” It was identified as an alternate word for “goaf” or “goave” and meant:

That part of a mine from which the coal, etc., has been worked away and the space more or less filled up.

The term was in use at the early coal mines of Newcastle in the district county of Northumberland in New South Wales in 1804.  Connecticut settlers in the Wyoming Valley began mining in 1762, and knowingly left gobs as they went.

History points to the fact that before the Industrial Revolution, coal was mined from two types of mines, both of which made for easy coal mining:  drift mines and bell pits.  But in 1700, the demand for coal increased dramatically and coal shafts began to read hundreds of feet into the ground in search of coal seams.  Once a coal seam was found, it was mined horizontally thereby creating gobs.

As mentioned previously, the space left behind by mining was known as the gob or goaf and it was packed with waste rock where it was left to collapse.  What this meant was that it was expected that at some point the gob would inevitably collapse albeit without prior notice of the impending collapse.   Since gobs retained moisture to varying degrees (sometimes 9 and 12 inches of water) in each of these caves, when a gob roof collapsed, it smacked the ground.   If you’ve been in a cave, you know how loud the smallest noise can be as it reverberates against the walls. Miners who were startled when a gob roof caved in were said to be gobsmacked.

Based on historical information and the accepted use of the word gob by miners and professional engineers coupled with factual information on the collapse of gobs and their impact on miners, Idiomation pegs the idiom to 1700.

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

Hot As A Two Dollar Pistol

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 10, 2014

Sometimes similar sounding idioms have different meanings.  Sometimes those similar sounding different meaning idioms have a common root.  Sometimes the idiom hot as a two-dollar pistol refers to how angry someone is.  Sometimes it means that others find that person attractive.  And in some cases, it refers to the weather.

In Gary C. Walker‘s 2008 novel, “Son Of The South” the idiom is used to describe a third party’s frame of mind.

It was late afternoon Thursday before Hank called me into the office. “Guess you know I went to see Lawrence?”  I nodded that I did.  Hank continued, “We talked for some time.  He was as hot as a two-dollar pistol at you.  You embarrassed him in front of his guests.  You cased him to lose face.  He thought you had deceived him by making believe you could read.  He was hoping he would never see your face around Anchor and Hope again.”

In Laurie Norlander‘s 2013 novel, “Mirror Images” the image is used to describe a third party’s physical attributes.

Frank shook his head.  “It’s hard to imagine someone like Chris killing himself.  What with all his money and a wife as hot as a two dollar pistol.”

And in Jessie Fernandes‘ 2011 novel, “Rough Ride On A High Horse” it describes the weather.

The next morning, I rose exhausted from a humid night filled with nightmares about Billy. It was as hot as a two-dollar pistol again.  The minute I opened the kitchen door, Buck raced out across the yard and into the pasture.  Cleo acted as lethargic as I felt and refused to leave the kitchen.  As soon as I finished setting Edna and Claude up for the day, Buck and I also sought the comfort of indoors.  Ceiling fans were adequate, but sometimes I envied Lynn’s air-conditioning.

The idiom was used in the 1944 movie “Trocadero.”  An interesting but little recognized bit of pop culture came about in this movie about a newspaper columnist in search of a good news story for his Sunday column.  In the story, the club decides to move from the traditional big band sound to add a swing band — a genre of music that was hot back east but not nearly as well known on the west coast.  Slipped into the dialogue, you’ll hear the comment about someone being as hot as a two-dollar pistol.

Did any handgun ever cost two dollars?  From what Idiomation found in the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue, pistols sold for anywhere between sixty-eight cents and up.  Here’s an image of the less expensive pistols available by mail order.

IMAGE 1
The mid-range pistols can be seen in this image from the Sears Roebuck catalogue of 1897.

IMAGE 2

In the Scientific American magazine (established in 1845) published an article in the December 13, 1879 edition that made reference to two-dollar pistols (and not in a complimentary fashion either) in an article entitled, “The Scientific American As An Educator Of The Young.”

The intellectual society which young people enjoy tells upon their moral and mental character not how powerfully than do their social affiliations.  The devourer of sensational stories is as little likely to excel in studies requiring patient effort and sobriety of mind, as the habitual reader of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is to run away with a two-dollar pistol and a brierwood pipe, to hunt buffaloes and slay Indians on the plains.

The recognized marked brand names in the United States were Colt (1836), Remington (1848), Smith & Wesson (1857) and Winchester (1866).  They were promoted via print advertisements among other promotional and marketing avenues.  But with success comes knock-offs, and it wasn’t long before customers were being warned about counterfeits and patent infringements.

To combat this, Colt published a flyer called, “Simple Reasons For Preferring Colt’s Arm To All Others.”  It listed 14 reasons why Colt was the brand to buy.  Among those reasons, #5 and #7 addressed the issue of inferior quality of counterfeits and those that infringed on Colt’s patents.

5.  They leave no burning paper in the barrel after a discharge, to block the next cartridge into your face, as do the guns which open from behind.

7.  They are made of the best steel that can be procured for money, and have the strength to resist the explosive force of gunpowder, while the mongrel imitations and cheap arms are clumsily made of cast iron or inferior materials, and are more dangerous to their owners than they are to all others.

Obviously, a poorly made gun that kept burning paper in it would become hot at best (and blow up in your face at worst) with each shot fired.  And a poorly made gun would be one the manufacturer intended to sell at a cut-rate price.

History relates that a good pistol cost the equivalent of nearly a month’s wages for a cowboy; in the 1870s, a cowboy generally earned $25 per month.  Back in 1873, the Colt Peacemaker — also known as the gun that won the West — sold for $17.

A pistol that sold for $2 wasn’t much of a pistol at all.  In fact, it was a bargain basement pistol that no self-respecting cowboy would be seen carrying.

In the end, the expression — whether it’s used to mean hot as in the weather or hot to the touch or hot as in temperament — originates from the very real problems created by $2 pistols with their heated barrels and potential to explode when used.  For this reason, Idiomation pegs the expression to the 1850s when Colts, Remingtons, Smith & Wessons, and Winchesters were doing brisk sales, and counterfeiters were trying to muscle in on those sales.

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Two-Gun Sam

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 7, 2014

Today’s idiom is one that is found in a conversation between Frannie Goldsmith and her father, Peter, in Chapter 6 of “The Stand.”

“I don’t know. I never had a pregnant daughter before and am not sure just how I should take it. Was it that Jess?”
She nodded.
“You told him?”
She nodded again.
“What did he say?”
“He said he would marry me. Or pay for an abortion.”
“Marriage or abortion,” Peter Goldsmith said, and drew on his pipe. “He’s a regular two-gun Sam.”

When Stephen King wrote about two-gun Sam was he thinking of the Yosemite Sam cartoon character?  You know the one. He’s the short cowboy with a fiery red handlebar mustache and huge voice who is known to have a hair-trigger temper, and who brandishes two guns most of the time.  Bugs Bunny has made quite the sport of antagonizing Two-Gun Sam at every turn.

In any case, just because Yosemite Sam is a literal two-gun Sam, does this mean that the idiom originated with the cartoon character?

Friz Freleng created Yosemite Sam (whose animation real name — as opposed to his animation nickname — is Samuel Michelangelo Rosenbaum) in 1944 for the animated short, “Stage Door Cartoon” where the character appeared as a southern sheriff.  The following year, he appeared in “Hare Trigger” alongside Bugs Bunny.

Fourteen years before Yosemite Sam was created, Volume 1 of “The Haverfordian” published in November 1930, made mention of Two-Gun Sam.  The magazine was a monthly publication that focused on fostering “the literary spirit among the undergraduates.”  Contributions were solicited, and considered for publication solely on their merits. The editor, Lockhart Amerman advised the Haverfordian readership of the following:

Beginning with this number and continuing for several more numbers, the HAVERFORDIAN will shoulder the white mans burden and publish “Uncle Bob’s Kiddies’ Page,” by Harris Shane, author of “Two Gun Sam,” “Blood on the Desert,” “The Maverick Murderers” and “Dainty Desserts for Summertime.

Going back to 19264 and a book of short stories titled, “Counter Currents.”  The stories were written by Elsie Janis and Marguerite Aspinwall and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.  In one of the short stories, the idiom was used a handful of times including, but are not limited to, page 149:

“Two of them,” Jinny decreed. “You can borrow mine if you haven’t an extra one. You’re to be Two-Gun Sam  — how’s that for a name?  Wear them low on your hips like that tin-horn gambling cowboy at Bar 13 last year.

And page 155:

“This, ladies and gentlemen,” turning on the room at large with a flourish, “is Two-Gun Sam, the Bad Man of the Stillwater Range.  Kind of short on patience and long on straight shooting.”

During the Civil War, a large side-wheel steamer known as the Uncle Sam was commissioned by the Union Navy and renamed the USS Black Hawk.  It was an impressive river gunboat armed with the following guns: two 30-pounder Parrot rifles, two 12-pounder Parrott rifles, two heavy 12-pounder Parrott rifles, two Union repeating guns, and one B&R gun.  It’s easy to see why it was colloquially referred to as the two-gun Sam.

In a song book compiled by George Stuyvesant Jackson entitled, “Early Songs Of Uncle Sam” the song “The Battle of Stonington” is included.  As students of American history know, the Battle of Stonington was part of the War of 1812.  While the book was published in the 20th century, it has a bibliography that proves the authenticity of the songs.  One of the verses of the “Battle of Stonington” figures two guns prominently.

What many may not know is that during the War of 1812, the cartoon character of Uncle Sam was first used to symbolize the United States government.  In September 1813, the name “Uncle Sam” began to appear in newspapers by journalists who opposed the war, using the term as an insult to American soldiers and government officials alike.

Why was calling anyone “Uncle Sam” an insult?

Because Sam was considered a euphemism in polite society for the devil.  If an individual linked Sam with something or someone he or she believed was evil, the implication was that the devil was obviously involved.

Idiomation therefore pegs two-gun Sam to the War of 1812 without a doubt.  Sorry about that, fans of Yosemite Sam.

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