Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Enough To Give A Gopher Heartburn

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 6, 2014

The idiom it’s enough to give a gopher heartburn is one that describes how bad times are.  Science has proven that gophers, like all rodents, can suffer from digestive disorders, but it takes a lot of the wrong sorts of food to cause heartburn in a gopher.   So the idiom means that times have to be pretty terrible before it results in the unimaginable (in this case, a gopher with heartburn).

The November 30, 1976 edition of the Brandon Sun used the idiom in the column Sunbeams.  The journalist (who appeared to have a lot of news to cover in his column that day) wrote in part:

Thought of this last week when  just east of Sidney, I saw a demonstration of how a farmer can live with the wind … as Jake used to say in the W.O. Mitchell stories, “The wind she was blowin’ hard enough to give a gopher the heartburn on the north side of the highway the farmland had a heavy layer of combine trash spread evenly across it from one fence line to the other … south of the highway there were graders working on the new right-of-way and the loose material they were stirring up was turned into a black blizzard.

The idiom seems to be a Brandon Sun favorite as it was used five years earlier — on April 15, 1971 — when the fictional character and the idiom were included in a news story that included:

If Jake were still around he’d exclaim that it was “enough to give a gopher the heartburn.”

And back on February 25, 1961, the Medicine Hat News included the idiom when it published a news story that stated:

In moments of desperation, he would say:  “Things are bad enough to give a gopher the heartburn.”  Right at this moment not only the gophers but also the two-legged prairie dwellers are in danger of this particular unpleasantness at the thought of grain companies closing down their grain elevators.  The forecast of such action was made a week ago by the chief statistician of the Board of Grain Commissioners.

The newspaper gave credit to the CBC radio series, “Jake and the Kid” where the scripts were written by W.O. Mitchell.

Canadian author, W.O. Mitchell (13 March 1914 – 25 February 1998) wrote the world recognized novel, “Who Has Seen The Wind” published in 1947.  It was the story of four-year-old Brian O’Connal growing up on the Canadian prairies (in the town of Weyburn, Saskatchewan), and the people who made up his world:  his father (a druggist), his mother, his Uncle Sean, his Scottish grandmother.  The story drew upon some of the author’s personal childhood memories with equal measures of humor and reality tying the story together.

In 1950, CBC Radio tapped W.O. Mitchell to write scripts for the series, “Jake and the Kid.”  In all, he created more than 300 radio scripts for the series between 1950 and 1958, and everything took place in the fictional community of Crocus, Saskatchewan. While many of the stories were compiled in book form and published in 1961, during those either years when the scripts were being broadcast as radio teleplays, some very unique idioms originated with the author.

As these were the days when there was censorship and many words couldn’t be broadcast over the airwaves, oftentimes what was originally written had to be re-written to fit the censors.  Since cursing was forbidden, W.O. Mitchell had to create swearing without actually swearing.  Originally, the gopher idiom made mention of his backside, which producers (and the author) knew wouldn’t fly past the censors.  In the re-writing, the expression became, “It’s enough to give a gopher the heartburn.”

In the book “Jake and the Kid” the idiom was found in this passage on page 264.

Mr. Candy stood where his new red barn had been. Sammy and Brian halted; they stared at the utter, kindling ruin of what had once been a barn. No stick stood. In the strewn wreckage not even the foundation outline was discernible … Certainly the Lord’s vengeance had been enough to give a gopher the heartburn.

The idiom, therefore, is easy to peg to 1951 and was first uttered by a character created by W.O. Mitchell.   When all is said and done, you have to admit that Canadian authors have a way with words and quirky visualizations, don’t you agree?

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