Historically Speaking

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Archive for August, 2015

From Pillar To Post

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 18, 2015

When someone is said to be running from pillar to post, it’s another way of saying the person is running around in circles. In other words, they’re getting the run around and getting nowhere at all.

When Linda Kay Barber of Deer Park (WA) wrote a Letter to the Editor, the Spokesman-Review published it in their June 11, 1990 edition. She took issue with parents who weren’t putting their children first, whether they were dead beat non-custodial parents or parents who walked the picket line outside the Office of Support Enforcement. A line from her letter was plucked and became the letter’s headline: “Kids Kicked From Pillar To Post.”

When Hollywood was casting for the comedy series, “McHale’s Navy” starring Ernest Borgnine (24 January 1917 – 8 July 2012), producer Edward Montagne (20 May 1912 – 15 December 2003) saw Bobby Wright’s audition for another series titled, “It’s A Man’s World.” He cast the 20-year-old in the role of Radioman 2nd Class Willy Moss (credited as John Wright), and the story published in newspapers on Sunday, April 14, 1963 shared Bobby’s new-found fame in an article entitled, “From Pillar To Post.”

NOTE 1: Bobby Wright aka John Robert Wright Jr. (born 30 March 1942) is the son of Johnnie Wright (13 May 1914 – 27 September 2011) and country singer Kitty Wells (30 August 1919 – 16 July 2012), and the younger brother of country singer Ruby Wright (27 October 1939 – 27 September 2009) and Carol Sue Wright Sturdivant (born 12 June 1941).

Back on January 31, 1930 a story out of Washington dealing with prohibition was multifaceted. The upswing (or downswing depending if you were a Republican or a Democrat) of the discussion within the House Expenditures Committee about transferring dry enforcement from Secretary Melton’s bailiwick to that of the Attorney General was reported in the article.  On a related note, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the Jack Daniel Distillery Company of St. Louis was rendered when it was determined that the government failed to prove that whiskey in a bonded warehouse had been stolen by anyone associated with the Jack Daniel Distillery Company.  The article was headlined as “Dry Law Bounced From Pillar To Post As Capitol Talk Continues” and this was the first sentence in the article.

The prohibition discussion continued to bounce from pillar to post in Washington today, but concrete developments were few.

NOTE 2: Lemuel Motlow, nephew of Jasper “Jack” Daniel, moved part of the Jack Daniel Distillery Company operations to St. Louis (MO) after Tennessee adopted state prohibition in 1910.

Thieves made off with 16 barrels of whiskey and 118 cases of bourbon from the warehouse in December 1922, and then siphoned 893 barrels of whiskey through 150 feet of hose, and into waiting trucks in August 1923. The barrels (save for one that was left untouched for inspection) were refilled with water and vinegar. The stolen whiskey was resold on the bootleg market.

Lemuel Motlow was charged by the police in what was later come to be known as the “whiskey milking case” but the case against Lemuel Motlow never went to trial. Twenty three others, including former St. Louis circuit clerk Nat Goldstein and William J. Kinney, brother of a state senator who at the time was responsible for the Jack Daniel’s inspection, were tried a year later in Indianapolis and sentenced to time in the Leavenworth (KS) jail. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the distillery returned to its roots in Tennessee, setting up shop in Lynchburg.

The Sunday Herald of December 29, 1895 shared a news story of a middle-aged woman by the name of Mrs. Lizzie Bowen, and her 19-year-old boarder, Maude Mersin (whose real name was Mary Sheridan) who were known to cause considerable troubles for their neighbors. Maude, according to the news article, had a way of becoming acquainted with a great many young men, and was well-known in drinking establishments around town. She also spent an inordinate amount of time on the streets which was a polite way of reporting that she was a street-walker (which was the polite term for prostitute at the time).

Mrs. Bowen was no stranger to bad behavior herself and saw no problem with what neighbors were upset over. The trouble, however, cause the duo to be forced from their apartment on Elm Street, moving to new lodgings on White Street, where their troubles followed them. Forced to move from their apartment on White Street, they relocated to North Main Street where neighbors, familiar with the pair, continue to keep an eye on them.  The article was aptly entitled, “From Pillar To Post.”

NOTE 3: The article included an interesting saying Idiomation had not previously heard: “Give a dog a bad name and you might as well hang him.”

According to Brewer’s “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” the original idiom was from post to pillar and was in reference to the tennis courts. It may seem strange to think of tennis as being a game of a certain age, however, it is, and historical documents speak of the game of court tennis in 13th century literature. A new addition to the game of tennis happened during the reign of King Henry VIII when tennis rackets were introduced into the game.

It was found in “Contention Between Liberality And Prodigality” published in 1602 where it was written:

Every minute tost, like to a tennis-ball, from pillar to post.

When Richard Stanyhurst published his book “Thee First Foure Bookes Of Virgil His Aeneis Translated Into English Heroical Verse” back in 1582, the game of tennis and the phrase were tied to each other as well.

Free thee poast toe piler with thoght his rackt wyt he tosseth.

Long before the tennis racket came into play, there were other elements that were integral parts of the game (which have long since disappeared) and tennis was an intricate game of strategy and endurance. Among the structures were galleries, grilles, tambours, and dedans. The net (which was nothing more than a rope) was tied to a post at one end and to one of the pillars supporting the galleries at the other end, and thus, the idiom from post to pillar began.

How do we know that this? We can thank John Lydgate (1370 – 1451) for writing the following in his work, “The Assembly Of The Gods” published in 1420.

And when he thedyr came, Humylyté hym took
A token and bad hym go to Confessyon,
And shew hym hys mater with a peteous look.
Whyche doon, he hym sent to Contrycion.
And fro thensforth to Satysfaccion.
Thus from poost to pylour was he made to daunce,
And at the last he went forthe to Penaunce.

But it does seem odd that if someone was going post to pillar, as John Lydgate wrote, that person would be doing so for penance. So if this reference hasn’t anything — or much of anything — to do with royal tennis, then the reference must have to do with being taken from the pillory to the whipping post as mentioned in John Ray’s book “A Hand-Book Of Proverbs” published in 1670 where he included, “To be tost from post to pillory.”

The spirit of the idiom, however, is first found in the book by John Heywood (1497 – 1580) entitled “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies” published in 1562. In Part II, Chapter II of the section titled, “Proverbs” the following is found:

And from post to pillar, wife, I have been tossed
By that surfeit. And I feel a little fit
Even now, by former attempting of it.

Also in this same book, John Heywood also included the following:

Tossed from post to pillar: thou art a pillar strong;
And thou hast been a pillar, some say, too long.

And so it seems that the idiom was recognized and understood in 1562 (and meaning what the idiom means today) which indicates that back in the mid-1500s, from pillar to post (or actually from post to pillar) was already understood by the general population in England.

This indicates that somewhere between 1420 when the phrase first appeared in “Assembly Of The Gods” by John Lydgate and 1562 in “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies” by John Heywood, the spirit of the idiom became set to mean going from one thing to another, and not getting anywhere.

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century, Tennis | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In A Pickle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 13, 2015

When you find yourself in a pickle what that means is that you’ve found yourself in a position where you don’t know what to do, and where whatever you decide to do, you will probably have to deal with some unpleasant consequences.

On April 28, 1994, John N. Grigsby of the Toledo Blade newspaper published an intriguing story in his column “The Street Where You Live” all about the name of a street in Oregon Township. The column started by announcing that for years, residents in Oregon Township had wondered how Pickle Street got its name. Usually streets are named after early settlers, but in this case, not one settler named Pickle had ever lived in the township.

While there had been a farmer named Pickle at some point in the township’s history, by the time he settled in Oregon Township, the street had been named long before. Pickle Street had been known as County Road 183 and Brand Street and Stevens Street and Freedom Street, cut county commissioners decided in 1919 to settle on naming it Pickle Street. The column headline read, “Oregon Residents Caught In A Pickle Over Naming Of Thoroughfare.”

The Reading Eagle published a story back in 1934 by author Thornton W. Burgess in his column, “Nature Stories.” This one was titled, “Peter Rabbit Is In A Pickle.” The word pickle was used often throughout the story, including in this passage:

So, now you see what a pickle Peter was in. He was afraid to go over to that machine on account of the man, and he was afraid not to go because all the other little people would call him a coward and a boaster.

A little more than a century earlier, in 1820, Harry Broom (which was a pseudonym the author used) wrote a series of plays under the heading, “King In A Pickle.” The entire series was a satirical recounting of current affairs and lampooning King George IV and fellow royals, very much in the style of William Shakespeare.

SIDE NOTE:  The author was also responsible for another humorous book entitled, “A Nursery Guide For Ministers’ Wives.”

Speaking of Shakespeare, the bard used in a pickle in Act 5, Scene 1 of his play “The Tempest” published in 1610.

ALONSO:
And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?
How camest thou in this pickle?

TRINCULO:
I have been in such a pickle since I
saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of
my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.

But it’s an odd little poem from in the book “Proverbs and Epigrams” by John Heywood and published in 1562 that the words appears in the sense of a pickle being a difficult situation.

Time is tickell
Chaunce is fickell
Man is brickell
Freilties pickell
Poudreth mickell
Seasonyng lickell

This is the earliest published version Idiomation could find for in a pickle referring to a difficult situation, and for it to be cleverly used in John Heywood’s work indicates that the phrase was understoodin 1562 to mean a difficult situation. It’s reasonable to believe that at least a generation earlier, the idiom took on this meaning. Idiomation therefore pegs in a pickle to the early 1500s.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Many A Mickle Makes A Muckle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 11, 2015

Until recently, Idiomation wasn’t aware of the idiom that proclaimed that many a mickle makes a muckle. As the idiom was researched, it was learned that mickle and muckle are different forms of the same word meaning much or large.

The saying is actually many a pickle maks a mickle, which some mangled into many a pickle maks a muckle. This in turn became many a mickle makes a muckle.

But what exactly did it mean to use pickle in this sense if mickle meant much or large? In Scotland, where the idiom originated, pickle meant a small quantity. So the idiom actually meant that many little things gathered together made for a lot.

On February 13, 1985, the Wilmington Morning Star published the usual assortment of Letters to the Editor. The first letter was from Henry Stone Jr. of Supply, North Carolina. The focus of the letter was military spending, or rather, military misspending. In his letter, he pointed out that when ten million in military spending couldn’t be accounted for, it was understandable given that ten million was only one half of one hundredth of one percent of the $200 billion budget. But it was still ten million dollars of taxpayers’ money. His last sentence was modified and became the headline for the Letters to the Editor that day: Many A Military Mickle Makes A Muckle.

Over in Australia, The Age newspaper ran an advertisement in the May 24, 1951 edition for the State Savings Bank of Victoria. Using a story about a little raindrop, the hope was that readers would bank with them. The first paragraph in the copy titled “Said The Raindrop!” was this:

Little by little makes more and more, or as the saying goes, “Many a mickle makes a muckle.”

The Milwaukee Sentinel of May 18, 1924 published an advertisement placed by the First Wisconsin National Bank — a bank that proudly announced that it had capital and surplus of ten million dollars, and boasted a clientele of over 59,000 customers. The advertisement was intended to encourage readers to save money at their bank, stating that every little bit, added to what one already had, made for a little bit more. The advertisement was titled, “Many A Mickle Makes A Muckle.”

In the May 20, 1916 edition of the Milwaukee Journal a small tidbit of information was tucked neatly between comments about Germany, and the House Committee’s decision to authorize seven capital ships (three dreadnaughts and four battle cruisers), and an OpEd piece by H. Addington Bruce discussing the drawbacks of being a dilettante.

The nugget praised France for making the most of little things, and was titled, “The Power Of Little Things.” The article ended with this paragraph.

Many a mickle makes a muckle, but America has just begun to learn the lesson. Many a small waste added to the great current makes a vast drain of hundreds of millions of dollars. France, above all nations, can teach us the undreamed power of little things combined into stupendous wholes.

When George Washington (22 February 1732 – 14 December 1799) heard the expression used, he misremembered it and introduced it to America as many mickles make a muckle. It would appear that the misremembered expression was first used in a letter he wrote to William Pearce on December 18, 1793 in which he wrote:

Nothing will contribute more to effect these desirable purposes than a good example, unhapply this was not set (from what I have learnt lately) by Mr. Whiting, who, it is said, drank freely, kept bad company at my house and in Alexandria, and was a very debauched person, wherever this is the case it is not easy for a man to throw the first stone for fear of having it returned to him: and this I take to be the true cause why Mr. Whiting did not look more scrupulously into the conduct of the Overseers, and more minutely into the smaller matters belonging to the Farms; which, though individually may be trifling, are not found so in the agregate; for there is no addage more true than an old Scotch one, that “many mickles make a muckle.”

But George Washington wasn’t the only American to share a misheard version of the idiom. In fact, in the writings of Benjamin Franklin (17 January 1706 – 17 April 1790), a variation appears. In Volume II of “The Writings of Benjamin Franklin” collected and edited by Albert Henry Smith and covering the years 1722 through 1750 inclusive, the following is said to have been published in The Pennsylvania Gazette on July 24, 1732 under the pseudonym of Celia Single. In the letter, a discussion is recounted and includes this:

“I knit Stockins for you!” says she; “not I truly! There are poor Women in Town, that can knit; if you please, you may employ them.” “Well, but my Dear,” says he, “you know a penny sav’d is a penny got, a pin a day is a groat a year, every little makes a muckle, and there is neither Sin nor Shame in Knitting a pair of Stockins; why should you express such a might Aversion to it? As to poor Women, you know we are not People of Quality, we have no Income to maintain us but what arises from my Labour and Industry: Methinks you should not be at all displeas’d, if you have an Opportunity to get something as well as myself.”

For those who prefer George Washington’s variation, many mickels make a muckle dates back to George Washington and 1793. For those who prefer Benjamin Franklin’s variation, every little makes a muckle dates back to Benjamin Franklin and 1732.

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

Cute As A Button

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 6, 2015

Children are said to be cute as a button although every once in a while someone might refer to a young woman in this way. What it means is that the person who’s said to be cute as a button is charming and attractive while implying the person is small or young, like a child is.

On March 30, 2014, snlgamers.com published an article from writer, David Graham that discussed Nintendo’s history. The article was titled, “Hanafuda: Nintendo’s Past” and gave a detailed accounting of where Nintendo began and how it became what it is a hundred years later. Along the way, the writer included this passage.

We think of Nintendo as the wholesome video game company. Mario and Kirby are as cute as a button and the company in general feels squeaky clean, especially compared to other industry titans.

Back on October 30, 1995, journalist Tony Kronheiser’s story, “Those 15 Minutes Of Fame Will Ruin The Kid” about 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier from Old Tappan in Bergen County (New Jersey) hit the newsstands. It’s not that Tony wasn’t aware that his comments might not be appreciated by some, however, as a journalist, he felt compelled to write the story nonetheless.

The boy in question had leaned over the right field railing at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the American League Championship at the bottom of the 8th inning with one out and the Orioles leading 4 to 3. He stretched his baseball gloved hand out over Tony Tarasco, and gave the New York Yankees a home run in the process.

The journalist knew that his comments would be unpopular with a segment of the population but that didn’t stop him from writing about the situation as it was. And he predicted that some of his detractors might even think this of him:

Tony, this is the lowest you’ve ever sunk. He’s a 12-year-old boy, and he’s cute as a button. So what if he hurt the Orioles? Stop pandering to the Washington audience. All the kid did was try to catch a fly ball. You’d have done the same thing yourself.

As it was, the Baltimore Orioles lost the pennant that year, and over the years, Jeffrey Maier went on to play high school and college baseball, and then worked for minor-leagues baseball teams. And the journalist was right: Jeffrey Maier never escaped from being forever thought of as The Kid.

In the Deseret News edition of April 16, 1954 stores were in full swing with spring fashions and nothing said cute as a button for a little girl than a strappy little patent leather number as seen in this newspaper advertisement.

Cute As A Button_1954
In the book, “The Best Plays of 1938 – 39” edited by Burns Mantle, the idiom appeared in “Kiss The Boys Good-Bye.” It was a comedy in three acts, written by American author (and later U.S. Ambassador) Clare Boothe  (10 March 1903 – 9 October 1987) and later known as Clare Boothe Luce after marrying Henry “Harry” Luce (3 April 1898 – 28 February 1967), the founder of Time and Fortune magazines.

BREED
The Old South, the last illusion of the New North —

CINDY LOU
Lift me down (TOP lifts her down.)

BREED
… destroy that — and comes the Revolution!

CINDY LOU
I declare you’re strong …

BREED
Personally, I think she’s cute as a button

CINDY LOU
Why, you damn Yankee pole-cat! Here I come!

The idiom as we know it is actually an abbreviated version of cute as a button quail. For those who aren’t familiar with button quail, they’re tiny, extra-fluffy, docile members of the quail family. They have an extensive vocabulary with multiple chirps and coos that are understood by other button quail, and yet, their chirps and coos are very quiet … perhaps so as not to disturb others in the vicinity.

The proper name for button quail is Chinese Blue Breasted Quail (Excalfactoria chinensis) and are native to only a few provinces in southeast China. European tourists visiting China in the late 1800s and early 1900s fell in love with them and took them back home with them to add to their persona aviaries.

American soldiers during WWI encountered them in these homes in Europe. Soon afterwards they were brought to America. However, rather than arrive with their proper name, American soldiers reported that these little birds were about the size of their uniform coat buttons when they first hatched, and that’s where the idiom began.

Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the 1920s.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In High Cotton

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 4, 2015

It’s not often that you hear of someone living in high cotton, but when you do, you know that person is living the easy life and is doing well financially.

The roots of this idiom are found in the southern United States in the years before the American Civil War. When cotton grew high and was abundant (in other words, a bumper crop), a good price could be had for that cotton leaving the farmer flush with cash. That same cotton crop came with bonuses for field workers as well by way of shade courtesy of the high cotton, which spared field workers from the harsh rays of the scorching sun overhead.

Just this month, the idiom was used in an article on August 4, 2015 on San Antonio’s Express-News website. The article was about how the Lubbock wineries were defying all odds and producing some amazing wines. A photo of owner, Vijay Reddy standing alongside some of his vines on his 100 acre vineyard showed how well the venture was doing. The article included this intriguing paragraph.

Vijay Reddy, a soil expert, emigrated to West Texas from India and wound up in high cotton himself. But, although there’s no history of grape-growing or winemaking in his family, Reddy’s relatively newfound passion has led him to plant more than 20 varietals over about 100 acres on his spread near Brownfield.

About twenty years ago, nationally syndicated columnist, Charley Reese wrote about the state of affairs in Washington in an article entitled, “Budget Balancing Act All An Act.” His column took on the issue of $1.4 trillion in federal spending couples with another $800 billion in state and local spending. When all was said and done, it was clear that Charley Reese wasn’t impressed with what was going on in Washington. He kicked off the column with this statement.

If we could manage our own finances the way the Congress does the nation’s, we’d all be living in high cotton and eating high on the hog.

The column by James J. Kilpatrick that was published on July 21, 1970 in the Herald-Journal newspaper took Washington to task as well, this time on the issue of consumer protection, and Maryland Senator Joe Tydings Consumer Class Action Act.  The Act didn’t address the problem of bad workmanship or poor design or anything else along those lines. The operative words in the Act were “unfair” and “deceptive.”

It is more accurately an act to line the pockets of ingenious attorneys. If this bill passes, the lawyers will be in high cotton; their client consumers will be still hoeing the short rows.

On page 114 of Volume 170 of The Atlantic Monthly magazine published in 1942, the expression could be found in this short story.

You have been walking in high cotton for a long time; keep it up! I was born in the deep South, lived all over the U. S. A., and have seen and experienced much abroad.

The fact of the matter is that the cotton industry helped to grow the American economy in the 1830s and 1840s, and it wasn’t long before people cottoned on to the slogan, “Cotton is king.” After sugar and tobacco, cotton considered a luxury commodity around the world. By the time the mid-1800s rolled around, cotton was America’s leading export. What’s more, raw cotton had become essential to the European economy.

Cotton was to the economy then what oil has become to the economy now. Not only did cotton generate large revenues for plantation owners in the United States (and indirectly for the United States of America overall), it impacted on the American government’s ability to borrow money in the global market.

How much cotton was produced by America for the European market, you ask? Prior to the American Civil War, 77 percent of the 800 million pounds of cotton used by Britain came from the United States. It provided two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton outside of Britain.

And how was America able to provide so much cotton to the world’s economies? In 1793, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had teeth with which it could comb out and separate the seeds from the cotton. Because of this, cotton became an extremely profitable cash business that eventually surpassed even tobacco production. Once cotton became a lucrative crop, many plantation owners in the Antebellum South amassed impressive fortunes.

Back in 1860, cotton sold for $0.10 cents a pound, but by 1864, cotton sold for $1.89 a pound. Understandably, the better the crop, the higher the price that could be demanded for that crop.

And this is how in high cotton came to mean an easy life with more than enough money to rely on.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »