Historically Speaking

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Archive for October, 2015

Let Your Mouth Overload Your Back

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 15, 2015

When someone warns you to not let your mouth overload your back, it’s one of many similar idioms including the colloquial Texas phrase that became popular in the 1920s: “Don’t let your alligator mouth overload your hummingbird ass.”  It’s also related to the expression that you shouldn’t let your mouth write a check that your butt can’t cash.  Or make promises you can’t keep.

In other words, someone who lets their mouth overload their back will talk the talk but prove unable to walk the walk (which is also an idiom).

On April 12, 2015 Tom Aswell’s article in the Louisiana Voice took on the matter of Bobby Jindal’s comments about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well as the Hilary Clinton email server scandal.  The article opened with this paragraph.

My granddad had an admonition for someone (more than once, that someone was me) who he thought was running his mouth off a little too much: “Don’t let your alligator mouth overload your jaybird ass.”

In the Evening News edition of September 7, 1990 the question was asked by a journalist whether President Bush and the United Nations had overstepped their boundaries with comments about Iraq.  At the time, Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and both the U.N. Security Council and President Bush immediately denounced Iraq’s actions.  They demanded an immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces, and the restoration of the government of the emir of Kuwait.  Carl Rowan began his article with this paragraph.

When I was a schoolboy, saying bravely that I should “teach that schoolyard bully a lesson,” I always had a wise pal who would say, “Never let your mouth overload your ass.”

In Volume 11 of the Georgia State Bar Journal published in 1974, the idiom was used on page 32 when the author of the article stated that in his enthusiasm to propose a grand program a year earlier, he had forgotten the old adage about letting his mouth overload his butt.

What this shows is that the idiom in its many variations is as popular now as it’s been in the past regardless of the varying descriptors used to describe the mouth or what the mouth may be overloading.

Because there are many variations of the idiom found over the centuries, Idiomation searched long and hard for the spirit of the idiom.  It was found in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 5:6.

“Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?”

The Bible passage warns that you shouldn’t let your mouth overload your abilities otherwise you’ll get yourself into trouble when it comes time to back up those words.

What’s your favorite version of this expression?  Feel free to share in the Comments Section below.

Posted in Bible, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Argue With A Fence Post

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 13, 2015

Someone who would argue with a fence post is someone who enjoys arguing for argument’s sake.  In fact, they’re so argumentative and so stubborn that they don’t care who their opponent is.  Someone who will argue with a fence post is someone who will argue with anyone at any time … and sometimes with everyone all the time.

Robert Reno’s column in the News-Journal of November 18, 1993 took on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and what Bill Clinton was up to at the time.  While  he could have stated his position with more bite, he chose to say that Clinton’s first year as president taught Americans that their President was a master of the art of moving target politics.  The article titled, “Clinton A Moving Target” made good use of the idiom in this paragraph.

And where did they find him this week?  In their own bed, on NAFTA at least.  Clearly — unless he self-destructs from the weight of his own style — the Republicans are never going to defeat this guy by debating him.  That’s his briar patch.  He’d argue with a fence post.

The idiom was also used in an article in the “Lutheran Society for Worship, Music and the Arts” magazine published in 1961 by the University of Virginia.

Has the church neglected the Upper Ten?  We have.  We have piously sat back on our own justification by faith and said:  “Poor fellow! Just educated himself right out of his faith.  Read too much, heard too much, intellectualized too much.  I really feel sorry for him”; or “Well, after all, you can’t argue with a fence post, and he doesn’t want the truth; he only wants an argument.”

Philip Beaman published a book of idioms titled, “Eastern North Carolina Sayings: From Tater Patch Kin to Madder than a Wet Setting Hen” in February 2014.  For those who haven’t heard of the author, he comes from a family of nine children, and was raised on a tobacco farm in rural East North Carolina.  Despite holding four college degrees and having invested 35 years as an educator, he continues to live in rural North Carolina.  Philip Beaman’s book is filled with idioms he heard as a child.  Born in 1936, that means that what he heard was were established sayings members in the community understood in the 1940s including the one about arguing with a fence post.

It’s difficult to trace back this idiom although it’s considered to be primarily a southern expression.  That being said, Idiomation came at this challenge from the other direction.  What society understands a fence to be is found in legal documents in England as early as the 1600s, and the term as we understand it to mean, was used in laws that were made in Virginia beginning in 1631.

By 1646, fence laws were such that the legal definition of a lawful fence was one that was four and a half feet above ground and at least a half-foot below ground.  In other words, the fence, by law, had to be substantial at the bottom, and it had to be a sturdy fence.  Fence posts were to be no farther than twelve feet apart, and on the forty-two inches that were above ground, they were to have at least three boards firmly attached to them.  The fences were to be made of timber which was plentiful in most of western Virginia.

What’s more, the laws that were enacted at the time were strict and could not be argued because of the great amount of detail that was part of the law on fences.  Additionally, any filed fence agreements between landowners were binding between successive generations and successive landowners.

In other words, once a fence was erected and once there was a filed fence agreement between neighbors, nothing could be done to bring that fence down.  It was to stay up and it was to be maintained by both property owners who shared the fence between them.

If the idiom in its entirety is considered, it would seem that the idiom sprung from the fence laws of Virginia.

He would argue with a fence post, then pull up the post and argue with the hole.

Based on the fence laws, arguing with the fence post or the hole in which it was sunk would have no effect on the fence post or the hole, no matter how much the other person argued the point.  If someone argued over the fence laws of the day, they weren’t going to get anywhere and they knew they weren’t going to get anywhere. it would have to be someone who loved to argue to argue any aspect of the fence law.

While Idiomation was unable to peg an exact date when the idiom was first used, the reason for the idiom seems to lead directly back to the fence laws of Virginia in the early 1600s.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Slick Willie

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 6, 2015

Slick Willie is a term that, upon hearing it, is understood to mean something uncomplimentary towards the person to whom it refers.  Those who are called Slick Willies are cunning and deceptive people who are superficially appealing and polished, but who are shallow and glib, and able to deftly execute convincing arguments that favors the con man and defrauds the mark.

While watching a rerun of Season 3 of Shark Tank,  founder, president and chief executive officer of FUBU, Daymond John used the term when referring to one of the people pitching to the sharks, and then categorically that he was out.

In Norwalk (CT), in the April 3, 1992 edition of The Hour newspaper, an article by Walter Mears addressed the situation with Bill Clinton.  He mentioned that on NBC-TV’s “Meet The Press” that a questioner had stated that Bill Clinton was tagged with the name Slick Willie as far back as when he was still a governor in Arkansas.  From the Monica Lewinski affair to his Vietnam draft status, from business dealings long before he was a political force to his business dealings once he was a political force, and many situations over the years, the term Slick Willie seemed to be tied to Bill Clinton’s reputation.  The article began with this paragraph:

Long before his scarred presidency, Richard Nixon wrote the book on political image problems.  Now Bill Clinton is struggling with a sequel, Tricky Dick, meet Slick Willie.

Slick Willie was also the name given to a bank robber who began his career in 1919 and continued until well past his media reported death on September 6, 1951.  William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton (30 June 1901 – 2 November 1980) was infamous for his carefully planned bank robberies and jailbreaks for which he was notorious.  He supposedly died from wounds inflicted in a holdup according to the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 6, 1951, and allegedly Philadelphia’s underworld  was atwitter over Slick Willie‘s misreported demise.

William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton was known by a number of names.  While his birth certificate stated he was William Sutton, his many aliases included William Bowles, James Clayton, Richard Courtney, Leo Holland, Julian Loring, Edward Lynch, and many others.  How famous was Slick Willie?  On March 9, 1950, he led his team of three into a branch of the Manufacturers Trust Company in New York City at 8:30 AM and strolled out of the branch with $63,942 USD (the equivalent of $636,202 USD in 2015 terms) in hand.

He was also incorrectly credited for masterminding the million dollar Brinks Express Company robbery in Boston on January 17, 1950.  The caper netted the group over $1.2 million USD in cash and over $1.5 million USD in checks, money orders, and securities.  Billed as the crime of the century by the media as well as law enforcement, it was the work of an eleven-member gang.  When the case was cracked, it was revealed that Joseph ‘Big Fernand’ McGinnis was actually the man behind the heist, and not William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton.  But that Slick Willie had been originally tagged as most likely to have pulled the caper off speaks loudly to Slick Willie‘s reputation.

The article reporting on Slick Willie‘s passing — which appeared in newspapers across America — was titled, “Slick Willie Dead Says Philly Paper.”  As mentioned earlier in this article, news of Slick Willie‘s death was premature.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  William ‘Slick WillieSutton didn’t die in 1951.  In fact, he died in 1980 aged 79.  True to the slickness of his character, when he was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”  

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  In 1970, William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton promoted the new photo credit card program in a television commercial he did for the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company, not long after his release from Attica State Prison on Christmas Eve 1969.

Now, back as early as the mid 1800s, the term slick meant something rendered smooth on the surface, and generally referred to oil on water, or to the oilyness — or slickness — of a person’s character.

It was used by Canadian politician, judge, and author Thomas Chandler Haliburton (17 December 1796 – 27 August 1865) in his first book titled, “The Clockmaker, or, The Sayings And Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville” which was published in the Nova Scotian as a serial in 1835 and 1836.  In the novel, Sam Slick was a Yankee clock peddler who used his vast understanding of human nature to make sales.

Haliburton’s novel was Canada’s first international bestseller, and was extremely popular not only in Canada, but in the U.S. and Britain as well.  Sam Slick’s take on Canadians (and Canada) and Americans (and America) mocked everyone equally in the comic fiction.  Sam Slick was so popular that Haliburton went on to publish a number of memorable Sam Slick books.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3:  It should be noted that the first Sam Slick novel established Thomas Chandler Haliburton as one of the founders of North American humor.

Perhaps it’s due in some small measure to the success of Haliburton’s character Sam Slick and his behavior that Cambria County politician, William Slick, was derisively called Slick Willie by some at the Constitutional Convention of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where proposals for amendments to the American Constitution were discussed at Harrisburg in May of 1837.

And back in 1590, the term slick referred to someone or something that was clever in deception.

So the meaning of the word slick has a long history when it comes to slippery characters.  While it’s true that Sam Slick was the original term, within two years of the name being published, Slick Willies were being outed in America.  This puts the earliest known version of Slick Willie to 1837 with many nods to the definition for slick, in the spirit of the idiom, in the 250 to 300 years preceding Slick Willie making it into the lexicon.

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

Jasper

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 1, 2015

If you’re from the city, if you call someone a Jasper, you’re referring to that person as uneducated rustic
simpleton.  If you’re talking Smoky Mountain English, a Jasper is an outsider.  A stranger.  Someone not from the mountains.

In Donald Goines book “Black Gangster” published in 1977, the author used the more insulting version of the word.

Dot is just as cold, or colder, than any jasper we could put on the case.

It was in used in an article published in the New Yorker magazine in 1970.

What’s with those jaspers?

January 1, 1963, publisher Angus & Robertson issued “Why Do Women …?” written by pulp fiction author Mark Corrigan.  While Mark Corrigan was a prolific author, he was far more prolific than most realized as this was a pen name for prolific British author Norman Lee (10 October 1898 – 2 June 1964) who also wrote under the pseudonyms Robertson Hobart, Raymond Armstrong, and wrote one novel under the pseudonym, J. Earle Dixon in 1960.  It’s believed that the novels by Norma ‘Nicky’ Lee published in 1953 and 1954 were also written by Norman Lee.  On page 173 of this novel, the following line was included:

If that dark jasper calls on you again, try and keep him here.

Now one might mistake that to mean someone who with a dark complexion except that “The Theatre Dictionary: British and American Terms in the Drama, Opera, and Ballet” written by Wilfred Granville and published in London by Andre Deutsch in 1952 asserted the following to be term of the term Jasper.

Jasper: Traditional name for the villain of the piece in melodrama.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Wilfred Granville, along with Francis Gerard Roberts, also published the “Dictionary of Forces Slang: 1939 – 1945) which proved to be a comprehensive dictionary of terms used by the British Armed Forces during World War II.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Wilfred Granville published another dictionary related to military life in 1962 entitled, “Dictionary of Sailors’ Slang.”

In the book, “Flying U Ranch” written by American Bertha Muzzy Bower Sinclair Cowan (15 November 1871 – 23 July 1940) under her pseudonym B.M. Bower and published in 1914, the term was used in this passage.

“Well, now, you hain’t runnin’ this here show.  Honest to grandma, I’ve saw that time when a little foot-warmin’ done a sheepherder a whole lot us good; and, it looks to me, by cripes, as if this feller needed a dose to gentle him down.  You git the fire started.  That’s all I want you t’do, Happy.  Some uh you boys help me rope him — like him and that other jasper over there done to Andy.  C’me on Andy — it ain’t goin’ to take long!”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3:  Bertha Muzzy’s second husband (whom she married in 1912) was Canadian author Bertrand William Sinclair (9 January 1881 – 20 October 1972) and was also known as William Brown Sinclair.

But it was in the book “Checkers: A Hard Luck Story” by American writer, lyricist, composer and author Henry Martyn Blossom (1867 – 23 March 1919), writing as Henry M. Blossom Jr., and published in 1896 (and dedicated to the author’s friend Ellis Wainwright) that the term (with quotation marks around it) first appeared in print.

“I got in here at six to-night, and I’m going to get away at one.  After supper (Supper! I’ll tell you about that later!) I went over to the only shanty in the place that looked like a store, and opened the door.  There were a lot of ‘Jaspers‘ sitting around the stove, chewing tobacco and swapping lies.  I asked the guy that got up when I came in where he kept his stock (he had nothing in sight).  He lighted a lantern, walked me a quarter of a mile, and showed me four ‘mooley-cows’ — say, I was sore.  But I’m square with him — I gave him a couple of ‘Mexicans.'”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4:  Henry Blossom had a number of successful musical revues and musical comedies for which he was known, from “Sally In Our Alley” to “The Velvet Lady.”  He wrote songs for the musical revue “The Wizard Of Oz” which opened at the Majestic Theater on January 20, 1903, closed on October 3, 1903, and ran for a total of 293 performances on Broadway.  It re-opened in New York on March 21, 1904 and continued through to November 25, 1905 at three theaters in New York City:  Majestic Theater, Academy of Music Theater, and New York Theater.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the word jasper in this context than 1896 although the term jasper has been used in the United Kingdom to refer to wasps over the years.  That being said, wasps are not the sort of jaspers that are meant when the term is used in America.

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