Historically Speaking

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Archive for June, 2016

Finger In Every Pie

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 30, 2016

Someone with a finger in every pie is usually someone who is involved in many different things.  Sometimes it’s said in a positive way to compliment someone who has a variety of skills, interests, and talents, and sometimes it’s said in a negative way to point out that someone is an opportunist who only cares about what’s in it for him or her.  In either case, however, the person with a finger in every pie usually has influence over the activities in which they are involved, and generally that’s frowned upon.

Bill Jamieson’s June 19, 2016 article in Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, titled, “Performance No Indicator of Portfolio Success” discussed fund managers, broad market indexes, and understanding how well an investment may have done in light of having fallen in value.  The concept of the blinkered idiot theory caught Idiomation’s eye (look for that entry sometime in July) as did the finger in every pie idiom.

Investment is not, Robin Angus argues, “about buying a little of this and a little of that, to get ‘exposure’ to every area and have a finger in every pie in the hope of finding plums to pull out.

With that, Idiomation was reminded of the Little Jack Horner nursery rhyme first published in 1725.

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said ‘What a good boy am I!’

Rumor has it that the nursery rhyme was actually about Thomas Horner (1547 – 1612) who was sent to Henry VIII’s court with a large Christmas pie that held the deeds to twelve manors between its crusts.  The Christmas pie was intended as a bribe  (although it was called a gift) from the Abbot of Glastonbury to King Henry VIII of England in exchange for not nationalizing Church lands.

Supposedly, Thomas retrieved the deed for the Manor of Mells in Somerset for himself which included lead mines in the Mendip Hills.  The plum was supposedly a play on words as the Latin word for lead is plumbum.  Thomas Horner’s descendants deny that this version of the tale is true, claiming that their ancestor legally purchased the deed from the abbey.

As his descendants claim, Thomas Horner could very well have purchased the deed with his own money for himself.  A great deal of land was stolen from the Catholic Church during King Henry VIII’s reign.  He didn’t keep all the land for himself, choosing to distribute some among his supporters so he could rely on their loyalty in the future (an insurance policy of sorts, you might say).  Protestant merchants who were doing well for themselves saw the purchase of such properties as a fantastic opportunity for themselves and their descendants, and so the lesser properties were sold to these merchants.  In another nursery rhyme (one that is oftentimes presented as a Protestant version of the Catholic rhyme), there’s a nod to that being what happened.

Hopton, Horner, Smith, and Finn
When abbots went out, they came in.

Regardless of how the property was obtained by Thomas Horner, in either nursery rhyme there seems to be some opportunistic gain involved, don’t you agree?

Eleven years after Thomas Horner’s death (and nearly a little more than a hundred years before the Little Jack Horner nursery rhyme was published), the spirit of the phrase is found William Shakespeare’s play from 1623 “Henry VIII” in Act 1, scene 1.  In this scene, Cardinal Wolsey is described by the Duke of Buckingham as being too involved in other people’s business.

The devil speed him! no man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger. What had he
To do in these fierce vanities? I wonder
That such a keech can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’ the beneficial sun
And keep it from the earth.

As one can see, ambition and pies were married to each other in literature by this time.

In fact, in the 1653 book “The Historie Of This Iron Age: Where Is Set Down The True State of Europe, As It Was In The Year 1500” by French historian and writer, Jean-Nicolas de Parival (1605 – 1669), the spirit as well as the first variation of the idiom appeared in print.

Lusatia, depending upon the Kingdom of Bohemia, was the allyance, and must needs, forsooth, have her Finger in the Pye.  This Province was recommended, to the Electour of Saxonie, who choosing rather to proceed by way of accommodation, then presently to fly to extremities, made the States acquainted with his Commission; shewed then the danger of persisting in obstinacy; and would have certainly have perswaded them, had not the Marquis of Lagerendorp broken the negotiation by force of arms, and brought the Negotiatours away prisoners.

While the spirit was found in William Shakespear’s play in 1623, Idiomation gives this one to Jean-Nicolas de Parival in 1653.


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Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 28, 2016

Many are familiar with the nursery rhyme about a young man named Simon who meets a pieman going to the fair.

Simple Simon met a pieman
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Let me taste your ware.”

Says the pieman to Simple Simon,
“Show me first your penny.”
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Indeed I have not any.”

Clearly, a pieman is simply that: Someone who makes  or sells pies.  But have piemen existed for as long as pies have, and do piemen still exist in today’s world?

According to the October 25, 2015 edition of the Mirror newspaper in the UK, piemen still exist and are worthy of news articles from time to time.  In an article published in the paper that day, it was reported that the boss of Morrison’s pie-making factory in Bradford had reached a milestone of sorts.  The article was titled, “Pieman‘s Appetite Is Off The Charts.”

A month earlier, however, the Canberra Times in Australia reported on September 24, 2015 that the southside Canberra was reeling from the passing of their last pieman, Leicester Donoghoe.  The funeral processions was lead by a 1936 Chevrolet van that had served as the pieman‘s original pie cart.

His was a colorful life, apprenticed as a baker and pastry cook at Duncan’s in Queanbeyan before buying the pie cart from Tom Wilkinson from the Top Hat Café in Manuka.  The article marked the man’s passing with the headline, “Leicester Donoghoe, Last Pieman Of Canberra’s South, Leaves With Tragic Wish.”

In Volume 25 (on page 57) of the “Materials Engineering” magazine published in 1947, an interesting line was inserted into an editorial titled, “Simple Simon Met A Pieman.”  Obviously an OpEd piece, it addressed a social injustice the author wanted known.  The piece began with this set-up.

Once upon a time there was a pieman named Getmore in fact there was a whole family of Getmores up to their necks in the pie business but not making a great deal of dough at that.

Perhaps it’s because the nursery rhyme lends itself so easily to being rewritten that a different version was published in “The Common Cause” on page 25 in 1912.  This version was titled, “Simple Simon On Capital” and was written by W.M. Ramsay.  It was actually part of a larger publication titled, “Great Anti-Socialist and Anti-Communist, Anti-communist Movements.”

Everybody knows that I met the Pieman, but they don’t know as I got a pie from him. This is how it same about.

“Let’s have a pie, Pieman,” says I.

“All right, says he, “let’s see your brass.”

“I ain’t got no brass now,” says I, “but I’ll soon get the brass at the fair.”

The focus of the story was to sell both sides of the concept.  At first, the story claimed that capitalism was “stealing from the poor, grinding down the workers and taking their profits, letting ’em starve and making bloated millinaires [sic]” as voiced by Thomas.

But Simon rebutted the definition by saying that capitalism wasn’t that at all.  Simon said:  “Capital keeps the sheep alive till the grass grows.  It puts something in your inside and sets you a-going at your job, and it grubs the men a-making the railroad and their wives and their little-uns, and buys ’em clothes and pays the lodging till the trains are running and the profits come in.”

It sounds to Idiomation like the Pieman from W.M. Ramsay’s story taught Simon quite a bit about capitalism.

Volume 4 of “Vick’s Monthly Magazine” published in 1881 had an article titled, “Notes And Reminiscences” that talked about the hopes the writer had for the Valley of the Murray in Australia.  Mentioning an article in an earlier edition, the writer — known only by his initials S.W.V. and the fact that he lived in Sandhurst — stated:

One character, “the pieman,” I offer a few additional remarks about, which may be of interest.  The pieman not only sold, but was open to the speculations; the pie was supposed to be of a standard commercial value, one penny, and his proposal for business was “‘Ot pie, toss o’ by” (Hot pie, toss or buy) and the adventurer would “spin a copper,” the pieman crying, “head or tail,” as the case might be.  If the pieman cried wrong he had to shell out the “‘ot pie” for a half penny; au contraire, if he called right the spectator lost his half penny.  It is, perhaps unnecessary to say that in any case the pieman was the winner, even if he always had to sell the pie at half penny, seeing that said pie was but a small bit of puff paste, and as to the meat or fruit it contained, it required a magnifying glass of high power to find it at all.

A generation earlier, in the 1851 edition of “London Labor and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Can Not Work, and Those That Will Not Work: Volume I” by English social researcher, journalist, playwright, and social reform advocate, Henry Mayhew (25 November 1812 – 25 July 1887), a similar situation is described.

The London piemen, who may number about forty in winter, and twice that number in summer, are seldom stationary.  They go along with their pie-cans on their arms, crying, “Pies all ‘ot!  eel, beef, or mutton pies!  Penny pies, all ‘ot — all ‘ot!”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Henry Mayhew was co-founder, along with Mark Lemon,(30 November 1809 – 23 May 1870) of the satirical and humorous magazine Punch first published in 1841. 

In “The Boston Weekly Magazine” published in 1802, it too mentioned of a pieman in a short insert titled, “Sagacity of a Dog.”  It was an amazing story that included this passage.

The next time he heard the pieman‘s bell, the Dog ran to him with impetuosity, seized him by the coat, and would not suffer him to pass. The pieman, who understood what the animal wanted, showed him a penny, and pointed to his master, who stood in the street door, and saw what was going on.

The concept of a pie being something where meat or fish are enclosed in pastry dates back to the 1350s.  Undoubtedly there have been piemen selling their wares since then, but somewhere between the 1350s and 1802, the term wasn’t published in books, pamphlets, or newspapers.  Or if it was, it has escaped Idiomation’s eyes.

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Pie In The Sky

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 23, 2016

Whenever people talk about pie in the sky they’re talking about how unlikely something is apt to be.  It’s a wish, an empty promise, a pleasant daydream, a prospect of future happiness that will go unfulfilled. Pie in the sky is something that is lovely to consider but not realistic to anticipate coming to fruition.

Today is the day the UK votes on whether to stay in the European Union.  There have been countless articles and interviews in the media discussing the pros and cons with no clear answer arrived at.

On one week ago, on June 15, 2016 the Daily Telegraph shared a report that the former Conservative shadow chief secretary to the Treasury said that only 12% of UK insurance exports were to the EU with the majority of insurance exports going to North American and Asia.  In his opinion, leaving the EU was the way to go.  The powers-that-be at the Association of British Insurers (ABI) saw things differently.

ABI’s director of regulation Hugh Savill said he suggestion that UK insurers could do business without taking account of European regulation was “pie in the sky.”

Baseball is one of those sports that everyone seems to love regardless of whether you’re a fanatic about it.  Back in 1984, Tom Monaghan, then owner of Domino’s Pizza (the largest privately held restaurant chain in the world at the time), owned the Detroit Tigers.  For him, it was a dream come true.

He had lived a difficult childhood, losing his father at 4, being placed in an orphanage by his mother at 6, and striking out on his own at age 12.  He bought a pizza shop at age 23 (with help from his slightly older brother who worked as a postman), and never looked back.  The article written by Jack Friedman and published in People magazine on May 6, 1984 was titled, “Owning The Detroit Tigers Is No Longer Pie In The Sky For Pizza King Tom Monaghan.”

Volume 180 of The Fortnightly magazine published in 1953 also used the expression in an  article about one of Britain’s British historian and political scientists, Professor Hugh Seton-Watson (15 February 1916 – 19 December 1984).  Professor Seton-Watson had used the expression in one of his articles.

An extraordinary remark (among other extraordinary remarks) is made by Professor Hugh Seton-Watson in his article “Moscow and the West” in the September number of The Fortnightly.  It is that the new promises of a speed-up in supplying consumers’ goods and housing “will soon be relegated” to the status of “pie in the sky.”  This statement is allegedly based on “the experience of many previous promises.”

INTERESTING NOTE 1:  Professor Seton-Watson was one of the two sons of British political activist and historian Robert William Seton-Watson (20 August 1879 – Skye, 25 July 1951).  R.W. Seton-Watson was also known by his pseudonym, Scotus Viator.

Interestingly enough, both the Harvard Bulletins in Education (1926) and the Infantry Journal (1927) published by the United States Infantry Association along with other publications at the time, quoted a song that had a scoffing attitude towards believing in the future.  It was identified as one of the I.W.W. songs, where the chorus is as follows:

You will eat bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie).

INTERESTING NOTE 2:  The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was a group of nomadic proletarians from the west coast of the U.S.  The group was started by Swedish immigrant, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (later known as Joe Hill) who arrived in American in October 1902.  His songs oftentimes ridiculed religion and non-union workers.

INTERESTING NOTE 3:  Joe Hill was arrested, charged, and found guilty of the murders of John Morrison, owner of Morrison Grocery, and his son Arling on the night of January 10, 1914 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was executed by firing squad inside the walls of the Utah state penitentiary on November 19, 1915.  He maintained he was innocent right up to his death.

Joel Emmanuel Hägglund aka Joe Hill (7 October 1879 – 19 November 1915) wrote his song, “The Preacher and the Slave” in 1906 as a parody of the popular hymn from 1868, “In The Sweet By And By” which was originally known as “There’s A Land That Is Fairer Than Day.”

Pie In The Sky_Parodied Hymn
It was published in the fourth printed edition of the Industrial Workers of the World songbook “Little Red Songbook” on July 6, 1911 under the title of “Long Haired Preachers” where it was credited to F. B. Brechler.  It was credited to F.B. Brechler in the 1912 edition, and then credited to Joe Hill in the 1913 edition.  It has been suggested that F.B. Brechler may have been a pseudonym used by Joe Hill.

INTERESTING NOTE 4:  The first edition of the “Little Red Songbook” was published in 1904 with the slogan, “To fan the flames of discontent.”

There is no earlier reference to pie in the sky, and so Idiomation pegs this idiom to 1906 courtesy of Joe Hill.  In the meantime, enjoy this rendition of Joe Hill’s song.

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Telling Porky Pies

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 21, 2016

While reading the comments section on a YouTube video, one comment spoke of someone telling porky pies.  To those who aren’t familiar with the expression, telling porky pies means someone is lying.

The Mirror newspaper reported on September 21, 2015 that British Prime Minister David Cameron wasn’t being entirely truthful when he claimed he was unaware of Lord Ashcroft’s controversial “non-dom” tax status in the months leading up to the 2010 general election.  However, Lord Ashcroft told the Daily Mail that he and David Cameron discussed the matter in detail in 2009.  The article was titled, “Is David Cameron Telling Porky Pies When It Comes To Misleading Voters Over Non-Dom Tax?

Thirty years earlier, in 1985, Volume 29 of “Canadian Electronic Engineering” found a way to insert the expression into an article.  Regardless of what the article was about, a definite statement was made about the origins of the saying.

Gallium arsenide as a chip material has reached political levels.  At least it has in the UK, where recently an honorable member was taken to task by the technical media for telling “porky pies” in the House.   That’s rhyming slang for telling terminological inexactitudes.

In the British sit-com, “Only Fools and Horses” which ran from 1981 to 1984, written and created by John Sullivan, the expression was included in a number of episodes including, but not limited to, Episode 2 of Season 4.

You don’t believe all them stories do you?

What?  Do you reckon they’re porkies?

According to the Rocking Rhyming Slang website as well as Londontopia, telling porky pies or telling porkies is one of the most well-known slang expressions throughout London and the UK.  On the Londontopia website, the authors claim that rhyming slang originated in the East End of London in the 1840s.  As we all know, language is a living and breathing entity, and Cockney rhyming slang has continued to expand since its inception.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  The term pork pie dates back to 1732.

That being said, pork pies were a British delicacy in England back in the day.  Hand-raised pork pies were first made in 1831 in Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  Joseph Hansom built the Belvoir Street Baptist Chapel in Leicester in 1845 which has been referred to as the Pork Pie Chapel because of its shape which resembles a Melton Mowbray pork pie!

The Melton Mowbray pork pies were mass produced (for the day) in the oldest surviving bakery, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe, from 1851 onwards.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  Melton Mowbray Pork Pies are protected by European Union law.  For those who doubt this fact, click HERE to download the PDF confirming this fact.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 4:  The area is equally famous for its Stilton cheese.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 5:  If you’re looking for a recipe that closely resembles these pork pies, click HERE and download this freebie.

The shape of the Melton Mowbray pork pies was the influence and reason pork-pie hats were called pork-pie hats which originated in 1855.  The pork-pie hat was a popular woman’s hat (sometimes worn at an angle on the forehead) with a flat crown and a brim that made it look like a Melton Mowbray pork pie.

Brits will tell you that the expression telling porky pies has been around as long as there have been Melton Mowbray pork pies.

As a side note, Idiomation also learned along the way that porky pies and mince pies in Cockney rhyming slang aren’t the same thing at all.  One is all about lies, while the other is all about eyes.

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Bone Up On

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 16, 2016

When someone is busy boning up on something, they’re busy studying something that they need to know — either because they didn’t know it before or because they’re forgotten some of what they learned on the subject.

With the U.S. primaries in full swing, even presidential candidates are boning up on all kinds of subject including Bernie Sanders who admitted to Univision anchor León Krauze on May 30, 2016 that he didn’t know as much about Central America as he should.  The article was published in Vibe  magazine ran with this headline: Bernie Sanders Admits He Needs To Bone Up On Latin American Politics.

It was back on June 4, 1971 that the Star News reported on the wedding cake the White House chef, Henry Haller,  would be creating for Tricia Nixon’s wedding.  The article titled, “Wedding Cake Recipe Stirs Up Controversy” dealt with the cake recipe White House chef shared with the media — a recipe he claimed was a favorite of the First Lady.  The problem seemed to be that  the recipe called for the use of egg whites only (and too many at that), the size of the pan, and other related problems.  The New York Times went as far as to state that when it followed the recipe to the letter, the cake they wound up with was a complete failure.

UPI’s food editor, Jeanne Lesem, said, “The White House needs a good proofreader and its chefs need to bone up on American culinary history.  Pound cake recipes called for one pound of butter, sugar, flour and eggs.  Whole eggs.”

When the General Deficiency Bill of 1917 was being heard on Thursday, April 5, 1917 by the subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations of the United States Senate, Senator James W. Wadsworth Jr of New York addressed the matter of military publications.  He was concerned about the need for increasing numbers of copies of Drill REgulations for the different branches of the United States Army as well as other manuals.

In addition to the very evident desirability of having these publications distributed with the utmost generosity, particularly in the formation of a new army which will contain thousands and thousands of exceedingly intelligent young men, who always have been and always will be hungry to get hold of the drill regulations or manuals and the Field Service Regulations in order to “bone upon them and check themselves up in their drills, in addition to the thousands of copies that will be demanded for that purpose and which should be available in the training of any new great force, the Adjutant General’s Office finds itself in this situation.

Dr. F.R. Brown, MD sent a letter from Yokohama, Japan on May 7, 1873 that was published in the Philadelphia Medical Surgical Reporter.  He was delighted to report that his colleagues should experience Japan which he said was a rapidly emerging society thanks to the blessings of modern civilization.  He seemed to be taken with the country as well as its inhabitants.  His letter expressed his enthusiasm in great detail including this passage:

I started without any particular object in view, other than getting rid of the rheumatism and asthma, as well as the annoyance and responsibility of private practice.  Out here I find, to me, a new world and a new people.  The first thing I did was to get a Japanese and English phrase book, and bone up on it.  I own a ginrickshaw (a two-wheeled carriage, of infantile proportions, universally used here), and two bettoes (tattooed men).  One man is enough on level ground, but up hill it is necessary to have one man to pull and another to push.

Because the expression was used so easily by a medical man, it was reasonable for Idiomation to wonder if boning up had to do with medicine.

What Idiomation learned was that beginning in 1846, British publisher Henry George Bohn (4 January 1796 – 22 August 1884) created and published the Bohn’s Libraries which were editions of standard works and translations of historical, scientific, theological, archeological, and classic literature texts that targeted the mass market while focusing on low prices.  It was considered literature for the masses.

In all, he published over 600 volumes complete with bibliographical and critical notices, and large additions to the original works between 1846 and 1864 when he sold his business to G. Bell & Sons. The final tally of volumes in Bohn’s Libraries swelled to 766 in total.  For obvious reasons, Henry George Bohn was known as THE bookseller of the nineteenth century.

As with all the books in which he was involved in writing and/or publishing, he retained his copyrights, selling them at great profit when he did sell.

One of Henry George Bohn’s quotes is this one:  Business and action strengthen the brain, but too much study weakens it.

With that in mind, students who were cramming for exams turned to Bohn’s volumes which led to the admission that they were Bohning up on things that might be included in their exams.  The correct way to say Bohn‘s name sounded very much like the word bone and soon students were boning up on subjects instead of Bohning up on them.

Sometime between 1850 and 1873 (when Dr. Brown used the expression in his letter to his colleagues), the phrase became an accepted and understood part of language.  Idiomation therefore pegs this to between 1855 and 1860.

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Bold As Brass

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 14, 2016

When someone is bold as brass, it means they’re confident to the point of being impolite and disrespectful, and sometimes beyond that point.

In the Daily Mail edition of June 4, 2016 the Tatler Tory Scandal was the subject of the article, “Tatler Tory’s Threats At Baroness’s Carlton Club Drinks Party.”  Written by the Political Editor for the Daily Mail, Simon Walters, it addressed the claim that David Cameron’s election aide, Mark Clarke, had, among other things, caused an uproar at a party hosted by Baroness Pidding on September 7, 2015.  The idiom was used by in the quote from Paul Abbott, the chief of staff to former Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps.

Mr. Abbott said Clarke had ‘walked up to her [the guest], bold as brass, and threatened her, saying he knew the names of at least two CWF volunteer who had made complaints [against Clarke to the Tory HQ inquiry].’

Part VII of “The Baby’s Grandmother” by Scottish novelist L.B. (Lucy Bethia) Walford (17 April 1845 – 11 May 1915) was published in the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine (Volume 135) of April 1884.  Ms. Walford wrote forty-five books, most of them light-hearted domestic comedies, including this one.  The idiom was used Part VII as follows.

“Oh, it’s all right, ma’am, it’s quite within the limits, I believe,” rejoined Mr Tufnell, who had learned much within the last half-hour; “it took me rather aback, I own, at the first blush, but — well, well, we must not be too particular to-night.  And to return to Miss Juliet Appleby –“

“And not a bit ashamed of herself!” murmured the lady, still dubiously scanning the gay vivandière, “skipping and twirling as bold as brass.”

“Eh? What?” cried her companion, pricking up his ears.  “As bold as brass, did you say? Who’s as bold as brass?”

“That flibbertigibbet Mary –“

Just as with the word cattywampus, the idiom bold as brass was used in Charles Dickens’ book, “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.”  Chapter 27 (where the idiom appears) is prefaced with this statement:  Showing that old friends may not only appear with new faces, but in false colours.  That people are prone to Bite, and that biters may sometimes be bitten.

‘Why, you’re as bold as brass!’ said Jonas, in the utmost admiration.

‘A man can well afford to be as bold as brass, my good fellow, when he gets gold in exchange!’ cried the chairman, with a laugh that shook him from head to foot. ‘You’ll dine with me to-morrow?’

‘At what time?’ asked Jonas.

‘Seven. Here’s my card. Take the documents. I see you’ll join us!’

‘I don’t know about that,’ said Jonas. ‘There’s a good deal to be looked into first.’

‘You shall look,’ said Montague, slapping him on the back, ‘into anything and everything you please. But you’ll join us, I am convinced. You were made for it. Bullamy!’

George Parker’s book “Life’s Painter of Variegated Characters in Public and Private Life” published in 1789, appears to be the first published example of the idiom.

“He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.”

In the 1570s, a person who was without modesty and who showed no shame for bad behavior was called brass.  Boldness wasn’t included in the description of such a person, but obviously someone without modesty and without shame would be perceived as being bold in their bad behavior.  What this means is that for at least two hundred years, some people were bold as brass but it wasn’t expressed that way in print until 1789.

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Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 7, 2016

Beginning in 1919, moonshine was outlawed and so many of the farmers in the southern United States hid their stills deep in the caverns that dotted their countryside.  In the evening, when all the work on the farm was done and the menfolk wanted to gather without the womenfolk knowing about it, all it took was the sound of a shotgun to set things in motion.

The sound of a shotgun meant that one of the farmers had seen a Wampus Cat, a fearsome variation of cougar with glowing eyes, that haunted the forests of East Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky.  When the shot was fired, everyone within earshot came running.

Of course, once everyone was gathered, they’d slip on down into the cavern where the moonshine still was hidden away, and indulge in some man cave time away from the women.  In 1943, all that changed due to changes in the law regarding moonshine.  But the fact that the cattywampus was blamed only served to make the fictional animal all the more real over the years.

In 1916, the Fourth Estate (which was a “newspaper for the makers of newspapers and investors in advertising” according to its tagline) carried an interesting tidbit about the cattywampus in its New Year’s Day edition.

The “Wampus Cat” is the latest creation of Charles H. Gatchell, cartoonist for the Cleveland (Ohio) Press and creator of the “Colonel Al Ibi” series.  Someone in the office remarked recently that “Gatch” was a “Wampus Cat” at making cartoons, and “Gatch” immediately drew up plans and specifications for what he thought a “Wampus Cat” ought to look like.

Imagine the consternation among the art staff when a scientific subscriber wrote in and stated that there really is such an animal as a “Wampus Cat” and that it doesn’t look anything like “Gatch’s” characterization.

On page 225 of Volume 4 of “Dialect Notes” published by the University of Alabama Press in 1917, a definition for catawampus (or wampus cat) was included.

Catawampus (or wampus) cat, n.phr. A virago.  “She’s a regular catawampus cat.”

IMPORTANT NOTE 1:  A virago is the word used to describe a domineering, aggressive woman.

Charles Dickens’ serialized story “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit” published in 1843 through 1844 used the word catawampous in the sense that’s found in the stories of the southern U.S. States.  Perhaps it’s because he had returned from a six-month voyage to America with his wife, Catherine, in 1842 that he included it in this story.

“Snakes more,” says he; “rattle-snakes. You’re right to a certain extent, stranger. There air some catawampous chawers in the small way too, as graze upon a human pretty strong; but don’t mind THEM — they’re company. It’s snakes,” he says, “as you’ll object to; and whenever you wake and see one in a upright poster on your bed,” he says, “like a corkscrew with the handle off a-sittin’ on its bottom ring, cut him down, for he means wenom.”‘

IMPORTANT NOTE 2:  Charles Dickens did not enjoy his trip abroad in America.  He was appalled at the commonness of society (which included spitting tobacco into a spittoon) and insulted at how poorly he was treated by the press.  He held no hope for America achieving any sort of moral improvement, and disapproved of slavery.

It would be easy to let the trail end here, however, the fictional Wampus Cat isn’t the beginning of the expression catawampus or cattywampus.  The word appears in Volume 16 of Punch magazine published in 1849 where it’s used in a story titled, “A Few Days In The Diggins” by a “Free and Independent.”  The author, it would seem, wished to remain anonymous.  That being said, this is the passage that includes the word.

Toted my tools to Hiram K. Doughboy’s boarding shanty, and settled with him for blankets and board at 30 dollars per diem.  Catawampus prices here, that’s a fact; but everybody’s got more dust than he knows what to do with.

By 1864, the word cattywampus was understood in the United States of America to mean that something was askew, out of whack, or wrong which is the meaning the word carries to this day.  But back in the 1830s, the word was used as an adverb in the sense of “utterly and completely.”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the word.  In light of the fact that cattywampus was published in the 1830s implies it was used in conversation in years leading up to the 1830s so Idiomation pegs this to a generation earlier to about 1800.

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