Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Miss A Trick

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 29, 2016

The word miss — in the sense of “fail to perceive” — has been around since the late 1600s, and the word trick — in the sense of “a quick or artful way of getting a result” — has been around since the early 1600s.  Oddly enough, the expression miss a trick has not been around since the 1600s even thought it means to fail to take advantage of an opportunity.

The Princeton Union-Eagle newspaper used the idiom in an OpEd piece by Luther Door writing about the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie split that was published in the paper on September 25, 2016.

Or, as USA Today (never one to miss a trick on such an important matter) put it in a headline on one of its TWO stories on Wednesday, “That’s all, folks: Brangelina’s 12-year run comes to an end.”

For those of you who remember Peter Falk’s Columbo on television during the 1970s, perhaps you also remember Mrs. Columbo played by Kate Mulgrew (she of Star Trek: Voyager fame).  Back on November 15, 1979, the UK edition of the TV Times ran an article on Kate Mulgrew that included this tidbit.

“It was bliss when I moved to New York by myself and put down a lipstick and came back half an hour later to find it still there,” she says with a laugh. It’s a strong, raucous laugh and it matches her deep voice and strong face. She’s eating, drinking, smoking, talking and wise-cracking non-stop and she doesn’t miss a trick. You somehow get the feeling Peter Falk would approve of Kate Mulgrew, even if he doesn’t approve of Mrs. Columbo.

Years earlier in 1943, in the book “The Gastronomical Me” by M.F.K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher — a book about food, and eating and drinking — she used the idiom in one of her chapters.  The chapter was dated two years earlier in 1941, and the author was en route to Guadalajara (Mexico).  Once at the hotel with the rest of the hotel guests she’d met on the plane, five or six of the passengers at a table asked her to sit and have a drink with them (feeling sorry for her as she was travelling alone).  The discussion that ensued was one where everyone planned on making the most of their first night in town.

They were making plans for “seeing the town” after dinner, and asked me to go with them.  I said I was going to bed, and they looked strangely at me.  “You’ve been here before, then?” they asked, and when I said no, they laughed again, daringly, and said they weren’t going to waste any time in bed; they weren’t going to miss a trick.

Thirty years earlier, “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine” saw the expression used in a story by American social reformer and author, Mrs. John (Hall) Van Vorst (1873 – 18 May 1928) formerly Bessie McGinnis.  The story was published in the April 1913 edition (as well as in the North Carolina Christian Advocate on March 27, 1913), in the story “Don’t Trifle With Money.”

“All is fair in love and the detective business.  And look here, Miss Boyd” — Silverton lifted his forefinger.  “Don’t support, because you refuse, that the matter’s going to be dropped.  It’s going to be pushed right straight through, and just think what a feather it would be in your cap to face Mr. Walton with his crime!  It’s a nice little job, and we aren’t going to leave a stone unturned.  I guess we’ll have the public sympathy in our favor, and we’re not going to miss a trick.  Understand?”

SIDE NOTE 1:  Bessie Van Vorst was also the author of “Bugsby’s Daughter” and “Sacred Quality” among other titles. When she wasn’t writing as Mrs. John Van Vorst, she was publishing stories under the pseudonym Esther Kelly.  After the death of her first husband, she married French Senator and author Henri Robert “Hughes” Le Roux.

The idiom also appeared in the story, “Miss Devereux of the Mariquita: A Story of Bonanza Days in Nevada” by American military officer and author of more than 40 adventure books, Richard Henry Savage (12 Jun 1846 – 11 October 1903) published in 1895.  This paragraph in Chapter II titled, “Mr. Robert Devereux Declines A Drink” made it clear that missing a trick then meant the same thing is means these days.

Mr. Berard noticed as he drove back along C Street several knots of earnest looking men eagerly eying his great roan trotter.  He never fancied that they objected to the carmine-cheeked, mouse-eyed little French queen of Faro at his side.  But, even cool gray-eyed sports can miss a trick, now and then.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Richard Henry Savage was the author of “My Official Wife” as well as “The Flying Halcyon” and “The Masked Venus” among other novels.

Missing tricks are something people were warning against fifty years before that!  In 1844, American novelist and dramatist Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie (5 March 1819 – 21 July 1870) published a book titled, “The Fortune Hunter, Or, The Adventures Of A Man About Town.”  Now, Anna had an interesting history in that she was born in France and died in England, but her father was an American merchant, and her mother was the granddaughter of Francis Lewis, a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence.  Perhaps this is why she wrote as she did.

“Certainly — certainly:  Brainard, my dear fellow, hope to find you better when I call again — must get well — good morning, Mr. Ellery — Brainard, good morning my dear fellow, speedy recovery to you — speedy recovery!”

“And now, Brainard,” said Ellery, “play your cards well; be sure you don’t miss a trick.  I believe in my soul, that if you had not made such a fool of yourself about that Miss Walton, you would have been married to Esther before this.”

“Miss Walton — ah! do not mention her!”

“What! so tender on the subject yet?  A pretty fool you would have made of yourself if you had married her!”

SIDE NOTE 3:  Francis Lewis (March 21, 1713 – December 31, 1802) was born in Llandaff, Wales, and was a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence as a representative of New York.  He was a member of the Committee of Sixty as well as of the New York Provincial Congress, and signed the American Articles of Confederation which was an agreement serving as the first constitution of the United States.  The thirteen original states signed this agreement which was created on November 15, 1777 and ratified on March 1, 1781.

An earlier published version of this saying could not be found.  However, the ease with which it was used in Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie’s book in 1844 indicates that the expression was understood by society.  Idiomation therefore pegs this to at least one generation earlier, putting in the 1820s and perhaps earlier.

It’s certain that it wasn’t an expression back in the 1600s though even if both miss and trick together would imply the spirit of the expression we know and use today.

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