Historically Speaking

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Archive for October, 2017

Whole Cheese

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 19, 2017

In the 1939 Bulldog Drummond movie “Secret Police” Aunt Blanche (played by Elizabeth Patterson) asks Gwen Clavering (played by Heather Angel) if she’s sure about marrying Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (played by John Howard). Gwen’s response is that Hugh Drummond is the whole cheese.

The expression whole cheese means that person is the real deal and not an imitation of what one perceives the person to be. The whole cheese, however, should not be mistaken for the big cheese who is an important, influential person. In other words, a person who is the whole cheese may also be a big cheese, but a big cheese isn’t always the whole cheese.

What cheese has to be with being the real deal is something that isn’t as easy to track down however.

From the news article titled “Those Cotton Associations” published on 1 February 1906 in both the Dallas Southern Mercury newspaper and the Farmers Union Password, the whole cheese is mentioned in an article about Colonel E.S. Peters, Vice-President of the Texas Cotton Growers’ Protective Association.

Col. E. S. Peters of Calvert served with distinguished honors for a number of years as “the Texas Cotton Growers’ Protective Association.” The Colonel was just about “the whole cheese.”

IMPORTANT NOTE 1: Colonel E.S. Peters’ plantation was in the Brazos Valley, near Calvert, TX. In 1900, boll-weevils were threatening the cotton industry in Texas which supplied nearly 25% of the cotton worldwide. The Peters Plantation allowed entomologists to experiment on his land as it was in the most seriously affected portion of the boll-weevil territory. As a result, the experiments proved successful, and a full report was submitted by Congressman Slayden to the House Committee on Agriculture on December 17, 1903

In the September 6, 1904 edition of the Rat Portage Miner and News, a Letter to the Editor about Louis Hilliard’s farm was submitted and published.  Louis Hilliard’s farm was 180 acres in size with 70 acres already being farmed and another 40 acres of swamp land cleared and good to go. The writer of the letter felt this way about Rat Portage overall.

We think Rat Portage is the whole cheese, and that we are progressive and actually “up-to-date”. But as a matter of fact we have a bad attack of dry rot. Some of us have been here for twenty-four years, and I only know of two who have risked planting trees outside their fences, that is Messrs. Hose and Gerrie, and they have had to sit up nights to protect them from cattle.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Rat Portage was renamed Kenora (Ontario) in April 1905 against the wishes of taxpayers and without a vote for the name change being put to the voters. In fact, the taxpayers insisted that it be noted in the records that the change in name from Rat Portage to Kenora was done so “entirely against the will and wish of the majority of ratepayers to the town and by representations to the Lieutenant-Governor that were misleading.”

IMPORTANT NOTE 3: Rat Portage had its origins in the Ojibwa name Waszuch Onigum that means portage to the country of the muskrats. As with many town names, it became colloquially known as Rat Portage. In 1892, an informal vote was held to decide if the town’s name should be changed. The name Rat Portage won out over other suggestions including Sultana (after the name of the largest gold mine on Lake of the Woods) and Sabaskong as well as Island City, Pequonga, and Lakeside.

During the U.S. Presidential Election of 1900 where President William McKinley (with running mate Theodore Roosevelt) ran against William Jennings Bryan, a lot was said about the two candidates vying for the highest office in the land. On 5 March 1900, Private Hambleton wrote to Sergeant Beverly Daley, and stated the following:

Of course, there are some boys who think Bryan is the whole cheese, but they don’t say too much.

On 23 September 1898, the article “Ward Conventions: Republicans Name Candidates for Justices and Constables” appeared in the Salt Lake Herald of Salt Lake City.  There seemed to be quite a bit of interest in the motions and amendments and amendments to amendments at this convention.  I have no idea who Mr. Bonetti or Mr. Post were, and I don’t know who Joe Cottle was, but they seemed to have stirred things up quite a bit in the time they were at this convention.

Bonetti, who had been appointed sergeant-at-arms, was fain to cry, “Ladies and gentlemen, behave yourselves,” which they did, and after a discussion, a motion, two amendments and an amendment to the amendment to the amendment, offered by Joe Cottle, who was apparently the whole cheese, a collection was taken up and $10.35 raised which was confided to the car of Mr Post who placed the amount down in the deepest pocket he had and took a station near the door, where he could readily escape.

An untitled item in the Dallas Southern Mercury of 7 July 1898 found its way into the newspaper nearly three months earlier.  Sometimes the smallest mentions share the most interesting details.

The Democrats are having a hot time in Pennsylvania. Harrity has his war clothes and is determined to prove to Jim Jones that Jim Guffy is not the whole cheese in that State. The fight is a bitter one, and the aureate statesman has decided to give Guffy the “hottest shot he has in the shop.”

The use of the word cheese to indicate the best dates back to a mention in “The London Guide” in 1818 where the word used as slang is said to mean “the fashion, the best, the correct thing.”

Between 1818 and 1898, the word cheese in this context crops up often including in “The Clockmaker: The Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville” by Canadian author and Nova Scotia politician Thomas Chandler Haliburton (17 December 1796 – 27 August 1865), published in 1835. In Chapter XIV, the author writes:

Whatever is the go in Europe will soon be the cheese here.

It also shows up in the story “Codlingsby” by British satirist and author William Makepeace Thackeray (18 July 1811 – 24 December 1863), published in 1850 in the his collection of stories titled, “Burlesques.” At one point, Godfrey de Bouillon, Marquis of Codlingsby, and Rafael Mendoza enter the outer shop of an old mansion on Holywell Street. They observe a medical student trying on an outfit for the masquerade to be held later that night when the following exchange is overheard.

“You look like a prince in it, Mr. Lint,” pretty Rachel said, coaxing him with her beady black eyes.

“It is the cheese,” replied Mr. Lint; “it ain’t the dress that don’t suit, my rose of Sharon; it’s the figure. Hullo, Rafael, is that you, my lad of sealing-wax? Come and intercede for me with this wild gazelle; she says I can’t have it under fifteen bob for the night. And it’s too much: cuss me if it’s not too much, unless you’ll take my little bill at two months, Rafael.”

Idiomation therefore pegs the expression the whole cheese to the late 1890s, with about ninety years of between cheese and the whole cheese.  Before anyone gets the wrong idea, cheesy isn’t as nice a reference as cheese or whole cheese, but that’s something to research for another Idiomation entry at some later date in the near future.

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Mountain Out Of A Molehill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 17, 2017

As Idiomation shared on Thursday of last week, making a mountain out of a moleskin or a molehill is to over-react to a minor issue, or to make something very small into something bigger than what it happens to be. While the moleskin version has a short history, the better-known molehill version stretches much farther back in history.

We all know the expression to make a mountain out of a molehill is in use to this day. Whether it’s Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. writing an article for Psychology Today (13 December 2013, How To Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill) or Laura Cano Mora submitting her doctoral thesis titled, “How To Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill: A Corpus-Based Pragmatic and Conversational Analysis Study of Hyperbole In Interaction” everyone seems to understand the meaning of the phrase.

Even kids watching cartoons like “Phineas and Ferb” have heard the saying used in episodes such as “At The Car Wash” when the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz explains to Perry the Platypus how he came up with the idea for his Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill-Inator.  It would seem that after he was told repeatedly by people from all walks of life (from his parents to the firefighters at the local Fire Department) to stop making mountains out of molehills, he decided that if he wasn’t already doing that, maybe it was time he started really doing that.  So he did.

English novelist, playwright, and short story writer Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) published his 1868 mystery novel “The Moonstone” to great acclaim.  In this novel, at one point Superintendent Seegrave says to Sergeant Cuff:

There is such a thing as making a mountain out of a molehill.

The point of his comment was that the Superintendent was of the opinion the Sergeant was making way too much of something as trivial as a tiny paint smudge on the door. He was wrong, of course, as that tiny paint smudge on the door proved very important after all.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1: Wilkie Collins was the son of English landscape painter William Collins (1788 – 1847) and is considered the pioneer of detective fiction. His talent lay in his ability to create, choreograph, and master intricate plots coupled with a unique narrative technique.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Wilkie Collins’ book “The Moonstone” set the standard by which all other detective fiction is measured. In this novel, the story was told from a number of points of view having to do with a stolen diamond taken from an Indian idol.

But the expression dates all the way back to 1548 when English playwright, cleric, and schoolmaster Nicholas Udall (1504 – 23 December 1556) used it in his work titled, “The First Tome or Volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus Upon the New Testament.”  What he wrote was this:

The Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill.

The idiom to which Nicholas Udall referred was from Greek satirist Lucian (120 – 200 AC) in his work “Ode To A Fly” in which he compared an elephant to a fly. The Latin version of this was elephantem ex musca facere.  Of course, as was shared in a previous Idiomation entry, the elephant version is still in use in Russia to this day.

IMPORTANT NOTE 3: Lucian, also known as Lucian of Samosata, was a satirist and rhetorician in Greece. He claimed to be an Assyrian however not everyone agreed with his claim. He mocked superstitions, religious practices, and beliefs in the paranormal although he claimed to believe in the existence of the gods.  

So while the moleskin version of this expression only dates back to the early 1900s, the molehill version is solidly nailed to 1548 with a nod to Ancient Greece. Oh, what a difference 350 or so years (plus another 110 or so years to catch up to 2017) can make when it comes to similar, and yet very different, expressions.

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Mountain Out Of A Moleskin

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 12, 2017

Until recently, Idiomation was under the impression the expression was to make a mountain out of a molehill. However, while watching a black-and-white Sherlock Holmes movie from 1946 titled, “Dressed To Kill” (aka “Prelude To Murder“) starring Basil Rathbone (13 June 1892 – 21 July 1967) as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce (4 February 1895 – 8 October 1953) as Dr. Watson, Dr. Watson spoke of making a mountain out a moleskin.

Now whether it’s making a mountain out of a moleskin or making a mountain out of a molehill, it’s all about making a big deal out something that doesn’t warrant that much attention in the first place.

After some research, the first hint of the expression was found on page 14 of the Evening Review newspaper of East Liverpool, Ohio on Friday, May 11, 1934. It appeared in a comic by American cartoonist, Cliff Sterrett, titled, “Polly and Her Pals” which ran from 4 December 1912 through to 1958. In the comics section of the newspaper, it’s difficult to determine if this was how the expression was used, or if it was a misuse for the purpose of comedy.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1: Clifford Sterrett (12 December 1883 – 28 December 1964) was born in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. His mother died when he was two years old, so his father sent him and his younger brother Paul to Alexandria, Minnesota to be raised by their aunt, Sallie Johnson, and their father moved to Seattle, Washington. Sterrett was of Scandinavan ancestry.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Polly Perkins of “Polly and Her Pals” was a young woman who was part of the Suffragette movement leading into the 1920s flapper generation of the Jazz Age. The strip included her parents, Paw and Maw, her cousin Ashur Earl Perkins who was renown for giving bad advice, Paw’s sister-in-law Carrie and her spoiled brat daughter named Gertrude, the Japanese houseboy Neewah who pretended not to always know what was going on, the black housecat Kitty, and, of course, Polly herself.

However, in a radio program dating back to July 20, 1935 Anne Leah McCord (1890? – 19 March 1941) of Pulaski, Tennessee (born about 1890 according to the 1940 U.S. Census) used the idiom in the segment “Bulls and Boners” from the radio show “Radio Guide.” This show was produced in Chicago, Illinois and for those sending letters in to the show, the address was 731 Plymouth Court.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3 : Anne Leah McCord of Pulaski was the associate editor of The Record, The daughter of General Laps D. McCord and Betty Thomas McCord, she accompanied her father’s family to Nashville when he became Secretary and Adjutant-General for Governor Robert L. Taylor. When the Governor was elected to the U.S. Senate, Ms. McCord’s father became his secretary, and the family moved to Washington, D.C.

When Senator Taylor passed away, the McCords returned to Pulaski. She passed away on 19 March 1941 and was survived by her sisters Mary Boyd McCord and E.R. Reynolds and her brothers Laps D. McCord Jr and Elwood McCord (who lived in St Louis, Missouri).

Still uncertain whether it was a misused idiom, Idiomation continued to find the idiom published in a serious commentary. The expression was used on September 30, 1954 by the Honorable member for Mundingburra, Mr. Aikens with regards to the Townsville Regional Electricity Board, payments to two ex-managers, Mr. Beynon and Mr. Sleeman, and the problem with the turbo alternator at the new power station at Murder Island. In the records of the Queensland Parliamentary Debates of the Legislative Assembly the following is recorded.

I have only a few words to say to finish my statement about the Townsville generator. We all realise now that it was a much more serious thing than the Honourable member for Fortitude Valley would have had us believe. He tried to create the impression that I was making a mountain out of a molehill or, as a northern member of the Labour Party said, on a memorable occasion, “A mountain out of a moleskin.” However I think I have convinced the Committee that it was a very serious breakdown, so serious that it brought upon the manager and his staff the severest possible censure from the State Electricity Commission.

In America, the idiom also showed up in a news article written by Bob Ingram and published in the 13 November 1954 edition of the El Paso Herald-Post on page 7.

After reading statements by the extremists in Tucson and Lubbock papers this week, I’m convinced that last Saturday’s incidents at Tucson were a tempest in a T-pot and that they’re making a mountain out of a moleskin. The two biggest schools in the Border Conference certainly should be playing each other.

By the 1950s, the idiom was being used as an accepted expression. Idiomation continued to search for other published examples of the saying and found one instance in the Franklin News-Herald newspaper from Franklin, Pennsylvania in the 30 June 1936 edition.  Mr. Dion was quoted as saying:

The Franklin Chamber of Commerce must rehabilitate the spirit of the land. The furrier is the man who can make a mountain out of a moleskin. It is queer that we in this section of the country continue to enjoy cool weather, while crops in the mid-west are burning up with the heat and the lack of rain.

It was also found in the Radioland publication of July 1934 Jane Ace (Goodman Aces’ wife) was quoted in the segment titled, “Microphone Miniatures” under the story “Funny Men’s Wives.” The article gave a quick glimpse in the life of what life was supposedly like for her, Mary Livingston (Jack Benny’s wife), and Gracie Allen (George Burns’ wife).

When I try to be suggestive about us all going out somewhere they don’t even listen. We we girls play Russian Bank. But we can’t even do that in peace. Every minute some husband will interrupt our game to tell us a new gag. I don’t see why they go to so much trouble about ages — it’s making a mountain out of a moleskin.

American theater writer, lyricist, and screenwriter Jo Swerling (8 April 1897 – 23 October 1964) wrote a story titled “Ashes of Fortune” published in Volume 97 of “The American Magazine” in May 1924. The story was illustrated by J. Henry.

“My dear young friend,” he said pompously, “you are simply making a mountain out of a moleskin. All you got to do is to fill out the check yourself, for the amount the feller deposited.”

IMPORTANT NOTE 4: Jo Swerling’s family emigrated from Czarist Russia to the Lower East Side of New York City. He worked as a journalist for various newspapers and magazines including “Vanity Fair” in the 1920s.

In Volume 36 of “The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness” published in 1912. In the segment titled, “The Trunk In The Attic” it was announced that the winners of the three best love, friendship, or human interest letters would each win fifty dollars each per the details of the contest provided in the November edition.  American actress, playwright, and novelist Louise Closser Hale (13 October 1872 – 26 July 1933) was responsible for making the wise decision as to which entries would be announced as winners.

The second letter chosen was one the judge felt was one of “the longest husband-and-wife effusion” that had been submitted. In her own words, she stated without hesitation that “one can go on forever before marriage, but after — there is very little to say.” This letter included the expression in this passage.

Reached here this afternoon and saw Brown about the deed. He told me he would make it all right when he returns to Hayville, which will be the latter part of this week. So you needn’t worry, because he is a man of his word as well as deed, and besides, when you spoke of it I thought you were making a mountain out of a moleskin, or whatever that old adage is.

The question was one of what else was a moleskin besides what a mole wears? At the turn of the century, a moleskin was a kind of fustian, double-twilled and extra strong, and cropped before dyeing.

IMPORTANT NOTE 5: A fustian is a heavy cloth woven from cotton and flax, and used primarily in making menswear.

IMPORTANT NOTE 6: A fustian is also a pompous or pretentious speech or writing from at least the time of William Shakespeare.

In Germany, people make elephants out of mosquitoes (aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen) and in Russia, people make elephants out of a fly. In Finland, people make a little ox out of a fly (tehdä kärpäsestä härkänen) and in Wales, people make a mountain out of an anthill (gwneud mynydd o dwmpath morgrug).

But in Sweden, the expression göra en höna av en fjäder is to make a mountain out of a moleskin.

Earlier Idiomation mentioned that American cartoonist Clifford Sterrett was of Scandinavian ancestry. Scandinavia is the term common used to refer to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It’s possible that while the idiom was making its way across the ocean from England via magazines, Scandinavians were already using the expression word-for-word in America.

Idiomation pegs this expression to the early 1900s with a serious nod to the Swedish expression.

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