Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Archive for September, 2019

Wellington Boots

Posted by Admin on September 24, 2019

A while back, a friend of Idiomation asked why Wellington boots — which are sometimes referred to as Wellies — are called Wellington boots. Some of you may be wondering what a Wellington boot is in the first place, never mind the history behind the name.  Some people call them rubber boots while others call them galoshes. Still others call them muck boots, and a few call them rain boots. A few call them gumboots or gummies.

SIDE NOTE 1: In South Africa, gumboots inspired gumboot dances in the early 20th century. The dancers wear their gumboots and create rhythms by slapping their boots and bodies, stamping their feet, and singing.

Wellington boots were named early in the 19th century by Dublin-born Anglo-Irish soldier Arthur Wellesley (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), the First Duke of Wellington, who fell in love with the Hessian boots German soldiers wore. He had been sent to Flanders in late 1793 and fought at the Battle of the Boxtel in September the following year. His health was negatively affected by the damp environment, and the battle forced heavy losses and sickness on the men fighting with the Dutch and Austrian troops to invade France. The end result was that they were forced to retreat into Germany.

Hessian boots became incredibly popular during the reign of King George III after they were introduced in 1789. In short order, they became standard military issue footwear as popular with civilians as with military men. Some even took to calling them “Austrians” (with the word boot omitted) since they were originally a German boot made in the German state of Hesse.

Hessian boots reached nearly to the knees and had a a nice trim around the top. They were made of leather, and had semi-pointed toes and small heels as well as tassels at the top.

SIDE NOTE 2: The Duke of Wellington was famous for his victory at the Battle of Waterloo which ran from 15 June – 8 July 1815.

The Duke didn’t fancy the tassels all that much, so he charged his personal shoemaker with modifying the style of Hessian boots in 1811 to suit his own tastes. For one thing, those tassels were definitely gone as was the trim. He wasn’t impressed with the heel, and asked to have the boot made to be a bit more form fitting without the heel.

Aristocrats in England wanted to emulate the Duke, so they began asking their shoemakers to create Hessian-inspired boots that looked like the boots the Duke wore, and it wasn’t long before everyone with means to buy these boots were calling them Wellington boots. In fact, by 1817, everyone knew what kind of boot the Wellington boot was.

It was in 1853 that American industrialist Hiram Hutchinson (1808 – 1869) decided to introduce rubber to the Wellington boot. Hiram had bought the patent for vulcanization of natural rubber for footwear from self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer Charles Goodyear (yes, that Charles Goodyear). Goodyear (29 December 1800 – 1 July 1860) was using the process to make tires, so he saw no problem in allowing Hutchinson to use the process to make boots.

Wellington boots were sold to farmers looking for foot protection in their wet fields. The rubberized Wellingtons allowed them to work in their wet fields all day and still have clean, dry feet when the day was done. It’s easy to see how this impressed farmers everywhere. It wasn’t long before the rubber Wellington was a staple on farms and in cities throughout Europe.

SIDE NOTE 3: The Hessian boot inspired the creation of cowboy boots that became popular in American in the 1850s.

When the rubber Wellington boot left England on its way to the United States in the early 20th century, they also changed color. The British version remained the traditionally green while the version in the U.S. came in a variety of colors, with the most popular color being black boots for adults and yellow boots for children.

World War I provided soldiers in the flooded and mud-filled European trenches a chance to keep their feet warm and dry by wearing rubber Wellington boots, and so they did.

These days, Wellington boots are standard footwear for a number of jobs, mostly when the boot is reinforced with a steel toe to prevent injury as well.

It’s very easy to peg the year the term Wellington boots came into usage, so Idiomation has decided to share this YouTube video of gumboot dancing in South Africa with readers.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A Country Mile

Posted by Admin on September 10, 2019

Just how long is a country mile you may wonder after hearing someone mention country miles or having read about country miles? After all, isn’t a mile a mile whether it’s in the city or in the country?

When someone talks or writes about a country mile they are talking or writing about deceptively long distances, and definitely longer than anticipated. Some will tell you this is because country roads tend to meander across the countryside whereas as city roads tend to be set up in grid formation. The layout of roads may be a fact, however, that’s not the reason a country mile is supposedly longer than any other mile.

As we learned from the research on a mile a minute, until Queen Elizabeth I standardized just how many feet were in a mile (5,280 feet), an Irish miles consisted of 6,720 feet, a Scots mile consisted of 5,928 feet, a Welsh mile was supposedly a very long stretch to walk, and other miles had varying numbers of feet in them.

Now, up until the 13th century when King Edward I conquered Wales, the Welsh mile was comprised 9000 paces feet where each foot was 9 English inches long.

The Scots mile — which was about 1.12 English miles — was still a thing when Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) mentioned it in the first verse of his narrative poem “Tam O’Shanter” published in 1791, and written the year previous.   In fact, it was so much a thing it had to be abolished three times: Once in 1685 by an act of the Scottish parliament, once in 1707 when the Treaty of Union was signed between Scotland and England, and once by way of the Weights and Measures Act of 1824. It would seem Scotland were really attached to their mile, and weren’t as willing to give it up in favor of the English mile as the English believed they should be.

SIDE NOTE 1: The Ottoman mile was 5,000 Ottoman feet long which was the equivalent of 1.18 English miles, and in 1933 it was replaced by the slightly shorter Turkish mile which is the equivalent of 1.15 English miles.

On 29 December 2016 the Jamaica Observer newspaper published an article titled, “Top 16 2016 Racing Moments.” At #13 on the chart, and headlined “The Finish of the Oaks” this race had to do with the Jamaica Oaks race where the win was described thusly:

What a race the 2016 edition of the Jamaica Oaks turned out to be. After winning the 1,000 Guineas by a country mile, Nuclear Affair with Aaron Chatrie aboard looked all over a winner in the Oaks, but a late race surge by A Thousand Stars (Robert Halledeen) ended with a short head victory by the latter. Two females engaged in all-out battle was something to behold.

On 1 March 1992, American Forests published an article about reforestation at Jersey’s famed Pine Barrents (at the time it was known as Pinelands) that had been a weapons test range named the Warren Grove Test Range. One sentence in the article read:

No doubt more than one wet-behind-the-ears pilot missed his target by a good country mile, and the small clearings grew into vast desolate stretches of Pine Barren sand.

In the 20 November 1971 edition of Cash Box magazine, “Walk A Country Mile” was mentioned as the flipside of the Tommy James release “Nothing To Hide” on Roulette Records.

SIDE NOTE 2: Tommy James of Tommy James and the Shondells was Thomas Gregory Jackson, and was born on 29 April 1947 in Dayton (OH). Tommy James and the Shondells (formerly known as Tom and the Tornadoes) were known for hits such as the very well-known and oft-covered “Mony Mony” and equally engaging songs “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

The mile became standardized by international agreement on July 1, 1959 by the International Yard and Pound Agreement of 1959. It was agreed a mile was equivalent to exactly 1609.344 meters. As mentioned earlier, until then all miles were not created equal.

The printing firm of Casper (C.C.) Childs (Jared W. Bell, General Agent) published an interesting tidbit about a country mile in “The Treasury of Knowledge and Library of Reference: A Million of Facts on Common Place Book: Volume III” published in 1850. The entry in which the term is found, slightly modified, states:

Robin Hood shot a full mile; and, according to his bard, a north-country mile was equal to two statute ones.

For those who are interested, north-country England included the cities of Nottingham, York, and London. As we know, Robin Hood was constantly at odds with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Medieval statute miles were 1.3 international miles long, and while it’s doubtful that Robin Hood’s arrow was shot anywhere near 2.6 miles before landing, the exaggeration expected from the term “country mile” is found in this passage.

In the poem “The Villager’s Tale” by mariner and west-county from Bodmin, Frederick de Kruger (1798 – date unknown ) and published in 1829 in his book, “The Pirate and Other Poems” the expression finds a place in this stanza written by the poet. This was 5 years after the Weights and Measures Act of 1824 was passed in England, and because the printer of the book (Liddell and Son) and the seller (G.B. Whittaker) were located in London, it lends credence to the comparison between the two different kinds of miles.

The travelling stage had set me down
Within a mile of yon church-town;
‘T was long indeed, a country mile.

SIDE NOTE 4: Very little is known about Frederick de Kruger save that he was a mariner who survived three shipwrecks in the space of nine years and permished in the last shipwreck (which happened after 1829 but Idiomation was unable to identify what year it happened). He was born in Bodmin which is a civil parish and historic town in Cornwall, England. Bodmin is responsible for the expression to go Bodmin.

SIDE NOTE 5: The book by Frederick de Kruger was dedicated to Vice-Admiral Sir C. Penrose, K.C.B. of Ethy House, Cornwall. This would have been Sir Charles Vinicombe Penrose (20 June 1759 – 1 January 1830) who was a Royal Navy officer who became the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, and was a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath (KCB). Penrose was also born in Cornwall.

Beyond 1829, Idiomation was unable to find any published instances of a country mile, but quite a bit about the various miles already mentioned in this entry. Idiomation suspects that country miles compared to other miles were spoken of for several years prior to the term being published in printed materials based on the history of the various miles in history.

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

A Mile A Minute

Posted by Admin on September 3, 2019

Have you ever heard someone say they were going a mile a minute but you didn’t think they were moving quite that fast? If someone is moving a mile a minute, they aren’t literally moving sixty miles per hour. They are moving very quickly and the idiom implies they are moving very quickly.

As in the idiom going like sixty, it was once believed that going faster than thirty miles per hour might kill you or drive you insane. We now know that it’s not impossible to travel at rates much faster than that and survive intact as shown by astronauts. For example, the speed needed for Apollo 11 to break free of the Earth’s gravitational field was seven miles per second which is 25,200 miles per hour (7 miles times 60 seconds times 60 minutes).

SIDE NOTE 1: Apollo 10 was clocked at 24,790 miles per hour on their way back from a lap around the Moon in 1969.

SIDE NOTE 2: The average person can handle 5 Gs which is the equivalent of 49 miles per second squared. Fighter pilots endure up to 9 Gs while wearing special compressed suits. Air Force Officer John Stapp was able to withstand 46.2 Gs.

What most people do not know is that a mile wasn’t always a mile the way a mile is defined in recent times. The medieval English mile was 6,600 feet long and the old London mile was 5,000 feet long. The Middle Ages mile in what is now Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia was an arbitrary measure that was anywhere between 3.25 and 6 English miles.

For the English, an inch was the size of 3 average size barley corns, and 12 of these inches made up a foot. Three feet was a yard, and 5 1/2 yards (16.5 feet) was known as a perch, a pole, or a rod. Forty perches or poles or rods was a furlong, and eight furlongs was a mile.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603), it was decreed that a mile was exactly 320 perches with for a total of 5,280 English feet.

SIDE NOTE 3: At the time, a French foot was 12.8 English inches, and a Spanish foot was 10.95 English inches. This is why Queen Elizabeth I decreed that a mile was measured in English feet as the English foot was 12 English inches.

It was determined during this time that a mile that could be walked in 20 minutes which made it easier for everyone to have an idea how long it would take to get from one place to another.

So somewhere between the Middle Ages and today, the idiom a mile a minute meaning the speed at which something is done made its way into the English language.

Johnny Green and His Orchestra recorded a song for the Brunswick Label in 1935. It was a snappy little jazz number titled, “A Mile A Minute” written by the Queen of Tin Pan Alley (so named by Irving Berlin) Bernice Petkere (11 August 1901 – 7 January 2000) with “Carefree” written by American lyricist Edward Hayman (14 March 1907 – 16 October 1981) and American songwriter Ray Henderson (1 December 1896 – 31 December 1970) on the B side.

SIDE NOTE 4: Johnny Green and His Orchestra sometimes recorded and performed under the alias Jimmy Garfield and His Orchestra.

The billboard advertising a ‘Brilliant Screen Adaptation of the Wonderful Novel by the Distinguished American Author, Robert W. Chambers‘ (26 May 1865 – 16 December 1933) to be shown at the Opera House in Hawera was published in the 24 October 1916 edition of the Hawera and Normanby Star newspaper on page 7. Near the bottom of the advertisement, other notices for shows at the Opera House were included including one for a 15 star artist vaudeville review titled, “Full Steam Ahead.” The teaser read:

A mile a minute, high-pressure aeroplane laugh-maker.

Not to be left out, manufacturers of the Hudson automobile came out with a 1912 Mile-A-Minute Roadster in 1912. Here’s a photo of one in 1920 with a lot of miles on the odometer.

On 29 June 1899, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had an advertisement for the L.A.W. Meet and Cyclists’ Carnival in Patchogue (NY) featuring “Mile A Minute Murphy” who had been “paced by locomotive. Charles Minthorn Murphy (October 1870 – 16 February 1950) was an American cycling athlete. He was also the first man to ride a bicycle for one mile in under a minute.

Idiomation did not find a published version that spoke of going a kilometer a minute which means this idiom is rooted in the Imperial measurement of speed. Idiomation did, however, find out that someone can actually talk nineteen to the dozen (which sounds like an amazing feat all in itself) when talking a mile a minute, and that people who do, are often thought of as motor mouths.

It would appear that the idiom a mile a minute came into being when cars were clocked at sixty miles per hour because there’s no mention of a mile a minute before motor cars came to be — even if go like sixty existed when trains were the mode of transportation.

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