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Archive for January, 2022

Down The Rabbit Hole

Posted by Admin on January 29, 2022

There are many times when Idiomation has found itself going down the rabbit hole while researching an idiom, expression, phrase, or word, and the results are always interesting albeit unexpected. When someone says they are going down the rabbit hole, they are embarking on an adventure into the unknown.

When speaking with Robert Brundage of Robert Teaches English back in November, when going down the rabbit hole was mentioned, Robert guessed the expression was probably first used in the Lewis Carroll aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898) book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” published in 1865 when Alice falls down a hole where the White Rabbit had disappeared and finds herself in a very strange world indeed.

Up until that point, Idiomation hadn’t researched down the rabbit hole and was unable to confirm or rule out whether Robert’s guess was correct. What Idiomation knew is that going down the rabbit hole is nothing like going down the rat hole (which will be covered at a later date).

Using Lewis Carroll’s book as the starting point, the first chapter of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is titled, “Down The Rabbit-Hole.” Having read the book often as a child, the adventures that ensue from Alice going down the rabbit hole establishes the meaning associated with the idiom, and it is the starting point for all of Alice’s adventures in the story.

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.

When “Alice Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” was published in 1872, it was during a season that was seen as having been comparatively dull and unproductive for books, and the good news was this according to reviewers:

“Alice” is alive again, or rather has been to sleep again ; this time she has gone through the looking glass instead of down the rabbit’s hole, but she is the same Alice, and her adventures are as delightful as ever.

The review went on to state:

“If people will ask whether the second book is as good as the first, we can only answer that the second can never have the charm of novelty, which is a peculiar element in the success of its forerunner. We shall be glad to hear even more of Alice’s dreams — though, perhaps, even of them, we may some day get tired.

It would appear, based on this review in Volume 18 of “The Month: An Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Science and Art” published in February 1872, that going down the rabbit-hole was a comment that spoke well of the adventures Alice went on to have in her first book, and the hopes for her adventures in the second book.

Two years before the second Alice book was published, in “Amy’s Wish and What Came of It” written by Mrs. George Tylee (1811 – 1897) with illustrations by G. Wigand, published in 1870, Lewis Carroll’s book and character were mentioned.

I saw a new book lying on papa’s table, all about a little girl that had the most wonderful adventures ‘ she went down a rabbit-hole, and sometimes she grew so tall she touched the ceiling, and then she grew so short again that her chin knocked against the floor. Oh! how I should like to be just like that little girl.

There was no question which book the main character had spied on her father’s table. It was obviously “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” All the author had to do was to mention going down the rabbit-hole, and her readers knew exactly which book she meant.

Two pages later the main character’s mother admonishes her for discarding the proverb of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush by way of claiming she hasn’t any birds of which she is aware. Her mother responds thusly:

Think again : you have a happy home, kind parents, many little daily pleasures, and I think you often lose those ‘birds’ and let them fly away from you, while you are wishing to be Alice down the rabbit-hole, or Cinderella in her golden carriage.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: English author Mrs. George Tylee was Catherine Elizabeth Tylee née Ward who married Lieutenant-General George Tylee (11 November 1807 – 1865) of the Bengal Army in 1857. As a widow she wrote “Amy’s Wish and What Came Of It” which was published in 1870 and “Hurree de Fontenay or All Lost Save Honour” in 1876. Catherine Elizabeth Tylee was the daughter of Seth Stephen Ward of Camberwell (26 December 1766 – 10 March 1845).

A little more research uncovered that until the 18th century, rabbits were the young offspring of coneys which was the term for rabbits beginning in the 13th century.

Coney-wool was made from the fur of rabbits at the onset of the 18th century, and was used in the making of hats, and of course, they all lived in coney-holes until the onset of the 18th century when they started living in rabbit-holes.

This indicates that going down a rabbit-hole wasn’t possible before then. If you were going anywhere, you are going down a coney-hole which is an expression Idiomation did not find in any of the published materials of the time.

Regardless of how much effort has been put into researching this idiom, it appears that Lewis Carroll is indeed responsible for coining the phrase where people go down the rabbit-hole with the definition we continue to use to this day. That puts its first published date squarely to 1865.

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

Bite The Bullet

Posted by Admin on January 22, 2022

When there’s an impending or unpleasant decision that needs to be made and you know that whatever you decide will cause you some degree of pain or discomfort, you make the decision and deal with the consequences. What you have done is, in the opinion of many, is to bite the bullet.

There’s an urban myth that claims the idiom comes from American Civil War battlefield surgeries where procedures weren’t done under very sanitary conditions, where anesthetics didn’t exist (unless you count hard liquor), and where doctors weren’t always of the highest calibre. None of that is correct.

Ether and chloroform were introduced and used as anesthetics in 1846, and historical data indicates that the U.S. military had surgeons using ether on the battlefield during surgeries as early as 1849 which is, as you know, well before the start of the American Civil War in 1861.

But more importantly, bullets used during the American Civil War were made of lead and anyone biting down on one hard enough would have broken a number of teeth. If the pain was intense, the person would certainly cry out which would most likely result in swallowing the bullet that was allegedly being used as a way to endure the pain. In other words, there would be no reason for someone to bite a bullet –– never mind the bullet — while undergoing a medical procedure on the battlefield.

If anything would be given for a patient to bite, it would have been a leather strap which would not shatter any teeth, which could not be swallowed if the patient cried out in pain, and which was more likely to be used for pain control if there was no ether available for anesthesia purposes.

This means the urban myth cannot be correct in its assertion as to the origin of the idiom.

We know that Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) used the expression in his novel The Light That Failed published in 1891 but serialized in several newspapers in 1890. In the 14 December 1890 edition of The Post Dispatch newspaper of St. Louis (MO), that installment of the story included this passage.

“My God! I’m blind! I’m blind, and the darkness will never go away.” He made as if to leap from the bed, but Torpenhow’s arms were round him, and Torpenhow’s chin was on his shoulder, and his breath was squeezed out of him. He could only gasp, “Blind!” and wriggle feebly.

“Steady, Dickie, steady!” said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. “Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.”

Idiomation decided to research this idiom from both directions at this point which meant pinpointing the exact date cartridge bullets were invented, which was in 1586. The cartridge bullet was made of a musket ball and a black powder charge, and wrapped in strong cartridge paper. Whoever was shooting the musket bit off the bullet with his teeth, kept the musket ball in his mouth, poured the rest of the cartridge down the muzzle, then added the musket ball, and finally tamped everything down with a ramrod.

A well-trained soldier could get off three to four rounds in one minute which was important when engaged in battle which was, by virtue of being a battle, unpleasant but necessary.

This means no one was biting the bullet before 1586, but that doesn’t mean the idiom can be pegged at 1586 because it can’t be.

In 1796, Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined what a nightingale was when it came to soldiers by stating the following:

Nightingale. A soldier who, as the term is, sings out at the halberts. It is a point of honour in some regiments, among the grenadiers, never to cry out, or become nightingales, whilst under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.

This indicates that chewing the bullet and biting the bullet are identical in terms of what these idioms mean. It also means that sometime between 1796 and 1890, the word chew was replaced by the word bite.

In Chapter III titled The Travellers of the posthumously published and absolutely unfinished 1867 novel Denis Duval by British novelist, author, and illustrator William Makepeace Thackery (12 August 1811 – 24 December 1863), the author makes use of the idiom thusly:

And that story was quickly told over the little town, and when we went to church next Sunday, Monsieur Borel preached a sermon which made all the congregation look to us, and poor Mother sat boiling red like a lobster fresh out of the pot. I did not quite know what I had done : I know what Mother was giving me for my pains, when our poor patient, entering the room, hearing, I suppose, the hissing of the stick (and never word from me — I used to bite the bullet, and hold my tongue), rushed into the room, whisked the cane out of Mother’s hand, flung her to the other end of the room with a strength quite surprising, and clasped me up in her arms and began pacing up and down the room, and glaring at Mother.

This passage would put the incident at somewhere in the 1820s.

As the research continued, however, Idiomation found another meaning for bullet and bite that seemed to fit the situation. In the third edition of “The Sportsman’s Dictionary: Or The Gentleman’s Companion: For Town and Country” published in 1785 the spirit of biting the bullet presented itself.

Your rod and line must be both long and strong, with a running plummet on the line, and let a little bit of lead be placed a foot or more above the hook, to keep the bullet from falling on it ; for the worm will be at the bottom, where they always bite, and when the fish takes the bait, you plummet will lie, and not choak him ; and by the bending of the rod you may know when he bites, as also with your hand you will feel him make a strong snatch, then strike, and you will rarely fail if you play him well and leave him ; but in short, if you manage him not desterously he will break your line.

It would appear that this would be the waiting for a fish to bite the bullet and subsequently suffering the consequences therein.

Similar advice was found in “The Complete Angler: Or Contemplative Man’s Recreation; Being a Discourse on Rivers, Fish-Ponds, Rish, and Fishing” written by Isaac Walton and Charles Cotton, Esquire, published a year earlier. Interestingly enough, this advice and the use of a bullet to entice a fish to bite was also found in “Systema Agriculturae: The Mystery of Husbandry Discovered” and according to the book, published for the common good by the author himself, J. W. Gent in 1675.

Even “The Experienced Angler: Or Angling Improv’d Bowing a General Discourse of Angling” by Richard Marriot whose third edition published in 1668 shared similar advice getting fish to bite the bullet … or at least the hook that was there for the fish to bite because of the bullet.

That being said, Idiomation has not yet found a definitive link between the idiom and fishing, and so that foray down the rabbit hole (so to speak) was shut down at that point.

The earliest published version of this is from the novel Denis Duval which puts biting the bullet to the 1820s which is a mere generation away from Francis Grose’s definition which speaks of chewing the bullet.

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Kneehigh To A Grasshopper

Posted by Admin on January 15, 2022

Recently, Billie Morgan asked Idiomation to research Whoa Nellie. She shared that she had heard the expression since she was kneehigh to a grasshopper. Upon reading that, Heather Farley asked Idiomation to research kneehigh to a grasshopper‘s origins, and this week’s entry does just that.

First off, for those who may not know, when someone is kneehigh to a grasshopper it means they are (or were at the time) very young or are (or were at the time) very short in stature. At the beginning, referring to someone as kneehigh to a grasshopper was called ludicrous description by editors of various dictionaries, and yet, the expression persisted.

While the idiom fell out of favor for about 50 years beginning in 1960, in 2010, there was a marked uptick in the use of the expression. Of note is the fact that in the decade before it fell out of decade, there was a marked decline — as in a nosedive — from 1950 to 1960.

Idiomation suspects the United States War Department sincerely believed the idiom was one Russians might understand as they included it in their “Dictionary of Spoken Russian: English-Russian, Russian-English” published in 1945 with an entry on the Russian-English side.

And in 1924, the votes of fourteen leading children’s librarians regarding children’s books published in 1923 included a book by American novelist, illustrator, and children’s book author Anne Parrish (12 November 1888 – 5 September 1957) entitled “Knee-high to a Grasshopper” which was illustrated by her brother American painter George Dillwynn “Tim” Parrish (25 July 1894 – 6 August 1941). The book was 209 pages in length, and was published by MacMillan Publishers.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Anne Parrish was a runner-up for the Newberry Medal three times between 1925 and 1951. In 1925, her third collaboration with her brother titled, “The Dream Coach” was nominated.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: George Dillwynn “Tim” Parrish attended Harvard University where he became friends with American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright Edward Estin Cummings (14 October 1894 – 3 September 1962) known as e e cummings, and Pulitzer Prize winner, writer, and poet Conrad Aiken.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: The year she published “Knee-high to a Grasshopper” she also published her first romantic novel, “Pocketful of Poses.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: In 1925, her novel “The Pereniial Bachelor” won the Harper Prize from the publisher, Harper & Brothers, and was the eighth best-selling book on the New York Times Best Seller list for all of 1925.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Anne Parrish’s book “All Kneeling” was published in 1928 which also made the annual best-sellers list. In 1950, it was made into a movie titled, “Born To Be Bad” which starred British-American actress Joan Fontaine (22 October 1917 – 15 December 2013) and American actor Robert Ryan (11 November 1909 – 11 July 1973).

The book was highly recommended by Elisabeth Knapp ( unknown – 15 April 1931), children’s librarian at the Detroit Public Library, and was suggested for even small libraries with limited selections available. Ms. Knapp went on to be come the chief of the Detroit Public Library Children’s Department.

In Volume 15 of “Popular Monthly” magazine published in 1883 and edited by English-born American engravor, illustrator and publisher Frank Leslie (29 March 1821 – 10 January 1880) a story was included titled, “On A Field Argent, A Swan Azure.” The story also appeared in Volume 8 of “Boys of England: A Young Gentleman’s Journal of Sport, Sensation, Fun, and Instruction” published in 1870 by Victorian editor and publisher Edwin John Brett (27 December 1827 – 15 December 1895). Unfortunately, in both cases, the author’s name has been omitted. The idiom is used in the story was in quotation marks.

All this was nine years ago. I am twenty-three, and have been married four years to a cousin of mine, or a cousin-germain, as the French call such a relation as he is to me; one Captain Belfait, who loved me so he says from the I was “kneehigh to a grasshopper.” My boy is a beautiful boy, too, but I have not forgotten “Petit Pierre,” nor has he forgotten me.

There was knee-high to a mosquito in 1824 and knee-high to a bumblee in 1833. There was knee-high to a splinter in 1841 and there was knee-high to a huckleberry in 1854. There knee-high to a bantam and knee-high to a cocksparrow in 1856, and knee high to a katydid in 1861. There was even knee-high to a duck in 1899 but being knee-high to a grasshopper — just a plain old grasshopper — is found in The Democratic Review in 1851:

You pretend to be my daddies; some of you who are not knee-high to a grasshopper!

The earliest idiom that used the comparison of being knee-high to anything is found in The Portsmouth Oracle in New Hampshire, published by Charles Turrell, back in 1814. This was the year farmer, shipbuilder, and statesman John T. Gilman (19 December 1753 – 1 September 1828) ran for Governor of New Hampshire.

“One … who, as farmer Joe would say, is about knee high to a toad.”

Knee-high to a toad?

Well, somewhere along the line, everything but the grasshopper seems to have fallen away and while the first published version with a grasshopper is in 1851, there were lots of other animals and insects and fowl who auditioned for the phrase before grasshoppers won the contest.

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

Whoa Nellie

Posted by Admin on January 8, 2022

Sometimes you hear Whoa Nellie when someone is trying to slow or stop a horse but sometimes you hear Whoa Nellie when someone is shocked, surprised, or astonished by what they hear or see. But who in history was this Nellie of whom they speak, and why did she cause so much trouble for others?

Back at the turn of the 20th century, farmers in the midwestern US oftentimes called one of their work horses Nelly/Nellie. And in the 1920s, Senator Frank Billings Kellogg (22 December 1856 – 21 December 1937) was nicknamed “Nervous Nellie” because he was the only Republican Senator to support the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.

The character of Frog Millhouse — played by Lester Alvin ‘Smiley’ Burnette (18 March 1911 – 16 February 1967) — used the expression as he tried to stay on his horse, Ring-Eyed Nellie in the Gene Autry (29 September 1907 – 2 October 1998) movies. But surely, there were other Nellie’s before Ring-Eyed Nellie.

Idiomation kept digging and found out that before Nellie, Emma was the number one trouble maker in society. In fact, she caused so much trouble there was a popular song back in 1877 by vaudeville entertainer and songwriter, Gus Williams (19 July 1848 – 16 January 1915) and published by Louis P. Goullaud (23 November 1841 – 7 December 1919) of Boston titled, “Whoa, Emma!” It became a fast favorite of a number of hard-working people as well as to music hall singers and vaudevillians alike. Because the song is in the public domain, Idiomation has decided to share the music and lyrics with you here on this blog for your personal enjoyment.

A year later, Emma’s reputation had spread and music hall performer and songwriter, and chairman of Collins’ Music Hall, John Read (1839 – 1920) decided to tell his own tale about Emma with his song of the same name.

Whoa Emma‘s were showing up everywhere!

Not to be outdone, it wasn’t long before there were four “Whoa! Emma!” waltzes — one by Charles Dupee “Chas” C.D. Blake (1847 – 23 November 1903) and one by J.J. Freeman and one by Benson Jr. and one by Mack. There was the “Whoa! Emma” gallop — by Benson Jr. Step aside — there was even a Whoa Emma March!!!

It didn’t matter which composition you preferred, all of them were music hall favorites, and all of them were listed in “The American Bookseller: A Semi-monthly Journal Devoted to the Interests of the Book, Stationery, News, and Music Trades” beginning in early 1878.

It would seem that Emma was a very, very bad girl indeed. But this also led Idiomation to wonder who Emma was just as Idiomation wondered who Nellie had been.

It would seem that in England in the 1870s, what were then known as low-lived cockneys, thrived on tossing insults at each other without actually coming to blows themselves. When an insult was sufficiently nasty or cruel, the music hall song was invoked when a chorus would shout, “Whoa, Emma!” before resuming the exchange of vulgarisms. How does Idiomation know all this? It was part of an article titled, “Three Weeks with the Hop-Pickers” which was written for Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country and published in Volume 16 in November of 1878.

This means that Whoa Emma at that point in history was an exclamation of surprise or astonishment just as we currently understand Whoa Nellie to be.

But there we were with no way to connect Emma to Nellie, so the research continued.

The Overland Monthly magazine published in October of 1883 included Chapter XVII from the serialized story titled, “Annetta” by Evelyn M. Ludlow. The expression was found in this passage:

“Send along three picks and two shovels. Play it alone, Jim. Come on, gents, come on. Just one glass. Tamp that rock, boys. O, my God! it is all over with me. Whoa, Nelly, whoa, lady. Three games and I’ll be satisfied.”

But before the Overland Monthly published that story, in 1867, the Monford’s New Monthly Magazine published a story by Mrs. F.D. Gage title “The Orphans: Or, How Aunt Kissy and Uncle Zeke Come to be Father and Mother.” As everyone is headed into town, Aunt Kissy and Uncle Zeke are talking about the orphans in their care.

Over the course of the conversation, Uncle Zeke also interjects comments to the horses, Nellie and Bett. Along with the typical comments such as “careful there” and “steady” and more, the story carries the expression “whoa Nellie.” Of course, it’s not an expression of surprise or astonishment, it’s just simple talk between the driver and the horses.

That being said, in the story, “The Deacon’s Household” by Pipsissiway Potts, and published in Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Volume 41, edited by American author Timothy Shay (T.S.) Arthur (6 June 1809 – 6 March 1885), in 1873, the expression is used in conjunction with another name completely.

Whoa, there! you Jack! you old sinner, you need a basting!” piped the deacon as he chattered with the cold. “It behooves us all, Sister Potts, to heed every call of — you Jack! — of the grim monster, Death. We ort to have our lamps burning; for, as the poet says, we know not the day nor the hour when — whoa, there Jack!

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Pipsissway Potts was a pseudonym of American author, Rosella Rice (11 August 1827 – 6 June 1888) along with her other pseudonyms Pipsy Potts, Mrs. Sam Starkey, and Chatty Brooks. She also wrote a biography of John Chapman (26 September 1774 – 18 March 1845) who was better known as the American pioneer Johnny Appleseed.

Separating the cry from the names, whoa was recognized as a command to stop a horse in the early 1840s as a variant to the previous command ho which was also used as an exclamation of surprise beginning in the 14th century.

This means Whoa Nellie/Nelly would not have been used as an expression of surprise or astonishment prior to the 1840s, but the command word ho intimates that the replacement word whoa could inherit both meanings from its predecessor.

The name Nellie peaked in popularity in 1881 in the US with nearly 12,000 baby girls per million given the name that year, and saw a resurgence during the 1920s. It hasn’t been very popular in the U.S. since then although it made a comeback in 2020 fighting its way out of obscurity to reach #710 for popular girls’ names according to the Social Security Administration. In Sweden, it was the 47th most popular name to bestow upon a child in 2019.

In England, Wales, and Scotland, the name Nellie/Nelly was wildly popular in the 1850s through to the 1870s, breaking into the Top 100 names at the time and exhibiting staying power. Perhaps the novel “Nelly Deane: A Story of Everyday Life” published in 1864 added to the popularity of the name.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: King Charles II’s mistress Eleanor Gwyn was an actress who was well-known for her happy nature, high spirits, generosity, and kindness. Her affair with Charles II began in 1668, and to all she was known as Nell or Nellie. Everyone from those in the Court of King Charles II as well as commoners thought well of the king’s mistress, Nellie.

And this is where a tenuous connection can be made.

Since whoa became the default command word for horses in the 1840s and since the name Nellie/Nelly became popular as a name for female infants in the 1850s (having risen in popularity during the 1840s), it would be no surprise that with the expression whoa, one would tack on a name that was well-known … a name such as Nellie/Nelly.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: During the American Civil War, there were 8 horses named Nellie/Nelly who were service horses. Two traits all these horses shared was a habit of stopping when meeting anything or anyone along the way, and undying loyalty to the military man riding her.

Somewhere along the line, the Emmas of this world were replaced by Nellies in the expression Whoa Nellie although Idiomation was unable to pinpoint the exact moment when Whoa Nellie overtook Whoa Emma for an expression of shock, surprise, or astonishment. Idiomation can confidently state that the expression came into its own sometime betweem the 1860s and the 1880s.

To end this entry on a happy note, here’s a version of another “Whoa Emma!” from the 1951 MGM movie picture “Texas Carnival.”

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