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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.”

2 Responses to “Whoa Nellie”

  1. […] « Whoa Nellie […]

  2. […] The equine uses of Nelly/Nellie appear to have mixed with human uses of Emma and then Nelly / Nelly as generic names for troublesome women. From the Idiomation site (“Historically Speaking: Making sense of it all”) on 1/8/22: […]

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