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Archive for February, 2022

Down The Rat Hole

Posted by Admin on February 26, 2022

Last month, Idiomation posted about going down the rabbit hole, and along the way we found out about going down the rat hole which isn’t at all the same as going down the rabbit hole. When someone goes down the rat hole, it’s for a worthless purpose or reason and is a complete waste of money as well as resources.

Now the rathole being researched isn’t the rathole that’s known in poker playing circles. When a rathole refers to cards, that means to leave the table with a profit, and to return later on with a minimum buy-in after pocketing that big win. While ratholing is a great way to ensure a gambler doesn’t lose all the money they won previously, it’s not something most gamblers or casinos look kindly upon.

With the difference explained, let’s return to going down the rat hole.

The Military News published a story on 5 March 2021, it was reported that the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee questioned how the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program fit into the Defense Department’s future strategy. With the program’s total cost projected to surpass $1 trillion USD over a 50-year service lifetime, Democratic representative Adam Smith referred to the program as throwing money “down that particular rathole.”

Jordan Ross Belfort, the infamous American entrepreneur, former stockbroker and convicted felon who pleaded guilty to fraud and related crimes in connection with stock-market manipulation, created, by way of his crimes, the perfect example of throwing money down the rat-hole.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The major motion picture by Warner Brothers, “Wolf of Wall Street” is based on Jordan Ross Belfort and his time on Wall Street.

Back on 1 October 1981, the New York Times reported on U.S. Federal bureaucrat and whistleblower Al Louis Ripskis, who tasked himself with tracking down the waste and malfeasance in his own agency and root it out. It was stated that Mr. Ripskis past crusades resulted in Congressional hearings and publicity that embarrassed and humiliated officials. This time, he railed against the ways his agency could have researched water conservation without spending $500,000 USD in the process.

From his office in a ninth-floor cubbyhole at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Al Louis Ripskis whispers into the phone. “The brazenness. The gall. They’re pouring money down a rat hole!”

Even Time magazine made use of the expression, reporting it in an article titled, “Political Note: Rat Hole” published on 3 February 1930. The article dealt with Chicago’s public debt with no money in the City Treasury, none in the Cook County Treasury, and none in the School Board Treasury. Twenty-three park boards were penniless.

There was $500,000 outstanding on coal and because of that, coal dealers were refusing to deliver more coal to schools. Over $7 million was owed to provision merchants supplying food, and 13,000 teachers had not been paid at all in 1930, not just in the current school year. Nearly 4,000 Cook County employees were owed over a million dollars in back pay, and that wasn’t all that was going on.

No taxes had been paid in the city or county in 20 months as a result of the 1928 rebellion of property owners against discriminatory assessments. Tax warrants had been issued but Chicago bankers refused to advance any more cash on the $189,000,000 worth of tax warrants that had been issued.

The State Tax Commissioner William H. Malone had suggested the sale of $50,000,000 tax warrants to Chicago railroads, industries, and large landed corporations, but Chicago railroads, industries and large landed corporations objected on the basis that the city already owed all of them millions of dollars in services rendered.

Prominent Chicago lawyer, Silas Hardy Strawn (15 December 1866 – 4 February 1946), was an organizer of a Citizens’ Committee who understood all too well the desperate straits in which Chicago’s politicians had placed its citizens. The magazine reported that Silar Hardy Strawn stated clearly:

“Everyone stays asleep. . . . They talk politics, of getting somebody out of office. . . . They saw they would be putting their money down a rat hole with the present politicians in office.”

Chicago Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson (14 May 1869 – 19 March 1944) marginalized Silas Hardy Strawn’s comments, blaming “reformers” and Chicago newspapers for the troubles Chicago was experiencing.

Virginia’s Norfolk Post newspaper of 5 August 1921 used the expression in a headline: “Money Down The Rat-Hole.” At the time, the Shipping Board was alleged to have a hostile attitude towards labor and that hostile attitude resulted in a strike which allegedly cost millions. It was claimed in the article if honest practices were forced by the Shipping Board, there would be a saving of $18.50 out of every $100.00 spent in operations instead of the $2.25 out of every $100.00 by way of the Shipping Board’s wage reduction and ship lay-offs decision.

B.C. Butler, manager of general advertising for four daily newspapers published in Omaha, St. Paul, Des Moines, and Kansas City, took on newspapers in a letter that was published in a number of other newspapers and magazines in 1906. It was published in the Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers in Volume LVI Issue Number 6 on 8 August 1906. The letter began as follows:

Geo. P. Rowell says circulation is the number of perfect papers printed.

Thus doth the venerable authority mislead the advertiser into one of the worst “rat-holes” that ever ruined an advertising campaign.

This “rat-hole” is unpaid circulation, and down this “rat-hole” the advertisers of America have poured millions of dollars.

He was on a roll, and after a few more pointed comments were made, he ended his letter thusly:

In closing I wish to say that the St. Paul Daily News has only quality circulation to sell, and we guarantee advertisers that its total net paid up circulation every day is larger than any other newspaper in St. Paul, without regard to any circulation figures that are now printed and accepted by advertisers and agency directories to the contrary.

This is a pretty strong claim, but we want somebody to disprove it. It may start the fur flying but we will locate the “rat-hole” while we are on the subject of advertising “rat-holes.”

In an article titled, “Success in Manufacturing” published in Volume 21 of The Manufacturer and Builder: A Practical Journal of Industrial Progress published in July of 1889, quick mention was made of the Westinghouse Machine Company of Pittsburgh that had sent fully equipped experts out to visit a number of prominent manufacturing establishments so they could test the consumption of power by each machine. The question was asked why economize in wages and in the cost of raw materials when there was waste of fuel and power happening. The article ended stating the following:

Few people in this country seem to realize the amount of money that can be wasted in a year, through the steam pipe. The proverbial ‘rat hole’ will not compare with it. The manufacturer who has learned to economize at the steam pipe, has learned one of the most important secrets of success.

Fifteen years earlier, on 23 February 1874, the Daily Republican newspaper of Little Rock, Arkansas reported on page 1:

The ways and means committee, as well as the people, state they would like to see how that $30,000 was appropriated before they pour any more money down the rat-hole.

Twenty years earlier, on 18 July 1854, the Georgia Telegraph reported this on page 2 of its newspaper.

The Memphis Appeal thinks it a pretty good sign of hard times “when you see a (illegible) worth seventy thousand digging for two hours with a pickaxe for a five cent piece that had rolled down a rat hole.

But Idiomation came across an interesting article in the Litchfield Enquirer of 28 July 1842. It isn’t so much the passing of Mr. South that was interesting but rather where he had hidden his money.

The Norwich Courier of Tuesday states that a Mr. South, for many years the keeper of a drinking and oyster shop in that city died on the previous day in a fit. On searching his premises about four thousand dollars in specie was found stowed away in old segar and raisin boxes, in bags and old shoes, in every rat-hole about the shop.

Another article from 02 February 1842, the Camden Journal in South Carolina reprinted an article from the Charleston Courier newspaper about money found.

In removing some logs which had been lying for a year post upon Commercial Wharf, the laborers found, in a rat hole, about four hundred dollars in bills of the Georgetown Bank. One man found nearly two hundred dollars, including three 50 dollar bills.

It seems to Idiomation that hiding paper money down rat-holes may have been something done in the mid 1800s which would certainly explain the idiom of throwing anything of value down the rathole was a bad idea as rats, like any rodent, are more than happy to shred money to make a comfy nest for themselves.

Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to the 1850s with a strong nod to the fact that rat holes and bank notes made strange bedfellows long before that time and no idea who published the idiom first.

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

Do A Houdini

Posted by Admin on February 12, 2022

When you do a Houdini or pull a Houdini it means you have left the scene — you know, disappeared — or somehow managed to wiggle out of a bad situation. It’s obvious this is a reference to the great magician Hungarian-American illusionist, stunt performer, and mysteriarch Harry Houdini (24 March 1874 – 31 October 1925) who could break locks, escape from submerged boxes, get out of straightjackets, slip out of water torture cells, walk through brick walls, make elephants disappear, and more.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Harry Houdini’s real name was Ehrich Weisz, son of Rabbi Mayer Weisz and Cecilia Steiner, who reworked the name of his idol, French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and anglicized his given name to be more American thereby becoming Harry Houdini. Although he was born in Budapest, he claimed he was born in Appleton (WI) where he was raised.

The question is whether the idiom came about after Harry Houdini’s passing or if it came about during his lifetime.

Imagine Idiomation’s surprise when the following was found in Volume 75 of Collier’s National Weekly magazine for 18 April 1925 in an article titled “When Magic Didn’t Work” written by Houdini! But before getting to the article, the publishers inserted a large announcement that began thusly:

“Stop payment on that check. It did a Houdini!” Mr. Houdini wired us recently from Pittsburgh. The wizard (he modestly says he isn’t one) had been robbed!

This begged the question: Did the expression exist prior to the publisher’s note in Collier’s National Weekly magazine? The answer to that question is YES.

In Boy’s Life: The Boy Scouts’ Magazine, a short story by New York City author and teacher Wilbur S. Boyer titled “Music Hath Charms” was published in the November 1918 edition. At the time, Woodrow Wilson was the Honorary President, and Theodore Roosevelt was an Honorary Vice-President of the Boy Scouts of America as were William H. Taft and Daniel Carter Beard. Daniel Carter Beard was also a member of the Editorial Board.

Placing one end of the long scantling under the edge of the roof, he grasped the lower end and lifted and pulled the scantling towards an upright position. He was delighted to find that with his leverage he was able to raise the roof away from the side walls until he had a space of over a foot clear.

“Oh, joy, oh, boy! Where do we go from here?” he chuckled. “Here’s where I do a Houdini. Hey, Caruso?”

Mention of the dog made him pause.

Years earlier, the general public and the media as well as the illusionist himself referred to Harry Houdini as the Handcuff King and Jail Breaker. In fact, in an article titled, “A Mechanical Wizard” published in Volume 8, Number 3 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine published in March 1906, the article described him in this way but with the additional of the word ‘international.’ The news story reported that Harry Houdini had performed an escape in two minutes from a jail cell at a United Stated jail in Washington, broken into a second jail where his clothes were locked up, dressed, then proceeded to release all the prisoners that had been moved to the ground floor to leave him to perform his escape in the first place. The warden was gobsmacked that in the space of twenty-one minutes, Harry Houdini had succeeded so spectacularly.

It was, without a doubt, a legendary feat to escape from such a cell even the warden believed was escape-proof.

We know from Houdini’s biography that he began performing magic tricks in public when he was 17 years old, back in 1891, along with his friend “Dash.” They called themselves “The Brothers Houdini.” A year later, Harry fell in love with a dancer named Bess, they married, and Harry and Bess established a new magic act together as “The Houdinis” with Beth acting as Harry’s assistant.

In 1899, Hungarian-American vaudeville impressario and theater manager Martin Beck (31 July 1868 – 16 November 1940) took Harry Houdini under his wing, and by 1904 Houdini earned the title of Handcuff King when, in an hour, he got out of an escape-proof set of handcuffs that had been fashioned by a blacksmith in England who had devoted five years to creating the unbreakable handcuffs.

It was two years after this that the Washington jail event happened.

On 5 Januay 1907, in the “Reports of Proceedings of the City Council of Boston for the Twelve Months Commencing 1 January 1906 and ending 5 January 1907” the term was used in what appears to be the first published version of the term.

Alderman Fred James Kneeland spoke eloquently about the report of the committee titled, “County of Suffok House of Correction, Deer Island” and had questions about the use of the word escape in the report. Within his statement, the following was spoken by Alderman Kneeland:

I remember quite distinctly that the County Commissioners went to the Suffolk County Jail sometime during the past summer and it was decided by the County Commissioners that the Committee on Prisons, when they made their report, would give all the information to the public that was necessary. On pages 5 and 6 of this report we find “Suffolk County Jail.” There is nothing said on either of those pages about escaped prisoners whatsoever. The returns are signed by Fred H. Seavey, Sheriff. So far as my memory serves me, the two gentlemen spoken of by Alderman Linehan were fetched back to the jail; but in the case of the man who walked out, who did the Houdini, as the Alderman says, so far as I know, that man has yet to come back to Mr. Seavey. If this is going to be a public document, is going down into history as a report of the Committee on Prisons, and is going to be the official statement of Mr. Fred H. Seavey, I at least would like to ask Alderman Baldwin why some note has not been taken of the escaped prisoners at Charles Street Jail, and whether or not all the prisoners who have escaped have been returned to the jail?

The Chairman whom Alderman Kneeland addressed was Tilton Stuart Bell. Alderman Baldwin was John Edward Baldwin, and Alderman Linehan was Frank J. Linehan.

Idiomation pegs the idiom to 1906 — after the Washington jail break and before the Boston City Council meeting of 5 January 1907 — although who to credit for the idiom is unknown. Idiomation knows it was an expression that was understood by the Boston (MA) City Council members at the time so the idiom was part of every day language at this point.

That being said, the idiom obviously it met with Harry Houdini’s blessing for him to use the idiom himself in 1925.

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Posted by Admin on February 5, 2022

It wasn’t very difficult to track down the meaning or history of the word MacGyverism mostly because it was a straight road to where you might think it would lead. According to the Collins Dictionary, MacGyverism refers to any person who uses the resources at hand to successfully resolve a situation in which they find themselves.

Angus MacGyver, played by American actor Richard Dean Anderson, always found ingenious ways to get out of what seemed to be impossible situations from 29 September 1985 through to 21 May 1992 on the U.S. television show MacGyver. He was a fictional secret agent and a strong ally to social and environmental causes who relied on the practical application of scientific principles and on-the-spot inventiveness using everyday items at his immediate disposal.

To most fictional characters in the series as well as viewers watching the show, MacGyver used random and useless pieces, tying them together to create an unexpected and effective way to counteract inevitable danger certain to spell his demise.

The items he used most often were his Swiss Army knife, a roll of duct tape (which he conveniently kept in his back pocket and flattened so it would fit without creating bulk), a sturdy plastic ID card, a Timex watch, strike-anywhere matches, paper clips, chewing gum, and a flashlight. The character was a multilinguist fluent in English, Russian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and American Sign Language, and he know International maritime signal flags as well as Morse code.

All this was possible for MacGyver in light of the fact his character was written as having a genius intellect and a penchant for improvisation and adaptability.

The term MacGyverism is derived from the television character and his amazing ability to overcome dangerous situations most others would be unable to survive.

On 19 October 2006, Hudson Street Press published “What Would MacGyver Do? True Stories of Improvised Genius in Everyday Life” by Brandon Vaughan. The book, according to the blurb, was inspired by the fictional character Angus MacGyver and included this passage:

Inspired by television’s Angus MacGyver (played by Richard Dean Anderson), a secret agent who relied on his brains and scientific prowess – not to mention duct tape and a Swiss Army knife to save the day, the “MacGyverisms” recounted range from the concrete (using Chex Mix to provide traction in an icy parking lot) to the intangible (saving a relationship with the perfect turn of phrase).

The term has also led to the verbs “to MacGyver” and “MacGyverize.” In fact, “to MacGyver” was courtesy of Stephen Lunch on 1 August 1997 in his article published in the Orange County Register.

To fix something without benefit of tools or a manual is called “to MacGyver” a solution after the television show in which Richard Dean Anderson disarmed nuclear bombs with paper clips.

In an interview with MacGyver producer and writer Stephen Downing for the Christian Science Monitor published on 24 December 1987, David R. Francis wrote this:

“[MacGyver] relies on his ingenuity and knowledge, rather than violence, to complete dangerous missions. [Downing] calls the use of science techniques as “MacGyverisms.”

It sounds to Idiomation that those who enjoyed the television series took to MacGyverizing because they liked what the main character stood for and how he didn’t have to rely on violence to get himself out of scrapes.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Stephen Downing retired from the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980 after more than 20 years of service. He rose to the title of Captain of Detectives, and he established homicide investigation techniques that continue to be used to this day. He was a Commanding Officer of the Juvenile Division and then the Commanding Officer of the Southwest Area where he designed and implemented the first functionally integrated police operation in law enforcement dealing with gang activity.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Stephen Downing’s son, Michael P. Downing has also served as an LAPD Deputy Chief, and served as the Commanding Officer of Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations, becoming the interim Chief of Police after Chief William J. Bratton stepped down in 2009.

However, it was a year earlier in 1986, in the second-season episode 3 titled, “Twice Stung” that the character of Joanne Remmings (played by Pamela Bowen) used the term. Later on in an episode of “Stargate SG-1” the character of Samantha Carter (played by Amanda Tapping) used the term.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Richard Dean Anderson played the role of Colonel Jack O’Neill in “Stargate SG-1” which aired on 27 July 1997. The series was a spin-off from the movie “Stargate.”

There was a MacGyver reboot (23 September 2016 to 30 April 2021) that ran for four seasons which starred American actor, model, and producer Lucas Till in the role of Angus MacGyver. As you can well imagine, the MacGyverisms continued.

And so Idiomation has pegged the term to 1986 and episode 3 of MacGyver as the source of the term. The next time someone says you’re guilty of a MacGyverism, smile. You’re being compared to a genius-level who adapts well to unexpected situations.

Posted in American, Idioms from the 20th Century, television | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »