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Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

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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Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Greece, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Bell, Book and Candle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 19, 2015

When someone talks about bringing bell, book, and candle, they mean that something unusual, unexpected or bizarre will soon happen.  It’s important to note that these three items — book, bell, and candle — are all used in the celebration of the Roman Catholic mass.  Back in the day, if you wanted to curse a Catholic, all you had to do was to do it “by bell, by book, and by candle, and by all that is Holy.”  In saying this, you closed the book (Bible), silenced the bell, and put out the candle damning the person to spiritual death.

Knowing this, it’s almost humorous to note that in the December 4, 2008 edition of the Southern Herald in Liberty, Mississippi mention was made that the Liberty Bell, Book and Candle store had relocation, making sure to mention that its current location was across from the Courthouse and that its previous location had been near the Liberty Baptist Church.

The Boca Raton News of November 24, 1986 published an article on “The World’s Most Haunted Country.”  The article referred, of course, to the many haunted houses and locations in Britain — a country whose first official ghost-hunter was Dr. Robert Morris, identified as an American expert who had been inaugurated as the Koestler Chair in Parapsychology at Edinburgh University.

No need to bring garlic, or bell, book and candle, but a camera might be useful.  Patient visitors have been rewarded with film evidence at a number of sites, including historic Littlecote House near Newbury, scene of a grisly murder in 1575; and Borley Rectory, Suffolk, once proclaimed “Britain’s most haunted house.”

In the third edition (revised and corrected) of “The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe” the concept of bell, book and candle is addressed in Volume 5.  John Foxe (1516 – 18 April 1587) was an English historian, martyrologist, and author.The segment was published earlier in 1803 in the book “The Book Of Martyrs, or Christian Martyrology Containing an Authentic and Historical Relation of Many Dreadful Persecutions Against the Church Of Christ.”   Volume 5 covered three hundred years of history from the time of King Henry VIII’s reign and it’s in the section titled, “The Pope’s Curse with Book, Bell, and Candle” that is pegged at 1533 that the following is found:

At last, the priests found out a toy to curse him, whatsoever he were, with book, bell, and candle; which curse at that day seemed most fearful and terrible.  The manner of the curse was after this sort.

The text of the Pope’s Curse is clear.  You were in big trouble once the Pope’s Curse was put on you.

Pope's CurseBack in 1485, English author, knight, land owner, and Member of Parliament, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire (1405 – 14 March 1471) used it in “Morte d’Arthur” in Book XXI, Chapter 1:

Sir, said the noble clerk, leave this opinion, or else I shall curse you wyth book and belle and candell.  

Do thou thy worst, said Sir Mordred, wit thou well I shall defy thee.  

Sir, said the bishop, and wit you well I shall not fear me to do that me ought to do.  Also where ye noise where my lord Arthur is slain, and that is not so, and therefore ye will make a foul work in this land.

Peace, thou false priest, said Mordred, for, and thou charge me any more, I shall make strike off they head.

So the bishop departed, and did the curse in the most orgulous wise that might be done.  And then Sir Mordred sought the bishop of Canterbury for to have slain him.  Then the bishop fled, and took part of his goods with him, and went nigh unto Glastonbury, and there he was as priest hermit in a chapel, and lived in poverty and in holy prayers: for well he understood that mischievous war was at hand.

Idiomation traced the book, bell and candle curse back to the “Cursor Mundi: The Cursor O The World: A Northumbrian Poem of the 14th Century” published in 1300.

Cursor MundiThe last two lines make mention of bell, book and candle, but in reverse order.

Curced in kirc an sal ai be wid candil, boke, and bell.

That being said, it is interesting to learn that in all, there are one hundred and third two curses from the Church of Rome including one all-inclusive universal curse on all heretics in the world that can is held for use on Holy Thursday if the Pope so wishes.  Many of these curses go back to the first Nicaean Council in Bythynia, convened by Constantine the Great (27 February 272 – 22 May 337) — also known as Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus — in 325 AD!

Among the attendees was Nicholas of Myra, the bishop upon whose life the Santa Claus legend is based, and the Pope at the time was Sylvester I who rose to the position on January 31, 314 and remained Pope until his death in 335 in Rome.

While it’s true that some claim the curse is directly related to witchcraft, the fact of the matter is, the curse is one hundred percent vested in Christianity with nary a bit of witchcraftery.  How far back the curse goes is anyone’s guess, but it certainly doesn’t pre-date Christianity.

The Edict of Milan in 313 guaranteed Christians of their legal rights and the return of confiscated property to their rightful Christian owners.  That being said, Marcion of Sinope’s heretical “New Testament” is responsible for Christians establishing and recognizing their New Testament canon around 140 AD — one that recognized the 27 books of the New Testament that was written around 45 AD.

What this means is that it’s a safe bet that the Pope’s Curse with bell, book and candle was one that happened after sometime after 314 AD, but Idiomation is unable to peg the exact date the curse came into being.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Greece, Religious References, Rome, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

If Looks Could Kill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 5, 2014

Every once in a while you hear someone talk about a run-in they’ve had with a third party, and they state if looks could kill … oftentimes leaving the rest of the sentence unfinished. What they mean is that the third party was so angered by what the person had said or done, that they cast a nasty look in that person’s direction.

In the “Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board: Volume 351” the firing of David W. Lindgren on April 1, 1999 is addressed. Among other issues in this hearing was the fact that during voir-dire evidence, it was revealed that the witness had overheard other voir-dire testimony as he stood by the closed witness room door. Among the many twists and turns, the following was recorded:

Asked whether he stared at Lindgreen, George testified that he simply gazed at each driver, including Lindgren, in the room at various times, making eye contact per his training on how to address a group. George does not expressly deny staring at Lindgren, or giving him a “if looks could kill” stare at the beginning of the meeting, nor does he assert that he never saw the “Big O” on Lindgren’s shirt.

Author Henrik Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) wrote a number of plays including “The League Of Youth: A Comedy In Five Act” which was published in English in 1965 by Penguin Books (it was originally published in 1869). Madame Rundesholme — referred to as Madam in the play — is the widow of a local tradesman, Daniel Hejre is Daniel Hejre, Lundedstad is the farmer Anders Lundedstad, Mr. Stensgard is a lawyer, and Thora is Chamberlain Brattesberg’s daughter. The action takes place near a market town in the southern part of Norway. The expression is found in this passage.

MADAM:
Yes, of course I accept him. A girl’s got to be careful of philanderers, but when you’ve got it in black and white that a certain person’s intentions are honourable, why then … Oh look, here’s Mr. Stensgard, too! Well, Mr. Stensgard, aren’t you going to congratulate me?

HEJRE [to LUNDESTAD]:
If looks could kill …!

BRATTSBERG:
I’m sure he is, Madam Rundesholme, but won’t you congratulate your future sister-in-law?

MADAM:
Who’s that?

THORA:
Ragna — she’s engaged, too.

In the Saturday Evening Post edition of May 7, 1921, the story “Fifty Candles” by American novelist and playwright, Earl Derr Biggers (August 26, 1884 – April 5, 1933) was shared with the readership. The story was said to be from the records of the district court at Honolulu for the year 1898, stretching twenty years, and landing squarely in San Francisco, and the life of one Chang See. Interestingly enough, for those who don’t recognize the author’s name, he is primarily remembered for his detective stories featuring Chinese-American detective, Charlie Chan (first introduced to readers in 1925 in the novel “The House Without A Key.”). But flirting with the idea of incorporating Asian culture into his stories was something that struck the author’s fancy after a trip to Honolulu where he wrote he did some “harmless loitering on the beach at Waikiki.”  In the Saturday Evening Post story, the following was written:

Harry Childs had never been in high favor in that court, and if looks could kill he would then and there have preceded his client into eternity. Outwardly, however, the judicial calm was unruffled.

Rolling back to January 1853 and “The New Monthly Magazine: Volume 97” in a story entitled, “Lisette’s Castles In The Air.”  It is attributed as being from the Danish author and poet, H.P. Holst (22 October 1811 – 4 June 1893) and transcribed by a Mrs. Bushby.

Her embarrassment adds fuel to the flames; the demon of jealousy is again at work in Ludvig’s mind, he utters not a syllable, but darting at her a glance that, if looks could kill, would have annihilated her on the spot, he seizes his hat, and is about to leave her. Lisette is in the greatest consternation. She tries to detain him. “Ludvig — dear Ludvig! I have — can you forgive …?”

“What have you done? What am I called on to forgive? You false, deceitful one!” he cries, passionately interrupting her, while he endeavours to break away from her.

“Oh, do not be so violent, Ludvig! I have been amusing myself with my dreams again. I have again been building castles in the air. Forgive me this once more! There is what I have been writing.”

Going back to April 1804 and the book “Oriental Customs, Or An Illustration Of The Sacred Scriptures By An Explanatory Application Of The Customs And Manners Of The Eastern Nations, And Especially The Jews, Therein Alluded To Together With Observations On Many Difficult And Obscure Texts, Collected From The Most Celebrated Travellers, And The Most Eminent Critics” written by Church of England clergyman, Samuel Burder (1773 – 1836). This book is introduced in the Preface as one that purports to provide mature examination of authenticated revelations, and determines the credibility of the Bible as connected with customs found in cultures of the East (meaning the Middle East and Asia). The following is written in the section entitled, “No. 532: Galatians ii.1.”

They believed that great mischief might ensue from an evil-eye, or from being regarded with envious and malicious looks. Pliny relates from Isigonus, that “among the Triballians and Illyrians there were certain enchanters, who with their looks could bewitch and kill those whom they beheld for a considerable time, especially if they did so with angry eyes.” (Nat. Hist. lib. vii.cap.2.)

And so the concept of looks being able to kill is traced back to the Triballians and the Illyrians by way of this passage. Triballians were an ancient tribe that inhabited what is now known as southern Serbia and western Bulgaria, and were influenced by the Celts, the Scythians, and the Illyrians. Illyrians were an ancient tribe that inhabited the western Balkans and the southeastern costs of the Italian peninsula. The tribe appears to have died out, according to historical records, in the 7th century. Both tribes are mentioned in Greek texts from as early on as the 4th century BC.

Pliny, is Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79), who was a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher. At the age of 23, he was a junior officer in the Roman army, and from there he moved up the ladder to become a commander of a cohort, and then secured the position of commander of an ala. During this time, his knowledge and ability grew, and became more and more respected. What this means is that he had opportunity and occasion to interact with the tribes to which he referred in his writings. It is here that Pliny referred to some Triballian and Illyrian “[women] who had double eye balls, [who] had power to hurt others on whom they fixed their eyes.”

Greek mythology dates back to between 900 and 800 BC, and while it’s possible that the abilities attributed to some Triballian and Illyrian women may be as a result of the myth of Perseus and Medusa.  Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters (the three sisters being Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale). It was said that Medusa had the ability to turn to stone those who gazed upon her countenance.

That being said, Greek mythology seems to pre-date the Triballians and Illyrians, and so it is reasonable to identify this idiom as being one that comes straight from the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa.

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Takes The Cake

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 8, 2013

Sometimes you’ll see people get to a point where they say that the latest takes the cake. Now they don’t literally mean that someone sneaked into their kitchen and made off with any baked goods that might have been on the counter. What they mean is that the most recent event is, in their opinion, more than they are willing or able to accept as fact. In other words, it’s an expression that states something or someone is unbelievable (in their behavior or attitude), incredible, or ridiculous.

When reviewer Anna Thompson wrote a piece on November 16, 2011 that compared the two major gaming consoles on the market, she did a comparison of the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 … two gaming consoles that were at the heart of any serious gamer’s collection and discussions. The article imparted this information to those who were wondering which console would best suit their gaming needs.

When it comes to trust a console, the PS3 takes the cake again. The infamous Red Ring of Death (RROD) Xbox 360 is something that every player dreads and it is amazing how so many people still complain about this problem. The PS3 also suffers from problems once in a while, but there is no lack of such debilitating and notorious RROD, that can affect it.

The Pittsburg Press published an intriguing article on July 26, 1966 about the upcoming nuptials for Luci Baines Johnson. The Scripps-Howard Staff Writer shared with readers that the bride would be wearing something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her show at her wedding to Patrick Nugent on August 6. The wedding was to be an elaborate affair, and the honeymoon was described as something most young brides never experience as she would be accompanied by three Secret Service agents. The wedding cake was discussed in some detail and the article ended with a question: If it takes five egg whites to make enough cake for 10 people, then multiply 5 by 75 which comes out to 375 egg whites, what in the world is the White House going to do with 375 egg yolks? The article was aptly entitled:

Luci’s Wedding Takes The Cake

Now back in the day, the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner was a well-read newspaper in Kent County, Rhode Island and in the February 7, 1902 edition, the reporter wrote about a certain celebrated London beauty who had been seen in several questionable dramatic productions over in England. While her career may have had a few bumps in the productions leading up to her appearance in America, she made waves once she arrived on American shores. So much so, in fact, that the reporter wrote this about the actress:

It is not what Mrs. Pat Campbell says or does that provokes the critics, but rather what she does not say or do. She is not a beauty, according to our American canons, but her dresses — oh my, my, my! — they are a revelation, a miracle of the costumer’s art, which would make Worth’s most splendid creation look like the blanket of a Hottentot. When you talk of style, Mrs. Campbell takes the cake and with it the entire bakery. There is no changing the hard, granite fact that she has caught the town, that her houses are packed and Mrs. Campbell and her manager are reaping a golden harvest.

American author, William Trotter Porter edited a book entitled, “A Quarter Race in Kentucky: And Other Sketches, Illustrative of Scenes, Characters, and Incidents, Throughout the Universal Yankee Nation,”  It was published in Philadelphia by T.B. Peterson and Brothers of Chestnut Street in 1847. In the story, “Old Tuttle’s Last Quarter Race” which was credited to “Buckeye” of Ohio. Whoever Buckeye was, and where in Ohio he lived,.  The story was originally published in the “Spirit Of The Times” in New York.  As the reader makes his way through the story, the following passage is found:

The result was, they got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side, to run on Saturday at two o’clock, each one to start and ride his own horse, judge tops and bottoms — the winning horse takes the cakes — and no back out! Either party refusing to run forfeits the whole stakes.

Not to give away any part of the story, suffice it to say that the twists and turns in the story are both hilarious and well thought out, and as such, should you happen across a copy of this book, I highly recommend you read this story first. You’ll understand why when you reach the last page.

In any case, over the centuries, there have been many instances where the phrase has been used in one form or another, but the earliest version surprised Idiomation … a reference that took the idiom all the way back to Ancient Greece!

For those who don’t know, in Ancient Greece, a cake was the prize at drinking parties for the man who kept awake all night. “The Knights” written by comic Greek playwright and poet, Aristophanes (446 BC – 386 BC), was presented at the Lenaean festival in February 424 BC. Although the play was one that was political in nature, ridiculing policies and legislation, it did, indeed, make use of the phrase in this way:

If in bawling you defeat him,
sing we ho! for Victory’s sake.
If in shamelessness you beat him,
then indeed we take the cake.

The audacity of it all would lead to the group taking the cake, and as it were, this play certainly plays out in a most outrageous way through to the end. That being said, the expression dates back to 424 BC thanks to Aristophanes!

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Greece | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A Woman’s Place Is In The House

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 3, 2013

Have you ever heard the expression: A woman’s place is in the house? If you hear that these days, it’s a good chance the speaker is either baiting you, or there’s a witty play on words about to happen.

On January 5, 2007 the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story about Nancy Pelosi in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was an article that heralded her accomplishments as a politician, with the article aptly titled, “A Woman’s Place Is In The House: Pelosi Opens Doors On Her Life.” Partway through the article, the following was found:

Five hundred women wore badges with Ms Pelosi’s face, in pearl earrings, above the slogan: “A woman’s place is in the House … as Speaker.”

Feminists of the 1970s took offence to the expression and came up with their own version:

A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

But the fact remains that the expression will always have a place in society.

Back on Jun 6, 1925, the Toledo News Bee newspaper published a United Press story out of San Antonio, Texas that had to do with elections for President of the General Federation Of Women’s Clubs. It was reported that by a convention vote of 555 to 434, the candidate from Baltimore had been elected President.

Mrs. John F. Sippel of Baltimore, whose campaign slogan that a “woman’s place is in the home” won her a victory over her “business woman” opponent.

Almost 100 years before that, back in 1832, the New Sporting Magazine, Volume 3 published an article that stated:

A woman’s place is her own home, and not her husband’s countinghouse.

When British physician and preacher Thomas Fuller (24 June 1654 – 17 September 1734) published “Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs; Wife Sentences and Witty Saying, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British” in 1732, the following was included:

A Woman is to be from her House three times: when she is Christened, Married and Buried.

Since his book included ancient sayings and since Thomas Fuller was also a preacher, it’s not surprising that this was found in his book. After all, the phrase originated with the Greek, and more specifically with Greek playwright Aeschylus, who wrote this in 467 B.C.:

Let the women stay at home and hold their peace.

As much as some women may  not appreciate hearing the expression, the fact of the matter is that it has a history that stretches far back into Ancient Greece.  In the end, however, perhaps the expression is more of a compliment and acknowledgment of the great impact mothers have on their children than a slight against them.

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A Leopard Can’t Change His Spots

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 15, 2013

You’ve probably heard someone say that a leopard can’t change his spots before and what it means is that no matter how hard someone may try to change that true nature, they’ll never succeed in changing who they are naturally. It’s another way of saying: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  As Popeye was famous for saying: “I am what I am.”

For example, in the August 25, 2008 edition of the Mirror, a quick write-up was provided about the upcoming episode of Coronation Street (a popular British soap opera). Summing it up in two lines, Jane Simon wrote:

A leopard can’t change its spots and it looks like Tyrone was right to be suspicious about his mum Jackie having turned over a new leaf. After Tyrone and Molly spend a worried night in the car waiting for Jackie to return, Tyrone’s mood turns to anger when she crows about pulling yet another scam.

In Sports Editor, Al Abrams’ column “Sidelights On Sports” published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 17, 1950, sports fans were abuzz about was Ezzard “No Hazard” Charles, the NBA heavyweight king of boxing. It was said that he fought just enough to win without taking unnecessary risks which cost him in box office appeal and popularity with what Abrams called “members of slug society who pay the fright to see him in action.” Throwing in his two cents worth, he wrote:

Ezzard, no hazard, like the leopard, can’t change his spots. There’s no denying he is a good fighter, the best heavyweight around until the night the aged Louis proves otherwise, but he could be a far greater and exciting one if he’d just “give” a little more. That he never will. We’re all convinced of that.

The Jeffersonian Gazette of November 1, 1900 had a similar take on the subject of politics in an article entitled, “Party vs. Principles.”  The story led off with this paragraph:

It is an old saying, that it is difficult for the leopard to change his spots. It semes from actual experience that it is almost as difficult for the old time republican to leave his party. With many of us upon whom party affiliation sits lightly; what we mean is that we care nothing for the name, it is principles we want; we can’t fully appreciate how a man who voted for Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, and that long line of illustrious heroes and statesmen, now dead,will put so much stress upon a party name.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer states that it was first recorded in English in 1546, but no source was provided. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t first recorded in English in 1546, only that Idiomation has not identified what that source may be.

What Idiomation could confirm is that a version of the idiom is found in the Bible in Jeremiah 13:20-25 where it states:

20 Lift up your eyes, and behold them that come from the north: where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?

21 What wilt thou say when he shall punish thee? for thou hast taught them to be captains, and as chief over thee: shall not sorrows take thee, as a woman in travail?

22 And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me? For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare.

23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.

24 Therefore will I scatter them as the stubble that passeth away by the wind of the wilderness.

25 This is thy lot, the portion of thy measures from me, saith the Lord; because thou hast forgotten me, and trusted in falsehood.

The Book of Jeremiah in the Bible was written between 630 and 580 BC, at a time when the Law Of The Medes and Persians was a forgone conclusion. The Mede were an Indo-European people who inhabited ancient Media, and who had established an empire during the 7th century. And as with the law of the Medes and Persians, it was believed that the laws of nature could not be altered or changed either.

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Skin Of His Teeth

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 17, 2011

If you know someone who tells you that something happened to him or her by the skin of his or her teeth, it means that person either narrowly escaped a negative experience or narrowly managed to succeed,  and it all happened at the last minute! 

In Ontario, the recent provincial election at the beginning of October (2011) was a real nail biter in some regions.  In fact, it was reported on the website www.viewmag.com that some candidates barely won their seats.

In Thunder Bay–Atikokan, Liberal Bill Mauro held on again by the skin of his teeth, although this time he increased his plurality to 452 votes over the NDP.

The Democratic Convention back in 1956 also had its nail biting moments during their primaries.  In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the following in an article entitled, “Adlai Skins His Teeth” in their May 31, 1956 edition:

By the skin of his teeth, Adlai Stevenson has taken 22 of Florida’s 28 Democratic convention votes in an apathetic primary contest with Senator Estes Kefauver.  The closeness of the vote, however, will soon be forgotten.  The important thing is that Mr. Stevenson won.

It seems that the world of politics like to use the phrase moreso than others.  The phrase is found in the New York Times article of June 22, 1912 in an article entitled, “Democrats’ Method Of Nomination Best” where the following appears:

The Democratic way is really the better way.  It prevents a mere majority, by whatever means obtained, by bribery or force or promise, from compelling the party to accept the leadership of the candidate chosen by the skin of his teeth to do battle for the party.  Better make the choice of candidates a little harder than subject the party to defeat, even for the sake of making an Oyster Bay holiday.

On April 11, 1846 the Courrier de la Louisiane published a news story entitled, “Whig Victory” where the newspaper reported the following in part:

But in all the multitudinous and infinitely diversified changes and shiftings of political parties ever imagined, who expected to hear S.J. Peters affect to exult over a triumph of the Second Municipality?  And what is the triumph over which he exults?  He is re-elected by the skin of his teeth Alderman in the second ward, and two sound Democrats are elected in the same ward, where, four years ago, Peters would have told any man he was made who should have thought of opposing him or his Whig followers: Crossman is elected Mayor although is in a very small minority — other branch of this magnificent “triumph of the people!”

Now the phrase did appear in the King James Bible of 1611 with the entire verse being:

Yea, young children despised me; I arose, and they spake against me. All my inward friends abhorred me: and they whom I loved are turned against me. My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.

However, before the King James Bible, the phrase appeared in 1560 in the Geneva Bible, where, in Job 19:20, the literal translation of the original Hebrew is given as being:

I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.

That being said, the phrase appears in Latin in the Medieval Latin Bibles produced by hand before the invention of printing and in Greek in Greek texts.  And so, the phrase dates back to Biblical times but how far back? 

Based on information provided in the Book of Job, readers know that it happened well after Noah and the flood and it happened in the time of Esau who was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham.  The name of Job is found in the Amarna letters of 1350 B.C. and in the Egyptian Execration texts of 2000 B.C. 

So while Idiomation is unable to put an exact date on the first use of the phrase skin of his teeth, it absolutely dates back far enough for readers to know it’s a very ancient saying.

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Beat The Air

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 1, 2011

When someone beats the air, it’s because he or she is fighting without accomplishing anything.  If you imagine someone’s arms flailing about at nothing, that’s a good literal representation of the figurative meaning of the phrase beat the air.

On July 17, 2006, the Boston Globe published a story by staff writer, Ron Borges in their Sports section about a boxing match between Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley entitled, “Mosley Back In Picture: Vargas Fades Out.”  It began by reporting the following:

This rematch ended far more decisively than their meeting Feb. 25. Although Mosley stopped [Fernando Vargas] both times, the first fight ended when referee Joe Cortez stepped in to prevent Vargas from fighting the last two rounds because his left eye was swollen shut. When Cortez waved his hands, Vargas beat the air with his fists and insisted he would have beaten down the tiring Mosley had he been given the chance.

The Hartford Courant published a short news article entitled, “Let’s Talk It Over” on December 17, 1944 that stated in part:

How easy it is to pass the buck for our failures, to flounder through life blaming somebody else or even some thing else instead of ourselves. I’m thinking of Hannah, nearing 30. She has a job of a sort ….

It explains how desperate Hannah is to secure a husband and includes this bit of insight:

No wonder he always runs. What a pity no one tips Hannah off. What a shame for her to beat the air from one year to the next.

In New Zealand, the Marlborough Express published a news story on April 21, 1904 about then Opposition leader, Mr. Massey and how the electorate in New Zealand saw both him and his party.  The following is an excerpt of that news story.

It is too late in the day to go back to first principles to find a line of party cleavage.  And to tell the people that the present Government has fallen away from the lines of grace laid down by Mr. Ballance is to beat the air to no purpose.  The old lines are obliterated beyond all human power of redrawing, as Mr. Massey himself admitted when he contended that there is nothing to find fault with in the legislation of the Government, which is the party in power.

On November 5, 1841 the Public Ledger newspaper republished a story run in the Morning Herald entitled, “The Corn-Law Repealers And The Government.”  Lord Melbourne who was said to have “contempt for facts and realities” verbally attacked the Duke of Wellington for “simply stating a truth as palpable to everyone who will use his senses as the nose that completes and adorns his face, and on Saturday morning he was forthwith denounced as a monster and a modern Herod.”  The Duke of Wellington had angered Lord Melbourne because the Duke “announced a fact adverse to dishonest and unsuccessful agitation” and Lord Melbourne was now painting him as “cruel” because the Duke refused to deceive the public.  This comment was included in the story:

Unfortunately for the whig press it might “as well beat the  entrenchant air” as attack the Duke of Wellington; the character of the noble Duke is a national concern; and in whig abuse of his grace the people of England feel themselves insulted.

Going back several centuries to the days of the Apostles, the lower regions of the atmosphere was referred to as air as opposed to the higher regions of the sky which was referred to as the heavens (1 Thess. 4:17; Rev. 9:2; 16:17).  Ancient philosophers regarded air as an element since they didn’t know that air is essentially a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen with a small amount of carbon dioxide.  This is important to note as the expression beat the air is found in the Bible.  In fact, the earliest published version of the phrase beat the air is attributed to St. Paul.

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.  (1 Corinthians 9:26)

While it’s true that boxing was a sport that ancient Romans and ancient Greeks enjoyed, and while it’s true that there are accounts of boxers beating the air prior to a boxing match, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this phrase.

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Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 15, 2011

Most people you meet who are nice are genuinely nice.  But every once in a while you meet someone who’s described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  In other words, they seem nice and charming but looks can be deceiving …. the person is actually very dangerous.

On July 6, 2009 the Bismark Tribune newspaper ran a Letter to the Editor sent in by Ralph Muecke Gladstone.  His opening comments were:

As you should know by now, the U.S. House passed HR 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.  Better known as the cap and trade bill.  This disastrous and dangerous bill is truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  It supposedly addresses the problem of man-made global warming, which is one of the biggest hoaxes ever conceived.

In Chapter 17 entitled, “The Deadly Peril of Jane Clayton” in Edgar Rice Burrough’s book “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar” published in 1918, the following passage is found:

Shouldering his way through the crowd he approached the doorway, and had almost reached it when one of the Arabs laid a hand upon his shoulder, crying: “Who is this?” at the same time snatching back the hood from the ape-man’s face.

Tarzan of the Apes in all his savage life had never been accustomed to pause in argument with an antagonist. The primitive instinct of self-preservation acknowledges many arts and wiles; but argument is not one of them, nor did he now waste precious time in an attempt to convince the raiders that he was not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Instead he had his unmasker by the throat ere the man’s words had scarce quitted his lips, and hurling him from side to side brushed away those who would have swarmed upon him.

Center Church in New Haven, Connecticut was founded in 1639 by English Puritans led by Reverend John Davenport, leading the church from April 25, 1638 when it was founded, up until 1668.  Their church was seen as a culture-shaping force as their communities were known as “Bible Commonwealths.”  Records show that revivalist James Davenport, grandson of the founding paster of the Church, accused the Church’s fourth pastor, Reverend Joseph Noyes (pastor from 1716 through to 1758) of being:

… a hypocrite, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a devil incarnate …

Italian poet, Giovanni Maria Verdizotti (1525 – 1600) published his book of fables entitled “Cento favole maroli” in 1570.  One of the stories included was one about a wolf dressed as a shepherd who, upon trying to call the sheep to him, wakes the real shepherd and his dogs who, of course, catch the wolf as he tries to run away now that he has been discovered as being fake as well as dangerous.

The proverb appears in the book “Hecatomythium” by Italian professor, writer and librarian, Laurentius Abstemius (1431 – 1503) and published in 1495.  It should be noted that Laurentius Abstemius was also known by the name of Lorenzo Bevilaqua.  This book is a collection of 100 fables written in Latin, many of which were translated from Greek.  The story of a wolf in sheep’s clothing published in this book is the version that credits Aesop as the author.  The story about the wolf begins with:

A wolf, dressed in a sheep’s skin, blended himself in with the flock of sheep and every day killed one of the sheep.

A second book by Abstemius contained an additional 97 fables and was entitled, “Hecatomythium Secundum” published in 1499. 

Some attribute the saying to Aesop’s “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” fable however there is no record of this fable attributed to Aesop as being written by Aesop prior to the 12th century, casting doubt as to whether it is, indeed, a true Aesop’s fable.  There is, however, a similar story attributed to Greek rhetorician Nikephoros Basilakis in his work “Progymnasmata.”

However, in the end, the spirit of the expression in its original form is found in the Bible in Matthew 7, verses 14 and 15.

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

It was such a well-used and referenced comment that a Latin proverb came into vogue after Jesus’ time, pelle sub agnina latitat mens saepe lupina (under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind).

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The One-Eyed Man Is King

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 5, 2011

When you hear the expression, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” it’s a nice way of saying that even a person with limited abilities and knowledge is at a great advantage in the company of those with lesser abilities and less knowledge than he. 

The Italians have the same saying, “In un mondo di ciechi un orbo è re.”  The German people have their version of the proverb: “Those that rule must hear and be deaf, must see and be blind.”  And the French people also have their own version of the proverb:  “When a blind man bears the standard, pity those who follow.”  Some say it’s a variation of a Bible quote found in Matthew 15:14 that states: 

“If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” 

It’s also found in Luke 6:39 as:

“Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?” 

On January 22, 2011, journalist Frank Rich wrote an OpEd piece for the New York Times about the original movie, “True Grit” starring John Wayne for which he won the 1969 Oscar for Best Actor and its 2010 remake starring Jeff Bridges.  The piece was aptly entitled, “The One-Eyed Man Is King.”

On June 6, 1920 the New York Times published a news story entitled, “Millions Wasted To Elect President!”  It spoke of the enormous campaign finances dribbled away by professional campaigners, running minimally efficient headquarters for candidates all the while presenting with a big business atmosphere.

In the monarchy of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  In the field of activity of the professional campaigner there may be a Cabinet position in store for the man whose industry nothing can abate and whose political ineptness nobody can deny.

On January 21, 1859 in Volume II, Issue 131 of the Colonist newspaper published in Nelson, New Zealand, the paper reprinted the address of Lord Stanhope to the University of Aberdeen.

A large part of the wisdom, the experience, and the actual power of the country is unrepresented in Parliament, through the taciturnity or defective expression of our public men while, as a natural consequence, many who have little else than a ready command of words obtain an influence beyond their just worth.  “In a people of the blind, the one-eyed man is king;” and in an assembly of bad speakers or mutes a very ordinary orator will get more than his due.  It must be so at the bar, and in the pulpit also.

Episcopalian clergyman, the Reverend Donald MacIntosh published “Collections of Gaelic Proverbs” in 1785 included the proverb, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

A century prior to the publication of the Reverend Donald MacIntosh‘s book, the proverb was cited by John Ray in 1678 and referenced as being an English proverb.  His twist on the Bible passage was, “A man were better be half blind than have both eyes  out.” In other words, not only would a half-blind man be able to avoid the ditch, he might find himself in a position if leadership among those who were completely blind.

Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) published a book commonly referred to over the centuries as “Adagia.”  The first edition was actually entitled “Collecteana Adagiorum” and was published in Paris in 1500.  It was a slim book with approximately eight hundred proverbs.  Erasmus rename his book, “Adagiorum Chiliades” when it was republished in 1509 with an impressive 3,000 proverbs and adages this time, many with explanatory notes that read as brief essays themselves.   Over time, subsequent editions of his book saw the addition of more proverbs and adages with the final edition containing 4,658 proverbs and adages.

Most of the proverbs and adages found in the book were accepted by society as a whole as common wisdom of the day.  His reason for amassing so many proverbs and adages in one book had a great deal to do with the fact that Erasmus focused primarily on providing a Latin translation of the New Testament from several Greek texts that provided a more accurate translation of the Scriptures.  Collecting 4,658 entries was merely an extension of his work.  Included in his book was the proverb: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

As it was a commonly used expression at the time Desiderius Erasmus published his book and considering his interest in the Scriptures, it is not unreasonable to believe that the proverb does, indeed, come from the Bible and made it into common language via the Catholic Church.

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