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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 12th Century’ Category

Thon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 20, 2017

In an effort to be politically correct and gender sensitive, government departments, agencies, organizations, businesses, and schools are trying to agree on a gender neutral pronoun that’s acceptable to everyone.   Some have considered using zie, sie, se, xe, ey, ve, tey, e, and hir while others have rejected those options as being awkward and contrived.  Others have suggested going with they, their, and them while others argue those options are too impersonal.  The dilemma is one that no other generation has ever faced.  Or is it?

What about the word thon?

The word thon is chiefly Scottish and is a mish-mosh of this and that with the pronoun yon.  It was most popular in the 1700s and 1800s, and although it made its way into the Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary in 1903, it was removed sixty years later … mostly because no one bothered to use it.

SIDE NOTE 1:  The gender neutral pronoun ou can be traced back to the 14th century as used by Cornish writer and translator John Trevisa (1326 – 1402).

SIDE NOTE 2:  John Trevisa is the 18th most frequently cited author in the Oxford English Dictionary, and cited as the source for evidence of a word after Geoffrey Chaucer and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

SIDE NOTE 3:  The pronoun she first appeared in the mid-12th century to reduce the confusion and ambiguity of the gender neutral pronoun system that was used in English at the time.

In 1894, the word — and a variation therein — was used by Henry Graham Williams (1865 – date of death unknown) in his book, “Outlines of Psychology Designed for Use in Teachers Classes, Normal Schools, and institutes, and as a Guide for All Students of Applied Psychology.

Every student should acquaint thonself with some method by which thon can positively correlate the facts of thons knowledge.

In 1884, American attorney and composer of church music, Charles Crozat Converse (October 7, 1832 – October 18, 1918) wrote in a letter published in the August 2, 1884 edition of “The Critic and Good Literature” that a gender neutral pronoun should be used and that thon was such a pronoun (a word he lay claim to having created in 1858).

It was, according to Mr. Converse arrived at by “cutting off the last two letters of the English word that, and the last letter of the word one, and uniting their remaining letters in their original sequence in these two words” thereby producing the word thon.  The purpose of the pronoun was to bring equality to situations where stating a gender was to give one gender more respect than the other.  In his explanation, he wrote:

Use of it will so individualize and pronominalize (so to speak) this word as to show its manifest grammatical distinction from the words that and one of which it is born; and the mental process by which it leads its user to the noun it represents will, I think, be found to be easy and natural, it not being an arbitrary sign.

Oddly enough in a Letter to the Editor submitted to, and printed by, The New York Times on October 19, 1905, the history of the word thon was outed as having been in use thirty years before the Charles Crozat Converse lay claim to creating it.

So while people today are busy congratulating themselves on being gender sensitive and incredibly progressive in their thinking, the fact of the matter is that long before the term transgender or gender fluid was part of our language, people had a gender neutral pronoun.  It just never quite caught on.

Idiomation pegs this word to around 1825 based on The New York Times Letter to the Editor with a nice nod to Charles Crozat Converse in the process.  Isn’t it interesting to learn that the more things change, the more things stay the same … or revert to a much earlier time in history?

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Seven Ways To Sunday

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 22, 2013

It’s not often you hear someone say they’ve tried seven ways to Sunday to get something done, but when you do hear it, you know that person tried a variety of possibilities before giving up on solving the problem. Not only that, the person was thorough in his or her pursuit of a solution or answer to the problem. Once a person has tried seven ways to Sunday, there isn’t much of anything else that can be done by that person although someone else might be able to pick up where the other person left off, and arrive at a solution or answer to that very problem.

In a January 10, 2011 news story by Christopher Keating entitled, “Connecticut Has Twice As Many State Government Managers As National Average” and published in the Hartford Courant newspaper, the situation with government managers in Connecticut was addressed. Among many things that were reported was this:

“I would never sign a tolling bill that did not, in seven ways to Sunday, lock box the revenue for transportation purposes,” Malloy said. “I think it is inevitable that it will be actively considered.”

But tolls are clearly a long-term issue that will not be decided immediately.

“I don’t assume that this budget will be based in any way on tolls,” he said.

Going back nearly 50 years before that, the Youngstown Vindicator published an article on December 4, 1963 by reporter, Joseph Alsop entitled, “Maybe Goldwater Isn’t Blocked.” The article was about the political situation in the U.S. and the possibility that Senator Barry Goldwater might be blocked from being a Republican presidential nominee. It read in part:

No effective obstacle to this scheme was visible anywhere prior to the loss of President Kennedy. This was the case although the hot-eyed Goldwaterites were in a decided minority among Connecticut Republicans, who generally lean to the progressive side.

The party as a whole was (and still is) split seven ways to Sunday, principally by the feud between the former and present chairmen, Edwin May and Searle Pinney. Besides being divided among themselves, even those Republicans who were most certain Goldwater would be poison in Connecticut were also certain no one could beat a Kennedy-led ticket here. Thus no effective opposition to Goldwater coalesced anywhere.

The fact of the matter is that the number in the saying seven ways to Sunday is a constantly changing number. Some say it’s six ways to Sunday while others say it’s a thousand ways to Sunday. Some say it’s forty ways to Sunday while still others say it’s only six ways to Sunday. Some people have been known to say every which way from Sunday. Sometimes the preposition changes and from or for is substituted for the word to, all the while maintaining the right to change the number of days it might take.

The proof is in the pudding (as the saying goes) as this example from the October 10, 1910 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided this humorous elegy allegedly found in a country church yard:

But all is over and his soul is borne
To that far away country of the wine and corn
To jump six ways for Sunday every time
The Angel Gabriel toots his horn.

And despite the fact that there are so many different avenues to head off on in researching this phrase (based on numbers alone), perhaps the most intriguing (although unconfirmed) origin of the expression is this one.

The story goes that the saying dates back to the second half of the twelfth century when disbelievers and heretics were targeted by the Pope in Rome. Allegedly, the Pope sent out orders to every Archbishop that the last person to show up for Sunday service was to have the devil beaten out of him … six ways to Sunday. The punishment was to be meted out every day for a week until the following Sunday when another parishioner was tagged as the last one to show up for Sunday service.

Now the punishment wasn’t the same day in and day out.  Variety was added so the penitent parishioner would remember what he or she had done wrong.  In order to create variety, the punishment was to be carried out with a different instrument each day: Stout Mace for Mondays, Iron-tipped Boot for Tuesdays, Broad Sword (flat edge, not the sharp edge) for Wednesdays, Wide Belt for Thursdays, Stones for Fridays, and on Saturdays, depending on the season, the weapon of choice was either Ice (in winter) or Cabbage (in summer).

While Idiomation cannot confirm or rule out this anecdote, it certainly bears sharing since the story is sufficiently steeped in historical references that one might be led to believe it’s accurate even if it proves to be a prank tale.

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 14, 2011

In 1942, C.S. Lewis published a book entitled The Screwtape Letters that presented the fictional correspondence between two fictional demons. The correspondence addressed one issue and one issue alone:  the best method with which to secure and safeguard mankind’s eternal damnation.  The book states clearly to the reader know that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  What’s more, this extra bit about the road to Hell — quite the opposite of the narrow way into Heaven spoken of in the Bible in Matthew 7:13 -14 — is also found in the book:

It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.  Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.  Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

In Baltimore’s The Morning Herald on January 2, 1888 they ran an article entitled “Better Pay Old Vows.”  The story was about the Reverend Wayland D. Ball, pastor of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian church, who began the New Year with a sermon on using New Year’s Day to pay vows to God.  His sermon read in part:

We make some resolution of self-sacrifice, and then become happy over thinking how brave we are going to be and how good are going to become.  And contemplation is so much more pleasant and easy than performance that we are content with that.  but there is no virtue in good thoughts alone.  Religious emotion that comes from the mere making of vows is very often nothing but the Devil ticking us into a good humor with ourselves.  The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

In a letter to the editor of the Daily Southern Cross in New Zealand on April 20, 1855 entitled “Taranaki Versus His Excellency And His Executive” the author, identified only by his initials, E.M., began his comments with:

Sir, The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and his Excellency Colonel Wynyard appears anxious to complete the Taranaki portion of the pavement with the least possible delay.

That same year, the expression is found in H.G. Bohn’s Hand-book of Proverbs.  The proverb is from Portugal and states that:

Hell is paved with good intentions, and roofed with lost opportunities.

Even earlier than that, thought, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) is quoted as saying:

L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs” (Translated: “Hell is full of good intentions or desires.”)

The expression has evolved since the days of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, but the meaning remains the same.

Posted in Christian, Idioms from the 12th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Helter Skelter

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 30, 2010

The phrase helter skelter means that something happens very quickly but in a disorganized and confused way.  The phrase has existed since long before Charles Manson or the Beatles used the phrase. 

In fact, on November 18, 1922 the Evening Post newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand ran an article about a very successful revue that read in part:

Helter-Skelter” was an apt name for the entertainment planned and presented last night at the Concert Chamber in aid of the Mayor’s City Improvement Fund by Mr. Pat Ward, who had gathered around him apt exponents of mirth and music. 

Almost a decade earlier, on September 14, 1914, the Poverty Bay Herald in New Zealand published a news story about WWI.  The headline read:

HELTER SKELTER RETREAT CONTINUES: British and French Vigorously pursuing five days incessant Fighting – Evidences of German Rout and Demoralisation

In the previous century, Bentley’s Miscellany authored by W. Harrison Ainsworth, Esq., and published in 1841, contained the following passage:

Mr. Rasp promised to comply, and moreover to set forth his friend’s military prowess to the best advantage.

“I think,” said he, “your division stormed the Press-yard, and captured the whipping-post, during the Loyal Aldersgate Street Volunteer campaigning in 1805.”

“Right, brother Ralph,” replied the comical coffin-maker, “and when the Finsbury awkward squad routed your left wing in the City Road, and you all ran helter-skelter into the boiled buttock of beef shop in the Old Bailey, we valiant sharp-shooters protected your flank, and covered your inglorious retreat!”  And he entertained the company with this appropriate recitation.

A little over a century before that, in 1731, Irish poet Jonathan Swift wrote “Helter Skelter” which is also known as “The Hue And Cry After The Attorneys Upon Their Riding The Circuit.”

Thomas Nashe made good use of the phrase helter skelter in his ‘Four Letters Confuted’ published in 1592:

Helter skelter, feare no colours, course him, trounce him.

In the end, E. Cobham Brewer wrote in his book, “The Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of Difficult Words”  that helter skelter is an Old English phrase that means “in tumultuous confusion.”   Old English is defined as English used up until the middle of the twelfth century or about 1160.  While the book itself was published in 1870, Brewer was a fastidious researcher therefore identifying the earliest known date for the phrase helter skelter to Old English was not done without great effort and fact-checking on Brewer’s part.

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In My Mind’s Eye

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 7, 2010

While it’s true that Shakespeare used the phrase in his famous play, Hamlet, he didn’t make the phrase up as he did so many other phrases that are part of every day English these days.

A published version of the concept of seeing something in “my mind’s eye” can be found in a letter written by Hubert Languet to Sir Philip Sidney in 1577.   In his letter he wrote:

What will not these golden mountains effect … which I dare say stand before your mind’s eye day and night?

However, the concept of “my mind’s eye” was used by Chaucer in The Man of Law’s Tale, written in 1390, where he wrote:

It were with thilke eyen of his mynde, With whiche men seen, after that they been blynde.

But even before then, in 1183, a Christian mystic by the name of Joachim of Flora wrote “Exposition of Revelation” in which the reader can find this passage:

I suddenly perceived in my mind’s eye something of the fullness of this book and of the entire harmony of the Old and New Testaments.”

And so we see that even though Shakespeare made good use of the phrase, since at least the late 1100s, the words mind and eye have been paired in the sense of “a mental view.”

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 13th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

I Brook No Truck With You

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 2, 2010

The expression “I brook no truck with you” is a double whammy expression in that both “brook” and “truck” have literal meanings as well as figurative meanings.  On a literal level, the expression makes no sense whatsoever.  However, figuratively, there’s quite an interesting history to be uncovered!  

Let’s deal with “truck” first and then come back to “brook.”   Truck comes from the French “troquer” meaning “to barter”.  So “to truck” is to become involved with something or someone.  This meaning comes from the Middle English word trukien first used in 1175.

Mark Twain’s book The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was set in Missouri in the 1830’s and first published in February 1885.  In the novel, Huckleberry Finn says:

It was just like I thought, He didn’t hold no truck with the likes of me.”

 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,’s novel The Sign of the Four was the second novel he wrote that featuredSherlock Holmes.  It was published in 1890 but set in Victorian England in 1887 while referencing the Indian Rebellion (in India) of 1857.  In the novel, readers find the following passage:

‘How can I decide?’ said I. ‘You have not told me what you want of me. But I tell you now that if it is anything against the safety of the fort I will have no truck with it, so you can drive home your knife and welcome.’

Now on to the word “brook” which also has an interesting history.  Brook comes from the Middle English word brouken which means “to use.”  Brouken comes from the Old English word brucan which is akin to the Old High German word bruhhan which means “to use.”  The word “brook” in this sense came to mean “to tolerate.”

When “brook” and “truck” are coupled in the expression “I brook no truck with you” it means the individual speaking tolerates absolutely no dealings with and completely rejects any association with the person or persons with whom — or of whom — he or she is speaking.

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Choke

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 21, 2010

Whether at a sports match or in a serious life situation, sometimes the front runner chokes and loses to his or her opponent.  Since no one is literally choking, the word must be part of a longer idiom.  And so it is.

In medieval England, when an individual was accused of a crime, he or she was given a piece of cheese and consecrated bread to eat to prove guilt or innocence.  If the individual was guilty, he would choke on the bread when the Angel Gabriel came down from Heaven to stop his or her throat.  Surely an innocent man (or woman) would be the winner and not choke when put to the test!

Thus the oath many would utter was, “May I choke if this is not true.”  Over the years, only the word choke remains of the idiom.

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Do As I Say And Not As I Do

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 12, 2010

This is an admonitory phrase that has been used by parents the world over for generations and yet, very few people seem to know its origins.  In the Spectator on June 24, 1911, this advice was published:  “It has always been considered allowable to say to children, ‘Do as I say, rather than as I do.'”

This phrase, however, harkens back to several generations before 1911.  In John Selden’s book Table Talk which was published posthumously in 1689 (and written in 1654 just prior to his death), he wrote:  “”Preachers say, “Do as I say, not as I do.‘”  And while the advice is sound, he was not the first author to offer it.  In 1546, John Heywood’s “A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue“ the following can be found:  “It is as folke dooe, and not as folke say.”

However, the Anglo-Saxons in the 12th Century were known to say:  “Ac theah ic wyrs do thonne ic the lære ne do thu na swa swa ic do, ac do swa ic the lære gyf ic the wel lære” which translates into:   “Although I do worse than I teach you, do not do as I do, but do as I teach you if I teach you well.”

However, when all is said and done, this saying can be traced all the way back to the Bible in the Book of St. Matthew (verses 1-3) where the King James Version states:  “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples saying  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:  All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”

Posted in Bible, Christian, Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Never Cast A Clout Until May Is Out

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 30, 2010

Ne’er cast a clout till May be out is an English saying with a long and difficult history.  In 1855, F. K. Robertson’s Whitby Gazette published the following rhyme:

The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out
.

The earliest published version of the rhyme can be found in Dr. Thomas Fuller’s  “Gnomologia” published in 1732. 

Since at least the early 15th century ‘clout’ has been used to mean a fragment of cloth or clothing and was spelled as clowt, clowte, cloot, or clute.   It’s here that the saying took on two meanings rather than just the original.  The new meaning was a reminder not to be too quick to shuck the warmer winter clothes before cooler days during the month of May were most likely over.

That being said, English farm-workers working the fields in their winter clothes throughout the month of May could suffer from heat exhaustion if they kept all their winter layers on until the end of May!   The flowering of the hawthorne (May) tree was a more reliable guide to the state of the weather.

This means that the original meaning goes back even further than the 15th century and indeed, it can be traced back to the 12th century.  During Medieval times in Brittany, a man proposed to his beloved by leaving a hawthorne (also known as a Mayflower) branch at the door of his beloved on the first of May. By leaving the branch at the door she accepted his proposal.

Traditionally, it was taboo to bring hawthorne into the house in Medieval England because it was feared it would bring death with it.  This is because the hawthorne blossom has a distinctive fragrance and in medieval times, the blossom was said to carry the ‘stench of death’.  (This is due to the trimethylene that the flowers give off as they deteriorate.) 

The exception to that rule was during May-Day celebrations (for one day only) when it was permitted to bring flowers into the house for decoration.  No marriages were allowed during the month of May and it was considered unlucky to marry in the hawthorne month since most people during Medieval times rarely bathed, June was usually one of the months in which most people had baths.  The exception to the rule, of course, would be those who lived in castles. 

It would make sense for the general population to keep at least some (but not all) of their winter clothes on until they could bathe and be fresh for any wedding celebrations coming up during the month of June.  This is verified by another English saying:  “Marry in May and you’ll rue the day.”  What’s more, washing in May was not a favoured activity as evidenced by yet another English saying:  “Wash a blanket in May; wash a dear one away.”

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 15th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »