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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 13th Century’ Category

Deaf As A Doornail

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 23, 2018

Someone who is deaf as a doornail is someone who is, or is accused of being, almost completely if not completely deaf.  It’s a term used less often than dead as a doornail, however it is correct to use deaf as a doornail.  It’s also related to other similar expressions such as deaf as a post, deaf as a doorpost, and deaf as a doorknob.

In the April 7, 2017 DisArt Festival website review of Terry Galloway’s stage performance directed by Florida State University professor Donna Marie Nudd, the idiom found its way into the first sentence.

Terry Galloway has been deaf as a doornail since she was nine. She spent years living in relatively peaceful silence, until technology– in the form of a cochlear implant– caught up with her.

A hundred years earlier, the expression was used in a story titled “Boldero” by American novelist Henry Milner Rideout (25 April 1877 – 17 September 1927) and illustrated by Edmund Franklin (E.F.) Ward (3 January 1892 – 14 December 1990), and published on September 1st, 1917 in Volume 190 of “The Saturday Evening Post.”

Boldero raced down the levee slope and halted, facing the man.

The fire, though humble, cast a warm red glow on him who watched it. He looked up — a hawk-nosed, beardless, brown-faced little old man, with skeptical eyes.

“Can’t hear a word you’re saying,” declared this figure in a toneless voice. “You’ll have to speak louder. I’m deaf as a doornail.”

Uttering the words like an old and tiresome formula, he continued to warm his hands.

The expression is found in the article, “Scottish Pulpit Eloquence” published in “Relics of Literature” compiled and edited by Stephen Collet, A.M. in 1823. The article starts off by stating the extract is from a seventeenth century tract entitled, “A Sermon Preached in St. Giles Kirk, at Edinburg, common called Pockmanty Preaching, by James Row, some time Minister of Strowan.” It was determined that the year of the sermon by information in the tract that this sermon was written in 1643.  The expression appeared in this section:

The first of these general divisions was naturally susceptible of subdivision, and the preacher displayed much quaint ingenuity in pointing out in what respects the kirk had been affected in each of her five senses, particularly in that of hearing, “by the bringing of the organs,” since which she has become “as deaf as a door nail.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Stephen Collet was a pseudonym for Reuben Percy which was a pseudonym for English journalist and editor Thomas Byerley (1788 – 1826).  Thomas Byerley edited the “Literary Chronicles” as well as “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction.”

It appeared in the works of French Renaissance writer, physician, humanist, monk, and Greek scholar François Rabelais (4 February 1494 – 9 April 1553). In the Sir Thomas Urquhart translations of his books, the expression is found in “Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book III” also known as “The Third Book of Pantagruel” published in 1546.

This extract is from “Chapter 3. XXXIV – How Women Ordinarily Have The Greatest Longing After Things Prohibited.” The beginning of the chapter mentioned Pope John XXII (1249 – 4 December 1334) and the Abbey of Toucherome.

There are, quoth the physician, many proper remedies in our art to make dumb women speak, but there are none that ever I could learn therein to make them silent. The only cure which I have found out is their husband’s deafness. The wretch became within few weeks thereafter, by virtue of some drugs, charms, or enchantments which the physician had prescribed unto him, so deaf that he could not have heard the thundering of nineteen hundred cannons at a salvo. His wife perceiving that indeed he was as deaf as a door-nail, and that her scolding was but in vain, sith that he heard her not, she grew stark mad.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Pope John XXII was the second as well as the longest-reigning Avignon Pope, reigning from 5 September 1316 through to his dead on 3 December 1334. He was elected Pope by the Conclave of Cardinals after more than two years after the death of Pope Clement V.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Nearly a month after Pope John XXII’s death, Cardinal Jacques Fournier was elected Pope, taking the name of Benedict XII. Pope Benedict XII reigned from 30 December 1334 to his death on 25 April 1342.

According to modern-day carpenters as well as carpenters of the middle ages, in the 13th century, a doornail was a large-headed nail, easily clinched, for nailing doors, through the battens (a small board used to reinforce doors as well as for other building purposes). Clinching meant to bend the end of the nail to provide a secure fastening, thereby rendering it dead to any additional hammering.

By the time the 14th century arrived, small metal plates were nailed on doors to allow visitors to pound them with knockers to announce their arrival. The metal plates were secured to such doors with dead nails.  If no one was in the vicinity of the door being knocked on, it was difficult (and sometimes impossible) to hear someone knocking at the door even when someone was at home.  It certainly makes it easy to understand where the expression deaf as a door nail originates when the history of how doornails, deadness, and deafness intertwine is known.

You may also be interested in reading about being dead as a doornail.  If you are, CLICK HERE to read that entry.

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Almighty Dollar

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 13, 2015

When someone views material goods and possessions as more valuable than anything else in life, it’s said that the person has placed his or her faith in the almighty dollar.  It can also mean that the person in question feels that his or her financial worth makes him or her more powerful than anyone else with whom he or she comes into contact.

Ozzy Osbourne liked the phrase so much that back in 2007, he used it in his song “Almighty Dollar” on his album, “Black Rain.”

When Charles Dickens wrote “American Notes For General Circulation” in 1842, he made sure to include the almighty dollar in Chapter III entitled, “Boston.”  The passage wasn’t complimentary towards Boston or Bostonians in the least.  In fact, the author wrote that the influences and tendencies which he distrusted in America may have been only his personal views on the country, but he was also just as quick to add that perhaps he wasn’t mistaken at all in his summation of the country.

The fact of the matter is that, contrary to how it may seem in his book, Charles Dickens loved America and its people.  In fact, in the Preface to this book he wrote:

Prejudiced, I am not, and never have been, otherwise than in favour of the United States. I have many friends in America, I feel a grateful interest in the country, I hope and believe it will successfully work out a problem of the highest importance to the whole human race. To represent me as viewing AMERICA with ill-nature, coldness, or animosity, is merely to do a very foolish thing: which is always a very easy one.

However, when it came to writing about Boston, he was just as quick to remark the following:

It was a source of inexpressible pleasure to me to observe the almost imperceptible, but not less certain effect, wrought by this institution among the small community of Boston; and to note at every turn the humanising tastes and desires it has engendered; the affectionate friendships to which it has given rise; the amount of vanity and prejudice it has dispelled. The golden calf they worship at Boston is a pigmy compared with the giant effigies set up in other parts of that vast counting-house which lies beyond the Atlantic; and the almighty dollar sinks into something comparatively insignificant, amidst a whole Pantheon of better gods.

When American author Washington Irving — author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” — first visited Louisiana’s bayou country, the approach to life the people exhibited was one that appealed to Irving.  This easy-going way the people had became the basis for his story, “The Creole Village” published in the November 12, 1836 edition of Knickerbocker Magazine.

As we swept away from the shore, I cast back a wistful eye upon the moss-grown roofs and ancient elms of the village, and prayed that the inhabitants might long retain their happy ignorance, their absence of all enterprise and improvement, their respect for the fiddle, and their contempt for the almighty dollar.

It’s true that Edward Bulwer-Lytton added to Washington Irving’s idiom, by stretching the idiom out to become the “pursuit of the almighty dollar” as is seen in his novel “The Coming Race” published in 1871.

But Washington Irving can’t take full credit for the idiom, the spirit of which is found in English playwright, poet, and literary critic, Ben Jonson’s “The Forest” published in 1616, an older version of the idiom is found in the “Epistle To Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland” where Madam begins by saying:

Whilst that for which all virtue now is sold,
And almost every vice, almighty gold,
That which, to boot with hell, is thought worth heaven

Even then, the phrase already implied what it means in today’s terms.  However, the phrase goes back even further than that with regards to Ben Jonson (11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637) — a literary rival of William Shakespeare.  He used the very same line as in a letter to the Countess of Rutland in 1599 as he did in the epistle written 17 years later. Elizabeth was the Countess of Rutland from March 1599 — when she married Roger Manners,5th Earl of Rutland — until her death in 1612.

Whilst that for which all virtue now is sold, and almost every vice — almighty gold.

From a historical perspective, it was after the Crusades (1095 to 1291) that gold began to climb within economies as the price for all commodities was measured by gold.  To this end, gold signed power in that whoever had the gold, held the power regardless of whether it was a King or a merchant.  This led to people perceiving gold as being powerful … all-powerful … even almighty.  Some even worshipped gold as much, if not more than, God Almighty.

So while Washington Irving may have been the first make mention of the almighty dollar, the spirit has been used by generations going back to at least the 13th century.  The religious overtone that seems to be part of the idiom is incidental, as commerce has shown.

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One Bad Apple Spoils The Whole Barrel

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 27, 2013

All it takes is one bad apple to spoil the barrel, and that’s because the one apple that’s gone bad gives off ethylene, speeding the ripening of all the other apples in the same barrel as the bad apple. But what does it mean when you’re talking about something other than a real apple?

If someone in a group is referred to as a bad apple, best be aware that this could be the downfall of the whole group. In other words, the negative influence of one in a group could prove to be the undoing of the entire group that would otherwise — without the negative influence — remain good.

Of course, it’s true that every group of people also has those who are malcontents, troublemakers, or dishonest. Unfortunately, if such people have sway or influence on others in their group, studies have shown that the standards of the group as a whole begin a downward trajectory towards the negative behavior.

The Windsor Daily Star chose to publish a Letter To The Editor written by Mrs. M. Starchuck of Sub P.O. No. 11, in their February 16, 1939 edition. The author of the letter entitled, “World Not So Bad After All” addressed the issue of complaints about how bad things are in the world. A realistic woman, she appears to also have been a woman of considerable optimism and warmth as she wrote in part:

Relief in some cases has been abused, making it harder for the honest persons to get justice. You know that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel. But cheer up. It can’t last forever, and it is always the darkest before the dawn. There are a good many big-hearted people in the old world yet, and willing workers to help the down-trodden.

And in the Chautauqua Farmer of June 20, 1894 printed a lengthy article on the world journey of Reverend Dr. Talmage whose sermon “Another Chance” addressed the matter of what was to happen to people when they passed away and moved on to that other plane when they left this mortal coil. The one chance given in life, according to Dr. Talmage, was the last change given before the verdict would be rendered on each of our earthly lives. There was no reversal of judgment in the next world, according to his sermon, and no hope of an opportunity to correct the mistakes of this life in the afterlife. His sermon stated in part:

The entire kingdom of the morally bankrupt by themselves, where are the salvatory influences to come from? Can one speckled and bad apple in a barrel of disease apples turn the other apples good? Can those who are themselves down help others up? Can those who have themselves failed in the business of soul pay the debts of their spiritual insolvents? Can a million wrongs make one right?

As readers of Idiomation know, the Poor Richard’s Almanack published by Benjamin Franklin oftentimes contained well-established sayings and the 1736 edition was no different where the following was found:

The rotten apple spoils his companion.

The saying hails from John Northebrooke in his book entitled, “A Treatise Wherein Dicing, Dauncing (etc.) Are Reproved” published in 1577. The passage exact passage was:

A penny naughtily gotten, sayth Chysostoms, is like a rotten apple laid among sounde apples, which will rot all the rest.

Long before John Northebrooke, however, there was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400).  In his “Canterbury Tales” readers come across the following passage in unfinished “The Cook’s Tale.”

Uppon a proverbe that seith this same worde:
“Better ys rotten appulle out of an hurde
Than for to let hem rote alle the remenaunte.”
And ryght so it fareth by a ryotes servaunte.

This passage loosely translates as this:

About an old proverb, the words that say:
“A rotten apple‘s better thrown away
Before it spoils the barrel.” That is true
When dealing with a bad apprentice too.

That Chaucer should refer to this saying as an old proverb indicates that he is not the original author of the expression.  Unfortunately, the proverb to which Chaucer refers has eluded research and as such, Idiomation tacks this expression to at least the 13th Century since it is alleged to be a proverb.  It’s suspected, however, that the saying is far older than this even though it cannot be proven at this point on the Idiomation blog.

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By Hook Or By Crook

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 18, 2013

When someone does something by hook or by crook, it means they did whatever was necessary (legal or otherwise) to get what they wanted.

On 14 January 2012, the Economist published an article about big shortfalls, slim their balance-sheets, and crippled credit flow in European economies as banks struggled to pull together the extra capital needed to build confidence the financial state of affairs. Despite creative accounting practices, banks appeared to be relying on “every trick in the book to avoid asking investors for more money” even though it appeared that the effort would prove fruitless. The headline read:

European Bank Capital: By Hook Or By Crook

Back on October 12, 1949 the Toledo Blade published an article entitled, “The Navy’s Day.” The news story was how the navy felt that the unification system administered by Defense Secretary Louis Johnson deprived the Navy of an essential role in the national defense. The first paragraph read:

Now that the Navy, by hook and by crook, has won for itself a hearing of its grievances before a congressional committee, we suggest that Defense Secretary Louis Johnson be consistent and place a gag rule on Louie Johnson. Let him follow through on his idea that public bickering is no good for unification.

Jumping back to December 27, 1890 the New York Times ran with a story entitled, “Farwell’s Bitter Fight: Long Jones Aiding Him In His Senatorial Struggle.” The concern was that Long Jones, Chairman of the Republican Central Committee, was out to oust “honestly-elected democratic State Senators.” With the General Assembly standing at 101 Democrats, 100 Republicans, and 3 Farmers’ Alliance, some politicians were convinced that Long Jones was set to snatch Democratic control of the Legislature by shelving John M. Palmer and electing Republican Charles B. Farwell instead. The story began with this announcement:

Charles B. Farwell means to be re-elected to the United States Senate if he and “Long” Jones can, by hook or by crook, bring it about.

The Morning Chronicle of Halifax, Nova Scotia shared with readers on June 6, 1865 that the New Brunswick Assembly had authorized the appointment of a delegation charged with traveling to England to correct impressions created by the Canadian Delegates with regards to where the maritime provinces stood on the question of a Federal Union of the British North America Colonies (this being 2 years prior to Confederation). The story was entitled, “A Move In The Right Direction” and reported the following in part:

It is quite clear that affairs have arrived at such a crisis in Canada that “something must be done,” and that very soon. The Canadian Delegates covet the resources and revenues of the Maritime Provinces — they envy our comparative freedom from taxation, Municipal and Provincial, and we may rest assured that, by hook or by crook, they will drag us into Confederation, if it be possible. With Mr. Cardwell’s declaration on record, however, that there was no intention on the part of the British Government to confederate the Provinces without their free consent, we feel that there is nothing to fear from that quarter.

In Chapter VII of “The Man In The Iron Mask” written by French playwright, historian, and author Alexandre Dumas (24 July 1802 – 5 December 1870) and published in 1848, the expression is found in the dinner scene. The Bishop of Vannes, M. de Baisemeaux, and Aramis (of musketeer fame) are sharing a meal together, and enjoying spirited conversation.

“Bravo!” said Baisemeaux; and he poured out a great glass of wine and drank it off at a draught, trembling with joy at the idea of being, by hook or by crook, in the secret of some high archiepiscopal misdemeanor. While he was drinking he did not see with what attention Aramis was noting the sounds in the great court. A courier arrived about eight o’clock, as Francois brought in the fifth bottle; and although the courier made a great noise, Baisemeaux heard nothing.

Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) wrote “The Fairie Queene” written between 1590 and 1596. The poem is an extended poem in three books. The first two books follows the journey of two knights, Redcrosse and Britomart, while the third deals with the destructive power of living an unchaste life. The pervasive theme throughout is that one can be transformed by evil as well as good, and in the end, Christian values and virtues are those which must be followed with unwavering faith. In Book iii, Canto i the poet wrote:

So as they gazed after her a while,
Lo where a griesly Foster forth did rush,
Breathing out beastly lust her to defile:
His tyreling iade he fiercely forth did push,
Through thicke and thin, both ouer banke and bush
In hope her to attaine by hooke or crooke,
That from his gorie sides the blod did gush:
Large were his limbes, and terrible his looke,
And in his clownish hand a sharp bore speare he shooke.

The expression also appears in the British Pamphleteer, Philip Stubbes’ (c. 1555 – c. 1610) book, “The Anatomie of Abuses in England” published in 1583 he addresses the subject of the “impudence of Harlottes” and writes:

But which is more vayn, of whatfoeuer their petticots be, yet muft they haue kyrtles (for fo they call them eyther of filk, veluet, grograin, taffatie, faten or fearlet, bordered with gards, lace, fringe, and I cannot tell what befydes. So that when they haue all thefe goodly robes vppon them, women feeme to be the fmalleft part of themfelues, not naturall women, but artificiall Women; not Women of flefh & blod, but rather puppits or mawmets of rages & clowtes compact together. So farre hath this cancker of pride eaten into the body of the common welth, that euery poore Yeoman his Daughter, euery Husband his daughter, & euery Cottager his Daughter, will not fpare to flaunt it out in fuche gownes, petticots, & kirtles as thefe. And not withftanding that their Parents owe a brafe of hunndred pounds more than they are worth, yet will they haue it, quo iure quaue iniuria, eyther by hooke or crooke, by right or wrong, as they fay, wherby it commeth to paffe that one can fearily know who is a noble woman, who is an honorable or worshipfull Woman, from them of the meaner forte.

Two hundred years before Philip Stubbes’ use of the expression by hook or by crook, it can be found in John Gower’s book “Confessio Amantis“, written between 1386 and 1390. The poem consists of a prologue, an epilogue, and eight books between the two. Because of the number of surviving manuscripts, historians feel that John Gower gave Geoffrey Chaucer of “Canterbury Tales” fame a run for his money, so to speak.

Perjurie is the fecond hote,
Which fpareth nought to fwere an othe,
Though it be fals and god be wrothe,
That one fhall fals witneffe bere,
That the other fhall the thing forfwere,
Whan he is charged on the boke.
So what with hepe, and what with croke
They make her maifter ofte winne
And woll nought knowe, what is finne
For covetife, and thus men fain,
They maken many a fals bargein.

Yes, as John Gower puts it, man is known to make bargains, even at the expense of his own soul, to get what he wants.

One of the earliest instances where the expression is used is found in one of John Wycliffe’s Controversial Tracts, written circa 1370 wherein he writes:

… sillen sacramentis, as ordris, and oere spiritualte, as halwyng of auteris, of churchis, and churche verdis ; and compellen men to bie alle this with hoke or croke.

The era of Middle English is between 1154 and 1485. During this time period, a crook was understood to mean a dishonest trick and a hook referred to metal bent at an angle. It is easy to see how someone who did something by hook or by crook would be someone who used everything at his disposal to get what he wanted.

Idiomation therefore puts the expression to something during the 1200s, with the earliest published version being John Wycliffe’s in 1370 — understanding that the expression was part of the vernacular long before the publication in John Wycliffe’s writings.

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The Coast Is Clear

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 9, 2011

When there’s no visible danger on the horizon, either literally or figuratively, then the coast is clear.   These days, people tend to use the phrase when they are about to do something they shouldn’t be doing in the first place and they have done their best to escape detection, usually by authorities such as teachers, security guards, police officers, coast guards and other enforcement figures.

Dear Abby ran a letter in her column that was printed in the Toledo Blade newspaper on November 12, 1958.  The letter from a reader named “Happy” read in part:

My neighbor across the court is a sly one and she thinks she is getting away with something.  She can fool her husband but she can’t fool me.  When she leaves her window shades half-up that means “the coast is clear.”  When she hangs something upside down on the clothesline it means “not tonight.”

Back on March 14, 1900, the New York Times ran a story entitled, “Burr Raids A Gambling Room: No Official Move Against the Gambling Commission.”  The story dealt with the fact that a number of gambling houses had overrun New York City and there was evidence that some precinct captains and officers were looking the other way.  It read in part:

Superintendent Burr of the Society for the Prevention of Crime, with six detectives from the West Forty-seventh Street Station, last night made a raid on a large gambling room at 1487 Broadway and arrested sixteen men.  They found a faro game going, red and black, Klondike, poker, and confiscated the paraphernalia.  The Police Department and the District Attorney’s office have shown the gamblers and their protectors plainly that there is nothing to be feared from them.  In that direction the coast is clear enough, but they have reckoned without their host if they believe that all power to stop the systematic bribery ends there.

Going back another 40 years, the Weekly Dispatch newspaper published in St. Thomas, County of Elgin in Ontario (Canada) ran a fictional story written by Captain Oakum entitled, “A Yarn Of Tom Wilkie: His Enemies and Friends.”  A snippet from the story shows how the phrase was used in 1860.

“By no means, not an hour after the money’s gone.”

“But suppose the gentleman should fly off the handle at the first exposure — what are your plans?”

“Live in Carson’s stow-away till the coast is clear and then make tracks for parts unknown.  I have, you know, funds enough for that emergency.  Nothing has been overlooked; you are safe, however, under every circumstance.”

“Brother, I am sorry that a man of your talents should put them to so bad a use.  Let me entreat you, even now to take the back track.  I have seemed to sympathise with you, that I might learn the curse you intended to pursue; that course will surely lead you to ruin; and all for what? — to obtain the means for gambling.”

Nearly 100 years before the publication of Captain Oakum’s story, Lieutenant Benjamin Gilbert wrote a letter to Daniel Gould on May 6, 1783.   It was written just 3 weeks after the U.S. Congress ratified the provisional treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain and 3 months after a general armistice between the United States and Great Britain took effect.  It was nearly 2 months after George Washington alerted Congress that the army was on the brink of mutiny as well as nearly 2 months after Washington had addressed his officers in what later become known as the “Newburgh Conspiracy” where he appealed to their honour and loyalty.  The letter Lieutenant Benjamin Gilbert wrote read in part:

The prospect of speedily returning to the likes of private life fills my heart with raptures.  The definitive treaty is not signed or, if signed, is not come to hand.  Carlson is in possession of New York and no prospect of his speedily leaving it.  To quit the field before our coast is clear would argue of a total want of sense.  Neither shall we, but we remain inactive without imployment, and under such restrictions that we can make no arrangements for Domestic life.

In the town of Groningen (Holland), a statue with an inscription below it can be found.  Since 1673, it has commemorated an historically documented siege when the besiegers were unable to prevent supplies from being into the town which led to their eventual retreat.  The words beneath the image translate loosely to be:  while the coast is clear, there is little to fear.

In the William Shakespeare play “Henry VI” written and published in 1591, the following exchange is found in Part 1:

MAYOR:
I’ll call for clubs if you will not away
[Aside] This cardinal’s more haughty than the devil.
GLOUCESTER:
Mayor, farewell.  Thou dost but what thou mayst.
WINCHESTER:
Abominable Gloucester, guard they head,
For I intend to have it ere long.
[Exeunt, severally, Gloucester and Winchester with their Servingmen]
MAYOR:
See the coast clear and then we will depart.
[Aside] Good God, these nobles should such stomachs bear!
I myself fight not once in forty year.

The Spanish equivalent to the phrase the coast is clear is “no hay Moros en la costa” which means there are no Moors on the coast.  This literal expression dates back to the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) during the Crusades.

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King’s Ransom

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 15, 2010

What exactly does it mean when someone says they’ve paid a King’s ransom for someone’s services or for an item?  A King’s ransom has always referred to the payment of a great deal of money to secure something the other person has in his or her possession, be it another person, an item, knowledge, experience, et al.

The History of American Yachts and Yachtsmen, published in 1901 spoke of a king’s ransom as it referred to Queen’s Cup:

Such is the brief history of the first dawn of American yachting history. A, comparatively speaking, valueless cup, but worth a king’s ransom by reason of the fifty years of glamour surrounding it, the cup which was presented under the now famous deed of gift to the New York Yacht Club July 8, 1867, to be preserved as a perpetual challenge trophy between the United States and foreign countries, not alone England, as is so often understood — but it hardly seems probable than any other country would now feel it exactly etiquette to try for it, at all events not until England has again won it, which seems a rather remote contingency,  judging from past history.

But almost 200 years before then, the British were desperate to rule the oceans.  In 1714, British Parliament passed the ‘Longitude Act’, stating that a reward of £20,000, a king’s ransom, was to be awarded to anyone who found a practical solution to the longitude problem. The longitude problem was the most exasperating scientific dilemma of the day and had been for centuries. In fact, the quest for a solution had occupied scientists for the better part of two centuries before the Longitude Act was passed.

In 1622, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha — carrying with it what was described as a king’s ransom in treasure consisting of 1,038 bars of silver, at least 7,175 ounces of gold (although gold smuggled aboard may have resulted in double or triple the amount recorded), and approximately 230,000 silver coins —  was sunk by driving wind and rain that tossed the ship onto the reefs and shoals off the Marquesas Keys, just off the coast of Florida. The ship went down in 50 feet of water and took all of the 260 lives aboard with her.

In 1525, during King Henry VIII‘s reign, according to public records held at the British Museum, Adrian de Croy, Lord of Beaurain entered into negotiations between Charles V of France and Henry VIII of England.  In a letter to a colleague, Beaurain wrote:

I cannot see how any peace be negotiated here for they are braver than ever.  As yet, the French show no intention of offering anything except their King’s ransom which is not our chief object.

In 1406, Prince James of Scotland had been sent to France to protect him from his uncle, the Duke of Albany, who had murdered James’s older brother, David.  However, before he could reach the safety of France, he was captured by the English off King’s Lynn and he spent the next 18 years of his life in the Tower of London, at the English court and in the English military service in France.  When Henry V died, the king’s ransom was negotiated and James was returned to Scotland (he was murdered some years later in 1437 at the Blackfriars Monastery in Perth by a group of lords led by the Earl of Atholl who just happened to be James’ uncle).

In 1346, King David of Scotland had assembled an army at Perth to invade England and on October 17, the Battle of Durham was fought.  The King was taken prisoner and held in the Tower of London.  While he was freed in 1357, the King’s ransom was outstanding 9 years later and the northern lords refused to give their rate towards the ransom and other financial obligations.

During the 7th crusade in 1260, Louis IX was taken prisoner in Egypt by the Turks who were in a position of strength and were led by the famous Mamluk general, Baybars.  They attacked Damietta and captured Louis IX and demanded that Louis IX‘s followers pay an enormous ransom worthy of a King’s place to secure his release. Prior to this event, no one had ever stated that they were holding a King ransom in exchange for financial enrichment, and for good reason.

The word ransom comes from the Old French word rançon, and earlier raenson which means”redemption.”   This comes from the Latin word redemptionem which means “a redeeming” from redimere. The verb is first recorded in the 13th century and therefore, it would be impossible to pay — much less demand — a king’s ransom prior to this date.

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Fait Accompli

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 20, 2010

A “fait accompli” is an irreversible action that has happened before those affected by it know of its existence and even once the change is found out, the change cannot be undone.  In other words, it’s a done deal. 

One might think that the expression “fait accomplijumped from France to England centuries ago during one of the many royal marriages or battles but it would seem that the jump had nothing to do with France at all.

In “The History of Lloyd’s and of Marine Insurance in Great Britain” by Frederick Martin, author of the “Statesman’s Yearbook” and published in 1876, the following passage is found on page 120:

This notice is continued till October 2, 1770, after which it appears slightly varied.  Instead of “have been so kind to promise to continue the Ship News,” the alteration, which evidently refers to a fait accompli, appearing for the first time on the 5th of October, 1770.

But 31 years earlier, in 1845, Richard Ford published “A Handbook For Travellers in Spain” which, to this day, is considered to be a classic of travel writing. Ford wrote:  “This is now a fait accompli.”

The use of the phrase “fait accompli” in its current sense was used in this way in French as far back as 1222.  The Société d’histoire de la Suisse Romande has in its possession a document that states:

Le partage de ses seigneuries entre ses fils laïques, fait par Ebal (IV) de Grandson, était ainsi un fait accompli dans l’année 1222, du moins quant à ses deux fils aînés, puisque nous venons de voir Henri, sire de Champbent, prêter présence lors de l’hommage de Richard de Belmont.

Translated this reads:

The division of his seigniories by Ebal (IV) of Grandson between his sons, was thus a fait accompli in the year 1222, at least with regards to his two oldest sons, as observed by Henri, Lord de Champbent lending his presence to pay homage to Richard de Belmont.

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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.”

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Dead As A Doornail

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 26, 2010

The phrase “dead as a doornail” is an odd sort of phrase.  After all, one would scarcely think of a doornail as being alive so referring to it as being dead is equally amusing.  However, the term has nothing to do with whether a nail is a living, breathing entity.  When a nail is hammered into a piece of wood and the end is flattened so the nail cannot be removed, the nail is said to be dead since it can’t be removed and reused.

The earliest known version of this phrase is found in the English poem “William of Palerne” written by William Langland some time between 1335 and 1361, as commissioned by Humphrey de Bohun, 6th Earl of Hereford. The poem was a translation of the poem “Guillaume de Palerne” written in 1200, by William of Palerne as commissioned by Countess Yolande, daughter of Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders by William of Palerne.  In the English version, the following line is found:

“For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenail.”

Of course, William Shakespeare being the prolific writer he was found a place for the phrase in his play of 1592, “Henry VI” in Part II, Act IV, Scene 10 where Jack Cade says to Alexander Iden, a poor esquire of Kent:

JACK CADE:
Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was
broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I
have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and
thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as
dead
as a doornail
, I pray God I may never eat grass more.

In 1843, Charles Dickens use the phrase with great effect in his work  “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” where he wrote:

“Old Marley was as dead as a door–nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door–nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin–nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door–nail.”

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