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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 14th 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?

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

Right As Rain

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 28, 2013

An online friend was wondering what the expression right as rain really means and how it wound up being part of the English language. To answer her question, when something is right as rain everything is functioning optimally … perfectly, in fact.

USA Today sometimes has the most unexpected articles, and the one about Portland, Oregon on March 29, 2010 certainly surprised a number of readers. Portland’s storm sewer system, it was reported, was a tourist attraction for eco-friendly tourists interested in checking out Portland’s system of curbs, gutters, roofs and rain gardens. Who knew? Of course, the article was aptly entitled, “Portland’s Sewers Right As Rain.”

Back on July 17, 1952 the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper reported on how the Russian government in Moscow was unhappy about the upcoming conference in Honolulu that intended to set up a permanent Pacific defense council. The Russians were said to be against the prospect of such a defense council. In fact, the situation was such a hot button for both sides that the reporter wrote in part:

The Reds suspect that a treaty organization designed to prevent the spread of Communism in the Pacific world, similar to the existing North Atlantic Treaty Organization already service the same purpose in Europe, will come out at the Honolulu conference in August, and they are right as rain about that.

The Saskatoon Phoenix newspaper edition of July 3, 1915 carried a news article entitled, “Tommy Is An Optimist.” Written by a special correspondent with British Headquarters in the Field during WWI, the journalist rose above the horrors of war to include the personal side of global conflict. It’s not that he didn’t acknowledge that war was ugly business and that everyone suffered because of it, but rather, he chose to give insight into the humanity that still existed among soldiers. The article included an anecdote that happened between the chaplain and one of the soldiers brought in on a stretcher to be treated by doctors.

“Would you like to send your people a postcard, my boy?” said the Chaplain, and went on to the next stretcher. “Does — does this mean that I am going to die?” asked the lad, as he tried to scrawl a name across the front of the card.

“Nonsense,” retorted an orderly who was passing. “You’ll be as right as rain in a week.”

“Then I’ll wait before I write,” said the soldier. “There’s no use wasting the card. Besides, it says ‘I am wounded.’ I am not wounded — I’m full of this bloody gas, and as soon as me chest is clear I’m going back to ‘do’ for some of those Germans. Give us a drink!”

Some sources claim that the expression was first published in 1894 however Idiomation found a published version in a Boston Daily Globe newspaper dated March 21, 1893 in a serialized story entitled, “Fated To Suffer: The Mystery of the Blood Red Star.”  While Idiomation was unable to find an earlier publication of the phrase, that it is found in a newspaper dating back to 1893 indicates that it was already in use among the masses and as such, it can be assumed that it most likely dates back to at least 1880.

That being said, the qualifier right as has been used in a number of idioms before this date. Some of the alternatives include:

1.  Right as an adamant from “Romance Of The Rose” translated by Geoffrey Chaucer (1300 – 25 October 1400) from the poem by Guillaume de Lorris (1200 – 1240):

For by ensample tel I this,
Right as an adamant, ywis,
Can drawen to hym subtelly
The yron that is layde therby,
So draweth folkes hertes, iwys,
Syluer and golde that yeuen is.

2.  Right as a line from “Minor Poems” by John Lydgate (1370 – 1451) and published in 1430:

That heuenly spyce, hit is ful swete;
Help us perof, good bysshop Fermyae,
Sacred Cipriane, zif hit wold be gete,
With Cosme and Damane wold I dyne,
Lede us pederward as ryght as a lyne,
Seynt Myghel, to pat heuenly kyngdome
Helpyng the holy doctour Seynt Ierome.

3.  Right as is my leg from the translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660) of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” originally written by François Rabelais (1490 – 1553) and published in 1653:

I saw another surrounded by a Croud of two sorts of Women; some were young, quaint, clever, neat, pretty, juicy, tight, brisk, buxom, proper, kind-hearted, and as right as my Leg, to any man’s thinking. The rest were old, weather-beaten, over-ridden, toothless, blear-ey’d, tough, wrinkled, shrivell’d, tawny, mouldy, ptysicky, decrepit hags, beldams, and walking Carcasses.

4.  Right as my leg from “The Comical History of Don Quixote: As It Was Acted At The Queen’s Theater In Dorset Garden By Their Majesties Servants” in Part III, Act III Scene ii by Thomas D’Urfey (1653 – 26 February 1723) and published in 1696:

Jolly Ralph was in with Pegg,
Tho freckled like a Turkey-Egg;
And she as right as is my leg,
Still gave him leave to touse her.

5.  Right as my glove from “Antiquary” by Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) and published in 1816:

“Right, Caxon! right as my glove! By the by, I fancy that phrase comes from the custom of pledging a glove as the signal of irregragable faith — right, I saw, as my glove, Caxon — bet we of the Protestant ascendancy have the more merit in doing that duty for nothing, which cost money in the reign of that empress of superstition, whome Spenser, Caxon, terms, in his allegorical phrase.”

6.  Right as ninepence from “Frank Fairlegh: Scenes From The Life Of A Private Pupil” by Francis Edward Smedley (4 October 1818 – 1 May 1864) and published in 1850:

“Well, let her say ‘no’ as if she meant it,” said Lawless; “women can, if they like, eh? and then it will all be as right as ninepence. Eh! don’t you see?”

“Easier said than done, Lawless, unfortunately,” replied Coleman; “my fat rival is the son of an opulent drysalter, and last year he contrived to get rid of his father.”

And so while the idiom right as rain can only be traced back to the late 19th century, it would seem that what follows right as isn’t always important as long as it’s right as … as the many examples have proven.  So it’s actually right as that determines that everything is perfectly fine and good, and in the case of right as rain, it’s just a nice bit of alliteration as well.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

On The Heels

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 23, 2013

Every once in a while, you’ll hear someone say that the police are hot on the heels or right on the heels of a suspected criminal. The idiom brings to mind one person in earnest pursuit of another and that’s exactly what this idiom means. When one person is hot on the heels of another, it means that person is following someone very closely, and perhaps has almost caught up to them and their actions. It can also mean that something comes very shortly after something else as can sometimes happen when laws are passed in government.

With the fast advancements in technology (especially over the past two decades), the New Straits Times in Malaysia published an article on April 12, 2000 about Sabeer Bhatia, a then-31-year-old high-tech guru who founded Hotmail. Hotmail made him independently wealthy, famous and hard at work trying to repeat his Hotmail success with a new venture: Arzoo.com. The article, of course, was entitled, “Hot On The Heels Of Hotmail.”

The Calgary Herald published a news story from the Ottawa bureau about Mike Pearson’s last day of campaigning in Canada. The story, published in the March 31 edition back in 1958, and written by Charles King, chronicled in a few quick words, what the Liberal party leader accomplished in his travels. The story was entitled, “Pearson In Top Form At Close” and opened with this teaser:

Mike Pearson’s last day of campaigning was unquestionably his best. The Liberal leader, following hot on the heels of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, outdrew the Conservative chief at every stop in a 300-mile sweep of Ottawa Valley points. Things looked so good for the Liberals that party hangers-on almost wept that the campaign was in its last hours.

An interesting and humorous news article was published in the Boston Evening Transcript about Mr. Carnegie, William Ellis Corey and Charles “Charlie” Schwab, the Carnegie Steel Company and the United States Steel Corporation. The story entitled, “The Head Of The Steel Trust” began with a subheading that read: Mr. Cory denies that he began to work for Mr. Carnegie for a dollar a day. It was less and he was only sixteen. William Ellis Corey had moved from Pittsburgh to New York, and newsmen quickly learned that he was a man of very few words. So few, in fact, that his friends were only willing to make two statements to print media about him, these being that “he will direct his energies wholly to the affairs of the corporation” and that “he does not speculate in any way, and never has.” Still, he was the subject of a great deal of media interest, and the article chronicled his history including this:

All the time Mr. Corey was following hot on the heels of Mr. Schwab, along every step of their common way, until he drew up on even terms when the highest goal in sight was reached — the presidency of the Carnegie Steel Company. Each of the two men was elected to this office, with its $50,000 salary in his thirty-fifth year. Then, in the race for the laurels of youthful supremacy, Mr. Corey has won by becoming president of the United States Steel Corporation at the age of thirty-seven; and there are times when he does not look a day more than thirty-five.

It was a term that was well-known and well-used by authors. In H.G. Wells’ novel “The War Of The Worlds” published in 1898 used vivid imagery to place his readers at the center of the excitement in his story. The idiom appeared three times without in this novel. The first time he used it here:

About six in the evening, as I sat at tea with my wife in the summerhouse talking vigorously about the battle that was lowering upon us, I heard a muffled detonation from the common, and immediately after a gust of firing. Close on the heels of that came a violent rattling crash, quite close to us, that shook the ground; and, starting out upon the lawn, I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down into ruin. 

The second time he used it here:

The thunderclaps, treading one on the heels of another and with a strange crackling accompaniment, sounded more like the working of a gigantic electric machine than the usual detonating reverberations. The flickering light was blinding and confusing, and a thin hail smote gustily at my face as I drove down the slope.

The third time he used it here:

So close on the heels of this as to seem instantaneous came a thud behind me, a clash of glass, a crash and rattle of falling masonry all about us, and the plaster of the ceiling came down upon us, smashing into a multitude of fragments upon our heads. I was knocked headlong across the floor against the oven handle and stunned. 

French novelist, poet and playwright Jules Verne (8 February 1828 – 24 March 1905) published “Around The World In 80 Days” in 1873. It came after publication of such classics as  “Journey To The Center Of The Earth” in 1864,  and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” in 1870. In the novel “Around The World In 80 Days” the author used the idiom on the heels in this passage:

The thought then struck Passepartout, that he was the cause of this new misfortune! Had he not concealed Fix’s errand from his master? When Fix revealed his true character and purpose, why had he not told Mr. Fogg? If the latter had been warned, he would no doubt have given Fix proof of his innocence, and satisfied him of his mistake; at least, Fix would not have continued his journey at the expense and on the heels of his master, only to arrest him the moment he set foot on English soil. Passepartout wept till he was blind, and felt like blowing his brains out.

And a generation before being found in Jules Verne’s book, Irish doctor and journalist, Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan (27 February 1797 – 29 May 1880) published a book entitled, “History of New Netherland Or, New York Under the Dutch: Volume II” published in 1848. He was a well-traveled man, born in County Cork in Ireland, studied medicine in Dublin (Ireland) and Paris (France), and finally immigrating to Canada in 1823 where he involved himself in the political reform movement. The idiom in appeared in his 1848 tome as follows:

In Holland, Van de Donck was still hot on the heels of Van Tienhoven. Prevented by the order of the States General from returning to New Netherland, the latter passed the winter in Amsterdam, where he succeeded in seducing a young woman, named Elizabeth Jansen Croon van Hoochvelt, under a promise of marriage, having represented himself as a single man.

William Shakespeare’s “History of Troilus and Cressida” published in 1609, carries a variation of the idiom using at instead of on as seen in this passage:

ACHILLES
Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set;
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels;
Even with the vail and dark’ning of the sun,
To close the day up, Hector’s life is done.

Ultimately, however, the version that seems to have started it all is found in the late 14th Century Middle English alliterative romance story, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The story takes place at Christmas time in Camelot when the Green Knight rides into the hall on horseback, whereupon he immediately challenges everyone there to a Christmas sport. It’s a fascinating tale in many respects and borders on the horror genre in its own way. That being said, this passage is found in the story:

As he spurred through a spinney to spy the shrew,
there where he heard the hounds harry him on,
Reynard came rushing through the rough grove,
and all the rabble in a race, right at his heels.

It’s doubtful that the expression existed much before this piece as the word heel was from the Old English word hēla back in the 12th century, and was a variation of the Old Norse word hæll. Idiomation therefore places this expression at sometime in the mid-1300s.

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Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 9, 2013

If someone says you’re like a cat on a hot tin roof, it would seem that you can’t keep still. You’re restless. Imagine for a moment, if you will, what it might be like if you were actually a cat who was literally trying to walk about on a hot tin roof. You wouldn’t be still for very long and you’d probably be pretty jumpy about being up there in the first place.

Back in 1955, Tennessee Williams wrote a play by that name that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year. Its success was in part due to the play’s theme which dealt with how complicated the rules of social conduct were in the Southern U.S. at the time. But was the expression something Tennessee Williams came up with for the play or did it exist long before Tennessee Williams put pen to paper?

The idiom cat on a hot tin roof is actually based on the earlier version cat on hot bricks which means exactly the same thing.

NOTE:  Before continuing, note that the version using hot bricks is still in use today as evidenced by the news story by 3News out of New Zealand published on November 27, 2011 and entitled, “Joyce A Cat On Hot Bricks Before Election.”

On December 1, 1933 the New York Times published an article entitled,”Britain Is Assured On Our Money Plan: We Are As Safe From Unbridled Inflation As Are The British” The story was about Ambassador Robert W. Bingham who gave a speech (at the American Society in London) defending President Roosevelt’s monetary policies. Keep in mind that 1933 was right in the middle of the Great Depression that continue up until the outbreak of World War II, and so money matters — for individuals, for companies, and for governments — were a reason for being restless. The news story made use of the idiom in this way:

… exchange fluctuations to the benefit of everybody concerned and contrasts this with the dollar, “which jumped about like a cat on hot bricks. …

The Philadelphia Record edition of June 10, 1894 provided a description of British Prime Minister (5 March 1894 to 22 June 1895), Archibald Philip Primrose — the 5th Earl of Rosebery and 1st Earl of Midlothiany –that was in drastic contrast to the calm and collected demeanor that was expected of Lords. In fact, the description was one that the reporter described as “intensely agitated.” The article was entitled, “Hounding A Premier: He Went Wild Over The Derby.” Of course, that Lord Rosebery was the owner of the Derby winner that year certainly explains the behavior which doesn’t seem so outrageous in today’s terms.

“His Lordship could not keep still in his box, and hopped about from paddock to ring like a cat on hot bricks; Prime Ministerial dignity was not his forte just then. At that part of the race when Matchbox appeared to have the measure, his face moved convulsively. When his horse had passed the winning post, the Premier took off his hat, waved it wildly three times around his head in a dazed kind of manner, and then dashed onto the course to lead the favorite in.”

That being said, however, tin roofs were used in America at the turn of the 1800s when the Pennsylvania Statehouse — better known as Independence Hall — in Philadelphia was finished with tin shingles. Even Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned a study on tin shingle roofs, felt compelled to have tin shingles used when roofing Monticello. But the tin roof was most popular in America between 1860 and 1920.   It’s safe to say that Tennessee Williams didn’t coin the phrase, and picked it up in conversation.

Of course, before either cat on a hot tin roof or cat on hot bricks was in vogue, the idiom was to be a cat on a hot bakestone, which was found in Rev. E. Cobham Brewer’s “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” published in 1894, where idiom was explained as meaning a person was “in a great hurry to get away.” It further explained that the bake-stone in the north (of a house) was a large stone on which bread and oat-cakes were baked.

When English naturalist, John Ray also known as John Wray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) wrote his “Collection of English Proverbs” in 1670 which included the expression using the hot bake-stone reference. In fact, he recorded it as “to go like a cat upon a hot bake-stone.” And so, we know from this that the idiom dates back to before the publication of John Ray’s book since it’s included as a proverb.

It’s also cited as a Yorkshire proverb in literature of the day, along with the idiom, “as nimble as a cat on a haite backstane” which dates back to the 14th century.  At that point, the trail went cold. Idiomation feels that since it was a proverb in the 14th century that it most likely dates back to at least the beginning of the 14th century, and if it’s possible to trace it back to an earlier date, please feel free to add your comments and where you gathered the information.

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Up In Arms

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 29, 2013

Nothing conveys the concept of being upset or angry better than to say that someone is up in arms. It means that whoever is up in arms is so upset, he or she is willing to do something in protest.

The Coventry Evening Telegraph in England published a news story on September 16, 2004 about West Midlands firefighters being surprised to learn that their colleagues in Derbyshire were no longer allowed to play volleyball and football for fear of serious injuries. The article was entitled, “Why Firemen Had To Stop Team Games.” The Assistant Chief Officer, David Smethurts was quoted as saying:

“It was clearly unsafe, and was one of the greatest causes of injuries of any activity we took part in. If our staff thought we were allowing any other activity that was causing that many injuries they would be up in arms. No-one particularly liked it when volleyball was stopped but they could understand why. I was aware Derbyshire were taking this action. What surprised us was that they were still working in an environment where volleyball was normal.”

Jumping back in time to April 2, 1952 the Spokesman-Review ran an Associated Press story that dealt with Newbold Morris and his demand for detailed data on the personal finances of high government officials. Cabinet members were incensed by the demand and made certain their objections were heard loud and clear. The article was entitled:

Scandal Hunter Going Too Far: Truman’s Cabinet Is Up In Arms About Morris’ Prying

Wandering back to July 22, 1888, the New York Times reported on all the Italian societies, civic and military, of New York, Boston and Philadelphia making their voices heard with regards to the Pauper Immigration bill that was brought forward by Congressman Ford of Michigan. The complaint was that the American press had started a serious war against all Italians, and that this behavior was adversely influencing the American Government against Italians in America. The article was simply titled:

They Are Up In Arms

The American Heritage Dictionary claims that the expression dates back from about 1700 with the expression referring to armed rebellion in the late 1500s.  When William Shakespeare wrote 2 Henry VI in 1591, he was sure to include the idiom in the more than once to ensure that it would be heard and remembered.

The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee, are rising up in arms:
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murder of a guiltless king
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire; whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-faced sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms:

It showed up in his play Richard III published in 1592 where the following was written:

March on, march on, since we are up in arms;
If not to fight with foreign enemies,
Yet to beat down these rebels here at home.

So while the idiom did mean armed rebellion, the fact of the matter was that such armed rebellion was brought about because those involved in the rebellion were, indeed, so upset that they were wearing articles of clothing with heraldic arms embroidered on certain articles of clothing by the mid-1550s.

However, the word armor meant “means of protection” in the early 1300s, and came from the Latin word armatura which meant arms equipment. And indeed, if you were going off to fight a battle, you were definitely wearing armor and intended to swing your arms about wildly, weapon in hand, in defense of whatever you were fighting for in the first place. Hence comes the very literal meaning of being up in arms.

While the first published version of up in arms appears in the late 1590s, this is the official first use of the expression. However, nearly 300 years earlier, the spirit of the expression was understood and in use.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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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Straining At The Leash

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 15, 2013

When you read about someone straining at the leash , it means that person is eager to do something they are prevented from doing right now. It can also be understood that the verb “straining” refers either to a force that tends to pull or stretch something to an extreme or damaging degree, or to a severe or excessive demand on the strength, resources, or abilities of someone or something. In other words, context is everything when this phrase is in play.

Last year, on April 5, 2012 the Telegraph newspaper in the UK published a story that reported that it appeared almost inevitable that there wold be an attack on Iran unless Tehran changed its course on developing nuclear weapons. The headline read:

Israel’s Dogs Of War Are Straining At The Leash To Attack Iran: Can Barack Obama Stop Them?

On a more positive note, the Free Lance-Star published a story on February 15, 1977 entitled, “Straining At The Leash.” The first paragraph launched into the story by stating:

The space shuttle is not yet on the wing, but figuratively speaking it is now straining at the leash. The first orbiter, dubbed “Enterprise,” has been trundled across the desert to Edwards Air Force Base. After a series of more and more demanding ground and air tests, in July a two-astronaut crew will make the first crucial free-flight and landing attempts.

In Madras (the former name for the Capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu in South India), the Indian Express edition of October 18, 1941 reported on the resignation of the Japanese cabinet, indicating that it had been unable to reach agreement on vital questions connected with Japanese policy. The news story drew its headline from the last line of the story in the paragraph that read:

The Japanese will take no one unprepared but will find themselves embroiled in ventures the strain of which coupled with a severe economic boycott may well take them to the brink of catastrophe. It may still be that even a new Japanese cabinet inclined to throw its fortunes more openly into the Axis struggle, will watch and weigh before committing the nation to new perils brought on by Army and Navy chiefs who seem to be itching for action, straining like hounds at the leash.

When Associated Press Sports Writer, Paul Zimmerman wrote about the Columbia Lions and the Stanford Stars back on December 30, 1933, the Evening Independent carried the exciting story on the much-anticipated Rose Bowl game. The story was entitled, “Lions Eager To Enter Fray While Stanford Has Two Regulars Kept Abed By Severe Colds” and the first paragraph read:

Trained to the minute and straining at the leash, Columbia’s Lion gridsters restlessly awaited today their hour of departure for Pasadena where they will match their football skill against Sanford New Year’s Day.

Twenty years before that, the Meriden Daily Journal published a news article on October 8, 1903 on Russia’s answer to Japanese movement of troops into Korea. The story ran with the headline, “Czar Sends Ships To Corea To Offset Mikado’s Troops” and halfway through the article, the following was written:

With the dogs of war ready on both sides and straining at the leash, the diplomats of Russia and Japan are still trying to reach an amicable agreement. Negotiations are proceeding in Tokio, and, it is announced, that they are over the future of Corea and do not relate to the evacuation of Manchuria. Apparently this latter question has been settled to the satisfaction of the Russians. They are there and mean to stay.

Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) published a  story in 1825 entitled, “The Talisman.”   This passage in the story made use of the expression:

King Richard looked more than once at the Nubian and his dog; but the former moved not, nor did the latter strain at the leash, so that Richard said to the slave with some scorn, “Thy success in this enterprise, my sable friend, even though thou hast brought thy hound’s sagacity to back thine own, will not, I fear, place thee high in the rank of wizards, or much augment thy merits towards our person.”

In the prologue of Act I in the play, “Henry V” by William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616), the play recounts, in part, how Henry V is committed to going to war for ethical reasons while at the same time being restrained by the fact that he must show just cause for going to war. How can this be claimed? The character of Henry V asks himself, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” In other words, Henry V is weighing what is right according to his conscience before England wages war against another country. The passage about the hounds does not use the expression “straining at the leash” however it certainly carries with it the spirit of the expression.

The three hounds are famine, sword and fire, and the passage reads thusly:

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Although the figurative sense of straining at the leash is attested to from early in the 15th century, the reference to straining at the leash referring to a set of three is from the early 14th century and is found in sporting language. From this comes the archaic definition for straining as meaning that the individual or individuals are using their utmost effort.

So while Idiomation could only trace the exact wording of the idiom to Sir Walter Scott, the spirit of the idiom goes back to the 14th century.

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Days On End

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 26, 2011

When something happens or continues for days on end, it means it’s continuing without any sign of stopping.  It’s an expression with a fair bit of history and reaches back several centuries.

In 1949, the expression was used in “The Royal Engineers Journal” where the following can be found with regards to the post D-Day invasion of northern France.

Often frozen and wet through by night, they proceeded to march and fight at top speed for days on end. This was the 6th Airborne, with wings on its feet as well as its shoulders, and a spirit which said, ‘Bash on regardless.’

Jack London (1876 – 1916) wrote and published “Adventure” in 1911.  In Chapter XVII entitled, “Making The Books Come True” the following passage is found:

The steamer from Sydney, the Kammambo, broke the quietude of Berande for an hour, while landing mail, supplies, and the trees and seeds Joan had ordered. The Minerva, bound for Cape Marsh, brought the two cows from Nogi. And the Apostle, hurrying back to Tulagi to connect with the Sydney steamer, sent a boat ashore with the orange and lime trees from Ulava. And these several weeks marked a period of perfect weather. There were days on end when sleek calms ruled the breathless sea, and days when vagrant wisps of air fanned for several hours from one direction or another. The land-breezes at night alone proved regular, and it was at night that the occasional cutters and ketches slipped by, too eager to take advantage of the light winds to drop anchor for an hour.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s book “A Study In Scarlet” which was published in 1887, the following is found in Part I, Chapter 1 where Dr. Watson, late of the Army Medical Department, reminiscences about Sherlock Holmes in this fashion:

Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me. “I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street,” he said, “which would suit us down to the ground. You don’t mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?”

“I always smoke `ship’s’ myself,” I answered.

“That’s good enough. I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?”

“By no means.”

“Let me see — what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right. What have you to confess now? It’s just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together.”

I laughed at this cross-examination. “I keep a bull pup,” I said, “and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken, and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I’m well, but those are the principal ones at present.”

Various books, documents, stories, newspaper accounts et al make use of the expression days on end.  Idiomation’s research unearthed that the word end comes from the Old English word ende which is from the Old Norse word endir which means “the opposite side” or “boundary.” The original sense of the word means “outermost part” and dates back to the 900s however this sense is obsolete except in phrases such as days on end.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the expression dates back to some time in the 1300s.

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Double Dutch

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 30, 2011

When’s the last time you heard someone say they heard someone speaking double Dutch?  Anyone who is accused of speaking double Dutch is being accused  by the listener of speaking gibberish.  Double Dutch also happens to be a jump rope game that uses two jump ropes swung simultaneously in opposite directions in a crisscross fashion.

In Chapter IX: Dr. Bauerstein in Agatha Christie’s book “The Mysterious Affair At Styles” written in 1916 and published by John Lane in the United States in October 1920 — published in the UK on January 1921 — the following conversation is written:

“You miss a lot. A really perfect bit of old china–it’s pure delight to handle it, or even to look at it.”

“Well, what am I to tell Poirot?”

“Tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s double Dutch to me.”

“All right.”

I was moving off towards the house again when he suddenly called me back.

“I say, what was the end of that message? Say it over again, will you?”

” ‘Find the extra coffee-cup, and you can rest in peace.’ Are you sure you don’t know what it means?”

I asked him earnestly.

He shook his head.

“No,” he said musingly, “I don’t. I — I wish I did.”

E.W. Hornung‘s book, “Raffles, Further Adventures Of The Amateur Cracksman” — which was also entitled “The Black Mask” in some countries — was published in 1899.  In this book, the following passage is found:

“Ah,” said he, “that was before I knew you were altogether without experience; and I must say that I was surprised even at Mr. Maturin’s engaging you after that; but it will depend upon yourself how long I allow him to persist in so curious an experiment. As for what is the matter with him, my good fellow, it is no use my giving you an answer which would be double Dutch to you; moreover, I have still to test your discretionary powers. I may say, however, that that poor gentleman presents at once the most complex and most troublesome case, which is responsibility enough without certain features which make it all but insupportable. Beyond this I must refuse to discuss my patient for the present; but I shall certainly go up if I can find time.”

In the John Davis book “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America” published in January 1803, the following exchange happens between the First-mate and Mr. Adams:

First-mate. – You lie! It was one of my countrymen, Madoc ap Owen Gwyneth; I can give you chapter and verse for it.

Madoc wyf mwydic ei wedd
Jawn genau Owen Gwynedd;
Ni fynnwn dir, fy awydd oedd
Na aa mawr ond y Moroedd.

Mr Adams. – What devil language is that? Is it double Dutch coiled against the sun?

First-mate. – It is Welch.  It is what the full-breasted girls talk in the mountains.  If the frigate don’t blow us out of the water, and this fair wind holds, I hope next month to be bowsing some of their jibs up.  If they knew I was coming, they would give the Olive a tow.

By now, readers are possibly asking themselves why the English speak disparagingly about the Dutch language.  The fact of the matter is that when William the Conqueror defeated the British at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he made French the official language among nobility and the upper classes.  Up until that point, English and Dutch were dialects of the same language, sharing a basic Germanic vocabulary.  When English was reinstated as the official language of Britain in the 14th century, generations of peasants had changed the language to such an extent that it no longer resembled Dutch. 

To muddle things up more, some English words had become extinct, some Dutch words survived, and a large number of French words had infiltrated language in Britain in general.  By the time the Dutch Golden Age arrived there were over 2,000 words of Dutch origin in the English language.  And by the time the 16th century arrived, the word Dutch was an insult for anything the English regarded as inferior or contrary to English practice.

All this is why the English have referred to language they cannot understand as double Dutch.  While there is some Dutch in the English language, when a listener cannot make heads or tails of the conversation and it has become incomprehensible to him, it’s as if there’s double the amount of Dutch in the conversation than what someone is used to hearing normally.  This is what, in the opinion of the English of the 16th century, made the language inferior to English and so it is tagged as double Dutch by the listener.

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Beat The Odds

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 27, 2011

How many times have you heard someone talk about beating the odds? What they really mean is that they have succeeded in securing the most desirable outcome despite the very little chance that such an outcome could be achieved.  The expression is all about overcoming improbability and although skill may be part of the equation, most often luck is the determining factor.

Oftentimes, gamblers talk about beating the odds.  What they mean is that they hope to manipulate any given situation to the gambler’s advantage in order to achieve success.  Hedging bets, card counting, and more do little more than readjust the probability factors involved in the situation.  In the end, it’s still luck that’s the determining factor.

On May 17, 2011 the Guardian newspaper in England published a story about the Europa League Final.  Few fans held out much hope for Braga with the odds against them as they hoped to win the trophy.  The general opinion was that the team didn’t stand a chance against Porto.  As luck would have it, Braga won and the newspaper headline and sub-headline trumpeted loudly:

How Braga Beat The Odds: Now For History And The Bragging Rights
Few give Braga a chance as they seek their first major European trophy against their illustrious near neighbours Porto

Idiomation came across an initiative of the Center For The Future Of Arizona entitled, “Beat The Odds Institute.”  Started in 2005 as a research study, it was established as an initiative in 2007 that disseminated information, offered training and provided support to schools and school districts in implementing the Beat The Odds principles.

The Lewiston Daily Sun published a news article on June 12, 1978 about Ken Cullers.  The story out of Berkeley, California reported on a man who battled against “prejudice, physical barrier, too much attention and 10,000-to-1 odds against a person blind from birth becoming a physicist” in their story entitled, “Blind Physicist Has Beaten The Odds.”

A combination of brains and computer technology helped Cullers beat the odds.  He’s graduating this month from the University of California at Berkeley with a doctorate in physics.

On September 13, 1957 the Sarasota Journal ran a story about William Patrick Beston, a Morristown, New Jersey resident dad who really had an interesting situation on his hand.  The story was entitled, “Naming 12 Daughters Problem, Dad Says.”

You think you’ve beaten the odds? Shot a hole in one? Drawn a perfect bridge hand or run the four-minute mile?  Then consider the William Patrick Bestons.  Today Beston will go to Memorial Hospital to bring home his wife and their 12th child — and 12th daughter — born Thursday.  Oddsmakers don’t make books on such a rarity, and doctors said only that the chances of having an even dozen children of the same sex are “slimmer than slim.”

On February 7, 1924 the Milwaukee Sentinel ran an advertisement by The Sentinel: Wisconsin’s Leading Financial Medium.  The headline read, “No Mystery About The Road To Independence.”  The copy read in part:

The road to independence is as plain as the National Highway with all its paving and sign posts.  The main thing is starting on the right road and then going ahead.  Many of the world’s greatest fortunes have been founded on the steady and consistent accumulation of capital at a reasonable rate of interest.  Still larger fortunes have been lost in the attempt to beat the odds that exist in speculation.  The clear path of thrift and wise investment is open to all who would follow it to success.

On November 12, 1900 the Daily Mail and Empire newspaper in Toronto, Ontario published a story entitled, “Magic Light Won At Long Odds.”  As with so many news stories about beating the odds, this story also had to do with betting on the outcome of a sports event, this one being horse races in New York at the Aqueduct Track on November 10.  The story began:

The last Saturday’s racing in the metropolitan district was well attended.  The track had dried out, and while not fast was safe and good, and one of the best cards of the season was run off.  The weather was clear and bright.  The sport began with a big upset, Magic Light winning at 50 to 1, while 100 to 1 was quoted in places.  He beat the odds on favourite, Prestidigitator, a neck, Shaw riding a weak finish.

Now we know from the Idiomation entry from Monday of this week, that the 14th century trading game “Hand In Cap” was responsible for the term “odds” in the context of equalization between participants. 

During the 1680s, the game of golf allowed for some players to be granted additional strokes in what was called “assigning the odds.” This was done by the precursor of the modern Handicap Committee Chairman, who was referred to as the “adjustor of the odds.” In this way, the playing field between all golfers was level.

As with any situation where there are adjustments of the odds, betting soon followed.  The tradition of carefully entering bets on which golfers would win their match based on the odds and the adjustment of the odds soon followed. 

Allan Robertson (1815 – 1859), was known as the first great professional golfer.  He earned a significant portion of his income through wagering on his own golf games. The concept of giving strokes allowed Robertson to set up matches with golfers who weren’t at his level which, of course, allowed him the best chances of beating the odds and winning any money wagered.

Long before beating the odds was part of golf, the word “odds” in the wagering sense of the word was used by William Shakespeare in his play “2 Henry IV” written and published in 1597.  In Act 5, Scene 5 takes place in a public place near Westminster Abbey.  The following exchange between The Lord Chief Justice and Lancaster is found:

LANCASTER
The king hath call’d his parliament, my lord.

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE
He hath.

LANCASTER
I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?

Obviously the expression was quite popular in William Shakespeare‘s time as it also appears in his play “Othello” written in 1603, in Act 2, Scene 3 which takes place in a hall in the castle.  Those in the hall along with Iago include Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Montano.

IAGO
I do not know: friends all but now, even now, 
In quarter, and in terms like bride and groom 
Devesting them for bed; and then, but now– 
As if some planet had unwitted men– 
Swords out, and tilting one at other’s breast, 
In opposition bloody. I cannot speak 
Any beginning to this peevish odds
And would in action glorious I had lost 
Those legs that brought me to a part of it!

While the expression”beat the odds” may not be in either of William Shakespeare‘s plays, it is easy to see that “the odds” was the term used in trying to equalize the playing field for all participants in any given situation.  And where efforts are made to equalize the playing field, there will always be those who try to beat those odds.

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