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Scotch The Wheels

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 25, 2017

Scotching may sound odd at first, but scotching is the act of preventing something with wheels from moving by blocking the wheels with a wedge, bar (iron or wooden), or large stone(s).  Long before parking brakes were invented, drivers found a way to keep their transportation from rolling off into the distance without them.  But even after parking brakes were around, drivers have still found themselves in situations where they have had to scotch the wheels.

The expression is still used today as seen in the Wilkes Journal Patriot newspaper published in North Wilkesboro (North Carolina) on 15 August 2016.  The story headline read, “Second Tractor Death Within One Week Occurs On Friday” and reported on the accident that had taken the life of 84-year-old Billy Marvin Church in the Cricket community.  The article read in part:

With one end of a rope attached to the front of the pickup and the other to the tractor, Church apparently pulled the pickup out of the ditch and intended for two split pieces of log firewood to scotch the wheels of the pickup and stop it from rolling down the slope.

Scotching the wheels was central to a lawsuit in the 1950s in Peggy Ann of Georgia Inc. v Scoggins.  James H. Scoggins (Beulah’s husband), and James F. Scoggins, Douglas P. Scoggins, Russell L. Scoggins and Mrs. M. M. Adams (Beulah’s children) brought suit for damages in Bartow Superior Court against Southeastern Greyhound Lines Inc. (a petition to strike Southeastern Greyhound Lines Inc., was made through an amendment by the plaintiffs), Peggy Ann of Georgia Inc., F. G. Cole and Mrs. F. G. Cole (the petition against the Coles was dismissed), to recover for the alleged negligent homicide of Mrs. Beulah Scoggins.  The lawsuit saw many returns to court with judgements being rendered each time but one or the other party not being satisfied with the results.

Now, according to the filing, on 23 January 1951, the driver had left the bus when the bus started to roll down an incline while parked at the Peggy Ann Bus Stop just north of Cartersville, in Bartow County, Georgia.  At the driver’s urging, Mrs. Scoggins who was aboard the bus, jumped from the bus.  The lawsuit claimed that the injury and death of Mrs. Scoggins was as a direct result of the incident and were it not for the negligence of the company and its driver who knew the brakes on the bus to be in a defective condition, Mrs. Scoggins would not have been injured and died.

The expression was used in the judgement in 1952 as follows.

It was alleged that “scotch blocks” were furnished Peggy Ann of Georgia Inc. to scotch the wheels of incoming buses, and that they were maintained on the premises of such defendant, and that it was negligent in not using them on the bus here involved.

In a Letter to the Editor written by C.W. Tonge to the publisher of “The Penny Mechanic and Chemist: A Magazine of the Arts and Sciences” in 1841 addressed the issue of paved street that were worn to the point of being slippery and a danger to horses pulling carts.  His letter provided a detailed explanation about the problem, how the problem was being dealt with, and what he suggested be done instead.  It certainly bore reasonable consideration.

The short story, “The Basket Woman”  by  Anglo-Irish author Maria Edgeworth (1 January 1768 – 22 May 1849) and printed in Volume Ten of thirteen volumes published in 1826 talked about scotching the wheels of a carriage.

Paul went to work immediately, and fastened one end of the pole into the block of wood, so as to make something like a dry rubbing brush.  “Look, grandmamma, look at my scotcher:  I call this thing my scotcher,” said Paul, “because I shall always scotch the wheels with it; I shall never pinch my fingers again; my hands, you see, will be safe at the end of this long stick; and, sister Anne, you need not be at the trouble of carrying any more stones after me up the hill; we shall never want stone any more; my scotcher will do without any thing else, I hope.  I wish it was morning, and that a carriage would come, that I might run up the hill and try my scotcher.”

SIDE NOTE 1:  Maria Edgeworth was the first daughter of Anglo-Irish politician, writer and inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth (31 May 1744 – 13 June 1817) by his first wife, Anna Maria Elers with whom he had four children  After his first wife’s passing in 1773, he was to marry three more times and go one to father eighteen more children.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Maria Edgeworth was homeschooled by her father who taught her law, politics, science, literature, and Irish economics at a time when educating women was not only disapproved of, but ridiculed by educated and uneducated men alike.  Her education, however, enabled her to hold her own in correspondences with learned men of the time who respected her insights and opinions.

SIDE NOTE 3:  Maria Edgeworth is acknowledged as a significant influence in Europe with regards to the evolution of the novel.   Her writing addressed issues of religion, politics, race, class, sex,  and gender.

A little over a hundred years earlier, Nonconformist minister and author Reverend Matthew Henry (18 October 1662 – 22 June 1714) published, “A Discourse Concerning Meekness and Quietness of Spirit” on 21 November 1698 – a sermon on Acts 28:22.  In his discourse, he wrote about those who deserved the loudest applause, received reproof instead.  The idiom was used in Section III that dealt with instances where meekness was required in a special way.

We must not be like the reprobate Sodomites (Gen. xix. 9) or that pert Hebrew (Exod. Ii. 14.) that flew in the face of their reprovers (though really they were the vest friend they  had,) with, Who made thee a judge? but like David, who, when Abigail so prudently scotched the wheels of his passion, not only blest God that sent her, and blest her advice, but blest her (1 Sam. Xxv. 32, 33, and v. 35.) not only hearkened to her voice, but accepted her person.  

The previous century, English churchman, historian, and prolific author Thomas Fuller (June 1608 – 16 August 1661) published “The Holy State and the Profane State” in 1642.  The book was the most successful of Thomas Fuller’s books and was reprinted another four times after the first run sold out.  The book was published in four volumes with the first three outlining the characteristics of positive archetypes, and the fourth book illustrating profane people.

The idiom appeared in Point 4 of Chapter XXVIII: The Good Landlord and titled, “Inclosure Without Depopulating is Profitable to the Commonwealth.”

If a mathematician should count the wood in the hedges, to what a mighty forest would it amount?  This underwood serves for supplies to save timber from burning, otherwise our wooden walls in the water must have been sent to the fire.  Add to this, the strength of an inclosed country against a foreign invasion.  Hedges and counterhedges, having in number what they want in height and depth, serve for barricadoes, and will stick as birdlime in the wings of the horse, and scotch the wheeling about of the foot.  Small resistance will make the enemy to earn every mile of ground as he marches.

SIDE NOTE 4:  Two of Thomas Fuller’s most repeated quotes are “All things are difficult before they are easy” and “If it were not for hopes, the heart would break.”

In the early 15th century, scotch meant a notch or a groove with the origins of the word beyond seemingly impossible to trace.  Idiomation therefore pegs the expression scotch the wheels to the late 1500s which allows for the meaning of the idiom to make its way into Thomas Fuller’s writings.

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Foot The Bill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 4, 2016

The person who, or organization that, foots the bill is the person who, or organization that, pays the bill or settles the outstanding debt.  Yes, whoever foots the bill is the one who is responsible for payment due.

Just last week, on September 27, 2016 WFLA Channel 8 reporter Mark Douglas reported on what was going on with the Largo Building Department.  From those who were under state investigation to a whistleblower action against the city, Mark Douglas shared that taxpayers are on the hook for paying the legal defense costs for the department.  The article on the website was titled, “You Paid For It: Taxpayers Once Again Foot The Bill For Building Officials Accused Of Breaking Laws.”

Forty years earlier on September 5, 1976, Elaine Dundy, writing for the New York Times, reported on the 90-minute animated film based on psychoanalyst and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Erik Erikson’s eight stages of man.  According to Erik Erikson (15 June 1902 – 12 May 1994), every stage carried with it a crucial conflict that needed to be resolved before the individual could move on to the next stage.  Any unresolved stage supposedly resulted in an emotional crisis.

The stages according to Erik Erickson were as follows:

  1. Hope: trust vs. mistrust (infancy, 0 to 2 years)
  2. Will: autonomy vs. shame and doubt (early childhood, 2 to 4 years)
  3. Purpose: initiative vs. guilt (preschool, 4 to 5 years)
  4. Competence: industry vs. inferiority (school age, 5 to 12 years)
  5. Fidelity: identity vs. role confusion (adolescence, 13 to 19 years)
  6. Love: intimacy vs. isolation (early adulthood, 20 to 39 years)
  7. Care: generativity vs. stagnation (adulthood, 40 to 64 years)
  8. Wisdom: ego integrity vs. despair (maturity, 65 through to death)

Faith and John Hubley (well-known for their work on “Mr. Magoo” and other cartoons) were saddled with running every storyboard past an advisory panel of psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, educators, students, and network executives before moving on to the next stage.  The idiom was used in this paragraph describing the situation.

“Everybody Rides the Carousel” has been in the works for 10 years. First, permission from Erikson himself has to be obtained, then the rights from his publisher and last but not least the money to underwrite the project. After several failed attempts by the husband-and-wife team with both public television and other commercial networks, CBS agreed to foot the bill — with a condition.

SIDE NOTE 1:  William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) identified seven stages in his play, “As You Like It” in Act 2, scene 7 in a monologue delivered by Jaques.  Shakespeare identifies the stages as follows: Infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, old age, and second childhood.

Australian historian and professor at the University of Melbourne, Sir Ernest Scott (21 June 1867 – 6 December 1939) edited, “Australia: A Reissue of Volume VII, Part I of the Cambridge History of the British Empire” which was published in 1933.  The expression is found on page 357 of this publication.

Queensland would set the other colonies an example in dealing with a procrastinating mother country and save Australia from the “irremediable disaster” of further foreign occupation in New Guinea.  She offered to foot the bill.  But the elderly parent was not to be bolted by her youngest child.  Lord Derby first enquired of the Foreign Office whether he could be assured that no foreign Power would set up a claim to the territory Queensland had annexed, and on receiving an answer that Lord Granville thought no such action intended by any foreign Power, he declined to approve the annexation.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Originally from Northampton, England, Sir Ernest Scott migrated to Australia in 1892 where he lived until his death.  Upon his death, his widow, Emily Scott (who was also his second wife) funded the establishment of the Ernest Scott Prize for History that continues to be awarded annually for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand.

In Chapter XIII of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), and published on December 10, 1884, the author made use of the idiom.  The story is set sometime between 1835 and 1845, and takes place on the Mississippi River running through Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas, with specific attention to St. Petersburg, Missouri.  At the time, slavery was legal, and the dilemma Huck faced in the story was whether to turn in his friend (and runaway slave), Jim.  The expression appears in this passage in the story.

“Why THAT’S all right. Miss Hooker she tole me, PARTICULAR, that her uncle Hornback –“

“Great guns! is HE her uncle? Looky here, you break for that light over yonder-way, and turn out west when you git there, and about a quarter of a mile out you’ll come to the tavern; tell ’em to dart you out to Jim Hornback’s, and he’ll foot the bill. And don’t you fool around any, because he’ll want to know the news. Tell him I’ll have his niece all safe before he can get to town. Hump yourself, now; I’m a- going up around the corner here to roust out my engineer.”

SIDE NOTE 3:  It took Mark Twain seven years to write “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” mostly because he wrote the majority of it in 1876 and didn’t pick the story back up (to finish writing the story) until August 1883.

In 1844, the idiom appeared in the “Report of the Superintendent of Common Schools of the State of New York.”

And yet this monstrous power has been conferred upon those officers, subject to no control from any quarter, and the board of supervisors is obliged, without the least exercise of its own discretion, to foot the bills.  Some amendments, therefore, I repeat, are imperiously demanded.

Three years earlier on December 13, 1841, the Directors and Superintendent of the Ohio Lunatic Asylum presented their third annual report on the condition of the institution to the Fortieth General Assembly.  The Superintendent was listed as William M. Awl, M.D., with the following listed as directors:  Samuel Parsons, M.D.; Colonel Samuel Spangler; Adin G. Hibbs, Esquire; N.H. Swayne, Esquire; and Dr. David L. McGugin. Three others were listed along with the Superintendent and Directors, these being Dr. Samuel M. Smith, M.D. (Assistant Physician), George S. Fullerton (Steward), and Mrs. C.W. Atcherson (Matron).

In Document No. 14, under “Labor and Employment,” the expression was used with the meaning it has today.

And here is the amount of this labor, as estimated by a committee of themselves, which we should think exceedingly moderate, if we had to foot the bill:  “As near as can be calculated, three acres of ground on the east half of lot, in front of L.A., have been filled up to the average depth of nine inches, amounting to 3,637 cubic yards.  And taking into consideration the extra labor of leveling the same, together with leveling the same, together with leveling the ground from whence the earth was taken, it should probably be estimated at sixteen cents per yard, which will amount to five hundred eighty one dollars and ninety two cents.”

It showed up in Part I of Volume XII of the Gales & Seaton’s Register “Debates In Congress.”  The debate in question was dated March 17, 1836 and dealt with a Land Bill put forth in the Senate.  The Senate was urged to proceed with a Bill to appropriate, for a limited time, the proceeds from the sale of public lands.  The Bill was not popular with everyone, and the issue was hotly debated.  The idiom appeared here:

As might be expected, after making a decision against these claimants, the Judiciary of Virginia deemed it expedient, inasmuch as the United States, and not Virginia would ultimately be obliged to foot the bill, to reverse that decision, and the claimants, and children and heirs of claimants, come in forty years after the service was performed, and obtain scrip for incredible quantities of public lands; from four to six, and, I believe as high as ten, thousand acres to each person.

Sliding back to the winter of 1818, is the book by American lawyer, Estwick Evans (1787 – 1866) titled, “A Pedestrious Tour of Four Thousand Miles Through The Western States and Territories.”  The book claimed to be “interspersed with brief reflections upon a great variety of topics: Religious, moral, political, sentimental, etc., etc.”  The tome was printed by Joseph E. Spear of Concord, New Hampshire in 1819.  According to Payton R. Freeman, Clerk for the District of New Hampshire, the book was deposited in the Office of the District of New Hampshire on December 10, 1818 (the forty-third year of the Independence of the United States of America).  It was resubmitted on January 18, 1819 to correct typographical and other errors in the preceding work that Peyton r. Freeman stated were “few and inconsiderable” and “not deemed worth while to notice them.”  On page 183 of this book, the following is found:

When I arrived at Buffalo, I had travelled twenty-four miles, without meeting any habitation, excepting a very few scattering log huts.  Some of these were destitute of provisions; and at others of them a piece of bread, and a drink of water cost me two York shillings.  Not far from this place, my dogs, knowing no law but that of nature, and having forgotten my lecture to them upon theft, helped themselves to the first repast presented, leaving their master to foot their bills.  According to the phraseology of our Grand Juries, they very modestly “took, stole, and carried away” a piece of beef of the weight of three pounds, with an intention to convert the same to their own use.

Foot, meaning to add up and set the sum at the bottom of a column, is attested to in the late 15th century.  In “Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV: Office of the Stable and Gifts Disbursed” for 1480, the meaning of foot referring to a total sum is found.

Velvet, xxxij yerdes grene and blac; bokeram longe, xij yerdes*
*Here follows in the MS a general inventory of all the articles mentioned in the preceding pages, entitled “The foote of the deliveree of stuff.”

Because the foote was the total sum owed for what was delivered and registered in the Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV in 1480, the spirit of footing the bill (paying what was owed) is found in this accounting.

What this means is that as early as 1480, footing meant to add up a column of numbers to arrive at the final sum in reference to monies owed to a merchant.  Footing the bill was to confirm the exact amount owed to another with the intent of paying said outstanding amount.

Undoubtedly, the idiom appeared in print sometime between the accounting of Edward IV’s wardrobe accounts and Estwick Evans’ unfortunate incident with his dogs.  Idiomation suspects a published version of this idiom can be found dating back to before Estwick Evans’ book in 1818. It just hasn’t been uncovered to date.

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All And Sundry

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 12, 2015

When someone uses the expression all and sundry, it’s just another way of saying everyone and/or everything, individually and collectively.  An example of using this idiom correctly would be to say, “All and sundry love Artie Q‘s music.”

For example, just today in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus newspaper, Walter Carpenter of Montpelier wrote a Letter to the Editor that made use of all and sundry.  His letter was in response to comments by David Sunderland, Chair of the Vermont Republican Party, in a commentary published in the October 29, 2015 edition and titled, “Democrats Are Driving Workers Away.”

It should be known by all and sundry now that oil companies like Exxon Mobile, for example, have poured millions of dollars into the denial of climate change to protect their vast profits, earned largely by gouging us at the gas pumps. Mr. Sunderland ignored this.

In the book “Canada and the Russian Revolution: The Impact of the World’s First Socialist Revolution on Labor and Politics in Canada, Volume 2” by Tim Buck (6 January 1891 – 11 March 1973) and published in 1967, the author used the idiom in describing the events that transpired at the Toronto Labor Temple hall on Church Street in Toronto (Ontario, Canada) in 1918, after the October Revolution (also known as Red October, the October Uprising, and the Bolshevik Revolution) of November 1917.

The squad was composed mainly of men who were on active service and in uniform.  It included a few demobilized veterans who were wearing civilian clothes.  Armed with baseball bats and headed by an officer, the squad marched across the center of the city announce to all and sundry its intention to “Beat up the Reds and the Pacifists!”  Not on police officer questioned them or warned them — or considered it  necessary to warn their intended victims.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Tim Buck was one of the top leaders of the Joseph Stalin-era Communist International (2 March 1919 – 15 May 1943) also known as the Third International.  This was an international communist organization that advocated for world communism.

Tim Buck was also the general secretary of the Community Party of Canada, later known as the Labor-Progressive Party, from 1929 through to 1962.  The party name was changed in 1943 when it refounded itself after the Communist Party of Canada was banned in 1940.  After the provincial elections in Ontario in 1959, the party renamed itself the Communist Party of Canada and continues to exist to this day.

The story “Grand Spring Opening” by Zoe Hartman (who only published stories between 1905 and 1920) — illustrated by Bert N. Salg (September 1881 – 19 May 1937) — published in the April 1924 edition of “Boys’ Life” was all about Newt Crumper, the hired boy, and Miss Cate who had just opened a millinery shop across the street from the Altenburg grocery store and two doors south of Jake Knapp’s store.

A. Sid McVay, the Unicorn (that’s the name of the brand, not what he’s selling) salesman with the vivid handkerchief comments on the store’s grand opening.

Meanwhile, McVay’s prediction to Newt, “These sleepy galoots are going to laugh; but oh, boy! watch us block traffic on this corner to-day!” was almost literally fulfilled.  Mercantile Pockville held its sides with Homeric laughter, a grocery “opening” was too exquisite!  All and sundry stopped to gaze and giggle and point their fingers at the spectacular show window.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Zoe Hartman (a junior at the time) won the Guilford Essay Prize at Cornell University at the 38th Annual Commencement for the 1905 – 1906 scholastic year at Cornell University.

A hundred years earlier, in the book “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner” whose author identified himself only as himself.  The book was about George Colwan, a man who was married to the sole heiress and daughter of Baillie Order of Glasgow, and this George Colwan inherited the estate of his father (also named George Colwan).  The estate had been in the family for at least 150 years at the time of the inheritance.

As with all legal documents, what was granted to George Colwan of Dalcastle and Balgrennan, his heirs and assignees whatsomever, heritably and irrevocably (according to the Registrate of the Court of Whitehall on 26 September 1687) was considerable.  However,  His Majesty the King, as prince and steward of Scotland, and with the advice and consent of his foresaids, knowledge, proper motive, and kingly power was provided for in this legal document as well, and read in part:

 … with court, plaint, herezeld, fock, fork, sack, sock, thole, thame, vert, wraik, waith, wair, venison, outfang thief, infant thief, pit and gallows, and all and sundry other commodities.

This passage proves that the phrase was used in legal papers in the 17th century.  But how much older is the phrase than 1687?

In 1615, all and sundry appears in the “Foedera, Conventiones, Literae et Cujuscnque Generis Acta Publica Inter Reges Angliae et Alios Quosvis” in the “Proclamatio contra Comitem de Bothwell.”  The proclamation addressed the actions of Frances (referred to in the document as the sometimes Erle of Bothwell).  The document referenced is dated 1591 A.D. and reads in part as follows:

Wherefore his Majestie, with Advise of the Lordes of his secrett Counsell, ordeynes Letters to be directed, charging Officers of Arms to passe and make publication and intimation hereof, by open Procolmation, at the Mercat Crosses of the hed Burrowes of this Realme, and other places needfull, wherby none may pretend Ignorance of the fame; as also to command and charge all and sundry his Highnes Lieges, That none of them take upon hand to Receit, Supplie, Shew favor, Intercomon, norfurnish him Meat nor Drinck, House or Harbery under whatsoever Colour or Pretence, under the Payne to be repute holden and pursued as art and partakers with him in all his treasonable Crymes and wicked Dedes.

The phrase also appears in Volume 15 of “The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland” from 1523.  It should be noted that these rolls run from 1264 through to 1600 (23 volumes all tolled), and Cardiff University has a catalog record of these documents.  The exchequer developed from the King’s chamber that oversaw the royal finances and as such, it’s one of the earliest government departments in Scotland.

In 1420, King James I divided the duties between the Comptroller (also known as the Receiver General) and the Treasurer.  One controlled the revenues from Crown lands and burghs while the other controlled the revenues from taxation and profits from justice (in other words, fines levied against by a court of law).

The excerpt from 1523 reads thusly:

Witt the ws with avise, autorite, and consent of our darrest cousing and tutour Johnne duke of Albany etc. protectour and governour of our realme to have sett and for maile lettin and be thir our lettres settis and for maile lettis to our weelbelovit brother James erle of Murray, his airis and assignals ane or maa all and sundry oure landis of the erledome of Ross and lrdschip of Ardmanach with the milnys of the samin with thar pertinentis liand within our schirefdome of Invernes, togidder with the keping and capitanery of oure castellis of Dingwall and Reidcastill.

Now the meaning of the word sundry meaning several dates back to 1375 in the “Scottish Legends of the Saints” where we find written in II. Paulus:

In a creile he was latin fall;
and in Ierusalem he was bofte,
spyit, waitit, and bundyn ofte;
and eftere in sesaria
bundyne, and tholit panis ma;
and sailand in Italy
In parelis wes he stad sindry.

The word also appears in Book V of epic poem, “The Bruce” by Scottish poet and churchman John Barbour (1325 – 13 March 1395), Archdeacon of Aberdeen during the reigns of David II and Robert II of Scotland.   He is sometimes called the father of Scots literature.

In 1357, as Archdeacon of Aberdeen, he was involved in the negotiations that would allow Scotland to pay England ransom for the return of David II who had been their prisoner since his capture in 1346 in the Battle of Neville’s Cross. His poem, “The Bruce” was the first major work of Scottish literature and documented Scottish political history from the death of Alexander III in 1286 through to the burial of Bruce’s heart in 1332.  The poem was published in 1375.

And for to mak in thair synging
Syndry notis, and soundis sere,
And melody plesande to here.

And so somewhere between 1375 and 1523, the word sundry became the expression all and sundry.  With 148 years between the two dates, and allowing for how long it would have taken in the 14th century for a phrase to catch on, Idiomation split the difference and suggests that 1450 would be about the time that all and sundry began to make its way into the English language, eventually making its way into legal documents by the early 1500s.

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From Pillar To Post

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 18, 2015

When someone is said to be running from pillar to post, it’s another way of saying the person is running around in circles. In other words, they’re getting the run around and getting nowhere at all.

When Linda Kay Barber of Deer Park (WA) wrote a Letter to the Editor, the Spokesman-Review published it in their June 11, 1990 edition. She took issue with parents who weren’t putting their children first, whether they were dead beat non-custodial parents or parents who walked the picket line outside the Office of Support Enforcement. A line from her letter was plucked and became the letter’s headline: “Kids Kicked From Pillar To Post.”

When Hollywood was casting for the comedy series, “McHale’s Navy” starring Ernest Borgnine (24 January 1917 – 8 July 2012), producer Edward Montagne (20 May 1912 – 15 December 2003) saw Bobby Wright’s audition for another series titled, “It’s A Man’s World.” He cast the 20-year-old in the role of Radioman 2nd Class Willy Moss (credited as John Wright), and the story published in newspapers on Sunday, April 14, 1963 shared Bobby’s new-found fame in an article entitled, “From Pillar To Post.”

NOTE 1: Bobby Wright aka John Robert Wright Jr. (born 30 March 1942) is the son of Johnnie Wright (13 May 1914 – 27 September 2011) and country singer Kitty Wells (30 August 1919 – 16 July 2012), and the younger brother of country singer Ruby Wright (27 October 1939 – 27 September 2009) and Carol Sue Wright Sturdivant (born 12 June 1941).

Back on January 31, 1930 a story out of Washington dealing with prohibition was multifaceted. The upswing (or downswing depending if you were a Republican or a Democrat) of the discussion within the House Expenditures Committee about transferring dry enforcement from Secretary Melton’s bailiwick to that of the Attorney General was reported in the article.  On a related note, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the Jack Daniel Distillery Company of St. Louis was rendered when it was determined that the government failed to prove that whiskey in a bonded warehouse had been stolen by anyone associated with the Jack Daniel Distillery Company.  The article was headlined as “Dry Law Bounced From Pillar To Post As Capitol Talk Continues” and this was the first sentence in the article.

The prohibition discussion continued to bounce from pillar to post in Washington today, but concrete developments were few.

NOTE 2: Lemuel Motlow, nephew of Jasper “Jack” Daniel, moved part of the Jack Daniel Distillery Company operations to St. Louis (MO) after Tennessee adopted state prohibition in 1910.

Thieves made off with 16 barrels of whiskey and 118 cases of bourbon from the warehouse in December 1922, and then siphoned 893 barrels of whiskey through 150 feet of hose, and into waiting trucks in August 1923. The barrels (save for one that was left untouched for inspection) were refilled with water and vinegar. The stolen whiskey was resold on the bootleg market.

Lemuel Motlow was charged by the police in what was later come to be known as the “whiskey milking case” but the case against Lemuel Motlow never went to trial. Twenty three others, including former St. Louis circuit clerk Nat Goldstein and William J. Kinney, brother of a state senator who at the time was responsible for the Jack Daniel’s inspection, were tried a year later in Indianapolis and sentenced to time in the Leavenworth (KS) jail. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the distillery returned to its roots in Tennessee, setting up shop in Lynchburg.

The Sunday Herald of December 29, 1895 shared a news story of a middle-aged woman by the name of Mrs. Lizzie Bowen, and her 19-year-old boarder, Maude Mersin (whose real name was Mary Sheridan) who were known to cause considerable troubles for their neighbors. Maude, according to the news article, had a way of becoming acquainted with a great many young men, and was well-known in drinking establishments around town. She also spent an inordinate amount of time on the streets which was a polite way of reporting that she was a street-walker (which was the polite term for prostitute at the time).

Mrs. Bowen was no stranger to bad behavior herself and saw no problem with what neighbors were upset over. The trouble, however, cause the duo to be forced from their apartment on Elm Street, moving to new lodgings on White Street, where their troubles followed them. Forced to move from their apartment on White Street, they relocated to North Main Street where neighbors, familiar with the pair, continue to keep an eye on them.  The article was aptly entitled, “From Pillar To Post.”

NOTE 3: The article included an interesting saying Idiomation had not previously heard: “Give a dog a bad name and you might as well hang him.”

According to Brewer’s “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” the original idiom was from post to pillar and was in reference to the tennis courts. It may seem strange to think of tennis as being a game of a certain age, however, it is, and historical documents speak of the game of court tennis in 13th century literature. A new addition to the game of tennis happened during the reign of King Henry VIII when tennis rackets were introduced into the game.

It was found in “Contention Between Liberality And Prodigality” published in 1602 where it was written:

Every minute tost, like to a tennis-ball, from pillar to post.

When Richard Stanyhurst published his book “Thee First Foure Bookes Of Virgil His Aeneis Translated Into English Heroical Verse” back in 1582, the game of tennis and the phrase were tied to each other as well.

Free thee poast toe piler with thoght his rackt wyt he tosseth.

Long before the tennis racket came into play, there were other elements that were integral parts of the game (which have long since disappeared) and tennis was an intricate game of strategy and endurance. Among the structures were galleries, grilles, tambours, and dedans. The net (which was nothing more than a rope) was tied to a post at one end and to one of the pillars supporting the galleries at the other end, and thus, the idiom from post to pillar began.

How do we know that this? We can thank John Lydgate (1370 – 1451) for writing the following in his work, “The Assembly Of The Gods” published in 1420.

And when he thedyr came, Humylyté hym took
A token and bad hym go to Confessyon,
And shew hym hys mater with a peteous look.
Whyche doon, he hym sent to Contrycion.
And fro thensforth to Satysfaccion.
Thus from poost to pylour was he made to daunce,
And at the last he went forthe to Penaunce.

But it does seem odd that if someone was going post to pillar, as John Lydgate wrote, that person would be doing so for penance. So if this reference hasn’t anything — or much of anything — to do with royal tennis, then the reference must have to do with being taken from the pillory to the whipping post as mentioned in John Ray’s book “A Hand-Book Of Proverbs” published in 1670 where he included, “To be tost from post to pillory.”

The spirit of the idiom, however, is first found in the book by John Heywood (1497 – 1580) entitled “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies” published in 1562. In Part II, Chapter II of the section titled, “Proverbs” the following is found:

And from post to pillar, wife, I have been tossed
By that surfeit. And I feel a little fit
Even now, by former attempting of it.

Also in this same book, John Heywood also included the following:

Tossed from post to pillar: thou art a pillar strong;
And thou hast been a pillar, some say, too long.

And so it seems that the idiom was recognized and understood in 1562 (and meaning what the idiom means today) which indicates that back in the mid-1500s, from pillar to post (or actually from post to pillar) was already understood by the general population in England.

This indicates that somewhere between 1420 when the phrase first appeared in “Assembly Of The Gods” by John Lydgate and 1562 in “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies” by John Heywood, the spirit of the idiom became set to mean going from one thing to another, and not getting anywhere.

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century, Tennis | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

If Ifs And Ands Were Pots And Pans

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 31, 2014

When wishing for things that are useless, you may hear someone respond to wishful thinking with if ifs and ands were pots and pans. The expression in modern times is more commonly known as ifs, ands or buts because language, as we know, is always evolving. However, over the generations, the idiom has oftentimes been reduced to merely ifs and ands.

In 1929, James Milton Carson published a 16-page booklet entitled, “The Ifs and Ands of Race Track Gambling In Florida.”  While Idiomation hasn’t had occasion to read the publication, the title says it all, don’t you think?

Just a touch over a century before that, the expression is found in the “Melodist, and Mirthful Olio: An Elegant Collection of the Most Popular Songs, Recitations, Glees, Duets, Etc.” The Olio was the work of actor John Pritt Harley (February 1790 – 27 August 1858), edited by Charles Dixon, and printed and published in 1828 by H. Arliss of Cutter Lane in Cheapside. John Pritt Harley was known as an actor of great versatility as well as the manager and principal actor at the St. James’s Theatre in London where the comic burletta, “The Strange Gentleman”  — written by Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) — was first performed. The song in the Olio is entitled, “A Song Of Ifs And Ands” and begins with this verse:

If ifs and ands were pots and pans,
‘Twould cure the tinker’s cares;
If ladies did not carry fans,m
They’d give themselves no airs.

In the book “Letters from Hudson Bay” published by the Hudson’s Bay Record Society, an R. Staunton is quoted in 1723 as having written:

… Mr. Myat giving him but a very indifferent character, and not to have stocked one new gun this year; which made me call him to know what he can undertake in one year besides overhauling the English and mending the Indians’ guns that hunts for the factory. He replied with a great many ifs and ands.

English theologian and philosopher Ralph Cudworth (1617 – 26 June 1688) published his principal philosophical work, “The True Intellectual System of the Universe” in 1678. He was considered one of the most important of the Cambridge Platonists, a group of philosophers from the University of Cambridge who promoted rationalistic theology and ethics. The group also included such historical figures as Henry More (1614–1687), Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683), Peter Sterry (1613–1672), John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651), and John Worthington (1618–1671). In his book, he wrote:

Thus, therefore, the idea of God, or an absolutely perfect being, including in it not an impossible, nor a contingent, but a necessary schesis, or relation to existence, it follows from thence absolutely, and without any ifs and ands, that he doth exist. For as of things contradictions, having therefore in the idea of them an impossible schesis to existence, we can confidently conclude, that they never where, nor will be.

In the play “Spanish Tragedie” Act II Scene, written by Thomas Kyd (6 November 1558 – 15 August 1594) and published in 1587, there is a brief exchange between Pedringano, servant of Bel-imperia and Lorenzo, Don Ciprian’s son (Don Ciprian being the Duke of Castile) as well as Bel-imperia’s brother. The play is one of many revenges, including Balthazar’s affirmation that he intends to kill Horatio for stealing Bel-Imperia’s love from him after hearing that Bel-Imperia has supposedly has feelings for Horatio, and Lorenzo spurs his friend on. The quick exchange between the servant and the brother is as follows:

PEDRINGANO
Oh stay, my lord!

LORENZO
Yet speak the truth, and I will guerdon thee
And shield thee from what-euer can ensue,
And will conceale what-euer proceeds from thee;
But, if thou dally once againe, thou diest!

PEDRINGANO
If madame Bel-imperia be in loue—

LORENZO.
What, villaine! ifs and ands?

PEDRINGANO
Oh stay, my lord! she loues Horatio!

And the expression is found in the account “Beheading of Lord Hastings” in the book “The History of Kyng Richard the Third” by Sir Thomas More, published in 1577. The account is alleged to have been written by Sir Thomas More in 1513, and describes an event that took place in 1432.

What quod the protectour thou servest me, I wene, wi ifes and with andes, I tel the thei haue so done, and that I will make good on they body traituor.

The story also implies that Richard III (2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485) was familiar with the nursery rhyme:

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,
If turnips were swords I’d have one by my side.
If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans
There would be no need for tinkers’ hands!

This would, indeed, seem to be the case since he used the shortened version in 1432.  Since the first recorded nursery rhyme dates back to the 13th century, and many nursery rhymes were recorded in English plays by the 16th century, it is reasonable to believe that the claim that Richard III was familiar with this specific nursery rhyme.

That being said, the most reasonable date for this idiom is somewhere between 1425 and 1450, when adults raising Richard III would have had occasion to recite the nursery rhyme to him as a child.

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Down At Heel

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 14, 2013

He’s down at heel. She’s down at heel. They’re down at heel. So what’s going on with those who are down at heel,or down at the heel? It means the opposite of well-heeled. In other words, those people are impoverished. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, those who are down at the heel are shabbily dressed because of poverty … shabby to the point of seedy.

The Glasgow Herald ran a story on February 25, 1960 about the salary increases for teachers in primary schools. It was suggested by some politicians that a marriage allowance such as the one provided to those in the Army should be considered. In fact, one politician was so distraught about the situation that the newspaper reported this:

Lieutenant-Colonel A. Forbes Hendry (West Aberdeen – Con.) said they should pay particular attention to the married teachers. It was not unusual to see young women teachers riding about in motor cars while the older, married teachers walked about looking very much down at heel — almost as down at heel as parish ministers.

The Deseret News edition of July 18, 1908 had an interesting tidbit on the American embassy in London as described by a businessman who had traveled extensively and visited various other American embassies in different parts of the world. He was quoted as saying:

Our embassy in London is one of the poorest business propositions I have ever come across. Besides the whole down-at-heel appearance of the place, it lacks certain necessities which even a second-rate business concern in a backwoods town would possess. There is not even a vault at the embassy to keeps state papers in; and the most valuable books and documents are placed promiscuously about the office where any one with a little ingenuity could abstract them if he wished. If there was a fire at the embassy, papers of the utmost importance would be lost simply for the want of the most ordinary business foresight.

In the novel “Little Dorrit” written by Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870),the idiom appears in Chapter 7.  The novel was originally published in monthly parts from December 1855 through to June 1857, and later as a complete novel. The story is a satirical look at government and society, and their respective shortcomings therein. The idiom appears in this passage in the book:

Tip tired of everything. With intervals of Marshalsea lounging, and Mrs Bangham succession, his small second mother, aided by her trusty friend, got him into a warehouse, into a market garden, into the hop trade, into the law again, into an auctioneers, into a brewery, into a stockbroker’s, into the law again, into a coach office, into a waggon office, into the law again, into a general dealer’s, into a distillery, into the law again, into a wool house, into a dry goods house, into the Billingsgate trade, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks. But whatever Tip went into, he came out of tired, announcing that he had cut it. Wherever he went, this foredoomed Tip appeared to take the prison walls with him, and to set them up in such trade or calling; and to prowl about within their narrow limits in the old slip-shod, purposeless, down-at-heel way; until the real immovable Marshalsea walls asserted their fascination over him, and brought him back.

Jumping back to 1732, the 10th edition of “A Gentleman Instructed In The Conduct Of A Virtuous And Happy Life” by English Jesuit theologian and writer, William Darrell (1651 – 28 February 1721) was published. Originally printed by E. Evets at the Green Dragon in St. Paul’s church-yard in 1704, the later edition includes this:

Sneak into a corner … down at heels and out at elbows.

Somewhere between William Shakespeare’s time and William Darrell’s time, however, the idiom changed slightly to become down at heels. Before that, it was said that those living in impoverished conditions were out at heels. The idiom is found in Shakespeare’s tragedy, “King Lear” published in 1608. Those of you studied this play in school remember that the title character goes mad after he is betrayed by two of his three daughters and his ill-conceived decision to disown his third daughter. Kent, is a nobleman who disguises himself as a peasant, and gets himself into a fair bit of trouble thanks to his outspoken ways. In Act II Scene ii, Shakespeare wrote this exchange between Kent and Gloucester:

KENT
Pray, do not, sir: I have watched and travell’d hard;
Some time I shall sleep out, the rest I’ll whistle.
A good man’s fortune may grow out at heels:
Give you good morrow!

GLOUCESTER
The duke’s to blame in this; ’twill be ill taken.

Just a few years before that play, Shakespeare’s 1602 comedy “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” hit the stage (although it’s believed it was written in 1597). The play was a snapshot of English life in a provincial town and seems to be based on the 1558 Italian play Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino.  In Act I, Scene iii, the following dialogue takes place:

NYM
The good humour is to steal at a minute’s rest.

PISTOL
‘Convey,’ the wise it call. ‘Steal!’ foh! a fico
for the phrase!

FALSTAFF
Well, sirs, I am almost out at heels.

PISTOL
Why, then, let kibes ensue.

FALSTAFF
There is no remedy; I must cony-catch; I must shift.

PISTOL
Young ravens must have food.

The expression goes back further than that even. When Elizabethan poet and dramatist, Thomas Dekker (1572 – 1632) wrote a play entitled, “North-Ward Hoe” in 1607.

DOLL: They fay Whores and bawdes go by clocks, but what Manafles is this to buy twelue houres fo deerely, and then bee begd out of ’em fo easily I heele be out at heeles shortly sure for he’s out about the clockes already : O foolifh young man how doest though fpend thy time?

But even in 1553, the expression was used in the book “The Art Of Rhetorique” authored by Sir Thomas Wilson (1520 – 1581). While Thomas Wilson was no stranger to the privilege of class, he had an interesting position from which to view the politics of class. At the time of the book’s publication, he was in the employ of Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk (widow of Charles Brandon who had been a close friend of Henry VII) as a tutor to her sons. It’s in this book that the idiom appears as out at heeles as shown in this passage:

Wherein me thinkes thei do like some rich snuges [misers] that havyng greate wealth, go with their hose [stockings] out at heeles, their showes [shoes] out at toes, and their coates out at both elbowes. For who can tell, if soche men are worth a grote [groat] when their apparell is so homelie, and al their behaviour so base? I can call them by non other name but slovens, that maie have good geare [clothes], and neither can nor yet will, ones [ever] weare it clenly. What is a good thing to a man, if he neither knowe the use of it, nor yet, though he knowe it, is hable [able] to use it?

For it to be used in this context in 1553, it is reasonable to believe that the term was an accepted figure of speech as early as 1500. Additionally, the word heel meaning the back of the foot became part of the English language some time during the 1400s and as such, once can assume that some time between 1400 and 1500, the idiom began to form.

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Make No Bones About It

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 6, 2012

When someone says they make no bones about what they’re about to say, what they’re trying to convey is that they are going to plainly state how they think or feel on a subject even though it might embarrass or offend others.  In other words, the speaker is about to be forthright and candid while giving his or her opinion to the audience at large.

The Rock Hill Herald ran a story on July 28, 1976 about Lawrence Paros of Providence, Rhode Island and author of the book “The Great American Cliché.”  He had moved to Rhode Island in 1971 to direct a federal learning program for high school students, however, he grew tired of what he referred to as working within the system, quit and began collecting clichés that became the basis of his book filled with 50,000 entries.  The newspaper article was entitled: 

Make No Bones About It, He’s The King Of Clichés

Back on June 16, 1902, the New York Times published an article dealing with the beet sugar Senators, the United States government’s Reciprocity bill and a rebate of between twenty and fifty percent.  In the end, the government would not yield to the Senators’ demands and the newspaper reported that one Senator stated the following:

“It threatens beet sugar men with ostracism if we do not abandon the plan of Cuban relief to which he told us time and time again he would make no objection.  Even now, in spite of his message, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d sign a rebate bill and make no bones about it.”

In Part II: Chapter VIII of the book “The Idiot” written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (11 November 1821 – 9 February 1881) which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger in 1868 and 1869 – and translated by Frederick Whishaw for publication in 1887, the author wrote:

“As to the article,” said Hippolyte in his croaking voice, “I have told you already that we none of us approve of it! There is the writer,” he added, pointing to the boxer, who sat beside him. “I quite admit that he has written it in his old regimental manner, with an equal disregard for style and decency. I know he is a cross between a fool and an adventurer; I make no bones about telling him so to his face every day. But after all he is half justified; publicity is the lawful right of every man; consequently, Burdovsky is not excepted. Let him answer for his own blunders. As to the objection which I made just now in the name of all, to the presence of your friends, I think I ought to explain, gentlemen, that I only did so to assert our rights, though we really wished to have witnesses; we had agreed unanimously upon the point before we came in. We do not care who your witnesses may be, or whether they are your friends or not. As they cannot fail to recognize Burdovsky’s right (seeing that it is mathematically demonstrable), it is just as well that the witnesses should be your friends. The truth will only be more plainly evident.”

The expression hasn’t been used as often as one might think, however in the book “Paraphrase Of Luke” by Desiderius Erasmus and translated into English by Nicholas in 1548, the command given to Abraham with regards to sacrificing his son, Isaac, is given as:

He made no bones about it but went to offer up his son.

Going back almost another 100 years, the Paston Letters reveal that a version of the expression was used in a letter written in 1459.   For those who may not know about the Paston Letters, it is a collection of letters and papers, consisting correspondence from members, friends and acquaintances of the Paston family, written between 1422 and 1509.  In 1459, a dispute arose between Paston and Sir John Fastolf’s family.  When the verdict in the case was rendered with no objection from either side, Paston wrote:

And fond that tyme no bonys in the matere.
Translation:  and found that time no bones in the matter

This is a significant passage since the expression during the 1400s was that people were making bones about things which indicated that people were raising a fuss over things.  There’s some discussion that the original expression relates to soups with bones in them, with implication being that soups with bones in them were unpleasant to swallow.

In any case, the fact that the expression was already in common usage, having found a place in Paston’s letter of 1459, indicates that the expression is most likely from at least two generations before it was used. This puts the saying to at least 1400.

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Dutchman’s Log

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 20, 2011

A Dutchman’s log is an early speed measuring device that used a buoyant object — usually a large piece of wood — tossed overboard near the bow of the vessel and assumed to be “dead” in the water.  The time it took for the boat to move past the object over a measured distance — based on marks near the bow and near the stern on the vessel — was timed.  From there, the speed of the vessel was calculated. As this was an early speed measuring device, it didn’t take into account the effects of wind and currents on the calculated position of the vessel.

Captain John Smith — he of Pocahontas fame — wrote a book entitled, “An Accidence or The Pathway to Experience Necessary for all Young Sea-men, or those that are desirous to goe to Sea” that was first published in London in 1626.  In this book, he makes mention of the Dutchman’s log.

According to the “Houghton Mifflin Guide to Science & Technology” the term Dutchman’s log was in use in 1575.  Two years later, Humphry Cole invented the ship’s log which kept track of a ship’s speed with respect to the water.  This invention was known as the log-and-line and consisted of a float attached to a line that was a specific length and that was paid out for a specific length of time.

In the end Idiomation tracked down that the Dutchman’s log was invented by Portuguese inventor, Bartolomeu Crescêncio, near the end of 15th century putting in the late 1400s.

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Printer’s Devil

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 10, 2011

While it’s been quite some time since the term printer’s devil may have been used, there was a time when the expression was quite common.  Back in the day, a printer’s devil was the errand boy in a printing establishment.  Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Lyndon B. Johnson all had jobs as a printer’s devil when they were young lads.  In time, any errors that were found in print were referred to as a printer’s devil and so a printer’s devil also came to mean mistakes in the printed media.

On August 15, 2010 the Sunday Observer in Sri Lanka published a weekly column by Edwin Ariyadasa entitled, “Sunday Monologue.”  In that particular column, the following is found:

In some instances, the impish printer’s devil slinks past the keen eye of the editors, and gets embedded in the text of a column. On one glaring occasion, this miscreant was at work, on my column titled “World without Sir Arthur C.”  The mischievous printer’s devil, detected a letter I quoted. It was written by Sir Arthur C. on my 85th birthday. It began with the routine Dear Edwin. Resenting this endeavourment, the terrible imp, Printer’s Devil turned it with “Deer Ediwn.”

On January 19, 1954 the Calgary Herald ran this obituary about retired Senator William Henry Dennis who had passed away suddenly at the age of 66.  The obituary read in part:

Senator Dennis was appointed to the Senate in 1932 by Rt. Hon. R. B. Bennett, former Conservative prime minister.  He joined the Halifax Herald when he was 12 years old as a printer’s devil and worked his way in managing director and then publisher.  He returned to Ottawa Sunday night from his home in Halifax for resumption of Senate sittings tonight.  He died at his Ottawa residence.

On October 23, 1902 the Fielding Star newspaper for Kiwitea and Oroua counties in New Zealand ran a story entitled, “Church And The Press.”  The story addressed the Church Congress, the opening address by the Right Reverend Dr. Harmer and newspapers.  The following is found in this news report:

After this excellent tribute, the Congress was prepared to join with interest in a debate on “Church and Press,” when the first speaker was an Adelaid Pressman, Mr. W. J. Sowden, who declared himself and his brethren to be emphatically on the side of the angels.  “Although there is a printer’s devil in the newspaper office, there is also a chapel,” said Mr. Sowden, and a clergyman quoted, “When God erects a house of prayer, the devil builds a chapel there.”

Slipped between serious news stories in the January 18, 1853 edition of the British Colonist and North American Railway Journal was a 4-line poem signed quite simply, Printer’s Devil.  The poem, in its entirety is reproduced here.

A dollar a year, said Dick for the Sun,
Isn’t that cheap? — young son of a gun!
As “cheap as dirt” — said I with a quiz
And so it should be, for dirt it is.

In the song “Ode To The Printer’s Devil” composed by Ned Ward in June 1823, the author states that it is “an ode founded on fact” and is written for the printer’s devil “who brought me a proof to be corrected, and who fell asleep while it was undergoing correction: — being.”

On January 3, 1791 the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer ran a story in which the expression “printer’s devil” is used and again a year later on May 7, 1792 in an obituary for Reverend John Lewis, Pastor a church in Wethersfield.

The first printer — as well as the first retailer of printed books — in England was translator and publisher, William Caxton (1422 – 1492) whose first book printed in England was the self-published, “Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres” on November 18, 1477.  But this was not his first shot at being a printer.  Because “[his] pen became worn, [his] hand weary, [his eye dimmed” he decided to set up a press in Bruges in 1473. 

At the time, the printing industry was in its infancy and it was significantly influenced by German printing.  The first book produced by William Caxton at this press and printed in English was ” Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye” in 1474, followed by “The Game And Playe Of The Chesse” published in 1476.  He published most of the English literature available in his day including Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

As a side note, Chaucer imported printing blocks and letters from Germany where there was no “the” sound.  To solve the problem of the non-existent “th” he placed the letter “y” in its place.  And so, “the” appeared as “ye” in published works and the practice of using “y” in place of “th” continued for another 200 years until publishers finally used “th” where “th” was meant to be used.

Rumour has it that he had an apprentice whose last name was Deville.  Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find proof that such an individual apprenticed under Caxton.  What Idiomation can confirm is that somewhere in the 300 years between William Caxton‘s death and the phrase appearing in a newspaper story in Connecticut in 1791, the printer’s devil was born.

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Beat About The Bush

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 2, 2011

When you hear someone say, “Don’t beat around the bush” they want the other person to cut to the chase and say exactly what he means to say.  This usually happens when at least one person involved in the conversation would rather avoid talking about a difficult or embarrassing subject rather than address it directly.

Avoiding the awkward play on words between the phrase and former Presidents George H. W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush — and there were plenty such references in the media over the decades — Idiomation found the phrase used as part of a news headline in the March 28, 1940 edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle.  The article spoke about the Cromwell incident in Canada and the Surits affair in Paris, and how diplomats appear to sometimes be too forward and direct with their comments, running the risk of offending those with whom they are speaking.

They Didn’t Beat About The Bush

On November 13, 1905 the Boston Evening Transcript published a news story entitled, “More Southern Revolt Against Disfranchisement” dealing with Georgia which has stayed out of the disfranchisement movement while maintaining “white supremacy.”  The article reported on comments made by Hoke Smith, former secretary of the interior in the second Cleveland administration.

Mr. Smith has the candor of his convictions.  He says he is “in favor of passing a State law to disfranchise the Negro.”  He does not beat about the bush; nor is he affected by the consideration that the Constitution of the United States stands in the way of his project with its prohibition of the denial and abridgment of the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”  Perhaps he thinks that the Constitution does not interest the Georgians.

In Chapter 19 of Mark Twain‘s book, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” published in 1889,  this comment is made by Hank Morgan, a 19th century resident of Hartford, CT who, after being rendered unconscious by a blow to the head, wakes up to find himself in medieval England.  He undertakes an adventure with a girl named Sandy and as they travel, he says at one point:

“There’s no use in beating about the bush and trying to get around it that way, Sandy, it’s SO, just as I say. I KNOW it’s so. And, moreover, when you come right down to the bedrock, knight-errantry is WORSE than pork; for whatever happens, the pork’s left, and so somebody’s benefited anyway; but when the market breaks, in a knight-errantry whirl, and every knight in the pool passes in his checks, what have you got for assets? Just a rubbish-pile of battered corpses and a barrel or two of busted hardware. Can you call THOSE assets? Give me pork, every time.  Am I right?”

In Chapter 7 of Charles Dicken‘s book, “The Old Curiosity Shop” published in 1840, this comment is made to Dick Swiveller about a young lady by the name of Nell Trent.

“The girl has strong affections, and brought up as she has been, may, at her age, be easily influenced and persuaded. If I take her in hand, I will be bound by a very little coaxing and threatening to bend her to my will.  Not to beat about the bush (for the advantages of the scheme would take a week to tell) what’s to prevent your marrying her?”

The expression has its origins in the hunting days of medieval times.  Noblemen would routinely employ young men to do the dangerous work of flushing animals out of the undergrowth so the nobleman could make his kill.  The best way of accomplishing this was for the young men to go into the bushes with a wooden board and stick to make noise.  The noise would hopefully frighten the animal out of the bushes and in the direction of the waiting nobleman.

Of course, this wasn’t always the best option as sometimes animals such as wild boar would become dangerous and charge in the direction of the noise.  This made young men reluctant to enter areas of dense undergrowth in case they happened to disturb a wild boar.  To circumvent this danger while still appearing to the noblemen to be doing their jobs, the young men would sometimes literally beat around the bush.  The problem with this was that while they were basically doing the job they were to do, they were avoiding the main point of the activity altogether.

This activity and the phrase are attested to in the works of  George Gascoigne (1535 – 1577) published in a poem from 1572 that reads in part:

brother Trsjiiti eke, that gemme of gentle deedes.
To thinke bowe he abused was, alas my heart it bleedes:
He bet about the bushe, whiles other caught the birds …

Generydes: A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas”  a medieval poem published in 1440 has this to say about the practice of beating the bushes in order to flush out birds while also alluding to things less literal:

Euer wayteng whanne the lavender shuld bryng
That she promysed att hir departeng.
Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take,
And wheder that I be on of thoo or noo,
I me reporte onto the letterys blake
And reasons wish it may not be forsake
He that entendith villany of shame
it is no synne to quyte hym with the same.

That the expression is found in a poem from 1440 indicates that the phrase was a common phrase used by everyday people and one can guess that the phrase dates back at least one generation to approximately the 1410s.

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