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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 16th Century’ Category

You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It

Posted by Admin on May 29, 2021

When it’s not possible to have two good things at the same time, especially two things that aren’t possible to have together, people usually say you can’t have your cake and eat it. The idiom is an example of the price that opportunity throws into any situation, and underscores that you cannot both have and not have something at the same time.

The expression has been around for generations, and for this reason, Idiomation chose to jump back about 150 year to see if it was used back then. We weren’t surprise to find it in a number of places.

On 28 April 1872, English art critic, watercolorist, author, poet, and philosopher John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) wrote a letter to his friends that began with questions about the Pope blessing the marriage of the Marquis of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart (12 September 1847 – 9 October 1900) to his romantically and politically beloved Duchess of Norfolk, Gwendolen Fitzalan-Howard (21 February 1854 – 15 January 1932). In his letter, he wrote:

Abstinence may, indeed, have its reward, nevertheless; but not by increase of what we abstain from, unless there be a law of growth for it, unconnected without abstinence. “You cannot have your cake and eat it.” Of course not; and if you don’t eat it, you have your cake; but not a cake and a half!

The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent newspaper of h, South Yorkshire (England) devoted a large swath of space in the 17 April 1872 edition to report on the wedding that had taken place the day previous, and wedding guests. The wedding was by all accounts a large and fancy affair with Archbishop Monsignor Capel, Father Stanton, Father Gordon, and six other officiating clergymen required to perform the ceremony.

To add to the pomp of the occasion, the reporter listed the music performed in the Oratory, the composers of each piece — ranging from Gounod to Chopin — as well as the soloists and the conductor, Herr Schulthes. The names of members of the nobility who attended the wedding breakfast was also included which, as you can imagine, took up a considerable amount of space as well. Some of the weddings gifts (and the names of those who were responsible for those gifts) were also included in the article.

English naturalist and botanist, John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) included the idiom — albeit switched around — in his book, “A Complete Collection of Proverbs” published in 1742 as:

You can’t eat your cake, and have your cake.

The idiom was found in the “Dictionarium Brittanicum Or A More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary Than Any Extant” by English teacher, philologist and lexicographer Nathan Bailey (c. 1691 – 27 June 1742) published in 1730.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: In his dictionary, Nathan Baily was the first to include the origin of words from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; advice on pronounciation; hard and technical words found in the arts, sciences, and mysteries; and dialect, slang, and taboo words (something that was left out of most dictionaries until well into the 19th century).

In Anglo-Welsh poet John Davies (c. 1565 – 1 July 1618) of Hereford’s book, “The Scourge of Folly. Consisting of satyricall Epigramms, and others in honor of many noble and worthy Persons of our Land Together with a pleasant (though discordant) Descant vpon most English Prouerbes: and others” published in 1611, the proverb was written in two parts.

A man cannot eat his cake and have it still;
That may he, unless his retention be ill.

English playwright, poet, and writer John Heywood (c. 1565 – July 1618) included it in his book “A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue” published in 1546 with this variation:

What man, I trowe [= believe] ye rave.
Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?

The question as to whether someone could have their cake and eat it was asked in a letter from Tudor politician and nobleman Thomas Howard (c. 1473 – 25 August 1554), 3rd Duke of Norfolk, to Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485 – 28 July 1540), 1st Earl of Essex, and chief minister and advisor to King Henry VIII of England, on 14 March 1538. In his letter, Thomas Howard wrote:

The great sickness continues here, and I am banished by it from my two “starting holes,” Catellacre and Bongaye. I require you to send me, by this bearer, my will, which ye have sealed in a box. I must alter things therein, for my substance in money and plate is not so good now — a man can not have his cake and eat his cake. You thought you knew who would buy my manor of Walton, that was of the house of Lewes, at 40 years’ purchase, let me know his name and prick him to conclude for it. I am forced to sell muchland for lack of money, and divers are on hand with me to buy, with whome I would not meddle if I might sell Walton after that price.

Interestingly enough, an expanded version of the idiom is found in the spirit of the French idiom.

On ne peut pas avoir le beurre, l’argent du beurre, et la sourire de la crémière.
You cannot have the butter, the money from the sale of the butter, and the milkmaid’s attentions.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: While the English idiom uses what was a luxury item back in the day, the French idiom uses what was a commodity during that same time period.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to someone having their cake and eating it (or not eating it) prior to the letter to Thomas Cromwell from Thomas Howard, placing this idiom squarely in 1538.

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If Worse Comes To Worst

Posted by Admin on February 13, 2021

Last week, Idiomation took on the benefit of the doubt. The opposite to that is to assume the worst, and worse yet is if worse comes to worst! But where did the expression if worse comes to worst come from and what does it really mean?  It means if the worst that could possibly happen actually does happen, then you have gone from whatever your current situation is to an even worse situation. In fact, it’s gone to the very worst situation possible.

Now you may have heard the expression as if worse comes to worse and you may have heard the expression as if worst come to worst as well, and at the end of the day, the three expressions are mild variations of the other two.

In the July 2004 article “It’s The Economy, Right? Guess Again” published in the New York Times and written by Louis Uchitelle that addressed the issue of whether then-campaigning Senator John Kerry’s comments on an Administration under his leadership was sound. Considering what John Kerry had to say on cutting the deficit, budget surpluses, and recreating the economy of the Bill Clinton years, the journalist reported John Kerry’s words as spoken and presented them for the loud comments they were.

“Health care is sacrosanct,” Mr. Kerry said in a telephone interview, offering the most explicit commitment to date to a program that he estimates would cost $650 billion. That is an amount greater than the cost of all his other economic proposals combined.

“Listen,” he said, “if worse comes to worst, you make adjustments accordingly in other priorities.”

And not in health care? Mr. Kerry says that he will not have to face that choice, and that in his overall economic plan there is leeway for deficit reduction and expanded, subsidized health insurance.

The Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro (TN) ran an article in their 09 November 1941 edition with the expression. The interviewee was a man by the name of Sterling Owen ‘Dump’ Edmonds (28 March 1871 – 14 March 1954) and following in his father’s footsteps, he was a mastermind in mechanics.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Sterling’s father was more than just a mechanic in Eagleville. He also owned and operating a funeral home, a grist mill, a blacksmith shop, and a grain hauling business all at the same time.  He said in 1911 he got the idea to invent a trailer truck, and then he went ahead and built a trailer truck. Then he patented the idea in 1916. It was the kind of invention that interested the government, and because of that, his trailer truck idea was used by the U.S. Government during the first World War.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: In 1916, Sterling Edmonds filed a worldwide patent for a six-wheel truck. In 1917, Sterling Edmonds filed his patent for automotive towage. In 1932, he created the So-Easy Jacks for big trucks.  He also came up with a great many other inventions including a revolving sign with cylinders at filling stations, the automatic lipstick tube, hydraulic lifts for dump trucks, a revolving rural mailbox, milk coolers and insulated receptacles for milk bottles, and he suggested guardrails on roads.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Sterling Edmonds was married to Ethel Morrow whose uncle, Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel was the founder of the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg (TN).

When he was interviewed in 1941 by Mary B. Hughes for her article, “Eagleville Inventor of Trailer Truck Gave Patent to U.S. In World War I” he had this to say about his then-most recent invention the pressure pump, and the difficulties he had obtaining materials due to the war.

“But,” says Edmonds philosophically, “if worse comes to worst, I’ll dismiss it from my mind and invent something else.”

As yet, however, business at the Edmonds shop in the Eagleville community hasn’t felt the pinch of priorities. “My pumps are going at the rate of two a day and I have more orders than I can fill,” commented the crossroads Edison.

The idiom has been around quite some time, and is used by English trader, writer, pamphleteer and spy, Daniel Defoe (1660 – 24 April 1731) in his book “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” which was published on 25 April 1719. This passage is found in Chapter XIV titled, “A Dream Realised.”

I looked upon my present condition as the most miserable that could possibly be; that I was not able to throw myself into anything but death, that could be called worse; and if I reached the shore of the main I might perhaps meet with relief, or I might coast along, as I did on the African shore, till I came to some inhabited country, and where I might find some relief; and after all, perhaps I might fall in with some Christian ship that might take me in: and if the worst came to the worst, I could but die, which would put an end to all these miseries at once. Pray note, all this was the fruit of a disturbed mind, an impatient temper, made desperate, as it were, by the long continuance of my troubles, and the disappointments I had met in the wreck I had been on board of, and where I had been so near obtaining what I so earnestly longed for—somebody to speak to, and to learn some knowledge from them of the place where I was, and of the probable means of my deliverance.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: The first edition of Defoe’s book credited Robinson Crusoe as the author which, of course, led readers to believe Robinson Crusoe was real and that the book was a detailed accounting of true incidents that happened to Robinson Kreutznaer over the course of 28 years.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Defoe was a bit of a bad boy before publishing “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” His small business went bankrupt in 1692, and his political pamphleteering got him in so much trouble he was arrested and tried for seditious libel in 1703. This may explain why the first edition stated it was written by Robinson Crusoe.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: Defoe only began writing fiction once he turned 60. He died in London one day after the 12th anniversary of the publication of “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.”

Going back two more generations to English poet, translator, playwright, and literary critic, John Dryden (19 August 1631 – 12 May 1700) wrote “Sir Martin Mar-All, Or, The Geign’d Innocence: A Comedy” published in 1668. In Act II, Scene I, Lady Dupe and Mrs. Christian are speaking and the dialogue makes use of the idiom.

LADY DUPE
Therefore you desire his lordship, as he loves you, of which you are confident, henceforward to forbear his visits to you.

MRS. CHRISTIAN
But how, if he should take me at my word?

LADY DUPE
Why, if the worst come to the worst, he leaves you an honest woman, and there’s an end on’t: But fear not that; hold out his messages, and then he’ll write, and that is it, my bird, which you must drive it to: Then all his letters will be such ecstasies, such vows and promises, which you must answer short and simply, yet still ply out of them your advantages.

MRS. CHRISTIAN
But, madam! he’s in the house, he will not write.

Thomas Middleton (1580 – 4 July 1627) wrote the Jacobean play, “The Phoenix” which was performed at Court before King James on 20 February 1604. Middleton, along with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson, were among the most prolific and successful of playwrights during the time period.  In his play, “The Phoenix” in Act III, Scene I Proditor tells Phoenix his plan to pretend that the duke’s son plotted to murder the duke which will then allow Proditor’s men to murder the prince. From there things only go downhill! This prompts the inclusion of this in the dialogue:

The worst comes to the worst.

But it was in the pamphlet “Have With You to Saffron-Walden, Or, Gabriel Harveys Hunt Is Up” written by Thomas Nashe (November 1567 – 1601) printed in 1596 that has the first published version of the expression. It was written as a response to Gabriel Harvey’s 1593 pamphlet that attacked Thomas Nashe. To make it absolutely clear to any interested party who, specifically, Thomas Nashe wrote about, the author included Gabriel Harvey’s birthplace of Saffron Walden in the title.  In this instance, Nashe was comparing dying by drowning to dying by burning.

O, you must not conclude so desperate, for every tossing billow brings not death in the mouth of it; besides, if the worst come to the worst, a good swimmer may do much,
whereas fire rapit omnia secum, sweepeth clean where it seizeth.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: The pamphlet also includes a reference to the line Fee-fi-fo-fum and identifies it as an old rhyme with obscure origins back in 1596!

For Thomas Nashe to use the expression so easily in his pamphlet in 1596, it had to be an expression that was known and understood by those who read such pamphlets, and as such while the first published version is 1596, it’s a safe determination that the expression was around in the 1550s if not earlier.

In many ways, the expression if worse comes to worst brings to mind the idiom when push comes to shove which, it would appear, is the next idiom to be hunted down on Idiomation.

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To A T

Posted by Admin on March 13, 2018

The expression to a T or to a tee or to the tee means something has been done completely and perfectly, and is never written as to a tea which means something else entirely.

It’s a popular idiom even today and is often used in news articles such as the one in the New York Daily Times from 22 February 2011 titled, “Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos Are Getting Weaselly About Redistricting.” The issue was one of district lines being partisan, and those politicians not benefiting from the district lines were up in arms. Governor Mario Cuomo suggested an 11-member independent redistricting commission with a codicil that banned anyone involved in government or politics in the four previous years.

Cuomo’s bill is also backed with the threat of a veto if pols try to jam a new map through the bad old way. It fits to a T the reform pledge that former Mayor Ed Koch circulated during the campaign – signed by 138 of the state’s 212 legislators.

According to some, the tee in question refers to a tittle, which is a small mark in printing such as the dot over the lower case i and lower case j. However, that may or may not be the case.

According to dictionaries of the early 1900s, a tee was a mark set up in playing at quoits, pennystone, and other similar games. It was also a mark made in the ice at each end of a curling rink. These dictionaries reference the Harwood Dictionary of Sports first published in 1835. They also gave a passing nod to the nodule of earth that raised a ball in preparation of a drive when playing golf.

But the expression has nothing to do with sports or with T-squares when drafting, or with housings and couplings when dealing with valves or electricity, or with angles and tee sections when dealing with railways. It has nothing to do with the entrance to a beehive.

In 1840, John Dunlop (2 August 1789 – 12 December 1868), President of the General Temperance Union of Scotland and a partner in the legal firm of Stewart & Dunlop in Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland,  wrote a play titled, “The Temperance Emigrants: A Drama in Four Acts and in Prose.”

BLACKBIRD:
Now by the Jeremy Jupiter Olympicus, that clever wench will suit me to a tee. I must have her: she’s game to the heels, and will raise my fallen fortunes.

RUGBY:
Out upon you, Rattlesnake, out upon you, seed of the Cockatrice!

BLACKBIRD:
I shall speak to her about it, that’s flat. Thirty pounds, and credit will marry us yet, and bring back the furniture. It’s a sin to keep her any longer an Angelica.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1: The term Angelica was another way to say a woman was unmarried.

It was included in the play, “The Clandestine Marriage” written by English dramatist George Colman (April 1732 – 14 August 1794) and English actor, playwright, theater manager, and producer David Garrick (19 February 1717 – 20 January 1779), and published in 1766.  The play was a comedy of manners as well as a comedy of errors, and was inspired by pictures by William Hogarth.

MISS STERL
There I was deceived, Madam. I took all their whisperings and stealing into corners to be the mere attraction of vulgar minds; but, behold! their private meetings were not to contrive their own insipid happiness, but to conspire against mine. But I know whence proceeds Mr. Lovewell’s resentment to me. I could not stoop to be familiar with my father’s clerk, and so I have lost his interest.

MRS. HEIDEL
My spurrit to a T. My dear child! [kissing her] Mr. Heidelberg lost his election for member of parliament, because I would not demean myself to be slobbered about by drunken shoemakers, beastly cheesemongers, and greasy butchers and tallow-chandlers. However, Niece, I can’t help differing a little in opinion from you in this matter. My experience and fagucity makes me still suspect, that there is something more between her and that Lovewell, notwithstanding this affair Sir John.

Irish playwright George Farquhar (1677 – 1707) was a poor student whose clergyman father hoped would make something of himself. At 17, George Farquhar entered Trinity College in Dublin, but by the end of the school year, mostly because he failed to apply himself, he quit school and went out on his own to become a famous playwright.  He wrote many plays (after a spell as an actor) including one titled “Love And A Bottle” which he published in 1699.  He used the expression as we understand it to mean today.

ROEBUCK
Here, you sir, have you a note for one Roebuck?

PORTER
I had, sir; but I gave it him just now.

ROEBUCK
You lie, sirrah! I am the man.

PORTER
I an’t positive I gave it to the right person; but I’m very sure I did; for he answered the description the page gave to a T, sir.

In “The Humours and Conversations of the Town” by English antiquary, barrister at law, and writer James Wright (1643 – 1713) and published in 1693, the play is written in two dialogues. One is from the men’s perspective while the other is from the women’s perspective. author wrote:

All the under Villages and Towns-men come to him for Redress; which does to a T.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: In his “Country Conversations” published 1694, James Wright’s use of the colloquial word “mob” instead of “mobile” was thought to be too recent to be used when rendering a Horatian ode into English. This opinion did not dissuade James Wright from using the word.

In “The Menauchmi” by well-known ancient Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC – 184 BC), translated to Elizabethan English (the Elizabethan era ran from 1558 to 1603), and published in 1595.

Now I must post it again to Epidamnum, that I may tell you the whole tale to a T.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy Of Errors” was based on Titus Maccius Plautus’ comedy, “The Menauchmi.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Epidamnum was a place, not a person, and the location is mentioned in William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” In Shakespeare’s play, Aegeon is a Sicilian merchant in Syracuse who has to go to Epidamnum on the Adriatic after the death of his manager. Except Shakespeare, in true Hollywood tradition (long before Hollywood was a glimmer on the horizon), moved the action to Ephesus, most likely as his audience was more familiar with St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians than with anything that went on in Epidamnum.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: Titus Maccius Plautus’ play “The Menauchmi” was the inspiration for “The Boys From Syracuse” by Rodgers and Hart. Several other plays written by him were combined to become “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” by Stephen Sondheim.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 6: Titus Maccius Plautus wrote 130 pieces, 21 of which survived through to modern times.

Idiomation was unable to find a published version of the expression prior to the Elizabethan translation of Titus Maccius Plautus’ play. For it to be used to easily in this translation with the expectation that it would be understood by the play’s audience, Idiomation dates this to at least one generation before the translation was published.

This means to a T is from the 16th century, mostly likely from the 1560s or 1570s, although the sense of the expression obviously is found in the Plautus’ play which dates back to Ancient Rome.

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Naked Truth

Posted by Admin on February 13, 2018

When someone says they want the naked truth, what they are looking for is a complete and unembellished version of the facts.

There’s an old Roman fable that tells the tale of Truth and Falsehood. While Truth was swimming in the river, Falsehood stole his clothes and left behind different clothes for Truth to wear. Rather than put someone else’s clothes on, Truth made the decision to go naked instead. In other words, he would rather be his authentic naked self.

From this fable came the expression nudaque veritas or, in English, the naked truth. The concept of the naked truth is from Ancient Rome, and quite likely much earlier.

The phrase has been used in a great many novels, movies, and television series. There was the 1914 silent Italian film as well as the 1957 British comedy film and the 1992 American comedy film. In the 1915 silent movie “Hypocrites” there was a character known as the Naked Truth.  There were a number of music CDs from such artists as Lil’ Kim in 2005, Sarah Hudson in 2005, Jeanette in 2006, and others. There’s even a quartet in Atlanta (GA) called the Naked Truth!

There was a Russian television program hosted by Svetlana Pesotskaya named The Naked Truth and an American television sitcom starring American actress Téa Leoni from 1995 to 1996 on ABC and from 1996 t0 1998 on NBC.  There’s a Naked Truth statue in St. Louis (MO) that stands as a memorial to three German-American newspaper men: Carl Schurz, Emil Pretorius, and Carl Daenzer.

There’s even a cellphone app by that name!

But when was the exact phrase naked truth first published in English?

Many sources allege the phrase was first published by Scottish Jacobean courtier and poet from the court of King James VI Alexander Montgomerie (1550 – 22 August 1598), and that it was first included in his best known poem “The Cherrie and the Slae” which was written sometime in 1584 although it was completed in 1597. The poem’s existence is based on the fact that a passage was found in James VI’s manifesto “Some Reulis and Cautelis to be Observit and Eschewit in Scottis Poesie” in late 1584. The phrase was used in this section of the poem.

Which thou must (though it grieve thee) grant
I trumped never a man.
But truely told the naked trueth,
To men that meld with mee,
For neither rigour, nor for rueth,
But onely loath to lie.

It also appeared in “Faultes, faults, and nothing else but faultes” by English author and soldier (he fought in Queen Mary’s war with France, 1557 to 1558) Barnabe Rich (1540 – 10 November 1617) and published in 1606. This implies the phrase was already known to the public.

A naked tale doth most truly set forth a naked truth, and verity then shines most brightly, when she is in least bravery.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Barnabe Rich was a distant relative of Lord Chancellor Rich.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Barnabe Rich’s book “Farewell to Militarie Profession” published in 1581 was the source for Wiliam Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.”

It also appeared in a letter to the right Honorable Sir William West, Knight and Lord De la Warre written by English writer, poet, dramatist, and courtier John Lylie (1553 – 27 November 1606) and published as “Eupheus” subtitled “The Anatomy of Wit: Verie pleasaunt for all Gentlemen to Read, and Most Necessarie to Remember” on 5 December 1578 — six years before Alexander Montgomerie included the phrase in his poem.

If thefe thinges be true, which experience trieth, that a naked tale doeth soft truelye fet soorth the naked trueth, that where the countenaunce is faire, there need no colours, that painting is meeter for ragged walls than fine marble, that veritie then shineth most bright when fhe is in leaft brauerie, I fhall fatiffie mine ovvne minde, thought I cannot feed their humors, which breatly feeke after thofe that fift the fineft meale, and beare the whiteft mouthes.

Now both naked and truth date back in English to the 14th century, with the word truth meaning correctness and accuracy from the 1560s, and naked meaning what it means today. This indicates the expression naked truth dates back to the 1560s (making it the 16th century) for it to have been used in 1578 with an expectation readers would understand what the expression meant.

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Mountain Out Of A Molehill

Posted by Admin on October 17, 2017

As Idiomation shared on Thursday of last week, making a mountain out of a moleskin or a molehill is to over-react to a minor issue, or to make something very small into something bigger than what it happens to be. While the moleskin version has a short history, the better-known molehill version stretches much farther back in history.

We all know the expression to make a mountain out of a molehill is in use to this day. Whether it’s Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. writing an article for Psychology Today (13 December 2013, How To Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill) or Laura Cano Mora submitting her doctoral thesis titled, “How To Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill: A Corpus-Based Pragmatic and Conversational Analysis Study of Hyperbole In Interaction” everyone seems to understand the meaning of the phrase.

Even kids watching cartoons like “Phineas and Ferb” have heard the saying used in episodes such as “At The Car Wash” when the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz explains to Perry the Platypus how he came up with the idea for his Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill-Inator.  It would seem that after he was told repeatedly by people from all walks of life (from his parents to the firefighters at the local Fire Department) to stop making mountains out of molehills, he decided that if he wasn’t already doing that, maybe it was time he started really doing that.  So he did.

English novelist, playwright, and short story writer Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) published his 1868 mystery novel “The Moonstone” to great acclaim.  In this novel, at one point Superintendent Seegrave says to Sergeant Cuff:

There is such a thing as making a mountain out of a molehill.

The point of his comment was that the Superintendent was of the opinion the Sergeant was making way too much of something as trivial as a tiny paint smudge on the door. He was wrong, of course, as that tiny paint smudge on the door proved very important after all.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1: Wilkie Collins was the son of English landscape painter William Collins (1788 – 1847) and is considered the pioneer of detective fiction. His talent lay in his ability to create, choreograph, and master intricate plots coupled with a unique narrative technique.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Wilkie Collins’ book “The Moonstone” set the standard by which all other detective fiction is measured. In this novel, the story was told from a number of points of view having to do with a stolen diamond taken from an Indian idol.

But the expression dates all the way back to 1548 when English playwright, cleric, and schoolmaster Nicholas Udall (1504 – 23 December 1556) used it in his work titled, “The First Tome or Volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus Upon the New Testament.”  What he wrote was this:

The Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill.

The idiom to which Nicholas Udall referred was from Greek satirist Lucian (120 – 200 AC) in his work “Ode To A Fly” in which he compared an elephant to a fly. The Latin version of this was elephantem ex musca facere.  Of course, as was shared in a previous Idiomation entry, the elephant version is still in use in Russia to this day.

IMPORTANT NOTE 3: Lucian, also known as Lucian of Samosata, was a satirist and rhetorician in Greece. He claimed to be an Assyrian however not everyone agreed with his claim. He mocked superstitions, religious practices, and beliefs in the paranormal although he claimed to believe in the existence of the gods.  

So while the moleskin version of this expression only dates back to the early 1900s, the molehill version is solidly nailed to 1548 with a nod to Ancient Greece. Oh, what a difference 350 or so years (plus another 110 or so years to catch up to 2017) can make when it comes to similar, and yet very different, expressions.

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The Half Of It

Posted by Admin on August 3, 2017

Idioms don’t always mean the same thing from century to century.  In fact, these days when someone says another person doesn’t know or hasn’t seen the half of it, this usually means the situation is far worse than what most people can imagine it to be.  The key part of either phrase is what the half of it happens to be.

The more negative aspect of the expression is something that came about as part of the 20th century.  Until then, the half of it was most often a positive comment, although there were instances where it was also meant as a negative comment.  However, the half of it does mean there’s more to something than what meets the eye – or the expectations – of the person commenting.  In other words, the half of it falls short of the reality of the situation, and hasn’t addressed the most important aspect.

In 1999, Julienne Davis was tapped to play the role of Mandy, a drug-addicted prostitute in the movie, “Eyes Wide Shut” starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.  The role was a small one but one that left an impact on the storyline.  Charlotte O’Sullivan reviewed the movie in the Culture section of the Independent newspaper in the UK.  The headline read, “Film: Body Of Evidence” with this subtitle:  “In Eyes Wide Shut, Abigail Good Play A ‘Mysterious Woman.’  But That’s Not The Half Of It.”

Volume 72 of “Foundry” magazine published in 1944 by Penton Publishing Company.  The magazine published articles on foundry and die-casting manufacturing industry on metal casting technology, production processes, investment casting, and more.  In this issue, the following was written.

In other words — and probably other words are needed — you don’t know the half of it. For the past 5 years I have been teaching foundry practice. Stressing skills and the related subjects has been a hobby and at the same time a religion.

British prose writer P.G. Wodehouse saw Herbert Jenkins in London (UK) and Doubleday (US) publish his book “Hot Water” on 17 August 1932.  His career hit at the same time as the silver screen began to be a marvel of technology with dove-tailed with his success with magazines.  The story dealt with J. Wellington Gedge who somehow found himself caught up in a number of international situations, many of which upset him to no end.  In this book, the phrase appears as follows.

‘Do you now?’ he said. ‘Well, well!’  ‘Yessir. Mrs Gedge insisted on renting it. and I wouldn’t give you a nickel for the place. It makes me sick.  And that’s not the half of it.’  ‘No?’  ‘No, sir. Do you know what?’  ‘What?’

‘When she told me this morning, you could have knocked me down with a feather. What do you think?’

‘What?’

‘You’ll never guess.’

‘What?’

‘Do you know what she told me this morning?’

‘How the hell should I know what she told you this morning?’ said Mr. Slattery, momentary irritation causing him to deviate from his policy of courtliness. ‘Do you think I was hiding under the bed?’

‘She told me I’ve got to be American Ambassador to France.’

Mr. Slattery considered this.

‘You won’t like that.’

‘I know darned well I won’t like it. Ambassadors have to wear uniforms and knickerbockers . . . the sissies.’

There are countless examples of the half of it, including a letter written in 1571 by Scottish historian and humanist scholar George Buchanan (February 1506 – 28 September 1582) in his condemnation of Mary, Queen of Scots.  At the time, he was convinced that the death of her husband was as a crime of passion brought on many liaisons he claimed the Queen had with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell  (1534 – 14 April 1578) who, he claimed, was also involved in the demise of the king consort Henry Stuart (7 December 1545 – 10 February 1567), Duke of Albany, known as Lord Darnley.

This is my fayth I wyll die in it. Excuse if I writ euill, ye may gesse the halfe of it, but I can not mende it because I am not weill at ease, and yit very glad to writ vnto you quhen the rest are sleepand, sithe I can not sleipe as thay do and as I would desire, that is, in your armes my deare loue, quhom I pray God to preserue from all euyll and send you repose, I am gangand to seke myne till the morne quhen I shall end my Bybill, but I am fascheit that it stoppies me to write newis of my self vnto you, because it is so lang.

SIDE NOTE 1:  James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, became the third and final husband of Mary, Queen of Scots when they wed on 15 May 1567 in the Chapel of Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. 

SIDE NOTE 2:  To free himself to marry the Queen, he filed for divorce from his wife, Lady Jean Gordon (1546 – 14 May 1629) on grounds of consanguinity, although this required considerable research on his part to prove.  Lady Jean Gordon, however, secured a divorce on grounds of adultery with her maid and seamstress, Bessie Crawford.

SIDE NOTE 3:  Lady Jean Gordon was the daughter of the 4th Earl of Huntly and Elizabeth Keith, and after her divorce from James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, she became the Countess of Sutherland when she married Alexander Gordon, 12th Earl of Sutherland on 13 December 1573.

The expression the half of it has its roots in the earlier expression by half which means by a great deal, which is attested to its use in verse by Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (477 – 525) known simply as  Boethius .  He was influenced by the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca the Younger, and Augustine of Hippo.

To all folk likewise
This next example no less suits:
The comb of the honey cannot but seem
To each son of men sweeter by half,
If he have tasted before the honey
Aught that is bitter.

SIDE NOTE 4:  The translation of verses by Boethius from Latin to English was undertaken and completed by King Alfred (849 – 26 October 899).  He was also known as Alfred the Great, and ruled England from 21 April 871 until his death on 26 October 899.  During his reign, he improved the legal and military structures in England, and advocated for education to be taught in English.

SIDE NOTE 5:  Half at this point in history did not necessarily mean something was divided into two equal parts.  It simple meant divided in two where one part could be the same, smaller, or larger than the other part.

The word half is Old English and came from the Saxon word healf which is from the Old Norse halfr.  Old English began with the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century.  As such Idiomation pegs the half of it to the early 1500s based on George Buchanan’s use of the phrase in his writings about Mary, Queen of Scots.

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Scotch The Wheels

Posted by Admin 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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Bold As Brass

Posted by Admin on June 14, 2016

When someone is bold as brass, it means they’re confident to the point of being impolite and disrespectful, and sometimes beyond that point.

In the Daily Mail edition of June 4, 2016 the Tatler Tory Scandal was the subject of the article, “Tatler Tory’s Threats At Baroness’s Carlton Club Drinks Party.”  Written by the Political Editor for the Daily Mail, Simon Walters, it addressed the claim that David Cameron’s election aide, Mark Clarke, had, among other things, caused an uproar at a party hosted by Baroness Pidding on September 7, 2015.  The idiom was used by in the quote from Paul Abbott, the chief of staff to former Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps.

Mr. Abbott said Clarke had ‘walked up to her [the guest], bold as brass, and threatened her, saying he knew the names of at least two CWF volunteer who had made complaints [against Clarke to the Tory HQ inquiry].’

Part VII of “The Baby’s Grandmother” by Scottish novelist L.B. (Lucy Bethia) Walford (17 April 1845 – 11 May 1915) was published in the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine (Volume 135) of April 1884.  Ms. Walford wrote forty-five books, most of them light-hearted domestic comedies, including this one.  The idiom was used Part VII as follows.

“Oh, it’s all right, ma’am, it’s quite within the limits, I believe,” rejoined Mr Tufnell, who had learned much within the last half-hour; “it took me rather aback, I own, at the first blush, but — well, well, we must not be too particular to-night.  And to return to Miss Juliet Appleby –“

“And not a bit ashamed of herself!” murmured the lady, still dubiously scanning the gay vivandière, “skipping and twirling as bold as brass.”

“Eh? What?” cried her companion, pricking up his ears.  “As bold as brass, did you say? Who’s as bold as brass?”

“That flibbertigibbet Mary –“

Just as with the word cattywampus, the idiom bold as brass was used in Charles Dickens’ book, “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.”  Chapter 27 (where the idiom appears) is prefaced with this statement:  Showing that old friends may not only appear with new faces, but in false colours.  That people are prone to Bite, and that biters may sometimes be bitten.

‘Why, you’re as bold as brass!’ said Jonas, in the utmost admiration.

‘A man can well afford to be as bold as brass, my good fellow, when he gets gold in exchange!’ cried the chairman, with a laugh that shook him from head to foot. ‘You’ll dine with me to-morrow?’

‘At what time?’ asked Jonas.

‘Seven. Here’s my card. Take the documents. I see you’ll join us!’

‘I don’t know about that,’ said Jonas. ‘There’s a good deal to be looked into first.’

‘You shall look,’ said Montague, slapping him on the back, ‘into anything and everything you please. But you’ll join us, I am convinced. You were made for it. Bullamy!’

George Parker’s book “Life’s Painter of Variegated Characters in Public and Private Life” published in 1789, appears to be the first published example of the idiom.

“He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.”

In the 1570s, a person who was without modesty and who showed no shame for bad behavior was called brass.  Boldness wasn’t included in the description of such a person, but obviously someone without modesty and without shame would be perceived as being bold in their bad behavior.  What this means is that for at least two hundred years, some people were bold as brass but it wasn’t expressed that way in print until 1789.

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The Dickens

Posted by Admin on December 10, 2015

Whether it’s something you have a dickens of a time doing or something is happening like the dickens, most people don’t give a second thought as to what the dickens are in the first place.  What people do know is that the dickens seems to mean a lot.

The Chicago Tribune ran an article on December 8, 2015 titled, “How Kitchen Tools Revolutionized American Cooking” written by Megan McArdle.  The article began with introducing readers to centenarian Chuck Williams who passed away on December 5.  Were it not for his trip to France in the 1950s, many of the fancy kitchen gadgets that are part of the kitchen arsenal may not have found their way into American kitchens as early as they did.  In the article, the writer shared this with readers:

I mean, yes, I know how to chop onions just fine. But doing so makes me cry like the dickens, unless I wear goggles.

A little over a hundred years ago, the idiom was found in literature including Issue No. 604 of the Secret Service series titled, “The Bradys’ Chinese Clew or The Secret Dens of Pell Street” by A New York Detective (that was the only identity given the author” and published August 19, 1910.  The publisher, Frank Tousey, was located in Union Square in New York City.  The words were used in this passage:

“Sit down,” replied Old King Brady.  “You are terribly wet, my boy.”
“Yes, it’s raining like the dickens.”
“Won’t you have something to eat?  A cup of coffee.  You get good coffee here.”
The boy sat down with a shudder.

In 1852, London publishers, Hope and Co., on Great Marlborough Street, published a book by the author Eireeneespaid’ published a book with an equally strange title, “Eireeneespaid’ Agathoontegigantaisophilos, the Good Natured Giant.”  This passage in the story used the dickens three times to make its point.

Absorbed in his own thoughts, he struggled on unconscious for a little while, though something or other, ever and anon, gave a nudge at the calf of his leg.  The outward man at length gave the alarm.  “What the dickens?” (it was an old expression of surprise handed down from his ancestors, but without any explanatory note or comment) “what the dickens?”  He put his hand to his attacked calf; it was a fat calf, a very fat calf, of course, Mr. Jarvis being a very fat man.  There was tangibly a sort of slimy moisture on the surface, “What the dickens?”

Some will insist that the idiom has to do with English writer and social critic, Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) but history easily disproves this.  Even if one disregards what Eireeneespaid’ wrote in his book in 1852, it’s difficult to believe that the idiom was an oblique reference to Charles Dickens.

Yes, it’s true that he wrote and published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 and that the last name of the story’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is used to describe miserly people, the same cannot be said of Charles Dickens’s last name.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  In 1840 the U.S. Federal Census Data showed that Dickens families were found mostly in Tennessee and New York.  By 1920, the Dickens families were found mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina.  The dickens you say!

In Volume 2 of “The Humourist: Being Essays Upon Several Subjects” in the essay titled, “Of Hopers” the idiom is used.  The book, published in 1725, predates Charles Dickens’s birth by nearly a century so it’s a fact that the dickens used in any form obviously has nothing to do with Charles Dickens.  The author of this collection of essays is identified as John Thomas Hope, however, he is also identified elsewhere as Thomas Gordon.

He would needs make me seat my self in his own Place within the Chimney, an Honour which I was at first determin’d to decline ; but I found him invincible in his Complaisance:  Pugh, said he, you are too modest,  Sir you don’t know me ;  what the Dickens!  Have not I been whip’d at the Cart’s Tail too?

In Cocker’s “English Dictionary” compiled by scrivener and engraver Edward Cocker (1631– 22 August 1676), identified as the late famous practitioner in Writing and Arithmetick, with the second edition published in 1715 by John Hawkins.  The first edition, published in 1704 also included the dickens.   The following definition is provided for the word dickens.

Dickens, a Corruption of Devilkins, or little Devils; as, the Dickens take you.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Edward Cocker was mentioned by Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) in 1664, who described him as “very ingenious and well read in all our English poets.”  When Edward Cocker died in 1675, it’s said that his last poem was titled, “Cocker’s Farewell To Brandy.”  The poem contained these lines:

Here lyes one dead, by Brandy’s might power,
Who the last quarter of the last flown hour,
As to his health and strength, was sound and well

In Act III, Scene ii in “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” by William Shakespeare (April 1564 – 23 April 1616) takes place on a street where Mistress Page and Robin (the page to Sir John Falstaff) are met by Ford (a gentleman living at Windsor).  The play was written in 1597 and published in 1602.

FORD
Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?

MISTRESS PAGE
Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?

FORD
Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company. I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.

MISTRESS PAGE
Be sure of that — two other husbands.

FORD
Where had you this pretty weather-cock?

MISTRESS PAGE
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?

ROBIN
Sir John Falstaff.

FORD
Sir John Falstaff!

Around the same time of Shakespeare’s play, the play “Edward The Fourth” by English playwright, actor, and author Thomas Heywood (1575 – 16 August 1641), published in 1599, also used the term.  In Act III, scene i, Hobs, the Tanner of Tamworth and the Duchess share this exchange.

HOBS
Do you demand what’s dear?  Marry, corn and cow-hides.  Mass, a good nug lass, well like my daughter Nell.  I had rather than a band of leather she and I might smouch together.

DUCHESS
Cam’st thou not down the wood?

HOBS
Yes, mistress; that I did.

DUCHESS
And sawest thou not the deer imbost?

HOBS
By my hood, ye make me laugh.  What the dickens?  Is it love that makes ye prate to me so fondly?  By my father’s soul, I would I had job’d faces with you.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the dickens, however, since it was used by both William Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood in their respective plays, it indicates that the dickens was common usage at the time.  This puts the dickens to at least the mid-1500s.

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From Pillar To Post

Posted by Admin 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.

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