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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 17th Century’ Category

Pleased As Punch

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 7, 2016

When you’re pleased as punch, you’re more than just happy, you’re very satisfied with the end results of a situation or accomplishment.  And who wouldn’t be?  After all, isn’t punch (as in the beverage served in a large bowl at gatherings) pleasing?  But wait a minute!  Is the punch of the expression pleased as punch the same punch as the punch found in a punch bowl?

Senator Hubert Horatio Humphrey (27 May 1911 – 13 January 1978) — and later on Vice-President of the United States of America — was particularly fond of saying he was pleased a punch.  In fact, he was so fond of the idiom that it was called his catch phrase.

However, back when Hubert Humphrey was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, newspapers began to use his catch phrase to paint him in a different way.  The Sarasota Herald-Tribune of March 12, 1972 published an article about his campaign, delighting readers with their description of Hubert Humphrey being a “tireless hand shaker, a skilled busser of babies, a man trying very hard to show that he’s still a viable leader.”  The opening paragraph said it all.

Sen. Hubert Horatio Humphrey of Minnesota is not saying he’s “pleased as punch” much anymore, but he is definitely in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Of course, this was followed up with pointing out that he had tried for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 and lost because he wasn’t much competition for the charming and charismatic John F. Kennedy.   The next comment was that he had won the nomination in 1968 and lost the election.  Oh my!  When his political life is framed in this way, there’s definitely a lot less to be pleased as punch over!

SIDE NOTE 1:  In the United Kingdom, insults and accusations are exchanged between rival members of Parliament, in what is referred to as “Punch and Judy politics.” Prime Minister David Cameron used the phrase in a speech he gave in 2005.

In the July 4, 1938 edition of Life magazine, the column “Life On The Newsfronts Of The World” led with a story about U.S. President Roosevelt.  Coming out of the Depression Era, things were looking up for America.  The New York Stock Exchange had recently posted six successive million-plus-shares days that say stock prices rise by fourteen percent.  The article began thusly:

Pleased as punch, President Roosevelt smiled contentedly into a battery of news cameras on the evening of June 24 as, according to custom, he posed for the press immediately before delivering his thirteenth fireside chat.

Roosevelt’s fireside chats — thirty in all — were first radio and then television addresses where the president spoke directly to Americans the way one imagined the president spoke with close friends.  The first one, on March 12, 1933 addressed the banking crisis after which public confidence was temporarily restored in some small measure.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Harry Butcher, a reporter for CBS News, coined the term “fireside chat” in time for Roosevelt’s address of May 7, 1933, and the term stuck, in large part because it was in keeping with the informality of Roosevelt’s addresses to the American public.

In Volume 121 of Harper’s Monthly Magazine published on June 1910 carried the story, “The Wild Olive” trumpeted as a novel by the author of “The Inner Shrine.”  Chapter XX titled, “Part IV: Conquest” opened with Evie and Miriam, and the situation of who Evie may or may not be engaged to — Herbert Strange or Norrie Ford.  Her uncle was of the opinion she was engaged to one and not the other, but Evie wasn’t so easily convinced.

“Well, I mean to be true to him — a while longer,” she said, at last, as if coming to a conclusion.  “I’m not going to let Uncle Jarrott think I’m just a puppet to be jerked on a string.  The idea!  When he was as pleased as Punch about it himself.  And Aunt Helen said she’d give me my trousseau.  I suppose I sha’n’t get that now.  But there’s the money you offered me for the pearl necklet.  Only I’d much rather have the pearl — Well, I’ll be true to him, do you see?  We’re leaving for Newport the day after to-morrow.  They say there hasn’t been such a brilliant summer for a long time as they expect this year.  Thank goodness, there’s something to take my mind off all this care and worry and responsibility, otherwise I should pass away.  But I shall show Uncle Jarrott that he can’t do just as he likes with me, anyhow.”

In Volume 2 of the book, “My Friend Jim” written by English novelist and short story author, William Edward Norris  (18 November 1847 – 1925) and published in 1886, the phrase comes up in a conversation between two friends discussing affairs of the heart as it has to do with a common friend of theirs, Beauchamp, and Lady Mildred (whose father is Lord Staines).  Chapter XVI begins by telling readers that murder will out, and that scandal (no matter how small) in time become public property despite all efforts to keep things quiet.  As the friends gossip about the situation at hand, the duplicity of relationships comes to light.

“Not yet; but he may do it any day.  In fact, it is quite certain that he has come here in order to do it.  He wrote to Lady Mildred, offering himself for a week, which he would hardly have done unless he had meant business.  From what he has let fall, I suspect that he has had a quarrel with Lady Bracknell, and has decided to cut himself off from her.  Old Staines is as pleased as Punch; he looks upon the thing as settled.  Harry, what the deuce am I to do?”

During this time period, pleased as Punch and proud as Punch were used interchangeably with the same meaning.  The Volume 38 of the “London Charivari” published on May 5, 1860, the poem, “The Little Man and the Little Plan, or, The New Reform Coach” is found.  The poem has no attribution, and so the poet’s name is unknown to readers.  What is known is that there was no love lost between the author and the Whigs in British parliament.

Proud as Punch, craned to catch the public praise, praise, praise,
But, to his great surprise, instead of cheers and cries,
Of “Bravo, Johnny Russell!” from the crowd, crowd, crowd,
All was scorn and sneer and scoff — “Throw him over!” “Pull him off!”

SIDE NOTE 3:  The “London Charivari” was also known by it’s other name — Punch magazine.

Charles Dickens himself used the expression in his 1854 novel, “Hard Times – For These Times” published in 1854.  It was the tenth novel by Charles Dickens, and the shortest of all the novels he wrote.  What’s more not one scene was set in London, having been set in the fictional town of Coketown (a generic milltown that was similar in some ways to Manchester as well as to Preston).  The novel was serialized in his weekly publication, “Household Words” between April 1854 and August 1854.

In Chapter VI, the action opens at Pegasus’s Arms, a public house in town. Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby arrive and, greeted by the young girl, Sissy, they are shown to a room where Sissy goes from room to room afterwards in search of her father, Signor Jupes.  It’s not long before they are joined by Mr. Childers and Master Kidderminster.

“When Sissy got into the school here,” he pursued, “her father was as pleased as Punch.  I couldn’t altogether make out why, myself, as we were not stationary here, being but comers and goers anywhere.  I suppose, however, he had this move in his mind — he was always half-cracked — and then considered her provided for.”

Miss Godfrey (half-sister of the husband of Anna May Chichester aka Lady Donegall who also corresponded with Thomas Moore) wrote a letter to Thomas Moore dated February 22, 1813 to Thomas Moore in which she described Bessy’s gown.  Interestingly enough, not only does she use the idiom pleased as Punch, she refers to the fact that poets use the expression as well!

We had a grand ball here the other night, and you cannot imagine the sensation that Bessy excited; her dress was very pretty, and ‘beautiful,’ ‘beautiful,’ was echoed on all sides.  I was (as the poet says) as pleased as Punch!

In Act I of “Secrets Worth Knowing: A Comedy In Five Acts” by English playwright, Thomas Morton (1764 – 28 March 1838), published in 1802, and performed at the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden, England the idiom appears near the beginning of the play.  The conversation is taking place between the valet, the butler, the coachman, the cook, and the footmen as the audience learns that the master they knew has died, and they await the arrival of his heir.

COACHMAN
I pulls with you, Mr. Valet — young master must in the main be glad, for we all know that the old gemman, seeing that he run skittish, kept him upon low provender beyond sea.  So my verdict is, Mr. Butler, that we all smiles agreeably.

BUTLER
So say I.  Dam’me, I’ll look as pleased as Punch, ha! ha!

VALET
Softly.  And will you, Sir, who have but thirty ponds a-year, dare to be as pleased at seeing your master, as I, who have fifty?  No, no — subordination is every thing.

The idiom pleased as Punch is found in William Gifford’s, “The Baviad, and Maeviad,” published in 1797.

Oh! how my fingers itch to pull thy nose! As pleased as Punch, I’d hold it in my gripe.

While the earliest published version of pleased as punch that Idiomation found was from 1797, the fact of the matter is that the spirit of the idiom dates back to the 1660s, and can be traced directly back to the Punch and Judy shows.  This is because many of the early references — whether it’s proud as Punch or pleased as Punch — capitalize the word Punch.  This means that the word Punch isn’t actually a word, but rather a proper name.

The Punch and Judy puppet shows began popping up across Britain just as the restoration of the English monarchy began in 1660.  Under the reign of Charles II (14 May 1660 – 1685) and that of his brother, James II (1685 – 1688), the English, Scottish, and Irish monarchies were restored under one rule.  Charles II was a supporter of the Punch and Judy shows, that in October of 1662, Charles II ordered a royal command performance at Whitehall in the Queen’s Guard Chamber.

One might say that Charles II was pleased as Punch with the performance as the creator of the Punch and Judy show, Signor Bologna alias Pollicinella, was rewarded by Charles II with a gold chain and medal, along with a gift worth £25 at the time (according to online calculators, they put the equivalent of that amount to £3,500 in 2015 currency).  With that level of compensation from a King of England, it would be a good guess that Signor Bologna was also pleased as Punch.

Punch the puppet delighted in hurting others and getting away with hurting others.  Every time he physically assaulted another character and got away with it, it came with Punch‘s catchphrase, “That’s the way to do it!” which was always done in a sing-song voice.   In other words, Punch was proud to have done what he did, and he was pleased with the outcome of his assaults.

SIDE NOTE 4:  Two other phrases that came from the Punch and Judy shows are punch line and slapstick.

SIDE NOTE 5:  May 9 is International Punch Day.

So while Idiomation was only able to trace the first published version of pleased as Punch to 1797, it’s a safe bet that the term was in use long before 1797.  Idiomation’s guess is that shortly after the Punch and Judy shows received great praise from Charles II, the idiom pleased as Punch came into being in conversational English, and then in written English.

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Argue With A Fence Post

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 13, 2015

Someone who would argue with a fence post is someone who enjoys arguing for argument’s sake.  In fact, they’re so argumentative and so stubborn that they don’t care who their opponent is.  Someone who will argue with a fence post is someone who will argue with anyone at any time … and sometimes with everyone all the time.

Robert Reno’s column in the News-Journal of November 18, 1993 took on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and what Bill Clinton was up to at the time.  While  he could have stated his position with more bite, he chose to say that Clinton’s first year as president taught Americans that their President was a master of the art of moving target politics.  The article titled, “Clinton A Moving Target” made good use of the idiom in this paragraph.

And where did they find him this week?  In their own bed, on NAFTA at least.  Clearly — unless he self-destructs from the weight of his own style — the Republicans are never going to defeat this guy by debating him.  That’s his briar patch.  He’d argue with a fence post.

The idiom was also used in an article in the “Lutheran Society for Worship, Music and the Arts” magazine published in 1961 by the University of Virginia.

Has the church neglected the Upper Ten?  We have.  We have piously sat back on our own justification by faith and said:  “Poor fellow! Just educated himself right out of his faith.  Read too much, heard too much, intellectualized too much.  I really feel sorry for him”; or “Well, after all, you can’t argue with a fence post, and he doesn’t want the truth; he only wants an argument.”

Philip Beaman published a book of idioms titled, “Eastern North Carolina Sayings: From Tater Patch Kin to Madder than a Wet Setting Hen” in February 2014.  For those who haven’t heard of the author, he comes from a family of nine children, and was raised on a tobacco farm in rural East North Carolina.  Despite holding four college degrees and having invested 35 years as an educator, he continues to live in rural North Carolina.  Philip Beaman’s book is filled with idioms he heard as a child.  Born in 1936, that means that what he heard was were established sayings members in the community understood in the 1940s including the one about arguing with a fence post.

It’s difficult to trace back this idiom although it’s considered to be primarily a southern expression.  That being said, Idiomation came at this challenge from the other direction.  What society understands a fence to be is found in legal documents in England as early as the 1600s, and the term as we understand it to mean, was used in laws that were made in Virginia beginning in 1631.

By 1646, fence laws were such that the legal definition of a lawful fence was one that was four and a half feet above ground and at least a half-foot below ground.  In other words, the fence, by law, had to be substantial at the bottom, and it had to be a sturdy fence.  Fence posts were to be no farther than twelve feet apart, and on the forty-two inches that were above ground, they were to have at least three boards firmly attached to them.  The fences were to be made of timber which was plentiful in most of western Virginia.

What’s more, the laws that were enacted at the time were strict and could not be argued because of the great amount of detail that was part of the law on fences.  Additionally, any filed fence agreements between landowners were binding between successive generations and successive landowners.

In other words, once a fence was erected and once there was a filed fence agreement between neighbors, nothing could be done to bring that fence down.  It was to stay up and it was to be maintained by both property owners who shared the fence between them.

If the idiom in its entirety is considered, it would seem that the idiom sprung from the fence laws of Virginia.

He would argue with a fence post, then pull up the post and argue with the hole.

Based on the fence laws, arguing with the fence post or the hole in which it was sunk would have no effect on the fence post or the hole, no matter how much the other person argued the point.  If someone argued over the fence laws of the day, they weren’t going to get anywhere and they knew they weren’t going to get anywhere. it would have to be someone who loved to argue to argue any aspect of the fence law.

While Idiomation was unable to peg an exact date when the idiom was first used, the reason for the idiom seems to lead directly back to the fence laws of Virginia in the early 1600s.

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Shilly Shally

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 10, 2015

If someone is shilly shallying, they are acting irresolutely.   In other words, those who shilly shally can’t be pinned down one way or another to an action or a decision leaving others with no idea where that person stands.

The Glasgow Herald published a Letter To The Editor written by Alex C.M. MacNeill in March 4, 1977 where the author voiced his displeasure at the inaction of the political parties.  He took issue with the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal parties equally as the first (and only) sentence of his brief letter made clear.

The present attitude in Scotland to the shilly-shallying of the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal parties over devolution recalls to mind the saying attributed to one of the German conductors of the old Scottish Orchestra who was having trouble with a recalcitrant or incompetent brass-player:  “With your damn nonsense will I twice once put up.  But always?  Sometimes?  Never!”

In the October 16, 1942 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, Joseph Shechtman wrote about shilly shally and willy nilly.  According to him, these phrases came about as a corruption of how the real words were pronounced.  For those who asked, “Shall? Shall I?” that became shilly shally.

The Boston Evening Transcript used the expression as part of the title on an article that was published on July 28, 1915 in its recounting what Sheriff Kinkead had done just hours earlier in front of what the newspaper referred to as “plenty of witnesses.”  Yes, Sheriff Kinkead and his men settled a strike by appealing to the strikers sense of patriotism for the United States of America as many who were striking were foreigners who had come to America to find a better for themselves and their families.  The article was entitled, “Busting Through Shilly-Shally.”

Interesting Side Note:  The writer of this article stated that Mrs. Wendell Phillips of Boston (MA) invented the phrase shilly shally.

In Chapter 20 of a serialized story published in The Age newspaper on June 29, 1901 the word was used in this passage.

“Mr. Vickers, have you heard of Pyrotid?” inquired Christ, confidentially.

“Sir,” said Mr. Vickers with dignity, “I am not a betting man.”

“It is not the name of a horse, but of a singular mineral,” said Chris.  “It is worth four pounds a ton, and there are two hundred thousand tons of it on Drellincourt Farm.  I found that out by the aid of a little shilly-shallying; but I admit that I got my cue regarding its existence from Mellor, for, Mr. Vickers, in the profession to which I belong it is absolutely necessary for one to understand men.”

The Deseret News published an extended article on March 5, 1889 about U.S. President Harrison’s message which, it was believed, would please his party and not disappoint the opposition.  The President delivered his message the day before, and within a day, even the British press was complimentary in its comments about his message.

The “Tribune” this morning says the strong and patriotic appeal will go to the hearts and convictions of the American people and will produce results hereafter.  The “Times” finds nothing impressive in the President’s remarks.  It thinks the tone and manner commonplace.  The “World” regards it as the deliverance of a sincere and extremely clear-minded man, and says there will be no shilly-shally foreign policy.

In Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Chapter X of the serialized story “On The Church Steps” by Sarah C. Hallowell (1833 – 1914) was published.  The author used the expression in such a way as to indicate that it was an expression that people from every social class knew and used.

Hiram kept the watch faithfully till five that morning, when I too was stirring. One or two teams had passed, but no Shaker wagon rattling through the night. We breakfasted in the little room that overlooked the road. Outside, at the pump, a lounging hostler, who had been bribed to keep a sharp lookout for a Shaker wagon, whistled and waited too.

“Tell you what,” said Hiram, bolting a goodly rouleau of ham and eggs, “I’ve got an idee. You and me might shilly-shally here on this road all day, and what surety shall we hev’ that they hevn’t gone by the other road. Old gal said there was two?”

Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743 – 4 July 1826) used this expression in a letter dated October 1792 where he discussed George Washington’s comments about transforming the American government into a monarch (which he did not support, but which was strongly considered as an option by more than the handful the President dismissed there might be).  He wrote of a dispute between General Schuyler (20 November 1733 – 18 November 1804) on one side of the table (who favored hereditary descent), and Charles Cotesworth “C. C.” Pinckney (25 February 1746 – 16 August 1825) and Thomas Jefferson on the other (who opposed hereditary descent).

I told him, that though the people were sound, there was a numerous sect who had monarchy in contemplation; that the Secretary of the Treasury was one of those; that I had heard him say that this Constitution was a shilly-shally thing, of mere milk and water, which could not last, and was only good as a step to something better.  That when we reflected, that he had endeavored in the convention, to make an English constitution out of it, and when failing in that, we saw all his measures tending to bring it to the same thing, it was natural for us to be jealous; and particularly, when we saw that these measures had established corruption in the Legislature, where there was a squadron devoted to the nod of the Treasury, doing whatever he had directed, and ready to do what he should direct.

The expression found its way into the book, “The Eagle and the Robin: An Apologue” translated from the original Aesop fable by H.G.L. Mag, and printed and sold by H. Hills in Black-fryars near the Waterside in 1709.

You are suppos’d to undermine
The foe, in some immense design.
A pen can bite you with a line;
There’s forty ways to give a sign,
Well, all on fire away he stalk’d
Till come to where the Eagle walk’d.
Bob did not shilly-shally go,
Nor said one word of friend or foe;
But flirting at him made a blow,
As game-cocks with their Gauntlets do.

The earliest version of the expression Idiomation found is in the comedic play, “The Committee, Or The Faithful Irishman” by Sir Robert Howard, and published in 1665.  English playwright and politician Robert Howard (January 1626 – 3 September 1698) was the son of Thomas Howard, First Earl of Berkshire, and his mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Second Earl of Exeter.

His play was published (along with three others) in his book, “Four New Plays” although there are indications that the play had been performed long before it was finally published in 1665.  In fact, Pepys wrote about taking in a performance of “The Committee” on June 12, 1663, and other diaries mention the play being performed before an audience in 1662.

MRS. DAY:
Well, Mrs. Arabella, I hope you have considered enough by this time.  You  need not use so much consideration for your own good; you  may have your estate, and you may have your Abel; and you may be worse offered.  Abel, tell her your mind; ne’er stand, shilly-shally. Ruth, does she incline, or is she wilfull?

MRS. RUTH:
I was just about the point when your honor interrupted us.  one word in your ladyship’s ear.

ABEL:
You see, forsooth, that I am somebody, though you make nobody of me.  You see I can prevail.  Therefore pray say what I shall trust to; for I must not stand shilly-shally.

MRS. ARABELLA:
You are hasty sir.

Unable to find an earlier published version for shilly-shally, and given that it was used in Sir Robert Howard’s play published in 1665 (and performed earlier), it is reasonable to assume that it was a commonly used expression in England in the 1600s.  Idiomation therefore sets the date for this expression to at least 1600.

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Gay Blade

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 21, 2015

While many these days default to thinking of the term gay blade as an offensive comment made about flamboyant homosexuals, the word gay didn’t just one day adopt that meaning.   The word has always had a second meaning that dates back to 1637 where the secondary meaning was defined as being addicted to social pleasures and dissipation. In other words, the gay life was a life of loose morals and so males and females who were inclined to leading immoral lives were said to be gay. It only took three hundred more years for the word to refer to male homosexuals.

When the term gay blade first began showing up in literature, it had nothing to do with being addicted to social pleasures. It referred to a gallant young man who was usually adept as a swordsman. Even though there were other connotations for gay blade over the years, the more chivalrous meaning still managed to survive into the 20th century.

Back on May 27, 1981 newspapers were sharing the news that George Hamilton refused to change the name of us upcoming Zorro movie even when the people backing the movie objected to its title. He made it clear that as far as he was concerned, the movie was about a happy turn-of-the-century swordsman and that the movie title had a “nice turn-of-the-century ring to it.” And so, moviegoers were treated to antics of George Hamilton, Lauren Button, Brenda Vaccaro and Ron Leibman in the very successful and very funny movie, “Zorro: The Gay Blade.”

In a Sundance, Wyoming advertisement titled, “What Kind Of Lad Is Your Dad” published in the Sundance Times of June 9, 1960, four stereotypes were suggested: Ranger Rider, Strong Silent Father, Snappy Pappy, and Gay Blade. Regardless of what kind of dad described your dad, Spearfish Clothier had an ensemble worthy of your dad.  The definition written up for the Gay Blade dad was one that easily fit a heterosexual male, a metrosexual male, or a homosexual male.

IMAGE 1

On April 21, 1944 the Deseret News published a story about American baseball Left fielder, Emil Frederick Meusel (9 June 1893 – 1 March 1963) nicknamed Irish. He began his career with the Washington Senators in 1914 and played on game before moving to the minors. He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1918, and then to the New York Giants in 1921.   The article in the Deseret News – which really was just a list of baseball players and some relatively innocuously scandalous facts about them — began with this tidbit.

Irish Meusel, as gay a blade and dangerous a hitter as was ever trailed by John McGraw’s detective staff.

SIDE NOTE 1: Irish Meusel’s brother, Robert William “Long Bob” Meusel (19 July 1896 – 28 November 1977) played for the New York Yankees from 1920 to 1922, and his career ended with the Cincinnati Reds in 1930.

The term was found in a story in Volume 39 of “New Catholic World” back in July 1884. The magazine was published by the Paulist Press   and the term was used in the short story, “A Tragi-Comedy” by American writer, Catholic journalist, literary critic, novelist, and diplomat Maurice Francis Egan (24 May 1852 – 15 January 1924).

It was the happiest day of her life. Jack Dempsey, careless, free-and-easy Jack, looked at her wrinkled hands and sighed. What a glory it was to have a mother! He laughed and joked, kissed his hand out of the car-window right and left; but, for all that, he missed none of the tender, prideful glances that the worn, tired woman cast upon her son.   Jack, in his heart, felt sad; it seemed to him that a mother’s love is born to suffer – of all earthly things the nearest to heaven, yet of all earthly things most pathetic in its disappointments.

“He’s a gay blade,” said Mr. Devir.

“There’s no thought about him at all,” answered Mrs. Devir as Jack Dempsey bade them good-by. “They say his uncle wants to make a priest of him. He’ll never do it!”

It was in the short story, “The Farmer’s Daughter” by William Howitt and included in the anthology, “Heads of the People: Portraits of the English” illustrated by Joseph Kenny Meadows (1 November 1790 – August 1874), engraved by John Orrin Smith (1799–1843), and published in 1841.

She was altogether a dashing woman. She rode a beautiful light chestnut mare, with a switch tail, and her brother Ben, who was now grown up, with the ambition of cutting a figure as a gay blade of a farmer, was generally her cavalier. She hunted, and cleared gates and ditches to universal amazement. Everybody was asking, “Who is that handsome girl, that rides like an Arab?”

The anthology was filled with short stories by noted authors such as English dramatist and writer Douglas William Jerrold (3 January 1803 – 8 June 1857), English poet and critic Richard Hengist Horne (31 December 1802 – 13 March 1884), English writer and editor Thornton Leigh Hunt (10 September 1810 – 25 June 1873), and English novelist and satirist William Makepeace Thackery (18 July 1811 – 24 December 1863).

SIDE NOTE 2: Thornton Leigh Hunt was the son of English critic, essayist, poet, and writer, James Henry Leigh Hunt (19 October 1784 – 28 August 1859).

As previously mentioned, a gay blade in the 17th century was a gallant young man usually adept as a swordsman. Don Juan (1582 – 21 August 1622) from the late 16th century and early 17 century – his full name being Don Juan de Tassis y Peralta, Second Count of Villamediana — was considered a gay blade by his peers.

The word blade is from the Middle English word blæd which meant sword in the late 1300s, and referred to a man by the 1590s, hence the play on words. The word gay is also from the Middle English word gay which meant impetuous, lively, and merry. From this comes the expression gay blade and yes, many gallant young men who were unusually adept as swordsmen back in the day were impetuous, lively, and merry as well as skilled.

Idiomation was unable to find any earlier mention of gay blade than the 17th century and therefore pegs the expression to the early 1600s.

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Whippersnapper

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 16, 2015

A whippersnapper is an inexperienced person who is irritatingly overconfident with his or her abilities, sometimes to the point of being offensive.  Yes, whippersnappers usually act as if they’re very important and believe themselves to know better than their elders. What’s more, they’re usually impolite and brazen, lazy, and lack motivation.

Even though the death knell was sounded for the term whippersnapper back in newspaper columns of the 1960s, the word cropped up in an article by Gary Borders entitled, “Modern Billingsgate Betrays Puerile Imbecility Of Pundits” which was published in the Rome News-Tribune on March 4, 2006. The article took on the subject of television news programs that features guests and hosts yelling angrily with each other instead of discussing matters in a logical fashion with facts to back up their opinions.

In his article, he wrote about the elderly Presbyterian minister, the Reverend James Russell (died 10 August 1847) who was the last editor of the Red Lander newspaper in San Augustine, Texas.

Russell had been running the newspaper for about a year when a young whippersnapper started a competing weekly, The Shield. Henry Kendall, who had a bad habit of stealing Russell’s hired help, owned the paper. His editor moonlighted as president of the other university in town, started by the Methodists. San Augustine could support neither two newspapers nor two universities.

The Reverend James Russell began to print some nasty comments in his editorials with increasing intensity. He was responsible for some of the insults that we still hear thrown about in the media today: right-wing, liberal, secularist, and religious right.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: When the Reverend James Russell used his newspaper to state that Henry Kendall’s mother was a “woman of easy virtue” and his father was a liar and a murderer, Henry Kendall was incensed at the audacity the Reverend had to publish such insults. Ten days after the insults were printed in the Reverend’s newspaper, Henry Kendall shot him dead as the Reverend walked out of his office. The killing was noted as the first editorial killing in Texas.

In the Milwaukee Journal edition of June 28, 1967, even journalist Robert W. Wells lamented the demise of the term in his column, “All Is Wells.” In the column published that day he decried the fact that the literary pendulum had swung in favor of one syllable nouns and verbs drawn from graffiti of the day. With regards to whippersnapper, he wrote:

Thirty years earlier, on May 30, 1937, the St. Petersburg Times published O.O. McIntyre’s regular column, “Whip Snaps Of A Whippersnapper” where O.O. McIntyre reflected on a number of things. He wrote about the “best darned quartet you ever heard – there’s five of them.” He wrote about a woman’s model husband who “doesn’t drink, smoke or run after woman – just sorta stupid.” He wrote about how many residents in France were against the reduced utopian 40-hour work week that left people with too much time on their hands to do nothing. And that’s just some of what O.O. McIntyre wrote in his column of May 30, 1937.

There was an era when some crusty character — the heroine’s father, usually — could be relied on to open every discussion of juvenile delinquency by shouting: “You young whippersnapper!”

This confrontation between youth and age made for tense drama, but it has been abandoned. The whippersnapper is apparently as extinct as the New Zealand moa.

Whippersnapper was a favorite expression of English novelist, journalist, editor and educationalist George Manville Fenn (3 January 1831 – 26 August 1909) and appeared in many of his novels. It was also a favorite expression of influential poet, critic and editor William Ernest Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903). And it was a favorite expression of English popular novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (4 October 1835 – 4 February 1915), author of her sensation novel “Lady Audley’s Secret” published in 1862.

In the third volume of the Association Medical Journal of 1855 edited by Dr. John Rose Cormack, M.D. and published by the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association of London (England) the expression was used in the article, “Medical Practice Among The Poor.” It had originally been published in “Household Words” on October 21, 1854.

There are the young men entitled whippersnappers; to whom the poor are said by Messieurs Souchong, Sirloin, and Wick, to be shamefully and neglectfully handed over. Mr. Souchong, Sirloin, and their friends refuse on their own parts to take counsel of a whippersnapper; so do their betters with considerable unanimity. They wait until he has more experience; that is to say, until he has tried his prentice hand sufficiently among the poor. He would be happy enough to attend viscounts and bankers; but he is bidden by society to try his hand first among beggars.

Going back to 1742, English author and magistrate Henry Fielding (22 April 1707 – 8 October 1754) wrote, “The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams” which included whippersnapper in his book.  The book is written in comic prose, and tells the story of the absent-minded parson Abraham Adams and his foot man, Joseph Andrews as they travel home from London.

“What dost thou think of Ms. Andrews?”

“Why, I think,” says Slipslop, “he is the handsomest, most properest man I ever saw; and if I was a lady of the greatest degree, it would be well for some folks. Your ladyship may talk of customs, if you please; but I am confidous there is no more comparison between young Mr. Andrews, and most of the young gentlemen who come to your ladyship’s house in London – a parcel of whippersnapper sparks; I would sooner marry our old parson Adams. Never tell me what people say, whilst I am happy in the arms of him I love. Some folks rail against other folks because other folks have what some folks would be glad of.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Henry Fielding, along with his half-brother, Sir John Fielding (16 September 1721 – 4 September 1780) who was also a magistrate as well as a social reformer, founded London’s first police force.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: British author, Sarah Fielding (8 November 1710 – 9 April 1768) was Henry Fielding’s sister. She wrote “The Little Female Academy” which is considered the first novel in English written especially for children.

In the 1600s, whipperginnie was a derogatory term for a woman, and snippersnapper was a derogatory term for a man.

It’s most likely that people blended whipperginnie and snippersnapper together during the mid-1600s and the new word was whippersnapper. It would make sense since the definition for whipperginnie (female) and snippersnapper (male) are the same, and both whipperginnie and snippersnapper share an identical definition with whippersnapper.  By the time Henry Fielding was using the word in his novel of 1742, the word was recognized among the general population which means that it was established in the English language as being a legitimate word with a recognized definition.

Idiomation therefore pegs whippersnapper to the late 1600s in light of these facts.

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Dibs (as in “first dibs”)

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 14, 2015

The well-used word dibs (as in first dibs) means to lay claim.  In other words, when someone says they have first dibs on something, they are laying claim of first rights or choice on whatever the something happens to be.  In other words, it’s a claim to the right to use or enjoy something exclusively or before anyone else … a sort of reservation, if you will.

The Wall Street Journal published a news article on January 14, 2001 that talked about how Chicagoans marked their claim for a parking spot after snow was shoveled out of the way.  The article discussed how lawn furniture, plastic milk crates, vacuum cleaners, lamps, fans, paint cans, step ladders, and other sundry items were used to lay claim to parking spots to prevent others from parking their vehicles in available cleared spots.

It’s called the dibs system — as in, “I got dibs on that space.”  And many here find it deplorable.

Even Jimmy Buffett has called first dibs, to Margaritaville no less, according to a news story in the Rome News-Tribune of January 7, 1998.  The story was about Emma and Neil Mathews who had run a restaurant by the name of Margaritaville in Kingman, Arizona for more than ten years.  The restaurant owners received a letter from the singer-songwriter advising them that he owned the name Margaritaville as a trademark, and that it was used to promote his own restaurants in Key West and New Orleans.  The article was entitled, “Buffet Says He Has Dibs On Name.”

The Daily Reporter of February 8, 1984 used the word not only in a story headline but in the story as well.  Jim Mayer of the Iowa News Service wrote about the regulations in Iowa that addressed the issue of deer killed by vehicles.  In fact, for the most part, the headline was the first sentence of the article.

Driver Has First Dibs On Deer Killed In Vehicular Accident, But Obey Rules. 

One of the helpful hints included this:

Oden said if a driver hits a deer and the deer is either killed or injured so badly that it has to be killed, the driver, or someone he designates, should notify officers, “preferably a conservation officer, highway patrol trooper, or sheriff.”  These officers can complete the paperwork, Oden said.  The form includes a tear-off portion that is given to the person claiming the deer.

During the Depression era, the word dibs was part of a much longer idiom and when someone was seen eating a piece of fruit, someone would inevitably shout out that they had dibs on the core, meaning the core of the fruit in case the first person had left anything on the core to be had.

In the poem, “I Got Dibs” by L.J. Wright and published in “Our Boys” magazine in October 1915, the sense of the word is clear.  The magazine was published quarterly by the Wisconsin Home and Farm School Association, with W.J.C. Ralph as Editor and Business Manager, and R.M. Bradford as Association Editor.  The fact that the poem was included in this issue demonstrates that the word was understood by children and adults alike.  The poem included these two stanzas.

When a morsel is left
In a cooking dish,
This short little sentence
will voice a boy’s wish.

Each boy cries out
As quick as he can,
“I got first dibs
On the baking pan.

The book, “A General Dictionary of Provincialisms” by William Holloway of Rye in Sussex, and published in 1888, gave a definition for dibs as well as provided an example.  It should be noted that his book was based upon previously published books from the late 1700s and early 1800s, which the author mentioned in the Preface.  With regards to dibs, he wrote the following commentary.

The small bones in the knees of a sheep or lamb, uniting the bones above and below the joint.  Five of these bones are used by boys, with which they play a game called “Dibs” in West Sussex.

The term is an abbreviation of a children’s game called dibstones that dates back to the 17th century, with first mention of the game being in 1690.   Here’s how the game was played:  Children would spread knucklebones from sheep on the ground and these became known as dibs.  The game was played much the way jacks is played these days.  The goal of the game was to capture as many knucklebones aka dibs as possible over the course of the game.  Each time a knucklebone was taken, the child shouted “Dibs!”  The game had an effect on these children, and as they became adults, they would continue to use the word dibs when they claimed something before anyone else had a chance to lay claim to it

Idiomation therefore pegs dibs to 1690 (and possibly earlier when the game first became popular among children) when the game of dibstones was played and the word dibs was shouted during the course of the game.

Now while Americans are busy calling first dibs, Canadians call shotgun.  Idiomation wonders how things went from knucklebones (or dibs) to shotguns.  Watch for the explanation next week on Idiomation.

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Jay

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 9, 2015

Now that Idiomation has tracked down jaywalking, jay driving, and jay town, the matter of what a jay is still remains to be solved!  Thanks to ongoing thorough research, the expression flap a jay cropped up.

To flap a jay is to swindle someone who is easily fooled, where flap means to manage adroitly and turn over … at least that’s according to the “Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant.”   This dictionary was compiled and edited by Albert Barrère (died 1896) — author of “Argot And Slang” — and American humorist and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland (15 August 1824 – 20 March 1903) — author of “The English Gypsies And Their Language” and other novels — and published in 1889.  The book included English, American, and Anglo-Indian slang as well as pidgin English, Gypsy jargon and what Messrs. Barrère and Leland considered to be irregular phraseology.

In the December 19, 1884 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette, warning words of wisdom were shared with readers about jays, not meaning the birds.  In fact, readers were warned of the dangers of larcenists who preyed upon gullible people.

The intending larcenist will strike up a conversation with a likely looking jay in a public conveyance and win his friendship.

While it wasn’t an expression that was used at great length over the generations, it is one that survived intact over the years.

Elizabethan dramatist, poet, and translator George Chapman (1559 – 12 May 1643) influenced the Stoicism movement.  It was his translation of “Homer” that was the standard English version for generations.  And it was Chapman who found himself imprisoned along with Ben Jonson and John Marston in 1605 by order of King James I of Britain because the king found their play, “Eastward, Ho!” offensive to their countrymen.

On November 16, 1632, the play “The Ball” by George Chapman and James Shirley was performed for the first time, licensed by Sir Henry Herbert.  The play centers on Lady Lucina who finds amusement in mocking and ridiculing her unwanted suitors.  The play makes the most of how easily it is to play those who are easily led to believe things that aren’t as they seem, thereby taking advantage of them.  The following happens in Act Two of this play.

LUCINA
You will see me again.  Ha, ha, ha!  Scutilla.

SCUTILLA
Here, madam, almost dead with stifling my laughter.  Why, he’s gone for a licence; you did enjoin him no silence.

LUCINA
I would have ’em all meet, and brag o’ their several hopes, they will not else be sensible, and quit me of their tedious visitation.  Who’s next?  I would the colonel were come, I long to have a bout with him.

SOLOMON
Mr. Bostock, madam.

LUCINA
Retire, and give the jay admittance.

Enter Bostock

BOSTOCK
Madam, I kiss your fair hand.

LUCINA
Oh, Mr. Bostock!

William Shakespeare’s play, “Cymbeline” published in 1623 was set in Ancient Britain and is based on legends that were well-known at the time.  In Shakespeare’s play, Imogen (the daughter of King Cymbeline) runs off and marries Posthumus (who is below her status) instead of Cloten (who is of equal status to Imogen).  Posthumus is exiled to Italy where he meets Iachimo who bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen.  It’s a familiar enough scenario when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays.

In Act III, Scene iv which takes place in the country ner Milford-Haven, a discussion takes place between Piranio and Imogen in which Imogen says:

IMOGEN
    I false! Thy conscience witness: Iachimo,
    Thou didst accuse him of incontinency;
    Thou then look’dst like a villain; now methinks
    Thy favour’s good enough. Some jay of Italy
    Whose mother was her painting, hath betray’d him:
    Poor I am stale, a garment out of fashion;
    And, for I am richer than to hang by the walls,
    I must be ripp’d:–to pieces with me!–O,
    Men’s vows are women’s traitors! All good seeming,
    By thy revolt, O husband, shall be thought
    Put on for villany; not born where’t grows,
    But worn a bait for ladies.

What this shows is that jay in Shakespeare’s play and in George Chapman’s play was a word that was known to their audiences.  This means it is accepted that the word and its associated meaning goes back to at least 1600, and most likely to the mid to late 1500s.

It also seems that the word and the behavior attributed to those who are accused of being jays is related to the European bird, Garrulus glandarinus, which was more commonly known as the jai in Old French from the Late Latin word gaius which means a jay.

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Poor As A Church Mouse

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 22, 2015

When the claim is made that someone is poor as a church mouse, it means they haven’t anything to spare.  It’s based on the fact that a church doesn’t have a cupboard or a pantry from which a mouse can steal away even the smallest food crumb.  The interesting fact about this idiom is that it isn’t just an idiom used in English although it’s been well-used in English over the years.

The author of a print ad placed in the Milwaukee Sentinel on November 26, 1957 was intended as a plea for donations to build the Milwaukee Boys’ Club described as a real club for a real boy.  The ad was referred to in fine print as “one of a series of weekly articles paid for by a member of the Club’s Board of Directors.”  The ad was titled, “As Poor As A Church Mouse” and began with this copy:

You must be an oldtimer if you can remember back when this expression was so common.  Those were the days before electricity, telephones, automobiles, radios, television and modern plumbing.

And indeed the author of that copy was correct.  The idiom wasn’t a recent one in the least.

The Pittsburgh Press printed a Letter to the Editor on March 29, 1935 that was written by Norvin Mack of 525 Sheridan Avenue in Pittsburgh. 

Norvin Mack wrote about the minimum government pay of $30 per month to soldiers along with free lodging, food, and medical care.  He stated that if a soldier had family — in other words, dependents — that the government would deduct $15 from his pay, match that amount, and send it along to his family.  To that end, the minimum pay was $45 per month.  He went on to extol the other virtues of being a soldier, and all this was to correct a story that had previously been published in the newspaper.

He was an outspoken sort, and included this paragraph in his letter.

As one who volunteered long before the draft was hardly thought of and who is now as poor as a church mouse I count it an honor to take my position with you on this momentous question.  I am supporting my family at common labor, not relief.  Plain selfishness urges me to welcome the immediate payment of the bonus but common sense forces the rejection of the plan.

It was in the Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph newspaper edition of April 16, 1912 that an article appeared discussing the move away from throwing rice at weddings and the move towards throwing confetti instead.  The sexton of a fashionable New York church was interviewed on the new tradition, and his opinion favored the switch.  He was quoted as saying:

“This confetti fashion is very welcome to us sextons.  When rice was used our churches were overrun with mice.  The saying “as poor as a church mouse” was then meaningless.  Why, in my church, where weddings are so popular, several hundreds of mice — fat chaps they were, too — found an ample food supply in the rice that was sprinkled over the brides.”

“Now that rice has been abandoned for paper confetti, these mice have all disappeared.  They were starved out.  They couldn’t live on paper.”

The title for the story was simply, “Poor As A Church Mouse:  Since Confetti Came Into Use, The Saying Has More Meaning Than At Former Times.”  How apt is that for a headline?

Episcopalian clergyman and American author Frederick William Shelton (1815 – 1881) wrote and published “Peeps From A Belfry: Volume 3” in 1856.  This volume opened with a short story titled, “The Seven Sleepers.”   In Shelton’s story, a clergyman by the name of Pettibones approaches Mr. Snapjohn, and after a very brief exchange, Mr. Snapjohn says:

Want money, I suppose.  I haven’t a cent, Sir — not a cent.  Gave five dollars the other day for church missions, don’t believe the heathen will ever see one cent of it.  It won’t do them any good, — not at all, Sir, not at all, so much money thrown into the sea.  I am tired and sick of such demands.  I’ve got nothing.  I tell you I’m as poor as a church mouse — I’m as poor as a church mouse.”

The saying appears in a number of publications throughout the 1700s and 1800s, and is found in other countries. In fact, in German poor as a church mouse is arm wie eine Kirchenmaus and it’s found in a Grimm’s Dutch-German dictionary published in 1719. And before that, it appears in “A Collection of English Proverbs” compiled by English naturalist John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) and published in 1670 (who up until 1670 spelled his name John Wray).

Now, it’s also a fact that Anglo-Welsh historian and writer James Howell (1594 – 1666) published a proverb collection in 1659 entitled, “Paramoigraphy” wherein the idiom was listed as “hungry as a churchmouse.”  That being said, Grimm did mention in his 1719 book that the idiom was from the Scottish proverb puir as a kirkmouse.  Oddly enough though, the French had a similar phrase:  gueux comme un rat d’église.

Although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version than that from 1659 with a reference to the German and Scottish versions of the idiom, it’s likely that the phrase has existed for as long as mice and churches have co-existed which is to say, for centuries.  That being said, Idiomation is confident in pegging this idiom to the early 1600s, allowing it to become part of the vernacular in England.

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Don’t Spare The Horses

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 13, 2014

Whenever you hear someone add don’t spare the horses to a directive, what you’ve heard is someone being told to hurry up with what they’re doing.  It’s not a negative statement, but rather, one that expresses the importance of speeding things up rather than continuing at the current pace.

When Jane Simon, journalist for The Mirror in London, England wrote her April 26, 2010 article, “We Love Telly: Pick Of The Day” she included a bit about Iron Chef UK — a spin-off of the American show which was a spin-off of the original Japanese show. While the four chefs contestants take on are impressive, it’s Olly Smith that Jane Simon writes most enthusiastically about with this comment:

Hyperactive even when he’s presenting some quite sensible item on Saturday Kitchen, here he’s been told to go for broke and don’t spare the horses.

“I’m like a Spitfire coming through the clouds!” he booms as he dashes in to peer into a frying pan. Or, my personal favourite: “Join us after the break when we shall erupt in a frenzy of judgment!”

In the crime thriller novel by Catherine Aird aka novelist Kinn Hamilton McIntosh (June 20, 1930 – ) entitled, “The Complete Steel” and published in 1969, the adventures of Detective Chief Inspector C. D. Sloan and his sidekick, Detective Constable Crosby continue. The story was published in the US under the title, “The Stately Home Murder” and was the third book in the series.

Detective Constable Crosby turned the police car …

“Home James and don’t spare the horses,” commanded Sloan, climbing in.

“Beg pardon, sir?”

Sloan sighed. “Headquarters. Crosby, please.”

Don’t Spare The Horses” was also a popular song by American actor, composer and songwriter, Fred Hillebrand (1893 – 1963) in 1934. The main focus of the song is about a date night gone terribly awry. It was recorded by “radio sweetheart number oneElsie Carlisle (28 January 1896 – November 1977) with Ambrose and the Mayfair Hotel Orchestra the year it was written. The recording was re-issued in 1966 on the Pearl Flapper label in an Ambrose compilation. These lyrics were transcribed from the 1938 edition of Song Fest.

HOME, JAMES, AND DON’T SPARE THE HORSES

It was in the gay nineties
One night at a swell affair
She was dressed in her best Sunday bustle
And wore a rat in her hair.

Her hero was both young and handsome,
But he was a terrible flirt.
He spent the entire evening
Making up to every skirt.

And when she gently reproached him,
He heeded her not at all,
And she, in her best Sunday bustle,
Went flouncing out on the hall,

She swept down the stairs most majestic
To her footman waiting below.
She spoke in accents loud and clear,
And told him where to go.

Home James, and don’t spare the horses,
This night has been ruined for me.
Home, James, and don’t spare the horses,
As ruined as ruined can be.

It’s still in the gay nineties,
In fact the very next day.
Our hero is somewhat remorseful,
And don’t know just what to say.

He thinks he’d better do something
To win her again for his own,
For she was his very best sweetheart
She was always good for a loan.

He went right straight to her mansion
And said “Forgive me dear.”
But, when he tried to embrace her,
She gave him a boot in the rear.

He swept down the stairs most majestic
And the doorman, he booted him too,
And as he threw him in the street,
She said “Humph to you.”

Home, James, and don’t spare the horses,
My suitor is just a bit tight,
Home, James and don’t spare the horses,
He’ll sleep in the stable tonight.

The song puts the expression to the 1890s, and magazines such as “McBride’s Magazine” and “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine” corroborate this date with the publication of the story “Unc’ Ananias: A Virginia Story” written by American historian and author, Molly Elliot Seawell (October 23, 1860 – November 15, 1916) in July 1982.

“Certainly, certainly, my dear boy,” cried the Squire, taking Mrs. Cary’s arm. “I don’t wish to be informed of your and Patty’s private affairs, — not for the world; but — er — remember, you needn’t spare the horses. Of course I don’t know where you are going, as you haven’t seen proper to mention it, but — the sorrels are good for twenty miles before dark.” And in half a minute the Squire had whisked Mrs. Cary out of sight, although a crack in the door showed they were not out of hearing.

Not much further in this story, the following is written:

At this, Patty advanced and put her hand shyly in Jack’s. He led her out the door, calling out, —

“Good-by, Squire. I am to drive Miss Patty home, and afterwards — but never mind: I know you’d rather not hear.”

Don’t spare the horses, — don’t spare the horses, my boy,” shouted the Squire.

As Jack drove off in the trap with Patty, the gentlemen cheered, the ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and Squire Cary came out beaming, and asking right and left, “What’s all this? What’s all this?” Nobody volunteered to tell him.

And in “Erlesmere: or, Contrasts of Character” by L.S. Lavenu and published in 1862, this passage kicks off the first paragraph of the story:

“Drive hard, Nat, don’t spare the horses. My master gave particular orders that we should do the ten miles home in fifty minutes.” So speaking, Mr. Erle’s headgroom spring up behind Sir Fitzroy Herrode’s light barouche. The postilion touched the off horse, and the equipage plunged into the steam of a sunny December morning.

And “Ballou’s Monthly Magazine: Volume 2” published in 1855, there was a story entitled, “Courtship In The Dark” by Frederick Ward Saunders that included this passage:

“I suppose you want me to drive fast, don’t you, sir?” asked the coachman, in a significant tones, as he closed the door.

“Yes, drive like blazes, don’t spare the horses,” replied Cap. though for the life of him he couldn’t have told him where to drive.

The coachman mounted the box, cracked his whip, and off they went at a deuce of a pace, Mary crying like a watering-pot, and Cap. trying to comfort her, in which he succeeded admirably, for he had a peculiar knack of comforting good-looking young women in distress; and by the time they had gone a couple of miles, she became quite lively and chatty.

While the urban myth of Queen Victoria being responsible for the expression “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses” is widely recounted as the source for the idiom, it is nothing more than a fanciful tale … an urban myth. The habit of referring to coachmen as James dates back to the 1600s, with the name James being used as a name of convenience by those from wealthy or noble families when addressing the coachman.

With this information, the idiom can be pegged to the beginning of the 17th century. With that being said, “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.”

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Like Turkeys Voting For Christmas

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 16, 2013

If people are like turkeys voting for Christmas, it means they have decided to accept a situation that will end badly for them. In other words, the action taken to resolve a situation is also ont that’s self-defeating at the same time. This doesn’t make for a good situation or a good solution no matter how you look at it.

When Nuala Nolan in Galway wrote to the Independent newspaper on January 4, 2011 she was concerned with the water distribution systems and the installation of water meters that would be unworkable with the next cold spell in Ireland. She wrote succinctly, and ended her Letter To The Editor with this question:

Are we not just like turkeys voting for Christmas when we agree to water charges in circumstances where the majority of working people will find a huge drop in their pay as a result of the recent Budget?

In the Financial Times article of November 28, 2010 entitled, “Europe Is Edging Towards The Unthinkable” by journalist, Wolfgang Münchau, the macro-arithmetics of the financial crisis in Europe were of great concern.   The eurozone strategy appeared to be the last bail-out option available, even though there was a small cushion amount between how much had already been spent and how much could be spent. He wrote in part:

Ms Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, were last week putting the final touches to their new bail-in rules, to introduce collective action clauses in sovereign bond contracts. I would not be surprised if at least one member state rejected the Franco-German diktat. For example, I cannot see how Spain or Italy can conceivably support them. To use a seasonal analogy, it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

It was on May 7, 2002 that Tobey Walne’s article “Equitable On The Brink” was published by the Daily Mail in London, England. The news story addressed Equitable’s assets and liabilities and the company’s current condition which was thought to possibly be worse than what was being presented. The second to last paragraph read:

Paul Braithwaite, chairman of the Equitable Members’ Action Group, says: ‘Equitable is running on paper-thin liquidity and the writing is on the wall. There are no prospects for it adding to holdings in stocks and shares or bringing back bonuses. For loyal policyholders, it has been like turkeys voting for an early Christmas.’

In 1978, Alistair Michie and English journalist and broadcaster, Simon Hoggart (born 26 May 1946) published a book entitled, “The Pact: The Inside Story of the Lib-Lab Government.” In 1977, James Callaghan (27 March 1912 – 26 March 2005) of the Labor government forged an agreement with the Liberal party led by David Steel to safeguard against a successful motion of no confidence pushing through. The pact was confirmed on September 7, 1978 and the Labor government was able to remain in power until May 1979 when a general election was called. This passage appears in the book:

“Us voting for the Pact is like a turkey voting for Christmas,” said David Penhaligon. But they did agree that Steel should see Callaghan that afternoon.

The person identified as having used the idiom was David Charles Penhaligon (6 June 1944 – 22 December 1986) — a British politician from Cornwall, and a Liberal Member of Parliament for the constituency of Truro. But contrary to what the Oxford Dictionary says, he was not the originator of the expression as the idiom was used in The Alice Glenn Report, Volume 1, Number 3 dated May 1986.  Alice Glenn (17 December 1921 – 16 December 2011) a Fine Gael candidate for Dublin Central in Ireland, was an outspoken person during the 1986 Divorce Referendum in Ireland, and in her leaflet of May 1986 she entitled the front page story, “A Woman Voting For Divorce Is Like A Turkey Voting For Christmas.”

The expression is actually an Irish proverb: A turkey never voted for an early Christmas. Idiomation hasn’t found any resource book disputing that the proverb is, indeed, an Irish proverb, however, a date cannot be affixed to the proverb.

That being said, turkeys were brought from America to England and Ireland by William Strickland in 1526, and it’s believed that King Henry VIII was the first to enjoy roasted turkey. When turkeys were introduced to England and Ireland, families ate goose, boar or peacock at Christmas. By the early 1600s, turkey was found at major Tudor banquets held by those of financial means and power. As the 17th century rolled around, families of means were able to add turkey to the options for Christmas meals. Just as turkey replaced good as the main dish at Christmas, so it replaced it in the proverb which used to be: A goose never voted for an early Christmas.

It would be at this point (one would think) that if geese and turkeys could vote, that they would vote for the other to be served up for Christmas.  It would be unthinkable that they would vote for their own kind to be on the menu.  Likewise, no reasonable person would put themselves in danger and vote to be put in an untenable position.

Idiomation, therefore, pegs the original saying of a turkey  never voted for an early Christmas to the early 1600s, with the variation following afterwards, modified as proverbs often are.

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

 
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