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

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.

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Happy-Go-Lucky

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 18, 2013

If you’ve ever heard someone say they’re a happy-go-lucky type, what they’re saying is that they are happy most of the time and rarely worry. It’s not that they don’t have worries of their own or that they don’t experience anger or sadness or other emotions. It’s just that happy-go-lucky types roll with the punches and made do as best they can in a cheerful sort of way.

On October 13, 2010 the Sporting News website carried a story about the NBA’s famous Boston Celtics who saw the team one quarter away from an NBA championship. With quotes from their coach, Doc Rivers, sports fans had an inside glimpse into the season. The online story was entitled, “Chemistry Of Happy-Go-Lucky Celtics Bound To Be Tested Beyond Limited Minutes.”

The Oscars of 1966 saw some incredible actors walking away with golden statues in hand. The Eugene Register-Guard of April 19, 1966 listed out who won, what category they won and why they won. Sandwiched in-between all the listings was this one:

The award for best performance by an actor in a supporting role went to Martin Balsam in “A Thousand Clowns.” He played the older brother of happy-go-lucky Jason Robards.

On December 1, 1934 the Lewiston Evening Journal on their page entitled, “Social World.” While there were a great many announcements about parties and clubs and mixers and such, this one talked about the goings-on of the Happy Go Lucky club.

Miss Eudora Ashton was hostess to the Happy Go Lucky club Friday evening at her home, South Goff Street, Auburn. Cards were in play and high score was won by Stanton Drake and low by Mrs. Philip Tetu. The next meeting of the club will be with Mr. and Mrs. Roland Juneau, 19 Fourth Street, Auburn, Friday.

For those of you who read the Kate Douglas Wiggin (28 September 1856 – 24 August 1923) book “Rebecca Of Sunnybrooke Farm” this passage about Rebecca’s relations will ring familiar with you. But for those who either don’t remember the passage or who haven’t read the book published in 1903, the American educator and author provided a snapshot of what happy-go-lucky might look like to others.

It was in this happy-go-lucky household that Rebecca had grown up. It was just an ordinary family; two or three of the children were handsome and the rest plain, three of them rather clever, two industrious, and two commonplace and dull. Rebecca had her father’s facility and had been his aptest pupil. She “carried” the alto by ear, danced without being taught, played the melodeon without knowing the notes. Her love of books she inherited chiefly from her mother, who found it hard to sweep or cook or sew when there was a novel in the house.

In the July 4, 1868 edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant, a Letter To The Editor discussed the Principalship of Edinburgh University and the election of Sir James Y. Simpson to the office. The author asked a great many questions and provided detailed facts to support those questions, including this:

His reputation in his own profession nobody doubts or denies; but his greatest achievement — the invention of chloroform — was more of the nature of a happy-go-lucky experiment than the inevitable result of real scientific thought. The principle of a universal anaesthetic had been previously discovered by the discoverer of ether, and all that was done by Professor Simpson was the devising of a more generally applicable and a more convenient embodiment of that principle.

In southeast Australia, in the eastern Victorian region of Gippsland, there’s a small town named Walhalla which, at its peak, boasted 2,500 residents although these days, it has fewer than twenty. It popped up during the gold rush of the 1850s as did other communities including the town of Happy-Go-Lucky. In time, the town was renamed Pearson, but when it was Happy-Go-Lucky, it had a population of 300 as well as a post office to call its own. Unfortunately, it became a ghost town and today, only ruins remain of what was formerly a Happy-Go-Lucky place.

When Herman Melville wrote and published “Moby Dick” in 1851, and used the expression in Chapter XXVII entitled, “Knights And Squires” where he described the second mate thusly:

Stubb was the second mate. He was a native of Cape Cod; and hence, according to local usage, was called a Cape-Cod-man. A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. He was as particular about the comfortable arrangement of his part of the boat, as an old stage-driver is about the snugness of his box.

In 1699, the account entitled “A True and Just Relation of Major General Sir Thomas Morgan’s Progress in France and Flanders with the Six English in the Years 1657 and 1658 at the Taking of Dunkirk and Other Important Places” was written by Sir Thomas Morgan and included this passage:

The Redcoats cried, “Shall we fall in order, or go happy-go-lucky?”

At this point, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom.  That being said, since the Redcoats allegedly used the expression in 1657 and 1658, it’s safe to say that it was part of every day language.  As such, it most likely dates back to the beginning of the 17th century.  As always, Idiomation encourages readers to find earlier published instances of any phrase on the blog.

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Grin Like A Cheshire Cat

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 7, 2013

When someone smiles or grins like a Cheshire cat, they’re smiling broadly … very broadly. Now, do cats actually smile? They do, but not the way humans do. According to animal experts and studies done, cats do a slow blink that’s the equivalent to a human smile.

You’re probably wondering why the expression is tied to a broad smile if cats do a slow blink. Some of you might even think that the expression originated with English author, Lewis Carroll who wrote about the Cheshire cat and its smile in his book, ” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” that was published 1865.

Author William Makepeace Thackeray (July 18, 1811 – December 24, 1863) used the idiom in his book “The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family” that was published in 1855. The story is about Colonel Thomas Newcome, and his son Clive, and reflects the culture of its time. Some critics have said that it’s an accurate representation of Victorian life with liberal mention of culture, politics and expressions in languages other than English. In Chapter XXIV, Mr. Newcome says to Mr. Pendennis:

For her own part, Rosey is pleased with everything in nature. Does she love music? Oh, yes. Bellini and Donizetti? Oh, yes. Dancing? They had no dancing at grandmamma’s, but she adores dancing, and Mr. Clive dances very well indeed. (A smile from Miss Ethel at this admission.) Does she like the country? Oh, she is so happy in the country! London? London is delightful, and so is the seaside. She does not really know which she likes best, London or the country, for mamma is not near her to decide, being engaged listening to Sir Brian, who is laying down the law to her, and smiling, smiling with all her might. In fact, Mr. Newcome says to Mr. Pendennis in his droll, humorous way, “That woman grins like a Cheshire cat.” Who was the naturalist who first discovered that peculiarity of the cats in Cheshire?

In Volume III of the 5 volume collection entitled, “The Works of Peter Pindar, Esq To Which Are Prefixed Memoirs of the Author’s Life” readers will find an entry entitled, “Epistles to Lord Macartney and His Ship.” Peter Pindar was actually a pseudonym for English satirist John Wolcot (9 May 1738 – 14 January 1819), and this undertaking was published 1794. And right there in this entry, the following verse is found:

Yet, if successful, thou wilt be adored:
Lo, like a Cheshire Cat our Court will grin;
How glad to find as many Gems on board
As will not leave the room to stick a Pin!

In the 1811, 1788 and 1785  editions of “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” by Francis Grose, — considered in the 19th century as one of the most important collections of slang in the English language — there’s an entry under “Cheshire Cat‘ and it reads:

He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shews his teeth and gums in laughing.

Now interestingly enough, I came across a letter that was written as a Reply to the entry “Grinning Like A Cheshire Cat” in the Cheshire Notes and Queries of August 18, 1882 in which the author, Alfred Burton, references the Slang Dictionary by John Camden Hotten, wrote:

In the Slang Dictionary (edition 1873, pp 115-116) there is a variation in the above saying which has not been given in “Notes and Queries.” To grin like a Cheshire cat — to display the teeth and gums when laughing.” Formerly the phrase was “To grin like a Cheshire cat eating cheese.”

In researching this phrase, Idiomation came across a different reference book. This one was authored by Lieutenant-Colonel Egerton Leigh entitled, “A Glossary of Words Used In The Dialect of Cheshire” published in Long by Hamilton Adams and Co and in Chester by Minshull and Hughes in 1877.  In the dedication, Egerton Leigh stated that these were from “dialectal fragments of our old County” and he hoped they “now have a chance of not vanishing entirely, amid changes which are rapidly sweeping away the past.”  He attests to the fact that the saying, in its entirety is:  Grin like a Cheshire cat eating cheese.

Very telling, however, is the fact that in the You Asked Us column printed in the Montreal Gazette of June 4, 1977 stated, in replying to the question as to why the cat in Lewis Carroll’s book was from Cheshire, the explanation was this:

Carroll knew that his audience would recognize his playing with an expression common in England for at least a hundred years before Alice In Wonderland was published. To grin like a Cheshire cat eating cheese (chewing gravel or evacuating bones), meant to smile all over one’s face for no apparent reason.

According to the magazine Replies published on October 4, 1879, the idiom “He smiled like a Chasse cat was also used in the midland counties around the same time, and an article suggested that the idiom may actually have substituted either Chasse Cat or Cheshire Cat for the term House Cat.

An additional reference in other dictionaries that was uncovered was this one referring to English caricaturist and satirical poet, John Collier (18 December 1708–14 July 1786) who was known by the pseudonym of Tim Bobbin as well as Timothy Bobbin. His first significant illustrated piece appears in 1746.

To grin like a Cheshire cat is to display the teeth and gums whilst laughing (à la Tim Bobbin).

All that being said, the earliest that the Idiomation could come to determining how far back grin like a Cheshire cat goes, is at least to the early 1700s (and most likely much earlier) when all the evidence from various magazines and dictionaries are compiled.

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Raining Cats And Dogs

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 31, 2013

If it’s raining cats and dogs, there’s no need to worry. The idiom refers to a heavy downpour that doesn’t look like it will let up any time in the near future.  Just make sure to take an umbrella with you and to dress warmly to guard against the cutting wind.

The phrase is popular, and it’s found in all sorts of expected — and unexpected — places. In fact, on the Benton County website in Philomath, Oregon there just happened to be a juried art exhibition happening from June 21 to July 27, 2013 at the Benton County Museum. You’ll never guess the name of the exhibition … or may you will. Yes, it was dubbed “Raining Cats And Dogs.”

On Christmas Eve day (December 24) of 1959, the Daytona Beach Morning Journal carried a quick story out of San Marino, California. It was an odd little story about residents being pelted by pelts. The investigating officer spoke with the reporter who wrote:

Officer Martin Boyle said he heard of it raining cats and dogs — but never Persian lamb and muskrat pelts. The furs, packaged in sacks, fell in a three block area.

The Pittsburg Press edition of May 4, 1930 discussed the documented incidents of all sorts of objects falling from the skies during unusually heavy rainfalls. Among the items listed were: lichens, leaves, hay, toads, frogs, fish, mussels, oranges, pebbles, and in one case in Charleston (SC) a 2-foot long alligator! The title of the article was, of course, “Raining Cats And Dogs.”

And the New York Times published an article on October 25, 1890 about a local mayoralty candidate by the name of Mr. Scott who appeared at a number of locations one rainy evening to shake hands with voters and greet large and enthusiastic audiences waiting to catch a glimpse of him. He charmed audiences everywhere he went with his story of having been a hard-working man all his life, and promising to continue with that work ethic if New Yorkers saw fit to elect him Mayor. The article began with this paragraph:

Although Old Improbabilities at Washington promised to coax the stars into view last night, the shades of the late Mr. Tweed must have pulled the string behind his back, so that when the people’s candidate for Mayor got ready to sally forth it was raining cats and dogs. Nothing daunted, Mr. Scott put on his cork-soled shoes and his long mackintosh and jumped into his carriage between the drops.

Going back in time to the previous century, the “Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation” by Irish author, clergyman and satirist Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) was published in London through the agency of Mary Barber as well as in Dublin by George Faulkner in 1738.

Come, Sir John, I foresee it will rain terribly. Lady Smart. Come, Sir John, do nothing rashly; let us drink first Lord Sparkish. I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs. But pray, stay, Sir Sir John.

When English dramatist Richard Brome (1590 – 1643) wrote “The City Wit, or, The Woman Wears The Breeches: A Comedy” in 1629 (it was later revised in 1647 and printed in 1653), an earlier version of the idiom appeared in Act IIII, Scene I. In this scene, Sarpego (identified as a Pedant) says this:

SARPEGO:
From henceforth Erit Fluvius Deucalionis
The world ſhall flow with dunces; Regnabitque, and it
ſhall raine
Dogmata Polla Sophon, Dogs and Polecats, and fo forth.

Now polecats aren’t really cats at all. They’re actually more closely related to weasels and ferrets than to cats, however, the idiom “it’s raining cats and dogs” can easily be seen in stating “it shall rain dogs and polecats.”

But even before Richard Brome’s play, there was a saying used by sailors to describe particularly lively cats, and that was to say: The cat has a gale of wind in her tail.  But most telling of all is that Norse mythology put forth that cats represented the wind and dogs represented the rain, and so when a storm had both wind and rain together, it was figuratively cats and dogs.

This means that the idiom proper dates back to 1629, but the concept has its roots in Norse mythology which goes back long before the 17th Century, long before the 10th Century, long before the days of the Roman Empire.  In other words, it’s way back there in time.

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Hold Water

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 22, 2013

If an idea, reason or argument is strong and coherent, doesn’t seem to have any holes, and stands up under critical examination, it’s said to hold water. Conversely, if it’s a bad idea or a poor argument, you’ll hear people say it won’t hold water.

On November 29, 2001 Neha Kaushik’s article on Coca-Cola Indias (CCI) was published in The Hindu newspaper. The article reported that strategies applied by the soft drink giant resulted in the company garnering 24 percent in the packaged water segment in just over a year. The article was entitled, “Coke’s Plans Hold Water.”

When the Lodi News Sentinel wrote about Vice-President Ford’s “Meet The Press” appearance in their January 10, 1974 edition, the difficult position Gerald Ford found himself in was clear. It was reported that the “Meet The Press” interviewer had recalled comments Gerald Ford had made before with regards to impeaching a President. It appears that Gerald Ford stammered and attempted to “bail himself out of the dilemma” only to make another comment the reporter latched on to. In the news story, the article ended with this comment:

The grounds for impeachment cited in Section 4, Article II apply not only to the president and vice president which clearly includes judges. Ford’s explanation of the discrepancy between his views in 1970 and today on grounds for impeachment does not hold water.

Back on October 10, 1932 the Ellensurg Daily Records reported on the captain of the prison guards at the Sunbeam prison camp near Jacksonville, Florida who allegedly whipped Arthur Maillefert with an 18-inch length of 3 inch rubber hose, normally used for coupling freight cars. At the time, whipping prisoners was against Florida laws. Things went terribly wrong and Maillefert died, which led Captain Courson to coerce other prisoners into lying about what had happened. The story stated that one of the witnesses alleged the following was true:

“Then Captain Courson told me: ‘Bob, there’s liable to be some trouble over this.'”

“Yes, Cap’n, it is a pretty tight spot,” Blake said he replied.

“He told me to go in and get him five or six witnesses who might be able to clear him at a trial.”

“I did. After I went out I told Courson I thought he had a story that would hold water.”

The witnesses said they “framed it” so several convicts would testify that Maillefert intended to commit suicide.

It’s unfortunate that the story didn’t give details about when the court case was due to resume, or if the judge made arrived at a verdict that day. It also didn’t indicate what the penalty might be if a guilty verdict was rendered. In spite of all this, the story was aptly entitled:

Prison Guard Framed Story Says Extrusty: Says Officer Obtained His Help In Framing Alibi That Would Hold Water At Trial

Nearly two generations before that story was published, the Lewiston Evening Journal ran a story from Bangor, Maine on October 13, 1887. This story was about the articles in the New York World and Boston Globe newspapers reporting on the bank robbery in Dexter. There were several discrepancies highlighted such as the fact that, due to the amount of snow on the ground, the robbers couldn’t have driven away in a wagon as alleged. This story was entitled:

Editor Robbins Scouts the Theory of Murder Still: He Says The Confession of Stair Does Not Hold Water

The expression was even found in the Daily National Intelligencer of July 15, 1842 with regards to the bill to provide revenue from imports, and to change and modify existing laws imposing duties on imports and for other purposes which was debated in on July 11 in the House of Representatives. When C.J. Ingersoll to the floor, he had a lot to say about the situation, some of which had its roots in discussing free trade and direct taxation extending from 1783. His comments made their way to what Mr. Ingersoll referred to as the Nullification war, and the Compromise Act of 1833, and in the course of his statements, he stated the following:

Among other things it had been stated that there were but about sixty-seven thousand persons immediately interested in manufactures, and these protection bills were to be passed for that handful of men! Very well; admitting it to be so, how many shipping merchants were there in the United States? About forty thousand probably; and was not our entire navigation system framed to protect them? Laws not merely protective, but absolutely prohibitory? The doctrine that no legislation was to take place for the benefit of particular classes in the country would never hold water. How many lawyers were there in the United States? (and this objection came from one who was himself a distinguished lawyer) Were there fifteen thousand? And were the laws which guarded their profession all robbery and plunder?

Other politicians took to the floor and shared their opinions, and in the end, the newspaper reported that the debate was to be continued.

English actor, playwright, and poet laureate, Colley Cibber (June 11, 1671 – November 12, 1757) wrote “She Wou’d, and She Wou’d Not: Or the Kind Imposter. A Comedy, as it is Acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane by His Majesty’s Servants” which was published in 1703.  In Act IV of this play, the expression was used here:

This business will never hold water.

As research continued, an old Swedish proverb was found that read: “Don’t throw away the old bucket until you know whether the new one holds water.”  Now that’s very good advice indeed, and certainly drives home the point that an old bucket without holes in it beats a new bucket that won’t hold water … both literally and figuratively speaking.

Although Idiomation was unable to pin an exact date to the Swedish proverb, the expression dates back to at least the early 1600s, and this is suggested based in part on the ease with which Colley Cibber used it in his play in 1703.

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Creature Comforts

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 26, 2013

Have you ever heard talk about creature comforts? Those are things that make life comfortable and pleasant … food, clothing, housing, and other necessities that take care of the physical aspects of the individual. In other words, material comforts that are responsible in part for one’s physical well-being, but that are not considered luxuries by others.

Malabar Hornblower wrote an article that was published in the New York Times on February 21, 1999 entitled, “Creature Comforts for Homo Sapiens.” The article discussed the parks, game reserves and conservation areas in Africa and included this commentary:

There is an abundance of accommodations providing all levels of luxury. For visitors who, like my husband, Bill Brewster, and me, relish their creature comforts, the choice of lodges is almost as critical as picking game-viewing sites. When it comes to making the final selections, it feels a bit like Russian roulette.

Back on December 4, 1949 the St. Petersburg Times ran an article entitled, “Strength Through Unity In Arms Is Not Enough.” The story was about the unanimous agreement on defense plans that was reached by the North American Pact allies and whether this would provide achieve the goals the allies hoped to achieve. It read in part:

It follows, consequently, that this system must be economically sound. That is not simply because man’s basic creature comforts must be satisfied. Only when those basic comforts are provided — when freedom from want is reasonably assured — can there be true progress in the arts and sciences. Men do not reach for the stars with empty bellies; they grub in the earth for food.

In Chapter XI of Jack London’s book “The Iron Heel” published 1908, describes the fall of America to a fascist dictatorship composed of a group of monopoly capitalists.

Father must have had strong in him the blood of adventure. He looked upon our catastrophe in the light of an adventure. No anger nor bitterness possessed him. He was too philosophic and simple to be vindictive, and he lived too much in the world of mind to miss the creature comforts we were giving up. So it was, when we moved to San Francisco into four wretched rooms in the slum south of Market Street, that he embarked upon the adventure with the joy and enthusiasm of a child–combined with the clear sight and mental grasp of an extraordinary intellect. He really never crystallized mentally.

For those of you who may not recognize the name Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859), he is the 19th century American author and diplomat who wrote Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  He also wrote “Astoria or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains” which was published in February 1836. In Chapter XLVIII the following is found:

The two Canadians, Vallee and Le Clerc, killed a young buffalo bull in the evening, which was in good condition, and afforded them a plentiful supply of fresh beef. They loaded their spits, therefore, and crammed their camp kettle with meat, and while the wind whistled, and the snow whirled around them, huddled round a rousing fire, basked in its warmth, and comforted both soul and body with a hearty and invigorating meal. No enjoyments have greater zest than these, snatched in the very midst of difficulty and danger; and it is probable the poor wayworn and weather- beaten travellers relished these creature comforts the more highly from the surrounding desolation, and the dangerous proximity of the Crows.

While all this is very interesting, the expression appears in all sorts of documents. A number of dictionaries claim that the expression dates to the early to mid 1600s when creature was used in the context that creatus (past participle of Latin creare) referred to anything that ministered “to man’s comforts.”

The term creature from the Latin creatus actually dates back to between 1250 and 1300, however, it took another 300 or so years to take on the meaning ascribed to it in the 1600s.

The American Heritage Dictionary claims the first published record of the expression was in 1659. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary claims the first published record of the expression was in 1652. Webster’s Dictionary claims the first published record of the expression was in 1650. The Oxford Dictionary claims the first published record of the expression was some time during the 1650s. But none of these dictionaries provided a source to support their respective claims.

In researching the 1600s in the hopes of uncovering who appears to have first used the expression, Idiomation uncovered a passage in the “Concise Commentary On The Whole Bible” by Matthew Henry (18 October 1662 – 22 June 1714) and published in 1708 makes use of the expression. The commentary pertains directly to Joel 1:8-13.

All who labour only for the meat that perishes, will, sooner or later, be ashamed of their labour. Those that place their happiness in the delights of sense, when deprived of them, or disturbed in the enjoyment, lose their joy; whereas spiritual joy then flourishes more than ever. See what perishing, uncertain things our creature-comforts are. See how we need to live in continual dependence upon God and his providence. See what ruinous work sin makes. As far as poverty occasions the decay of piety, and starves the cause of religion among a people, it is a very sore judgment. But how blessed are the awakening judgments of God, in rousing his people and calling home the heart to Christ, and his salvation!

Henry’s use of the expression implies that he assumes his readership will understand what he means by creature-comforts, which lends credence to the claim that the expression was first used sometime in the 1600s. Unfortunately, how much earlier that in use in Matthew Henry’s book is unknown at this time. Idiomation would like to peg it to at least 1659, if not much earlier.

With that in mind, the fact remains that the expression is implied in at least 2 different books in the Bible: 1 Timothy 4:4 – 8 and Joel 1:8-13.

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

White As A Hound’s Tooth

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 22, 2013

Similar to the expression clean as a hound’s tooth (and sometimes used interchangeably with that expression), white as a hound’s tooth refers to the flawlessness of a person’s character or the perfect attributes of an item (large or small).

If it’s a romantic twist of phrase you’re looking for when it comes to using the expression, there’s not too many out there that than the piece entitled, “On Winter’s Trace” in Florence Fisher Parry’s column “I Dare Say” in the March 23, 1943 edition of the Pittsburgh Press. It read in part:

Dark shadows winnowing under the sea, seeking out death. Metal birds banking in the sky, seeking out death. Ships, no longer white as a hound’s tooth, seeking out death. Men and machines, seeing out death ….

Spring.

So I walked out where the air was cold against my forehead  I walked around what a few years ago had been swarded rows of proud old mansions. But now, along the noble facade of the street, great weedy gaps, piled with mossy rubble, gaped like empty cavities where once had smiled a pearly row of teeth … razed for taxes .. razed because there must be an end of wealth, and end of the steeples in the temperature-chart of the New World Doctors.

It’s always interesting to see how the expression is used and when it was found in the book, “Diseases Of Occupation And Vocational Hygiene” edited by George M. Kober, M.D., LL.D. et al, and published in 1916, the connection was with arsenic. In fact, this is what was included in the text:

In order to obtain white arsenic (arsenious acid) the ore is roasted and the arsenic so volatilized is collected in flues and chambers. This so-called “arsenic soot,” in the collection of which elaborate precautions in the shape of overalls and respirators are necessary to guard against the effects on the skin, is again submitted to heat in a refining furnace and the fumes again deposited in flues as white as a hound’s tooth.” Subsequently, the material is ground and packed in barrels usually by automatic arrangements preventing dust.

When the Newark Sunday newspaper of May 22, 1892 ran a story entitled, “The Large Ships.” The iron ship certainly sounded amazing.

She is 333 feet long, 48 feet broad, and 28 feet deep. Her four masts are each square-rigged, but she is far from clumsy aloft, is easily handled, and has run fourteen knots an hour for a while day. We are much impressed by her exceptional size; but for beauty she compares unfavorably with such a ship as the Thermopylae, or a large wooden-built ship of America having bright lofty spars and decks as white as a hound’s tooth. Iron decks do not lend themselves readily to adornment.

In the Irish Penny Journal, No. 1, Volume 1 published on July 4, 1840 a story written by Mrs. S. C. Hall and entitled, “The Irish In England: The Washerwoman” gives a birds’ eye view of how the Irish washerwoman, Biddy, and the English in the house, from the Mistress through to the other servants employed by the house.

The only regular washerwomen extant in England at this present moment, are natives of the Emerald Isle.

We have—I pray you observe the distinction, gentle reader—laundresses in abundance. But washerwomen!—all the washerwomen are Irish.

The Irish Washerwoman promises to wash the muslin curtains as white as a hound’s tooth, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” and she tells the truth. But when she promises to “get them up” as clear as a kitten’s eyes, she tells a story. In nine cases out of ten, the Irish Washerwoman mars her own admirable washing by a carelessness in the “getting up.” She makes her starch in a hurry, though it requires the most patient blending, the most incessant stirring, the most constant boiling, and the cleanest of all skillets; and she will not understand the superiority of powder over stone blue, but snatches the blue-bag (originally compounded from the “heel” or “toe” of a stocking) out of the half-broken tea-cup, where it lay companioning a lump of yellow soap since last wash—squeezes it into the starch (which, perhaps, she has been heedless enough to stir with a dirty spoon), and then there is no possibility of clear curtains, clear point, clear any thing.

In the “Journal of Llewellin Penrose: A Seaman” written by William Williams, and originally published in 4 volumes in 1783, the following is found:

I thought every minute of their absence an hour, so great was my anxiety. In about four hours they returned, and gave the following account of their expedition Bell said he found her to be Bermudian built sloop; she mounted guns, and had altogether a warlike appearance; her bottom was as white as a hound’s tooth. As they drew near her, he plainly heard some one say i English, “a rope for the boat,” with an oath tacked to the end of it. He then hailed them in Spanish, and was answered in the same language.

Without a doubt, the saying was used with great ease in 1783 and although it has probably been around for generations in maritime communities, Idiomation was unable to find the expression published any earlier than 1783. That being said, the phrase is definitely part of the 18th century with a great likelihood that it goes back a bit farther than that.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Good Money After Bad

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 25, 2013

When you throw good money after bad, you’re spending more and more money on something (or someone) that will never yield positive results for all you’ve invested.

On September 12, 2011, Kenneth W. Davis posted a short info bite to his site. Davis, who is a past president of the Association of Professional Communication Consultants, addressed the issue of investing time and effort into writing a piece and bad decisions made therein. The info bite was aptly entitled:

This Week: Don’t Throw Good Money After Bad

The phrase certainly grabs readers’ attention and perhaps this is why it makes such a reliable headline. When the Montreal Gazette wrote an article that stated Quebec Transport Minister Michel Clair “might just as well paint fleur de lys on dollar bills and throw them into the air” the title of the story was:

Good Money After Bad

Used in headlines, the phrase oftentimes finds itself repeated in the body of such an article as was the case in a news story carried in the Pittsburg Press on February 16, 1938. The article addressed the matter of unstable employer-employee relationships and began with this paragraph:

Is it heartening that efforts have not been dropped in Congress to set up a mediation system for shipping. For we agree with Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy of the Maritime Commission that, unless labor-management relations are stabilized, discipline established and traffic and travel attracted to American ships, we would only pour good money after bad to spend more of the taxpayers’ millions in subsidies

Decades earlier, on March 16, 1893 the phrase was used in a New York Times article about Jersey City property owners who were upset over awards made by the Commissioners for property taken for the construction of the new boulevard in Hudson County. Owners felt that the project suffered from what they called “monstrous waste and jobbery.” At the time of writing, the Board Of Freeholders had spent one million dollars on the project that, upon completion, would be a mud road and nothing more. The headline for this story was:

Good Money After Bad: Another Million For Hudson County’s New Boulevard

The “American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms” claims that the expression was coined in the late 1800s but Idiomation begs to differ, especially in light of the fact that the saying is found in an article published on July 23, 1880 in the Timaru Herald in New Zealand. On page 2, the following is found in an article discussing the Otago Harbor Board Bill and local indebtedness. It read, in part, as follows:

This argument raising further opposition to the Bill and a feeling being expressed that it would be better for the Harbor Board to stop its works and even to stop payment, than to go on throwing good money after bad. Mr. Driver, who was, we may say, a strenuous advocate of the Bill, propounded the startling theory that, in the case of the Harbor Board becoming insolvent, the colony would have to take over its liabilities.

Twenty years prior to that, in an article published on July 28, 1860 and entitled, “Alarming Transmogrification” in the Moreton Bay Courier included this in their report:

For example: — “Ran away, my man, Sam. He was black last month, but when he left he had become of a smooth, soft, and delicate whiteness, that would rival that of the tenderest, purest, Circassian.” Pray, would it not be flinging good money after bad, to print such an advertisement as that? And worse than all, perhaps the faithful bloodhound, having a fraternal admiratior, of Caleb Cushing and his theory, might decline to hunt “a Circassian.” The capitalists of the South might find that riches have legs, if not wings; and such a perfect conglomeration of everything might ensue as we dread to dwell upon.

And twenty years prior to that, in the Colonist newspaper of December 8, 1840, the Australian publication made use of the expression in its story entitled, “Court Of Requests Act.” Of special interest is the fact that the newspaper story refers to the expression as a common expression. The passage in which the phrase appears is as follows:

If it were asserted that there was any country in which a man, in order to recover a debt of 6l. or 7l., must begin by expending 60l. or 70., — where, at the outset, to use a common expression, he had to run the risk of throwing so much good money after bad, — it would at once be said, that whatever other benefits or advantages that country enjoyed, at least it was not fortunate in its system of law.

In fact, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette of Somerset, England published an article on March 25, 1773 entitled, “An Account Of Dr. Goldsmith’s Illness” that read in part:

… throwing away good money after bad. Whereas others are for pulling down and erecting one handsome, spacious, and commodious room in lieu thereof, with a large front door …

The “Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors” by Peter Richard Wilkinson claims that the idiom dates back to 1706 but does not provide the source for the claim.   However, this is incorrect as it appears nearly 20 years prior in the letters of William Fitzhugh.

Colonel William Fitzhugh was a lawyer, planter and merchant who relocated from England to Westmoreland County in Virginia in 1670. A self-made man, he was concerned with the fluctuation of tobacco prices since it was the source of his wealth. He furnished his home lavishly which included 122 pieces of English silver — a sound financial investment in that is could be melted down if need be, and made a social statement about his position in society. It’s been claimed that Fitzhugh’s letters to English merchants, ship captains and friends are filled with all manner of scheming. In a letter from 1690, William Fitzhugh wrote:

More money would be spent on prosecuting than he would be able to answer, and consequently good money thrown after bad.

Giovanni Torriano wrote and published a number of books on proverbs, including “New and Easie Directions for Attaining the Thuscan Italian Tongue” in 1639, “The Most Significant Select Italian Proverbs” in 1642, “A dictionary Italian and English, formerly compiled by John Florio, now diligently revised” in 1659, and “Piazza universale di proverbi italiani: Or A Common Place Of Italian Proverbes and Proverbial Phrases” in 1666, among other tomes.  However, it was in his book “Italian Proverbial Phrases” published in 1662 that he wrote:

The English say, To send good Mony after bad, to lose the Substance, for the Shaddow.

Since this was already a known idiom at the time of publication in 1662, it is not unreasonable to believe that it was in use in the preceding two generations. For this reason, Idiomation pegs the date of this expression to the early 1600s.

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