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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 18th Century’ Category

Eeny Meeny Miney Moe

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 18, 2017

At the start of the year, there was an uproar over The Walking Dead t-shirt carrying the slogan eeny, meeny, miney, moe on the front.  The balance of the children’s rhyme was implied and not stated, however fans of The Walking Dead know the character called Negan who spoke the rhyme on the series ends the rhyme with, “Catch a tiger by the toe.”

The t-shirt was pulled from store shelves by Primark after someone objected to the item being available for purchase on the basis that it was racist.  It wasn’t long before others on social media followed suit in support of the man’s claim.

SIDE NOTE 1:  At one time in the 20th century, Brazil nuts were marketed as n*gger toes.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Fans of The Walking Dead state that Negan is a ruthless sadistic killer who doesn’t discriminate against anyone.  Apparently he has not conscience and as such isn’t inclined to kill one person more than another.  If he can kill someone  – regardless of culture or race or gender or zombie status  — he does.

SIDE NOTE 3:  For interest’s sake, Primark has 177 stores in the UK, 37 in Ireland, varying numbers in many European countries, and 7 in the U.S.

In Salman Rushdie’s “The Moor’s Last Sigh” published in 1995, the main character and his three sisters are nicknamed Ina, Minnie, Mynah and Moor.  No one filed a complaint with the publisher of the book, and no one complained to the media about any potential racist overtones to the four nicknames used in the book.

Interestingly enough, on March 23, 1990 the “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon strip dealt with the rhyme.  Hobbes was lying on the floor when Calvin started playing with Hobbes’ toes saying, “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a tiger by the toe.”  Hobbes opened an eye to see what Calvin was up to as Calvin continued by saying “if he hollers..”   Hobbes got up and glared at Calvin. The last panel showed Calvin walking off, scuffed up, and asking, “Who writes these dumb things anyway?”

The rhyme was also found in Rudyard Kipling’s “A Counting-Out Song“, from Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, published in 1935.

When the scholarly journal Notes and Queries published the counting rhyme in their February 1855 edition, it read as follows with a brief explanation of how the rhyme was to be used.

The following are used in the United States for the selection of a tagger.

Eeny, meeny, moany, mite,
Butter, lather, boney, strike,
Hair, bit, frost, neck,
Harrico, barrico, we, wo, wack.

Meanwhile, in England, children were still singing:

Eeny, meeny, miney, moe
Catch a tinker by the toe.
If he hollers let me go,
Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.

This same rhyme with its variations exists in other cultures as well.  In France children chant this instead.

Une, mine, mane, mo,
Une, fine, fane, fo,
Matricaire et matico,
Mets la main derrière ton dos.

TRANSLATION:
Une, mine, mane, mo,
Une, fine, fane, fo,
Chamomile and pepper plant,
Put your hand behind your back
.

The Dutch recite the same rhyme this way.

Iene miene mutte
Tien pond grutten
Tien pond kaas
Iene miene mutte
Is de baas.

TRANSLATION:
Eena meena
mutte

Ten pounds of groats
Ten pounds of cheese
Eena meena mutte
Is the boss.

The Cornish in England had an old shepherd’s count known as a shepherd’s score that goes like this.

Ena, mena, mona, mite,
Bascalora, bora, bite,
Hugga, bucca, bau,
Eggs, butter, cheese, bread.
Stick, stock, stone dead – OUT.

Interestingly enough, American historian, chemist, and bibliographer of science Henry Carrington Bolton (29 January 1843- 19 November 1903) published a collection of children’s counting rhymes in 1888.  In his book, he included fifty variations of the counting rhyme which included many different specimens being caught by the toe or the tail or even by their thumb!  Some of those variations dated back to Britain and the early 1700s with implications that the rhyme was older than that.

So what is the origin of eeny meeny miney moe?  No one really seems to know for sure past everyone agreeing that it’s a counting rhyme.  It’s been around for a long time and it’s found in a great many cultures.

Is it racist?  It all depends on who or what you’re catching, and how you catch that person or thing.

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Cool As A Cucumber

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 27, 2016

Did you know that even in hot weather, cucumbers are about 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) cooler on the inside than the air around it is?  Crazy right, but this is absolutely true, and was confirmed (thanks to a scientific study) in 1970.

SIDE NOTE 1:  The study was conducted by James M. Lyons and John K. Raison.  Both the Plant Physiology Unit of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Division of Food Preservation in Ryde (Australia) in conjunction with the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney (Australia) oversaw this research which was peer-reviewed.What’s more, the American Chemical Society’s own scientists have confirmed that cucumbers regular body temperatures and help to avoid dehydration during heatwaves.  So cucumbers keep you cool and refreshed and hydrated.  Isn’t that amazing?

Cucumbers, it would seem, are very cool indeed.  Guess what else you might not know about cucumbers?  They’re not vegetables.  Cucumbers are fruit!

cucumbers

Historically speaking, cucumbers weren’t always called cucumbers.  Back in the 17th century, they were called cowcumbers and they were to be avoided.  In fact, Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) wrote in his diary on August 22, 1663:

This day Sir W. Batten tells me that Mr. Newburne (of whom the nickname came up among us forarse Tom Newburne) is dead of eating cowcumbers, of which, the other day, I heard another, I think Sir Nicholas Crisp’s son.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Sir William Batten (1600 – 1667) was an English naval officer as well as a Surveyor of the Navy.  He was the master and part-owner of Charles of London by 1630, and sat in the House of Commons from 1661 to 1667.

SIDE NOTE 3:  Sir Nicholas Crisp (1598 – 26 February 1666) was an English Royalist who was also a member of Parliament from 1640 to 1641, a member of the Council of Trade beginning in 1660, and was made a baronet a year before his death in 1665.  Beginning in 1625, he invested in a trading company known as “The Guinea Company” and three years later, he became a controlling stock holder.

Back in the 17th century, cucumbers weren’t held in high esteem at all regardless of how one spoke of them.  In fact, in the play “Cupid’s Revenge” by English dramatist Francis Beaumont (1584 – 6 March 1616) and Jacobean playwright John Fletcher  (20 December 1579 – 29 August 1625), cucumbers were used to insult some lovely ladies in their play.

NIFUS:
I do remember it to my Grief,
Young Maids were as cold as Cowcumbers
And much of that Complexion:
Bawds were abolisht; and, to which Misery
It must come again,
There were no Cuckolds.
Well, we had need pray to keep these
Devils from us,
The times grow mischievous.
There he goes, Lord!

SIDE NOTE 4:  The play was written in 1607 or 1608, but was only registered into the Stationers’ Register on 24 April 1615.

Getting back to Samuel Pepys and his diary entry:  Sometime between the horrible pronouncement that cucumbers were responsible for the passing of Mr. Newhouse (and others) in 1663 and today, the idiom cool as a cucumber came into play in a positive way.  But when (and how) did it stop being a felonious fruit to remake itself a good gourd?

The first published version of cool as a cucumber meaning what it does today is found in the poem “A New Song of New Similes” by English poet and dramatist John Gay (30 June 1685 – 4 December 1732).  John Gay is best remembered for his ballad opera titled, “The Beggar’s Opera” which was first performed on 29 January 1728.   That being said, “A New Song of New Similes” began with these stanzas.

My passion is as mustard strong;
I sit all sober sad;
Drunk as a piper all day long,
Or like a March-hare mad.

Round as a hoop the bumpers flow;
I drink, yet can’t forget her;
For though as drunk as David’s sow
I love her still the better.

Pert as a pear-monger I’d be,
If Molly were but kind;
Cool as a cucumber could see
The rest of womankind.

SIDE NOTE 5:  If “The Beggar’s Opera” sounds vaguely familiar to you it may be because it Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill transformed it into “The Threepenny Opera” (originally written as “Die Dreigroschenoper”) in 1928.

People have been as cool as cucumbers since 1732 thanks to John Gay.  That being said, some real life cool as cucumbers criminals are responsible for some humorous moments.  Such moments include one from 2014, when German authorities a shipment of drugs worth $56.28 million USD (€50 million Euros) headed to Iran from Germany.  The drugs were being smuggled in jars of pickles so it could be said that the both the drug smugglers and the drugs found themselves in a pickle.

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Bold As Brass

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That flibbertigibbet Mary –“

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

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

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

‘At what time?’ asked Jonas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tempest In A Teacup

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 28, 2016

When a very small event or situation is made out to be much more than what it is, don’t be surprised if someone mentions it’s a tempest or a storm in a teacup or a teapot.  Over the decades, many have said this when a huge commotion over an unimportant matter has happened.

Just last week, on April 22, 2016, the American Thinker website published an article by David Solway titled, “Distrust Yourself Before You Distrust The Candidate.”  The substance of the article had to do with how political candidates have their public profiles created to fit the demands of the voting public to which they wish to appeal.  The writer made several excellent points, including this one which included the idiom.

The Michelle Fields controversy is an excellent example of how the media and the pundits have inflated a tempest in a teacup to tsunami proportions.

When English writer, literary historian, scholar, critic, and wine connoisseur, George Saintsbury (23 October 1845 – 28 January 1933) published “A History of the French Novel (to the Close of the 19th Century), Volume I” in 1917, he included tempest in a teacup in Chapter XII which discussed minor and later novelists circa 1800 with specific reference to Jane Austen’s novels.

All the resources of typography — exclamations, points, dashes — have to be called in to express the generally disturbed state of things.  Now unfortunately this sort of perpetual tempest in a teacup (for it generally is in a teacup) requires unusual genius to make it anything but ludicrous.

The July 1903 edition of “Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: Volume VII, Part I” compiled by John Stephen Farmer (7 March 1854 – 1916) included this definition for the idiom.

Storm (or tempest) in a teacup (or teapot) subs. phr. (common) – Much ado about nothing: cd. ‘a tide and flood thought it be but in a basin of water’

IMPORTANT NOTE 1:  The entry attributed the basin of water quote to the “Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris” by English scholar, critic, and theologian, Richard Bentley (27 January 1662 – 14 July 1742) published in 1699.

In Volume 8 of “The Solicitors’ Journal and Reporter” published on in London on October 29, 1864 included an article on the subject of the alleged bankruptcy irregularities in Birmingham.  The question arose as a result of a news article that had been published in the Birmingham Daily Post.

If the alleged malpractices at Birmingham and elsewhere resolve themselves into a disputed question of law, we would like to ask those who have raised this “tempest in a teacup” whether they propose that any, and what, compensation should be awarded, and from what fund, to those who have now for some months been suffering under unjust imputations.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary puts the first known use of tempest in a teapot to 1838 without attribution.  In researching the expression, Idiomation was able to find even earlier published versions of tempest in a teapot.

On August 30, 1820 the Connecticut Gazette ran an anecdote from the late British lawyer and politician, Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow (9 December 1731 – 12 September 1806) who was Lord Chancellor from 1783 to 1792.  The anecdote was about an alleged calamity to Britain that was to have dire effects on the Church and State.  When it was revealed where this calamity was happening, the punchline was,”A tempest in a tea-pot.”  The anecdote is one that was published even earlier, in 1815 in “The Flowers of Wit, or A Choice Collection of Bon Mots Both Antient and Modern: Volume I.”  Based on this, the expression was understood in 1815, and the anecdote was most likely crafted during Baron Thurlow’s decade as Lord Chancellor, putting this to the mid 1780s.

The practice of drinking tea was introduced in England in 1644, after being the practice in France the previous decade, with the Dutch being the chief importers of tea leaves in the 1610s.  The word tea-cup came into vogue in 1700, so it’s safe to assume that the idiom tempest in a teacup didn’t exist before 1700.

There was the sense of the saying published in Volume 27 of “The Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library” published in 1749 where the following was written.

When Holdernesse revealed it to him, Pitt affected to believe that Newcastle was trying to negotiate behind his back: a teapot tempest brewed, despite Newcastle’s asseverations that he regarded it as but a jest.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the exact phrase tempest in a teacup earlier than the 1815 reference.  However, between the spirit of the idiom being used in the 1749 document and the anecdote dating back to the 1780s, Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the 1760s — halfway between 1749 and 1783.

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Never Trouble Trouble Till Trouble Troubles You

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 3, 2015

If you think something or someone might cause problems, don’t address it until it actually causes problems, and that’s what’s meant when you hear someone say never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you!  In this respect, it’s related to let sleeping dogs lie, don’t meet troubles halfway, and don’t cross the bridge till you come to it.

On September 10, 2010, SB Nation (a grassroots network of fan-centric sports communities) added “Schadenfreude Fridays” to their regular offerings.  The first article in the new column took a look at some of the lesser games that were available back in the 8-bit days of the NES gaming system.

In reviewing the game “Bad Street Brawler” the reviewer stated that the video game wasn’t fun to play and that it was one of a small handful of games that were outright terrible.  The review of the game began with this comment.

BSB greeted players with protagonist Duke Davis’s motto, “Never Trouble Trouble ‘Til Trouble Troubles  You.”  On the strength of that alone we could probably include this game on the list, but its awfulness goes so much deeper.

Robert N. St. Clair thought the idiom should be the title of a play, and so he wrote, “Never Trouble Trouble: A Rollicking Face In Three Acts” in 1938.  A prolific playwright of comedic dramas, this play was part of the collection of plays he wrote in this genre.  While it was one of his earlier works, it was one worth noting for its humor.

Idiomation found the idiom in a poem by Fanny Windsor, titled, “Never Trouble Trouble” and published in Volume XIX, Number 5 of The Manifesto from May 1889.  The magazine was published in Shaker Village, New Hampshire.

My good man is a clever man,
Which no one will gainsay;
He lies awake to plot and plan
‘Gainst lions in the way.
While I, without a thought of ill,
Sleep sound enough for three;
For I never trouble trouble till
Trouble troubles me.

That same year, Volume 2 (from M to Z) of “The Salt-Cellars: Being A Collection of Proverbs Together With Homely Notes Thereon” by Charles Haddon Spurgeon and published by Alabaster Passmore and Sons in London (England) included the idiom found in Fanny Windsor’s poem.

It was also part of the advice that Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809 – 15 April 1865) gave Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley’s daughter, Frances Mary Gurley (9 July 1841 – 22 August 1907), and her husband, Civil War Union Officer, Major William Anthony Elderkin (15 May 1839 – 1 January 1900), when they married on June 9, 1861.  The Reverend Gurley (12 November 1816 – 30 September 1868) was the chaplain of the United States Senate as well as the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

A man needs a wife as much in war as he does in peace. I think he needs her more.  Stay with your husband when you can. Don’t let a third party interfere between you two; stay by yourselves. Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.

In the Dunstable New Hampshire Telegraph newspaper edition of July 20, 1836, the expression showed up in a bit of advice about the weather.

The Weather – After all, the weather seems to be such as to promise something to the farmer.  We shall have no famine at present.  Grass, grain, fruit, potatoes, and a thousand other things look well and promising.  Corn is backward, but has changed its color within a day or two, and shot up surprisingly.  No use in long face.  “Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you,” was good advice, coming from a good source.

In November 1779, the United States Congress voted unanimously to nominate John Adams (30 October 1735 – 4 July 1826) on a mission to negotiate the end of the war and a peace treaty with Britain as well as a commerce agreement.  His diplomatic assignments took him to Paris in 1779 and later on, to the Netherlands in 1780.

At the time, John Adams (who later became the second President of the United States) had to negotiate with France as well as with Britain because of the Treaty of Alliance which stipulated that, until the allies agreed jointly to ending the war, in the eyes of signatories to the Treaty of Alliance, the war was not ended.

On May 12, 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, that including the proverb.

Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you. I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

The proverb was included in the 1741 edition of Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”

The proverb is actually a rewording of an earlier proverb found in John Ray’s “A Handbook of Proverbs” published in 1670.  John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) was a clergyman, biologist, and naturalist, and is called the father of English natural history.  The proverb upon which this proverb is based is this:

Let your trouble tarry till its own day comes.

And before that, the spirit of never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you is found in a quote by Roman philosopher, playwrite, orator, and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. – A.D. 65).  Seneca was a tutor to Nero, and Nero kept him on as an advisor when he became Emperor in 54 A.D.  He retired as Nero’s advisor in 62 A.D., and three years later, Nero accused Seneca of conspiring against him, forcing his former tutor and advisor to commit suicide.  In his works, Seneca wrote this:

Quid iuvat dolori sui occurrere?
What help is it to run out to meet your troubles?

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you prior to 1741.  This indicates that somewhere between 1670 and 1740, the proverb was reworded.  Idiomation therefore pegs the date to 1740, with a nod to Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

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Common Sense Is Not So Common

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 1, 2015

It seems that more and more often, people are saying and posting on social media that common sense is not so common.  Although the concept has seen a resurgence in this era, it’s possible that the search for common sense which is not so common has been an ongoing activity among the human race.

In the July 12, 1992 edition of The Telegraph, Weisman & Tesser Associates placed an advertisement that told readers of the expert guidance in financial investment and planning people could expect from their firm.  The ad concluded with the statement that “common sense means getting help from the right source.”  The point put to readers was that Weisman & Tesser Associates was that right source.  The headline that drew readers’ attention to the advertisement was this: “Common sense is not so common.”  The quote was attributed to Voltaire.

There are those who will argue that it was actually American author and humorist Mark Twain (30 November 1835 – 21 April 1910) who uttered those words albeit in a less grammatical form:  “I’ve found that common sense ain’t so common.”

Except that American cowboy, performer, social commentator, actor and humorist Will Rogers (4 November 1879 – 15 August 1935) is also credited for having said the same thing.  But does it matter if it was Mark Twain or Will Rogers who is responsible for that version of the quote?

Indeed, French author, historian, satirist, and philosopher Voltaire (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778) — whose real name was François-Marie Arouet  —   did publish this quote in his book “Dictionnaire philosophique portatif” in 1764.  His book, however, was not without controversy as the Magnificent Council of Geneva ordered all available copies (which had been sold under the counter as opposed as in the traditional way of legitimate book shops) of his book seized on the basis that it directly challenged the authenticity of Revelation.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE #1:  François-Marie Arouet adopted the pseudonym, which is based on the Latinized spelling of his name, in 1718.  The name was derived from the anagram of “Arovet Li.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE #2:  It is claimed that Voltaire had a minimum of 178 pen names throughout his lifetime.

So even though Voltaire first wrote this common sense is not so common, he wasn’t the first to express this thought.  English poet and political writer Nicholas Amhurst (16 October 1697 – 27 April 1742) wrote “Terræ-filius or The Secret History of the University of Oxford In Several Essays” published in 1726, in which is found the following:

Common SenseWhat this shows is that even Nicholas Amhurst knew that there was not a more uncommon thing in the world than common sense which, of course, is just another way of saying that common sense is not so common.

But long before Nicholas Amhurst, there was the Roman poet Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis (known in English as Juvenal) who wrote this in Book III of his collection of satirical poems, “Satires.”

Rarus enim ferme sensus communis.
Common sense is generally rare.

Juvenal died in 130 A.D. and as Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to common sense not being common, Idiomation gives a nod to Voltaire for coming up with the exact wording based on the writings of Juvenal.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 2nd Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Many A Mickle Makes A Muckle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 11, 2015

Until recently, Idiomation wasn’t aware of the idiom that proclaimed that many a mickle makes a muckle. As the idiom was researched, it was learned that mickle and muckle are different forms of the same word meaning much or large.

The saying is actually many a pickle maks a mickle, which some mangled into many a pickle maks a muckle. This in turn became many a mickle makes a muckle.

But what exactly did it mean to use pickle in this sense if mickle meant much or large? In Scotland, where the idiom originated, pickle meant a small quantity. So the idiom actually meant that many little things gathered together made for a lot.

On February 13, 1985, the Wilmington Morning Star published the usual assortment of Letters to the Editor. The first letter was from Henry Stone Jr. of Supply, North Carolina. The focus of the letter was military spending, or rather, military misspending. In his letter, he pointed out that when ten million in military spending couldn’t be accounted for, it was understandable given that ten million was only one half of one hundredth of one percent of the $200 billion budget. But it was still ten million dollars of taxpayers’ money. His last sentence was modified and became the headline for the Letters to the Editor that day: Many A Military Mickle Makes A Muckle.

Over in Australia, The Age newspaper ran an advertisement in the May 24, 1951 edition for the State Savings Bank of Victoria. Using a story about a little raindrop, the hope was that readers would bank with them. The first paragraph in the copy titled “Said The Raindrop!” was this:

Little by little makes more and more, or as the saying goes, “Many a mickle makes a muckle.”

The Milwaukee Sentinel of May 18, 1924 published an advertisement placed by the First Wisconsin National Bank — a bank that proudly announced that it had capital and surplus of ten million dollars, and boasted a clientele of over 59,000 customers. The advertisement was intended to encourage readers to save money at their bank, stating that every little bit, added to what one already had, made for a little bit more. The advertisement was titled, “Many A Mickle Makes A Muckle.”

In the May 20, 1916 edition of the Milwaukee Journal a small tidbit of information was tucked neatly between comments about Germany, and the House Committee’s decision to authorize seven capital ships (three dreadnaughts and four battle cruisers), and an OpEd piece by H. Addington Bruce discussing the drawbacks of being a dilettante.

The nugget praised France for making the most of little things, and was titled, “The Power Of Little Things.” The article ended with this paragraph.

Many a mickle makes a muckle, but America has just begun to learn the lesson. Many a small waste added to the great current makes a vast drain of hundreds of millions of dollars. France, above all nations, can teach us the undreamed power of little things combined into stupendous wholes.

When George Washington (22 February 1732 – 14 December 1799) heard the expression used, he misremembered it and introduced it to America as many mickles make a muckle. It would appear that the misremembered expression was first used in a letter he wrote to William Pearce on December 18, 1793 in which he wrote:

Nothing will contribute more to effect these desirable purposes than a good example, unhapply this was not set (from what I have learnt lately) by Mr. Whiting, who, it is said, drank freely, kept bad company at my house and in Alexandria, and was a very debauched person, wherever this is the case it is not easy for a man to throw the first stone for fear of having it returned to him: and this I take to be the true cause why Mr. Whiting did not look more scrupulously into the conduct of the Overseers, and more minutely into the smaller matters belonging to the Farms; which, though individually may be trifling, are not found so in the agregate; for there is no addage more true than an old Scotch one, that “many mickles make a muckle.”

But George Washington wasn’t the only American to share a misheard version of the idiom. In fact, in the writings of Benjamin Franklin (17 January 1706 – 17 April 1790), a variation appears. In Volume II of “The Writings of Benjamin Franklin” collected and edited by Albert Henry Smith and covering the years 1722 through 1750 inclusive, the following is said to have been published in The Pennsylvania Gazette on July 24, 1732 under the pseudonym of Celia Single. In the letter, a discussion is recounted and includes this:

“I knit Stockins for you!” says she; “not I truly! There are poor Women in Town, that can knit; if you please, you may employ them.” “Well, but my Dear,” says he, “you know a penny sav’d is a penny got, a pin a day is a groat a year, every little makes a muckle, and there is neither Sin nor Shame in Knitting a pair of Stockins; why should you express such a might Aversion to it? As to poor Women, you know we are not People of Quality, we have no Income to maintain us but what arises from my Labour and Industry: Methinks you should not be at all displeas’d, if you have an Opportunity to get something as well as myself.”

For those who prefer George Washington’s variation, many mickels make a muckle dates back to George Washington and 1793. For those who prefer Benjamin Franklin’s variation, every little makes a muckle dates back to Benjamin Franklin and 1732.

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Under Your Hat

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 25, 2015

It’s not every day that an idiom has as illustrious — or as convoluted — a history as the one that’s part of under your hat.  When someone tells you to keep what they’re sharing with you under your hat, they expect you to keep their confidences and not betray their secrets.

Back in 1732, under the reign of King George III, Britain levied a tax against American colonists in the form of the Hat Act.  Great Britain outlawed the manufacturing and exporting of hats in the colonies and made it illegal to engage in inter-colonial sale of hats.  Hats were imported from Britain and were subjected to a heavy tax.   This is an important bit of history to keep under your hat while the rest of the story unfolds.

The Reading Eagle newspaper edition of February 10, 1980 ran a column about photography that was authored by Holt Confer titled, “Keep It Under Your Hat.”  Holt welcomed non-technical questions and column suggestions from readers, but this column while serious, also kept everything light.  The first two paragraphs clearly set the tone for the column.

I’ll have to admit “Keep It Under Your Hat” is a strange name for a photography column.  If you take a quick glance at the two photographs, the title will become a bit more relevant.

And if I tell you a few more “secrets” about photographic exposures (“secrets” I don’t mind if you pass along) then the title will be a lot more relevant.

During WWII, while the Americans ran with the campaign slogan that warned loose lips sank ships, people in the UK had their own slogan from 1940:  Keep it under your hat.  The campaign addressed every class — from working class to upper class — and drove home the point that anything a person knew, whether they thought it was important or not, was a danger to the men on the front lines if it what they knew was talked about.

National Archives_UK_1940s
In April 1925, the California Melody Syncopators released a 78 RPM record on Clover Records.  The song was entitled, “Keep It Under Your Hat.”   It was a re-release of the 1923 hit for the California Ramblers that was written by Eddie Cantor, Charles Tobias, and Louis Breau.

It was in Volume 20 of “Gleaning In Bee Culture” that the term was used in response to Chas. Israel’s Letter to the Editor dated New York, September 30, 1892.  The author of the letter had read an article on honey adulteration written by Professor Cook, and he was concerned over a new law that went into effect on September 1, 1892 that addressed the issue of adulterated honey and maple sugar.

The matter of grades of honey, and feeding bees glucose to make their honey all that much sweeter, was also an issue, and he dragged Mr. W.J. Cullinan of Quincy, Illinois into his worries. And finally he references the “American Analyst” edition of June 18, 1892 where it was mentioned that some of the most reliable dealers of honey in the United States was selling adulterated honey!  The response from the Editor included this passage.

We know of just one who did do it, as above-mentioned, and possibly there may be a few others; but their number, as compared with honest honey-producers who feel aggrieved and injured because of the mixing on the part of the city chaps is as nothing.  Now, if we are wrong in our assumption — and possibly we are — we want the brethren everywhere to speak right out.  If you do not wish to have your name as informant mentioned in connection with the matter, nor any thing done about it at all, say so; at any rate, tell us where you know of a producer who is engaged in the mixing business, and we will keep it “under our hat” if you say so.

The spirit of under your hat is found in the novel, “The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy” by English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (18 July 1811 – 24 December 1863) and published in 1848.  There, in the chapter entitled, “More Storms In The Puddle” readers find this passage:

The old grandmother crooning in the corner and bound to another world within a few months, has some business or cares which are quite private and her own — very likely she is thinking of fifty years back, and that night when she made such an impression, and danced a cotillon with the captain before your father proposed for her: or, what a silly little over-rated creature your wife is, and how absurdly you are infatuated about her — and, as for your wife — O philosophic reader, answer and say — Do you tell her all?  Ah, sir — a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine — all things in nature are different to each — the woman we look at has not the same features, the dish we eat has not the same taste to the one and the other — you and I are but a pair of infinite isolations, with some fellow-islands a little more or less near to us.

French chronicler Jean de Vennette (1308 – 1370) wrote that the British soldiers at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 protected their bows by putting the strings on their heads under their helmets.  At the time of the Battle of Crécy (26 August 1346), the preferred bow for military purposes was the longbow.  The bow-staves were a single piece of straight-grained yew, and unstrung, the bow was six feet long and tapered.  Bow strings were waxed and oiled to keep them weather-proof and flexible.

While it’s true that the bowmen kept their strings under their helmets, it was no secret about where the bowmen kept their strings, and keeping strings dry isn’t the same as keeping secrets.  It is highly unlikely that keeping something under your hat has anything to do with the Battle of Crécy or bowmen.

The Adventurer” was a journal where John Hawkesworth (1715 – November 16, 1773) was the editor and principal writer from 7 November 1752 through to March 1754, and was the successor to Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784).  In all, about seventy papers written by John Hawkesworth were included in the four volume series published in 1793.  In Volume IV of this collection, the spirit of the idiom is implied in this passage:

By a sudden stroke of conjuration, a great quantity of gold might be conveyed under his hat.

The dictionary defines conjuration as an illusory feat that could be considered magical by those who were unfamiliar with the trickery.  In other words, hocus pocus, legerdemain, prestidigitation, sleight of hand.  If one was adept at conjuration, there was considerable money to be made as long as the secret of the magic involved was kept locked up inside the person’s head which, of course, back in the day, would have been covered by a hat.

This indicates that the early beginnings of keeping information under your hat cropped up in the early 1750s, twenty or so years after the Hat Act of 1732.  Whether the idiom is as a result of John Hawkesworth’s writings or the Hat Act of 1732, Idiomation pegs the expression to the mid-1700s.  Of course, if any of our readers know differently, please share in the Comments section below.  After all, there’s no reason to keep that information under your hat, is there?

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Beer And Skittles

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 26, 2015

It’s not all beer and skittles they say, and when they say that, they mean that it’s not the easy life one might think or hope it would be.

Politics sometimes has a way of using colorful idioms to make a point and so it was on January 4, 1960 when Frank Macomber’s story appeared in the Lodi News Sentinel.  He shared the tales of woe that come with a Congressman’s life, including the chores of answering mail from constituents.  The article was entitled, “A Congressman’s Life Isn’t Always Beer And Skittles.”

It was back on February 6, 1931 that comic Hollywood actor Buster Keaton found himself the main topic of discussion in Mollie Merrick’s column that related the goings on in Hollywood for the rest of America to read.  Mollie Merrick related the story of “Kathleen Key, brilliant brunette beauty, who landed one on Buster Keaton’s jaw and wrecked his dressing room” the previous day “over a little discussion about money.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with who Kathleen Key was, she played the role of Tirzah in the 1925 movie, “Ben Hur.”

Kathleen Key

Kathleen Key

Buster claimed it all happened shortly after he gave the actress a check in the presence of two witnesses:  Cliff Edwards and Clarence Locan.  Buster Keaton said the check had been made out for $5,000 but that the actress demanded an additional $20,000. However, the check was supposed to originally be for $500 and was a bet between the actress and the comedian with regards to the actress losing 20 pounds in 10 days.

In the end, he claimed that he tore up the check and that the actress manhandled him “something awful” while the witnesses “left in a hurry.”  Mollie Merrick covered a lot of details in her story, and ended with this paragraph.

Perhaps there’ll be another check written.  There generally is when a movie star gets into trouble.  It’s the easiest way to straighten things out.  And may I add here that the movie folk often pay through the nose rather than have a scandal.  Being famous isn’t all beer and skittles.

Buster Keaton, at the time, was married to Natalie Talmadge, the youngest (according to Mollie Merrick at the time) of the very famous Talmadge sisters.

Life wasn’t all beer and skittles for Sinclair Lewis (February 7, 1885 – January 10, 1951) on that same date according to the Spokane Daily Chronicle.  The newspaper ran a story out of London (England) that reported that Sinclair Lewis was inundated with mail from strangers demanding money from him but not because he owed money.  They demanded it from him because they were under the mistaken belief that as a Nobel prize winner, he was loaded with cash.  The article began very simply with this sentence:

Life is not all beer and skittles even for the winner of the Nobel prize in literature, Sinclair Lewis is beginning to find out.

It would seem that February 1931 had more than a few news articles alluding to beer and skittles!

It was in the Spring of 1876 through to the Spring of 1877 that letters under the heading of “Uppingham By The Sea” were published in The Times newspaper.  On January 27, 1878 the letters by John Huntley Skrine (3 April 1848 – 8 May 1923) were published as a book under the title, “Uppingham by the Sea: A Narrative of the Year at Borth.”  It was in Chapter IX titled, “The First Term: Making History” that the nature of skittles was clearly stated which helps to explain why beer or ale was associated with the game.

It was too narrow to be used, as was hoped, for games; unless, indeed, we had turned it into a skittle-alley.  But then skittles is a game of low connections.

A game of low connections?  Oh my!  And so, beer and skittles or ale and skittles was a pastime indulged in that required little more than an interest in playing the game and imbibing beer or ale.

In the book “Nature and Human Nature” by Thomas Chandler Haliburton (17 December 1796 – 27 August 1865) — who was also the author of “Sam Slick the Clock Maker” and other popular books of the era — published in New York City by Stringer and Townsend in 1855, the idiom appeared twice within sentences of each other in Chapter II entitled, “Clippers and Steamers.”

“It seemeth hard, Tom,” said Bill, tryin’ to comfor him — “it seemeth hard; but I’m an older man nor you be, Tom, the matter of several years;” and he gave his trowsers a twitch.  (“You know they don’t wear galluses, though a gallus holds them up sometimes,”) shifted his quid, gave his nor-wester a pull over his forehead, and looked solemncholly, “and my experience, Tom, is, that this life ain’t all beer and skittles.”

And just a bit further in this chapter:

“This life aint all beer and skittles.”  Many a time since I heard that anecdote — and I heard it in Kew Gardens, of all places in the world — when I am disappointed sadly I say that saw over, and console myself with it.

Jumping back to the turn of that century, in 1800, Volume Five of the “Queensland Agricultural Journal” included a comment from a correspondent of the “Agricultural Gazette” of New South Wales.   It would seem that beer and skittles was part of the lexicon down under as well.  The correspondent reported in part:

Now, a small farmer who clears £150 per annum may be classed amongst the happy men of the earth.  He calls no man master.  He lives comfortably, pays no rent, pays his way, has a healthy if laborious life, and takes his occasional holiday with his family without asking anyone’s permission.  Of course, farming is not all “beer and skittles.”

It was a well-known idiom, and appeared ten years earlier in the book “Letters On Education” by Catharine Macaulay.  Published in 1790, a letter is included in the book that reads thusly:

You will spare the rod at the peril of the boy’s soul; spare the lollipops and no harm is done.  Notice, I beg you, that what is at stake is the foundation view of all life.  We can hardly conceive the beautiful freedom from prejudice with which a child starts on living.  He is really prepared to believe that life is not all beer and skittles, though he hopes of course that it may prove to be.  Leave him alone and he will try to make it such.

It was in the account by William Hutton (30 September 1723 – 20 September 1815) of Birmingham which he published in 1781 that the activities of the “humbler class” were described as “completely suited to the lowest of tempers” and of “low amusement.” (The commentary sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it?)  These included, according to William Hutton, “skittles and ale.”

Cards and the visit are linked together, nor is the billiard table totally forsaken. One man amuses himself in amassing a fortune, and another in dissolving one.

About thirty-six of the inhabitants keep carriages for their own private use; and near fifty have country houses. The relaxations of the humbler class, are fives, quoits, skittles, and ale.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of skittles and ale or beer and skittles that retains the spirit of the idiom.  However, it was used easily to describe society in 1781 in Birmingham and since the game of skittles was well-known as early 1635, it’s reasonable to venture a guess that by 1700, ale and skittles — also known as beer and skittles by some — were considered inseparable by most in society.

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Begorrah

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 17, 2015

Begorra is sometimes used on its own, sometimes used with the word faith as in faith and begorrah or with the word sure as in sure and begorrah.  The word is a way of saying by God without taking the Lord’s name in vain, which, of course, is one of the Ten Commandments.  

Believe it or not, the 42.ie is a sports news source published by The Journal in Dublin, Ireland, and while the 42.ie publishes news about rugby, football, and more, it also found time this year on March 14 to share the latest on “Irish Goodby” shorts being sold in America.  The announcement began with this paragraph:

TODAY’S BAD NEWS in begob-and-begorrah merchandise: these ‘Irish Goodbye’ shorts for American bros who want to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.

It also included this delightful photograph from the Chubbies website.

IMAGE 1
Now it was in the Irish Times newspaper of March 4, 2010 that movie critic Donald Clarke took on a movie starring English actor, Matthew Goode, in his column “Whingeing About Cinema And Real Life Since 2009.”  The reviewer had set his sights on the movie, “Leap Year” which, according to him, propagated the typical “sort of sentimental twinkly version of Ireland” that American films tend to churn out.  The actor, however, didn’t take badly to any criticisms of the movie, and actually had a few concerns of his own regarding the movie.  The article was titled,Matthew Goode Kicks The Begorrah Out Of His Own Film!

The Spokane Daily Chronicle made a big deal out of what happened on St. Patrick’s Day a year earlier by publishing am abbreviated follow-up article on March 17, 1950.  It pointed out that the previous year, Spokane’s Irish American mayor, Arthur Meehan, had showed up at his office wearing a red tie.  The following year, it was reported that he showed up with what was described as a “shimmering green tie beyond description.”  The announcement published on page 5 was titled,Mayor Learned Lesson, Begorrah.”

Somewhere along the line, some people began to deny that the word had any affiliation with the people of Ireland.  In fact, it was in “The Trend: A Bulletin of Current History and Letters” Volume I edited by George Earle Raiguel that someone took exception to the claim that begorrah was Irish in any way.  An article entitled, “Lingual Growing Pains” written by Benjamin Musser was included in the edition published on September 7, 1922.  The article read in part:

Mr. Mencken should know that the profane begob and begorrah are unknown to Irish people:  they are words employed only by jokesmiths in cheap burlesque and pink papers.  It is rather in habits of pronunciation, of syntax, and even of grammar, Mr. Mencken continues, that we have been influenced by the Irish.

Unfortunately, Benjamin Musser was mistaken on this point as begorrah was mentioned in the “Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science” in Volume 44 published on August 1, 1867  — referenced by a medical professional no less!  The first part of the journal was dedicated to “Original Communications” with the first article dealing with aphasia, written by Dr. John Popham, physician to the Cork North Infirmary.  In his article, he wrote about a specific patient who used the word begorrah.

The use of oaths in aphasia has been often noticed.  I have now a patient in the infirmary whose answer to every question begins with, “Oh! Begorrah!”  After ejaculating this oath with great confidence in his powers of speech, the poor man comes to a full stop, ponders for the next word, and failing to find it, ends by making a frantic tug at his hair.  Dr. Falret thinks that swearing occurs chiefly in emotional states.  This is, I believe, often the case, but it also depends on the use of oaths as by-words from early habit.

English novelist Anthony Trollope (24 April 1815 – 6 December 1882) used it in his book, “The Kellys and the O’Kellys:  Landlords and Tenants” published in 1848. It is said that Anthony Trollope’s works provided a steady, consistent vision of the social structures of Victorian England, and since the word begorra is used in his novel in 1848, the word begorra was indeed used in Ireland and England at the time.

“Well—I’m shot av’ I know the laist in the world what all this is about!” said Martin, as he stood in the street, reading over the legally-worded letter—”‘conspiracy!’—well that’ll do, Mr Daly; go on—’enticing away from her home!’—that’s good, when the blackguard nearly knocked the life out of her, and mother brought her down here, from downright charity, and to prevent murdher—’wake intellects!’—well, Mr Daly, I didn’t expect this kind of thing from you: begorra, I thought you were above this!—wake intellects! faith, they’re a dale too sthrong, and too good—and too wide awake too, for Barry to get the betther of her that way. Not that I’m in the laist in life surprised at anything he’d do; but I thought that you, Mr Daly, wouldn’t put your hands to such work as that.”

The interjection appears in “Fardorougha, The Miser” by Irish writer and novelist William Carleton (20 February 1794 – 30 January 1869) and published in 1839.  The author was best known for his accurate sketches of stereotypical Irishmen, and as such, because begorra shows up in his writings, it’s to be believe that the word was, indeed, used in Ireland in the 1830s.  The word appears three times in this novel, with this being one of those three times.

“If it’s only the Bodagh got it,” replied his comrade, who was no other than Micky Malvathra, “blaizes to the hair I care. When my brother Barney, that suffered for Caam Beal (crooked mouth) Grime’s business, was before his thrial, hell resave the taisther the same Bodagh would give to defind him.”

“Damn it,” rejoined the other, “but to murdher a man in his bed! Why, now, if it was only comin’ home from a fair or market, but at midnight, an’ in his bed, begorra it is not the thing, Mickey.”

At this point, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of begorrah than the one in 1839 despite the Merriam-Webster Dictionary claim it was first used in 1715 without quote the source material where it can be found.

That is was used so easily in William Carleton’s writing and because he is well-known for his accurate depiction of Irish life, use of the word begorrah is one that would have been entrenched in society at least in 1839.  Idiomation therefore pegs begorrah to at least 1800.

Should any readers, visitors, or followers know of an earlier published version of begorrah, please feel free to include it in the Comments Section below.

And as we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at Idiomation, we’ll close off this entry with this Irish blessing:  May the roof above us never fall in, and may we friends beneath it never fall out.

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