Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

  • Archives

  • Pages

  • Subscribe

  • Meta

Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 19th Century’ Category

Down The Rat Hole

Posted by Admin on February 26, 2022

Last month, Idiomation posted about going down the rabbit hole, and along the way we found out about going down the rat hole which isn’t at all the same as going down the rabbit hole. When someone goes down the rat hole, it’s for a worthless purpose or reason and is a complete waste of money as well as resources.

Now the rathole being researched isn’t the rathole that’s known in poker playing circles. When a rathole refers to cards, that means to leave the table with a profit, and to return later on with a minimum buy-in after pocketing that big win. While ratholing is a great way to ensure a gambler doesn’t lose all the money they won previously, it’s not something most gamblers or casinos look kindly upon.

With the difference explained, let’s return to going down the rat hole.

The Military News published a story on 5 March 2021, it was reported that the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee questioned how the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program fit into the Defense Department’s future strategy. With the program’s total cost projected to surpass $1 trillion USD over a 50-year service lifetime, Democratic representative Adam Smith referred to the program as throwing money “down that particular rathole.”

Jordan Ross Belfort, the infamous American entrepreneur, former stockbroker and convicted felon who pleaded guilty to fraud and related crimes in connection with stock-market manipulation, created, by way of his crimes, the perfect example of throwing money down the rat-hole.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The major motion picture by Warner Brothers, “Wolf of Wall Street” is based on Jordan Ross Belfort and his time on Wall Street.

Back on 1 October 1981, the New York Times reported on U.S. Federal bureaucrat and whistleblower Al Louis Ripskis, who tasked himself with tracking down the waste and malfeasance in his own agency and root it out. It was stated that Mr. Ripskis past crusades resulted in Congressional hearings and publicity that embarrassed and humiliated officials. This time, he railed against the ways his agency could have researched water conservation without spending $500,000 USD in the process.

From his office in a ninth-floor cubbyhole at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Al Louis Ripskis whispers into the phone. “The brazenness. The gall. They’re pouring money down a rat hole!”

Even Time magazine made use of the expression, reporting it in an article titled, “Political Note: Rat Hole” published on 3 February 1930. The article dealt with Chicago’s public debt with no money in the City Treasury, none in the Cook County Treasury, and none in the School Board Treasury. Twenty-three park boards were penniless.

There was $500,000 outstanding on coal and because of that, coal dealers were refusing to deliver more coal to schools. Over $7 million was owed to provision merchants supplying food, and 13,000 teachers had not been paid at all in 1930, not just in the current school year. Nearly 4,000 Cook County employees were owed over a million dollars in back pay, and that wasn’t all that was going on.

No taxes had been paid in the city or county in 20 months as a result of the 1928 rebellion of property owners against discriminatory assessments. Tax warrants had been issued but Chicago bankers refused to advance any more cash on the $189,000,000 worth of tax warrants that had been issued.

The State Tax Commissioner William H. Malone had suggested the sale of $50,000,000 tax warrants to Chicago railroads, industries, and large landed corporations, but Chicago railroads, industries and large landed corporations objected on the basis that the city already owed all of them millions of dollars in services rendered.

Prominent Chicago lawyer, Silas Hardy Strawn (15 December 1866 – 4 February 1946), was an organizer of a Citizens’ Committee who understood all too well the desperate straits in which Chicago’s politicians had placed its citizens. The magazine reported that Silar Hardy Strawn stated clearly:

“Everyone stays asleep. . . . They talk politics, of getting somebody out of office. . . . They saw they would be putting their money down a rat hole with the present politicians in office.”

Chicago Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson (14 May 1869 – 19 March 1944) marginalized Silas Hardy Strawn’s comments, blaming “reformers” and Chicago newspapers for the troubles Chicago was experiencing.

Virginia’s Norfolk Post newspaper of 5 August 1921 used the expression in a headline: “Money Down The Rat-Hole.” At the time, the Shipping Board was alleged to have a hostile attitude towards labor and that hostile attitude resulted in a strike which allegedly cost millions. It was claimed in the article if honest practices were forced by the Shipping Board, there would be a saving of $18.50 out of every $100.00 spent in operations instead of the $2.25 out of every $100.00 by way of the Shipping Board’s wage reduction and ship lay-offs decision.

B.C. Butler, manager of general advertising for four daily newspapers published in Omaha, St. Paul, Des Moines, and Kansas City, took on newspapers in a letter that was published in a number of other newspapers and magazines in 1906. It was published in the Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers in Volume LVI Issue Number 6 on 8 August 1906. The letter began as follows:

Geo. P. Rowell says circulation is the number of perfect papers printed.

Thus doth the venerable authority mislead the advertiser into one of the worst “rat-holes” that ever ruined an advertising campaign.

This “rat-hole” is unpaid circulation, and down this “rat-hole” the advertisers of America have poured millions of dollars.

He was on a roll, and after a few more pointed comments were made, he ended his letter thusly:

In closing I wish to say that the St. Paul Daily News has only quality circulation to sell, and we guarantee advertisers that its total net paid up circulation every day is larger than any other newspaper in St. Paul, without regard to any circulation figures that are now printed and accepted by advertisers and agency directories to the contrary.

This is a pretty strong claim, but we want somebody to disprove it. It may start the fur flying but we will locate the “rat-hole” while we are on the subject of advertising “rat-holes.”

In an article titled, “Success in Manufacturing” published in Volume 21 of The Manufacturer and Builder: A Practical Journal of Industrial Progress published in July of 1889, quick mention was made of the Westinghouse Machine Company of Pittsburgh that had sent fully equipped experts out to visit a number of prominent manufacturing establishments so they could test the consumption of power by each machine. The question was asked why economize in wages and in the cost of raw materials when there was waste of fuel and power happening. The article ended stating the following:

Few people in this country seem to realize the amount of money that can be wasted in a year, through the steam pipe. The proverbial ‘rat hole’ will not compare with it. The manufacturer who has learned to economize at the steam pipe, has learned one of the most important secrets of success.

Fifteen years earlier, on 23 February 1874, the Daily Republican newspaper of Little Rock, Arkansas reported on page 1:

The ways and means committee, as well as the people, state they would like to see how that $30,000 was appropriated before they pour any more money down the rat-hole.

Twenty years earlier, on 18 July 1854, the Georgia Telegraph reported this on page 2 of its newspaper.

The Memphis Appeal thinks it a pretty good sign of hard times “when you see a (illegible) worth seventy thousand digging for two hours with a pickaxe for a five cent piece that had rolled down a rat hole.

But Idiomation came across an interesting article in the Litchfield Enquirer of 28 July 1842. It isn’t so much the passing of Mr. South that was interesting but rather where he had hidden his money.

The Norwich Courier of Tuesday states that a Mr. South, for many years the keeper of a drinking and oyster shop in that city died on the previous day in a fit. On searching his premises about four thousand dollars in specie was found stowed away in old segar and raisin boxes, in bags and old shoes, in every rat-hole about the shop.

Another article from 02 February 1842, the Camden Journal in South Carolina reprinted an article from the Charleston Courier newspaper about money found.

In removing some logs which had been lying for a year post upon Commercial Wharf, the laborers found, in a rat hole, about four hundred dollars in bills of the Georgetown Bank. One man found nearly two hundred dollars, including three 50 dollar bills.

It seems to Idiomation that hiding paper money down rat-holes may have been something done in the mid 1800s which would certainly explain the idiom of throwing anything of value down the rathole was a bad idea as rats, like any rodent, are more than happy to shred money to make a comfy nest for themselves.

Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to the 1850s with a strong nod to the fact that rat holes and bank notes made strange bedfellows long before that time and no idea who published the idiom first.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Down The Rabbit Hole

Posted by Admin on January 29, 2022

There are many times when Idiomation has found itself going down the rabbit hole while researching an idiom, expression, phrase, or word, and the results are always interesting albeit unexpected. When someone says they are going down the rabbit hole, they are embarking on an adventure into the unknown.

When speaking with Robert Brundage of Robert Teaches English back in November, when going down the rabbit hole was mentioned, Robert guessed the expression was probably first used in the Lewis Carroll aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898) book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” published in 1865 when Alice falls down a hole where the White Rabbit had disappeared and finds herself in a very strange world indeed.

Up until that point, Idiomation hadn’t researched down the rabbit hole and was unable to confirm or rule out whether Robert’s guess was correct. What Idiomation knew is that going down the rabbit hole is nothing like going down the rat hole (which will be covered at a later date).

Using Lewis Carroll’s book as the starting point, the first chapter of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is titled, “Down The Rabbit-Hole.” Having read the book often as a child, the adventures that ensue from Alice going down the rabbit hole establishes the meaning associated with the idiom, and it is the starting point for all of Alice’s adventures in the story.

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.

When “Alice Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” was published in 1872, it was during a season that was seen as having been comparatively dull and unproductive for books, and the good news was this according to reviewers:

“Alice” is alive again, or rather has been to sleep again ; this time she has gone through the looking glass instead of down the rabbit’s hole, but she is the same Alice, and her adventures are as delightful as ever.

The review went on to state:

“If people will ask whether the second book is as good as the first, we can only answer that the second can never have the charm of novelty, which is a peculiar element in the success of its forerunner. We shall be glad to hear even more of Alice’s dreams — though, perhaps, even of them, we may some day get tired.

It would appear, based on this review in Volume 18 of “The Month: An Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Science and Art” published in February 1872, that going down the rabbit-hole was a comment that spoke well of the adventures Alice went on to have in her first book, and the hopes for her adventures in the second book.

Two years before the second Alice book was published, in “Amy’s Wish and What Came of It” written by Mrs. George Tylee (1811 – 1897) with illustrations by G. Wigand, published in 1870, Lewis Carroll’s book and character were mentioned.

I saw a new book lying on papa’s table, all about a little girl that had the most wonderful adventures ‘ she went down a rabbit-hole, and sometimes she grew so tall she touched the ceiling, and then she grew so short again that her chin knocked against the floor. Oh! how I should like to be just like that little girl.

There was no question which book the main character had spied on her father’s table. It was obviously “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” All the author had to do was to mention going down the rabbit-hole, and her readers knew exactly which book she meant.

Two pages later the main character’s mother admonishes her for discarding the proverb of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush by way of claiming she hasn’t any birds of which she is aware. Her mother responds thusly:

Think again : you have a happy home, kind parents, many little daily pleasures, and I think you often lose those ‘birds’ and let them fly away from you, while you are wishing to be Alice down the rabbit-hole, or Cinderella in her golden carriage.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: English author Mrs. George Tylee was Catherine Elizabeth Tylee née Ward who married Lieutenant-General George Tylee (11 November 1807 – 1865) of the Bengal Army in 1857. As a widow she wrote “Amy’s Wish and What Came Of It” which was published in 1870 and “Hurree de Fontenay or All Lost Save Honour” in 1876. Catherine Elizabeth Tylee was the daughter of Seth Stephen Ward of Camberwell (26 December 1766 – 10 March 1845).

A little more research uncovered that until the 18th century, rabbits were the young offspring of coneys which was the term for rabbits beginning in the 13th century.

Coney-wool was made from the fur of rabbits at the onset of the 18th century, and was used in the making of hats, and of course, they all lived in coney-holes until the onset of the 18th century when they started living in rabbit-holes.

This indicates that going down a rabbit-hole wasn’t possible before then. If you were going anywhere, you are going down a coney-hole which is an expression Idiomation did not find in any of the published materials of the time.

Regardless of how much effort has been put into researching this idiom, it appears that Lewis Carroll is indeed responsible for coining the phrase where people go down the rabbit-hole with the definition we continue to use to this day. That puts its first published date squarely to 1865.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Bite The Bullet

Posted by Admin on January 22, 2022

When there’s an impending or unpleasant decision that needs to be made and you know that whatever you decide will cause you some degree of pain or discomfort, you make the decision and deal with the consequences. What you have done is, in the opinion of many, is to bite the bullet.

There’s an urban myth that claims the idiom comes from American Civil War battlefield surgeries where procedures weren’t done under very sanitary conditions, where anesthetics didn’t exist (unless you count hard liquor), and where doctors weren’t always of the highest calibre. None of that is correct.

Ether and chloroform were introduced and used as anesthetics in 1846, and historical data indicates that the U.S. military had surgeons using ether on the battlefield during surgeries as early as 1849 which is, as you know, well before the start of the American Civil War in 1861.

But more importantly, bullets used during the American Civil War were made of lead and anyone biting down on one hard enough would have broken a number of teeth. If the pain was intense, the person would certainly cry out which would most likely result in swallowing the bullet that was allegedly being used as a way to endure the pain. In other words, there would be no reason for someone to bite a bullet –– never mind the bullet — while undergoing a medical procedure on the battlefield.

If anything would be given for a patient to bite, it would have been a leather strap which would not shatter any teeth, which could not be swallowed if the patient cried out in pain, and which was more likely to be used for pain control if there was no ether available for anesthesia purposes.

This means the urban myth cannot be correct in its assertion as to the origin of the idiom.

We know that Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) used the expression in his novel The Light That Failed published in 1891 but serialized in several newspapers in 1890. In the 14 December 1890 edition of The Post Dispatch newspaper of St. Louis (MO), that installment of the story included this passage.

“My God! I’m blind! I’m blind, and the darkness will never go away.” He made as if to leap from the bed, but Torpenhow’s arms were round him, and Torpenhow’s chin was on his shoulder, and his breath was squeezed out of him. He could only gasp, “Blind!” and wriggle feebly.

“Steady, Dickie, steady!” said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. “Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.”

Idiomation decided to research this idiom from both directions at this point which meant pinpointing the exact date cartridge bullets were invented, which was in 1586. The cartridge bullet was made of a musket ball and a black powder charge, and wrapped in strong cartridge paper. Whoever was shooting the musket bit off the bullet with his teeth, kept the musket ball in his mouth, poured the rest of the cartridge down the muzzle, then added the musket ball, and finally tamped everything down with a ramrod.

A well-trained soldier could get off three to four rounds in one minute which was important when engaged in battle which was, by virtue of being a battle, unpleasant but necessary.

This means no one was biting the bullet before 1586, but that doesn’t mean the idiom can be pegged at 1586 because it can’t be.

In 1796, Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined what a nightingale was when it came to soldiers by stating the following:

Nightingale. A soldier who, as the term is, sings out at the halberts. It is a point of honour in some regiments, among the grenadiers, never to cry out, or become nightingales, whilst under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.

This indicates that chewing the bullet and biting the bullet are identical in terms of what these idioms mean. It also means that sometime between 1796 and 1890, the word chew was replaced by the word bite.

In Chapter III titled The Travellers of the posthumously published and absolutely unfinished 1867 novel Denis Duval by British novelist, author, and illustrator William Makepeace Thackery (12 August 1811 – 24 December 1863), the author makes use of the idiom thusly:

And that story was quickly told over the little town, and when we went to church next Sunday, Monsieur Borel preached a sermon which made all the congregation look to us, and poor Mother sat boiling red like a lobster fresh out of the pot. I did not quite know what I had done : I know what Mother was giving me for my pains, when our poor patient, entering the room, hearing, I suppose, the hissing of the stick (and never word from me — I used to bite the bullet, and hold my tongue), rushed into the room, whisked the cane out of Mother’s hand, flung her to the other end of the room with a strength quite surprising, and clasped me up in her arms and began pacing up and down the room, and glaring at Mother.

This passage would put the incident at somewhere in the 1820s.

As the research continued, however, Idiomation found another meaning for bullet and bite that seemed to fit the situation. In the third edition of “The Sportsman’s Dictionary: Or The Gentleman’s Companion: For Town and Country” published in 1785 the spirit of biting the bullet presented itself.

Your rod and line must be both long and strong, with a running plummet on the line, and let a little bit of lead be placed a foot or more above the hook, to keep the bullet from falling on it ; for the worm will be at the bottom, where they always bite, and when the fish takes the bait, you plummet will lie, and not choak him ; and by the bending of the rod you may know when he bites, as also with your hand you will feel him make a strong snatch, then strike, and you will rarely fail if you play him well and leave him ; but in short, if you manage him not desterously he will break your line.

It would appear that this would be the waiting for a fish to bite the bullet and subsequently suffering the consequences therein.

Similar advice was found in “The Complete Angler: Or Contemplative Man’s Recreation; Being a Discourse on Rivers, Fish-Ponds, Rish, and Fishing” written by Isaac Walton and Charles Cotton, Esquire, published a year earlier. Interestingly enough, this advice and the use of a bullet to entice a fish to bite was also found in “Systema Agriculturae: The Mystery of Husbandry Discovered” and according to the book, published for the common good by the author himself, J. W. Gent in 1675.

Even “The Experienced Angler: Or Angling Improv’d Bowing a General Discourse of Angling” by Richard Marriot whose third edition published in 1668 shared similar advice getting fish to bite the bullet … or at least the hook that was there for the fish to bite because of the bullet.

That being said, Idiomation has not yet found a definitive link between the idiom and fishing, and so that foray down the rabbit hole (so to speak) was shut down at that point.

The earliest published version of this is from the novel Denis Duval which puts biting the bullet to the 1820s which is a mere generation away from Francis Grose’s definition which speaks of chewing the bullet.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Kneehigh To A Grasshopper

Posted by Admin on January 15, 2022

Recently, Billie Morgan asked Idiomation to research Whoa Nellie. She shared that she had heard the expression since she was kneehigh to a grasshopper. Upon reading that, Heather Farley asked Idiomation to research kneehigh to a grasshopper‘s origins, and this week’s entry does just that.

First off, for those who may not know, when someone is kneehigh to a grasshopper it means they are (or were at the time) very young or are (or were at the time) very short in stature. At the beginning, referring to someone as kneehigh to a grasshopper was called ludicrous description by editors of various dictionaries, and yet, the expression persisted.

While the idiom fell out of favor for about 50 years beginning in 1960, in 2010, there was a marked uptick in the use of the expression. Of note is the fact that in the decade before it fell out of decade, there was a marked decline — as in a nosedive — from 1950 to 1960.

Idiomation suspects the United States War Department sincerely believed the idiom was one Russians might understand as they included it in their “Dictionary of Spoken Russian: English-Russian, Russian-English” published in 1945 with an entry on the Russian-English side.

And in 1924, the votes of fourteen leading children’s librarians regarding children’s books published in 1923 included a book by American novelist, illustrator, and children’s book author Anne Parrish (12 November 1888 – 5 September 1957) entitled “Knee-high to a Grasshopper” which was illustrated by her brother American painter George Dillwynn “Tim” Parrish (25 July 1894 – 6 August 1941). The book was 209 pages in length, and was published by MacMillan Publishers.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Anne Parrish was a runner-up for the Newberry Medal three times between 1925 and 1951. In 1925, her third collaboration with her brother titled, “The Dream Coach” was nominated.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: George Dillwynn “Tim” Parrish attended Harvard University where he became friends with American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright Edward Estin Cummings (14 October 1894 – 3 September 1962) known as e e cummings, and Pulitzer Prize winner, writer, and poet Conrad Aiken.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: The year she published “Knee-high to a Grasshopper” she also published her first romantic novel, “Pocketful of Poses.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: In 1925, her novel “The Pereniial Bachelor” won the Harper Prize from the publisher, Harper & Brothers, and was the eighth best-selling book on the New York Times Best Seller list for all of 1925.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Anne Parrish’s book “All Kneeling” was published in 1928 which also made the annual best-sellers list. In 1950, it was made into a movie titled, “Born To Be Bad” which starred British-American actress Joan Fontaine (22 October 1917 – 15 December 2013) and American actor Robert Ryan (11 November 1909 – 11 July 1973).

The book was highly recommended by Elisabeth Knapp ( unknown – 15 April 1931), children’s librarian at the Detroit Public Library, and was suggested for even small libraries with limited selections available. Ms. Knapp went on to be come the chief of the Detroit Public Library Children’s Department.

In Volume 15 of “Popular Monthly” magazine published in 1883 and edited by English-born American engravor, illustrator and publisher Frank Leslie (29 March 1821 – 10 January 1880) a story was included titled, “On A Field Argent, A Swan Azure.” The story also appeared in Volume 8 of “Boys of England: A Young Gentleman’s Journal of Sport, Sensation, Fun, and Instruction” published in 1870 by Victorian editor and publisher Edwin John Brett (27 December 1827 – 15 December 1895). Unfortunately, in both cases, the author’s name has been omitted. The idiom is used in the story was in quotation marks.

All this was nine years ago. I am twenty-three, and have been married four years to a cousin of mine, or a cousin-germain, as the French call such a relation as he is to me; one Captain Belfait, who loved me so he says from the I was “kneehigh to a grasshopper.” My boy is a beautiful boy, too, but I have not forgotten “Petit Pierre,” nor has he forgotten me.

There was knee-high to a mosquito in 1824 and knee-high to a bumblee in 1833. There was knee-high to a splinter in 1841 and there was knee-high to a huckleberry in 1854. There knee-high to a bantam and knee-high to a cocksparrow in 1856, and knee high to a katydid in 1861. There was even knee-high to a duck in 1899 but being knee-high to a grasshopper — just a plain old grasshopper — is found in The Democratic Review in 1851:

You pretend to be my daddies; some of you who are not knee-high to a grasshopper!

The earliest idiom that used the comparison of being knee-high to anything is found in The Portsmouth Oracle in New Hampshire, published by Charles Turrell, back in 1814. This was the year farmer, shipbuilder, and statesman John T. Gilman (19 December 1753 – 1 September 1828) ran for Governor of New Hampshire.

“One … who, as farmer Joe would say, is about knee high to a toad.”

Knee-high to a toad?

Well, somewhere along the line, everything but the grasshopper seems to have fallen away and while the first published version with a grasshopper is in 1851, there were lots of other animals and insects and fowl who auditioned for the phrase before grasshoppers won the contest.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Whoa Nellie

Posted by Admin on January 8, 2022

Sometimes you hear Whoa Nellie when someone is trying to slow or stop a horse but sometimes you hear Whoa Nellie when someone is shocked, surprised, or astonished by what they hear or see. But who in history was this Nellie of whom they speak, and why did she cause so much trouble for others?

Back at the turn of the 20th century, farmers in the midwestern US oftentimes called one of their work horses Nelly/Nellie. And in the 1920s, Senator Frank Billings Kellogg (22 December 1856 – 21 December 1937) was nicknamed “Nervous Nellie” because he was the only Republican Senator to support the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.

The character of Frog Millhouse — played by Lester Alvin ‘Smiley’ Burnette (18 March 1911 – 16 February 1967) — used the expression as he tried to stay on his horse, Ring-Eyed Nellie in the Gene Autry (29 September 1907 – 2 October 1998) movies. But surely, there were other Nellie’s before Ring-Eyed Nellie.

Idiomation kept digging and found out that before Nellie, Emma was the number one trouble maker in society. In fact, she caused so much trouble there was a popular song back in 1877 by vaudeville entertainer and songwriter, Gus Williams (19 July 1848 – 16 January 1915) and published by Louis P. Goullaud (23 November 1841 – 7 December 1919) of Boston titled, “Whoa, Emma!” It became a fast favorite of a number of hard-working people as well as to music hall singers and vaudevillians alike. Because the song is in the public domain, Idiomation has decided to share the music and lyrics with you here on this blog for your personal enjoyment.

A year later, Emma’s reputation had spread and music hall performer and songwriter, and chairman of Collins’ Music Hall, John Read (1839 – 1920) decided to tell his own tale about Emma with his song of the same name.

Whoa Emma‘s were showing up everywhere!

Not to be outdone, it wasn’t long before there were four “Whoa! Emma!” waltzes — one by Charles Dupee “Chas” C.D. Blake (1847 – 23 November 1903) and one by J.J. Freeman and one by Benson Jr. and one by Mack. There was the “Whoa! Emma” gallop — by Benson Jr. Step aside — there was even a Whoa Emma March!!!

It didn’t matter which composition you preferred, all of them were music hall favorites, and all of them were listed in “The American Bookseller: A Semi-monthly Journal Devoted to the Interests of the Book, Stationery, News, and Music Trades” beginning in early 1878.

It would seem that Emma was a very, very bad girl indeed. But this also led Idiomation to wonder who Emma was just as Idiomation wondered who Nellie had been.

It would seem that in England in the 1870s, what were then known as low-lived cockneys, thrived on tossing insults at each other without actually coming to blows themselves. When an insult was sufficiently nasty or cruel, the music hall song was invoked when a chorus would shout, “Whoa, Emma!” before resuming the exchange of vulgarisms. How does Idiomation know all this? It was part of an article titled, “Three Weeks with the Hop-Pickers” which was written for Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country and published in Volume 16 in November of 1878.

This means that Whoa Emma at that point in history was an exclamation of surprise or astonishment just as we currently understand Whoa Nellie to be.

But there we were with no way to connect Emma to Nellie, so the research continued.

The Overland Monthly magazine published in October of 1883 included Chapter XVII from the serialized story titled, “Annetta” by Evelyn M. Ludlow. The expression was found in this passage:

“Send along three picks and two shovels. Play it alone, Jim. Come on, gents, come on. Just one glass. Tamp that rock, boys. O, my God! it is all over with me. Whoa, Nelly, whoa, lady. Three games and I’ll be satisfied.”

But before the Overland Monthly published that story, in 1867, the Monford’s New Monthly Magazine published a story by Mrs. F.D. Gage title “The Orphans: Or, How Aunt Kissy and Uncle Zeke Come to be Father and Mother.” As everyone is headed into town, Aunt Kissy and Uncle Zeke are talking about the orphans in their care.

Over the course of the conversation, Uncle Zeke also interjects comments to the horses, Nellie and Bett. Along with the typical comments such as “careful there” and “steady” and more, the story carries the expression “whoa Nellie.” Of course, it’s not an expression of surprise or astonishment, it’s just simple talk between the driver and the horses.

That being said, in the story, “The Deacon’s Household” by Pipsissiway Potts, and published in Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Volume 41, edited by American author Timothy Shay (T.S.) Arthur (6 June 1809 – 6 March 1885), in 1873, the expression is used in conjunction with another name completely.

Whoa, there! you Jack! you old sinner, you need a basting!” piped the deacon as he chattered with the cold. “It behooves us all, Sister Potts, to heed every call of — you Jack! — of the grim monster, Death. We ort to have our lamps burning; for, as the poet says, we know not the day nor the hour when — whoa, there Jack!

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Pipsissway Potts was a pseudonym of American author, Rosella Rice (11 August 1827 – 6 June 1888) along with her other pseudonyms Pipsy Potts, Mrs. Sam Starkey, and Chatty Brooks. She also wrote a biography of John Chapman (26 September 1774 – 18 March 1845) who was better known as the American pioneer Johnny Appleseed.

Separating the cry from the names, whoa was recognized as a command to stop a horse in the early 1840s as a variant to the previous command ho which was also used as an exclamation of surprise beginning in the 14th century.

This means Whoa Nellie/Nelly would not have been used as an expression of surprise or astonishment prior to the 1840s, but the command word ho intimates that the replacement word whoa could inherit both meanings from its predecessor.

The name Nellie peaked in popularity in 1881 in the US with nearly 12,000 baby girls per million given the name that year, and saw a resurgence during the 1920s. It hasn’t been very popular in the U.S. since then although it made a comeback in 2020 fighting its way out of obscurity to reach #710 for popular girls’ names according to the Social Security Administration. In Sweden, it was the 47th most popular name to bestow upon a child in 2019.

In England, Wales, and Scotland, the name Nellie/Nelly was wildly popular in the 1850s through to the 1870s, breaking into the Top 100 names at the time and exhibiting staying power. Perhaps the novel “Nelly Deane: A Story of Everyday Life” published in 1864 added to the popularity of the name.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: King Charles II’s mistress Eleanor Gwyn was an actress who was well-known for her happy nature, high spirits, generosity, and kindness. Her affair with Charles II began in 1668, and to all she was known as Nell or Nellie. Everyone from those in the Court of King Charles II as well as commoners thought well of the king’s mistress, Nellie.

And this is where a tenuous connection can be made.

Since whoa became the default command word for horses in the 1840s and since the name Nellie/Nelly became popular as a name for female infants in the 1850s (having risen in popularity during the 1840s), it would be no surprise that with the expression whoa, one would tack on a name that was well-known … a name such as Nellie/Nelly.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: During the American Civil War, there were 8 horses named Nellie/Nelly who were service horses. Two traits all these horses shared was a habit of stopping when meeting anything or anyone along the way, and undying loyalty to the military man riding her.

Somewhere along the line, the Emmas of this world were replaced by Nellies in the expression Whoa Nellie although Idiomation was unable to pinpoint the exact moment when Whoa Nellie overtook Whoa Emma for an expression of shock, surprise, or astonishment. Idiomation can confidently state that the expression came into its own sometime betweem the 1860s and the 1880s.

To end this entry on a happy note, here’s a version of another “Whoa Emma!” from the 1951 MGM movie picture “Texas Carnival.”

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | 2 Comments »


Posted by Admin on November 20, 2021

If you have watched a police drama on television that mentions bunko, they’re referring to the police department that deals with squad which is sometimes also referred to as the fraud squad or the bunko squad.

A bunko man is an individual who practises the bunko swindle (also known as the bunko crime or bunko game) and who isn’t always male. Lots of women have been arrested for being bunko men.

Here’s how the bunko swindle operates: The con man (who is male or female) persuades the victim to trust them, and then swindles the victim out of valuables in his or her possession. The game is always the same even though the game keeps being reinvented with new twists added — or removed — to make the story even more believable to the victim.

So bunko is about hoaxes and misleading people and fraudulent activities.

All of that is interesting but where in the world did the word come from in the first place? To get to that answer, some history behind the word will prove helpful.

First off, bunko can be a shortened form of the word bunkum (and that’s where a lot of word trouble begins). Bunkum was them, and is now, complete and utter nonsense. In other words, talk intended to please the person or persons to whom the talker speaks.

In the early 1900s, fraud committed via this method resulted in a statute that referred to the practice of committing this kind of fraud as bunko steering. In FLEMING v STATE (No. 21,582) at the Supreme Court of Indiana on 24 May 1910, a very clear definition of what constituted bunko steering was included.

However allures, entices or persuades another to any place upon any pretense, and then and there, by fraud or duress, induces or compels such person to lose, advance or loan money, to part with anything of value, or to execute his check, note or other obligation either for money or for anything of value; of whoever, in like manner allures, entices, or persuades another to any place and then and there induces or compels him to part with anything of value by means of any trick, device or artifice, or upon any game or wager, is guilty of bunko-steering, and, on conviction, shall be imprisoned in the state prison not less than two years or more than fourteen years; and all persons present at such place at such time, engaged therein, shall be prosecuted, tried and punished for such offense as principals.

In the 1889 edition of “A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant: Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Tiners’ Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology” compiled by Albert Barrère (1846 – 11 February 1921) and ‎Charles Godfrey Leland (15 August 1824 – 20 March 1903), readers are directed to read the entry for Buncombe or bunkum for an understanding of what bunko or bunk is which only adds to the historical confusion of the word. The definition is:

To talk big, affecting enthusiasm, but always with an underhanded purpose. Mr. Horton has made the discovery that “it arose from a speech made by a North Carolina senator named Buncombe.”

The “Treasures of Science, History and Literature, Instructive, Amusing, Practical for the Study and the Fireside” by American journalist and editor Moses Folsom (4 August 1847 – 11 September 1933) and published in 1878 had an entire section devoted to Swindlers titled, “Curiosities of Swindling: Specimen Swindles” with a complete section devoted to BUNKO (as the heading stated). It informed readers of the following in part:

If the traveler escapes the monte men on the railroad trains, he may next be subjected to the wiles of the bunko men in the city. The bunko men travel in pairs, usually, and the strangers coming from depot, or wandering on the streets, are “spotted” by these rascals.

There was no mention of any politician with this definition which was a nuanced indication that perhaps bunko and bunk were not words with the same origins.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Moses Folsom at one point held the position of secretary of the Florida State Marketing Bureau, and prior to tht he spent two years as the secretary of the Palatka Board of Trade and a year in the office of the state commissioner of agriculture of Tallahassee. Earlier, in 1878, he was appointed Superintendent of the Iowa State Institution for the Deaf and Dumb at Council Bluff during which time he established The Deaf-Mute Hawkeye newspaper which was printed by students in the district.

As Idiomation continued digging, it was learned the senator mentioned by Mr. Horton was Revolutionary Officer and Senator Felix Walker (19 July 1753 – 1828) who was a Congressman whose district in North Carolina included Buncombe County (where Asheville is found). In 1820, he made a lengthy speech made on 25 February during the 16th Congress that led to the passage of the Missouri Compromise. It was so lengthy that several of his colleagues begged him to cease and desist, but he persisted. He even claimed at one point that the people he represented expected as much from him, and that he was “bound to make a speech for Buncombe.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Up until the American Civil War, there was another interesting historical note having to do with Buncombe County that was used by a number of people in and around North Carolina. If something was the biggest or best, it was said it was “the best thing this side of meaning it was biggest or the best until you got to Buncombe County where it would learned that it wasn’t the biggest or the best when compared to what was to be found in Buncombe County.

So people who knew of this expression let others know that Buncombe was a place that was strange in mythical proportions as well as full of hot air ideas. At least that’s what newspaper back in 1843 reported.

A few years later, the word bunkum showed up in the 1828 issue of the Niles Weekly Register stating that a political oratory to please or full a constituency was “cantly called talking to Bunkum.” Shortly afterwards, talking to bunkum or talking for bunkum meant any insincere, empty, or deceptive talk in general.

By 11 November 1843, even the Bucks Herald of Aylesbruy was talking about bunkum when referring to the Libel Act that was before parliament at the time, reporting that “the act was, and ever will be, Bunkum.”

It took until 1893 for the word bunkum to be shortened to bunk, and that was thanks to American humorist, journalist and writer from Chicago Finley Peter (F.P.) Dunne (10 July 1867 – 24 April 1936) who had his Irish character Mr. Dooley (a fictional character who had immigrated to the United States) say the following:

That is th’ real Irish village, for bechune you an’ me, Jawnny, I think th’other one from Donegal is a sort of bunk, I do, an’ I niver liked Donegal anny how.

But bunk and bunko are pretty much the same, right? It would appear the answer to that question is no, and the confusion has to do with the fact that as the words bunkum and bunk were making their way into the lexicon, so was the game bunko which was a gambling game that used eight dice cloth and was imported from England in 1855 to the United States — specifically to San Francisco. Along the way, a few of the original rules were altered by gamblers to benefit gamblers, and relied on swift, empty talk.

What began as an enchanting parlor game that promoted social interactions among family and friends became a way to swindle property owners out of their property and valuables.

By the time the 1920s rolled around, large cities had bunko games going on in nearly every gambling parlor and speakeasy, and the police who broke up those games were known as bunko squads.

So while Buncombe, bunkum, bunk, and bunko may appear at first blush to share the same roots, bunkum and bunk are thanks to Senator Felix Walker in the early 1800s, bunko is thanks to English gamblers arriving in America in the mid-1800s, and all three words — bunkum, bunk, and bunko — have to do with less than savory practices that employ lots of fast and easy talk.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Admin on October 30, 2021

With all the rain in the weather forecasts these days, it’s no surprise that some meteorologists are letting audiences know which ones are regular rainstorms and which ones are gullywashers. But what exactly is a gullywasher? A gullywasher is a short-lived but intense rainstorm.

The interesting thing about gullywashers is that they don’t happen outside of the U.S., and many northern states and Pacific coast states don’t deal with gullywashers. They may deal with turtle floaters or duck drowners or or toad stranglers, and they might deal with bridge lifters or mud senders or even Baptist dam breakers, but in the Southern, Western, and Midwestern states and all the way up into Wisconsin, gullywashers are what people worry about when the clouds roll in.

In an article in The Oklahoman titled, “Birthplace of the Gully Washer” by journalist and sports writer Frank Boggs (1 May 1928 – 10 August 2017) and published on 30 September 1986, the author claimed:

Oklahoma is where the gully washer was invented.

That alone was reason enough for Idiomation to set off researching this interesting word.

A gully is a large ditch or small valley that usually runs along a hillside, and that ditch or small valley happens when running water erodes the soil to the point where a ditch or a small valley is created. Every time it rains, more water moves soil out of the gully which leads to a deeper and wider gully. But the thing is, it takes a lot of water gushing through that ditch or small valley for it to fill up to the point where soil is dragged away.

The word gully first appeared in the English language in the 1650s and is from the Middle English word golet which means water channel.

In 1999, gullywashers weren’t just happening in the U.S. Editor Gardner Dozois included the Bruce Sterling (14 April 1954 – ) story “Taklamakan” in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Sixteenth Annual Collection.” Texas-born Sterling’s stories had appeared in ten of the previous fifteen annual collections, and was a favorite of many scifi readers. In his short story “Taklamakan” the following was written.

Pete scanned their surroundings on spex telephoto. They were lurking on a hillside above a playa, where the occasional gullywasher had spewed out a big alluvial fan of desert varnished grit and cobbles.

In April 1963, the statement of J.H. Hanson, Co-Chairman of the Western Montana Citizens Committee and president of the Security State Bank at Polson (MT) represented 63 organizations as well as 500 individuals who were against the Knowles Project was recorded in the publication of “Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Flood Control of the Committee on Public Works.” The Co-Chairs were Charles A. Buckley (23 June 1890 – 22 January 1967) of New York and Clifford Davis (18 Novembwer 1897 – 8 June 1970) of Tennessee.

MR. SCHWENGEL: Do you want to testify about the population decline?

MR HANSON: We are not concerned about the population declines. Over the years, we have had a population increase, We have had a firming of the industry. In our little town alone U.S. Plywood came in there and within the last five years our little area has been the recipient of some $7 million in capital expenditures. The thing we don’t need is this economic gullywasher. We can do more with $1 of private money spent than we can with $10 on Federal funds.

MR. SCHWENGEL: Say that again.

MR. HANSON: We would rather have private development on the river for one-tenth of what the Federal Government could spend.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The Knowles Project was also known as the Knowles-Paradise Project and we recommended by Army Engineers as a key dam of a comprehensive plan for harnessing the Columbia River and its tributaries in the Lake and Saunders Counties.

Barrel and Box and Packages was published by the Lumber Buyers’ Publishing Corporation, and Edgar Harvey Defebaugh (3 September 1869 – 22 November 1924) was the owner and publisher of that magazine as well as Lumber and Veneer Consumer and a number of related publications. In the 1947 edition of Barrel and Box and Packages, a fable was shared that allegedly has its origins in North Carolina among mountaineers. It read in part:

The farmer he sez, “King, if’n you ain’t aiming to get them clothes wetted you’d best go back home, because its a-comin on to rain, a trash-mover and a gully washer.”

And the kind says, “I hired me a high-wage prophet to prophet the weather and he allows it ain’t even coming a sizzle-sozzle.”

So the king went ahea and it came a trash-mover and a gully washer, and the king’s clothes was wetted and his best girl she seed him and laughed at him. And the king went home and throwed out his prophet.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Edgar Harvey Defebaugh visited Europe in 1900, visiting all the principal markets, and become knowledgeable in the exportation of staves and other timber products. Upon his return to the United States, he partnered with a number of organizations in other lines of industry to launch trade newspaper publications. By 1902, he was the head of an important organization of trade publications which were known around the world as the “Defebaugh publications.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: This fable was also printed in The Plainsman edition of 18 February 1947. The Plainsman was a weekly student publication from Alabama Polytechnic Institute of Auburn (AL). That year former WWII GI Jimmy Coleman was the Editor-in-Chief (he was studying Applied Art and was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity) and former WWII GI Ralph “Stringbean” Jennings was the Managing Editor. Both had put their college careers on hold to fight in the war effort.

In the December 1908 edition of The Helping Hand magazine published by the Women’s Baptist Foreign Missionary Societies of Chicago (IL), the publisher pleaded with people to subscribe to their magazine. For 100 new subscriptions, seven reference library books would be sent to supplement the year’s study book, “The Nearer and Farther East.” If you only secured 75 subscriptions, one could look forward to receiving a 7 foot by 12 foot “Missionary Map of the World” with every Baptist station clearly marked. With 50 subscriptions, a year’s subscription to “Outlook” was added. To encourage followers to help with the subscription drive, the publisher wrote:

Perhaps the term “shower” is a misnomer, leading some to think that our aim is a gentle flow of subscriptions, when on the contrary we are willing to see the subscriptions pour in like the rain in The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come prayer for — “a regular sod-soaker and gully-washer.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come was a book written by American journalist, novelist, and short story writer John Fox Jr. (16 December 1862 – 7 July 1919) and illustrated by artist and illustrator, Frederick Coffay (F. C.) Yohn (8 February 1875 – 6 June 1933), and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1903. It was written in April 1898 and the dedication page read: To Currie Duke – Daughter of the Chief among Morgan’s men. The novel told the story of a rags-to-respectability story of an Orphan and was the first novel in the U.S. to sell a million copies.

In 1898, John Dickey’s book “The Genealogy of the Dickey Family” was published. After the author’s passing at Leominster on 25 July 1894, his widow approached F.S. Blanchard and Company of Worcester (MA) and asked them to publish the genealogy so that what her late husband had written “might not be lost to future generations and all might share alike the fruits of his labor.”

The publisher stated in the Publisher’s Note that John Dickey (13 February 1824 – 25 July 1894) had not contemplated the publication of the work until the latter part of his life, and the wealth of material gathered was a rich legacy that would benefit others, not just descendants of his great-grandfather, Samuel Dickey, and his great-grandfather’s brother Elias and sister Elisabeth.

The genealogy began with William Dickey (1683 – 9 October 1743) and his wife Elisabeth (1678 – 21 October 1748) who immigrated from the north of Ireland to America, landing sometime between 1725 and 1730 since there was no exact date of their departure from Ireland or their arrival in America. What was known was that by 1730, the Dickey family had settled in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

At entry 1084, Edward Parker Keach (4 November 1851 – 30 December 1918) He graduated from theological courses in 1878, and married Julia Maria Russell in November of that year. They moved to Marble Hill (MO) where he began work as a Presbyterian home missionary. In the entry, which shows the term was known in 1878, John Dickey wrote:

It was a dry time, when a union service was held to pray for rain; a brother of another denomination arose, and after telling the Lord how dry it was, said, “And now, Lord, send us rain: none of your drizzle-drozzle, but a regular grand soaker and gully washer.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: Edward Parker Keach was repeatedly elected to represent his congregation at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5.1: He is known as Edward Parker Keach as well as Edwin Parker Keach based on the genealogy.

One dictionary puts the first published version to 1825 without providing any indication as to where it was published. That it was used in conversation in the 1870s means it was already an accepted and understood expression so it is possible the expression dates back to 1825 but without proof it’s hard to definitively say it was around in 1825.

Idiomation therefore splits the difference and pegs the expression to the 1850s. Research continues in the hopes of tracking down the 1825 reference and perhaps an even earlier published version.

And in case you were wondering, Idiomation found no evidence that Oklahoma was where gullywashers were invented. They have gullywashers in Oklahoma — no doubt about that — but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to substantiate the claim they invented gullywashers.

Idiomation is also including other names for gullywashers and where you might hear these expressions used.

Toad strangler: Alabama, Louisiana, Texas
Goose drowner: Midland states
Mud sender: California, Maryland, Virginia, Mississippi
Bridge lifter: North Carolina
Nubbin stretcher: Kentucky
Palmetto pounder: Miami

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Keep Your Powder Dry

Posted by Admin on September 25, 2021

If someone tells you to keep your powder dry, they are really telling you to remain cautious, stay calm, and be ready for a possible emergency or a sudden change for the worse. Some may claim it’s the ancestor idiom to the phrase take care but it really isn’t since take care doesn’t really cover everything keep your powder dry covers.

For those who may not understand what that means, this harkens back to the day when weapons required loose gunpowder to fire. For gunpowder to work properly, it must be kept dry.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Gunpowder is known as one of the “Four Great Inventions of China” and was invented during the Tang Dynasty of the 9th century, and when guns appeared in the 13th century, gunpowder found another opportunity beyond arrows, rockets, bombs, and fire lances. It was particularly popular during the days of flintlock when powder and flintlock were carried in a horn slung to one side. It was susceptible to moisture, and if it wasn’t dry, it tended to clump and misfire instead of ignite and fire properly. By the 19th century, smokeless powder, nitroglycerin, and nitrocellulose were invented, and gunpowder saw its popularity decrease.

On 19 September 2020, the Washington Post reported on what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in the article, “Trump Says He Will Nominate Woman To Supreme Court Next Week.” It was clear what he meant when he used the idiom.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately told his members in a letter circulated Friday night to keep their powder dry on where they stand on proceeding with a confirmation fight this year.

The idiom was used in the 1945 movie, “Keep Your Powder Dry” starring Lana Turner (8 February 1921 – 29 June 1995), Laraine Day (13 October 1920 – 10 November 2007), and Susan Peter (3 July 1921 – 23 October 1952) as three Women’s Army Corps (WAC) recruits. Lana Turner’s character is a spoiled rich party girl who signs up in the hopes it will make her look more responsible to the trustees of her trust fund will give her the rest of her inheritance thereby leaving her free to party even more than she already does.

Susan Peter’s character is that of a young wife whose husband is in the Army who is doing something productive to help the cause while her husband is fighting, and Laraine Day’s character is an Army brat who can’t wait to join the military so she can be a soldier every bit as good as her father.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Lana Turner’s character is top of her class when it comes to identifying aircrafts but not because she’s an excellent student while in class. It has to do with how many pilots she dated before she joined the corps.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Agnes Moorehead (6 December 1900 – 30 April 1974) — which many remember as Samantha Steven’s mother, Endora, in the 1960s series “Bewitched” — plays the role of the company commander, exuding an understated but unmistakable authority. She plays the role with dignity and compassion without breaking the military chain of command.

Margaret Mead used the idiom in the title of her book “And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America” published in 1943.

The Times Literary Supplement of 1908 made use of the idiom in this passage:

In thus keeping his powder dry the bishop acted most wisely, though he himself ascribes the happy result entirely to observance of the other half of Cromwell’s maxim.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: The Times Literary Supplement was a supplement to the British daily national newspaper The Times (which was known as The Daily Universal Register from 1785 through to 1788 when it changed its name) when it first appeared in 1902 but by 1914, it was its own separate publication. Among the distinguished writers and authors who contributed to the publication are T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.

The idiom appeared in print in 1888 in the book “Irish Minstrelsy: Being A Selection of Irish Songs, Lyrics, and Ballads with Notes and Introduction by Henry Halliday Sparling” in a poem by Irish British Army officer, Member of the Royal Irish Academy, and Commissioner of the Treasury of Ireland, Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker (1 September 1777 – 25 November 1855) and publishing under a pseudonym. Every stanza ends with a slightly different variation of the idiom, but always ends with keep your powder dry.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: The poem was originally published in 1834 in The Dublin University Magazine titled “Oliver’s Advice: An Orange Ballad” and was a well-known poem of over fifty years by the time it was printed in the 1887 publication.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 6: William Blacker and his cousin, Valentine Blacker (19 October 1778 – 4 February 1825) were both lieutenant colonels in the British Army as well as published authors. Sometimes they published under pseudonyms (William Blacker occasionally published under the name of Fitz Stewart), and this is why there are instances were they are confused with each other.

In the midst of the American Civil War, Father C. Mayer wrote an arrangement of a song titled, “Boys, Keep Your Powder Dry: A Soldier’s Song.” It was published by Blackmar & Brothers, and lithographed by B. Duncan and Company of Columbia, South Carolina in 1863. The idiom was used as the last line in each verse as well as in the chorus.

Not they who are determined to conquer or to die;
And harken to this caution, “Boys, keep your powder dry.”

Across the ocean and back in England, Punch magazine was having a grand time with politics on 25 February 1859 when it reported on Lord Palmerston’s efforts to alert the House of Commons to what he felt was the menacing aspect of continental affairs. It was printed in the same column that Mr. Punch advised Queen Victoria to keep her powder dry. The column was followed by a poem that addressed the issue of keeping her powder dry, as well as a cartoon.

Now shortly before Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker’s poem was published in 1834, the idiom was bandied about by the Lords sitting for Parliament in the United Kingdom. One such occasion was 28 February 1832, in the discussion of education in Ireland was the subject, when William Pleydell-Bouverie (11 May 1779 – 9 April 1869), 3rd Earl of Radnor stated:

On that occasion, Mr. Archdal concluded his speech by saying, “My friends, I will now only add the words used by Oliver Cromwell to his army, when marking through a ford, ‘My boys trust in the Lord, and keep your powder dry.'”

Trust in God and keep your powder dry” is repeatedly attributed to Oliver Cromwell (25 April 1599 – 3 September 1658). It is claimed that when Cromwell’s troops were about to cross a river to attack the enemy, he concluded his address to the troops with this idiom.

Allegedly, Oliver Cromwell said this to his regiment in 1642 when it was about to attack the enemy at the Battle of Edgehill, and allegedly Oliver Cromwell said this to the soldiers in 1650 at the Battle of Dunbar, and allegedly Oliver Cromwell said this every time there was a battle that involved crossing a river to get to the enemy’s side.

But did Oliver Cromwell ever say this? According to the Cromwell Museum there isn’t any evidence he ever said that. None. Not even once.

That doesn’t mean Oliver Cromwell didn’t say it, only that there’s no proof he said it. Maybe he said it, then again, maybe he didn’t. At the end of the day, however, it is very sound advice, don’t you agree?

Idiomation tags this expression to the 1820s with the earliest published version found in the 1832 papers that show the 3rd Earl of Radnor using the idiom indicating others understood what he meant when he talked about keeping one’s powder dry.

But who said it first is still up in the air.

To add a little extra fun to today’s entry, here’s “Keep Your Powder Dry” from the movie of the same name (back in the 1940s, face powder was the kind of make-up most women wore so enjoy the double meaning of the expression keep your powder dry).

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Do The Graceful

Posted by Admin on May 21, 2021

Last week on social media, people were talking about the idiom to do the graceful which they claimed was an expression from the Victorian era and meant to charm or fascinate others. As Idiomation had never heard that idiom before, it seemed odd that such an idiom existed however since it was a topic of hot discussion in various author and writer groups online, it was worth researching.

At first glance, the idiom seems to be missing a word. It seems wanting in that respect as in do the graceful thing. However there is one thing Idiomation has learned, it is to never assume a word is missing or that the idiom is used in its entirety. For that reason, Idiomation researched the exact idiom: do the graceful.

Before Idiomation delves into what we learned, first off, it must be noted that the idiom actually means to behave gracefully or fittingly for a given situation. That doesn’t necessarily mean to charm or fascinate others, although charm and fascination may be used in order to behave gracefully or fittingly for a given situation.

Now let’s get on with what Idiomation uncovered about this idiom.

In Episode 10 of the Sourcegraph podcast, Matt Holt, author of a number of open-source projects including the popular Caddy web server, was interviewed. In the podcast, he talked about his motivation for creating the Caddy web server, and the challenges of maintaining the open-source project. In this interview, he used the idiom.

We even have graceful reloads working in Windows, which is not something other web servers really offer because the way we handle network and do the graceful.

The Detroit Free Press reported on page 6 of the Saturday, 7 December 1935 edition that influential Republicans claimed to have solved the riddle of Palo Alto after going after Herbert Hoover weeks earlier to ask him what he was up to and why. Here is what the newspaper published in part.

Mr. Hoover quietly informed the curious that he did not want and would not seek the nomination. Barring a miracle, he senses that the surest way to re-enthrone the despised New Deal would be for him to run again. He promised to renounce the unoffered crown but he reserved the right to decide when he should take himself out of the race. His ulterior motive gives a tip on when he will do the graceful.

The idiom was found in The Mitre which was a monthly publication for the students of Bishop’s University and the Boys of Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Quebec. The copy Idiomation found was from October 1902. In this edition, the rules for how freshman were to act was included as a welcome to the new men entering the college that Fall. Of course, the rules listed weren’t part of the College rules handed to each new student upon registration at the College, but new students were advised to “carefully study and literally follow” the rules including this one:

2. Freshman when they meet their seniors on the street, should always do the graceful, and touch their trencher or cap.

It was in The Newfoundlander newspaper of 12 February 1875 that an article about the hasty actions of Grand Duke Alexis — a Russian aristocrat who had fascinated a number of society belles in New York when he visited the United States of America — included the idiom. Before embarking on his voyage to America, the Grand Duke had fallen head over heels in love with the daughter of a high official of the Council of Empire, declared his passion, enjoyed the reciprocation of that passion, and secretly married. The marriage remained a secret for nearly three months, and as the saying at the time went, “marriage, like murder, will out.”

The voyage to America, and the very long return home by way of Japan and Siberia, was meant to cure the Grand Duke Alexis of his love, with the hopes that while he was cooling his heels with other women of high breeding, his family and their representatives could talk his mistake into leaving him for a generous financial settlement. But here’s what happened instead according to the newspaper.

But she would do nothing of the sort, not even when she was told that she could name the financial terms and receive the money when and where she wished. She loved Alexis and had married him, and would remain his wife until death should do the graceful for one of them. Possibly the Count hoped that the pale warrior would begin on her at an early date, but if he thought so he did not say so. The interview lasted a couple of hours, and was as unsuccessful as the most earnest admirer of pig-headed constancy in love could desire. Next day, the diplomat called again, but she would not see him, and after trying the intercession of a Russian lady of high position who happened to be in Geneva, he gave up the effort and took the train for Paris.

Indeed, in 1875 the expression was used by many. Another example was found in the Yerington Times edition of 28 November 1875 — Yerington being in Nevada — with regards to a gathering at the state capitol on Thanksgiving Day. At the local theater, the writer of the article took in a show where he and his friend found John Jack and the Firmin Sisters (Katie and Annie) performing before a “large and fashionably dressed audience.” Once the performance concluded, the benches were cleared and the orchestra began to play music to the delight of those in attendance.

It was reported that the reporter and some new-found friends from the Tribune did their best to “keep time with the music and off the ladies’ dresses” and they admitted that “the trails of only some fifteen or twenty dresses will probably have to visit the dressmaker’s to recuperate from the havoc by [their] No. 11’s.” Once all that was admitted, the idiom appeared.

Miss F. certainly has the charm of dispelling the gloom that settles around a timid reporter’s soul as he finds himself trying to do the graceful among strangers, and the gentleman who procured the introduction has been instrumental in setting a “little bird singing in our heart.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Annie Firmin and John Jack were married, but she still was known as Miss Annie Firmin to theater patrons and promoters.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Annie Firmin was represented by Mrs. John Drew who was one of the premiere theatrical agents in Philadelphia. Over the years Mrs. Drew represented Annie Firmin, Annie became well known throughout the theatrical profession as a reputable and respected actress. and long before she met the actor John Jack.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: John Jack (1 February 1836 – 16 September 1913) began his career as a call boy in the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Shortly afterwards, he made his appearance as an actor where he quickly built up an enviable reputation as a performer of diverse professional talents and abilities including a sought after reputation as a stage manager.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Annie was John Jack’s second wife whom he married years after the death of first wife, Adelaide Reed.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: At the outbreak of the American Civil War through to the end, John Jack severed his theatrical connections and enlisted in the Federal Army. He sustained wounds that sent him to hospital, but even wounded, when there was a threat of rioting in connection with drafting difference forces into the war, he recruited other injured men to address the insurrection.

The idiom also appeared in the Wednesday, 23 March 1870 edition of the Port of Spain Gazette from Trinidad. The Gazette shared a news article from London dated 1 March 1870 with regards to the political news that Lord Derby had refused to accept the leadership of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords. It was thought that Lord Derby’s acceptance of the post would have been a guarantee that his fellow Conservatives would have considered all the changes the majority in the lower House sought.

The Duke of Richmond was suggested by Lord Salibury, which was seconded by Lord Derby and supported by Lord Carnarvon. The article then described the fanfare that goes with the ceremony in the House of Lords.

Seating himself, he puts on his cocked hat, then he salutes the Lord Chancellor, and rising, goes back to the woolsack to pay his respects to the noble and learned lord. The cocked hat is the greatest trouble on these occasions, as noble lords are apt to knock off that unwonted covering, in an endeavour to do the graceful.

Wondering if perhaps the expression was a relatively new one in that era, Idiomation continued researching and found this passage in the Daily Evansville Journal of Evansville (IN) in Vanderburgh County on 22 May 1862 under the heading “River News.”

The ever prompt and swift gliding Bowen, with Capt. Dexter and Billy Lowth to do the graceful, will leave at the usual hour this afternoon for Cairo and all down river towns. Pay your money early and secure state-rooms.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published example of the idiom however since the Victoria era was from 1837 through to 1901, Idiomation confirms the idiom was definitely used during the Victorian era. That Idiomation was unable to find a published version prior to 1862 lends credence to the claim it is an idiom from the Victorian era.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »