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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 20th Century’ Category

Cool Beans

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 22, 2016

When you hear someone comment with cool beans (aka kewl beans, kool beans, and cool beanz), it means that the speaker approves of the comment or the situation that prompted him/her to say cool beans.  Not only is this an idiom, according to Time magazine, it’s been in the Oxford dictionary since 2014.

For fans of the sitcom, “Full House” which aired from 22 September 1987 through to 23 May 1995, DJ Tanner used the expression so often that fans and followers of the show followed suit.  But the writers of “Full House” weren’t the originators of the expression.

The idiom shows up in Marlene Fanta Shyer’s book “Grandpa Ritz and the Luscious Lovelies” published by Scribner Books (an imprint of Simon and Schuster) in 1985.  There on page 30, this appears:

“It’s cool beans!” That’s what Betsy always says when she thinks something is fantastic, and I couldn’t help wondering what she’d say if she could see me now.

In the 1960s, quaaludes, amphetamines and barbituates known as uppers and downers were referred to as cool beans because they resembled jellybeans. They were also known as beans, wacky beans, and cool beans.

The drug-induced positive reaction would therefore be attributed to cool beans thereby creating a positive impression of cool beans.

The reference to cool beans didn’t appear elsewhere in Idiomation’s research. While cool beans as an item is from the 1960s, the expression indicating approval is from sometime between the 1960s and 1985 when it appeared in Marlene Fanta Shyer’s book.

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Step On A Duck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 15, 2016

To step on a duck is to fart, but not just any old fart.  The step on a duck fart is said to be one that is so loud that it sounds like the squawking of a duck in distress.  The idiom is usually spoken by a bystander wishing to point out the fart to everyone nearby and not an attempt by the person to deflect his or her embarrassment at the indelicate passing of gas.

The expression seems to be so well-known that Jim Dawson published a book in 2010 titled, “Did Somebody Step On A Duck: A Natural History of the Fart.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Jim Dawson is a California-based writer who specializes in American pop culture.  A decade before publishing “Did Somebody Step On A Duck” he published “Who Cut THe Cheese: A Cultural History of the Fart” which went on to become a top-seller.

Oddly enough, thirty-five years ago, Rodney Dangerfield’s character, Al Czervik, asked if somebody stepped on a duck when he broke wind loudly at dinner in the 1980 movie, “Caddyshack” starring Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Scott Colomby.  The movie was written by Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, and Douglas Kenney of National Lampoon magazine fame.

The history of this expression is difficult to trace.  Idiomation’s research found a recipe for a duck fart shot consisting of Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Crown Royal (and poured in that order) hailing from Anchorage, Alaska.  It was created by bartender Dave Schmidt while working at the Peanut Farm Bar and Grill (on the corner of Old Seward Highway and International Street) in December 1987.  The media covered the story of the shot in an article in the Anchorage Daily News newspaper.

Oddly enough, before White Sox announcer and former professional baseball player Hawk Harrelson (born September 4, 1941) made the term more family friendly in the 1980s, the duck snort was called a duck fart.  And what is a duck snort or a duck fart in baseball terms?  It’s a ball that softly hit ball that goes over the infielders and lands in the outfield for a hit.

And in the 1940s, according to “Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang” compiled and published by Jonathon Green, a duck fart referred to the plopping sound a stone made when it fell into the water.

But there doesn’t seem to be any indication how stepping on a duck came to mean farting loudly.  To this end, the expressions seems to reach back only as far as 1980.  However, there’s a lot of history behind the concept, not the least of which is a political connection.

As many of us know, there’s a certain juvenile humor when it comes to farting, not the least of which is a popular poem that was written as a result of an unfortunate incident on March 4, 1607 involving Henry Ludlow in the House of Commons.  The poem (which was endlessly copied, recopied, and shared liberally) published in 1607 was titled, “The Censure of the Parliament Fart.”  The incident happened as Sir John Crooke was giving a speech, and he took the fart as a personal insult.  For readers’ amusement, this is the opening volley of the poem.

Never was bestowed such art
Upon the tuning of a Fart.
Downe came grave auntient Sir John Crooke
And redd his message in his booke.
Fearie well, Quoth Sir William Morris, Soe:
But Henry Ludlowes Tayle cry’d Noe.
Up starts one fuller of devotion
Then Eloquence; and said A very ill motion
Not soe neither quoth Sir Henry Jenkin
The Motion was good; but for the stincking
Well quoth Sir Henry Poole it was a bold tricke
To Fart in the nose of the bodie pollitique.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  Sir John Crooke sat in Parliament in 1584, 1597, and 1601.  Henry Ludlow sat in the 1601 and 1604 Parliament as a member of the Inner Temple.  In other words, the two were in Parliament together in 1601.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  The poem became so famous by 1610 that it was cited in Ben Jonson’s play, “The Alchemist.”  The play (which opens with a fart) includes a reference to the poem by Sir Epicure Mammon.

All this being said, the connection between stepping on a duck and loud farts is one that escaped Idiomation’s research.  Perhaps one of Idiomation’s readers has proof as to who first wrote or said this, or where it first appeared in print.

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Bat Shit Crazy

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 25, 2016

Heather E. Johnson asked Idiomation where bat shit crazy came from, and what made bat excrement crazier than any other rodent’s.  The expression means that the person accused of being bat shit crazy is acting in a threatening manner that is devoid of all reason and that borders on insanity.  In other words, someone who is bat shit crazy so irrationally (and possibly violently as well) that reasonable, sane measures of dealing with the situation at hand are ineffective.

Scientifically speaking, the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum is found in bat guano and when the fungus infects the brain (a possibility, not a given), it leaves the infected person or animal behaving in a psychotic manner.

Until the early 1950s when Histoplasma capsulatum was finally being diagnosed correctly, sufferers were usually misdiagnosed with tuberculosis.  Placed on antibacterial antibiotics, the medication worsened the disease.  Why?  According to medical studies, once the bacteria in the body was killed off, the fungus had nothing to stop it from taking over completely.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  Histoplasmosis can even be fatal in some cases.   This article by S.T. Darling published in 1906 provides insight into this.  Darling, S. T. 1906. A protozoan general infection producing pseudotubercles in the lungs and focal necroses in the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes. JAMA 46:1283-1285.  This article by R.J. Parsons and C.J.D. Zarafonetis published in 1945 supports this as well.  Parsons, R. J., and C. J. D. Zarafonetis. 1945. Histoplasmosis in man, report of seven cases and a review of seventy-one cases. Arch. Intern. Med. 75:1-23.

Economically speaking, bat guano has been an international commodity as a fertilizer for about 200 years, and the best source is from Peru’s islands:  The Chincas, the Ballestras, the Lobos, and the Macabi and Guanape Islands.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  There are other islands off Africa, in the Carribean, and some Pacific Islands that also have excellent and abundant stores of guano, however, guano from Peru is believed to be superior to all other guano.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  Guano is high in nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium which are essential nutrients for plant growth.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 4:  Archeologists have discovered that guano has been used as an agricultural fertilizer by the Andean people over 1,500 years.  Documentation by Spanish explorers indicate that Incans restricted access to guano and considered guano a valuable commodity to be protected from overuse and misuse.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 5:  It’s believed that Peruvian seabird guano (since guano isn’t always from bats) used in 1842 in Ireland and Great Britain was responsible for the virulent strain of potato blight that was responsible for the Irish Potato Famine (1845 – 1852).

In 1909, Peru established the Guano Administration (we kid you not) to preserve their reserve of guano, and to continue to use guano for agricultural purposes in Peru.

Last month, the CBC reported on Emmanuel Kahsai, 30, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his 54-year-old mother, Selma Alem, and second-degree murder in the death of a 25-year-old female.  Those who know the accused have stated to the media that they believe the accused is faking a psychiatric illness to escape criminal responsibility.  The article, published July 18, 2016 was titled, “Emmanuel Kahsai playing ‘bat-shit crazy card,’ says Selma Alem’s friend.

Batshit was used in the June 1983 movie, “Trading Places” starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy.  The movie tells the story of a snobbish investor and a street savvy con artist who see their fortunes reversed as a result of a bet made by two millionaire brothers, Randolph and Mortimer Duke of the fictional commodities brokerage firm, Duke & Duke.

RANDOLPH DUKE
Exactly why do you think the price of pork bellies is going to keep going down, William?
    
BILLY RAY VALENTINE
Okay, pork belly prices have been dropping all morning, which means that everybody is waiting for it to hit rock bottom, so they can buy cheap and go long. Which means that the people who own the pork belly contracts are going batshit, they’re thinking, “Hey, we’re losing all our damn money, and Christmas is around the corner, and I ain’t gonna have no money to buy my son the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip! And my wife ain’t gonna f… my wife ain’t gonna make love to me if I got no money!” So they’re panicking right now, they’re screaming “SELL! SELL!” ‘cos they don’t wanna lose all their money, right? They’re panicking out there right now; I can feel it.
    
RANDOLPH DUKE
He’s right, Mortimer! My God, look at it!

It would seem that while the word crazy is implied, it wasn’t part of the idiom in 1983.

In 1971, William J. Calley Jr. published a book with the help of John Sack titled, “Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story.”  The book was marketed as “America’s most infamous soldier tells all.”  In his book, he used the expression batshit without tacking on the word crazy but as with the movie, “Trading Places” it’s implied.

Most of America’s males were in Korea or World War II or I. They killed, and they aren’t all going batshit.

This seems to show that bat shit, up to at least 1983, wasn’t coupled with the word crazy.

In 1988, the term appeared three times in the book, “Runaway” by author and English professor, Stephen Gresham — on pages, 85, 91, and 122.  The story is about 13-year-old Mark Blackwood who comes from a rich family but because he’s a runaway,he finds himself living at Redemption House under the watchful eye of Brother Bob who is far more dangerous than his name or title implies.

Man, what’s wrong with him?
He’s crazy.  Bat-shit crazy.

Stephen Gresham retired from Auburn University in 2008 as a full professor and currently resides in Auburn (AL).  Since Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of bat shit crazy, Idiomation has sent a communiqué to Stephen Gresham asking him where he first heard the idiom or if the expression originates with him.  As soon as we know, Idiomation fans and followers will be the next to know.  Stay tuned!

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Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 26, 2016

Lately you may have read or heard people saying dilly ding, dilly dong.  It’s an interesting idiom that expresses a celebratory feeling while underscoring focus and hard work leading to the celebration.  The history behind this is short and sweet.  It was coined by 64-year-old Claudio Ranieri.

In December 2015, the Italian manager spoke about the Leicester City Football Club (also known as The Foxes) officially qualifying for the EUFA Champions League — a championship that the club went on to win as they nabbed the Premier League title — and he used the term dilly ding, dilly dong.

Claudio Ranieri uttered the idiom dilly ding, dilly dong again in March 2015. and once again, to the delight of mainstream media, at a press conference on April 22, 2016.

Dilly ding, dilly dong! Come on!  You forget.  You forget.  You speak about blah-blah-blah.  But we are in the Champions League. Come on, man! Oh, it’s fantastic. Fantastic. Terrific.

The Foxes were an under-performing football club in 2010 when Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought the team.  Claudio Ranieri came on board in the summer of 2015 and led the team to victory months later.

However when he said dilly ding, dilly dong in 2015 and 2016, this wasn’t the first time Claudio Ranieri used the idiom.  Over his 30-year managerial career, dilly ding, dilly dong is a phrase he’s used often.  Originally, it was used as a lighthearted way of seriously underscoring the need for a wake-up call to members of the teams he managed, and it oftentimes led to positive results.

Idiomation adds dilly ding, dilly dong to the list of fun expressions we’ve researched, and we wish it a very long life.

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Daffy

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 12, 2016

Watching the movie about J. Edgar Hoover starring Leonardo DiCaprio, there was a scene between Hoover and his mother that spoke of a certain schoolmate of J. Edgar’s who had committed suicide years earlier.  She asked her son if he knew why he was called “Daffy” and then revealed that it was short for daffodil.  While it wasn’t stated outright, the implication was that a daffodil — or rather, a daffy — was a homosexual.

Back in 1935, it was understood that a daffodil was an effeminate young man in the vein of pansies and millies.  In “Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang” the term with this definition is pegged to the 1920s.  Interestingly enough, however, in this same dictionary, there’s an entry for daffy-down-dilly which refers to a dandy, and dates back to the mid-1900s according to Cassell’s.  The “Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English” by John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley published in 1905 confirms the claim in Cassell’s dictionary.

American romance novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (4 July 1804 – 19 May 1864) published a novel in 1843 titled, “Little Daffydowndilly.”   The story is about a little boy who only likes to do things that are agreeable to him, and dislikes work of any kind.  His mother has indulged her son to this end, and when he finds himself old enough to attend school, he finds the schoolmaster to be unreasonable in his expectations and believes him to be overly stern.  As the story unfolds, Little Daffydowndilly learns a lot about himself and his schoolmaster.

INTERESTING NOTE 1:  Nathanial Hawthorne is better known as the author of “The Scarlet Letter.”

Two years earlier, playwright William Leman Rede (31 January 1802 – 3 April 1847) wrote, “Sixteen-String Jack: A Romantic Drama In Three Acts” where he used daffy-down-dilly in Act i, Scene 2.  The scene begins with Bobby Buckhorse, the waiter at the “Cock and Magpie” and Nelly.

BOBBY:
I’m here, my daffy-down-dilly.

NELLY:
Don’t down-dilly me! but take some daffy to the back parlour.

BOBBY:
Back parlour’s served: I saw three brandy’s cold, one egg-hot, and a qartern with three outs, go in.

INTERESTING NOTE 2:  “Sixteen-String Jack” was a play about English criminal and highwayman, John “Sixteen String Jack” Rann (1750 – 30 November 1774) who was known for his charm and quick wit.  His attire was said to be overly showy.

It’s easy to see how a flashy dressing rogue such as John “Sixteen String Jack” Rann could be thought of as effeminate, even as he waylaid the countryside with his nefarious deeds.

Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet, and cleric, Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) used daffy-down-dilly in his short story, “A Punning Letter to the Earl of Pembroke” published on June 13, 1709.

There is a published reference to daffy-down-dilly recorded in Mother Goose or rather, what was known then called Mother Hubberd, back in 1593.

Daffy-down-dilly is new come to town
With a yellow petticoat, and a green gown.

The term is what’s known as a sandwich word which are, by nature, generally naughty.  That being said, calling a lawyer a daffy-down-dilly from 1483 onward was a serious accusation of double-dealing, and playing both ends against the middle for the lawyer’s own personal gain.  In other words, it was a conflict of interest that the lawyer chose to work to his advantage.

Idiomation finds that while daffy-down-dilly has been an insult for a great many centuries, it evolved to mean an effeminate male by the late 1700s and early 1800s.  This eventually evolved to mean a homosexual by the 1920s.  Idiomation therefore pegs this to 1800 as well as to 1920 because one really doesn’t know where the line was drawn between being effeminate and being a homosexual in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

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Chasing The Dragon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 12, 2016

Originally, chasing the dragon was a reference to inhaling the vapors from opium.  Over time, it meant to chase after the elusive first-time high one got from a drug as the body develops greater and greater tolerance levels.  At that point, the chase was at the expense of the user’s for his or her health, wealth, and/or sanity.  Most recently, it refers to the pursuit of something you will never achieve or own.

Idiomation first heard the term used in the movie, “From Hell” which was set in 1888 in London (Whitechapel to be exact).  The main character (played by Johnny Depp) was a police detective who was chasing the dragon (in reference to his recreational drug use). The term was used a handful of times in the movie.

However, a study published on the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) website titled, “Heroin Smoking by Chasing The Dragon: Origins and History” claim that the term was from 1920s Shanghai.

In September 5, 1983 the New Strait Times (published in Kuala Lumpur) reported on drug arrests in Ipoh (Malaysia).  After coordinated raids in Menglembu, Kuala Kang, and Pengkaian Pegoh regions, police arrested four dadah addicts.  The four men had fled police, and upon capturing them, the police seized two straw tubes of heroin.  The article was titled, “Chasing The Dragon: One Caught.”

The Spokesman-Review published on February 13, 1961 brought news from Hong Kong where it was reported that more than half of the over 18,000 people sentenced to terms of imprisonment were guilty of drug offenses.  The idiom chasing the dragon was used in explaining the situation where heroin and morphine (byproducts of opium poppies) weren’t grown locally, and supplies were being smuggled into Hong Kong from abroad.  The second paragraph in the story stated this:

This is just one proof of the size of the drug problem facing the authorities in this British colony where, according to a special government report, as many as one in every 12 of the population may be indulging in the habit of “chasing the dragon” — taking dope.

This wasn’t just a problem in Hong Kong.  It was a global problem, and affected those in America according to the 1961 “Narcotic Officer’s Handbook” which stated:

In ‘chasing the dragon‘ the heroin and any diluting drug are placed on a folded piece of tinfoil.  This is heated with a taper and the resulting fumes inhaled through a small tube of bamboo or rolled up paper.  The fumes move up and down the tinfoil with the movements of the molten powder resembling the undulating tail of the mythical Chinese dragon.

In the book, “An Introduction to the Work of a Medical Examiner: From Death Scene to Autopsy Suite” by  John J. Miletich and Tia Laura Lindstrom, the authors claim (as does the NCBI study mentioned earlier) that heroin smoking originated in Shanghai in the 1920s, and spread across Eastern Asia before making the leap to the U.S. in the 1930s.  The moniker chasing the dragon (according to the authors) didn’t show up until the early 1950s.

This is attested to in Jay Robert Nash’s book, “Dictionary of Crime: Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Law Enforcement.”

But how did chasing the dragon come to be used in the movie, “From Hell?

Pure cocaine was first used in the 1880s as an anesthetic because it constricted blood vessels during surgery which limited bleeding (safer drugs introduced after that time replaced cocaine in the operating theater).

Cocaine had been illegal in China (from whence it came) until 1858, and was legalized, hoping to curb drug addiction and bolster the economy.  Within twenty-five years of legalizing cocaine, it was among the top causes of social anxiety.  In 1882, opium dens in the United States (in California especially) were getting out of hand, which led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Use of the drug in China peaked at the turn of the 20th Century, and began to steadily increase in England and the United States at the same time.

So while it’s true that in 1880s, some drug addicts were chasing the dragon, the term chasing the dragon was not in use at that time — or for some time after.  The term made its way into the movie because it was a term someone associated with the movie had heard used to describe the activity in which Johnny Depp’s character was involved.

Idiomation is unable to pinpoint a date for this idiom, mostly because there are so many conflicting sources laying claim to when smoking cocaine came into vogue in countries outside of China.  Maybe one of our Idiomation supersleuths has the answer to the question?

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Nitpicking

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 5, 2016

A nitpicker is a fussy, finicky fault-finding critic who finds small mistakes or flaws in everything, be it a person, an activity, an item, an event, et al, although sometimes the criticism is justifiable and warranted.  Usually, however, no matter how insignificant the flaw, a nitpicker will raise petty objections over the mistake or error.  Nitpicking is what nitpickers do.

In October 3, 2002, CNN News reported on the Iraq resolution that was introduced in the Senate, and hailed by then-President Bush as a show of unity at a time when war with Iraq might be unavoidable.  Then-Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had this to say about the resolution and the direction in which the White House was moving on this matter.

I’m sure the argument will be why are we nit-picking, but what I want to do at a minimum in the debate is lay out what I understand what the President’s committing to do.

Some in the Senate and in Congress were uneasy with the concept of authorizing war where no international support was perceived, but the resolution seemed to sit well enough with the majority.  In the end, Senator Lieberman declared that the moment of truth had arrived for Saddam Hussein, and America marched off to war.

It was Richard Reeves column writing for the Universal Press Syndicate (UPS) on May 16, 1992 that addressed whether Ross Perot’s political aspirations had the “endurance, perseverance, and agility” to last more  than a couple months.  He talked about the “Capitol game” where senators and representatives jostled against the rest for media attention, but not necessarily on behalf of their state’s best interests.  It was an explosive column aptly titled, “The Rise Of Nitpicking Lawmakers.”

On October 25, 1978 the Associated Press (AP) reported a situation happening in Washington, DC that had to do with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  It addressed what many called “Mickey Mouse rules” that took the focus away from major problems in the workplace.  For years, the agency had dictated even the smallest of things to employers in America including, but not limited to, mounting of fire extinguishers, how to handle portable ladders, and what toilet seats to select for the workplace environment.  The first sentence in the article said it all.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration made good on a promise to businessmen and scrapped 928 “nitpicking” safety standards Tuesday.

I’m sure that millions of employers across the nation breathed a sigh of relief over not worrying about the 928 safety standards that were stricken from the roster!

On September 6, 1988 The Telegraph published in Nashua, New Hampshire ran a quick quiz in Richard Lederer’s column, “Looking At Language.”  The columnist asked readers to figure out which of three dates for each word in a list of words was the correct date each word entered the English language.  From airsick through to yogurt, there were thirty-six words in all, and nitpick was among them.  The answer for when nitpick entered the English language was 1951, which was, of course, correct.

And how do we know this?  Because it was what was published in an article in the November 1951 edition of Colliers magazine.

Two long-time Pentagon stand-bys are fly-speckers and nit-pickers. The first of these nouns refers to people whose sole occupation seems to be studying papers in the hope of finding flaws in the writing, rather than making any effort to improve the thought or meaning; nit-pickers are those who quarrel with trivialities of expression and meaning, but who usually end up without making concrete or justified suggestions for improvement.

To make into Colliers magazine in November 1951, it was certainly an expression that was used prior to 1951, and coming from the Pentagon, it is at least from 1950 if not the 1940s.

As a side note, if you’re wondering, according to the energycommerce.house.gov website, flyspeckers and nitpickers are still employed in the Treasury department.

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Move The Goalposts

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 11, 2016

Back in 1976, country recording artist Bobby Bare had a hit on his hands with the song, “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through The Goalposts of Life.”  It was a humorous song that crossed over to radio stations with non-country music formats.  But where did Bobby Bare come up with the idea of goalposts being idiomatic for describing life?  And is a positive or negative connotation when someone moves the goalposts?

If you hear someone accusing a person or company of shifting or moving the goalposts, they’re alleging that the person or company has changed the rules while everything is in progress.  Whether it’s done so the company or other person can come up the winner, if it’s done to set someone up for failure, or if it’s just to complicate a situation, is immaterial.  It’s a case of changing the rules while the “ball” is in play.

On February 2, 2016, journalist James Longstreet writing for the American Thinker shared his article about Dianne Feinstein, Vice-chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the U.S. had commented on the Hillary Clinton email situation.  He stated that some of what Dianne Feinstein  had to say on the subject had shifted the focus to impact on the Democrat primary.  The article was titled, “Hillary Email Scandal: Feinstein Moves The Goal Posts, Raises Many Questions.”

Five years earlier, in on July 22, 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) gave a press conference on the debt ceiling, and the reasons why he pulled out of negotiations with President Barack Obama on the topic of raising the legal limit to borrow money ahead of the August 2, 2011 deadline at which point the U.S. would no longer be able to pay all its bills.

The problem, according to John Boehner, was that the White House was demanding an extra $400 billion in revenues to the already agreed upon $800 billion (resulting in a tax increase for Americans).  He claimed that the White House refused to consider serious expenditure cuts, and was not interested in making hard decisions that would benefit America. In his comments to the press, he stated in part:

And a tax system that was more efficient in collecting the taxes that were due the federal government. And let me just say that the White House moved the goalpost.

In the article, “Uses and Misuses Of Strategic Planning” written by Daniel H. Gray and published in the Harvard Business Review of January 1986, the writer took on the subject of corporate America’s problems as they pertained to formal strategic planning.  He discussed how it was the poor preparation and incomplete implementation of decisions made through strategic planning that caused corporate America to struggle.  This is how he incorporated the idiom in his article:

What actually does happen is often rather primitive: exhortation, backdoor dealing, across-the-board cuts, moving the goalposts, and mandated performance promises. In other words, the units’ plans are force-fit in various ways into the corporate plan. At this stage of the game, companies normally focus their attention more on the numbers in the business plan than on the strategies.

Back in 1978, Albert Vincent Casey had been with American Airlines for four years after starting his career in the railroad industry.  He had been tapped to be their CEO at a time when the airline was struggling with a burdensome debt load and high costs due to premium services that were a hallmark of the airline.  He piloted the company through this turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s.  With regards to deregulation of airlines, he was quoted in the February 4, 1978 edition of the Washington Post thusly:

“They keep moving the goal posts,” he lamented.  “We’re not afraid of deregulation, though,” he said, “if they really took off all the wraps.”

Just a few years earlier, Time magazine used the idiom in the body of an article as well as in the title.  Published on March 6, 1972, the article, “JOBS: Moving The Goal Posts” took on the concept of what full employment meant.

To economists and politicians, “full employment” does not mean what the words suggest: a job for absolutely everybody who wants one. Instead, the working definition has long been a jobless rate no higher than 4%. Even by that measure, the U.S. has rarely enjoyed full employment since World War II; the last time was in the closing months of the Johnson Administration and the early days of the Nixon era. Now the President’s aides are redoubling efforts to bring the jobless rate back from nearly 6% toward full employment by the elections. Instead of launching another new economic game plan, however, they are trying to move the goal posts.

In Spanish, the idiom is cambiar las reglas del juego.  In French, the idiom is changer les règles du jeu pendant la partie.  Another way of saying this idiom in English is to say that the rules of the game were changed.

The word goalposts first came into being in 1834 and referred to sports requiring upright posts to allow for goals in a game involving two opposing players or teams. At that time, the goal was identified two upright posts supporting a crossbar of a goal.

Used in the current way, it’s easy to understand how, when someone moves the goalposts, it is an unexpected and frustrating occurrence for the person or persons focused on reaching the formerly identified goal.

Moving goalposts was even frowned up in the Christian Bible where it states this in Proverbs 22:28.

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version going back before 1972, however, the fact that it was used with ease in a Time magazine article published in early 1972 indicates that the idiom was understood by the public at large.  It is most likely that move the goalposts as we understand the idiom to mean these days, came about in the 1960s.

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Break A Leg

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 3, 2015

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard the expression break a leg although they may not always recognize it as a wish of good luck to another.  But it is.  The idiom is a theatrical superstition where performers believe that wishing a person “good luck” is considered bad luck, and so they wish them bad luck instead by way of broken bones.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE:  The industry standard when it comes to stages is for the stage to be sloped one inch per foot of stage space.  Data shows that theatrical productions with the maximum stage slope account for the highest percentage of injuries from sprains to fractures among performers.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune published a news article by Mary H. Williams in the column “Charlotte Life” on January 23, 1992 where the idiom introduced the writer’s comments about Jan Brandes of Port Charlotte and her debut with the Players of Sarasota.

Break a leg!” is a traditional parting phrase for performers preparing to go on stage.  Of course, this isn’t as brutal as it sounds.

It’s considered bad luck to wish an actor good luck, and somehow this phrase has taken hold in the thespian world.

Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article titled, “A Defence of Superstition” in the October 1, 1921 edition of the British liberal political and cultural magazine, New Statesman.  In his opinion, the theatre was the second-most superstitious institution in England with horse racing being the top most superstitious. It was Lynd’s assertion that one should wish participants something insulting such as ‘May you break a leg!‘ as wishing a participant luck was considered, according to superstition, bad luck.

Four years after this article was published, American romance and women’s fiction author, Faith Baldwin (October 1, 1893 – March 18, 1978) used it in her novel “Thresholds” published in 1925 as proven by this excerpt:

Rupert said, smiling a little: “Isn’t that a Teutonic expression employed before the chase?”

She laughed, lazily, over the lifted glass. “Not exactly. I believe that would be bad luck or something. You say, ‘I hope you break a leg’ — or your neck — or some such hope of calamity.”

In German, the saying is “Hals und Beinbruch” or break your neck and leg.  It’s been reported in numerous historical documents that German Air Force pilots used the phrase during the First World War.

In French, one says “Merde!” which translates into “Sh*t!” or, for those who are too shy to use such a coarse wish,  “cinq lettres” or “five letters” … one for each letter in the French word they don’t want to say.

In Spanish, the phrase is “mucha mierda” or “lots of sh*t.”

Some believe it’s a misheard version of the Yiddish phrase “Baruch aleichem” which means “bless you” and when said aloud, it sounds similar to break a leg (bah rak a lay kem) to those who don’t speak Yiddish.

But back in 1684, according to “A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English” to break a leg was to seduce someone.  According to John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley who were responsible for creating this seven-volume work published in 1905, their tome states that this is what was meant by break a leg way back when.  Their dictionary was a result of researching multiple dictionaries that dated back as far as 1440 and included, but weren’t limited to, the works of John Palsgrave (1530), John Withals (1553), Peter Levins (1570), Cladius Hollyband (1593), John Bullokar (1616), Thomas Blount (1656), Richard Head (1674), E.B. Gent (1696), Nathan Bailey (1737), Francis Gross (1785), John Jamieson (1808), John R. Bartlett (1848), Charles Pascoe (1881), and Albert Barrere (1887).

Going with the definition of break a leg from 1684, what better luck could you wish a performer headed on stage than that he should seduce the audience that awaited him?

However, the meaning of the idiom as we understand it today, dates back to 1921 regardless of how well it applied to the theatre in 1684.  So the next time you find yourself in front of an audience, don’t be shy:  Break a leg!

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Cute As A Button

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 6, 2015

Children are said to be cute as a button although every once in a while someone might refer to a young woman in this way. What it means is that the person who’s said to be cute as a button is charming and attractive while implying the person is small or young, like a child is.

On March 30, 2014, snlgamers.com published an article from writer, David Graham that discussed Nintendo’s history. The article was titled, “Hanafuda: Nintendo’s Past” and gave a detailed accounting of where Nintendo began and how it became what it is a hundred years later. Along the way, the writer included this passage.

We think of Nintendo as the wholesome video game company. Mario and Kirby are as cute as a button and the company in general feels squeaky clean, especially compared to other industry titans.

Back on October 30, 1995, journalist Tony Kronheiser’s story, “Those 15 Minutes Of Fame Will Ruin The Kid” about 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier from Old Tappan in Bergen County (New Jersey) hit the newsstands. It’s not that Tony wasn’t aware that his comments might not be appreciated by some, however, as a journalist, he felt compelled to write the story nonetheless.

The boy in question had leaned over the right field railing at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the American League Championship at the bottom of the 8th inning with one out and the Orioles leading 4 to 3. He stretched his baseball gloved hand out over Tony Tarasco, and gave the New York Yankees a home run in the process.

The journalist knew that his comments would be unpopular with a segment of the population but that didn’t stop him from writing about the situation as it was. And he predicted that some of his detractors might even think this of him:

Tony, this is the lowest you’ve ever sunk. He’s a 12-year-old boy, and he’s cute as a button. So what if he hurt the Orioles? Stop pandering to the Washington audience. All the kid did was try to catch a fly ball. You’d have done the same thing yourself.

As it was, the Baltimore Orioles lost the pennant that year, and over the years, Jeffrey Maier went on to play high school and college baseball, and then worked for minor-leagues baseball teams. And the journalist was right: Jeffrey Maier never escaped from being forever thought of as The Kid.

In the Deseret News edition of April 16, 1954 stores were in full swing with spring fashions and nothing said cute as a button for a little girl than a strappy little patent leather number as seen in this newspaper advertisement.

Cute As A Button_1954
In the book, “The Best Plays of 1938 – 39” edited by Burns Mantle, the idiom appeared in “Kiss The Boys Good-Bye.” It was a comedy in three acts, written by American author (and later U.S. Ambassador) Clare Boothe  (10 March 1903 – 9 October 1987) and later known as Clare Boothe Luce after marrying Henry “Harry” Luce (3 April 1898 – 28 February 1967), the founder of Time and Fortune magazines.

BREED
The Old South, the last illusion of the New North —

CINDY LOU
Lift me down (TOP lifts her down.)

BREED
… destroy that — and comes the Revolution!

CINDY LOU
I declare you’re strong …

BREED
Personally, I think she’s cute as a button

CINDY LOU
Why, you damn Yankee pole-cat! Here I come!

The idiom as we know it is actually an abbreviated version of cute as a button quail. For those who aren’t familiar with button quail, they’re tiny, extra-fluffy, docile members of the quail family. They have an extensive vocabulary with multiple chirps and coos that are understood by other button quail, and yet, their chirps and coos are very quiet … perhaps so as not to disturb others in the vicinity.

The proper name for button quail is Chinese Blue Breasted Quail (Excalfactoria chinensis) and are native to only a few provinces in southeast China. European tourists visiting China in the late 1800s and early 1900s fell in love with them and took them back home with them to add to their persona aviaries.

American soldiers during WWI encountered them in these homes in Europe. Soon afterwards they were brought to America. However, rather than arrive with their proper name, American soldiers reported that these little birds were about the size of their uniform coat buttons when they first hatched, and that’s where the idiom began.

Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the 1920s.

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