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

Weaponized Incompetence

Posted by Admin on November 27, 2021

Weaponized incompetence — also known as strategic incompetence or skilled incompetence — happens when someone does a task so poorly that one or more people take over and do the task for that person even when the person either knows how to do the task or could learn to do the task for himself/herself/themselves. It usually happens in relationships where one partner purposely does a task so poorly or claims to be unable to do the task as a way to force the other partner to take sole responsibility for the task. It’s a skilled way of avoiding what the individual believes is an undesirable task for them to do by demonstrating an unarguable inability to do said task.

Some claim it is a sexist behavior however males and females have shown both genders are quite adept at weaponized incompetence when they choose to default to the behavior in order to escape shouldering the responsibility of doing the task in the first place.

It happens when a male does the dishes so poorly that the female has to re-wash the dishes before serving food on those dishes.

It happens when a female claims she can’t follow a map or GPS directions to ensure the vehicle in which they are traveling will arrive at its intended destination forcing the driver (or another passenger) to take over the task of reading the directions on the map or the GPS.

It happens when a co-worker half-heartedly does their assigned task on a group project and leaves everyone else to take up the slack so the project is completed in a timely fashion and is done according to set standards.

How do you know if weaponized incompetence may be at play? When one or more people, exasperated with the poor performance of the person slacking off says, “I’ll do it for you” and the person slacking off is not only excused from all duties and responsibilities, but also absolved from any negative fall-out over how the project was completed, that person has successfully pulled off weaponized incompetence.

Like learned helplessness, weaponized incompetence is a learned behavior which can be unlearned.

Many claim that the expression first came to light in 2006 however weaponized incompetence is part of the cycle of gaslighting according to psychotherapists and psychiatrists.

In August 2008, university professor Carl Dyke wrote about strategic incompetence on the Dead Voles blog. At the time, he was teaching three courses of introductory world history as well as an upper-division seminar in World History since 1945. Carl Dyke had the following to say about this behavior:

Strategic incompetence is the art of making yourself more trouble than you’re worth in some area of unwelcome effort. This can involve being a painfully slow learner, a bumbler, or an impediment. In each case the objective is to make it easier for someone else to step in and do the work than to leave it to you. Arguably a species of passive aggression, although shading off into mere passivity or genuine incompetence.

Far from lacking in ability, those who successfully practice weaponized or strategic incompetence are also masters of expectations management and oftentimes project toxic niceness while feigning incompetence.

But long before it was called weaponized incompetence, and long before it was called strategic incompetence, back in 1986, business schools referred to this behavior as skilled incompetence. In the article “Skilled Incompetence” written by Chris Agyris (16 July 1923 – 16 November 2013) for The Magazine published by the Harvard Business Review in September 1986, he described in detail how this happened in large businesses. He described premeditated incompetence that was set up by the individual to avoid being responsible for completing a task they did not want to be responsible for completing.

It appears that while weaponized incompetence may have first appeared in 2006 as reported by a few websites, strategic incompetence was around a decade before that, and skilled incompetence was around a decade before that.

Idiomation understands that faked incompetence has been around for centuries — especially where passing the buck is possible — but the specific terms go back to 2006, 1996, and 1986 respectively.

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Ballpark Figure

Posted by Admin on July 10, 2021

When someone asks for a ballpark figure or a ballpark estimate, they are interested in a somewhat qualified number guesstimate and are willing to accept a very rough estimate where necessary. Sometimes the figure guessed at is pretty close to bang on and sometimes the estimate is so far off-base as to be completely without merit. That being said, one shouldn’t confuse a ballpark figure with a good faith estimate.

In the Fall of 2019, Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith told the media that the first space trips on New Shepard would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Speaking at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference, he stated new technology is never cheap but that the cost of a ticket for middle-class people would eventually be affordable. Until then, GeekWire‘s Alan Boyle reported Bob Smith “hinted at a ballpark figure.”

The Polk County Enterprise newspaper of Livingston (TX) — a semi-weekly newspaper that includes local, state, and national news along with advertising — ran an story with an interesting headline in Volume 117, Number 64, Edition 1 of their newspaper published on 12 August 1999. The article by Enterprise reporter, Emily Banks, reported County Judge John Thompson had asked Clyde Arrendell who was the chief appraiser of the Polk Central Appraisal District to a budget workshop. Emily Bank reported:

Emphasizing that all figres were “ballpark figures” Thompson reviewed the budget schedule, as well as the county’s tax history from 1982 forward.

The title of the news article was this: Court Studies Budget with Ballpark Figures.

In the book “Surviving in the Newspaper Business; Newspaper Management In Turbulent Times” written by William James (Jim) Willis (born 19 March 1946) and published in 1988, the writer paraphrased what Marion Krehbiel, former president of the major newspaper brokerage firm Krehbiel-Bolitho Newspaper Service, Inc. had stated in the late 1970s with regards to arriving at a fair market price for a small to medium size daily newspaper.

Krehbiel added a caveat to these indexes, however, when he noted in 1979 that this forumula is only meant to provide purchasers with a ballpark estimate of a newspaper’s worth.

The 24 June 1957 edition of The Des Moines Register included the column “Washington Memo” which purported to report on what was going on in Washington DC. In this edition, immediately after reporting on how an Army colonel felt about one of this tasks which came about after a Southern congressman “yelped about [the Army’s] handling of racial relations.” Here’s what readers learned next.

CODE: Pentagon language continues to produce new bafflers. One of them is “a ballpark figure” meaning a very rough estimate which doesn’t do much more than indicate that a given program is going to cost somebody an awful lot of money.

Kenneth Patchen (1911 – 1972) wrote “Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer” which was published by the New Directions Publishing Corporation in 1945. In this book, the concept of the ballpark figure is used in conjunction with being out in left field on page 101 in the chapter titled, “The Last Party I Ever Went To.”

“Miro complicates it simply because he doesn’t know how to handle his material.”
“But Arp does, I suppose.”
“Of course he does.”
“You’re way out in left field.”
“And you not even in the ball park.”
I poured it out. The sand looked very sticky and the leaves on the tree were getting sort of yellow around the edges.
“And what about De Niro? This is a serious young painter.”
“All right, what about Kamrowski? – or Lee Bell? – or Jackson Pollock? – or Arthur Sturcke?”

He wasn’t the first to coin the phrase though as some sources claimed. On 1 May 1944, The Morning Herald in Hagerstown (MD) was reporting that on what a senator claimed about U.S. aid for that year.

Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., said in a speech that total U.S. aid for the current year is about $250 million. He said “a ballpark figure” is that his proposal would halt $150 million to $180 million.

Idiomation realizes that many websites claim the expression dates back to the mid-sixties with the understanding we have of the idiom these days, but obviously it was around before then for it to be used in a newspaper article twenty years earlier with the expectation that readers would understand what the idiom meant.

Unable to find an earlier published version of ballpark figure, Idiomation pegs this idiom to at least ten to fifteen years earlier for it to be used to freely in a newspaper article in 1944.

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Swaboda

Posted by Admin on June 5, 2021

This past April (2021), while researching a completely different idiom, Idiomation found an expression that was intriguing: Swoboda movements. This week, we took on the arduous task of finding out what was meant by this expression, and what was uncovered was certainly unexpected!

The original passage Idiomation found was in a letter dated 8 December 1904, written by James Clark of Elgin (IL) who was a traveling agent for the Sherwin-Williams Company in Northern Illinois to his son, William, who had completed his first month of business experience in Johnes’ Hardware Store in Port Center in Michigan. In his letter to his son, James Clark wrote in part:

Have plenty of nerve always, but use your nerve with intelligence. Give your brain some exercise, put it through a few Swoboda movements just before you tackle the new proposition. Be just sufficiently afraid of making mistakes to realize that your thinking apparatus is one of the best mistake killers known to science.

References to Swoboda movements were sparse at best, however, we came across articles from such reputable magazines as the Kansas City Medical Records, Volume 28, Issue 9 in 1909, Volume 28 of the Advertising and Selling magazine in an article dated 28 September 1918, and other publications, and in advertisements aplenty in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Here’s the scoop on Swoboda.

Alois P. Swoboda (8 March 1873 – 13 December 1938) was an Austria-born American quack and physical culture mail-order instructor. In some ways, he may be thought of as the precursor to late night infomercials with his quackery and pseudo-scientific claims. He brazenly hawked his system as a one-size fits all cure for every disease known to man. He even went as far as to claim that his system was guaranteed by the government of the United States of America which, of course, it did not.

In Volume 70, Number 11 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of 16 March 1918, Swoboda was called out for his so-called medical advancement. In the article it stated:

Not that [the book explaining the Swoboda system] means anything but it sounds rather scientific and can be counted on to impress both the thoughtless and that still larger class of individuals who merely think they think. Swoboda is not the first to appreciate that a meaningless phrase, if couched in pseudo-technical language, paraded frequently and solemnly with a lavish use of italics, capitals and blackfaced type, may be counted on effectually to take the place of thought or common sense.

These days, most people are familiar — in varying degrees — with the Church of Scientology, and are aware that L. Ron Hubbard is responsible for establishing Scientology. What they don’t know is that L. Ron Hubbard’s uncle, American writer, publisher, anarchist, and traveling salesman Elbert Green Hubbard (19 June 1856 – 7 May 1915) was an enthusiastic backer of Alois P. Swoboda’s system, and that many of Swoboda’s teachings became part of the backbone of Scientology.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The ninth printing of “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” was dedicatd by L. Ron Hubbard to his uncle, Elbert Green Hubbard.

For a time the expression Swoboda movements was trying to elbow its way into the English language, but like many buzz phrases over the generations, ultimately no one was interested in taking it much further than the occasional letter published in a newspaper story or magazine article, and so it remains firmly lodged between 1900 and 1905 forevermore.

As a side note, Alois P. Swoboda was mentioned in a Time Magazine article of 7 July 1930 but it had very little to do with his sytem, his movements, or the expression.

This short-lived expression dates back to 1900, and falls completely out of use within a few short years. But oh! what an interesting history that expression has, and what interesting side notes (behond the one in this entry) to boot!

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Pipped At The Post

Posted by Admin on May 1, 2021

To be pipped at or on or to the post means to be defeated by someone by a very narrow margin or at a crucial moment. While it’s generally used when talking about a race or competition, but overall it has to do with not succeeding where success was almost guaranteed, or by the underdog gaining a small advantage at the last decisive moment resulting in the crowd favorite losing.

The pip in question has nothing whatsoever to do with the dots on a dice or domino. It has nothing to do with the diamond-shaped segments on a pineapple. It hasn’t any connection to the insignia on the shoulder of an officer’s uniform indicating rank. Those are all pips, but they aren’t the pip in the idiom.

The Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang both refer to the pip as being depressed or out of sorts, and dates back to the 1830s. But from 1896 onward, the pip meant to annoy or irritate someone. From Idiomation’s point of view, losing at the last minute what was believed to be a guaranteed win would certain annoy and irritate the loser, so while the reason for the expression makes sense, when did it come about as an idiom?

The idiom is still in use today, as evidenced by the research paper published in Frontiers in Psychology on May 2019 titled, “Pipped at the Post: Knowledge Gaps and Expected Low Parental IT Competience Ratings Affect Young Women’s Awakening Interest in Professional Careers in Information Science” by Angela Schorr of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Siegen (Germany).

When Collins Dictionary released its words of the year that rise to use in the twelve months leading up to the list being published, most people thought Megxit was a shoe-in for first place in 2020 after Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, left the UK for Canada and subsequently America. But the pandemic had other plans and lockdown won the coveted first place by a nose as lexicographers announced lockdown as the word of the year.

The headline for the article on 10 November 2020 and written by Yahoo! News’ royal correspondent, Rebecca Taylor, announced:

‘Megxit’ Makes Shortlist of 2020 Word of the Year But Pipped to the Post by ‘Lockdown’

In the 18 March 2018 edition of the Messenger Newspaper in the UK they shared the news that The Sunday Times Best Places to Live Guide had named Altrincham as the best place to live in North West Britain. According to the guide, Altrincham was “a cool slice of suburbia with big family houses” and was a 25 minute ride on the tram if one wanted a little city living to go with that. The headline read:

Altrincham Pipped at the Post as Best Place to Live

The Canberra Times used the expression in a story published on 9 May 1988. The Syndey Swans were playing against Geelong Cats (who were favored to win the game) in Melbourne. The Swans were trailing badly by halftime, and in the third quarter, there was a 22 point margin between the two teams.

Then something unexpected happened, and things began to go horribly wrong for the Cats and incredibly right for the Swans. Then, according to the newspaper, Geeling rover Robert Scott set up a shot that really had little to no hope in succeeding. He went with a shot at goal from 50 meters out, at a 30 degree angle … into the wind. A true Hail Mary play if ever there was one!

The ball hit the post, resulting in the winning goal being played by the Cats. The headline read: Geelong Pipped at the Post by Swans.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE #1: In the 1970s, when Digital Equipment Co was taken over by Compaq, there was a utility known as the Peripheral Interchange Program, or PIP. To transfer a file from disk to tape or another disk, users had to do so using this program and entering the correct commands, and because of this, to transfer was to pip. It isn’t, however, the same pip as in this Idiomation entry.

It appears the expression is mostly used by those who live in England, Ireland, and Australia as nearly all of the published instances were found in newspapers and books from England, Ireland, and Australia.

For example, the 5 September 1948 edition of the Sheffield Telegraph and Star told the story of a man who had been blind for at least 35 years and yet continued gardening and his relation to the Thomas Glossop Memorial Cup.

The gardening competition was started by the Abbeydale Amateur Gardening Society which had been started by Vicar of St. John’s Abbeydale. The cup was awarded on the most points scored.

Every year, the blind man did all his own gardening, raising his plants from seeds, and keeping his garden weed-free thrugh his sense of touch. He had won the gardening award from the time WWI broke out, up until his death in 1940. In 1958, the man’s son, Arthur H. Glossop, suggested the cup be the runner-up to the winner of The Kemsley Cup presented by The Star newspaper. He was quoted in the newspaper saying:

“My father always had a lot of sympathy for the man who was just pipped at the post, and I am delighted to think that his cup would be a consolation to such a competitor,” said Mr. Arthur Glossop.

In the 12 January 1926 edition of The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate newspaper reported on a horse race that was so close that the reporter wrote that “a majority of the onlookers thought that [Gadamin] had just got [to the finish line]” with regards to a the horse race in which Gadamin was racing.

It was an amazing race from a number of standpoints.

For one, this was said about one of the other horses: “Varney, from Vic Benyon’s stable, was also one of the field, but was not in the hunt until the race was practically over. He made up a lot of ground from the turn, and would probably be better suited by a longer trip.”

However the focus of the story was on the horse who didn’t win with the headline sharing the news.

Pipped On The Post: Gadamin’s Game Effort

Indeed, in the June 1903 edition of Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes in the story, “Our Van” a detailed accounting of horse racing was written across several pages, and within that writing was this passage:

In a Maiden Two-Year-Old race we saw a race thrown away. In Newsboy one was found to beat Bass Rock, but Land, having accomplished this, took matters too easily, and was “pipped” on the post by Extradition. When will jockeys learn?

And there we see the word pipped in quotation marks which indicates the expression was just coming into its own.

In the 19th century Britain, to pip someone meant you wounded or killed that person, usually with a gun. It was an effective way to defeat one’s opponent. Being defeated at the finish line by one’s competitor who wasn’t the crowd favorite would also wound, and Idiomation suspects this is how the expression rose to popularity around the turn of the 20th century.

This leaves the earliest published version of pipped at or to or on the post to 1903 with only a few years before that to account for the use of the quotation marks in the 1903 article.

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Hot Desk

Posted by Admin on April 24, 2021

Last week, Idiomation took on the hot seat and this week Idiomation has decided to research hot desk and hot desking. It is also occasionally referred to as LIW or location independent working. Hot desking, however, is not to be confused with hoteling which are bookable workstations or desks for staff who need to reserve a workstation or desk when they are actually at work and on the premises.

Hot desking is when desks are used in a work situation where different people use the same desks at different times, and where there is usually no assigned desks. Think of it as a first-come-first-serve concept except for offices.

The practice is meant to maximize space efficiency and reduce what is known as redundant office space. Unfortunately, it also increases distractions, uncooperative behavior, and negative interactions.

If Idiomation took a run at guessing why that might be, the territorial nature of people in general is at the top of the list. But this is a blog devoted to the meaning and history of expressions, idioms, phrases, words, et al, and not a blog dedicated to human psychology so we will stick to what we know and do best.

On 18 April 2021, CNN Business reported that HSBC (Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) was getting rid of their executive floor at their headquarters in London in favor of having their executives hot desk in open-plan areas two floors below what used to be their executive floor. The expression was included in the headline.

HSBC’s CEO Is Swapping His Office For A Hot Desk

It’s interesting that a large corporation would opt for that style of work at the office when on 14 May 2008, CBS News referred to hot desking as a ‘short-lived ’80s efficiency fad’ in their news story, “Is Hot Desking A Cool Idea — Or A Catastrophe?

Hot desking was allegedly the brain child of advertising executive Jay Chiat (25 October 1931 – 23 April 2002) of Chiat/Day who believed that private space trumped personal space, and that private space could be accessible anywhere at any time, and there was no need for personal space when private space was always available. He instituted the concept in his offices in 1994, on a day staffers called V-Day.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Bernard De Koven claims to have coined the word coworking in 1999. According to De Koven the word refers to people working together as equals in an office or business environment, and was supposedly inspired by the kind of hot desk workspace Jay Chiat put in place for his business.

On that day, instead of desks and cubbyholes, workers were assigned small lockers to hold their personal possessions, and then headed to the concierge window where they signed out a PowerBook and a cellphone that was to be returned at the end of their work day.

The problems weren’t far behind. The lockers were too small to hold more than a few small items, and employees began to lug around their PowerBooks and cellphones as well as important papers and contracts and story boards and more.

The business “bread lines” started as there were too many employees at certain times to allow for a PowerBook and cellphone per employee during certain hours of the day. Of course, there were the coveted places to sit at the office when an employee was on the premises, which led to employee conflicts and resentments. And at the end of the day, not as much work got done as got done when the office was set up the traditional way with private and personal space for all.

Some even compared to this way of going about their workday as working inside a migraine.

The New York Times reported on this in their 16 October 1994 edition with an article written by American architect critic, Herbert Muschamp (28 November 1947 – 2 October 2007) entitled, “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Ad World.” The subheadline referred to the hot desking offices of Chiat/Day as a ‘new dream factory‘ that was ‘an advertisement for itself.’

By mid-1995, it was understood at Chiat/Day that this concept wasn’t viable at either the LA or the New York offices, and by 1999, the man in charge was president and chief creative director Lee Clow, and hot desking wasn’t a thing at Chiat/Day anymore.

But there are a few years between the 1980s mentioned by CBS News and Chiat/Day’s experiment in 1994.

The article by financial reporter Shane Hickey in the 15 October 2015 edition of The Guardian titled, “The History of the Office: Why Open-Plan Fell Out of Fashion” mentioned hot-desking arriving on the business scene in the 1980s with no source mentioned to support that claim. In fact, a number of article in the 2010s made similar claims with no corroborating proof to back them up.

History indicates that open-plan office designs were the big thing in the 1960s. Personal space was sacred with invisible territories and boundaries marking what was public and what wasn’t quite as public. Everything at a person’s desk — their private personal space — was set up just as the person liked it, and when they arrived at work every morning, everything was expected to be as it was when they left the night before.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: The open-plan office design was the big thing in the 1960s but the idea originated with Frank Lloyd Wright when he designed the Larkin Administration office in Buffalo (NY) in 1906. It even came with built-in office furniture! In 1939, the Frank Lloyd Wright design for the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine (WI) opened with the ‘great workroom’ where secretaries worked. The building is still the world headquarters for the company which is now names SC Johnson & Son.

But an open-plan office design isn’t the same thing as a hot desk office environment.

Three years before Jay Chiat’s experiment at Chiat/Day began, Sunday Times reporter Godfrey Golzen (2 February 1930 – 1 August 2001) wrote about the concept in his 5 May 1991 article, “Cut The Office In Half Without Tears.” In this article, hot desking is mentioned so we know that in 1991, hot desking was happening in some business offices.

It should be noted that Derek Harris wrote about hot desking in his article for The Times a year later in an article titled, “Turning Office Desks Into Hot Property.”

In October of 1989, the firm of Ernst & Whinny merged with the firm of Arthur Young to become Ernst & Young. It was reported at the time that they consolidated their respective operations by abandoning three separate Chicago locations and taking up seven floors of the Sears Tower, and revolutionizing their new workplace with hot desking. The new firm was able to decrease its space usage from 250 feet person to 100 feet per person thanks to this new concept where workers were renamed ‘visiting employees.’

On site, ‘visiting employees‘ could use whichever desk or workstation was available instead of having a permanent desk or workstation assigned to them. If they absolutely needed the use of a more permanent office space for a meeting, they could call ahead and reserve the space and time for that meeting.

The term and practice is similar in some regards to the naval practice of hot racking that has been around since the 16th century. Hot racking had low ranking crew members sharing bunks and beds in rotating shifts as a way to maximize space in ships at sea. Hot racking is also known as hot bunking and hot bedding, mostly because as one person vacates the bed, they leave the bed warm for the next person occupying that same bed.

However, that definition doesn’t seem to quite fit with hot desking other than the concept is meant to maximize and reduce space for business ventures. To that end, the connection may be an unintentional red herring.

The earliest reference to hot desking by name is in the 1991 news article with a number of descriptions that fit the definition of hot desking in articles from the latter part of the 1980s.

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Hot Seat

Posted by Admin on April 17, 2021

There are conflicting versions of where the idiom “in the hot seat” or “on the hot seat” originated although all versions point to the idiom meaning the person in or on the hot seat is faced with harsh criticism and judgement.

Some say the expression alludes to the electric chair and dates back to the 1930s. Others say the expression was coined by Harpo Marx in the 1930s.

Some say the electric chair meaning is American English and others say the precarious, difficult, dangerous position meaning is British English.

Is it possible both meanings are correct? Is it possible that the idiom did come from the 1930s and as such can be attributed to more than one source of origin?

The Australian Women’s Weekly newspaper ran an article in the 14 January 1959 edition that was written by Ross Campbell and titled, ‘The Hot Seat.” The article was a hilarious piece about a situation — real or imagined — that happened between Ross Campbell and his wife. The many ways in which how a man sits and the direct correlation to that man’s success in life outlined how Ross Campbell wound up in the hot seat, and how those young men who lounge about are sitting pretty even though an article Ross Campbell’s wife read said they soon would be.

A decade earlier, the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane (Australia) reported on 23 August 1949 that Harold Merchant, 35, sat tight in the cabin of his 20-ton trailer the day before and cheated death by electrocution for the third time. A 25-tone power shovel hit a tramway crosswire resulting in 600 volts of electricity running through Harold Merchant, and his passenger, Frank Gorry. This was thanks in no small measure to the fifteen rubber tires on the trailer Merchant was pulling. The headline read:

Tyres saved him from ‘hot seat

There’s no doubt that the hot seat isn’t the place you really want to find yourself even when you come out of the situation on the plus side!

It’s a fact that in the 1930s, celebrities who visited William Randolph Hearst at his mansion in San Simeon would sometimes wear out his or her welcome, and as that welcome began to wear out, that guest was placed further and further away from their host, William Randolph Hearst who was only interested in having the most current and influential guests at the head of the table. The last seat was the one closest to the large fireplace in the room and, as you can imagine, that made the seat very hot indeed.

Supposedly Harpo Marx (23 November 1888 – 28 September 1964) found himself at the bottom of the guest list thereby earning himself the ‘hot seat‘ position for the evening. He knew that meant he was on the way out in terms of being a welcome guest. Supposedly, when he found himself in the hot seat, he immediately coined the phrase.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: It’s alleged that his fall from grace with William Randolph Hearst had to do with Harpo sneaking down into the vault at the mansion one cold, snowy night, and getting the stored mink coats out of storage so he could dress the statues in the gardens in fur … to keep them warm. The guests awoke to the prank and enjoyed it immensely. William Randolph Hearst did not enjoy the prank at all. Up until that point, Harpo had been a frequent weekend guest.

What is known is that Harpo Marx did, indeed, visit the Hearst mansion in the 1930s. Hearst had an autograph book always at the ready and insisted that all Hearst visitors sign it upon arrival. Alongside Harp Marx’s signature was a quick caricature of Harpo with a harp that was drawn by Harpo.

What that means is that both possibilities are still in play based on what Idiomation uncovered, so Idiomation came at the idiom from another direction.

The first execution by electrocution (which replaced death by hanging) was in September of 1890 at Auburn Prison in Auburn (New York) when the state tried to make good on the death sentence that had been handed to American vegetable peddler and murderer William Kemmler (9 May 1860 – 6 August 1890) by the Courts.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: George Westinghouse, one of the leading developers of electrical power, was very vocal in his objection to having electrical power used in this manner. It took until 1899 for the design of the electric chair to be sufficiently improved that death by electrocution became the preferred method of execution in most States in the U.S.

In the Saturday Evening Post edition published on 18 August 1925, a young boy who had murdered his grandmother just so he could steal her money found himself arrested, charged, and found guilty of her murder. The following was reported:

In a town in Pennsylvania, on May 18, 1925, a judge sentenced a boy fifteen years old to the electric chair. The boy twirled his hat, had nothing to say, remained in a self-satisfied calm. It was the judge whose voice shook. He was sorry that the law gave him no tether of leniency! A few minutes afterwards the boy was in his cell playing jazz on a phonograph. A newspaper reporter said he heard the lad announce that he was not afraid to die “in the hot seat,” and that anyway, “they won’t get me; I’ve got friends who will save me.”

This definitively places the electric chair reference to at least 1925 (and possibly earlier) in America, a few years before Harpo Marx is alleged to have coined the phrase at William Randolph Hearst’s mansion. However, because the idiom is in quotation marks, we also know it wasn’t a well-known phrase in 1925.

That being said, back in the day, intensive police interrogations under bright lights was often used as a technique to break suspects and make them talk. The manual, “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions” recommends interrogations take place in a small, soundproof room with nothing on the walls, one small desk, two chairs for detectives to sit in if they choose to take a seat, and a third chair (with no arm rests and as uncomfortable as possible) where the suspect will sit for the duration of the interrogation.

Up until 1937, as long as the suspect signed a waiver stating the confession was given voluntarily, confessions could be obtained by way of “third degree” techniques which included deprivation of food and/or water and/or sleep, bright lights, physical discomfort, long isolation, and physical abuse (as long as no marks from said abuse could be seen on the suspect’s body). That changed in 1937 when it was determined by the Courts that such confessions were inadmissible.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Seating a suspect in an uncomfortable chair in a small room temperature (or lower) room (with a two-way mirror to allow for outside observation of the interrogation) is still allowed. While the two-way mirror is meant to provide transparency with regards to how the interrogation is conducted, it has been found to add anxiety and stress for the suspect which detectives are allowed to exploit within reason. Interrogators are also allowed to use lying, trickery, and other types of non-coercive methods to secure a confession from a suspect.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: In 1937, putting suspects through the third degree in New York became a criminal offense after the use of third degree tactics was deemed illegal in that state. From 1930 through to 1937, appellate courts reversed convictions obtained through various forms of third degree where the result of the interrogation led to a confession being submitted as evidence.

Most people tend to use the words interview and interrogation interchangeably when speaking about police investigations. A police interview is used to gather information and objective facts by asking open-ended questions that allow interviewees to supply evidence. A police interrogation is used to extract a confession when police have sufficient evidence (thanks to the police interviews) to connect the suspect to the crime or crimes about which they are interviewing the suspect.

Keep in mind that the first police department in America was established in New York City in 1845 with New Orleans and Cincinatti (1852), Boston and Philadelphia (1854) Chicago and Milwaukee (1855) and Baltimore and Newark (1857) following suit. The primary focus was to prevent crime and disorder, and there were no detectives. That means that before these police departments were established, there were no hot seats courtesy of law enforcement.

While all of that is, without a doubt, very interesting, that still left Idiomation with a period between 1899 and 1925 when being in the hot seat or on the hot seat was an expression known to a segment of society that might or might not tie the idiom directly to the electric chair. The doubt is there due in no small part to a New York City detective.

In New York City, Inspector Thomas Brynes (15 June 1842 – 07 May 1910) headed up the detective bureau from 1880 to 1895, at which time he was forced to resign. He coined the phrase “giving the third degree” to describe his interrogation techniques for getting suspects to confess to crimes they were suspected of having committed. The first degree was the officer who arrested the suspect. The second degree was investigating the facts. The third degree was the interrogation.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: Inspector Brynes was also responsible for coining and popularizing the expression rogues’ gallery which was a photo gallery of criminals with detailed information on the crimes they had committed.

This is where the interrogation hot seat and the electric chair hot seat seem to meet up when it comes to language, which further narrows the period for the idiom’s first appearance to somewhere during the 1890s and early 1900s.

Try as Idiomation might though, there are segments of this search that elude Idiomation. The research will continue but for now, while the hot seat is pegged to sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s, the context under which the expression was first used continues to elude us … much in the same way a brilliant criminal mastermind tends to elude law enforcement until he or she is caught and brought to justice.

In other words, Idiomation remains on the case.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Full Monty

Posted by Admin on April 10, 2021

Contrary to popular believe, the full monty is not a euphemism for stripping as the movie of the same name implied. In fact, literally, the full monty is actually a three-piece suit with a waistcoat and all the trimmings that go with such a suit including a spare pair of trousers, and figuratively, it means to pursue something to its absolute limits.

On 21 February 1993, the Sunday Life newspaper of Belfast in County Antrim reported on the goal David Montgomery of the Carrick Rangers Football Club scored against the Glentoran Football Club. Because of that goal, his team won the game. Of course, for obvious reasons, David Montgomery’s nickname was Monty, but the headline that went with the photograph and news story was:

The Full Monty: Carrick’s Co. Antrim Shield Hero David Montgomery (left0 Salutes the Fans After Tuesday’s Game.

In 1986, the book “Street Talk: The Language of Coronation Street” was published. The book was compiled by Jeffery Miller and edited by Graham Nown. For those who may know, Coronation Street is a long-running, well-loved British soap opera. Because Jeffrey Miller included the expression his book nearly a decade earlier than the movie “The Full Monty” was released in theaters is that the expression was known in the mid-80s.

The podcast from České Podcasty in the Czech Republic talked about men in the 1970s “wearing the full Monty” so it appears the idiom was not only well known, but well known long before the movie was a glimmer in the scriptwriter’s eye.

So what’s the connection between clothes and this full Monty?

Sir Montague Burton (15 August 1885 – 21 September 1952) was born in Lithuania and was previously known as Moshe David Osinsky. He opened a shop in Chesterfield, Derbyshire in England in 1903, and within a decade it was a respected chain. It went on to become one of Britain’s largest high street clothing retailers.

What began as a single shop in 1903 turned into a chain of 400 shops by 1929. When WWII broke out, his business was responsible for making a quarter of the British military uniforms, and a third of the demobilization clothing. Demobilization clothing was civilian clothing provided to servicemen who were demobilized after WWII. The outfit, known as the “Full Monty” comprised of a hat, a three-piece suit or a jacket with flannel trousers, two shirts, a tie, a pair of shoes, and a raincoat.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The other manufacturers of demobilization clothing were Fifty Shilling Tailors which was established in 1905 by Henry Price in Leeds, and Simpsons of Piccadilly which was originally established by Simeon Simpson in 1894 as S. Simpson. His son, Alexander Simpson, joined the business in 1917 and in 1936 Simpsons of Piccadilly was established.

The tradition of giving servicemen after the war a new suit originated after WWI (yes, back in 1918) when servicemen exchanged their service uniforms for civilian clothes.

In a July 2005 article by the BBC, a number of former employees and children of former employees spoke of the “full Monty” as being this complete outfit, some of them remembering the term as far back as 1925.

The West Yorkshire Archive Service (which documents local history from the 12th century through to the present) has photographs of the Leeds factory of Montague Burton from the 1930s and includes photographs of the Australian Cricket Team visiting in the summer of 1938. One of the photographs identifies the Australian team’s captain, Don Bradman (27 August 1908 – 25 February 2001), being fitted for what is described as the “full Monty” at one of Burton’s stores.

So while this expression is a difficult idiom to research (Idiomation invested three days on this quest) with an inordinately large number of red herrings to chase after, the best Idiomation can confirm is that it appears most likely the expression is from Montague Burton based on the demobilization suits (1945) and the factory photos (1938).

What Idiomation can confirm is that the idiom existed long before the movie was filmed.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Swat Mulligan

Posted by Admin on April 6, 2021

While researching mulligan, Idiomation became aware of the expression swat mulligan as it referred to Babe Ruth and Walter Hagen. As luck would have it, this wasn’t difficult to research.

The idiom swat mulligan is derived from the name of a infamous albeit baseball slugger — as written by Bozeman Bulger (22 November 1877 – 23 May 1932) — who played for the Poison Oaks of the Willow Swamp League who performed prodigious batting feats. The famous slugger’s name was Swat Mulligan and one of his adversaries was Fahrenheit Flingspeed and his egg pitch.

The news stories first appeared in the Evening World News newspaper of New York City in time for the start of baseball season in 1908.

Strong hitters in baseball and golf saw themselves compared more and more often to the great baseball slugger, and golfers of note began seeing reporters refer to them as ‘the real Swat Mulligan of the links.’

In 1915, the New York Yankees hoped to lure Swat Mulligan out of retirement to coach the team. In fact, reporter Hal Sheridan’s story appeared in the Seattle Star newspaper on 13 January 1915 with this opening paragraph:

“The negotiations for the services of Swat Mulligan as coach for the New York Yankees,” says Bozeman Bulger in the New York World, “are proceeding slowly but Manager Donovan thinks he will yet succeed.”

At the time, Swat Mulligan allegedly lived in Bobbletown (MO) and Bozeman Bulger shared the contents of various telegrams and letters that passed between Swat Mulligan and Bill Donovan (with missives to Bill Donovan being sent general deliver, New York).

Bozeman Bulger was a contemporary of Damon Runyon (4 October 1880 – 10 December 1946), and he wrote a great many “as told to” sports books. Along with being a sportswriter, he was also a newspaper columnist and a playwright as well as a lawyer. He joined the Evening World News newspaper in 1905.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Bozeman Bulger was a pioneer in the development of American sportswriting and developed the genre of ghostwriting by way of such sports icons as John J. McGraw, Ty Cobb, John L. Sullivan, Honus Wagner, and Babe Ruth.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Bozeman Bulger’s father and grandfather were notable Confederate officers during the Civil War and prior to the Civil War, both had been newspapermen for the Dadeville Record.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: His grandfather was General Michael Bulger and he served on the staff of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. His maternal great-uncle was a noted frontiersman, and Bozeman (MT) gets its name from him.

The expression referring to a formidable hitter began with Bozeman Bulger in 1908 and has no affiliation to either the expression mulligan in either cricket or golf, but it certainly makes for an interesting side trip to the expression mulligan, doesn’t it?

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Mulligan

Posted by Admin on April 3, 2021

Recently Idiomation came across the expression mulligan which is a free shot, so to speak. It’s a do-over or a second chance that replaces the first attempt at something, and is only accepted among friends in informal circumstances. As can be expected, you can give a mulligan or you can take a mulligan but you can never borrow one or lend one out.

The Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale (CA) posted an OpEd piece by Thomas Elias title, “Primary Exposes Problems With Early Voting” on 22 March 2020. It dealt with early voting and the primaries, and how the election in 2020 exposed weaknesses in California’s early voting system. The names that appeared on the early voting ballots included names of candidates who had dropped out of the Presidential race. You can imagine how that affected the results when November rolled around. This is how the author of the piece summed matters up.

Some of those voters would have liked to take a mulligan and vote over again once their candidates dropped out shortly before Election Day. 

As Idiomation continued researching the expression, an Irish tale was shared that claims that back in the day, and long before the turn of the 20th century, a foursome of Irish lads took their practice drives at the first hole. The oldest man, displeased with how everyone’s first shot had gone, said in his thick Irish brogue, “Do them all again!” The American foursome behind them overheard his comment, liked the idea of a practice shot and repeated the phrase they thought they heard, “Do the Mulligan!”

With that story being shared, Idiomation decided to see if there was a connection between giving or taking a mulligan and golf.

Amateur golfer, hotelier, and Canadian David Bernard Mulligan, in an interview in 1952 with Sudbury Star sportswriter Don Mackintosh, told the story of how the expression came to be. It all happened at the Country Club of Montreal (established in 1910) — which involved driving across the mile-long Victoria Bridge to get to the golf course — some time in the mid-1920s, according to David Bernard Mulligan.

One day while playing in my usual foursome, I hit a ball off the first tee that was long enough but not straight. I was so provoked with myself that on impulse I stooped over and put another ball down. The other three looked at me with considerable puzzlement and one of them asked, “What are you doing?”

“’I’m taking a correction shot,’ I replied. ‘What do you call that?’ the partner inquired. Thinking fast, I told him that I called it a ‘mulligan.’

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: On 22 July 1923, on page 55 of the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper of Rochester (NY), the paper reported: The boulevard before reaching Victoria Bridge is delightful and the mile ride across the St. Lawrence over Victoria Bridge is slow but enjoyable.

The bridge was known beyond New York state, as the Chicago Tribune reported on 10 August 1924: Closing of the Victoria Bridge at Montreal for five days last week brought out the fact that the bridge is used daily by from 700 to 1,200 vehicles, of which over 70 percent come from the United States.

The story was so well known that when David Bernard Mulligan died on 27 December 1954, his obituary began with: “David B. Mulligan, 83, dean of hotel men and veteran golfer credited with originating the extra tee shot term of ‘taking a Mulligan‘ died here today after a long illness.

But even before the expression was used in golf, it was used in cricket where a bad ball off the wicket could be replayed as a mulligan according to the  Colorado Springs Gazette of 19 April 1919. Obviously for it to appear in a news story in 1919, it had to be an accepted term to used in the news story with the expectation of being understood by readers.

Perhaps it’s nothing more than a fortunate coincidence that his last name was already associated with a meaning for mulligan that meant “to take a hard swing at a ball.‘ You see, in 1920, Babe Ruth was already being referred to in newspaper articles as a Swat Mulligan. How do we know this? On 13 March 1920, the Evening World News newspaper in New York City ran an article titled, “Long-Range Hit Record For Baseball and Golf Ruth’s Chief Ambition” the first paragraph began with this:

Famous “Babe” has natural form for walloping home runs, but on links he’s developed special style that drives the little ball over 300 yards – Yankees star confident of flashing new Swat Mulligan stuff this year in both baseball and golf.

Nearly a year before that, Walter Hagen was deemed the “Swat Mulligan” of the golf links according to the Evening World News of 13 June 1919.

Conditions that make most golfers go blooey only make Hagen play harder. He always seems to have something in reserve. He plays both with his head and great hitting strength. Famous as a long drive, a favorite Hagen trick is to let opponents lead him from the tee to the point where they start pressing in Anxiety to rub it in. Then the Detroit wizard simply lets out a few kinks and it’s good night for the foolish golfer who thought he could out-distance the Swat Mulligan of the links.

What is particularly interesting about these examples is that mulligans in golf in the Babe Ruth and Walter Hagen examples has nothing to do with the do-over version in the David Bernard Mulligan version.

A completely different version for the word mulligan comes from the Fresno Morning Republican newspaper in California in 1898 where the word was used as a stand-in term for any Irishman or Irishwoman.

And between the Babe Ruth and Walter Hagen definition and the Fresno Morning Republican definition, is the hobo slang definition of the early 1900s where mulligan refers to making use of whatever happens to be available at the time.

That being said, a mulligan in terms of a second chance to replace a first attempt that wasn’t to the person’s liking is pegged at the mid-1920s and David Bernard Mulligan. Of course, Idiomation will continue its research into the other variations of mulligan … for interest’s sake.

Posted in Canadian, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Penny Dropped

Posted by Admin on March 27, 2021

The British idiom about a penny dropping means that someone has finally understood something that escaped their understanding for a period of time, but that expression is not to be confused with the idiom to drop a penny which still means something entirely different. It also should not be confused with the lyric in the Christmas song that encourages the audience to “please drop a penny in the old man’s hat.”

And it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the story of a penny dropped off the observation deck of the Empire State building killing someone on the street below.

Pennies have been around a long time. Back in the mid-1800s, 12 pennies (also known as pence) made a shilling, and a shilling made a pound 20 a pound was made up of 240 pennies. In Canada, coppers (as pennies were called) were stamped out by Britain’s Royal Mint and represented 1/100th of a Canadian dollar and at the time, outside of Ontario, Canadian pennies were considered worthless.

But long before the Canadian penny, in 1793, the American penny made its appearance authorized by the United States from the Mint Act of 1792 which was signed by George Washington and designed by Benjamin Franklin.

You might think the expression should be American, not British, based on how long the penny has been around in the U.S. and yet, that’s not the case. A penny during William Shakespeare time wasn’t really a penny but a reference to money in general.

What penny hath Rome borne, What men provided, what munition sent?

But was the British penny of William Shakespeare’s the penny the British people came to know as a real penny? In 1797, pennies in Britain were made from copper but before that, pennies were made of silver, and in 1860, copper pennies were made from bronze instead of copper.

But at what point were pennies associated with people understanding what took the listener so long to understand that was obvious to the speaker?

At the end of the 19th century, penny machines (also known as penny-in-the-slot machines) were very popular in Britain. They provided cheap entertainment. Usually, when you dropped a penny into the machine, a song would play or a puppet would dance or a mannequin clairvoyant predicted something in your future after wich a small card dropped down into the slot with the fortune printed on it. The mannequin clairvoyant was a featured player in the Tom Hanks’ movie, “Big.”

You could also have gas delivered by way of an automatic penny-in-the-slot machine in 1890 where those of the poorer class (as they were called back then) could purchase 25 cubic feet of gas for their homes by inserting a penny into the penny-in-a-slot machines attached to their homes.

It wasn’t long before there were automatic postal boxes supplying postcards and stamped envelopes with paper enclosed and automatic insurance boxes providing insurance against accidental death for 24 hours, and automatic photographic machines.

Pennies were all the rage, and not just as they pertained to slot machines either!

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: The penny-farthing was a popular bicycle in its day beginning with its arrival in the 1870s. It got its name from the difference in the size of its wheels which was a nod to the difference in size between a penny and a farthing. The front wheel was large and the back wheel was small in much the same way that the penny was much larger than the farthing (which was worth a quarter of a penny).

The Sekgness Standard in Lincolnshire published the following in the column “Things We Want To Know” on 20 April 1932:

The identity of the gentleman who was allowed to go for a drink after assisting the missus on Sunday?
And how long it took him to fathom the problem as to why the hostelry was closed at 1.15 p.m.
And if the penny dropped on suggestion of his spouse that he had forgotten to advance his watch an hour?
And if he has made a mental resolve to guard against a similar happening in future years?

With a 40-year gap to work within, Idiomation continued tracking the idiom’s history down.

In the 1890s and 1900s, the Kinetoscope or Mutascope movie machines were all penny-in-the-slot machines. The viewscreen would be completely blank until the coin dropped through the slot into the machine, and there was usually a delay between the action of plugging the slot with a penny, the penny dropping into the box, and the mechanism within finally starting the movie.

The concept of a penny dropping and the person who paid the penny going from a blank screen to a movie is from this particular era even though the idiom is attest to years later. However, that it should be used so easily in a newspaper column and without quotation marks in 1932 indicates it was an idiom in use without doubt throughout the 1920s.

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