Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1500’

Hit The Nail On The Head

Posted by Admin on October 23, 2013

When you hear that someone in a discussion has hit the nail on the head it means that the person has driven the point home, having summed it up in a few, understandable words or sentences. It’s oftentimes used in politics and business, but even in everyday conversation, you’ll hear people talk about those who have hit the nail on the head.

When the political debates of 2010 were the rage in the media, everyone watched as Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Senator Rick Santorum, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul discussed matters in a televised debate anchored by George Stephanopolous and Diane Sawyer. When the transcripts were released, what people thought they had heard could be checked against the written word. In the transcripts, Rick Perry was quoted as having said:

Yeah, well, I — I’m — I’m stunned, ’cause — the fact of the matter is, you know, Michele kinda hit the nail on the head when we talked about the individual mandate. Both of these gentlemen have been for the — individual mandate. And I’m even more stunned, Mitt, that you said you wished you could’ve talked to Obama and said — “You’re goin’ down the wrong path,” because that is exactly the path that you’ve taken Massachusetts.

Politics seems to make liberal use of the expression, including in the September 26, 1972 article “Political Tools” published in the Milwaukee Sentinel. The news story addressed the presidential campaign of that year, which saw George McGovern going head-to-head against then-President Richard Nixon. Four paragraphs into the article, the following was written:

Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird hit the nail on the head when he said that “it is a despicable act of a presidential candidate to make himself a spokesman for the enemy.” One news account called Laird’s observation “some of the harshest rhetoric of the 1972 presidential campaign.” Considering some of the rhetoric Desperate George [McGovern] has engaged in, particularly comparing Nixon to Adolf Hitler, this characterization os Laird’s remark is a gross misstatement of the facts.

Again with a political reference, the Evening Independent newspaper published a story entitled, “Hitchcock Sends Ultimatum He Will Take Issue To Upper Chamber If Compromise Fails” on January 27, 1920. In sharing news of the failure of the bipartisan conference in Washington, DC to reach a compromise, resulting in the peace treaty ratification fight that was ongoing in the Senate, this was reported:

Senator Hitchcock declined to speculate on the possibility of so early a renewal of hostilities but most Democrats declared nothing was to be gained by further secret conferences.

“It looks as if the jig’s up,” declared Senator McNary, Republican, Oregon, a leader of the “mild reservations” group, and this seemed to hit the nail on the head, in the opinion of most senators.

Things didn’t change much in the years leading up to 1920, as shown in the news article “Republication Ratification Meeting” in the Boston Evening Transcript of September 27, 1883. The story was about a meeting held to give feedback on the level of satisfaction with the action of the Sate Republican Convention’s choice of candidates. An extensive piece, halfway down the fourth column readers were greeted by this from J.M. Forbes who could not be in attendance, but who sent his thoughts in a letter that was read aloud by Henry Packman, had this to say about nominee, George D. Robinson:

The brilliant orator, the ally and mouthpiece of the faction, whose shining words everybody reads, has for once hit the nail on the head and proclaimed the truth, that there is room for only two parties in this State, and that we must choose between the two, leaving all minor issues for future consideration. We accept his and their challenge, and declare …”

The letter goes on for a bit, outlining five major points, but the article continues for another two columns before finally signing off.

Various reputable sources claim that the expression — meaning a person is communicating effectively or gets to the point — dates back to the early 16th century without providing proof to substantiate that claim.  But Idiomation continue to research for sources and English dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher yielded up the phrase. Together, they wrote an early 17th century comedic stage play entitled “Love’s Cure” in 1612, then revised it in 1625, and finally published it in 1647. It was also known as “The Martial Maid.” In Act II, scene 1 of this play, regardless of which version you read, you will find the following:

METALDI
I give Place : the Wit of Man is wonderful.
thou hast hit the Nail on the Head,
and I will give thee six Pots for’t,
tho’ I ne’er clinch Shooe again.

French Renaissance writer, doctor, humanist, monk and scholar, François Rabelais (4 February 1494 – 9 April 1553) wrote “The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel.” The third book, “Le Tiers Livre” in which the passage appears was published in 1546. In Chapter XXXIV, readers find the idiom in this passage:

Let us come to where we left off, quoth Panurge. Your words, being translated from the clapper-dudgeons to plain English, do signify that it is not very inexpedient that I marry, and that I should not care for being a cuckold. You have there hit the nail on the head. I believe, master doctor, that on the day of my marriage you will be so much taken up with your patients, or otherwise so seriously employed, that we shall not enjoy your company. Sir, I will heartily excuse your absence.

Despite ongoing research, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the expression which appears unchanged over the centuries. It is therefore, highly probably that the expression dates back to at least the early 1500s as reputable sources claim, especially in light of that fact that it was used with easy by François Rabelais.

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Mad As A March Hare

Posted by Admin on July 12, 2011

If someone mentions that you’re as mad as a March hare, what they mean is that you’re out of your mind and you’re not thinking straight.  In other words, your behaviour is bizarre and completely unlike your usual demeanour.

The expression goes back to the belief that when breeding season hits in Europe — which just happens to begin during the month of March — hares behave erratically.  The behaviour continues well past March, however during the winter months, hares are docile and so when they seem to be agitated and excited — and sometimes violent — it only appears to be out of character for these animals.  It’s not … not really.

On March 7, 2010 the Telegraph newspaper in the UK reported on the FA Cup quarter final match between Reading and Aston Villa at the Madejski Stadium.  The first paragraph read:

Martin O’Neill went as mad as a March hare at the Madejski Stadium but finally laid to rest one of football’s rarer hoodoos at the 13th attempt. Since arriving at Aston Villa in 2006, the manager had failed to win a game in March and, after Shane Long gave Reading a two-goal half-time advantage, O’Neill delivered a broadside.

On March 1, 1925 the New York Times ran a news story on William Wrigley who began his career as a soap salesman and was known to spend millions on advertising.  The reason for the story had everything to do with the chewing gum that sold for a penny but that generated net profits of over 8 million USD in 1924. The article began with this enticing tidbit of information:

To business men and bankers, Wrigley may have seemed mad as a March hare. That was the panic year. Money was at a premium.  Businesses were wondering how they could escape their advertising contracts.

In Chapter VII also known as “Pigs and Pepper” of Lewis Carroll‘s book “Alice In Wonderland” published in 1865, the following exchange happens between Alice and the Cheshire Cat.

“By-the-bye, what became of the baby?” said the Cat. “I’d nearly forgotten to ask.”

“It turned into a pig,” Alice quietly said, just as if it had come back in a natural way.

“I thought it would,” said the Cat, and vanished again.

Alice waited a little, half expecting to see it again, but it did not appear, and after a minute or two she walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was said to live. “I’ve seen hatters before,” she said to herself; “the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad–at least not so mad as it was in March.” As she said this, she looked up, and there was the Cat again, sitting on a branch of a tree.

W. C. Hazlitt published his book “Remains: Early Popular Poetry of England” in 1864.  It contained a poem from 1500 that included this line:

Thanne they begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare.

The expression mad as a March Hare, however, is found in countless books and documents from the 16th century.  In fact, John Heywood included the phrase in his book “A dialogue Conteinyng The Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue” published in 1546.  So in less than two generations, the phrase had come into its own.  Part of this is due to the fact that in 1529, Sir Thomas More used the phrase in his book “The Supplycacyon of Soulys” when he wrote about beggars and their begging ways:

As mad not as a march hare, but as a madde dogge.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier version of the expression mad as a March hare however it’s very likely that it was used in previous decades as it is used with great ease of language in the 1500s.

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

All Cats Are Gray In The Dark

Posted by Admin on July 6, 2011

When in the dark, appearances are meaningless, since everything is hard to see or is unseen. It also means that all persons are undistinguished until they have made a name for themselves.

Back in 1953, writing as Andrew North, Andre Norton (1912 – 2005) — whose real name was Alice Mary Norton — wrote “All  Cats Are Gray.”  The book appeared to be a basic, straight-forward science fiction story with heroes riding about  in a derelict spaceship with a menacing space alien in the mix and a little love and good fortune thrown into the mix.  But it was different in that it was the heroine and not the hero who was very much the protagonist.

On January 13, 1896 the New York Times ran an editorial with a hodge podge of smaller articles, one of which addressed the concept that all cats are gray in the dark.  The tidbit relating to the phrase read in part:

Without pretending to know just what objection the Colonial Dames have to Ben Franklin, we are inclined to ascribe their hostility to his assertion that “all cats are gray in the dark.”  The aphorism — like most of those on which the old Philistine’s fame is based — has no foundation whatsoever in fact.  Black cats, for instance, are not gray in the dark, but blacker than ever, even to the point of disappearing entirely.  Not only is the expression false from the standpoint of observation and natural history, but it was not original with Franklin. He stole it in France and then passed it off for his own.  Now he’s getting punished for the crime.

In Miguel de Cervantes‘ book, “Don Quixote” a version of the phrase “all cats are grey in the dark” is found in Part ii, Book iii, Chapter xxxiii.

And if your highness does not like to give me the government you promised, God made me without it, and maybe you’re not giving it to me will be all the better for my conscience, for fool as I am I know the proverb ‘to her hurt the ant got wings,’ and it may be that Sancho the squire will get to heaven sooner than Sancho the governor. ‘They make as good bread here as in France,’ and ‘by night all cats are grey,’ and ‘a hard case enough his, who hasn’t broken his fast at two in the afternoon,’ and ‘there’s no stomach a hand’s breadth bigger than another,’ and the same can he filled ‘with straw or hay,’ as the saying is, and ‘the little birds of the field have God for their purveyor and caterer,’ and ‘four yards of Cuenca frieze keep one warmer than four of Segovia broad-cloth,’ and ‘when we quit this world and are put underground the prince travels by as narrow a path as the journeyman,’ and ‘the Pope’s body does not take up more feet of earth than the sacristan’s,’ for all that the one is higher than the other; for when we go to our graves we all pack ourselves up and make ourselves small, or rather they pack us up and make us small in spite of us, and then — good night to us.

The phrase appeared as “when all candles be out, all cats be gray” in John Heywood‘s “Book Of Proverbs” published in 1547 that version is essentially the same as the more modern version.  And, of course, the John Heywood version was pre-dated by that of Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) as it appears in his book of proverbs and adages, and is considered by Erasmus to be a Gallic proverb rather than a French proverb.

However, the French of the day did say, “at night, all cats are gray” and Yiddish speakers are known to say, “you can throw a cat wherever you want, it always falls on its feet.”  Still the expression was well-entrenched in a number of languages and historically speaking, I can only reach as far back as the generation before Erasmus’ book published in 1500.

Special thanks to Stephen Kruger for providing additional information on this entry.  His input is greatly appreciated.

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Pandora’s Box

Posted by Admin on October 7, 2010

When someone opens a “Pandora’s box” it means they have started a series of events that will result in a number of unexpected problems.  The phrase is based on an old Greek story in which a woman named Pandora opened a box containing all the troubles the world has experienced

In the original story, Zeus — the king of the Greek gods — gave Pandora a box as a gift but with strict instructions that she never open the box no matter how tempted she may be to do so.  In time, curiosity got the better of her and she opened the box just a little to sneak a peek inside.  Once opened, however, all of the box’s contents spilled out, these being all of the evils of the world.  According to legend, the only thing remaining in Pandora’s box was Hope.

On April 21, 1803 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush in which he stated:

It is my opinion that the man in California does not value Liberty, may be lacking in a conscience, and has opened a Pandora’s Box that will eventually bite him in the ass.

During a debate at the Paris School of Medicine in 1699, Louis X!V’s court physician, Fagon delivered an eloquent speech about nicotine addiction, describing tobacco as fatal yet irresistible habit.

Who is the rash man that first tasted a poison that is more dangerous than hemlock, deadlier than opium? When he opened his snuff-box, did he not know that he was opening Pandora’s box, from which would spring a thousand ills, one worse than another? Assuredly, when we try it for the first time, we feel an uneasiness that tells us that we have taken poison.

However, the first use of the phrase goes back more than 500 years.  Dutch Renaissance philosopher and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) who wrote on ecclesiastic subjects as well as those of general human interest published a book, “Adagia” in 1500.   The book contained a number of idioms and adages including two of his own: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” and “Pandora’s box.”

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »