Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Posts Tagged ‘15th Century’

Smart Alec

Posted by Admin on August 12, 2010

In 1873, J.H. Beadle wrote in his book The Undeveloped West:

“I had the pleasure of seeing at least a score of SMART ALECKS  relieved of their surplus cash.”

It would appear that after the American Civil war, smart alecks were not very well liked.  But even before during that war, it would appear that the phrase was already well known.  In Carson, Nevada, the local newspaper, The Carson Appeal, published on October 17, 1865 spoke of Nevada having joined the Union:

“Halloa, old SMART ALECK  — how is the complimentary vote for Ashley?”

The Ashley to whom the newspaper referred was Delos Rodeyn Ashley (1828 – 1873) who was elected as a Republican to  the United States Representative from Nevada for the 39th and 40th Congresses from 1865 to 1869.

However, we owe the phrase “smart alec” to the exploits of  New York City’s celebrated pimp, thief, and confidence man, Alec Hoag and his capers of the 1840s.  Hoag, along with his wife Melinda and an accomplice known as “French Jack”, operated a  standard fraud practised by many con artists known as the “panel game.”  This game proved to be a very effective method for prostitutes and their pimps to relieve customers of their money and other valuables. 

The adjective smart as it’s used in this phrase — meaning impudent — dates back to the 15th century, and doesn’t appear that often outside of this expression although once in a while you do hear someone say, “Don’t get smart with me!”

It is said that the police hung the nickname of  “smart Alec” on Alex Hoag because he proved to be a very resourceful thief who outsmarted most everyone — including the police — for the duration he, his wife and their accomplice played the “panel game.”

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Never Cast A Clout Until May Is Out

Posted by Admin on March 30, 2010

Ne’er cast a clout till May be out is an English saying with a long and difficult history.  In 1855, F. K. Robertson’s Whitby Gazette published the following rhyme:

The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out
.

The earliest published version of the rhyme can be found in Dr. Thomas Fuller’s  “Gnomologia” published in 1732. 

Since at least the early 15th century ‘clout’ has been used to mean a fragment of cloth or clothing and was spelled as clowt, clowte, cloot, or clute.   It’s here that the saying took on two meanings rather than just the original.  The new meaning was a reminder not to be too quick to shuck the warmer winter clothes before cooler days during the month of May were most likely over.

That being said, English farm-workers working the fields in their winter clothes throughout the month of May could suffer from heat exhaustion if they kept all their winter layers on until the end of May!   The flowering of the hawthorne (May) tree was a more reliable guide to the state of the weather.

This means that the original meaning goes back even further than the 15th century and indeed, it can be traced back to the 12th century.  During Medieval times in Brittany, a man proposed to his beloved by leaving a hawthorne (also known as a Mayflower) branch at the door of his beloved on the first of May. By leaving the branch at the door she accepted his proposal.

Traditionally, it was taboo to bring hawthorne into the house in Medieval England because it was feared it would bring death with it.  This is because the hawthorne blossom has a distinctive fragrance and in medieval times, the blossom was said to carry the ‘stench of death’.  (This is due to the trimethylene that the flowers give off as they deteriorate.) 

The exception to that rule was during May-Day celebrations (for one day only) when it was permitted to bring flowers into the house for decoration.  No marriages were allowed during the month of May and it was considered unlucky to marry in the hawthorne month since most people during Medieval times rarely bathed, June was usually one of the months in which most people had baths.  The exception to the rule, of course, would be those who lived in castles. 

It would make sense for the general population to keep at least some (but not all) of their winter clothes on until they could bathe and be fresh for any wedding celebrations coming up during the month of June.  This is verified by another English saying:  “Marry in May and you’ll rue the day.”  What’s more, washing in May was not a favoured activity as evidenced by yet another English saying:  “Wash a blanket in May; wash a dear one away.”

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 15th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »