Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1600s’

Poor As A Church Mouse

Posted by Admin on January 22, 2015

When the claim is made that someone is poor as a church mouse, it means they haven’t anything to spare.  It’s based on the fact that a church doesn’t have a cupboard or a pantry from which a mouse can steal away even the smallest food crumb.  The interesting fact about this idiom is that it isn’t just an idiom used in English although it’s been well-used in English over the years.

The author of a print ad placed in the Milwaukee Sentinel on November 26, 1957 was intended as a plea for donations to build the Milwaukee Boys’ Club described as a real club for a real boy.  The ad was referred to in fine print as “one of a series of weekly articles paid for by a member of the Club’s Board of Directors.”  The ad was titled, “As Poor As A Church Mouse” and began with this copy:

You must be an oldtimer if you can remember back when this expression was so common.  Those were the days before electricity, telephones, automobiles, radios, television and modern plumbing.

And indeed the author of that copy was correct.  The idiom wasn’t a recent one in the least.

The Pittsburgh Press printed a Letter to the Editor on March 29, 1935 that was written by Norvin Mack of 525 Sheridan Avenue in Pittsburgh. 

Norvin Mack wrote about the minimum government pay of $30 per month to soldiers along with free lodging, food, and medical care.  He stated that if a soldier had family — in other words, dependents — that the government would deduct $15 from his pay, match that amount, and send it along to his family.  To that end, the minimum pay was $45 per month.  He went on to extol the other virtues of being a soldier, and all this was to correct a story that had previously been published in the newspaper.

He was an outspoken sort, and included this paragraph in his letter.

As one who volunteered long before the draft was hardly thought of and who is now as poor as a church mouse I count it an honor to take my position with you on this momentous question.  I am supporting my family at common labor, not relief.  Plain selfishness urges me to welcome the immediate payment of the bonus but common sense forces the rejection of the plan.

It was in the Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph newspaper edition of April 16, 1912 that an article appeared discussing the move away from throwing rice at weddings and the move towards throwing confetti instead.  The sexton of a fashionable New York church was interviewed on the new tradition, and his opinion favored the switch.  He was quoted as saying:

“This confetti fashion is very welcome to us sextons.  When rice was used our churches were overrun with mice.  The saying “as poor as a church mouse” was then meaningless.  Why, in my church, where weddings are so popular, several hundreds of mice — fat chaps they were, too — found an ample food supply in the rice that was sprinkled over the brides.”

“Now that rice has been abandoned for paper confetti, these mice have all disappeared.  They were starved out.  They couldn’t live on paper.”

The title for the story was simply, “Poor As A Church Mouse:  Since Confetti Came Into Use, The Saying Has More Meaning Than At Former Times.”  How apt is that for a headline?

Episcopalian clergyman and American author Frederick William Shelton (1815 – 1881) wrote and published “Peeps From A Belfry: Volume 3” in 1856.  This volume opened with a short story titled, “The Seven Sleepers.”   In Shelton’s story, a clergyman by the name of Pettibones approaches Mr. Snapjohn, and after a very brief exchange, Mr. Snapjohn says:

Want money, I suppose.  I haven’t a cent, Sir — not a cent.  Gave five dollars the other day for church missions, don’t believe the heathen will ever see one cent of it.  It won’t do them any good, — not at all, Sir, not at all, so much money thrown into the sea.  I am tired and sick of such demands.  I’ve got nothing.  I tell you I’m as poor as a church mouse — I’m as poor as a church mouse.”

The saying appears in a number of publications throughout the 1700s and 1800s, and is found in other countries. In fact, in German poor as a church mouse is arm wie eine Kirchenmaus and it’s found in a Grimm’s Dutch-German dictionary published in 1719. And before that, it appears in “A Collection of English Proverbs” compiled by English naturalist John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) and published in 1670 (who up until 1670 spelled his name John Wray).

Now, it’s also a fact that Anglo-Welsh historian and writer James Howell (1594 – 1666) published a proverb collection in 1659 entitled, “Paramoigraphy” wherein the idiom was listed as “hungry as a churchmouse.”  That being said, Grimm did mention in his 1719 book that the idiom was from the Scottish proverb puir as a kirkmouse.  Oddly enough though, the French had a similar phrase:  gueux comme un rat d’église.

Although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version than that from 1659 with a reference to the German and Scottish versions of the idiom, it’s likely that the phrase has existed for as long as mice and churches have co-existed which is to say, for centuries.  That being said, Idiomation is confident in pegging this idiom to the early 1600s, allowing it to become part of the vernacular in England.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Don’t Spare The Horses

Posted by Admin on January 13, 2014

Whenever you hear someone add don’t spare the horses to a directive, what you’ve heard is someone being told to hurry up with what they’re doing.  It’s not a negative statement, but rather, one that expresses the importance of speeding things up rather than continuing at the current pace.

When Jane Simon, journalist for The Mirror in London, England wrote her April 26, 2010 article, “We Love Telly: Pick Of The Day” she included a bit about Iron Chef UK — a spin-off of the American show which was a spin-off of the original Japanese show. While the four chefs contestants take on are impressive, it’s Olly Smith that Jane Simon writes most enthusiastically about with this comment:

Hyperactive even when he’s presenting some quite sensible item on Saturday Kitchen, here he’s been told to go for broke and don’t spare the horses.

“I’m like a Spitfire coming through the clouds!” he booms as he dashes in to peer into a frying pan. Or, my personal favourite: “Join us after the break when we shall erupt in a frenzy of judgment!”

In the crime thriller novel by Catherine Aird aka novelist Kinn Hamilton McIntosh (June 20, 1930 – ) entitled, “The Complete Steel” and published in 1969, the adventures of Detective Chief Inspector C. D. Sloan and his sidekick, Detective Constable Crosby continue. The story was published in the US under the title, “The Stately Home Murder” and was the third book in the series.

Detective Constable Crosby turned the police car …

“Home James and don’t spare the horses,” commanded Sloan, climbing in.

“Beg pardon, sir?”

Sloan sighed. “Headquarters. Crosby, please.”

Don’t Spare The Horses” was also a popular song by American actor, composer and songwriter, Fred Hillebrand (1893 – 1963) in 1934. The main focus of the song is about a date night gone terribly awry. It was recorded by “radio sweetheart number oneElsie Carlisle (28 January 1896 – November 1977) with Ambrose and the Mayfair Hotel Orchestra the year it was written. The recording was re-issued in 1966 on the Pearl Flapper label in an Ambrose compilation. These lyrics were transcribed from the 1938 edition of Song Fest.

HOME, JAMES, AND DON’T SPARE THE HORSES

It was in the gay nineties
One night at a swell affair
She was dressed in her best Sunday bustle
And wore a rat in her hair.

Her hero was both young and handsome,
But he was a terrible flirt.
He spent the entire evening
Making up to every skirt.

And when she gently reproached him,
He heeded her not at all,
And she, in her best Sunday bustle,
Went flouncing out on the hall,

She swept down the stairs most majestic
To her footman waiting below.
She spoke in accents loud and clear,
And told him where to go.

Home James, and don’t spare the horses,
This night has been ruined for me.
Home, James, and don’t spare the horses,
As ruined as ruined can be.

It’s still in the gay nineties,
In fact the very next day.
Our hero is somewhat remorseful,
And don’t know just what to say.

He thinks he’d better do something
To win her again for his own,
For she was his very best sweetheart
She was always good for a loan.

He went right straight to her mansion
And said “Forgive me dear.”
But, when he tried to embrace her,
She gave him a boot in the rear.

He swept down the stairs most majestic
And the doorman, he booted him too,
And as he threw him in the street,
She said “Humph to you.”

Home, James, and don’t spare the horses,
My suitor is just a bit tight,
Home, James and don’t spare the horses,
He’ll sleep in the stable tonight.

The song puts the expression to the 1890s, and magazines such as “McBride’s Magazine” and “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine” corroborate this date with the publication of the story “Unc’ Ananias: A Virginia Story” written by American historian and author, Molly Elliot Seawell (October 23, 1860 – November 15, 1916) in July 1982.

“Certainly, certainly, my dear boy,” cried the Squire, taking Mrs. Cary’s arm. “I don’t wish to be informed of your and Patty’s private affairs, — not for the world; but — er — remember, you needn’t spare the horses. Of course I don’t know where you are going, as you haven’t seen proper to mention it, but — the sorrels are good for twenty miles before dark.” And in half a minute the Squire had whisked Mrs. Cary out of sight, although a crack in the door showed they were not out of hearing.

Not much further in this story, the following is written:

At this, Patty advanced and put her hand shyly in Jack’s. He led her out the door, calling out, —

“Good-by, Squire. I am to drive Miss Patty home, and afterwards — but never mind: I know you’d rather not hear.”

Don’t spare the horses, — don’t spare the horses, my boy,” shouted the Squire.

As Jack drove off in the trap with Patty, the gentlemen cheered, the ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and Squire Cary came out beaming, and asking right and left, “What’s all this? What’s all this?” Nobody volunteered to tell him.

And in “Erlesmere: or, Contrasts of Character” by L.S. Lavenu and published in 1862, this passage kicks off the first paragraph of the story:

“Drive hard, Nat, don’t spare the horses. My master gave particular orders that we should do the ten miles home in fifty minutes.” So speaking, Mr. Erle’s headgroom spring up behind Sir Fitzroy Herrode’s light barouche. The postilion touched the off horse, and the equipage plunged into the steam of a sunny December morning.

And “Ballou’s Monthly Magazine: Volume 2” published in 1855, there was a story entitled, “Courtship In The Dark” by Frederick Ward Saunders that included this passage:

“I suppose you want me to drive fast, don’t you, sir?” asked the coachman, in a significant tones, as he closed the door.

“Yes, drive like blazes, don’t spare the horses,” replied Cap. though for the life of him he couldn’t have told him where to drive.

The coachman mounted the box, cracked his whip, and off they went at a deuce of a pace, Mary crying like a watering-pot, and Cap. trying to comfort her, in which he succeeded admirably, for he had a peculiar knack of comforting good-looking young women in distress; and by the time they had gone a couple of miles, she became quite lively and chatty.

While the urban myth of Queen Victoria being responsible for the expression “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses” is widely recounted as the source for the idiom, it is nothing more than a fanciful tale … an urban myth. The habit of referring to coachmen as James dates back to the 1600s, with the name James being used as a name of convenience by those from wealthy or noble families when addressing the coachman.

With this information, the idiom can be pegged to the beginning of the 17th century. With that being said, “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.”

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Creature Comforts

Posted by Admin on April 26, 2013

Have you ever heard talk about creature comforts? Those are things that make life comfortable and pleasant … food, clothing, housing, and other necessities that take care of the physical aspects of the individual. In other words, material comforts that are responsible in part for one’s physical well-being, but that are not considered luxuries by others.

Malabar Hornblower wrote an article that was published in the New York Times on February 21, 1999 entitled, “Creature Comforts for Homo Sapiens.” The article discussed the parks, game reserves and conservation areas in Africa and included this commentary:

There is an abundance of accommodations providing all levels of luxury. For visitors who, like my husband, Bill Brewster, and me, relish their creature comforts, the choice of lodges is almost as critical as picking game-viewing sites. When it comes to making the final selections, it feels a bit like Russian roulette.

Back on December 4, 1949 the St. Petersburg Times ran an article entitled, “Strength Through Unity In Arms Is Not Enough.” The story was about the unanimous agreement on defense plans that was reached by the North American Pact allies and whether this would provide achieve the goals the allies hoped to achieve. It read in part:

It follows, consequently, that this system must be economically sound. That is not simply because man’s basic creature comforts must be satisfied. Only when those basic comforts are provided — when freedom from want is reasonably assured — can there be true progress in the arts and sciences. Men do not reach for the stars with empty bellies; they grub in the earth for food.

In Chapter XI of Jack London’s book “The Iron Heel” published 1908, describes the fall of America to a fascist dictatorship composed of a group of monopoly capitalists.

Father must have had strong in him the blood of adventure. He looked upon our catastrophe in the light of an adventure. No anger nor bitterness possessed him. He was too philosophic and simple to be vindictive, and he lived too much in the world of mind to miss the creature comforts we were giving up. So it was, when we moved to San Francisco into four wretched rooms in the slum south of Market Street, that he embarked upon the adventure with the joy and enthusiasm of a child–combined with the clear sight and mental grasp of an extraordinary intellect. He really never crystallized mentally.

For those of you who may not recognize the name Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859), he is the 19th century American author and diplomat who wrote Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  He also wrote “Astoria or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains” which was published in February 1836. In Chapter XLVIII the following is found:

The two Canadians, Vallee and Le Clerc, killed a young buffalo bull in the evening, which was in good condition, and afforded them a plentiful supply of fresh beef. They loaded their spits, therefore, and crammed their camp kettle with meat, and while the wind whistled, and the snow whirled around them, huddled round a rousing fire, basked in its warmth, and comforted both soul and body with a hearty and invigorating meal. No enjoyments have greater zest than these, snatched in the very midst of difficulty and danger; and it is probable the poor wayworn and weather- beaten travellers relished these creature comforts the more highly from the surrounding desolation, and the dangerous proximity of the Crows.

While all this is very interesting, the expression appears in all sorts of documents. A number of dictionaries claim that the expression dates to the early to mid 1600s when creature was used in the context that creatus (past participle of Latin creare) referred to anything that ministered “to man’s comforts.”

The term creature from the Latin creatus actually dates back to between 1250 and 1300, however, it took another 300 or so years to take on the meaning ascribed to it in the 1600s.

The American Heritage Dictionary claims the first published record of the expression was in 1659. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary claims the first published record of the expression was in 1652. Webster’s Dictionary claims the first published record of the expression was in 1650. The Oxford Dictionary claims the first published record of the expression was some time during the 1650s. But none of these dictionaries provided a source to support their respective claims.

In researching the 1600s in the hopes of uncovering who appears to have first used the expression, Idiomation uncovered a passage in the “Concise Commentary On The Whole Bible” by Matthew Henry (18 October 1662 – 22 June 1714) and published in 1708 makes use of the expression. The commentary pertains directly to Joel 1:8-13.

All who labour only for the meat that perishes, will, sooner or later, be ashamed of their labour. Those that place their happiness in the delights of sense, when deprived of them, or disturbed in the enjoyment, lose their joy; whereas spiritual joy then flourishes more than ever. See what perishing, uncertain things our creature-comforts are. See how we need to live in continual dependence upon God and his providence. See what ruinous work sin makes. As far as poverty occasions the decay of piety, and starves the cause of religion among a people, it is a very sore judgment. But how blessed are the awakening judgments of God, in rousing his people and calling home the heart to Christ, and his salvation!

Henry’s use of the expression implies that he assumes his readership will understand what he means by creature-comforts, which lends credence to the claim that the expression was first used sometime in the 1600s. Unfortunately, how much earlier that in use in Matthew Henry’s book is unknown at this time. Idiomation would like to peg it to at least 1659, if not much earlier.

With that in mind, the fact remains that the expression is implied in at least 2 different books in the Bible: 1 Timothy 4:4 – 8 and Joel 1:8-13.

Posted in Bible, Idioms from the 17th Century, Religious References, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Yanks

Posted by Admin on July 1, 2010

The term “Yanks” is an abbreviated version of the term “Yankee.”  It is a bastardization of the derogatory term “Jan Kaas” — translated, it means “John Cheese”  — that was bestowed on the cheese-making Dutch by the Germans and the Flemish in the 1600s.   The English began to use the term shortly thereafter to refer to Dutch pirates.  And soon enough, Dutch settlers immigrating to the northern states in America brought the term with them and applied it to English settlers in Connecticut.

By 1745, the phrase “Yankee Doodle” became prominent as it was used to make fun of the rag-tag appearance and ill-equipped state of colonial troops as they left to fight the Battle of Louisburg.  The reason for this was because the definition of “doodle” at the time was a silly person or a country bumpkin.  So a Yankee Doodle was a country bumpkin colonial settler who had signed up to fight in the war.

In 1755, Dr. Richard Schuckburg, a British Army surgeon reportedly wrote new lyrics to an old folksong known as “Doodle Doodle Doo.”  The intent of the new lyrics was to ridicule, degrade and humiliate the Americans.  The fife and drum corps of the British reinforcements played “Yankee Doodle” while marching into battle at Lexington, MA on April 19, 1775 where they were defeated.  The Pennsylvania Gazette reported on June 7, 1775 that “‘the Brigade under Lord Percy marched out, playing, by way of contempt, Yankee Doodle; they were afterwards told, they had been made to dance to it.'”

By 1777, “Yankee Doodle” had become an unofficial American anthem. Following General John Burgoyne‘s surrender of British troops to the Continental Army on October 17, 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey referred to the Americans as “Yankees.”

The Yankee and Pennamite War was a series of clashes that occurred in 1769 over land titles in Pennsylvania, in which “Yankee” meant the Connecticut claimant.  To this very day, “Yankee Doodle” is Connecticut‘s State Song, firmly entrenching a positive spin to the term “Yankee.”

And yet, Yankee is still a vague term in some respects.   American author E. B. White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) summarized the distinctions for the word “Yankee” in this way:

To foreigners, a Yankee is an American.
To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner.
To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner.
To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander.
To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter.
And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »