Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1760s’

Tempest In A Teacup

Posted by Admin on April 28, 2016

When a very small event or situation is made out to be much more than what it is, don’t be surprised if someone mentions it’s a tempest or a storm in a teacup or a teapot.  Over the decades, many have said this when a huge commotion over an unimportant matter has happened.

Just last week, on April 22, 2016, the American Thinker website published an article by David Solway titled, “Distrust Yourself Before You Distrust The Candidate.”  The substance of the article had to do with how political candidates have their public profiles created to fit the demands of the voting public to which they wish to appeal.  The writer made several excellent points, including this one which included the idiom.

The Michelle Fields controversy is an excellent example of how the media and the pundits have inflated a tempest in a teacup to tsunami proportions.

When English writer, literary historian, scholar, critic, and wine connoisseur, George Saintsbury (23 October 1845 – 28 January 1933) published “A History of the French Novel (to the Close of the 19th Century), Volume I” in 1917, he included tempest in a teacup in Chapter XII which discussed minor and later novelists circa 1800 with specific reference to Jane Austen’s novels.

All the resources of typography — exclamations, points, dashes — have to be called in to express the generally disturbed state of things.  Now unfortunately this sort of perpetual tempest in a teacup (for it generally is in a teacup) requires unusual genius to make it anything but ludicrous.

The July 1903 edition of “Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: Volume VII, Part I” compiled by John Stephen Farmer (7 March 1854 – 1916) included this definition for the idiom.

Storm (or tempest) in a teacup (or teapot) subs. phr. (common) – Much ado about nothing: cd. ‘a tide and flood thought it be but in a basin of water’

IMPORTANT NOTE 1:  The entry attributed the basin of water quote to the “Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris” by English scholar, critic, and theologian, Richard Bentley (27 January 1662 – 14 July 1742) published in 1699.

In Volume 8 of “The Solicitors’ Journal and Reporter” published on in London on October 29, 1864 included an article on the subject of the alleged bankruptcy irregularities in Birmingham.  The question arose as a result of a news article that had been published in the Birmingham Daily Post.

If the alleged malpractices at Birmingham and elsewhere resolve themselves into a disputed question of law, we would like to ask those who have raised this “tempest in a teacup” whether they propose that any, and what, compensation should be awarded, and from what fund, to those who have now for some months been suffering under unjust imputations.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary puts the first known use of tempest in a teapot to 1838 without attribution.  In researching the expression, Idiomation was able to find even earlier published versions of tempest in a teapot.

On August 30, 1820 the Connecticut Gazette ran an anecdote from the late British lawyer and politician, Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow (9 December 1731 – 12 September 1806) who was Lord Chancellor from 1783 to 1792.  The anecdote was about an alleged calamity to Britain that was to have dire effects on the Church and State.  When it was revealed where this calamity was happening, the punchline was,”A tempest in a tea-pot.”  The anecdote is one that was published even earlier, in 1815 in “The Flowers of Wit, or A Choice Collection of Bon Mots Both Antient and Modern: Volume I.”  Based on this, the expression was understood in 1815, and the anecdote was most likely crafted during Baron Thurlow’s decade as Lord Chancellor, putting this to the mid 1780s.

The practice of drinking tea was introduced in England in 1644, after being the practice in France the previous decade, with the Dutch being the chief importers of tea leaves in the 1610s.  The word tea-cup came into vogue in 1700, so it’s safe to assume that the idiom tempest in a teacup didn’t exist before 1700.

There was the sense of the saying published in Volume 27 of “The Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library” published in 1749 where the following was written.

When Holdernesse revealed it to him, Pitt affected to believe that Newcastle was trying to negotiate behind his back: a teapot tempest brewed, despite Newcastle’s asseverations that he regarded it as but a jest.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the exact phrase tempest in a teacup earlier than the 1815 reference.  However, between the spirit of the idiom being used in the 1749 document and the anecdote dating back to the 1780s, Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the 1760s — halfway between 1749 and 1783.

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Take French Leave

Posted by Admin on October 12, 2011

To take French leave means that someone has left a gathering without asking or announce he or she is leaving. The English and Portuguese attribute this bad behaviour to the French while the Russian, Hungarian, Czech, Italian, and French have an expression that blames it on English while the Dutch and Finnish lay blame on thieves.  What is particularly interesting with this expression is the finger-pointing that is associated with it.

That being said, until at least World War II, the British Army used the euphemism to take French leave when referring to a soldier deserting his company.  According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, to take French leave comes from an 18th century custom in France where guests left a reception without thanking the host or hostess for having invited them.  The dictionary states that the first known use of this phrase to take French leave dates back to 1771.

On July 23, 1942 the Lawrence Journal World newspaper published Harry Grayson‘s column “The Scoreboard.”  The article read in part:

Ed Barrow and Joy McCarthy don’t care for ball players who take French leave, especially when an injury has left the outfit with no one else for the position.  Rosar’s offense was particularly flagrant inasmuch as he was receiving and swinging for the everwilling Bill Dickey, out with a torn ligament in his shoulder.

In 1920, Edith Wharton published a book entitled “The Age Of Innocence” which had this passage in Book I, Chapter XVII:

“Look at him — in such hot haste to get married that he took French leave and rushed down to implore the silly girl on his knees!  That’s something like a lover — that’s the way handsome Bob Spicer carried off my poor mother; and then got tired of her before I was weaned –though they only had to wait eight months for me! But there — you’re not a Spicer, young man; luckily for you and for May. It’s only my poor Ellen that has kept any of their wicked blood; the rest of them are all model Mingotts,” cried the old lady scornfully.

In the Robert Louis Stevenson book “Treasure Island” published on May 23, 1883 after having been published in a children’s magazine in 1881 and 1882 as a serial story,  the expression to take French leave is found in Part V, Chapter 22 entitled, “My Sea Adventure.”

As for the scheme I had in my head, it was not a bad one in itself. I was to go down the sandy spit that divides the anchorage on the east from the open sea, find the white rock I had observed last evening, and ascertain whether it was there or not that Ben Gunn had hidden his boat, a thing quite worth doing, as I still believe. But as I was certain I should not be allowed to leave the enclosure, my only plan was to take French leave and slip out when nobody was watching, and that was so bad a way of doing it as made the thing itself wrong. But I was only a boy, and I had made my mind up.

The Colonist newspaper in New Zealand published the column “Spirit Of The Press” on December 21, 1858 with the following interesting bit of information about taking French leave.

We read that “the Bombay Geographical Society announce in their proceedings, that they have received a specimen of the Walking leaf from Java.”  A person who walks off is said to take French leave.  You may be sure that this tree is originally in France, and not liking a soil that was subject to so many political up-heavings, it took French leave, and walked off.  Hence, probably the origin of that term; or perhaps, the phrase of “cutting one’s stick” may be owing to the habits of this Walking-leaf.  It “cuts its stick” and walks away.  We think we have very cleverly explained two very vulgar idioms, the exact meaning of which has never till now been properly accounted for.  By-the-by, the Birnam Wood that walked into Macbeth, must have been a perambulating forest of these Walking-leaves.

Eliza Southgate Bowne was known for the many letters she wrote in her lifetime.  They were compiled by Clarence Cook and published in a book in 1887 entitled, “A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago.”  In a letter dated Sunday, May 25, 1806 to Miss Miranda Southgate, Eliza Southgate Bowne had written in part:

Now for news, which I suppose you are very anxious to hear.  Iin the first place — Miss Laurelia Dashaway is married to Mr. Hawkes.  On Saturday morning, 8 o’clock, Trinity Church was opened on purpose for the occasion; something singular, as it would not be like Miss Laurelia.  But what do you think — Mr. Grellet has taken French leave of New York — sailed for France about a fortnight ago, without anybody’s knowing their intention till they were gone.  There are many conjectures upon the occasion not very favorable to the state of their finances.  “Tis said his friends were very averse to her going with him.  If she had not, I suspect she might have sympathized with Madame Jerome Buonoparte and many other poor Madames that have founded their hopes on the fidelity of a Frenchman.

In the book “Letters from America” which is a compilation of the letters written by William Eddis.  In a letter to his wife written at Annapolis on September 26, 1775, William Eddis wrote in part:

Mr. L, who had actually embarked for England, with full permission from the ruling powers, has been obliged to relinquish his intention, and return on shore, some clamours having been excited by the populace to his prejudice; and it being though necessary he should remain to vindicate his conduct.  Many of our friends have found it expedient to take French leave.  I trust you will speedily meet them in perfect safety.

However even earlier than this, there are written discussion in the late 1760s on the meaning of the phrase and its origins.  Since a guest is not bound by etiquette to seek leave from the party’s host or hostess, it is proper protocol to seek out the host or hostess when one is about to leave.  It was determined that the phrase implies that the person who uses it or of whom it is used has done something that, strictly speaking, should not have done or for which the person should be ashamed.

Since the Merriam-Webster dictionary attributes the first use of the expression to take French leave to 1771, it appears the expression was alive and well in the years leading up to 1771.  Idiomation guesses that the earliest use may have been sometime in the 1760s.

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