Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1800’

Blue Blazes

Posted by Admin on January 16, 2021

When you hear someone ask the question, “What in blue blazes?” do you ever wonder what blue blazes are and if they are, indeed, blue?

Blazes is a slang expression referring to the fires of Hell, and blue is an alliterative intensifier. The use of blue blazes is meant to express extreme confusion, surprise, or aggravation. The interesting thing is that it’s more often heard in the US than in other English speaking countries.

Back on 5 August 2020, KXAN News in Austin (TX) reported on an Alabama man who woke to find an alligator swimming in his backyard pool, KXAN shared the news story on Facebook with the question: “What in the blue blazes is this?

There was is also an implication of great speed in the expression, as seen back in 1951 when Lottie Noel’s horse Blue Blazes, ridden by Noel Anderson was trying to win races.

Back in 1940, Harry Douglas created the character Blue Blaze for Marvel Comics. His first appearance was in Mystic Comics 1 and he appeared in ten issues before disappearing in 1942.

Back in 1936, Raymond Kane directed a short comedy film titled, “Blue Blazes” and starred Buster Keaton (4 October 1895 – 1 February 1966). The story followed Buster Keaton’s character who decided he wanted to be a fireman. He wasn’t a particularly good fireman, but when he has a chance to save three women trapped in a burning building, it’s a chance to prove his worth.

You can watch the 19 minute movie on YouTube by clicking here.

That wasn’t the only movie titled, “Blue Blazes.” The husband-and-wife team of handsome American silent western star, Lester Cuneo (25 October 1888 – 1 November 1925) and silent screen actress and camera operator, Francelia Billington (1 February 1895 – 24 November 1934) produced a silent movie Western by that name. It was a well-used plot of a loser who tries to hide in the West where he comes to the aid of a female rancher and her widowed mother to defend them against the dastardly mortgage lender who wants to be socially inappropriate with the younger of the two women.

The idiom was found in “Chapter 22: Private Dennis Hogan, Hero” in the book “Danger Signals: Remarkable, Exciting and Unique Examples of the Bravery, Daring and Stoicism in the Midst of Danger of Train Dispatchers and Railroad Engineers” by former railroad engineer John A. Hill (22 February 1858 – 24 January 1916) and Jasper Ewing Brady, 1st Lieutenant 19th United States Infantry, Late Captain Signal Corps U.S. Volunteers, published by Jamieson-Higgins Co in 1902. The book was copyrighted by S.S. McClure Co in 1898 and in Doubleday & McClure in 1899, and lastly by Jamieson-Higgins Co in 1900.

At four o’clock on the afternoon in question Denny was aroused from his reverie by the sounder opening up and calling “FN” like blue blazes. He answered and this is what he took.

Denny was the messenger boy as well as operator and without waiting to make an impression copy, he grabbed his hat and flew down the line to the colonel’s quarters. That worthy was entertaining a party at dinner, and was about to give Hogan fits for bringing the message to him instead of to the post adjutant; but a glance at the contents changed things and in a moment all was bustle and confusion.

For weeks the premonitory signs of this outbreak had been plainly visible, but true to the red-tape conditions, the army could not move until some overt act had been committed. The generous interior department had supplied the Indians with arms and ammunition and then Mr. Red Devil under that prince of fiends incarnate, Sitting Bull, started on his campaign of plunder and pillage.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  John Alexander Hill was a co-founder of the McGraw-Hill Book Company along with James Herbert McGraw (17 December 1860 – 21 February 1948), the predecessor corporation of today’s McGraw Hill Financial and McGraw-Hill Education.

Remember the racing horse, Blue Blazes, from 1951 that was mentioned earlier? He wasn’t the only racing horse by that name. In “The General Stud Book Containing Pedigrees of Race Horses from the Earliest Accounts to the Year 1896 Inclusive” published in 1897 by Weatherby and Sons in London, Blue Blazes was also mentioned (although it was a different horse from the one who ran races in 1951). The book listed thorough-bred stock from England and duly certified them as thorough-breds.

The euphemistic oath is found in Chapter 10 of “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens. It’s made clear the expression is one with a hefty punch.

“Well,” said Joe, meditatively – not, of course, that it could be in anywise necessary to consider about it, but because it was the way at the Jolly Bargemen to seem to consider deeply about everything that was discussed over pipes; “well – no. No, he ain’t.”

“Nevvy?” said the strange man.

“Well,” said Joe, with the same appearance of profound cogitation, “he is not – no, not to deceive you, he is not – my nevvy.”

“What the Blue Blazes is he?” asked the stranger. Which appeared to me to be an inquiry of unnecessary strength.

In the book, “Real Life in Ireland by a Real Paddy” which attributes the idiom to 1821 is found in Chapter 15.

Blood and blue blazes, swore old Mrs. Tarpaulin. I’ll send the fellow to hell that dares attack me at my moorings in blanket bay.

In 1812, “The Drunkard’s Looking Glass” by the American author, book agent, and Anglican minister, Mason Locke Weems (11 October 1759 – 23 May 1825) passage was a clear demonstration of how the two words and Hell fit together so very well.

Ye steep down gulphs of liquid fire! Ye blue blazes of damnation! But hush, thou false zeal, hush! and curse not him who Christ hath commanded you to pray for.

The book obviously sold well as by 1818, it was in its sixth printing, and the old title, “God’s Revenge Against Drunkenness” had been replaced with “The Drunkard’s Looking Glass.”

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2: Mason Lock Weems, also known as Parson Weems, wrote the first biography of George Washington (22 February 1732 – 4 December 1799) titled, “The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington” which was published in 1800.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3: He is the source of the well-known albeit unverifiable and thoroughly questionable story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree as a child, and what was said by the child to his father at the time.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 4: Mason Lock Weems is also known for his biography of U.S. military officer Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion (1732 – 26 February 1795) who was so nicknamed by the British for his elusive tactics.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference to blue blazes, however, for it to be used so freely by Mason Locke Weems — an Anglican minister no less — it most certainly was around at the start of the 19th century, and quite possibly earlier depending on how aged old Mrs. Tarpaulin was in the 1821 book “Real Life In Ireland by a Real Paddy.”

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Fill The Bill

Posted by Admin on October 11, 2016

Idiomation shared the history behind foot the bill and fit the bill.  This time around, we’re looking at the history behind fill the bill, and what this expression means.  To fill the bill is to supply exactly what is needed to meet the needs of a specific situation.

On November 19, 2015 the HR Gazette website published an article about HR managers, and how to pick the one that’s best for your company.  The article discussed non-traditional graduates as opposed to traditional college students, and the advantages and disadvantages therein.  The article was titled, “Hiring An HR Manager: Can You Fill The Bill?

On February 1, 2000, the Latin Trade magazine decided to publish an article about fraudulent companies in South America.  Costa Rica correspondent Julie Dulude’s story began with an article published in the magazine Business Insurance that had been published in March 1999, and focused on a business calling itself Camelot Insurance Company, S.A.  The reporter’s investigation turned up a handful of companies with Camelot in their names.  The problem is that addresses are listed as local landmarks followed by compass directions, and so every lead was investigated by the reporter.  When she used the idiom, this is what she wrote.

Finding the next two addresses turned out to be a wild goose chase. The tenants at an apartment complex that seemed to me “exactly 75 meters west of the Colegio Metodista” knew nothing. “Ay corazon, since the school occupies the whole block, it could be on either this street or the parallel one,” offered the gardener.

Next door was a vacant lot and across the street a cemetery, so I headed for the parallel street. A yellow house next door to a construction site appeared to fill the bill. “Let me find my glasses,” said a middle-aged woman who came out to help. And then: “The problem is that it doesn’t say whether they mean the elementary or the high school. You see, the Colegio Metodista has a high school in Sabanilla, which is considered part of San Pedro.”

Filling the bill is something that was known nearly 100 years earlier.  In the book “The Lair of the White Worm” by Irish author Abraham “Bram” Stoker (8 November 1847 – 20 April 1912) published in 1911 the expression fill the bill was used.

There is only one other person whose good opinion she could wish  to keep — Edgar Caswall. He is the only one who fills the bill. Her lies point to other things besides the death of the African. She evidently wanted it to be accepted that his falling into the well was his own act. I cannot suppose that she expected to convince you, the eye-witness; but if she wished later on to spread the story, it was wise of her to try to get your acceptance of it.

Nearly twenty years earlier, in 1890 a passionate Letter to the Editor was published in Volume 34 of “Manford’s Magazine” reader James Billings of Hico, Texas.  The title of the letter was “Fill The Bill” and Mr. Billings to the expression fill the bill to task and wrote a passionate letter on the subject.

Shall that sinner be given up, as a subject beyond the reach of the mercy, and the love and power of God?  Is there no arm of infinite love, and goodness that can be stretched out to life this poor soul into the life of repentance, and to feel God’s forgiveness?  Is there no balm of mercy in Gilead to save?  Is there not mercy and goodness enough in God’s divine purposes to fill the bill, in every case?  God is love; and as it is an inexhaustible fountain, there is compassion sufficient to fill all bills, to meet all demands, and redeem all souls.

SIDE NOTE 1:  James Billings (15 November 1811 – 2 November 1898) was the new Universalist missionary in Texas, and had a noticeable presence as both a Universalist minister and a publisher.  In Hico, Reverend Billings and his wife, the thrice married and thrice widowed Mary Charlotte Ward Granniss Webster Billings (11 July 1824 – 2 March 1904), made a number of sound real estate investments on behalf of the Texas Convention, and opened All Souls Church in Hico, Texas in 1889.

Some sources state that fill the bill is American theatrical slang that dates back to 1882 where a lead performer’s name was the biggest name on the show’s poster with lesser performers listed in smaller letters and engaged to round out the program.  Idiomation doesn’t doubt that this may be true, however, the idiom was used in slightly more than twenty years earlier by the Illinois State Agricultural Society, and in the context we understand it to mean today.

On page 471 of Volume 4 of the “Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society” for 1859, there was a vote on whether to go with Wilson’s Albany, Necked Pine, Early Washington, or Iowa for general cultivation.  Notes were taken at this meeting and these words were attributed to Dr. Warder with regards to the best strawberry plants for farmers.

The Iowa is not a good bearer.  Only on in ten of its blossom produce fruit usually.  It runs too much and need thorough harrowing, which done, it bears well.  It has a high flavor but requires rough treatment.  It bears early, is good to have, though a little soft.  Austin or Shaker’s Seedling, Dr. W. hopes well from because of its great vigor, but doubts if it fills the bill.  Instead of the berries weighing at the rate of twelve to the pound, it take fifty weight a pound.  Has more confidence in Downer’s Prolific.  Downer is a reliable man, and the fruit and plant are both exceedingly satisfactory.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference however the term was used easily by Dr. Warder with the expectation that his colleagues would understand the meaning of fill the bill.  We therefore peg this expression to the early 1800s.

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Beat The Devil’s Tattoo

Posted by Admin on August 3, 2011

When you’re accused of beating the Devil’s tattoo, you’re being told that you are drumming on a hard surface with your fingers.  More often than not, it’s thought of a sign of impatience or ill-humour to be beating the Devil’s tattoo, but it need not be.  The saying, though seldom used these days, is still heard from time to time.

California psych-garage trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released their sixth CD last year entitled, “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo.”  This trio of young musicians must have heard or read the expression somewhere along the line to christen their CD with the phrase.  And it appears to work for them as Rolling Stone has referred to the band and their music as “unremittingly grim and undeniably fun.”

Back in the 1960s there was a very famous race horse according to Florida Horse Magazine known as “Devil’s Tattoo.”  If another horse beat the “Devil’s Tattoo” there was definitely some serious drumming going on the racetrack surface! In 1965, Miami resident — and former Chairman of the Florida State Racing Commission — Louie Bandel along with Mrs. Edith Marienhoff, bred and sold Devil’s Tattoo for $70,000.

In O. O. McIntyre‘s column “New York Day By Day” run in the Milwaukee Sentinel on January 8, 1935, the author included a tidbit about the Rainbow Room, a top “swank spot” in the sky high Rockefeller Center. Part of Mr. McIntyre’s review of the Rainbow Room included this bit:

The night I was there a melancholy mood singer was husking to a twanging guitar.  Several couples sat starry eyes, enraptured.  I could only beat a devil’s tattoo on the chair arm and wonder how much the tax on the check.  Sacre tonnere, what a thing to get old!

On June 7, 1907 the Pittsburgh Press ran a story about President  Roosevelt entitled, “Roosevelt Is Very Restless.”  It detailed the woes of a professional photographer who had agreed to do an official portrait of the President but much to his dismay, this proved to be quite a task in itself.  The story related in part:

He did pull his head back a bit then, but he immediately began to drum on the table with the fingers of his right hand.  I requested him to belay that while I was focussing him, and then he began to beat the devil’s tattoo on the armchair with the fingers of his left hand.  He smiled very broadly when I asked him not to do that, and by this time he was huddled all in a bunch in the chair again, and once more I had to take hold of him and unravel some of the knots from his right position. 

Finally I got the snap at him, but the picture wasn’t satisfactory to me, although he seemed to like it.  He was profoundly bored, apparently, by the time I got through pulling him around in the chair, and when Mr. Roosevelt is bored his expression is sardonic.

In Chapter 11 of the book entitled, “No Name” written by Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889) and published in 1862, one passage in the book recounts the following with regards to Captain Wragge:

He sat unflinchingly at the window with a patience which Mrs. Lecount herself could not have surpassed. The one active proceeding in which he seemed to think it necessary to engage was performed by deputy. He sent the servant to the inn to hire a chaise and a fast horse, and to say that he would call himself before noon that day and tell the hostler when the vehicle would be wanted. Not a sign of impatience escaped him until the time drew near for the departure of the early coach. Then the captain’s curly lips began to twitch with anxiety, and the captain’s restless fingers beat the devil’s tattoo unremittingly on the window-pane.

The New York Times ran a series of short news items on September 27, 1854 with one sub-heading entitled, “Calloa Items.”  The two news items under this sub-heading were each a paragraph in length and read thusly:

The fine clipper ship Kate Hayes was sold at the offices of the American Consul in Calloa on Monday last.  She brought $27,400, Mr. Seville of this city being the purchaser.

The same day, during a drunken brawl, two men were wounded, and a cavalry soldier, in attempting to beat “the devil’s tattoo” on the heads of two countrymen with the ramrod of his pistol, inflicted serious injury.

In Edgar Allen Poe‘s satirical short story entitled, “The Devil In The Belfry” published on May 18, 1839 in the Philadelphia issue of the Saturday Chronicle and Mirror of the Times, the story takes readers to the Dutch borough of Vondervotteimittiss — a quaint, out-of-the-way spot where very little of anything happens.   In this story, fans of Edgar Allen Poe (1809 – 1849) find this paragraph:

But the little chap seized him at once by the nose; gave it a swing and a pull; clapped the big chapeau de-bras upon his head; knocked it down over his eyes and mouth; and then, lifting up the big fiddle, beat him with it so long and so soundly, that what with the belfry-man being so fat, and the fiddle being so hollow, you would have sworn that there was a regiment of double-bass drummers all beating the devil’s tattoo up in the belfry of the steeple of Vondervotteimittiss.

Idiomation was unable to find a published version of the phrase “beat the Devil’s tattoo” prior to Poe’s use however as with other expressions that are found in literature, it is reasonable to believe the phrase was a common expression used often enough to be recognizable to the general public and so it’s very likely that this phrase goes back to at least 1800.

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