Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Posts Tagged ‘1840’

Ducks In A Row

Posted by Admin on August 22, 2011

It’s “Everything’s Ducky Week” at Idiomation and we’re starting off with the expression to get or have your ducks in a row.  This refers to having things well-organized before you begin.  Many online sources and books claim that the phrase is slang that came about in the 1970s, however, Idiomation has found earlier printed news stories with the phrase ducks in a row.

The Spartanburg Herald Journal in South Carolina ran a story on June 21, 1947 entitled, “The Bulwinkle Bill” which dealt with the bill designed to give the railroads in America the right to confer  upon matters of rate making, under approval of the Interstate Commercial Commission which was colloquially referred to as the Bulwinkle Bill.  However, the bill was opposed by a group of Southern senators despite its passing by the Senate with a two-thirds majority. The article stated:

The railroads of this country are entitled to “get their ducks in a row.”  They are now, and always will, bear the burden of traffic in this country and they have not in recent years enjoyed a very substantial prosperity.  They have encountered competition from truck traffic and will experience further competition from air transportation.

The Herald Sports weekly newspaper published an article written by Associated Press staff writer Miles H. Wolff on November 17, 1931 entitled “Columbia and Clinton Scenes Of Hot Games.”  He began his article with this:

The schedule makers of our South Carolina colleges are busily engaged just now getting their ducks in a row for the 1932 football season.  That they are having difficulties can be guessed at from the fact that the end of November nears and not one institution of higher learning has announced its next, year’s card.

Earlier yet, the Daily Progress newspaper in Petersburg, Virginia ran an article on June 16, 1910.

It quite frequently happens that when political parties and even nations think they have “their ducks in a row” the unexpected happens which knocks their well-laid plans awry.

Now the top bowlers of the 19th century in America decided that bowling needed a standard set of rules and so the American Bowling Congress — which was renamed the United States Bowling Congress in later years — was established in 1895. The game had been brought to America by the Dutch, Germans and English shortly before the Civil War when only 9 pins were used in the game. The game proved to be very popular with the population, so much so that in 1841, Connecticut outlawed 9-pin bowling due to its association with gambling.

To get around the law, indoor bowling alley proprietors added a tenth pin to the game in 1870 and the new game flourished. The game was modified and short, slender pins were introduced called duckpins because of the pin’s appearance.

However, modernization hadn’t yet come to these bowling alleys and people were employed by the indoor bowling alleys to set the pins up for each player’s frame in a game.  The re-setting of the pins was referred to as getting one’s ducks in a row.

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

Two Shakes Of A Lamb’s Tail

Posted by Admin on January 28, 2011

In case you are wondering, yes, “shake” is a recognized unit of time.  At the time of the first atomic bomb, scientists needed a term for an interval of time equal to 10 nanoseconds. Since two shakes of a lamb’s tail is very quick, scientists coined the word “shake” to describe this unit of time.  But where does this phrase come from originally?

In the Toledo Blade newspaper of March 30, 1961 in the “Tell Me Why” column, A. Leokum started the column by writing:

Suppose you ask someone to do something for you quickly.  He might say:  “I’ll do it in a minute.”  But he might also say: “I’ll do it before you can say Jack Robinson” or “I’ll do it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”  The point is that when we set up a unit of time such as an hour or a minute, we are doing it by agreement or convention.  We have decided that so much and so much time shall be called a “minute” or “hour.”  But in setting up divisions of time there are certain natural events that can guide us.

That being said, two shakes of a lamb’s tail was a recognized time unit in the 1920s as evidenced in Pittsburgh (PA) in an advertisement that ran in The Gazette Times newspaper on May 3, 1920.  The advertisement for The Men’s Store of Pittsburgh: The Only Place In Western Pennsylvania Where You Can Buy New York’s Finest Rogers Peet Clothes read:

In two shakes of a lamb’s tail!  Replenishing your wardrobe may take even less time than that — our stock of Spring Suits and Overcoats is so ample.  A size for every build.  They’re “made to fit” not “to measure.”  Highest type of tailoring. Prices reasonable.

Back on September 28, 1881 a Letter to the Editor appeared in the Nelson Evening Mail in New Zealand.  The letter began with:

A Brooklyn man spent seven hours writing an essay to prove that a woman is inferior to a man, and then spent two hours more and a heap of profanity in an ineffectual attempt to thread a needle, a job which a woman finally did for him in about two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

A generation before that on August 26, 1853 in an article entitled “Turning The Tables” and published in the New Zealand newspaper, the Daily Southern Cross, the following was published:

A correspondent of the ‘Dublin Warder’ shows how an old acquaintance once turned the tables upon the bailiffs.  Two smart-looking fellows dressed as sailors, and with a rolling seaman-like gait, called at his house, and chucking the servant under the chin, told her to tell her master that they had brought commands from his brother, who was at that time at sea.  The credulous debtor eagerly opened the door and was soon in the arms of the bailiffs.  After complimenting them upon t heir ingenuity, he invited them into a back parlour, and begged they’d wait till he’d send off a bit of a note to a friend that he expected would arrange it for him.  “The messenger was back in the shakin’ of a lamb’s tail; and, my dear life, ’twasn’t long till the tables wor rightly turned, and the brace o’ shoulder tappers frightened out o’ their seven sinses by the arrival of a press gang; and, says Misther Blake, throwin’ the freemason’s sign to the officer, who happened, as Providence would order it, to be a Leithrim man. Here’s a pair o’ light active chaps that have deserted their ship and are disgracin, the blue jacket by actin’ as bailiffs.”  Sure that was a sore day for the disguised bailiffs, for notwithstanding their entreaties, they were obliged to go with the gang!

In the end, the phrase first appeared in Richard Barham’s book “Ingoldsby Legends” published in 1840 however that it was used with such ease in a news article in 1853 gives reason to believe that the phrase existed in modern language long before 1840.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Hell Bent For Leather

Posted by Admin on January 13, 2011

Such an odd phrase that paints such a vivid picture, the phrase “hell-bent for leather” has certainly established itself as a pack-a-punch expression.  The St. Petersburg Times in Florida reported on President Kennedy‘s visit to the Berlin Wall in a news article dated June 26, 1963.

There is no place which makes a better platform for hell-bent-for-leather speeches than the ground adjacent to the Berlin wall.  Here the passions of the West Berliners are likely to ignite the most impassive speaker.  Here it is routine to open old wounds, wave the flag, and goad the Russian Bear.

Thirty years earlier, on June 7, 1933 the Milwaukee Journal ran a news article on the rivalry between Max Schmeling and Max Baer and how it affected boxing.

“By gracious, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Max pop that Baer out of there in the first heat,” Mr. Carney said over a glass of beer.  “No sir, I wouldn’t.  You know, that boy’s a torment on those fellows who come running in.  Look at his record: three of the fellows he nailed in the first round were of the type that comes tearing in, hell-bent for leather.  Joe Monte was the first one.  Monte came out like a cyclone and a minute later — boof!  He was on the floor.”

Rudyard Kipling in his book The Story of the Gadsbys published in 1888 contains this phrase:

Gaddy, take this chit to Bingle, and ride hell-for-leather. It’ll do you good.

That being said, Hell bent is the operative phrase in the saying as the saying has been Hell bent for election, Hell bent for Sunday, Hell bent for breakfast and Hell bent for Georgia over the years.  Hell bent for election dates back to the State of Maine gubernatorial race of 1840 and Hell bent dates back to 1835 as shown by a passage on page 12 of the book “The Knickerbocker: New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume 6” where it comments on a large encampment of savages Hell bent on carnage.

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

Slow As Molasses In January

Posted by Admin on January 6, 2011

It was a balmy 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) in Boston when the Great Molasses Flood happened on Wednesday, January 15, 1919 .  On that day, the low-lying section of Commercial Street between Copps Hill and North End Park was flooded by the contents of  a 58-foot tank that had contained no less than 2.5 million gallons of molasses .  The container stood just behind the Boston and Worcester freight terminal. 

When the tank split wide open at around 12:30 p.m. that day, a 30-foot tidal wave of molasses tore the steel supports off the nearby elevated train structure.  In the end, it was determined that the molasses of the Great Molasses Flood ran at between 25 and 30 mph (40 to 48 kph).

That being said, the expression “slow as molasses in January” is an Americanism for someone or something that is painfully slow. Due to the high viscosity of commonly available molasses at room temperature, the liquid pours quite slowly. 

In the 1941 movie Gone with the Wind,  Scarlett O’Hara chides Prissy  for being as “slow as molasses in January.”

In the King Vidor movie Hallelujah released in August of 1929, you hear “You’re slower than cold molasses in winter time” just over an hour into the movie.

Thirty-four years before that, John Adrian wrote a piece for the Detroit Free Press on July 11, 1886 that discussed Milwaukee (WI) in a 182-word article. His words certainly painted quite the picture of Milwaukee in 1886!  Part of his review included:

The city is also noted as being somewhat of a slow town. While we brand the villain who says so, we must admit that its street cars are slower than molasses in winter and are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

And 14 years before that review, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story on December 28, 1872 about the secret investigation of the Credit Mobilier scandal.  The newspaper reported that:

Most of them had the matter under advisement for seven or eight months before they could satisfy their consciences as to the moral bearing of the transaction, showing that the average Congressional perception of right and wrong is much slower than molasses in January.

In the records of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, there is a case dealing specifically with molasses in the month of January in 1840.

That defendant’s molasses was contained in two cisterns, a large and a small one; that in December 1839, Stansberry, the overseer, told defendant that if something was not done with the molasses it would be lost, because the large cistern, which was under ground, would not stand the pressure upon it, being nearly full.  To this the defendant answered, that he was waiting for the plaintiff to send him some casks, and was expecting them daily.  A few days after, in the beginning of January, a message was brought to the defendant and the overseer, that the cistern had bursted and was leaking.  On reaching the sugar house they found that the large cistern had given way, that the molasses was oozing out of the cistern, and the water outside, running from above.

While there is still no printed reference to being “slow as molasses in January” in 1840, one can determine from how the case was argued that the molasses that leaked out of the cistern in January did so very slowly. 

Somewhere between 1840 and 1872, the expression “slow as molasses in January” became part of the English language.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Happy As A Clam

Posted by Admin on February 11, 2010

The term used to be “happy as a clam in mud at high tide” and over the years, the phrase has been shortened.  It still means, however, that the individual in question is very happy.

Clams are dug out of the mud when the tide goes out which  means when it’s high tide, cannot possible be harvested.  Obviously being left alone when it’s high tide is a much better situation than being harvested at low tide to be eaten later on.

The shortened phrase was used in 1840 by John G. Saxe in his poem “Sonnet to a Clam” but there is evidence it was used 10 years before publication of this poem.    No one, however, seems able to find out when or where the longer phrase was first used.

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