Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1850s’

Rock Bottom

Posted by Admin on February 24, 2015

When someone hits rock bottom, the person finds himself or herself in the worst possible situation he or she ever imagined he or she would ever experience in life.  When something hits rock bottom, the item is at the absolute lowest price before it becomes a loss leader.  And when an organization, group, government, or other social structure hits rock bottom, it means that organization, group, government, or social structure has reached the lowest possible level.  In other words, you can’t go any lower than rock bottom.

The Beaver County Times published a Letter to the Editor on October 31,2003 entitled, “Hitting Rock Bottom.”  It was a brief snippet of a letter from Jerry Miskulin of Center Township that summed up his opinion in four sentences.

It’s like I always say about recovering alcoholics or drug addicts.  Sometimes they have to hit rock bottom to see straight.  America, financially, is going to have to hit rock bottom before it sees straight.  Maybe it would be best sooner before it’s too late.

In what reads as a humorous twist of fate, the Day newspaper in New London, Connecticut reported in September 13, 1983 that a certain construction company of Framingham, Massachusetts was the low bidder for construction of the first segment of the municipal sewer project.  Of ten bids received by Montville’s Board of Selectmen, it was announced that the lowest bid– the rock bottom bid, so to speak — came from Rockbottom Construction Inc.

The Milwaukee Sentinel edition of January 16, 1955 published the two page spread entitled, “Those Fabulous Patinos.”  It traced the highlights of the Simon Patino story that told of a lowly clerk in a general store in Bolivia who accepted title to a “worthless” silver mine as payment in full of a $250 bill at the store.  He was summarily fired by the owner for this crime, and the title to the “worthless” silver mine went with him.  But what had mistakenly been thought of as a silver mine was actually a rich tin mine at a time when tin was scarce in much of the world.  It wasn’t long before the “worthless” silver mine had made Patino a billionaire!

According to the story, 1954 was dubbed “the year the Patino luck ran out” where the third generation of Patino’s were largely responsible for the woes brought to the family fortune.  But among all the woes and strife of the third generation, there seemed to be one who from among them that had escaped the rule of bad luck:  Maria Christina, daughter of Antenor and Christina Patino.  She was happily married (unlike her other relations) to Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon, mayor of Haroue in France, and a prominent, respected member of French society.

Maria Christina’s only big sorrow, I believe, was at the time of her marriage, in 1952 — when her father refused to allow her mother to attend the elaborate wedding.  As for the rock-bottom bad  luck of 1954, it did not touch Maria Christinia, except by indirection, but it kept other members of the Patino empre aware that their inheritance is a dual one — of fortune and misfortune.  It is as though fate were trying belatedly to balance the scales again, after tipping them so heavily in favor of old Simon, whose story might have been dreamed up by Horatio Alger.

The Sunday Morning Star newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware published an article by Stuart P. West in the March 27, 1921 edition that talked about the cuts western railroads made without reducing wages.  The headline read, “Optimists Believe Price Cutting Has Reached Rock Bottom” and this was part of the news story:

It cannot be expected that wages and other items of expense will be reduced sufficiently to counterbalance the slump in orders.  Still the shrinkage in gross earnings would be viewed with equanimity if manufacturing and production costs were at the same time being restored to a sound and normal basis.  As to the ability of the heads of American industry to accomplish this result there is certainly more ground for optimism than for pessimism.  Outside the railroads, wage reduction have been put into effect almost everywhere without friction.

Jumping back to 1884, the idiom rock bottom was already in use in magazines, catalogues and newspapers as well as in everyday language.  The front page of the Charles Stark catalogue has the idiom printed on its front cover to entice readers to buy from Charles Stark of Toronto, Ontario (Canada).

ROCK BOTTOM_Charles Stark_1884
Strangely enough, the term rock bottom didn’t always have a negative connotation.  In fact, in the Oregon News edition published on August 29, 1858 it was used in a complimentary way to describe one of the politicians running for office.  In an article where the editor quoted Colonel Tetrault — described as the Napoleon of the Democratic press in Oregon — the Colonel was determined to point out the  weak points in the Democrat party.

“Let us inquire what first brought about the organization of the Democratic party in Oregon. If any of the ultra politicians of the present day know the principal ennui, let them assign it.  We, for ourself, think we know full well that the location of the public buildings during the session of the Territorial Legislature had much to do with the then party organization in and we find men who opposed General Lane in 1851, still opposing him.”

So then a “rock-bottom democrat,” according to the Colonel, is one who goes for keeping the “public buildings” on the Salem “basalt.”

In the following manner does the Colonel point a significant finger at the post record: “In 1831, the first time General Lane was a candidate for office in Oregon, there was a Salemite run against him for Delegate to Congress, who received the support of some of the leading Democrats of the present day.”

However the sense of the idiom is still present.  When all else is stripped away, all that’s left is “rock bottom.”

The term is a mining term that came about at a time before power drilling techniques were developed, and was popularized in the 1840s.  When mining for ores, the farthest down a person could go before there was nothing to be mined or ores could not be accessed was called rock bottom.  In other words, you couldn’t go any lower than where you were when you hit rock bottom.

Idiomation therefore pegs rock bottom to sometime during the 1850s when it jumped from being a term used by miners to a term used to express situations, and then on to also refer to the lowest prices available for sought after items.

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Skedaddle

Posted by Admin on February 12, 2015

Most of us heard the word skedaddle used when we were children, usually when we were at risk of getting caught by grown-ups for doing something we shouldn’t have been doing in the first place:  Skedaddle!  The word means to run away quickly, and as several generations of children will tell you, skedaddling has saved many a child from a good paddling.

The Milwaukee Journal of July 22, 1927 published an article entitled, “Skedaddle Created by Oberlin College.”  It stated that the Oberlin College alumni were laying claim to the invention of the word, stating that it was a corruption of the Greek word skendannumi which means “to scatter.”  While there’s no doubt that this was a word used by those enlisted with the Union forces, but as to whether its roots lie with Oberlin College or in the Greek lexicon is something that has been hotly debated for generations.

How hotly?  There are others who claim that the word is a mash-up of two British dialect words:  sket and daddle.  The former means “rapidly” while the latter means “to walk unsteadily.”  Still others claim that the word is a mash-up of scatter and rattled but somehow that explanation seems far-fetched even to linguistic hobbyists.  Still, there are many plausible and far-fetched explanations as to the origins of the word skedaddle.

The Kendallville Standard published a story on March 11, 1898 entitled, “Spaniards Must Skedaddle.”  The article reported that the American Senate had recognized Cuba as a republic, and that President McKinley was directed to use as much U.S. military force as needed to force Spain to withdraw from the island.  The story also included additional information on the amendment by Senator Turple of Indiana that was added to the Davis Declaration of Intentions, and voted on.  The Senate resolution was nearly identical to the resolution to the one introduced by Senator Forster of Ohio.

In the July 23, 1862 edition of a newspaper known as The Head Quarters published in Fredericton (New Brunswick, Canada), a poem was published that was said to be republished from a Richmond newspaper.  The poem ran at the end of the newspaper’s report from their army correspondent — a report that included information that Stonewall Jackson was 18 miles east of Washington, and that there was general depression in the army of the Potomac and that, in trying to raise their spirits, the President had sent Christy’s Minstrels to cheer them up.

SKEDADDLE

The shades of night were falling fast
As thro’ a Southern village passed
A youth who bore in hand of ice
A banner, with the strange device —
Skedaddle.”

His hair was red, his toes beneath
Pressed like an acorn from its sheath,
While with a frightened voice he sung
A burden, in the Yankee tongue —
Skedaddle.”

He saw no household fire where he
Could warm his toes or hominy,
Or beg from Southern hand a bone;
Then from the Yankee ‘scaped a grown —
Skedaddle.”

Oh! stay a “cullered pusson” said,
An’ on dis bussum res your head;
The noble patriot winked his eye
But still he answered with a sigh —
Skedaddle.”

Beware Jeff. Davis’ serried ranks —
Beware of “Beargard’s” deadly pranks;
This was the platner’s last good night —
The chap replied far out of sight —
Skedaddle.”

At break of day, as several boys,
From Texan and Carolinian shores,
Were moving Southward, in the air
They heard these accents of despair —
Skedaddle.”

A chap was found, and at his side
A bottle, showing how he died,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
The banner with the strange device —
Skedaddle.”

This proves that the word skedaddle was already in use (and understood) as early as 1862.  In fact, it was used in a number of news articles and stories, including “A Colored Citizen’s Patriotic Speech” which was published in many places including the “Standard Recitations: For Use Of Catholic Colleges, Schools and Literary Societies.”

But my feller-buffers, dis a day to rejoice and kick up yer pedals, and to “Sing song, Polly, can’t you ki-me oh?”  If I may use de expression — and as de balmy zephers wafts its way from the horizon ob all’ de hemispheres — I think I hear de shivalerry sing, “Oh, brudders, let’s skedaddle!” and, my hearers, dey do skedaddle wheneber dey see any ob Uncle Sam’s blue-tail flies arter ’em.

But how much earlier can the word skedaddle be traced?

According to “Notes and Queries: For Readers and Writers, Collectors and Librarians” published in 1856 by publishers Bell and Daldy in London (England), it was identified as a provincialism.  This puts use of the word six years before the American Civil War and so the word existed before the American Civil War and wasn’t as a result of the American Civil War.

Since the publishers of the book are in London, the answer to the age-old question about how the word skedaddle came about is most likely found in Ireland where the word sgadad means “to flee” and ol means “all.”  Therefore sgadad ol means “all flee” which, of course, is the meaning of the word skedaddle.

What this means is that the word, having been referred to as a provincialism, makes the new word skedaddle an Americanism that was well enough known to be recognized as provincialism in England as early as 1856.  Idiomation pegs this word then to the mid 1850s at the latest, with a nod to the Irish sgadad ol.

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Shebang

Posted by Admin on February 10, 2015

Recently, I watched the Brian De Palma movie, “The Untouchables” on DVD again.  It’s a movie that plays well years after its release and stars Kevin Costner and Sean Connery among other well-known names today.  In the movie, there’s one scene where Eliot Ness sends his young daughter and pregnant wife away for safety’s sake. Angered at having his family’s safety threatened by Frank Nitti on behalf of Al Capone, Eliot Ness tells Malone that he wants to take the battle to Capone.  Malone replies:

Well, then, a Merry Christmas.  We’ve got some great news.  A huge international shipment’s coming. We’ve got the time, the place and the whole shebang.

But what exactly is a shebang, and what does it mean in today’s lexicon?  Informally speaking, the word shebang refers to the structure of something such as an organization or a situation or a project.  It generally implies the sum total as opposed to the parts that make up the whole.

Of course, techno-geeks will tell you that a shebang is a character script sequence that begins with the number sign and an exclamation mark and is favored by Unix-type operating systems.  However, the word is older than computer science.

It was in the July 29, 1890 edition of the Toronto Daily Mail newspaper that a two-volume book by the famous and experience African explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley (28 January 1841 – 10 May 1904) whose reputation, it was claimed in the newspaper, was well-known throughout the world.

SIDE NOTE:  Sir Henry Morton Stanley is identified as the person who uttered the immortal — and oft quoted and misquoted — question, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” upon finding the lost missionary and explorer David Livingstone in the supposed deepest, darkest Africa.

The book was all about the Emin Relief Expedition to Africa that began in 1887 and continued into 1888.

Lieutenant Stairs, Mr. Jephson, and myself were out at the extreme west end of the spur enjoying the splendid view, admiring the scenery, and wondering when such a beautiful land would become the homestead of civilized settlers.  Stairs thought that it resembled New Zealand, and said that he would not mind having a ranche here.  He actually went so far as to locate it, and pointed out the most desirable spot.  “On that little hill I will build my house” — “Shebang” he called it.  I wonder if that is a New Zealand term for a villa.

During the American Civil War, a shebang was understood to mean “a hut or shed, one’s living quarters.” In short, it was a word that referred to a temporary shelter for soldiers in the field.  How do we know this?

The American Civil War was famous for its slang of uncertain origin, and shebang is among those words of uncertain origin in many respects.  But make no doubt about it, many consider the word an Americanism by nearly every standard.  Even the book “Americanisms: The English of the New World” compiled by Maximillian Schele De Vere and published by Charles Scribner & Co. and published in 1872 included the word.

Shebang used even yet by students of Yale College, and elsewhere to designate their rooms, or a theatrical or other performance in a public hall, has its origin probably in a corruption of the French cabane, a hut, familiar to the troops from Louisiana, and constantly used in the Confederate camp for the simple huts, which they built with such alacrity and skill for their winter quarters.  The constant intercourse between the outposts soon made the term familiar to the Federal army also.

In the annual report from the Office of the Nez Percé Indian Agency by Charles Hutchins, U.S. Indian Agent for Washington Territory on June 30, 1862 to the Secretary of the Interior, the author made use of the word shebang.

Along all the roads on the reservation to all the mines, at the crossing of every stream or fresh-water spring, and near the principal Indian villages, an inn or “shebang” is established, ostensibly for the entertainment of travellers, but almost universally used as a den for supplying liquor to Indians.

The term is found in many government documents from the United States House of Representatives to the Adjutant General’s Office, from the  United States Congress to the Bureau of Military Statistics, and beyond.

Some have speculated that there might be a connection between shebang and the Irish word shebeen — spelled sibín — while others discount it because “bang” and “been” can scarcely be mistaken for each other.  However, a shebeen house in Ireland was one that usually sold unlicensed spirits, and were referred to as resorts of bad characters. In other words, a shebeen in Ireland didn’t sound to be much different than the shebang spoken of in the report from the Office of the Nez Percé Indian Agency in Washington state.

Another important historical fact to remember is this:  While many may remember the infamous Irish Brigade of the North, the more than 40,000 Irish who fought on the side of the South during the American Civil War seem to have been overlooked and forgotten.  The Irish were, in fact, the largest immigrant group fighting on the side of the South — a feat that was not returned by the Irish fighting on the side of the North.  What’s more, there were many Irish-born and first-generation Irish officers that moved their way up the Confederate Army ladder.

In other words, the likelihood that the word shebang was originally shebeen is very good considering its roots as slang during the American Civil War years.  When coupled with the fact that at about the same time, the word shebang also existed in the English spoken in New Zealand — a country that also saw a great deal of Irish immigrants throughout the 1800s — which only strengthens the probably connection between the two words.

That being said, however, the word shebang doesn’t seem to appear in print prior to the American Civil War although it was very obviously used among the general population given that the word was used by government officials as from the onset of the American Civil War.  Because of this, Idiomation pegs the word shebang to the mid-1800s.

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Dollars To Doughnuts

Posted by Admin on February 4, 2013

When you’re betting dollars to doughnuts, what you’re really doing is betting on an almost certainly sure thing. In other words, dollars have a value, while doughnuts — being shaped like zeros — have none.

In the magazine, SaskBusiness the editor, Keith Moen, authored an article on what he referred to as “messy, fear-mongering campaigns” in 2003 and again in 2004. Published on June 1, 2004, his point was that Canada couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be thought of as a Third World country, the Canadian economy didn’t succeed on the backs of slaves or serfs, and no Canadian he knew of was oppressed under a dictatorship. The editorial ended with these words of wisdom to their readership:

Yet that tax reduction line which separates good from evil must surely be a blurred one, as I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that most of our good public servants take advantage of their pension plans — even if they’re RRSP-eligible, which of course qualifies as a tax reduction strategy.

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it? It seems more than just a little self-serving and hypocritical. Sort of like the pot calling the kettle black … or a jalapeno trying to be as cool as a cucumber.

It’s the sort of expression that’s part of the lingo but doesn’t necessarily show up in print as often as one would expect. Sure, it’s shown up in movie dialogue often enough, but it’s not in print as often as it once was. In the Schenectady Gazette of January 19, 1948 it was found in the article “Big Talk, But …” where Under Secretary Of State Robert Lovette discussed the ongoing U.S. presence in Berlin. Not everyone thought that was such a good idea as evidenced by this excerpt from the article:

It’s a dollar to doughnuts bet that the Russian leaders are chuckling up their sleeves. For Russia has every important advantage. Russia’s proximity to Germany, its military might, its diplomatic methods based on the blackjack, its Communist philosophy that appeals to many Europeans who can’t understand democracy, all put Russia in a better position than any of the other occupying powers to dictate to the Germans effectively.

It was such a well-known saying that it appeared as the title of a serial story by author Edith Ellington, and carried by such newspapers as the San Jose News in early 1941. Yes, the soap opera-style serial story was entitled, “Dollars To Doughnuts.”

The Oxnard Daily Courier of June 1, 1914 carried a United Press story entitled, “Tango Commercialized Approaches Its End.” The story claimed the death knell of the tango when it announced that a group of financiers on Wall Street had banded together to corner the tango talent market. It was described in this way:

Society takes up a fad. It flourishes on the Avenue and makes a noise like a dollar. Then the keen nosed mew of money, scenting currency, take hold of it and organize it. The craze then takes on a commercial aspect. Society hears about it and abandons the fad. The lower strata learn that society has dropped the fad, so each in turn drops it.

That has been the history of a long procession of freak things. Never before perhaps did anything so intangible as a dance go through this evolution, but it is dollars to doughnuts that with the money kings playing ping-pong with the tango, it will lose its popularity.

As we all know, the tango still exists and has been seen every season that “Dancing With The Stars” has been on television in recent history.

Back on May 16, 1890 that matter of bills and gags, Republicans and Democrats in the House, and what senators had to say about all manner of things was reported in the article, “Shutting Off The Debate.” With regards to the Dependent Pension bill and the Service bill, the following was shared with readers of then New York Times.

The Dependent Pension bill of the Senate and the Service Pension bill of the House are now in the hands of conferees  the House conference Committee having been announced to-day. Some fear is expressed by the ever-anxious lest there shall be a disagreement, so obstinate that there will be a dead-lock, and no pension legislation. The pension agents may be relied upon to break the dead-lock, and as they are more interested in the Senate bill than in that of the House, it is “dollars to doughnuts” that the Senate bill, in one respect at least, will come out of the conference victorious, notwithstanding Gen. Hawley’s injunction to the Senate that it was “not to be stampeded by claim agents.

A few years prior, the expression could be found in the Daily Nevada State Journal on February 6, 1876 in a front page story that stated:

Whenever you hear any resident of a community attempting to decry the local paper… it’s dollars to doughnuts that such a person is either mad at the editor or is owing the office for subscription or advertising.

Five weeks later, the same newspaper printed this in their publication on March 11, 1876 in an article found on page 3:

Several Benoites took advantage of the half fare tickets offered to those who were to attend the ball given by the railroad boys at Carson last night, and attended it. It’s dollars to doughnuts all enjoyed themselves.

For it to appear in a newspaper without quotation marks around the expression indicates that its meaning was understood by readers. For it to be part of the jargon in 1876 implies that it was in use in the preceding decade at the very least.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about doughnuts in her story “Farmer Boy” based on the childhood of Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s husband. The setting for the story is 1866 and the following passage is found in the story:

That was Saturday night. All day long Mother had been baking, and when Almanzo went into the kitchen for the milkpans, she was still frying doughnuts. The place was full of their hot, brown smell, and the wheaty smell of the new bread, the spicy smell of cakes, and the syrupy smell of pies.

Almanzo took the biggest doughnut from the pan and bit off its crisp end. Mother was rolling out the golden dough, slashing it into long strips, rolling and twisting the strips.Her fingers flew, you could hardly see them. The strips seem to twist themselves under her hands, and to leap into the big copper kettle of swirling hot fat.

Plump! They went to the bottom, sending up bubbles. Then quickly they came popping up, to float and slowly swell, till they rolled themselves over, their pale golden backs going into the fat, and their plump brown bellies rising out of it.

The ease with which doughnuts were made is evident in this passage … certainly much easier than making a dollar in 1866.

American author Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859) — who best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” — included doughnuts in his novel, “Knickerbocker’s History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty” published in 1809. The author described doughnuts or, should I say, his main character, Diedrich Knickerbocker, described them thusly:

Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple-pies, or saucers full of preserved peaches and pears; but it was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks —- a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, except in genuine Dutch families.

That being said, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) anthropologist, Paul R. Mullins, Ph.D. wrote a book entitled, “Glazed America: A History Of The Doughnut” that the “first cookbook mentioning doughnuts was an 1803 English volume which included doughnuts in an appendix of American recipes.”

It can safely be guessed that the expression came into vogue sometime in the 1850s, giving the word doughnut time to ensconce itself in the English language and backdating the ease with which the expression dollars to doughnuts was used in newspapers by 1876.

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All Sense And No Nonsense

Posted by Admin on January 14, 2013

When you hear someone say someone is all sense and no nonsense what they are saying is that the person appears sensible, direct, efficient, and practical. In other words, what they say is what they mean and what they say and do is usually well-thought out long before they say and do what they mean to say and do.

In Thomas D. Taylor’s short story “Skeleton Key” published in 2013, the narrator shares this with the reader:

The man was hardly more than a boy though he must have been in his mid-twenties. He was blond, fair looking but resembled an accountant more than a jock. He had glasses, wispy hair and was dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. The woman he was with wore white shorts and a blue and white striped top. She was also blond but had no characteristics of the familiar stereotype. This one was all sense and no nonsense.

While the phrase isn’t heard very often these days, it was used in an advertisement in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on February 26, 1943 where the headline read:

All Sense And No Nonsense About These Slack Suits For Your Working Hours.

The slack suits they were selling were described thusly:

Designed primarily for play, slack suits have been taken up with gusto by today’s busy women for their working hours. They’re comfortable as an old shoe, yet are so beautifully tailored and styled, they give you that neat, concise look that’s important these days.

Back in 1873, the expression was found in “The National Teacher: A Monthly Educational Journal: Volume III” edited by Emerson Elbridge White. In the Editorial Department, on page 507, the following was written:

School Commissioner Harvey has attended a large number of the institutes in Ohio this year, rendering valuable assistance. His public addresses are highly commended by the press. An eminent educator who heard him at a recent institute, writes: “Commissioner Harvey is capital — all sense and no nonsense. No teacher can hear him without benefit.”

Taking the phrase apart, the no nonsense part of the phrase actually originates from the phrase to stand no nonsense which, according to numerous dictionaries, was sporting slang back in 1821.

The word nonsense itself entered the English language from the French word nonsens sometime in the 1610s. The French word meant that something was either ridiculous or wildly unreasonable.

Since the expression was used in a published magazine in 1873, it is reasonable to believe that the expression all sense and no nonsense was in use at least one generation prior to 1873, putting it at sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s.

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Wheel and Deal

Posted by Admin on June 25, 2010

This term comes from gambling in the American West where a wheeler-dealer was a heavy bettor on the roulette wheel and at cards.  In time, it grew to mean to take part in clever but sometimes dishonest or immoral business deals. 

Anyone who could “wheel and deal” in this way was certainly someone who could operate, manipulate and control situations for his or her own interest, especially in an aggressive or unscrupulous way.

By the 1940s, this colloquialism came to be mean the unsavory business dealings associated with perceived and actual big-time operators.

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