Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1856’

Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey

Posted by Admin on January 9, 2021

Most people are under the impression that this expression is rife with sexual innuendo. The fact of the matter is, there’s a mariner history to that expression, even if the current nudge-nudge-wink-wink-know-what-I-mean commentary and looks are associated with it these days.

To understand the expression, it’s important to go back to the Golden Age of Sail. This was a period from 1571 through to 1862 that corresponds with the early modern period when international trade and naval warfare was the main staple of sailing ships. Of course, sailing ships included frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners. All of this continued until steamboats started to take trade away from sailboats.

Ships during this time period carried their guns in two large batteries, one on each broadside. A few were mounted to fire directly ahead which left sailing warships weak, especially on the bow and most especially the stern of the ship, both of which were vulnerable to raking fire.

Ships at the mercy of raking fire had no guns with which to defend themselves, and with the rudder at the stern, the ability to maneuver the ship rendered the ship literally dead in the water even with intact masts and sails.

Rumor has it that the brass monkey was the dimpled plate that sat beside ship guns, stacked in a pyramid, and when the weather or cold, they would freeze and slip off the plate.

Unfortunately that is not true!

As reasonable as that may sound, it’s an sailor’s tale according to the official U.S. Navy website, Naval History and Heritage Command.

That being said, there were a lot of monkeys on sailing ships according to the website. In 1650, a monkey was a specific kind of cannon, and the lever used to fire it was known as the monkey’s tail. By 1682, a powder monkey was responsible for carrying gun powder to cannons. Monkey spars were small masts and yards on vessels, and monkey blocks were used in rigging.

What’s more, warships didn’t store round shot on deck around the clock on the off chance they might go into battle. One thing that was definitely a commodity on ships at sea was space, and decks were kept as clear as possible to allow room for hundreds of sailors to go about their day completing their assigned tasks. If a ship hit rough seas, the captain and crew couldn’t — and wouldn’t — risk the danger of round shots breaking free on deck and rolling around loose. Round shots were only brought on deck when the decks were cleared for action, and action was about to take place!

Besides, leaving round shots exposed to the elements was only going to worsen their condition over time, long before they saw action in battle … which leads to another reason to disbelieve the mythos of the dimpled plate. You see, if round shots were placed on a brass plate so they wouldn’t rust to an iron plate, they would still be in danger of rusting to each other. But generally speaking, metals — including brass — don’t shrink because of cold weather.

So where did this idiom come from?

In “An Incident of the Canadian Rebellion” published in The Worcester Magazine of June, 1843, something closely related to the expression was used in this way:

Old Knites was as cool as a cucumber, and would have been so independent of the weather, which was cold enough to freeze the nose off a brass monkey.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  The Canadian Rebellion was actually two rebellions in Upper Canada as well as in Lower Canada in 1837 and 1838.

The rebellion in Lower Canada was led by Louis-Joseph Papineau and his Patriotes [sic] was the more serious and violent rebellions (in November of 1837 and the following year in November of 1838).

The rebellion in Upper Canada was led by William Lyon Mackenzie in December of 1837. In 1838, Mackenzie fled to the U.S. where he lived until he was pardoned in 1948 which allowed him to return to Canada.

The end result was the union of the two colonies in 1841, which was subsequently referred to as the Province of Canada.

American author Herman Melville mentioned brass monkeys in his 1847 novel “Ormoo.” Thing is, the way the author mentioned them had nothing to do with balls or how cold it was.

It was so excessively hot in this still, brooding valley, shut out from the Trades, and only open toward the leeward side of the island, that labor in the sun was out of the question. To use a hyperbolical phrase of Shorty’s, ‘It was ’ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey.’”

A decade later, C.A. Abbey wrote in his book, “Before the Mast in the Clippers: The Diaries of Charles A. Abbey” about brass monkeys as well and his expression had nothing to do with noses or how hot it was.

It would freeze the tail off a brass monkey.”

So what should we believe about all this nonsense having to do with brass monkeys?

Perhaps this is the answer to that question. During the 19th and 20th centuries, small monkey figures were cast in brass by artisans in China and Japan, which were sold in souvenir shops. Usually they came in a sett of three to represent “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” but most people are unaware of the fact that some sets included a fourth monkey with its hand covering its genitals.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2: Should someone have all four monkeys, they are actually a valuable collector’s item these days.

So perhaps the expression has far more to do with the fourth monkey in a set of Wise Monkeys, and brasses historical and enduring importance due to its hardness and workability that dates back to ancient Roman times.  As to who first coined the expression and exactly when this expression came into being, one can only peg it to somewhere in the late 19th century or early 20th century — most likely the early 20th century — based on the vague history of the expression.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century, Maritime, Rome, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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.

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

All Men Are Enemies

Posted by Admin on March 23, 2011

In Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm, Major — one of the main characters — espouses the belief that rebellion is the path to freedom.  In fact, he is convinced that overthrowing the human race would instantly make all animals “rich and free.” Well, perhaps not all animals as Major is unsure as to whether wild animals count with regards to the rebellion.   He rallies the animals with cries that the animals must be united in order to overthrow man, stating clearly that, “all men are enemies. All animals are comrades.”

It’s an interesting point of view and certainly not an original concept created by George Orwell.  The concept of all men being enemies has been explored with that exact verbage in a number of books.

The Montreal Gazette reported on Richard Aldington‘s then most-recently published 344-page book, The Romance of Casanova.  The article began:

Richard Aldington is, indisputably, one of the most important of contemporary writers in English.  Death Of A Hero, was one of the most significant books of its era: The Colonel’s Daughter, All Men Are Enemies — even, Very Heaven — are fine examples of modern English prose, generous in concept, original in idea, brilliant in execution.  His current volume, The Romance of Casanova, is an annoyance, doing the author a literary disservice, and providing a source of considerable distress to his enthusiastic admirers.

Of course, the novel All Men Are Enemies was made into a film by Fox Films and went into production January 16, 1934 and wrapped up exactly one month later.  Hugh Williams, Helen Twelvetrees and Mona Barrie as the principals in the movie.  The story, published two years earlier in 1932, was described by movie critics as being a tedious but tasteful romance about a young Englishman who marries the wrong woman.

In fact, when the Los Angeles Times reviewed the movie, journalist Philip K. Scheuer wrote:

Beyond a perfunctory introductory caption explaining that “to the man who sets out on a brave and solitary way, all men are enemies,” there is nothing about the new film at Loew’s State to make its title particularly applicable.

Nearly a century before that, in the book, First Footsteps in East Africa or An Exploration of Harar, written by Richard F. Burton of the Bombay Army and published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans in 1856, this is written:

One of these events throws the country into confusion, for the vendetta is rancorous and bloody, as in ancient Germany or in modern Corsica. Our Abban enlarged upon the unpleasant necessity of travelling all night towards the hills, and lying perdu during the day. The most dangerous times are dawn and evening tide: the troopers spare their horses during the heat, and themselves during the dew-fall. Whenever, in the desert,—where, says the proverb, all men are enemies — you sight a fellow creature from afar, you wave the right arm violently up and down, shouting “War Joga! War Joga!”—stand still! stand still! If they halt, you send a parliamentary to within speaking distance. Should they advance, you fire, taking especial care not to miss; when two saddles are emptied, the rest are sure to decamp.

The concept that all men are enemies, however, comes from Colossians 1:13 where the concept put forth is that all men are enemies in their minds until God transforms them through the work of salvation.

While George Orwell has the character Major state, “all men are enemies” in Chapter 1 of Animal Farm, the sentiment is one that has made itself well-known before and after the publication of this book.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Posted by Admin on November 18, 2010

We all know that it’s better to do something rather than just talk about the problem or talk about doing something.  After all, actions speak louder than words.  Leading by example is something that society has cherished for centuries now.  So who first coined the phrase actions speak louder than words?

In Miranda Stuart’s book, “Dead Men Sing No Songs” published in 1939, the author wrote:

Deeds speak louder than words. First she tells you the most damning things she can, and then she begs you to believe he’s innocent in spite of them?

Her words paraphrased Abraham Lincoln’s comments when, in 1856, he wrote:

Actions speak louder than words’ is the maxim; and, if true, the South now distinctly says to the North, ‘Give us the measures, and you take the men.’

But in 1736, in a work entitled “Melancholy State of Province” the following is found:

Actions speak louder than Words, and are more to be regarded.

Back on American soil, in 1692 Gersham Bulkeley wrote in his book Will and Doom:

Actions are more significant than words.

Reaching back a little further, in the “Hansard Parliamentary History of England”  J. Pym is credited in 1628 with these words from a speech he made:

‘A word spoken in season is like an Apple of Gold set in Pictures of Silver,’ and actions are more precious than words.

Just a few years earlier, in the 1500s, French writer Michel de Montaigne, is quoted as stating:

Saying is one thing and doing is another.

But wait — the journey back isn’t over yet!  If one travels back two more centuries, one learns that Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone — also known as St. Francis of Assisi — made the following statement sometime between an epiphany he had in 1206 and his death in 1226:

Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.

But if you really want to get back to the roots of the phrase, credit goes to the Bible and the writings of James and John.  Yes, in James 2:15-17, one can read:

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works is dead, being alone.

And this is found in 1 John 3:17-18:

But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.

Yes, the spirit of the phrase “actions speak louder than words” goes back … way back!

Posted in Bible, Christian, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

A Chain Is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link

Posted by Admin on April 23, 2010

It’s true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  The phrase is something wrongly attributed to Vladimir Lenin prior to the Revolution of 1917 concerning why the Bolsheviks were agitating the Russian Proletariat.

Cornhill Magazine published an article in 1868 that contained this bit of advice:  “A chain is no stronger than its weakest link; but if you show how admirably the last few are united … half the world will forget to the security of the … parts which are kept out of sight.”

However, the phrase can be traced back to a comment written in a letter from C. Kingley dated December 1, 1856 that states:  “The devil is very busy, and no one knows better than he that nothing is stronger than its weakest part.”

And earlier than that, in 1786, Thomas Reid wrote his “Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man” wherein he stated:  “In every chain of reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest.”

And so while there are those who believe this phrase is a translation of an older Latin proverb or that it comes from the Bible, the fact is that it appears that the only proverb that is remotely similar to this is a Basque saying;  “Haria meheenean eten ohi da” which translates into “A thread usually breaks from where it is thinnest.”

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »