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Posts Tagged ‘1860’

English On It

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 8, 2013

The idioms put some English on it is most often associated with baseball and refers to the pitcher giving the ball curve while it’s in the air, on its way to the batter.  That idiom, along with and put some reverse English on it, are  found in billiards halls the world over when talking about a ball that drops into a pocket with the aid of some spin. And it also refers to communications intended to distort or deceive others.

On December 8, 2002 Joe Goddard of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote an article entitled, “Ramblers Thump Valpo” which made quick work of the basketball game between the Loyola Ramblers and Valparaiso Crusaders in the Horizon League that ended in a score of 80 to 62. In the brief article, the following was written in part:

“I had to get it over him, so I put some English on it.” Most of Tsimpliaridis’ shots were from the perimeter. He shot 7-for-9 from the field.

On December 19, 1953 Bill Beck, Sports Editor for the St. Petersburg Times wrote about an odd sport that played the walls like handball, demanded the strategy and rhythm of tennis, required the skills of baseball infielding, and allowed spectators to place bets as if they were at a race track: Jai-Alai. It didn’t catch on, contrary to Bill Beck’s hopes, but it certainly gave insight into the game, the players and Adriano Aguiar, who managed the lone American of the 32-man team. In the end, this is what Bill Beck had to say of the game:

You will find the players not only retrieve and return the ball, but put “Englishon it.  You will find they fire it so close to the wall, their opponent cannot get his cuesta (wicker racket-type glove) between ball and wall for return.

The Palm Beach Post newspaper of November 21, 1921 also carried the idiom in a somewhat modified form in an article entitled, “Preparing For Failure.” The story dealt with the surprise disarmament conference announced by President Harding, which led to a number of metropolitan newspapers stating that “the administration” was considering measures against “agitators” who were trying to force “real disarmament” to eliminate the chances of war. The article read in part:

Toward the end of the dispatch there lies the secret:

“The hope of the president for a continuation of the conferences like the present one became known at a moment when the arms delegates reached a stage in their deliberations strongly suggesting itself that further negotiations will be necessary to consummate the task begun here.”

That surely is putting the “reverse Englishon it.  It must not be forgotten for a moment that the men at this conference are all politicians, and that they want to keep their jobs more than anything else. The hopes of the peoples all over have been aroused by this disarmament (beg pardon) by this limitation or armaments conference.

In the New York Times article of February 1, 1879 the idiom appeared in altered form — with the meaning intact regardless of the use of the word reverse — in an article reporting on a billiards tournament. It was clear that the “English” in question was going to be “put on it” as the Brunswick and Balke Championship Tournament entered its second week of play. The stakes were high, and at one point, it was reported:

It was a difficult shot from every direction, and before essaying it, the Frenchman, amid general laughter took off his dress-coat, and came up again in the full brilliancy of his diamond-studded and much-starched shirt. He then stroked his mustache, drew his cue backwards and forward, and struck the cue ball. Failing to count, he retired, laughing quietly, and gave Sexton an opportunity of gathering 4 points. The latter made a very pretty “kiss” shot, with “reverse English” in the twelfth inning, but retired after scoring 7 billiards.

Ten years prior to the newspaper article in the New York Times, Mark Twain used the expression in Chapter XII of his book “Innocents Abroad” published in 1869 in which he wrote:

We had played billiards in the Azores with balls that were not round and on an ancient table that was very little smoother than a brick pavement—one of those wretched old things with dead cushions, and with patches in the faded cloth and invisible obstructions that made the balls describe the most astonishing and unsuspected angles and perform feats in the way of unlooked-for and almost impossible “scratches” that were perfectly bewildering. We had played at Gibraltar with balls the size of a walnut, on a table like a public square—and in both instances we achieved far more aggravation than amusement. We expected to fare better here, but we were mistaken. The cushions were a good deal higher than the balls, and as the balls had a fashion of always stopping under the cushions, we accomplished very little in the way of caroms. The cushions were hard and unelastic, and the cues were so crooked that in making a shot you had to allow for the curve or you would infallibly put the “English” on the wrong side of the hall. Dan was to mark while the doctor and I played.

It appears  that the expression is as a result of billiards, but how did this come about?

The earliest mention of the game of billiards is in “Mother Hubberd’s Tale” published in 1591 where the author speaks of “all thriftles games that may be found … with dice, with cards, with billiards.”  It’s mentioned in William Shakespeare’s play “Anthony and Cleopatra.”  But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s that changes were made to the game and how the game was meant to be played. Of particular note was the introduction of the leather cue tip in 1823 which allowed players to add side-spin to the ball, and this was new advancement was introduced to billiards players the world over, including those in America.

By 1860, the French were referring to spin imparted to a billiards ball as anglé … a clever play on words since anglé meaning angled and anglais meaning English share the same pronunciation. This play on words quickly caught on with other billiards players, and when someone put spin on a billiards ball, they were playing a ball that was anglé / anglais which was literally translated to the word: English.

The expression, put English on it, is therefore from 1860 and has its roots firmly planted in the game of billiards.


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Dressed To Kill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 4, 2011

The expression dressed to kill has been around for quite some time.  It’s been the title of no fewer than 4 movies including the 1980 movie directed by Brian De Palma, the 1946 movie starring Basil Rathbone and Patricia Morrison, the 1941 movie starring Lloyd Nolan and Mary Beth Hughes and the 1928 movie starring Mary Astor

The expression usually refers to an individual — most often a woman — who is wearing fashionable or glamourous clothing intended to attract attention. Occasionally it refers to an item or inanimate object that is considered fashionable or glamourous.

On December 6, 2008, the Daily Post in Liverpool, England ran an article entitled, “Interiors: Best of the Hotties.”  The subject of the article was hot water bottles and was intriguing nonetheless, beginning with its opening paragraph.

It’s hard to beat the comfort of that simple winter must-have — the humble hot water bottle. Nowadays, these come dressed to kill in anything from faux fur to felt, so don’t put up with a sad, naked rubber version.

On July 16, 1968 an article by Nadene Walker ran in the Regina (SK) newspaper, The Leader-Post.  The story reported on the just-then-revealed fashion collection of then-popular clothing designer, Valentino.  The piece was entitled, “Valentino Models Dressed To Kill In Rome Showings” and read in part:

Valentino pulled out all the stops Sunday night in a collection based on an A line with a touch of romantic Russian.  It could prove the smash hit of the Italian winter fashion season.  From the first group of hi-booted models swathed in white mink to the last evening extravaganzas, Valentino girls were dressed to kill.

Back during the Roaring 20s, the court case in the murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell was carried in the New York Times on April 8, 1921.  The accused was one Roy Harris who had been arrested the previous Wednesday afternoon. He had confessed to the murder and told the story of how a woman known to him only as Mrs. Fairchild and a man by the name of “Big Bill” Duncan had contracted him for the murder.  He claimed that Mrs. Fairchild paid him and “Big Bill” Duncan $450 each in new bills a few minutes after she opened the outer and vestibule doors of the Elwell home to the two men.

He said he met a fellow names Giles on the day following his last meeting with “Big Bill,” and that Giles told him he saw Duncan “dressed to kill” in the Grand Central Terminal.  He said Giles told him that “Big Bill” said he was “going North.”

“I think he got the rest of the $5,000 and double-crossed me,” Harris said.  Harris said he served with the Canadian Transport but didn’t go overseas.  He said he left New York two months after the shooting of Elwell and went to Syracuse.

On August 26, 1882 a reporter for the St. Louis Globe write a rather unflattering article about the women in Saratoga.  Needless to say, if such an article was written for a newspaper today, the reporter would likely find himself unemployed in short order. It read in part:

An hour of silence at a morning concert drew forth the statement that “if they had gone round and offered prizes, they could not have gotten many more homely women together;” and a happier man would be forced to the same conclusion.  One may reason it around that the proportion of the ill-favored is not so much greater here than elsewhere but that homely women dress so strikingly and make such a parade of themselves that it is impossible for them to escape notice.  An ugly girl in a cheap and ill-fitting frock goes by without notice on a city street, but an ugly girl in Saratoga is “dressed to kill,” as the maid say, and accents all her deficiencies.

On October 28, 1860 San Francisco’s Golden Era newspaper ran an article entitled Surface Diggings.  The second paragraph had a beautiful play on words with this comment:

In this part of the world, when a man is well gotten up we say that he is “dressed to kill.”  In Scotland, this expression takes a singularly different phase for there a Highlander in full costume comes very near being Kilt entirely.

Idiomation could not find an earlier published version of this expression however in 1860 it was a phrase that was well-known in California so one can safely assume that it had been around at least one generation prior in order to be considered by reporters as a well-known expression of the day.

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The Best Laid Schemes Of Mice And Men

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 2, 2011

When someone starts with “the best laid plans of mice and men” and then lets the sentence trail off without finishing it, usually means that something that was to happen has taken an unexpected turn … sometimes for the better, but more often, for the bad.  How is it, though, that mice and men are lumped together in this phrase?

Back on July 31, 1940, reporter Jesse A. Linthicum of the Baltimore Sun newspaper wrote an article entitled “Sunlight On Sports” that began with:

The gent who wrote “the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley” must have been thinking of the fight game in general and Al Weill in particular.  Weill saw 1940 ushered in through rose-colored glasses. He had two world champions and two lending challengers in his stable.

Forty years earlier, on July 28, 1900, the following was reported in the New Zealand Observer, an illustrated weekly newspaper:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” which was well exemplified at the Harbour Board meeting on Tuesday.  For some time past — in fact, directly Chairman Witheford was returned from Auckland City — representations were made to him to return from the chairmanship.  Too much to do, and other suggestive reasons for retirement.  J.H. was on the point of taking the hint, but was prevailed upon to stand by his guns and finish the work he had commenced.  Upon his notifying at a meeting, called for the purpose, that he intended to retain the chairmanship, a certain little ‘syndicate’ fell back aghast.

And 40 years before that, on May 28, 1860 the New York Times ran an article entitled “Political Pandering” that included this in the article:

The fearful prospect so impressively presented by the eloquent Attorney-General of Col. FORNEY’s “bones whitening along with those of WILMOT on the shore of Black Republicanism,” when his character might have been comfortably black-ening under the sunshine of Presidential patronage, struck Mr. WEBSTER with dismay. Of course this catastrophe must be averted. “You merely wish FORNEY to sell you the key of his lips,” says WEBSTER in effect. “Well, that is satisfactory, only — how much will you give? The whole $80,000, or only a part of it?” The Attorney-General replied, unhesitatingly, “The whole of it” Now, mark the sequel, and lament with us afresh, how oft the best laid schemes of mice and men “do gang agley.”

The phrase is actually from poem by Robert Burns entitled “To a Mouse” which was written and published in 1786. It tells of how he, while ploughing a field, upturned a mouse’s nest and as a result, he penned an apology to the mouse that includes this verse:

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The poem is of course the source for the title of a novel written and published John Steinbeck in 1937, entitled  “Of Mice and Men.”


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An Arm And A Leg

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 28, 2010

When someone says it cost “an arm and a leg” to gain possession of something, they usually mean it cost more than it was worth in the long run.  The expression became widely known during the Depression era but its roots are deeper than the 1930s.

It grew out of 19th century American slang expression “if it takes a leg” which meant that regardless of the price, there was desperate determination involved in securing what the person wanted.

George Pickering‘s book “Memories of the United States Secret Service” published in 1872 provides this sentence:

He goes straight to New York, and will have satisfaction out of these villains, if it takes a leg, or the last dollar he has in the world.

The local Horicon, Wisconsin newspaper called the Horicon Argus published a story on February 17, 1860, in which it reported that:

The true Republicans … are bound to have him defeated if it takes a leg.

There are those who will claim that the earliest known published use of the expression “an arm and a leg” dates back to 1956, in Billie Holiday‘s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues.” In her biography, she wrote:

Finally she found someone who sold her some stuff for an arm and a leg.

Seven years earlier in a cartoon published by the Nebraska State Journal on October 3, 1949, the caption read:

It never fails!  That new wardrobe that costs an arm and a leg … 85 fish! Wow!  That’s more than I figured on spending but I guess it’s worth it!  Wrap it up!

So the expression, in its entirety, has been around some 60 years at this point.


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Ins and Outs

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 2, 2010

When you know the “ins and outs” of a situation, you know every little detail.  Mark Twain wrote in his book Pudd’n’head Wilson published in 1894:

He never meddled with any other town, for he was afraid to venture into houses whose ins and outs he did not know and the habits of whose households he was not acquainted with

The Mill On The Floss by George Eliot published in 1860 also spoke of the “ins and outs’ of things.

It takes a big raskil to beat him; but there’s bigger to be found, as know more o’ th’ ins and outs o’ the law, else how came Wakem to lose Brumley’s suit for him?

How far back does the phrase “ins and outs” go?  John Hacket, the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry from 1661 until his death was also an author.   His best-known book published in 1693 (23 years after his death) is the biography of his patron, Archbishop John Williams, and is entitled Scrinia Reserata: A Memorial Offered To The Great Deservings of John Williams, D.D.   In this tome, he wrote:

Follow their Whimsies and their Ins and outs at the Consulto, when the Prince was among them.

This puts the phrase back to 1670.  However, it goes back a little further yet to 1605 when the Corporation of Leicester attempted to procure a charter in that year.  They sent their mayor, Thomas Chettel to London to accomplish this task.

P)rocuring a charter was extremely expensive, requiring fees and tips to clerks and scribes, gifts to patrons and their servants and wages to reimburse solicitors for their time, and expenses while in London.  It was said that no matter who went to London to see the business through, that individual required knowledge of local circumstances, some understanding of the ins and outs of petitioning at Court, and most importantly, the persistence to succeed.


Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Since Hector Was A Pup

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 31, 2010

This phrase first began to appear in North American newspapers around 1906 and became a catchphrase in the 1920s, especially among flappers.  It was an extension of an earlier idiom — “as dead as Hector” — which was widely used in the 1860s.

The reference is to Hector, the son of King Priam of Troy and his second wife Hecuba — a symbol of the consummate warrior — and one of the chief participants in the tale of the siege of Troy by the Greeks in Homer’s epic The Iliad.  King Priam, as we all know, was killed in single combat by the Greek champion Achilles.

Hecuba was responsible for the murder of Polyxena, who was the murderer of Hecuba’s older son, Polydorus.  The gods turned Hecuba into a dog as punishment for taking Polyxena’s life which, literally speaking, made Hector his mother’s pup.

What’s more, by the early twentieth century, “pup” was well established as a mildly dismissive comment that referred to a young person who was particularly inexperienced in the ways of the world.


Posted in Greek, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Throw In The Towel

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 29, 2010

Originally, the term was to “throw in the sponge” and it first appeared in “The Slang Dictionary”  of 1860.

Back in the 19th century, sponges were used at prize fights to clean fighters’ faces.  If a contestant’s manager threw in the sponge , it meant that the fighter had had enough and was admitting defeat.   In admitting defeat, the sponge was no longer required as the win was awarded to the other fighter, thus ending the match.

Over the years, towels have been substituted for sponges at boxing matches and prize fights.  The term has followed suit and likewise, it was substituted the word towel for sponge hence the term to “throw in the towel.”


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