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Posts Tagged ‘1872’

Drop A Dime

Posted by Admin on March 20, 2021

The other night, while watching a relatively recent detective series episode on television, the expression drop a dime was used. The expression means to report a criminal to the authorities (otherwise known as ratting someone out to the cops) but in this day and age of technology, what do dimes have to do with reporting crimes and criminals?

The idiom drop a dime refers to assisting law enforcement in an investigation by placing a usually anonymous phone call to share helpful information about a criminal or a crime being investigated. Even though payphones are now so rarely seen that many younger people have little to no idea what a payphone looks like (and much less how to operate one), the expression persists.

On 23 January 2017, 49-year-old Toronto native and very popular hairstylist Fabio Sementilli was found dead at his home in Woodland Hills (CA) by his daughter. Accused were his widow, Monica Crescentini and her then-boyfriend Robert Louis Baker as well as an unnamed third party, Toronto Sun reporter Brad Hunter informed readers back in 2019 of the situation by writing this:

With the death penalty off the table, neither the suspected black widow nor her beau has any incentive to drop a dime on the mystery man.

But it wasn’t just Canadian reporters who used the expression in news articles in 2019. Reporter Ed Kilgore of The Intelligencer also used the expression when reporting on how impeaching then-President Donald Trump could prove Joe Biden’s undoing by way of uncovering whether Hunter Biden benefited from his father’s assistance in carving out a career as a lawyer-lobbyist, and as Ed Kilgore described him “a procurer of appropriations earmarks, and an international man of mystery.”

That coupled with the history of substance abuse and allegations against him regarding his former wife and his brother’s widow, certainly created a difficult situation for Joe Biden’s campaign. In the news story, Ed Kilgore wrote:

Team Trump wants it to stay that way, which is precisely why Trump and his goon, Rudy Giuliani, were trying to drop a dime on Hunter Biden and smear Joe in the bargain.

In the 1995 Spike Lee movie “Clockers” based on the novel by the same name written by Richard Price told the story of street-level drug dealers. Such dealers were referred to as clockers. It isn’t long in the movie before one of the lead clockers arranges to have a rival clocker knocked off and as you can guess, the rival is murdered. The following dialogue happens at the 26-minute mark in the movie:

We got a crowd of black, white customers, out-of-state license plates, what have you. Somebody gonna check that out. They gonna drop a dime on me, call 911. With my jacket, I can’t go back to jail.

While there’s a whole history behind the use of the word jacket, that will be addressed sooner rather than later on this blog. But let’s continue with uncovering the origins of dropping a dime.

Back in the day, a dime pushed into the coin slot (which landed in the coin deposit box inside) of a payphone allowed the user to make a local phone call. When the coin dropped into the coin box inside the payphone, only then could a phone call be placed. Since cellphones weren’t around yet, and people ratting out people and their potentially criminal activities to law enforcement was something most people didn’t want to have traced back to them, using a payphone guaranteed a fair bit of anonymity to the caller.

With anonymity in play, people were more inclined to place phone calls to the police by way of a payphone to inform on specific people and activities that might be of interest to the police. It’s easy to see how this activity came to be known as dropping a dime on someone – it was quick, inexpensive, and effective.

On 1 October 1976, confessed Mafia hit man Ira Pecznick co-wrote a book, with help from Paul Hoffman, titled, “To Drop a Dime: The Mafia Hit Man’s Uncensored Story.” The book allegedly detailed the criminal activities of the New Jersey Campisi family.  Ira Pecznick turned State witness against the Campisi family, and his testimony sent many of the family to prison.

In 1951, the coin charge across the U.S. of a nickel per call rose to a dime. That being said, some payphones required a dime to make a call as early as 1949.  But by 1951, in major cities across America, people could count on needing a dime to place a call from a payphone.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: When the Bell System faced competition in the telecommunications industry in 1981 due in large part to deregulation, the nationwide pricing policy for payphones rose to a quarter per call.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Back when payphones (then known as phone booths) finally became popular in general, those payphone calls cost two cents.  In the early 1930s, new shoes called loafers (or Weeguns, depending on where a person lived in the US) were the rage and there was just enough space in each shoe for a penny to fit snugly but not uncomfortably. People wearing loafers began keeping a penny in each shoe should the need arise to make an emergency phone call, and in time, this is how the pennyloafer got its name.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: American inventor William Gray was granted a patent on 13 August 1889 for his device that allowed people to deposit coins so they could place a telephone call. Soon afterwards, he established the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company but the concept didn’t catch on quite as quickly as he had hoped.

By 1911, however, in collaboration with Western Electric (which was AT&T’s manufacturing division), the updated payphone was being installed in cities across America, and anywhere it was likely someone would want or need to place a phone call.

Getting back to the matter at hand, hard-boiled detective stories by authors such as Raymond Chandler (23 July 1888 – 26 March 1959) and Frank Morrison ‘Mickey’ Spillane (9 March 1918 – 17 July 2006) started to include the idiom in their stories to refer to a snitch (a police informant) and even though the cost of phone calls kept increasing over the decades to a quarter then two quarters than a dollar (payphones in Canada accepted dollar coins known as loonies), the meaning attributed to dropping a dime never changed.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Many of the future well-known authors of detective stories who wrote detective stories in the 1930s and 1940s regularly saw their stories published in the detective pulp fiction magazine “Dime Detective” whose first issue was published in November 1931. The last issue was published in August 1953. The magazine enjoyed a run of 274 issues published. There were British reprints under the name of “Red Dime Detective” and “Yankee Detective Fiction.”

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 3: The first dime-novel detective appeared in a story published in 1872 in “The Fireside Companion” story paper and written by American author and medical doctor, Harry Enton (1854 – 28 March 1927).  A year later, a new ten-cent format that was 9 inches by 13 inches, with only 32 pages and a black-and-white illustration, was launched, and these were referred to as ‘weekly libraries.’ Of all the titles available, it was the “New York Detective Library” by Frank Tousey (24 May 1853 – 7 September 1902) that was among the most successful titles.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 4: At the time, the English equivalent of the dime novel was the shilling shocker or the penny dreadful.

 

In light of the dime detectives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s easy to see how the connection between detectives, law enforcement, payphones and dimes came together. Because Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to dropping a dime than the detectives stories of the 1950s — even with a great deal of earlier dime and detective history leading up to the 1950s — the idiom to drop a dime is pegged to 1951  — the cost of an anonymous payphone call to the police was a dime in major cities across America, and people were apt to assist the police with a little unexpected extra information on a possible crime or criminal.

As an added suggestion, Idiomation reminds readers that the expression to drop a dime should not be confused with to drop a penny which, of course, means something completely different, and that will be a future idiom that will be published here at some point. Idiomation should probably also research where and when the expression dime store hood as well.

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

Send Shivers Down My Spine

Posted by Admin on February 11, 2011

When something sends shivers down your spine, it could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing depending on the circumstances. 

On July 21, 1961, Sylvia Porter of the Gadsden Times in Gardsden (AL) wrote an article entitled “Fiscal Agencies Get Praise” for the Your Money’s Worth column.  It read in part:

In plain words, there was a real risk a fortnight ago that these staggeringly big borrowings might flop and the danger was enough to send a shiver down the back of the most callous money expert.

On June 11, 1905 the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story entitled “Gypsy Blood Stirs All In Spring Time” and warned that Zingara blood called “every man to woods and fields when nature awakes” with this as a partial explanation on how it happened:

Down the road comes a lusty young voice singing an air that is vaguely familiar to you. It is full of strange minors of curious creepy trills which send a shiver of delight creeping down your spine.

On March 15, 1872, the West Coast Times reported on the Right Honourable Mr. Fox and his private Secretary, Mr. Brown, accompanied by the Chief Surveyor of Westland, Mr Mueller visiting the goldfields not far from Hokitika in New Zealand.

Ablutions were performed on the river bank, during which the snowy water was generally allowed to possess powerful cooking properties; the astonishment of the party can be therefore conceived when they observed Mr. Fox walk down to the river and take a “header” in a deep hole.  The sight was enough to send a shiver through any looker on who had just returned from bathing his face and hands in the ice stream, and we could almost expect to see the remains of the Premier floating down the stream in the shape of a big icicle, instead of which he returned to the camp as fresh and as warm and lively as a three old — just as if he had been in the habit of taking an iced bath every day of his life.

Now, it may be that the expression morphed from the nautical mock oath, “shiver my timbers” which became a mainstream comment in 1835.  Documentation indicates that “timbers” was the term used in 1748 to describe the pieces of wood that composed the frame of a ship’s hull.

By 1789, the expression “my timbers” was acknowledged to be a nautical oath.  Since there’s not much difference between the backbone of a ship’s hull and a person’s spine, it’s likely that the expression “shivers down the spine” was a modification of the nautical expression.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, 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 »

Jailbird

Posted by Admin on December 3, 2010

A prisoner, an inmate, a convict, an habitual criminal, someone with more than one experience of prison as an inmate and not as a guard or warden, a lifer, a felon.

The original spelling of the word jail is gaol and so one must hunt down the term “gaol-bird” to see how far back the term goes. Once we begin searching for the term “gaol-bird” a number of published references show up.

The New Zealand Tablet published a news story on February 1, 1900 entitled “Slattery and His Bogus Ex-Nun” where it reported that:

“[the scam] was inaugurated by two lewd creatures who had never been members of the Church whose alleged enormities they professed to disclose.  The male partner in the conspiracy was a low roué; his inevitable female companion was a thief, gaol-bird and prostitute.”

In the Daily Southern Cross published on March 4, 1871 an article entitled “Gaol Life at Mount Eden” and it reported:

“Instead of emptying the rubbish in the usual corner, [the inmate, Wilson] marched straight with his load to the authorities of the gaol, placing it at the feet of the chief warder, Mr. O’Brien …Wilson made a rush for the door, in his impetuosity, knocking over Warder Young, who happened to be stationed just outside … [the inmate, Wilson] whiningly pleaded the excuse that it was all meant for a “lark;” but the authorities could not see the point to the joke, and the “gaol bird” that so much desired to be like a “lark” was put under stricter surveillance — orders being issued to the sub-warders to keep an eye on him, and so prevent such propensities to sly amusement in the future.”

In the Southland Times, the June 11, 1982 publication carried a news story dated March 6, 1872 that stated:

“Jules Favré asserts that a deputation from Lyons awaited on him, whose mandat impératif was that no deputy should be elected unless he avowed and signed himself an atheist!  It was a sad mistake to make patriots of the inmates of the prisons — 20,000 gaol birds in the army of Paris!”

The origin of the word jailbird — or rather gaol bird — can be traced back at least to medieval England, where convicts were oftentimes locked in iron cages that were then suspended several feet above the ground.  Visible to passersby, it was strongly suggested by those in charge that the passersby refer to them as jailbirds (gaol birds) since the suspended iron cages somewhat resembled bird cages.

The earliest published mention of prisoners as gaol birds that I could find dates back to the Spanish Inquisition where records show that in 1647, a gaol-bird imprisoned in Valladolid provided information to his jailers of an alleged secret congregation in Cuidad Real.  He claimed that the leader of the alleged secret congregation was the Paymaster of the army on the Portuguese frontier.  The informant’s hope was that this information would be enough to have him released from prison.

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

An Arm And A Leg

Posted by Admin 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.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Send Him Packing

Posted by Admin on May 18, 2010

If you want to dismiss an individual peremptorily, it’s as  simple as sending him or her packing.  The book “Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: The Origin of our Vulgar and Provincial Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions” written in 1872 by John Brand, M.A., Fellow and Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London (England) contains the phrase on page 59 in the story “Sorcerer or Magician.”

GARDENER:
If he can once compass him, and get him in Lob’s pound, he’ll make nothing of him, but speak a few hard words to him, and perhaps bind him over to his good behaviour for a thousand years.

COACHMAN:
Ay, ay, he’ll send him packing to his grave again with a flea in his ear, I warrant him.

However, the phrase, “send him packing” goes back to William Shakespeare’s Henry IV written in 1596 where, in Part I, the following exchange is found between Falstaff and Henry:

FALSTAFF:
What manner of man is he?

HOSTESS QUICKLY:
An old man.

FALSTAFF:
What doth gravity out of his bed at midnight? Shall I give him his answer?

HENRY:
Prithee, do, Jack.

FALSTAFF:
‘Faith, and I’ll send him packing.

Shakespeare thought the phrase was so effective that he also used it in his play King Lear written between 1603 and 1606 in which we hear Ragan say:

“My father with her is quarter-master still,
 And many times restrains her of her will:
 But if he were with me, and served me so,
 I’d send him packing somewhere else to go.
 I’d entertain him with such slender cost
 That he should quickly wish to change his host.”

So once again, the prize goes to William Shakespeare for having penned the phrase “send him packing” that is now solidly entrenched in the English language.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Beeline

Posted by Admin on April 7, 2010

On August 23, 1894, the Chicago Daily Tribune carried a news article entitled “Barrier To Bad Men” that discussed the situation regarding anarchists in Europe.   In fact, it stated that there was concern as to what anarchists were up to and the article reported that “large numbers of [European] Anarchists are making a bee line for the United States.”

But that wasn’t the first published use of the word beeline.  Over 20 years before that news story, The Atlantic Monthly printed a story entitled “Quite So” by author T.B. Aldrich in their April 1872 issue.  In the story, Aldrich wrote:  “Curtis was a Boston boy, and his sense of locality was so strong that, during all his wanderings in Virginia, I do not believe there was a moment, day or night, when he could not have made a bee-line for Faneuil Hall.”

However, this, too, was not the first use of the word beeline.  By 1838, those living in America used the term to refer to someone who, like a bee, takes the shortest route back to the hive once it has found and collected nectar in the fields.  Like a bee that would use its keen and accurate homing instincts in the field to find its way back to the hive, someone who took the shortest route anywhere was said to have made a ‘beeline.’

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