Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

  • Archives

  • Pages

  • Subscribe

  • Meta

  • Advertisements

Posts Tagged ‘1872’

Send Shivers Down My Spine

Posted by Elyse Bruce 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 Elyse Bruce 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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »


Posted by Elyse Bruce 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 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.


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

Send Him Packing

Posted by Elyse Bruce 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.”

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.

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:

What manner of man is he?

An old man.

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

Prithee, do, Jack.

‘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 »


Posted by Elyse Bruce 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.’


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