Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1881’

Whitehall Mandarin

Posted by Admin on March 18, 2011

It was only just recently that the expression Whitehall mandarin was brought to the attention of Idiomation.  Unfamiliar with the Whitehall reference but familiar with what mandarins are, Idiomation decided to research this expression.

On January 12, 2011, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published an article written by Hugh Muir that stated:

In came Lord Adonis, carrying with him, many thought, the airs of the minister he once was. He wants the institute to do policy, while Lord Sainsbury wanted it to focus on improving Whitehall‘s competence. Now, to the bemusement of staff, Lord A has gone off on a round-England jaunt to promote the government’s plan to impose elected mayors on the big cities. And he was missed last week, when the institute had the chance to slam the government over select committee criticism of the Eric Pickles chaotic bonfire of the quangos. All they could muster up in the boss’s absence was former mandarin Ian Magee, whose performance on the Today programme did little to rouse the troops. Much muttering among the lower ranks.

It was because of Hugh Muir that Idiomation began to wonder what it meant when someone in government in the UK was referred to as a mandarin.  The Glasgow Herald ran an article by Allan Laing on April 8, 1981 entitled “Great Escape Veteran Still Fighting Prison Camp Pay Battle” in which he wrote:

A committee of ex-Servicemen has been formed under the chairmanship of the Earl of Kimberley in the hopes that the Whitehall mandarins can find the resources to honour what many consider to be the last — and one of the most important — of Britain’s wartime debts.  The campaign has already prompted the Government to carry out an investigation into the PoW claims. Mr. Geoffrey Pattie, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, has given a pledge that he will announce the results of the inquiry “at a later date.”

Scotland’s evening newspaper, the Evening Times, reported on the amendments to the Finance Bill on July 2, 1968 in an article entitled, “Why Not Largs?” It read in part:

Hotels in Millport are exempted from the levy of 37s 6d per man, 18s 9d per woman; but hotels in Largs still have to pay.  Troon is exempt, but not Ardrossan. And so it goes on … Clearly M.P.s will have to start all over again and try to knock sense into the Whitehall mandarins who thought up this ill-considered scheme. The idea may have been sound in intention, but it has been badly bungled all the way in execution.  Scotland depends heavily on tourism for revenue. 

Austin Coates published a light-hearted account of his time as a magistrate dealing with two legal systems and cultures in Hong Kong during the 1950s.  The book was entitled, “Myself A Mandarin.”

It is said that the concept of the welfare state was started in London in 1940 by a group of bureaucrats under the leadership of Sir William Beveridge.  This group was comprised of Whitehall mandarins for the most part and although they did not originate the idea of the welfare state, they built upon the idea as set forth by Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898). 

However, the Whitehall mandarins existed prior to 1940 as shown by an article in the January 2, 1929 edition of the Calgary Daily Herald in an article entitled, “Soccer Teams Requested To Hold Standing: Unusual Request By Foreign Office Causes Amusement And Scorn.”  The article reported that:

The Daily Express severely criticizes the foreign office, saying “the views of the Whitehall mandarins seems to be that unless our footballers are fairly certain of winning, British prestige would receive an irreparable blow, the peace of Europe would be endangered and Sir Austen Chamberlain would have to do whatever Stressemann told him.  It does not matter in the least whether we beat the Germans at soccer or are beaten by them, but it does matter a great deal that we should be free and willing to meet them in the friendly strifes and rivalries of peace.”

By the time 1925 arrived, British barrister, Baron Claud Schuster, had spent a decade as Permanent Secretary in the Lord Chancellor’s Office and was described as a Whitehall Mandarin.  Schuster’s contacts and service led to greater influence over policy decisions than a Permanent Secretary normally would have had.

The term mandarin is associated with the concept of the scholar-official who is not only educated in the literary arts and Confucian learning but who also performs civil service duties. In China, mandarins were selected between the years 605 through to 1905 on merit by way of an extremely rigorous imperial examination.  In the western world, the word mandarin refers to any civil servant — although it’s most often a senior civil servant — and usually the reference is in a satirical context.

Whitehall is a road that is recognized as the centre of Her Majesty’s Government in Britain; the road is lined with government buildings housing various government departments and ministries.  Because of this, Whitehall has been used as an overall term to refer to any governmental administration in the U.K.

With regards to the civil service, open competitive examination was introduced in Great Britain in 1854.  At that time, the phrase “civil service” was applied to the most officials serving the state in a professional capacity.  It is most likely that the expression Whitehall mandarin followed shortly after competitive examinations were introduced.

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Two Shakes Of A Lamb’s Tail

Posted by Admin on January 28, 2011

In case you are wondering, yes, “shake” is a recognized unit of time.  At the time of the first atomic bomb, scientists needed a term for an interval of time equal to 10 nanoseconds. Since two shakes of a lamb’s tail is very quick, scientists coined the word “shake” to describe this unit of time.  But where does this phrase come from originally?

In the Toledo Blade newspaper of March 30, 1961 in the “Tell Me Why” column, A. Leokum started the column by writing:

Suppose you ask someone to do something for you quickly.  He might say:  “I’ll do it in a minute.”  But he might also say: “I’ll do it before you can say Jack Robinson” or “I’ll do it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”  The point is that when we set up a unit of time such as an hour or a minute, we are doing it by agreement or convention.  We have decided that so much and so much time shall be called a “minute” or “hour.”  But in setting up divisions of time there are certain natural events that can guide us.

That being said, two shakes of a lamb’s tail was a recognized time unit in the 1920s as evidenced in Pittsburgh (PA) in an advertisement that ran in The Gazette Times newspaper on May 3, 1920.  The advertisement for The Men’s Store of Pittsburgh: The Only Place In Western Pennsylvania Where You Can Buy New York’s Finest Rogers Peet Clothes read:

In two shakes of a lamb’s tail!  Replenishing your wardrobe may take even less time than that — our stock of Spring Suits and Overcoats is so ample.  A size for every build.  They’re “made to fit” not “to measure.”  Highest type of tailoring. Prices reasonable.

Back on September 28, 1881 a Letter to the Editor appeared in the Nelson Evening Mail in New Zealand.  The letter began with:

A Brooklyn man spent seven hours writing an essay to prove that a woman is inferior to a man, and then spent two hours more and a heap of profanity in an ineffectual attempt to thread a needle, a job which a woman finally did for him in about two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

A generation before that on August 26, 1853 in an article entitled “Turning The Tables” and published in the New Zealand newspaper, the Daily Southern Cross, the following was published:

A correspondent of the ‘Dublin Warder’ shows how an old acquaintance once turned the tables upon the bailiffs.  Two smart-looking fellows dressed as sailors, and with a rolling seaman-like gait, called at his house, and chucking the servant under the chin, told her to tell her master that they had brought commands from his brother, who was at that time at sea.  The credulous debtor eagerly opened the door and was soon in the arms of the bailiffs.  After complimenting them upon t heir ingenuity, he invited them into a back parlour, and begged they’d wait till he’d send off a bit of a note to a friend that he expected would arrange it for him.  “The messenger was back in the shakin’ of a lamb’s tail; and, my dear life, ’twasn’t long till the tables wor rightly turned, and the brace o’ shoulder tappers frightened out o’ their seven sinses by the arrival of a press gang; and, says Misther Blake, throwin’ the freemason’s sign to the officer, who happened, as Providence would order it, to be a Leithrim man. Here’s a pair o’ light active chaps that have deserted their ship and are disgracin, the blue jacket by actin’ as bailiffs.”  Sure that was a sore day for the disguised bailiffs, for notwithstanding their entreaties, they were obliged to go with the gang!

In the end, the phrase first appeared in Richard Barham’s book “Ingoldsby Legends” published in 1840 however that it was used with such ease in a news article in 1853 gives reason to believe that the phrase existed in modern language long before 1840.

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Swing For That

Posted by Admin on December 28, 2010

In the story “The Poacher’s Wife” written by Eden Phillpotts and published in 1906, the reference to “swing for him” is made and references being hanged for a crime against the character, Henry Vivian:

I’ll pay him well for his bananas, and I’ll pay him better for something else, which is to help me against that young bloodhound, Henry Vivian. I don’t care what I do against him, for he’ll ruin me if he can ; and if I was guilty I’d say nought, but I’m innocent. And if I’ve got to swing, I’ll swing for him.

The New York Times ran a story on September 15, 1895 entitled “Jim Talbot To Be Tried For Murder Done Fourteen Years Ago: Tracked By His Victim’s Brother.” It was to be a famous trial for murder held at Caldwell, KS with a number of interested parties, from curious spectators to vengeful adversaries, attending.  The article read in part:

Were it not for the hounding of John Meagher he would get free, so many years having elapsed since the tragedy, but the twin brother of the dead Mayor of Caldwell swears that Talbot will either swing for that or that he will shoot him on sight if the man is released.

The first published version Idiomation could find was in a copy of The Lady’s Magazine, published 1787. The reference comes in the dialogue of a comedy called The Embarrassed Husband:

“Murder him? No, no – it is not worth while to swing for him.”

And so whether someone is willing to “swing for that” or “swing for him” or “swing for her” the meaning is clearly that the person in question is willing to be hanged for a criminal — or perceived criminal — act they are about to commit.

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Paddywagon

Posted by Admin on August 25, 2010

A Paddywagon is a van the police use to transport people who have been arrested and are en route to jail or who have been found guilty of a crime and are being transported to prison.  Since it’s a police vehicle, paddy surely must refer to the police in some way.

Paddy is slang from 1780 for an Irishman.  Paddy is a nickname for the very popular and proper Irish name, Patrick.   In fact, by 1881, the uncomplimentary slur Paddywhack was slang for an Irishman.

During the 1920s, a large number of Irishmen were police officers on various police forces across America so it would be easy to assume that this is the origin of the term paddywagon.  However, this is disputed with the use of the term dating back to at least the beginning of the 1900s.

The Seattle newspaper reported on that on during the evening hours of July 24, 1916:

… Seattle Police Sergeant John F. Weedin was shot and killed in the line of duty. Sergeant Weedin and Officer Robert Wiley were traveling in a paddywagon when a citizen stopped them to report that he had been accosted by a man with a gun.  The suspect produced a handgun and shot Officer Wiley. The gunman then turned the weapon on Sergeant Weedin and shot him. Officer Wiley returned fire and killed the suspect.

Sgt. Weedin and Officer Robert R. Wiley had been working 12-hour shifts during a Longshoremen’s strike.

But the term goes back to the Civil War era when Paddy was  slang for a policeman, especially in cities such as New York, where many officers were of Irish descent.  During the violent five-day Draft Riots in New York in 1863, the term Paddy wagon became slang for the horse drawn wagons the police used to round up protesters against the Civil War draft.

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Dead Right

Posted by Admin on August 17, 2010

The phrase “dead right” and “dead to rights” are twin phrases in that they are nearly identical in use and meaning. 

The word dead was used from the 16th century on to mean “utter, absolute, quite.”   The “to rights” part of the phrase has been used since the 14th century to mean “in a proper manner” and later to mean “in proper condition or order.”

The implication of the phrase “dead right” or “dead to rights” was that every detail required by the law to make an arrest had been satisfied, making the arrest clean and justifiable.  In other words, it was a “fair cop.”

The San Francisco newspaper, The City Argus, reported in an 1881 news story:  “A man attempted to get into Banker Sather’s cash box and was caught ‘dead to rights‘ and now languishes in the city Bastille.”

The phrase dead right was commonly used by the police as early as 1919 to mean an individual committing a crime had been caught red-handed, as in: “Come clean! We have got you dead right!

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »