Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1900’

Swaboda

Posted by Admin on June 5, 2021

This past April (2021), while researching a completely different idiom, Idiomation found an expression that was intriguing: Swoboda movements. This week, we took on the arduous task of finding out what was meant by this expression, and what was uncovered was certainly unexpected!

The original passage Idiomation found was in a letter dated 8 December 1904, written by James Clark of Elgin (IL) who was a traveling agent for the Sherwin-Williams Company in Northern Illinois to his son, William, who had completed his first month of business experience in Johnes’ Hardware Store in Port Center in Michigan. In his letter to his son, James Clark wrote in part:

Have plenty of nerve always, but use your nerve with intelligence. Give your brain some exercise, put it through a few Swoboda movements just before you tackle the new proposition. Be just sufficiently afraid of making mistakes to realize that your thinking apparatus is one of the best mistake killers known to science.

References to Swoboda movements were sparse at best, however, we came across articles from such reputable magazines as the Kansas City Medical Records, Volume 28, Issue 9 in 1909, Volume 28 of the Advertising and Selling magazine in an article dated 28 September 1918, and other publications, and in advertisements aplenty in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Here’s the scoop on Swoboda.

Alois P. Swoboda (8 March 1873 – 13 December 1938) was an Austria-born American quack and physical culture mail-order instructor. In some ways, he may be thought of as the precursor to late night infomercials with his quackery and pseudo-scientific claims. He brazenly hawked his system as a one-size fits all cure for every disease known to man. He even went as far as to claim that his system was guaranteed by the government of the United States of America which, of course, it did not.

In Volume 70, Number 11 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of 16 March 1918, Swoboda was called out for his so-called medical advancement. In the article it stated:

Not that [the book explaining the Swoboda system] means anything but it sounds rather scientific and can be counted on to impress both the thoughtless and that still larger class of individuals who merely think they think. Swoboda is not the first to appreciate that a meaningless phrase, if couched in pseudo-technical language, paraded frequently and solemnly with a lavish use of italics, capitals and blackfaced type, may be counted on effectually to take the place of thought or common sense.

These days, most people are familiar — in varying degrees — with the Church of Scientology, and are aware that L. Ron Hubbard is responsible for establishing Scientology. What they don’t know is that L. Ron Hubbard’s uncle, American writer, publisher, anarchist, and traveling salesman Elbert Green Hubbard (19 June 1856 – 7 May 1915) was an enthusiastic backer of Alois P. Swoboda’s system, and that many of Swoboda’s teachings became part of the backbone of Scientology.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The ninth printing of “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” was dedicatd by L. Ron Hubbard to his uncle, Elbert Green Hubbard.

For a time the expression Swoboda movements was trying to elbow its way into the English language, but like many buzz phrases over the generations, ultimately no one was interested in taking it much further than the occasional letter published in a newspaper story or magazine article, and so it remains firmly lodged between 1900 and 1905 forevermore.

As a side note, Alois P. Swoboda was mentioned in a Time Magazine article of 7 July 1930 but it had very little to do with his sytem, his movements, or the expression.

This short-lived expression dates back to 1900, and falls completely out of use within a few short years. But oh! what an interesting history that expression has, and what interesting side notes (behond the one in this entry) to boot!

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Crazy Like A Fox

Posted by Admin on August 13, 2019

Back in 2014, Idiomation tracked down the roots of crazy as a loon (sometimes known as crazy like a loon). Its origins reached back to 1800, but what about crazy like a fox?

When someone is crazy like a fox, it’s understood the person in question is able to outwit others very easily thanks to its cunning nature and intelligence.

How smart are foxes? According to an article published on 11 January 1896 in the Brownsville (Texas) Daily Herald, foxes will circle back to their earlier trail, run backwards in it for a while, and then take off in another direction knowing it will cause confusion for the dogs and humans tracking it.  Undoubtedly, if a person saw a fox running backwards, that person most likely would think the fox was crazy. After all, what animal runs backwards in the direction it can’t see if danger is approaching?

According to the reporter, the trick worked for the fox, and left those tracking it at a loss as to where the fox went, so it’s not so crazy after all.  That’s a pretty smart move!

Chicago Tribune television writer Allan Johnson wondered in his column of 8 April 1999 about a network’s sanity when it came to moving the animated series Futurama to a new time slot. Even the series’ creator, Matt Groenig of Simpson’s fame questioned the network’s move.  Johnson started his column with this introduction which, of course, includes a lovely play on words both for the idiom as well as for the network involved.

Futurama’s network may be crazy as a Fox for moving the animated series from sure success on Sunday nights to a possibly deadly Tuesday night berth.

The idiom at that point had been around at least 50 years.  Back in 1926, American comedian and actor Charley Chase starred in a silent movie titled, “Crazy Like A Fox.”

SIDE NOTE 1: This is the movie where Oliver Hardy played a small role just before he teamed up with Stan Laurel to become Laurel and Hardy.

SIDE NOTE 2: In 1937, while at Columbia Picture, Charley Chase filmed a remake of the movie with sound, and retitled it, “The Wrong Miss Wright.”

SIDE NOTE 3: Charley Chase directed a number of Three Stooges movies during his time with Columbia Pictures, most of which were for Hal Roach.

On 18 January 1907, the Spokane Press newspaper of Washington state, published a short article titled, “Parker Says He Is Insane.” Prize fighter, William Parker aka Denver “Kid” Parker proclaimed to a group of people the morning this edition was published that everyone was insane, and perfect sanity could only be had after death. The article stated in part:

One often hears the remark, “Kid Parker is crazy.” The kid this morning pleaded guilty to being crazy but “crazy like a fox.” The kid has some ideas that one seldom finds in the average prize fighter.

Just a few months later, the New York Sun newspaper was publishing “Knockerino Points Out A Few Flaws.” In the 9 June 1907 edition, the fictional story continued with Mr. Knockerino entering the dining car of an early train for Philadelphia and spied an acquaintance having breakfast alone at a table. He sat down without being invited and began talking. His monologue included this tidbit.

“I’ll just sit in for a beaker of Java, and let you tell me all you know, old pallie. Ha! Yu’re there with the tank’s breakfast, eh? Grapefruit to take up the lost motion and a salt mackerel to give the machinery a tune up, hey? I guess that isn’t the souse’s morning meal or nothing! What? That’s what you have every morning whether you’ve been out the night before or not? Behave that cutting up! Didn’t I see you at 2 o’clock this morning licking up the beads of the hiss fluids like as if somebody’d tipped you off that they were going to stop making it and you wanted to get yours down all at once before the shutdown? I’m as crazy as a fox, hey?”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of crazy like a fox or crazy as a fox, so the expression is from around 1900.

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Have Kittens

Posted by Admin on January 3, 2014

If you’ve wondered what the expression have kittens means, it means to be very worried, upset, or angry about something. It’s a somewhat dramatic way of expressing that worry, upset or anger, but it clearly underscores the degree to which a person is worried, upset, or angry. To have kittens is the same thing as to have a cow or to have a [hairy] canary, and the expression, while rarely heard, is known in every English speaking country around the world.

In the UK, the Independent newspaper of September 6, 2013 published an article entitled, “Who Profits From The Economic Recovery Decides Party Fortunes?” The article by Andrew Grice addressed the challenge both political parties have in convincing low income workers that their party is a friend to low income workers. The subject of the recommendations made by the Down Street Policy Unit have some alarmed to the point where the article stated:

The Treasury, which is said to be “having kittens” about Number 10’s work, will veto the “profits plan” as “unworkable and anti-aspiration.”  Business groups are nervous too. They want the focus to be on improving skills and are worried that a higher wages floor would cost jobs.

Dan Stannett’s book “Daniel and the Lion’s Den: The True Story Of An Eight-Hour Inmate” published in 2007 also made use of the idiom.   The story was based on the author’s experiences with the prison system in April 1976 in a Virginia prison that had fewer than 10,000 inmates in it. Not to be mistaken for one on the wrong side of the law, it must be noted that Dan Stannett spent 25 years in law enforcement. In his book, the following passage uses the idiom having kittens.

While Jim was being warm and happy waiting on his relief, he would be relieved early. The shift sergeant with a Kojak haircut came out and was having kittens while Jim England was giving the pissed off sergeant his best-looking John Wayne impression. “What the hell do you think you’re doing’?” the sergeant asked.

David Bealsey wrote a book entitled, “The Jenny: A New York Library Detective Novel” that was published in 1994. The year in which the story takes place is vague. The story states the night watchman makes $15,000 per year. We know that in New York City, a night watchman drew a salary of slightly overly $1,000 per year in 1884 based on newspaper accounts, and we know that a century later, in New York City, a night watchman drew a salary of just over $15,000 per year in 1985.  So it would seem that the story takes place in the latter half of the 20th century. In the story, the author wrote:

“Let’s go to your place,” I said as we got in.
Arbie gave her address to the driver.
“Storey saw me,” I gasped between breaths.
“I was having kittens,” Arbie said. “You were so long!”
“I heard Storey on the phone, “I explained. “After he left, the same guy called again. I picked up the receiver so he knew someone was there. He must have got in touch with Storey about it. But look!” I flicked on the light in the back of the cab. “We’ve got New’s stamps.”

In 1960, the P. G. Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) book “Jeeves in the Offing” (which was also known as “How Right You Are, Jeeves”) was first published in the United States on 4 April 1960 by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, and subsequently, in the United Kingdom on 12 August 1960 by Herbert Jenkins, London. It was the eighth Jeeves novel, and chronicled yet another visit by Bertie Wooster to his Aunt Dahlia at Brinkley Court. The idiom appeared in Chapter VII as follows:

‘Gone?’
‘Gone.’
‘Are you sure?’
I said that sure was just what I wasn’t anything but.
‘It is not possible that you may have overlooked it?’
‘You can’t overlook a thing like that.’
He re-gurgled.
‘But this is terrible.’
‘Might be considerably better, I agree.’
‘Your uncle will be most upset.’
‘He’ll have kittens.’
‘Kittens?’
‘That’s right.’
‘Why kittens?’
‘Why not?’

Graham Seal claims that the expression goes back to at least the early 20th century. This appears to be correct as the expression is shared in Volume 5 of the “Dialect Notes” printed by the Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company of New Haven, Connecticut and published by the American Dialect Society, covering the years 1918 through to 1927. The idiom is attributed as an established idiom in 1918.

According to the BBC, particularly painful pregnancies were thought to be as a result of a witch’s curse. Instead of being with child, the woman was thought to have kittens inside her, clawing to get out. Women who believed this to be true and who were experiencing pain over the course of their pregnancy would become hysterical at the thought that they and their babies had been cursed by a witch.

In fact, there are records dating back to 1654 that show that a woman appealed to a Scottish court for permission to abort. Her reason for making the request was because she had ‘cats in her bellie.’ In fact, in the 1960s, it was reported that people in parts of the highlands of Banffshire dreaded cats for that very reason.

That being said, have kittens is difficult to find in newspapers, magazines and books with the trail going cold right before the turn of the century, in the late 1890s. Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to about 1900s.

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Drop A Brick

Posted by Admin on January 21, 2013

If you drop a brick, you can rest assured that you’ve either made a tactless remark, or announced shocking — perhaps even startling — news to those around you. Yes, you’ve committed a social gaffe and perhaps been indiscreet as well in the process.

When David Moore wrote an article about David James for The Mirror newspaper in London (England) in 2001 in an article entitled, “Football: I’ll play until I’m 40.. and win 70 England Caps Says David James” he included this in his story:

“I know they call me “Calamity James” whenever I drop a brick. It has ceased to worry me. And besides, I’m probably the person who put that tag into the minds of the journalists who first wrote it. The old Doris Day musical western “Calamity Jane” has always been a favourite of mine.

The Glasgow Herald in Scotland published an article on June 27, 1968 that dealt with civil servants and the behaviour expected of civil servants. In an article entitled, “Plan For Big Overhaul Of Civil Service: Department To Take Over Management By Treasury” the article dealt with the Fulton Committee that had been appointed 18 months earlier to examine the Civil Service, and to make recommendations therein. In the article, the following was reported:

The convention of anonymity of civil servants should be modified, and civil servants as professional administrators should be allowed to go further in explaining what their departments were doing.

It would be unrealistic to think that a civil servant would not sometimes drop a brick and embarrass his Minister, but this should be faced.

On September 19, 1959, the Meriden Record in Meriden-Wallingford (CT) reported on Nikita Khrushchev’s upcoming visit to the U.S. The main focus of the visit was to build up the image of being a sensible, practical man with friendly intentions towards Americans. The article was entitled, “Khrush Driving Hard To Persuade Americans He Is Not A Monster.” Midway through the article, journalist Relman Morin wrote:

There is something ingratiatingly human about him when he expresses the hope that he won’t “drop a brick” during all the talking he will do in the United States — and that Americans will excuse him if he does.

The Glasgow Herald used the expression 15 years before that, in an article entitled, “Key States In U.S. Election: Dewey’s Prospects In The East” published on October 6, 1944. The situation faced by New York Governor Dewey was explained thusly:

There is no doubt that Governor Dewey will come down to the Bronx with a great majority collected up-State, and that it will take a great deal of energy to accumulate an adequate majority in New York City to offset this advantage.

It is here that the chance of accidents makes the most confident commentator pause. The Republican candidate or the President, or more likely a rash supporter of one or the other, may drop a brick of the first magnitude alienating Jews or Irish or Italians or waiters or the ornaments in café society.

It would seem that the Glasgow Herald has an affinity for the expression. It appeared in a news article entitled, “Agricultural Co-operation: Imperial Conference In Glasgow” published in the July 20, 1938 edition of the newspaper. It read in part:

Mr. William Adair, Glasgow, said that it was interesting to hear Mr. Rokach confess the danger in Palestine co-operative marketing that, in the absence of Government compulsion upon growers to join, the outsiders might gain more than the members from such organisation. The conference seemed inclined to applaud only voluntary co-operation, but, if he were permitted to drop a brick into the proceedings, he would remind them that, despite the exchange of nice sentiments between farmer co-operators and industrial co-operators, it was the latter who deliberately went out to defeat the West of Scotland Milk Pool, which 10 years ago marked the first large-scale attempt by agricultural producers of Great Britain to control their own marketing on voluntary lines.

It might be easy to assume that the expression was unique to Scotland back then, however, the expression appeared on October 20, 1929 in a New York Times article entitled, “Free State Politicians Plan Move To End Barring Of A Catholic Ruler” by M.G. Palmer. It was found on page 3 in the Editorial section and began with:

Are Free State politicians preparing to drop a brick on the toes of the British Labor Ministers? Naturally, in the centenary year of the Catholic Emancipation, a vigorous effort might be expected to remove any remaining religious disabilities.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his story “The Beautiful And Damned” first published by Scribner’s in 1922. It appeared in Book Two: Chapter I and subtitled, “The Radiant Hour.”

“Of course! Would you value your Keats letter if the signature was traced over to make it last longer? It’s just because I love the past that I want this house to look back on its glamourous moment of youth and beauty, and I want its stairs to creak as if to the footsteps of women with hoop skirts and men in boots and spurs. But they’ve made it into a blondined, rouged-up old woman of sixty. It hasn’t any right to look so prosperous. It might care enough for Lee to drop a brick now and then. How many of these–these _animals_”–she waved her hand around–“get anything from this, for all the histories and guide-books and restorations in existence? How many of them who think that, at best,appreciation is talking in undertones and walking on tiptoes would even come here if it was any trouble? I want it to smell of magnolias instead of peanuts and I want my shoes to crunch on the same gravel that Lee’s boots crunched on. There’s no beauty without poignancy and there’s no poignancy without the feeling that it’s going, men, names, books,houses–bound for dust–mortal–“

That being said, the President’s Address of the Northeast Wisconsin Teacher’s Association, given by Principal Charles C. Parlin in Oshkosh (WI) on February 4, 1910 entitled “The Twentieth Century High School” included this comment:

In the old school, discipline was a contest of wits, between the shrewd boys and the principal. It furnished a type of training not altogether useless to the boy and often very valuable to the teacher. I suppose many a man that has left the school rostrum to win distinction in politics or business could justly attribute his success to that training. But the school is now too big, the interests are too many, for the principal to spare time for any such enlivening pastime. The boy who is inclined to drop a brick-bat into the complicated machinery of a modern high school is too dangerous to be tolerated. That boy must either learn quickly to control his inclinations or else seek a smaller and a simpler organization.

Despite Principal Parlin’s use of drop a brick-bat in his Address, Idiomation was unable to trace the expression drop a brick back to a point prior to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use in his short story. However, that F. Scott Fitzgerald used the expression without italicizing it indicates that it was understood by the general public what it meant. For that reason, Idiomation dates the expression to the turn of the 20th century.

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Footloose And Fancy Free

Posted by Admin on July 21, 2011

When you hear of someone who is footloose and fancy free, it brings to mind someone who can do what he or she wants either because he or she has very few responsibilities requiring his or her attention.  Now in the past, footloose and fancy free have been used separately.  So when did the two become inseparable word buddies?

The Sunday Mercury of Birmingham, England published a news article on April 22, 2001 entitled, “A Dream Delivery For Our Del Boy.”  In the article, it stated:

Asked about why he waited so long for a child, the actor said: “I didn’t actually wait, it was thrust upon me I think.  My life has been in reverse. It wasn’t fame and it wasn’t money, but I always wanted to succeed. Because of that, I needed to be footloose and fancy-free. I needed to go where the work was. As soon as things started to get heavy with a relationship, I would be off, gone. I knew I couldn’t be responsible for a family and the silly work I was doing.”

On March 7, 1959 the Lewiston Daily Sun newspaper ran a story about actress Debbie Reynolds — Carrie Fisher’s mom — and her upcoming endeavours after her divorce from actor Eddie Fisher.  The first paragraph of the story out of New York read:

Debbie Reynolds, footloose and fancy free since her divorce from Eddie Fisher flew off to Spain Friday to make a movie.  She had arrived from Los Angeles earlier.  Asked if there was any  new romance in her life, she replied: “I should say not.”

On May 16, 1936 the Montreal Gazette ran an advertisement in their newspaper, paid for by the American Express Travel Service entitled, “How To Be Footloose And Fancy Free When Traveling.”  It spoke of escorted trips to South America and Alaska.  Around The World 104-day tours with shore excursions could be booked for just a little more than $1,000 inclusive and urged readers to send away for their booklet “It’s Easy To Plan Your Own Tour Of Europe.”

The Providence News ran an interesting news piece on January 26, 1922 entitled, “Buckled Goloshes Mean Girl’s Engaged.”  The story came out of Chicago and stated:

Engagement rings being taboo at Northwestern University, those co-eds who have plighted their troth will now make their status known through the manner in which they wear their goloshes.  Goloshes open or buckled will now tell the story hitherto conveyed by the diamond ring. 

It all came about by one young fiance pleading with his girl to please cover her ankles from public view.  Open goloshes now signify the wearer is footloose and fancy free, but woe betide the young man who attempts to warm up to a girl who wears hers buckled, for it is the unwritten law of the campus at Northwestern that men students never “pirate” another fellow’s sweetheart.

The earliest published version of the expression footloose and fancy free that Idiomation was able to find comes from the Los Angeles Times newspaper edition of August 20, 1907 in an article entitled, “Olden Hunter Of Moonshine.”  The following was written about the former owner of the Planters Hotel in Anaheim, California:

Accompanied by his family, he intends to remain in this vicinity several weeks. He says he is footloose and fancy free and as he sold the Planters Hotel a week or so ago, he feels no need to return immediately to St. Louis.

Because the expression footloose and fancy free was used with ease in the news article of 1907, it can be believed it was a common expression understood by the majority of newspaper subscribers.  To this end, the expression can easily be attributed to the early 1900s.

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Pan (Visual)

Posted by Admin on February 23, 2011

The term “panning” in visual terms means to swing from one object to another in a scene.  In still photography, panning is used to suggest fast motion, and bring out the subject from other elements in the frame.  In moving pictures or video technology, the use of a camera to scan a subject horizontally is called panning.

On March 2, 1963 the Ottawa Citizen provided camera tips to their readership in an article written by Irving Desfor entitled, “Tricks in Fast Shooting.”  The article stated in part:

In order to get sharp pictures of people in fast action, it is generally true that you must shoot at a high shutter speed.  But in photography, as in other things, rules are made to be broken … <snip> … Secondly, there’s the trick of shooting while panning the camera, that is, of following the moving subject in a smooth, steady arc.  Fortunately for camera fans, a great many actions reach a high point or peak, stop, then accelerate again at high speed.

On January 21, 1923, the New York Times published an article entitled “Screen Without A Double” that discussed the life of a motion picture actor.

No one would contend that the motion picture actor’s lot is always a happy one.  He has to take chances sometimes — or his double does — and he, or his double, really performs some of the hazardous stunts you see on the screen.  But this does not alter the fact that many of the movie’s best thrills are faked … <snip> … Out on the end of a wing with one hand on the pan crank, the other on the camera crank, and with a rope which, tied around his ankle. Pan up to the top wing strut. You may have seen what was the kick, but you are mistaken. Have you ever seen a seaplane execute a landing at a seventy-mile-an-hour clip?

Back on March 16, 1913 the New York Times — in an article entitled “Plans For The Travel Show: Panoramic Views of Vacation Spots Arranged at Grand Central Palace” — had this to say about photographs to be displayed at the travel show:

All the inviting vacation spots on this continent will be shown in panoramic views at the Grand Central Palace when the Travel and Vacation Show opens there on Thursday, and all those who do not intend to spend their allotted two, three, four, five, or six weeks in a tour of Manhattan’s roof gardens are summoned to see what the rest of America has to offer.

A Toledo Bee article dated May 31, 1900 reporting on art souvenirs of the Paris Fair available for purchase at the newspaper’s office, had this to say about the souvenirs:

The Bee has completed arrangements for the publication of “The Art Souvenir of the Paris Exposition and its Famous Paintings,” consisting of a magnificent collection of photographic views of the most noteworthy features of the International Exposition of 1900 … <snip> … These superb views will embrace a panoramic presentation of the international fair, and are intended to take the place of a trip to the Paris exposition, its beautiful buildings, rare paintings, interesting objects of art, wonderful exhibits and choicest treasures.

The term panning in this sense of the word is derived from panorama, which was originally coined in 1787 by Robert Barker for the 18th century machine that unrolled or unfolded a long horizontal painting to give the impression the scene was passing by.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Carry Coals To Newcastle

Posted by Admin on February 4, 2011

If you carry coals to Newcastle, what you’re doing is redundant and unnecessary. So why would someone want to carry coals to Newcastle, figuratively or literally? No one knows for sure but there are more than a few examples of it happening.

The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette of September 27, 1900 where it was reported that the Klondike wanted ice and was paying exorbitant prices for it in during the summer months.

[Consul J.C. McCook] says there has been an abundance of wild blueberries, currants, raspberries and cranberries this summer. Cattle herders on the hills and a few Indians gather the berries and bring them to Dawson, receiving from $1 to $1.50 a quart. The idea of building an ice plant in Dawson seems like “carrying coals to Newcastle.” The lack of ice in summer, however, has been seriously felt, and a contract has been given fo an ice machine, to be placed in a cold storage warehouse. The cost of ice this summer has been 5 cents a pound, or at a rate of $100 per ton.

In the Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon, the following was reported:

It was not, therefore, without surprize, that at my last visit to the works in the year 1830, I perceived several score of large casks of Stourbridge fire clay in the yard, which had been brought over from England at considerable expense. It seemed to be verifying the proverb of carrying coals to Newcastle. I was informed, however, in London, that as the directors had determined to adhere strictly to Mr. Twigg’s suggestions, and to leave the responsibility of success upon him, so, in such a comparatively trivial matter as bringing fire clay from Stourbridge, it was judged more advisable to incur that expense, and to let Mr. Twigg be thoroughly satisfied, as to the excellence and durability of his materials, than to leave any excuse for failure.

In Thomas Fuller’s book, “The History of the Worthies of England” which was published in 1661, Fuller wrote:

To carry Coals to Newcastle, that is to do what was done before; or to busy one’s self in a needless imployment.

And in 1606, Thomas Heywood wrote ‘If you know not me, you know no bodie: or, the troubles of Queene Elizabeth‘ in which coals and Newcastle are referenced in this way:

 As common as coales from Newcastle.

Now it’s a fact that people knew from the time King Henry III granted Newcastleupon-Tyne a charter for the digging of coals — making it the first coal port in the world — in 1239, that carrying coals to Newcastle was a pointless task. And being able to read or write didn’t determine whether you were smart enough to know that carrying coals to Newcastle was a pointless task. People from all social classes were well aware that it made no sense to carry coals to Newcastle.

It’s also a fact that in 1344, Edward III made a decree that all coal from the Durham and Gateshead side of the Tyne was required to pass through Newcastle for transport, further cementing the concept that it was pointless to carry coals to Newcastle.

Despite numerous claims — in various publications and from reputable online sources — that the first recorded instance of the contextualized saying appears in 1538 in England, Idiomation was unable to locate the exact written passage.

However, it would make sense that it would appear in print sometime around 1538 for one  reason in particular. In 1530, a Royal Act restricted all shipments of coal from Tyneside to Newcastle Quayside, giving a monopoly in the coal trade to a cartel of Newcastle burgesses known as the Hostmen. This monopoly, which lasted for a considerable time, helped Newcastle prosper.  With a monopoly on coal in Newcastle, one can easily see the probability of the phrase being an off-shoot from that action.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

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Broad In The Beam

Posted by Admin on September 27, 2010

This phrase “broad in the beam” is actually a nautical term beam that describes the widest point of a ship.   It originated in the 17th century and the word.

Back in the day, part-owner Captain Christopher Jones called the Mayflower a square-rigged brigantine, double-decked, broad in the beam, with upper works rising high in the stern.

For nearly 300 years, the phrase “broad in the beam” referred to a ship.  However, as the 20th century came about, the phrase referred to a woman’s hips.

The New York Times published an article by Henry Norman on December 30, 1900 entitled “The Beauty of Georgian Women.”  In his article, he wrote:

When they become matrons, which is at an early age, they are stout and broad , in the beam for beauty, but in their youth, I should see from glimpses at windows and passIng faces, there may well be extraordinary loveliness among them — the loveliness of perfectly chiseled features …

By 1939, the phrase “broad in the beam” was established with its negative connotation.  On Tuesday, January 24, 1939 an article entitled “Designing Women:  How Can I Look My Best?” published in The Pittsburgh Press, the journalist reviewed a book by Margaretta Byers and Consuela Kamholz on the subject.  The journalist wrote:

Pleats are no panacea although they do help the thigh.  Because they tend to make you look broad in the beam. As for culottes, it is a popular fallacy to suppose that they are as becoming as skirts.  They aren’t and they never will be. 

A divided skirt lets in fullness at the front and back rather than over the hips.  So culottes, like pleated shorts, don’t do much for the derriere.

It continued to be an insult when, on June 23, 1948  Robert C. Ruark wrote in Philadelphia’s The Evening Independent newspaper:

It may be my dewy innocence speaking but there seems to be more lady delegates than men delegates.  Back in the days of Mark Hanna, I understand, this was not so, but in this fevered clambake, you are drenched in the languorous scent of toujours lasqueeze and a fine film of powder hangs in the air.  And for some odd reason, all the distaff delegates seem to be awful broad in the beam.  This is probably a symbol of the times.

While the expression has fallen out of favour in nautical circles, it lives on in the current day negative description of women’s hips.

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Bats In The Belfry

Posted by Admin on September 8, 2010

In 1995, HersheyPark located in Hershey, PA opened up a kissing booth labeled “Bats In The Belfry.”  While it may seem an odd name for an amusement park exhibit or ride that’s just 15 years old, the phrase “bats in the belfry” itself is just a bit older and believe it or not, it doesn’t come from across the pond either.

All the early citations are from American authors and date from the start of the 20th century. For example,  the Ohio newspaper the  Newark Daily Advocate reported this in October 1900:

To his hundreds of friends and acquaintances in Newark, these purile [sic] and senseless attacks on Hon. John W. Cassingham are akin to the vaporings of the fellow with a large flock of bats in his belfry.”

American author George W. Peck, in his Peck’s Uncle Ike and the Red-Headed Boy, circa 190 wrote:

They all thought a crazy man with bats in his belfry had got loose.”

American writer Ambrose Bierce,wrote a piece for Cosmopolitan Magazine in July 1907 that stated:

He was especially charmed with the phrase ‘bats in the belfry‘, and would indubitably substitute it for ‘possessed of a devil’, the Scriptural diagnosis of insanity.”

So if you haven’t been able to find the phrase “bats in the belfry” in any literature from the 19th century and earlier, don’t let it drive you batty.  It’s a relatively new addition to the English language.

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