Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1910’

Hot Seat

Posted by Admin on April 17, 2021

There are conflicting versions of where the idiom “in the hot seat” or “on the hot seat” originated although all versions point to the idiom meaning the person in or on the hot seat is faced with harsh criticism and judgement.

Some say the expression alludes to the electric chair and dates back to the 1930s. Others say the expression was coined by Harpo Marx in the 1930s.

Some say the electric chair meaning is American English and others say the precarious, difficult, dangerous position meaning is British English.

Is it possible both meanings are correct? Is it possible that the idiom did come from the 1930s and as such can be attributed to more than one source of origin?

The Australian Women’s Weekly newspaper ran an article in the 14 January 1959 edition that was written by Ross Campbell and titled, ‘The Hot Seat.” The article was a hilarious piece about a situation — real or imagined — that happened between Ross Campbell and his wife. The many ways in which how a man sits and the direct correlation to that man’s success in life outlined how Ross Campbell wound up in the hot seat, and how those young men who lounge about are sitting pretty even though an article Ross Campbell’s wife read said they soon would be.

A decade earlier, the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane (Australia) reported on 23 August 1949 that Harold Merchant, 35, sat tight in the cabin of his 20-ton trailer the day before and cheated death by electrocution for the third time. A 25-tone power shovel hit a tramway crosswire resulting in 600 volts of electricity running through Harold Merchant, and his passenger, Frank Gorry. This was thanks in no small measure to the fifteen rubber tires on the trailer Merchant was pulling. The headline read:

Tyres saved him from ‘hot seat

There’s no doubt that the hot seat isn’t the place you really want to find yourself even when you come out of the situation on the plus side!

It’s a fact that in the 1930s, celebrities who visited William Randolph Hearst at his mansion in San Simeon would sometimes wear out his or her welcome, and as that welcome began to wear out, that guest was placed further and further away from their host, William Randolph Hearst who was only interested in having the most current and influential guests at the head of the table. The last seat was the one closest to the large fireplace in the room and, as you can imagine, that made the seat very hot indeed.

Supposedly Harpo Marx (23 November 1888 – 28 September 1964) found himself at the bottom of the guest list thereby earning himself the ‘hot seat‘ position for the evening. He knew that meant he was on the way out in terms of being a welcome guest. Supposedly, when he found himself in the hot seat, he immediately coined the phrase.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: It’s alleged that his fall from grace with William Randolph Hearst had to do with Harpo sneaking down into the vault at the mansion one cold, snowy night, and getting the stored mink coats out of storage so he could dress the statues in the gardens in fur … to keep them warm. The guests awoke to the prank and enjoyed it immensely. William Randolph Hearst did not enjoy the prank at all. Up until that point, Harpo had been a frequent weekend guest.

What is known is that Harpo Marx did, indeed, visit the Hearst mansion in the 1930s. Hearst had an autograph book always at the ready and insisted that all Hearst visitors sign it upon arrival. Alongside Harp Marx’s signature was a quick caricature of Harpo with a harp that was drawn by Harpo.

What that means is that both possibilities are still in play based on what Idiomation uncovered, so Idiomation came at the idiom from another direction.

The first execution by electrocution (which replaced death by hanging) was in September of 1890 at Auburn Prison in Auburn (New York) when the state tried to make good on the death sentence that had been handed to American vegetable peddler and murderer William Kemmler (9 May 1860 – 6 August 1890) by the Courts.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: George Westinghouse, one of the leading developers of electrical power, was very vocal in his objection to having electrical power used in this manner. It took until 1899 for the design of the electric chair to be sufficiently improved that death by electrocution became the preferred method of execution in most States in the U.S.

In the Saturday Evening Post edition published on 18 August 1925, a young boy who had murdered his grandmother just so he could steal her money found himself arrested, charged, and found guilty of her murder. The following was reported:

In a town in Pennsylvania, on May 18, 1925, a judge sentenced a boy fifteen years old to the electric chair. The boy twirled his hat, had nothing to say, remained in a self-satisfied calm. It was the judge whose voice shook. He was sorry that the law gave him no tether of leniency! A few minutes afterwards the boy was in his cell playing jazz on a phonograph. A newspaper reporter said he heard the lad announce that he was not afraid to die “in the hot seat,” and that anyway, “they won’t get me; I’ve got friends who will save me.”

This definitively places the electric chair reference to at least 1925 (and possibly earlier) in America, a few years before Harpo Marx is alleged to have coined the phrase at William Randolph Hearst’s mansion. However, because the idiom is in quotation marks, we also know it wasn’t a well-known phrase in 1925.

That being said, back in the day, intensive police interrogations under bright lights was often used as a technique to break suspects and make them talk. The manual, “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions” recommends interrogations take place in a small, soundproof room with nothing on the walls, one small desk, two chairs for detectives to sit in if they choose to take a seat, and a third chair (with no arm rests and as uncomfortable as possible) where the suspect will sit for the duration of the interrogation.

Up until 1937, as long as the suspect signed a waiver stating the confession was given voluntarily, confessions could be obtained by way of “third degree” techniques which included deprivation of food and/or water and/or sleep, bright lights, physical discomfort, long isolation, and physical abuse (as long as no marks from said abuse could be seen on the suspect’s body). That changed in 1937 when it was determined by the Courts that such confessions were inadmissible.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Seating a suspect in an uncomfortable chair in a small room temperature (or lower) room (with a two-way mirror to allow for outside observation of the interrogation) is still allowed. While the two-way mirror is meant to provide transparency with regards to how the interrogation is conducted, it has been found to add anxiety and stress for the suspect which detectives are allowed to exploit within reason. Interrogators are also allowed to use lying, trickery, and other types of non-coercive methods to secure a confession from a suspect.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: In 1937, putting suspects through the third degree in New York became a criminal offense after the use of third degree tactics was deemed illegal in that state. From 1930 through to 1937, appellate courts reversed convictions obtained through various forms of third degree where the result of the interrogation led to a confession being submitted as evidence.

Most people tend to use the words interview and interrogation interchangeably when speaking about police investigations. A police interview is used to gather information and objective facts by asking open-ended questions that allow interviewees to supply evidence. A police interrogation is used to extract a confession when police have sufficient evidence (thanks to the police interviews) to connect the suspect to the crime or crimes about which they are interviewing the suspect.

Keep in mind that the first police department in America was established in New York City in 1845 with New Orleans and Cincinatti (1852), Boston and Philadelphia (1854) Chicago and Milwaukee (1855) and Baltimore and Newark (1857) following suit. The primary focus was to prevent crime and disorder, and there were no detectives. That means that before these police departments were established, there were no hot seats courtesy of law enforcement.

While all of that is, without a doubt, very interesting, that still left Idiomation with a period between 1899 and 1925 when being in the hot seat or on the hot seat was an expression known to a segment of society that might or might not tie the idiom directly to the electric chair. The doubt is there due in no small part to a New York City detective.

In New York City, Inspector Thomas Brynes (15 June 1842 – 07 May 1910) headed up the detective bureau from 1880 to 1895, at which time he was forced to resign. He coined the phrase “giving the third degree” to describe his interrogation techniques for getting suspects to confess to crimes they were suspected of having committed. The first degree was the officer who arrested the suspect. The second degree was investigating the facts. The third degree was the interrogation.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: Inspector Brynes was also responsible for coining and popularizing the expression rogues’ gallery which was a photo gallery of criminals with detailed information on the crimes they had committed.

This is where the interrogation hot seat and the electric chair hot seat seem to meet up when it comes to language, which further narrows the period for the idiom’s first appearance to somewhere during the 1890s and early 1900s.

Try as Idiomation might though, there are segments of this search that elude Idiomation. The research will continue but for now, while the hot seat is pegged to sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s, the context under which the expression was first used continues to elude us … much in the same way a brilliant criminal mastermind tends to elude law enforcement until he or she is caught and brought to justice.

In other words, Idiomation remains on the case.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Tickled Pink

Posted by Admin on June 19, 2013

If you’ve ever been tickled pink, you know that at the time you were very pleased or entertained by what you were experiencing or what had happened.  But why are people tickled pink and not tickled blue or purple or even green? It’s because when a person is tickled, they laugh and their complexion takes on a pink to reddish color.

The Telegram and Gazette newspaper of Worcester (MA) published an article on October 15, 2009 entitled “Pink Fundraiser Planned.”  It was the 25th anniversary of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Pink Ribbon Committee at Tri-River Family Health Center were preparing for their annual fundraiser.  The article stated in part:

The Pink Ribbon Committee and the Uxbridge High School Student Council have been painting the town pink in preparation for the Tickled Pink fundraiser at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Whitin Middle School, 120 Granite St.

On January 26, 1997 the Sunday Mail newspaper of Glasgow in Scotland published an article about John McGuinness who, up until that point, had been Scotland’s biggest lottery winner.  The story was entitled, “Lotto John Baby Bonus” and talked about how, on the eve of the multimillionaire’s win a year previous, he found out he and his live-in girlfriend were expecting a wee bundle of joy.  The article quote a family insider as saying:

“John is tickled pink about this. But he doesn’t want to go overboard about it in case the news upsets his daughter. He is a great guy and he’ll make a brilliant dad again.”

On February 8, 1963 the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix carried a story out of Washington that talked about a recent press conference given by then President John F. Kennedy.  There was talk about the Anglo-American Polaris agreement, the North Atlantic Alliance, and other important matters of the day.  The opening paragraph to the story entitled, “No Nuclear Questions So Advisors Tickled Pink” began with this paragraph:

A White House informant described President Kennedy’s advisers [sic] as being “tickled pink” that the president was asked no questions Thursday on the Canada-U.S. nuclear controversy.

On February 20, 1922, United Press Staff Correspondent Lawrence Martin covered the contest for the Republican senatorial nomination in Iowa.  The nominees were hoping to slip into Senator Kenyon’s seat which he was vacating later that week.  The article entitled, “Three Are After Kenyon’s Place” was published in the Berkeley Daily Gazette among other newspapers and stated the following:

Reports that Senator Kenyon was not greatly pleased over the appointment of C.A. Rawson as his success were set at rest today when Kenyon said:  “Please about Rawson? Tickled pink.  Why, Charley was my roommate in college, my best man at my wedding, and the only campaign manager I ever had.”

Twelve years before that, the Daily Illinois State Journal of April 22, 1910 reported on  25-year-old baseball pitcher, Grover Cleveland Lowdermilk [Laudermilk] who broke into the big leagues on July 3, 1909 when he was picked up by the St. Louis cardinals.  The article was entitled, “Lauder Tickled At Change” and the author wrote:

Grover Laudermilk was tickled pink over Kinsella’s move in buying him from St. Louis.

That the term tickled pink should be used so easily in a news story quote in 1910 indicates that it was a term understood by the public.  This implies that it was in use the generation prior to this news article, pinning it to some time in the late 1800s.  According to the Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang, they also believe that this expression dates back to the late 19th century.

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Everything’s Just Peachy

Posted by Admin on March 29, 2011

In the movie, Harvey, Dr. Sanderson has been sacked for having Veta locked up in the sanitarium, Chumley’s Rest, rather than her brother, Elwood.  At this point, the director of Chumley’s Rest is out looking for Elwood and the following exchange occurs between Wilson, an attendant at Chumley’s Rest, Dr. Sanderson and Kelly, his nurse.

WILSON – Hey, any of the patients been actin’ up, Kelly?

KELLY – Everything’s just peachy.

WILSON – That’s good – when are you takin’ off, Doc?

SANDERSON – Right now – I was just waiting for Dr. Chumley to get back.

WILSON – Hey, wait a second.  Didn’t Dr. Chumley come back here with that psycho?

More recently, sportinglife.com published an online story on January 19, 2011 about Michael Owen on defending his Real Madrid record.  He did this by helping Wanderley Luxemburgo’s men to a 4-2 defeat of Barcelona at the Bernabeu.  The headline read:

Everything Is Peachy For Goal Scorer Owen

Back on April 12, 1984 the Los Angeles Times reported on the 10-day-old strike by 3 unions against 32 major hotels and casinos in Las Vegas.  The MGM Grand Hotel‘s spokesman, Bill Bray is quoted as saying, “We’re not saying everything is peachy. Everything is not peachy.” He went on to say that MGM Grand Hotel had been handing out a letter to guests saying that because of the current labor dispute, the MGM Grand Hotel was  temporarily unable to provide guests with the level of service for which the MGM Grand Hotel was known.

Back on September 27, 1948 the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported on radio personality, Jim Hawthorne and a small town known in California known as Hawthorne situated not far from Hollywood. 

City fathers of the little nearby town of Hawthorne, Calif., found themselves with all the headaches of a radio station, none of the profits and a peeve on for a screwball disk jockey also named HawthorneThe problem lay in the fact that Jim Hawthorne opened up his half-hour show with, “This is Hawthorne.” 

The list of complaints against Jim Hawthorne were numerous and included the following:

He’s even invented a new language built around the key-word “Hogan.”  He’ll say:  “I was driving my Hoganmobile around Pasa-hogan so I stopped at a drive-a-Hogan for a Hoganburger.”

His adjectives range from “keen” to “peachy keen” to “oh so peachy keen.”

The kids on his “net-to-net coastwork” eat it up.  So, apparently, do the natives of Hawthorne who think their home town (pop. 16,000) has suddenly blossomed out with a local radio station.

The sad truth of the matter was that the town of Hawthorne didn’t have a radio station.  But that didn’t deter Hawthorne from hiring a skywriter to splash “Tune in to Hawthorne’s show” across the sky which led to twice as many letters piling up in the town of Hawthorne, begging to know how businesses could buy a radio spot on Hawthorne’s radio station.  The end result?

Disc-jockey Hawthorne, whose brainstorm upped his salary from $85 a week on a tiny station to four-figures with ABC network, thinks the whole thing is “peachy keen.”  Hawthorne city officials have another word for it.

The Pittsburgh Press reported on a baseball game back on July 28, 1910.  It recounted the story that “faith which keeps the horizon tinted with the amethyst and gold of romance, which fills the fields with fairy rings, which peoples the trees with dryads and the fountain with nymphs is, in this age of iron and steel and oil, a hard thing.”  The focus of the story was on Outfielder Anderson of the Deep Haven, Michigan baseball team and the headline read:

Outfielder Anderson’s Peachy Catch

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of peachy, however, the fact that it was used in a headline with the expectation that readers of the Pittsburg Press would understand what was meant by the word peachy indicates that it was already part of the vernacular at the time and therefore, dates back to at least 1900.

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Many Words Will Not Fill A Bushel

Posted by Admin on February 15, 2011

In the June 9, 1910 edition of the Indianapolis News, it was reported that Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” was responsible for the expression, “many words will not fill a bushel.”  The story read in part:

Here are some of the maxims, taken from the Pennsylvania almanac for 1758, of which, Benjamin Franklin, under the pseudonym of Richard Sanders, was editor and publisher.

Many words will not help a bushel.  God helps those who help themselves.  The used key is always bright.  The sleeping fox catches no poultry.

Knowing that it the saying is found in the 1758 edition of the Poor Richard’s Almanac and knowing that Benjamin Franklin included a number of established sayings, it’s no surprise that this saying dates back at least to the previous generation.

In 1721, Nathan Bailey’s book “Divers Proverbs” gives this definition for the saying:

This Proverb is a severe Taunt upon much Talking: Against great Promisers of doing what they never intend to perform; a Reflection upon those persons, who, so they can but be Misers of their own Pockets and Service, will be down-right Prodigals of fair Words; but they, according to another Proverb, butter no Parsnips; and so, Re opitulandum, non verbis, say the Latins.

The expression “many words will not fill a bushel” can be found in the book, “The Adventures of Don Quijote” written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in 1604. The original title printed as “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha” and has been a literary favourite for centuries now.  In the chapter entitled, “The Adventure With The Sheep Story” the following passage is found:

“Friend Sancho, learn of me,” he said. “All these storms are only the signs of calmer days. Better success will soon follow. Neither good luck nor bad luck will last always.”

“At any rate,” interrupted Sancho, “many words will not fill a bushel. I think you would make a better preacher than knight-errant.”

“Knights-errant,” answered Don Quixote, “ought to know everything. Some of them have been as good preachers as any who preach in the churches.”

“Very well,” said Sancho. “You may have it as you will. But let us leave this unlucky place and seek lodgings where we may rest and have a bite of wholesome food.”

The original expression in Spanish is “Vorba goalã nu umple sacul.”  The French version of this proverb is “Autant en emporte le vent.”

And when all is said and done, it’s in Proverbs 10:19 in the Christian Bible that yields:

In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.

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Strong As An Ox

Posted by Admin on February 8, 2011

Based on the concept that an ox is a very strong animal, the cliché “strong as an ox” is well-known but not used as often as one would think.

It certainly packs a certain punch when used, such as in the article by journalist Paul Wiseman published in USA Today on December 28, 2009 where the headline read “Texas’ banks are strong as an ox.”

The cliché has been a favourite of some established writers, whether we’re talking novels or cartoon scripts. In fact, in 1946 when Foghorn Leghorn burst on the animated scene, he was oftentimes heard uttering characteristic catch-phrases such as “the gal reminds me of the highway between Forth Worth and Dallas — no curves” and “that boy’s as strong as an ox, and just about as smart.”

In Chapter 9 (How The Wogglebug Taught Athletics) of “The Emerald City of Oz” written by L. Frank Baum and published in 1910, Baum wrote:

“It’s a fine thing,” declared Aunt Em, admiringly. “If we’d had it in Kansas I guess the man who held a mortgage on the farm wouldn’t have turned us out.”

“Then I’m glad we didn’t have it,” returned Uncle Henry.

“I like Oz better than Kansas, even; an’ this little wood Sawhorse beats all the critters I ever saw. He don’t have to be curried, or fed, or watered, an’ he’s strong as an ox. Can he talk, Dorothy?”

Almost 100 years before that, James Fenimore Cooper wrote “Imagination and Heart” published in 1823 where readers find:

“I guess he is–he’s as strong as an ox, and active as a cat,” said the other, determined he should pass.

“Well, then,” said the aunt, in her satisfied way, “let every thing be ready for us in Albany by next Tuesday. We shall leave home on Monday.”

The cliché goes back for centuries, all the way back to Psalm 92 of the Christian Bible and translates as follows:

You have made me as strong as a wild ox; you have blessed me with happiness.

It appears this way in a number of languages including French (“Et tu me donnes la force du buffle; Je suis arrosé avec une huile fraîche”), Spanish (“Pero tú has exaltado mi poder como el del búfalo; he sido ungido con aceite fresco“) and Italian (“Ma tu mi dài la forza del bufalo; io son unto d’olio fresco”).

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The Third Degree

Posted by Admin on August 26, 2010

Everyone knows that if you’re given the third degree, that you’re under “intense interrogation by police” or some other authority figure.

The police reference has been around since 1900, and is a reference to the Third Degree of master mason in Freemasonry dating back to changes made in 1721, four years after the first Grand Lodge of Freemasonry was founded in London, England.  The third degree ceremony involved an interrogation ceremony before the degree was conferred upon the Freemason. 

In American, the third degree defined the seriousness of a particular type of crime and is recorded as early as 1865.  In 1910, Richard H. Sylvester,  Chief of Police for Washington, DC divided police procedures into the arrest as the first degree, transportation to jail as the second degree, and interrogation as the third degree.    

And in 1931 the Wickersham Commission found that use of the third degree was widespread in the United States and was misused at times to extract confessions from suspects.

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