Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Posts Tagged ‘1920s’

Cute As A Button

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 6, 2015

Children are said to be cute as a button although every once in a while someone might refer to a young woman in this way. What it means is that the person who’s said to be cute as a button is charming and attractive while implying the person is small or young, like a child is.

On March 30, 2014, snlgamers.com published an article from writer, David Graham that discussed Nintendo’s history. The article was titled, “Hanafuda: Nintendo’s Past” and gave a detailed accounting of where Nintendo began and how it became what it is a hundred years later. Along the way, the writer included this passage.

We think of Nintendo as the wholesome video game company. Mario and Kirby are as cute as a button and the company in general feels squeaky clean, especially compared to other industry titans.

Back on October 30, 1995, journalist Tony Kronheiser’s story, “Those 15 Minutes Of Fame Will Ruin The Kid” about 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier from Old Tappan in Bergen County (New Jersey) hit the newsstands. It’s not that Tony wasn’t aware that his comments might not be appreciated by some, however, as a journalist, he felt compelled to write the story nonetheless.

The boy in question had leaned over the right field railing at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the American League Championship at the bottom of the 8th inning with one out and the Orioles leading 4 to 3. He stretched his baseball gloved hand out over Tony Tarasco, and gave the New York Yankees a home run in the process.

The journalist knew that his comments would be unpopular with a segment of the population but that didn’t stop him from writing about the situation as it was. And he predicted that some of his detractors might even think this of him:

Tony, this is the lowest you’ve ever sunk. He’s a 12-year-old boy, and he’s cute as a button. So what if he hurt the Orioles? Stop pandering to the Washington audience. All the kid did was try to catch a fly ball. You’d have done the same thing yourself.

As it was, the Baltimore Orioles lost the pennant that year, and over the years, Jeffrey Maier went on to play high school and college baseball, and then worked for minor-leagues baseball teams. And the journalist was right: Jeffrey Maier never escaped from being forever thought of as The Kid.

In the Deseret News edition of April 16, 1954 stores were in full swing with spring fashions and nothing said cute as a button for a little girl than a strappy little patent leather number as seen in this newspaper advertisement.

Cute As A Button_1954
In the book, “The Best Plays of 1938 – 39” edited by Burns Mantle, the idiom appeared in “Kiss The Boys Good-Bye.” It was a comedy in three acts, written by American author (and later U.S. Ambassador) Clare Boothe  (10 March 1903 – 9 October 1987) and later known as Clare Boothe Luce after marrying Henry “Harry” Luce (3 April 1898 – 28 February 1967), the founder of Time and Fortune magazines.

BREED
The Old South, the last illusion of the New North —

CINDY LOU
Lift me down (TOP lifts her down.)

BREED
… destroy that — and comes the Revolution!

CINDY LOU
I declare you’re strong …

BREED
Personally, I think she’s cute as a button

CINDY LOU
Why, you damn Yankee pole-cat! Here I come!

The idiom as we know it is actually an abbreviated version of cute as a button quail. For those who aren’t familiar with button quail, they’re tiny, extra-fluffy, docile members of the quail family. They have an extensive vocabulary with multiple chirps and coos that are understood by other button quail, and yet, their chirps and coos are very quiet … perhaps so as not to disturb others in the vicinity.

The proper name for button quail is Chinese Blue Breasted Quail (Excalfactoria chinensis) and are native to only a few provinces in southeast China. European tourists visiting China in the late 1800s and early 1900s fell in love with them and took them back home with them to add to their persona aviaries.

American soldiers during WWI encountered them in these homes in Europe. Soon afterwards they were brought to America. However, rather than arrive with their proper name, American soldiers reported that these little birds were about the size of their uniform coat buttons when they first hatched, and that’s where the idiom began.

Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the 1920s.

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

Spit Or Go Blind

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 12, 2013

It’s not often that you hear someone say they don’t know if they should spit or go blind, but when someone uses that expression, what they’re really saying is that they’re confused about what they should say or do next.  Of course, the question begs to be asked:  Who exactly uses that kind of language and where did the expression come from in the first place?

On March 14, 2012 a new entry was published in the series discussing digital formats, sampling rates, and more on the audiophile-musings blog.  It was a condensed yet comprehensive piece that made the subject easier to understand for those who didn’t work in the music industry.  Midway through the entry, the following was written:

Musicians, producers, and audiopphiles alike are all about to “spit or go blind” when it comes to the future of digital audio. The Blu-Ray disc, with its infancy in 2002, created a storage medium exactly the same physical size as the CD but with over 7 times the storage capacity. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Almost a generation before that, Reg Silvester wrote an article for the Edmonton Journal that was published in their September 17, 1980 edition.  The article, entitled “Choreopoem Reaches Out Across All Barriers” reviewed a theater performance at the Rice Theatre.  The review began with this:

Every so often, somebody comes at you with something from a cultural or social base so strange that you don’t know whether to spit or go blind.

Now, 22 years before that (to the day) outfielder Harvey Kuenn was quoted as having said this about a home run hit by Mickey Mantle at Tiger Stadium:

I didn’t know whether to laugh, spit, or go blind!

The fact of the matter is that the expression doesn’t appear very often in newspaper articles or in literature before this, however, readers know for Harvey Kuenn to have used it so easily in 1958 that it was a recognized idiom of the day.  This implies that it goes back at least to the generation previous pegging it at sometime in the 1920s.

That being said, the word blind has its own interesting history that gives a twist to the expression spit or go blind.  The original sense of the word blind meant confused and not sightless, as attested to in the early 1600s.  In fact, Geoffrey Chaucer (1300 – 25 October 1400) wrote “The Chanouns Yemanns Tale” (part of “The Canterbury Tales“) where the following passage using the word blind (blynde) is found:

Telle how he dooth, I pray thee hertely,
Syn that he is so crafty and so sly.
Wher dwelle ye, if it to telle be?”
“In the suburbes of a toun,” quod he,
“Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde,
  
Where as thise robbours and thise theves by kynde
Holden hir pryvee fereful residence,
As they that dar nat shewen hir presence.

In this context, blind meant the alley was closed at one end (a dead end).  By 1702, blind also meant anything that obstructed one’s sight, and thus the blind alley became one that was not only closed at one end, but beset by obstacles that prevented one from seeing to the end of the alley.  Ergo, if things were blocked from sight, it left people blinded (albeit temporarily).

As a secondary side note to this first side note, it should be noted that on September 19, 1702 Jupiter occulted Neptune from the Earth (such planet occultations being extremely rare according to astronomers).  While some use the words occulted, eclipsed and transited interchangeably, there are very set differences between the three conditions.

An eclipse  happens when an object moves into another object’s shadow (you can sometimes still see both objects).

A transit happens when an object passes in front of another (but does not obstruct the view of the planet).

An occult is when an object is completely hidden from view because the object passing before it lies directly in one’s line of sight.

So, yes, on September 19, 1702, Jupiter blinded people on Earth … but only if they hoped to see Neptune that night!

Getting back to the expression spit or go blind, that exact expression (as previously mentioned) can be tagged to the 1920s but Idiomation was unable to take it back any further.  However, it appears that the expression was about 200 (if you go with 1702) or 300 (if you go with 1610) years in the making before it was first used.

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

Ace In The Hole

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 25, 2010

Whether you’re talking poker or the game of life, having an “ace in the hole” is definitely an advantage.  So how did this phrase come to mean someone has a hidden advantage?

Back in the 1920s, when stud poker was a very popular game, the rules were such that after each round of betting, players were dealt an additional card face up.  The only one who was dealt a card face down was the last player.  This card was referred to as the “hole” card.

The winner of the game was decided by the highest as well as the lowest scoring hand, and those two would then divide the winnings in the pot.

If you were the last player and the card that was before face down in the “hole” position just happened to be an Ace, that player most definitely had a hidden advantage that no one … not even the last player … knew he had.

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

It’s In A Wewoka Switch

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 24, 2010

Wewoka is a small town in Oklahoma and situated at the junction of State Highway 56 and U.S. Highway 270.  The town was originally located in 1849 in what was considered to be the Seminole Nation, Indian Territory (I.T.).   After the U.S. Civil War, Elijah J. Brown, was selected by the U.S. government to lead Seminole refugees from Kansas to the Seminole Nation, Indian Territory.

Not too much later, in 1895, the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad (the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway after 1902) ran its line from McAlester to Oklahoma City, passing through Wewoka.  They also installed side tracks.

In the early 1900s, freight would oftentimes go missing once a train had been redirected to the side tracks, and items that went missing were said to be “lost in the Wewoka Switch.”

In the 1920s, when thousands of freight shipments destined elsewhere went missing, they were soon found hidden at the Wewoka Switch.  Soon, the railroad company made it a policy to check Wewoka first whenever they were advised of a lost shipment.   It got to be such a habit that soon a rubber stamp was created that read: “Search Wewoka Switch.”

It didn’t take too long before the saying became: “It’s in a Wewoka Switch” meaning that whatever or whoever was involved in questionable — possibly illegal — activities was quite obviously tangled up in a tight spot.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Bees Knees

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 5, 2010

Back in the 20s, knees seem to have been very important to flappers.   Showing one’s knees, if you were a woman, was very provocative.

 Bee’s knees is said to be a reference to Bee Jackson, the first white girl to feature the Charleston, the dance most often associated with the 20’s and flappers.  Jackson put on the dance on Broadway when she appeared in “The Silver Slipper” in February of 1924 after having seen it performed in the colored (the term used at the time for African Americans) musical show “Runnin’ Wild” that was the rage of Broadway. 

She went on to introduce the dance at the Club Richmond and the El Fey Club.   And in 1925, Jackson went on to play the role of “danseuse” Betty Lee in the movie “Lying Wives.”  But more importantly, Bee Jackson was crowned the world Charleston champion and her legs were insured for $10,000 US ($1 in 1920 terms is equal to $10.23 in 2009 terms) — a princely sum at the time.

But the term was in print before Bee Jackson and so this explanation is flawed.   The first printed reference to it I can find is in the Ohio newspaper The Newark Advocate, April 1922, under the heading ‘What Does It Mean? where the journalist wrote:

“That’s what you wonder when you hear a flapper chatter in typical flapper language. ‘Apple Knocker,’ for instance. And ‘Bees Knees.’ That’s flapper talk. This lingo will be explained in the woman’s page under the head of Flapper Dictionary.”

Some will tell you the reference has to do with the similarity between bees carry pollen back to the hive in sacks on their legs (a sweet treat) and the sight of a young woman’s previously hidden asset (a sweet treat for any young man to see at the time).  Still others will tell you it’s a corruption of the word business.

What we do know is that if something is said to be the “bees knees” it means that it’s something worthy of attracting other people’s attention.  For that reason, I’d be inclined to go with the pollen-carrying bee theory for the phrase.

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

Rouge Your Knees

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 27, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that Prohibition was a time when, “the parties were bigger,the pace was faster, and the morals were looser.”  Hoagy Carmichael wrote that the 1920s came in “with a bang of bad booze, flappers with bare legs, jangled morals and wild weekends.”

Up until the 1920s, knees were kept hidden beneath skirts and petticoats and showing them off would have been scandalous and provocative to say the least . 

Back then some women used rouge to highlight and draw attention to their cheeks, although modest women resisted the use of make up and preferred to make the most of ‘natural’ beauty instead.

Flappers, on the other hand, thought of themselves as promiscuous and sexy rebels, and so they rouged their knees to draw attention to them .

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

 
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