Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1950s’

Chasing The Dragon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 12, 2016

Originally, chasing the dragon was a reference to inhaling the vapors from opium.  Over time, it meant to chase after the elusive first-time high one got from a drug as the body develops greater and greater tolerance levels.  At that point, the chase was at the expense of the user’s for his or her health, wealth, and/or sanity.  Most recently, it refers to the pursuit of something you will never achieve or own.

Idiomation first heard the term used in the movie, “From Hell” which was set in 1888 in London (Whitechapel to be exact).  The main character (played by Johnny Depp) was a police detective who was chasing the dragon (in reference to his recreational drug use). The term was used a handful of times in the movie.

However, a study published on the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) website titled, “Heroin Smoking by Chasing The Dragon: Origins and History” claim that the term was from 1920s Shanghai.

In September 5, 1983 the New Strait Times (published in Kuala Lumpur) reported on drug arrests in Ipoh (Malaysia).  After coordinated raids in Menglembu, Kuala Kang, and Pengkaian Pegoh regions, police arrested four dadah addicts.  The four men had fled police, and upon capturing them, the police seized two straw tubes of heroin.  The article was titled, “Chasing The Dragon: One Caught.”

The Spokesman-Review published on February 13, 1961 brought news from Hong Kong where it was reported that more than half of the over 18,000 people sentenced to terms of imprisonment were guilty of drug offenses.  The idiom chasing the dragon was used in explaining the situation where heroin and morphine (byproducts of opium poppies) weren’t grown locally, and supplies were being smuggled into Hong Kong from abroad.  The second paragraph in the story stated this:

This is just one proof of the size of the drug problem facing the authorities in this British colony where, according to a special government report, as many as one in every 12 of the population may be indulging in the habit of “chasing the dragon” — taking dope.

This wasn’t just a problem in Hong Kong.  It was a global problem, and affected those in America according to the 1961 “Narcotic Officer’s Handbook” which stated:

In ‘chasing the dragon‘ the heroin and any diluting drug are placed on a folded piece of tinfoil.  This is heated with a taper and the resulting fumes inhaled through a small tube of bamboo or rolled up paper.  The fumes move up and down the tinfoil with the movements of the molten powder resembling the undulating tail of the mythical Chinese dragon.

In the book, “An Introduction to the Work of a Medical Examiner: From Death Scene to Autopsy Suite” by  John J. Miletich and Tia Laura Lindstrom, the authors claim (as does the NCBI study mentioned earlier) that heroin smoking originated in Shanghai in the 1920s, and spread across Eastern Asia before making the leap to the U.S. in the 1930s.  The moniker chasing the dragon (according to the authors) didn’t show up until the early 1950s.

This is attested to in Jay Robert Nash’s book, “Dictionary of Crime: Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Law Enforcement.”

But how did chasing the dragon come to be used in the movie, “From Hell?

Pure cocaine was first used in the 1880s as an anesthetic because it constricted blood vessels during surgery which limited bleeding (safer drugs introduced after that time replaced cocaine in the operating theater).

Cocaine had been illegal in China (from whence it came) until 1858, and was legalized, hoping to curb drug addiction and bolster the economy.  Within twenty-five years of legalizing cocaine, it was among the top causes of social anxiety.  In 1882, opium dens in the United States (in California especially) were getting out of hand, which led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Use of the drug in China peaked at the turn of the 20th Century, and began to steadily increase in England and the United States at the same time.

So while it’s true that in 1880s, some drug addicts were chasing the dragon, the term chasing the dragon was not in use at that time — or for some time after.  The term made its way into the movie because it was a term someone associated with the movie had heard used to describe the activity in which Johnny Depp’s character was involved.

Idiomation is unable to pinpoint a date for this idiom, mostly because there are so many conflicting sources laying claim to when smoking cocaine came into vogue in countries outside of China.  Maybe one of our Idiomation supersleuths has the answer to the question?

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Is The Pope Catholic?

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 8, 2015

When a question is asked to which the answer is obvious, you sometimes hear someone ask the rhetorical question:  Is the Pope Catholic?  The answer to that question (regardless of what religion, if any, you may observe) is a resounding YES!  The idiom is a polite way of inferring that the person asking the initial question is either stupid or needlessly ignorant.

In 1999, John Cantwell Kiley published a book entitled, “Is The Pope Catholic: A Novel Autobiography.”  The book is entirely fictional and is centered around Pope Peter II (a pope who never existed except in the mind of the author and on the pages of this novel).  As the author states in the Preface:  “The 21st century will be a spiritual century or there will be no century at all.”

This isn’t the first time the idiom has been used for entertainment purposes.  On April 23, 1987, Ira Rifkin of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote an article about two Irish Roman Catholic brothers (one working as a counselor, the other working as a psychologist) from Boston who came up with an alternative to bingo for Catholics who enjoyed games.  The game was a cross between “Trivial Pursuit” and “Monopoly” and was named, “Is The Pope Catholic?

The board was set up so players advanced along a rosary, starting off as altar boys and finally becoming Pope.  All players had to do was to answer questions about topics such as pagan babies, Patron Saints, spiritual works of mercy, the Commandments,and more.  The game was four years in the making and cost the two brothers $50,000 USD to develop.  Do board game aficionados consider the game a vintage board game?  Is the Pope Catholic?

At the Proposed Amendments to Federal Transportation Laws Hearings of April and May, 1962, Senator Monroney asked Mr. Carter:  “Do they still have in the furniture business, from your competition in Baltimore or other large centers, the switch-up, the “nail to the floor” selling, in some of these things, when bait advertising is used?”  The answer Mr. Carter gave in response to this question was:

My little boy has a saying, “Is the Pope Catholic?”  I am sure there are many, many areas in this type of merchandising where you have the bait and switch.

In other words, back in 1962 this expression was so well-known that even children were known to use it.  Four years earlier it was also found in the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company “Field Notes” Volume 58/59 where George G. Everhart of Kansas City, Missouri was quoted on page 9 as saying:

Is the Pope Catholic?  This is a smart answer!  Certainly making the Million Dollar Round Table adds a lot of prestige and stature.”

In the September 16, 1967 edition of Billboard magazine, an interview with Voyle Gilmore, then Capitol Records’ A&R vice-president, he told a story that dated back to the late 1950s about American jazz singer Keely Smith and Frank Sinatra.

“Easing back in his swivel chair, Gilmore, 55 years old, streaks of gray in his hair and a former band drummer in the San Francisco area, explained:  “I had been after him to record a duet with Keely Smith.  He came in with two tunes, one from a Bob Hope picture which he’d promised Hope he would record.  So I called Keely one afternoon.  I asked her, ‘Do you want to make a record with Frank Sinatra?’  She said:  ‘Is the Pope Catholic?‘  I’ll never forget that.  We made the record but it didn’t sell well.”

The saying was a recognized and established expression if everyone from insurance agents to singers to little boys were using it in every day conversations.  Although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom, it’s safe to say that it was floating about in the lexicon in the early 1950s and possibly in the late 1940s.

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Feet To The Fire

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 24, 2014

When you hold someone’s feet to the fire what you’re doing is causing someone to feel personal, social, political, or legal pressure on someone in order to induce him or her to comply with action that he or she previously would do. In other words, it is a forceful way of holding someone accountable for his or her actions, and hopefully to fulfill that commitment. It is not, however, akin to holding a gun to someone’s head.

In Kabul, Afghanistan the Pajhwok Afghan News published a story on April 8, 2011 that reported on the meeting between United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. Coupled with that story was information on U.S. Ambassador, Susan Rice, and her testimony before a Congressional committee on matters pertaining to the electoral processes in Afghanistan, and the death of UNAMA personnel in Mazar-e-Sharif. The newspaper reported the following:

“So this process is still dragging out in terms of efforts to review certain aspects of the 2010 polling, parliamentary electoral process, and I think the United Nations has been the sort of focal point of the international community’s efforts to hold feet to the fire and ensure that the processes are not manipulated for the political interests of any actor,” Rice told lawmakers.

On May 16, 2007 Senator Herb Kohl, Chairman of the US Senate Special Committee On Aging spoke to the matter of health care at a hearing before the Special Committee On Aging. What was said at the meeting was published by the US Government Printing Office in a document entitled, “Medicare Advantage Marketing And Sales: Who Has The Advantage?” and listed under S. Hrg. 110-207.  In his opening remarks as the chairman, he said:

As we know, the number of Medicare Advantage plans being offered to beneficiaries is growing rapidly. So we must remain vigilant in our oversight of these plans, and I intend to do so. If more hearings are necessary to hold feet to the fire, then we will do that. Cleaning up these marketing-and-sales practices is a high priority of mine. So let me be clear: This issue will not go away after this hearing; and, of course, neither will I.

In 1961, the National Council On The Aging published a report entitled, “Building For Older People: Financing, Construction, Administration” and was published by the University of Michigan. In this report, the following was stated:

A wise counselor will hold feet “to the fire” until housing cost considerations are realistically examined. It is surprising how few people actually have totalled up their present housing cost.

Of special note is the fact that in medieval Europe, trial by ordeal (also known as judicium Dei) was a trial based on the premise that God would help the innocent by performing a miracle and save the accused. One such trial was to hold the accused’s feet to the fire. If the feet were unburned, or if they healed within 3 days of being held to the fire, it was taken as a sign that God had intervened on behalf of the accused, thereby proving his or her innocence. Of course, most either confessed to the crimes to which they were accused or died as a result of the trial.  It was a favorite ordeal of the Spanish Inquisition (1478 – 1834) which replaced the Medieval Inquisition begun in 1184.

The fact that the idiom was used with quotation marks in the 1961 report indicates that it was an idiom that was not necessarily well-known although it was part of the language at the time.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that it came into vogue in the years leading up to 1961.  Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to some time after WWII, and most likely some time in the 1950s.

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Brown Out (as in “censorship”)

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 6, 2011

Brown out as in “censorship” means that some information is available to the media and the general public, but not all of the information is made available.  An example of this would be to provide basic information to the media and general public about legal proceedings while maintaining that some of the information is confidential and cannot be shared with the media and the general public.

On November 6, 1955 the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an article entitled, “Current Events Reports: Probe On Government Secrecy” by Richard Spong.  It reported:

A House Government Operations subcommittee is beginning hearings on an alleged “brown out” of information by government agencies.  A new House Subcommittee study of federal agency information policy should, in the words of Chairman John E. Moss (D., Calif.) “show the public the extent to which there has been a brown out of information about the public’s business.”

A recent expression that Idiomation was unable to trace back prior to the early 1950s, a brown out as it refers to censorship is a derivative of the expression black out.

See “black out” for additional information.

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Cop Out

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 19, 2010

Some time during the 1930s, the phrase “cop out” became slang for pleading guilty, especially to a lesser charge as the result of plea bargaining. But the big change came in the 1950s when to “cop out” meant the individual made a full confession of some crime or misdemeanour.  This was also known as “copping a plea” and usually, but not necessarily, involved confessing to the police.

It didn’t take long before it meant backing down or surrendering, especially a criminal or unconventional lifestyle. By the 1960s, the phrase “cop out” morphed into meaning a person who sidestepped issues, avoided fulfilling a duty or promise, or refused to fulfill expectations despite previous assertions to the contrary.  This was achieved by making excuses or taking the easy way out, usually by finding some somewhat believable pretext that excused the individual from a situation. 

In other words, “copping out” became slang for refusing to shoulder responsibilities in an attempt to avoid real or perceived personal or professional troubles.

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