Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1951’

Drop A Dime

Posted by Admin on March 20, 2021

The other night, while watching a relatively recent detective series episode on television, the expression drop a dime was used. The expression means to report a criminal to the authorities (otherwise known as ratting someone out to the cops) but in this day and age of technology, what do dimes have to do with reporting crimes and criminals?

The idiom drop a dime refers to assisting law enforcement in an investigation by placing a usually anonymous phone call to share helpful information about a criminal or a crime being investigated. Even though payphones are now so rarely seen that many younger people have little to no idea what a payphone looks like (and much less how to operate one), the expression persists.

On 23 January 2017, 49-year-old Toronto native and very popular hairstylist Fabio Sementilli was found dead at his home in Woodland Hills (CA) by his daughter. Accused were his widow, Monica Crescentini and her then-boyfriend Robert Louis Baker as well as an unnamed third party, Toronto Sun reporter Brad Hunter informed readers back in 2019 of the situation by writing this:

With the death penalty off the table, neither the suspected black widow nor her beau has any incentive to drop a dime on the mystery man.

But it wasn’t just Canadian reporters who used the expression in news articles in 2019. Reporter Ed Kilgore of The Intelligencer also used the expression when reporting on how impeaching then-President Donald Trump could prove Joe Biden’s undoing by way of uncovering whether Hunter Biden benefited from his father’s assistance in carving out a career as a lawyer-lobbyist, and as Ed Kilgore described him “a procurer of appropriations earmarks, and an international man of mystery.”

That coupled with the history of substance abuse and allegations against him regarding his former wife and his brother’s widow, certainly created a difficult situation for Joe Biden’s campaign. In the news story, Ed Kilgore wrote:

Team Trump wants it to stay that way, which is precisely why Trump and his goon, Rudy Giuliani, were trying to drop a dime on Hunter Biden and smear Joe in the bargain.

In the 1995 Spike Lee movie “Clockers” based on the novel by the same name written by Richard Price told the story of street-level drug dealers. Such dealers were referred to as clockers. It isn’t long in the movie before one of the lead clockers arranges to have a rival clocker knocked off and as you can guess, the rival is murdered. The following dialogue happens at the 26-minute mark in the movie:

We got a crowd of black, white customers, out-of-state license plates, what have you. Somebody gonna check that out. They gonna drop a dime on me, call 911. With my jacket, I can’t go back to jail.

While there’s a whole history behind the use of the word jacket, that will be addressed sooner rather than later on this blog. But let’s continue with uncovering the origins of dropping a dime.

Back in the day, a dime pushed into the coin slot (which landed in the coin deposit box inside) of a payphone allowed the user to make a local phone call. When the coin dropped into the coin box inside the payphone, only then could a phone call be placed. Since cellphones weren’t around yet, and people ratting out people and their potentially criminal activities to law enforcement was something most people didn’t want to have traced back to them, using a payphone guaranteed a fair bit of anonymity to the caller.

With anonymity in play, people were more inclined to place phone calls to the police by way of a payphone to inform on specific people and activities that might be of interest to the police. It’s easy to see how this activity came to be known as dropping a dime on someone – it was quick, inexpensive, and effective.

On 1 October 1976, confessed Mafia hit man Ira Pecznick co-wrote a book, with help from Paul Hoffman, titled, “To Drop a Dime: The Mafia Hit Man’s Uncensored Story.” The book allegedly detailed the criminal activities of the New Jersey Campisi family.  Ira Pecznick turned State witness against the Campisi family, and his testimony sent many of the family to prison.

In 1951, the coin charge across the U.S. of a nickel per call rose to a dime. That being said, some payphones required a dime to make a call as early as 1949.  But by 1951, in major cities across America, people could count on needing a dime to place a call from a payphone.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: When the Bell System faced competition in the telecommunications industry in 1981 due in large part to deregulation, the nationwide pricing policy for payphones rose to a quarter per call.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Back when payphones (then known as phone booths) finally became popular in general, those payphone calls cost two cents.  In the early 1930s, new shoes called loafers (or Weeguns, depending on where a person lived in the US) were the rage and there was just enough space in each shoe for a penny to fit snugly but not uncomfortably. People wearing loafers began keeping a penny in each shoe should the need arise to make an emergency phone call, and in time, this is how the pennyloafer got its name.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: American inventor William Gray was granted a patent on 13 August 1889 for his device that allowed people to deposit coins so they could place a telephone call. Soon afterwards, he established the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company but the concept didn’t catch on quite as quickly as he had hoped.

By 1911, however, in collaboration with Western Electric (which was AT&T’s manufacturing division), the updated payphone was being installed in cities across America, and anywhere it was likely someone would want or need to place a phone call.

Getting back to the matter at hand, hard-boiled detective stories by authors such as Raymond Chandler (23 July 1888 – 26 March 1959) and Frank Morrison ‘Mickey’ Spillane (9 March 1918 – 17 July 2006) started to include the idiom in their stories to refer to a snitch (a police informant) and even though the cost of phone calls kept increasing over the decades to a quarter then two quarters than a dollar (payphones in Canada accepted dollar coins known as loonies), the meaning attributed to dropping a dime never changed.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Many of the future well-known authors of detective stories who wrote detective stories in the 1930s and 1940s regularly saw their stories published in the detective pulp fiction magazine “Dime Detective” whose first issue was published in November 1931. The last issue was published in August 1953. The magazine enjoyed a run of 274 issues published. There were British reprints under the name of “Red Dime Detective” and “Yankee Detective Fiction.”

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 3: The first dime-novel detective appeared in a story published in 1872 in “The Fireside Companion” story paper and written by American author and medical doctor, Harry Enton (1854 – 28 March 1927).  A year later, a new ten-cent format that was 9 inches by 13 inches, with only 32 pages and a black-and-white illustration, was launched, and these were referred to as ‘weekly libraries.’ Of all the titles available, it was the “New York Detective Library” by Frank Tousey (24 May 1853 – 7 September 1902) that was among the most successful titles.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 4: At the time, the English equivalent of the dime novel was the shilling shocker or the penny dreadful.

 

In light of the dime detectives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s easy to see how the connection between detectives, law enforcement, payphones and dimes came together. Because Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to dropping a dime than the detectives stories of the 1950s — even with a great deal of earlier dime and detective history leading up to the 1950s — the idiom to drop a dime is pegged to 1951  — the cost of an anonymous payphone call to the police was a dime in major cities across America, and people were apt to assist the police with a little unexpected extra information on a possible crime or criminal.

As an added suggestion, Idiomation reminds readers that the expression to drop a dime should not be confused with to drop a penny which, of course, means something completely different, and that will be a future idiom that will be published here at some point. Idiomation should probably also research where and when the expression dime store hood as well.

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Nitpicking

Posted by Admin on April 5, 2016

A nitpicker is a fussy, finicky fault-finding critic who finds small mistakes or flaws in everything, be it a person, an activity, an item, an event, et al, although sometimes the criticism is justifiable and warranted.  Usually, however, no matter how insignificant the flaw, a nitpicker will raise petty objections over the mistake or error.  Nitpicking is what nitpickers do.

In October 3, 2002, CNN News reported on the Iraq resolution that was introduced in the Senate, and hailed by then-President Bush as a show of unity at a time when war with Iraq might be unavoidable.  Then-Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had this to say about the resolution and the direction in which the White House was moving on this matter.

I’m sure the argument will be why are we nit-picking, but what I want to do at a minimum in the debate is lay out what I understand what the President’s committing to do.

Some in the Senate and in Congress were uneasy with the concept of authorizing war where no international support was perceived, but the resolution seemed to sit well enough with the majority.  In the end, Senator Lieberman declared that the moment of truth had arrived for Saddam Hussein, and America marched off to war.

It was Richard Reeves column writing for the Universal Press Syndicate (UPS) on May 16, 1992 that addressed whether Ross Perot’s political aspirations had the “endurance, perseverance, and agility” to last more  than a couple months.  He talked about the “Capitol game” where senators and representatives jostled against the rest for media attention, but not necessarily on behalf of their state’s best interests.  It was an explosive column aptly titled, “The Rise Of Nitpicking Lawmakers.”

On October 25, 1978 the Associated Press (AP) reported a situation happening in Washington, DC that had to do with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  It addressed what many called “Mickey Mouse rules” that took the focus away from major problems in the workplace.  For years, the agency had dictated even the smallest of things to employers in America including, but not limited to, mounting of fire extinguishers, how to handle portable ladders, and what toilet seats to select for the workplace environment.  The first sentence in the article said it all.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration made good on a promise to businessmen and scrapped 928 “nitpicking” safety standards Tuesday.

I’m sure that millions of employers across the nation breathed a sigh of relief over not worrying about the 928 safety standards that were stricken from the roster!

On September 6, 1988 The Telegraph published in Nashua, New Hampshire ran a quick quiz in Richard Lederer’s column, “Looking At Language.”  The columnist asked readers to figure out which of three dates for each word in a list of words was the correct date each word entered the English language.  From airsick through to yogurt, there were thirty-six words in all, and nitpick was among them.  The answer for when nitpick entered the English language was 1951, which was, of course, correct.

And how do we know this?  Because it was what was published in an article in the November 1951 edition of Colliers magazine.

Two long-time Pentagon stand-bys are fly-speckers and nit-pickers. The first of these nouns refers to people whose sole occupation seems to be studying papers in the hope of finding flaws in the writing, rather than making any effort to improve the thought or meaning; nit-pickers are those who quarrel with trivialities of expression and meaning, but who usually end up without making concrete or justified suggestions for improvement.

To make into Colliers magazine in November 1951, it was certainly an expression that was used prior to 1951, and coming from the Pentagon, it is at least from 1950 if not the 1940s.

As a side note, if you’re wondering, according to the energycommerce.house.gov website, flyspeckers and nitpickers are still employed in the Treasury department.

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Like White On Rice

Posted by Admin on March 20, 2013

When you hear someone say it’s like white on rice, what they mean is that the situation is as close as anything can be.   In other words, you’ve got it covered the way rice is covered in whiteness (unless it’s wild rice or brown rice or even red rice).

It should be noted that white rice evolved from wild red rice 10,000 years ago according to the Public Library of Science Genetics journal.  White rice was preferred for a number of reasons, the main ones being that white rice cooked faster than rice that retained color, and it was easier for farmers to spot insects and disease on white rice than on rice that retained color.

Whodini‘s 1984 dance hit “The Freaks Come Out At Night” used the expression thusly:

Now the party’s jumpin’, the place is packed
And when the crowd’s like this, I’m ready to rap
But before I could bust a rhyme on the mic
Freaks are all over me like white on rice.

Brent Checketts, sports writer for the Deseret News used the expression in an article published on June 7, 1976.  The story reported on what happened at the game between the Salt Lake Gulls and the Spokane Indians.  A comment was made about Spokane’s manager, Frank Howard that read:

Friday night Howard was all over ump Bill Lawson like white on rice, and at one point it seemed the 320-pound manager was going to literally chew up and spit out the 145-pound arbiter.  However was not thumbed, however.

American author, Lloyd L. Brown wrote “Iron City“ which was published in 1951.   The story was based on an actual court case and told the story of a black youth who was falsely convicted of the murder of a white businessman, and sentenced to death.  In the story, the following passage is found:

“Boy, you should have seen them!” And now Lonnie could laugh about it.  “Old Rupp damn near fell out of his chair and Big John jumped like I stabbed him.  But then the marshals were all over me like white on rice and I couldn’t see anything.  I’m telling you it was really something!”

While the expression was used in the book in 1951, like white on rice doesn’t seem to appear in any newspaper articles before this time although the expression like gravy on rice does appear in some stories published in the 1930s.

To this end, Idiomation is unable to secure a date earlier than 1951 for this expression with the codicil that its use in Iron City indicates that readers would understand its meaning and therefore, it’s pegged to a generation prior to the book’s publication, putting it to some point in the 1930s.

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Flash In The Pan

Posted by Admin on February 21, 2011

When someone says that a person, activity or item is a “flash in the pan” what they mean is that while the person, activity or item may draw a lot of attention at the moment, it’s obviously only going to be of interest to others for a very short time.

There are those who will try to sell you on the idea that gold prospecting or early photograph was the origin of ‘flash in the pan’ and in both cases, that is incorrect.

The Deseret News of Salt Lake City (UT) published an article by John Griffin on June 15, 1951 entitled “White Sox Bounce Nats in Twin Bill” which reported:

You can tell a champ in any sport, they say, by the way he gets up after a loss and takes charge again — and that’s just what those young and sassy Chicago White Sox were doing Friday.  A lot of folks, who thought that the classy kids from the Windy City were just a “flash in the pan,” figured that the belting they took in three straight games against the “old pro” New York Yankees would start the Sox on a long slide from first place, down.  But what happened instead?

Almost a century before that on July 25, 1854, in a Special Dispatch to the New York Daily Times, an article was published that read in part:

First we have the COLT investigation, which will turn out an ill-advised flash in the pan, and pass the bill designed to be defeated.  Next we have a positive charge of fraud and corruption made by a scion of DUFF GREEN against Hon. THOMAS H. BAYLY of Virginia which, having been exploded once already, probably  hasn’t enough of saltpetre in it to go off a second time, even in smoke.

In a letter dated July 26, 1789, Manon Roland (nee Marie-Jeanne Phlipon) who was involved in the French Revolution, wrote to her friend, Louis-Augustin-Guillame Bosc:

You are only children, you enthusiasm is a flash in the pan.  If this letter does not reach you, may the cowards who read it blush when they learn it comes from a woman.

Elkanah Settle (January 1, 1648 – February 12, 1724) commented on Mr. Dryden’s plays in 1687 and in “Reflections” she wrote:

If Cannons were so well bred in his Metaphor as only to flash in the Pan, I dare lay an even wager that Mr. Dryden durst venture to Sea.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference to “flash in the pan” however Idiomation is able to explain how the saying came about.

In the days when flintlock muskets were used, a person, the muskets had small pans meant to hold small amounts of gun powder.  When the flint struck the pan, sparks flew into the gun powder and this resulted in the gun firing off the bullet.   Of course, weather and other technical problems — which happened often — would lead to “flash in the pan” and no firing, especially if the gun powder was damp.

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