Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘19th Century’

Thon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 20, 2017

In an effort to be politically correct and gender sensitive, government departments, agencies, organizations, businesses, and schools are trying to agree on a gender neutral pronoun that’s acceptable to everyone.   Some have considered using zie, sie, se, xe, ey, ve, tey, e, and hir while others have rejected those options as being awkward and contrived.  Others have suggested going with they, their, and them while others argue those options are too impersonal.  The dilemma is one that no other generation has ever faced.  Or is it?

What about the word thon?

The word thon is chiefly Scottish and is a mish-mosh of this and that with the pronoun yon.  It was most popular in the 1700s and 1800s, and although it made its way into the Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary in 1903, it was removed sixty years later … mostly because no one bothered to use it.

SIDE NOTE 1:  The gender neutral pronoun ou can be traced back to the 14th century as used by Cornish writer and translator John Trevisa (1326 – 1402).

SIDE NOTE 2:  John Trevisa is the 18th most frequently cited author in the Oxford English Dictionary, and cited as the source for evidence of a word after Geoffrey Chaucer and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

SIDE NOTE 3:  The pronoun she first appeared in the mid-12th century to reduce the confusion and ambiguity of the gender neutral pronoun system that was used in English at the time.

In 1894, the word — and a variation therein — was used by Henry Graham Williams (1865 – date of death unknown) in his book, “Outlines of Psychology Designed for Use in Teachers Classes, Normal Schools, and institutes, and as a Guide for All Students of Applied Psychology.

Every student should acquaint thonself with some method by which thon can positively correlate the facts of thons knowledge.

In 1884, American attorney and composer of church music, Charles Crozat Converse (October 7, 1832 – October 18, 1918) wrote in a letter published in the August 2, 1884 edition of “The Critic and Good Literature” that a gender neutral pronoun should be used and that thon was such a pronoun (a word he lay claim to having created in 1858).

It was, according to Mr. Converse arrived at by “cutting off the last two letters of the English word that, and the last letter of the word one, and uniting their remaining letters in their original sequence in these two words” thereby producing the word thon.  The purpose of the pronoun was to bring equality to situations where stating a gender was to give one gender more respect than the other.  In his explanation, he wrote:

Use of it will so individualize and pronominalize (so to speak) this word as to show its manifest grammatical distinction from the words that and one of which it is born; and the mental process by which it leads its user to the noun it represents will, I think, be found to be easy and natural, it not being an arbitrary sign.

Oddly enough in a Letter to the Editor submitted to, and printed by, The New York Times on October 19, 1905, the history of the word thon was outed as having been in use thirty years before the Charles Crozat Converse lay claim to creating it.

So while people today are busy congratulating themselves on being gender sensitive and incredibly progressive in their thinking, the fact of the matter is that long before the term transgender or gender fluid was part of our language, people had a gender neutral pronoun.  It just never quite caught on.

Idiomation pegs this word to around 1825 based on The New York Times Letter to the Editor with a nice nod to Charles Crozat Converse in the process.  Isn’t it interesting to learn that the more things change, the more things stay the same … or revert to a much earlier time in history?

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Happily Ever After

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 14, 2017

In honor of Valentine’s Day, Idiomation has taken on the fairy tale ending that states that two people live happily ever after.  It’s formulaic and predictable that fairy tales end this way, but who doesn’t love happy endings especially when so much strife and effort is involved to get to that happy ending?  And who was the first storyteller to decide that this was the perfect ending for fairy tales?

On May 28, 1998 the Matagorda County Advocate (a Thursday morning supplemental to the Victoria Advocate) published an article asking whether two people used to the space of their respective kitchens could “find true happiness and culinary success working together in one kitchen.”  The question had already been answered in the headline that proudly announced, “Live Happily Ever After In The Kitchen.”

Thirty-five years earlier, an advertisement in the St. Petersburg Times of October 31, 1963 promised young couples that if they purchased this neat, cozy, furnished two-bedroom home, the couple’s purse would appreciate the dollar wise price. It certainly sounded like the perfect investment for the perfect couple who had just begun their perfect life together, and the copy writer obviously felt likewise.  The advertisement ran with the bold letter title:  HAPPILY EVER AFTER.

Perhaps one of the more humorous newspaper articles about living happily ever after is found in the May 3, 1920 edition of the Southeast Missourian newspaper where American author and short story writer Fannie Hurst (18 October 1889 – 23 February 1968) reportedly had solved the puzzle of wedded bliss.  The United Press story from New York City stated the following:

Fannie Hurst, writer of love stories usually with a “happy ever after ending” does not believe the institution of marriage as generally followed is the open sesame to happiness.  In an interview today, the fifth anniversary of her marriage to Jacques Danielson, pianist and composer, Miss Hurst (for she still retains her maiden name) compared many of the present day marriages to prison bars.

SIDE NOTE 1:  Jacques Danielson (23 July 1875 – 3 March 1952) was Russian, not French or English as some may assume from his name.  He was born in Moscow, the son of Samuel and Anna (née Brook) Danielson.  He immigrated to the United States in 1892 and was the assistant to Hungarian pianist, teacher and composer Rafael Jossefy (3 July 1852 – 25 June 1915) at Steinway Hall in New York City.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Jacques Danielson and Fannie Hurst maintained separate residences throughout their marriage, and arranged to renew their marriage contract every five years, if they both agreed to do so.  As it was, their happy ever after lasted until Jacques Danielson’s passing in 1952.

Her suggestion was that women should not be bound by “moss back conventions” and each couple should adopt conditions that suit the temperaments of the married couple.  She went as far as to reveal that she and her husband had their own circle of friends, stating:

There is no reason why I should like his friends and he should like mine.  In fact, some of his friends bore me to tears.

It was used in Chapter 3 of “Peter Pan” published in 1904.

“Do you know,” Peter asked, “why swallows build in the eaves of houses?  It is to listen to the stories.  O Wendy, your mother was telling you such a lovely story.”

“Which story was it?”

“About the prince who couldn’t find the lady who wore the glass slipper.”

“Peter,” said Wendy excitedly, “that was Cinderella, and he found her, and they lived happy ever after.”

On Saturday, February 18, 1894 American novelist and journalist Theodore Dreiser (27 August 1871 – 28 December 1945) wrote a letter to Emma Rector in response to a curt note she had sent him the night before admonishing him for his ungentlemanly behavior.  Theodore ended his letter to Emma with this line.

Then I’ll smoke right up and be ever so grateful and happy and we’ll get along after the fashion of “ye ancient fairy tale” very happily ever afterwards.

Even Leo Tolstoy seems to have thought the phrase was worthy of a novel.  In 1859 he published “Happy Ever After” which told the story of a young woman in her 20s who had lost her parents, fell in love with her father’s much older friend, and enjoyed a happy life as a married woman.  That is to say, until the couple are invited to a soirée by a young prince who spirits her heart away from her older husband.

That being said, Jacob and Wilhelm (otherwise known as the Grimm Brothers) ended a great many of their fairy tales with a cautionary note stating that those who died went on to live happy in the ever after – a somewhat less romantic and pleasant ending to a story. German philologist, jurist, and mythologist Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm (4 January 1785 – 20 September 1863) and German author Wilhelm Carl Grimm (24 February 1786 – 16 December 1859) seem to be the pull pin moment in history where living happy in the ever after (as in once the lovers were dead) becomes living happy ever after or happily ever after (as in the lovers are still alive).

That being said, the spirit of the idiom happily ever after can be found in the 18th century phrase happy as the day is long although that’s not really ever after, is it? Idiomation pegs happy ever after and happily ever after to the early 1800s somewhere between the Brothers Grimm and Leo Tolstoy.

Happy Valentine’s Day friends and followers!

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Yellow Journalism

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 27, 2016

My friend, the late Jerry Flowers (8 January 1947 – 7 November 2016), used the rallying cry, “Commit journalism” to move his friends to action.   It was one of the things I remember most fondly about conversations with Jerry who believed in promoting the highest ideals regardless of the profession in which one was engaged.

The complete opposite from the kind of journalism is yellow journalism.    Yellow journalism is sensationalist, exaggerated reporting that relies heavily on distorted stories that have little to no legitimate facts.  It also uses unnamed sources to provide believable sound bites and the stories are published with scandalous headlines to draw attention to itself.  Reporting lies and rumors as fact is a large part of yellow journalism.  The major focus of yellow journalism is to excite public opinion and to sell more newspapers than might otherwise be sold.

Yellow journalism is easy to spot as it generally has all five of these characteristics which are easily identifiable.

  1. Fearmongering headlines in large print;
  2. Pictures that are used out-of-context to lend credence to the fake story;
  3. Pseudoscience, fake interviews, and/or false information from alleged experts;
  4. Scare tactics and highly charged emotional words and symbols used; and
  5. Dramatic sympathy for the underdog fighting the system in an effort to get the word out.

You may assume that yellow journalism is a term that came about during WWII and that it was an insult aimed at the Japanese.  You would be incorrect if that was your guess as to where the term originated.  The term yellow journalism goes back much further than WWII.

Back in the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst (29 April 1863 – 14 August 1951) was the owner and publisher of the New York Journal newspaper, and József Pulitzer (10 April 1847 – 29 October 1911) was the owner and publisher of the New York World newspaper.  The techniques of yellow journalism have their humble beginnings in the New York World newspaper in the 1880s although the term yellow journalism hadn’t been invented yet.

In the Spring of 1893, the New York World ran a popular cartoon strip about life in New York’s slums and this cartoon strip, drawn by Richard F. Outcault, was titled, “Hogan’s Alley.”  The break-out character from the cartoon strip was the Yellow Kid.  William Randolph Hearst hired Richard F. Outcault (14 January 1863 – 25 September 1928) away from the New York World to draw the cartoon for his newspaper.  József Pulitzer hired a new cartoonist who continued to draw the cartoon for his newspaper.

yellow-kid

The competition between the newspapers raged on with each newspaper trying to outdo the other right down to the Yellow Kid.  It wasn’t long before the sensationalist stories and outrageous pictures in both newspapers became known as the competition of the “yellow kids.”  Shortly thereafter, such  journalism was labeled yellow journalism.

When the U.S. battleship Maine was sunk in the Havana harbor in Cuba, the rush was on to get a newspaper out that would outsell the competitor.  Since both newspapers had fanned the anti-Spanish public opinion flames for years, the publishers felt it was to them to beat their competitor to the news stands.  The publishers directed their reporters to write stories intended to tug at the heartstrings of Americans.

An illustrator by the name of Frederic Sackrider Remington  (October 4, 1861 – December 26, 1909) worked for William Randolph Hearst and was stationed in Havana.  He sent a cable to William Randolph Hearst that read:   “Everything is quiet.  No trouble here.  There will be no war.  Wish to return.  Remington.”

In response, William Randolph Hearst cabled back, “Please remain.  You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.  Hearst.”

new-york-journal_maine-destroyed

Both newspapers carried all manner of atrocities from scandals to the Buldensuppe mystery (where a man was allegedly found headless, armless, and legless) leading up to the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine.  Once the battleship was sunk, every atrocity was fair game for publication:  Female prisoners, executions, rebels fighters, starving children, and American women stripped naked by soldiers.

It wasn’t long before there were countless other tabloids hitting the market, and each of them tried to out tall tale tell each other with their stories.  However, the two newspapers responsible for this style of reporting, were at the head of their class, and yellow journalism flourished.

The expression yellow journalism therefore dates back to the days of William Randolph Hearst and József Pulitzer and the mid-1890s.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Blimey

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 31, 2016

Sometimes you’ll hear people say blimey or cor blimey as if they were residents of the UK.  The exclamation is one used to express surprise, excitement, or alarm.  The thing is, it seems to be used far more often by Americans and Canadians than by those from the UK.

Of course, part of the linkage is due to how blimey is used.  For example, in the March 27, 2016 Windsor Star in Windsor (Ontario, Canada), Sharon Hill reported on a British store and gift shop in Harrow, Ontario.  Set to celebrate its second anniversary in April, the shop is named Blimeys British Store and Gift Shop, and the article was titled, “Blimey: Award-winning British Shop In Harrow Still Surprising Customers.”

The previous week, Mike Tighe of the LaCross Tribune in Wisconsin (USA) wrote about the La Crosse Community Theatre auditions for their anticipated presentation of “Billy Elliot.”  The journalist made sure to use all kinds of British slang.  He made sure to mention that damp squib was British slang for total failure, and that gobsmacked was British slang for stunned.  He made sure readers knew that blinding was British slang for superb, and he made sure to include blimey in the headline, “Blimey: LCT Gets Smashing Cast for Billy Elliot.”

Even Sergio Ramos — who happens to be a Real Madrid defender — used the expression in an article published in Diario AS published in Madrid (Spain) on March 30, 2016.

Sometimes, when I’m in the shower, I start singing my head off. Lyrics just come to me and I think, ‘Blimey, what a lovely tune!’. For me, music’s a big part of my life and I take it into my professional life and share it with my team mates, and enjoy it.”

But do British newspapers and journalists use the word?  James Hall of the Telegraph used it in his  March 25, 2016 review of Ellie Goulding’s performance.  Near the end of his review titled, “Ellie Goulding Needs To Find Her Personality,” he wrote:

The other reason that Goulding needs a break was her banter. I got no sense of her personality from her between-song chat. Of course, Adele-style ‘cor blimey’ expletive-laden confessionals are not for everyone, but Goulding missed a chance to connect. There’s a fine line between saying you’re shy and appearing like you’re going through the motions.

In the 1997 play, “Home: A Play In Two Acts” by English playwright, screenwriter, award-winning novelist and a former professional rugby league player, David Storey (born 13 July 1933), the expression made its way into the Kathleen’s dialogue near the beginning of Act I.

MARJORIE:
Going to rain, ask me.

KATHLEEN:
Rain all it wants, ask me.  Cor … blimey!  Going to kill he is this.

MARJORIE:
Going to rain and catch us out here.  That’s what it’s going to do.

KATHLEEN:
Going to rain all right, in’t it?  Going to rain all right … Put your umbrella up — Sun’s still shining.  Cor blimey.  Invite rain that will.  Commonsense girl … Cor blimey .. My bleedin’ feet.

MARJORIE:
Out here and no shelter.  Be all right if it starts.

KATHLEEN:
Cor blimey … ‘Surprise me they don’t drop off … Cut clean through these will.

MARJORIE:
Clouds all over.  Told you we shouldn’t have come out.

KATHLEEN:
Get nothing if you don’t try, girl … Cor blimey!

Years earlier, as  American playwright and Nobel laureate in Literature, Eugene O’Neill (16 October 1888 – 27 November 1953) began to make waves in the theater with his plays, what critics called his “most interesting play” hit its stride with a meteoric rise.

The Emperor Jones” told the story of an African-American who was an ex-Pullman porter who arrives in the West Indies, and within two years of arriving in the West Indies, Brutus Jones makes himself emperor.  The play begins during a difficult time, after Brutus Jones has been in power for several years, and has amassed a large fortune thanks to the heavy taxes he imposed on the islanders he rule.  But times are not easy as rebellion is brewing in the capital.  A Cockney trader named Smithers is responsible for using blimey in the play.

SMITHERS:
Then you ain’t so foxy as I thought you was.  Where’s all your court?  The Generals and the Cabinet Ministers and all?

JONES:
Where dey mostly runs to minute I closes my eyes — drinkin’ rum and talkin’ big down in de town.  How come you don’t know dat?  Ain’t you sousin’ with ’em most every day?

SMITHERS:
That’s part of the day’s work.  I got ter — ain’t I — in my business?

JONES:
Yo’ business!

SMITHERS:
Gawd blimey, you was glad enough for me ter take you in on it when you landed here first.  You didn’t ‘ave no ‘igh and mighty airs in them days!

JONES:
Talk polite, white man!  Talk polite, you heah me!  I’m boss heah now, is you forgettin’?

SMITHERS:
No ‘arm meant, old top.

INTERESTING NOTE 1:  Eugene O’Neill was the father of Oona O’Neill (14 May 1925 – 27 September 1991), who was the fourth and last wife of English actor and filmmaker. Charlie Chaplin (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977).

INTERESTING NOTE 2:  During WWI, there was a soft cap with ear flaps that was known as the Gor blimey.  It was replaced in 1917 by a soft cap without flaps that looked more like military wear than the Gor blimey.   Many soldiers held on to their Gor blimey caps for winter weather anyway, due in large part to the ear flaps that helped keep their ears warm.

In Volume I of “Slang and its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative, of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society For More Than Three Hundred Years” by John Stephen Farmer (7 March 1854 – 18 January 1916) published in 1890 (and of which only 750 copies were printed for subscribers only) this definition was given for blimey.

A corruption of ‘Blind me!’; an expression little enough understood by those who constantly have it in their mouths.

A year earlier in 1889, Albert Marie Victor Barrère (died 1896) and Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903) published, “A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Gypsies’ Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology.”  In Volume I, the definition for blimey is slightly different from that of Farmer’s dictionary.

Blimey (common), an apparently meaningless, abusive term.

Prior to this published entry, however, the only references to Blimey are those referring to a person’s last name such as John Blimey or Anna Blimey or some other Blimey.

It’s a fact that swearing was frowned upon during this era, and as such, substituting minced oaths was popular.  While Idiomation is unable to state definitively when blimey and cor blimey were first used, it’s reasonable to believe that they were both popular buzz phrases for the era in the 1880s, and continued to be used in the 20th century.

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Straddle The Fence

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 25, 2016

When a person straddles the fence, it means the person appears to favor both sides of an argument or situation.  In other words, the person has placed himself or herself in a noncommittal position while appearing to side with both sides.  Some call it sitting on the fence, so whether it’s sitting on the fence or straddling the fence, the person doing it is undecided and willing to remain undecided until push comes to shove on the matter at hand.

The Victoria Advocate newspaper of March 13, 1980 included an article from the Associated Press that dealt with the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and the fact that the U.S. was picking its teams in the hope that world tensions would ease to the Summer Games wouldn’t be in danger of not happening. What hung in the balance was the May 24th deadline when the United States would have to either accept or decline the International Olympic Committee’s invitation to take part in the Moscow Games. The article was titled, “USOC To Straddle Fence.”

The Afro American newspaper published an ad in the March 26, 1949 edition titled, “Why Straddle The Fence?”  It was a small blurb on the bottom of page courtesy of the subscription department and the first line repeated the idiom.

There’s no need to straddle the fence in the matter of selecting the biggest readership bargain of 1949.  Pee Wee staunchly insists there’s not the least bit of doubt about it.  His favorite paper unquestionably gives the most for the money.

During World War II, the Montreal Gazette published an article on September 5, 1938 about President Roosevelt.  The write-up revealed that the Democratic congressional campaign committee wasn’t prepared to back the President’s position that a “good liberal running on the Republican ticket would serve the country better than a conservative Democrat.”  The headline that accompanied the story was, “Forbid Roosevelt To Straddle Fence: Democratic Campaign Leaders Resent Reference To Liberal Republicans.”

The term found its way into the Electrical Merchandising Magazine in April 1919 leaving no doubt as to what it meant.

IMAGE 1_1919
And a delightful poem titled, “On The Fence” was published in the 1888 edition of “A Basket of Chips: A Varied Assortment of Poems and Sketches” authored by J.B. (Joseph Bert) Smiley (1864–1903) who also published under the pseudonym of Samwell Wilkins.

J.B. Smiley was from Kalamazoo and he attended the University of Michigan in 1885.  However, it doesn’t seem that the institution of higher learning could keep its hold on J.B., and he found himself writing for the Kalamazoo Herald newspaper.  From time to time, he found himself front and center on stage in front of an audience eager to listen to the humourous lecturer.   From an third-party perspective, “On The Fence” gives some insight into why he was such a popular speaker.

Upon every point that arises
which may my opinion refute,
Upon every political issue
And on every local dispute,
In fact, upon every question
Where the interest is strong and intense,
My position is always the right one,
I invariably straddle the fence.

The position is not very easy,
And it doesn’t look pretty at all,
If I lean to one side or the other,
I believe I am certain to fall;
And I think that I merit distinction,
And a credit mark, long and immense,
If on every question that cometh,
I can gracefully straddle the fence.

In August 1847, a Letter to the Editor was published in Volume 8 of the “Genessee Farmer: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Agriculture and Horticulture, Domestic and Rural Economy.”  The journal even had illustrated engravings of farm buildings, domestic animals, improved implements, fruits, and more, and was edited by Daniel Lee, MD with the assistance of P. Barry, Conductor of Horticultural Department in Rochester, N.Y.

The letter was signed Old Farmer Tim, and he had a lot to stay about the Universal Yankee Nation, lack of sympathy, and family pride.  He even reference the “almighty dollar” saying that the “shining disc flashes on our diseased imaginations, and rolling on just ahead, puts quicksilver in our heels, to follow it almost to the very verge of space.”  The letter ended in a flourish, and began just as dramatically.

Mr. Editor:  I think I hear some of your readers exclaim, “Well, here comes the old pedlar again, astride the fence,”  Not so far, my old covey — I am not straddle of the Fence any way you can fix it, either in Politics or Religion; on those two subjects I know where I sleep; but if I can get astride of some of the miserable excuses for good fences that I observe about the country, and can ride them down, I am content to be “straddle of the fence.”

While some sources say that the idiom came into being in 1828, Idiomation found it used in “The Columbian Union: Containing General and Particular Explanations of Government and the Columbian Constitution” written by Simon Willard, Jun. of Massachusetts, and published in 1814.

Idiomation suspects that this Simon Willard isn’t the same as the celebrated U.S. clockmaker, Simon Willard (April 3, 1753 – August 30, 1848) of Massachusetts — the man who invested the eight-day patent timepiece.  However, it could be as there’s a Lighthouse Clock with the clockmaker’s signature identical to the author’s signature.

Regardless, the author of this book wrote the following:

If this little notion of dog war can excite human beings, to rejoice and to take an active part, certainly a whole nation of humans, wherein themselves are engaged, instead of dogs, and their very lives and property at stake, must take an active part, some where to secure their popularity; to straddle the fence, it is as inconsistent, as to suppose a corpse to be a live man; a man looks like a fool, who stands inactive in a case, wherein his own property is at stake, for he is either deluded and knows nothing of his danger, or he is sure to be king, or sure to enjoy a king’s office, otherwise he is inconsistent to himself.

This is the first published version of straddle the fence that Idiomation could find.  Before this, the word straddle is defined in Thomas Sheridan’s “A Complete Dictionary Of The English Language Both With Regard To Sound And Meaning” dated 1797 as “to stand or walk with the feet removed far from each other to the right and left.”

So sometime between 1797 and 1814, straddle the fence came to mean what it means today.

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Slick Willie

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 6, 2015

Slick Willie is a term that, upon hearing it, is understood to mean something uncomplimentary towards the person to whom it refers.  Those who are called Slick Willies are cunning and deceptive people who are superficially appealing and polished, but who are shallow and glib, and able to deftly execute convincing arguments that favors the con man and defrauds the mark.

While watching a rerun of Season 3 of Shark Tank,  founder, president and chief executive officer of FUBU, Daymond John used the term when referring to one of the people pitching to the sharks, and then categorically that he was out.

In Norwalk (CT), in the April 3, 1992 edition of The Hour newspaper, an article by Walter Mears addressed the situation with Bill Clinton.  He mentioned that on NBC-TV’s “Meet The Press” that a questioner had stated that Bill Clinton was tagged with the name Slick Willie as far back as when he was still a governor in Arkansas.  From the Monica Lewinski affair to his Vietnam draft status, from business dealings long before he was a political force to his business dealings once he was a political force, and many situations over the years, the term Slick Willie seemed to be tied to Bill Clinton’s reputation.  The article began with this paragraph:

Long before his scarred presidency, Richard Nixon wrote the book on political image problems.  Now Bill Clinton is struggling with a sequel, Tricky Dick, meet Slick Willie.

Slick Willie was also the name given to a bank robber who began his career in 1919 and continued until well past his media reported death on September 6, 1951.  William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton (30 June 1901 – 2 November 1980) was infamous for his carefully planned bank robberies and jailbreaks for which he was notorious.  He supposedly died from wounds inflicted in a holdup according to the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 6, 1951, and allegedly Philadelphia’s underworld  was atwitter over Slick Willie‘s misreported demise.

William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton was known by a number of names.  While his birth certificate stated he was William Sutton, his many aliases included William Bowles, James Clayton, Richard Courtney, Leo Holland, Julian Loring, Edward Lynch, and many others.  How famous was Slick Willie?  On March 9, 1950, he led his team of three into a branch of the Manufacturers Trust Company in New York City at 8:30 AM and strolled out of the branch with $63,942 USD (the equivalent of $636,202 USD in 2015 terms) in hand.

He was also incorrectly credited for masterminding the million dollar Brinks Express Company robbery in Boston on January 17, 1950.  The caper netted the group over $1.2 million USD in cash and over $1.5 million USD in checks, money orders, and securities.  Billed as the crime of the century by the media as well as law enforcement, it was the work of an eleven-member gang.  When the case was cracked, it was revealed that Joseph ‘Big Fernand’ McGinnis was actually the man behind the heist, and not William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton.  But that Slick Willie had been originally tagged as most likely to have pulled the caper off speaks loudly to Slick Willie‘s reputation.

The article reporting on Slick Willie‘s passing — which appeared in newspapers across America — was titled, “Slick Willie Dead Says Philly Paper.”  As mentioned earlier in this article, news of Slick Willie‘s death was premature.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  William ‘Slick WillieSutton didn’t die in 1951.  In fact, he died in 1980 aged 79.  True to the slickness of his character, when he was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”  

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  In 1970, William ‘Slick Willie‘ Sutton promoted the new photo credit card program in a television commercial he did for the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company, not long after his release from Attica State Prison on Christmas Eve 1969.

Now, back as early as the mid 1800s, the term slick meant something rendered smooth on the surface, and generally referred to oil on water, or to the oilyness — or slickness — of a person’s character.

It was used by Canadian politician, judge, and author Thomas Chandler Haliburton (17 December 1796 – 27 August 1865) in his first book titled, “The Clockmaker, or, The Sayings And Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville” which was published in the Nova Scotian as a serial in 1835 and 1836.  In the novel, Sam Slick was a Yankee clock peddler who used his vast understanding of human nature to make sales.

Haliburton’s novel was Canada’s first international bestseller, and was extremely popular not only in Canada, but in the U.S. and Britain as well.  Sam Slick’s take on Canadians (and Canada) and Americans (and America) mocked everyone equally in the comic fiction.  Sam Slick was so popular that Haliburton went on to publish a number of memorable Sam Slick books.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3:  It should be noted that the first Sam Slick novel established Thomas Chandler Haliburton as one of the founders of North American humor.

Perhaps it’s due in some small measure to the success of Haliburton’s character Sam Slick and his behavior that Cambria County politician, William Slick, was derisively called Slick Willie by some at the Constitutional Convention of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where proposals for amendments to the American Constitution were discussed at Harrisburg in May of 1837.

And back in 1590, the term slick referred to someone or something that was clever in deception.

So the meaning of the word slick has a long history when it comes to slippery characters.  While it’s true that Sam Slick was the original term, within two years of the name being published, Slick Willies were being outed in America.  This puts the earliest known version of Slick Willie to 1837 with many nods to the definition for slick, in the spirit of the idiom, in the 250 to 300 years preceding Slick Willie making it into the lexicon.

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Tickled Pink

Posted by Elyse Bruce 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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On The Carpet

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 3, 2010

Whenever you hear that someone has been called up on the carpet, you know there’s trouble brewing for that person.

This term started in the early 1700s and referred to the cloth — known as a carpet — covering a conference table.  It came to mean that something was “under consideration or discussion.”

In 19th-century America, however, carpet meant “floor covering.”  In the day, only the boss had carpet in his office while all other offices sported bare floors.  And the only time an employee would be summoned to the boss’s office rather than to his superior’s office was when a reprimand was in order.

The first recorded use of the term “on the carpet” that referenced being reprimanded by an employer was in 1902.

One of the most famous recorded uses of the term “on the carpet” was in December 1929, Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adam delivered a blistering reprimand to Smedley Darlington Butler, commander the naval base at Quantico in Virginia, declaring that he was doing so at the direct personal order of the President of the United States.

This is the first time in my service of thirty-two years,” Butler is alleged to have said to Adams, “that I’ve ever been hauled on the carpet and treated like an unruly schoolboy. I haven’t always approved of the actions of the administration, but I’ve always faithfully carried out my instructions. If I’m not behaving well it is because I’m not accustomed to reprimands, and you can’t expect me to turn my cheek meekly for official slaps!”

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