Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘20th Century’

Ballpark Figure

Posted by Admin on July 10, 2021

When someone asks for a ballpark figure or a ballpark estimate, they are interested in a somewhat qualified number guesstimate and are willing to accept a very rough estimate where necessary. Sometimes the figure guessed at is pretty close to bang on and sometimes the estimate is so far off-base as to be completely without merit. That being said, one shouldn’t confuse a ballpark figure with a good faith estimate.

In the Fall of 2019, Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith told the media that the first space trips on New Shepard would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Speaking at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference, he stated new technology is never cheap but that the cost of a ticket for middle-class people would eventually be affordable. Until then, GeekWire‘s Alan Boyle reported Bob Smith “hinted at a ballpark figure.”

The Polk County Enterprise newspaper of Livingston (TX) — a semi-weekly newspaper that includes local, state, and national news along with advertising — ran an story with an interesting headline in Volume 117, Number 64, Edition 1 of their newspaper published on 12 August 1999. The article by Enterprise reporter, Emily Banks, reported County Judge John Thompson had asked Clyde Arrendell who was the chief appraiser of the Polk Central Appraisal District to a budget workshop. Emily Bank reported:

Emphasizing that all figres were “ballpark figures” Thompson reviewed the budget schedule, as well as the county’s tax history from 1982 forward.

The title of the news article was this: Court Studies Budget with Ballpark Figures.

In the book “Surviving in the Newspaper Business; Newspaper Management In Turbulent Times” written by William James (Jim) Willis (born 19 March 1946) and published in 1988, the writer paraphrased what Marion Krehbiel, former president of the major newspaper brokerage firm Krehbiel-Bolitho Newspaper Service, Inc. had stated in the late 1970s with regards to arriving at a fair market price for a small to medium size daily newspaper.

Krehbiel added a caveat to these indexes, however, when he noted in 1979 that this forumula is only meant to provide purchasers with a ballpark estimate of a newspaper’s worth.

The 24 June 1957 edition of The Des Moines Register included the column “Washington Memo” which purported to report on what was going on in Washington DC. In this edition, immediately after reporting on how an Army colonel felt about one of this tasks which came about after a Southern congressman “yelped about [the Army’s] handling of racial relations.” Here’s what readers learned next.

CODE: Pentagon language continues to produce new bafflers. One of them is “a ballpark figure” meaning a very rough estimate which doesn’t do much more than indicate that a given program is going to cost somebody an awful lot of money.

Kenneth Patchen (1911 – 1972) wrote “Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer” which was published by the New Directions Publishing Corporation in 1945. In this book, the concept of the ballpark figure is used in conjunction with being out in left field on page 101 in the chapter titled, “The Last Party I Ever Went To.”

“Miro complicates it simply because he doesn’t know how to handle his material.”
“But Arp does, I suppose.”
“Of course he does.”
“You’re way out in left field.”
“And you not even in the ball park.”
I poured it out. The sand looked very sticky and the leaves on the tree were getting sort of yellow around the edges.
“And what about De Niro? This is a serious young painter.”
“All right, what about Kamrowski? – or Lee Bell? – or Jackson Pollock? – or Arthur Sturcke?”

He wasn’t the first to coin the phrase though as some sources claimed. On 1 May 1944, The Morning Herald in Hagerstown (MD) was reporting that on what a senator claimed about U.S. aid for that year.

Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., said in a speech that total U.S. aid for the current year is about $250 million. He said “a ballpark figure” is that his proposal would halt $150 million to $180 million.

Idiomation realizes that many websites claim the expression dates back to the mid-sixties with the understanding we have of the idiom these days, but obviously it was around before then for it to be used in a newspaper article twenty years earlier with the expectation that readers would understand what the idiom meant.

Unable to find an earlier published version of ballpark figure, Idiomation pegs this idiom to at least ten to fifteen years earlier for it to be used to freely in a newspaper article in 1944.

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Pipped At The Post

Posted by Admin on May 1, 2021

To be pipped at or on or to the post means to be defeated by someone by a very narrow margin or at a crucial moment. While it’s generally used when talking about a race or competition, but overall it has to do with not succeeding where success was almost guaranteed, or by the underdog gaining a small advantage at the last decisive moment resulting in the crowd favorite losing.

The pip in question has nothing whatsoever to do with the dots on a dice or domino. It has nothing to do with the diamond-shaped segments on a pineapple. It hasn’t any connection to the insignia on the shoulder of an officer’s uniform indicating rank. Those are all pips, but they aren’t the pip in the idiom.

The Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang both refer to the pip as being depressed or out of sorts, and dates back to the 1830s. But from 1896 onward, the pip meant to annoy or irritate someone. From Idiomation’s point of view, losing at the last minute what was believed to be a guaranteed win would certain annoy and irritate the loser, so while the reason for the expression makes sense, when did it come about as an idiom?

The idiom is still in use today, as evidenced by the research paper published in Frontiers in Psychology on May 2019 titled, “Pipped at the Post: Knowledge Gaps and Expected Low Parental IT Competience Ratings Affect Young Women’s Awakening Interest in Professional Careers in Information Science” by Angela Schorr of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Siegen (Germany).

When Collins Dictionary released its words of the year that rise to use in the twelve months leading up to the list being published, most people thought Megxit was a shoe-in for first place in 2020 after Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, left the UK for Canada and subsequently America. But the pandemic had other plans and lockdown won the coveted first place by a nose as lexicographers announced lockdown as the word of the year.

The headline for the article on 10 November 2020 and written by Yahoo! News’ royal correspondent, Rebecca Taylor, announced:

‘Megxit’ Makes Shortlist of 2020 Word of the Year But Pipped to the Post by ‘Lockdown’

In the 18 March 2018 edition of the Messenger Newspaper in the UK they shared the news that The Sunday Times Best Places to Live Guide had named Altrincham as the best place to live in North West Britain. According to the guide, Altrincham was “a cool slice of suburbia with big family houses” and was a 25 minute ride on the tram if one wanted a little city living to go with that. The headline read:

Altrincham Pipped at the Post as Best Place to Live

The Canberra Times used the expression in a story published on 9 May 1988. The Syndey Swans were playing against Geelong Cats (who were favored to win the game) in Melbourne. The Swans were trailing badly by halftime, and in the third quarter, there was a 22 point margin between the two teams.

Then something unexpected happened, and things began to go horribly wrong for the Cats and incredibly right for the Swans. Then, according to the newspaper, Geeling rover Robert Scott set up a shot that really had little to no hope in succeeding. He went with a shot at goal from 50 meters out, at a 30 degree angle … into the wind. A true Hail Mary play if ever there was one!

The ball hit the post, resulting in the winning goal being played by the Cats. The headline read: Geelong Pipped at the Post by Swans.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE #1: In the 1970s, when Digital Equipment Co was taken over by Compaq, there was a utility known as the Peripheral Interchange Program, or PIP. To transfer a file from disk to tape or another disk, users had to do so using this program and entering the correct commands, and because of this, to transfer was to pip. It isn’t, however, the same pip as in this Idiomation entry.

It appears the expression is mostly used by those who live in England, Ireland, and Australia as nearly all of the published instances were found in newspapers and books from England, Ireland, and Australia.

For example, the 5 September 1948 edition of the Sheffield Telegraph and Star told the story of a man who had been blind for at least 35 years and yet continued gardening and his relation to the Thomas Glossop Memorial Cup.

The gardening competition was started by the Abbeydale Amateur Gardening Society which had been started by Vicar of St. John’s Abbeydale. The cup was awarded on the most points scored.

Every year, the blind man did all his own gardening, raising his plants from seeds, and keeping his garden weed-free thrugh his sense of touch. He had won the gardening award from the time WWI broke out, up until his death in 1940. In 1958, the man’s son, Arthur H. Glossop, suggested the cup be the runner-up to the winner of The Kemsley Cup presented by The Star newspaper. He was quoted in the newspaper saying:

“My father always had a lot of sympathy for the man who was just pipped at the post, and I am delighted to think that his cup would be a consolation to such a competitor,” said Mr. Arthur Glossop.

In the 12 January 1926 edition of The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate newspaper reported on a horse race that was so close that the reporter wrote that “a majority of the onlookers thought that [Gadamin] had just got [to the finish line]” with regards to a the horse race in which Gadamin was racing.

It was an amazing race from a number of standpoints.

For one, this was said about one of the other horses: “Varney, from Vic Benyon’s stable, was also one of the field, but was not in the hunt until the race was practically over. He made up a lot of ground from the turn, and would probably be better suited by a longer trip.”

However the focus of the story was on the horse who didn’t win with the headline sharing the news.

Pipped On The Post: Gadamin’s Game Effort

Indeed, in the June 1903 edition of Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes in the story, “Our Van” a detailed accounting of horse racing was written across several pages, and within that writing was this passage:

In a Maiden Two-Year-Old race we saw a race thrown away. In Newsboy one was found to beat Bass Rock, but Land, having accomplished this, took matters too easily, and was “pipped” on the post by Extradition. When will jockeys learn?

And there we see the word pipped in quotation marks which indicates the expression was just coming into its own.

In the 19th century Britain, to pip someone meant you wounded or killed that person, usually with a gun. It was an effective way to defeat one’s opponent. Being defeated at the finish line by one’s competitor who wasn’t the crowd favorite would also wound, and Idiomation suspects this is how the expression rose to popularity around the turn of the 20th century.

This leaves the earliest published version of pipped at or to or on the post to 1903 with only a few years before that to account for the use of the quotation marks in the 1903 article.

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Hot Desk

Posted by Admin on April 24, 2021

Last week, Idiomation took on the hot seat and this week Idiomation has decided to research hot desk and hot desking. It is also occasionally referred to as LIW or location independent working. Hot desking, however, is not to be confused with hoteling which are bookable workstations or desks for staff who need to reserve a workstation or desk when they are actually at work and on the premises.

Hot desking is when desks are used in a work situation where different people use the same desks at different times, and where there is usually no assigned desks. Think of it as a first-come-first-serve concept except for offices.

The practice is meant to maximize space efficiency and reduce what is known as redundant office space. Unfortunately, it also increases distractions, uncooperative behavior, and negative interactions.

If Idiomation took a run at guessing why that might be, the territorial nature of people in general is at the top of the list. But this is a blog devoted to the meaning and history of expressions, idioms, phrases, words, et al, and not a blog dedicated to human psychology so we will stick to what we know and do best.

On 18 April 2021, CNN Business reported that HSBC (Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) was getting rid of their executive floor at their headquarters in London in favor of having their executives hot desk in open-plan areas two floors below what used to be their executive floor. The expression was included in the headline.

HSBC’s CEO Is Swapping His Office For A Hot Desk

It’s interesting that a large corporation would opt for that style of work at the office when on 14 May 2008, CBS News referred to hot desking as a ‘short-lived ’80s efficiency fad’ in their news story, “Is Hot Desking A Cool Idea — Or A Catastrophe?

Hot desking was allegedly the brain child of advertising executive Jay Chiat (25 October 1931 – 23 April 2002) of Chiat/Day who believed that private space trumped personal space, and that private space could be accessible anywhere at any time, and there was no need for personal space when private space was always available. He instituted the concept in his offices in 1994, on a day staffers called V-Day.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Bernard De Koven claims to have coined the word coworking in 1999. According to De Koven the word refers to people working together as equals in an office or business environment, and was supposedly inspired by the kind of hot desk workspace Jay Chiat put in place for his business.

On that day, instead of desks and cubbyholes, workers were assigned small lockers to hold their personal possessions, and then headed to the concierge window where they signed out a PowerBook and a cellphone that was to be returned at the end of their work day.

The problems weren’t far behind. The lockers were too small to hold more than a few small items, and employees began to lug around their PowerBooks and cellphones as well as important papers and contracts and story boards and more.

The business “bread lines” started as there were too many employees at certain times to allow for a PowerBook and cellphone per employee during certain hours of the day. Of course, there were the coveted places to sit at the office when an employee was on the premises, which led to employee conflicts and resentments. And at the end of the day, not as much work got done as got done when the office was set up the traditional way with private and personal space for all.

Some even compared to this way of going about their workday as working inside a migraine.

The New York Times reported on this in their 16 October 1994 edition with an article written by American architect critic, Herbert Muschamp (28 November 1947 – 2 October 2007) entitled, “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Ad World.” The subheadline referred to the hot desking offices of Chiat/Day as a ‘new dream factory‘ that was ‘an advertisement for itself.’

By mid-1995, it was understood at Chiat/Day that this concept wasn’t viable at either the LA or the New York offices, and by 1999, the man in charge was president and chief creative director Lee Clow, and hot desking wasn’t a thing at Chiat/Day anymore.

But there are a few years between the 1980s mentioned by CBS News and Chiat/Day’s experiment in 1994.

The article by financial reporter Shane Hickey in the 15 October 2015 edition of The Guardian titled, “The History of the Office: Why Open-Plan Fell Out of Fashion” mentioned hot-desking arriving on the business scene in the 1980s with no source mentioned to support that claim. In fact, a number of article in the 2010s made similar claims with no corroborating proof to back them up.

History indicates that open-plan office designs were the big thing in the 1960s. Personal space was sacred with invisible territories and boundaries marking what was public and what wasn’t quite as public. Everything at a person’s desk — their private personal space — was set up just as the person liked it, and when they arrived at work every morning, everything was expected to be as it was when they left the night before.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: The open-plan office design was the big thing in the 1960s but the idea originated with Frank Lloyd Wright when he designed the Larkin Administration office in Buffalo (NY) in 1906. It even came with built-in office furniture! In 1939, the Frank Lloyd Wright design for the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine (WI) opened with the ‘great workroom’ where secretaries worked. The building is still the world headquarters for the company which is now names SC Johnson & Son.

But an open-plan office design isn’t the same thing as a hot desk office environment.

Three years before Jay Chiat’s experiment at Chiat/Day began, Sunday Times reporter Godfrey Golzen (2 February 1930 – 1 August 2001) wrote about the concept in his 5 May 1991 article, “Cut The Office In Half Without Tears.” In this article, hot desking is mentioned so we know that in 1991, hot desking was happening in some business offices.

It should be noted that Derek Harris wrote about hot desking in his article for The Times a year later in an article titled, “Turning Office Desks Into Hot Property.”

In October of 1989, the firm of Ernst & Whinny merged with the firm of Arthur Young to become Ernst & Young. It was reported at the time that they consolidated their respective operations by abandoning three separate Chicago locations and taking up seven floors of the Sears Tower, and revolutionizing their new workplace with hot desking. The new firm was able to decrease its space usage from 250 feet person to 100 feet per person thanks to this new concept where workers were renamed ‘visiting employees.’

On site, ‘visiting employees‘ could use whichever desk or workstation was available instead of having a permanent desk or workstation assigned to them. If they absolutely needed the use of a more permanent office space for a meeting, they could call ahead and reserve the space and time for that meeting.

The term and practice is similar in some regards to the naval practice of hot racking that has been around since the 16th century. Hot racking had low ranking crew members sharing bunks and beds in rotating shifts as a way to maximize space in ships at sea. Hot racking is also known as hot bunking and hot bedding, mostly because as one person vacates the bed, they leave the bed warm for the next person occupying that same bed.

However, that definition doesn’t seem to quite fit with hot desking other than the concept is meant to maximize and reduce space for business ventures. To that end, the connection may be an unintentional red herring.

The earliest reference to hot desking by name is in the 1991 news article with a number of descriptions that fit the definition of hot desking in articles from the latter part of the 1980s.

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Mulligan

Posted by Admin on April 3, 2021

Recently Idiomation came across the expression mulligan which is a free shot, so to speak. It’s a do-over or a second chance that replaces the first attempt at something, and is only accepted among friends in informal circumstances. As can be expected, you can give a mulligan or you can take a mulligan but you can never borrow one or lend one out.

The Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale (CA) posted an OpEd piece by Thomas Elias title, “Primary Exposes Problems With Early Voting” on 22 March 2020. It dealt with early voting and the primaries, and how the election in 2020 exposed weaknesses in California’s early voting system. The names that appeared on the early voting ballots included names of candidates who had dropped out of the Presidential race. You can imagine how that affected the results when November rolled around. This is how the author of the piece summed matters up.

Some of those voters would have liked to take a mulligan and vote over again once their candidates dropped out shortly before Election Day. 

As Idiomation continued researching the expression, an Irish tale was shared that claims that back in the day, and long before the turn of the 20th century, a foursome of Irish lads took their practice drives at the first hole. The oldest man, displeased with how everyone’s first shot had gone, said in his thick Irish brogue, “Do them all again!” The American foursome behind them overheard his comment, liked the idea of a practice shot and repeated the phrase they thought they heard, “Do the Mulligan!”

With that story being shared, Idiomation decided to see if there was a connection between giving or taking a mulligan and golf.

Amateur golfer, hotelier, and Canadian David Bernard Mulligan, in an interview in 1952 with Sudbury Star sportswriter Don Mackintosh, told the story of how the expression came to be. It all happened at the Country Club of Montreal (established in 1910) — which involved driving across the mile-long Victoria Bridge to get to the golf course — some time in the mid-1920s, according to David Bernard Mulligan.

One day while playing in my usual foursome, I hit a ball off the first tee that was long enough but not straight. I was so provoked with myself that on impulse I stooped over and put another ball down. The other three looked at me with considerable puzzlement and one of them asked, “What are you doing?”

“’I’m taking a correction shot,’ I replied. ‘What do you call that?’ the partner inquired. Thinking fast, I told him that I called it a ‘mulligan.’

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: On 22 July 1923, on page 55 of the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper of Rochester (NY), the paper reported: The boulevard before reaching Victoria Bridge is delightful and the mile ride across the St. Lawrence over Victoria Bridge is slow but enjoyable.

The bridge was known beyond New York state, as the Chicago Tribune reported on 10 August 1924: Closing of the Victoria Bridge at Montreal for five days last week brought out the fact that the bridge is used daily by from 700 to 1,200 vehicles, of which over 70 percent come from the United States.

The story was so well known that when David Bernard Mulligan died on 27 December 1954, his obituary began with: “David B. Mulligan, 83, dean of hotel men and veteran golfer credited with originating the extra tee shot term of ‘taking a Mulligan‘ died here today after a long illness.

But even before the expression was used in golf, it was used in cricket where a bad ball off the wicket could be replayed as a mulligan according to the  Colorado Springs Gazette of 19 April 1919. Obviously for it to appear in a news story in 1919, it had to be an accepted term to used in the news story with the expectation of being understood by readers.

Perhaps it’s nothing more than a fortunate coincidence that his last name was already associated with a meaning for mulligan that meant “to take a hard swing at a ball.‘ You see, in 1920, Babe Ruth was already being referred to in newspaper articles as a Swat Mulligan. How do we know this? On 13 March 1920, the Evening World News newspaper in New York City ran an article titled, “Long-Range Hit Record For Baseball and Golf Ruth’s Chief Ambition” the first paragraph began with this:

Famous “Babe” has natural form for walloping home runs, but on links he’s developed special style that drives the little ball over 300 yards – Yankees star confident of flashing new Swat Mulligan stuff this year in both baseball and golf.

Nearly a year before that, Walter Hagen was deemed the “Swat Mulligan” of the golf links according to the Evening World News of 13 June 1919.

Conditions that make most golfers go blooey only make Hagen play harder. He always seems to have something in reserve. He plays both with his head and great hitting strength. Famous as a long drive, a favorite Hagen trick is to let opponents lead him from the tee to the point where they start pressing in Anxiety to rub it in. Then the Detroit wizard simply lets out a few kinks and it’s good night for the foolish golfer who thought he could out-distance the Swat Mulligan of the links.

What is particularly interesting about these examples is that mulligans in golf in the Babe Ruth and Walter Hagen examples has nothing to do with the do-over version in the David Bernard Mulligan version.

A completely different version for the word mulligan comes from the Fresno Morning Republican newspaper in California in 1898 where the word was used as a stand-in term for any Irishman or Irishwoman.

And between the Babe Ruth and Walter Hagen definition and the Fresno Morning Republican definition, is the hobo slang definition of the early 1900s where mulligan refers to making use of whatever happens to be available at the time.

That being said, a mulligan in terms of a second chance to replace a first attempt that wasn’t to the person’s liking is pegged at the mid-1920s and David Bernard Mulligan. Of course, Idiomation will continue its research into the other variations of mulligan … for interest’s sake.

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The Penny Dropped

Posted by Admin on March 27, 2021

The British idiom about a penny dropping means that someone has finally understood something that escaped their understanding for a period of time, but that expression is not to be confused with the idiom to drop a penny which still means something entirely different. It also should not be confused with the lyric in the Christmas song that encourages the audience to “please drop a penny in the old man’s hat.”

And it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the story of a penny dropped off the observation deck of the Empire State building killing someone on the street below.

Pennies have been around a long time. Back in the mid-1800s, 12 pennies (also known as pence) made a shilling, and a shilling made a pound 20 a pound was made up of 240 pennies. In Canada, coppers (as pennies were called) were stamped out by Britain’s Royal Mint and represented 1/100th of a Canadian dollar and at the time, outside of Ontario, Canadian pennies were considered worthless.

But long before the Canadian penny, in 1793, the American penny made its appearance authorized by the United States from the Mint Act of 1792 which was signed by George Washington and designed by Benjamin Franklin.

You might think the expression should be American, not British, based on how long the penny has been around in the U.S. and yet, that’s not the case. A penny during William Shakespeare time wasn’t really a penny but a reference to money in general.

What penny hath Rome borne, What men provided, what munition sent?

But was the British penny of William Shakespeare’s the penny the British people came to know as a real penny? In 1797, pennies in Britain were made from copper but before that, pennies were made of silver, and in 1860, copper pennies were made from bronze instead of copper.

But at what point were pennies associated with people understanding what took the listener so long to understand that was obvious to the speaker?

At the end of the 19th century, penny machines (also known as penny-in-the-slot machines) were very popular in Britain. They provided cheap entertainment. Usually, when you dropped a penny into the machine, a song would play or a puppet would dance or a mannequin clairvoyant predicted something in your future after wich a small card dropped down into the slot with the fortune printed on it. The mannequin clairvoyant was a featured player in the Tom Hanks’ movie, “Big.”

You could also have gas delivered by way of an automatic penny-in-the-slot machine in 1890 where those of the poorer class (as they were called back then) could purchase 25 cubic feet of gas for their homes by inserting a penny into the penny-in-a-slot machines attached to their homes.

It wasn’t long before there were automatic postal boxes supplying postcards and stamped envelopes with paper enclosed and automatic insurance boxes providing insurance against accidental death for 24 hours, and automatic photographic machines.

Pennies were all the rage, and not just as they pertained to slot machines either!

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: The penny-farthing was a popular bicycle in its day beginning with its arrival in the 1870s. It got its name from the difference in the size of its wheels which was a nod to the difference in size between a penny and a farthing. The front wheel was large and the back wheel was small in much the same way that the penny was much larger than the farthing (which was worth a quarter of a penny).

The Sekgness Standard in Lincolnshire published the following in the column “Things We Want To Know” on 20 April 1932:

The identity of the gentleman who was allowed to go for a drink after assisting the missus on Sunday?
And how long it took him to fathom the problem as to why the hostelry was closed at 1.15 p.m.
And if the penny dropped on suggestion of his spouse that he had forgotten to advance his watch an hour?
And if he has made a mental resolve to guard against a similar happening in future years?

With a 40-year gap to work within, Idiomation continued tracking the idiom’s history down.

In the 1890s and 1900s, the Kinetoscope or Mutascope movie machines were all penny-in-the-slot machines. The viewscreen would be completely blank until the coin dropped through the slot into the machine, and there was usually a delay between the action of plugging the slot with a penny, the penny dropping into the box, and the mechanism within finally starting the movie.

The concept of a penny dropping and the person who paid the penny going from a blank screen to a movie is from this particular era even though the idiom is attest to years later. However, that it should be used so easily in a newspaper column and without quotation marks in 1932 indicates it was an idiom in use without doubt throughout the 1920s.

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Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey

Posted by Admin on January 9, 2021

Most people are under the impression that this expression is rife with sexual innuendo. The fact of the matter is, there’s a mariner history to that expression, even if the current nudge-nudge-wink-wink-know-what-I-mean commentary and looks are associated with it these days.

To understand the expression, it’s important to go back to the Golden Age of Sail. This was a period from 1571 through to 1862 that corresponds with the early modern period when international trade and naval warfare was the main staple of sailing ships. Of course, sailing ships included frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners. All of this continued until steamboats started to take trade away from sailboats.

Ships during this time period carried their guns in two large batteries, one on each broadside. A few were mounted to fire directly ahead which left sailing warships weak, especially on the bow and most especially the stern of the ship, both of which were vulnerable to raking fire.

Ships at the mercy of raking fire had no guns with which to defend themselves, and with the rudder at the stern, the ability to maneuver the ship rendered the ship literally dead in the water even with intact masts and sails.

Rumor has it that the brass monkey was the dimpled plate that sat beside ship guns, stacked in a pyramid, and when the weather or cold, they would freeze and slip off the plate.

Unfortunately that is not true!

As reasonable as that may sound, it’s an sailor’s tale according to the official U.S. Navy website, Naval History and Heritage Command.

That being said, there were a lot of monkeys on sailing ships according to the website. In 1650, a monkey was a specific kind of cannon, and the lever used to fire it was known as the monkey’s tail. By 1682, a powder monkey was responsible for carrying gun powder to cannons. Monkey spars were small masts and yards on vessels, and monkey blocks were used in rigging.

What’s more, warships didn’t store round shot on deck around the clock on the off chance they might go into battle. One thing that was definitely a commodity on ships at sea was space, and decks were kept as clear as possible to allow room for hundreds of sailors to go about their day completing their assigned tasks. If a ship hit rough seas, the captain and crew couldn’t — and wouldn’t — risk the danger of round shots breaking free on deck and rolling around loose. Round shots were only brought on deck when the decks were cleared for action, and action was about to take place!

Besides, leaving round shots exposed to the elements was only going to worsen their condition over time, long before they saw action in battle … which leads to another reason to disbelieve the mythos of the dimpled plate. You see, if round shots were placed on a brass plate so they wouldn’t rust to an iron plate, they would still be in danger of rusting to each other. But generally speaking, metals — including brass — don’t shrink because of cold weather.

So where did this idiom come from?

In “An Incident of the Canadian Rebellion” published in The Worcester Magazine of June, 1843, something closely related to the expression was used in this way:

Old Knites was as cool as a cucumber, and would have been so independent of the weather, which was cold enough to freeze the nose off a brass monkey.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  The Canadian Rebellion was actually two rebellions in Upper Canada as well as in Lower Canada in 1837 and 1838.

The rebellion in Lower Canada was led by Louis-Joseph Papineau and his Patriotes [sic] was the more serious and violent rebellions (in November of 1837 and the following year in November of 1838).

The rebellion in Upper Canada was led by William Lyon Mackenzie in December of 1837. In 1838, Mackenzie fled to the U.S. where he lived until he was pardoned in 1948 which allowed him to return to Canada.

The end result was the union of the two colonies in 1841, which was subsequently referred to as the Province of Canada.

American author Herman Melville mentioned brass monkeys in his 1847 novel “Ormoo.” Thing is, the way the author mentioned them had nothing to do with balls or how cold it was.

It was so excessively hot in this still, brooding valley, shut out from the Trades, and only open toward the leeward side of the island, that labor in the sun was out of the question. To use a hyperbolical phrase of Shorty’s, ‘It was ’ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey.’”

A decade later, C.A. Abbey wrote in his book, “Before the Mast in the Clippers: The Diaries of Charles A. Abbey” about brass monkeys as well and his expression had nothing to do with noses or how hot it was.

It would freeze the tail off a brass monkey.”

So what should we believe about all this nonsense having to do with brass monkeys?

Perhaps this is the answer to that question. During the 19th and 20th centuries, small monkey figures were cast in brass by artisans in China and Japan, which were sold in souvenir shops. Usually they came in a sett of three to represent “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” but most people are unaware of the fact that some sets included a fourth monkey with its hand covering its genitals.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2: Should someone have all four monkeys, they are actually a valuable collector’s item these days.

So perhaps the expression has far more to do with the fourth monkey in a set of Wise Monkeys, and brasses historical and enduring importance due to its hardness and workability that dates back to ancient Roman times.  As to who first coined the expression and exactly when this expression came into being, one can only peg it to somewhere in the late 19th century or early 20th century — most likely the early 20th century — based on the vague history of the expression.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century, Maritime, Rome, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

TPing The Yard (or House)

Posted by Admin on October 29, 2019

Have you ever TP’d someone’s yard? If that expression is unfamiliar to you, it’s probably because you know the expression as rolling someone’s yard, house wrapping, or yard rolling.

You might think every grown-up in the world hates the idea of possibly waking up to their house or yard being TP’d but in 2019, one mother in San Clemente reveled in the fact that a group of unknown persons had done just that to her family’s home and front yard.

When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2015, some fans celebrated by TP’ing head coach Joel Quenneville’s yard in Hinsdale (IL). No one really knows whether the coach was angry or impressed with the effort put into TP’ing his property.

Of course, in 2011, the police in the Wisconsin Dells had a thing or two to say about TP’ing yards and TP’ing houses. Offenders, if caught, could be subjected to any number of charges from littering to trespassing to harassment and disorderly conduct. If the offenders were minors, their parents could also find themselves facing a charge of allowing juveniles to violate curfew. The police in Wisconsin Dells take TP’ing seriously

The activity and the expression were cemented into pop culture in an episode of South Park on 2 April 2003 when the main characters decide to “TP” their art teacher’s home. The episode ends with one of the main characters making his way towards the White House armed with bags of toilet paper with a plan to “TP” the White House.

Now back in 1879, the Scott brothers founded the Scott Paper Company, and became the first company to sell toilet paper on rolls. But 8 years earlier, Zeth Wheeler patented rolled and perforated toilet paper which he sold through his company the Albany Perforated Wrapper Paper Company.

Over in England, British businessman Walter Alcock created toilet paper on a roll in 1879, using perforated squares instead of the common flat sheets in use.

The original inventor of flat sheet toilet paper, Joseph C. Gayetty, saw his first commercially packaged toilet paper go from flat sheets in 1857 to perforated sheets on a roll in under fifteen years!

But it was Johnny Carson, one of America’s most loved comedians and late night talk show hosts, who set off an odd panic in December of 1973 when he claimed there was a toilet paper shortage in the U.S.  You may doubt Idiomation on this one, but you can’t call into question what the New York Times had to say about Johnny’s roll in the toilet paper shortage of ’73.

It’s doubtful that anyone would have wasted toilet paper on trees or houses back in the early days of toilet paper on a roll, and for that reason Idiomation doubts the expression was in use during the first 50 years of its existence.

One way to trace back when the expression was first used in cases where it’s unlikely the expression will be found in many newspapers, magazines, or books, is to see what the lyrics of various popular songs of the time were.

SIDE NOTE 1: Who knew that there were so many songs with toilet paper in the lyrics? Over at lyrics.com, there were eight web pages devoted to lyrics with toilet paper specifically mentioned in songs!

In 1993, Weird Al Yankovic’s CD Alapalooza had a song titled, “Young, Dumb, & Ugly” that threatened to “toilet paper your lawn.”

However, as Idiomation continued researching this expression, a newspaper article written by Times Staff writer, Lisa Rogers, and published on 2 October 2011 in the Gadsden Times, pegged the activity in Alabama to the early 1960s at least.

One of the best known traditions is rolling the trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn after football victories. Even before the traditional tree rolling started in the early 1960s at Toomer’s it was a tradition especially at Hallowe’en.

But how much earlier did this activity, and the subsequent expressions, come into being?

Oddly enough, on 29 November 1928, a court case [14 Tax Case 490, (1929) Sc 379] was heard in Edinburgh (Scotland) regarding toilet paper and an appeal against an Income Tax assessment. The Appellant purchase a very large quantity of toilet paper from a bankrupt German firm, and had the toilet paper sent to his England where he was connected with the film business.

It was determined the purchase fit the description of “an adventure” but it was questionable whether it was “in the nature of trade” within the meaning of Section 238 of the Income Tax Act of 1918. By definition, it could not be considered a purchase for personal use, while at the same time, by definition, the trade would have to be one that would be more than a single transaction. That the inventory was for the purpose of resale with profit was not in question, however, an argument made that it would be used in a film venture cast doubt on the profit from resale if no resale was to happen.

It’s doubtful that toilet paper in 1929 would be used frivolously to TP houses and yards even if it was used in this manner by the 1950s and 1960s.

Toilet papering became a verb in the early 1960s. In fact, the 28 October 1961 edition of the Lincoln Evening Journal in Lincoln (NB) referred to it as a verb.

Halloween pranks have changed now, says Stan Miller of University High School, but the devilish intentions haven’t.

“T.P.-ing” has replaced tipping over outhouses as a major Halloween prank, he commented to correspondent Ramona Brakhage.

Idiomation therefore puts the idiom — whether it’s TPing a house or a yard or rolling a house or yard — to some time during the 1950s, although the exact date is unknown, and with the word toilet paper being used as a verb, the expression dates back to at least the mid 1950s.

P.S. As an added note, contrary to what Cottonelle tweeted back in 2015, no one has ever seen the need to introduce left-handed toilet paper. Toilet paper rolls are for those who are left-handed, right-handed, and ambidextrous.

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Crazy Like A Fox

Posted by Admin on August 13, 2019

Back in 2014, Idiomation tracked down the roots of crazy as a loon (sometimes known as crazy like a loon). Its origins reached back to 1800, but what about crazy like a fox?

When someone is crazy like a fox, it’s understood the person in question is able to outwit others very easily thanks to its cunning nature and intelligence.

How smart are foxes? According to an article published on 11 January 1896 in the Brownsville (Texas) Daily Herald, foxes will circle back to their earlier trail, run backwards in it for a while, and then take off in another direction knowing it will cause confusion for the dogs and humans tracking it.  Undoubtedly, if a person saw a fox running backwards, that person most likely would think the fox was crazy. After all, what animal runs backwards in the direction it can’t see if danger is approaching?

According to the reporter, the trick worked for the fox, and left those tracking it at a loss as to where the fox went, so it’s not so crazy after all.  That’s a pretty smart move!

Chicago Tribune television writer Allan Johnson wondered in his column of 8 April 1999 about a network’s sanity when it came to moving the animated series Futurama to a new time slot. Even the series’ creator, Matt Groenig of Simpson’s fame questioned the network’s move.  Johnson started his column with this introduction which, of course, includes a lovely play on words both for the idiom as well as for the network involved.

Futurama’s network may be crazy as a Fox for moving the animated series from sure success on Sunday nights to a possibly deadly Tuesday night berth.

The idiom at that point had been around at least 50 years.  Back in 1926, American comedian and actor Charley Chase starred in a silent movie titled, “Crazy Like A Fox.”

SIDE NOTE 1: This is the movie where Oliver Hardy played a small role just before he teamed up with Stan Laurel to become Laurel and Hardy.

SIDE NOTE 2: In 1937, while at Columbia Picture, Charley Chase filmed a remake of the movie with sound, and retitled it, “The Wrong Miss Wright.”

SIDE NOTE 3: Charley Chase directed a number of Three Stooges movies during his time with Columbia Pictures, most of which were for Hal Roach.

On 18 January 1907, the Spokane Press newspaper of Washington state, published a short article titled, “Parker Says He Is Insane.” Prize fighter, William Parker aka Denver “Kid” Parker proclaimed to a group of people the morning this edition was published that everyone was insane, and perfect sanity could only be had after death. The article stated in part:

One often hears the remark, “Kid Parker is crazy.” The kid this morning pleaded guilty to being crazy but “crazy like a fox.” The kid has some ideas that one seldom finds in the average prize fighter.

Just a few months later, the New York Sun newspaper was publishing “Knockerino Points Out A Few Flaws.” In the 9 June 1907 edition, the fictional story continued with Mr. Knockerino entering the dining car of an early train for Philadelphia and spied an acquaintance having breakfast alone at a table. He sat down without being invited and began talking. His monologue included this tidbit.

“I’ll just sit in for a beaker of Java, and let you tell me all you know, old pallie. Ha! Yu’re there with the tank’s breakfast, eh? Grapefruit to take up the lost motion and a salt mackerel to give the machinery a tune up, hey? I guess that isn’t the souse’s morning meal or nothing! What? That’s what you have every morning whether you’ve been out the night before or not? Behave that cutting up! Didn’t I see you at 2 o’clock this morning licking up the beads of the hiss fluids like as if somebody’d tipped you off that they were going to stop making it and you wanted to get yours down all at once before the shutdown? I’m as crazy as a fox, hey?”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of crazy like a fox or crazy as a fox, so the expression is from around 1900.

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Legal Beagle

Posted by Admin on July 11, 2017

Sometimes a profession is known by a nickname that’s actually complimentary and this is the case with the term legal beagle which refers to a lawyer, most specifically one who is keen. skillful, and astute.  In fact, the term is so respected that there’s a Legal Beagle website that (according to their website) strives “to be an excellent resource for legal information based on facts and procedure.”  Bottom line, calling a lawyer a legal beagle is a compliment.

SIDE NOTE 1:  Sometimes the term legal eagle is used in place of legal beagle.  Both terms are sometimes substituted for the expression, Philadelphia lawyer!

Just last month on 13 June 2017, Cal Hobson of Norman (OK) wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Norman Transcript newspaper.  His letter referred to comments made to The Purcell Register newspaper by Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell, Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, and Sen. Paul Scott, R-Duncan.  From the tone of his letter, he was displeased with what these area lawmakers had to say about the most recent session in which they were involved.

I’m no legal beagle, not even a lawyer, as is Downing, but I did serve 28 sessions in the Oklahoma Legislature during recessions and even a depression, so if they think this last session was the “hardest ever,” it just underscores how little they do know.

SIDE NOTE 2: (from the ABOUT US section of the newspaper’s website):  The Norman Transcript is Norman’s oldest continuous business. Its history surpasses that of the City of Norman and of the University of Oklahoma, being founded in 1889 when the area was opened to settlement.

One of the persons on the settler train headed to Norman was Ed P. Engle, a newspaperman who, when the train arrived in Norman, walked one block west through three-inch high prairie grass to stake a business lot at what is now the northeast corner of the intersection of West Main Street and Santa Fe Avenue.

The first edition of Norman’s pioneer newspaper came off the press a few weeks later on July 13, 1889.

In the 24 August 1992 edition of People magazine, an article about Denver (CO) attorney Linda Cawley who specialized in canine contracts and litication (yes, that’s how her business card read according to People magazine).  Her work covered all things canine from owners divorcing and in need of a canine custody agreement through to suits against veterinarians and breeders and on to criminal defense of dogs who were accused of biting.  The article was titled, “Legal Beagle.”

In 1946, the New York Times reviewed the most recent offering by prolific American author Erle Stanley Gardner (17 July 1889 – 11 March 1970), “The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife” published in 1945.  The book was published in 1946 and the story line was one that tugged at the heartstrings.   In the opinion of Perry Mason fans, this was one of the more intriguing and captivating books in the Perry Mason series.  This is what the New York Times reviewer had to say in part about the book.

And guess who her lawyer is. Perry Mason, of course — the “legal beagle” with a list of acquittals as long as the D. A.’s face.   Mason is the only person in the world who believes his client innocent. So what does the lady do? She FIRES him!

The term legal beagle is difficult to find prior to the 1940s, however, Idiomation found the term legal eagle in the book “The Little Lawyer and Legal Adviser” written by Napa and San José attorney Henry Alexander Gaston (9 August 1823 – unknown ) described at the start of the book as a former member of the Legislature of California and late Speaker of the Assembly of the State of Nevada.  His book was self-published in 1880 with the help of A.L. Bancroft and Company located at 721 Market Street in San Francisco (CA).  It’s in this book that the term legal eagle was explained to readers.

SIDE NOTE 3:  The Reno Gazette-Journal of Reno, Nevada reported on Henry Gaston’s resignation as Speaker of the Assembly of the State of Nevada in the 30 April 1879 edition.

SIDE NOTE 4:  Henry Alexander Gaston married Josephine Ballou in July of 1848 in Richmond, Berkshire, Massachusetts.  He was listed as an occupational lawyer involved in the mining business.

Idiomation decided to back things up and begin anew with researching legal eagle since the term legal eagle is a complimentary term for a lawyer as well.  It’s also often used interchangeably with the expression legal beagle.   The Long Island Pulse magazine edition published on 27 April 2011 quickly proved that the term is very complimentary towards attorneys.

In the 5 February 1977 edition of People magazine, Jim Jerome wrote about Rod Stewart in the article, “Da Ya think I’m Sexy?”  In the first paragraph, mention of Rod Stewart’s split from Britt Ekland, with whom he was involved over a two-year period, made mention of a lawsuit and the legal representation Britt Ekland secured.

A 34-year-old bachelor, Rod was sued by one of his numerous ex-ladies, Britt Ekland, for $15 million, assisted by the legal eagle also gunning for Lee Marvin.  Rod, however, made a substantial out-of-court settlement before the case came to trial.

Research also uncovered a book by the American Bar Center published in 1958 by the American Law Student Association.  In this book, there were three entries worth noting:  One a publication titled “Legal Eagle” at American University, the second was a publication titled, “Legal Beagle” at the Washington College of Law, and the third was “The Legal Eagle” at North Carolina College.  Just a few years before that, in one of the American Eagle bulletins from 1952, the term legal eagle found its way into a short blurb about one of the well-known men in the forest products industry.

That blur whizzing through the Bay Area a month or so ago would be our own D. Draper Fairbrother, sales manager, Government adviser, legal eagle, and lukewarm gardener.  Old D.D.F. was plucked from Bilgewater Gulch by the National Production Authority to reign in Washington, D.C., as an “expert, wooden box nailed.”

SIDE NOTE 5:  D. Draper Fairbrother was born David Draper Fairbrother  (29 August 1912 – 10 April 1961) in Kansas, and passed away in 1961.   His father was Benjamin Henry Fairbrother and his mother was Clara Grace Fairbrother.  He rose to the rank of Navy Captain during World War II.

SIDE NOTE 6:  After the war, he returned to America with his German-born war bride, Gertrude, who had lived in Shanghai for 20 years.

In Volume 9 of “The Legal Aid Brief Case” published by the National Legal Aid Association in 1950, mention was made of the Attorneys Messenger Service publication “The Legal Eagle.”  In this case, the AMS publication included an article by Michel Lipman of the San Francisco Bar in the bulletin’s March 1950 issue and titled, “Equal Justice For The Poor.”

The legal eagle / legal beagle situation is what linguists call reduplicatives with others including fuddy-duddy, hoity-toity, namby-pamby, and wishy-washy.   As much as Idiomation would love to be able to definitively peg legal eagle or legal beagle in reference to  lawyers to a date – or even a particular decade – the closest Idiomation can determine is that both expressions, as they refer to lawyers and their abilities, most likely began to make their way into English sometime in the mid to late 1930s.

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Blurb

Posted by Admin on January 31, 2017

Author Cath Alexander asked Idiomation for the origins of the word blurb which refers to a short promotional description of a book, movie, or other product that’s written or spoken.  A blurb by any other name is micro-marketing that catches (or should catch) the marketplace’s attention.

The August 17, 2007 edition of the Spokesman Review showed how sometimes blurbs can unintentionally mislead readers as was the case with a little something that slipped past the editor’s watchful eyes and made it into all the newspapers published by the Spokesman Review the previous day.

A Thursday A1 blurb referred readers to an item that ran only in the Spokane Voices, due to an editor’s error.

On July 9, 1986 the Chicago Tribune ran a story about the then-new generation of television journalists and the race for top ratings that, according to Kenneth R. Clark, drove reporters “to efforts exaggerated beyond the traditions of simple competition for breaking news.”  The Nielsen ratings saw major broadcasting corporations barely slipping past each other each week, and oftentimes tying each other.

The reporter interviewed Laurence Zuckerman (then associate editor of the Columbia Journalism Review) and he was quoted as saying this.

“It has become a game of how to make your anchor more attractive than the other guy,” he said.  “They say, ‘Let’s give our anchors more of a personality.  Let’s have Tom Brokaw give a little blurb at the end of the newscast.’  At the end of the piece on the Vietnam march in Chicago, Brokaw got on and said something like, ‘I remember when I was a reporter in the ‘60s and covering the anti-war movement.  I was outside Chicago in 1968 and I didn’t think these sides would ever come to terms, and now they have.’  It left you feeling very good saying, ‘He, Tom Brokaw, he’s okay.  He’s been there.’”

The Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg (VA) republished an article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on August 29, 1944 that reported on the problems with license plates.  The Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce suggested that “historic” be added to Virginia’s automobile licenses but of the businesses felt that the addition of the word would unnecessarily clog up the tags.  Some felt that if a blurb was to be added, it should be “Virginia – The Debt Free State.”

The article appeared in the column, “As Seen By Others” and was titled, “License Plate Blurbs.”  Near the end of the piece, this argument was made.

Tourists and stay-at-homes as well, however, grow weary of seeing plugs for Georgia peaches or lands of enchantment breezing by on the highway, month after month.  There is something to be said for a neat plate without blurbs.  Connecticut, for example, has a small, trim but readable license much admired by the fastidious motorist.

SIDE NOTE 1:  The article stated the following –  Georgia, not satisfied with the words “Peach State” in large letters on its licenses, added for good measure and for the illiterate, a large, daintily-hued reproduction of a peach.

SIDE NOTE 2:  New Mexico at the time had “The Land of Enchantment” on its license plates.  Maine ran with “Vacation Land” and Arizona ran with “Grand Canyon State.”  South Carolina decided to advertise they were “The Iodine State.”

On September 28, 1932 the Pittsburgh Press shared a United Press article by journalist H. Allen Smith about the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs.  Even with a great many public prints of New York Today making a fuss over the game being played that day, the blurbs hadn’t done much to incite the excited reaction from residents.

The journalist felt that there was a great deal of apathy from the average New Yorker with regards to the World Series.  He went as far as to state that only one person he stopped on the street and asked about the World Series seemed to know anything about it.

There was one man, however, who expressed an abiding interest in baseball.  His name is Stanley Corcoran and he is, by profession, a poem reciter.  Stanley arrived from the West Coast last Wednesday and has been camped at Gate C at the Stadium since then.  He desired the great honor of buying the first unreserved seat.

Amazingly enough, in contrast to Stanley Corcoran, poem reciter, two people had never heard of the World Series, and one person dared ask who was playing.  The article was titled, “Seven Million New Yorkers Ignore World Series Blurb.”

All that being said, the word was published in “Publishers’ Weekly” in the May 18, 1907 edition, and it would seem that the word was no compliment to authors or publishers, and was treated with great disrespect.

blurb

The term was popularized by American humorist, author, poet, artist, and art critic Frank Gelett Burgess (30 January 1866 – 17 September 1951) however he wasn’t the one to coin the word.  That honor goes to American scholar James Brander Matthews (21 February 1852 – 31 March 1929) who used the word in his paper “American Character” published in 1906.

SIDE NOTE 3:  James Brander Matthews counted among his friends Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Roosevelt (with whom he corresponded into his White House years).  He was one of the organizers of the American Copyright League, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the President of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1913.  He was also the first full-time professor of dramatic literature at an American university, serving as the Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia until his retirement in 1925.

The Spectator newspaper in London (England) reported on October 20, 1906 that Professor Matthews’ paper “American Character” had taken on the allegations made by a French critic speaking with Leo Tolstoy that Americans cared only for money, were indifferent to art and beauty, and were set on a career of conquest.  The September 15, 1906 edition of the New York Times also spoke positively about Professor Matthews’ paper, as well as his presentation of his paper at Columbia.

The honor of coining the word blurb goes to James Brander Matthews in 1906, with a nod going to Frank Gelett Burgess for popularizing it the following year.

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