Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘America’

The Real McCoy

Posted by Admin on July 13, 2011

Interestingly enough, the expression the real McCoy has a long and colourful history, most of which is pure fabrication but delightful nonetheless.  And through the twists and turns found within those spirited stories, the fact of the matter is that the expression means that someone or something is genuine. 

There have been claims that the expression refers to a brand of whiskey distilled in Scotland by G. Mackay & Co. Ltd. since 1856.  Mackay’s distilled spirit was oftentimes referred to as the clear Mackay and by the time Prohibition hit, it was referred to in American speak-easies as the real Mackay as opposed to a knock-off passing for Mackay’s elixir.

There have been claims that the expression came about after oil-drip cup was patented in 1872 by Canadian inventor, Elijah McCoy (1843 – 1929).  His invention revolutionized the industry by 1873 as it allowed locomotive engines to run longer, more smoothly and more efficiently.  It succeeded in doing this by allowing metal joints to be oiled automatically while in use. A decade later in 1882, railroad engineers who didn’t want to deal with inferior copies of Elijah McCoy’s oil-drip cup would routinely ask if the locomotive they were to drive was fitted with “the real McCoy system.” 

A very popular version is that the expression refers to the infamous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys of West Virginia and Kentucky back in the 1880s.  And yet another version claims that it was an incident where American welterweight boxing champion, Norman “Kid McCoy” Selby (1873 – 1940) knocked an unbelieving drunk out cold in an argument in a bar which prompted the drunk to exclaim when he became conscious, “You’re right! He’s the real McCoy!

Back on December 31, 2008 the AFP European and Global edition newspapers published a story about then 31-year-old former world boxing champion, Scott Harrison.  The news story was entitled, “Ex-World Champ Harrison Released From Jail.”  In the news story, it was reported:

Harrison, nicknamed The Real McCoy, has won 25 of his 29 professional fights, including 14 by knock-out.  However, he has not fought for three years and his licence  has since been revoked by the British Boxing Board of Control.

The expression, the real McCoy, however, was around long before Scott Harrison was even born.  Going back more than a century, on October 17, 1891 the New Zealand Observer and Free Lance newspaper reported this little tidbit in the “Round The Churches” column.

The real McCoy and the musical Plant held a meeting at Otahuhu last week, and meet with a liberal supply of eggs.  The subject he volcanoed upon was “Trap doors to hell” and judging by the smell of the dead chickens, a plentiful supply of sulphur would have been a pleasant change.

Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have written a letter in 1883 that stated, “He’s the real Mackay.”

However,on March 14, 1879,  the Sarnia Observer newspaper published in Sarnia, Ontario (Canada) carried a lengthy news article about the Election of Officers and annual dance of the Sarnia Fire Department.  Once business had been tended to, the meeting was adjourned to Ellison’s Hotel where members and their spouses partook of the annual supper provided by the officers of the Fire Department.

Mr. Wm. Stewart also referred to his former relations with the department and to the pleasing associations with which they were connected.  Mr. Wm. Eveland sang, “The Real McCoy” in capital style.

The celebrations continued with many songs being sung and many toasts being made.  Among other songs sung was a rousing rendition of “Muldoon the Solid Man” by the Chairman and the comic song “The Mer-mi-aid” sung by Mr. Ellis. The pres was also recognized as the Vice-Chairman proposed a toast to “the press” in what was reported as a brief complimentary speech.  It was responded to by the representatives of The Observer and The Canadian newspapers.

That the song “The Real McCoy” was sung at this gathering and was recognized not only by the Fire Department and their spouses but by the press as well indicates that the song was well-known.  Since songs didn’t become well-known overnight as they did in the 20th century and do in the 21st century, it’s reasonable to believe that this song was in existence at least a decade — if not longer — prior to the event in 1879.

Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to track the song down — which would be in the public domain at this point — and is therefore unable to provide an exact date of publication for the song.

In the Marlborough Express newspaper in New Zealand, the newspaper carried an advertisement in the March 6, 1875 edition that read in part:

Important Notice
Great Clearing Sale of
Winter Stock of Boots and Shoes
To Make Room For Spring And Summer Goods
Daily Expected From England

Halfway down the advertisement, the following is found:

All kinds of books, periodicals and musical instruments procured at a considerable percentage below Blenheim prices to give every one a change to enjoy the same king of luxury that I enjoy myself.  Cut Tobacco — the real McKay — and other brands never introduced into Blenheim before.

It’s quite possible that the expression “the real Mackay” is from Scotland while the expression “the real McCoy” is from Canada, both appearing at about the same time.

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

Eat Like A Horse

Posted by Admin on April 21, 2011

If someone says that you eat like a horse, it mean you are eating, or have eaten, a lot of food.  In some instances this is a compliment while in others it’s an insult.  It all depends on the situation and the people involved.  Interestingly enough, in French the expression is “manger comme un ogre” (translation: eat like an ogre) or “manger comme quatre” (translation: eat as if one was four).

One of the funniest play on words was in Neel Chowdhury’s article in Time Magazine published on May 29, 2008.  The title of the article was “Eat Like A Horse Rider.”

The Baltimore Sun ran an article on December 28, 1952 entitled, “Add One Elephant To The Holiday Toll.”   The newspaper extended its sympathies to the children of Rome whose favorite elephant, Remo, had died on Christmas Eve. And yet despite the fact that this was a terribly sad occasion, the editors saw that a lesson could be drawn from the unexpected death at the Rome zoo.  And with that, the article spoke to the heart of holiday feasts, stating this in part:

For those of us who have survived the first rounds of holiday feasting, with the New Year’s banquets still to go, there is a moral in Remo’s gourmandian orgy. A person may be as hungry as a bear and may eat like a horse but there are definite limits beyond that.

Thee Pittsburgh Press ran an advertisement espousing the benefits of The Reese Formula R-11 in its August 9, 1920 edition.  It stated that a Mr. B.L. Allen, assistant foreman of the N&W Railway at Portsmouth, Ohio, claiming to previously suffering from “nervous indigestion and rheumatism” had this to say about the product’s efficacy:

I saw the medicine in the window at Fischer & Streich Drug Store and I decided to get a bottle and try it as I have always tried everything I saw. I am glad to say after taking two-thirds of the bottle I can eat like a horse, sleep like a country boy and feel like a 16-year old boy.  If you wish to sue my name you are at liberty to do so.  I will always recommend The Reese Formula R-11 to my friends.

These sorts of health claims haven’t changed over the years, the only difference being the illnesses that certain products supposedly address or cure.  Over in Sydney, Australia, the Sydney Mail newspaper ran an advertisement in their March 15, 1902 edition that made eerily similar health claims as the advertisement run in Pittsburgh in 1920.  This time it was about Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills.  In this instance, it  was a Mr. John Cook of Dunolly, Victoria, Australia who gave testimony:

About the middle of February last I was seized with a severe attack of Indigestion, and also pains across the chest, which caused me much agony, and upon making my case known I was advised to give your pills a trial.  I did so, bought one bottle from Mr. Kendall, the local chemist, and commenced their use, and before using on bottle I found they had made a great improvement so I continued their use, and had not finished the second bottle when I was sure they had cured me.  Another thing, before taking these pills I had no appetite, but now, as the saying is, I can eat like a horse.  I will recommend the pills wherever I go, as I am sure they will do to others as they have done to me.

Back on July 12, 1882 the St. Joseph Daily Gazette in St. Joseph, Missouri published an article on Tug Wilson, the English pugilist.  The upcoming match between Tug Wilson and John L. Sullivan that was set to take place at Madison Square Garden in New York the following week had sports enthusiasts buzzing with excitement.  It was reported that Sullivan had agreed to forfeit $1,000 — a princely sum at the time — he didn’t knock Tug out in four rounds and Tug stood to earn half the gate money if he succeeded in dodging the “sledgehammer blows of his redoubtable adversary beyond the prescribed time.”  Among other things, the newspaper article dealt with the boxer’s training regime.

He does not trouble his stomach with many soft vegetables but does in for beef, bread, mutton and eggs.  Dinner over, he rests until 2 o’clock, smokes a cigar, and then starts out and walks until 5 o’clock.  He has another trot around after supper.  His appearance has undergone a great change since he commenced training.  There is nothing “fluffy” about him now. He has hardened his muscles and reduced his weight most remarkably.  He can now skip about like a squirrel, eat like a horse, and move about like a champion pugilist.  His weight last Sunday was 174 pounds, and yesterday it was 157 pounds.  The fact of itself sufficiently indicates the severity of his training.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this expression however there appears to be a jump between the expression “work like a horse” and “eat like a horse.”  The former expression dates back to at least 1520 when horses replaced oxen and began to pull  carts, wagons, carriages, chariots and sleighs.  

As a side note, special yokes had to be designed for horses as the typical ox yoke applied so much pressure to the windpipe of a horse that it effectively cut off the horse’s supply of oxygen.  And surely if one was said to be working like a horse, it made sense that one would also be eating like a horse afterwards.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Screw Loose

Posted by Admin on March 3, 2011

The phrase “screw loose” likens a mental weakness to a machine in which a part is not securely fastened.

Back on May 4, 1970 the Eugene Register-Guard ran an article by Jack Gould of the New York Times about children’s programming.  In his article, “Programs For Children Make Little Sense” he wrote:

There is a screw loose in television’s approach ot programming for children.  The deservedly successful “Sesame Street” is fine enrichment of the morning hours and there’s been erratic improvement in the Saturday morning schedules of the commercial networks.  But the major need does not exist solely in the mornings, helpful though such morning diversion is, and the emphasis on Saturday morning programming is overstressed; that is the one period of the week when a family actually has a chance to get together.

In the Letters to the Editor at the New York Times on  August 4, 1900, Walter H. Lewiston had a fair bit to say to New Yorkers as well as the newspaper in his letter entitled, “How To Obtain Party Recruits.”  In it he wrote:

That it is necessary to urge the district leaders to do their duty is a proof that there is a screw loose somewhere, and to show how it got loose and why it remains so is the object of this communication, which I ask you to publish, as, notwithstanding your open opposition to the Democratic National ticket, I look upon The New York Times as being a Democratic paper.

In Anthony Trollope’s book “The Eustace Diamonds” published in 1870, in Chapter 69, a wedding is called off which means that the wedding breakfast booked at a hotel is cancelled.  The passage in the book reads:

Lady Eustace carried her message to the astonished and indignant bridesmaids, and succeeded in sending them back to their respective homes. Richard, glorious in new livery, forgetting that his flowers were still on his breast,–ready dressed to attend the bride’s carriage,–went with his sad message, first to the church and then to the banqueting-hall in Albemarle Street.

“Not any wedding?” said the head-waiter at the hotel. “I knew they was folks as would have a screw loose somewheres. There’s lots to stand for the bill, anyways,” he added, as he remembered all the tribute.

Now back in 1824, the Department of War, acting in what it claimed was “in the interest of peace, and restoration of good feeling between the Citizens and Indians of the [Washington] territory” brought a number of North American Indian chiefs to Washington, DC — an undertaking funded entirely by the Department.  Funds were juggled from a number of sources and to this day, it’s unclear why that might be.  However, it wasn’t something that was looked upon favourably by Department of War employees. In fact, one employee wrote  :

The derangements in the fiscal affairs of the Indian department are in the extreme.  One would think that appropriations had been handled with a pitchfork.  There is a screw loose in the public machinery somewhere.

The phrase comes from the cotton industry and dates back to 1793 with the industrial revolution.  For the first time, mass production of textiles was made possible thanks to the invention of the cotton gin. However, like all automated services, machines didn’t always run properly.  Machines that broke down or produced defective cloth were said to have a “screw loose” somewhere.

In 1798, Eli Whitney invented a way to manufacture muskets by machine so that the parts were interchangeable. Interestingly enough, when there was a misfire in the manufacture of the muskets or with the muskets themselves, a “screw loose” somewhere was the first thing that popped into people’s minds.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

You Never Had It So Good

Posted by Admin on July 13, 2010

In the movie, the Princess Bride, the following exchange is witnessed:

MIRACLE MAX:
Get back Witch!

VALERIE:
I’m not a witch, I’m your wife and after what you just said, I’m not sure I want to be that anymore.

MIRACLE MAX:
You never had it so good.

So where exactly did this phrase originate?  Surely it must have a long and colourful history.  Well, not exactly.

The phrase “you’ve never had it so good” is associated with the Conservative politician, Harold MacMillan (1894–1986), and refers to a speech he made as Prime Minister on 20 July 1957.  His exact words were: “Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good.”

At the time he said those words, he was correct however soon afterwards, inflation, rising unemployment and disruptive labour disputes were responsible for undoing the slow economic growth Britain had seen up until that point.

However, MacMillan didn’t just happen across that phrase accidentally as itw as used as the Democratic slogan for the 1952 U.S. Elections.  We’d like to think that some hardworking public relations guy working on campaigns came up with that phrase but it’s a little older than that even.

You see, the U.S. newspaper The Sunday Morning Star reported in September 1945 that this was the stock answer used in the U.S. Army when enlisted men complained about U.S. Army life.

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

Red Tape

Posted by Admin on March 23, 2010

This phrase was first noted in historical records in the 16th century, when Henry VIII sent Pope Clement VII approximately 80 petitions regarding his request for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  Keeping with the custom of the day, each one was sealed and bound with the obligatory red tape.

The tradition continued through to the 18th century.   The binding of documents and official papers with red tape was popularized in the writings of Thomas Carlyle who protested against official inertia.

In the U.S., all American Civil War veterans’ records were bound in red tape, and the difficulty in accessing them led to the current negative use of the term.

In 1996, Congress passed the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act referred to as the Red Tape Reduction Act.  In 1998, the province of Ontario saw the Red Tape Reduction Act receive Royal Assent on December 18, 1998.  Other provinces in Canada have followed suit with their own Red Tape Reduction Acts being enacted.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Kangaroo Court

Posted by Admin on March 22, 2010

The term “kangaroo court” is an expression that compares the jumping ability of kangaroos to a court that jumps to conclusions on an invalid basis. Such courts are set up in violation of established legal procedure, and are characterized by dishonesty and/or incompetence.

Despite the fact that a kangaroo is from Australia, the term is American and dates back to the California Gold Rush of 1849. Gold miners established kangaroo courts comprised of their fellow gold miners in order to deal with claim jumpers.

The first recorded use being in Texas in 1853.  The term “kangaroo court” was used interchangeably in Texas with the term “mustang court.”

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

Three Sheets To The Wind

Posted by Admin on March 10, 2010

Three sheets to the wind comes from the Mayflower and its Pilgrims who used the resources of the Mayflower once they arrived in the New World.

These windmills were built with three ‘blades’ that caught the wind.  In time, the Pilgrims came to realize that three sheets made for a rickety windmill and so they added a fourth blade to their windmill design.

When someone overindulged in alcohol and walked in a ‘rickety’ fashion, it was said that he was three sheets to the wind.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »