Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘American Civil War’

Keep Your Powder Dry

Posted by Admin on September 25, 2021

If someone tells you to keep your powder dry, they are really telling you to remain cautious, stay calm, and be ready for a possible emergency or a sudden change for the worse. Some may claim it’s the ancestor idiom to the phrase take care but it really isn’t since take care doesn’t really cover everything keep your powder dry covers.

For those who may not understand what that means, this harkens back to the day when weapons required loose gunpowder to fire. For gunpowder to work properly, it must be kept dry.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Gunpowder is known as one of the “Four Great Inventions of China” and was invented during the Tang Dynasty of the 9th century, and when guns appeared in the 13th century, gunpowder found another opportunity beyond arrows, rockets, bombs, and fire lances. It was particularly popular during the days of flintlock when powder and flintlock were carried in a horn slung to one side. It was susceptible to moisture, and if it wasn’t dry, it tended to clump and misfire instead of ignite and fire properly. By the 19th century, smokeless powder, nitroglycerin, and nitrocellulose were invented, and gunpowder saw its popularity decrease.

On 19 September 2020, the Washington Post reported on what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in the article, “Trump Says He Will Nominate Woman To Supreme Court Next Week.” It was clear what he meant when he used the idiom.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately told his members in a letter circulated Friday night to keep their powder dry on where they stand on proceeding with a confirmation fight this year.

The idiom was used in the 1945 movie, “Keep Your Powder Dry” starring Lana Turner (8 February 1921 – 29 June 1995), Laraine Day (13 October 1920 – 10 November 2007), and Susan Peter (3 July 1921 – 23 October 1952) as three Women’s Army Corps (WAC) recruits. Lana Turner’s character is a spoiled rich party girl who signs up in the hopes it will make her look more responsible to the trustees of her trust fund will give her the rest of her inheritance thereby leaving her free to party even more than she already does.

Susan Peter’s character is that of a young wife whose husband is in the Army who is doing something productive to help the cause while her husband is fighting, and Laraine Day’s character is an Army brat who can’t wait to join the military so she can be a soldier every bit as good as her father.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Lana Turner’s character is top of her class when it comes to identifying aircrafts but not because she’s an excellent student while in class. It has to do with how many pilots she dated before she joined the corps.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Agnes Moorehead (6 December 1900 – 30 April 1974) — which many remember as Samantha Steven’s mother, Endora, in the 1960s series “Bewitched” — plays the role of the company commander, exuding an understated but unmistakable authority. She plays the role with dignity and compassion without breaking the military chain of command.

Margaret Mead used the idiom in the title of her book “And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America” published in 1943.

The Times Literary Supplement of 1908 made use of the idiom in this passage:

In thus keeping his powder dry the bishop acted most wisely, though he himself ascribes the happy result entirely to observance of the other half of Cromwell’s maxim.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: The Times Literary Supplement was a supplement to the British daily national newspaper The Times (which was known as The Daily Universal Register from 1785 through to 1788 when it changed its name) when it first appeared in 1902 but by 1914, it was its own separate publication. Among the distinguished writers and authors who contributed to the publication are T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.

The idiom appeared in print in 1888 in the book “Irish Minstrelsy: Being A Selection of Irish Songs, Lyrics, and Ballads with Notes and Introduction by Henry Halliday Sparling” in a poem by Irish British Army officer, Member of the Royal Irish Academy, and Commissioner of the Treasury of Ireland, Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker (1 September 1777 – 25 November 1855) and publishing under a pseudonym. Every stanza ends with a slightly different variation of the idiom, but always ends with keep your powder dry.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: The poem was originally published in 1834 in The Dublin University Magazine titled “Oliver’s Advice: An Orange Ballad” and was a well-known poem of over fifty years by the time it was printed in the 1887 publication.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 6: William Blacker and his cousin, Valentine Blacker (19 October 1778 – 4 February 1825) were both lieutenant colonels in the British Army as well as published authors. Sometimes they published under pseudonyms (William Blacker occasionally published under the name of Fitz Stewart), and this is why there are instances were they are confused with each other.

In the midst of the American Civil War, Father C. Mayer wrote an arrangement of a song titled, “Boys, Keep Your Powder Dry: A Soldier’s Song.” It was published by Blackmar & Brothers, and lithographed by B. Duncan and Company of Columbia, South Carolina in 1863. The idiom was used as the last line in each verse as well as in the chorus.

Not they who are determined to conquer or to die;
And harken to this caution, “Boys, keep your powder dry.”

Across the ocean and back in England, Punch magazine was having a grand time with politics on 25 February 1859 when it reported on Lord Palmerston’s efforts to alert the House of Commons to what he felt was the menacing aspect of continental affairs. It was printed in the same column that Mr. Punch advised Queen Victoria to keep her powder dry. The column was followed by a poem that addressed the issue of keeping her powder dry, as well as a cartoon.

Now shortly before Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker’s poem was published in 1834, the idiom was bandied about by the Lords sitting for Parliament in the United Kingdom. One such occasion was 28 February 1832, in the discussion of education in Ireland was the subject, when William Pleydell-Bouverie (11 May 1779 – 9 April 1869), 3rd Earl of Radnor stated:

On that occasion, Mr. Archdal concluded his speech by saying, “My friends, I will now only add the words used by Oliver Cromwell to his army, when marking through a ford, ‘My boys trust in the Lord, and keep your powder dry.'”

Trust in God and keep your powder dry” is repeatedly attributed to Oliver Cromwell (25 April 1599 – 3 September 1658). It is claimed that when Cromwell’s troops were about to cross a river to attack the enemy, he concluded his address to the troops with this idiom.

Allegedly, Oliver Cromwell said this to his regiment in 1642 when it was about to attack the enemy at the Battle of Edgehill, and allegedly Oliver Cromwell said this to the soldiers in 1650 at the Battle of Dunbar, and allegedly Oliver Cromwell said this every time there was a battle that involved crossing a river to get to the enemy’s side.

But did Oliver Cromwell ever say this? According to the Cromwell Museum there isn’t any evidence he ever said that. None. Not even once.

That doesn’t mean Oliver Cromwell didn’t say it, only that there’s no proof he said it. Maybe he said it, then again, maybe he didn’t. At the end of the day, however, it is very sound advice, don’t you agree?

Idiomation tags this expression to the 1820s with the earliest published version found in the 1832 papers that show the 3rd Earl of Radnor using the idiom indicating others understood what he meant when he talked about keeping one’s powder dry.

But who said it first is still up in the air.

To add a little extra fun to today’s entry, here’s “Keep Your Powder Dry” from the movie of the same name (back in the 1940s, face powder was the kind of make-up most women wore so enjoy the double meaning of the expression keep your powder dry).

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Kissing Cousins

Posted by Admin on March 6, 2021

Last week while researching kith and kin, a journalist’s column from 1960 postulated that the expression kissing cousins was a variation of kith and kin. Idiomation decided to put that theory to the test.

Out of curiosity, Idiomation wondered how common cousin marriages there were around the world, and lo and behold, more than ten percent of marriages are between first or second cousins according to a piece written for the New York Times by Sarah Kenshaw but was published on 26 November 2009 titled, “Shaking Off The Shame.”

Author H.G. Wells married his first cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, and poet Edgar Allan Poe married his first cousin Virginia Clemm as did Christopher Robin Milne (son of author A.A. Milne) who married his first cousin Lesley Selincourt. Even Albert Einstein married his first cousin as did Charles Darwin!

Knowing there are so many kissing cousins in the world even in this generation, the origins of the expression were even more intriguing.

During the Civil War, kissing cousins referred to relatives who held the same political views. It also went beyond that as seen in American author, journalist, and Confederate sympathizer Edward Alfred Pollard’s piece, “A Re-Gathering of ‘Black Diamonds’ in the Old Dominion” published in Southern Literary Messenger in October 1859:

Pursuing my journey, I make the usual round of visits to uncles and cousins, and even remoter relatives. Again I am charmed by visits to hospitable kin; and again, I am especially charmed by the Virginia fashion of kissing cousins to the third degree. The pretty cousin “with the Roman name” is again greeted with a kiss, and found not only on her lips but in her heart as sweet as ever. God bless her!

Corporal Streeter spoke on the subject on 25 September 1844 in the Spartanburg Spartan newspaper where the following was printed.

Hear what Corporation Street says about kissing cousins: The lips of a pretty cousin are a sort of ground between a sister’s and a neutral stranger’s. If you sip, it is not because you love, nor exactly because you have the right, nor upon grounds Platonic, nor with the calm satisfaction that you kiss a favorite sister. It is a sort of hocus pocus commingling of all, into which each feeling throws its part, until the concatenation is thrilling, peculiar, exciting, delicious, and emphatically slick. This is as near a philosophical analization as we can well come.

It should be noted that in the mid-1700s, the meaning of the word cousin changed to such a degree to make the earlier definition obsolete. In William Shakespeare’s time, it was common to refer to any kinsman to whom one was related as cousin which is why in the play “Much Ado About Nothing” Leonato says to his brother Antonio: “How now brother, where is my cousin, your son?

Medieval literature indicates that back in the day, cousin referred to any relative who was not your sibling or your parent but it could refer to a grandchild or a godchild as well as illegitimate children, especially those of men and women of the cloth). In other words, cousin had very broad applications during Medieval times.

It appears that across the centuries, the word cousin has been a generic word used to cover many levels of kinship.

Of note is the fact that in 1796, the term Kentish cousin was used to describe distant relatives who actually were cousins in the sense of the word as we understand it to mean in the 21st century.

However, the idiom kissing cousin in the sense it means in 2021 is, for the most part, a 20th century creation which is: A person, especially a relative, whom one knows well enough to kiss more or less formally upon meeting. That has been the accepted definition of the idiom since the 1930s.

At the end of the day, there isn’t anything naughty about kissing cousins, and there’s nothing shameful about referring to someone as a kissing cousin. So here’s a delightful photo of kissing cousins from the Michigan Daily newspaper of 15 July 1984 snapped by Rebecca Knight.

KISSING COUSINS, Michigan Daily, 15 July 1984

KISSING COUSINS, Michigan Daily, 15 July 1984

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

In High Cotton

Posted by Admin on August 4, 2015

It’s not often that you hear of someone living in high cotton, but when you do, you know that person is living the easy life and is doing well financially.

The roots of this idiom are found in the southern United States in the years before the American Civil War. When cotton grew high and was abundant (in other words, a bumper crop), a good price could be had for that cotton leaving the farmer flush with cash. That same cotton crop came with bonuses for field workers as well by way of shade courtesy of the high cotton, which spared field workers from the harsh rays of the scorching sun overhead.

Just this month, the idiom was used in an article on August 4, 2015 on San Antonio’s Express-News website. The article was about how the Lubbock wineries were defying all odds and producing some amazing wines. A photo of owner, Vijay Reddy standing alongside some of his vines on his 100 acre vineyard showed how well the venture was doing. The article included this intriguing paragraph.

Vijay Reddy, a soil expert, emigrated to West Texas from India and wound up in high cotton himself. But, although there’s no history of grape-growing or winemaking in his family, Reddy’s relatively newfound passion has led him to plant more than 20 varietals over about 100 acres on his spread near Brownfield.

About twenty years ago, nationally syndicated columnist, Charley Reese wrote about the state of affairs in Washington in an article entitled, “Budget Balancing Act All An Act.” His column took on the issue of $1.4 trillion in federal spending couples with another $800 billion in state and local spending. When all was said and done, it was clear that Charley Reese wasn’t impressed with what was going on in Washington. He kicked off the column with this statement.

If we could manage our own finances the way the Congress does the nation’s, we’d all be living in high cotton and eating high on the hog.

The column by James J. Kilpatrick that was published on July 21, 1970 in the Herald-Journal newspaper took Washington to task as well, this time on the issue of consumer protection, and Maryland Senator Joe Tydings Consumer Class Action Act.  The Act didn’t address the problem of bad workmanship or poor design or anything else along those lines. The operative words in the Act were “unfair” and “deceptive.”

It is more accurately an act to line the pockets of ingenious attorneys. If this bill passes, the lawyers will be in high cotton; their client consumers will be still hoeing the short rows.

On page 114 of Volume 170 of The Atlantic Monthly magazine published in 1942, the expression could be found in this short story.

You have been walking in high cotton for a long time; keep it up! I was born in the deep South, lived all over the U. S. A., and have seen and experienced much abroad.

The fact of the matter is that the cotton industry helped to grow the American economy in the 1830s and 1840s, and it wasn’t long before people cottoned on to the slogan, “Cotton is king.” After sugar and tobacco, cotton considered a luxury commodity around the world. By the time the mid-1800s rolled around, cotton was America’s leading export. What’s more, raw cotton had become essential to the European economy.

Cotton was to the economy then what oil has become to the economy now. Not only did cotton generate large revenues for plantation owners in the United States (and indirectly for the United States of America overall), it impacted on the American government’s ability to borrow money in the global market.

How much cotton was produced by America for the European market, you ask? Prior to the American Civil War, 77 percent of the 800 million pounds of cotton used by Britain came from the United States. It provided two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton outside of Britain.

And how was America able to provide so much cotton to the world’s economies? In 1793, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had teeth with which it could comb out and separate the seeds from the cotton. Because of this, cotton became an extremely profitable cash business that eventually surpassed even tobacco production. Once cotton became a lucrative crop, many plantation owners in the Antebellum South amassed impressive fortunes.

Back in 1860, cotton sold for $0.10 cents a pound, but by 1864, cotton sold for $1.89 a pound. Understandably, the better the crop, the higher the price that could be demanded for that crop.

And this is how in high cotton came to mean an easy life with more than enough money to rely on.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

That Dog Won’t Hunt

Posted by Admin on June 11, 2015

It’s not often you hear someone say that dog won’t hunt and have it refer to something other than actual hunting.  The idiom refers to suggesting losing propositions for serious consideration.

Just a shy of a decade ago, on Jun 29, 2005 the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in Idaho published an OpEd piece written by Murf Raquet that addressed the issue of licensing county dogs and who would pay for the licensing.  Part of the problem was that many of the dogs in the county were strays, and that the county was seen by many as a dumping ground for unwanted pets.

The Humane Society of the Palouse was looking to Moscow and Latah County to fund the animal shelter with an increase from the previous approved amount of $10,000 USD to $30,000 USD, and county commissioners got the idea into their heads that the additional monies could come from licensing dogs in the county.  But not everyone saw things the way the county commissioners saw things!

But there are many other deserving groups that also look to the country for funding.  The county well is not deep enough to satisfy everyone.

“I don’t know where we’re going to find the funds unless we increase the revenue,” Commissioner Tom Stroschein said.

Well, that revenue won’t come from licensing in rural Latah — that dog won’t hunt.

In the “Outdoors Section” of the Times Daily on January 26, 2002 journalist Dennis Sherer used the idiom in his column titled, “Dog Days Coming To Mt. Hope.”  The article began thusly:

Growing up in Walker County — where most folks speak southern English — I often heard the phrase “that dog won’t hunt.”

I cannot recall hearing someone say the phrase in reference to an actual hunting dog.  But it was a polite way in Walkerese to tell someone that what they were suggesting was not likely to work.

In the August 7, 1987 edition of The Dispatch, Tom Wicker wrote an article about Ronald Reagan’s peace plan for Nicaragua.  He wrote that the plan was most likely nothing more than a ploy to win votes for renewed military aid for the CIA organized and controller Contras fighting in Nicaragua. The article was entitled quite simply, “That Dog Won’t Hunt.”

In the fourth book of Volume XIV of the “American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage” magazine published by the American Dialect Society in 1939, the idiom was listed.

‘If the’ ain’t no fools, the’ ain’t no fun,’ said usually in self-derision; and ‘That old dog won’t hunt,’ meaning that an excuse offered will not serve. These and the numerous specimens which follow have simply been grouped by the present writer under the heading of Miscellaneous, explanations being made only when the meaning is not clearly evident.

During the Civil War, however, the expression was this:  Pride is a dog that won’t hunt.  During the Civil War, the expression was abbreviated to that dog won’t hunt and it has stayed that way ever since.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Skedaddle

Posted by Admin on February 12, 2015

Most of us heard the word skedaddle used when we were children, usually when we were at risk of getting caught by grown-ups for doing something we shouldn’t have been doing in the first place:  Skedaddle!  The word means to run away quickly, and as several generations of children will tell you, skedaddling has saved many a child from a good paddling.

The Milwaukee Journal of July 22, 1927 published an article entitled, “Skedaddle Created by Oberlin College.”  It stated that the Oberlin College alumni were laying claim to the invention of the word, stating that it was a corruption of the Greek word skendannumi which means “to scatter.”  While there’s no doubt that this was a word used by those enlisted with the Union forces, but as to whether its roots lie with Oberlin College or in the Greek lexicon is something that has been hotly debated for generations.

How hotly?  There are others who claim that the word is a mash-up of two British dialect words:  sket and daddle.  The former means “rapidly” while the latter means “to walk unsteadily.”  Still others claim that the word is a mash-up of scatter and rattled but somehow that explanation seems far-fetched even to linguistic hobbyists.  Still, there are many plausible and far-fetched explanations as to the origins of the word skedaddle.

The Kendallville Standard published a story on March 11, 1898 entitled, “Spaniards Must Skedaddle.”  The article reported that the American Senate had recognized Cuba as a republic, and that President McKinley was directed to use as much U.S. military force as needed to force Spain to withdraw from the island.  The story also included additional information on the amendment by Senator Turple of Indiana that was added to the Davis Declaration of Intentions, and voted on.  The Senate resolution was nearly identical to the resolution to the one introduced by Senator Forster of Ohio.

In the July 23, 1862 edition of a newspaper known as The Head Quarters published in Fredericton (New Brunswick, Canada), a poem was published that was said to be republished from a Richmond newspaper.  The poem ran at the end of the newspaper’s report from their army correspondent — a report that included information that Stonewall Jackson was 18 miles east of Washington, and that there was general depression in the army of the Potomac and that, in trying to raise their spirits, the President had sent Christy’s Minstrels to cheer them up.

SKEDADDLE

The shades of night were falling fast
As thro’ a Southern village passed
A youth who bore in hand of ice
A banner, with the strange device —
Skedaddle.”

His hair was red, his toes beneath
Pressed like an acorn from its sheath,
While with a frightened voice he sung
A burden, in the Yankee tongue —
Skedaddle.”

He saw no household fire where he
Could warm his toes or hominy,
Or beg from Southern hand a bone;
Then from the Yankee ‘scaped a grown —
Skedaddle.”

Oh! stay a “cullered pusson” said,
An’ on dis bussum res your head;
The noble patriot winked his eye
But still he answered with a sigh —
Skedaddle.”

Beware Jeff. Davis’ serried ranks —
Beware of “Beargard’s” deadly pranks;
This was the platner’s last good night —
The chap replied far out of sight —
Skedaddle.”

At break of day, as several boys,
From Texan and Carolinian shores,
Were moving Southward, in the air
They heard these accents of despair —
Skedaddle.”

A chap was found, and at his side
A bottle, showing how he died,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
The banner with the strange device —
Skedaddle.”

This proves that the word skedaddle was already in use (and understood) as early as 1862.  In fact, it was used in a number of news articles and stories, including “A Colored Citizen’s Patriotic Speech” which was published in many places including the “Standard Recitations: For Use Of Catholic Colleges, Schools and Literary Societies.”

But my feller-buffers, dis a day to rejoice and kick up yer pedals, and to “Sing song, Polly, can’t you ki-me oh?”  If I may use de expression — and as de balmy zephers wafts its way from the horizon ob all’ de hemispheres — I think I hear de shivalerry sing, “Oh, brudders, let’s skedaddle!” and, my hearers, dey do skedaddle wheneber dey see any ob Uncle Sam’s blue-tail flies arter ’em.

But how much earlier can the word skedaddle be traced?

According to “Notes and Queries: For Readers and Writers, Collectors and Librarians” published in 1856 by publishers Bell and Daldy in London (England), it was identified as a provincialism.  This puts use of the word six years before the American Civil War and so the word existed before the American Civil War and wasn’t as a result of the American Civil War.

Since the publishers of the book are in London, the answer to the age-old question about how the word skedaddle came about is most likely found in Ireland where the word sgadad means “to flee” and ol means “all.”  Therefore sgadad ol means “all flee” which, of course, is the meaning of the word skedaddle.

What this means is that the word, having been referred to as a provincialism, makes the new word skedaddle an Americanism that was well enough known to be recognized as provincialism in England as early as 1856.  Idiomation pegs this word then to the mid 1850s at the latest, with a nod to the Irish sgadad ol.

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

Shebang

Posted by Admin on February 10, 2015

Recently, I watched the Brian De Palma movie, “The Untouchables” on DVD again.  It’s a movie that plays well years after its release and stars Kevin Costner and Sean Connery among other well-known names today.  In the movie, there’s one scene where Eliot Ness sends his young daughter and pregnant wife away for safety’s sake. Angered at having his family’s safety threatened by Frank Nitti on behalf of Al Capone, Eliot Ness tells Malone that he wants to take the battle to Capone.  Malone replies:

Well, then, a Merry Christmas.  We’ve got some great news.  A huge international shipment’s coming. We’ve got the time, the place and the whole shebang.

But what exactly is a shebang, and what does it mean in today’s lexicon?  Informally speaking, the word shebang refers to the structure of something such as an organization or a situation or a project.  It generally implies the sum total as opposed to the parts that make up the whole.

Of course, techno-geeks will tell you that a shebang is a character script sequence that begins with the number sign and an exclamation mark and is favored by Unix-type operating systems.  However, the word is older than computer science.

It was in the July 29, 1890 edition of the Toronto Daily Mail newspaper that a two-volume book by the famous and experience African explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley (28 January 1841 – 10 May 1904) whose reputation, it was claimed in the newspaper, was well-known throughout the world.

SIDE NOTE:  Sir Henry Morton Stanley is identified as the person who uttered the immortal — and oft quoted and misquoted — question, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” upon finding the lost missionary and explorer David Livingstone in the supposed deepest, darkest Africa.

The book was all about the Emin Relief Expedition to Africa that began in 1887 and continued into 1888.

Lieutenant Stairs, Mr. Jephson, and myself were out at the extreme west end of the spur enjoying the splendid view, admiring the scenery, and wondering when such a beautiful land would become the homestead of civilized settlers.  Stairs thought that it resembled New Zealand, and said that he would not mind having a ranche here.  He actually went so far as to locate it, and pointed out the most desirable spot.  “On that little hill I will build my house” — “Shebang” he called it.  I wonder if that is a New Zealand term for a villa.

During the American Civil War, a shebang was understood to mean “a hut or shed, one’s living quarters.” In short, it was a word that referred to a temporary shelter for soldiers in the field.  How do we know this?

The American Civil War was famous for its slang of uncertain origin, and shebang is among those words of uncertain origin in many respects.  But make no doubt about it, many consider the word an Americanism by nearly every standard.  Even the book “Americanisms: The English of the New World” compiled by Maximillian Schele De Vere and published by Charles Scribner & Co. and published in 1872 included the word.

Shebang used even yet by students of Yale College, and elsewhere to designate their rooms, or a theatrical or other performance in a public hall, has its origin probably in a corruption of the French cabane, a hut, familiar to the troops from Louisiana, and constantly used in the Confederate camp for the simple huts, which they built with such alacrity and skill for their winter quarters.  The constant intercourse between the outposts soon made the term familiar to the Federal army also.

In the annual report from the Office of the Nez Percé Indian Agency by Charles Hutchins, U.S. Indian Agent for Washington Territory on June 30, 1862 to the Secretary of the Interior, the author made use of the word shebang.

Along all the roads on the reservation to all the mines, at the crossing of every stream or fresh-water spring, and near the principal Indian villages, an inn or “shebang” is established, ostensibly for the entertainment of travellers, but almost universally used as a den for supplying liquor to Indians.

The term is found in many government documents from the United States House of Representatives to the Adjutant General’s Office, from the  United States Congress to the Bureau of Military Statistics, and beyond.

Some have speculated that there might be a connection between shebang and the Irish word shebeen — spelled sibín — while others discount it because “bang” and “been” can scarcely be mistaken for each other.  However, a shebeen house in Ireland was one that usually sold unlicensed spirits, and were referred to as resorts of bad characters. In other words, a shebeen in Ireland didn’t sound to be much different than the shebang spoken of in the report from the Office of the Nez Percé Indian Agency in Washington state.

Another important historical fact to remember is this:  While many may remember the infamous Irish Brigade of the North, the more than 40,000 Irish who fought on the side of the South during the American Civil War seem to have been overlooked and forgotten.  The Irish were, in fact, the largest immigrant group fighting on the side of the South — a feat that was not returned by the Irish fighting on the side of the North.  What’s more, there were many Irish-born and first-generation Irish officers that moved their way up the Confederate Army ladder.

In other words, the likelihood that the word shebang was originally shebeen is very good considering its roots as slang during the American Civil War years.  When coupled with the fact that at about the same time, the word shebang also existed in the English spoken in New Zealand — a country that also saw a great deal of Irish immigrants throughout the 1800s — which only strengthens the probably connection between the two words.

That being said, however, the word shebang doesn’t seem to appear in print prior to the American Civil War although it was very obviously used among the general population given that the word was used by government officials as from the onset of the American Civil War.  Because of this, Idiomation pegs the word shebang to the mid-1800s.

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

Hold The Line

Posted by Admin on December 13, 2013

Sometimes holding the line has nothing to do with taking a position and defending it. Sometimes it simply has to do with waiting on the phone while an operator or administrative assistant puts you through to another extension. The caller holds the line instead of hanging up.

In the Boston Globe edition of November 26, 1962 the news story by Lloyd Shearer entitled “The President’s Time Of Decision” questions why any man in his right mind would want to become the President of the United States. Found on page 3 in section B6 of the newspaper, it included this line:

He asks Mr. Khrushchev please to hold the line and picks up the SAC phone.

On April 29, 1947, the Evening Independent of St. Petersburg, Florida reported on the telephone company strike and its effect on customers placing long distance calls. The writer — known only as The Rambler — wrote about a long distance call he placed to his daughter in Washington. Setting up the story, he wrote:

He asked the operator here if the call could be put through quickly. She said she would try and told the Rambler to hold the line. He heard her asked [sic] Jacksonville for a line to Washington, then heard the Washington operator answer and get then umber of the telephone in Alexandria. Then he heard the ring of the bell in his daughter’s home and almost immediately, she answered.

The Boston Daily Globe published a serial story under the heading “The Web Of Intrigue” by Coralie Stanton and Heath Hosken back in 1913. Not every story or novel written by Coralie Stanton (1877 – unknown) and Heath Hosken was published in volume form, and many were serialized in various newspapers and magazines, including Munsey’s Magazine. Coralie Stanton was actually Mary Alice Cecil Seymour Keay and Heath Hosken was her husband, journalist and author Ernest Charles Heath Hosken (1875 – 1934) who sometimes went by the pen name, Pierre Costello. Their co-written stories as well as their solo efforts focused on romance and intrigue in exotic locales. The serialized story was described thusly: “The Snares of Clever and Designing Women Appear in High Relief in This Romance, the Plot of Which Centers About a Baffling Murder Mystery.”   It’s in the May 16, 1913 edition that the expression is used, when the question is asked of one of the story’s characters: Hadn’t he better hold the line?

It was in the book, “Regulations for United States Military Telegraph lines: U.S. Signal Corps” prepared under the direction of Brigadier-General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer of the Army in 1909, the following was written:

US Military Signals_Rule 89_1909

Although the U.S. Military rule has to do with the telegraph, in 1908 telephone companies also talked about holding lines — and giving them to others as they saw fit — as seen in this advertisement published in the American Telephone Journal (Volume 18) on page 9.  In fact it states that no subscriber “can hold the line to the detriment of services nor against the Emergency Signal.”  Don’t forget to check out the three-minute rule comment!

American Telephone Journal_Volume 18_1908

During the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) newspaper reporters competed for open telegraph lines and to hold the line while preparing their breaking news dispatches, they would have operator punch out verses from the Bible to their editors back home.

American painter and inventor, Samuel Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) had approached Washington almost two decades earlier with the proposal that he build an experimental 38-mile telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland that would follow the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad right-of-way. Congress set aside $30,000 USD in 1843 for that purpose, and the line was unveiled on May 1, 1844. Exactly one year later, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was established, and Samuel Morse patented the telegraph in 1847. In 1851, his telegraph was adopted as the standard for telegraphy in Europe and the United States.

This is important because it shows that holding the line was not possible before Samuel Morse invented the telegraph (which pre-dates the telephone by 25 years). To this end, Idiomation pegs the idiom hold the line as it pertains to communications to the start of the Civil War in 1861.

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Ducks In A Row

Posted by Admin on August 22, 2011

It’s “Everything’s Ducky Week” at Idiomation and we’re starting off with the expression to get or have your ducks in a row.  This refers to having things well-organized before you begin.  Many online sources and books claim that the phrase is slang that came about in the 1970s, however, Idiomation has found earlier printed news stories with the phrase ducks in a row.

The Spartanburg Herald Journal in South Carolina ran a story on June 21, 1947 entitled, “The Bulwinkle Bill” which dealt with the bill designed to give the railroads in America the right to confer  upon matters of rate making, under approval of the Interstate Commercial Commission which was colloquially referred to as the Bulwinkle Bill.  However, the bill was opposed by a group of Southern senators despite its passing by the Senate with a two-thirds majority. The article stated:

The railroads of this country are entitled to “get their ducks in a row.”  They are now, and always will, bear the burden of traffic in this country and they have not in recent years enjoyed a very substantial prosperity.  They have encountered competition from truck traffic and will experience further competition from air transportation.

The Herald Sports weekly newspaper published an article written by Associated Press staff writer Miles H. Wolff on November 17, 1931 entitled “Columbia and Clinton Scenes Of Hot Games.”  He began his article with this:

The schedule makers of our South Carolina colleges are busily engaged just now getting their ducks in a row for the 1932 football season.  That they are having difficulties can be guessed at from the fact that the end of November nears and not one institution of higher learning has announced its next, year’s card.

Earlier yet, the Daily Progress newspaper in Petersburg, Virginia ran an article on June 16, 1910.

It quite frequently happens that when political parties and even nations think they have “their ducks in a row” the unexpected happens which knocks their well-laid plans awry.

Now the top bowlers of the 19th century in America decided that bowling needed a standard set of rules and so the American Bowling Congress — which was renamed the United States Bowling Congress in later years — was established in 1895. The game had been brought to America by the Dutch, Germans and English shortly before the Civil War when only 9 pins were used in the game. The game proved to be very popular with the population, so much so that in 1841, Connecticut outlawed 9-pin bowling due to its association with gambling.

To get around the law, indoor bowling alley proprietors added a tenth pin to the game in 1870 and the new game flourished. The game was modified and short, slender pins were introduced called duckpins because of the pin’s appearance.

However, modernization hadn’t yet come to these bowling alleys and people were employed by the indoor bowling alleys to set the pins up for each player’s frame in a game.  The re-setting of the pins was referred to as getting one’s ducks in a row.

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Harvest Moon

Posted by Admin on December 23, 2010

The harvest moon is a lunar phenomenon that takes place during autumn, with the full moon closest to the Fall equinox, and roughly around traditional harvest time. The moon is much closer to the earth at that point, and takes on a very different yellow hue.  This is primarily due to the dust in the earth’s stratosphere. 

In the Wall Street Journal of November 23, 1955 the newspaper published an article with this intriguing lead:

A week from now the harvest moon of song and story will be big and golden as a Thanksgiving pumpkin in the sky. And a man on Long Island ha started to slice it up. For $1, Mr. Robert Coles. with the Hayden Planetarium, will sell you a deed to n one-acre plot in Copernicus Crater.

What many don’t know is that the Harvest Moon is part of American history.  It was a steam operated gunboat that was part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  It left Boston on February 18, 1864 and arrived just off Charleston, South Carolina, February 25 1864, and the day after it arrived in Charleston, Rear Admiral John Adolphus Dahlgren made the steamer his flagship. A little over a year later, on March 1, 1865 the Harvest Moon struck a torpedo in Winyah Bay, South Carolina,  where the bulkhead shattered and then sank.

In 1747, Scottish Astronomer James Ferguson published his first work entitled “A dissertation on the Phenomena of the Harvest Moon” for the Royal Society of London; he later became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in November 1763.

On October 27, 1415, Hottric Abendon gave a sermon at the Council of Constance — the 15th ecumenical council recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, held from November 16, 1414 to April 22, 1418 — that cried out for the reformation of the Church of England.  In the text of the sermon, the Harvest Moon was referenced by stating:

When the harvest moon comes and the barns are full, then those beneficed men will be at home.

The term was part of everyday language in 1415 which means it was in use at least the generation prior to this sermon being given by Dr. Abendon.

The Asian Mid-Autumn or Harvest Moon Festival, also known as the Moon Cake Festival, fell on September 21 this year.  The bearing of lanterns and the origin of mooncakes that are central to this festival date back to a 14th century revolt by the Chinese against the Mongols. 

In 1376, the Chinese overthrew the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1280-1376) in an uprising brilliantly devised and carried out by lantern-bearing messengers who delivered mooncakes with hidden messages inside.

The Moon Cake Festival itself dates back to the Tang dynasty in 618 AD so one could say that the Harvest Moon, known by many names, has been around since at least 618 AD.

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Basket Case

Posted by Admin on December 20, 2010

The term basket case usually refers to a person who is a nervous wreck.  It also refers to a country or organization as evidenced by a story run by the Los Angeles Times on September 23, 1994.  The headline read:

Haitian economy, infrastructure a basket case
Nation lacks everything, needs repair from ground up

However, back in 1971, due to the war for independence that Bangladesh waged against Pakistan, Bangladesh was labeled by an official in Henry Kissinger’s U.S. State Department as an “international basket case.”

A year earlier, in 1970, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was suffering from severely degraded ecosystems.  The U.S. National Park Service considered the park to be an “ecological basket case.”  Over the years, the damage was reversed but this does not negate the fact that 40 years ago, it was an “ecological basket case.”

Before that, it was a grim slang during World War I, referring to a person who is physically disabled in all four limbs because of paralysis or amputation.  This bulletin was issued by the U.S. Command on Public Information in March 28, 1919 on behalf of Major General M. W. Ireland, the U.S. Surgeon General and read in part:

The Surgeon General of the Army … denies … that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated … of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.

The Syracuse Herald newspaper carried the story in March 1919 and added the following explanation to its readers:

By ‘basket case’ is meant a soldier who has lost both arms and legs and therefore must be carried in a basket.

The term was retired after WWI and resurrected in WWII when a denial from the Surgeon General Major General Norman T. Kirk was issued in May 1944 which stated:

… there is nothing to rumors of so-called ‘basket cases’ — cases of men with both legs and both arms amputated.

It is therefore easy to see that until the latter quarter of the 20th century, the term basket case referred to quadriplegics whose catastrophic wounds were as a result of a battle in which they were involved. 

The term basket case in this instance has been around since about the American Civil War.  In fact, there are American museums who have wicker body baskets, circa 1870, now on display.  It is believable that these baskets were indeed the basket cases in question and that the term originated with these baskets as the following item dated November 6, 1875 in The Constitution newspaper published in Atlanta, Georgia contained this as part of the advertisement:  12 Stylish Basket Case Suits $14.

References to basket cases prior to this date could not be found by Idiomation.

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