Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Posts Tagged ‘Americanism’

Rock Bottom

Posted by Admin on February 24, 2015

When someone hits rock bottom, the person finds himself or herself in the worst possible situation he or she ever imagined he or she would ever experience in life.  When something hits rock bottom, the item is at the absolute lowest price before it becomes a loss leader.  And when an organization, group, government, or other social structure hits rock bottom, it means that organization, group, government, or social structure has reached the lowest possible level.  In other words, you can’t go any lower than rock bottom.

The Beaver County Times published a Letter to the Editor on October 31,2003 entitled, “Hitting Rock Bottom.”  It was a brief snippet of a letter from Jerry Miskulin of Center Township that summed up his opinion in four sentences.

It’s like I always say about recovering alcoholics or drug addicts.  Sometimes they have to hit rock bottom to see straight.  America, financially, is going to have to hit rock bottom before it sees straight.  Maybe it would be best sooner before it’s too late.

In what reads as a humorous twist of fate, the Day newspaper in New London, Connecticut reported in September 13, 1983 that a certain construction company of Framingham, Massachusetts was the low bidder for construction of the first segment of the municipal sewer project.  Of ten bids received by Montville’s Board of Selectmen, it was announced that the lowest bid– the rock bottom bid, so to speak — came from Rockbottom Construction Inc.

The Milwaukee Sentinel edition of January 16, 1955 published the two page spread entitled, “Those Fabulous Patinos.”  It traced the highlights of the Simon Patino story that told of a lowly clerk in a general store in Bolivia who accepted title to a “worthless” silver mine as payment in full of a $250 bill at the store.  He was summarily fired by the owner for this crime, and the title to the “worthless” silver mine went with him.  But what had mistakenly been thought of as a silver mine was actually a rich tin mine at a time when tin was scarce in much of the world.  It wasn’t long before the “worthless” silver mine had made Patino a billionaire!

According to the story, 1954 was dubbed “the year the Patino luck ran out” where the third generation of Patino’s were largely responsible for the woes brought to the family fortune.  But among all the woes and strife of the third generation, there seemed to be one who from among them that had escaped the rule of bad luck:  Maria Christina, daughter of Antenor and Christina Patino.  She was happily married (unlike her other relations) to Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon, mayor of Haroue in France, and a prominent, respected member of French society.

Maria Christina’s only big sorrow, I believe, was at the time of her marriage, in 1952 — when her father refused to allow her mother to attend the elaborate wedding.  As for the rock-bottom bad  luck of 1954, it did not touch Maria Christinia, except by indirection, but it kept other members of the Patino empre aware that their inheritance is a dual one — of fortune and misfortune.  It is as though fate were trying belatedly to balance the scales again, after tipping them so heavily in favor of old Simon, whose story might have been dreamed up by Horatio Alger.

The Sunday Morning Star newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware published an article by Stuart P. West in the March 27, 1921 edition that talked about the cuts western railroads made without reducing wages.  The headline read, “Optimists Believe Price Cutting Has Reached Rock Bottom” and this was part of the news story:

It cannot be expected that wages and other items of expense will be reduced sufficiently to counterbalance the slump in orders.  Still the shrinkage in gross earnings would be viewed with equanimity if manufacturing and production costs were at the same time being restored to a sound and normal basis.  As to the ability of the heads of American industry to accomplish this result there is certainly more ground for optimism than for pessimism.  Outside the railroads, wage reduction have been put into effect almost everywhere without friction.

Jumping back to 1884, the idiom rock bottom was already in use in magazines, catalogues and newspapers as well as in everyday language.  The front page of the Charles Stark catalogue has the idiom printed on its front cover to entice readers to buy from Charles Stark of Toronto, Ontario (Canada).

ROCK BOTTOM_Charles Stark_1884
Strangely enough, the term rock bottom didn’t always have a negative connotation.  In fact, in the Oregon News edition published on August 29, 1858 it was used in a complimentary way to describe one of the politicians running for office.  In an article where the editor quoted Colonel Tetrault — described as the Napoleon of the Democratic press in Oregon — the Colonel was determined to point out the  weak points in the Democrat party.

“Let us inquire what first brought about the organization of the Democratic party in Oregon. If any of the ultra politicians of the present day know the principal ennui, let them assign it.  We, for ourself, think we know full well that the location of the public buildings during the session of the Territorial Legislature had much to do with the then party organization in and we find men who opposed General Lane in 1851, still opposing him.”

So then a “rock-bottom democrat,” according to the Colonel, is one who goes for keeping the “public buildings” on the Salem “basalt.”

In the following manner does the Colonel point a significant finger at the post record: “In 1831, the first time General Lane was a candidate for office in Oregon, there was a Salemite run against him for Delegate to Congress, who received the support of some of the leading Democrats of the present day.”

However the sense of the idiom is still present.  When all else is stripped away, all that’s left is “rock bottom.”

The term is a mining term that came about at a time before power drilling techniques were developed, and was popularized in the 1840s.  When mining for ores, the farthest down a person could go before there was nothing to be mined or ores could not be accessed was called rock bottom.  In other words, you couldn’t go any lower than where you were when you hit rock bottom.

Idiomation therefore pegs rock bottom to sometime during the 1850s when it jumped from being a term used by miners to a term used to express situations, and then on to also refer to the lowest prices available for sought after items.

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

Black Friday

Posted by Admin on November 27, 2013

Black Friday is almost upon us again this year and the yearly mythos about where this idiom originated is in full swing already. Most people are of the mistaken belief that Black Friday was a term coined by retailers to describe the one day each year when they turned a profit according to the accounting records.

While that’s an interesting and plausible explanation for the expression, it’s not exactly accurate.

Back in the 1960s, if you lived in Philadelphia, you know that the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving was a day of snarled traffic, overcrowded parking garages, and overworked police officers if you dared go into the downtown core. It got to be so much of a problem that police officers began to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.

On Black Friday, officers were forced to work 12-hour shifts where most of that shift was spent directing traffic to help unclog the car and pedestrian jams that impeded the flow of traffic. Retailers, who were looking to encourage shoppers to come out on that Friday despite the terrible traffic, tried (and failed) to have the day called “Big Friday.” But the effort failed.

Back in January 1966, in the American Philatelist newspaper, a Philadelphia merchant by the name of Earl Apfelbaum, a dealer in rare stamps, wrote this about the day:

Black Friday” is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. “Black Friday” officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.

Even earlier than that, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin used the idiom to describe the day after Thanksgiving. In the November 25, 1994 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Joseph P. Barrett told a story about how the Friday after Thanksgiving came to be known as Black Friday.

In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin.

In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term “Black Friday” to describe the terrible traffic conditions.

Later in the article he added this:

The following year, [Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown] put out a press release describing the day as ”Big Friday.” But Kleger and I held our ground, and once more said it was ”Black Friday.” And of course we used it year after year.

The funny thing about that is that the issue of traffic congestion on the Friday following Thanksgiving wasn’t an issue back in November 1951 when Black Friday was described by Industrial Relations Editor M.J. Murphy for the magazine “Factory Management and Maintenance” in an article entitled, “Tips to Good Human Relations for Factory Executives.” What M.J. Murphy wrote was as follows:

“Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis” is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when the “Black Friday” comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick — and can prove it.

The story of Black Friday being a term coined by retailers to describe the one day each year when they turned a profit according to the accounting records is after-the-fact marketing spin that started showing up decades later to put a positive shine on a negative phrase.

Of course, there have been other Black Fridays throughout history, and most of those have had to do with financial matters and massacres. But Black Friday — the one that falls the day after American Thanksgiving — has its roots firmly planted in Philadelphia.

Posted in Advertising, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Go By The Board

Posted by Admin on February 14, 2011

The phrase “go by the board” has fallen out of use, however,at one point, it was quite popular and without a doubt, it’s still an interesting expression, even today. Nautical in nature, the phrase refers to the board of a ship where, when masts of sailing ships  fell over it was said they had go[ne] by the board.

Strangely enough, though, the phrase also has 2 other meanings.  One refers to following the rules of a game while the other refers to bending the law to get what one wants.  Both of these meanings came about as a result of the American indulgence in betting and card playing which was one of many pass times the British colonists brought with them to the New World.

In 1921, American novelist, short story writer, and designer Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her book, “The Age of Innocence.”  The following is included in her book:

He had not to wait a moment for the answer. “To beg you, Monsieur–to beg you with all the force I’m capable of–not to let her go back.–Oh, don’t let her!” M. Riviere exclaimed.

Archer looked at him with increasing astonishment. There was no mistaking the sincerity of his distress or the strength of his determination: he had evidently resolved to let everything go by the board but the supreme need of thus putting himself on record. Archer considered.

“May I ask,” he said at length, “if this is the line you took with the Countess Olenska?”

The phrase is found in The Gettysburg Republican Compiler dated November 1837 wherein it states:

Those banks that do not resume speedily will go by the board.

One of the earliest references to the expression “go by the board” is found in the introduction to the first volume of the Wittenberg Edition of Martin Luther‘s writings back in 1539 wherein he wrote:

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board!

Idiomation is unable to find a published version of this phrase earlier than the Martin Luther reference however the ease with which Martin  Luther used the expression indicates that the phrase was common place in the early 1500s and quite possibly before then.

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

Shotgun Wedding

Posted by Admin on December 29, 2010

Rumour has it that Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII had a shotgun wedding in 1532.  And records show that it’s very likely that William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had a shotgun wedding as their daughter, Susanna, was christened just 6 months after their wedding.

On October 30, 1667, it was recorded in Plymouth Colony court records that America’s first shotgun wedding was between Mary Alden and Thomas Delano, the son of Philip Delanoye, one of the original settlers of Duxbury, Massachusetts.  The groom was fined ten pounds “for having carnal copulation with his now wife before marriage.”  The judge who meted out punishment was John Alden, Thomas’s father-in-law and neighbour.

And then there’s the story of one William Marion who, along with John Cameron, went on a trip to Kansas in May 1872 to visit Marion’s in-laws. After a few days, Marion returned home alone to Nebraska. Eleven years passed and a boy allegedly wearing clothing identified as Cameron’s was found walking about. Marion was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to be executed for murder.

Though he was given a new trial due to lack of sentencing by a jury, a new jury convicted him as well and he was allegedly killed on March 25, 1887 by firing squad.  Oddly enough though, in 1891, four years after the execution, Cameron turned up alive and well.  He explained that he had run away to Mexico to avoid a shotgun wedding. Marion was pardoned six years later in 1897.

The New York Times ran a review on February 23, 1928 of a play entitled “Rope” by David Wallace and T.S. Stribling, and based on a novel by T.S. Stribling.  The reviewer, J. Brooks Atkinson reported that the duo had “fashioned a stirring melodrama Rope mounted at the Biltmore last evening.”  Mr. Atkinson referenced mischief makers, furtive meetings, loose gossip and a shotgun wedding among other things.  All in all, it would appear that the play was a great success in the reviewer’s eyes … or so he told the readers of the New York Times.

A year later, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on February 16, 1929 with the headline:  “Nevada Wrestling Match Rivals Shotgun Wedding.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune ran an article on February 20, 1937 with the headline:  “Charges Shotgun Wedding in Plea for Annulment.”  The story told was of one Charles F. Lyons, 20 years old, of 211 West Jackson Boulevard who claimed  his marriage to Miss Elizabeth Enright, 21 years old, of 3918 Flournoy Street was a shotgun wedding that began with the father of the bride kidnapping the groom and taking him to wed his daughter.  He filed suit in Superior Court to have the marriage annulled.

By the time WWII was underway, shotgun wedding also had a political meaning as shown by an article that ran in the Tuscaloosa News on April 9, 1943 entitled “Background of Peace” that dealt with WWII and the arrival of a Mr. Wilson in Paris in 1918.  It was a reprint from the Chicago Daily Tribune and read in part:

The guaranty was a note signed by Great Britain, France and Italy before the armistice accepting the fourteen points and supplemental conditions as a specific formula for the peace.  It was a sort of shotgun wedding, inasmuch as Lloyd George and Clemenceau had been told that Mr. Wilson might go to congress for a separate peace on that formula if they undertook to disappoint the hopes they had raised.  Shotgun or not, the diplomatic rites had been solemnized and the pledge was holy.

It would appear that the phrase shotgun wedding is an Americanism from sometime in the early to mid-1920s, being used with ease by newspapermen and playwrights by the time 1928 came around.

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

Talk Is Cheap

Posted by Admin on November 19, 2010

The phrase “talk is cheap” is actually a shortened version of at least two other commonly used American idioms —  “talk is cheap but it takes money to buy whisky”  and “talk is cheap but  it takes money to buy a farm.” 

The phrase means that it’s easier for someone to say that he or she will do something than to actually do it.  In its earlier incarnations an example was provided to assist with internalizing that message.

An article headling in the Portsmouth Times published on August 21, 1958 carried the headline:  “United Nations: Talk Is Cheap.”  The story was about another skirmish in the Middle East and reported in part:

Those who have criticized the United Nations for doing nothing but talk can be thankful there has been a place to talk, which is cheap and much to the preferred over armed conflict, which is costly.

Years earlier, on October 2, 1926 in the Gridley Herald and the Lyon County Reporter — just two of several newspapers who carried the same Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company Bell System advertisement, the focus was on talk being cheap. It was a quirky yet effective advertisement with a quaint story that stated:

Talk is cheap — but it takes money to buy a farm!” Many a school yard argument of boyhood days has been ended with this homely bit of philosophy.  For the American telephone user, talk is truly cheap — cheaper than anywhere else in the world.  But it takes money to keep his telephone service cheap and to make it ever and ever cheaper.

Bell was pushing their motto of “one policy, one system, universal service.’  What’s interesting about this is that it implied that the phrase “talk is cheap but it takes money to buy a farm” went back at least one generation, to when the decision makers in the home and business worlds were merely school children.

Indeed, the L.A. Times printed an article in July 23, 1896 wherein a news story reported:

It is that talk is cheap, but that it takes votes to elect a President. The Detroit Journal calls the platform adopted at the Chicago convention “a platform of cranks, by cranks, for cranks.”

The earliest date for publication of the phrase “talk is cheap” is found in the Chicago Daily Tribune on November 21, 1891. 

Although no one can say on what date exactly Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum said “talk is cheap until you hire a lawyer” but it’s believed it was some time after 1856, when the Jerome Clock Company of East Bridgeport in Connecticut —  the company in which Barnum had invested heavily — declared bankruptcy.  P.T. Barnum lost all the money he had invested into, and loaned to, the company which was a sizeable amount by then.  For P.T. Barnum, this began four very long — and expensive — years of litigation and public humiliation.

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

It’s In The Bag

Posted by Admin on October 6, 2010

The term “it’s in the bag” means that something is virtually secured.  An American colloquialism, it came into being in the early 20th century.

The current version was coined because of a tradition of the New York Giants baseball team. In Ohio, The Mansfield News reported in May 1920 that:

An old superstition was revived at the Polo grounds, New York, recently when Eddie Sicking was dispatched to the clubhouse with the ball bag at the start of the ninth possession of one run lead. This superstition originated during the run of twenty-six consecutive victories made by the Giants in 1916, the significance of it resting in a belief that if the bag is carried off the field at that stage of the game with the Giants in the lead the game is in the bag and cannot be lost.

And it continued to be used in the 1920s, especially with regards to sporting events.  On July 17, 1927 the Los Angeles Times reported:

“In the bag, big boy, it’s in the bag.”  Thusly has the sport fan spoken for lo, these many years, whenever the probably outcome of any wrestling match was discussed.

It was part of The Hartford Courant article on September 21, 1930 with regards to a boxing match where it was reported:

The following remark has been heard time and time again, “It’s in the bag.” Now that the featherweight champ Bat Battalino and Louie “Kid” Kaplan are matched to go over the ten round route I have heard the above remark, as I have said, time and time again, meaning that Bat will win the match.

And so, when you hear it’s in the bag, this Americanism means it’s over and done with — and decided — before the main event even takes place, whether it’s sports or any other competition.

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

Fly Off The Handle

Posted by Admin on June 18, 2010

The metaphoric expression “fly off the handle” is an Americanism that goes back to pioneer days when frontiersman whittled their own handles and attached axe heads to those handles.  The axe heads were shipped from the industrialized East coast which meant that if a frontiersman wasn’t much of a carpenter, the axe head may not be as securely attached to the handle as one might hope it would be.

Because of this, axeheads were known to “fly off the handle” while being used and if anyone was nearby, there was a fairly good chance that either the bystander or the axeman would be injured by the flying axe head. 

The expression was recorded in John Neal‘s 1825 novel Brother Jonathan as “off the handle.”  The version of “fly off the handle” happened in Canadian author, Thomas C. Haliburton‘s book The Attaché also known as Sam Slick in England, which was published 18 years later in 1843.

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