Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Jonson’

Step On A Duck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 15, 2016

To step on a duck is to fart, but not just any old fart.  The step on a duck fart is said to be one that is so loud that it sounds like the squawking of a duck in distress.  The idiom is usually spoken by a bystander wishing to point out the fart to everyone nearby and not an attempt by the person to deflect his or her embarrassment at the indelicate passing of gas.

The expression seems to be so well-known that Jim Dawson published a book in 2010 titled, “Did Somebody Step On A Duck: A Natural History of the Fart.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Jim Dawson is a California-based writer who specializes in American pop culture.  A decade before publishing “Did Somebody Step On A Duck” he published “Who Cut THe Cheese: A Cultural History of the Fart” which went on to become a top-seller.

Oddly enough, thirty-five years ago, Rodney Dangerfield’s character, Al Czervik, asked if somebody stepped on a duck when he broke wind loudly at dinner in the 1980 movie, “Caddyshack” starring Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Scott Colomby.  The movie was written by Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, and Douglas Kenney of National Lampoon magazine fame.

The history of this expression is difficult to trace.  Idiomation’s research found a recipe for a duck fart shot consisting of Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Crown Royal (and poured in that order) hailing from Anchorage, Alaska.  It was created by bartender Dave Schmidt while working at the Peanut Farm Bar and Grill (on the corner of Old Seward Highway and International Street) in December 1987.  The media covered the story of the shot in an article in the Anchorage Daily News newspaper.

Oddly enough, before White Sox announcer and former professional baseball player Hawk Harrelson (born September 4, 1941) made the term more family friendly in the 1980s, the duck snort was called a duck fart.  And what is a duck snort or a duck fart in baseball terms?  It’s a ball that softly hit ball that goes over the infielders and lands in the outfield for a hit.

And in the 1940s, according to “Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang” compiled and published by Jonathon Green, a duck fart referred to the plopping sound a stone made when it fell into the water.

But there doesn’t seem to be any indication how stepping on a duck came to mean farting loudly.  To this end, the expressions seems to reach back only as far as 1980.  However, there’s a lot of history behind the concept, not the least of which is a political connection.

As many of us know, there’s a certain juvenile humor when it comes to farting, not the least of which is a popular poem that was written as a result of an unfortunate incident on March 4, 1607 involving Henry Ludlow in the House of Commons.  The poem (which was endlessly copied, recopied, and shared liberally) published in 1607 was titled, “The Censure of the Parliament Fart.”  The incident happened as Sir John Crooke was giving a speech, and he took the fart as a personal insult.  For readers’ amusement, this is the opening volley of the poem.

Never was bestowed such art
Upon the tuning of a Fart.
Downe came grave auntient Sir John Crooke
And redd his message in his booke.
Fearie well, Quoth Sir William Morris, Soe:
But Henry Ludlowes Tayle cry’d Noe.
Up starts one fuller of devotion
Then Eloquence; and said A very ill motion
Not soe neither quoth Sir Henry Jenkin
The Motion was good; but for the stincking
Well quoth Sir Henry Poole it was a bold tricke
To Fart in the nose of the bodie pollitique.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  Sir John Crooke sat in Parliament in 1584, 1597, and 1601.  Henry Ludlow sat in the 1601 and 1604 Parliament as a member of the Inner Temple.  In other words, the two were in Parliament together in 1601.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  The poem became so famous by 1610 that it was cited in Ben Jonson’s play, “The Alchemist.”  The play (which opens with a fart) includes a reference to the poem by Sir Epicure Mammon.

All this being said, the connection between stepping on a duck and loud farts is one that escaped Idiomation’s research.  Perhaps one of Idiomation’s readers has proof as to who first wrote or said this, or where it first appeared in print.

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

Jay

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 9, 2015

Now that Idiomation has tracked down jaywalking, jay driving, and jay town, the matter of what a jay is still remains to be solved!  Thanks to ongoing thorough research, the expression flap a jay cropped up.

To flap a jay is to swindle someone who is easily fooled, where flap means to manage adroitly and turn over … at least that’s according to the “Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant.”   This dictionary was compiled and edited by Albert Barrère (died 1896) — author of “Argot And Slang” — and American humorist and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland (15 August 1824 – 20 March 1903) — author of “The English Gypsies And Their Language” and other novels — and published in 1889.  The book included English, American, and Anglo-Indian slang as well as pidgin English, Gypsy jargon and what Messrs. Barrère and Leland considered to be irregular phraseology.

In the December 19, 1884 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette, warning words of wisdom were shared with readers about jays, not meaning the birds.  In fact, readers were warned of the dangers of larcenists who preyed upon gullible people.

The intending larcenist will strike up a conversation with a likely looking jay in a public conveyance and win his friendship.

While it wasn’t an expression that was used at great length over the generations, it is one that survived intact over the years.

Elizabethan dramatist, poet, and translator George Chapman (1559 – 12 May 1643) influenced the Stoicism movement.  It was his translation of “Homer” that was the standard English version for generations.  And it was Chapman who found himself imprisoned along with Ben Jonson and John Marston in 1605 by order of King James I of Britain because the king found their play, “Eastward, Ho!” offensive to their countrymen.

On November 16, 1632, the play “The Ball” by George Chapman and James Shirley was performed for the first time, licensed by Sir Henry Herbert.  The play centers on Lady Lucina who finds amusement in mocking and ridiculing her unwanted suitors.  The play makes the most of how easily it is to play those who are easily led to believe things that aren’t as they seem, thereby taking advantage of them.  The following happens in Act Two of this play.

LUCINA
You will see me again.  Ha, ha, ha!  Scutilla.

SCUTILLA
Here, madam, almost dead with stifling my laughter.  Why, he’s gone for a licence; you did enjoin him no silence.

LUCINA
I would have ’em all meet, and brag o’ their several hopes, they will not else be sensible, and quit me of their tedious visitation.  Who’s next?  I would the colonel were come, I long to have a bout with him.

SOLOMON
Mr. Bostock, madam.

LUCINA
Retire, and give the jay admittance.

Enter Bostock

BOSTOCK
Madam, I kiss your fair hand.

LUCINA
Oh, Mr. Bostock!

William Shakespeare’s play, “Cymbeline” published in 1623 was set in Ancient Britain and is based on legends that were well-known at the time.  In Shakespeare’s play, Imogen (the daughter of King Cymbeline) runs off and marries Posthumus (who is below her status) instead of Cloten (who is of equal status to Imogen).  Posthumus is exiled to Italy where he meets Iachimo who bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen.  It’s a familiar enough scenario when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays.

In Act III, Scene iv which takes place in the country ner Milford-Haven, a discussion takes place between Piranio and Imogen in which Imogen says:

IMOGEN
    I false! Thy conscience witness: Iachimo,
    Thou didst accuse him of incontinency;
    Thou then look’dst like a villain; now methinks
    Thy favour’s good enough. Some jay of Italy
    Whose mother was her painting, hath betray’d him:
    Poor I am stale, a garment out of fashion;
    And, for I am richer than to hang by the walls,
    I must be ripp’d:–to pieces with me!–O,
    Men’s vows are women’s traitors! All good seeming,
    By thy revolt, O husband, shall be thought
    Put on for villany; not born where’t grows,
    But worn a bait for ladies.

What this shows is that jay in Shakespeare’s play and in George Chapman’s play was a word that was known to their audiences.  This means it is accepted that the word and its associated meaning goes back to at least 1600, and most likely to the mid to late 1500s.

It also seems that the word and the behavior attributed to those who are accused of being jays is related to the European bird, Garrulus glandarinus, which was more commonly known as the jai in Old French from the Late Latin word gaius which means a jay.

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

Almighty Dollar

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 13, 2015

When someone views material goods and possessions as more valuable than anything else in life, it’s said that the person has placed his or her faith in the almighty dollar.  It can also mean that the person in question feels that his or her financial worth makes him or her more powerful than anyone else with whom he or she comes into contact.

Ozzy Osbourne liked the phrase so much that back in 2007, he used it in his song “Almighty Dollar” on his album, “Black Rain.”

When Charles Dickens wrote “American Notes For General Circulation” in 1842, he made sure to include the almighty dollar in Chapter III entitled, “Boston.”  The passage wasn’t complimentary towards Boston or Bostonians in the least.  In fact, the author wrote that the influences and tendencies which he distrusted in America may have been only his personal views on the country, but he was also just as quick to add that perhaps he wasn’t mistaken at all in his summation of the country.

The fact of the matter is that, contrary to how it may seem in his book, Charles Dickens loved America and its people.  In fact, in the Preface to this book he wrote:

Prejudiced, I am not, and never have been, otherwise than in favour of the United States. I have many friends in America, I feel a grateful interest in the country, I hope and believe it will successfully work out a problem of the highest importance to the whole human race. To represent me as viewing AMERICA with ill-nature, coldness, or animosity, is merely to do a very foolish thing: which is always a very easy one.

However, when it came to writing about Boston, he was just as quick to remark the following:

It was a source of inexpressible pleasure to me to observe the almost imperceptible, but not less certain effect, wrought by this institution among the small community of Boston; and to note at every turn the humanising tastes and desires it has engendered; the affectionate friendships to which it has given rise; the amount of vanity and prejudice it has dispelled. The golden calf they worship at Boston is a pigmy compared with the giant effigies set up in other parts of that vast counting-house which lies beyond the Atlantic; and the almighty dollar sinks into something comparatively insignificant, amidst a whole Pantheon of better gods.

When American author Washington Irving — author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” — first visited Louisiana’s bayou country, the approach to life the people exhibited was one that appealed to Irving.  This easy-going way the people had became the basis for his story, “The Creole Village” published in the November 12, 1836 edition of Knickerbocker Magazine.

As we swept away from the shore, I cast back a wistful eye upon the moss-grown roofs and ancient elms of the village, and prayed that the inhabitants might long retain their happy ignorance, their absence of all enterprise and improvement, their respect for the fiddle, and their contempt for the almighty dollar.

It’s true that Edward Bulwer-Lytton added to Washington Irving’s idiom, by stretching the idiom out to become the “pursuit of the almighty dollar” as is seen in his novel “The Coming Race” published in 1871.

But Washington Irving can’t take full credit for the idiom, the spirit of which is found in English playwright, poet, and literary critic, Ben Jonson’s “The Forest” published in 1616, an older version of the idiom is found in the “Epistle To Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland” where Madam begins by saying:

Whilst that for which all virtue now is sold,
And almost every vice, almighty gold,
That which, to boot with hell, is thought worth heaven

Even then, the phrase already implied what it means in today’s terms.  However, the phrase goes back even further than that with regards to Ben Jonson (11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637) — a literary rival of William Shakespeare.  He used the very same line as in a letter to the Countess of Rutland in 1599 as he did in the epistle written 17 years later. Elizabeth was the Countess of Rutland from March 1599 — when she married Roger Manners,5th Earl of Rutland — until her death in 1612.

Whilst that for which all virtue now is sold, and almost every vice — almighty gold.

From a historical perspective, it was after the Crusades (1095 to 1291) that gold began to climb within economies as the price for all commodities was measured by gold.  To this end, gold signed power in that whoever had the gold, held the power regardless of whether it was a King or a merchant.  This led to people perceiving gold as being powerful … all-powerful … even almighty.  Some even worshipped gold as much, if not more than, God Almighty.

So while Washington Irving may have been the first make mention of the almighty dollar, the spirit has been used by generations going back to at least the 13th century.  The religious overtone that seems to be part of the idiom is incidental, as commerce has shown.

Posted in Idioms from the 13th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m A Dutchman

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 21, 2011

When someone who is not Dutch says, “I’m a Dutchman” what that person really means is that what has just been seen or heard is, in that person’s opinion, very obviously not true.  In other words, it’s a statement of disbelief.

Now the word Dutchman is an archaic term that dates back to the 14th century that refers to a member of any of the Germanic people of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Low Countries.  These days, it refers to someone from the Netherlands and usually Holland.  As readers of Idiomation now know,  by the 17th century the Dutch and the English were hated military and commercial rivals and so many barbs and insults were thought up with which to insult each other.

Back on January 15, 2005 journalist Ian Youngs wrote an article for the BBC News entitled, “How Busted Rocked The Pop Scene.”  The article was about a British pop trio that formed in late 2002 and over the course of three years, they had eight UK Top 3 singles.  The article began with kudos to the trio for writing their own songs and playing their own instruments.  But not everyone believed that.  In fact, Darren Stephens of lliria, Spain had this to say about the trio:

Talentless trash! If they were playing those instruments, I’m a Dutchman! Good riddance!

Back on March 18, 1976 the Chicago Tribune ran an article in the sports section written by Art Dunn.  It was entitled, “Hawks Rally, Nip Leafs” and reported on events happening in the National Hockey League‘s 50th season.  As is always the case as things draw closer to the Stanley Cup final, things were heating up with the teams, the coaches, the owners and the fans.  Some were less pleased with the final results of the game that night and one person was quoted as saying:

If that’s neutral officiating, I’m a Dutchman.

Now the Chicago Tribune appears to like this expression quite a bit.  On July 25, 1934 the newspaper ran a story written by author, Elizabeth York Miller entitled, “Her Husband’s Fiancee.”  It was the story of Cecily Marshall of Bellchester, England who returned to her husband, Bellchester’s leading merchant prince, after a year’s absence.  What she didn’t know was that Audrey Lowe and her cousin Reggie Davies had ideas of their own about breaking up Cecily’s marriage.  The story provides this tidbit when one of the characters says:

Then his jolly little divorce would go west, or I’m a Dutchman. I told her to go to David and be dammed to her.

The Tuapeka Times published another excerpt of murder mystery story by author, Harold M. Mackie entitled, “A Story Of North Queensland” on June 13, 1891.  He was the author of “The Squatter’s Daughter” and well-known to the Tuapeka Times readers.  On this day, the story continued with more from Chapter XVIII where the following was found:

“There’ll have to be an exhumation of the remains in order to see if there are any traces of poisoning in the stomach,” said Popham.  “That’ll be another job for Brook, and not a pleasant one either.  No one guessed of such a thing as poisoning or attempted poisoning.  This case promises some rather interesting features, and looks very black against Prescott.  He’ll have to give a clear account of how Liscombe came to be in possession of this flask full of drugged whisky.  Of course, circumstances may have occurred by which Liscombe was the rightful owner of the article, but as we have said before it is not likely that Prescott made him a present of it.”

“He might have done so,” remarked Tulloch, “when it contained poison.”

“That, my friend, we’ll prove, or I’m a Dutchman.  A man who’s drugged might certainly have an inclination to dash his brains out against a tree, and whether Maurice Liscombe’s death has been that of his own doing or the work of another this vile compound is indirectly the cause.”

The expression is found in the 1857 book by J.D. Borthwick, “Three Years California” where the invective “damned” is sometimes added to make the expression more colourful.  The expression is identified as a typical sailor’s oath for the day and so it dates back at least to the early 1800s to be used to easily and with such conviction that the expression will be understood by all who hear it.

This makes sense as author George Elliot — the pseudonym for Mary Ann Evans — published a book in 1860 entitled, “The Mill On The Floss.”  In Chapter 4, “Tom Is Expecting” the following conversation is found:

“But they’re our fellow-creatures, Luke; we ought to know about our fellow-creatures.”

“Not much o’ fellow-creaturs, I think, Miss; all I know – my old master, as war a knowin’ man, used to say, says he, ‘If e’er I sow my wheat wi’out brinin’, I’m a Dutchman,’ says he; an’ that war as much as to say as a Dutchman war a fool, or next door. Nay, nay, I aren’t goin’ to bother mysen about Dutchmen. There’s fools enoo, an’ rogues enoo, wi’out lookin’ i’ books for ’em.”

That it should be used by an author of the fairer sex in the mid 1800s certainly speaks loudly to the fact that the expression was indeed known to much of the population at the time.  Now, knowing what the times were like for someone of the fairer sex to have heard such an expression most often spoken by sailors, it had to be an expression that was around for quite some time … at least 2 generations which pegs the expression to the late 1700s.

And so it is!  In the book, “The Old Sailor’s Jolly Boat” published in 1790, the story has this excerpt in it:

“Well, there they are,” declared Phillips, ” and an unrolled ball of spun-yarn from one to the other to keep up the relationship.”

“Capital,” exclaimed the boatswain, rubbing his hands together with greater pleasure than he had enjoyed for some time past; ” if that don’t let her into the secret in spite of all the Tartars, aye and cream of Tartars in the world, then I’m a Dutchman; but there’s a space atwixt the two gallon measures, Jack.”

With it being part of the vernacular back in 1790, how far back does relating the Dutch with something unbelievable go?  Surely it reaches back at least another 2 generations putting the expression to the early to mid 1700s.

English Renaissance dramatist, Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) was William Shakespeare’s junior by nearly a decade.  In Act I, Scene I of Ben Jonson’s satirical play “Volpone” published in 1606 and performed in 1607, the following exchange is found which embraces the spirit of the expression:

VOLPONE:
True, my beloved Mosca. Yet I glory
More in the cunning purchase of my wealth,
Than in the glad possession; since I gain
No common way; I use no trade, no venture;
I wound no earth with plough-shares; fat no beasts,
To feed the shambles; have no mills for iron,
Oil, corn, or men, to grind them into powder:
I blow no subtle glass; expose no ships
To threat’nings of the furrow-faced sea;
I turn no monies in the public bank,
Nor usure private.

MOSCA:
No sir, nor devour
Soft prodigals. You shall have some will swallow
A melting heir as glibly as your Dutch
Will pills of butter, and ne’er purge for it;

And so the expression dates back to sometime between 1606 and the early 1700s and the spirit of the expression dates back to before 1606.

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