Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Bill Clinton’

Wash Your Mouth Out With Soap

Posted by Admin on December 1, 2015

It wasn’t all that long ago that children had to give serious concern to the threat of having their mouth washed out with soap!  These days, the threat of having someone wash your mouth out with soap is said to draw attention to a rude or offensive word or comment that someone else has made.

In the past, a child’s mouth was washed out with soap for swearing, lying, biting, verbal disrespect, and using tobacco.  Although it’s supposedly no longer an acceptable form of punishment, in July of this year, a 23-year-old man in Great Britain was ordered to pay 100 GBP after washing a six-year-old’s mouth out with soap after the child kicked a pensioner’s walking stick and used foul language towards the senior.

In 2000, when President Bill Clinton announced that he hoped to make American debt free for the first time since 1835, Vice-President Al Gore added to that proclamation by saying that the U.S. should continue to pay down the debt even when the economy slows.  Economist and Nobel laureate Robert Solow had this to say about Mr. Gore’s pronouncement.

He should wash his mouth out with soap.

Some of you may be familiar with the movie, “A Christmas Story” in which nine-year-old Ralphie Parker, who had the misadventure of helping his father change a flat tire.  The family had gone out to buy the yearly Christmas tree after supper, and on the way home, the suffer a flat tire. While Idiomation won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet, suffice it to say that things go awry, and Ralphie says:

Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

The end result is that once home, safe and warm, Ralphie’s mother has him chomp down on a new bar of Lifebuoy soap.  And you’ll never guess who he blames for having said the word he had spoken.

The April 1937 edition of Boys’ Life magazine published a humorous cartoon of a little old lady, a pastor, and a parrot.  The little old lady was pleased to share with the pastor that she had washed the parrot’s mouth out with soap.  One can only wonder where the parrot heard the bad words (and from whom) that led to the punishment.

Boys' Life_1937
In the October 1916 edition of Young Men magazine (Volume 42) an article titled, “The Cordon of the Inner Circle” talked about adolescent males across the United States who were feeling the “tightening cordon of common high ideals for their school and their own thinking, speaking, and doing.”  These young men, through Bible study groups, were standing up for their principles and putting them across to their peers.

After creating public sentiment against profanity among their high school mates, members of one Inner Circle determined that the only remedy for one of the leaders was to “treat him like a kid.”  So they captured him and washed his mouth out with soap and water.

The magazine was a publication of the Young Men’s Christian Associations — or what we’ve come to know as the YMCA.

In 1892,a collection of child study pamphlets were collated and printed under the title, “Collection of Pamphlets on Child Study.”  In one particular case, a study conducted by Margaret E. Schallenberger of Stanford University addressed the fictional scenario of a child named Jennie whose actions were well-intended but ill-conceived.

The set-up was that Jennie, having received a beautiful new box of paints, painted all the chairs in the parlor one afternoon while her mother was away on errands.  Upon her return, Jennie ran to meet her, and said, “Oh, mamma, come and see how pretty I have made the parlor.”

The respondents were children and adolescents who were not yet parents, and they were asked what they would have said or done if the respondents were Jennie’s mother.  The study reported the following:

Often the feeling of revenge is shown in the piling up of punishments, as in the following:  “If I had been Jennie’s mother, I would of painted Jennie’s face and hands and toes.  I would of switcher her well.  I would of washed her mouth out with soap and water, and should stand her on the floor for half an hour.”

For those who are interested, of the 2,000 respondents under the age of six, 1,102 boys and girls said they would whip Jennie.  Out of 2,000 respondents asked who were eleven years old, 763 said they would whip Jennie.  And of 2,000 respondents who were sixteen years old, only 185 would whip Jennie.  The data from the study showed a decline (although it wasn’t a uniform decline) from year to year, and indicated that as children matured, they were less likely to consider whipping as a best method of punishment.

Interestingly enough, of those same children under the age of six, none considered explaining to Jennie why what she had done was wrong.  At eleven years of age, 181 thought to explain things to Jennie, and at sixteen, 751 thought that explaining what she had done wrong would be effective.

Back in 1832, the practice of putting soap in another person’s mouth as punishment was alive and well in England, not just in America.  The case in question was one of a man (identified as Mr. Smith from the town of Rugby) whose wife left him and took up with Frank Treen (from the town of Harborough just three miles away from the town of Rugby), with whom she had a child.  Frank Treen demanded support money to pay from the husband for his wife.  The husband thought he was obligated to give Frank Treen support money for his wife, so he did.

However, he was informed by another source that while his wife lived in adultery, there was no obligation on him to pay for her, and so he stopped paying.  But when his wife’s lover died, the courts determined that not only was he responsible for paying for his wife (whom he had not divorced during the time she lived with Frank Treen), but for the bastard child as well.  The information about the situation included the following factual commentary.

It appeared that he had not lived with his wife for about seven or eight years; that when they lived together, they were constantly quarrelling; and that one evening, on the man’s return home, he found his wife intoxicated; upon which, being a miller, he threw his wife into the mill pond.  Be he dragged her out again immediately.  However, perceiving a piece of kitchen soap lying on the ground near the spot, he crammed it into his wife’s mouth, saying, “She has had plenty of water to wash with, she ought now to have a little soap.”  However they lived together for a year after this fracas.

It could be said that somewhere along the line someone decided that because the adage was that cleanliness was next to Godliness, Proverbs 21:23 should be taken at its word.

Whoever guards his mouth and tongue, keeps his soul from trouble.

That being said, while the punishment was very real for a very long time, with the move to a kinder, gentler parenting approach has led to the rise of the expression as the actual activity disappears from parenting options.

Idiomation has been unable to put an exact date on when the threat moved into idiom territory.  Perhaps one of our readers or visitors has the answer and is willing to share it in the Comments Section below.

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Argue With A Fence Post

Posted by Admin on October 13, 2015

Someone who would argue with a fence post is someone who enjoys arguing for argument’s sake.  In fact, they’re so argumentative and so stubborn that they don’t care who their opponent is.  Someone who will argue with a fence post is someone who will argue with anyone at any time … and sometimes with everyone all the time.

Robert Reno’s column in the News-Journal of November 18, 1993 took on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and what Bill Clinton was up to at the time.  While  he could have stated his position with more bite, he chose to say that Clinton’s first year as president taught Americans that their President was a master of the art of moving target politics.  The article titled, “Clinton A Moving Target” made good use of the idiom in this paragraph.

And where did they find him this week?  In their own bed, on NAFTA at least.  Clearly — unless he self-destructs from the weight of his own style — the Republicans are never going to defeat this guy by debating him.  That’s his briar patch.  He’d argue with a fence post.

The idiom was also used in an article in the “Lutheran Society for Worship, Music and the Arts” magazine published in 1961 by the University of Virginia.

Has the church neglected the Upper Ten?  We have.  We have piously sat back on our own justification by faith and said:  “Poor fellow! Just educated himself right out of his faith.  Read too much, heard too much, intellectualized too much.  I really feel sorry for him”; or “Well, after all, you can’t argue with a fence post, and he doesn’t want the truth; he only wants an argument.”

Philip Beaman published a book of idioms titled, “Eastern North Carolina Sayings: From Tater Patch Kin to Madder than a Wet Setting Hen” in February 2014.  For those who haven’t heard of the author, he comes from a family of nine children, and was raised on a tobacco farm in rural East North Carolina.  Despite holding four college degrees and having invested 35 years as an educator, he continues to live in rural North Carolina.  Philip Beaman’s book is filled with idioms he heard as a child.  Born in 1936, that means that what he heard was were established sayings members in the community understood in the 1940s including the one about arguing with a fence post.

It’s difficult to trace back this idiom although it’s considered to be primarily a southern expression.  That being said, Idiomation came at this challenge from the other direction.  What society understands a fence to be is found in legal documents in England as early as the 1600s, and the term as we understand it to mean, was used in laws that were made in Virginia beginning in 1631.

By 1646, fence laws were such that the legal definition of a lawful fence was one that was four and a half feet above ground and at least a half-foot below ground.  In other words, the fence, by law, had to be substantial at the bottom, and it had to be a sturdy fence.  Fence posts were to be no farther than twelve feet apart, and on the forty-two inches that were above ground, they were to have at least three boards firmly attached to them.  The fences were to be made of timber which was plentiful in most of western Virginia.

What’s more, the laws that were enacted at the time were strict and could not be argued because of the great amount of detail that was part of the law on fences.  Additionally, any filed fence agreements between landowners were binding between successive generations and successive landowners.

In other words, once a fence was erected and once there was a filed fence agreement between neighbors, nothing could be done to bring that fence down.  It was to stay up and it was to be maintained by both property owners who shared the fence between them.

If the idiom in its entirety is considered, it would seem that the idiom sprung from the fence laws of Virginia.

He would argue with a fence post, then pull up the post and argue with the hole.

Based on the fence laws, arguing with the fence post or the hole in which it was sunk would have no effect on the fence post or the hole, no matter how much the other person argued the point.  If someone argued over the fence laws of the day, they weren’t going to get anywhere and they knew they weren’t going to get anywhere. it would have to be someone who loved to argue to argue any aspect of the fence law.

While Idiomation was unable to peg an exact date when the idiom was first used, the reason for the idiom seems to lead directly back to the fence laws of Virginia in the early 1600s.

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Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire

Posted by Admin on February 25, 2011

If you get out of one problem and the solution saddles you with an even bigger problem, others may say you are “out of the frying pan into the fire” when describing the overall situation to their friends and colleagues.

A little over a decade ago, the Daily Gazette of Schenectady, New York ran a Letter To The Editor from Nadine Putorti of Rotterdam in their February 9, 2000 edition.  The title of the letter stated that “America Has Had Enough Of The Clintons.”  The last paragraph was:

Let’s not jump out of the frying pan into the fire.  I believe many people have had enough of the Clintons.  I sure hope Mayor Guiliani is our next senator from New York state.

In Connecticut, the Bridgeport Herald published an article on August 19, 1900 entitled “Discipline, Not Total Abstinence, Is What Is Needed.”  It began with:

To-morrow marks the beginning of the battle in behalf of total abstinence at “Camp Vichy,” Niantic,so far as is related to the Connecticut National Guard.  It may be well, just before the battle, to say a few things that have a flavoring of common sense, and like most things flavored with that sort of extract, they may not set real well with certain Members of the national guard.

The crux of the matter, in the reporter’s opinion, is this:

Total abstinence for the national guard will be found as demoralizing for the guard as total inebriety. The heads of the guard seem to have jumped from one extreme to the other — out of the frying pan into the fire — whereas, if they had gone about the matter properly, they would have recommended the happy medium of temperance and discipline.

William Wordsworth wrote a letter to Francis Wrangham on July 12, 1807 asking for help with the  publisher of Critical Review magazine.  What he was hoping to avoid was having C.V. le Grice review his poems as it was alleged that le Grice held a grudge against Coleridge and his friends which, of course, included Wordsworth.  In a letter from William Wordsworth to Francis Wrangham dated November 4, 1807, he wrote:

But alas! either for me, or for the Critical Review, or both!  it has been out of the frying-pan into the fire.

In 1742, Lord Hervey, son of the Earl of Bristol,  wrote a poem that threw in a barb at Sir Robert Walpole.  The final verse reads:

For though you have made that rogue Walpole retire
You are out of the frying-pan into the fire:
But since to the Protestant line I’m a friend
I tremble to think how these changes may end.

Edward Taylor published his book “Poems” in 1700.  In his poem, “A Threnodiall Dialogue between The Second and Third Ranks” this verse appears:

Than us, alas! What, would you fain aspire
Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire?
Change States with you with all our hearts we would
Nay, and give boot therewith, if that we could.

However, in the end, the phrase can be traced back to a religious argument between William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English, and Sir Thomas More. The argument started in 1528 when Sir Thomas More published his paper entitled, ‘A Dialoge concerning Heresyes.’  This led to a response from William Tyndale in 1530 with his paper entitled, ‘An answerer unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge.’

Not to be outdone, in 1532, Sir Thomas More returned fire with his paper entitled, ‘The Confutacyon of Tyndales Answere,’ wherein Sir Thomas More said this of William Tyndale:

featly conuayed himself out of the frying panne fayre into the fyre.

The phrase was used with ease in 1532 and implies that it was part of common language at the time of King Henry VIII’s reign.  Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find a published reference prior to this exchange between William Tyndale and Sir Thomas More.

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