Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

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.

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The Real McCoy

Posted by Admin on July 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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  However, he has not fought for three years and his licence  has since been revoked by the British Boxing Board of Control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halfway down the advertisement, the following is found:

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

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

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Snowball’s Chance In Hell

Posted by Admin on January 11, 2011

The expression snowball’s chance in Hell means you have no reasonable hope whatsoever of achieving something you are hoping to achieve.  The concept, of course, is that no matter how cold snow is, even when compacted into a snowball, the chances it will still be snow — or water — once it’s introduced to Hell are nil.

Now there are those who will ask, “But why would anyone want to toss a snowball into Hell? Everyone knows about the fires of Hell, right?”  Well, Hell isn’t always perceived by all people as being one huge pit of never-ending fire.

Zamhareer is one Hell pit in Islamic tradition that is characterized by extreme blizzards, ice and snow that no living being can bear.  But then there are other pits of Hell that are definitely identified as the extreme opposite of Zamhareer

In Dante’s Divine Comedy the final ring of Hell at the centre of the world is a frozen lake called Cocytus. But overall, Hell‘s a pretty hot place.

In Canada, on September 11, 1980, in the Ottawa Citizen then-Quebec Premier René Lévesque was quoted as saying the following after a day-long debate on the proposed Charter of Rights that would nullify parts of Quebec’s Charter of the French Language:

Trudeau is asking for something that is not practical, something unrealistic.  He wanted to divide and conquer while giving an appearance of generosity.  But a lot of people saw him coming; I don’t think he has a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting his charter in.

In the end the score was Snowball 1, Quebec 0.  And that wasn’t the first time snowballs and Hell had been mentioned or implied as part of politics in North America.

Back on August 20, 1956, the Victoria Advocate of Victoria (TX) ran a story on page 4 of that day’s newspaper in the “Matter of Fact” column by Joseph and Stewart Alsop.  It discussed the impression left at the Democratic convention.

As for the outcome, well, they really did not think Stevenson had a snowball’s chance in Hell of carrying their particular states if Eisenhower’s health held up.  Of course, you had to remember the big Democratic gains in 1954.  But if you were really honest about it, the President’s health was the one real factor to watch.

The St. Petersburg (FL) Evening Independent News of September 2, 1938 reported the inside story of the Pope-Clark primary in Idaho and President Roosevelt’s reluctance to back defeated Senator Pope as an independent candidate.

Jim Farley was given a fill in on the intrigue when he passed through the state (of Idaho) on his return trip from Alaska.  It convinced him that Mr. Pope, running as an independent, wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance to beat the machine.  So he phoned Hyde Park by long distance, begging F.D.R. to make no commitments until he had learned the facts.

While the expression has been used in many situations, it seems that it’s a favourite when speaking of extreme situations in politics.

An etymology dictionary Idiomation consulted claimed that the expression dates back to 1931 but did not provide a source to support that claim. 

The earliest publication of the expression Idiomation was able to find goes back to  1938 and is used with such familiarity as to imply it was a well used expression by that time.

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Call Of The Wild

Posted by Admin on June 17, 2010

American author, Jack London (1876 – 1916) was a pioneer in the then-burgeoning world of commercial magazine fiction, he was one of the first Americans to make a lucrative career exclusively from writing.

Prospectors intermittently discovered gold in the Yukon region of Canada in the 1870s and 1880s. News of their finds attracted modest numbers of other prospectors hoping to find great deposits of the precious metal.  Jack London was among those prospectors. Although he didn’t strike gold, London did return from the Great White North with the “The Call Of The Wild” manuscript, published in 1903 and that based on his experiences while he was a prospector.  

The Saturday Evening Post who purchased the manuscript on January 26, 1903 insisted on having 5,000 words cut from the original and London complied with that request.

London calls the law of survival in the untamed wild northlands as “the law of club and fang.”  What’s more, the novel puts forth that heredity and environment are the major forces that shape human beings and inborn instincts influenced by economic, social, cultural and familial factors dictate how people react in any given situation.

The phrase “Call of the Wild” originates with Jack London.

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