Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

Kith and Kin

Posted by Admin on February 27, 2021

Kith and kin originally meant one’s country and relatives, and eventually became a phrase that referred to one’s friends and family.

These days, kith is one of those words that has managed to survive until this day without a meaning beyond this expression which means it’s what linguists refer to as a fossil word. But when this wasn’t the case, kith had a life all its own in language. Its roots are found in the Middle English word kitthe which means homeland or native region, which is from the Old English word cydd.

It’s also part of a select group of phrases known as irreversible binomials. Other irreversible binomials include aid and abet, quick and dirty, and chop and change. An irreversible binomial is where the words always appear in the same order and are never found switched around.

On 6 July 2020, newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Chef Kwame Onwuachi who opened the Kith and Kin restaurant three years earlier in Washington’s Wharf district on the ground floor of the InterContinental Hotel was leaving his restaurant and would no longer be the Executive Chef for Kith and Kin.

The Chicago Tribune ran a news article on 01 December 1995 titled, “Scottish Immigrants Find a Home Away From Home: Retirement Facility Keeps Culture Alive.” The article was about the first philanthropic organization in Illinois known as the St. Andrew Society that was founded 150 years earlier in 1845 by U.S. Army Captain George McClennan. McClennan made a name for himself as a prominent general for the North during the Civil War, and was, of course, of Scottish descent.

The St. Andrew Society was kicking off a capital campaign and the following was reported:

The Scottish Home retirement and nursing home in North Riverside is the heart and soul of the society today, said Alexander Kerr Jr., the society’s president. The home was originally built in 1910, and to mark the society’s 150th anniversary, members have kicked of the $7 million “Kith and Kin” capital campaign, to add a special health-care wing to the current home.

Harold Riffe wrote in his column “Fair and Mild” in the Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail of 03 July 1960 that the expression kissing cousins was, in his opinion, a corruption of kith and kin which he chalked up to a lisp.

As for “kissin’ cousins’ that was only a logical and easy projection of the “kith and kin” idea, and, I might add, a very nice projection, too.

Thuth doth a lithp have romanth!

In 1928, English author and self-styled clergyman Montague Summers (10 April 1880 – 10 August 1948) wrote “The Vampire, His Kith and Kin” wherein he set forth his philosophy of vampirism. His writings focused primarily on witchcraft, vampires, and werewolves, and he was the first to translate the 15th century witch hunter’s manual, “Malleus Maleficarum” into English.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Montague Summers was ordained a deacon of the Church of England but did not move past that level due in large part to his interest in Satanism and the occult. In time, he began presenting himself as a Catholic priest even though he was not a member of any Catholic order or diocese and was not a Catholic. He was also never ordained a priest of any religious order.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: He was acquainted with Aleister Crowley and while Aleister Crowley adopted the persona of a witch, Montague Summers adopted the persona of a learned witch-hunter.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Montague Summers has the phrase “Tell me strange things” engraved on his headstone, and his manservant Hector Stuart-Forbes is buried with him in the same plot.

American teacher and children’s author Martha Finley (26 April 1828 – 30 January 1909) wrote a number of books over the years, including “Elsie’s Kith and Kin” which was published in 1886 and was the 12th book in the Elsie series of books. In all, Martha Finley wrote twenty-eight Elise Dinsmore books over almost forty years, and the series made Martha Finley one of the most renowned children’s authors of her era with book sales that were second only to Louisa May Alcott.

The expression was used in “A Christmas Carol” by English novelist, journalist, illustrator, and social critic Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870). The book was published on 19 December 1843 and the expression is found in this passage.

“Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your Family,” said Scrooge.

“There are some upon this Earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves; not us.”

Scrooge promised that he would; and they went on, invisible as they had been before, into the suburbs of the town. It was a remarkable property of the Ghost (which Scrooge had observed at the baker’s) that notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease; and that he stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall.

The National Bard aka the Bard of Ayrshire, Scottish poet Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) used the expression in the text of “My Lord A-Hunting” published in 1787. The third verse reads thusly:

My lady’s white, my lady’s red,
And kith and kin o’ Cassillis’ blude;
But her ten-pund lands o’ tocher gude;
Were a’ the charms his lordship lo’ed.

As you can see, the meaning of kith and kin that is understood in the 21st century hasn’t changed in several centuries. In fact, in the Middle English narrative poem by William Langland (1332 – 1390) the idiom is found in “The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman” which is believed to have been written sometimes after the Good Parliament of 1376 and after the Papal Schism of 1379, and was most likely completed some time between 1382 and 1387. The poem was, however the product of thirty year’s labor ad the poem was in a near-constant state of revision during that time.

ORIGINAL: Fer fro kitth and fro kynne yuel yclothed ȝeden.
TRANSLATION: Far from kith and from kin they evil-clothed went.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published example of this idiom however it is an idiom that undoubtedly reaches back much, much farther in light of the fact that Old English was spoken from the 5th through to 11th centuries, and well after the Norman invasion of 1066.

Considering that the oldest surviving literature written in Old English is “Caedmon’s Hymn” from the 7th century, it is possible that an earlier example of the idiom was published prior to William Langland’s epic poem. It’s just that Idiomation did not uncover the idiom in other literary texts prior to Willian Langland’s epic poem.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Paddle Your Own Canoe

Posted by Admin on September 13, 2016

Back when autograph books were popular among schoolgirls, it was a given that one page would say love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.  In fact, F.G. Bosse suggested the phrase as an appropriate inscription in his book “Selections For Autograph and Writing Albums” published by Charles A. Lilley in 1879.

To paddle your own canoe means to be in control of your life and to set your own course.  It was used in the article “8 Tips For Starting Your Own Agribusiness” on February 15, 2016 on the Farmers Weekly website.  The writer interviewed Hanna Moule, 34, who launched her rural surveying firm in 2010 with nothing more than a laptop, a car, and a few clients.  Her first tip was this:

1.  Paddle your own canoe — “I took on my second employee to do cross-compliance and record keeping,” Hannah says.  “It’s bread-and-butter work that many land agents wouldn’t take on, but it builds a relationship that leads to return work.”

The expression has been around for a long time, and is still in use today.  It’s a proverb that’s found its way into many songs such as the one by Indiana pioneer poet Sarah Tittle (S.T.) Bolton (18 December 1814 – 5 August 1893) titled “Paddle Your Own Canoe” published in 1854.

Where’er your lot may be
Paddle your own canoe.

There was also a song mentioned in the Laura Ingalls Wilder (7 February 1867 – 10 February 1957) book titled, “By The Shores Of Silver Lake” where paddle my own canoe or paddle your own canoe is found in the verses shared in the book.  The lyrics were sung to the tune of “Rosin The Bow.”

PADDLE MY OWN CANOE

I’ve traveled about a bit in my time
And of troubles I’ve seen a few
But found it better in every clime
To paddle my own canoe.

My wants are few. I care not at all
If my debts are paid when due.
I drive away strife in the ocean of life
While I paddle my own canoe.

The love your neighbor as yourself
As the world you go traveling through
And never sit down with a tear or a frown
But paddle your own canoe.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  The fifth book in the series, “By The Shores of Silver Lake” covered Laura’s childhood when the family lived near de Smet, South Dakota in 1879.

The phrase was used in 1865 by American writer and politician Charles Henry Smith using the pseudonym Billy Arp (15 June 1826 – 24 August 1903) in his book titled, “Billy Arp, So Called: A Side Show of the Southern Side of the War.”  It was registered with the Metropolitan Record Office in 1866.

Charles Henry Smith adopted his pen name, Billy Arp, in April 1861 after President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering Southern rebels to retire peaceably.  He wrote the equivalent of an Open Letter to the President under his pen name, and that letter made him a household name.

In one letter, to Mr. John Happy (which he titled, ‘Billy Arp To His Old Friend‘) he began by saying:

I want to write to you personally about some things that’s weighin on me.  I look on you as a friend, and I feel lik dropping a few lines by way of unberthening my sorrowful reflections.  For the last few years you have travelled round right smart, and must have made a heap of luminous observations.  I hear you are no wliving in Nashville, where you can see all sides of every thing, and read all the papers, where you can study Paradise Lost without a Book, and see the devil and his angels, without drawing on the imagination, and I thought maybe you might assist me in my troubled feelings.

Yes, that was all one sentence.  Regardless, Billy Arp then launched into asking when the government was going to quit persecuting his people, and other important matters affecting those living in the Southern states.  At one point, he talked about the Constitution which, he said, had been smuggled into an “abolishun mush.”  The phrase appeared in this passage:

They built a fence around the institution as high as Haman’s gallows, and hemmed it in, and laid siege to it jest like an army would besege a city to starve out the inhabitants.  They kept peggin at us untell we got mad — shore enuff mad — and we resolved to cut loose from ’em, and paddle our own canoo.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  Bill Arp had a weekly column in the Atlanta Constitution that was syndicated to hundreds of newspapers.  At the time, no one had more verified regular readers than Bill Arp.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  Bill Arp wrote 30 such letters over the course of the war, and into the early 1870s.  The theme of his letters was unwaivering in its support of the Confederacy, and its dislike of Union policies.

Back in 1807, Sicnarf (a pseudonym for the real author, and coincidentally, Francis spelled backwards) published “The Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present” in which he mentioned that in Malaysia, rather than loan money to entrepreneurs starting their own coffee plantation, they would let them make their own way.   It was, quite literally, a sink-or-swim scenario for those who started their own businesses.

They let each poor fellow paddle his own canoe, and if he capsizes and stretches out his hand in despair for someone to save him, offers all he posses — all his money, all his property only to save him from ruin, they won’t do it.  He may die and perish.  There are hundreds of thousands of things, which the Planters’ Association could do; but they don’t do them.

There’s no published mention of paddle your own canoe prior to its use in this book from 1807.  Somewhere between 1807 and 1865, the expression paddle your own canoe came to mean you were in charge of your destiny.  All this leads Idiomation to wonder what this might have to do with loving many and trusting few as F.G. Bosse suggested as a proper inscription for autograph books.

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Out Of The Blue

Posted by Admin on June 10, 2011

The expression out of the blue — also known as out of the clear blue sky and a bolt out of the blue — is used by Brits, Australians and Americans. out of a clear blue sky means something happens suddenly and unexpectedly, without warning or preparation.

On December 8, 2009 Associated Press Writer Christopher Wills wrote a piece entitled, “Holy mackerel! One Year Since Blagojevich Arrest” which was published in the Seattle Times.  Christopher Wills wrote in part:

When the news arrived, Rep. Bill Black thought at first it was somebody’s lame idea of a joke. But it was true: The FBI had arrested the governor of Illinois, hauling him away wearing a track suit and handcuffs … [snip] … Blagojevich’s arrest on Dec. 9, 2008, didn’t come out of the blue.  Federal prosecutors had long been investigating whether the governor, then in the middle of his second term, had used his official powers illegally – to pressure groups into making campaign contributions, for instance, or to award government jobs and contracts to political allies.

On July 13, 1971, the Miami News ran a story on Reggie Jackson‘s hit, estimated at close to 600 feet since it hit against the facade over the upper deck at Tiger Stadium’s right-centre field, in a story entitled, “Bolt From The Blue.”  The story’s first paragraph read:

After eight years of All-Star Frustration the American League finally won … and it came like a bolt out of the blue.  Reggie Jackson’s bolt, not Vida Blue’s.  While the fans came to see Blue pitch, they all went home talking about Jackson’s home run that helped the Americans stop an eight-game losing streak with a 6-4 victory over the Nationals in last night’s 42nd All-Star Game.

The Youngstown Vindicator ran an interesting news story on June 16, 1905 entitled, “Czar’s Uncle Quits; Grand Duke Alexis Resigns Post As Head Of The Russian Navy.”  The news bite related:

Although from time to time since the war began there have been rumors that the grand duke would retire on account of the savage criticism, not to use harsher terms, directed against the administration of the navy, especially in the construction of ships, the announcement of his resignation came like a bolt out of the blue.  Consequently it was assured that some sudden event precipitated it and ugly stories immediately came to the surface.

On May 15, 1880, John Brown Gordon (1832 – 1904) former Confederate soldier with an Alabama regiment and an American businessman and politician who dominated Georgia after the Reconstruction period, tendered his resignation to Governor Alfred H. Colquitt.   He claimed that he was carrying out a long cherished desire to retire from public life after 20 years in public service, either at war or in politics.  This story was reported by the media four days later on the 19th and the Atlanta Constitution reported that the resignation had come as “a bolt out of the blue.”  The fact of the matter is that the change had been in the works for several months leading up to his resignation.

The earliest citation is found in Thomas Carlyle‘s book The French Revolution published in 1837:

Royalism s extinct; ‘sunk,’ as they say, ‘in the mud of the Loire;’ Republicanism dominates without and within: what, therefore, on the 15th day of May 1794, is this?  Arrestment, sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue, has hit strange victims: Hebert, Pere Duchesne, Bibliopolist Momoro, Clerk Vincent, General Rosin; high Cordelier Patriots, red-capped Magistrates of Paris, Worshippers of Reason, Commanders of Revolution.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version for the phrase out of the blue.

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White Out (as in “weather conditions”)

Posted by Admin on June 7, 2011

White out is the first comic book written by novelist Greg Rucka that tells the story of US Marshal Carrie Stetko’s investigation of a murder in Antarctica. A sequel, “White out: Melt” tells the story of the theft of hidden nuclear weapons from an ex-Soviet base. 

However, when someone talks about a white out, what they are referring to is the loss of daylight visibility in heavy fog, snow, or rain, or changing or deleting something that has been previously put forth as a statement, or something that has been published or printed.

As it pertains to weather, back on February 27, 2004 the South Wales Echo published a news story entitled, “Enjoy it, it won’t last!”  The story included this:

Anyone who remembers the great white-outs of the early ’60s and ’80s knows exactly how real snow can seriously affect our lives. Those were the days when entire communities were cut off from the rest of the world for days, if not weeks. There is no doubt parts of Wales have been badly hit by the sudden Arctic snap.  It’s caused chaos on the roads and will no doubt hit businesses.

A year earlier on February 3, 2003 London’s The Mirror published a story about snowstorms in Scotland in a story entitled, “Blizzard Warning.”  It stated:

Scotland was braced for yet more bad weather last night as high winds and snow swept across the country.  Heavy snow showers and drifts caused chaos for motorists yesterday with some roads hit by dangerous white-outs. Drivers had to deal with minor crashes and tailbacks all across the country.

Canada is not unfamiliar with the concept of white outs and transferred the concept to sports in 1987 when the Winnipeg Jets organization asked fans to wear white during the Stanley Cup playoffs as a response to the Calgary Flames’ request that their fans create a “C of Red.”  The Jets won against the Flames that year and the White Out became a home playoff tradition even after the team had relocated to Phoenix.

On January 15, 1956 the Miami News carried Associated Press journalist Saul Pett‘s account of his adventure accompanying aerial explorers on a trip over the South Pole.  The article was engaging and included this commentary:

We are now 20 minutes away from the pole and still in the whiteout.  In an hour and a half, we are due to reach the towering coastal peaks.  We are still 900 miles from the base and we have been burning gas heavily all day fighting headwinds and overcast and whiteouts on the way out.

We are now flying at an altitude of 11,000 feet above sea level but the radar shows a high polar plateau only about 1,500 feet below us.  Nobody on the plane seems worried by the continuing whiteout.  Except me.  I keep thinking what had been told me many times — that if the plane were forced to land on a high plateau our chances of survival would depend largely on our ability to walk.

In 1846 a blizzard meant a cannon shot and during the Civil War a blizzard meant a volley of musketry.  However, the German settlers in Iowa and Virginia oftentimes described severe sudden winter storms with drifting and poor visibility with the phrase “der sturm kommt blitzartig” which means “the storm comes lightning like.”  The transition from blitzartig to blizzard was a natural progression.

In fact, the Northern Vindicator newspaper of Esterville, Iowa used the word “blizzard” between 1860 and 1870 to describe such snowstorms.  It stands to reason that since the word blizzard was easily understood in newspaper stories of 1860 that the term was in use in the western USA as it pertains to weather much earlier than 1860.

Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to locate when the expression white out as associated with weather was first used.  That it should be used so casually in 1956 suggests it was a colloquialism in use in years leading up to the 1956 article by Saul Pett, and at least from the previous generation, placing the expression in the 1930s at the very least.

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Deadline

Posted by Admin on May 25, 2011

The word deadline refers to a time limit and according to the Oxford Dictionary, it’s American newspaper jargon from around 1920 that blends two words together: dead and line.  This may well be true as an edition of The Age newspaper dated December 26, 1951 that dealt with the cease-fire agreement in Korea.

The Christmas good-will spirit left armistice negotiators unaffected, and today there was again no progress.  The deadline for agreement on an armistice is December 27 (Thursday).  The United Nations spokesman, General Nuckols, said that neither the Communists nor the United Nations had asked for an extension of the 30-day period of a cease-fire line agreement.

And true to what was found in the Oxford Dictionary, the Baltimore Sun newspaper ran a story on July 7, 1920 entitled, “Our Next President Will Be A Seasoned Newspaper Man.”  The article began by stating:

Harding and Cox have both served from printer’s “devil” to Editor, and both will be callous to such expression as “beat,” “trim,” “cut,” “kill” and “deadline.”

However, it appears that in 1920, the word deadline also had another meaning.  It was a more literal meaning of the word although still very much in keeping with the more figurative meaning.   This is confirmed by a news article carried by the New York Times on March 21, 1920 entitled, “Thieves Open Steamship Office Safe And Get $179.80” and reads in part:

Safe robbers manipulated the combination of the safe in the building of Bennet, Hvoslef & Co., steamship agents, at 18 Broadway, last Tuesday and escaped with $179.80.  The police believe the robbery was the work of expert safe burglars who have robbed more than half a dozen safes below the police “deadline” in the financial district within the last two months.  The robbers are alleged to have concealed their finger prints by rubbing the surface of the safe with a damp cloth.

On January 11, 1880 the New York Times published a story entitled “Rising Old Men” that dealt with men of a certain age attaining and retaining positions and power in public life as had never been seen before.  It read in part:

Of course, nature, when offended, is always sure to have her revenge, and coarse indulgences sometimes were the resort of old men, when driven from the wholesome air of genial society and left to themselves to gossip and gormandize, and sometimes to guzzle and to gamble.  The new civilization changes all of this, and people who have living thought and purpose, and who agree in taste and ideas, associate freely together without even the different uniform of age and youth; and sometimes the youngest heart of the company belongs to some gifted man or woman who has long passed the dead-line of 50, as this date is often called.

In 1863, after then-President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Deputy U.S. Marshals oftentimes employed the services of local farmers to serve as lookouts  to work the “dead line” between Arkansas and Indian Territory. 

And in 1864, there was more than one comment noted in documents of the “dead line” in the stockades.  In fact, the first prisoner to die crossing the “dead line” was Caleb Coplan, a private in Company A, 1st Ohio infantry.  Captured on September 19, 1864 at Chickamauga, Coplan ducked under the “dead line” on April 9, 1864 and was promptly shot by a sentry.  He died the following day.

In the Report of the Secretary of War dated October 31, 1865, it was reported that Captain Henry Wirz, who was in charge of the stockade where Coplan was shot and died “did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, where Wirz instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line” …. “

Captain Henry Wirz was court-martialed, and found guilty of charges of cruelty, murder and acts of inhumanity in May 1865.   The court-martial was presided over by U.S. Major General Lew Wallace.

A little more than 30 years before that, however, the Library of U.S. History documents a situation where the hewed log residence of Joel Sayre was used in 1831 as both a court and a jail.  With William Bonnet as jailer and William Bonnet Jr. and Silas Carney as guards, the “dead line” marked the limits of the jail and separated it from what was set aside to be the court room.

Two generations before that, however, in 1763 American colonists could not established homesteads on lands lying westward of the source of any river flowing through the Atlantic seaboard. The dead-line, as it was referred to, identified for colonists cut off them off from about half of Pennsylvania and half of Virginia as well as everything from that point westward.

Idiomation was unable to find a reference to dead lines prior to 1763 however the use of the word in 1763 implies it was used in every day language and dates back to at least 1750.

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When Hell Freezes Over

Posted by Admin on January 12, 2011

If you say that something will happen when hell freezes over, you mean that it will never happen. 

For example, when the Eagles broke up in 1980, the band members stated the band play together again “when Hell freezes over.”  Well, Hell hadn’t frozen over by the time 1994 rolled around however, in 1994, the Eagles — consisting of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Don Felder, and Timothy Schmit — regrouped and released a live album entitled, “Hell Freezes Over.”

Of course, the Eagles were premature with their announcement about Hell as the U.S. Weather Station in Hell, Michigan can attest to the fact that in all the years the government has been tracking the weather in Hell, it only froze over once and that was in 2004 — 10 years after the Eagles‘ live album.

Back on October 27, 1928 the Afro American newspaper published in Baltimore, a story written by William Pickens reporting on Oscar DePriest who was allegedly forced to quit the race for Congress in Chicago was published.  The article read in part: 

“If he were guilty and afraid, he would agree to quit under condition that the indictment be dropped. But to their surprise, when they went to him and said:  “Now, won’t you withdraw?” — he replied:  “You go to hell, and when hell freezes over so you can skate around on it, bring me proof of that and maybe I’ll think about quitting.”

The man has more plain courage than any other politician I have ever met.  He laid all his cards on the table at a meeting in Chicago on October 14 … He told just how he stood, frankly stated his opposition to some of the most powerful leaders: said in bold but brief outline what he would do as Congressman and what he wouldn’t.

Back on November 23, 1863 during the Civil War, 2nd Lieutenant, Richard B. Dobbins from Company D of the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion was captured at Pulaski, Tennessee.  Records show that he was sent to Camp Chase (OH). Was asked when he was going to take the oath, and his reply was, “When Hell freezes over.”   He was released by special order of President Lincoln, April 23, 1864.

While the earliest recorded version of “when Hell freezes over” appears to be 1864, the manner in which it was used implies that it was a common saying among those in the southern states.  It is not unreasonable to believe that the expression dates back at least to the 1850s if not farther back.

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Paddywagon

Posted by Admin on August 25, 2010

A Paddywagon is a van the police use to transport people who have been arrested and are en route to jail or who have been found guilty of a crime and are being transported to prison.  Since it’s a police vehicle, paddy surely must refer to the police in some way.

Paddy is slang from 1780 for an Irishman.  Paddy is a nickname for the very popular and proper Irish name, Patrick.   In fact, by 1881, the uncomplimentary slur Paddywhack was slang for an Irishman.

During the 1920s, a large number of Irishmen were police officers on various police forces across America so it would be easy to assume that this is the origin of the term paddywagon.  However, this is disputed with the use of the term dating back to at least the beginning of the 1900s.

The Seattle newspaper reported on that on during the evening hours of July 24, 1916:

… Seattle Police Sergeant John F. Weedin was shot and killed in the line of duty. Sergeant Weedin and Officer Robert Wiley were traveling in a paddywagon when a citizen stopped them to report that he had been accosted by a man with a gun.  The suspect produced a handgun and shot Officer Wiley. The gunman then turned the weapon on Sergeant Weedin and shot him. Officer Wiley returned fire and killed the suspect.

Sgt. Weedin and Officer Robert R. Wiley had been working 12-hour shifts during a Longshoremen’s strike.

But the term goes back to the Civil War era when Paddy was  slang for a policeman, especially in cities such as New York, where many officers were of Irish descent.  During the violent five-day Draft Riots in New York in 1863, the term Paddy wagon became slang for the horse drawn wagons the police used to round up protesters against the Civil War draft.

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Smart Alec

Posted by Admin on August 12, 2010

In 1873, J.H. Beadle wrote in his book The Undeveloped West:

“I had the pleasure of seeing at least a score of SMART ALECKS  relieved of their surplus cash.”

It would appear that after the American Civil war, smart alecks were not very well liked.  But even before during that war, it would appear that the phrase was already well known.  In Carson, Nevada, the local newspaper, The Carson Appeal, published on October 17, 1865 spoke of Nevada having joined the Union:

“Halloa, old SMART ALECK  — how is the complimentary vote for Ashley?”

The Ashley to whom the newspaper referred was Delos Rodeyn Ashley (1828 – 1873) who was elected as a Republican to  the United States Representative from Nevada for the 39th and 40th Congresses from 1865 to 1869.

However, we owe the phrase “smart alec” to the exploits of  New York City’s celebrated pimp, thief, and confidence man, Alec Hoag and his capers of the 1840s.  Hoag, along with his wife Melinda and an accomplice known as “French Jack”, operated a  standard fraud practised by many con artists known as the “panel game.”  This game proved to be a very effective method for prostitutes and their pimps to relieve customers of their money and other valuables. 

The adjective smart as it’s used in this phrase — meaning impudent — dates back to the 15th century, and doesn’t appear that often outside of this expression although once in a while you do hear someone say, “Don’t get smart with me!”

It is said that the police hung the nickname of  “smart Alec” on Alex Hoag because he proved to be a very resourceful thief who outsmarted most everyone — including the police — for the duration he, his wife and their accomplice played the “panel game.”

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Posted by Admin on January 25, 2010

The term did not originate with Marvin Gaye but rather 100 years earlier. 

In 1859, Colonel Bernard Bee was the first person in America to build a telegraph line and soon others followed.  The wires were originally tied tightly to tree branches but lack of regular upkeep meant that the lines fell to the ground in loops.

During the Civil War, the militia used telegraph lines to transmit important information with regards to their whereabouts and what they had accomplished.  Unfortunately, with so many people having access to the telegraph lines, oftentimes the information was difficult to understand or conflicted with other information about the same regiment.

It didn’t take long before the term “heard it through the grapevine” came to mean the sharing of information that had no definite source, was generally false and was most likely to be a widespread rumour and therefore false.

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