Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Dear Abby’

The Coast Is Clear

Posted by Admin on May 9, 2011

When there’s no visible danger on the horizon, either literally or figuratively, then the coast is clear.   These days, people tend to use the phrase when they are about to do something they shouldn’t be doing in the first place and they have done their best to escape detection, usually by authorities such as teachers, security guards, police officers, coast guards and other enforcement figures.

Dear Abby ran a letter in her column that was printed in the Toledo Blade newspaper on November 12, 1958.  The letter from a reader named “Happy” read in part:

My neighbor across the court is a sly one and she thinks she is getting away with something.  She can fool her husband but she can’t fool me.  When she leaves her window shades half-up that means “the coast is clear.”  When she hangs something upside down on the clothesline it means “not tonight.”

Back on March 14, 1900, the New York Times ran a story entitled, “Burr Raids A Gambling Room: No Official Move Against the Gambling Commission.”  The story dealt with the fact that a number of gambling houses had overrun New York City and there was evidence that some precinct captains and officers were looking the other way.  It read in part:

Superintendent Burr of the Society for the Prevention of Crime, with six detectives from the West Forty-seventh Street Station, last night made a raid on a large gambling room at 1487 Broadway and arrested sixteen men.  They found a faro game going, red and black, Klondike, poker, and confiscated the paraphernalia.  The Police Department and the District Attorney’s office have shown the gamblers and their protectors plainly that there is nothing to be feared from them.  In that direction the coast is clear enough, but they have reckoned without their host if they believe that all power to stop the systematic bribery ends there.

Going back another 40 years, the Weekly Dispatch newspaper published in St. Thomas, County of Elgin in Ontario (Canada) ran a fictional story written by Captain Oakum entitled, “A Yarn Of Tom Wilkie: His Enemies and Friends.”  A snippet from the story shows how the phrase was used in 1860.

“By no means, not an hour after the money’s gone.”

“But suppose the gentleman should fly off the handle at the first exposure — what are your plans?”

“Live in Carson’s stow-away till the coast is clear and then make tracks for parts unknown.  I have, you know, funds enough for that emergency.  Nothing has been overlooked; you are safe, however, under every circumstance.”

“Brother, I am sorry that a man of your talents should put them to so bad a use.  Let me entreat you, even now to take the back track.  I have seemed to sympathise with you, that I might learn the curse you intended to pursue; that course will surely lead you to ruin; and all for what? — to obtain the means for gambling.”

Nearly 100 years before the publication of Captain Oakum’s story, Lieutenant Benjamin Gilbert wrote a letter to Daniel Gould on May 6, 1783.   It was written just 3 weeks after the U.S. Congress ratified the provisional treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain and 3 months after a general armistice between the United States and Great Britain took effect.  It was nearly 2 months after George Washington alerted Congress that the army was on the brink of mutiny as well as nearly 2 months after Washington had addressed his officers in what later become known as the “Newburgh Conspiracy” where he appealed to their honour and loyalty.  The letter Lieutenant Benjamin Gilbert wrote read in part:

The prospect of speedily returning to the likes of private life fills my heart with raptures.  The definitive treaty is not signed or, if signed, is not come to hand.  Carlson is in possession of New York and no prospect of his speedily leaving it.  To quit the field before our coast is clear would argue of a total want of sense.  Neither shall we, but we remain inactive without imployment, and under such restrictions that we can make no arrangements for Domestic life.

In the town of Groningen (Holland), a statue with an inscription below it can be found.  Since 1673, it has commemorated an historically documented siege when the besiegers were unable to prevent supplies from being into the town which led to their eventual retreat.  The words beneath the image translate loosely to be:  while the coast is clear, there is little to fear.

In the William Shakespeare play “Henry VI” written and published in 1591, the following exchange is found in Part 1:

MAYOR:
I’ll call for clubs if you will not away
[Aside] This cardinal’s more haughty than the devil.
GLOUCESTER:
Mayor, farewell.  Thou dost but what thou mayst.
WINCHESTER:
Abominable Gloucester, guard they head,
For I intend to have it ere long.
[Exeunt, severally, Gloucester and Winchester with their Servingmen]
MAYOR:
See the coast clear and then we will depart.
[Aside] Good God, these nobles should such stomachs bear!
I myself fight not once in forty year.

The Spanish equivalent to the phrase the coast is clear is “no hay Moros en la costa” which means there are no Moors on the coast.  This literal expression dates back to the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) during the Crusades.

Posted in Idioms from the 13th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A Face To Stop A Clock

Posted by Admin on April 1, 2011

The movie Harvey starring Jimmy Stewart in the role of Elwood P. Dowd had a number of interesting phrases and expressions, not the least of which was talk of having a face to stop a clock.  In the movie, Elwood says:

ELWOOD – Well, you’ve heard the expression ‘His face would stop a clock’? Well, Harvey — can look at your clock and stop it. And you can go anywhere you like — with anyone you like — and stay as long as you like — and when you get back — not one minute will have ticked by.

When someone says his face would stop a clock, it means that the other person has an unexpectedly unattractive face. 

In the “Tale of the Tudors” from the Warner Brothers’ animated television series, Histeria! that ran from 1998 to 2000, the following is found:

Boys:     So for a while, our Henry grieves,
              Then he marries Anne of Cleves.
              Anne came from fine German stock,
Toast:   She had a face that could stop a clock.
Girls:    Their marriage was cancelled in less than a year,
              His fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was dear.
             But Henry found out that her love was not true.

The Dallas Morning News ran a story on January 12, 1986 that read:

The Goddess of Liberty might have a face that could stop a clock on the University of Texas Tower, but she suddenly has attracted her share of suitors. At least two groups want to move the 3000-pound zinc statue out of Austin and put her on permanent display elsewhere.

Just shy of 26 years before that news article, the Milwaukee Journal edition of January 13, 1961 ran the column written by Ione Quingy Griggs of the Journal Staff.  From what Idiomation can see, Mrs. Griggs was a cross between Miss Manners and Dear Abby, offering up advice to those who were at a loss as to how to proceed with a particular situation.  The topic that day was how to copy with a mother-in-law who picked people apart and respones from readers whose opinion differed from Ms. Griggs’ earlier published opinion on the matter.  The following, authored by “Troubled Owner Of Mink Coat,” is an excerpt fromher response.

I read with interest your suggestion that a daughter-in-law voice the words “I am sorry” to her mother-in-law.  In my case it should be my husband’s mother to say it.  But no, she is always right everybody is wrong!  I’m not one to hold grudges, but when she sits with a face to stop a clock because my husband gives me a mink coat for Christmas, I’m ready to give up.  The mink coat was a surprise.  Everyone but Gran raved about it.  She sat frozen faced!

The expression was also found in a news story published on October 19, 1888 in the Chicago Daily Tribune in a story entitled, “The Beautiful Boston Man.”

After the parade the other day a well known Bostonian who is unfortunate in having a face to stop a clock approached an offer of the Cadets in a patronizing sort of way and said, “I saw your company today old man It looked very well very well indeed.”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the expression, a face to stop a clock, however it can safely be assumed that if it was used in a news story in 1888 that it was a well-understood phrase among the Chicago Daily Tribune‘s readership and one can guess that the expression dates back at least to the  mid-1870s.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Pour Salt In An Open Wound

Posted by Admin on December 9, 2010

Whether it’s “pour salt in an open wound” or “rub salt in an open wound” or simply “salt in wound” the meaning is the same.  Whatever has been said or done, hurts as much as having salt applied to a wound in the hopes that it will make everything better eventually.

In May 1965, “A Hurt Mother” wrote to Dear Abby wherein she complained:

I have never been a butting-in mother-in-law, but my sons’ wives never cared much for me.  I’ve never gone to their homes without an invitation, and those invitations were very rare.  But the wives’ families were always in and out.  I wasn’t missed.  My sons slowly turned away from me.  On Mother’s Day I always get expensive gifts with beautiful cards with verses saying what a wonderful mother I am and how much they love me! It is like rubbing salt in the wound.  One son hasn’t been in my home for three years.

Back on September 12, 1957, the Milwaukee Journal carried a somewhat amusing story about President Eisenhower.  It seems that he had taken some time away from his formal duties as President for a round of gold in Newport, Rhode Island.  The news bite entitled “Ike’s Gold Slips, Then He Gets Salt In Wound” relayed that:

President Eisenhower has been playing something less than satisfying golf since he started his vacation at this seaside resort.  He has been shooting two and three strokes over par on an embarrassing number of holes at the Newport Country Club.  And as though his own efforts were not enough, the chief executive underwent a shaking experience the other day.  A man playing in front of him shot a hole in one.  The lucky golfer was Gus Pagel, an electrical designer who plays at the country club on week ends.  Pagel, of course, was delighted to the point of jabbering to every person within range of his voice.   The president made the clubhouse turn and encountered Pagel, who told him in painstaking detail about his wonderful shot.  “I’ve only seen two of those,” the president said seriously.  “Well, sir, I’ve only seen one,” Pagel replied.

In 1949, The Spartanburg Herald carried a column by Robert Ruark.  On March 4 he wrote a piece entitled “Robert Ruark Says Navy and Air Force Carrying On Cold War.”  It was a lengthy piece and near the end of the piece, he wrote:

A lot of Navy feels today that if Mr. Symington fulfills an undeclared but fairly obvious aim to control everything that flies then the big Navy is a defunct duck.  Along these lines the Air Force’s successful public relations coups, such as stealing the Navy’s present show with a dashing feat like the round-the-world nonstop trip, is sheer salt in wound, and regarded as remarkably dirty pool.  The assumption is that a tour de force like the big round-tripper is coldly designed to impress Congress and the public with the fact that you no longer need a special air branch in your sea forces, and that ground-based airpower can win all alone.

The Glasgow Herald published a review of the movie “Sweet Devil” on June 21, 1938 that read in part:

British comedy films in many foreign countries have the reputation (however unjustly) of being close to the custard pie stage.  It would have been much better in this film if the custard pie throwing had been omitted — it was too much like rubbing salt in the wound.  Bobby Howes and Jean Gillie can hardly be expected to rise above such adolescent humour.  Such characters as t hey are supposed to portray never existed, except in Mack Sennett’s earliest efforts.

In the end, though, the phrase “salt in the wound” comes from the days when salt was rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic.   During the earlier centuries, when England was establishing its navy, most sailors were forced into service.  While at sea, punishment was often lashes with a cat’o’nine tails. These whippings would almost always break the skin, and salt was rubbed into the wound to prevent infection.  In this way, “salt in wound” was a very literal, stinging phrase.

And then there are those who will tell you that the early beginnings of the phrase come from the Bible.  Jesus did not tell his disciples, “You are the sugar of the world.” He is credited as saying to them, “You are the salt of the earth.”  Even back then in ancient times, doctors would sprinkle wounds with salt in the hope of fighting off infection. 

Since salt was an antiseptic that performed the negative function of preventing meat from spoiling and the positive function of disinfecting wounds.  The sting of having one’s negative behaviours brought to the forefront by the teachings of the disciples was akin to “salt in wound.”

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