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Posts Tagged ‘Detroit Free Press’

Do The Graceful

Posted by Admin on May 21, 2021

Last week on social media, people were talking about the idiom to do the graceful which they claimed was an expression from the Victorian era and meant to charm or fascinate others. As Idiomation had never heard that idiom before, it seemed odd that such an idiom existed however since it was a topic of hot discussion in various author and writer groups online, it was worth researching.

At first glance, the idiom seems to be missing a word. It seems wanting in that respect as in do the graceful thing. However there is one thing Idiomation has learned, it is to never assume a word is missing or that the idiom is used in its entirety. For that reason, Idiomation researched the exact idiom: do the graceful.

Before Idiomation delves into what we learned, first off, it must be noted that the idiom actually means to behave gracefully or fittingly for a given situation. That doesn’t necessarily mean to charm or fascinate others, although charm and fascination may be used in order to behave gracefully or fittingly for a given situation.

Now let’s get on with what Idiomation uncovered about this idiom.

In Episode 10 of the Sourcegraph podcast, Matt Holt, author of a number of open-source projects including the popular Caddy web server, was interviewed. In the podcast, he talked about his motivation for creating the Caddy web server, and the challenges of maintaining the open-source project. In this interview, he used the idiom.

We even have graceful reloads working in Windows, which is not something other web servers really offer because the way we handle network and do the graceful.

The Detroit Free Press reported on page 6 of the Saturday, 7 December 1935 edition that influential Republicans claimed to have solved the riddle of Palo Alto after going after Herbert Hoover weeks earlier to ask him what he was up to and why. Here is what the newspaper published in part.

Mr. Hoover quietly informed the curious that he did not want and would not seek the nomination. Barring a miracle, he senses that the surest way to re-enthrone the despised New Deal would be for him to run again. He promised to renounce the unoffered crown but he reserved the right to decide when he should take himself out of the race. His ulterior motive gives a tip on when he will do the graceful.

The idiom was found in The Mitre which was a monthly publication for the students of Bishop’s University and the Boys of Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Quebec. The copy Idiomation found was from October 1902. In this edition, the rules for how freshman were to act was included as a welcome to the new men entering the college that Fall. Of course, the rules listed weren’t part of the College rules handed to each new student upon registration at the College, but new students were advised to “carefully study and literally follow” the rules including this one:

2. Freshman when they meet their seniors on the street, should always do the graceful, and touch their trencher or cap.

It was in The Newfoundlander newspaper of 12 February 1875 that an article about the hasty actions of Grand Duke Alexis — a Russian aristocrat who had fascinated a number of society belles in New York when he visited the United States of America — included the idiom. Before embarking on his voyage to America, the Grand Duke had fallen head over heels in love with the daughter of a high official of the Council of Empire, declared his passion, enjoyed the reciprocation of that passion, and secretly married. The marriage remained a secret for nearly three months, and as the saying at the time went, “marriage, like murder, will out.”

The voyage to America, and the very long return home by way of Japan and Siberia, was meant to cure the Grand Duke Alexis of his love, with the hopes that while he was cooling his heels with other women of high breeding, his family and their representatives could talk his mistake into leaving him for a generous financial settlement. But here’s what happened instead according to the newspaper.

But she would do nothing of the sort, not even when she was told that she could name the financial terms and receive the money when and where she wished. She loved Alexis and had married him, and would remain his wife until death should do the graceful for one of them. Possibly the Count hoped that the pale warrior would begin on her at an early date, but if he thought so he did not say so. The interview lasted a couple of hours, and was as unsuccessful as the most earnest admirer of pig-headed constancy in love could desire. Next day, the diplomat called again, but she would not see him, and after trying the intercession of a Russian lady of high position who happened to be in Geneva, he gave up the effort and took the train for Paris.

Indeed, in 1875 the expression was used by many. Another example was found in the Yerington Times edition of 28 November 1875 — Yerington being in Nevada — with regards to a gathering at the state capitol on Thanksgiving Day. At the local theater, the writer of the article took in a show where he and his friend found John Jack and the Firmin Sisters (Katie and Annie) performing before a “large and fashionably dressed audience.” Once the performance concluded, the benches were cleared and the orchestra began to play music to the delight of those in attendance.

It was reported that the reporter and some new-found friends from the Tribune did their best to “keep time with the music and off the ladies’ dresses” and they admitted that “the trails of only some fifteen or twenty dresses will probably have to visit the dressmaker’s to recuperate from the havoc by [their] No. 11’s.” Once all that was admitted, the idiom appeared.

Miss F. certainly has the charm of dispelling the gloom that settles around a timid reporter’s soul as he finds himself trying to do the graceful among strangers, and the gentleman who procured the introduction has been instrumental in setting a “little bird singing in our heart.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Annie Firmin and John Jack were married, but she still was known as Miss Annie Firmin to theater patrons and promoters.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Annie Firmin was represented by Mrs. John Drew who was one of the premiere theatrical agents in Philadelphia. Over the years Mrs. Drew represented Annie Firmin, Annie became well known throughout the theatrical profession as a reputable and respected actress. and long before she met the actor John Jack.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: John Jack (1 February 1836 – 16 September 1913) began his career as a call boy in the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Shortly afterwards, he made his appearance as an actor where he quickly built up an enviable reputation as a performer of diverse professional talents and abilities including a sought after reputation as a stage manager.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Annie was John Jack’s second wife whom he married years after the death of first wife, Adelaide Reed.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: At the outbreak of the American Civil War through to the end, John Jack severed his theatrical connections and enlisted in the Federal Army. He sustained wounds that sent him to hospital, but even wounded, when there was a threat of rioting in connection with drafting difference forces into the war, he recruited other injured men to address the insurrection.

The idiom also appeared in the Wednesday, 23 March 1870 edition of the Port of Spain Gazette from Trinidad. The Gazette shared a news article from London dated 1 March 1870 with regards to the political news that Lord Derby had refused to accept the leadership of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords. It was thought that Lord Derby’s acceptance of the post would have been a guarantee that his fellow Conservatives would have considered all the changes the majority in the lower House sought.

The Duke of Richmond was suggested by Lord Salibury, which was seconded by Lord Derby and supported by Lord Carnarvon. The article then described the fanfare that goes with the ceremony in the House of Lords.

Seating himself, he puts on his cocked hat, then he salutes the Lord Chancellor, and rising, goes back to the woolsack to pay his respects to the noble and learned lord. The cocked hat is the greatest trouble on these occasions, as noble lords are apt to knock off that unwonted covering, in an endeavour to do the graceful.

Wondering if perhaps the expression was a relatively new one in that era, Idiomation continued researching and found this passage in the Daily Evansville Journal of Evansville (IN) in Vanderburgh County on 22 May 1862 under the heading “River News.”

The ever prompt and swift gliding Bowen, with Capt. Dexter and Billy Lowth to do the graceful, will leave at the usual hour this afternoon for Cairo and all down river towns. Pay your money early and secure state-rooms.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published example of the idiom however since the Victoria era was from 1837 through to 1901, Idiomation confirms the idiom was definitely used during the Victorian era. That Idiomation was unable to find a published version prior to 1862 lends credence to the claim it is an idiom from the Victorian era.

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Chicken Feed

Posted by Admin on March 20, 2012

Chicken feed refers to a small amount of anything especially money.  It comes from the fact that chickens can be fed grains in amounts too small for other uses but that are enough for the chickens.

Earlier this month, on March 8th, This Is Cornwall ran a news story about the youngest pupils at Falmouth Primary School and how they raised 13 newly hatched chicks.  The students fed and cared for the chicks with the help of the school staff.  The story was aptly entitled, “Cost of Keeping Hens Isn’t Chicken Feed” as the school community continues to fundraise for a coop and a plastic chicken house for their charges.

The Lodi News-Sentinel newspaper of Lodi, California ran a story on March 2, 1977 about the water resources projects that were to be suspended by the Jimmy Carter administration.  The suspensions would hopefully save the American public $5.1 billion.  The story appeared in Andrew Tully’s Capital Fare column and was entitled, “Dam Money Is Chicken Feed.”

On March 28, 1945 the front page news in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper was an article entitled, “Enclosing The Ruhr: Vital Areas In Danger.”  It read in part:

It is not too much to say that between General Patton’s Darmstadt-Aschaffenburg-Frankfurt bridgehead and the Swiss frontier there are no forces that the Third Army leader would consider as more than chicken feed while east and north-east of Frankfurt there is something very much like an open gate.

Chicken Feed was the title of a twenty-minute black-and-white short silent comedy film directed by Robert A. McGowan (22 May 1901 – 20 June 1955) and Charles Oelze (24 November 1885 –  2 August 1949), and released on November 6, 1927.  It was the 64th short from the “Our Gang” series and starred Joe Cobb, Jackie Condon and Jean Darling in the lead roles.

The Detroit Free Press carried a serialized story entitled, “Mr. Dooley On Making A Will” which was written by Finley Dunne.  Part Five was published on August 24, 1913 and the first paragraph read:

“I NEVER made a will,” said Mr. Dooley. “I didn’t want to give a headache thinkin’ iv something to put into it. A will iv mine wud be a puny little thing annyhow, an’ wan thried to file it be lible to locked up contimpt iv th’ Probate coort. Besides, I like to cause any onseemly wrangles an’ lawsuits among me heirs.”

As the story progressed, the following passage can be found:

And wit out an’ decoyed another dollar an’ aven if it come back ladin’ nawthin’ more thin a little chickenfeed, Dochney wasn’t cross about it.

While the expression isn’t used as often as the more popular “peanuts” when referring to money, the phrase first appeared in print in the memoirs of American frontiersman and statesman, Davy Crockett and published in 1836.  Davy Crockett described professional riverboat gamblers who played card games for small change, stating that gamblers made good money on their “chickenfeed” games. It would seem that the term originates with Davy Crockett and if readers can trace the expression back to before 1836, we welcome the additional information.

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Duck Soup

Posted by Admin on August 23, 2011

When someone mentions that a task or assignment is duck soup, what they’re telling you is that it can be very easily accomplished.  The expression gained popularity due in large part to the 1933 Marx Brothers movie “Duck Soup” but the Marx Brothers aren’t the ones who coined the expression.

On January 26, 1962 the Ottawa Citizen newspaper published a story entitled, “Oil Blaze Duck Soup To Texan Fire-Killer.”  The story reported on how Red Adair, a Texan,  nonchalantly put out an oil well fire and immediately flew back to Texas to take on another oil well fire.  The story reported the following:

With the help of others he doused the flames with chemicals Thursday, then filled the well with a special mud to stop the oil from flowing.

“It was duck soup compared to some of the fires I’ve fought,” said Adair.  How much the Sun Oil Company of Calgary, which brought in the well recently, will pay him has not been announced.  But an official said the company had already spent $100,000 before he arrived — the fire broke out last Friday — and any fee charged would be worth it. 

On December 24, 1943 the Ellensburg Daily Record in Washington state published a news story entitled, “Rocket Planes Duck Soup To Yankee Fighters.”  It was the height of World War II and the article began with this:

German planes mounting the new rocket guns are “duck soup” for American fighter planes, says Wellwood Beall, vice-president in charge of engineering at Boeing Aircraft Company.  Beall, just back from watching Fortresses perform over Europe, reported bombers have taken some “terrific punishment” from rockets but that he could find no cases of a direct hit.

“Ships carrying rocket guns are slow, inaccurate and duck soup for American fighter planes,” he said. “Our boys line up to see who’ll shoot them down.”

The Milwaukee Journal published an article on August 8, 1931 about Burleigh Grimes of Owen, Wisconsin who was an aging but effective spitballer playing with the St. Louis Cardinals at the time.  The article was entitled, “Grove! Pooh!   He’ll Be Duck Soup Says Grimes.”  Burleigh Grimes was quoted in the story as saying:

“Sure, there’s one way we can lose,” Burleigh explained.  “If we don’t hit, we can’t win.  If we don’t make runs, we can’t win.  But let us make a few runs and we’ll knock ’em over in a hurry.  Grove!  Pooh! says he’s got ’em scared to death in that league.  Who’s he got to beat? We bet im last year, didn’t we?  And he’ll be duck soup for us this October.  And now about Earnshaw?  I guess he’ll have another streak like he had last year? I guess not.”

On August 12, 1918 the Toronto World newspaper printed a news story by Ida L. Webster.  This reporter wrote about two baseball games played on the same afternoon between Toronto and Buffalo. The news story was entitled:

Leading Leaflets Took Two Games: Bisons Proved To Be Duck Soup For Howley’s Wild Men On Saturday.

According to “The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang” the expression “duck soup” first appeared in a newspaper cartoon in 1902 drawn by T.A. Dorgan.  The cartoon shows a man in a Police Court juggling a bottle, pitcher, plate and salt shaker and the caption underneath read: Duck Soup.

However, Idiomation was able to find an even earlier printed reference in the Chicago Daily Tribune of July 23, 1897 on page 10 in a story containing 1,792 words.  In other words, it was a sizeable news story!  A business interviewed for the story stated:

I am out of the business and so this fight is duck soup for me.

We kept researching and came across the expression in the Detroit Free Press on October 24, 1893 on page 8 in an article entitled, “Salting Western Mines: How Eastern Strangers Are Taken In By Sharpers.”  The article was 2,295 words in length and dealt with the subject of con men who made their schemes work.  The article stated that a salted mine was so called because the con man easily fooled “eastern tenderfoots” headed west to grow rich overnight with his con game.  The story underscored the fact that suckers made for fine food for mining sharks.  The story included these two sentences:

The McDonalds were “duck soup.” They were quietly moved over to Alder Gulch by a syndicate of sharpers who needed more money to develop properties.

Since the expression duck soup was used in such a prominent newspaper in 1893, it can be assumed that the general population of the day understood the meaning of duck soup.  This places the expression in the vocabulary of the day. That the expression appears in quotation marks, however, implies that it may have been a relatively new expression at the time.  It can therefore be assumed that the expression dates back to sometime in the mid to late 1880s.

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Rub It In

Posted by Admin on June 24, 2011

No one likes to look foolish but every once in a while, it happens.  What you don’t want to have happen once you look foolish is to have someone rub it in and make you look even more foolish.

On March 2, 2000 Bill Plaschke’s Thursday Perspective column appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune with a headline that read, “Lakers Show Mettle In Win Over Blazers.”  The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in front of over 20,000 basketball fans with a final score of 90 to 87 in what was called the NBA’s most compelling midseason game in then-recent history.  Their sportsmanship was reported thusly:

The Lakers didn’t strut when they led, didn’t rub it in when they got hot, didn’t show much more emotion than Bryant’s two raised fists at the end of the game.  “We’re not like that,” Fischer said.  “Phil is not like that.”

The Los Angeles Times reported on the events of the Fall of 1962 as it pertained to the Cold War in an article published on November 1, 1962 entitled, “It’s No Time To Blow Trumpets.”  The article pointed out that there were good reasons why the U.S. government shouldn’t trumpet or gloat over forcing the Soviet Union to back away from Cuba.

American officials should not rub it in. Jubilation would be premature and lacking in caution. It would be pre-mature until the Soviet launching bases have been dismantled, the missiles removed to Russia. and U N. inspection made so secure that they cannot be secretly replaced.

The New York Times ran a baseball story on October 13, 1920 about the Cleveland Indians being crowned the World Champions after defeating the Brooklyn Robins 3 to 0 in the seventh game of the final series.  According to the reporter, the Indians “humiliated Brooklyn” at Ebbets Field in Cleveland, Ohio.

When Coveleskie was going at top speed and pitching his best, Buster Mails went out to left field and started to warm up.  Manager Speaker never dreamed for a moment that he would be forced to call on his left hander but he wanted to rub it in and show the Robins what they might expect if they got gay with Covey.

In 1904, the Democratic Party in Missouri announced it had picked its champion against corruption and was committed to an “anti-graft” campaign with its “anti-boodle” plank referred to as “The Missouri Idea.”  The New York Times reported on the convention in great detail on July 20, 1904 in its news story, “Folk Forces Dominate Missouri Convention.”  It read in part:

Another roll call was started on a proposition, to instruct the Credentials Committee to throw out any delegates who might have secured their seats by fraud or intimidation.  It was introduced by J.C. Jones of St. Louis, a Folk delegate.  Since that is the purpose of the Credentials Committee, the motion was useless, but, just to rub it in on the machine, the convention passed it, the opposition giving up before the roll call was complete.

On August 25, 1860 the Detroit Free Press published an article entitled, “Political Intelligence” that dealt with the elections in North Carolina and who was advocating the cause of Breckinridge, Yancey and disunion.

We did not know, when we made it, that the black republican leaders, wire-pullers and managers were going to expose the corruption and rascality of each other to the public, and not only call each other thieves, but prove it and rub it in, as they are now doing.

On May 5, 1849 the Detroit Free Press ran a brief news article comprised of only 248 words that reported the following commentary on the politics of the day:

Undoubtedly it will not. The Administration will learn that the people will not submit to such gross deception and hypocrisy as has characterized General Taylor’s course before and after the late election. They will not, after having been deceived, sit quietly down and allow him to rub it in.

The phrase rub it in, however, dates back to King George II of England and the Earl of Bath.  Before the war of 1748 was ended by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle, King George II requested that the Earl of Bath expose the ministers who had resigned their offices unexpectedly and prematurely when they heard of King George II‘s plans.  When they were recalled, the King urged Earl of Bath to expose what had happened in a pamphlet.  The Earl of Bath wrote that King George II directed him to “rub it in their noses, and if it be possible, make them ashamed.”

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Pan Out

Posted by Admin on February 22, 2011

When something “pans out” the speaker means that the situation worked out well for those involved.

On October 13, 1953, in a very quick article in the bottom left hand corner of Page 16 of the Spokane Daily Chronicle under the heading “How Things Pan Out” the newspaper reported:

Catherine Hunter, head of the University of Tulsa’s homemaking department, says being handy with a skillet is still the best way to trap a man, and she has figures to prove it.  Out of 105 who have majored in home economics at the school in the last five years, 103 are married, one is engaged and the other is teaching home economics, says Hunter.

As the Great Depression neared its end and WWII was just a couple of years away, the Portsmouth Times in Ohio ran a story entitled, “Figuring Out The Budget.”  It read in part:

It is a tragic thing that a president like Mr. Roosevelt, who has the best intentions in the world, should be forced to make estimates that do not pan out.  It shows that the people around the President are too inclined to hide from him the true story of the depressing effects of the administration’s own policies on the business situation and are too prone to give him rosey estimates of what a tax rate will produce just because they are enamored of some new tax device.

A generation before that, Michigan’s Ludington Record ran an article on February 15, 1900 entitled, “Undoing of a Bunko Sharp.”  The article had to do with $5,000, John Kasser of the Live Oak Copper Mining and Smelting Company, a visit to New York City and 2 bunko steerers.  The newspaper reported:

The pair invested a little cash and considerable time and trouble in Mr. Kasser, and, though he didn’t pan out, they still have cause for thankfulness that they are alive, though battered … … When a Sun reporter saw Mr. Kasser the other day and asked him about his adventure, that gentleman rubbed his chin and said he shouldn’t think a little thing like that would be of any interest in a big city like New York.

“I have got a little property of my own,” said he, “not very much, but a little; and I suppose those two thought they could get $5,000 or $6,000 out of me.  I am a simple-minded western man,” he added, and paused, contemplatively.  “A simple-minded western man but,” he concluded, smiling benignantly at the toe of his right boot, “I have been in New York before.”

The Detroit Free Press ran “A Change Of Tactics” in the January 29, 1873 that had to do with the Credit Mobilier investigation.  It read in part:

It is quite clear that the Credit Mobilier investigation does not — to use a mining phrase — “pan out” to the satisfaction of the Republican party.  Vigorously opposing investigation at first, it demanded by its organs that a mere campaign slander should not be lifted into the important of serious charge.

The reference to the phrase “pan out” being a mining phrase is one of the first indications that the phrase actually alluded to washing gold from gravel in a pan.

Back on October 25, 1873, the New York Times reported on gold mining the San Juan mining region with article entitled, “South-Western Colorado: The San Juan Treaty and the Country It Relates To.”

The excitement in the Winter of 1860 sent a swarm in, built a town, brought on stocks of goods, and laid out great plans.  But there was shortly a stampede, and men came out worse “broke” than the Pike’s Peakers of ’59.  The leader of the party barely escaped hanging at the hands of the disappointed rabble.  He plead his own cause, however before the miners’ court, and contended that he had not overrated the mineral wealth of the country.  He insisted that on the very spot where they sat they could “pan out” gold better than he had ever represented.  Immediately a miner’s pan was called for, and the experiment results in fifty cents worth of the golden dust.  It saved Baker’s life.  But confidence in the capacity of the region did not return, and it was deserted.

Just a few years before that news report, the Denver Gazette ran a story entitled, “Good Mining Prospects: The Gulches More Profitable Than Ever.”  It was an exciting story that stated:

The minds of Cash Creek in Lake, Fairplay and Tarryall, in Park, and the numerous gulches in Summit County, are rich enough to pay thousands for working them, and no better inducement can be offered to a poor man, who is ambitious to mine without the outlay of capital necessary to work a lode, than to spend his labor for a season in a good gulch, where he has nothing to learn but to shovel dirt into a sluice and pan out his shining wages every Saturday night, without any of the mysterious manipulations of crushing, desulphurizing, triturating, amalgamating, retorting and other learned processes with unpronounceable names, in order to get at the substances of oxides, pyrites and sulphurets of greenbacks.

Ultimately, however, the term “pan out” came about as a result of the California Gold Rush of 1849 where the term was recognized and understood by every miner and want-to-be miner hoping to make their fortune prospecting for gold.

Here’s how prospectors mined for gold during the Gold Rush.  First, they would swirl a mix of dirt and water around the pan.  Because gold is dense, with a little skill, the pan could be swirled at just the right speed and angle to allow the gold to settle to the bottom of the pan.  At the same time, dirt would wash over the side of the pan. The prospector would continue in this fashion until there was nothing left in the pan except gravel and, with luck, little specks of gold … if everything “panned out!”

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Dead Ringer

Posted by Admin on February 3, 2011

A dead ringer is, or is perceived to be, an exact duplicate of someone else … a doppelgänger, if you wish.  Dead ringers have been around for as long as there have been people but the term hasn’t been around for quite as long.

On July 28, 1932, in a Los Angeles Times news exclusive on the John Gottlieb Wendel case involving Thomas Patrick Morris, the scandalous headline read:

WENDEL CLAIM SUBSTANTIATED: Asserted Heir to Fortune Scores at Hearing Declared “Dead Ringer” for Man He Calls “Poppa” – Story of Parentage Refuted by ex-Playmate

Back in 1893, according to the New York Daily News, an Ohio newspaper reported:

Israel Williams wearing a wig would be no longer Israel Williams, but would be a dead ringer for Wellington just before the battle of Waterloo.

And back on June 10, 1891, the Detroit Free Press published a story entitled:  “HE WAS NO TENDERFOOT: A Reporter’s Mistake Leads to Mutual Explanations.”  It read in part:

Mutual explanations followed and the reporter squared himself by securing evidence from several outsiders that the gentleman from Lorain was a dead ringer for the good looking statesman from Saginaw.

An earlier reference confirming the use of the term comes from the Oshkosh Weekly Times of June 1888, where there’s a court report of a man charged with being ‘very drunk’:

“Dat ar is a markable semlance be shoo”, said Hart looking critically at the picture. “Dat’s a dead ringer fo me. I nebber done see such a semblence.”

Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to located the term dead ringer published elsewhere prior to 1888 although from the way it was used in the Oshkosh Weekly Times, it’s obvious that the phrase was used by educated and uneducated folk alike by that time.

So what exactly is a ringer?

Back in the day, a ringer was a horse that was substituted for another horse and that looked so much like the original horse that it fooled the bookies.  In other words, it was a horse used to defraud bookies.  The Manitoba Free Press published this definition in October 1882:

A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ‘ringer.’

However, the word “ringer” goes back to the 1700s where “to ring” meant a coin was tested to see if it was genuine or counterfeit.  The test was to strike the coin with a finger or other object.  If it rang, it was genuine; if it didn’t ring — in other words, if it was dead — it was counterfeit.

And what of the word “dead” you might ask?   Used in the sense of “utter, absolute, quite” it was used in the term “dead drunk” which was first attested to in the 1590s and later by the term “dead heat” which was attested to in 1796.

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Slow As Molasses In January

Posted by Admin on January 6, 2011

It was a balmy 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) in Boston when the Great Molasses Flood happened on Wednesday, January 15, 1919 .  On that day, the low-lying section of Commercial Street between Copps Hill and North End Park was flooded by the contents of  a 58-foot tank that had contained no less than 2.5 million gallons of molasses .  The container stood just behind the Boston and Worcester freight terminal. 

When the tank split wide open at around 12:30 p.m. that day, a 30-foot tidal wave of molasses tore the steel supports off the nearby elevated train structure.  In the end, it was determined that the molasses of the Great Molasses Flood ran at between 25 and 30 mph (40 to 48 kph).

That being said, the expression “slow as molasses in January” is an Americanism for someone or something that is painfully slow. Due to the high viscosity of commonly available molasses at room temperature, the liquid pours quite slowly. 

In the 1941 movie Gone with the Wind,  Scarlett O’Hara chides Prissy  for being as “slow as molasses in January.”

In the King Vidor movie Hallelujah released in August of 1929, you hear “You’re slower than cold molasses in winter time” just over an hour into the movie.

Thirty-four years before that, John Adrian wrote a piece for the Detroit Free Press on July 11, 1886 that discussed Milwaukee (WI) in a 182-word article. His words certainly painted quite the picture of Milwaukee in 1886!  Part of his review included:

The city is also noted as being somewhat of a slow town. While we brand the villain who says so, we must admit that its street cars are slower than molasses in winter and are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

And 14 years before that review, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story on December 28, 1872 about the secret investigation of the Credit Mobilier scandal.  The newspaper reported that:

Most of them had the matter under advisement for seven or eight months before they could satisfy their consciences as to the moral bearing of the transaction, showing that the average Congressional perception of right and wrong is much slower than molasses in January.

In the records of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, there is a case dealing specifically with molasses in the month of January in 1840.

That defendant’s molasses was contained in two cisterns, a large and a small one; that in December 1839, Stansberry, the overseer, told defendant that if something was not done with the molasses it would be lost, because the large cistern, which was under ground, would not stand the pressure upon it, being nearly full.  To this the defendant answered, that he was waiting for the plaintiff to send him some casks, and was expecting them daily.  A few days after, in the beginning of January, a message was brought to the defendant and the overseer, that the cistern had bursted and was leaking.  On reaching the sugar house they found that the large cistern had given way, that the molasses was oozing out of the cistern, and the water outside, running from above.

While there is still no printed reference to being “slow as molasses in January” in 1840, one can determine from how the case was argued that the molasses that leaked out of the cistern in January did so very slowly. 

Somewhere between 1840 and 1872, the expression “slow as molasses in January” became part of the English language.

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