Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘dressed to kill’

Mountain Out Of A Moleskin

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 12, 2017

Until recently, Idiomation was under the impression the expression was to make a mountain out of a molehill. However, while watching a black-and-white Sherlock Holmes movie from 1946 titled, “Dressed To Kill” (aka “Prelude To Murder“) starring Basil Rathbone (13 June 1892 – 21 July 1967) as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce (4 February 1895 – 8 October 1953) as Dr. Watson, Dr. Watson spoke of making a mountain out a moleskin.

Now whether it’s making a mountain out of a moleskin or making a mountain out of a molehill, it’s all about making a big deal out something that doesn’t warrant that much attention in the first place.

After some research, the first hint of the expression was found on page 14 of the Evening Review newspaper of East Liverpool, Ohio on Friday, May 11, 1934. It appeared in a comic by American cartoonist, Cliff Sterrett, titled, “Polly and Her Pals” which ran from 4 December 1912 through to 1958. In the comics section of the newspaper, it’s difficult to determine if this was how the expression was used, or if it was a misuse for the purpose of comedy.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1: Clifford Sterrett (12 December 1883 – 28 December 1964) was born in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. His mother died when he was two years old, so his father sent him and his younger brother Paul to Alexandria, Minnesota to be raised by their aunt, Sallie Johnson, and their father moved to Seattle, Washington. Sterrett was of Scandinavan ancestry.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Polly Perkins of “Polly and Her Pals” was a young woman who was part of the Suffragette movement leading into the 1920s flapper generation of the Jazz Age. The strip included her parents, Paw and Maw, her cousin Ashur Earl Perkins who was renown for giving bad advice, Paw’s sister-in-law Carrie and her spoiled brat daughter named Gertrude, the Japanese houseboy Neewah who pretended not to always know what was going on, the black housecat Kitty, and, of course, Polly herself.

However, in a radio program dating back to July 20, 1935 Anne Leah McCord (1890? – 19 March 1941) of Pulaski, Tennessee (born about 1890 according to the 1940 U.S. Census) used the idiom in the segment “Bulls and Boners” from the radio show “Radio Guide.” This show was produced in Chicago, Illinois and for those sending letters in to the show, the address was 731 Plymouth Court.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3 : Anne Leah McCord of Pulaski was the associate editor of The Record, The daughter of General Laps D. McCord and Betty Thomas McCord, she accompanied her father’s family to Nashville when he became Secretary and Adjutant-General for Governor Robert L. Taylor. When the Governor was elected to the U.S. Senate, Ms. McCord’s father became his secretary, and the family moved to Washington, D.C.

When Senator Taylor passed away, the McCords returned to Pulaski. She passed away on 19 March 1941 and was survived by her sisters Mary Boyd McCord and E.R. Reynolds and her brothers Laps D. McCord Jr and Elwood McCord (who lived in St Louis, Missouri).

Still uncertain whether it was a misused idiom, Idiomation continued to find the idiom published in a serious commentary. The expression was used on September 30, 1954 by the Honorable member for Mundingburra, Mr. Aikens with regards to the Townsville Regional Electricity Board, payments to two ex-managers, Mr. Beynon and Mr. Sleeman, and the problem with the turbo alternator at the new power station at Murder Island. In the records of the Queensland Parliamentary Debates of the Legislative Assembly the following is recorded.

I have only a few words to say to finish my statement about the Townsville generator. We all realise now that it was a much more serious thing than the Honourable member for Fortitude Valley would have had us believe. He tried to create the impression that I was making a mountain out of a molehill or, as a northern member of the Labour Party said, on a memorable occasion, “A mountain out of a moleskin.” However I think I have convinced the Committee that it was a very serious breakdown, so serious that it brought upon the manager and his staff the severest possible censure from the State Electricity Commission.

In America, the idiom also showed up in a news article written by Bob Ingram and published in the 13 November 1954 edition of the El Paso Herald-Post on page 7.

After reading statements by the extremists in Tucson and Lubbock papers this week, I’m convinced that last Saturday’s incidents at Tucson were a tempest in a T-pot and that they’re making a mountain out of a moleskin. The two biggest schools in the Border Conference certainly should be playing each other.

By the 1950s, the idiom was being used as an accepted expression. Idiomation continued to search for other published examples of the saying and found one instance in the Franklin News-Herald newspaper from Franklin, Pennsylvania in the 30 June 1936 edition.  Mr. Dion was quoted as saying:

The Franklin Chamber of Commerce must rehabilitate the spirit of the land. The furrier is the man who can make a mountain out of a moleskin. It is queer that we in this section of the country continue to enjoy cool weather, while crops in the mid-west are burning up with the heat and the lack of rain.

It was also found in the Radioland publication of July 1934 Jane Ace (Goodman Aces’ wife) was quoted in the segment titled, “Microphone Miniatures” under the story “Funny Men’s Wives.” The article gave a quick glimpse in the life of what life was supposedly like for her, Mary Livingston (Jack Benny’s wife), and Gracie Allen (George Burns’ wife).

When I try to be suggestive about us all going out somewhere they don’t even listen. We we girls play Russian Bank. But we can’t even do that in peace. Every minute some husband will interrupt our game to tell us a new gag. I don’t see why they go to so much trouble about ages — it’s making a mountain out of a moleskin.

American theater writer, lyricist, and screenwriter Jo Swerling (8 April 1897 – 23 October 1964) wrote a story titled “Ashes of Fortune” published in Volume 97 of “The American Magazine” in May 1924. The story was illustrated by J. Henry.

“My dear young friend,” he said pompously, “you are simply making a mountain out of a moleskin. All you got to do is to fill out the check yourself, for the amount the feller deposited.”

IMPORTANT NOTE 4: Jo Swerling’s family emigrated from Czarist Russia to the Lower East Side of New York City. He worked as a journalist for various newspapers and magazines including “Vanity Fair” in the 1920s.

In Volume 36 of “The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness” published in 1912. In the segment titled, “The Trunk In The Attic” it was announced that the winners of the three best love, friendship, or human interest letters would each win fifty dollars each per the details of the contest provided in the November edition.  American actress, playwright, and novelist Louise Closser Hale (13 October 1872 – 26 July 1933) was responsible for making the wise decision as to which entries would be announced as winners.

The second letter chosen was one the judge felt was one of “the longest husband-and-wife effusion” that had been submitted. In her own words, she stated without hesitation that “one can go on forever before marriage, but after — there is very little to say.” This letter included the expression in this passage.

Reached here this afternoon and saw Brown about the deed. He told me he would make it all right when he returns to Hayville, which will be the latter part of this week. So you needn’t worry, because he is a man of his word as well as deed, and besides, when you spoke of it I thought you were making a mountain out of a moleskin, or whatever that old adage is.

The question was one of what else was a moleskin besides what a mole wears? At the turn of the century, a moleskin was a kind of fustian, double-twilled and extra strong, and cropped before dyeing.

IMPORTANT NOTE 5: A fustian is a heavy cloth woven from cotton and flax, and used primarily in making menswear.

IMPORTANT NOTE 6: A fustian is also a pompous or pretentious speech or writing from at least the time of William Shakespeare.

In Germany, people make elephants out of mosquitoes (aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen) and in Russia, people make elephants out of a fly. In Finland, people make a little ox out of a fly (tehdä kärpäsestä härkänen) and in Wales, people make a mountain out of an anthill (gwneud mynydd o dwmpath morgrug).

But in Sweden, the expression göra en höna av en fjäder is to make a mountain out of a moleskin.

Earlier Idiomation mentioned that American cartoonist Clifford Sterrett was of Scandinavian ancestry. Scandinavia is the term common used to refer to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It’s possible that while the idiom was making its way across the ocean from England via magazines, Scandinavians were already using the expression word-for-word in America.

Idiomation pegs this expression to the early 1900s with a serious nod to the Swedish expression.

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Dressed To Kill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 4, 2011

The expression dressed to kill has been around for quite some time.  It’s been the title of no fewer than 4 movies including the 1980 movie directed by Brian De Palma, the 1946 movie starring Basil Rathbone and Patricia Morrison, the 1941 movie starring Lloyd Nolan and Mary Beth Hughes and the 1928 movie starring Mary Astor

The expression usually refers to an individual — most often a woman — who is wearing fashionable or glamourous clothing intended to attract attention. Occasionally it refers to an item or inanimate object that is considered fashionable or glamourous.

On December 6, 2008, the Daily Post in Liverpool, England ran an article entitled, “Interiors: Best of the Hotties.”  The subject of the article was hot water bottles and was intriguing nonetheless, beginning with its opening paragraph.

It’s hard to beat the comfort of that simple winter must-have — the humble hot water bottle. Nowadays, these come dressed to kill in anything from faux fur to felt, so don’t put up with a sad, naked rubber version.

On July 16, 1968 an article by Nadene Walker ran in the Regina (SK) newspaper, The Leader-Post.  The story reported on the just-then-revealed fashion collection of then-popular clothing designer, Valentino.  The piece was entitled, “Valentino Models Dressed To Kill In Rome Showings” and read in part:

Valentino pulled out all the stops Sunday night in a collection based on an A line with a touch of romantic Russian.  It could prove the smash hit of the Italian winter fashion season.  From the first group of hi-booted models swathed in white mink to the last evening extravaganzas, Valentino girls were dressed to kill.

Back during the Roaring 20s, the court case in the murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell was carried in the New York Times on April 8, 1921.  The accused was one Roy Harris who had been arrested the previous Wednesday afternoon. He had confessed to the murder and told the story of how a woman known to him only as Mrs. Fairchild and a man by the name of “Big Bill” Duncan had contracted him for the murder.  He claimed that Mrs. Fairchild paid him and “Big Bill” Duncan $450 each in new bills a few minutes after she opened the outer and vestibule doors of the Elwell home to the two men.

He said he met a fellow names Giles on the day following his last meeting with “Big Bill,” and that Giles told him he saw Duncan “dressed to kill” in the Grand Central Terminal.  He said Giles told him that “Big Bill” said he was “going North.”

“I think he got the rest of the $5,000 and double-crossed me,” Harris said.  Harris said he served with the Canadian Transport but didn’t go overseas.  He said he left New York two months after the shooting of Elwell and went to Syracuse.

On August 26, 1882 a reporter for the St. Louis Globe write a rather unflattering article about the women in Saratoga.  Needless to say, if such an article was written for a newspaper today, the reporter would likely find himself unemployed in short order. It read in part:

An hour of silence at a morning concert drew forth the statement that “if they had gone round and offered prizes, they could not have gotten many more homely women together;” and a happier man would be forced to the same conclusion.  One may reason it around that the proportion of the ill-favored is not so much greater here than elsewhere but that homely women dress so strikingly and make such a parade of themselves that it is impossible for them to escape notice.  An ugly girl in a cheap and ill-fitting frock goes by without notice on a city street, but an ugly girl in Saratoga is “dressed to kill,” as the maid say, and accents all her deficiencies.

On October 28, 1860 San Francisco’s Golden Era newspaper ran an article entitled Surface Diggings.  The second paragraph had a beautiful play on words with this comment:

In this part of the world, when a man is well gotten up we say that he is “dressed to kill.”  In Scotland, this expression takes a singularly different phase for there a Highlander in full costume comes very near being Kilt entirely.

Idiomation could not find an earlier published version of this expression however in 1860 it was a phrase that was well-known in California so one can safely assume that it had been around at least one generation prior in order to be considered by reporters as a well-known expression of the day.

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