Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘François Rabelais’

Deaf As A Doornail

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 23, 2018

Someone who is deaf as a doornail is someone who is, or is accused of being, almost completely if not completely deaf.  It’s a term used less often than dead as a doornail, however it is correct to use deaf as a doornail.  It’s also related to other similar expressions such as deaf as a post, deaf as a doorpost, and deaf as a doorknob.

In the April 7, 2017 DisArt Festival website review of Terry Galloway’s stage performance directed by Florida State University professor Donna Marie Nudd, the idiom found its way into the first sentence.

Terry Galloway has been deaf as a doornail since she was nine. She spent years living in relatively peaceful silence, until technology– in the form of a cochlear implant– caught up with her.

A hundred years earlier, the expression was used in a story titled “Boldero” by American novelist Henry Milner Rideout (25 April 1877 – 17 September 1927) and illustrated by Edmund Franklin (E.F.) Ward (3 January 1892 – 14 December 1990), and published on September 1st, 1917 in Volume 190 of “The Saturday Evening Post.”

Boldero raced down the levee slope and halted, facing the man.

The fire, though humble, cast a warm red glow on him who watched it. He looked up — a hawk-nosed, beardless, brown-faced little old man, with skeptical eyes.

“Can’t hear a word you’re saying,” declared this figure in a toneless voice. “You’ll have to speak louder. I’m deaf as a doornail.”

Uttering the words like an old and tiresome formula, he continued to warm his hands.

The expression is found in the article, “Scottish Pulpit Eloquence” published in “Relics of Literature” compiled and edited by Stephen Collet, A.M. in 1823. The article starts off by stating the extract is from a seventeenth century tract entitled, “A Sermon Preached in St. Giles Kirk, at Edinburg, common called Pockmanty Preaching, by James Row, some time Minister of Strowan.” It was determined that the year of the sermon by information in the tract that this sermon was written in 1643.  The expression appeared in this section:

The first of these general divisions was naturally susceptible of subdivision, and the preacher displayed much quaint ingenuity in pointing out in what respects the kirk had been affected in each of her five senses, particularly in that of hearing, “by the bringing of the organs,” since which she has become “as deaf as a door nail.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Stephen Collet was a pseudonym for Reuben Percy which was a pseudonym for English journalist and editor Thomas Byerley (1788 – 1826).  Thomas Byerley edited the “Literary Chronicles” as well as “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction.”

It appeared in the works of French Renaissance writer, physician, humanist, monk, and Greek scholar François Rabelais (4 February 1494 – 9 April 1553). In the Sir Thomas Urquhart translations of his books, the expression is found in “Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book III” also known as “The Third Book of Pantagruel” published in 1546.

This extract is from “Chapter 3. XXXIV – How Women Ordinarily Have The Greatest Longing After Things Prohibited.” The beginning of the chapter mentioned Pope John XXII (1249 – 4 December 1334) and the Abbey of Toucherome.

There are, quoth the physician, many proper remedies in our art to make dumb women speak, but there are none that ever I could learn therein to make them silent. The only cure which I have found out is their husband’s deafness. The wretch became within few weeks thereafter, by virtue of some drugs, charms, or enchantments which the physician had prescribed unto him, so deaf that he could not have heard the thundering of nineteen hundred cannons at a salvo. His wife perceiving that indeed he was as deaf as a door-nail, and that her scolding was but in vain, sith that he heard her not, she grew stark mad.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Pope John XXII was the second as well as the longest-reigning Avignon Pope, reigning from 5 September 1316 through to his dead on 3 December 1334. He was elected Pope by the Conclave of Cardinals after more than two years after the death of Pope Clement V.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Nearly a month after Pope John XXII’s death, Cardinal Jacques Fournier was elected Pope, taking the name of Benedict XII. Pope Benedict XII reigned from 30 December 1334 to his death on 25 April 1342.

According to modern-day carpenters as well as carpenters of the middle ages, in the 13th century, a doornail was a large-headed nail, easily clinched, for nailing doors, through the battens (a small board used to reinforce doors as well as for other building purposes). Clinching meant to bend the end of the nail to provide a secure fastening, thereby rendering it dead to any additional hammering.

By the time the 14th century arrived, small metal plates were nailed on doors to allow visitors to pound them with knockers to announce their arrival. The metal plates were secured to such doors with dead nails.  If no one was in the vicinity of the door being knocked on, it was difficult (and sometimes impossible) to hear someone knocking at the door even when someone was at home.  It certainly makes it easy to understand where the expression deaf as a door nail originates when the history of how doornails, deadness, and deafness intertwine is known.

You may also be interested in reading about being dead as a doornail.  If you are, CLICK HERE to read that entry.

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Posted in Idioms from the 13th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hit The Nail On The Head

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 23, 2013

When you hear that someone in a discussion has hit the nail on the head it means that the person has driven the point home, having summed it up in a few, understandable words or sentences. It’s oftentimes used in politics and business, but even in everyday conversation, you’ll hear people talk about those who have hit the nail on the head.

When the political debates of 2010 were the rage in the media, everyone watched as Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Senator Rick Santorum, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul discussed matters in a televised debate anchored by George Stephanopolous and Diane Sawyer. When the transcripts were released, what people thought they had heard could be checked against the written word. In the transcripts, Rick Perry was quoted as having said:

Yeah, well, I — I’m — I’m stunned, ’cause — the fact of the matter is, you know, Michele kinda hit the nail on the head when we talked about the individual mandate. Both of these gentlemen have been for the — individual mandate. And I’m even more stunned, Mitt, that you said you wished you could’ve talked to Obama and said — “You’re goin’ down the wrong path,” because that is exactly the path that you’ve taken Massachusetts.

Politics seems to make liberal use of the expression, including in the September 26, 1972 article “Political Tools” published in the Milwaukee Sentinel. The news story addressed the presidential campaign of that year, which saw George McGovern going head-to-head against then-President Richard Nixon. Four paragraphs into the article, the following was written:

Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird hit the nail on the head when he said that “it is a despicable act of a presidential candidate to make himself a spokesman for the enemy.” One news account called Laird’s observation “some of the harshest rhetoric of the 1972 presidential campaign.” Considering some of the rhetoric Desperate George [McGovern] has engaged in, particularly comparing Nixon to Adolf Hitler, this characterization os Laird’s remark is a gross misstatement of the facts.

Again with a political reference, the Evening Independent newspaper published a story entitled, “Hitchcock Sends Ultimatum He Will Take Issue To Upper Chamber If Compromise Fails” on January 27, 1920. In sharing news of the failure of the bipartisan conference in Washington, DC to reach a compromise, resulting in the peace treaty ratification fight that was ongoing in the Senate, this was reported:

Senator Hitchcock declined to speculate on the possibility of so early a renewal of hostilities but most Democrats declared nothing was to be gained by further secret conferences.

“It looks as if the jig’s up,” declared Senator McNary, Republican, Oregon, a leader of the “mild reservations” group, and this seemed to hit the nail on the head, in the opinion of most senators.

Things didn’t change much in the years leading up to 1920, as shown in the news article “Republication Ratification Meeting” in the Boston Evening Transcript of September 27, 1883. The story was about a meeting held to give feedback on the level of satisfaction with the action of the Sate Republican Convention’s choice of candidates. An extensive piece, halfway down the fourth column readers were greeted by this from J.M. Forbes who could not be in attendance, but who sent his thoughts in a letter that was read aloud by Henry Packman, had this to say about nominee, George D. Robinson:

The brilliant orator, the ally and mouthpiece of the faction, whose shining words everybody reads, has for once hit the nail on the head and proclaimed the truth, that there is room for only two parties in this State, and that we must choose between the two, leaving all minor issues for future consideration. We accept his and their challenge, and declare …”

The letter goes on for a bit, outlining five major points, but the article continues for another two columns before finally signing off.

Various reputable sources claim that the expression — meaning a person is communicating effectively or gets to the point — dates back to the early 16th century without providing proof to substantiate that claim.  But Idiomation continue to research for sources and English dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher yielded up the phrase. Together, they wrote an early 17th century comedic stage play entitled “Love’s Cure” in 1612, then revised it in 1625, and finally published it in 1647. It was also known as “The Martial Maid.” In Act II, scene 1 of this play, regardless of which version you read, you will find the following:

METALDI
I give Place : the Wit of Man is wonderful.
thou hast hit the Nail on the Head,
and I will give thee six Pots for’t,
tho’ I ne’er clinch Shooe again.

French Renaissance writer, doctor, humanist, monk and scholar, François Rabelais (4 February 1494 – 9 April 1553) wrote “The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel.” The third book, “Le Tiers Livre” in which the passage appears was published in 1546. In Chapter XXXIV, readers find the idiom in this passage:

Let us come to where we left off, quoth Panurge. Your words, being translated from the clapper-dudgeons to plain English, do signify that it is not very inexpedient that I marry, and that I should not care for being a cuckold. You have there hit the nail on the head. I believe, master doctor, that on the day of my marriage you will be so much taken up with your patients, or otherwise so seriously employed, that we shall not enjoy your company. Sir, I will heartily excuse your absence.

Despite ongoing research, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the expression which appears unchanged over the centuries. It is therefore, highly probably that the expression dates back to at least the early 1500s as reputable sources claim, especially in light of that fact that it was used with easy by François Rabelais.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Right As Rain

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 28, 2013

An online friend was wondering what the expression right as rain really means and how it wound up being part of the English language. To answer her question, when something is right as rain everything is functioning optimally … perfectly, in fact.

USA Today sometimes has the most unexpected articles, and the one about Portland, Oregon on March 29, 2010 certainly surprised a number of readers. Portland’s storm sewer system, it was reported, was a tourist attraction for eco-friendly tourists interested in checking out Portland’s system of curbs, gutters, roofs and rain gardens. Who knew? Of course, the article was aptly entitled, “Portland’s Sewers Right As Rain.”

Back on July 17, 1952 the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper reported on how the Russian government in Moscow was unhappy about the upcoming conference in Honolulu that intended to set up a permanent Pacific defense council. The Russians were said to be against the prospect of such a defense council. In fact, the situation was such a hot button for both sides that the reporter wrote in part:

The Reds suspect that a treaty organization designed to prevent the spread of Communism in the Pacific world, similar to the existing North Atlantic Treaty Organization already service the same purpose in Europe, will come out at the Honolulu conference in August, and they are right as rain about that.

The Saskatoon Phoenix newspaper edition of July 3, 1915 carried a news article entitled, “Tommy Is An Optimist.” Written by a special correspondent with British Headquarters in the Field during WWI, the journalist rose above the horrors of war to include the personal side of global conflict. It’s not that he didn’t acknowledge that war was ugly business and that everyone suffered because of it, but rather, he chose to give insight into the humanity that still existed among soldiers. The article included an anecdote that happened between the chaplain and one of the soldiers brought in on a stretcher to be treated by doctors.

“Would you like to send your people a postcard, my boy?” said the Chaplain, and went on to the next stretcher. “Does — does this mean that I am going to die?” asked the lad, as he tried to scrawl a name across the front of the card.

“Nonsense,” retorted an orderly who was passing. “You’ll be as right as rain in a week.”

“Then I’ll wait before I write,” said the soldier. “There’s no use wasting the card. Besides, it says ‘I am wounded.’ I am not wounded — I’m full of this bloody gas, and as soon as me chest is clear I’m going back to ‘do’ for some of those Germans. Give us a drink!”

Some sources claim that the expression was first published in 1894 however Idiomation found a published version in a Boston Daily Globe newspaper dated March 21, 1893 in a serialized story entitled, “Fated To Suffer: The Mystery of the Blood Red Star.”  While Idiomation was unable to find an earlier publication of the phrase, that it is found in a newspaper dating back to 1893 indicates that it was already in use among the masses and as such, it can be assumed that it most likely dates back to at least 1880.

That being said, the qualifier right as has been used in a number of idioms before this date. Some of the alternatives include:

1.  Right as an adamant from “Romance Of The Rose” translated by Geoffrey Chaucer (1300 – 25 October 1400) from the poem by Guillaume de Lorris (1200 – 1240):

For by ensample tel I this,
Right as an adamant, ywis,
Can drawen to hym subtelly
The yron that is layde therby,
So draweth folkes hertes, iwys,
Syluer and golde that yeuen is.

2.  Right as a line from “Minor Poems” by John Lydgate (1370 – 1451) and published in 1430:

That heuenly spyce, hit is ful swete;
Help us perof, good bysshop Fermyae,
Sacred Cipriane, zif hit wold be gete,
With Cosme and Damane wold I dyne,
Lede us pederward as ryght as a lyne,
Seynt Myghel, to pat heuenly kyngdome
Helpyng the holy doctour Seynt Ierome.

3.  Right as is my leg from the translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660) of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” originally written by François Rabelais (1490 – 1553) and published in 1653:

I saw another surrounded by a Croud of two sorts of Women; some were young, quaint, clever, neat, pretty, juicy, tight, brisk, buxom, proper, kind-hearted, and as right as my Leg, to any man’s thinking. The rest were old, weather-beaten, over-ridden, toothless, blear-ey’d, tough, wrinkled, shrivell’d, tawny, mouldy, ptysicky, decrepit hags, beldams, and walking Carcasses.

4.  Right as my leg from “The Comical History of Don Quixote: As It Was Acted At The Queen’s Theater In Dorset Garden By Their Majesties Servants” in Part III, Act III Scene ii by Thomas D’Urfey (1653 – 26 February 1723) and published in 1696:

Jolly Ralph was in with Pegg,
Tho freckled like a Turkey-Egg;
And she as right as is my leg,
Still gave him leave to touse her.

5.  Right as my glove from “Antiquary” by Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) and published in 1816:

“Right, Caxon! right as my glove! By the by, I fancy that phrase comes from the custom of pledging a glove as the signal of irregragable faith — right, I saw, as my glove, Caxon — bet we of the Protestant ascendancy have the more merit in doing that duty for nothing, which cost money in the reign of that empress of superstition, whome Spenser, Caxon, terms, in his allegorical phrase.”

6.  Right as ninepence from “Frank Fairlegh: Scenes From The Life Of A Private Pupil” by Francis Edward Smedley (4 October 1818 – 1 May 1864) and published in 1850:

“Well, let her say ‘no’ as if she meant it,” said Lawless; “women can, if they like, eh? and then it will all be as right as ninepence. Eh! don’t you see?”

“Easier said than done, Lawless, unfortunately,” replied Coleman; “my fat rival is the son of an opulent drysalter, and last year he contrived to get rid of his father.”

And so while the idiom right as rain can only be traced back to the late 19th century, it would seem that what follows right as isn’t always important as long as it’s right as … as the many examples have proven.  So it’s actually right as that determines that everything is perfectly fine and good, and in the case of right as rain, it’s just a nice bit of alliteration as well.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »