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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Spradling’

On The Cuff

Posted by Admin on April 23, 2022

Recently an Idiomation subscriber mentioned how different on the cuff and off the cuff were from each other. What they knew of the idiom was that on the cuff meant free of charge or on credit. A quick check with established and well-known dictionaries confirmed such an expression exists and that it means just that (and is quite different from something that is off the cuff).

In the Norman Phillips (November 1921 – 28 June 2021) novel Throw A Nickel On The Grass published in 2012 and based on the true story of the author who became a decorated fighter pilot and rose to the rank of colonel, the idiom is used when speaking of the main character’s younger years. This excerpt uses the idiom and clearly demonstrates what it means.

Rick had seen a white jacket in Nate Fox’s window display, and now he could try one on and tell Nate to hold it for him. It needed a minor alteration that Nat wouldn’t do unless Rick made a five-dollar down payment. After wheedling Grandma, she advanced the five dollars, and Rick got the jacket in time for the prom. The white shoes were easy. Breller’s let him have the shoes on the cuff. He could pay for them later when he had the money.

French novelist, polemicist and physician, Louis-Ferdinand Céline whose real name was Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches (27 May 1894 – 1 July 1961) included it in his book Death on the Installment Plan which was a companion volume to his earlier novel, Journey to the End of the Night. Originally published in the mid-1930s (and republished in the 1970s), these two novels told the story of the author’s childhood growing up in the slums of Paris (France), and serving in WWI. It is said that Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s fiction was the forerunner of what became known as black humor.

The first ones to make a stink were the grocers on the rue Berce … They refused to give us any more food on the cuff … They came around with their bills … We heard them coming up … We didn’t answer …

As mentioned, the idiom was still very much in use at the time these novels were reprinted in the 1970s. In April of 1976, the Honorable Louis Arthur “Skip” Bafalis (28 September 1929 – ), a representative in Congress from the State of Florida, submitted this as his statement regarding food stamps and the cost to taxpayers with regards to the Peanut Act of 1976 at hearings before the Committee on Agriculture. In part, this is what he had to say on the matter.

We may see the day when for every American working hard and losing his shirt to the taxman, another American is living on the cuff.

When that day comes, and it could come, you will see a revolt — a middle American revolution. The working man is going to stop working. After all, what is he gaining for himself by working hard, if the taxman takes it all.

And when middle America quits working and paying taxes, a lot of those now living high on the cuff are going to get a rude awakening. Some may starve for they’ve forgotten how to work.

I know this sounds far-fetched. I hope it is. But I am afraid it could happen.

This indicates that the English version of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s book was not a bad translation from the French version. The idiom was known to those who spoke English.

A decade earlier, the Business Review of April 1960 saw one of its articles titled, “$52 Billion On The Cuff: How Burdensome is Consumer Credit?” included in the Consumer Credit Labeling Bill of 1960. The article began by stating that slightly less than $52 billion dollars of outstanding consumer credit was outstanding, not including mortgages, and there was concern that, with the fast rise in consumer credit since the end of WWII in 1945, the situation could negatively impact the housing economy and mortgage markets not dissimilar to what happened in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s.

In 1942, the expression was used in the discussion of the purchase of old vessels and the sale of new vessels from the Waterman Steamship Corporation under section 509 of the Merchant Marine Act, and dating back to 8 June 1940. The Committee on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries was led by the Chairman Schuyler Otis Bland (4 May 1872 – 16 February 1950) of Virginia, and included, among others, Herbert Covington Bonner (16 May 1891 – 7 November 1965) of North Carolina, James Hardin Peterson (11 February 1894 – 28 March 1978) of Florida, investigator for the Washington D.C. office of General Accounting Harry S. Barger (26 September 1882 – 1954), General Counsel James Vincent Hayes (1900 – 13 May 1985), The debate includes this exchange of words.

THE CHAIRMAN: I think wherever it is used it ought to be borne in mind that it has an invidious meaning whenever used in any public document.

MR. BONNER: What does on the cuff mean?

THE CHAIRMAN: Yes; what does on the cuff mean?

MR. BARGER: These are expressions used in the memorandum.

MR. BONNER: Does it mean a private understanding between people?

MR. BARGER: It could, Mr. Congressman. I would rather not interpret it.

MR. PETERSON: Let us read that little portion again.

MR. HAYES: What Mr. Peterson desired to have read was the on the cuff reference back of that.

MR. BARGER: The first clause is “Neither implied nor on the cuff understandings with respect to the purchase of old vessels from Water –“

MR. HAYES: What is the beginning of that sentence?

MR. BARGER: The whole sentence?

MR. HAYES: Yes.

MR. BARGER: It begins with the word “Neither.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The only vessel of the C3-S-DX1 design, SS Schuyler Otis Bland was the final vessel ordered by the U.S. Maritime Commission, and the first vessel launched by the newly-created Maritime Administration. The vessel’s name honored the late U.S. Representative Schuyler Otis Bland of Virginia, sponsor of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. During construction, however, the vessel was surpassed by the C4-S-1A “Mariner” design and Schuyler Otis Bland was the only vessel built. The ship was ready for service in July 1951 and chartered to American President Lines for which it completed two globe-encircling journeys while engaging in commercial trade. Transferred to the U.S. Navy on August 4, 1961, the ship provided logistical support during the Vietnam War, until struck from the Naval Vessel Register on August 15, 1979. (Source: US Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration)

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Herbert Covington Bonner rose to the position of chairman of the House Marine and Fisheries Committee and was dubbed the father of the first nuclear-powered merchant ship, the Savannah. He was well known for backing the social programs of the Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations, and was an original member of the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: James Hardin Peterson helped to draft the G.I. Bill of Rights, and was instrumental in making the Florida Everglades into a national park. He and Lawton Mainor Chiles (3 April 1930 – 12 December 1998) worked as law partners until the late 1960s (Chiles went on to be a Senator from 1971 through 1989 and then the governor of Florida from 1991 through to 1998), after which time, he practiced on his own.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: James Vincent Hayes was an anti-trust lawyer who graduated from Fordham Law School and went into practice in 1926. He became the assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of New York before he was appointed special assistant to the United States Attorney General in 1938.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: In 1944, Harry S. Barger’s boss was John Joseph Sirica (19 March 1904 – 14 August 1992) who is best remember for being the Federal district judge at the trial of the Watergate burglars in the 1970s. Judge Sirica was nicknamed “Maximum John” because he was known for handing out tough sentences.

At this point, things get obscured. While it’s true that on the cuff referred to placing something on credit or getting something for free and was reportedly a popular slang expression in the 1920s and 1930s, especially among flappers, this doesn’t mean it is the same thing as what was meant at the end of the 19th century in the U.S., where the practice of penciling debts in shops and bars on celluloid cuffs was very real. Just because something appears to have a connection does not mean the connection can be proven.

In 1942, Looney Tunes put out a cartoon titled, Eatin’ On The Cuff where the moth eats his fill at everyone else’s expense (which is definitely in keeping with the meaning of the idiom). For your enjoyment and courtesy of YouTube, here’s that cartoon!

In Volume 133 of Bankers Magazine published in 1936, the subject of using credit to pay for holidays was addressed. The idiom found its way into the article thusly:

But like all sports and all vacations … it takes money. A skimpy vacation, one you ‘put on the cuff‘ is like sailing with a dragging anchor. No matter how much fun, there is still a reckoning. Let’s be smart and do it all beforehand.

In the August 1930 edition of Boys’ Life, there was a story about newspapermen and how one the Chicago Herald’s ace cameraman, Connie Layor, had been fired in front of all his colleagues despite the fact he had an exclusive shot at breaking a story about a man named Darucci who was on trial in Judge Cardigan’s court along with three other men who had been arrested with him and charged with various crimes. Bay McCue was a recent addition to the staff reporters, and had met up with Connie Layor at the court house. The short story by Alvin E. Rose and illustrated by Frank Spradling (1885 – 18 August 1972) was titled, The Man in the Door.

“You can’t tell. It might have helped a little, enough maybe have got us a lay-off instead of a permanent vacation without pay,” McCue moaned disconsolately.

“You don’t know the ‘old man,'” Layor growled. “Be quiet! I don’t feel socially inclined.”

“But I’m broke, Connie,” said McCue, “and, come to think of it, hungry. You couldn’t put me on the cuff for a few bucks, could you?”

Layor reached mechanically into his pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar bill.

“Thanks, Santa, “McCue brightened; “haven’t got a job in the other pocket, have you?”

Although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom, clearly in 1930 it was an expression understood by young readers of Boys’ Life and, as claimed by numerous dictionaries, it appears to be an expression from the 1920s. It also explains why the Senators (who were middle aged men at the time) struggled with the idiom’s meaning in 1942, and why Bankers Magazine used the idiom in quotation marks in 1936.

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