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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Tousey’

Drop A Dime

Posted by Admin on March 20, 2021

The other night, while watching a relatively recent detective series episode on television, the expression drop a dime was used. The expression means to report a criminal to the authorities (otherwise known as ratting someone out to the cops) but in this day and age of technology, what do dimes have to do with reporting crimes and criminals?

The idiom drop a dime refers to assisting law enforcement in an investigation by placing a usually anonymous phone call to share helpful information about a criminal or a crime being investigated. Even though payphones are now so rarely seen that many younger people have little to no idea what a payphone looks like (and much less how to operate one), the expression persists.

On 23 January 2017, 49-year-old Toronto native and very popular hairstylist Fabio Sementilli was found dead at his home in Woodland Hills (CA) by his daughter. Accused were his widow, Monica Crescentini and her then-boyfriend Robert Louis Baker as well as an unnamed third party, Toronto Sun reporter Brad Hunter informed readers back in 2019 of the situation by writing this:

With the death penalty off the table, neither the suspected black widow nor her beau has any incentive to drop a dime on the mystery man.

But it wasn’t just Canadian reporters who used the expression in news articles in 2019. Reporter Ed Kilgore of The Intelligencer also used the expression when reporting on how impeaching then-President Donald Trump could prove Joe Biden’s undoing by way of uncovering whether Hunter Biden benefited from his father’s assistance in carving out a career as a lawyer-lobbyist, and as Ed Kilgore described him “a procurer of appropriations earmarks, and an international man of mystery.”

That coupled with the history of substance abuse and allegations against him regarding his former wife and his brother’s widow, certainly created a difficult situation for Joe Biden’s campaign. In the news story, Ed Kilgore wrote:

Team Trump wants it to stay that way, which is precisely why Trump and his goon, Rudy Giuliani, were trying to drop a dime on Hunter Biden and smear Joe in the bargain.

In the 1995 Spike Lee movie “Clockers” based on the novel by the same name written by Richard Price told the story of street-level drug dealers. Such dealers were referred to as clockers. It isn’t long in the movie before one of the lead clockers arranges to have a rival clocker knocked off and as you can guess, the rival is murdered. The following dialogue happens at the 26-minute mark in the movie:

We got a crowd of black, white customers, out-of-state license plates, what have you. Somebody gonna check that out. They gonna drop a dime on me, call 911. With my jacket, I can’t go back to jail.

While there’s a whole history behind the use of the word jacket, that will be addressed sooner rather than later on this blog. But let’s continue with uncovering the origins of dropping a dime.

Back in the day, a dime pushed into the coin slot (which landed in the coin deposit box inside) of a payphone allowed the user to make a local phone call. When the coin dropped into the coin box inside the payphone, only then could a phone call be placed. Since cellphones weren’t around yet, and people ratting out people and their potentially criminal activities to law enforcement was something most people didn’t want to have traced back to them, using a payphone guaranteed a fair bit of anonymity to the caller.

With anonymity in play, people were more inclined to place phone calls to the police by way of a payphone to inform on specific people and activities that might be of interest to the police. It’s easy to see how this activity came to be known as dropping a dime on someone – it was quick, inexpensive, and effective.

On 1 October 1976, confessed Mafia hit man Ira Pecznick co-wrote a book, with help from Paul Hoffman, titled, “To Drop a Dime: The Mafia Hit Man’s Uncensored Story.” The book allegedly detailed the criminal activities of the New Jersey Campisi family.  Ira Pecznick turned State witness against the Campisi family, and his testimony sent many of the family to prison.

In 1951, the coin charge across the U.S. of a nickel per call rose to a dime. That being said, some payphones required a dime to make a call as early as 1949.  But by 1951, in major cities across America, people could count on needing a dime to place a call from a payphone.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: When the Bell System faced competition in the telecommunications industry in 1981 due in large part to deregulation, the nationwide pricing policy for payphones rose to a quarter per call.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Back when payphones (then known as phone booths) finally became popular in general, those payphone calls cost two cents.  In the early 1930s, new shoes called loafers (or Weeguns, depending on where a person lived in the US) were the rage and there was just enough space in each shoe for a penny to fit snugly but not uncomfortably. People wearing loafers began keeping a penny in each shoe should the need arise to make an emergency phone call, and in time, this is how the pennyloafer got its name.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: American inventor William Gray was granted a patent on 13 August 1889 for his device that allowed people to deposit coins so they could place a telephone call. Soon afterwards, he established the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company but the concept didn’t catch on quite as quickly as he had hoped.

By 1911, however, in collaboration with Western Electric (which was AT&T’s manufacturing division), the updated payphone was being installed in cities across America, and anywhere it was likely someone would want or need to place a phone call.

Getting back to the matter at hand, hard-boiled detective stories by authors such as Raymond Chandler (23 July 1888 – 26 March 1959) and Frank Morrison ‘Mickey’ Spillane (9 March 1918 – 17 July 2006) started to include the idiom in their stories to refer to a snitch (a police informant) and even though the cost of phone calls kept increasing over the decades to a quarter then two quarters than a dollar (payphones in Canada accepted dollar coins known as loonies), the meaning attributed to dropping a dime never changed.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Many of the future well-known authors of detective stories who wrote detective stories in the 1930s and 1940s regularly saw their stories published in the detective pulp fiction magazine “Dime Detective” whose first issue was published in November 1931. The last issue was published in August 1953. The magazine enjoyed a run of 274 issues published. There were British reprints under the name of “Red Dime Detective” and “Yankee Detective Fiction.”

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 3: The first dime-novel detective appeared in a story published in 1872 in “The Fireside Companion” story paper and written by American author and medical doctor, Harry Enton (1854 – 28 March 1927).  A year later, a new ten-cent format that was 9 inches by 13 inches, with only 32 pages and a black-and-white illustration, was launched, and these were referred to as ‘weekly libraries.’ Of all the titles available, it was the “New York Detective Library” by Frank Tousey (24 May 1853 – 7 September 1902) that was among the most successful titles.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 4: At the time, the English equivalent of the dime novel was the shilling shocker or the penny dreadful.

 

In light of the dime detectives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s easy to see how the connection between detectives, law enforcement, payphones and dimes came together. Because Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to dropping a dime than the detectives stories of the 1950s — even with a great deal of earlier dime and detective history leading up to the 1950s — the idiom to drop a dime is pegged to 1951  — the cost of an anonymous payphone call to the police was a dime in major cities across America, and people were apt to assist the police with a little unexpected extra information on a possible crime or criminal.

As an added suggestion, Idiomation reminds readers that the expression to drop a dime should not be confused with to drop a penny which, of course, means something completely different, and that will be a future idiom that will be published here at some point. Idiomation should probably also research where and when the expression dime store hood as well.

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The Dickens

Posted by Admin on December 10, 2015

Whether it’s something you have a dickens of a time doing or something is happening like the dickens, most people don’t give a second thought as to what the dickens are in the first place.  What people do know is that the dickens seems to mean a lot.

The Chicago Tribune ran an article on December 8, 2015 titled, “How Kitchen Tools Revolutionized American Cooking” written by Megan McArdle.  The article began with introducing readers to centenarian Chuck Williams who passed away on December 5.  Were it not for his trip to France in the 1950s, many of the fancy kitchen gadgets that are part of the kitchen arsenal may not have found their way into American kitchens as early as they did.  In the article, the writer shared this with readers:

I mean, yes, I know how to chop onions just fine. But doing so makes me cry like the dickens, unless I wear goggles.

A little over a hundred years ago, the idiom was found in literature including Issue No. 604 of the Secret Service series titled, “The Bradys’ Chinese Clew or The Secret Dens of Pell Street” by A New York Detective (that was the only identity given the author” and published August 19, 1910.  The publisher, Frank Tousey, was located in Union Square in New York City.  The words were used in this passage:

“Sit down,” replied Old King Brady.  “You are terribly wet, my boy.”
“Yes, it’s raining like the dickens.”
“Won’t you have something to eat?  A cup of coffee.  You get good coffee here.”
The boy sat down with a shudder.

In 1852, London publishers, Hope and Co., on Great Marlborough Street, published a book by the author Eireeneespaid’ published a book with an equally strange title, “Eireeneespaid’ Agathoontegigantaisophilos, the Good Natured Giant.”  This passage in the story used the dickens three times to make its point.

Absorbed in his own thoughts, he struggled on unconscious for a little while, though something or other, ever and anon, gave a nudge at the calf of his leg.  The outward man at length gave the alarm.  “What the dickens?” (it was an old expression of surprise handed down from his ancestors, but without any explanatory note or comment) “what the dickens?”  He put his hand to his attacked calf; it was a fat calf, a very fat calf, of course, Mr. Jarvis being a very fat man.  There was tangibly a sort of slimy moisture on the surface, “What the dickens?”

Some will insist that the idiom has to do with English writer and social critic, Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) but history easily disproves this.  Even if one disregards what Eireeneespaid’ wrote in his book in 1852, it’s difficult to believe that the idiom was an oblique reference to Charles Dickens.

Yes, it’s true that he wrote and published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 and that the last name of the story’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is used to describe miserly people, the same cannot be said of Charles Dickens’s last name.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  In 1840 the U.S. Federal Census Data showed that Dickens families were found mostly in Tennessee and New York.  By 1920, the Dickens families were found mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina.  The dickens you say!

In Volume 2 of “The Humourist: Being Essays Upon Several Subjects” in the essay titled, “Of Hopers” the idiom is used.  The book, published in 1725, predates Charles Dickens’s birth by nearly a century so it’s a fact that the dickens used in any form obviously has nothing to do with Charles Dickens.  The author of this collection of essays is identified as John Thomas Hope, however, he is also identified elsewhere as Thomas Gordon.

He would needs make me seat my self in his own Place within the Chimney, an Honour which I was at first determin’d to decline ; but I found him invincible in his Complaisance:  Pugh, said he, you are too modest,  Sir you don’t know me ;  what the Dickens!  Have not I been whip’d at the Cart’s Tail too?

In Cocker’s “English Dictionary” compiled by scrivener and engraver Edward Cocker (1631– 22 August 1676), identified as the late famous practitioner in Writing and Arithmetick, with the second edition published in 1715 by John Hawkins.  The first edition, published in 1704 also included the dickens.   The following definition is provided for the word dickens.

Dickens, a Corruption of Devilkins, or little Devils; as, the Dickens take you.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Edward Cocker was mentioned by Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) in 1664, who described him as “very ingenious and well read in all our English poets.”  When Edward Cocker died in 1675, it’s said that his last poem was titled, “Cocker’s Farewell To Brandy.”  The poem contained these lines:

Here lyes one dead, by Brandy’s might power,
Who the last quarter of the last flown hour,
As to his health and strength, was sound and well

In Act III, Scene ii in “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” by William Shakespeare (April 1564 – 23 April 1616) takes place on a street where Mistress Page and Robin (the page to Sir John Falstaff) are met by Ford (a gentleman living at Windsor).  The play was written in 1597 and published in 1602.

FORD
Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?

MISTRESS PAGE
Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?

FORD
Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company. I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.

MISTRESS PAGE
Be sure of that — two other husbands.

FORD
Where had you this pretty weather-cock?

MISTRESS PAGE
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?

ROBIN
Sir John Falstaff.

FORD
Sir John Falstaff!

Around the same time of Shakespeare’s play, the play “Edward The Fourth” by English playwright, actor, and author Thomas Heywood (1575 – 16 August 1641), published in 1599, also used the term.  In Act III, scene i, Hobs, the Tanner of Tamworth and the Duchess share this exchange.

HOBS
Do you demand what’s dear?  Marry, corn and cow-hides.  Mass, a good nug lass, well like my daughter Nell.  I had rather than a band of leather she and I might smouch together.

DUCHESS
Cam’st thou not down the wood?

HOBS
Yes, mistress; that I did.

DUCHESS
And sawest thou not the deer imbost?

HOBS
By my hood, ye make me laugh.  What the dickens?  Is it love that makes ye prate to me so fondly?  By my father’s soul, I would I had job’d faces with you.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the dickens, however, since it was used by both William Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood in their respective plays, it indicates that the dickens was common usage at the time.  This puts the dickens to at least the mid-1500s.

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