Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘George Bernard Shaw’

If You’re Not A Socialist At Twenty, You Have No Heart

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 12, 2017

Recently, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) published an article stating no one knows for certain who the first person was who coined the phrase, “If you’re not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative at forty, you have no brain.”

In some respects that is true.

The phrase and its many variations have been attributed to a great many men  over the years:

  • British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (21 December 1804 – 19 April 1981) in a book of quotations published in 1997 that was compiled by Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter (16 September 1919 – 12 January 1990)
  • French politician, physician, and journalist Georges Clemenceau (28 September 1841 – 24 November 1929)
  • British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (30 November 1874 – 24 January 1965) in a 1986 edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper
  • French poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo (26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885) in a book by scientist, journalist, and politician Francisco Bulnes (4 October 1847 – 1924)
  • King Oscar II of Sweden (21 January 1829 – 8 December 1907) in a 1923 edition of the Wall Street Journal
  • Irish playwright, critic and polemicist George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) in a speech given in 1933 at the University of Hong Kong
  • American poet Robert Frost (26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963)
  • American writer, historian, and philosopher Will Durant (5 November 1885 – 7 November 1981)
  • Prime Minister of France Aristide Briand (29 March 1862 – 7 March 1932)
  • British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970)
  • American filmmaker George Huang used it in his 1994 movie “Swimming With Sharks“and has been tagged as the originator of the phrase

Even American entrepreneur, business magnate, inventor, and industrial designer Steve Jobs (24 February 1956 – 5 October 2011) was incorrectly identified as the person who first coined the phrase!

However, the spirit of the phrase can be found in a number of variations.  In 1875, French literary figure and theater director Jules Claretie  (3 December 1840 – 23 December 1913) wrote a biography where he attributed a similar sounding quote to French jurist and politician Anselm Batbie (31 May 1828 – 12 June 1887).

« Celui qui n’est pas républicain à vingt ans fait douter de la générosité de son âme; mais celui qui, après trente ans, persévère, fait douter de la rectitude de son esprit. »

TRANSLATION: He who is not a republican at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.

While it might seem reasonable to declare the trail for this expression begins at some point in Anselm Batbie’s life, the fact of the matter is, there’s a quote even older than that one with the spirit of the saying in question.

In 1799, John Adams (30 October 1735 – 4 July 1826) was quoted in a Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743 – 4 July 1826) journal entry as having said this phrase that has been reworded so often. It was spoken in a conversation between Dr. Ewen and the President, and recorded in Jefferson’s journal.

A boy of fifteen who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at twenty.

According to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, John Adams’ reputation was one of a “blunt-speaking man” with an “independent mind.”

So while the CBC is technically correct in its assertion, fact checkers for Paul Kennedy’s radio program “Ideas” at CBC didn’t delve too deeply into the subject otherwise they would have attributed the spirit of the expression to the second President of the United States of America — John Adams.  Idiomation has determined the roots date back to 1799.

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Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Comstockery

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 5, 2015

Comstockery is a word not often heard these days, but it’s a word that has had a serious impact on the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century.  What is comstockery?  It’s censorship on the basis that there’s perceived obscenity or immorality in a piece of art, whether it’s literature, visual arts, song, photography, or any other related domain.

While one might think that the word is an offshoot of the concept of sending someone to the stockades for public shaming after having committed a crime, the history is actually less complicated than that.  It is interesting, however, to note that both sending someone to the stockades and comstockery had to do with public shaming.

The word is directly related to Anthony Comstock.   And who was Anthony Comstock?

In 1872, using a pseudonym rather than his real name, Anthony Comstock (7 March 1844 – 21 September 1915) sent away for a copy of Victoria Woodhull’s book.  She was a women’s right activist and her book told the story of an affair between American preacher and reformer Henry Ward Beecher (24 June 1813 – 8 March 1887) — referred to in the press as America’s most famous preacher — and one of his parishioners.  It should be noted that Pastor Beecher was alleged to have strayed with three different women during his marriage to wife, Eunice Bullard White (3 August 1837 – 1897) with whom he had ten children.  He had an affair with poet, Edna Dean Proctor, and was accused of having affairs with Elizabeth Tilton (her husband, Theodore Tilton leveled the accusation in 1874), and Chloe Beach.

When he received the book, using a 1864 law that prohibited the distribution of obscene publications and images (where said definition was vague), he filed legal action against Victoria California Claflin Woodhull (23 September 1838 – 9 June 1927) and her sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin (26 October 1844 – 18 January 1823), who later became Lady Francis Cook by marriage.

SIDE NOTE 1:  Victoria Woodhull was the first female candidate for President of the United States, running for office in 1872.  She ran on the Equal Rights Party ticket, fifty years before American women had the right to vote.

SIDE NOTE 2:  While Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin were arrested, jailed, and prosecuted on obscenity charges leveled against them by Anthony Comstock.  They were acquitted of the charge.

SIDE NOTE 3:  Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin was the mistress of American capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt (27 May 1794 – 4 January 1877) when she and her sister Victoria lived in New York City in the early 1870s.

Anthony Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the year after the filing his unsuccessful action against Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennie, the U.S. Congress passed the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” on March 3, 1873 which became colloquially referred to as the Comstock Laws.

The Act criminalized the sale and/or distribution of materials that were allegedly obscene or immoral, and made it a criminal offense to mail said materials through the federal postal system or to import said materials into the United States from abroad, whether by way of the federal postal system or any other means.  Once the Act was passed, Anthony Comstock was named a Special Agent and was made a Postal Inspector for the United States Post Office, a position he held until 1915 (forty-two years).

The Comstock Laws suppressed the works of authors such as D.H. Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930) and George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) as well as medical texts.  Some say that George Bernard Shaw coined the term comstockery in 1905 to mock the rampant censorship that was an ingrained aspect of society.

SIDE NOTE 4:  When George Bernard Shaw was prosecuted for his 1905 play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” he was acquitted on all charges.  The negative publicity received in the press only made the play more successful, and theater patron flocked to performances.

However, the term is found in an editorial in the New York Times dating back to 12 December 1895.  The editorial read in part:

Our esteemed contemporary the Courrier des Etats-Unis relates the melancholy sequel of Mr. COMSTOCK’S latest raid, or latest but one, in the interest of … … what will be readily understood if classified as Comstockery Justice Jerome has expressed the opinion of sane persons; and with pain that his colleagues on the bench have outnumbered him.

12 December 1895

It didn’t take long for the word to take hold (less than a year), as the Los Angeles Herald of February 28, 1897 (just over a year after the New York Times editorial was published) used it on page 20 of that edition.  The news bite originated with the New York Times, and was reprinted in the West Coast newspaper.  The news article was part of a larger column titled,”Books And Those Who Make Them” and the column was edited by Enoch Knight.  The snippet in question had to do with the Boston Bacchante at the Boston Public Library in Massachusetts.

But such a disposition is incompatible with the Puritan conscience, which refuses to be at rest until its doubts are finally laid.  When the Puritan conscience is complicated by culture, and questions arise touching the relation of art and morals, the result is very serious.  Were the trustees, after all, guilty of Philletinism and Comstockery?  Had they confounded immorality with morality, and assigned a work of art to a wrong jurisdiction?  Was there not some fourth dimension in which the postulates of the sculptor and the police can be reconciled?

Idiomation thereby pegs the word to the New York Times editorial staff on December 12, 1895 and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Shot In The Dark

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 28, 2011

Very different from being in the dark, a shot in the dark means you’re taking a calculated but wild guess about something about which you know nothing or next-to-nothing about in the first place.

On November 17, 2010 the Independent Newspaper in the UK ran a story by Stephen Foley on the U.S. Federal Reserve whose mandate ensuring full employment in the U.S. be removed in order to focus solely on price stability.  Former Federal Reserve vice-chairman, Alan Blinder was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying:

The anti-Keynesian revival has been disheartening enough. But now the economic equivalent of the Flat Earth Society is turning its fury on Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. It is not a shot in the dark, not a radical departure from conventional monetary policy, and certainly not a form of currency manipulation.

Back on July 16, 1960 readers of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix read a news story written by journalist Ned Powers entitled, “Four Canadian Records Fall.”  He wrote about a young athlete named Smith, a late starter from Weyburn, who made good with his final broad jump to upset the international campaigner, Jack Smyth of Winnipeg.

It could be hardly classed as a shot in the dark for young Smith, who best exemplified the steady rise of youth in Canada’s track and field program.  He bettered 22 feet on three occasions and had the least fouls among the entries.

On May 30, 1922 the New York Times reported on Senator Lodge, representing Massachusetts as well as Senate Leader at the time, and the troublesome word “if” that was eventually deleted from a Senate Tariff Bill.  Concerned about a possible Democratic filibuster against the bill, it took five hours before the troublesome word “if” was stricken from one of the clauses in the Senate Tariff Bill.  The story, was entitled quite simply, “A Tariff If.”  The news article read in part:

[Massachusetts Senator Lodge] admits that the fundamental conditions of tariff legislation today are entirely different from what they ever were before.  The “utterly distorted and dislocated” foreign exchanges make, he confesses, any given rate a duty little more today than a shot in the dark.  Still he would have no delay in passing a bill which, in the course of a few months, may be found to have included rates wholly unnecessary for protection and outrageously oppressive in their effect on prices.

On April 1, 1884 the Warsaw Daily Times carried a story that most definitely was not an April Fool’s joke.  The news article reported on an incident stemming from a game of cards at Cole’s Creek, Columbia county in Pennsylvania, the previous Sunday.  It would appear that Charles Davis, Charles Mills, James Royer and Henry Williams had entered a tavern and started up a poker game with amounts being wagered finally reaching $500 a side — a very tidy some back in 1884.   

As oftentimes is the case in these very emotional high stakes poker games, there was disagreement as to whether a particular player had cheated; in this case, Williams reached for the stakes when Royer claimed he had seen Davis cheat.  The money was knocked to the floor and a row ensued where revolvers were drawn and the barroom emptied. What was referred to back in the day as a “promiscuous firing” occurred and when all was said and done, all four were found lying on the floor, dead.  The headline to the detailed account of the incident was:

Shot In The Dark: Deadly Pistol Practice With The Lights Out

The double entendre was not lost on the readers of the Warsaw Daily Times in Letters to the Editor in subsequent newspaper editions.  While it has been claimed that George Bernard Shaw appears to have been the first person to use the phrase metaphorically, as evidenced by The Saturday Review of February 1895, to others it appears that the metaphorical use of the phrase “shot in the dark” was already a humourous jibe a decade before George Bernard Shaw‘s clever use of the phrase.

No doubt, the literal sense of the phrase hinting at the figurative sense of the phrase can be found in the New York World newspaper of February 15, 1870 that reported:

To level his weapon and fire was the work of a moment; but as both figures fled the shot seemed to have been wasted.  Upon examining the spot in the morning, however, the gentleman found a considerable quantity of blood upon the trampled grass, and traces of it for some distance from the house.  Soon after the sod of a graveyard near the house was found to have been disturbed as though in preparation for the removal of a body, and the neighbors resolved the attempted burglary into the wanderings of a couple of would-be “body-snatchers” whom the alarmed householder had frightened and grazed by his random shot.

The news story was aptly entitled:

A Shot In The Dark: Strange Solution Of A Family Mystery

Idiomation was able to find several published literal versions of the phrase in newspapers and books prior to 1870, however, none of them appeared to have the figurative sense implied or carefully crafted into the headline so as to create a double meaning to the phrase “shot in the dark.”

One such story is from the New Zealand Colonist edition of October 18, 1842 that related an anecdote about the Emperor, Napoleon and the Battle of Jena at Weimar.  The anecdote ends with:

The Emperor laughed, and to reconcile the poor fellow to himself, said, as he withdrew, “My brave lad, it was not your fault; for a random shot in the dark, yours was not amiss; it will soon be daylight; take a better aim, and I’ll provide for you.”

Idiomation is relieved to hear that the literal sense for the expression is much less in use nowadays than its figurative use of the expression.

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