Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘George Saintsbury’

Tempest In A Teacup

Posted by Admin on April 28, 2016

When a very small event or situation is made out to be much more than what it is, don’t be surprised if someone mentions it’s a tempest or a storm in a teacup or a teapot.  Over the decades, many have said this when a huge commotion over an unimportant matter has happened.

Just last week, on April 22, 2016, the American Thinker website published an article by David Solway titled, “Distrust Yourself Before You Distrust The Candidate.”  The substance of the article had to do with how political candidates have their public profiles created to fit the demands of the voting public to which they wish to appeal.  The writer made several excellent points, including this one which included the idiom.

The Michelle Fields controversy is an excellent example of how the media and the pundits have inflated a tempest in a teacup to tsunami proportions.

When English writer, literary historian, scholar, critic, and wine connoisseur, George Saintsbury (23 October 1845 – 28 January 1933) published “A History of the French Novel (to the Close of the 19th Century), Volume I” in 1917, he included tempest in a teacup in Chapter XII which discussed minor and later novelists circa 1800 with specific reference to Jane Austen’s novels.

All the resources of typography — exclamations, points, dashes — have to be called in to express the generally disturbed state of things.  Now unfortunately this sort of perpetual tempest in a teacup (for it generally is in a teacup) requires unusual genius to make it anything but ludicrous.

The July 1903 edition of “Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: Volume VII, Part I” compiled by John Stephen Farmer (7 March 1854 – 1916) included this definition for the idiom.

Storm (or tempest) in a teacup (or teapot) subs. phr. (common) – Much ado about nothing: cd. ‘a tide and flood thought it be but in a basin of water’

IMPORTANT NOTE 1:  The entry attributed the basin of water quote to the “Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris” by English scholar, critic, and theologian, Richard Bentley (27 January 1662 – 14 July 1742) published in 1699.

In Volume 8 of “The Solicitors’ Journal and Reporter” published on in London on October 29, 1864 included an article on the subject of the alleged bankruptcy irregularities in Birmingham.  The question arose as a result of a news article that had been published in the Birmingham Daily Post.

If the alleged malpractices at Birmingham and elsewhere resolve themselves into a disputed question of law, we would like to ask those who have raised this “tempest in a teacup” whether they propose that any, and what, compensation should be awarded, and from what fund, to those who have now for some months been suffering under unjust imputations.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary puts the first known use of tempest in a teapot to 1838 without attribution.  In researching the expression, Idiomation was able to find even earlier published versions of tempest in a teapot.

On August 30, 1820 the Connecticut Gazette ran an anecdote from the late British lawyer and politician, Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow (9 December 1731 – 12 September 1806) who was Lord Chancellor from 1783 to 1792.  The anecdote was about an alleged calamity to Britain that was to have dire effects on the Church and State.  When it was revealed where this calamity was happening, the punchline was,”A tempest in a tea-pot.”  The anecdote is one that was published even earlier, in 1815 in “The Flowers of Wit, or A Choice Collection of Bon Mots Both Antient and Modern: Volume I.”  Based on this, the expression was understood in 1815, and the anecdote was most likely crafted during Baron Thurlow’s decade as Lord Chancellor, putting this to the mid 1780s.

The practice of drinking tea was introduced in England in 1644, after being the practice in France the previous decade, with the Dutch being the chief importers of tea leaves in the 1610s.  The word tea-cup came into vogue in 1700, so it’s safe to assume that the idiom tempest in a teacup didn’t exist before 1700.

There was the sense of the saying published in Volume 27 of “The Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library” published in 1749 where the following was written.

When Holdernesse revealed it to him, Pitt affected to believe that Newcastle was trying to negotiate behind his back: a teapot tempest brewed, despite Newcastle’s asseverations that he regarded it as but a jest.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the exact phrase tempest in a teacup earlier than the 1815 reference.  However, between the spirit of the idiom being used in the 1749 document and the anecdote dating back to the 1780s, Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the 1760s — halfway between 1749 and 1783.

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Unfriend

Posted by Admin on October 21, 2014

Social media platforms have been responsible for the rise in new words such as tweeting and tweeple, but it’s also given rise to the return of old words such as unfriended and unfriending.  It may seem odd that before Facebook, that unfriending and being unfriended happened.  Now the question is this:  How long have people been unfriended and unfriending?

The poem, “Easter Week” by Erik Axel Karfeldt is included in a poetry anthology entitled, “Arcadia Borealis.”   The book was published in 1938 at the University of Minnesota.  I don’t know what possessed me to read the poem, but read the poem I did.  Imagine my surprise when I came across this passage in the poem.

Imprisoned in the grave, my friends are banished —
I have an unfriend in the days long vanished;
God’s peace be over
The house from which I then was rudely thrust!

Surprised to find such a modern word in a poem written and published over 75 years ago and long before technology was a common occurrence in almost every household, I began to wonder about the history of the word unfriend.  If someone was an unfriend (and not an enemy), then at one point had they been friends?  It was a question that nagged at me until I took matters into my own hands and began hunting down the answer.

Research uncovered a Letter to the Editor in the archives of the Pall Mall Gazette.  The letter writer was Oscar Wilde, and his letter was published under the heading, “Half-Hours With The Worst Authors.”  The famous playwright took exception to what he called the “extremely slipshod and careless style of our ordinary magazine-writers” and he used an article written by George Saintsbury (who had published a book on prose style) that had recently been published in the January 1886 edition of Macmillan’s magazine. It was in point 9, that the word was used.

9.  He certainly was an unfriend to Whiggery.

That certainly carried, not only the spelling, but the sense as well, of being unfriended.

The comment reinforced by belief that if one could only be unfriended, that could only happen if they had previously been friends, and it stands to reason that if two people had been friends at one point, one or both could be unfriended.

But would history bear this out?  Indeed it did as it was found in the writings of Patrick Abercromby, M.D., in his book “The Martial Atchievements of the Scots Nation: Being An Account of the Lives, Characters, and Memorable Actions of Such Scotsmen as Have Signaliz’d Themselves by the Sword at Home and Abroad” in Volume 1 published in 1711.

William, King of Scotland, thought himself unconcern’d with these Transactions:  ‘Twas not his Business to determine who had best Right to the Crown of England; yet he made no haste to Recognize King John’s Title:  And it seems he was by that Prince’s Party consider’d as an Unfriend; for his Brother, Earl David was one of these suspected Peers that summond to Court, and by many fair Promises cajoll’d into a Submission.

In other words, William, King of Scotland, was a frenemy in the eyes of King John of England … someone who King John had considered a friend, but whom he now considered an unfriend.  Yes, it would appear that King John unfriended King William.

Sneaking back into the previous century, the next document I found was used in a letter written by English church historian, Thomas Fuller, to Peter Heylin.  It was dated 1659, and is found in “The Appeal of Injured Innocence.”

I hope, sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

There is was in black and white, and using the old-fashioned, obsolete version of today’s screenshot.  Printed proof that unfriending could, and did, happen back in the 17th century!  So how far back did this unfriending activity go?

Back in 1566, according to the State Paper Department of Her Majesty’s Public Record Office, they have in their possession a collection of documents entitled, “Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth I.”  You see, the passage on page 118 of Volume 8 makes a clear delineation between a friend, an enemy, and someone who was once a friend … someone who was unfriended.

The King confessed that reports were made to him that Murray was not his friend, which  made him speak that which he repented. The Queen said that she could not be content that either he or any else should unfriend Murray.

I don’t know for certain who Murray may have been (though I suspect the reference may be to the Earl of Murray, the illegitimate son of James V), but it would appear that the King and others had unfriended him.  Not nice, you historical figures, you! That’s,you know … technology-free cyberbullying!

That’s where the trail ran cold, however, the fact of the matter is that the word unfriend was known and used in the mid-1500s with no worry that the others wouldn’t understand the word’s meaning.  It was very clear what unfriending was.

Now all of that is interesting, however, in the context of today’s technology, unfriending someone on Facebook isn’t a new activity that came about as a result of technology.  People have been unfriending others for centuries with and without computers, with and without Facebook, with and without a written account of the actual unfriending!

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of unfriending or unfriended than the State Papers of 1566, however, it is reasonable that because the word was used by royalty in 1566, it was understood by the general population.  Idiomation therefore pegs it to at least the beginning of the 1500s, with the likelihood that it pre-dates that date as well.

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