Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Gunsmoke’

Calling Shotgun

Posted by Admin on May 19, 2015

Calling shotgun is, in many ways, no different than calling first dibs.

In the January 17, 2006 edition of the Reading Eagle, Devin Cremer (who, at the time, was a junior at Twin Valley High School in Reading, Pennsylvania) discussed what the article called, “Rules Of Engagement: Calling Shotgun.”  He made it clear that calling shotgun was one of those split-second decisions that we sometimes have to make, and then he made sure he explained what the rules were for calling shotgun.

First and foremost:  You must have complete, 100 percent clear visibility of the vehicle in order to call shotgun.  It is not acceptable to call shotgun while inside of a building, or when an object obscures the view of the vehicle that is to be driven.

Terry Marotta wrote mentioned calling shotgun in an article in the Bangor Daily News on January 31, 1995.  He wrote about the three principles that made a family functional, which, he wrote, were the same three principles that made living in society functional.  The article was entitled, “Sacrifice, Restraint, Affection Important Virtues Of Family Life.”  Part way through the article, calling shotgun was mentioned.

Often you become most aware of sacrifice in its absence.  Take the custom of kids calling shotgun as they race toward the family car.  I hated this custom when I was 6 and I hated it at 36. And I made sure, once I had kids of my own, that whatever goody was awarded, it sure didn’t go to the one who, in a froth of self-interest, was braying for it the loudest.

Based on the writer’s statement, calling shotgun has been around since at least the mid-seventies.  But where did it really come from, and when did it start?

In the book “Poorboy At The Party” by American journalist and author Robert Gover (2 November 1929 – 12 January 2015) and published in 1966 by Simon and Schuster, the author referred to the seat next to the driver of a car as the shotgun seat.

He got up and staggered to the shotgun seat and tossed me the keys.

SIDE NOTE:  Robert Gover was friends with musician Jim Morrison (8 December 8 1943 – 3 July 1971) and in 1968, the two were arrested for causing a disturbance at the Pussycat A Go Go in Las Vegas.

The expression actually has its roots in the days of stagecoach travel when two people were riding upfront:  the driver, and the express messenger.  The express messenger was colloquially referred to as the shotgun messenger.

American investigative journalist, lawyer, novelist, editor, and short story writer Alfred Henry Lewis ( 20 January 20 1855 – 23 December 1914) published his book “Faro Nell and Her Friends: Wolfville Stories” and in this book, the author included a passage about riding shotgun in Chapter IV titled, “Old Monte, Official Drunkard.”

That lack of war instinct in Monte ain’t no speecific drawback.  Him drivin’ stage that a-way-, he ain’t expected none to fight.  The hold-ups onderstands it, the company onderstands it, everybody onderstands it.  It’s the law of the trail.  That’s why, when the stage is stopped, the driver’s never downed.  Which if thar’s money aboard, an’ the express outfit wants it defended, they slams on some sport to ride shotgun that trip.  It’s for this shotgun speshulist to give the route agents an argyooment.  Which they’re licensed to go bombardin’ each other ontil the goin’ down of the sun.

The book had beautiful illustrations created by W. Herbert Dunton (28 August 1878 – 18 March 1936) and John Norval (J.N.) Marchand (1875-1921), and was published in 1913 by G.W. Dillingham Company.

The expression was used in an earlier book by Alfred Henry Lewis entitled, “The Sunset Trail” which was published in April 1905 by A.S. Barnes & Co.  It’s found in the short story titled, “The Worries Of Mr. Holiday.”

Wyatt and Morgan Earp were in the service of the Express Company.  They went often as guards — “riding shotgun,” it was called — when the stage bore unusual treasure.

But riding shotgun and calling shotgun are two different expressions.  It was in the popular TV series, “Gunsmoke” with James Arness (26 May 1923 – 3 June 2011) which ran from 1955 to 1975 that expressions from the television version of the Wild West era were transplanted and superimposed on popular culture of the day.

In Season 2 (1957), Ira Pucket (played by Edgar Stehli) got a job riding shotgun on the stagecoach.  In Season 4 (May 1959) Marshal Matt Dillon (played by James Arness) helped a gunman get a job riding shotgun on a stagecoach.  In Season 7 (1962), Harvey Easter (played by Abraham Sofaer) convinced Charlie Fess (played by Harry Bartell) to quit riding shotgun on the stagecoach.  In Season 8 (1963), Quint Asper (played by Burt Reynolds) agreed to ride shotgun for Sam Gordon (played by Glenn Strange), the driver on the morning stagecoach.  Nearly every season of the show had someone riding shotgun on the stagecoach.

What does this mean for the idiom?  It means that sometime during the late 1950s, the passenger seat in a car became known as the shotgun seat, and if you wanted that prized seat (complete with extra leg room), you had to call it or lose it hence the idiom calling shotgun.

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Like Ugly On An Ape

Posted by Admin on March 22, 2013

It’s not often that you hear an expression that’s so bold in its delivery, but like ugly on an ape is one of those expressions.  On October 30, 1988 the New York Times published an article by William Safire that opened with this paragraph:

“I knew the minute I said ‘card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U.,’” George Bush told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, “a couple of your best columnists would jump all over me like ugly on an ape.”

It must have made an impression on author, Larry Niven as his book “The Man-Kzin Wars 2” published in 1989 used it in the book’s description:

Born and bred to hunting, they had never encountered a species they couldn’t treat as prey – until they met the canny pseudo-pacifists from Planet Earth. They nearly overwhelmed humanity on first contact, but fast as you can say “Ghengis Khan” or “Alexander the Great” the seemingly harmless monkey boys were all over the pussycats like ugly on an ape, with space fleets and strategic thinking that left the Warrior Race quite dazzled.  But that was then and this is now.  The pain of lost battles has faded and the Kzinti are back, spoiling for a fight, Larry Niven’s Known Space is again aflame with war.

So where did this expression come from originally, and how did it make it into a former U.S. president’s every day jargon?

It’s a fact that Gunsmoke (a television program that ran from 1955 through to 1975) where Festus Haggin — a role played by Ken Curtis (July 2, 1916 – April 28, 1991) — was known to use a number of colorful and amusing phrases to express himself.  Among the many that made their way into American culture of the day was “I’ll get on to you like ugly on an ape.”

Now according to the Texas Monthly magazine and writer Anne Dingus in the December 1969 edition, like ugly on an ape is an old Texas saying.  A number of Texans confirm this to be a fact.

Like ugly on an ape appeared in the early part of the 20th century as ugly as an ape and was a common expression referring to the physical appearance of an individual or how he presented himself in polite society.  Contrary to popular misconception these days, it was not a comment on one’s cultural heritage and as such, was not intended to insult those of African descent.

On September 22, 1883 the saying was found on the front page of the New York Clipper and Theatrical Journal, founded by Frank Queen in 1853.  It was found in the poem “An Actor” written for the New York Clipper by Cupid Jones, that offered this up as the first verse:

He was ugly as an ape,
Stupid, and vain, and vicious;
He had no chic, he had no shape,
His style was meretricious.

And in the New York Evening Express of 1843, in an article entitled, “Purchasing A Husband” the following quick story was published:

Susan, a country girl desirous of matrimony, received from her mistress the present of a five pound bank note for a marriage portion.  Her mistress wished to see the object of Susan’s favor, and a very diminutive fellow, swarthy as a Moor, and ugly as an ape, made his appearance before her.

“Ah, Susan,” said her mistress, “what a strange choice you have made!”

“Lo, ma’am,” said Susan, “in such hard times as them, when almost all the tall fellows are gone for soldiers, what more of a man than this can you expect for a five pound note?”

In the end, it’s uncertain when this idiom became part of the American lexicon, however, it is claimed by Texans as a long-standing Texas saying.  As such the Republic of Texas came about in 1835 and the expression certainly dates to at least a generation prior to that when you consider when the Republic was established and the use of the expression in a northern newspaper in 1843.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »