Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

  • Archives

  • Pages

  • Subscribe

  • Meta

Posts Tagged ‘Hartford Courant’

Off The Hook

Posted by Admin on April 2, 2022

Imagine this scenario: You are in a room when someone says or does something wrong, unlawful, awkward, or unpleasant. No one calls that person out on what has been said or done. Everyone has let that person off the hook. Yes, when someone is let off the hook, they are free of blame or trouble that might have otherwise come from their actions.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: In rap culture, off the hook means something that is exciting, out of control, or that has been extremely well executed, and is usually in reference to a performance or party. Most people, however, do not use this idiom in that sense.

For example, on 16 April 2019, the Hartford Courant newspaper reported on Hartford’s $573 Million dollar city budget which included funding a tree planting program, a rodent control program, increased school funding, more police officers, and more. The newspaper reported the city was both off and on the hook.

Hartford is off the hook in terms of paying back money the city borrowed for infrastructure projects and other reasons because of a deal struck two years ago where the state agreed to pay off the city’s $550 million in general obligation debt.

The city is on the hook for payments related to the construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park, which cost nearly $72 million.

All kinds of people from the very poor to the very powerful have been let off the hook over the years. In Volume 1 of “The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Reaffirmation Act of 1987: Committee on the Budget” it was reported that when Amendment No. 631 was being discussed that Senator Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. (April 3, 1930 – December 12, 1998) used the expression his comments.

Mr. President, I just want to say in the same vein that my distinguished colleague from North Dakota has asked about the $150 billion. I think that we should look at why the administration would support the Domenici version. I think it is because it tends to let them off the hook on the deficit.

On 31 July 1987 in “The Increase in Statutory Limit on the Public Debt – G-R-H” Mr. Johnston began with commenting on the amendment proposed by Mr. Gramm et al and what he felt the amendment was intended to do.

What I find is that this amendment really takes the White House off the hook. It is the take-the-White-House-offthehook amendment, or you might call it the sweep-it-under-the-run amendment, or you might call it pin the tail on the Democrats.

Later on, Senator Ernest Frederick “Fritz” Hollings (1 January 1922 – 6 April 2019) from South Carolina was reported as saying to the Presiding Officer, Mr. Breaux.

Arriving here on the floor, I listened to the Senator from Louisiana saying we are letting the President off the hook.

I am astounded. Of course, I’ve been trying to get him on the hook. If it were possible, I would have long since done it.

I thought we found a way last June when we had the House-Senate conference on the budget. The distinguished Senator Louisiana agreed to the conference report. We had to voice vote it late that evening. The Senator from Ohio, Senator Glenn, and I, paired on the floor there around midnight, objecting because the assumptions, the economic projections were all kiltered in favor of letting the President and the Congress off the hook.

Truth be told, the senators made quite a bit of use of the idiom which, of course, is how politics happens it would seem.

The 5 May 1947 edition of Life magazine published an article titled, “The Racing Racket” written by well-known and respected New York newsman Earl Brown (1903 – 1980). The focus of the article was on how the only winners when betting on horse races were the track-owners, crooked horsemen, and grafting bookies. It even stated that political machines and police officers protected bookies from the law, and track officials looked the other way when the public was robbed on fixed races. They weren’t pointing fingers only at New York, but Chicago and Kansas City as well as other locations around the U.S.

Occasionally all of a bookmaker’s customers, acting on mass instinct, will bet on the same horse in a race. Or some wealthy customer, feeling a strong hunch, will place a bet of gigantic size. Or a crooked horse-owner or jockey will overload the book with bets on a “Sure thing.” Whenever this happens, the bookmaker stands to be wiped out at one blow if a certain horse wins. Some way or other he has to get off the hook by “betting off” some of the money he holds.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Virginia native Earl Brown became a political activist, and was known for his battles with legendary Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Before entering politics, he was the managing editor of the New York Amsterdam News, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and a Life magazine editor.

The Trial of Mary Dugan” was made into a movie in 1929, but before that it was a successful Broadway play about a Broadway showgirl charged with murder in the knifing death of her wealthy lover. Her brother Jimmy is a newly licensed attorney who defends her. The Time magazine review of 20 February 1925 implies the idiom has related to fishing.

The Trial of Mary Dugan —A blooming blonde from the Follies wriggles OFF THE HOOK of murder in the first degree.

While it became more and more difficult to find published examples of the idiom, it was found in a number of newspapers in August of 1909 in article about an unnamed London music hall belle who had successfully “landed” a mature wealthy nobleman and who, at about the same time, had sued a music hall manager for non-payment of wages. She won her case against the music hall manager, and to add insult to injury (or so she hoped), she sent a nice selection of congratulatory telegrams to the music hall manager.

Some of the comments were “Good for you, old girl” and “Congratulations on your splendid haul!” One telegram event stated: “Don’t let him off the hook.”

As an added note, the music hall manager left it up to patrons of his establishment to determine if the telegrams regarding the engagement kerfuffle was about her professional or matrimonial engagement. Unfortunately for him, the article advised readers there was another action for damages against the manager pending.

Idiomation found a great many articles in newspapers from the 1890s about ships and whales being found off the Hook, meaning Sandy Hook in New York state.

Idiomation also found that off the hook should never be confused with off the reel which means something completely different but which many also assume is an idiom connected to fishing. Neither of these idioms are.

According to the “Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases” compiled by Professor of English Literature in the Imperial University of Japan and Scottish author, James Main Dixon, M.A. F.R.S.E. (1856 – 27 September 1933) and published in 1891, to be off the hook meant to be in disorder or flurried.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: James Main Dixon was the secretary of the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo (Japan) from 1879 to 1886, and a professor of English at the Imperial University of Japan from 1886 through to 1892.

He then moved on to become a professor of English literature at Washington University in St. Louis (MO) from 1892 to 1901, and in 1902, he was made Chairman of the Library and Museum Committee of the Burns Cottage Association for the St. Louis World Fair that year. From 1905 through to 1911, he was a professor of English literature at the University of Southern California. He also became the editor of West Coast Magazine in 1908.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: His sister, Mary, married Scottish physicist and mathematician Cargill Gilston Knott (30 June 1856 – 26 October 1922) who became a Fellow of the Royal Society, Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and President of the Scottish Meteorological Society.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: Knott’s Equations in geophysics are named after Cargill Gilston Knott and describe the partition of energy between reflected and refracted seismic waves.

Being on one’s own hook meant to be independent, and to hook it meant to run away.

Somewhere between 1891 and 1909 off the hook took on a new meaning. However, by 1909 it did mean what we understand the idiom to mean in 2022. Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to the turn of the century — around 1900 — for the meaning of the idiom to have changed and for the change to be accepted by society in general.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by Admin 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.

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

Hail Mary Pass

Posted by Admin on November 22, 2013

Every once in a while, you may hear someone say he or she has thrown a Hail Mary or that someone he or she knows made a Hail Mary pass.  Unless you’re in the know, you might think these people are religious zealots. They’re not. What they mean is that, with no other viable options in their opinion, someone has gone with a desperate last-ditch effort to resolve a serious problem with only the smallest of chances of success.

How did this idiom come to be, and is it an idiom that’s been around for a really long time, taking into account how long ago Jesus’ mom, Mary lived?

Many believe (and incorrectly so) that it was coined by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach in a December 28, 1975 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings. He threw the game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson, with only 26 seconds to go in the championship game, and Drew Pearson caught it, made the winning touchdown and made the Dallas Cowboys the winners. Later on, Roger Staubach told the medias,”I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

So if it’s not right that Roger Staubach coined the idiom, who did and when?

Fritz Barzilauskas played in the National Football League from 1947 to 1951 and before that, he was a star player at Yale. Acting as a scout for Yale years later, the article that quoted him in the October 13, 1959 edition of the Hartford Courant was about the “spectacular 65-yard heave” that came at the 24 second mark in the Cornell versus Yale game the previous Saturday. He was quoted as saying:

“They call it their Martin Luther play,” Barzilauskas said. “The same thing at Notre Dame would be called the Hail Mary pass.”

Back on December 30, 1940 Associated Press staff writer, John Wilds, wrote about the upcoming Orange Bowl game that would see Georgetown take on Mississippi State. Joe McFadden, the Hoyas’ quarterback, was described as the freckle-faced Irishman who ran the team. The article stated in part:

McFadden — a great actor in the huddle — is willing to call any play from a straight line buck to a ‘Hail Mary’ pass with never a thought of the second-guessers.

Jumping back 8 years to January 1932, newspapers from the Moberly Monitor (which ran the story on 8 January 1932) to the Fairbanks Daily News (which ran the story on 24 January 1932) ran a story about the annual banquet of the American Football Coaches’ Association. In the article, the story told by Jim Crowley (September 10, 1902 – January 15, 1986) — one of the University of Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen coached by Knute Rockne — had to do with the game on October 28, 1922 between the North Dame Fighting Irish and Georgia Tech.  This is what Jim Crowley reportedly said:

In 1922 Notre Dame had nine sophomores on the team that went to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech. In the first half Tech got a field goal and things looked pretty dark for us. In the third period Layden punted to Red Barron, who muffed. We recovered on the 20-yard line and tried three plays in vain. It was fourth down.

It so happened that we had a Presbyterian on the team. He stopped play and said to us, ‘Boys, let’s have a Hail Mary’. Well, we prayed, and Layden soon went over for a touchdown.

Believe it or not, the formula was repeated. Again Layden kicked, again Barron fumbled, again we tried three plays in vain. ‘Let’s have another Hail Mary’, said the Presbyterian. Well, again Layden went over for a touchdown.

After the game I discussed the strange series of events with our Presbyterian. ‘Say, that Hail Mary is the best play we’ve got’, he exclaimed.

While the idiom got its start in football, it has since spread out and is found in any number of situations (including business, politics, and technology) where a long-shot desperate last-ditch move is made in the hopes of coming up the winner. It’s an idiom that’s even made it into the geek community such as in the board game Blood Bowl.

That being said, the earliest published mention of the Hail Mary Pass is from 1932 and clearly stamps the expression as being from 1922.

Posted in Football, Idioms from the 20th Century, Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Holy Moley

Posted by Admin on January 11, 2013

The expression holy moley is meant to express surprise and it has for a number of years. The expression doesn’t sound old and stuffy, and it doesn’t sound like it used to be part of another longer saying that’s been in existence for centuries. It’s easy to assume that it’s a recent expression but is it really?

Just today, the Hartford Courant newspaper published an article written by Steve Pond about the upcoming Oscars. The headline was “Seth MacFarlane’s Fresh, Silly Nominations Gig Might Mean A Fresh, Silly Oscar Show.” Midway through the article, Steve Pond wrote:

And he’ll also be there, presumably, for the performance of at least one of the nominated songs, since MacFarlane wrote the lyrics to the big-band tune “Everybody Needs a Best Friend,” which Norah Jones performed in “Ted.”

(Just an aside: MacFarlane’s co-writer on the song is one Walter Murphy and holy moley, it appears to be the same Walter Murphy who had a hit by bringing Ludwig van Beethoven to the disco with “A Fifth of Beethoven” back in 1976.)

The expression has been used in countless headlines such as the Los Angeles Times Special by Lynn Simross that was published in the June 9, 1976 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper. With the resurgence in the popularity in action comic books, illustrator Donato “Don” Rico was interviewed for the story. Rico was responsible for creating Gary Stark, a teenaged Merchant Mariner, and Micky Starlight during the golden age of comic books. That article was entitled:

Holy Moley! Comics Live Again!

It was a tip of the hat to Captain Marvel’s characteristic exclamation in the comic books of the 40s.


But does the expression go back much further than that? Strangely enough, it does as it appeared in a book written by Nathaniel Gould entitled, “Running It Off Or Hard Hit: An Enthralling Story of Racing, Love and Intrigue” and published in 1892 by George Routledge and Sons. The book, re-issued by John Long Ltd in 1919, used the expression in this passage of the book:

“Whew!” he whistled, softly; “that’s curious. Same name as the lady at our place. Suppose he should be her husband. Holy moley, what a game. I’ve made a discovery. I must take particular of this man. He’ll come in useful I reckon.”

Now history buffs and Greek mythology buffs already know that moly was given to Ulysses by Hermes as an antidote against Circe’s magic in Book X of “The Odyssey” which is one of two epic poems attributed to Homer. In this book, the following passage is found:

“As he spoke he pulled the herb out of the ground and showed me what it was like. The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk; the gods call it Moly, and mortal men cannot uproot it, but the gods can do whatever they like.

Then Mercury went back to high Olympus passing over the wooded island; but I fared onward to the house of Circe, and my heart was clouded with care as I walked along. When I got to the gates I stood there and called the goddess, and as soon as she heard me she came down, opened the door, and asked me to come in; so I followed her – much troubled in my mind.”

While it’s true that gods are thought of as being holy and that moly was used by Homer that it was implied that the two go together, however, the two weren’t used together in any of Homer’s poems.

Idiomation can only say that the first use of the expression holy moly or holy moley we were able to confirm was by Nathaniel Gould in 1892. So yes, the expression is at least 120 years old (certainly not a new expression by any stretch of the imagination) but untraceable before 1892.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Dumb Cluck

Posted by Admin on March 23, 2012

A dumb cluck is, well, a dull-witted, stupid person … a blockhead … a dolt.  Some will tell you it’s a corruption of the Yiddish word klutz which means blockhead, and others will tell you it’s a corruption of the German word dummkopf which also means blockhead.  Still others will tell you it has to do with how smart a chicken really is.

On March 12, 2012 the Miami Herald ran a story entitled “Local Sports Franchises Take The Prize.”  The journalist, Glenn Garvin, wrote in part:

Marlins President David Samson, thinking he was safely in the company of his fellow robber-baron plutocrats at the Beacon Council, delivered a smirking speech in which he bragged about how easily he snookered $315 million or so out of our dumb-cluck local politicians. And he doesn’t want to hear any complaints out of you, buddy. The purpose of local government is to extract your money to pump up his bottom line.

Back in February of 1991, Max Baer Jr won a $2-million award Wednesday against ABC.  He claimed that ABC had prevented him from getting the film rights to Madonna’s song “Like A Virgin” which he had hoped would form the basis of a movie he wanted to produce.  On February 21, 1991 the Herald Journal in Spartanburg, South Carolina reported:

Baer — best known for his role in the 1960s TV series — has filed a multimillion dollar suit in Los Angeles Superior Court claiming that ABC-TV tried to take advantage of Jethro’s “big, dumb cluck” image in a 1986 dispute over film rights to the hit song.

The Ann Landers column published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on April 9, 1962 ran a letter from a writer named, Dutch Uncle.   The problem was that the businessman had hired the daughter of a friend to work for him in a secretarial position.  At first, it appeared that the biggest problem was her inability to spell, but there was more to the story as Dutch Uncle added:

Linda is a nice person and tried hard, but in addition to her lack of skills she arrives late (from 20 to 30 minutes) about three days every week.  Her absentee record is the worst in the office.  She has not worked a single Monday in nine weeks. I pay this dumb cluck $310 a month.  What can I do in view of the close relationship?

The Hartford Courant published a report by Grantland Race on March 26, 1941 entitled, “Fighter Who Beats Louis Will Have To Be Smart.”  The subtitle read:

‘No Dumb Cluck Is Going To Have Much Of A Chance,’ Says Jack Kearns In Discussing Current Crop Of Heavyweight Challengers

On December 20, 1937 an animated short was released.  The name of the short?  Why it was “The Dumb Cluck” produced by Walter Lantz (27 April 1899 – 22 March 1994), the man who brought us Chilly Willy and Woody Woodpecker.  The character of the Dumb Cluck first appeared two months earlier on October 18, 1937 in the animated short “The Keeper of the Lions.”  The Dumb Cluck was the creation of writer Charles R. Bowers (June 7, 1877 – November 26, 1946).

And let’s not forget the Three Stooges who filmed “Three Dumb Clucks” that same year!  In this movie, the Stooges are in jail when they learn that their father, Popsie-Wopsie is about to marry a gold-digger named Daisy.  Of course, they have to get out of jail and save Popsie-Wopsie and get him back home to the loving arms of Momma.

Pulp fiction writer and Iowan, Dwight V. Babcock (1909 – 1979) published a story in 1934 entitled, “Dumb Cluck.”  Like his contemporary, Raymond Chandler, Dwight V. Babcock was known for writing longer stories and reworking each story until it was a good as it could possibly be.  That 1934 story is one of those stories.

Writer Joseph Patrick McEvoy (1895 – 1958) — he eventually became a roving editor for Reader’s Digest — wrote “Denny and the Dumb Cluck” which was published by Simon and Schuster in 1930.  It told the story of a salesman with the Gleason Card Company named Denny Kerrigan and Chicago shop girl, Doris Miller — the dumb cluck of the title.  If you’re interested in knowing more about the novel, it was reviewed in Book Review Digest on page 658 in 1930.

Author Edmund Wilson only wrote three novels in his lifetime, one of which was entitled, “I Thought of Daisy” which was published in 1929.  A colleague of both Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson‘s book was a realistic depiction of the 1920s.  The expression dumb cluck is found in this passage in the book:  

The door into the dining room opened, and Larry Mickler and Daisy appeared.

“Come on, yuh dope!” said Daisy to Pete Bird.  “What d’ye think yuh are, brooding around the kitchen?  — a cockroach?” 

“Get away, yuh dumb cluck!” replied Pete, relunctantly opening his eyes, “and leave me to my meditations!”

“Let’s leave him to his slumbers,” said Larry Mickler, who was evidently drunker than ever.  “The boyfriend’s passed out!  Too many of those rich liverwurst sandwiches!”

This American slang doesn’t seem to appear before 1929 however for the expression to be used so freely in Edmund Wilson‘s book, it had to be part of the vernacular and with that, Idiomation is willing to guess that it likely dates back to about 1920.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Go To Bed With The Chickens And Get Up With The Cows

Posted by Admin on March 21, 2012

Back in the day when farming was dependent on being able to see what was going on and clocks weren’t necessarily around yet, farmers would do as the chickens did and go to bed around dusk. There wasn’t much to do after dusk anyway, so it made sense for all to get a good night’s sleep so they could get up with the cows, shortly after daybreak. This way, the greatest amount of daylight was used to get all the chores done on the farm.

On January 5, 2011 CBC News published a story about sleep patterns and interrupted sleep entitled, “The Genes Behind Sleep Patterns.”  The article talked about circadian and homeostatic rhythms and stated in part:

The idea that someone can change his or her morning or night person status is pretty widespread. People who couldn’t get up in the morning are often seen as lazy, while those who go to bed with the chickens are seen as boring —- the types who can never last during a night on the town.

In the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, the following passage is found in Chapter 24:

And so they went, down the row of laughing women, around the diningroom, refilling coffee cups, dishing out goodies as though their only regret was the temporary domestic disaster of losing Calpurnia.  The gentle hum began again.  “Yes sir, Mrs. Perkins, that J. Grimes Everett is a martyred saint, he needed to get married so they ran to the beauty parlor every Sunday afternoon soon as the sun goes down.  He goes to bed with the chickens, a crate full of sock chickens, Fred says that’s what started it all.  Fred says …”

On July 10, 1920 the Morning Leader newspaper published an article entitled, “Two Ohio Newspapermen May Fight It Out For The American Presidency.”  It read in part:

Governor Cox has just turned the half-century mark.  He was born March 31, 1870 on a farm near Jacksonburg, Butler County, Ohio.  His early training was that of a farm boy of the period, up with the cows and to bed with the chickens.  He attended the country schools, and finally the Middletown High school.

The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Connecticut published an article on December 27, 1907 entitled “Rolling Thunder Beat Bill Meader.”  It was an interesting article that revealed the younger generation’s view of the older generation by stating the following:

Some of the young bloods about town are of the opinion that residents of Manchester in the early days were a lot of old fossils who went to bed with the chickens and did not get out at all nights just because there were no electric lights to steer them home.

While the expression hasn’t been used very often in literature or news stories, the expression is what is called a Southernism and hails from the southern states in the U.S.  Since it was used so freely in this news article dating back to 1907, Idiomation believes it can easily be placed in the vernacular of the generation before 1907 putting it to some time around 1875.

That being said, maybe a good night’s sleep will reveal more in the morning when we get up with the cows.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Dutchman’s Breeches

Posted by Admin on September 19, 2011

There’s a pretty little woodland plant with pinkish, double-spurred flowers that’s found in the Eastern United States called Dicentra cucullaria.  It’s also known colloquially as the Dutchman’s Breeches.  Oddly enough, however, whenever there are two patches of blue that appear in the middle of a stormy sky, leaving the impression that the storm is about to break, that’s also referred to as the Dutchman’s Breeches.

The expression is part of traditional sea-going weather lore where it’s believed that in bad weather, two patches of blue sky is a hopeful sign as long as the patches are big enough to “mend a pair of Dutchman’s breeches.”  Back in the day, sailors wore wide trousers, and Dutch sailors were known to wear even wider trousers which just happened to be blue like the the sky on a clear day.

The expression has fallen out of favour over the past couple of generations but back on October 20, 1935 the Hartford Courant used the expression in a news story entitled, “A Patch Of Blue Sky.”  It spoke of the international crisis that was looming at every turn and how Great Britain had recently refused to remove a ship from the Mediterranean while Italy was rushing troops to the border of Libya.  In the article, the following was included:

Will the patch of blue sky above be us; large as a Dutchman’s breeches and a sign of fair weather to come?

On February 3, 1900 the Dubuque Daily Herald ran an article entitled, “Winter Six Weeks More: Famous Ground Hog Saw His Shadow at 12 O’Clock To-day.”  The story felt compelled to include a number of old superstition weather proverbs which included this one:

When there is enough clear sky to patch a Dutchman’s breeches expect fair weather.

A couple of year prior to that news story, the New York Times published an article on June 6, 1897 entitled, “Names Of The Clouds.”  What’s particularly interesting is that the expression Dutchman’s breeches is referred to as an old saw. 

The strato-cumulus clouds were formerly designated with the words combined in the inverse order, and the name, with its abbreviation s-cu, is bestowed upon large globular masses or rolls of dark cloud frequently covering the whole sky.  They are especially noticable in Winter, and occasionally give the sky a wavy appearance.  It is not a very thick layer of cloud, and occasionally blue patches of sky are visible through the intervening spaces.  The old saw is that when there is enough blue sky to make a pair of Dutchman’s breeches, the following day will surely be a pleasant one.

As a side note, the expression “old saw” refers to a proverb and that expression (old saw) dates back to some time in the 1400s.  So if a journalist in the 1890s referred to the expression Dutchman’s breeches as an old saw, it means it goes back farther than the 1890s.

The expression is found in the book “Reading The Weather” written by T. Morris Longstreth and published in 1915.  He dedicated the book to his grandmother, Mary Gibson Haldeman.  The author credits his grandmother for passing along the proverbs which puts the expression at least to the early 1800s.

In Idiomation’s research, however, it was learned that the expression dates back to the Anglo-Dutch naval wars of the 17th century.  And so this all-but-forgotten, four-hundred-year-old conflict is enshrined for all time in the passionate dislike the English had for the Dutch back in the day.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Beat The Air

Posted by Admin on August 1, 2011

When someone beats the air, it’s because he or she is fighting without accomplishing anything.  If you imagine someone’s arms flailing about at nothing, that’s a good literal representation of the figurative meaning of the phrase beat the air.

On July 17, 2006, the Boston Globe published a story by staff writer, Ron Borges in their Sports section about a boxing match between Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley entitled, “Mosley Back In Picture: Vargas Fades Out.”  It began by reporting the following:

This rematch ended far more decisively than their meeting Feb. 25. Although Mosley stopped [Fernando Vargas] both times, the first fight ended when referee Joe Cortez stepped in to prevent Vargas from fighting the last two rounds because his left eye was swollen shut. When Cortez waved his hands, Vargas beat the air with his fists and insisted he would have beaten down the tiring Mosley had he been given the chance.

The Hartford Courant published a short news article entitled, “Let’s Talk It Over” on December 17, 1944 that stated in part:

How easy it is to pass the buck for our failures, to flounder through life blaming somebody else or even some thing else instead of ourselves. I’m thinking of Hannah, nearing 30. She has a job of a sort ….

It explains how desperate Hannah is to secure a husband and includes this bit of insight:

No wonder he always runs. What a pity no one tips Hannah off. What a shame for her to beat the air from one year to the next.

In New Zealand, the Marlborough Express published a news story on April 21, 1904 about then Opposition leader, Mr. Massey and how the electorate in New Zealand saw both him and his party.  The following is an excerpt of that news story.

It is too late in the day to go back to first principles to find a line of party cleavage.  And to tell the people that the present Government has fallen away from the lines of grace laid down by Mr. Ballance is to beat the air to no purpose.  The old lines are obliterated beyond all human power of redrawing, as Mr. Massey himself admitted when he contended that there is nothing to find fault with in the legislation of the Government, which is the party in power.

On November 5, 1841 the Public Ledger newspaper republished a story run in the Morning Herald entitled, “The Corn-Law Repealers And The Government.”  Lord Melbourne who was said to have “contempt for facts and realities” verbally attacked the Duke of Wellington for “simply stating a truth as palpable to everyone who will use his senses as the nose that completes and adorns his face, and on Saturday morning he was forthwith denounced as a monster and a modern Herod.”  The Duke of Wellington had angered Lord Melbourne because the Duke “announced a fact adverse to dishonest and unsuccessful agitation” and Lord Melbourne was now painting him as “cruel” because the Duke refused to deceive the public.  This comment was included in the story:

Unfortunately for the whig press it might “as well beat the  entrenchant air” as attack the Duke of Wellington; the character of the noble Duke is a national concern; and in whig abuse of his grace the people of England feel themselves insulted.

Going back several centuries to the days of the Apostles, the lower regions of the atmosphere was referred to as air as opposed to the higher regions of the sky which was referred to as the heavens (1 Thess. 4:17; Rev. 9:2; 16:17).  Ancient philosophers regarded air as an element since they didn’t know that air is essentially a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen with a small amount of carbon dioxide.  This is important to note as the expression beat the air is found in the Bible.  In fact, the earliest published version of the phrase beat the air is attributed to St. Paul.

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.  (1 Corinthians 9:26)

While it’s true that boxing was a sport that ancient Romans and ancient Greeks enjoyed, and while it’s true that there are accounts of boxers beating the air prior to a boxing match, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this phrase.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Greece, Religious References, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dead Duck

Posted by Admin on January 20, 2011

The phrase “dead duck” is a funny sounding phrase.  It brings to light an interesting visual and questions about how a dead duck became synonymous with the concept of being ineffectual.

The Irish Canadian newspaper of May 20, 1886 reported on Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Gladstone of the Liberal Party by stating that

Protests are even now coming home to him, charging him with having almost accomplished the ruin of the Liberal party, and declaring that his usefulness as a leader is gone.  His vanity has destroyed all chances to the succession and his treachery of his chief has made it painfully manifest that he can no longer be trusted.  Come what may, one this is certain: Mr. Chamberlain is a dead duck politically.  Not so, however, with Mr. Gladstone.  He is cheered by many voices all over the land, urging him, in the event of an adverse vote upon his bill, not to resign, but to appeal to the people.  It is thought that this course will be adopted, provided her Majesty consents to a dissolution.

The term “dead duck” referring to politicians wasn’t something new in 1886.  History shows that in 1866, Andrew Johnson referred to John W. Forney, publisher of Philadelphia and Washington newspapers, as a dead duck.  In fact, when the New York Times reported on it on February 28, 1866, it came with the headline “Degree Conferred” and read in part:

On Thursday last, President, ANDREW JOHNSON, of the Union College, Washington City, conferred the honorary title of “dead duck” upon JOHN W. FORNEY, Esq. This exaltation creates some surprise, since it is not known that the recipient was ever in holy orders, and some go so far as to say that the President is making game of him.

Back on May, 15, 1829 the Glasgow Herald reported a very strange thing indeed.  It stated that the following had been published in the Dublin Morning Register:

In opposition to the dictum of Judge Littledale, that a dead duck was not a duck, Mr. Serjeant Adams has decided that a dead rabbit is a rabbit.  The vitality of a duck is one vitality, and the vitality of a rabbit is another vitality.

The phrase “dead duck” is an Americanism from the 1830s, originally it was political slang referring to a person who has lost influence or power and was therefore useless.  In fact, it was used in conversation without hesitation by the 1840s. 

There are even Letters to the Editor such as the one dated August 29, 1839 and published in the Hartford (CT) Courant newspaper.  The editor prefaced its publication by stating, “The following communication was received two or three weeks since.  The subject of it was considered rather small game for the writer, and it was laid on the table.  Other considerations now induce us to give it a place.” 

The author of the Letter to the Editor describes the accusations made by another party with regards to the next General Election in this way:

Respecting this accusation, he let off his popgun at the dead duck.

So somewhere between 1829 a dead duck that was not a duck came to mean — within a decade — an ineffectual person.  How that happened is something Idiomation could not track down.

What Idiomation did learn is that the word dead comes from the Old English word dead which hails from the Germanic word *dauthaz” from the 13th century.  Somewhere between “dead drunk” of 1599 and “dead on” of 1889, the phrase “dead duck” came into existence and has been around ever since.

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

Tooth And Nail

Posted by Admin on September 29, 2010

Back in June 1960, Tooth And Nail showed impressive prospects for the $125,000 Belmont Stakes when he scored an eight-length victory in the New Rochelle Purse at Belmont Park.  That’s what the Hartford Courant newspaper reported.

Several years before race horses were named such things as “Tooth and Nail” Longs Peak Valley became home for Enos Abijah Mills who settled there in 1884 and lived there until his death in 1922.  He was the founder of Rocky Mountain National Park and kept year-round vigil on the ponds and beavers nearby.  In a book he wrote in 1913, entitled “Beaver World” Enoch Mills wrote about beavers, stating that:

“He works not only tooth and nail, but tooth and tail.”

However, over a century before that, Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford wrote a letter to Sir Horace Mann, Britannic Majesty’s Resident at the Court of Florence (1760 to 1785) on July 31, 1767 in which he recounted:

“The very day on which I wrote to you last was critical.  A meeting of the two factions was held at Newcastle House, where the Duke of Bedford was agent for the Frenvilles; and the old wretch himself laboured tooth and nail, that is, with the one of each sort that he has left, to cement, or rather, to make over his friends to the same influence.”

Figurative use of the expression in England goes back as early as the beginning of the 16th century, but in the end, the phrase goes back another 15 centuries to modern day Turkey.

There, Assyrian rhetorician and satirist Lucian of Samosata (125 to 180) wrote the “Dialogues of the Dead” and in Chapter XI, readers will find this passage:

Of course; they had no receptacle for such things as we could give; luxury had made them so leaky–as full of holes as a worn-out purse. Put wisdom, frankness, or truth into them, and it would have dropped out; the bottom of the bag would have let them through, like the perforated cask into which those poor Danaids are always pouring. Gold, on the other hand, they could guard with tooth and nail or any other way.

Posted in Idioms from the 2nd Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »