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Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

Hot Seat

Posted by Admin on April 17, 2021

There are conflicting versions of where the idiom “in the hot seat” or “on the hot seat” originated although all versions point to the idiom meaning the person in or on the hot seat is faced with harsh criticism and judgement.

Some say the expression alludes to the electric chair and dates back to the 1930s. Others say the expression was coined by Harpo Marx in the 1930s.

Some say the electric chair meaning is American English and others say the precarious, difficult, dangerous position meaning is British English.

Is it possible both meanings are correct? Is it possible that the idiom did come from the 1930s and as such can be attributed to more than one source of origin?

The Australian Women’s Weekly newspaper ran an article in the 14 January 1959 edition that was written by Ross Campbell and titled, ‘The Hot Seat.” The article was a hilarious piece about a situation — real or imagined — that happened between Ross Campbell and his wife. The many ways in which how a man sits and the direct correlation to that man’s success in life outlined how Ross Campbell wound up in the hot seat, and how those young men who lounge about are sitting pretty even though an article Ross Campbell’s wife read said they soon would be.

A decade earlier, the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane (Australia) reported on 23 August 1949 that Harold Merchant, 35, sat tight in the cabin of his 20-ton trailer the day before and cheated death by electrocution for the third time. A 25-tone power shovel hit a tramway crosswire resulting in 600 volts of electricity running through Harold Merchant, and his passenger, Frank Gorry. This was thanks in no small measure to the fifteen rubber tires on the trailer Merchant was pulling. The headline read:

Tyres saved him from ‘hot seat

There’s no doubt that the hot seat isn’t the place you really want to find yourself even when you come out of the situation on the plus side!

It’s a fact that in the 1930s, celebrities who visited William Randolph Hearst at his mansion in San Simeon would sometimes wear out his or her welcome, and as that welcome began to wear out, that guest was placed further and further away from their host, William Randolph Hearst who was only interested in having the most current and influential guests at the head of the table. The last seat was the one closest to the large fireplace in the room and, as you can imagine, that made the seat very hot indeed.

Supposedly Harpo Marx (23 November 1888 – 28 September 1964) found himself at the bottom of the guest list thereby earning himself the ‘hot seat‘ position for the evening. He knew that meant he was on the way out in terms of being a welcome guest. Supposedly, when he found himself in the hot seat, he immediately coined the phrase.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: It’s alleged that his fall from grace with William Randolph Hearst had to do with Harpo sneaking down into the vault at the mansion one cold, snowy night, and getting the stored mink coats out of storage so he could dress the statues in the gardens in fur … to keep them warm. The guests awoke to the prank and enjoyed it immensely. William Randolph Hearst did not enjoy the prank at all. Up until that point, Harpo had been a frequent weekend guest.

What is known is that Harpo Marx did, indeed, visit the Hearst mansion in the 1930s. Hearst had an autograph book always at the ready and insisted that all Hearst visitors sign it upon arrival. Alongside Harp Marx’s signature was a quick caricature of Harpo with a harp that was drawn by Harpo.

What that means is that both possibilities are still in play based on what Idiomation uncovered, so Idiomation came at the idiom from another direction.

The first execution by electrocution (which replaced death by hanging) was in September of 1890 at Auburn Prison in Auburn (New York) when the state tried to make good on the death sentence that had been handed to American vegetable peddler and murderer William Kemmler (9 May 1860 – 6 August 1890) by the Courts.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: George Westinghouse, one of the leading developers of electrical power, was very vocal in his objection to having electrical power used in this manner. It took until 1899 for the design of the electric chair to be sufficiently improved that death by electrocution became the preferred method of execution in most States in the U.S.

In the Saturday Evening Post edition published on 18 August 1925, a young boy who had murdered his grandmother just so he could steal her money found himself arrested, charged, and found guilty of her murder. The following was reported:

In a town in Pennsylvania, on May 18, 1925, a judge sentenced a boy fifteen years old to the electric chair. The boy twirled his hat, had nothing to say, remained in a self-satisfied calm. It was the judge whose voice shook. He was sorry that the law gave him no tether of leniency! A few minutes afterwards the boy was in his cell playing jazz on a phonograph. A newspaper reporter said he heard the lad announce that he was not afraid to die “in the hot seat,” and that anyway, “they won’t get me; I’ve got friends who will save me.”

This definitively places the electric chair reference to at least 1925 (and possibly earlier) in America, a few years before Harpo Marx is alleged to have coined the phrase at William Randolph Hearst’s mansion. However, because the idiom is in quotation marks, we also know it wasn’t a well-known phrase in 1925.

That being said, back in the day, intensive police interrogations under bright lights was often used as a technique to break suspects and make them talk. The manual, “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions” recommends interrogations take place in a small, soundproof room with nothing on the walls, one small desk, two chairs for detectives to sit in if they choose to take a seat, and a third chair (with no arm rests and as uncomfortable as possible) where the suspect will sit for the duration of the interrogation.

Up until 1937, as long as the suspect signed a waiver stating the confession was given voluntarily, confessions could be obtained by way of “third degree” techniques which included deprivation of food and/or water and/or sleep, bright lights, physical discomfort, long isolation, and physical abuse (as long as no marks from said abuse could be seen on the suspect’s body). That changed in 1937 when it was determined by the Courts that such confessions were inadmissible.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Seating a suspect in an uncomfortable chair in a small room temperature (or lower) room (with a two-way mirror to allow for outside observation of the interrogation) is still allowed. While the two-way mirror is meant to provide transparency with regards to how the interrogation is conducted, it has been found to add anxiety and stress for the suspect which detectives are allowed to exploit within reason. Interrogators are also allowed to use lying, trickery, and other types of non-coercive methods to secure a confession from a suspect.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: In 1937, putting suspects through the third degree in New York became a criminal offense after the use of third degree tactics was deemed illegal in that state. From 1930 through to 1937, appellate courts reversed convictions obtained through various forms of third degree where the result of the interrogation led to a confession being submitted as evidence.

Most people tend to use the words interview and interrogation interchangeably when speaking about police investigations. A police interview is used to gather information and objective facts by asking open-ended questions that allow interviewees to supply evidence. A police interrogation is used to extract a confession when police have sufficient evidence (thanks to the police interviews) to connect the suspect to the crime or crimes about which they are interviewing the suspect.

Keep in mind that the first police department in America was established in New York City in 1845 with New Orleans and Cincinatti (1852), Boston and Philadelphia (1854) Chicago and Milwaukee (1855) and Baltimore and Newark (1857) following suit. The primary focus was to prevent crime and disorder, and there were no detectives. That means that before these police departments were established, there were no hot seats courtesy of law enforcement.

While all of that is, without a doubt, very interesting, that still left Idiomation with a period between 1899 and 1925 when being in the hot seat or on the hot seat was an expression known to a segment of society that might or might not tie the idiom directly to the electric chair. The doubt is there due in no small part to a New York City detective.

In New York City, Inspector Thomas Brynes (15 June 1842 – 07 May 1910) headed up the detective bureau from 1880 to 1895, at which time he was forced to resign. He coined the phrase “giving the third degree” to describe his interrogation techniques for getting suspects to confess to crimes they were suspected of having committed. The first degree was the officer who arrested the suspect. The second degree was investigating the facts. The third degree was the interrogation.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: Inspector Brynes was also responsible for coining and popularizing the expression rogues’ gallery which was a photo gallery of criminals with detailed information on the crimes they had committed.

This is where the interrogation hot seat and the electric chair hot seat seem to meet up when it comes to language, which further narrows the period for the idiom’s first appearance to somewhere during the 1890s and early 1900s.

Try as Idiomation might though, there are segments of this search that elude Idiomation. The research will continue but for now, while the hot seat is pegged to sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s, the context under which the expression was first used continues to elude us … much in the same way a brilliant criminal mastermind tends to elude law enforcement until he or she is caught and brought to justice.

In other words, Idiomation remains on the case.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Jaywalking

Posted by Admin on March 31, 2015

Jaywalking is an interesting term.  Some think it refers to blue jays, but they’re mistaken.  Jaywalking is when a person crosses or walks in the street unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic.  In most instances, if a person crosses the street anywhere but at a crosswalk or an intersection, they are technically jaywalking.

It was on September 19, 1997 that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article written by Jessica McBride titled, “Alderman Wants Jaywalking Rules Eased.”  The Alderman in question was Jeff Pawlinksi, and it seems that a jaywalking ticket kicked the discussion off for the alderman was the one issued to District Attorney Michael McCann on May 23 of that year.  The article read in part:

Jaywalking tickets are back in vogue as part of the “quality of life” policing strategy begun by Police Chief Arthur Jones last fall.  That philosophy holds that cracking down on smaller crimes, such as jaywalking, prevents larger ones.

But Milwaukee and it’s relationship with jaywalking is an interesting one to say the least.  More than thirty years earlier, on July 31, 1965 the Milwaukee Journal published an article about jaywalking and the ordinances in Milwaukee and other state laws that governed the offense.  In the article, it stated that the judge pointed out that two teachers who had received citations for jaywalking had been charged with violating the wrong city ordinance, and because of that, the two University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee teachers who had been cited, were let off the hook.  The article in question was titled, “Milwaukee: Things You Should Know About Jaywalking.”

The Telegraph newspaper of Nashua, New Hampshire published an article on December 27, 1945 that took on the issue of jaywalking.  It talked about the anti-jaywalking ordinance that took a year and a half to hammer out, and the newspaper wrote it was about time the jaywalking problem was properly addressed.  The article included this information on the recommended ordinance:

Nashua’s outgoing Board of Aldermen has recommended to the incoming board that such an ordinance be drawn up by the City Solicitor prohibiting jaywalking on Main Street from Hollis Street North to Fletcher Street, “pedestrian cross traffic between these two points to be permitted only on the designated well-painted and well-illuminated cross walks.”

In the 1937 movie “The Great O’Malley” Pat O’Brien (11 November 1899 – 15 October 1983) played the role of James Aloysius O’Malley.  He was a by-the-books sort of officer and when newspaper reporter Pinky Holden (played by Hobart Cavanaugh) wrote an article poking fun at the officer’s meticulous work habits, the Chief of Police put him on crossing guard duty instead.  One of the many tickets Officer O’Malley wrote out before winding up a crossing guard was a ticket to his own mother for jaywalking.

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The word jay described someone who was naive or foolish and so when Harper’s Monthly Magazine published an article in 1917 entitled, “Our Upstart Speech” by Robert P. Utter (23 November 1875 – 17 February 1936), Associates Professor of English at Amherst College, it’s not surprising that the word jaywalking was included.  The topic, of course, was slang and how it was finding its way into everyday language more and more often.  The author took on different kinds of slang, including college slang which included such words as prof for professor, exam for examination, dorm for dormitory, policon for political economy, and other terms.  In many respects, college slang was “texting” of its generation.  With regards to jaywalking, the author had this to say about the expression.

If these last long enough in our every-day vocabulary to lose the gloss of technicality we may reduce them to lower terms, even as the Bostonian, supposedly sesquipedalian of speech, has reduced “a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic regulations” to the compact jaywalker.

Some may insist that this was the earliest published use of the word, but they’d be wrong because five years earlier, in Kansas City, Missouri, the first ordinance criminalizing jaywalking was enacted to improve traffic conditions.  At the time, it was reported in the local newspaper that jaywalking was as bad as joy riding.  While the residents of Kansas City were concerned over losing a small personal liberty, they supported the new ordinance on the basis that the residents were averse to being thought of as “boobs, jays, ginks, or farmers” when their city was one of the top twenty large cities in the United States of America.  All of this was reported in the magazine “Automobile Topics: Volume 25, Number 9” published on April 13, 1912.

The first traffic laws in the U.S. were enacted in 1899, and on May 20, 1899, Jacob German, a New York City cab driver employed by the Electric Vehicle Company (one of New York City’s earliest cab companies), was arrested for driving his electric taxi down Lexington street in Manhattan at the dangerous speed of 12 mph.  He was imprisoned in the East 22nd Street station house for a time, and eventually set free.  Yes, Jacob German was the first person in the U.S. to be cited for speeding!

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE:  The first man ever arrested and convicted of speeding was Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent in England.   He was stopped by an officer as he zipped by at 8 mph in a 2 mph zone.  On 28 January 1896, Walter was found guilty of the charge against him, and received a fine for speeding.

The New York City law paved the way for the first state speed limit law in Connecticut which was enacted on May 21, 1901.  The law was the first speed limit law and limited motor vehicle speeds to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads.  Two years later, in 1903, New York City adopted the first comprehensive traffic code.

So, as you can see, in 1912, it was quite progressive for any city to enact an ordinance that addressed the issue of jaywalkers.  That being said, Kansas City wasn’t the first place jaywalking or jaywalkers was used.  It popped up in an article in the Chicago Tribune on April 7, 1909 where the following was written:

Chauffeurs assert with some bitterness that their ‘joy riding’ would harm nobody if there were not so much jay walking.

However, two years before the Chicago Tribune article, the Guthrie Daily Leader newspaper in Oklahoma made mention of jaywalkers in the October 22, 1907 edition of the newspaper.

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The term, as you can see, was an off-shoot of the phrase jay driver which was used in newspaper stories with alarming regularity.  For example, this headline in the Albuquerque Evening Citizen newspaper of June 29, 1907 saw the phrase make the headlines as it did in many newspaper from 1905 onwards.

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And so the expression jaywalker was first published in 1907, less than a decade after the first traffic laws came into existence.  And since jaywalking is what jaywalkers do, the word jaywalking also came into vogue at the same time.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Shake A Stick At

Posted by Admin on May 5, 2011

Have you ever heard someone say, “There are more clichés here than you can shake a stick at?”  Have you ever wondered how many clichés that would have to be and why anyone would want to shake a stick at clichés in the first place … or anything else for that matter? 

In Ohio, back on February 15, 1951 the Portsmouth Times newspaper reported on the golf tournament being held in Harlingen, Texas in an article entitled, “Hottest Putter May Win Open At Harlingen.”  The first paragraph read:

The $10,000 Rio Grande Valley Open began today with more favorites than you could shake a stick at.  The Harlingen municipal course with its par 71 is quite short — only 6,095 yards — and the man with the hottest putter probably will be the follow taking home the $2,000 first money.  But the field of 137-119 professionals and 18 amateurs bulges with fellow who are death on the greens.

At the turn of the century, residents of Aurora, Illinois couldn’t help but love the serialized story, “All Short Of Wind” written by C.B. Lewis and published in the Aurora Daily Express on July 25, 1900.  In this chapter, Pap Perkins, the Postmaster of Jericho told about the meeting that discussed the advisability of starting a brass band.

But the meetin shouted him down, and it was five minits before Deacon Spooner could make his voice heard, and then he said, “There’s more p’ints bobbin up here than you kin shake a stick at, but we might as well hev one more. S’posin we hear from Lish Billings.   He’s the only man in Jericho who kin play on an accordion.  What d’you say, Lish?”

Jumping back to August 26, 1858, the New York Times ran a rather amusing yet politically charged news story entitled, “The Great Binghamion Programme Plots For The Capture of New York City.”  It addressed what had happened since a curiously accidental gathering at the house of Daniel S. Dickinson resulted in the appearance of a group acting contrary to the agenda of those authorized to act for Collector Schell in the City of New York.  The extensive reporting included the following :

Bill McConkey rose, terrible as Ajax in his wrath, wearing he “knew Fernando’s style, and that he would bet money — more money than Genet and Russell could shake a stick at together — that the original Report of the Committee in favor of fusion with the People’s, on the terms proposed, had been drawn up in Fernando’s hand.”  Messrs.  Beck, “Porcupine” and others rose clamorously, and cried, “That’s so!”  Mr. Orr said he was there “because he was opposed to the present close corporation in control of Tammany Hall; but dominant and tyrannical as he believed that body to be, it had never conceived, even in its secret heart, such a high-handed and flagrant outrage on popular rights as was the proposition before that meeting.

Frontiersman Davy Crockett, wrote and published a book in 1835 entitled “Tour to North and Down East.”  In the book, he wrote the following about an inn where he had stayed:

This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend to that was worth shaking a stick at.

Just 5 years before that, on August 5, 1830 the Lancaster Journal in Pennsylvania published a news story that stated:

There’s no law that can make a ton of hay keep over ten. cows, unless you have more carrots and potatoes than you can throw a stick at.

And in that same Lancaster Journal in 1818 the following was published:

We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at.

Interestingly enough, it would seem that from that throughout the 1800s, the Lancaster Journal loved to shake or throw a stick at all manner of things regardless of the nature of the story published.  This leads Idiomation to believe that it was a more common expression in Pennsylvania than in other states at the time.  However, Idiomation was unable to find this American colloquialism in use prior to the 1800s.

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Pan Out

Posted by Admin on February 22, 2011

When something “pans out” the speaker means that the situation worked out well for those involved.

On October 13, 1953, in a very quick article in the bottom left hand corner of Page 16 of the Spokane Daily Chronicle under the heading “How Things Pan Out” the newspaper reported:

Catherine Hunter, head of the University of Tulsa’s homemaking department, says being handy with a skillet is still the best way to trap a man, and she has figures to prove it.  Out of 105 who have majored in home economics at the school in the last five years, 103 are married, one is engaged and the other is teaching home economics, says Hunter.

As the Great Depression neared its end and WWII was just a couple of years away, the Portsmouth Times in Ohio ran a story entitled, “Figuring Out The Budget.”  It read in part:

It is a tragic thing that a president like Mr. Roosevelt, who has the best intentions in the world, should be forced to make estimates that do not pan out.  It shows that the people around the President are too inclined to hide from him the true story of the depressing effects of the administration’s own policies on the business situation and are too prone to give him rosey estimates of what a tax rate will produce just because they are enamored of some new tax device.

A generation before that, Michigan’s Ludington Record ran an article on February 15, 1900 entitled, “Undoing of a Bunko Sharp.”  The article had to do with $5,000, John Kasser of the Live Oak Copper Mining and Smelting Company, a visit to New York City and 2 bunko steerers.  The newspaper reported:

The pair invested a little cash and considerable time and trouble in Mr. Kasser, and, though he didn’t pan out, they still have cause for thankfulness that they are alive, though battered … … When a Sun reporter saw Mr. Kasser the other day and asked him about his adventure, that gentleman rubbed his chin and said he shouldn’t think a little thing like that would be of any interest in a big city like New York.

“I have got a little property of my own,” said he, “not very much, but a little; and I suppose those two thought they could get $5,000 or $6,000 out of me.  I am a simple-minded western man,” he added, and paused, contemplatively.  “A simple-minded western man but,” he concluded, smiling benignantly at the toe of his right boot, “I have been in New York before.”

The Detroit Free Press ran “A Change Of Tactics” in the January 29, 1873 that had to do with the Credit Mobilier investigation.  It read in part:

It is quite clear that the Credit Mobilier investigation does not — to use a mining phrase — “pan out” to the satisfaction of the Republican party.  Vigorously opposing investigation at first, it demanded by its organs that a mere campaign slander should not be lifted into the important of serious charge.

The reference to the phrase “pan out” being a mining phrase is one of the first indications that the phrase actually alluded to washing gold from gravel in a pan.

Back on October 25, 1873, the New York Times reported on gold mining the San Juan mining region with article entitled, “South-Western Colorado: The San Juan Treaty and the Country It Relates To.”

The excitement in the Winter of 1860 sent a swarm in, built a town, brought on stocks of goods, and laid out great plans.  But there was shortly a stampede, and men came out worse “broke” than the Pike’s Peakers of ’59.  The leader of the party barely escaped hanging at the hands of the disappointed rabble.  He plead his own cause, however before the miners’ court, and contended that he had not overrated the mineral wealth of the country.  He insisted that on the very spot where they sat they could “pan out” gold better than he had ever represented.  Immediately a miner’s pan was called for, and the experiment results in fifty cents worth of the golden dust.  It saved Baker’s life.  But confidence in the capacity of the region did not return, and it was deserted.

Just a few years before that news report, the Denver Gazette ran a story entitled, “Good Mining Prospects: The Gulches More Profitable Than Ever.”  It was an exciting story that stated:

The minds of Cash Creek in Lake, Fairplay and Tarryall, in Park, and the numerous gulches in Summit County, are rich enough to pay thousands for working them, and no better inducement can be offered to a poor man, who is ambitious to mine without the outlay of capital necessary to work a lode, than to spend his labor for a season in a good gulch, where he has nothing to learn but to shovel dirt into a sluice and pan out his shining wages every Saturday night, without any of the mysterious manipulations of crushing, desulphurizing, triturating, amalgamating, retorting and other learned processes with unpronounceable names, in order to get at the substances of oxides, pyrites and sulphurets of greenbacks.

Ultimately, however, the term “pan out” came about as a result of the California Gold Rush of 1849 where the term was recognized and understood by every miner and want-to-be miner hoping to make their fortune prospecting for gold.

Here’s how prospectors mined for gold during the Gold Rush.  First, they would swirl a mix of dirt and water around the pan.  Because gold is dense, with a little skill, the pan could be swirled at just the right speed and angle to allow the gold to settle to the bottom of the pan.  At the same time, dirt would wash over the side of the pan. The prospector would continue in this fashion until there was nothing left in the pan except gravel and, with luck, little specks of gold … if everything “panned out!”

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In A New York Minute

Posted by Admin on January 24, 2011

People believe that everything happens more quickly in New York City than anywhere else in the world and so it makes sense to hear the phrase “in a New York minute” and to expect it’s going to be faster than any other minutes.

Maybe it’s because there’s so many things to do in New York City what with Broadway shows, music in parks and on streets as well as in restaurants with city views and sidewalk cafés, the Statue of Liberty, Chinatown, the Chelsea Piers, South Street Seaport, the Empire State Building, Little Italy, Little Brazil, Central Park, horse-drawn carriages, Park Ave, Fashion Ave, Battery Park, Wall Street, the Village, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Times Square, Herald Square, Union Square and more.

In the Spartanburg (SC) Herald Journal edition of October 20, 1986, page 3 has an article that states:

“Welcome to Houston,” wrote Forbes magazine in 1983, “where lizard-skin boots go with pin stripes, and business is done quicker than a New York minute.”

The phrase — evidently a Southernism used with particular frequency in Texas — was given further national currency as the title of a song by Ronnie McDowell that made the country music top 40 in 1985.

On September 14, 1985 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on court proceedings in its story “Immunity Johnson’s Toughest Decision.” The story dealt with the case of Philadelphia caterer Curtis Strong who was charged with 16 counts of selling cocaine to players in Pittsburgh between 1980 and 1984.  The paper reported in part:

[U.S. Attorney J. Alan] Johnson was asked if he could charge any of the players with crimes if he learns later that any of them were selling drugs.  “Not only could I, but I’d do it in a New York minute,” he responded. 

No ball players were called to testify during the trial yesterday.  But defense attorney Adam O. Renfroe Jr. dais he believes the emphasis of the trial has shifted away from his client and that professional baseball has been put on trial.

Although it can’t be proven, it’s believed that the phrase may have something to do with a misreading  of news reports about Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh‘s tour of the country in his Spirit of St. Louis.  He and the plane arrived one minute ahead of schedule and of course, the headlines on that day in October 1927 read:

LINDBERGH ENDS NATIONAL TOUR: Lands on Mitchel Field at New York Minute Before He Is Due.

The news stories stated that the crowd cheered and jostled as the Spirit of St. Louis crossed over the field, banked, sideslipped and dipped to earth at 1:59 p.m.  The plane then taxied into a police-ringed hangar and Lindbergh, bareheaded and leather-jacketed, stepped into a car which bore him between cheering crowds to the airport’s operations office.  While the crowd outside pushed against the windows and shouted for another view of Lindbergh, he greeted newspaper men.

However, it’s also possible that the phrase draws on such historical events as the Underground Railway between Brooklyn and New York City.  On January 24, 1890 the Chicago Daily Tribune published a news article entitled, “Brooklyn To New York In A Minute.”  The story commented on Major B.S. Henning, the leading spirit in the Henning Gravity Tunnel Company and the newly formed East River Railway Company, where the details of the one-minute Brooklyn-to-New York scheme was laid out for newspapermen.

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Paddywagon

Posted by Admin on August 25, 2010

A Paddywagon is a van the police use to transport people who have been arrested and are en route to jail or who have been found guilty of a crime and are being transported to prison.  Since it’s a police vehicle, paddy surely must refer to the police in some way.

Paddy is slang from 1780 for an Irishman.  Paddy is a nickname for the very popular and proper Irish name, Patrick.   In fact, by 1881, the uncomplimentary slur Paddywhack was slang for an Irishman.

During the 1920s, a large number of Irishmen were police officers on various police forces across America so it would be easy to assume that this is the origin of the term paddywagon.  However, this is disputed with the use of the term dating back to at least the beginning of the 1900s.

The Seattle newspaper reported on that on during the evening hours of July 24, 1916:

… Seattle Police Sergeant John F. Weedin was shot and killed in the line of duty. Sergeant Weedin and Officer Robert Wiley were traveling in a paddywagon when a citizen stopped them to report that he had been accosted by a man with a gun.  The suspect produced a handgun and shot Officer Wiley. The gunman then turned the weapon on Sergeant Weedin and shot him. Officer Wiley returned fire and killed the suspect.

Sgt. Weedin and Officer Robert R. Wiley had been working 12-hour shifts during a Longshoremen’s strike.

But the term goes back to the Civil War era when Paddy was  slang for a policeman, especially in cities such as New York, where many officers were of Irish descent.  During the violent five-day Draft Riots in New York in 1863, the term Paddy wagon became slang for the horse drawn wagons the police used to round up protesters against the Civil War draft.

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Smart Alec

Posted by Admin on August 12, 2010

In 1873, J.H. Beadle wrote in his book The Undeveloped West:

“I had the pleasure of seeing at least a score of SMART ALECKS  relieved of their surplus cash.”

It would appear that after the American Civil war, smart alecks were not very well liked.  But even before during that war, it would appear that the phrase was already well known.  In Carson, Nevada, the local newspaper, The Carson Appeal, published on October 17, 1865 spoke of Nevada having joined the Union:

“Halloa, old SMART ALECK  — how is the complimentary vote for Ashley?”

The Ashley to whom the newspaper referred was Delos Rodeyn Ashley (1828 – 1873) who was elected as a Republican to  the United States Representative from Nevada for the 39th and 40th Congresses from 1865 to 1869.

However, we owe the phrase “smart alec” to the exploits of  New York City’s celebrated pimp, thief, and confidence man, Alec Hoag and his capers of the 1840s.  Hoag, along with his wife Melinda and an accomplice known as “French Jack”, operated a  standard fraud practised by many con artists known as the “panel game.”  This game proved to be a very effective method for prostitutes and their pimps to relieve customers of their money and other valuables. 

The adjective smart as it’s used in this phrase — meaning impudent — dates back to the 15th century, and doesn’t appear that often outside of this expression although once in a while you do hear someone say, “Don’t get smart with me!”

It is said that the police hung the nickname of  “smart Alec” on Alex Hoag because he proved to be a very resourceful thief who outsmarted most everyone — including the police — for the duration he, his wife and their accomplice played the “panel game.”

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »