Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘New York Tribune’

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 16, 2017

It’s been long said that dead men tell no tales, and if you’ve committed a crime to which there were witnesses, it’s believed that permanently silencing those witnesses prevents them for sharing what they know with the authorities.  The good news is that technology and forensics have advanced to the point where this adage is no longer true.  Advancements in science have made it so that dead men still tell tales.

Now that the macabre has been addressed, Idiomation is free to tell the tale of where dead men tell no tales first began.

For those of you who love movies, you’ll be happy to hear that the fifth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise is titled, “Dead Men Tell No Secrets” and is scheduled for theater release on 26 May 2017.  In this movie, the evil Captain Salazar and his crew escape from the Devil’s Triangle and set their sights on killing every pirate at sea, but most especially, on killing Captain Jack Sparrow played by Johnny Depp.  As you know, whether it’s telling tales or keeping secrets, it’s a fact that pirates believe that dead men neither tell tales nor secrets.

The idiom is most often associated with pirates but it’s not exclusively a pirate expression.

The Star and Sentinel newspaper of January 18, 1882 published the story of Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune who squelched the efforts of certain newspaper pundits interested in reviving the Cokling-Garfield quarrel by “directing their assaults against Mr. Blaise as Mr. Garfield’s evil genius.”  It had to do with the nomination of Judge Robertson by the President.

It follows that this “friend of Garfield” or some accomplice must have stolen the telegram, and then presuming that it had been delivered to the President and that “dead men tell no tales,” undertook to cover up the theft of the deliberate lie that the President showed him the dispatch and allowed him to copy it.

It also appeared in the work of English pamphleteer, farmer, and journalist William Cobbett (9 March 1763 – 18 June 1835) in the September 26, 1797 edition of the Porcupine’s Gazette.  While it wasn’t an exact version of the idiom, it was nonetheless a very close relative.

Not content with deserting my service, he appears desirous to pre­judice the public against me, and my brethren, asserting in strong terms, that we are enemies to the noble science of blood-letting: This is abominable and contrary to the truth. For I am, and shall be no­lens volens, an advocate for the practice, and it is my creed that it will cure all diseases—as our good allies the French have clearly pro­ved in their practice,—I have also another reason for commencing the business of a physician; In fact, the villainous liquors my wine mer­chant obliges me to supply my guests with, has lately caused in the latter severe and harsh expostulations, and, as I am a conscientious man, I wish to follow a quiet business, and I prefer that of the lancet, be­cause you know Mr. P. dead men never tell tales.

SIDE NOTE 1:  William Cobbett’s pseudonym for this work was Peter Porcupine.

The idiom was used more than a century earlier by John Dryden, in Act IV scene i of his play “The Spanish Fryar or The Double Discovery” published in 1681. This work was a comedy in five acts, and was first performed at Duke’s Theater. The idiom appears in the conversation between Lorenzo (who is the son of Alphonso) and Dominic (the Spanish Fryar).

LORENZO
And make what haste you can to bring out the Lady.  What say you, Father? Burglary is but a venial Sin among Souldiers.

DOMINIC
I shall absolve them, because he is an enemy of the Church – there is a Proverb, I confess, which says, That Dead-men tell no Tales; but let your Souldiers apply it to their own Perils.

LORENZO
What, take away a man’s Wife, and kill him too! The Wickedness of this old Villain startles me, and gives me a twinge for my own Sin; though it come far short of his: hark you Souldiers, be sure you use as little Violence to him as is possible.

English cleric and Protestant reformer Thomas Becon (1512 – 1567) wrote about dead men and tales in 1560 when he penned this passage in Chapter 22 of “A Fruitful Treatise of Fasting.”

For he that hath his body loaden with meat and drink, is no more meet to pray unto God than a dead man is to tell a tale; neither can the mind of such one any more fly unto God with heavenly desires, than a ship, too much cumbered with burdens and at the point to sink, can any longer float upon the waters.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Thomas Becon was the chaplain to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (2 July 1489 – 21 March 1556), Prebendary of Canterbury, during the reign of King Edward the Sixth.

SIDE NOTE 3:  Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, and when Mary I came to power, he was put on trial for treason and heresy against the Roman Catholic Church.

SIDE NOTE 4:  Thomas Becon married and had three children: two sons (Theodore and Basil) and a daughter (Rachel).  His daughter married William Beswicke of Horsmanden who was the High Sheriff of Kent in 1616.

SIDE NOTE 5:  Until 1974, the High Sheriff was known simply as the Sheriff.  At the time William Beswicke was the Sheriff, he was the principal law enforcement officer in the county.

Long before Thomas Becon talked of dead men telling no tales, there was a Persian poet named Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī  (1203 – 9 December 1292) — known as Saadi as well as Sheikh Saadi of Shiraz– who wrote about this in 1250.  This was his advice on how to deal with quacks and charlatans.

So I finished the rogue, notwithstanding his wails,
With stones, for dead men, as you know, tell no tales.

But the sense of the idiom is older than that.  The Latin phrase mortui non morden when translated word-for-word is dead men don’t bite.  However, the phrase is used to underscore the belief that killing one’s enemies or victims is the surest way for them to never speak of what happened, and as such, the phrase mortui non morden really means dead men tell no tales.

This version of the idiom was used by Plutarch (46 AD to 120 AD) in Part III of “The Life Of Pompey” covering Pompey’s return to Rome from 62 to 48 BC, during the reign of Julius Caesar (13 July 100 BC – 15 March 44 BC).   The chapter included this passage that spoke of Theodotus of Chios who Plutarch identifies as the person who was responsible for Pompey’s death.  This is an English translation of what Plutarch wrote.

It seems they were so far different in their opinions that some were for sending the man away, and others again for inviting and receiving him; but Theodotus, to show his cleverness and the cogency of his rhetoric, undertook to demonstrate, that neither the one nor the other was safe in that juncture of affairs.  For if they entertained him, they would be sure to make Caesar their enemy, and Pompey their master; or if they dismissed him, they might render themselves hereafter obnoxious to Pompey, for that inhospitable expulsion, and to Caesar, for the escape; so that the most expedient course would be to send for him and take away his life, for by that means they would ingratiate themselves with the one, and have no reason to fear the other; adding, it is related, with a smile, that “a dead man cannot bite.”

SIDE NOTE 6:  Yes, this is the Julius Caesar who was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC.

SIDE NOTE 7:  Julius Caesar’s successor was his grand-nephew Augustus (23 September 63 BC – 19 August 14 AD) and is considered the first Roman Emperor.  He controlled the Roman Empire until his death.

Idiomation believes Plutarch to be the originator of this idiom as he clearly demonstrated the veracity of the claim in his writings that dead men tell no tales, with a nod to Saadi of Shiraz for the exact wording.

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Hold The Line

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 11, 2013

When you hold the line, you make sure you maintain an existing opinion, position, or status regardless of what outside or opposing forces may try to do. Even the military has a mission referred to as a Hold The Line mission.

The Pittsburg Post-Gazette reported on what was going on in Murrysville in their November 20, 2013 edition. It was all about mills and taxes: mills for the general tax rate, mills for capital improvements, mills for municipal debt repayment, mills for road improvements. It seemed that if there was a mill, there was a discussion. The opening paragraph read as follows:

Murrysville council members reviewed recommendations from the administration to hold the line on taxes for the coming year, giving unanimous approval Wednesday night to advertise an ordinance setting the tax rate at 12.15 mills for 2014.

Back on December 1, 1971 the Spokesman-Review reported on President Richard Nixon’s announced intention to veto his own tax cut bill. It seems that what had happened to the President’s bill was that the Senate attached additional provisions to the bill that, if the bill went through, would result in another $11 billion dollars added to the deficit. The story was entitled, “Hold The Line.”

During World War II, what was happening on the front was vigorously reported in the newspapers regardless of what country was reporting on the war. The Calgary Herald edition of October 27, 1941 carried international news that was cabled from the Calgary Herald‘s London bureau courtesy of the London Times. As the Russian campaign continued, battles raged near Rostov-on-Don anda round Kharkov. The Germans hoped to reach Roslov to cut the main railway line from the Caucasus to Moscow. The report included this news byte:

When the Red armies failed to hold the line of the lower Dnieper, German forces, with the aid of Hungarians, Rumanians and Italians were able to undertake a determined eastward drive and Marshal Budenny had no adequate line of defence available until he reached the River Don.

When the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Boxers Engaged In Big Battle” on June 8, 1900 many were alarmed at the events unfolding in China. The article claimed that the Daily Express had sent the following dispatch from Shanghai on June 7 with regards to the results of the Dowager Princess’s orders to General Neih-Si-Chong to take 3,000 men and protest the railroad at Peking. British was unable to send more than 900 troops as they were involved with the situation in South Africa, and the United States was urged to act. The article included this information:

Attempts to repair the damage to the railway between Tien-Twin and Peking have been frustrated by the Boxers who, thousands strong, hold the line against the engineers, gangs attacking the trains arriving.

Another show of force was reported in the American and Commercial Advertiser of August 23, 1864 — thanks to the New York Tribune newspaper — this time with regards to the skirmishes of the Fifth Corps against Rebel forces at Weldon Railroad just below Petersburg. The focus of this mission was to destroy the road completely this time. It was seen as a successful mission no three counts: It resulted in greater losses being inflicted than suffered; it prevented the Rebel forces from sending more troops into the Valley; and Fifth Corps achieved its main objective. The newspaper story reported the following in part:

Exactly one half of all the Rebel forces in Virginia are in the Shenandoah Valley awaiting Heridan. The other half hold the line from Richmond to Petersburg. From Gen. Birney’s Headquarters, the right of the line of operations, to Gen. Warren’s, the extreme left, is a distance of over twenty-five miles by the shortest roads. The whole distance is entrenched and two large rivers straddled. Grant having much the larger army, can afford to stretch the line of operations and thus attenuate Lee’s forces.

Jumping back to 1805, the idiom was used in “The Vindication of Mr. Maurice’s Modern India” also known as “A Vindication of the Modern History of Hindostan From The Gross Misrepresentations, And Illiberal Strictures of the Edinburgh Reviewers” by schoolmaster and former chaplain to the 87th regiment, Thomas Maurice. In his book, he wrote:

It seems however, by the Edinburgh standard of criticism, at least, that an author can no longer be permitted to mark out for himself the outline of any work which he may meditate, or of the limits by which his prudence may lead him to bound, or his temerity to extend his excursion in the wide field of literary research. The Reviewer must hold the line of demarcation, and let the author transgress it at his peril. The direst anathemas of critical vengeance, infallibly attend the slightest deviation.

The word hold is from the Old English word geheald which means keeping, custody, or guard and dates back to 1200, and the word line (as in demarcation) dates back to the middle of the 15th century. That being said, it doesn’t seem that the words met up and became an idiom until later. Although the idiom was used easily in Thomas Maurice’s book, and research hints at the idiom being used in the early 1700s, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version than the one in 1805. Taking into account that those who read Thomas Maurice’s book would have understood what he mean when he used the expression hold the line, it is most likely that the idiom hit its stride two generations prior to the publication date, putting it somewhere in the 1750s.

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