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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Udall’

Mountain Out Of A Molehill

Posted by Admin on October 17, 2017

As Idiomation shared on Thursday of last week, making a mountain out of a moleskin or a molehill is to over-react to a minor issue, or to make something very small into something bigger than what it happens to be. While the moleskin version has a short history, the better-known molehill version stretches much farther back in history.

We all know the expression to make a mountain out of a molehill is in use to this day. Whether it’s Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. writing an article for Psychology Today (13 December 2013, How To Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill) or Laura Cano Mora submitting her doctoral thesis titled, “How To Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill: A Corpus-Based Pragmatic and Conversational Analysis Study of Hyperbole In Interaction” everyone seems to understand the meaning of the phrase.

Even kids watching cartoons like “Phineas and Ferb” have heard the saying used in episodes such as “At The Car Wash” when the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz explains to Perry the Platypus how he came up with the idea for his Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill-Inator.  It would seem that after he was told repeatedly by people from all walks of life (from his parents to the firefighters at the local Fire Department) to stop making mountains out of molehills, he decided that if he wasn’t already doing that, maybe it was time he started really doing that.  So he did.

English novelist, playwright, and short story writer Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) published his 1868 mystery novel “The Moonstone” to great acclaim.  In this novel, at one point Superintendent Seegrave says to Sergeant Cuff:

There is such a thing as making a mountain out of a molehill.

The point of his comment was that the Superintendent was of the opinion the Sergeant was making way too much of something as trivial as a tiny paint smudge on the door. He was wrong, of course, as that tiny paint smudge on the door proved very important after all.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1: Wilkie Collins was the son of English landscape painter William Collins (1788 – 1847) and is considered the pioneer of detective fiction. His talent lay in his ability to create, choreograph, and master intricate plots coupled with a unique narrative technique.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Wilkie Collins’ book “The Moonstone” set the standard by which all other detective fiction is measured. In this novel, the story was told from a number of points of view having to do with a stolen diamond taken from an Indian idol.

But the expression dates all the way back to 1548 when English playwright, cleric, and schoolmaster Nicholas Udall (1504 – 23 December 1556) used it in his work titled, “The First Tome or Volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus Upon the New Testament.”  What he wrote was this:

The Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill.

The idiom to which Nicholas Udall referred was from Greek satirist Lucian (120 – 200 AC) in his work “Ode To A Fly” in which he compared an elephant to a fly. The Latin version of this was elephantem ex musca facere.  Of course, as was shared in a previous Idiomation entry, the elephant version is still in use in Russia to this day.

IMPORTANT NOTE 3: Lucian, also known as Lucian of Samosata, was a satirist and rhetorician in Greece. He claimed to be an Assyrian however not everyone agreed with his claim. He mocked superstitions, religious practices, and beliefs in the paranormal although he claimed to believe in the existence of the gods.  

So while the moleskin version of this expression only dates back to the early 1900s, the molehill version is solidly nailed to 1548 with a nod to Ancient Greece. Oh, what a difference 350 or so years (plus another 110 or so years to catch up to 2017) can make when it comes to similar, and yet very different, expressions.

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

A Bad Excuse Is Better Than None At All

Posted by Admin on March 11, 2013

While most people would disagree with the concept that a bad excuse is better than none at all, the fact of the matter remains that in difficult times, some believe that a bad idea or decision is better than no idea or decision. The expression may have fallen out of favor over the years, but the concept is one that still exists today.

Over the years, the saying has transformed into “doing something beats doing nothing.”

In a sports article written by Kyle McCarthy on April 8, 2009 in his column “McCarthy’s Musings” entitled “If You Can Build It” and posted to Goal.com, the following was reported:

Better news arrived in San Jose as the City Council voted to give Earthquakes investor/operator Lew Wolff a $40 million discount on a proposed land deal near Mineta San Jose International airport after the price of the land fell sharply. The discounted price will cut into San Jose’s profit on the deal, but the deal may have been in jeopardy if the city hadn’t lowered the price of the land.

“Prices have come back to earth, and we have to face that reality,” Councilman Sam Liccardo told the Mercury News. “Doing something beats doing nothing in this economy.”

Walter Franklin Prince’s book, “The Case of Patience Worth” published in 1927, has this entry listed in the Chapter entitled, “Impromptu Proverbs.”


I hardly think that the significance of this is equivalent to None of my funeral (not in Putnam). Perhaps it means that the pattern cares nothing for any excuse the bobbin may make, even though A bad excuse is better than none at all. An old satirical saying, referring to excuses for not working, is I have a bone in my arm. Figure that one out. I mean, of course, that the meaning and application of a few of Patience Worth’s proverbs are not immediately clear; the same is the case with many of the proverbs which we have inherited.

In “The Memoirs of Thomas Papillon” by F.W. Papillon, a lineal descendant of Thomas Papillon (6 September 1623 – 5 May 1702), and published in 1887, a letter from David Papillon (Thomas’ father) to Jane Broadnax, written in March 1650. It read in part:

I wonder that my Cousin major should seek after these rocks of disparity, and shun the streams of parity.

There is such parity between my cousin and the bearer hereof in all these fore-cited circumstances, that two parallel lines in geometry are not more like one another ; and yet he refuseth his assent upon these weak arguments — imitating, it seems, the common proverb, ‘A bad excuse is better than none at all.’

In the “Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, Volume 9: 1599” the expression appears with the word shift substituted for excuse. The word shift referred to managing one’s self and one’s day-to-day affairs. To that end, the sense of the idiom remains unchanged.

I have sent this bearer Captain Leget as well to put your Lordships in mind of the great want both of ordnance and shot for the defence of this place as to bring these letters, whereby it may appear that the design of the enemy for England is for this year altered, and I beseech you some course may be taken for the supply thereof in time, inasmuch as the want is so evident to all men of any judgment. I will forbear to speak what shifts I have been forced unto for want thereof; yet according to the old saying, better a bad shift than none at all. Such ordnance as by your Lordships I was appointed to receive out of Corfe, this bearer can best deliver what answer he had, and what they Were that are there; for I entreated him to take the pains, inasmuch as I myself could not have leisure to have seen them shipped and sent to this place.— 25 August 1599.

It was a common phrase at the time and appears in “Two Angry Women of Abingdon” by John Henry, published in 1559. It’s described as a country piece with two comic characters, Dick Coomes and Nicholas Proverbes, and was published after Henry Porter’s death — allegedly at the hands of another playwright who “struck a mortal wound in the left breast with a rapier of the value of two shillings.”

‘Tis good to have a cloake for the raine ;
a bad shift is better then none at all ;
He sit heere, as if I were as dead as a doore naile.

But in the end, the final stopping place is with Nicholas Udall (1504 – 23 December 1556) whose comic play in 1550 “Ralph Roister Doister” is considered to be the first comedy written in the English language. The play is in five acts, with the story centering around a rich widow who is betrothed to a merchant but who catches the eye of Ralph Roister Doister. It’s in this play that we find:

Better they say a badde scuso than none.

And with this, Idiomation pegs the expression to 1550 when the play was written.

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