Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘P.G. Wodehouse’

The Half Of It

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 3, 2017

Idioms don’t always mean the same thing from century to century.  In fact, these days when someone says another person doesn’t know or hasn’t seen the half of it, this usually means the situation is far worse than what most people can imagine it to be.  The key part of either phrase is what the half of it happens to be.

The more negative aspect of the expression is something that came about as part of the 20th century.  Until then, the half of it was most often a positive comment, although there were instances where it was also meant as a negative comment.  However, the half of it does mean there’s more to something than what meets the eye – or the expectations – of the person commenting.  In other words, the half of it falls short of the reality of the situation, and hasn’t addressed the most important aspect.

In 1999, Julienne Davis was tapped to play the role of Mandy, a drug-addicted prostitute in the movie, “Eyes Wide Shut” starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.  The role was a small one but one that left an impact on the storyline.  Charlotte O’Sullivan reviewed the movie in the Culture section of the Independent newspaper in the UK.  The headline read, “Film: Body Of Evidence” with this subtitle:  “In Eyes Wide Shut, Abigail Good Play A ‘Mysterious Woman.’  But That’s Not The Half Of It.”

Volume 72 of “Foundry” magazine published in 1944 by Penton Publishing Company.  The magazine published articles on foundry and die-casting manufacturing industry on metal casting technology, production processes, investment casting, and more.  In this issue, the following was written.

In other words — and probably other words are needed — you don’t know the half of it. For the past 5 years I have been teaching foundry practice. Stressing skills and the related subjects has been a hobby and at the same time a religion.

British prose writer P.G. Wodehouse saw Herbert Jenkins in London (UK) and Doubleday (US) publish his book “Hot Water” on 17 August 1932.  His career hit at the same time as the silver screen began to be a marvel of technology with dove-tailed with his success with magazines.  The story dealt with J. Wellington Gedge who somehow found himself caught up in a number of international situations, many of which upset him to no end.  In this book, the phrase appears as follows.

‘Do you now?’ he said. ‘Well, well!’  ‘Yessir. Mrs Gedge insisted on renting it. and I wouldn’t give you a nickel for the place. It makes me sick.  And that’s not the half of it.’  ‘No?’  ‘No, sir. Do you know what?’  ‘What?’

‘When she told me this morning, you could have knocked me down with a feather. What do you think?’

‘What?’

‘You’ll never guess.’

‘What?’

‘Do you know what she told me this morning?’

‘How the hell should I know what she told you this morning?’ said Mr. Slattery, momentary irritation causing him to deviate from his policy of courtliness. ‘Do you think I was hiding under the bed?’

‘She told me I’ve got to be American Ambassador to France.’

Mr. Slattery considered this.

‘You won’t like that.’

‘I know darned well I won’t like it. Ambassadors have to wear uniforms and knickerbockers . . . the sissies.’

There are countless examples of the half of it, including a letter written in 1571 by Scottish historian and humanist scholar George Buchanan (February 1506 – 28 September 1582) in his condemnation of Mary, Queen of Scots.  At the time, he was convinced that the death of her husband was as a crime of passion brought on many liaisons he claimed the Queen had with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell  (1534 – 14 April 1578) who, he claimed, was also involved in the demise of the king consort Henry Stuart (7 December 1545 – 10 February 1567), Duke of Albany, known as Lord Darnley.

This is my fayth I wyll die in it. Excuse if I writ euill, ye may gesse the halfe of it, but I can not mende it because I am not weill at ease, and yit very glad to writ vnto you quhen the rest are sleepand, sithe I can not sleipe as thay do and as I would desire, that is, in your armes my deare loue, quhom I pray God to preserue from all euyll and send you repose, I am gangand to seke myne till the morne quhen I shall end my Bybill, but I am fascheit that it stoppies me to write newis of my self vnto you, because it is so lang.

SIDE NOTE 1:  James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, became the third and final husband of Mary, Queen of Scots when they wed on 15 May 1567 in the Chapel of Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. 

SIDE NOTE 2:  To free himself to marry the Queen, he filed for divorce from his wife, Lady Jean Gordon (1546 – 14 May 1629) on grounds of consanguinity, although this required considerable research on his part to prove.  Lady Jean Gordon, however, secured a divorce on grounds of adultery with her maid and seamstress, Bessie Crawford.

SIDE NOTE 3:  Lady Jean Gordon was the daughter of the 4th Earl of Huntly and Elizabeth Keith, and after her divorce from James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, she became the Countess of Sutherland when she married Alexander Gordon, 12th Earl of Sutherland on 13 December 1573.

The expression the half of it has its roots in the earlier expression by half which means by a great deal, which is attested to its use in verse by Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (477 – 525) known simply as  Boethius .  He was influenced by the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca the Younger, and Augustine of Hippo.

To all folk likewise
This next example no less suits:
The comb of the honey cannot but seem
To each son of men sweeter by half,
If he have tasted before the honey
Aught that is bitter.

SIDE NOTE 4:  The translation of verses by Boethius from Latin to English was undertaken and completed by King Alfred (849 – 26 October 899).  He was also known as Alfred the Great, and ruled England from 21 April 871 until his death on 26 October 899.  During his reign, he improved the legal and military structures in England, and advocated for education to be taught in English.

SIDE NOTE 5:  Half at this point in history did not necessarily mean something was divided into two equal parts.  It simple meant divided in two where one part could be the same, smaller, or larger than the other part.

The word half is Old English and came from the Saxon word healf which is from the Old Norse halfr.  Old English began with the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century.  As such Idiomation pegs the half of it to the early 1500s based on George Buchanan’s use of the phrase in his writings about Mary, Queen of Scots.

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Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms of the 5th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Have Kittens

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 3, 2014

If you’ve wondered what the expression have kittens means, it means to be very worried, upset, or angry about something. It’s a somewhat dramatic way of expressing that worry, upset or anger, but it clearly underscores the degree to which a person is worried, upset, or angry. To have kittens is the same thing as to have a cow or to have a [hairy] canary, and the expression, while rarely heard, is known in every English speaking country around the world.

In the UK, the Independent newspaper of September 6, 2013 published an article entitled, “Who Profits From The Economic Recovery Decides Party Fortunes?” The article by Andrew Grice addressed the challenge both political parties have in convincing low income workers that their party is a friend to low income workers. The subject of the recommendations made by the Down Street Policy Unit have some alarmed to the point where the article stated:

The Treasury, which is said to be “having kittens” about Number 10’s work, will veto the “profits plan” as “unworkable and anti-aspiration.”  Business groups are nervous too. They want the focus to be on improving skills and are worried that a higher wages floor would cost jobs.

Dan Stannett’s book “Daniel and the Lion’s Den: The True Story Of An Eight-Hour Inmate” published in 2007 also made use of the idiom.   The story was based on the author’s experiences with the prison system in April 1976 in a Virginia prison that had fewer than 10,000 inmates in it. Not to be mistaken for one on the wrong side of the law, it must be noted that Dan Stannett spent 25 years in law enforcement. In his book, the following passage uses the idiom having kittens.

While Jim was being warm and happy waiting on his relief, he would be relieved early. The shift sergeant with a Kojak haircut came out and was having kittens while Jim England was giving the pissed off sergeant his best-looking John Wayne impression. “What the hell do you think you’re doing’?” the sergeant asked.

David Bealsey wrote a book entitled, “The Jenny: A New York Library Detective Novel” that was published in 1994. The year in which the story takes place is vague. The story states the night watchman makes $15,000 per year. We know that in New York City, a night watchman drew a salary of slightly overly $1,000 per year in 1884 based on newspaper accounts, and we know that a century later, in New York City, a night watchman drew a salary of just over $15,000 per year in 1985.  So it would seem that the story takes place in the latter half of the 20th century. In the story, the author wrote:

“Let’s go to your place,” I said as we got in.
Arbie gave her address to the driver.
“Storey saw me,” I gasped between breaths.
“I was having kittens,” Arbie said. “You were so long!”
“I heard Storey on the phone, “I explained. “After he left, the same guy called again. I picked up the receiver so he knew someone was there. He must have got in touch with Storey about it. But look!” I flicked on the light in the back of the cab. “We’ve got New’s stamps.”

In 1960, the P. G. Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) book “Jeeves in the Offing” (which was also known as “How Right You Are, Jeeves”) was first published in the United States on 4 April 1960 by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, and subsequently, in the United Kingdom on 12 August 1960 by Herbert Jenkins, London. It was the eighth Jeeves novel, and chronicled yet another visit by Bertie Wooster to his Aunt Dahlia at Brinkley Court. The idiom appeared in Chapter VII as follows:

‘Gone?’
‘Gone.’
‘Are you sure?’
I said that sure was just what I wasn’t anything but.
‘It is not possible that you may have overlooked it?’
‘You can’t overlook a thing like that.’
He re-gurgled.
‘But this is terrible.’
‘Might be considerably better, I agree.’
‘Your uncle will be most upset.’
‘He’ll have kittens.’
‘Kittens?’
‘That’s right.’
‘Why kittens?’
‘Why not?’

Graham Seal claims that the expression goes back to at least the early 20th century. This appears to be correct as the expression is shared in Volume 5 of the “Dialect Notes” printed by the Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company of New Haven, Connecticut and published by the American Dialect Society, covering the years 1918 through to 1927. The idiom is attributed as an established idiom in 1918.

According to the BBC, particularly painful pregnancies were thought to be as a result of a witch’s curse. Instead of being with child, the woman was thought to have kittens inside her, clawing to get out. Women who believed this to be true and who were experiencing pain over the course of their pregnancy would become hysterical at the thought that they and their babies had been cursed by a witch.

In fact, there are records dating back to 1654 that show that a woman appealed to a Scottish court for permission to abort. Her reason for making the request was because she had ‘cats in her bellie.’ In fact, in the 1960s, it was reported that people in parts of the highlands of Banffshire dreaded cats for that very reason.

That being said, have kittens is difficult to find in newspapers, magazines and books with the trail going cold right before the turn of the century, in the late 1890s. Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to about 1900s.

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Once In A Blue Moon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 7, 2013

You’ve undoubtedly heard the expression once in a blue moon used … well … once in a blue moon.    And you’ve probably guessed by now that it means that the event in question is one that seldom, if ever, happens. In fact, the event in question never or almost never happens when someone responds with once in a blue moon. To even ask is considered somewhat absurd given that the event probably won’t happen at all.

Some will tell you that a blue moon is the second full moon that happens in a month but if the expression refers to something that rarely happens, then for the last few years, the world has experienced more than its fair share of blue moons since 1999.

The fact of the matter is that, historically speaking, 12 full moons were expected from one winter solstice to the next winter solstice, people expected that each quarter of a year would have 3 full moons. However, occasionally a fourth full moon occurred in a quarter and when that happened, the third of four full moons was referred to as the blue moon. And how often would this happen? Once every three years ergo a long time always passed between blue moons.

But as history would have it, author and amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett (1886 – 1955) wrote an article for “Sky And Telescope” in March 1946, wherein he wrote that the second full moon in a month was known as the blue moon. He was wrong, of course, but as with many mistakes that go to print, the concept stuck.

Back on February 11, 1965 the St. Petersburg Evening Independent newspaper published an article by Bob Chick on the subject of one particular high school basketball star. This teen was what people referred to as a show stopper and a great athlete, and Bob Chick served example after example of just how good this teen was on the courts. He ended the article with this bit:

Hollins Coach Roy King provided a pretty good summary of Lanier’s talents. “He was tremendous. A don’t know of anything he couldn’t do with a basketball. They come along like Lanier once in a blue moon.”

Back in 1934, Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart wrote the very popular song “Blue Moon” which has resurfaced often over the years (the most memorable versions was recorded by the Marcels in 1961).

Interestingly enough, during the 1920s there were a spate of blue moon parties held during the spring and summer months. The decorations were in varying shades of blue and all of them were related to the moon or the man-in-the-moon. In fact, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper edition of June 29, 1929 published a feature by Leatrice Gregory aptly entitled:

Blue Moon Party Offers Picturesque Possibilities

In P.G. (Pelham Grenville) Wodehouse’s anthology “The Man Upstairs and Other Stories” published in 1914, there’s a story entitled, “Rough-Hew Them How We Will.” In this short story, the following passage is found:

There was an artist who dined at intervals at Bredin’s Parisian Cafe, and, as the artistic temperament was too impatient to be suited by Jeanne’s leisurely methods, it had fallen to Paul to wait upon him. It was to this expert that Paul, emboldened by the geniality of the artist’s manner, went for information. How did monsieur sell his pictures? Monsieur said he didn’t, except once in a blue moon. But when he did? Oh, he took the thing to the dealers. Paul thanked him. A friend of him, he explained, had painted a picture and wished to sell it.

Going back a little further, E. Cobham Brewster wrote in his “Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable” on the subject of blue moons.  The tome includes this commentary:

On Dec. 10, 1883, we had a blue moon. The winter was unusually mild. In 1927, during a total eclipse of the sun, many observers at Belfast, Ireland, fancied that the moon took on a decidedly blue tinge. Moons of unusual colors, such as green and blue, have been seen after certain violent volcanic explosions  and also occasionally through smoke-laden fogs, but inasmuch as once in a blue moon originally meant never, it is not likely that it was suggested by such lunar phenomena. The United Stated Weather Bureau has been unable to find anything in meteorological literature that would throw light on the origin of the phrase.

Interestingly enough, Edmund Yates published a book in 1869 entitled “Wrecked In Port.” In his book, which was touted as an autobiographical account of a shipwreck survivor, he wrote:

These gentry, who would have sat interested for that indefinite period known as ”a blue moon,” had the talk been of markets, and prices, and ” quotations,” at length thought it time to vary the intellectual repast, and one of them suggested that somebody should sing a song.

But the expression has persisted over a number of generations. In fact in William Roy and Jerome Barlow’s “Rede Me And Be Not Wroth” published in 1528, the concept of the blue moon (which is quite absurd based on this passage) is mentioned on page 114 as follows:

Agaynft god they are fo ftobbourne
That fcripture they toffe and tourne
After their owne ymaginacion.
Yf they say the moon is blewe
We must beleve that it is true
Admyttinge their interpretacion.

So while the concept of a blue moon meaning rarely or never or being an absurd concept of ever actually happening dates back at least to the early 1500s for William Roy and Jerome Barlow to include it in a book published in 1528.

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