Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Robbie Burns’

A Country Mile

Posted by Admin on September 10, 2019

Just how long is a country mile you may wonder after hearing someone mention country miles or having read about country miles? After all, isn’t a mile a mile whether it’s in the city or in the country?

When someone talks or writes about a country mile they are talking or writing about deceptively long distances, and definitely longer than anticipated. Some will tell you this is because country roads tend to meander across the countryside whereas as city roads tend to be set up in grid formation. The layout of roads may be a fact, however, that’s not the reason a country mile is supposedly longer than any other mile.

As we learned from the research on a mile a minute, until Queen Elizabeth I standardized just how many feet were in a mile (5,280 feet), an Irish miles consisted of 6,720 feet, a Scots mile consisted of 5,928 feet, a Welsh mile was supposedly a very long stretch to walk, and other miles had varying numbers of feet in them.

Now, up until the 13th century when King Edward I conquered Wales, the Welsh mile was comprised 9000 paces feet where each foot was 9 English inches long.

The Scots mile — which was about 1.12 English miles — was still a thing when Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) mentioned it in the first verse of his narrative poem “Tam O’Shanter” published in 1791, and written the year previous.   In fact, it was so much a thing it had to be abolished three times: Once in 1685 by an act of the Scottish parliament, once in 1707 when the Treaty of Union was signed between Scotland and England, and once by way of the Weights and Measures Act of 1824. It would seem Scotland were really attached to their mile, and weren’t as willing to give it up in favor of the English mile as the English believed they should be.

SIDE NOTE 1: The Ottoman mile was 5,000 Ottoman feet long which was the equivalent of 1.18 English miles, and in 1933 it was replaced by the slightly shorter Turkish mile which is the equivalent of 1.15 English miles.

On 29 December 2016 the Jamaica Observer newspaper published an article titled, “Top 16 2016 Racing Moments.” At #13 on the chart, and headlined “The Finish of the Oaks” this race had to do with the Jamaica Oaks race where the win was described thusly:

What a race the 2016 edition of the Jamaica Oaks turned out to be. After winning the 1,000 Guineas by a country mile, Nuclear Affair with Aaron Chatrie aboard looked all over a winner in the Oaks, but a late race surge by A Thousand Stars (Robert Halledeen) ended with a short head victory by the latter. Two females engaged in all-out battle was something to behold.

On 1 March 1992, American Forests published an article about reforestation at Jersey’s famed Pine Barrents (at the time it was known as Pinelands) that had been a weapons test range named the Warren Grove Test Range. One sentence in the article read:

No doubt more than one wet-behind-the-ears pilot missed his target by a good country mile, and the small clearings grew into vast desolate stretches of Pine Barren sand.

In the 20 November 1971 edition of Cash Box magazine, “Walk A Country Mile” was mentioned as the flipside of the Tommy James release “Nothing To Hide” on Roulette Records.

SIDE NOTE 2: Tommy James of Tommy James and the Shondells was Thomas Gregory Jackson, and was born on 29 April 1947 in Dayton (OH). Tommy James and the Shondells (formerly known as Tom and the Tornadoes) were known for hits such as the very well-known and oft-covered “Mony Mony” and equally engaging songs “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

The mile became standardized by international agreement on July 1, 1959 by the International Yard and Pound Agreement of 1959. It was agreed a mile was equivalent to exactly 1609.344 meters. As mentioned earlier, until then all miles were not created equal.

The printing firm of Casper (C.C.) Childs (Jared W. Bell, General Agent) published an interesting tidbit about a country mile in “The Treasury of Knowledge and Library of Reference: A Million of Facts on Common Place Book: Volume III” published in 1850. The entry in which the term is found, slightly modified, states:

Robin Hood shot a full mile; and, according to his bard, a north-country mile was equal to two statute ones.

For those who are interested, north-country England included the cities of Nottingham, York, and London. As we know, Robin Hood was constantly at odds with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Medieval statute miles were 1.3 international miles long, and while it’s doubtful that Robin Hood’s arrow was shot anywhere near 2.6 miles before landing, the exaggeration expected from the term “country mile” is found in this passage.

In the poem “The Villager’s Tale” by mariner and west-county from Bodmin, Frederick de Kruger (1798 – date unknown ) and published in 1829 in his book, “The Pirate and Other Poems” the expression finds a place in this stanza written by the poet. This was 5 years after the Weights and Measures Act of 1824 was passed in England, and because the printer of the book (Liddell and Son) and the seller (G.B. Whittaker) were located in London, it lends credence to the comparison between the two different kinds of miles.

The travelling stage had set me down
Within a mile of yon church-town;
‘T was long indeed, a country mile.

SIDE NOTE 4: Very little is known about Frederick de Kruger save that he was a mariner who survived three shipwrecks in the space of nine years and permished in the last shipwreck (which happened after 1829 but Idiomation was unable to identify what year it happened). He was born in Bodmin which is a civil parish and historic town in Cornwall, England. Bodmin is responsible for the expression to go Bodmin.

SIDE NOTE 5: The book by Frederick de Kruger was dedicated to Vice-Admiral Sir C. Penrose, K.C.B. of Ethy House, Cornwall. This would have been Sir Charles Vinicombe Penrose (20 June 1759 – 1 January 1830) who was a Royal Navy officer who became the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, and was a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath (KCB). Penrose was also born in Cornwall.

Beyond 1829, Idiomation was unable to find any published instances of a country mile, but quite a bit about the various miles already mentioned in this entry. Idiomation suspects that country miles compared to other miles were spoken of for several years prior to the term being published in printed materials based on the history of the various miles in history.

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The Best Laid Schemes Of Mice And Men

Posted by Admin on February 2, 2011

When someone starts with “the best laid plans of mice and men” and then lets the sentence trail off without finishing it, usually means that something that was to happen has taken an unexpected turn … sometimes for the better, but more often, for the bad.  How is it, though, that mice and men are lumped together in this phrase?

Back on July 31, 1940, reporter Jesse A. Linthicum of the Baltimore Sun newspaper wrote an article entitled “Sunlight On Sports” that began with:

The gent who wrote “the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley” must have been thinking of the fight game in general and Al Weill in particular.  Weill saw 1940 ushered in through rose-colored glasses. He had two world champions and two lending challengers in his stable.

Forty years earlier, on July 28, 1900, the following was reported in the New Zealand Observer, an illustrated weekly newspaper:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” which was well exemplified at the Harbour Board meeting on Tuesday.  For some time past — in fact, directly Chairman Witheford was returned from Auckland City — representations were made to him to return from the chairmanship.  Too much to do, and other suggestive reasons for retirement.  J.H. was on the point of taking the hint, but was prevailed upon to stand by his guns and finish the work he had commenced.  Upon his notifying at a meeting, called for the purpose, that he intended to retain the chairmanship, a certain little ‘syndicate’ fell back aghast.

And 40 years before that, on May 28, 1860 the New York Times ran an article entitled “Political Pandering” that included this in the article:

The fearful prospect so impressively presented by the eloquent Attorney-General of Col. FORNEY’s “bones whitening along with those of WILMOT on the shore of Black Republicanism,” when his character might have been comfortably black-ening under the sunshine of Presidential patronage, struck Mr. WEBSTER with dismay. Of course this catastrophe must be averted. “You merely wish FORNEY to sell you the key of his lips,” says WEBSTER in effect. “Well, that is satisfactory, only — how much will you give? The whole $80,000, or only a part of it?” The Attorney-General replied, unhesitatingly, “The whole of it” Now, mark the sequel, and lament with us afresh, how oft the best laid schemes of mice and men “do gang agley.”

The phrase is actually from poem by Robert Burns entitled “To a Mouse” which was written and published in 1786. It tells of how he, while ploughing a field, upturned a mouse’s nest and as a result, he penned an apology to the mouse that includes this verse:

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The poem is of course the source for the title of a novel written and published John Steinbeck in 1937, entitled  “Of Mice and Men.”

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