Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’

Forty Winks

Posted by Admin on August 20, 2019

The language of slumber is one that has some strange twists and turns to it, where sense seems to be nonsense, and nonsense sometimes makes sense.

If you need to catch or take forty winks, you need a nap because forty winks isn’t a good night’s sleep. But why do people call a nap forty winks?

A blink doesn’t last long. It doesn’t even last a second. But if all you need is a few minutes rest, then forty winks should be enough … especially during the day.

But how long is a blink? A blink is longer than a jiffy (read up on shake of a lamb’s tail for more details on this) so scientifically speaking, forty winks should be about 15 seconds long. Since most naps are far longer than 15 seconds, the idiom is meant to imply a forty wink nap is not dissimilar from how short employers feel a coffee break should be.

SIDE NOTE 1: In astrophysics and quantum physics a jiffy is the time it takes for light to travel one fermi. A fermi is about the size of a nucleon.

A full cycle nap according to scientists and medical researchers is 90 minutes long. A cat nap is much shorter at 7 minutes.

That being said, the number forty has been used since long before Biblical times to describe an indefinite time — long but not too long. Shakespeare used the number in some of his plays in this way, and even Welsh poet, orator, and Church of England priest George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) used the number similarly in a letter to his father in law, John Danvers, when he ended it with this closing.

I have forty businesses in my hands: your Courtesie will pardon the haste of
Your humblest Servant,
George Herbert.

SIDE NOTE 2: George Herbert was the brother of the 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury. They and their eight siblings were the grandchildren of Sir Edward Newport, Lord of Cherbury. They were also the grandchildren of Sir Richard Newport, ruler of souther Powys. THeir father, Richard Herbert was the sheriff and deputy lieutenant of the county of Montgomery.

That being said, a wynk (wink) meant a sleep in the 14th Century when William Langland (1332 – 1400) wrote “Vision and Creed of Piers Ploughman” published in 1377. In fact, in his epic poem, there is a lot of wynkyng, none of which involved anything but sleep.

In Volume I, in “Passus Quintus de Visione, ut supra” (which was the second vision the dreamer had which is retold in this poem), the poet wrote:

Thanne waked I of my wynkyng,
And wo was withalle,
That I ne hadde slept sadder,
And y-seighen moore.

So how and when did forty get hitched to winks (or wynks) — and separated from one wink (or wynk) meaning a sleep — to mean a nap?

Back in 1960, the B-side on the Neil Sedaka release “Stairway To Heaven” was written by Barry Mann and Larry Kolber, and told the story of a lonely guy far away from his gal, but he knew she was just “Forty Winks Away” in his dreams.

On 15 March 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) published a short story in The Saturday Evening Post titled, “Gretchen’s Forty Winks.” The number forty appears a number of times in the story, but in relation to taking a nap, it is found in this passage.

When Tompkins dropped them in front of their house at eleven Roger and Gretchen stood for a moment on the sidewalk looking at the winter moon. There was a fine, damp, dusty snow in the air, and Roger drew a long breath of it and put his arm around Gretchen exultantly.

‘I can make more money than he can,’ he said tensely. ‘And I’ll be doing it in just forty days.’

‘Forty days,’ she sighed. ‘It seems such a long time–when everybody else is always having fun. If I could only sleep for forty days.’

‘Why don’t you, honey? Just take forty winks, and when you wake up everything’ll be fine.’

She was silent for a moment.

In Act III, Scene I of the play “Deacon Brodie or the Double Life” by Robert Louis Stevenson (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894) and William Ernest (W.E.) Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903) and published in 1882 (just a few years before Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886), the characters Jean, Smith, and Moore find themselves in a public place in Edinburgh, loitering. The exchange with forty winks mentioned is found at the beginning of the scene.

MOORE:
Wot did I tell you? Is he ‘ere, or ain’t he? Now, then. Slink by name and Slink by nature, that’s wot’s the matter with him.

JEAN:
He’ll no be lang; he’s regular enough, if that was a’.

SMITHER:
Badger, you brute, you hang on to the lessons of your dancing-master. None but the genteel deserves the fair: does they, Duchess?

MOORE:
O rot! Did I insult the blowen? Wot’s the matter with me is Slink Ainslie.

SMITH:
All right, old Crossed-in-love. Give him forty winks, and he’ll turn up as fresh as clean sawdust and as respectable as a new Bible.

MOORE:
That’s right enough; but I ain’t agoing to stand here all day for him. I’m for a drop of something short, I am. You tell him I showed you that (showing his doubled fist). That’s wot’s the matter with him.

SIDE NOTE 3: Deacon William Brodie was a cabinet maker, town councilman, and head of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons in Edinburgh by day, and the head of a burglary gang who had a serious gambling addiction and two mistresses by night. He was caught during an armed robbery at Chessel Court in 1786 and hanging two years later on 1 October 1788.

SIDE NOTE 4: The character of Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Long John Silver was inspired by William Ernest Henley who suffered from tuberculousis of the bone from the time he was 12 years of age, resulting in the amputation of his left leg below the knee at age 20.

SIDE NOTE 5: William Ernest Henley’s daughter, Margaret, was the inspiration for Wendy in the J.M. Barrie children’s classic, Peter Pan. Unfortunately, she was a sickly child and died on 11 February 1894 at age five. The play first opened on 27 December 1904 at the Duke of York Theater in London.

In Volume 55 of the Westminster Review published in mid-1851, an extensive article discussed electro-biology as a repackaging of charlatanism, somnolism, phycheism, and mesmerism. The expression forty winks — in quotation marks — was used.

The Fakirs of India are said to throw themselves into a trance by looking at the tips of their noses; but whether trance be induced, or sleep, by that or any corresponding process, must always depend, more or less, upon the constitution of the patient. The same visual or mental effort that would give to one person his quiet “forty winks” after dinner, would throw an epileptic person into a fit.

SIDE NOTE 6: Mesmerism is named after Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (23 May 1734 – 5 March 1815) which he introduced to society in 1770. He is considered the father of hypnosis. It was not accepted as a viable therapy until 1958 when the American Medical Association approved hypnosis as a therapeutic procedure.

Back in 1828 when George Eliot was Mary Ann Cross — and long before she married her husband Mr. Evans — she wrote in her journal that she had “forty winks on a sofa in the library.”

Dr. William Kitchiner (1775 – 1827) wrote a self-help guide, published in 1821, which was titled, “The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life by Food, CLothes, Air, Exercise, Wine, Sleep, and More.” Already known for his previous books, including “The Cook’s Oracle”, The Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review of London (England) reviewed the Dr. Kitchiner’s latest book in its November 24th edition that year.

The review begins with letting readers know that not only is Dr. Kitchener the author of a number of books, but also the author of a book on telescopes which proved him to be “an excellent optician.” The reviewer also saw fit to state that the author was known to his friends as “a musical amateur, an advocate for good living at the least possible expense, for indulging in all the luxuries of epicurism, with due care to avoid its injurious effects.” A nod to the author’s age — that being 43 years of age at the time the book was published — is mentioned as well.

The review included this passage:

Sleep is a subject on which our author acknowledges his feelings are tremblingly alive; he is fond of a ‘forty-winks‘ nap in an horizontal posture, as the best preparative for any extraordinary exertion, either of body or mind.

Idiomation was unable to find an early published version of forty winks meaning a nap — not a long sleep — prior to 1821 when it is used in quotations. So while winks (and wynks) clearly referred to sleep for a few hundred years, forty winks meaning a nap seems to have come about in the early 1800s.

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

Take French Leave

Posted by Admin on October 12, 2011

To take French leave means that someone has left a gathering without asking or announce he or she is leaving. The English and Portuguese attribute this bad behaviour to the French while the Russian, Hungarian, Czech, Italian, and French have an expression that blames it on English while the Dutch and Finnish lay blame on thieves.  What is particularly interesting with this expression is the finger-pointing that is associated with it.

That being said, until at least World War II, the British Army used the euphemism to take French leave when referring to a soldier deserting his company.  According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, to take French leave comes from an 18th century custom in France where guests left a reception without thanking the host or hostess for having invited them.  The dictionary states that the first known use of this phrase to take French leave dates back to 1771.

On July 23, 1942 the Lawrence Journal World newspaper published Harry Grayson‘s column “The Scoreboard.”  The article read in part:

Ed Barrow and Joy McCarthy don’t care for ball players who take French leave, especially when an injury has left the outfit with no one else for the position.  Rosar’s offense was particularly flagrant inasmuch as he was receiving and swinging for the everwilling Bill Dickey, out with a torn ligament in his shoulder.

In 1920, Edith Wharton published a book entitled “The Age Of Innocence” which had this passage in Book I, Chapter XVII:

“Look at him — in such hot haste to get married that he took French leave and rushed down to implore the silly girl on his knees!  That’s something like a lover — that’s the way handsome Bob Spicer carried off my poor mother; and then got tired of her before I was weaned –though they only had to wait eight months for me! But there — you’re not a Spicer, young man; luckily for you and for May. It’s only my poor Ellen that has kept any of their wicked blood; the rest of them are all model Mingotts,” cried the old lady scornfully.

In the Robert Louis Stevenson book “Treasure Island” published on May 23, 1883 after having been published in a children’s magazine in 1881 and 1882 as a serial story,  the expression to take French leave is found in Part V, Chapter 22 entitled, “My Sea Adventure.”

As for the scheme I had in my head, it was not a bad one in itself. I was to go down the sandy spit that divides the anchorage on the east from the open sea, find the white rock I had observed last evening, and ascertain whether it was there or not that Ben Gunn had hidden his boat, a thing quite worth doing, as I still believe. But as I was certain I should not be allowed to leave the enclosure, my only plan was to take French leave and slip out when nobody was watching, and that was so bad a way of doing it as made the thing itself wrong. But I was only a boy, and I had made my mind up.

The Colonist newspaper in New Zealand published the column “Spirit Of The Press” on December 21, 1858 with the following interesting bit of information about taking French leave.

We read that “the Bombay Geographical Society announce in their proceedings, that they have received a specimen of the Walking leaf from Java.”  A person who walks off is said to take French leave.  You may be sure that this tree is originally in France, and not liking a soil that was subject to so many political up-heavings, it took French leave, and walked off.  Hence, probably the origin of that term; or perhaps, the phrase of “cutting one’s stick” may be owing to the habits of this Walking-leaf.  It “cuts its stick” and walks away.  We think we have very cleverly explained two very vulgar idioms, the exact meaning of which has never till now been properly accounted for.  By-the-by, the Birnam Wood that walked into Macbeth, must have been a perambulating forest of these Walking-leaves.

Eliza Southgate Bowne was known for the many letters she wrote in her lifetime.  They were compiled by Clarence Cook and published in a book in 1887 entitled, “A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago.”  In a letter dated Sunday, May 25, 1806 to Miss Miranda Southgate, Eliza Southgate Bowne had written in part:

Now for news, which I suppose you are very anxious to hear.  Iin the first place — Miss Laurelia Dashaway is married to Mr. Hawkes.  On Saturday morning, 8 o’clock, Trinity Church was opened on purpose for the occasion; something singular, as it would not be like Miss Laurelia.  But what do you think — Mr. Grellet has taken French leave of New York — sailed for France about a fortnight ago, without anybody’s knowing their intention till they were gone.  There are many conjectures upon the occasion not very favorable to the state of their finances.  “Tis said his friends were very averse to her going with him.  If she had not, I suspect she might have sympathized with Madame Jerome Buonoparte and many other poor Madames that have founded their hopes on the fidelity of a Frenchman.

In the book “Letters from America” which is a compilation of the letters written by William Eddis.  In a letter to his wife written at Annapolis on September 26, 1775, William Eddis wrote in part:

Mr. L, who had actually embarked for England, with full permission from the ruling powers, has been obliged to relinquish his intention, and return on shore, some clamours having been excited by the populace to his prejudice; and it being though necessary he should remain to vindicate his conduct.  Many of our friends have found it expedient to take French leave.  I trust you will speedily meet them in perfect safety.

However even earlier than this, there are written discussion in the late 1760s on the meaning of the phrase and its origins.  Since a guest is not bound by etiquette to seek leave from the party’s host or hostess, it is proper protocol to seek out the host or hostess when one is about to leave.  It was determined that the phrase implies that the person who uses it or of whom it is used has done something that, strictly speaking, should not have done or for which the person should be ashamed.

Since the Merriam-Webster dictionary attributes the first use of the expression to take French leave to 1771, it appears the expression was alive and well in the years leading up to 1771.  Idiomation guesses that the earliest use may have been sometime in the 1760s.

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Pieces of Eight

Posted by Admin on February 25, 2010

During the 17th century and well into the 18th century, the Spanish dollar was the currency used in the American colonies. In order to make the change, it was decided that the dollar could be divided into eight equal pieces.

In Chapter 10 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” we learn that Long John Silver’s parrot, Cap’n Flint is well acquainted with the phrase:  “And the parrot would say, with great rapidity, “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” till you wondered that it was not out of breath, or till John threw his handkerchief over the cage.”

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »