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Posts Tagged ‘Sir Walter Scott’

Crazy As A Loon

Posted by Admin on January 27, 2014

For those of you who don’t know, a loon is a bird found in the northern regions with a short tail, webbed feet, and a cry that sometimes sounds like a madman’s howling. Likewise, a loon is usually associated with a crazy or deranged person. So when someone is crazy as a loon, are they making sounds like the bird or are they acting like a madman?

When someone is said to be crazy as a loon, you can rest assured that the person speaking means the other person is mad as a March hare or crazy as a Mad Hatter or as crazy as a coot (another bird with a strange cry).

The idiom appeared twice in the book, “Peyton Place” by American author Grace Metalious (8 September 1924 – 25 February 1964) and published in 1956 by the Julian Messner & Company publishing house after being turned down by every other major fiction publisher in New York. The book became one of the most notorious (and best-selling) novels of the 1950s.

Critics panned the book but it stayed on the New York Best Sellers list for 59 weeks and sales of 8 million copies in hardcover and 12 million in paperbacks were only surpassed by sales of The Bible. The year after the book was published, Hollywood came knocking and in 1957 it was made into a movie starring Lana Turner as Alison MacKenzie. In 1961, a sequel was filmed as “Return toTo Peyton Place” which led to the prime time television soap opera, “Peyton Place” starring Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. This is one of the two passages where the idiom is found:

“I hate, loathe and despise you, Nellie Cross,” cried Allison hysterically. “You’re crazy as a loon. Crazier than Miss Hester Goodale, and I”m going to tell my mother not to let you come here to work any more.”

The Nellie remembered the second reason that she was unable to forgive Allison. Allison had said she was crazy. That was it, thought Nellie. She had known it was something wicked like that.

“You’re so crazy that you should be locked up in the asylum down at Concord,” Allison shouted, her voice high and rough with anger, and hurt, and tears. “I don’t blame Lucas for running off and leaving you. He knew that you’d end up in a padded cell down at Concord. And I hope you do. It would serve you just exactly right!”

In the play “The Fan” by Carlo Goldoni, produced at Venice in 1764 and translated into English by Henry B. Fuller, the idiom appears in Scene XIII between Crespino, the shoemaker, and Giannina, a lowly peasant girl. The translated version was copyrighted in 1925, and was in the Samuel French catalogue of plays.

GIANNINA [as above]
You’re crazy.

CRESPINO
Giannina!
[imitating EVARISTO]
Do not let your love for me fail, nor your kindness.

GIANNINA [as above]
You’re crazy, crazy, crazy!

CRESPINO
I crazy?

GIANNINA
Yes, you, you. You’re crazy, you’re crazy as a loon; and, on top of that, you’re — crazy!

In the “Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: A Work Of Universal Reference In All Departments Of Knowledge With A New Atlas Of The World in Ten Volumes” edited by William Dwight Whitney and Benjamin Eli Smith, and published in 1889, the idiom is included. Looning, as mentioned in the definition, is taken from a book by Walden Thoreau where he describes the sound a loon makes, and referring to it as “perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here.” The definition is found in Volume IV of the series as follows:

The wild actions of the loon in escaping danger and its dismal cry (see looning) suggest the idea of insanity; whence the common American similar “as crazy as a loon.”

When Volume II of “The Legendary, Consisting of Original Pieces, Principally Illustrative of American History, Scenery, and Manners” edited by Nathaniel Parker Willis, and published in Boston by Samuel G. Goodrich in 1828. In the story, “Leaves From A Colleger’s Album” written by the editor, Nathaniel Parker Willis, the following is found in the final paragraphs of the story.

Job turned to the titlepage. He had not understood a word of what he had read. Sure enough, it was a Universalist sermon. He gave Fritz a look of indescribable distress, hurled the sermon indignantly out of the cabin window, and rushed upon deck.

“Crazy! — crazy as a loon!” exclaimed the captain, as he stepped into the middle of the cabin to apologize. But we are Rochester, so,

Yours, my dear Tom,

Charles

It should be noted that the word loon was used to describe people who acted in a way that implied poor thinking. In the “Complete Works of Water Scott With A Biography and His Last Additions And Illustrations In Seven Volumes.” In Volume 4 by Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) a number of loon references are made including this one in “The Fortunes Of Nigel” published in 29 May 1822.

“Haud up your head — haud up your head, and listen to your ain kind native Prince. If there is shame, man, it comes na empty-handed — there is siller to gild it — a gude tocher, and no that bad a pedigree; — if she has been a loon, it was your son made her sae, and he can make her an honest woman again.” 

Also in “The Fortunes In Nigel” this is found:

“Ay, ay — vera true,” exlaimed the caustic old courtier — “Impertinent coxcombs they are, that thus intrude themselves on the society of their betters; but your lordship kens how to gar them as gude — ye have the trick on’t. — They had a braw sport in the presence last Friday, how ye suld have routed a young shopkeeper, horse and foot, ta’en his spolia optima, and a’ the specie he had about him, down to the very silver buttons of his cloak, and sent him to graze with Nebuchadnezzer, Kind of Babylon. Muckle honour redounded to your lordship thereby. — We were tault the loon threw himself into the Thames in a fit of desperation. There’s enow of them behind — there was mair tint on Flodden-edge.”

What this proves is that the idiom crazy as a loon was understood in writings published in 1828 and that the word loon — as associated with crazy behavior — was found in writings published in 1822. Further research indicates that in Shakespearian times, the term loon was an abusive term that implied the person was a lunatic, rendered mad by the power of the moon.

That being said, the earliest published version of the idiom crazy as a loon that Idiomation was able to find dates back to 1828. However, because the expression’s meaning was easily understood in 1828, Idiomation places the expression to at least the generation prior to the published date, pegging it at 1800.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Nail Your Colours To The Mast

Posted by Admin on October 25, 2013

Have you ever heard someone talk about how you nailed your colors to the mast? It’s a lovely expression that means that you have publicly stated your opinions on one or more subjects, even the controversial ones, and cannot be swayed to change them.

In the UK, when Education Minister, David Willetts proved to be intelligent as well as well-informed, the Independent newspaper of October 25, 2010 ran a story on a speech he had given … one that wasn’t written by a speech writer and handed to him to rehearse and deliver. The article was entitled, “Two Brains Nails His Colours To The Mast” and the story ended with this paragraph:

Willetts is making clear that he does not want to see more universities being set up but at the same time he is nailing his colours to the widening participation mast. The important thing is to make sure that people acquiring their higher education in further education colleges are receiving the high quality experience that they would get in a fully-fledged university.

The New Straits Times decided that a brief news bite on the subject should be included on page 11 of the newspaper edition of April 8, 1989. It segued into a quick comment about the upcoming annual Kodak Run For The Money contest. Entitled, “Nailing Our Colours To The Mast” the article began with this sentence:

In the days when sailing ships fought on the high seas, nailing your colours to the mast was a sign to all and sundry that you had no intention of giving up the fight.

On July 19, 1955 the Glasgow Herald published a story entitled, “Colours To The Mast” and reported on the talks in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting was held to discuss the known issues of the day that divided Communism and the Western world, and allowed leaders of various countries to assess and evaluate the sincerity of leaders from other countries. The article began thusly:

The first day of the Geneva talks was devoted to a general nailing of colours to the mast. If the designs were familiar, it is hardly to be wondered at. Ten years have passed since Potsdam, Roosevelt and Stalin are dead, and Sir Winston Churchill has retired, but the peoples they led remain and it was their views, evolved through the experience of those 10 years, that the Western spokesmen at least were declaring yesterday.

In 1912, author Arnold Bennett (27 May 1867- 27 March 1931) published a book entitled, “The Matador Of The Five Towns And Other Stories.” In the comedic short story entitled, “Hot Potatoes” readers are introduced Mrs. Swann of Bleakridge in the Five Towns, and with a few deft strokes, readers know more about her 19-year-old son, Gilbert, than you might think. A musical prodigy of sorts, the story regales readers with an indulgent mother’s attempts to mollycoddle her adult son. As the story peaks, this sentence finds its way into the storytelling.

But not for a thousand pounds would Mrs Swann have exposed the mush of potato on the carpet under her feet. She could not conceive in what ignominy the dreadful affair would end, but she was the kind of woman that nails her colours to the mast.

It was an expression used in Australia and New Zealand and can be found in the news story of April 28, 1887 entitled, “Criticisms On The Speech” and published in the Political Intelligence column in the Otago Daily Times. Near the end of this column, the following is found:

The local press with one voice condemn the Governor’s Speech. The Times says it is poor and thin, and does not show much of the nailing of colours to the mast. The Post says it is more than ordinarily vapid and uninteresting, and cunningly planned so as to afford as few pegs as possible on which to hang hostile amendments.

In writing the book entitled “Life Of Pius IX” by author T. Adolphus Trollope (1810–1892) and published by Craig and Taylor in Detroit back in 1877, he chose to use the idiom twice in his book. The first occasion presented itself here:

It is in this respect that the next Conclave will most materially differ from the last. In many other respects the situation is very analogous. It is once again a question of ” nailing colours to the mast,” or ” transaction ; ” of war to knife, or more or less sincere conciliation ; of refusing to yield an inch, at the risk (denied to exist, however, by some of those who have to make the decision) of utter rout and overthrow, or of giving a little to preserve the rest. But the world has progressed since the death of Gregory the Sixteenth. Both parties to the great contest have thought much since that time.

And the second occasion presented itself here:

The “nailing of colours to the mast” is an operation which, if often of doubtful political expediency, has always appealed to emotions and sympathies, which have their root in the noblest portion of the complex nature of mankind, and has rarely, so far as ensuring the admiration and applause of the crowd goes, appealed in vain. But religious — or rather ecclesiastical — prejudices and hatreds, which have their root in some of the meanest and lowest passions of humanity, have prevented the contemporary world of Pius the Ninth and his little band of counsellors from awarding to them the meed of appreciation on this score, which has been fairly their due. No ship of war going down, with every man of her crew standing at their guns, rather than strike their colours to the enemy, has shown to the world a more indomitable preference of duty to expediency than has the absolute and consistent refusal of the Pontiff to bend to the storm which has raged around him.

Irish statesman, barrister, literary critic and author, John Wilson Croker (20 December 1780 – 10 August 1857) was the subject of a series of diaries entitled, “The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late John Wilson Croker.” He was the Secretary to the Admiralty from 1809 through to 1830, and a Member of Parliamant for 25 years. In Volume 3, a letter from Sir Robert Peel to John Wilson Croker and dated January 28, 1844 began thusly:

My Dear Croker,

Many thanks for the extract from Ashburton’s letter. I read over two or three times that part of it which advises the nailing of colours to the mast. This is good advice from Ashburton. I never heard him make a speech in the course of which he did not nail, unnail, renail, and unnail again his colours.

The idiom was a favorite of Sir Robert Peel and can be found in his letters written to others. In a letter from Sir Robert Peel to Lord Kenyon who, at the time, was threatening to quit the King’s service, dated March 26, 1835, the following can be found:

It may be swamped or not, but independent it will no longer be, but will pass every measure, however infamous, which the House of Commons sends up. I anxiously trust you will nail your colours to the mast, and not quit our Sailor — and now repentant — King.

The poem “Marmion: A Tale Of Flodden Field” was written by Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet, Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832). He began work on this epic poem in 1806, and saw it published in January of 1808. Within this poem the follow stanza is found:

Even then dishonour’s peace he spurn’d,
Her sullied olive-branch return’d,
Stood for his country’s glory fast,
And nail’d her colours to the mast!

The fact of the matter is that flying flags was an established the naval military practice at the time, where displaying one’s signal flags or insignia(the ship’s colours) from the mast of a ship during battle showed loyalty.

Back in August 1807, the Hereford Journal reported on the naval engagement between British and American ships, where disgraced Navy Commodore James Barron failed to resist a British attack on his flagship, the Chesapeake. Barron was later court martialed, on the request of his junior officers, and a verdict was rendered that saw James Barron expelled from the Navy for five years. The news article, highly critical of Barron’s decision, stated in part:

You ought to have nailed your colours to the mast, and have fought whilst a timber remained on your ship.

The naval ships of the 1700s and 1800s used to fly their nautical battle colours (flags) so other ships could identify them. If the flag was struck, or lowered, it was a mark of submission. It quickly became a habit for the enemy to fire upon the ship’s mast, thereby disabling the colours in trying to force the other ship to submit. More often than not, though, captains would hoist what remained of the flag thanks to the ship’s rigging, allowing the ship’s flag to fly again. This was known as nailing the colours to the mast. This act rendered it almost impossible to surrender when engaged in battle.

You’re probably wondering how this practice came to be accepted by captains the world over.

It all began with British Admiral Adam Duncan (1 July 1731 – 4 August 1804) of the HMS Venerable and sailor Jack Crawford (22 March 1775 – 10 November 1831) at the Battle of Camperdown on October 11, 1797. The HMS Venerable was surrounded by three Dutch ships when the top of its main mast was shot off. Risking his life, Jack Crawford took the flag, climbed the broken mast while still under fire, and nailed the flag to the top of the broken mast. In the end, the Dutch were defeated as the Dutch flagship Vrijheid was surrendered to Admiral Adam Duncan.

Now was this the first instance of nailing one’s colours to the mast?

Hardly. History reports that on September 23, 1779 — at the Battle of Flamborough Head — British Naval Captain Richard Pearson of the HMS Serapis, nailed the British ensign to the ensign staff before going into battle against — and surrendered to — the Continental Navy ship Bonhomme Richard.

It was as the 1700s drew to an end, however, that the phrase came into its own as an idiom and not just as a nautical term. Idiomation tags this idiom to 1790 on the basis that it was used in Sir Walter Scott’s poem of 1808 (which he began writing in 1806) after at least two historical events that made loud statements about taking a stand against all costs.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Right As Rain

Posted by Admin on August 28, 2013

An online friend was wondering what the expression right as rain really means and how it wound up being part of the English language. To answer her question, when something is right as rain everything is functioning optimally … perfectly, in fact.

USA Today sometimes has the most unexpected articles, and the one about Portland, Oregon on March 29, 2010 certainly surprised a number of readers. Portland’s storm sewer system, it was reported, was a tourist attraction for eco-friendly tourists interested in checking out Portland’s system of curbs, gutters, roofs and rain gardens. Who knew? Of course, the article was aptly entitled, “Portland’s Sewers Right As Rain.”

Back on July 17, 1952 the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper reported on how the Russian government in Moscow was unhappy about the upcoming conference in Honolulu that intended to set up a permanent Pacific defense council. The Russians were said to be against the prospect of such a defense council. In fact, the situation was such a hot button for both sides that the reporter wrote in part:

The Reds suspect that a treaty organization designed to prevent the spread of Communism in the Pacific world, similar to the existing North Atlantic Treaty Organization already service the same purpose in Europe, will come out at the Honolulu conference in August, and they are right as rain about that.

The Saskatoon Phoenix newspaper edition of July 3, 1915 carried a news article entitled, “Tommy Is An Optimist.” Written by a special correspondent with British Headquarters in the Field during WWI, the journalist rose above the horrors of war to include the personal side of global conflict. It’s not that he didn’t acknowledge that war was ugly business and that everyone suffered because of it, but rather, he chose to give insight into the humanity that still existed among soldiers. The article included an anecdote that happened between the chaplain and one of the soldiers brought in on a stretcher to be treated by doctors.

“Would you like to send your people a postcard, my boy?” said the Chaplain, and went on to the next stretcher. “Does — does this mean that I am going to die?” asked the lad, as he tried to scrawl a name across the front of the card.

“Nonsense,” retorted an orderly who was passing. “You’ll be as right as rain in a week.”

“Then I’ll wait before I write,” said the soldier. “There’s no use wasting the card. Besides, it says ‘I am wounded.’ I am not wounded — I’m full of this bloody gas, and as soon as me chest is clear I’m going back to ‘do’ for some of those Germans. Give us a drink!”

Some sources claim that the expression was first published in 1894 however Idiomation found a published version in a Boston Daily Globe newspaper dated March 21, 1893 in a serialized story entitled, “Fated To Suffer: The Mystery of the Blood Red Star.”  While Idiomation was unable to find an earlier publication of the phrase, that it is found in a newspaper dating back to 1893 indicates that it was already in use among the masses and as such, it can be assumed that it most likely dates back to at least 1880.

That being said, the qualifier right as has been used in a number of idioms before this date. Some of the alternatives include:

1.  Right as an adamant from “Romance Of The Rose” translated by Geoffrey Chaucer (1300 – 25 October 1400) from the poem by Guillaume de Lorris (1200 – 1240):

For by ensample tel I this,
Right as an adamant, ywis,
Can drawen to hym subtelly
The yron that is layde therby,
So draweth folkes hertes, iwys,
Syluer and golde that yeuen is.

2.  Right as a line from “Minor Poems” by John Lydgate (1370 – 1451) and published in 1430:

That heuenly spyce, hit is ful swete;
Help us perof, good bysshop Fermyae,
Sacred Cipriane, zif hit wold be gete,
With Cosme and Damane wold I dyne,
Lede us pederward as ryght as a lyne,
Seynt Myghel, to pat heuenly kyngdome
Helpyng the holy doctour Seynt Ierome.

3.  Right as is my leg from the translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660) of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” originally written by François Rabelais (1490 – 1553) and published in 1653:

I saw another surrounded by a Croud of two sorts of Women; some were young, quaint, clever, neat, pretty, juicy, tight, brisk, buxom, proper, kind-hearted, and as right as my Leg, to any man’s thinking. The rest were old, weather-beaten, over-ridden, toothless, blear-ey’d, tough, wrinkled, shrivell’d, tawny, mouldy, ptysicky, decrepit hags, beldams, and walking Carcasses.

4.  Right as my leg from “The Comical History of Don Quixote: As It Was Acted At The Queen’s Theater In Dorset Garden By Their Majesties Servants” in Part III, Act III Scene ii by Thomas D’Urfey (1653 – 26 February 1723) and published in 1696:

Jolly Ralph was in with Pegg,
Tho freckled like a Turkey-Egg;
And she as right as is my leg,
Still gave him leave to touse her.

5.  Right as my glove from “Antiquary” by Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) and published in 1816:

“Right, Caxon! right as my glove! By the by, I fancy that phrase comes from the custom of pledging a glove as the signal of irregragable faith — right, I saw, as my glove, Caxon — bet we of the Protestant ascendancy have the more merit in doing that duty for nothing, which cost money in the reign of that empress of superstition, whome Spenser, Caxon, terms, in his allegorical phrase.”

6.  Right as ninepence from “Frank Fairlegh: Scenes From The Life Of A Private Pupil” by Francis Edward Smedley (4 October 1818 – 1 May 1864) and published in 1850:

“Well, let her say ‘no’ as if she meant it,” said Lawless; “women can, if they like, eh? and then it will all be as right as ninepence. Eh! don’t you see?”

“Easier said than done, Lawless, unfortunately,” replied Coleman; “my fat rival is the son of an opulent drysalter, and last year he contrived to get rid of his father.”

And so while the idiom right as rain can only be traced back to the late 19th century, it would seem that what follows right as isn’t always important as long as it’s right as … as the many examples have proven.  So it’s actually right as that determines that everything is perfectly fine and good, and in the case of right as rain, it’s just a nice bit of alliteration as well.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Straining At The Leash

Posted by Admin on February 15, 2013

When you read about someone straining at the leash , it means that person is eager to do something they are prevented from doing right now. It can also be understood that the verb “straining” refers either to a force that tends to pull or stretch something to an extreme or damaging degree, or to a severe or excessive demand on the strength, resources, or abilities of someone or something. In other words, context is everything when this phrase is in play.

Last year, on April 5, 2012 the Telegraph newspaper in the UK published a story that reported that it appeared almost inevitable that there wold be an attack on Iran unless Tehran changed its course on developing nuclear weapons. The headline read:

Israel’s Dogs Of War Are Straining At The Leash To Attack Iran: Can Barack Obama Stop Them?

On a more positive note, the Free Lance-Star published a story on February 15, 1977 entitled, “Straining At The Leash.” The first paragraph launched into the story by stating:

The space shuttle is not yet on the wing, but figuratively speaking it is now straining at the leash. The first orbiter, dubbed “Enterprise,” has been trundled across the desert to Edwards Air Force Base. After a series of more and more demanding ground and air tests, in July a two-astronaut crew will make the first crucial free-flight and landing attempts.

In Madras (the former name for the Capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu in South India), the Indian Express edition of October 18, 1941 reported on the resignation of the Japanese cabinet, indicating that it had been unable to reach agreement on vital questions connected with Japanese policy. The news story drew its headline from the last line of the story in the paragraph that read:

The Japanese will take no one unprepared but will find themselves embroiled in ventures the strain of which coupled with a severe economic boycott may well take them to the brink of catastrophe. It may still be that even a new Japanese cabinet inclined to throw its fortunes more openly into the Axis struggle, will watch and weigh before committing the nation to new perils brought on by Army and Navy chiefs who seem to be itching for action, straining like hounds at the leash.

When Associated Press Sports Writer, Paul Zimmerman wrote about the Columbia Lions and the Stanford Stars back on December 30, 1933, the Evening Independent carried the exciting story on the much-anticipated Rose Bowl game. The story was entitled, “Lions Eager To Enter Fray While Stanford Has Two Regulars Kept Abed By Severe Colds” and the first paragraph read:

Trained to the minute and straining at the leash, Columbia’s Lion gridsters restlessly awaited today their hour of departure for Pasadena where they will match their football skill against Sanford New Year’s Day.

Twenty years before that, the Meriden Daily Journal published a news article on October 8, 1903 on Russia’s answer to Japanese movement of troops into Korea. The story ran with the headline, “Czar Sends Ships To Corea To Offset Mikado’s Troops” and halfway through the article, the following was written:

With the dogs of war ready on both sides and straining at the leash, the diplomats of Russia and Japan are still trying to reach an amicable agreement. Negotiations are proceeding in Tokio, and, it is announced, that they are over the future of Corea and do not relate to the evacuation of Manchuria. Apparently this latter question has been settled to the satisfaction of the Russians. They are there and mean to stay.

Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) published a  story in 1825 entitled, “The Talisman.”   This passage in the story made use of the expression:

King Richard looked more than once at the Nubian and his dog; but the former moved not, nor did the latter strain at the leash, so that Richard said to the slave with some scorn, “Thy success in this enterprise, my sable friend, even though thou hast brought thy hound’s sagacity to back thine own, will not, I fear, place thee high in the rank of wizards, or much augment thy merits towards our person.”

In the prologue of Act I in the play, “Henry V” by William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616), the play recounts, in part, how Henry V is committed to going to war for ethical reasons while at the same time being restrained by the fact that he must show just cause for going to war. How can this be claimed? The character of Henry V asks himself, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” In other words, Henry V is weighing what is right according to his conscience before England wages war against another country. The passage about the hounds does not use the expression “straining at the leash” however it certainly carries with it the spirit of the expression.

The three hounds are famine, sword and fire, and the passage reads thusly:

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Although the figurative sense of straining at the leash is attested to from early in the 15th century, the reference to straining at the leash referring to a set of three is from the early 14th century and is found in sporting language. From this comes the archaic definition for straining as meaning that the individual or individuals are using their utmost effort.

So while Idiomation could only trace the exact wording of the idiom to Sir Walter Scott, the spirit of the idiom goes back to the 14th century.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Devil’s Bones

Posted by Admin on August 11, 2011

Somehow, dice sound so much more menacing when referred to as devil’s bones.  So menacing, in fact, that the phrase was used by writing team Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson as the title for Jefferson Bass book “The Devil’s Bones” published on February 5, 2008.  According to Douglas R. Cobb of BestsellersWorld.com, the novel is a “page-turning, nail-biting thriller” that is guaranteed to keep the reader burning the midnight oil reading it.

On March 9, 1962 the Windsor Star published a news story entitled, “Dirty Boneshakers at Large.”  The story was originally reported in London, England and addressed the new twist crap game that was making itself known in gambling casinos.  At the time craps was one of the few games of chance permitted under Britain’s new betting regulations.  The story reported the following in part:

Something must have happened to these rules in crossing the Atlantic.  For it is hard to recognize in them the fine old traditional pastime as played on American street corners, in empty lots and in the gilded emporiums of Reno and Las Vegas.  According to the weekly, dice are known to the “expert” as “devil’s bones” or “rattlers.”  It does not say who these experts are or in what section of the United States they live.

That being said, the term devil’s bones was not an American expression that made it’s way to Britain in the 1960s.   “The Fortunes Of Nigel” written by Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) and published in 1822, was the eighth title in his Waverly novels.  The first, “Waverly” was published in 1814 and the last, “Anne of Geierstein” was published in 1829.  The phrase devil’s bones is used twice in “The Fortunes Of Nigel.”  It is found on page 68:

Stand buff against the reproach of thine over-tender conscience, man, and when thous summest up, like a good arithmetician, the actions of the day, before you balance the account upon your pillow, tell the accusing spirit, to his brimstone beard, that if thine ears have heard the clatter of the devil’s bones, they hand hath not trowled them — that if thy eye hath seen the brawling of two angry boys, they blade hath not been bared in their fray.

and once again on page 113:

“Your words must be still plainer before I can understand them,” said Nigel.

“What the devil — a gamester, one who deals with the devil’s bones and the doctors, and not understand pedlar’s French!! Nay, then I must speak plain English, and that’s the simpleton’s tongue.”

“Speak, then, sir,” said Nigel; ” and I pray you be brief, for I have little more time to bestow on you.”

The Poor Robin Almanac of 1676 appears to be the one of the first publications to link dice to the expression devil’s bones when it referred to them in this way:

… cards and dice … the devil’s book and the devil’s bones.

However, it is Sir George Etherege who is credited for having linked dice and the devil’s bones together in this written passage back in 1664:

I do not understand dice … hang the devil’s bones!

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to dice as the devil’s bones and so it would appear that the phrase devil’s bones dates back to 1664.

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

Apple Of My Eye

Posted by Admin on September 15, 2010

The phrase “apple of my eye” is best remembered for its inclusion in Sir Walter Scott‘s popular novel Old Mortality published in 1816 where he wrote:

Poor Richard was to me as an eldest son, the apple of my eye.

Shakespeare used the phrase in his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Act III, Scene 2 where Oberon says:

Flower of this purple dye,
Hit with Cupid’s archery,
Sink in apple of his eye.
When his love he doth espy,
Let her shine as gloriously
As the Venus of the sky.
When thou wakest, if she be by,
Beg of her for remedy.

But before Scott and Shakespeare, the phrase appeared in a work published in 885 entitled Gregory’s Pastoral Care which is attributed to King Aelfred the Great of Wessex.   During this era, the pupil of the eye was thought to be a solid object and because an apple was the most common round object around, the pupil was referred to as an apple.

Because one’s eyesight was particularly important, the phrase also took on a figurative sense when speaking of someone the speaker considered as precious to him or her as his or her own eyesight.  That the phrase was used in this way implies that the phrase had been in use for quite some time before it was included in King Aelfred the Great‘s book.

In the end, the phrase “apple of my eye” shows up time and again in the Old Testament of the Bible.

He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.  (Deuteronomy 32:10)

Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings.  (Book of Psalms 17:8)

Keep my commandments, and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye.  (Proverbs 7:2)

Their heart cried unto the Lord, O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears run down like a river day and night: give thyself no rest; let not the apple of thine eye cease.   (Lamentations 2: 18)

For thus saith the LORD of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye.  (Zechariah 2:8)

Posted in Bible, Christian, Idioms from the 10th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Jewish, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Red-Handed

Posted by Admin on July 27, 2010

This expression means an individual has been caught in the act of committing a crime. Its original meaning is to be caught after having stabbed someone, where the perpetrator still has blood on his or her hands.

“Red-handed” dates back to the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I in 1432 and is referred to at that time as “red-hand.”   “Red-hand” appears in print many times in Scottish legal proceedings from that point on. 

Sir George Mackenzie’s essay entitled A Discourse Upon The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal which was published in 1674 states:

If he be not taken red-hand, the sheriff cannot proceed against him.”

In Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe published in 1819, the shift from “red-hand” to “red-handed” was made:

I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.”

You may want to remember this word the next time you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »