Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘The Age’

Weak As Water

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 14, 2015

When someone says another person is weak as water, it could mean it usually means the other person is easily influenced.  After all, water always chooses the path of least resistance in nature, and likewise, if someone is weak as water, they won’t want to cause waves.  They’ll also choose the path of least resistance.

It was in the newspaper The Age of Thursday, March 23, 1978 that news of the Australian federal government’s decision to free Queensland Aborigines from state laws governing the administration of Aboriginal reserves. According to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister at the time, the legislation would override the Queensland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Act. But not everyone was impressed with the announcement.

The Queensland state government last night declared it would use every weapon available to block the legislation. The acting Queensland Premier, Mr. Knox, said he was astounded by the move. “We will oppose this attempt both politically and in the courts,” Mr. Knox said.

In Hong Kong, the Queensland Premier, Mr. Bjelke-Petersen, said the Federal Government’s actions were “as weak as water.”

On July 30, 1951 an Associated Press story written by William F. Arbogast went national and reported on the final congressional approval for an economic controls bill that President Truman would then be expected to sign even though he disagreed with the bill. If the bill wasn’t signed into law by the next evening, all existing government controls over things such as wages, prices, and rents would come to a screeching halt. Added to the situation was the fact that there wasn’t even enough time for the President to veto the vote by Congress. The article was aptly titled, “Weak As Water Controls Bill Nears Final Approval By Congress Once More Leaving Consumers Holding The Bag.”

Of course, sometimes newspapers and books yield up interesting situations such as the one mentioned in the Palm Beach Post newspaper of May 18, 1923 that ran a full-page under the headline, “Questions For Consideration At Mass Meeting Tonight To Discuss Municipal Ownership of Public Utilities.”   The issue at heart was that of the water supply to West Palm Beach, and included such questions as these:

Will they sell the water plant at actual cost and deduct the $20,000 or more estimated losses they will incur each year during the next eight years?

Who has been trying to enact a law in the State Legislature to take away power of increase and reduction of public utilities rates from municipal authorities and place this power with the State Railroad Commission?

Can three men who reside in Tallahassee fix public utility rates for all Florida and do justice to all concerned?

Did anybody ever try to put a yellow rope around Lorenzo Garland’s neck?

Is the request of the Water Company for an increase in rates as weak as water?

Who is willing to be the goat and stand up against the corporations who own public utilities and their agents, hirelings, and retained attorneys?

The Bryan Times of June 29, 1882 published a story by Rose Terry Cooke entitled, “Just Like A Man” that shared typical male and female interactions as seen through the eyes of the author. Halfway through the story, Sarah and her mother segue into this part of their discussion.

“Bless your soul and body,” Put in her mother; “I never see the thing yet you wa’n’t afeard of, Sary, horse or not.”

“Oh I know it, ma, but I am awfully afeard of a skittish horse; Tom, he don’t really sense it, and he says Jenny ain’t ugly, she’s just full of play; and I s’pose she is; she’s knowing as a dog, and I give her a bite of somethin’ every time he fetches her ’round, and she knows me real well, but she will jump and lash out and sky sometimes, and it makes me just as weak as water, so’t I don’t never drive her if I can help it.”

Reaching back into history, the expression is identified as a proverb in John Ray’s “A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs” that was first published in 1674. John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) was a Fellow of the Royal Society as well as the author of “Historia Plantarum.”  Since John Ray has identified this as a proverb, a quick search of the Christian Bible reveals that, indeed, it does appear in the Christian Bible in Ezekiel 21.

 “As for you, son of man, groan; with breaking heart and bitter grief, groan before their eyes.   And when they say to you, ‘Why do you groan?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that it is coming. Every heart will melt, and all hands will be feeble; every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it is coming, and it will be fulfilled,’” declares the Lord God.

On a related parallel note, water isn’t actually weak. Water determines its own path in nature (and sometimes in the city as well). It can be transformed into liquid, gas, or a solid (ice). It can erode stone, concrete, and other hard substances. It can sustain bacteria and other living organisms. In other words, water is anything but weak.  But Idiomation digresses on the matter of the idiom at hand.

Back on topic, the Book of Ezekiel is found in the Old Testament, so it’s more than two thousand years old. What history tells us is that Ezekiel was taken to Babylon in the first captivity and served as a religious counselor to the Hebrews that lived along the banks of the Kebar River around 597 B.C. Portions of the Book of Ezekiel, however, were written prior to Jerusalem’s fall in 586 B.C. This puts the expression to the time the Book of Ezekiel was written. It may be older than that, but Idiomation was unable to find an earlier version of this expression.

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Blue Murder

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 17, 2013

Blue murder (which is not to be mistaken for any other kind of murder) is a loud or impassioned outcry, or a horrible din.  Young children are said to have perfected this cry as parents from generation to generation have oftentimes exclaimed that some child is crying blue murder when the child is carrying on.

On September 23, 1971 a news story from Canberra was reported in The Age newspaper of Melbourne, Australia was published.  The story was aptly entitled, “Blue Murder, But It Has To Be Funny” and began with this lead-in

Comedians could get away with blue murder in what they said on broadcasts, as long as they were funny, Dudley Moor said yesterday. But the proceedings at the National Press Club lunch at which Dudley and his partner Peter Cook appeared were not funny enough to pass the ABC censor unscathed.

When James O’Donnell Bennett wrote a Special Report for the Morning Leader newspaper edition of September 23, 1927 readers were glued to every single detail about the championship fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey in Chicago.  It was a messy situation from start to finish, with the title of the piece being, “Dempsey’s Men caught Trying To Smear Vaseline.”  At one point, the following was reported:

His people, however, squawked blue murder and rightly so.  Their screaming of “rabbit punches, Dave” — addressed to Referee David Barry — began in the fourth round when Dempsey landed three rabbit punches on the base of Tunney’s skull.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book “Anne’s House Of Dreams” which was published in 1917, the expression blue murder is used in Chapter 35 entitled, “Politics At Four Winds.”  The chapter opens up at the point where Canada is in the midst of a political campaign and the political views of the Grits and the Tories are presented.  In this chapter the following passage is found:

“He’d have done it, too, and Gus knew it, for Marshall is as strong as an ox and Gus is only a midget of a man. So he gave in and towed Marshall in to the shop and went to work. `Now,’ says he, `I’ll barber you up, but if you say one word to me about the Grits getting in while I’m doing it I’ll cut your throat with this razor,’ says he. You wouldn’t have thought mild little Gus could be so bloodthirsty, would you? Shows what party politics will do for a man. Marshall kept quiet and got his hair and beard disposed of and went home. When his old housekeeper heard him come upstairs she peeked out of her bedroom door to see whether ’twas him or the hired boy. And when she saw a strange man striding down the hall with a candle in his hand she screamed blue murder and fainted dead away. They had to send for the doctor before they could bring her to, and it was several days before she could look at Marshall without shaking all over.”

John S. Farmer alleges in his book of 1890 entitled, “Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present” that:

Few words enter more largely into the composition of slang, and colloquialisms bordering on slang, than does the word BLUE.  Expressive alike of the utmost contempt, as of all that men hold dearest and love best, its manifold combinations, in ever varying shares of meaning, greet the philologist at every turn.

Needless to say, the expression and its definition can be found in the 1968 edition of J.C. Hotten’s “The Slang Dictionary Or The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases And Fast Expressions Of High And Low Society.”

In London, England a delightful folio of songs entitled, “The Melodist and Mirthful Olio: An Elegant Collection Of The Most Popular Songs” was published in 1829.  In this collection, there’s a song known as “The Cats: An Original Comic Song” written by Michael Hall, and in this song, the following couplet is found:

Till in the trap caught, by their tails both so taught,
Molrow and blue murder, they cried, sirs.

For those who aren’t in the know, molrowing is the “practice of socializing with a disreputable woman” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Oh my! What were those kittens getting themselves into?!

According to the “Classical Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue” compiled by Francis Grose and published in 1785, blue was defined thusly:

To look blue; to be confounded, terrified, or disappointed.  Blue as a razor; perhaps, blue as azure.

And somewhere between 1785 and 1829, the words blue and murder became blue murder … an expression in its own right.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Chicken Feed

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 20, 2012

Chicken feed refers to a small amount of anything especially money.  It comes from the fact that chickens can be fed grains in amounts too small for other uses but that are enough for the chickens.

Earlier this month, on March 8th, This Is Cornwall ran a news story about the youngest pupils at Falmouth Primary School and how they raised 13 newly hatched chicks.  The students fed and cared for the chicks with the help of the school staff.  The story was aptly entitled, “Cost of Keeping Hens Isn’t Chicken Feed” as the school community continues to fundraise for a coop and a plastic chicken house for their charges.

The Lodi News-Sentinel newspaper of Lodi, California ran a story on March 2, 1977 about the water resources projects that were to be suspended by the Jimmy Carter administration.  The suspensions would hopefully save the American public $5.1 billion.  The story appeared in Andrew Tully’s Capital Fare column and was entitled, “Dam Money Is Chicken Feed.”

On March 28, 1945 the front page news in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper was an article entitled, “Enclosing The Ruhr: Vital Areas In Danger.”  It read in part:

It is not too much to say that between General Patton’s Darmstadt-Aschaffenburg-Frankfurt bridgehead and the Swiss frontier there are no forces that the Third Army leader would consider as more than chicken feed while east and north-east of Frankfurt there is something very much like an open gate.

Chicken Feed was the title of a twenty-minute black-and-white short silent comedy film directed by Robert A. McGowan (22 May 1901 – 20 June 1955) and Charles Oelze (24 November 1885 –  2 August 1949), and released on November 6, 1927.  It was the 64th short from the “Our Gang” series and starred Joe Cobb, Jackie Condon and Jean Darling in the lead roles.

The Detroit Free Press carried a serialized story entitled, “Mr. Dooley On Making A Will” which was written by Finley Dunne.  Part Five was published on August 24, 1913 and the first paragraph read:

“I NEVER made a will,” said Mr. Dooley. “I didn’t want to give a headache thinkin’ iv something to put into it. A will iv mine wud be a puny little thing annyhow, an’ wan thried to file it be lible to locked up contimpt iv th’ Probate coort. Besides, I like to cause any onseemly wrangles an’ lawsuits among me heirs.”

As the story progressed, the following passage can be found:

And wit out an’ decoyed another dollar an’ aven if it come back ladin’ nawthin’ more thin a little chickenfeed, Dochney wasn’t cross about it.

While the expression isn’t used as often as the more popular “peanuts” when referring to money, the phrase first appeared in print in the memoirs of American frontiersman and statesman, Davy Crockett and published in 1836.  Davy Crockett described professional riverboat gamblers who played card games for small change, stating that gamblers made good money on their “chickenfeed” games. It would seem that the term originates with Davy Crockett and if readers can trace the expression back to before 1836, we welcome the additional information.

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Deadline

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 25, 2011

The word deadline refers to a time limit and according to the Oxford Dictionary, it’s American newspaper jargon from around 1920 that blends two words together: dead and line.  This may well be true as an edition of The Age newspaper dated December 26, 1951 that dealt with the cease-fire agreement in Korea.

The Christmas good-will spirit left armistice negotiators unaffected, and today there was again no progress.  The deadline for agreement on an armistice is December 27 (Thursday).  The United Nations spokesman, General Nuckols, said that neither the Communists nor the United Nations had asked for an extension of the 30-day period of a cease-fire line agreement.

And true to what was found in the Oxford Dictionary, the Baltimore Sun newspaper ran a story on July 7, 1920 entitled, “Our Next President Will Be A Seasoned Newspaper Man.”  The article began by stating:

Harding and Cox have both served from printer’s “devil” to Editor, and both will be callous to such expression as “beat,” “trim,” “cut,” “kill” and “deadline.”

However, it appears that in 1920, the word deadline also had another meaning.  It was a more literal meaning of the word although still very much in keeping with the more figurative meaning.   This is confirmed by a news article carried by the New York Times on March 21, 1920 entitled, “Thieves Open Steamship Office Safe And Get $179.80” and reads in part:

Safe robbers manipulated the combination of the safe in the building of Bennet, Hvoslef & Co., steamship agents, at 18 Broadway, last Tuesday and escaped with $179.80.  The police believe the robbery was the work of expert safe burglars who have robbed more than half a dozen safes below the police “deadline” in the financial district within the last two months.  The robbers are alleged to have concealed their finger prints by rubbing the surface of the safe with a damp cloth.

On January 11, 1880 the New York Times published a story entitled “Rising Old Men” that dealt with men of a certain age attaining and retaining positions and power in public life as had never been seen before.  It read in part:

Of course, nature, when offended, is always sure to have her revenge, and coarse indulgences sometimes were the resort of old men, when driven from the wholesome air of genial society and left to themselves to gossip and gormandize, and sometimes to guzzle and to gamble.  The new civilization changes all of this, and people who have living thought and purpose, and who agree in taste and ideas, associate freely together without even the different uniform of age and youth; and sometimes the youngest heart of the company belongs to some gifted man or woman who has long passed the dead-line of 50, as this date is often called.

In 1863, after then-President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Deputy U.S. Marshals oftentimes employed the services of local farmers to serve as lookouts  to work the “dead line” between Arkansas and Indian Territory. 

And in 1864, there was more than one comment noted in documents of the “dead line” in the stockades.  In fact, the first prisoner to die crossing the “dead line” was Caleb Coplan, a private in Company A, 1st Ohio infantry.  Captured on September 19, 1864 at Chickamauga, Coplan ducked under the “dead line” on April 9, 1864 and was promptly shot by a sentry.  He died the following day.

In the Report of the Secretary of War dated October 31, 1865, it was reported that Captain Henry Wirz, who was in charge of the stockade where Coplan was shot and died “did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, where Wirz instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line” …. “

Captain Henry Wirz was court-martialed, and found guilty of charges of cruelty, murder and acts of inhumanity in May 1865.   The court-martial was presided over by U.S. Major General Lew Wallace.

A little more than 30 years before that, however, the Library of U.S. History documents a situation where the hewed log residence of Joel Sayre was used in 1831 as both a court and a jail.  With William Bonnet as jailer and William Bonnet Jr. and Silas Carney as guards, the “dead line” marked the limits of the jail and separated it from what was set aside to be the court room.

Two generations before that, however, in 1763 American colonists could not established homesteads on lands lying westward of the source of any river flowing through the Atlantic seaboard. The dead-line, as it was referred to, identified for colonists cut off them off from about half of Pennsylvania and half of Virginia as well as everything from that point westward.

Idiomation was unable to find a reference to dead lines prior to 1763 however the use of the word in 1763 implies it was used in every day language and dates back to at least 1750.

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