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Posts Tagged ‘The Fortunes Of Nigel’

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.

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

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

I crazy?

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,


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 »

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.

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