Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Toronto World’

Devil’s Strip

Posted by Admin on June 18, 2015

When you hear people talk about the devil’s strip, do you know what they’re talking about?  The devil’s strip is the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb.  In Boca Raton it’s known as a swale and in Chicago it’s known as a parkway.  But in many other places in Canada and the United States, it’s known as the devil’s strip.

On February 28, 1948 the Montreal Gazette included a brief article about a Court of Appeals court that upheld an earlier verdict against the Montreal Tramways Company for injuries sustained by Bernard Wilson Hansen on December 27, 1945.  In all, the carpenter was awarded $2,570 CDN (or the equivalent of $25,790 CDN in 2015 dollars) despite claims by lawyer Marcus Sperber that the verdict was “ridiculous.”  The article was entitled, “Appeal Court Upholds Ridiculous Verdict” and ended with this paragraph.

Hansen, carrying a tool chest on his shoulder, attempted to cross Bleury Street with the green light in his favor.  The traffic light changed when he was in the middle of the street and as he stood on the “devil’s strip” a moving tram struck the tool chest.  He fell to the ground and was badly injured.

The Toronto World edition of April 22, 1920 wrote about the devil’s strip in an article entitled, “Toronto To Have Semaphore System Of Traffic Control: Deputy-Chief Dickson Explains American Method In Detail.”   Toronto was being modernized, and semaphore traffic signals were being installed!  The Chief of Police Grasett had informed the media as well as the Board of Control that his department was in the process of drawing up plans for these signals, which the Chief of Police guaranteed would handle traffic more efficiently than police officers by at least fifty percent, based on their success in larger American cities.  The article began with this impressive paragraph:

“Stop.”  No traffic cop has waved his hand, but a long line of traffic at a downtown intersection has been brought to an abrupt halt.  “Go.”   Again no movement on the part of the minion of the law, but the long line of vehicles continue on their way.  The constable also, is not standing in the devil’s strip, in the centre of the intersection, but off to one side.

On May 14, 1901, a lawsuit for negligence by a street railway was heard in the Ontario Court of Appeal.  Known as Robinson v Toronto Railway Co., the judge determined that the motorman of an electric car was not guilty of negligence because he didn’t stop the car at the first sign of a horse being frightened by a motor car or anything else that might spook a horse.  It was determined that the most that could be expected of the streetcar motorman was to proceed carefully, and as such, the court was satisfied that the motorman had done so.  The previous finding of negligence was set aside.  The idiom was used in the testimony of one of the witnesses.

Porteous, who was called as a witness for the plaintiff, says that he was driving south of the track; that the horse became frightened and unmanageable at the sight of the defendant’s car and backed over the south track across the “devil’s strip” on to the north track; that it then went to the boulevard, made a wheel, and jumped straight in front of the north track again, and got his foot in the fender just as the car stopped.  He also says the car struck the side of the buggy and threw the plaintiff out on to the road, occasioning the injuries complained of.

Both she and Porteous say they shouted to the men on the car to stop; that the men seemed to be laughing, and that the speed of the car was not slackened until it was within a few feet of the horse.

In 1887, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto published a book titled, “Transactions.”  In the chapter having to do with asphalt and asphalt paving, written by F.N. Speller, the idiom cropped while discussing the preparation of the foundation for asphalt paving.

The sub-grade is carefully prepared, levelled, and rolled, if found necessary, for solidification.  The kerbs are placed in position, either being set in concrete or gravel.  The subsoil is drained by four-inch tile drains running parallel with the kerb in three rows, one under each kerb, and one under the devil’s strip, or centre of the roadway, the former making connections with the catch-water basins.

If electric car tracks are to be laid, the sub-grade must be excavated to twelve inches extra in the track allowance, this being then filled in with six inches of ballast and compacted.

It should be noted that the majority of magazine, newspaper, and resource book references that mention the devil’s strip are primarily from Canada, and as such, it would appear that the idiom is a Canadian term that made its way to America over time. However, the “Proceedings of the Annual Meeting” of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers published in 1883, M.E. Rawson, Assistant City Civil Engineer for the city of Cleveland in Ohio refers to this same space on city streets in Cleveland as the space that is “known by the significant rather than elegant name of the devil’s strip.”

Prior to streetcars, there was no need for a boulevard on city streets and since the first streetcar was patented on January 17, 1871.  The first streetcar made its appearance on August 1, 1873 in San Francisco on a stretch of track that began at the intersection of Clay and Kearny Streets to the crest of a hill 307 feet above the starting point on 2,800 feet of track.  By the 1880s, streetcars were finding their way into most major American and Canadian cities, with the largest and busiest fleet of cable cars being in Chicago … as were the devil’s strip.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published mention of the devil’s strip prior to the one published in 1883, however, the term was known and used in Cleveland at that time which means the term was understood by professionals dealing with streetcar issues at the time.  The term is therefore pegged to about 1880.

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Duck Soup

Posted by Admin on August 23, 2011

When someone mentions that a task or assignment is duck soup, what they’re telling you is that it can be very easily accomplished.  The expression gained popularity due in large part to the 1933 Marx Brothers movie “Duck Soup” but the Marx Brothers aren’t the ones who coined the expression.

On January 26, 1962 the Ottawa Citizen newspaper published a story entitled, “Oil Blaze Duck Soup To Texan Fire-Killer.”  The story reported on how Red Adair, a Texan,  nonchalantly put out an oil well fire and immediately flew back to Texas to take on another oil well fire.  The story reported the following:

With the help of others he doused the flames with chemicals Thursday, then filled the well with a special mud to stop the oil from flowing.

“It was duck soup compared to some of the fires I’ve fought,” said Adair.  How much the Sun Oil Company of Calgary, which brought in the well recently, will pay him has not been announced.  But an official said the company had already spent $100,000 before he arrived — the fire broke out last Friday — and any fee charged would be worth it. 

On December 24, 1943 the Ellensburg Daily Record in Washington state published a news story entitled, “Rocket Planes Duck Soup To Yankee Fighters.”  It was the height of World War II and the article began with this:

German planes mounting the new rocket guns are “duck soup” for American fighter planes, says Wellwood Beall, vice-president in charge of engineering at Boeing Aircraft Company.  Beall, just back from watching Fortresses perform over Europe, reported bombers have taken some “terrific punishment” from rockets but that he could find no cases of a direct hit.

“Ships carrying rocket guns are slow, inaccurate and duck soup for American fighter planes,” he said. “Our boys line up to see who’ll shoot them down.”

The Milwaukee Journal published an article on August 8, 1931 about Burleigh Grimes of Owen, Wisconsin who was an aging but effective spitballer playing with the St. Louis Cardinals at the time.  The article was entitled, “Grove! Pooh!   He’ll Be Duck Soup Says Grimes.”  Burleigh Grimes was quoted in the story as saying:

“Sure, there’s one way we can lose,” Burleigh explained.  “If we don’t hit, we can’t win.  If we don’t make runs, we can’t win.  But let us make a few runs and we’ll knock ’em over in a hurry.  Grove!  Pooh! says he’s got ’em scared to death in that league.  Who’s he got to beat? We bet im last year, didn’t we?  And he’ll be duck soup for us this October.  And now about Earnshaw?  I guess he’ll have another streak like he had last year? I guess not.”

On August 12, 1918 the Toronto World newspaper printed a news story by Ida L. Webster.  This reporter wrote about two baseball games played on the same afternoon between Toronto and Buffalo. The news story was entitled:

Leading Leaflets Took Two Games: Bisons Proved To Be Duck Soup For Howley’s Wild Men On Saturday.

According to “The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang” the expression “duck soup” first appeared in a newspaper cartoon in 1902 drawn by T.A. Dorgan.  The cartoon shows a man in a Police Court juggling a bottle, pitcher, plate and salt shaker and the caption underneath read: Duck Soup.

However, Idiomation was able to find an even earlier printed reference in the Chicago Daily Tribune of July 23, 1897 on page 10 in a story containing 1,792 words.  In other words, it was a sizeable news story!  A business interviewed for the story stated:

I am out of the business and so this fight is duck soup for me.

We kept researching and came across the expression in the Detroit Free Press on October 24, 1893 on page 8 in an article entitled, “Salting Western Mines: How Eastern Strangers Are Taken In By Sharpers.”  The article was 2,295 words in length and dealt with the subject of con men who made their schemes work.  The article stated that a salted mine was so called because the con man easily fooled “eastern tenderfoots” headed west to grow rich overnight with his con game.  The story underscored the fact that suckers made for fine food for mining sharks.  The story included these two sentences:

The McDonalds were “duck soup.” They were quietly moved over to Alder Gulch by a syndicate of sharpers who needed more money to develop properties.

Since the expression duck soup was used in such a prominent newspaper in 1893, it can be assumed that the general population of the day understood the meaning of duck soup.  This places the expression in the vocabulary of the day. That the expression appears in quotation marks, however, implies that it may have been a relatively new expression at the time.  It can therefore be assumed that the expression dates back to sometime in the mid to late 1880s.

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