Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Wilkie Collins’

Mountain Out Of A Molehill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 17, 2017

As Idiomation shared on Thursday of last week, making a mountain out of a moleskin or a molehill is to over-react to a minor issue, or to make something very small into something bigger than what it happens to be. While the moleskin version has a short history, the better-known molehill version stretches much farther back in history.

We all know the expression to make a mountain out of a molehill is in use to this day. Whether it’s Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. writing an article for Psychology Today (13 December 2013, How To Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill) or Laura Cano Mora submitting her doctoral thesis titled, “How To Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill: A Corpus-Based Pragmatic and Conversational Analysis Study of Hyperbole In Interaction” everyone seems to understand the meaning of the phrase.

Even kids watching cartoons like “Phineas and Ferb” have heard the saying used in episodes such as “At The Car Wash” when the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz explains to Perry the Platypus how he came up with the idea for his Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill-Inator.  It would seem that after he was told repeatedly by people from all walks of life (from his parents to the firefighters at the local Fire Department) to stop making mountains out of molehills, he decided that if he wasn’t already doing that, maybe it was time he started really doing that.  So he did.

English novelist, playwright, and short story writer Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) published his 1868 mystery novel “The Moonstone” to great acclaim.  In this novel, at one point Superintendent Seegrave says to Sergeant Cuff:

There is such a thing as making a mountain out of a molehill.

The point of his comment was that the Superintendent was of the opinion the Sergeant was making way too much of something as trivial as a tiny paint smudge on the door. He was wrong, of course, as that tiny paint smudge on the door proved very important after all.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1: Wilkie Collins was the son of English landscape painter William Collins (1788 – 1847) and is considered the pioneer of detective fiction. His talent lay in his ability to create, choreograph, and master intricate plots coupled with a unique narrative technique.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Wilkie Collins’ book “The Moonstone” set the standard by which all other detective fiction is measured. In this novel, the story was told from a number of points of view having to do with a stolen diamond taken from an Indian idol.

But the expression dates all the way back to 1548 when English playwright, cleric, and schoolmaster Nicholas Udall (1504 – 23 December 1556) used it in his work titled, “The First Tome or Volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus Upon the New Testament.”  What he wrote was this:

The Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill.

The idiom to which Nicholas Udall referred was from Greek satirist Lucian (120 – 200 AC) in his work “Ode To A Fly” in which he compared an elephant to a fly. The Latin version of this was elephantem ex musca facere.  Of course, as was shared in a previous Idiomation entry, the elephant version is still in use in Russia to this day.

IMPORTANT NOTE 3: Lucian, also known as Lucian of Samosata, was a satirist and rhetorician in Greece. He claimed to be an Assyrian however not everyone agreed with his claim. He mocked superstitions, religious practices, and beliefs in the paranormal although he claimed to believe in the existence of the gods.  

So while the moleskin version of this expression only dates back to the early 1900s, the molehill version is solidly nailed to 1548 with a nod to Ancient Greece. Oh, what a difference 350 or so years (plus another 110 or so years to catch up to 2017) can make when it comes to similar, and yet very different, expressions.

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Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Greece, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Beat The Devil’s Tattoo

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 3, 2011

When you’re accused of beating the Devil’s tattoo, you’re being told that you are drumming on a hard surface with your fingers.  More often than not, it’s thought of a sign of impatience or ill-humour to be beating the Devil’s tattoo, but it need not be.  The saying, though seldom used these days, is still heard from time to time.

California psych-garage trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released their sixth CD last year entitled, “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo.”  This trio of young musicians must have heard or read the expression somewhere along the line to christen their CD with the phrase.  And it appears to work for them as Rolling Stone has referred to the band and their music as “unremittingly grim and undeniably fun.”

Back in the 1960s there was a very famous race horse according to Florida Horse Magazine known as “Devil’s Tattoo.”  If another horse beat the “Devil’s Tattoo” there was definitely some serious drumming going on the racetrack surface! In 1965, Miami resident — and former Chairman of the Florida State Racing Commission — Louie Bandel along with Mrs. Edith Marienhoff, bred and sold Devil’s Tattoo for $70,000.

In O. O. McIntyre‘s column “New York Day By Day” run in the Milwaukee Sentinel on January 8, 1935, the author included a tidbit about the Rainbow Room, a top “swank spot” in the sky high Rockefeller Center. Part of Mr. McIntyre’s review of the Rainbow Room included this bit:

The night I was there a melancholy mood singer was husking to a twanging guitar.  Several couples sat starry eyes, enraptured.  I could only beat a devil’s tattoo on the chair arm and wonder how much the tax on the check.  Sacre tonnere, what a thing to get old!

On June 7, 1907 the Pittsburgh Press ran a story about President  Roosevelt entitled, “Roosevelt Is Very Restless.”  It detailed the woes of a professional photographer who had agreed to do an official portrait of the President but much to his dismay, this proved to be quite a task in itself.  The story related in part:

He did pull his head back a bit then, but he immediately began to drum on the table with the fingers of his right hand.  I requested him to belay that while I was focussing him, and then he began to beat the devil’s tattoo on the armchair with the fingers of his left hand.  He smiled very broadly when I asked him not to do that, and by this time he was huddled all in a bunch in the chair again, and once more I had to take hold of him and unravel some of the knots from his right position. 

Finally I got the snap at him, but the picture wasn’t satisfactory to me, although he seemed to like it.  He was profoundly bored, apparently, by the time I got through pulling him around in the chair, and when Mr. Roosevelt is bored his expression is sardonic.

In Chapter 11 of the book entitled, “No Name” written by Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889) and published in 1862, one passage in the book recounts the following with regards to Captain Wragge:

He sat unflinchingly at the window with a patience which Mrs. Lecount herself could not have surpassed. The one active proceeding in which he seemed to think it necessary to engage was performed by deputy. He sent the servant to the inn to hire a chaise and a fast horse, and to say that he would call himself before noon that day and tell the hostler when the vehicle would be wanted. Not a sign of impatience escaped him until the time drew near for the departure of the early coach. Then the captain’s curly lips began to twitch with anxiety, and the captain’s restless fingers beat the devil’s tattoo unremittingly on the window-pane.

The New York Times ran a series of short news items on September 27, 1854 with one sub-heading entitled, “Calloa Items.”  The two news items under this sub-heading were each a paragraph in length and read thusly:

The fine clipper ship Kate Hayes was sold at the offices of the American Consul in Calloa on Monday last.  She brought $27,400, Mr. Seville of this city being the purchaser.

The same day, during a drunken brawl, two men were wounded, and a cavalry soldier, in attempting to beat “the devil’s tattoo” on the heads of two countrymen with the ramrod of his pistol, inflicted serious injury.

In Edgar Allen Poe‘s satirical short story entitled, “The Devil In The Belfry” published on May 18, 1839 in the Philadelphia issue of the Saturday Chronicle and Mirror of the Times, the story takes readers to the Dutch borough of Vondervotteimittiss — a quaint, out-of-the-way spot where very little of anything happens.   In this story, fans of Edgar Allen Poe (1809 – 1849) find this paragraph:

But the little chap seized him at once by the nose; gave it a swing and a pull; clapped the big chapeau de-bras upon his head; knocked it down over his eyes and mouth; and then, lifting up the big fiddle, beat him with it so long and so soundly, that what with the belfry-man being so fat, and the fiddle being so hollow, you would have sworn that there was a regiment of double-bass drummers all beating the devil’s tattoo up in the belfry of the steeple of Vondervotteimittiss.

Idiomation was unable to find a published version of the phrase “beat the Devil’s tattoo” prior to Poe’s use however as with other expressions that are found in literature, it is reasonable to believe the phrase was a common expression used often enough to be recognizable to the general public and so it’s very likely that this phrase goes back to at least 1800.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »