Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘William Safire’

Like Ugly On An Ape

Posted by Admin on March 22, 2013

It’s not often that you hear an expression that’s so bold in its delivery, but like ugly on an ape is one of those expressions.  On October 30, 1988 the New York Times published an article by William Safire that opened with this paragraph:

“I knew the minute I said ‘card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U.,’” George Bush told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, “a couple of your best columnists would jump all over me like ugly on an ape.”

It must have made an impression on author, Larry Niven as his book “The Man-Kzin Wars 2” published in 1989 used it in the book’s description:

Born and bred to hunting, they had never encountered a species they couldn’t treat as prey – until they met the canny pseudo-pacifists from Planet Earth. They nearly overwhelmed humanity on first contact, but fast as you can say “Ghengis Khan” or “Alexander the Great” the seemingly harmless monkey boys were all over the pussycats like ugly on an ape, with space fleets and strategic thinking that left the Warrior Race quite dazzled.  But that was then and this is now.  The pain of lost battles has faded and the Kzinti are back, spoiling for a fight, Larry Niven’s Known Space is again aflame with war.

So where did this expression come from originally, and how did it make it into a former U.S. president’s every day jargon?

It’s a fact that Gunsmoke (a television program that ran from 1955 through to 1975) where Festus Haggin — a role played by Ken Curtis (July 2, 1916 – April 28, 1991) — was known to use a number of colorful and amusing phrases to express himself.  Among the many that made their way into American culture of the day was “I’ll get on to you like ugly on an ape.”

Now according to the Texas Monthly magazine and writer Anne Dingus in the December 1969 edition, like ugly on an ape is an old Texas saying.  A number of Texans confirm this to be a fact.

Like ugly on an ape appeared in the early part of the 20th century as ugly as an ape and was a common expression referring to the physical appearance of an individual or how he presented himself in polite society.  Contrary to popular misconception these days, it was not a comment on one’s cultural heritage and as such, was not intended to insult those of African descent.

On September 22, 1883 the saying was found on the front page of the New York Clipper and Theatrical Journal, founded by Frank Queen in 1853.  It was found in the poem “An Actor” written for the New York Clipper by Cupid Jones, that offered this up as the first verse:

He was ugly as an ape,
Stupid, and vain, and vicious;
He had no chic, he had no shape,
His style was meretricious.

And in the New York Evening Express of 1843, in an article entitled, “Purchasing A Husband” the following quick story was published:

Susan, a country girl desirous of matrimony, received from her mistress the present of a five pound bank note for a marriage portion.  Her mistress wished to see the object of Susan’s favor, and a very diminutive fellow, swarthy as a Moor, and ugly as an ape, made his appearance before her.

“Ah, Susan,” said her mistress, “what a strange choice you have made!”

“Lo, ma’am,” said Susan, “in such hard times as them, when almost all the tall fellows are gone for soldiers, what more of a man than this can you expect for a five pound note?”

In the end, it’s uncertain when this idiom became part of the American lexicon, however, it is claimed by Texans as a long-standing Texas saying.  As such the Republic of Texas came about in 1835 and the expression certainly dates to at least a generation prior to that when you consider when the Republic was established and the use of the expression in a northern newspaper in 1843.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Dutch Rub

Posted by Admin on August 31, 2011

A Dutch rub is when you hold someone’s head under your arm in a headlock and rub the knuckles back and forth across the top of that person’s head.  Some people refer to it as a noogie or a monkey scrub or a hippo handing or a Russian haircut or a Yankee dime or a barbershop quartet, but it’s been a Dutch rub for longer than it’s been any of those other things.

On October 23, 2006 John Den Boer mentioned Dutch rubs in a blog article on his blog site that dealt with the Dutch.  His blog site has been around since 2003 and he describes himself as someone who enjoys mumbling his disagreements with various newspaper columnists.  The last sentence in this blog article was:

Perhaps I should have turned to my antagonist and given him a good old fashioned Dutch rub.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette edition of December 29, 1996 published an article entitled, “The Great Noogie Uprising” written by William Safire.  The author was imparting his knowledge of certain actions from the Indian rub to the noogie.  The article he wrote stated in part:

Noting the hard g, making the word rhyme with boogie-woogie, etymologists will make the connection of noogie with knuckle; rooted in the Dutch word knock, “bone.”  That led to Middle Low German knoke, and to Middle English knockel.  By the 1940s, knuckle was also a slang word for “the head” leading to the World War II use of knucklehead as a jocular put-down.  Further evidence that the Bronx term has roots in Holland is that the transitive verb knuckle, “to press or rub with the knuckles” has also been called a “Dutch rub,” causing many a victim to “knuckle under.”  That is the only synonym to noogie noted in scholarly literature, leading to the conclusion that a noogie is clearly not an Indian burn.

On April 27, 1965 the New York Times published an interesting news piece by Russell Baker entitled, “Observer: Child Things.” The opening paragraph began with, “Children write to complain that they are bored and life is no fun. “What can we do?” they ask. The following list of things for children to do is based on a survey of things their parents did when they were children.”  However, one of the things suggested to children was this popular neighbourhood activity:

With several other friends, seize the new kid in the neighborhood and give him a Dutch rub. To give a Dutch rub. make a fist and rub the knuckles vigorously across his head.

Back on October 6, 1940 the Chicago Daily Tribune published a sports article by Edward Burns entitled, “Reds Even World Series: Sox Beat Cubs 3-2.”   Paul Derringer scored 5 hits and the writer noted that “Big Paul holds Detroit to five hits.”  The story had an accompanying photograph and the blurb beneath it read:

A happy Paul Derringer (left), gets an old-fashioned Dutch rub from Manager Bill McKechnie after the big right hander had set down the Tigers with five hits.

Six years earlier, the Los Angeles Times published a sports article on October 4, 1936 entitled, “With Wirephoto Photographers At Work Series Game In New York.”  With a word count of only 232 words, the photo and accompanying descriptor said it all.

Irving (Bump) Hadley, winning pitcher for the New York Yankees in yesterday’s tight-fisted 2-1 game with the Giants, gets a Dutch rub from Lou Gehrig.

While the “Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English” dates the expression back to 1930, Idiomation questions this based on the ease with which it was used in sports articles in the 1930s.  What’s more, there was a cartoon strip back in the 1930s known as Timid Ted that advertised the benefits of Ovaltine.  Poor Timid Ted was a nervous, shaky, scrawny boy who, over the course of a number of cartoons, became the alpha male in the neighbourhood.  But before that happened, Timid Ted‘s readers were treated to a number of sad cartoons depicting what a sorry child Timid Ted was and how much of a disappointment he was to his parents.  One of these cartoons showed a group of tough kids looking at Timid Ted with the caption above one boy’s head that read:

After these highballs let’s razz that puny Simpson kid.  Hold his arms while I give him a dutch rub.

In fact, Warren Faulkner of Oregon stated in 2000 at the age of 78 that the term Dutch rub was very much a part of his boyhood.  This would put the expression sometime during the late 1920s.  This supports the belief that when an expression appears in print without quotation marks, it is an expression that dates to at least the previous generation.  To this end, it is not unreasonable to believe that the expression Dutch rub dates back to about 1920.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »