Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Swan song


No, I am not going away, nor is my protagonist Inez. But swan song does pop up in passing in Inez's musings as I gallop to the final line of Silver Rush book #7. The phrase sounds very Shakespearean to me, but what do I know? I've been fooled before by idioms that sound "old" but are "new" (and vice versa).

So, swan song. Pre- or post-1880s? Want to hazard a guess?
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
Of course, I'm not going to guess. I'm going to research!

First stop (because the book is right at hand) is my trusty American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer:
swan song: A final accomplishment or performance, one's last work. ... The term alludes to the old belief that swans normally are mute but burst into beautiful song moments before they die.
Hey! This is perfect for my scene! I must use it! But then the entry continues:
...Although the idea is much older, the term was first recorded in English only in 1890.

What?? 1890??

I want a second opinion. And maybe a third.

Next stop, The Phrase Finder, which includes a quote from the Swan of Avon, William Shakespeare (yes!!) from 1596. The following appears in The Merchant of Venice, straight from Portia: "Let music sound while he doth make his choice; then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, fading in music." 

The Online Etymological Dictionary obliges me by noting, "swan-song (1831) is a translation of German Schwanengesang." 

I check several more references on my bookshelf. Nothing for swan song. How can that be? I finally turned to an old dependable: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition. It does not let me down.
swan song (1831) 1: a song of great sweetness said to be sung by a dying swan 2: a farewell appearance or final act or pronouncement.
 Good enough for me! I close the book, and allow Inez to ponder on a diva's swan song.
And here you have it! Ossian Singing His Swan Song, painted circa 1780, by Nicolai Abildgaard.
Not quite the singer I have in mind, but still...
[Public domain]

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Hit the road


Hit the road is an idiom with a contemporary feeling to it, at least to me (I blame Ray Charles; see end of this post).

The phrase popped to mind when I stumbled across this painting by James Tissot, one of my favorite painters from the mid/late 19th century.
Waiting for the Train, James Tissot, circa 1871–1873
Oil on panel
Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery
Admiring her trunks, hatbox, valise, and general demeanor, I thought, "She looks ready to hit the road." Then I backtracked, figuring that would be too modern a phrase for the time frame.

But is it?
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer, hit the road, meaning to set out as on a trip, first appeared in the late 1800s. The Online Etymology Dictionary narrows the first-use date even further, to 1873.

So, I was wrong!

And I'm tickled to find that this young woman in 1873, and indeed my protagonist Inez Stannert in 1881, could hit the road, with or without baggage, and not be anachronistic.

Finally, before you leave slang-o-rama and hit the internet road for other entertainment, please enjoy this mid-20th-century musical interlude:

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Raining cats and dogs


The phrase raining cats and dogs popped into my mind while I was writing. My first thought was: How old is it? It sounds "old enough." My second thought was: Why cats and dogs? Why not snakes and lizards? Or apples and oranges?

So of course, I had to set aside my draft and go a-searching for answers.
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
Christine Ammer's The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms notes that this phrase means "to rain very heavily." (Yep, I knew that.) It also had this to say about its origins:
The precise allusion... which dates from the mid-1600s, has been lost, but it probably refers to gutters overflowing with debris that included sewage, garbage, and dead animals. Richard Brome used a version of this idiom in his play The City Wit (c. 1652), where a character pretending a knowledge of Latin translates wholly by ear, "Regna bitque/and it shall rain, Dogmata Polla Sophon/dogs and polecats and so forth."
The online Grammarist lists another possible reference and adds details to the "dead animals in the street after a heavy rain" origin:
There are several theories, one being that the phrase raining cats and dogs references the mythologies of the Norse god Odin and English witches. Odin was depicted as traveling in storms with dogs and wolves, cats were well-known familiars of witches.
Another possible source of inspiration ... is the filth of seventeenth century London. Stray animals lived and died untended. When streets became swollen with rain it is likely there were many dead dogs and cats floating in the flooded streets, giving the appearance of having rained cats and dogs. The oldest known use of this term occurred in 1651, in a  collection of poems by Henry Vaughan in which he alludes to a roof that was secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.”
Not quite ready to return to my draft, I checked the Online Etymological Dictionary, where someone had fun writing up this entry:
...One of the less likely suggestions [for the origin of this phrase] is pets sliding off sod roofs when the sod got too wet during a rainstorm. (Ever see a dog react to a rainstorm by climbing up on an exposed roof?)
Ooops, pardon me, Etymological Dictionary, your rhetorical question is showing... ;-)

And because I was in a procrastinating mood, I delved a little deeper and unearthed this fascinating post from the Library of Congress on the phrase raining cats and dogs. You can't beat the Library of Congress for thoroughness (or great images).


Up with the bumbershoots! Four-footed creatures are falling from the sky in great abundance! 
George Cruikshank [Public domain]

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Absquatulate!


By special request from reader Liz (and yes, I take requests) I hearby designate the slang-o-rama term of the week to be absquatulate. (Say it five times fast. If you don't know how to pronounce it, check this Cambridge Dictionary link,where you can hear the word in both American and British English... how cool is that!)
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
Americanisms, Old and New provides a vigorous definition, as well as noting the alternative spelling, absquotilate:
To run away; to decamp; with the more or less forcible idea of absconding in disgrace. A factitious word of American origin and jocular use, perhaps from Latin ab and American squat. It was first used by Mr. Hackett as Nimrod Wildfire, a Kentucky character in a play called "The Kentuckian," by Bernard, produced in 1833. It is now less often heard than formerly, having been replaced in some degree by the word skedaddle*.
The Online Etymology Dictionary adds a bit more (for instance, giving the full name of the mysterious playwright "Bernard"):
(1837)... [P]erhaps based on a mock-Latin negation of squat (v.) "to settle." Said to have been used on the London stage in in the lines of rough, bragging, comical American character "Nimrod Wildfire" in the play "The Kentuckian" as re-written by British author William B. Bernard, perhaps it was in James K. Paulding's American original, "The Lion of the West." Civil War slang established skedaddle in its place. Related: Absquatulated; absquatulating; absquatulation.
Curious as to when usage peaked for this word (I can't say I've heard anyone say it lately!), I turned to Ngram, which yielded the following graph:
It's interesting to note (well, okay, interesting to me), that the graph of absquatulate has two peaks: one in the early 1860s (which I more or less expected) and another from about 1930 to 1940 (which I did not expect). Why is that, do you think? I'm wondering if that latter bump might tie into the heyday of pulp Westerns. But since I'm not sure when that heyday was, this is just a guess.

World Wide Words also weighs in on the word, with this fascinating insight into the 1830s:
The 1830s — a period of great vigour and expansiveness in the US — was also a decade of inventiveness in language, featuring a fashion for word play, obscure abbreviations, fanciful coinages, and puns. Only a few inventions of that period have survived to our times, such as sockdologer, skedaddle and hornswoggle. Among those that haven’t lasted the distance were blustrification (the action of celebrating boisterously), goshbustified (excessively pleased and gratified), and dumfungled (used up).
Now, I'd better absquatulate. My latest Silver Rush work-in-progress is calling!


Time to mentally absquatulate... See you next week!
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay
*Skedaddle being last week's slang-o-rama entry.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Skedaddle!


Skedaddle! Oh, what a perfect word! I say it out loud, and I swear I can hear the sound of scuffling feet hurrying away....

Well, there you go for a definition. But if you want something more authoritative and historical, keep reading for edification on skedaddle from Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer (1889).
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>

skedaddle, to—To depart hurriedly; to run away. Cf. ABSQUATULATE.
But the entry doesn't stop there. It goes on, and on, for almost an entire page. Here's the start of the discussion:
...De Vere succinctly summarizes the various conflicting theories as to its origin thus: —"the word skedaddle even crossed the Atlantic, and was once gravely discussed in Parliament. It appeared in print, probably for the first time, immediately after the battle of Bull Run, and was at once caught at and repeated all over the country. In answer to inquires about its origin, some Irishmen at once claimed it as their own...
The entry goes on to suggest the Scandinavians from Wisconsin might have introduced the word during the Civil War, and then peers back in time to trace the word to a Greek verb...

Well, heck, I can't figure out how to recreate all the Greek letters here, so I'll just point you to the entry, which is quite the fun essay to read.
Floyd's Retreat From Fort Donelson, With a Running Description of the Battle. By Skedaddles.
Published 1862 by A.C. Peters & Bro. in Cincinnati.

The Online Etymology Dictionary scratches its head over the origin, discounts De Vere (mentioned above), and offers this:
"to run away," 1861, American Civil War military slang, of unknown origin, perhaps connected to earlier use in northern England dialect with a meaning "to spill." Liberman says it "has no connection with any word of Greek, Irish, or Swedish, and it is not a blend" [contra De Vere]. He calls it instead an "enlargement of dial. scaddle 'scare, frighten.'" Related: Skedaddled; skedaddling. As a noun from 1870.
World Wide Words, in a discussion of skedaddle, pretty much sums up the mystery of its genesis thusly:
This archetypal American expression ... has led etymologists a pretty dance in trying to work out where it comes from.
The WWW post goes on to point out that skedaddle moved quickly from the U.S. to the U.K. and even appears in Anthony Trollope's novel The Last Chronicle of Barset in 1867: “ ‘Mamma, Major Grantly has — skedaddled.’ ‘Oh, Lily, what a word!’ ”

What a word indeed!
Time to skedaddle!
Der fliehende Liebhaber by A. Buzzi [Public domain
]


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: High dudgeon


Now here is a phrase I've used before without really thinking about it. (Confession: for a long time, I thought it was high dungeon, not high dudgeon.) So what the heck is a dudgeon anyway? And if it's a high dudgeon vs a low dudgeon? It's all a bit of a mystery to me...
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>

Turns out, this phrase is a bit of a mystery all around. From World Wide Words, we have this:
...[Dudgeon] is one of a distressingly large group of words for which we have no idea of their origins. The group includes a couple of others also ending in -udgeon: bludgeon and curmudgeon.
Dudgeon means a state of anger, resentment, or offence and often turns up as in dudgeon or in high dudgeon The Oxford English Dictionary can’t give its source, though it’s sure it’s not from the Welsh word dygen, meaning malice or resentment, which has been suggested in the past. It does point to endugine, a word recorded just once, in 1638, with the same sense, which might have given us a clue, but doesn’t help at all.
It also records another sense of the word, itself mysterious, for a kind of wood used by turners, especially the handles of knives or daggers. It has been suggested it was another name for boxwood. It appears in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “I see thee still, / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, / Which was not so before.” Later the word was used for a dagger whose handle was made of this wood.
It just might be that a state of anger or resentment could have led to the grabbing of a dudgeon knife with intent to redress a slight, but there’s no evidence whatever of the connection.
The Online Etymological Dictionary gives a similar shrug of the shoulders:
Dudgeon (n.) "feeling of offense, resentment, sullen anger," 1570s, duggin, of unknown origin. One suggestion is Italian aduggiare "to overshadow," giving it the same sense development as umbrage. No clear connection to earlier dudgeon (late 14c.), a kind of wood used for knife handles, which is perhaps from French douve "a stave," which probably is Germanic. The source also has been sought in Celtic, especially Welsh dygen "malice, resentment," but OED reports that this "appears to be historically and phonetically baseless."
You can also read a bit more about this phrase at the Grammarphobia blog, right here. All in all, it seems that knives are involved. Very dangerous, if the person gripping the knife happens to be in high dudgeon.


Medea with a bloody dagger. Perhaps she wielded it in high dudgeon. By Alphonse Mucha - Art Renewal Center – description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8879553
... Is this a dagger which I see before me? (If it's being wielded in high dudgeon, I'm outta here.)
[By Alphonse Mucha - Art Renewal Center – description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8879553]

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Before you can say Jack Robinson


Before you can say Jack Robinson. This phrase recently popped out of a character's mouth as I was writing dialogue for my current work-in-progress, causing me to screech to a halt.

I knew what this expression meant: very quickly, or suddenly

But did this expression exist in 1881 (the timeframe I'm writing about), or was I being (horrors!) anachronistic? And who is/was Jack Robinson anyway?

Well, you can guess what I did next. (Hint: I didn't plunge back into the draft.)
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
According to my handy-dandy American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer, the expression before you can say Jack Robinson (or quicker than you can say Jack Robinson) originated in the 1700s. (Yay! I can use it!) However, according to Ammer, Jack Robinson himself remains a mystery:
... the identity of Jack Robinson has been lost. Grose's Classical Dictionary (1785) said he was a man who paid such brief visits to acquaintances that there was scarcely time to announce his arrival before he had departed, but it gives no further documentation.
The online Phrase Finder is also left scratching its head over this Jack fellow, suggesting one more possible derivation, but then quickly discounting it:
...Sir John Robinson was the Constable of the Tower of London for several years from 1660 onward. Some have suggested that he was the source of the phrase and have bequeathed him a reputation for hastily chopping off people's heads. There's no evidence to link the phrase with Sir John, or that he was in any way unusually quick in dispatching the Tower's inmates....
The Word Detective has fun tackling this phrase by way of musing into the many uses of the name "Jack." Once we've danced round and about that tree, the detective concedes that no one knows for certain who this Jack Robinson was.

Wikipedia lines up all the theories about this (mythical) Jack Robinson and adds a few more, right here.

Enjoy!

As for me, it's back to the draft, faster than you can say...
Well. You know.

Off and running! No time to linger!
From More Celtic Fairy Tales, Jacobs, J., New York: G. P. Putnam's sons; London: D Nutt (1894), illustration by John Dickson Batten? [Public domain]