Tag Archives: Etymology

What The Dickens! 7 Popular Sayings & How They Originated

You May Think The Saying “What The Dickens” Is Related To Novelist Charles Dickens (It’s Not.)

7 Famous Phrases And How They Came About.

Charles (Not “what the”) Dickens

Almost everyone uses slang or colloquial speech without ever thinking how did the words in the phrase come together?

Monumental arguments have ensued over simple sayings and many times there is no correct answer, merely an educated supposition.

The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins Volume II by William and Mary Morris (1967) Harper & Row, contains what the authors believe to be the origins of hundreds of sayings. Here are seven of them. The words in italics are from the Morris’s book.

the real McCoy

The real McCoy” is heard a lot in those gangster films of the 30s and 40s. A saying that is still used today, the real McCoy has controversial origins.

The Real McCoy? Charles “Kid” McCoy

Continue reading

Did Newspaper Writers Really Used To Say “Stop The Press?”

Stop The Press and Other Movie Cliches

Skyline by Gene FowlerReading Gene Fowler’s highly entertaining memoir Skyline a reporter’s reminiscences of the 20’s  (Viking) 1961, I came across Fowler’s description on how newspaper writers talked shop or in this case didn’t.

Apparently those old films which featured newspapers as their settings did not capture the true vernacular of the field or their subjects according to Fowler.

In one passage, Fowler relates the following story when he was assigned to Oyster Bay, New York to cover President Theodore Roosevelt’s death in 1919. Fowler had just finished relaying his story via telegraph.

“Sign me off,” I said to the telegraph operator. So far as I know, none of us (reporters) ever used the supposedly classic term “thirty” at the end of our stories. That, and several other words and phrases which occur in motion picture scripts, was not part of our supposed lingo. For example, I never heard one Park Row man describe another as a “star reporter.” And if one of us even telephoned in with the legendary cry of “Stop the press!” he would have been turned over at once to Dr. Menas Gregory of Bellevue, or else fired.

Fowler’s memoir is a paean to 1920s New York with the central narrative focusing on the great newspaper writers and editors, now mostly forgotten. Continue reading

Charles Lindbergh Was Not The First Flier To Cross The Atlantic – And Other Unusual Things You Didn’t Know

Lindbergh Didn’t Cross The Atlantic First

7 Strange and Unusual Historical Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

When I was a kid I remember reading a copy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not and coming across the “fact” that Charles Lindbergh was “merely the 67th person” to fly across the Atlantic.

Albert C Read's seaplane that crossed the Atlantic in 1919

Albert C Read’s seaplane that crossed the Atlantic in 1919

Technically Ripley was correct. The first person to cross the Atlantic was Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read. On May 16-27, 1919 Read flew in a seaplane, the NC-4, from Newfoundland to the Azores and on to Lisbon Portugal. it was not a non-stop flight like Lindbergh was to accomplish eight years later, but even so I never learned that in school.

Lindbergh was not even the first to make a non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Captain John Alcock and Arthur W. Brown flew non-stop in a British biplane from Newfoundland to Ireland in a little over 16 hours on June 14, 1919.

So with that nugget of history, here are six more unusual facts that you probably didn’t know.

Why We Shake Hands With Our Right Hands
The custom of shaking hands has come down to us from the time when almost everyone carried a sword or knife. In those days when one met a stranger, it was customary as a matter of friendly intention, to hold out the right hand to show it did not hold a sword or knife.

It Was Predicted Skyscrapers Would Not Be Economically Practical Over Time
In 1939 It was estimated by the National Association of Real Estate Boards that “it is unlikely that the period of economic usefulness of a skyscraper can be much longer than forty years.”

In The Early 20th Century There Was A Proposal To Go To A 13 Month Calendar
Moses B. Cotsworth’s idea was to replace the 12 month Gregorian calendar,with a 13 month calendar. Cotsworth’s calendar would apply uniformity to the number of days in each month – thirteen months each comprising 28 days. Continue reading

The Greatest Horse Of All-Time Did Not Win The Kentucky Derby

Man o’ War Winner of 20 of His 21 Races

Man o' War at age 22 in 1939 at Faraway Farm near Lexington, KY. photo: AP

Man o’ War at age 22 in 1939 at Faraway Farm near Lexington, KY. photo: Associated Press

Churchill Downs is packed awaiting the 75th running of the Kentucky Derby. Here the fans watch the running of the 2nd race, in a prelude to the big race. May 7, 1949 photo: Associated Press

Churchill Downs is packed awaiting the 75th running of the Kentucky Derby. Here the fans watch the running of the 2nd race, in a prelude to the big race. May 7, 1949 photo: Associated Press

The Kentucky Derby, which will be run this weekend is the first leg of the triple crown of American horse racing. When a horse wins the Kentucky Derby, the inevitable talk begins: can the winning horse go on to take the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes? To win all three races is considered the measure of a great horse.

But Man o’ War (1917 – 1947) possibly the greatest horse of all-time never won the 1920 Kentucky Derby because Continue reading

Lifebuoy Soap Body Odor Ad 1933

My Dear, You Smell of B.O.

Lifebuoy Soap Ad - Schenectady Gazette March 13, 1933

Lifebuoy Soap Ad – Schenectady Gazette March 13, 1933 (click to enlarge)

“What a kill-joy B.O. is!” says this 1933 Lifebuoy comic strip ad.

“Perhaps its your fault,” says Auntie to Mrs. B.O.

Nothing like being direct.

The Lifebuoy ad warns that B.O. make life miserable for its victims. I like that  it is whispered in parenthesis in case you don’t know that B.O. stands for body odor.

And to add a dramatic flair, B.O. “threatens their jobs, social positions – even their homes!”

Fortunately of course there is a Continue reading

Old New York In Photos #47

Before The Flatiron Building

The Intersection of 23rd Street Where 5th Avenue and Broadway Meet – 1900

23rd Street 5th Avenue Broadway site of Flatiron Building circa 1900This view of 23rd Street at the intersection of Fifth Ave and Broadway was taken around 1900. The ornate street lamp and multitude of signs and advertising make this a great street level photograph. There is also something very interesting that I have rarely seen in any late 19th century photo of New York and that is another photographer taking a picture at the same time that this one was taken. He is directly to the left of the street lamp and the tripod is clearly visible while his head is under the covers to line up his shot.

From the approximate direction his camera is pointing, it looks like he is shooting straight up Broadway toward the Worth monument. I’d like to imagine that behind the camera is Joseph or Percy Byron of the famous New York Byron Company.

The famous Fuller Building, better known as the Flatiron went up in 1902 Continue reading

Where Did The Saying “Up The River” Come From?

A Movie Cliche’s New York Origins

If you ever watch any gangster films from the 1930’s or 40’s, one of the lines of dialogue that always pops up is: “up the river.”

Somebody would utter it: a criminal; prosecutor; police officer; or a fellow gangster. Listen and it will be said in most of these early crime movies.

Lines like:

“Didn’t you hear, Rocky’s going up the river.”

“If you don’t talk Ike, I can guarantee you’re going to spend a long stretch up the river.”

“I’m not takin’ the fall to go up the river for a heist you did, Spats.”

The term “up the river” as most people know refers to going to prison.

So where did the saying come from?

In the 1800’s, when you were charged with a crime and sent to prison in New York City, the accused would first be taken to the prison on Centre Street in lower Manhattan which was known as “the Tombs” built in 1838.

The Tombs were so named because the original structure had large granite columns on the outside of the building which  resembled Egyptian burial architecture, a.k.a. tombs. The Tombs though, were merely a holding prison for the accused criminals awaiting trial.

After sentencing, convicts were sent to a prison on Blackwell’s Island (today known as Roosevelt Island) in the middle of the East River.

However if you were a habitual offender or committed a very serious offense, you would be sent thirty miles north, up the Hudson River to Sing Sing prison. This is the origin of the phrase being sent, “up the river.” Sing Sing separated the hardened criminals from the run of the mill pickpockets, burglars and ordinary thieves.

Even though, the term “up the river” originally referred to Sing Sing, it was eventually applied to anyone being sent to any prison.

The “New” Led Zeppelin

The Name Game Continues

While New Zealand may have outlawed some names, the USA, with the exception of what a judge may find to be a frivolous name, (Your Majesty; Copyright; Superman) still allows people to name themselves or their offspring pretty much whatever they want.

So when George Blackburn, 64, of Bethalto, IL recently got divorced, he wanted a fresh start and legally renamed himself Led Zeppelin II. According to an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch the newly named Zeppelin said: Continue reading

Stupid Baby Names Outlawed in New Zealand

New Zealand’s Birth Registrar bans “Lucifer” “Messiah” “General” and “*”  as Names

As reported in the West Australian newspaper on July 19 the New Zealand  registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages have compiled a list of 102 names (so far) of names they will not allow parents to name their bundles of joy.

It might seem an arbitrary list, as they allowed one set of parents to name their child “Violence.”

Wouldn’t it be easier to just change your own name rather than embarassing your offspring with your own idea of a unique name?

This is probably a case of the government overstepping their boundries, but I am astounded by the number of stupid names American parents give their babies.

In New York City, a teacher I know who taught in the lower income South Bronx, actually encountered two children (from different families) with incredibly unique names.  Continue reading