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Some American phrases

This is a continuation of the subject broached cautiously on July 17, 2019. Since the comments were supportive, I’ll continue in the same vein. Perhaps it should first be mentioned that sometimes the line separating language study from the study of history, customs, and rituals is thin. For example, there was (perhaps still is) the British English phrase to hang out the broom. It meant “to invite guests in the wife’s absence,” while in other situations the same phrase referred to a working girl’s desire to get married.   (See the post of February 10, 2016 on it.) There is nothing here for the linguist to do: all the words are clear, and the meaning is known. One has to discover why the custom of hanging out the broom indicated such unexpected things. This is what so-called antiquaries try to do. In fact, most idioms, unless they contain incomprehensible words like brunt and lurch, are of this type.

Consider the phrase blue plate lunch(eon). Wikipedia has an article about it, but I can add something to what it says. Blue plate special first referrred to a low-priced meal that usually changed daily. The name “may well have come from the over-popular ‘willow pattern’ of the chinaware.” (All my quotes have been borrowed from Notes and Queries and American Notes and Queries.) It still remains somewhat unclear “when designers introduced the theoretically excellent, but actually disturbing, practice of dividing a large luncheon plate into compartments.”

A correspondent, who sent a letter to ANQ in 1945, wrote that the source of this expression may perhaps be found in the description of Forefathers’ Day, a New England tradition first observed in December, 1798. It later became customary to eat from huge blue dinner plates specially made by Enoch Wood & Sons of Staffordshire. One can see that here, as in the case of hanging out the broom, we deal with a custom. Yet both phrases are indeed idioms, because the knowledge of their components won’t help an outsider to understand the whole.

Many years ago, we rented a cabin in northern Minnesota. The owner was a handyman who owned an establishment called “Let George do it.” His name was indeed George, and I found the sign ingenious and clever. Only much later did I learn that the phrase let George do it means “let somebody else do this work.” I’ll now reproduce part of the letter from the New York Public Library, addressed to Notes and Queries in 1923. The expression “has in the last ten or dozen years become current in America. Especially during the [First World] War was it in common use. We are interested to learn if there is any foundation to the statement that this phrase is of English origin. We know that the French have employed for several centuries a very similar expression, ‘Laissez faire à George, il est home d’âge’ [‘Let George do it; he is a grownup man’], which they trace back to Louis XII. Has such an expression been used in England, and if so, is there any explanation of its origin known to you or your readers?”

Georgie Porgie always did his work himself. From The Boyd Smith Mother Goose, public domain via Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.
This is a seven by nine smile one can only dream of. The Smile of a Cheshire Cat by Brian, CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

The question has never been answered. The OED found the first occurrence of the phrase in print in 1909. This is exactly the date the letter writer had in mind. By the way, while working on my prospective dictionary of idioms, I made a list of questions in Notes and Queries that produced no replies. The list is instructive. I still have no idea whether let George do it is an Americanism or whether it only flourished on American soil (if so, why so late?), and what it has to do with its French analog. It does not appear in English dictionaries of familiar quotations. On the Internet, one can find some informative correspondence about the origin of the phrase. But the sought-after etymology is lost. Perhaps some of our readers know something about the matter. Their suggestions are welcome.

If I am not mistaken, the next two phrases are not in the OED. As I read in a 1909 publication, “the American phrase seven by nine is generally applied to a laugh or smile of latitude more than usually benign, as if meaning the length and width thereof and at the same time playing upon the word benign.” (Is the reference to benign an example of folk etymology?) I would like to mention a problem with words and expression called American in dictionaries. They produce the impression that all English speakers in the United States know them. Yet this term is a trap into which unwary foreigners who try to learn “real American” from books often fall. They use such words and idioms and don’t realize that they may have stumbled upon a piece of local or forgotten usage or slang. For example, now, more than half a century after the radio show “Let George do it,” young people seldom recognize the collocation.

This is the preeminent Connecticut Yankee. Oxford World’s Classic edition.

In any case, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the American phrase a seven by nine politician existed. Here is a commentary from a Connecticut Yankee, if I may plagiarize Mark Twain. The phrase is said to apply to a man “of too limited abilities, force, or outlook to cut much of any. [It] refers to the old-fashioned windowpanes, before the time when glass filling the whole or half of the sash was common; these were ‘seven by nine’ in hundreds of thousands of farm or village houses…. Its nearest synonym is ‘peanut’ politician, that is, bearing the same relation to large political ideas and plans as a peanut vendor, or huckster of peanuts and roast chestnuts in a pushcart, does to large mercantile activities. Neither name implies a low position or importance: only the pettiness of the issues which can form the staple of the activities…. Similar names are ‘two-cent’ or ‘two-for-a cent’ (‘ha-penny’ comes just between) or huckleberry (‘whortleberry’) politician: the last having the same implication as ‘peanut’—one peddles huckleberries by the quart.”

What a rich display of dated slang! Peanuts do not fare too well in American English: cheap payments are “just peanuts,” and peanut politics, that is, “petty politics” (often with reference to corruption) is a phrase one can still hear around. The explanation quoted above may very well be correct, but I notice with some unease that seven and nine are the favorites of numerous idioms and folklore, and here they occur in what was known a hundred years ago, and in an entirely different context, as entente cordiale. See the posts for April 6, 2016 and June 19, 2019. Does the phase seven by nine really have an ascertainable foundation in reality, or is the use of seven and nine in it as mysterious as in nine tailors make a man and seven-league boots?

La entente cordiale. From L’oncle de l’Europe, public domain via Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.

The unresolved riddle of the phrase let George do it again reminds us of the fact that many typical American words and expression were coined in England, came into desuetude there, but survived in the New World. That is why the definition of an Americanism is often ambiguous. Compare what I wrote about the idiom to get down to brass tacks in April 15, 2015.

I would like to repeat that, if my discussion of American idioms presents interest, I may perhaps write one more such essay in the nearest future.

Feature image credit: Daderot, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    I’m always delighted to have idioms explained as I am around non-native speakers who want to know what a certain expression means. I often don’t know the origins and sometimes the meaning. I’m just waking up to the expression “Stay woke”.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Here’s a provisional, maybe wild, guess about how “seven by nine,” long-standard panes of glass, transferred into politics (before the “cookie cutter” variety of politician, maybe). In a Nov 2, 1824 New York Standard newspaper (and in other papers and cities later) are warnings about political tracts printed on seven by nine paper (would they be placed in windows, I wonder?). Headlined “Caution!” it warned: “A seven by nine sheet called “the People’s Press,” filled with paragraphs directly against THE RIGHTS OF THE PEOPLE, and supporting the doctrines of King Caucus, is now secretly and probably extensively circulated in this city, and will be continued until after the election! The first number was by accident discovered, and handed to us yesterday. Let the people be on their guard, and not confide in any of its statements. It is emphatically a wolf in sheep’s clothing!”

  3. Robert Miskines

    Fascinating! I often find myself googling idioms concerning their origin. I’m amazed at how often the origin is ambiguous or unknown.

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