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Idioms: a historian's view by the Oxford Etymologist

Idioms: a historian’s view

This is a continuation of last week’s post.

Idioms are phrases and often pose questions not directly connected with linguistics. For example, ale is a very ancient word, and its ultimate origin, as could be expected, is a matter of speculation. We have little chance to discover the impulse that made a distant ancestor of modern Germanic speakers use this combination of sounds to designate the beverage whose name is famous in myth (ale has not changed too much from days of yore: the earliest form sounded approximately like aluth-), and we have to admit defeat in the search for the “ultimate” etymology. But it turns out that some moderately witty person once used the phrase Adam’s ale for “water.” The earliest occurrence of Adam’s ale in The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) goes back to 1643, the year Newton was born. The answer to the question about the origin of this phrase is not even worth the time we might spend while looking for it. What will change if we discover the wit’s name? By contrast, learning the origin of ale might shed light on ancient religious beliefs and the technology of preparing alcoholic beverages. It has been suggested that Adam’s ale is a phrase like Welsh rabbit “a cheese dish” and Cape Cod turkey “codfish.” But I am not sure the pattern is the same. Time and again students of idioms find themselves in this situation: they wonder who coined the odd locution and eventually find the author, but much more often they find nothing.

At approximately the same time (before 1635), the phrase ale and history turned up. It became proverbial (though today hardly anyone has heard it). The implication seemed to be that drinking ale is inseparable from telling a good story. Perhaps so. The inventor of the phrase remains undiscovered. It is not even clear whether we are dealing with an idiom. In any case, the OED does not list it. Perhaps language historians have better luck with the champagne to the masthead. The custom of “christening a ship” is old. It consisted in smashing a bottle of wine and throwing it overboard to celebrate the launching of the ship, her virgin voyage, even though champagne was not the earliest choice.

Champagne to the mast and beyond.
(Via Picryl, public domain)

 I came across the champagne to the masthead in an 1862 letter to the British biweekly Notes and Queries and included it in my prospective dictionary of idioms but refrained from the brief commentary given below, because the gloss “plentiful supply of the wine at table” does not seem to have a direct bearing on any ceremony. Apparently, to in the phrase means “all the way to.” But idioms are a slippery field, and I almost never risked adding my commentary. Though the origin of the champagne to the masthead is obviously naval, I’d rather leave the nuance to experts. Some readers of this blog may perhaps add a more enlightening comment. Once again the OED did not find the phrase worthy of inclusion. (I assume that at the OED they have all my materials as a matter of course and that if some item has been left out, it was done after serious consideration, while I may risk some linguistic promiscuity.)

The American version of Hoppin’ John.
(Photo by srjenkins via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now here is one more shot at drinking: hopping John. In George Cruikshank’s Three Courses and a Dessert, p. 26 (ed., 1830), this term is applied to half a gallon of cider, qualified by a pint of brandy and a dozen roasted apples, hissing hot. (From hissing to hopping?) The same odd phrase is applied in the southern parts of the United States to a stew of bacon with peas or rice. Thus, not a beverage! (My references are dated 1838 and 1856.) These incompatible uses, the correspondent to the periodical suggested, would seem to be independent of each other (Notes and Queries 1909, Series 10, No. I, p. 487). The OED has no citations before 1838. In America, the only pronunciation of the name of the dish is hoppin’ John and is sometimes treated as a borrowing from another language. Cruikshank is world-famous for his illustrations to the original editions of Dickens’s novels, and he probably knew a local, rather than the American, phrase. So many objects have been called john, from johnny-cake to john “toilet,” that in hopping John, the second word means simply “thing.”

Here is one of Cruickshanks’s celebrated illustrations to Oliver Twist.
(Via The Charles Dickens Page, public domain)

Names often surprise us in idioms. More than a hundred years ago, in Ireland, Andrew Martin meant “any departure from the established rule by a clergyman.” Perhaps it still does (I have no idea). The trouble is that nothing is known about some riotous or unconventional churchman bearing this name. Andrew Martin is unlike hopping John: presumably, there was a prototype. No one has come up with a suggestion. Urban Dictionary informs us that “Andrew Martin” is the name of the most intelligent and the most attractive male in a group. Men admire him, women all but swoon in his presence. I envy him but wonder: Why Andrew Martin? Still another nautical phrase is Tom Cox’s traverse. “It means the work of an artful dodger, all jaw, and no good in him.” The Internet is full of references to this idiom, and they say the same (“all talk and no work”), but no one seems to be interested in the only question that bothers me: “Who was Tom Cox?” His namesakes, some of them, distinguished individuals, are among us.

Tom Cox’s traverse.
(Photo by Myshun via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

It will be seen that today I have chosen a few obscure idioms, some of which may have a historical background because of rather distinct names. In the past, I have often written about proverbial phrases with names in them: as lazy as Lumley’s dog, to have got Charley on one’s back, Bobby dazzler, Queen Anne is dead, before you can say Jack Robinson, Davy Jones, and so forth. My point is clear: linguists interested in the origin of idioms should be historians and archeologists. To be sure, all etymologists study “things” and words, but idioms provide a different focus. Who are those skeletons in the closet (or cupboard, if you please): Andrew Martin, Tom Cox, and the rest? Also, some time in the past, I wrote about jerry-builders, very active scoundrels who never existed. My plea is always the same. Perhaps some of our readers will be inspired to join this archeological expedition, and, if not, let George do it!

I have only one thing to add to my series on idioms. The most natural question is about the sources (in addition to the Internet): “Where can we find answers to our queries about the origin of idioms?” Next week I’ll offer a short rundown of such sources and leave this subject behind me.

Featured image via Piqsels (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. nikita

    Do these name-based idioms exist only in English? I can think of nothing similar in Russian that is neither a proverb nor immediately traceable to a literary origin.

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