TO GET (OR BE GIVEN) THE BOUNCE
To be summarily ejected, as Polly Prim might say; to be ejected forcibly, as by a “bouncer,” one employed to get troublesome characters—drunks, noisy persons, or the like—out of a saloon, bar, hotel, etc.; also, to be dismissed from employment, to be expelled from membership in an organization or from attendance in some institution, or to ‘ be rejected as a suitor, etc.; in short, to be shown that one is not wanted. Apparently we Americans borrowed the expression, in translation, from the Dutch in some manner. At least, the Dutch have the phrase, de bons geven, “to give the bounce,” which is employed to mean to jilt, dismiss, give the sack.
We’ve had “bouncers” who performed the above-mentioned duties, since the days of the Civil War, but “bounce”—usually exaggerated to “grand bounce”—is recent American slang. Perhaps orally the expression itself, in one form or other, dates back to that period also, but literary usage carries it back only to 0. Henry’s story, “The Friendly Call,” first published in Monthly Magazine Section, July, 1910. The story is about two friends who are always on tap to rescue one another from predicaments: Bell, who tells the story, went to the rescue of George from the attentions of a widow, asking Bell “to get her off his tail.” Bell asks, “Had you ever thought of repressing your fatal fascinations in her presence; of squeezing a hard note in the melody of your siren voice, of veiling your beauty—in other words, of giving her the bounce yourself?”
TO GET ONE’S DUTCH UP
To get one’s dander up; to arouse one’s temper. The reference is, of course, to the Pennsylvania Dutch, to the people of Germanic origin who, in the early seventeenth century, fled from continued religious persecutions in the Palatinate, chiefly, and brought their brands of Protestant faith into the sanctuary provided by William Penn in eastern Pennsylvania. They were a peaceful people, these paternal ancestors of mine. (And your Editor) And they practiced their religion. Accordingly, they were slow to anger, keeping their tempers under subjugation. Nevertheless, so the historian Bancroft tells us, although representing only one-twelfth of the population at the time, the Pennsylvania Dutch composed one-eighth of the army in the Revolutionary War. And, from personal experience, I can vouch
for the fact that some of their descendants, at least, had flaring tempers—although they might not let “the sun descend upon their wrath.”
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Though I have been regretfully obliged to abridge, I’ll let Arthur R. (“Pop”) Momand, the creator of this expression, now adopted into the American language, tell in his own words, from a personal letter to me, how it originated:
Here is how it happened: At the age of 23 I was making $125 a week
(good money in those days, with no income tax). I married and moved
to Cedarhurst, LI., joined a country club, rode horseback daily, and
bought a fifty-dollar bull-pup; also we kept a colored maid who, as I
recall, had the glamorous name of Beatrice Montgomery. And we enter-
tained in the grand manner, or as grand as we could on $125 a week.
Well, it was not long until the butcher, the baker et al were knocking
gently but firmly on the old front door. In the end we pulled up stakes,
headed for New York and moved into a cheap apartment.
Our Cedarhurst experience was a rude awakening, but I saw the
humorous side of it. We had been living far beyond our means in our
endeavor to keep up with the well-to-do class which then lived in Cedar-
hurst. I also noted that most of our friends were doing the same; the
$1 0,000-a-year chap was trying to keep up with the $20,000-a-year
man. I decided it would make good comic-strip material, so sat down and
drew up six strips. At first I thought of calling it Keeping up with the
Smiths, but finally decided on Keeping up with the Joneses as being
Taking the strips to The Associated Newspapers at 170 Broadway, I
saw the manager, H. H. McClure. He appeared interested and asked
me to give him a week to decide. In three days he phoned, saying they
would sign a one-year contract for the strip. Keeping up with the
Joneses was launched—and little did I realize it was to run for 28 years
and take us across the Atlantic 42 times.
The feature was released in February of 1913 and appeared first in
the New York Globe, Chicago Daily News, Boston Globe, Philadelphia
Bulletin and ten minor papers. At that time I signed it i’op, a nickname
I had acquired at school . Later I signed the drawings pop MOMAND . In
1915 I had it copyrighted in my name. The strip gained in popularity
each year; it appeared in 2-reel comedies, was put on as a musical
comedy, and Cupples and Leon each year published a book of Keeping
up with the Joneses cartoons. I have made the drawings in London,
Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Vienna, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, and South
America, mailing them to the Syndicate from wherever I chanced to be.
After 28 years on the old treadmill I tired of it. Today I paint portraits, landscapes, and marines—and, yes, I hate to admit it, we are still trying to keep up with the Joneses.
AS SCARCE AS (OR SCARCER THAN) HEN’S TEETH
No one has ever yet found teeth in a hen, nor is likely to; so this is just another example (American) of exaggerated statement not intended to be taken literally, to impress the listener with the fact that the item under discussion, whatever it may be, does not exist, rarely occurs, or is rarely to be found. Thus one might say, “Elephants in Greenland are scarcer than hen’s teeth,” meaning that elephants are not to be found in Greenland. Just when this hyperbole first appeared has not yet been determined. The Dictionary of Americanisms reports its use by “Edmund Kirke,” pen name of James R. Gilmore, in My Southern Friends (1862). But because this metaphor is thoroughly familiar in all parts of the country, there’s good reason to believe that it may actually have had word-of-mouth use from colonial days.
TO MAKE THE AIR BLUE
Just why a vigorous and plentiful use of cuss words is supposed by us figuratively to affect the color of the atmosphere, especially to give it a blue tone, is a matter of guesswork. The history of our language does not show how the concept arose. The association of “blue” with evil is not altogether recent, however. Back in 1742 Edward Young in Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, wrote, “Riot, pride, perfidy, blue vapours breathe,” in which he referred to “blue” as the color of plagues . And baleful demons were described as “blue devils” more than a hundred years earlier when, in 1616, these lines appeared in The Times’ Whistle:
Alston, whose life hath been accounted evill,
And therefore calde by many the blew devill.
Joseph P. Roppolo, of the Department of English, Tulane University, discussing the use of “blue” in the sense, indecent, obscene, suggests the possibility of the follow-ing explanation, in American Speech, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1:
Early in its history, blue acquired symbolic meanings which are dia-
metrically opposed. As the color of the clear sky and of the sea (both
good), it came to be the symbol of purity, of fidelity, of staunchness,
and of faith, and, by symbolic extension, it was chosen as one of the
colors of the Virgin. Perhaps simultaneously (since both extremes
involve morality and seem to be connected with the Christian religion),
a flame which burned blue came to be associated with the flames of
burning brimstone and therefore of hell; such a flame, quite logically,
was regarded by the superstitious as an omen of death or other evil or
was believed to indicate the presence of ghosts or evil spirits or of the
devil himself. From these beliefs, it seems probable, developed blue-
blazes, meaning hell, and such statements as “he talked blue” and “he
made the air blue,” meaning, respectively, “He talked obscenely” and
“He cursed and swore”: cursing or sinful talk would evoke evil spirits
or the devil, whose sulphurous presence would cause flames to burn
blue. Such talk, again logically, although this is admittedly conjecture,
would become blue talk, and an oath or a curse a blue word.
TO GO SCOTFREE
To be free of penalty, or exempt from punishment or injury. Little Pete goes scotfree if mother thinks the costly new glass candlestick was knocked on the floor by the cat. But the expression and its extended meaning are very old. Back in the twelfth century a Scot was a tax or forced contribution payable by the subjects of a municipality, later including the payment for one’s share for entertainment in a tavern. Thus, as originally intended, a person who went scotfree was merely one who was free from the burden of paying a fine or tax, or, in a tavern, was under no obligation to pay a share of the score . As John de Trevisa wrote in Bartholomeus
(1398): “After souper that is freely yeue [given] it is not honest to compell a man to pay his scot.”
Both expressions are in equal use and have identical meaning to have or get a person at one’s mercy; to have or get complete mastery over; or, more moderately, to have or get a decided advantage over. The metaphor appears to be of American origin; at least the earliest instance of literary use of these short hairs that has been found occurs in Memoirs of the United States Secret Service (1872), by George P. Burnham . Nowadays, thanks to modem hairdressing, the general assumption is that the reference is to the hair at the back of the head, just above the nape of the neck, now usually trimmed rather short among English-speaking people with whom the saying is familiar.
The saying undoubtedly antedates the time of its earliest literary use, however, and if one looks at portraits of, say, our presidents or other important figures of the Civil War period, men likely to be tonsorially correct, it is immediately evident that hair was not then cropped short. Accordingly, I think we should look elsewhere for the short hairs on which a grip would give one complete mastery over an antagonist. The pubic hairs could be considered, but, if such was the original allusion, the conflict that could have given rise to such a painful hold would necessarily have been one in which at least one of the contestants, such as an Indian, had a minimum of clothing. But it is also quite possible that the beard was intended, as in a fight between two white men. Our own Washington Irving, in Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), wrote, “A gigantic question . . . which I must needs take by the beard and utterly subdue.” It would certainly be a far easier hold to seize a man by the relatively short hairs of the beard than by the pubic hairs or the short hairs of the modem haircutter’s art.
The most blameworthy charge that one child can level at another, for he (or she) so charged is two-faced, without honor, faithless. To be brief, the present that Billy-B may bring to Robbie’s birthday party is one that Robbie may look at while the party is in progress, but Billy will demand its return when the party is over. That is to say, even back in colonial days an Indian gift referred “to the alleged custom among Indians,” according to the Handbook of American Indians (1907) issued by the Smithsonian Institution, “of expecting an equivalent for a gift or otherwiise its return.” The same authority defines Indian giver—”A repentant giver.” In my own youth, incidentally although “Indian” was expected in formal speech, the normal everyday speech of all boys and many adults was “Injun.”
HANDWRITING ON THE WALL
A forecast of some ominous event; a warning of probable danger. The allusion is to the account told in the fifth chapter of Daniel in the Old Testament. Belshazzar, to celebrate his access to the throne of Babylonia upon the death of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, declared a great feast, and, to signify the complete subjugation of the Jews, had the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple at Jerusalem brought out, “and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines drank in them.” At this sacrilege, “came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall.” The words written were, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” The king demanded of Daniel, the Jewish prophet, an inter-pretation, and was told: “This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.” The chapter closes: “In that night was Belshazzar the king
of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom.”
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