THE NEWSPAPER PRESS AS A DISTINCT POWER IN THE STATE , FROM THE LICENSE IT EXERCISES, THE LIBERTIES IT ALSO ENJOYS, OR THE POWER IT WIELDS. (The first three estates, as ultimately represented in the British Parliament, are the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons.)
Thomas Carlyle, in Heroes and Hero Worship (1841), credited the expression in this sense to the statesman, Edmund Burke—“Burke said there were three Estates in Parliament, but, in the Reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate far more important than they all”—but the statemen t is not recorded anywhere in
Burke’s published works. Moreover, in the Edinburgh Review in 1826, Thomas Macaulay used the phrase in an essay on Henry Hallam’s Constitutional History, in the eighth paragraph from the end: “The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.” As Carlyle himself was a Scottish reviewer and wrote for the Edinburgh Review, it is probable that he attributed the thought to the wrong author.
In strict justice, however, the novelist, Henry Fielding, should receive some of the credit. Seventy-six years earlier, writing for the Covent-Garden Journal, he said: “None of our political writers take notice of any more than three estates, namely, Kings, Lords, and Commons . . . passing by in silence that very large and powerful body which form the fourth estate in this community....The Mob.” And, though erroneously, Lord Lucius Cary Falkland has been similarly credited. While Richard Cromwell was Lord Protector of England, according to Charles Knight’s Popular History of England , Lord Falkland, in the course of a speech in 1660 in Parliament, said: “You have been a long time talking of the three estates; there is a fourth which, if not well looked to, will turn us all out of doors”—referring to the army. The army did ultimately turn Cromwell out, bu t Falkland made no such speech—he died sixteen years before Cromwell’s short-lived tenure of the office his brilliant father, Oliver, had created.
CUTTING OFF ONE’S NOSE TO SPITE ONE’S FACE
Injuring oneself in taking revenge upon another; damaging oneself through pique. Apperson has traced this back to a French saying that was current in the seventeenth century. Among the Historiettes of Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux, written about 1658, he finds: “Henri iv con cut fort bien que détruire Paris, c’étoit, comme on dit, se couper le nez pour faire dépit a son visage” (Henry IV well knew that to destroy Paris would be, as they say, to cut off his own nose in taking spite on his own face). Very likely there was some popular animal story similar to the account of Reynard the Fox, circulated by the troubadours of the Middle Ages, which told of a foolish creature that did, inadvertently, commit such an act, but the story has not come down to us, if it existed. But the French saying crossed the channel to England before the end of the eighteenth century and was recorded in Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796): “He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face . Said of one who, to be revenged on his neighbor, has materially injured himself.”
A HAIR OF THE DOG THAT BIT YOU
This stems from the ancient medical maxim, Like cures like —Sirnilia sirnilibus curantur. Thus, even in the Iliad we find the Greek belief that a wound caused by the spear of Achilles could be healed by an ointment containing rust from that same spear. And to this day there are men and women who sincerely believe that the best cure from the bite of a dog is some of the hair from that dog applied to the wound. In England, they say, the hair should be burned before it is applied. But, generally speaking, when men get together , “a hair of the dog that bit you” means another little drink. If the conviviality of last night’s sessions has resulted in a morning’s hangover, the “hair” is supposed to be a pick-me-up, a little whisky to clear the head. This was the meaning among gentlemen four hundred years ago, as recorded in John Heywood’s Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546): “I pray the leat me and my felow haue / A heare of the dog that bote us last night.”
IN THE DUMPS
FEELING BLUE; DEPRESSED; DEJECTED; LOW IN SPIRITS. People felt this way and so expressed themselves four hundred years ago, though no one knew then (or now, for that matter) just what “dumps” meant. Sir Thomas More, in A Dialoge of Com forte against Tribulation (1534), has: “What heapes of heauynesse [heaviness], hathe of late fallen amonge vs alreadye, with whiche some of our poore familye bee fallen in suche dumpes.”
TO STRIKE WHILE THE IRON IS HOT
To act at the most fitting moment; to seize the most favorable opportunity. It was, of course, the blacksmith who was originally so exhorted. If he failed to swing his hammer while the metal on the anvil was still glowing, nothing would do but to go start up the forge again and reheat the iron . His time was lost; the opportunity for effective work had passed. Figurative use is very old. It isz found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales , “the Tale of Melibeus,” (1386); “Right so as whil that Iren is hoot men sholden smyte.”
An astute person; sometimes one whose cleverness leads him into shady practices. In my explanation of this phrase in A Hog on Ice the account of its origin as given by the historian John Fiske was accidentally omitted, as I was reminded by a correspondent.
According to Fiske, the expression stems from the noted trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735. Zenger , a New York printer, began to publish a newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal in 1733, which became the organ of the popular party in that colony. Attacks upon the administration of the governor of the colony, William Cosby, brought about the arrest of Zenger on a charge of libel, and he was held in jail, awaiting trial, for about eight months. Friends busied themselves in his behalf and eventually secured the services of Andrew Hamilton, former Attorney General of Philadelphia. At the trial Hamilton admitted the publication of the statements charged by the prosecution, but maintained that inasmuch as the statements were true no libel had been committed. The jury supported that contention and gave a verdict of not guilty, thus establishing the principle of freedom of the press in America. Thus Fiske reports, people then proclaimed, “It took a Philadelphia
lawyer to get Zenger out.”
Fiske’s statement may be true, but, regrettably, no proof has yet been discovered that people in New York or elsewhere had actually made such a remark. Never-theless the expression was certainly in use before 1788. In that year, as found by Allen Walker Read, the Columbian Magazine of Philadelphia printed a “Letter from a Citizen of America,” “written in London,” to his “Correspondent in Philadelphia,” a portion of which reads, “They have a proverb here [London], which I do not know how to account for;—in speaking of a difficult point, they say, it would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer.”
But there are other accounts. One credits it to an unnamed attorney in colonial days who rescued two British sailors from some unnamed difficulty they experienced in the City of Brotherly Love.
Again, it is reported that there was a saying in New England that any three Philadelphia lawyers were a match for the devil, though I have found no proof of that report—nor substantiation of the statement.
POOR AS A CHURCH MOUSE
Mighty poor; about as deprived of the necessities of life as the “fly on the wall” of which my wife used to recite lugubriously to the children:
Poor little fly on the wall,
Ain’t got no shimmy-shirt,
Ain’t got no pettiskirt,
Ain’t got no nothing at all!
Poor little fly on the wall.
But our church mouse is not found only in English-speaking countries. The Ger mans have the same saying, arm wie eine Kirchenmaus; in French it’s gueux comme un rat d’eglise, and it is found also in other languages. The English saying goes back to the seventeenth century, but was probably taken over from French . It is likely that it arose from some folk tale relating the sad experience of a mouse trying to find food for itself and its starving little ones in a church. No pantry, no grain bin made the struggle for existence most difficult.
TO CUT THE MUSTARD
To accomplish, be able to, or succeed with; to meet expectations; to play, as music, expertly. To get at the origin of this altogether American expression we have to go back to the beginning of the century when “to be the proper mustard” was a slang phrase meaning to be the genuine article, possibly because some so-called mustard” of that period would not pass today’s pure food requirements. From that, immediately, came “all to the mustard,” that is, all one could ask for, fine and dandy, “copesetic,” as the late Bill Robinson would say. Then hotly, as early as 1907, came our present phrase. 0. Henry used it in Heart of the West in that year: “I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard.” It’s just a slang expression, bearing no connection to the use of the verb “cut” in the sense of to reduce the strength of.
TO BURY THE HATCHET
To settle differences and take up friendly relations. In A Hog on Ice I made the statement that, although we are accustomed to connect this expression with some practices of the American Indian, I had not been able to find that there was any such ritual or saying among the tribes of North America. Accordingly I considered it a variation of the fourteenth-century English saying, “to hang up the hatchet” of similar meaning.
Mitford M. Mathews, in an article in American Speech (May, 1953), indicates unmistakably that I did not delve as deeply as I should have into the customs of the American Indian. He quotes as the earliest record, this statement, dated 1680, from the writings of Samuel Sewall: “Meeting with the Sachem they came to an agreement and buried two Axes in the ground; . . . which ceremony to them is more significant and binding than all Articles of Peace the Hatchet being a principal weapon.” The Dictionary of Americanisms (1951) , edited by Dr. Mathews, carries further evidence confuting my statement. Thus, under tomahawk, is a quotation from Robert Beverley’s The History and Present State of Virginia (1705): “They use . . . very ceremonious ways in concluding of Peace . . . such as burying a Tomahawk.” Other quotations from those dates onward, under both hatchet and tomahawk, demonstrate that the custom was well established, as was also the custom of “taking up the hatchet” when warlike activities began.
AS DEAD AS THE DODO
Utterly extinct; obsolete; completely washed up. The reference is to a peculiar flightless bird of which only two species were known, those found respectively on the islands of Mauritius and Reunion, lying east of Madagascar. The birds, as described by voyagers to the islands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were larger than the swan and with much heavier bodies. Being slow of motion and unable, with their small wings, to fly, they were easily killed by voyagers and eady settlers, who found them highly edible, and especially by the pigs introduced to the islands by colonists. Before the end of the seventeenth century the species on Mauritius had all been exterminated; a few still remained on Reunion into the early eighteenth century before complete extermination . As Will Cuppy said in How to Become Extinct (1941), “The Dodo never had a chance. He seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of becoming extinct and that was all he was good for.”
ACE IN THE HOLE
Something of especial effectiveness held in reserve or undisclosed; something kept up one’s sleeve. The expression derives from the game of stud poker. In this game the first round of cards in each deal is dealt face down, and each such card remains undisclosed to all but its holder until the end of the hand. The next round is dealt face up, and that player with an exposed card of highest value may open the betting (or he may throw down his cards and pass the betting to the holder of the next best card). Bets may be called or raised, or a player may pass out, but when the bets are even among the remaining players the dealer deals the third round, also face up. Betting is resumed as before, the player with exposed cards of highest value having the privilege of opening. When betting is again even, the fourth round is dealt, again face up, and betting is again resumed as before. Upon the fifth and final round, also face up, each player then knows the full vaiue of his own hand —his “hole card,” the one undisclosed, plus the cards that have been exposed. After final bets are completed each player exposes his card “in the hole” and the best hand wins. Since aces are cards of highest value, that player with one, two, or three exposed aces and “an ace in the hole” has a card of especial effectiveness.
HEAVENS TO BETSY!
A hardcover edition of this book was published in 1955
by: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 10 East 53rd Street, New York NY 10022
HEAVENS TO BETSY Copyright © 1955 by Charles Earle Funk;
Mount Plymouth, Florida March, 1955 copyright renewed © 1983 by Beulah M. Funk. address Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York,
NY 10022. Published simultaneously in Canada by Fitzhenry & Whiteside
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