William Shepard Walsh.

Handy-book of literary curiosities online

. (page 16 of 161)
Online LibraryWilliam Shepard WalshHandy-book of literary curiosities → online text (page 16 of 161)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of the three Highland regiments with which Sir Colin Campbell (afterwards
Lord Clyde) broke the Russian centre at the Alma, on the 20th of Septem-
ber, 1854. They formed part of the immortal "thin red line tipped with
steel" against which an overwhelming Russian force shattered itself in the
memorable attack upon Balaklava five weeks later. In the advance upon
Coomassie during General Wolseley's Ashantee campaign, in January, 1874,
the " Black Watch" bore the brunt of the great fight at Amoaful, suffering
severe loss in carrying at the point of the bayonet a thick wood held by na-
tive sharp-shooters. Indeed, they have fully obeyed the injunction with which
their chief led them up the Alma hill-side : "Now, my men, make me proud
of the Highland Brigade."

Blarney literally means a little field (Irish Mama, diminutive of Mar, a
"field"). Its popular signification of flattery, palavering rhodomontade, or
wheedlingeloquence may have originated in Lord Clancarty's frequent promises,
when the prisoner of Sir George Care w, to surrender his strong castle of Blarney
to the soldiers of the queen, and as often inventing some smooth and plausi-
ble excuse for exonerating himself from his promise. Blarney Castle, now a
very imposing ruin, situated in the village ot Blarney, some four miles from
Cork, was built in the early part of the fifteenth century by Cormac McCarthy,
the Prince of Desmond. No one appears to know the exact origin of the
famous Blarney Stone, or whence it derived its miraculous power of endowing
those who kiss it with the gift of " blarney." In some way it found itself one
day upon the very pinnacle of the castle tower with the date 1703 carved upon
it. It is now preserved and held in place by two iron girders between huge
merlons of the northern projecting parapet, nearly a hundred feet above the
ground. To kiss it has been the ambition of many generations, who labori-
ously climb up to its dangerous eminence. Sir Walter Scott himself did not
feel degraded by following the general example. Like the famous toe of St.
Peter's"^ statue in Rome, the lip-service of tourists is gradually wearing it
away. The date has already been obliterated, and the shape and size have
altered so much that people who visit it at long intervals find it difficult to
believe it is the same stone.

Blazes, in English and American slang, a euphemism for the infernal
regions, from the flames which theologians are wont to describe. This is
evidently the meaning in expressions like " Go to blazes !"' But in what looks
at first sight like an identical expression, " Drunk as blazes," another ety-
mology has been suggested, making it a corruption of Blaisers or Blaizers, —
i.e., the mummers who took part in the processions in honor of the good bishop
and martyr St. Blaise, patron saint of English wool-combers. The uniform
conviviality on these occasions made the simile an appropriate one.

Blessing— Curse. Walter Scott makes one of his characters describe
Rob Roy as "o'er bad for blessing, and o'er good for banning." This same
antithesis had already been put into proverbial verse form :


Too bad for a blessing, too good for a curse,

I wish in my soul you were better or worse.

In the same way Coriieille said of Richelieu, after his death, —

II a fait trop de bien pour en dire du mal,
11 a fait trop de mal pour en dii'e du bien,

BlinWRian's Holiday, a humorous locution, formerly used more widely
than at present, to designate the time just before the candies or lamps are
lighted, when it is too dark to work and one is obliged to rest, or "take a
holiday." With the superior readiness of gas and electricity, the holiday now
need be of infinitesimal duration. The phrase is found as far back as 1599,
in Nash"s " Lenten Stuffe" {Harl. Misc., vi. 167) : " What will not blind Cupid
do in the night, which is his blindman's holiday ?" Swift's " Polite Conversa-
tion," a mine of contemporary slang, does not overlook this phrase: "Indeed,
madam, it is blindman's holiday ; we shall soon be all of a color."

Blocks of Five, a phrase that became famous in American politics during
the Harrison-Cleveland Presidential campaign (188S). The Democratic man-
agers made wide circulation of a letter alleged to have been written by Colonel
W. W. Dudley, Treasurer of the Republican National Committee. Its most
salient feature was a recommendation to secure "floaters in blocks of five."
This was construed to mean the purchase of voters at wholesale rates. Colonel
Dudley denied the letter, and instituted suits for libel, which were abandoned
after the election.

I had attributed at least originality to the promoter of " floaters in blocks of five," but it
appears that, after all, we have here only a modification of an old scheme. Says Suidas under
the word Sejcd^ecr^at, " This phrase originated from the practice of bribing men by tens.
Candidates for office, or persons with a job to carry through, used to deal out their bribes to
blocks of ten." Anytus, the accuser of Socrates, usually has the discredit of introducing this
syst-em into the courts, and, as a recent commentator remarks, " doubtless a juryman would feel
greater confidence if he knew he had nine others sitting by him who had been bribed."
Scholars have always been in the dark about the details of this scheme, and a monograph on
the subject, dashed off by Colonel Dudley in his leisure hours before the next election, would be
very gratefully received. — M. H. Morgan, in a letter to N. Y. Nation of November 21, 1S89.

Blood is thicker than ■water, — i.e., a relation is dearer than a stranger.
This phrase is sometimes ascribed to Commodore Tatnall, of the United
States Navy, who assisted the English in Chinese waters, and, in his despatch
to his government, justified his interference in these words. Sometimes it is
ascribed to Scott, who puts it in the mouth of Bailie Nicol Jarvie in "Guy
Mannering," ch. xxvii. But Tatnall and Scott were merely "quoting an old
saw duly recorded in " Ray's Proverbs" (1672), which was probably in common
use long before. Blood stands for traceable, admitted consanguinity; water,
for the chill and colorless fluid that flows through the veins of the rest of
mankind, homines homini lupi, who take but cold interest in the happiness
of a stranger. Water, too, in our early writers, was symbolic of looseness,
inattachment, falsity. "Unstable as water" is the scriptural phrase. Thicker
signifies greater consistency and substance, — hence closeness of attachment,
adhesiveness. " As thick as thieves," = as close as bad men when banding for
evil enterprise. Blood is always thought binding. Conspirators have signed
their bonds with their own blood, as martyrs have their attestation of the
truth. " He cemented the union of the two families by marriage," is a stock
phrase with historians. Quitting metaphor for physical fact, we find that the
blood as well as the hair of oxen has been used to bind mortar together and
give greater consistency than mere water, as is reported of the White Tower
of London.

The proverb may also allude to the spiritual relationship which, according
to the Roman Catholic Church, is created between the sponsor and the child



whom he brings to the waters of baptism. The relationship by blood would
probably be more thought of than one originating in water.

Bloody, a vulgar intensive used in a variety of .ways, especially by London
roughs. Dr. Murray rejects all derivations which would imply any profane
origin, such as 'sblood or the very absurd By'r Lady suggested byMaxO'Rell.
He holds that there is good reason to think it was at first a reference to the
habits of the "bloods" or aristocratic rowdies of the end of the seventeenth
and the beginning of the eighteenth century, iiloody drunk must originally have
meant as drunk as a blood ; thence the adjective was extended to kindred ex-
pressions, its popularity being greatly enhanced by its sanguinary sound and
its affiliation with the adjective in bloody murder, bloody butcher, etc.

Bloody chasm, To shake hands across the. An American phrase
which sprang up immediately after the civil war, among those peace-loving
orators, writers, and speakers who were anxious to obliterate all memories of
the fratricidal struggle. People of an opposite temper were said to " wave the
bloody shirt."

Bloody shirt. In American political slang, " to wave the bloody shirt,"
sometimes euphemized into "the ensanguined garment," means to keep up
the sectional issues of the civil war by appeals to prejudice and passion.
A probable origin of the phrase may be found in a Corsican custom nearly,
if not qidte, obsolete. In the days of the fierce vendette — the feuds which
divided Corsican family from family— bloodshed was a common occurrence.
Before the burial of a murdered man the gridata was celebrated. This word*
which literally means a crying aloud, may be translated a " wake." The body
of the victim was laid upon a plank ; his useless fire-arms were placed near
his hand, and his blood-stained shirt was hung above his head. Around the
rude bier sat a circle of women, wrapped in their black mantles, who rocked
themselves to and fro with strange wailings. The men, relatives and friends
of the murdered man, fully armed, stood around the room, mad with thirst
for revenge. Then one of the women — the wife or mother or sister of the
dead man — with a sharp scream would snatch the bloody shirt, and, waving
it aloft, begin the vocero, — the lamentation. This rhythmic discourse was
made up of alternate expressions of love for the dead and hatred of his
enemies ; and its startling images and tremendous curses were echoed in the
faces and mutterings of the armed mourners. It was by a not unnatural tran-
sition that the phrase "bloody shirt" became applied to demagogical utter-
ances concerning the Southern Rebellion.

Blue is a favorite adjective for the impossible in popular phrase and fable.
The Blue Flower of the German romanticists represented the ideal, the
unattainable; and in France Alphonse Karr has domesticated the similar
expression " blue roses." " Once in a blue moon" means never. "To blush
like a blue dog," an expression that is preserved in Swift's " Polite Conver-
sation," means not to blush at all. More than a century earlier, however,
Stephen Gosson, in the " Apologie for the School of Abuse" (1579), speaks
with similar meaning of "blushing like a black dog." Sometimes blue is
used as an intensive. Thus, school-boys speak of "blue fear" and "blue
funk," and the phrase to "drink till all is blue" is at least as old as Ford's
|- Lady's Trial" (1639). "Blue ruin" is a popular English epithet for an
inferior sort of gin, and finds its analogue in the French " vin bleu" applied
to thin sour wine. In French also, as in English, blue is a synonyme for
despondency. "To be in the blues," "to have a fit of the blue devils," has
its Gallic equivalent in "en voir des bleues" — a variant of "en voir des
grises" — and " en etre bleu," " en rester tout bleu," — all meaning to despair, to


meet with suffering or disappointment. In English slang "to talk blue" is
to talk immodestly. " Blue blazes" means hell, — probably from the sulphur
associated with it. A "blue apron" is an amateur statesman, from the blue
apron once borne by tradesmen generally, — now restricted to butchers, fish-
mongers, poulterers, etc.

Blue Blood. This term comes from the Spanish expression sangre azul
applied to the aristocracy of Castile and Aragon. After the Moors were
driven out of Spain, the aristocracy was held to consist of those who traced
their lineage back to the time before the Moorish conquest, and especially to
the fair-haired and light-complexioned Goths. Their veins naturally appeared
through their skin of a blue color, while the blood of the masses, contaminated
by the Moorish infusion and to lesser degree by miscegenation with negroes
and Basques, showed dark upon their hands and faces. So the white Span-
iards of old race came to declare that their blood was blue, while that of the
common people was black. Owing to intermarriage, there is very little
genuine blue blood left in Spain ; but a Spanish family remaining perfectly fair
and purely Gothic, and holding position and rank for centuries, is to be found
in Yucatan at the present day.

In England, however, it was anciently held that the thick and dark blood
was the best. " Thin-blooded" or " pale-blooded" means weak and cowardly.
Shakespeare never loaded words more heavily with significance than when he
made Lucio call Angelo, in " Measure for Measure," —
A man whose blood
Is very snow-broth ; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense.

Blue Hen's Chickens, a nickname for the inhabitants of Delaware. The
accepted origin is that one Captain Caldwell, who commanded a Delaware
regiment, was notorious for his love of cock-fighting. He drilled his men
admirably, and they were known in the army as " Caldwell's game-cocks."
The gallant captain held a peculiar theory that no cock was really game unless
it came from a blue hen ; and this led to the substitution of Blue Hen's
Chickens as a nickname for his regiment. After the Revolutionary war the
nickname was applied indiscriminately to all Delawareans.

Blue Lights, an American political term. When the British fleet lay off
New London, Connecticut, during the war of 1812, blue-lights were frequently
seen near the shore. These Commodore Decatur, whose ships lay near by,
attributed to traitors ; though, indeed, facts go to prove that no American was
ever discovered burning one. Goodrich, in his " Recollections," says, " Blue
Lights, meaning treason on the part of Connecticut Federalists during the
war, is a standard word in the flash dictionary of Democracy." Again, " Con-
necticut Blue Lights are the grizzly monster with which the nursing fathers
and mothers of Democracy frighten their children into obedience — ^just before

Blue Nose, a common nickname for a Nova-Scotian, sometimes explained
as an allusion to the purple tinge not rarely seen on the noses of Nova-Sco-
tians, and presumably due to the coldness of the winters ; sometimes derived
from the Blue-nose potato, a great favorite for its delicacy. It is more prob-
able that the name of the potato was based on the sobriquet, and not vice versa.
Hence Blue-nose potato means a Nova Scotia potato.

Blue-Stocking, a humorous and rather contemptuous epithet applied to
an authoress or a lady of any literary pretensions or attainments. With the
altered standard of judgment as to female education the term has fallen into
comparative disuse. In the eighteenth century and the beginning of the


present it was very common. The familiar explanation is that the term was
first applied to a female coterie in Dr. Johnson's time. But it is a question
whether it arose at Mrs. Montagu's or at Mrs. Vesey's receptions, or what
was the exact reason of its adoption. One story states that a Mr. Stillingfleet
was one of the males admitted to Mrs. Montagu's evening i)arties, that his
dress was remarkably plain, even to a pair of blue worsted stockings in lieu
of silk, but that his conversation was so stimulating that in his absence the
remark was frequently made, "We can do nothing without the blue stock-
ings." And thus by degrees the title was established. This version seems to
be supported by a passage in one of Mrs. Montagu's letters dated 1757, where
she observes that Mr. Stillingfleet "has left off his old friends and his blue
stockings, and has taken to frequenting operas and other gay assemblies."
But in the "Memoirs" of one of the greatest of all the IJlue-stockings, Mrs.
Elizabeth Carter herself (published in 1S16), it is said of Mrs. Vesey's literary
parties that " there was no ceremony, no cards, and no supper. Even dress
was so little regarded that a foreign gentleman who was to go there with an
acquaintance was told in jest that it was so little necessary that he might
appear there, if he pleased, in blue stockings. This he understood in the
literal sense, and, when he spoke of it in French, called it the Bas Bleu meet-
ing. And this was the origin of the ludicrous appellation of the Blue Stocking
Club." Hannah More, also, in the "advertisement" to her pleasant little
poem "The Bas Bleu; or, Conversation," writes, "The following trifle owes
its birth and name to the mistake of a foreigner of distinction, who gave the
literal title of the Bas Bleu to a small party of friends who have often been
called, by way of pleasantry, the Blue-Stockings." Surely Hannah must have
known something definite about the derivation of the title of her own beloved
clique. She, too, states that the society used to meet at Mrs. Vesey's, not at
Mrs. Montagu's.

Blue, True. The fancy that blue was the color of truth, as green was of in-
constancy, is a very ancient one, dating back to the party distinctions in ancient
Rome. In the factions of the Circus of the Lower Empire the emperor Anas-
tasius secretly favored the Cr^^w, Justinian openly protected the Blues: thence
the former became the emblem of disaffection, and the latter of loyalty. The
idea appears very early in English literature. Thus, in the " Squiere's Tale"
of Chaucer, we read, —

And by hire bedde's bed she made a mew,

And covered it with velouettes blew,

In signe of trouthe that is in woman sene.

So in his " Court of Love," line 246 :

Lo yondir folke (quod she) that knele in blew,

They were the color ay and ever shal,
In signe they were and ever wil be true,

Withoutin change.

"True blue" as the partisan color of the Covenanters, in opposition to the
scarlet badge of Charles L, was first adopted by the soldiers of Lesley and
Montrose in 1639, partly under the influence of the Mosaical precept, " Speak
to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the
borders of their garments, throughout their generations, and that they put
upon the fringe of the borders a riband of blue" {Numbers xv. 38). The
phrase true blue now has a general application, and means stanch, loyal, firm
in the faith.

Boat, To be in the same, a proverbial expression, common to many lan-
guages, meaning to be embarked in the same enterprise, to be in the same
condition, especially if unfortunate. The words " we are in the same boat"


were used by Clement I., Bishop of Rome (circa a.d. 91 to 100), in a letter
to the church of Corinth on the occasion of a dissension. The letter, which
is still extant, is prized as an important memorial of the early Church.

Have ye pain, so likewise pain have we.
For in one buat we both embarked be.

Hudson : Judith, iii. 1. 352 (1584).

Boat, To have an oar in another's. To meddle with other people's

The pope must have his ore in everie man's bote, his spoone in everie man's dish. — Ho-
linshed: Chronicles, ii. 173 (i577)-

Bobolition, Bobolitionist, derisive epithets for Abolition, Abolitionist,
used by the enemies of the emancipation movement in its early days. A cor-
respondent of the New York Nation remembered having seen the word bobo-
lition at least as early as 1824 "on a broadsheet containing what purported to
be an account of a bobolition celebration at Boston, July 14. At the top of
the broadsheet was a grotesque procession of negroes. Among the toasts, or
sentiments, were the following :

" Massa Wilberforce, de brack man bery good friend ; may he nebber want
a bolish to he boot."

" De Nited State ; de land ob libity, 'cept he keep slave at de South. No
cheer ! Shake de head !"

" Dis year de fourth ob July come on de fifth ; so, ob course, de fourteenth
come on de fifteenth."

Bock beer, a corruption of "Eimbecker" beer, its original home being
the little town of Eimbeck, Hanover. So famous was it all through the
Middle Ages that no other beer, nor even the costliest wine, could compare
with it in popularity. Attemjits were soon made to produce it in other local-
ities. Thus the remembrance of the original name was gradually lost. "Eim-
beck" became successively " Eimbock," "ein bock," and finally plain "bock."
This popular word-transformation is already several hundred years old, for in
the Land- und Polizeiordnung of 1616 a "bock meet" is referred to, which
"should only be brewed to meet the necessities of the sick." Popular ety-
mology, of course, insists that bock beer means goat beer, bock being German
for goat, and this fancy is perpetuated by the picture of a goat rampant, which
usually appears on tavern-signs and other advertisements of the beer. Tra-
dition even furnishes a myth to explain the phrase. Long ago, it is said, the
devil appeared in the guise of a goat to a love-sick and rejected swain, and
taught him the secret of making bock beer for the customary price of his soul.
The people raved over the new decoction. The brewer prospered and married
his sweetheart. At the end of the stipulated time the devil appeared to claim
his own, but was skilfully inveigled into a bock beer intoxication, and when he
awoke from his drunken stupor he was glad to sneak home without his prize.
Bock beer, it may be added, differs from ordinary lager only in that an excess
of malt is added to make it sweeter. It will not keep as long as lager. Brewed
in January or February, it is placed on the market in April or May, and is in
season for about a month.

Bogus, American slang for counterfeit, spurious, fictitious, which has now
passed into general circulation. The amateur etymologist has made many
interesting guesses as to the origin of this word, but none have any philo-
logical value. Here is the most amusing and the most widely current,
copied from the Boston Daily Courier of June 12, 1857:

The word " bogus," we believe, is a corruption of the name of one Bo'ghese, a verj^ corrupt
individual who, twenty years ago or more, did a tremendous business in the way of supplying


the great West and portions of the Southwest with a vast amount of counterfeit bills, and bills
of fictitious banks which never had any existence out of the " forgetive bniin" of him, the
said " Borghese." The Western people, who are rather rapid in their talk when excited soon
fell into the habit of shortening the Italian wnmcoi Borghese to the more handy one oi Bogus
and his bills, and all other bills of like character, were universally styled bogus currency." '
The earliest use of the word so far discovered is recorded in the " New
English Dictionary" as occurring in the Painesville (O.) Telegraph o{ ]\x\^ d
and November 2, 1S27. It is there a substantive, applied to an apparatus for
coining false money. Dr. Murray has a sly hit at the "bogus derivations
circumstantially given," but does not commit himself to any.

Boiled or Biled Shirt, a white shirt,— especially when newly laundried,

a term of mild derision, if not actual reproach, which sprang up among the
pioneer miners of the Western States, and is still more common in the West
than in the East.

But they were rough in those times ! If a man wanted a fight on his hands without any
annoying delay, all he had to do was to appear in public in a white shirt or a stovepipe hat
and he would be accommodated. For those people hated aristocrats. They had a par-
ticular and malignant animosity toward what they called a biled shut.— Mark Twain:
Roughing It. ' - •

Boodle. There are two American slang words spelt thus, each distinct in
meaning and apparently of different origin and etymology. The first and
elder word, which now appears more frequently in the intensified form caboo-
dle, meaning a crowd, a company, is not impossibly derived from the old
English d(?Ue/, a bundle, and there is reason to believe that it is a survival of a
former English colloquialism. F. Markham, in his "Book of Honour," iv. 2,
speaks of " all the buddle and musse" of great men. The later arid no\v
more common word, meaning money, and especially money gained by gam-
bling, venality, or other dubious methods, or employed for corrupt political pur-
poses, may be a form of the Dutch word i>uzde/, which means " pocket" and
also " purse."

The Professor has been to see me. Came in, glorious, at about twelve o'clock, last night.
Said he had been with " the boys." On inquiry, found that " the boys" were certain baldish
and grayish old gentlemen that one sees or hears of in various important stations of society.
Then he began to quote Byron about Santa Croce, and maintained that he could " furnish out

Online LibraryWilliam Shepard WalshHandy-book of literary curiosities → online text (page 16 of 161)