What Is The Origin Of (218)?…

Pull out all of the stops

You will have realised by now that I regularly pull out all of the stops to bring you interesting and accurate insights into some of the phrases and idioms with which we pepper our everyday speech. By this I mean that make every possible effort, leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of etymological veracity.

For those of us who visit churches for things other than spiritual comfort, one of the wonders on display is the church organ, with its impressive array of pipes and its equally attention-grabbing stentorian roar.

The organ has a long and impressive history. Its invention is credited to Ctesibius of Alexandria, who, in the 3rd century BCE, constructed what was known as hydraulis. Using pumps and water regulators, water pressure controlled the flow of air to a set of pipes, allowing different notes to be played and, in the hands of an accomplished player, a tune to be created. In the 2nd century CE an inflated leather bag replaced the water regulators and by the 6th century air was supplied by bellows.

The first organ to appear in the West was presented to Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, by the Byzantine emperor, Constantine V, in 757, and Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, installed one in chapel in Aachen in 812, establishing the tradition of organs in Western churches.

As the technology around organs developed and improved, the flow of air to the pipes was regulated by a series of buttons or stops. An accomplished organist is a bit of a virtuoso, having to tinkle the ivories on the keyboard, pressing pedals furiously with their feet and opening and shutting stops. By pulling out a particular stop, the volume of that note increased. In Spinal Tap speak, pulling out all of the stops on an organ would be the equivalent of setting the volume dial to eleven.

So, is this the origin of the phrase?

Well, probably, although in the 16th century the word stop was used to denote a musical note or key. George Gascoigne, in his satire entitled The Steele Glas, published in 1576, wrote, “but sweeter soundes, of concorde, peace and loue,/ are out of tune, and iarre in euery stoppe.” The problem with thinking that this meaning of stop is the origin of our phrase is that musical notes are not pulled. Stops on an organ are. I think we have to accept that the phrase refers to the way that the volume of an organ can be regulated and enhanced – by pulling out all of the stops.

The phrase began to be used in a figurative sense much later. Probably its first usage is to be found in Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, published in 1865; “knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that…somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Arnold’s usage is that even though he clearly uses it in a figurative sense, he had to anchor his reference to the musical world, in general, and the organ, in particular. It probably confirms that the origin of stop was the organ stop and that his readers would not understand his point without reference to the instrument.

It was not until the 1950s that you could play an organ at home, when Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer began to market a small, electronic organ in the United States.


Book Corner – February 2019 (2)

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

In the rock world they call it third album syndrome. You have burst on to the scene with a promising debut, followed up with a classic and then find that the long-awaited third album is difficult to put together and is a bit of a clunker. Do writers experience the creative difficulties?

One of my favourite books in recent times was Perry’s scintillating The Essex Serpent, her second novel, and so it was with a mixture of excitement and some trepidation that I picked up her third and latest novel, Melmoth. If you have to categorise it, it is in the Gothic tradition and draws its themes and structure from Melmoth the Wanderer, a bizarre Gothic novel written by Charles Maturin in 1820.

Melmoth purportedly was there at Christ’s tomb, saw him by its side but later denied that she had witnessed his resurrection. For this she was doomed to wander around the world until the Second Coming. Desperate for company, she would visit those who had delved the depths of depravity and misery and hold out her hand to entreat them to join her on her long march.

The central character in Perry’s novel is an English woman, Helen Franklin, who is working in Prague as a translator. She has a mundane life and is hardly a bundle of fun. Perry describes her early on in the book as “small, insignificant, having an air sadness whose source you cannot guess at; of self-punishment, self-hatred…” The astute reader will quickly deduce that there is more to this mouse of a woman than first meets the eye.

Helen is introduced to the myth of Melmoth by one of her few Czech friends, Karel. He has been bequeathed some papers by an old man, Joseph Hoffman, whom he had befriended in the university library. These recount how he saw Melmoth, after he had betrayed a family Jews to death at a concentration camp. It was through his encounter with Melmoth that Hoffman could begin to come to terms with what he had done.

Karel, in his obsession to find out more about Melmoth, has assembled a collection of papers recounting other encounters. Helen eagerly devours the contents and extracts from each of the reports form a large chunk of Perry’s narrative. We meet a woman condemned to burn at the stake for heresy and a Turkish civil servant who was complicit in the massacre of Armenians.

Helen feels she is being watched whilst in Prague. Naturally, it is Melmoth, albeit in a different guise, and, naturally, given Melmoth’s association with those who have witnessed or committed atrocities, Helen has her own dark secret, which is gradually revealed as the story rumbles on.

It is not an unremittingly dark book. Karel is able to break free from the hold that Melmoth had over him, albeit by fleeing the Czech Republic, abandoning his disabled wife and joining up with some protestors. And I think that that is Perry’s central message; we should not abandon ourselves to guilt but to recognise what we have done, take stock and change. Hope, after all, was what was left in Pandora’s box. Helen, at the end of the book, says “I do have hope, I feel it in here like a pain.

The writing is astonishingly vivid, with Perry moving in and out of the style of period documents to the modern day with consummate ease. The imagery she deploys stays in the mind – the jackdaws dashing themselves against the windows, an empty chair in a field for Melmoth’s use just in case she passed by.

In summary, it is not as accessible as The Serpent’s Tail but it was worth the effort. Perry has successfully avoided the third album syndrome

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Nine

Elijah McCoy (1844 – 1929)

Who was the real McCoy?

I have found in my etymological researches that there are often a number of contenders for the origin of a phrase or idiom and it requires a lot of diligence to sort the wheat from the chaff. The real McCoy means the real deal, the original article. One of the contenders for its origin is Elijah McCoy.

But why?

Born to former slaves from Kentucky, who had escaped to freedom in Canada, via the Underground Railroad, Elijah qualified as an engineer, eventually settling in Michigan.

Looking for work, he could only find a position on the Michigan Central Railroad. The railways operated a strict segregation policy and deemed that a person of colour could not possibly be skilled enough to perform the important role of an engineer. Instead he was deployed as fireman, stoking coal into the voracious boilers of locomotives.

I am of an age to have seen and travelled on steam locomotives.

The sense of power and the great plumes of smoke, environmentally unfriendly, for sure, were thrilling for a small boy and I loved standing on a bridge to be enveloped by the smoke from a train thundering by.

The railways played their part in opening up countries, facilitating the speedy transfer of goods, encouraging the development of suburbia, and spearheading the concept of leisure time and holidays for ordinary people.

One of the principal issues with steam engines was that their many moving parts needed to be oiled and lubricated on a regular basis. And to do that, the early locomotives had to stop and be serviced, impacting the reach and performance of the engines and eating into the profits of railway operators.

The first person to apply successfully their grey cells to the problem of lubricating a steam engine on the move was Englishman, John Ramsbottom, who, in 1860, came up with the displacement lubricator.

It used the steam from the engine to enter a valve containing oil, pushing the oil out on to the moving parts. Adopted by the Great Western Railway, its principal problems were that you could not regulate the flow of lubricant and that it only worked when the engine had a head of steam.

Working away in a little workshop at his home in Ypsilanti in his leisure hours, Elijah investigated ways in which he could automate the lubrication of a steam engine’s moving parts in a more efficient way than Ramsbottom’s device.

By 1872 he had come up with what he described as a “lubricating cup,” which dripped oil when and where it was required or which, as he described it more verbosely in his patent application, “provides for the continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving parts of a machine to keep it lubricated properly and continuous and thereby do away with the necessity of shutting down the machine periodically.

The patent (US Patent 129, 843, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines”) was granted in 1872.

It was well received and orders flooded in from railway operators around the States. Despite the patent, the actual device was easily replicable and with modest alterations other manufacturers were able to come up with rival lubricators. However, such was the quality and efficiency of Elijah’s lubricator that train operators insisted on getting their hands on the real McCoy, or so it is claimed.

Lack of capital dogged Elijah.

He continually modified and enhanced the lubricator, making it capable of being used on a variety of other machines such as ships, oil drilling rigs and mining equipment, accumulating some fifty or so patents. But to fund the work, he often had to sell his patents or at least a percentage stake in them. It was not until 1920 that he established his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, following his development of a graphite inductor which allowed the latest generation of locomotives to be lubricated.

Curiously, he was barely mentioned in the literature about lubrication in the early 20th century, being entirely written out of the pages of E L Ahron’s Lubrication of Locomotives, published in 1922, almost certainly on the grounds of his race.

And then tragedy struck.

In 1922, Elijah and his wife, Mary, were injured in a serious car accident, Mary fatally, and from then on until his death in 1929, Elijah was dogged with financial, physical, and mental problems.

And was he the real McCoy?

I’m not sure. A variant of the phrase, with an identical meaning, appeared in a Scottish poem, Deil’s Hallowe’en, dating to 1856; “a drappie o’ the real McKay”, McKay being a whisky. The phrase appeared frequently in Scottish newspapers in the 1860s. Elijah may have been a worthy substitute, given the quality of his lubricators, but cannot have been the reason why the phrase came about in the first place.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (217)?…


When I first came down to London to make my fame and fortune and soon discovered that the streets were not paved with gold, I lived in digs. It was a humble room in a house in Streatham with a fearsome landlady who served up hot meals to her paying guests. I didn’t stay there long but long enough to wonder where this strange description of what was, essentially, a glorified long-term bed, evening meal and breakfast gaff.

The word is an abbreviation of diggings which meant a place of excavation. It is used in this sense as early as 1538 in John Leland’s The Itinerary; “on the south side of Welleden…ys a goodly quarre of Stone, where appere great Diggyns.” The word was transported to countries where there was frantic and feverish excavation of minerals, such as the United States and Australia.

William Gilmore Simms, in his account of the gold rush in Georgia in the 1820s. Guy Rivers, published in 1834. There he uses the term diggings to describe the mine or excavations that the men are working, a fairly literal and prosaic use of the term; “we miners of Tracy’s diggings struck upon a fine heap of the good stuff, and having been gathering gold pretty freely ever since.

One usage by Simms is particularly interesting, at least from our etymological point of view; “The regular lodgers of the tavern were not numerous therefore, and consisted in the main of those labourers in the diggings who had not yet acquired the means of establishing a household of their own.” The term, diggings, was used exclusively to denote where theses impoverished, itinerant men worked, not lived.

This was the sense that Dickens used the term in Chapter 21 of The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, published in 1844. There we find Martin in conversation with his new (and swindling) business partner in America; “She won’t be taken with a cold chill, when she realises what is being done in these diggings, said the stranger, No, no, said Martin.

Prior to penning the novel, Dickens had been to America and may have decided to sprinkle some Americanisms into the dialogue to give it some authenticity. The context in which diggings is used is ambiguous but it is more likely to contain a sense of place, as in Simms’ usage, than of a place of abode. The unglossed usage may mean that it was a word that British readers would be familiar with, although, equally, some incomprehensible language would heighten the sense that a foreigner was speaking.

But some six years before Dickens, the term, diggings, began to change its meaning. The New Hampshire born humourist, Joseph Clay Neal, wrote in 1838 in Charcoal Sketches, “Look here, Ned, I reckon it’s about time we should go to our diggings; I am dead beat.” I suppose you could argue that the context is ambiguous and diggings could refer to a mine but the suggestion that it is somewhere in which to sleep encourages me to think that it is used to mean, specifically, lodgings.

Quite why the meaning of diggings morphed thus is the subject of speculation. Perhaps it was because, as Simms pointed out, that the main users of lodging homes, at least in the mineral rich parts of the United States, were miners who had been working in diggings. They were moving from their daytime diggings to their nocturnal ones. Or perhaps there is the sense of nestling down, burrowing in to make oneself comfortable, which could be conveyed by the verb dig and its present participle. Who knows?

What is clear is that the word took off on both sides of the Atlantic to describe temporary accommodation, used principally by itinerant types. In Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889, the three comrades arrive in Datchet and set out “to look for diggings.

And digs?

This first appeared in the May 11th 1893 edition of The Stage, a British publication; “being in the know regarding the best digs can only be attained by experience.” Perhaps this abbreviation started out in the theatrical world but it soon broke out to be adopted by a wider audience.

Book Corner – February 2019 (1)

My Antonia – Willa Cather

Confession time. This is a book I would probably would never have picked up, let alone read, if it hadn’t been in one of those American-centric collections of books that you should read before you die. At a loss at what to read, it was short enough to invest some time on in the spirit of nothing ventured, nothing gained. Perhaps I am developing a pioneering spirit in my reading tastes.

Published in 1918, My Antonia is the third (and presumably last) book in Cather’s Great Plains trilogy. Fed on a diet of 1960s Westerns I gained the impression that the pioneering spirit was embodied by the likes of John Wayne, gun slingers who tamed the wilderness (and dispossessed the native inhabitants) through a combination of bravery, know-how and true grit. Females in such films were relegated to the roles of love interest, the cause of feuds and dutifully tending to the diurnal needs of their male betters.

Cather’s novel, surprisingly for its time, views the struggles of the pioneers to stamp their mark on the prairies from a different perspective, that of the women folk. Their life was no bed of roses and they had to be just as tough-minded and independent, more so as Cather shows, than the men, having to battle with the chauvinism and the prejudice against Middle and Eastern European migrants that was endemic at the time.

The Antonia in the title is a migrant from Bohemia, Antonia Shimerda, who has arrived in the Nebraskan prairies to live with her grandparents after the death of her parents. Her tale is one of hardship, deprivation, merciless toil and struggle. She is no angel and makes terrible mistakes. But through this misery an astonishingly vivacious young woman emerges, determined to make the best of the pitifully poor hand that she has been dealt. Antonia is optimistic, strong, independent, a mixture of simplicity and complexity. She represents, in Cather’s mind, the purity, grace and elegance of the iconic female pioneer.

Antonia’s tale is told through the eyes and words of Jim Burden, who was smitten by her as a child and whose love for her never dies, even though their lives take radically different paths. Antonia’s tale is one of struggle and the will to survive whilst Jim represents many a typical teenager who yearns to escape the confines of their youth to discover and embrace what the wider world has to offer. Their reunion after many years apart is touching, a love that can never be realised.

Cather’s book is easy to read; she writes with a passion, captivated by the beauty and savagery of the landscape and the changes that the different seasons bring to the lives of her characters and to the complexion of the prairies. She is in awe with her characters whom she brings to life with a wonderfully light touch, with their courage, kindness, generosity and bravery in leaving their previous lives to try to make it in America. There is a wistfulness in the passages in which the characters remember their homes in Bohemia and do their best to preserve some of their old customs.

Structurally, Antonia’s tale is told by Jim Burden whose own account is narrated by a friend. This could have meant that we are somewhat detached from the protagonists but Cather manages this rather cumbersome arrangement with some aplomb.

If you want to understand, the American dream and what made, at least in some people’s eyes, what made America what it was, this is a good place to start.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twenty

Christ’s foreskin

One of the more laughable features of the Christian church in the mediaeval period was its fixation on religious relics. Any religious establishment worth its salt would claim to have some relic which would be trotted out on high days and feast days. Their presence also boosted the local economies as they attracted a steady stream of pilgrims, all of whom would pay to be housed and fed, to gaze on and make their dedications to a bit of bone, tooth, a scrap of clothing or some other artefact purporting to have belonged to Christ, one of the Apostles or one of the myriad saints and martyrs. Next to the sale of eternal absolution it was a big-ticket item.

The most desirable relic would be part of Christ’s anatomy. Given that he was supposed to have risen three days after his crucifixion and, presumably, was in need of a complete body, the only thing that purveyors of religious relics could get their hands on was his foreskin. After all, it was forcibly removed from him eight days after his birth (see Luke 2: 21).

Christ’s foreskin first appeared as a religious relic in around 800 CE, when Charlemagne presented it to Pope Leo III. What else are you supposed to give a Pope? The Holy Roman Emperor claimed he was given the foreskin by an angel that happened to be passing by.

Incredibly, over time Christ’s foreskin began to grow like topsy, some twenty-one religious establishments claiming to have the real deal in their possession. Miraculous properties were ascribed to the wrinkled piece of skin, not least that it protected women during the perilous operation of giving birth.

As Christ was man incarnate, the logical conclusion was that he could only have had one foreskin and that the others were forgeries. Recognising the marketing coup of having their foreskin authenticated by the highest terrestrial religious authorities, several churches sought the stamp of approval for their foreskin. Pope Innocent III, giving a lie to his name, was too canny a bird to get involved in such shenanigans, wisely refusing to adjudicate on a claim made in the early 12th century by the monks of San Giovanni in Laterno.

Less wise, perhaps, was Pope Clement who three centuries later was prevailed upon by the monks of Charroux to declare their foreskin as the authentic one. What convinced his holiness was a report that drops of blood would from time to time drip from it. I can see his reasoning.

In the Middle Ages not everyone was convinced that any of the foreskins belonged to Christ. According to some theologians, Christ’s body had ascended to Heaven intact, foreskin and all. Leo Allatius took the argument to its logical limit by claiming in an essay devoted to the subject, De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba, published in the 17th century, that not only had the holy foreskin ascended to the heavens with Christ but it could be seen as it became the rings that surround Saturn. To contemplate the size of the todger on an eight-day-old baby needed to accomplish that feat of astronomical engineering is truly mind-blowing.

As we move to more modern, if not more enlightened times, the Catholic Church realised that it was on a hiding to nothing in perpetuating the myth that Christ’s real foreskin was somewhere in a religious establishment in Western Europe and declared in 1900 all of them to be fraudulent. Moreover, it is claimed that they made it a crime, punishable by excommunication, for anyone to speak of or write about the Holy Foreskin.

If I wasn’t already damned, I would be now.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (216)?…

Great Scott

If you need to execrate, you may as well as be inventive about it. One of the delights of the English language is that it gives you plenty of scope to use inventive alternatives to the more offensive, to some ears at least, cruder imprecations. These are known as minced oaths. They have the great advantage of allowing you to give vent to your feelings whilst avoiding committing the mortal sin of blasphemy.

Great Scott is one of them but it can also be used to express surprise or even admiration, perhaps more of an interjection than a straight forward oath. Clearly, though, Scott is a substitution for God. But is does raise the question; who was Scott?

As is usual with etymological searches, there are a number of runners and riders and the challenge is to pick through them. One theory is that it refers to that race penned in north of Hadrian’s Wall, the Scots. Although the Scots have made many a contribution to the advancement of the human race, it sticks in the craw of any red-blooded Englishman to think that we would recognise this fact in a mild form of interjection.

A second contender is the novelist, Sir Walter Scott. He was a major literary figure in his time, the pre-eminent man of letters and was occasionally referred to en passant as the great Scott. We may be on firmer ground here but for a couple of things – date and place. The earliest usage of the phrase, at least in print, was in 1845 in America. Scott died in 1832. His fame and popularity were such that it seems an awfully long gap between the height of his popularity and his name being used as an alternative to God in an interjection.

That first usage in print is to be found in the Spirit of Democracy, a newspaper from Woodsfield in Ohio, in their edition of March 7th 1845; “Great Scott! Is it possible that we ever promised to publish this law.” Another early example of the interjection appeared in the Eclectic Medical Journal of December 1856: “‘Great Scott!’ Mystery upon mystery, and marvel upon marvel! Will day ever dawn? What does our author mean?

That Sir Walter is not the Scott in question seems more certain when we look more closely at the next printed example. In his Civil War novel of 1867, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, John William de Forrest wrote, “I follow General Scott. No Virginian need be ashamed to follow old Fuss and Feathers. We used to swear by him in the army. Great Scott! the fellows said.”

Two further examples suggest that the Scott in question was the American general and war hero, General Winfield Scott. The Galaxy Magazine of July 1871 reported; “Great—Scott!” he gasped in his stupefaction, using the name of the then commander-in-chief for an oath, as officers sometimes did in those days.” And Americanisms; the English of the New World, compiled by Maximilian Schele de Vere and published in 1872, perhaps nails it with this definition of the phrase; “Scott, Great! a curious euphemistic oath, in which the name of a well-known general is substituted for the original word, probably merely because of its monosyllabic form.”

So, who was Winfield Scott?

He was the longest serving general in American history with a career which spanned the 1812 War with Blighty, the Black Hawk War, and the Mexican-American (1846-48), amongst others, and at the start of the Civil War he was the senior commander of the US Army. One of his nicknames was Old Fuss and Feathers and he ran for President in 1852. Dates and references all check.

And Scott was great, standing six feet five inches in his stocking feet and was so large in later years, weighing in at 21 stones, that a horse could not be found to carry him.

Great Scott! It’s an Americanism.