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.


On My Doorstep – Part Eighteen

Colonel John Pennycuick (1841 – 1911)

Walking through the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Frimley a few months ago I noticed a new addition to the burial spot of John Pennycuick, a stone plaque donated by the grateful peoples of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala is one of my favourite spots in the world and my interest was piqued to find the connection between a man in Frimley and the states in the southern tip of India and why he had earned their undying gratitude.

And quite a story it is too.

The Periyar river rises in the Western Ghats and descends into Kerala, irrigating the fertile lands as it makes its way to the Arabian Sea. Kerala’s lush green countryside and wonderful backwaters are testimony to the importance of the river to the area. Those who lived on the eastern side of the Ghats were less fortunate. The Vaigai river that flowed from there to the Bay of Bengal was smaller and less reliable. Indeed, in the 19th century the soil was dry and unfit for agriculture. Locals were reduced to stealing grain and cattle from neighbouring villages just to scrape a living.

Plans to divert some of the waters of the Periyar into the Vaigai were mooted as early as 1789. In 1808 Captain J L Caldwell did some exploratory drilling in the area but concluded that any such project was “decidedly chimerical and unworthy of further regard.” The first attempt to dam the Periyar was made in 1850 but soon abandoned because the workers demanded higher wages to compensate for the unhealthy living conditions they had to endure.

In 1882, minds perhaps concentrated by the terrible famines six years earlier, the construction of a dam was approved and the military engineer, John Pennycuick, was appointed to bring it to fruition. Work began in earnest in May 1887, using troops from the 1st and 4th battalions of the Madras Pioneers and carpenters from Cochin. The dam was made with concrete made from a mix of lime and surkhi, burnt brick powder mixed with sugar and calcium oxide, and was faced with rubble. It was a gravity dam, meaning that the force of gravity was deployed to support the reservoir, giving it extra stability in extreme weather conditions and in the event of earthquakes.

Situated some 3,000 feet above sea level in what was dense, malarial jungle, the dam, known as the Mullaperiyar Dam, is 176 feet tall at its highest point, 1,241 feet long and holds up to 15 thousand million cubic feet of water. It was an astonishing accomplishment, dubbed as “one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering ever performed by man.

And that’s not all.

At the northern end of the dam a mile-long deep cutting was excavated for the water to flow through, then via a 5,704-foot tunnel and then through another cutting to reach and augment the waters of the Vaigai. It transformed the land to the east of the Ghats, making it almost as fertile as Kerala and allowing sustainable agriculture to flourish. Work was completed in 1895 and the dam was inaugurated by the then Governor of the Madras Presidency, Lord Wenlock. Penicuick had won the undying gratitude of the locals, not only at the time but for generations to come, an example (rare as it might be) of the positive effects of the Raj.

But the work came at a cost. Often rains and torrents from the swollen rivers would wash away the temporary structures as the dam was being constructed. At one point the project was perilously close to running out of money and legend has it, although there is no firm evidence to support it, that Pennycuick sold his wife’s jewellery to keep the work going.

And there was a human cost. 483 people died of disease during the construction of the dam, most of whom are interred in a cemetery to the north of the works. It is also claimed that but for the medicinal properties of the local firewater, arrack, the work would never have been finished.

A sense of the enormity of the achievement and the difficulties Pennycuick faced can be gleaned from this extract from his obituary in The Times; “under his direction the work was carried to completion in the face of numerous difficulties, the country being entirely uninhabited and most inaccessible, the climate malarious, while labour, transport and technical problems daily presented themselves for solution.”

Pennycuick, who was born in Poona in India but schooled in Addiscombe in Surrey, retired to Camberley, presumably because of its military connections, after leaving India and advising the Queensland authorities on how to control the Brisbane river. He settled down in Silourie, which was on the Branksome Park Road in Camberley, between Upper Park Road and Crawley Ridge, serving as a member of the Frimley Urban District Council, chairing it at the time of his death in March 1911, after a long illness.

A truly great man.

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.

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.

The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Three

Tooley Street, SE1

Running parallel to the River Thames on it southern bank from the point where it joins Montague Close under the arch of London Bridge up to St Saviour’s Dock in the east, Tooley Street has undergone a considerable transformation in recent years with a range of restaurants to suit all tastes, if not all pockets.

I had fondly imagined that this thoroughfare, which once bustled with traffic moving goods to and from the docks to the City of London, was named after some Irishman or other named Tooley. But not a bit of it.

It appears, at least if the maps of the area dating from around the 17th and 18th centuries are to be believed, to be a corruption of the name of St Olave’s church which had stood a little to the east of the then London Bridge. The early cartographers, including John Rocque, record its name as Synt Toulus and other variants are Toulas, Toolis and Toolies. How it came about is anybody’s guess. Prior to that the street appeared in a Woodcut map, dating to around 1561, as Barms Street and in the 17th century was known as Short Southwark.

The church, which is referred to in the Doomsday book of 1086, had a chequered history and by 1736 part of it had fallen down and the rest was on the verge of collapse, principally because graves had been dug too near its foundations. The parishioners raised enough money to build a more substantial church in Portland stone with a square tower and by 1740 it had reclaimed its position as a principal landmark in the area.

Disaster struck on 19th August 1843 when fire broke out in the premises of an oilman near Topping’s Wharf, adjacent to the church, spread to the roof of St Olave’s and destroyed the interior and its bells, although the tower remained standing.

Thank heavens for insurance!

The money from the insurers was sufficient for the church to be rebuilt but it was eventually demolished in 1926 to make way for the headquarters of the Hay’s Wharf Company in what is now St Olave’s House.

With so much riparian industry, shoddy construction and unsafe work practices, fires were commonplace in the area. Some had catastrophic consequences. The Cyclopaedia of Insurance reported that in July 1731 a pot of boiling was overturned, causing a fire which destroyed a large number of vessels on the Thames, a case of setting the Thames on fire.

More famously, on 22nd June 1861 fire broke out in a warehouse in Tooley Street’s Cotton Wharf, raging for two days and not fully extinguished until a fortnight had passed. Many buildings in the area were destroyed in what was one of the capital’s largest conflagrations in the 19th century. One of the consequences of the fire was the passing of the Metropolitan Fire Act in 1865 and the creation of the first publicly funded fire brigade in the capital.

In the 16th century the street boasted a pillory into which fraudulent traders were displayed to public ridicule or worse and a cage to hold drunken and disorderly people, who had been arrested at an hour too late for them to be imprisoned, were held until they had sobered up.

Poverty was never too far away from Tooley Street. Eric Blair aka George Orwell stayed in what was known as a kip on Tooley Street from 19th September until 8th October 1931 while he was carrying out his researches for the book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which he wrote in Bermondsey Library further down the street.

And to end on a literary note, Samuel Pepys gives us an evocative picture of the area in his Diaries when he was forced to walk in a storm in the winter of 1665 – 6 because there was no river transport available; “it was dangerous to walk the streets, the bricks and tiles falling from the houses..we could see no boats in the Thames afloat but what were broke loose and carried through the bridge. the greatest sight of all was among other parcels of ships driven hither and thither in clusters together, one was quite overset, and lay with her masts all along in the water, and her keel above water.”.

Poor Samuel. I’m sure he was glad to get to his bed that night.