What Is The Origin Of (227)?…


These days we use the term copper-bottomed to describe something that is certain, genuine, trustworthy and unlikely to fail. The derivation of our phrase is equally copper-bottomed. It is all to do with the treatment of ships.

In the days of wooden ships, maintenance was a considerable headache. The activities of one creature in particular, Toredo worms, were positively migrainous. These saltwater clams have a particular appetite for boring into wood which has been immersed in seawater. Over time, of course, if their actions are not detected or treated, then the wood can disintegrate, causing a bit of a problem if you are sailing the seven seas.

To counteract the problem, the British Navy, in 1761, started a process of adding copper plating to the underside of the hulls of their ships. So, the ships were literally copper-bottomed. By March 1781, at least according to the London Magazine who reported the rather self-satisfied remarks of Admiral Keppel, it was job done, despite the laggardly behaviour of Lord Sandwich; “he reproached Lord Sandwich with having refused to sheath only a few ships with copper at his request, when he had since ordered the whole navy to be sheathed.”

There were other benefits to this enhancement to the engineering of the fleet of the British navy. Their copper bottoms meant that the speed through which they travelled through the water increased and their manoeuvrability was enhanced, both features contributing to the fleet’s naval hegemony.

But there was a down-side, isn’t there always?

The copper plates were often attached to the hulls using iron nails. The combination of copper and iron together with seawater creates the perfect conditions for something called electro-chemical corrosion, where electrons from other compounds are attracted to the ions in the metal allowing the seawater to corrode the metal. This was almost as dangerous to the mariners as worm-infested timbers and so to resolve the problem iron nails were replaced by copper ones in a process known as copper-fastening.

In the late 18th century a boat which was copper-bottomed and copper-fastened was the real deal. For confirmation of this statement you only have to look at the Hull Advertiser for July 9th 1796 where it announces, “she is copper-fastened and copper-bottomed, and a remarkable fine ship.

It was not too much of a stretch to see how copper-bottomed could move from a prosaic description of the features, and thereby enhanced seaworthiness, to a figurative sense of trustworthy, genuine or reliable. One of the first instances of its usage in a figurative sense appeared in the satirical periodical created by Washington Irving and his brother, William, called Salmagundi; or the Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff & Others. Launched at the start of the 19th century Irving used it to lampoon New York culture and politics. In the edition of May 16th 1807 he wrote, “..except by the celebrated eagle, which flutters his wings over the copper-bottomed angel at messrs. Paff’s in Broadway.

Irving was clearly on a roll that year, ascribing in the edition for November 11th the name, well known to aficionados of Batman, of Gotham to New York, apparently as an analogy to the supposed stupidity of the residents of a village in Nottinghamshire by the same name. In 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in the Ebb-Tide, which he co-authored with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne, “The real, first-rate, copper-bottomed aristocrat.

The term was sufficiently established in the vernacular by 1890 to appear in Slang and its Analogues, a seven volume meisterwerk compiled by J S Farmer and W E Henley. There they helpfully define the term thus; “in mercantile circles, the expression has become popularly current, in a figurative sense, to signify the highest commercial credit; and first-class, first-rate.

Copper-fastened, a different technique, as we have seen, has also been used figuratively but not until the middle of the 20th century. The Evening Independent in November 1848 wrote; “we had some striking examples of what happens when a guy gets so big for his britches that any pal of his is automatically a copper-fastened genius.” The sense seems to slightly different, denoting certainty rather than trustworthiness.


Double Your Money – Part Forty

Titanic Thompson (1893 – 1974)

Titanic Thompson, born Alvin Clarence Thomas, was a larger than life figure, born to gamble, the more unlikely and remarkable the wager the better, so much so that separating the apocryphal from the kosher in his long and inglorious career takes some doing. Take his nickname, Titanic. It wasn’t because he escaped Davy Jones’ locker whilst a passenger on the ill-fated liner by dressing as a woman, as some sources suggest. No, it relates to the reaction to another of his outlandish bets.

After a hard day’s work hustling in a pool hall called Snow Clarks in Joplin, Missouri in 1912, he noticed a sign offering “$200 to any man who jumps over my new pool table.” This was a challenge Thompson could not refuse, even though the table was nine feet long, 30 inches off the floor and 4.5 feet wide. No one believed he could do it and so he had many willing takers for the best. Thompson left the room and came back ten minutes later dragging an old mattress which he put on the other side of the table, where he was to land.

Thompson performed a prodigious leap head first, doing a flip, clearing the table and landing on his back on the mattress. As he was collecting his winnings, someone asked the proprietor his name. “I don’t rightly know, but it ought to be Titanic”, the hall owner said, “He sinks everybody.” The name stuck and Titanic set out on a peripatetic gambling career, targeting the rich, famous and anyone brave or foolish enough to take him on at golf, dice, pool, poker, coin-flipping or to accept his outlandish challenges.

Titanic was ambidextrous when it came to playing golf, although he was naturally left-handed. He challenged an amateur, who regularly carded a gross score of 90, to a game. Playing right-handed he lost a close game. Inevitably, Titanic challenged the amateur to a double or quits game and to make it easier for the amateur Titanic would play left-handed. Of course, he won with a score of 80.

Thompson once bet that he could drive a golf ball over 500 yards at a time when even the best golfers could only achieve around 300 yards. There were a lot of takers for this wager. Allowed to select his golf course, Titanic chose a tee on a hill overlooking a lake at Long Island. The lake was frozen. He struck the ball towards the lake, where it landed and slid and skidded for at least the requisite distance.

You had to read the small print when you struck a bet with Titanic. Irritated by a particularly obnoxious boxer, he bet the champion $1,000 that he could not knock him out while they both stood on the same piece of newspaper. This seemed too good to be true and the boxer accepted the challenge. Thompson laid a copy of the Spring Valley Herald across the threshold of the door, shut the door with him on one side and the increasingly frustrated boxer on the other.

Titanic was also known to play fast and loose with the rules. Horseshoe throwing was a popular sport at the time and the standard distance between the point where the thrower stood and the ring was forty feet. A champion pitcher, Frank Jackson, had issued an open challenge to all-comers with a prize of $10,000. Thompson challenged him and Jackson was astonished to find that his usually unerring throws were falling a foot short. Naturally, Thompson had set the ring forty-one feet away from the line.

A similar trick was played with sign posts. Returning to from a fishing trip to Joplin with a couple of inveterate gamblers, they noticed some workmen erecting a sign saying it was 20 miles away. The next time the trio passed the sign, Titanic wagered the pair that it was only 15 miles away. The bet was accepted, the odometer was studied, and, lo and behold, the distance was 15 miles. Thompson scooped the pot. Of course, he had had the sign moved!

He liked to throw a piece of fruit over a building. After the bet was struck an adjacent fruit seller would pass a weighted piece of fruit to Titanic and the feat was accomplished. He even hooked in Al Capone. Scarface wanted to investigate the lemon before it was thrown and only sleight of hand enabled Titanic to show him a real lemon before throwing the doctored fruit.

Damon Runyon, a writer, wanted to write a story about Thompson’s exploits but was rebuffed on the basis that Titanic’s occupation wasn’t conducive to publicity. In retaliation Runyon based Sky Masterton in a story that later became Guys and Dolls on him.

But there was a seamier side to Titanic. During his career he killed five men, four of whom were in self-defence. He is a subject I shall return tom no doubt.

If you enjoyed this, why not try out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin fone


What Is The Origin Of (226)?…


There’s one thing being careful with your money but being excessively parsimonious for the sake of it is another. We have all met them and when we become exasperated with their meanness, we call them a skinflint.

The term has a long pedigree and probably originates from the argot of thieves, developed to prevent or at least frustrate those who wanted to listen into their conversations. It is defined, helpfully for us, in that wonderful testament to the secret expressions of England’s demi-monde, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, compiled by the almost anonymous B.E in 1699, although he did own up to being a gentleman. Skin-flint, he wrote, is “a griping, sharping, close-fisted Fellow.

The idea is simple enough and takes the form of an exaggerated image of parsimony. Someone is so tight that he would even try to remove the used layer of a flint stone so that he could use it anew. The use of skinning a flint as a metaphor was certainly in currency in the 17th century and not just among the lower orders of society. A Welsh clergyman, David Lloyd, wrote a satirical poem about the exploits of Captain John Smith – we met him last week when we were trying to get a word in edgeways – in 1631; “this were but petty hardship. Jones was one/ would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done.

Flints were used as a means of getting a spark to fire the gunpowder in an old rifle. After a number of firings, the flint would wear out. The majority of riflemen would simply replace the flint but some in a display of parsimony under duress would simply get out their knife and sharpen their flint once more. This practice has led at least one etymologist to surmise that it is the origin of our term. I suspect, though, it is merely a prosaic example of the behaviour of a skinflint rather than the origin of the term, not least because its usage in relation to this practice cannot be attested or dated.

The French had a wonderful, and slightly earlier, phrase for describing an act of meanness, tondre sur un oeuf, which became slightly abbreviated to tondre un oeuf. The, presumably, metaphorical practice of shaving an egg was brought to the attention of the English by Randle Cotgrave in his 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. There he gave one of the definitions of the phrase as “to make a commoditie of any thing, how bare souer it be.” Perhaps the English just replaced an egg with a flint.

The concept of what to most people would seem a futile exercise as a metaphor for meanness took hold and generated a few, even more picturesque variants. The English author, John Davis, wrote about his adventures in the United States at the turn of the 19th century in Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America, published in 1803. He clearly wasn’t impressed, particularly when he encountered a mean lot in New Jersey; “you New Jersey Men are close shavers; I believe you would skin a louse.

A variant was to skin a flea which cropped up in William Faux’s Memorable days in America, published in 1823; “Coals are few and our captain stingy, being one of those Yankees (says our first mate) who, in the Southern States, are said to skin a flea for the sake of its hide or tallow.” This phrase cropped up again in The Weekly Courier and Journal of Natchez in Mississippi in August 1840; “is mean enough to steal chickens from a hospital or skin a flea for its tallow.

Alas, these phrases seem to have dropped out of use but they have encouraged me, at least, to be more imaginative in the terms I use to describe the next skinflint I encounter.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Five

Why are most display watches set to ten past 10?

I have been thinking about buying a new watch over the last few weeks. With the ubiquity of mobile devices such as smart phones, there is something anachronistic about feeling you need something on your wrist for you to consult if you need to know what time it is. At my time of life, I hardly need the chronological precision that a decent watch gives me to regulate my activities. Sometimes I barely know what day it is.

But old habits die hard. For over half a century I have had a timepiece strapped to my left wrist and on the occasions I have not worn one, either because I have forgotten to put it on or it has broken, I somehow feel under-dressed. It is a kind of comfort blanket and wear one I will continue to do.

What struck me as I browsed at jewellers’ window displays and catalogues was that invariably those watches which had a conventional face as opposed to those digital abominations were invariably photographed as showing the time as ten past 10 or, for those manufacturers showing a rebellious streak, ten to 2. Why was that, I wondered?

It has not always been thus. Back in the 1920s and 30s watches were invariably set to 8:20. The Hamilton Watch Company bucked the trend in 1926 when their watches in advertisements showed the time as 10:10. Rolex followed suit in the 1940s and Timex, with their Marlin model in 1953, began to move their advertisements to the now accepted default time. Other manufacturers bowed to peer pressure and by the 1960s ten past 10 it was.

The reasons for the transition are quite easy to understand and it is all about presenting the watch to its best advantage. The hands are symmetrical, a look most people find more appealing than an asymmetrical one, and the two hands, as well as not overlapping so that they can be admired, allow the manufacturer’s logo, usually placed immediately below the figure of 12, to be seen clearly. The lower part of the face, where other features of the watch such as the date and day of the week are displayed, is unobstructed. The clincher is that the V-shape that the hands make represent a smile, a happy face, whereas the inverted V of 8:20 looks like a frown. And we all respond positively to a smile, don’t we?

Marketeers have long been associated with the dark arts, so is there a deeper, psychological reason behind the portrayal of watches? To answer this question we need to look at some research conducted by Ahmed Karim, Britta Lutzenkirchen, Eman Khedr, and Radwa Khalil, reported in the August 2017 edition of Frontiers in Psychology.

The first of their experiments involved showing a group of people pictures of twenty watches, with their faces set at one of the following settings, 10:10 (the happy face), 8:20 (the sad face) and 11:30, the latter selected because it was neutral and had no associations with human physiognomy. In what the uncharitable may view as a scientific demonstration of the bloomin’ obvious, the results showed that the happy face setting elicited greater feelings of pleasure amongst the viewers than the other two settings.

Perhaps of greater interest was the finding that the sad face setting did not affect feelings one way or the other. For those keen to understand the differences between the sexes, the research showed that the female participants registered stronger expressions of pleasure from the 10:10 setting than did their male counterparts. The researchers thought that this was in line with earlier studies in which women were shown to be better at recognising facial expressions and empathising with them than men.

Showing the watch faces alongside pictograms of happy and sad faces confirmed the assumption that the upturned V-shape was associated with a smile and the inverted V with a frown. However, the good vibes generated by the cheerful 10:10 setting were not strong enough to convince the participants to buy, although the inclination to buy was stronger than that generated by the other settings.

I think the case for any deeper psychological significance in the face display is unproven. In any event, if you are presented with a page of smiling watch faces on a page, the good feelings engendered by one are neutralised by the same feelings that come from the others, forcing you to make your selection based on other criteria.

So, the answer is simply a case of aesthetics, one that has clearly stood the test of time.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone


There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Two

Charles Francis Jenkins (1867 – 1934)

Whether we like it or not, popular entertainment was transformed in the early 20th century by the development of television and cinematography. Someone who could justifiably claim to be at the birth of both media is the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Charles Francis Jenkins. Much good it did him.

Born to a Quaker family who moved, when Jenkins was just two, to farm in Fountain City, Indiana, as a boy he was forever tinkering with machinery and soon proved to be a dab hand at fixing broken down implements. He also showed an inventive streak, developing a jack to lift wagons so their axles could be greased.

Like many a youth, Jenkins could not resist the lure of the city and at the age of nineteen moved to Washington DC, working as a stenographer in the early incarnation of the US Coast Guard. Although he had left his country roots behind, Charles could not shake off his inquisitiveness.

By 1890 Jenkins began working on what he described as a “motion picture projecting box” and called a Phantoscope. By the spring of 1894 he was sufficiently satisfied with his progress that he wrote to his parents that he was coming back to Indiana to show them his latest invention, instructing them to assemble a crowd of relatives and interested bystanders at his cousin’s jewellery store in Richmond on 6th June.

The gadget was packed up and sent to Richmond, Jenkins following on, completing the 700-mile journey by bicycle.

After some technical issues, according to the Richmond Telegraph, “there began a sputtering sound as the machine kicked into life and out of the lens shot light onto the wall and a girl clad in garments more picturesque than protective stepped lively. She did not seem bashful thus displayed, while those in the audience were taken aback.” The shameful hussy was Annabelle, a vaudeville favourite.

The audience, after recovering from the assault on their sensibilities, went behind the screen to check that there had been no sleight of hand. Not only was this the earliest documented performance of moving pictures to an audience but, astonishingly, it was in colour as each frame had been stained or coloured by hand. Moreover, it used reeled film and an electric light to project the images.

In the winter of 1894 Jenkins was introduced to Thomas Armat who was looking for investment opportunities. Jenkins was strapped for cash and by March 1895 they concluded an agreement by which Armat would “finance and promote the invention” of Jenkins.

The duo patented the Phantoscope on 28th August 1895 and gave a public demonstration of their device at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in the autumn of 1895. A modified Phantoscope was patented on 20th July 1897 but relations between the two began to deteriorate. Jenkins eventually sold his interest in the projector to Armat who then sold the rights to Thomas Edison and the rest is history.

But Jenkins wasn’t finished as an inventor.

He developed a spiral-wound cardboard container, the design is still used today, a car with an engine in the front rather than under the driver (in 1898), an early version of a sightseeing bus (in 1901), an automatic starter for cars (1911), and an improved internal combustion engine (in 1912).

In an article entitled Motion Pictures by Wireless – Wonderful possibilities of Motion Picture Progress which appeared in the Movie Picture News of 27th September 1913, Jenkins announced that he had developed a mechanism which enabled him to view distant scenes by radio or, what we would nowadays know as television. Notwithstanding his enthusiasm, it took him another ten years before he was able to transmit a picture, of President Harding, from Washington to Philadelphia but by 1925 he was beaming moving pictures.

Granted a patent (US No 1,544,156 for Transmitting Pictures over Wireless) on June 30th 1925, Jenkins established the first commercially licensed TV station in America, W3XK, which made its first transmission on 2nd July 1928 from Washington. In 1929 it was broadcasting five nights a week.

It initially broadcast silhouettes but later moved on to transmitting black and white programmes. Jenkins’ company even produced the equipment that early adopters would have to use to receive the pictures.

But timing is everything. Selling expensive and, essentially, novelty equipment and services as America was plunging into the depths of the Depression was not a smart move. Jenkins’ company was declared bankrupt in 1931, opening up a space for RCA to exploit.

For your part in developing the cinema and television and failing to profit from it, Charles, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (225)?…

A word in edgeways

There is an art to conversation. In a perfect world, a conversation is between two or more people, each of whom has the time and opportunity to put forward their point of view. Comments may be laced with wit, sarcasm or may just be downright rude and the subject matter may veer from one thing to another. It is one of the joys of having the gift of language to engage in witty, illuminating conversations with friends, family and acquaintance.

But not everyone abides by the unwritten rules of conversation. Often, more often than I care for, I encounter someone who likes the sound of their own voice, who is full of their own opinions and unwilling to pass the baton of conversation on to others in the circle. In these circumstances, I find it hard to get a word in edgeways, to break into the conversation.

The root of the phrase is the word edgeways and, perhaps unsurprisingly because of our nautical heritage, it owes its origins to our nautical friends. Bringing a boat into harbour is a tricky business, with all the other boats moored at anchor to avoid. The experienced captain would slowly inch their way slowly to their intended destination by turning the boat to the starboard and then to port, a manoeuvre known as tacking. A painstaking business, to be sure, and to the observer the boat seemed to be edging its way forward.

This form of tacking, edging, was used particularly by captains of ships that were either not so adept at handling windy conditions or when it was blowing a gale. One of the first uses of it, in print at least, is to be found in Captain John Smith’s account of The generall historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Islands, from 1624; “it being but a faire gale of wind, we edged towards her to see what she was.

But edgeways, a compound word formed from edge and way, made its appearance in the English language midway through the 16th century and meant “with the edge turned forward or towards a particular point.” That it predates Smith’s usage of edge in a nautical sense does not necessarily mean that it did not come from the argot of sailors. England was already a maritime nation by then and edging was a technique in the armoury of any competent sea-captain.

It didn’t take much longer for edging to be used in a figurative sense and, in particular, in relation to that everyday human activity, talking. David Abercromby in his Ars artium; or the art of Divine Converse, published in 1683, wrote, “without giving them so much time as to edge in a word.” The inability to break into a conversation or to get your point of view across was clearly not a modern-day predicament.

The use of the adverb edgeways in the context of conversation seems to have been a 19th century development. In 1821, in a one-act play called Twelve precisely! Or A night at Dover, one of the leading characters, Sir Ferdinand Frisky (great name) says, “Curse me, if I can get a word in edgeways.” Three years later Mary Russell Mitford, in a collection of rural sketches called Our Village, wrote, “As if it were possible for any of us to slide in a word edgewise!

And there we have it.

The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Six

Gerrard Street, W1

Running from north-east to south-west, parallel to the western stretch of Shaftesbury Avenue, and joining Wardour Street at its western end, Gerrard Street these days is right in the heart of Chinatown. If you want a (reasonably) cheap meal before sampling the cultural delights that the centre of our metropolis boasts, a restaurant on Gerrard Street is as good a place as any to go to.

It takes its name from a military leader, the 1st Earl of Macclesfield, Charles Gerard – quite where the extra r came from is anybody’s guess.   Prior to its development as a residential area, the land which is now occupied by Gerrard Street was slap bang in the middle of what was known as the Military Ground, used by the Military Company of Westminster who were formed in 1615. They were granted permission by the Privy Council at the time to exercise under the direction of the Commissioners of Muster for Middlesex “in anie place neere the suburbs of the citie.”

The Military Company secured two parcels of land for their purposes, the western portion, some two acres in size and on which Gerrard Street now runs, leased and the eastern part, one and a half acres, purchased from Susan Lamb and Thomas and Elizabeth Garland in 1619. A nine-foot brick wall was built around the perimeter of the grounds and an Armoury House, at a total cost of £294, which was a two-storied brick building with two wings and a tiled roof.

Quite what the Military Company actually did, other than parade up and down and enjoy convivial evenings in the Armoury House, is unclear. They do not warrant a mention in the annals of the Civil War and their only formal duty, which has survived in any records, was that they supplemented the forces of law and order each Shrove Tuesday to keep an eye on the apprentices of London who enjoyed their day off with some gusto.

However, what is certain is that by 1656 the Company had fallen on hard times and entered into a lease-back arrangement with Edward Haynes, a cook, who bought the land and occupied the Armoury House. Then, in 1661, Gerard enters our story.

A royalist and a soldier who had spent time in the United Provinces and, following the Restoration of Charles II, a gentleman of the bedchamber, Gerard paid Haynes £500 for his land. His attempts to gain possession of the whole of the Military Ground was frustrated by a gardener called Browne, who refused to vacate the land he had leased. Gerard resorted to threats, vowing to “Cutt the Members of the said Military Company in peeces if ever they came on the said Ground.” Gerard even dismantled part of the Armoury House and the library but it was not until 1676 that he eventually got legal title to the whole of the Military Grounds.

On 5th July 1677 Gerard leased the land to the physician, Dr Nicholas Barbon, and a timber merchant, John Rowley, and they, taking advantage of the permission “to erect and build in or upon any part or parts of the said Military Ground any houses and buildings whatsoever leaveing a convenient way and passage for Coaches and Carriages,” started building residential properties. Gerrard Street, in its modern incarnation, took shape between 1677 and 1685. One of Barbon’s houses was occupied by Gerard, until he had to flee, having been convicted of treason for his part in the Rye House conspiracy, an attempt to assassinate Charles II and his son, James.

The poet, John Dryden, lived at number 43 for a while and Edward Burke spent some time at number 37. A plaque outside number 9 commemorates the formation of a dining club, in 1746, following a meeting between Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds at the Turk’s Head. And in Great Expectations, Mr Jaggers lived on the south-side of the street in “rather a stately house of its kind, but dolefully in want of painting.” But by the middle of the 18th century, the street was better known for its coffee houses than its residential properties and nowadays you can substitute Chinese restaurants for coffee shops.

Of the streets that formed Barbon’s development of the Military Ground, only Gerrard and Macclesfield Streets bear their original name.