Tag Archives: Benjamin Franklin

What Is The Origin Of (300)?…

One’s trumpeter is dead

We’ve all heard of blowing your own trumpet, a phrase denoting that you are being boastful. It is always preferable, I feel, to have someone else singing your praises, your own trumpeter, as it were. Of course, if your own trumpeter is dead, then you are forced to extol your own virtues yourself. Our phrase is used by someone who feels the need to boast or to describe a person who is a habitual boaster.  

Benjamin Franklin seemed enamoured of the phrase, using it on a couple of occasions at least. In a letter he wrote to Andrew Bradford on February 4, 1729 under the nom de plume of The Busy Body he was being unduly modest, with tongue pressed firmly to his cheek, when urging the editor to allow his organ, The Weekly Mercury, to be used as a platform for Franklin’s views; “my Character indeed I would favour you with, but that I am cautious of praising my Self, lest I should be told my Trumpeter’s dead”.

In another letter, this time to the clergyman and agronomist, Jared Eliot, written on February 13, 1749, Franklin commented on the natural inclination to sing one’s own praises; “that this natural inclination, appears, in that all children show it, and say freely, I am a good boy; am I not a good girl? and the like; ‘till they have been frequently chid, and told their trumpeter is dead; and that it is unbecoming to sound their own praise…” Ephraim Doolittle, on finding that his character was b eing blackened, felt obliged to pen a missive to The Farmer’s Library, a Vermont publication, on April 15, 1793. In his defence the unfortunate Doolittle, perhaps wishing he had lived up to his name, wrote, “I am not conscious to myself, that I have ever wittingly or willingly injured any man to the value of one copper; but perhaps my trumpeter is dead, or only sick”.       

Given the examples cited above, you would be forgiven in thinking that the phrase is an Americanism. This is not necessarily so as the expression appears in the distinctly English A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, compiled by Francis Grose and published in 1788. In the section devoted to the trumpet, Grose defines the phrase to sound one’s own trumpet as “to praise one’s self”. He then goes on to define the King of Spain’s trumpeter as “a braying ass” and “his trumpeter is dead, he is therefore forced to sound his own trumpet”. Trumpeting is clearly associated in Grose’s mind and, presumably in the colloquial speech of the English common folk, with stupidity and pomposity. We can, perhaps, assume, that the phrase found its way to the Americas.

Incidentally, some commentators regard the association of the King of Spain’s trumpeter with a braying ass as a pun on the word donkey, Don being the title for a Spanish nobleman. It might just be, but it does seem a little far-fetched to me.

Without wishing to be informed that my trumpeter is dead, I have enjoyed putting together these etymological excursions. Having reached the three-hundredth post, I have decided that I will stop these regular Friday posts. Rest assured, there will be more word-related posts, but in a different format.

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Ten

Birchin Lane, EC3

Birchin Lane connects Cornhill at its northern end with Lombard Street at its southern end. There is some dispute as to the etymology of its name. The eminent 16th century antiquarian, John Stow, claimed that it was a corruption of the name of the first builder and owner of the land, Birchover. Others claim that it meant a lane of barbers, Birchin being a corruption of an Old English word, beardceofere. The Middle English verb, cherven, itself originating from ceorfan, meant to cut hair. Who knows?

Standing on the banks of the river valley of the Walbrook, the area now occupied by Birchin Lane once formed part of the Roman’s first settlements in London. The Romans built their first basilica and Forum in the area that runs alongside Gracechurch Street but in the 2nd century CE constructed a successor in the area between Fenchurch Street and Cornhill. It is fascinating to think of toga-wearing Romans walking around the area.

Given its proximity to Cornhill, a major thoroughfare in the City in mediaeval times, Birchin Lane is almost certainly one of London’s oldest streets. The monk, John Lydgate, mentioned that in the 14th century there was a market near and around Birchin Lane, although the first time its name was recorded was in 1473. At that time the lane was the place to go to trade with fripperers, stallholders we would now know as second-hand clothes merchants. Their stalls ran along the Lane and spilled into Lombard Street.          

By the 16th century or possibly earlier, Birchin Lane became better known for its hosiers. Isabella Whitney, England’s first secular female poet, wrote a mock will, a satirical farewell to London and her friends, entitled Her Will and Testament and published at the close of the 16th century. Within the poem she managed to bring contemporary London alive; “I hose do leave in Birchin Lane/ of any kind of size/ For women stitched, for men both trunks/ and those of Gascon guise”.

It was not just hosiery that was sold there. Slightly earlier in 1573, Whitney had produced a useful guide to where to go in London to buy a range of goods. Birchin Lane, in her estimation, was the place to go to for women’s footwear, because “artisans sold boots and shoes and pantables or overshoes for walking in the dirty streets of London”. Extending its range during the following century, Birchin Lane became known as a place for men to buy ready-made clothing.

Following the Great Fire of 1666 and the reconstruction of the City, Cornhill re-established its position as being one of the busiest thoroughfares and Birchin Lane, hanging on to its coat tails, was able to exploit its position. There was a craze for what were known as penny universities, coffee houses where for the price of a penny a young man “without regard to rank or privilege” could enter and converse with anyone there, exchanging news, opinion and conducting business. Tom’s Coffee House could be found on the Lane, frequented by the Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, when he was transacting financial business on the London Exchange.

Coffee houses were also used as post restante by travellers. Before setting out for London Benjamin Franklin wrote to his sister, Jane Mecom, on April 19, 1757, instructing her to “direct your letters to be left for me at the Pensilvania Coffee House in Birchin Lane”. Franklin was obviously a regular there as some of his letters back to friends and relatives gave the coffee house as his address. There were drawbacks, though. On September 27, 1766 Franklin wrote to Joseph Galloway, a friend and American loyalist; “I have been told that one Williamson of Pensilvania who is here, reads letters at the Coffee-house, said to be from you to me or from me to you…for which reason I would wish you to write no more to me by that course, as I apprehend some scoundrel may be employed there in the scandalous office of prying into, and perhaps making bad or false copies of our correspondence”.  

What Franklin knew as the Pensilvania was also known as the Carolina Coffee House, a home from home for travelling Americans, which was certainly open by 1682, making it one of the earliest, and didn’t close its doors until at least 1831. Its probable location was what is now number 25 Birchin Lane, although the original premises were destroyed in the fire of 1748. It was restored and back in business in time for Franklin to take residency there.

What is now a fairly mundane, pedestrianised street has a long and fascinating history.

What Is The Origin Of (266)?…

To turn up one’s toes

There are very few certainties in life. Christopher Bullock nailed it down in the Cobbler of Preston, published in 1716, when he noted, “’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes”, predating Benjamin Franklin’s more famous coining of the phrase by some seventy-three years. Some of us, though, are able to evade even taxes and so we are left with one absolute certainty, death itself. It is no wonder, therefore, that our wonderful language has myriad phrases to describe this one absolute certainty of our mortal state. Wikipedia lists 142 synonyms and I’m sure there must be more.

One such is to turn up one’s toes which is an abbreviated form of the longer to turn up one’s toes to the roots of the daisies, a reference to the dead person’s lying in a grave and mingling with the soil and the flora of the cemetery. Other variants around this rather picturesque theme include under the daisies and to push up the daisies.

One of the themes that comes through from these etymological searches is how often words and phrases that appear to have their origin in Ireland migrate to the United States. The Irish migrants may have brought with them little in the way of worldly possessions but they did not forget their often charming turn of phrase and inventive vocabulary.

English newspapers in the 1830s, for some unaccountable reason, had a thing about printing epitaphs from Irish graves. I suppose it filled up space on a slow news day. The Courier, in its edition of August 28, 1830 under the heading of From a Tombstone in Ballyporeen Churchyard, published the following lines of verse; “here at length I repose-/ And my spirit at aise is-/ with the tips of my toes,/ and the point of my nose,/ turn’d up to the roots of the daisies”. The same verse, with variations in spelling and title, appeared in a number of other journals over the following year or so. We can only conclude that its homely platitudes gave some comfort, and perhaps amusement, to the papers’ readership.

The Chartist movement later that decade gave the political stage to the working class and it is no surprise that their idioms peppered their oratory. The Manchester Guardian on May 4, 1839 included the following from an address given by a Chartist in Bolton; “..whether they must go to the Abbey side, where their ancestors lay, as the Irish say, with their toes turned up to the roots of the daisies”. It would be dangerous to take this as proof-positive of the phrase’s Irish origin but, at least, that seems to be what contemporaries thought.

It was also used adjectivally in a racy and slang-filled account of a lion hunt penned by one Captain G. Grenville Malet in the New Sporting Magazine on August 18, 1841. “We at length, by severe peppering, made him cut his lucky, and found him toes up within a few yards”. Poor lion but at least it found some sort of immortality.

When it had crossed the pond to America it had been abbreviated to to turn one’s toes up, appearing in this form in print in The Sun from Baltimore on August 12, 1852 in an account of the massacre by so-called coolies of the crew of the American ship, the Robert Browne. One coolie helped himself to the ship’s medicine chest with disastrous consequences as the paper reported; “about three hours afterwards he turned his toes up!

Neither my toes, nor more nose for that matter, will push up the daisies, other than in granular form, as I have elected to be cremated, but if my body was laid to rest, I would find some solace in knowing I would be enriching the soil.

Fart Of The Week (5)

In Clay County in Missouri a man suspected of possessing controlled substances aka drugs was on the run from officers from the curiously and anomalously named Liberty Police Department. As the officers had dogs the unnamed suspect sensibly hid in the undergrowth.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote in his 1781 Letter to the Royal Academy about farting, “it is universally well known, that in digesting our common food, there is created or produced in the bowels of human creatures, a great quantity of wind”. It was at this point that the suspect’s bowels started troubling him, so much so that he let out a loud and prolonged fart, clearly one uncontrolled substance about his person.

The noise was such that the police were immediately able to sniff him out and arrest him. Happily, the police were able to report that no one was injured during the arrest.

I suppose it will take a while for the suspect to live that one down but at least it should guarantee him a single cell.

Fart Of The Week (3)

Air travel can be pretty stressful these days, what with the hassle of getting through security and then the worry of who you will be sitting next to. So I have some sympathy for a couple of Dutch men on Transavia Airlines flight HV6902 from Dubai to Schipol.

They found themselves sitting next to a chap who was following Benjamin Franklin’s advice to fart proudly a little too enthusiastically. His bout of noisy flatulence caused a bit of atmosphere in the aircraft cabin and despite requests from the aggrieved duo that he desist, he wouldn’t stop.

They then called upon the cabin crew for assistance. The pilot got involved, asking the man to bottle it but the serial farter refused. So the Dutch men took matters in their own hands, sparking a fight, serious enough to cause the plane to be diverted to Vienna.

The Austrian police boarded the plane and removed the two Dutch men together with a couple of women who happened to be sitting in the same row. All four have since been banned from Transavia flights but were not charged as they had not broken any Austrian laws.

It is not clear whether any action was taken against the farting provocateur. Perhaps he should content himself with fizzling next time.