A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: minced oath

What Is The Origin Of (172)?…

Like billy-o

This phrase is, somewhat quaintly, used as a comparator of the most extreme type. This exchange from the fifth series of Downton Abbey aptly illustrates its usage; “Lord Grantham – But darling, you don’t want to rush into anything.” Rose: “But I do. I want to rush in like billy-o.” Perhaps it illustrates a paucity of vocabulary on the part of the speaker or reflects that there isn’t a word that can reflect the extent of the experience.

But what does billy-o mean and where did it come from? There is a bewildering array of explanations to pick our way through. Perhaps the most beguiling is that it is a reference to the hell-fire and brimstone preacher, Joseph Billio, who turned up in the Essex town of Maldon in 1696, built a chapel in Market Hill and treated the (un)lucky residents to passionate and lengthy sermons each week. There is even a plaque in the town claiming that the preacher gave his name to the phrase like billio.

The problem with accepting this story at face value is that the earliest recorded usage of the phrase in print is some two centuries later. The Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, in March 1882, described some unfortunate was described as “lay[ing] on his side for about two hours, roaring like billy-hoo with the pain, as weak as a mouse.” Leaving aside the slight variation in the spelling – and bear in mind the Essex origin requires the word to be spelt as the preacher’s surname was – the sense is as we would use it today. In the edition of 9th August 1885 of the Referee we have, perhaps, the earliest example of something more analogous to the modern spelling; “shure it’ll rain like billy-oh.” The use of shure adds another intriguing element to the story – perhaps it is Irish in origin.

As well as the fulsome preacher, another candidate to be proclaimed the progenitor of the phrase is an Italian soldier and contemporary of Garibaldi, Lieutenant Nino Bixio. He is said to have charged into battle exhorting his troops to fight like Bixio. This theory requires us to accept that the English mangled the Italian’s name – there are many examples where words of foreign origin are not assimilated into English unscathed – and chose to use it instead of some more obvious home-grown candidates such as the Puffing Billy, an early steam engine whose progress, stately by modern standards, would have been shockingly daring in contemporary terms, or William the Third, the victor of the Battle of the Boyne, who was known as Good King Billy.

The clue to the phrase’s origin surely lies in a piece of doggerel printed by the Bismarck Tribune in September 1883; “and the people cheered him like billy-be dang”. The phrase looks like a corruption of Billy-be-damned which appeared in Robert Burt’s novel, The Scourge of the Ocean, published in 1837; “They knocked off their deviltries, and became all on a sudden as sanctified as Billy Be-damned.” We may well be in the territory of minced oaths – swear words which were modified to avoid blasphemy.

The phrase like the devil dates back to Elizabethan times and the goat has often been associated with the devil. A male goat is colloquially known as a billy. Perhaps our phrase is just an oath where a goat has been substituted for the devil. This clearly is what is happening with billy-be-damned and another odd phrase, like billy hell. By the 20th century the phrase was part of the vernacular. Examples include “And they fight? Like billy-o” from W J Locke’s Fortunate Youth (1914) and “The Holy Rollers were going at it like billy-oh” from the Observer of 1927 – pretty much the era that the Downton dialogue was replicating.


What Is The Origin Of (153)?…

Peter out

Peter out is another phrase to describe a disappointing outcome after a promising start, the frequency of such phrases is perhaps synonymous with the reality of life. When something peters out it dwindles away to nothing. My sense is that it is slightly more neutral than fizzle out which conveys a hint of annoyance, frustration or despair. But where does our phrase come from and, in particular, what does peter mean?

America in the mid 19th century was a land of opportunity as immigrants began to exploit its vast mineral reserves. In particular, for many the lure of panning for and finding gold proved irresistible. The California gold rush of 1848 is perhaps the most famous but there had been earlier gold rushes – in 1799 at Cabarrus County, North Carolina and in 1829 in Georgia. The problem with small seams of mineral is that they were finite in size and soon exhausted. Peter seems to have been used by miners to describe this phenomenon and the consequent impact on their luck and fortune.

The first recorded use of peter in this context appeared in the Milwaukee Daily Gazette in December 1845 where a miner laments his luck thus, “When my mineral petered why they all Petered me. Now it is dig, dig, dig, drill, drill for nothing. My luck is clean gone – tapered down to nothing.” Peter out seems to have first appeared in 1854 in Puddleford and its People by Henry Hiram Riley and its usage is figurative rather than rooted in prospecting; “he hoped this ‘spectable meeting warn’t going to Peter-out.” By 1873 it was being used again in the context of mining and if the gloss provided by Appleton’s Journal of 18th October 1873 is to be relied upon, it was a piece of miners’ argot. “No mortal forecast can tell whether a good vein will not narrow to nothing (‘peter out,’ as the miners phrase it) in a week; and, on the other hand, it may widen in that time beyond all anticipation.”

From this rather narrow usage, it developed the wider, figurative usage with which we are familiar today. But why peter? The temptation is almost irresistible to associate it with the apostle Peter, who, after all, was the rock. Perhaps it was an example of a minced oath, one of those whose contents are changed to avoid blasphemy and to protect the sensitivities of the religious? Attractive as this may be, I think it unlikely.

The next candidate is the agent with which rocks were dislodged to reveal the minerals – gunpowder, an important component of which is saltpetre. The American spelling, almost certainly due to the strictures of Noah Webster, is saltpeter and peter is found as a slang word used to describe the act of using gunpowder as this example from 1962 shows, The Dolman boys are going to peter a pawnshop safe tonight.” The problem I have with this usage is that there is no sense of dwindling.

Perhaps a more likely derivation is from the French verb, péter, which means, inevitably, to fart. It is certainly the origin of petard, a medieval military explosive device, and was used in the 18th century to describe a loaded dice. In the 19th century peter appeared as a slang word meaning to stop or cease – the first example is found in 1812 – and this seems to be more apposite to the modern usage.

Which origin, if any, is correct is uncertain and my attempts to go any further petered out.

What Is The Origin Of (139)?…

Blown to smithereens

This is a rather dramatic phrase which is used to describe the consequences of a large bang or explosion. Bits and pieces, shard and shrapnel flies everywhere and what you are left with is a rather charred bit of ground and some smoking remains. Smithereens mean tiny bits or shattered fragments.

Smithereens is an unusual word in that it is rarely, if ever, found in the singular. That makes sense as it would be a pretty poor show if a bang or explosion created only one fragment. It is also usually found as a noun in the company of rather aggressive verbs such as blown, bashed, dashed, smashed or shot to. Interestingly, D H Lawrence used it as a collective noun for birds in his collection of travel essays, Mornings in Mexico, published in 1927; “then someone mysteriously touched the button, and the sun went bang, with smithereens of birds bursting in all directions.” Works rather well, methinks.

As to its origin, we need look no further than the Irish Gaelic word smiodar, which means a piece or fragment, and its diminutive form, smidirin. Een in Gaelic is also a diminutive form as in colleen, a small girl. So smithereens technically comprises of two diminutives. Whether this is to reflect that the fragments are as small as they can be is unclear. When the word crossed the Irish Sea it had a variety of forms, the principal variants being smiddereens, which at least preserves the original root, and shivereens before it settled down to smithereens.

It has been used in its modern sense since the start of the 19th century at least. Francis Plowden, in his History of Ireland, published in 1801, records a threat made by Orangemen to a Mr Pounden. “If you don’t be off directly, by the ghost of William, our deliverer, and by the orange we wear, we will break your carriage in smithereens, and hough your cattle and burn your house.”  Houghing was severing the tendons of animals. Charming!

Somewhere else things are blown to is Kingdom come. The origin of the phrase kingdom come is straight forward. It was used in the King James’ version of the Christian bible. in Matthew 6, where the disciple details the Lord’s Prayer; “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. etc”  The meaning is pretty straightforward too. Christ’s kingdom will come or return as many of the Utopian sects believed. Topographically it could reflect some utopian idyll to which the fragments are blown. This suggested interpretation doesn’t sit too well with the Greek text of Matthew where the verb eltheto is an imperative, aorist imperative if we are being pedantic. So the more correct translation should be let thy kingdom come.

There may be a temporal sense to the phrase. The thing has been blown so far away that it will take until the coming of Christ’s kingdom to retrieve it. I’m not convinced by that either and I’m left with the conclusion that it might just be a euphemism or, perhaps more accurately, a minced oath. These, like cor blimey, gadzooks, shoot and freaking, are designed specifically to avoid swearing.

Personally, I will stick with the Irish if I ever need to describe something that has been shattered into small pieces.