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.


What Is The Origin Of (213)?…

Three sheets to the wind

Now that the holiday season is well and truly behind us, some of us, no doubt, can recall that we over-indulged a little bit and may even, on occasion, have been three sheets to the wind. By this we mean very drunk but where did this phrase come from?

It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that it is nautical but what is fascinating is that the sheets referred to are not sails, as I had assumed, but ropes or chains, fixed to the lower corners of sails and used to fasten them in place. Technically, there is only one sheet to a sail, any other ropes fastened to it used for adjusting it to take account of wind direction being known as lines. Strictly, therefore, the expression would describe a three-masted ship where all its sails were loosely tied. The consequence of loose sails blowing about in the wind is that the sails would flap and make the vessel lurch around, rather like an inebriated matelot.

The next surprise, to me at least, is that the original phrase seems to have been three sheets in the wind. One of the very earliest examples in print appeared in Niles’ Weekly Register of 2nd May 1812 and recorded Englishman Thomas Ashe’s experiences in Kentucky where the hospitality was generous and the liquor strong. He noted, “it must not be wondered at that the poor, untutored, savage Kentuckyan got more than two-thirds drunk, that is, as the sailors term it, three sheets in the wind and the fourth shivering, before the dinner was ended.

From this citation we can perhaps deduce two things; first, that it was a phrase that peppered the language of many a salty sea dog and that there was a gradation of sheets to describe the varying states of inebriation. That the latter may be the case is illustrated by an observation from the Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, published in 1815, for the 26th September 1813 when the worthy gentleman found himself in Kentucky too; “the tavern keepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be: they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!

And providing further evidence is this passage from Catherine Ward’s novel, The Fisher’s Daughter, published in 1824; “Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.” And Robert Louis Stevenson has the one sheet variant in Treasure Island (1883), Long John Silver saying, “Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober; “

Another early example, again American, appeared in the edition of the Genius of Liberty for 26th August 1817; “he was about three sheets in the wind, that is to say a little intoxicated and began to talk loud and swear.”  The gloss perhaps suggests the phrase was not so well known in Virginia. It was not until 1821 that the phrase appeared this side of the Atlantic in Pierce Egan’s Real Life of London; “Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.” That the earliest examples are American by origin doesn’t necessarily mean the phrase was an Americanism. Ashe and Astbury were English by origin and the phrase was part of nautical argot.

By 1823 the phrase was sufficiently well established to earn an entry in a lexicon, John Bee’s Slang, A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-ton and the Varieties of Life. There he defines it as “naval, but naturalized ashore, and means drunk, but capable of going along – like a ship which has three sheets braced – main, mizzen, and foresail.” Interestingly, he makes the mistake of confusing sheet for a sail.

To the wind didn’t appear in print until 1894 in the New Year’s Day edition of the Pennsylvania State University Free Lance; “..he espied two old friends approaching, one of them three sheets to the wind and the other piloting him..” Why the change is unclear aand from a nautical perspective, they are opposite ways of proceeding. Whatever the reason, this is the version that has stuck.

After all that, I need a drink. Perhaps I will soon be one sheet in the wind!

What Is The Origin Of (189)?…

Dot and carry one

Here’s a rather obscure expression which I first came across as a boy when I was engrossed in Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of derring-do that is Treasure Island, published in 1883. In Part Four the Doctor regales us with his narrative of events at the stockade, jolly exciting they were too, and he reports “I was not new to violent death…but I know my pulse went dot and carry one.” I hope from the context I was clever enough to surmise that his pulse was pounding or had an irregular beat.

More recently I read Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, 1924 – 28, and came across this passage; “And Sandbach went off, dot and carry one, and began a furious row…” The context for the use of this curious phrase is completely different from that of Stevenson’s and can only refer to the gait of the unfortunate Sandbach. And then there is Rudyard Kipling’s tribute to the regimental bhisti or water carrier, Gunga Din. “’E would dot and carry one/ Till the longest day was done.”  This might be mystifying if we didn’t have the chorus, “He was Din! Din! Din!/ You limpin’ lump o’ brick dust, Gunga Din.” Din’s dotting and carrying one was down to his gait.

According to Redding Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era, published in 1909, dot and carry one referred to a “person with a wooden leg.” He even helpfully explained the meaning behind the component parts thus; “The dot is the pegged impression made by all wooden legs before the invention of the modelled foot and calf. The one is the widowed leg.”  Francis Grose in his invaluable Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785, identifies an earlier variant, dot and go one. This, he reveals, is “generally applied to persons who have one leg shorter than the other and who, as the sea phrase is, go upon an uneven keel.

So it would appear that our phrase deals with irregularity, initially of gait and then by extension more figuratively to pulse.

But then Grose lets slip a rather revealing clue by way of an aside. He notes that our phrase was also “a jeering appellation for an inferior dancing master, or teacher of arithmetic.” I’m blessed with two left feet and when I trip the light fantastic, the verb is literal rather than figurative and so one can see why an incompetent dance teacher could be likened to someone with mobility issues.

But a maths teacher?

It is a while since I had the joys of learning to do my maths but I seem to recall that when I was doing any sort of complicated calculation I was encouraged to set the units down in a column and to carry over the tens to the next column. It seems that this has been the way of inculcating the joys of mathematics into the noddles of the young for centuries, although in the 18th century dots were used for every unit of ten (or twelve if you were dealing with money) that you wanted to carry over.

Not everyone sees the immediate benefit of learning mathematics and so N Withey – his first name has not carried over – had the bright idea of setting the concepts of arithmetic to song, the result of which was his A Little Young Man’s Companion or Common Arithmetic Turned into a Song, published in 1796. There we find, “the odd pence must go down, sir/ or nought if you have none,/ or for every twelve that you had in pence/ you may dot and carry one.

It is not too fanciful to think that this mathematical convention was then used figuratively to describe the gait (and more relevantly the mark) of a wooden leg. Stevenson’s usage was a further development still.

What Is The Origin Of (183)?…


Many moons ago when I lived in Shropshire, I occasionally visited the Tontine Arms in Melverley, an institution which after a bit of chequered history has gone the way of many a pub and has closed down. The story behind its name involves a trip into the murky world of financial engineering.

Volume 60 of the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1790 provides us with some useful background information and introduces us to Lorenzo Tonti, a Neapolitan banker. The journal directs the reader to the catalogue of statesmen prefixed to Voltaire’s Life of Louis XIV. There we find that after Emeri was appointed as superintendent of the French finances in 1649, “an Italian, named Tonti, employed by him, then invented a new loan upon life annuities, chargeable on the national revenues, and divided into shares and classes; the income of each proprietor that died to be shared among the survivors. Hence similar loans came to be named after the inventor.

The first Tontine scheme was introduced into France in 1753 but it is thought that there were earlier manifestations of the scheme in Italy, perhaps devised by Tonti or from which he derived the idea. In essence, the scheme was particularly attractive to investors who thought they had a good chance of outliving the other contributors. They were invited, in investment parlance, to go long on their own life and short on the others. For those blessed with longevity, there were considerable rewards as the interest raised on the principal was divided periodically between those investors who were still alive. The last person standing would scoop the lot.

Louis XIV launched a tontine scheme in 1689 to raise money to finance military operations, each subscriber investing 300 livres. The last survivor, Charlotte Barbier who eventually shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 96 in 1726, received 76,000 livres as her last payment. Ironically, the first tontine launched in Britain, in 1693, was used to raise the funds necessary to fight the French in what was known as the Nine Years’ War. This way of raising money became very popular and soon there were variants whereby the capital, as well as the interest, was shared between the surviving investors.

The schemes were fraught with moral hazard. The organisers were notoriously poor at estimating the probable longevity of their subscribers, increasing the risk that there would not be enough money to meet the fund’s obligations. Investors became increasingly smarter, often buying shares on behalf of youngsters who had survived the mortal hazards of infancy, thus increasing the prospects of their returns and compounding the losses to the organisers.

The biggest problem, though, was that tontines introduced the temptation to some investors of murdering some of their fellow investors to enhance their financial return, a plot line used to good effect by Robert Louis Stevenson in his story The Wrong Box, co-authored with Lloyd Osbourne and published in 1889. The passing of the Life Assurance Act in 1774 in Britain and, by amendment, in the States banned tontine schemes because they encouraged mischief against the lives of the insured.

Nonetheless tontines lingered on in France until they were abandoned in the 1850s. They had a good run for their money and were often used to fund public works and private buildings. It is entirely possible, although I have not been able to verify it, that the building of the erstwhile pub in Shropshire was funded this way. Be that as it may, it is a memorial to a long forgotten piece of financial engineering.

What Is The Origin Of (134)?…


One of the admittedly few moments of pleasure I used to get from watching an episode of the mystifyingly long-running soap, Eastenders, was when some of the characters decided to go for a meal at the local Indian restaurant, delightfully called the Argee-Bhajee. The second part of the name of the gaff was a reference to that staple of British Indian restaurants, the bhajee. Inevitably, as was the way with this programme, the characters would have an argument, illustrating the meaning of this rather curious expression in its totality – to have a heated argument or quarrel.

What we have here is something that the grammarians call a reduplication where the second word rhymes with and emphasises the first. Often a characteristic of reduplication is that the second word is a made up or fictional word, selected for alliterative or rhyming purposes.

As you might expect, if you had given the matter a bit of thought, the argie component of the expression owes its origin to the verb, argue, which has been with us since Middle English and came from the Latin argutari, to prattle, via the Old French verb, arguer. One of the joys of English is that it is full of regional variants. Our friends from north of Hadrian’s wall have always liked to take liberties with the mother tongue and argle was a Scottish variant of the verb to argue. This variant was joined by a piece of nonsense, bargle, which has the virtue of rhyming with and having the same number of syllables as argle. There is no record of the word bargle existing other than in association with its soul mate, argle.

One of the first appearances in print of the Scottish variant of the phrase is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped which was published in 1886. There we have “last night ye haggled and argle-bargled like an apple wife”. Apple wives sold apples, surprisingly enough, and had a reputation for the ripeness of their language, a characteristic which may not have been shared by their wares. The English variant appeared ten years later in JM Barrie’s Margaret Ogilvy. “Ten minutes at the least did she stand at the door argy-bargying with that man”.

Barrie, of course, was born in Scotland but spent most of his time south of the border. Is it too fanciful to think that he brought the phrase down with him and then removed the harsh, guttural l and replaced it with the softer I to appease the more sensitive English ears? I don’t think so, although I won’t get into an argle-bargle with anyone who takes the contrary view. I have to say I prefer the Scottish variant.

One of my favourite examples of reduplication is arsy-versy. This is one of the many phrases that litter the English language, describing a disturbed state of affairs. The sense is that something is arse about face or, to put it more politely, backwards. It dates back to at least the 16th century and first appeared in print in Richard Taverner’s Proverbes or adages with newe addicions, gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, published in 1539. “Ye set the cart before the horse – cleane contrarily and arsy-versy as they say”.  The addition of as they say leads me to suspect that it was used in everyday speech much earlier than the first written example.