Tue 14 Jun 2011
As American English lurches along, it is leaving a roadside littered with abandoned and misused expressions. Instead of conserving our language, we treat it as disposable. Sayings that reflect popular culture have especially short life spans.
When I was a kid, for example, my smart-aleck friends would sometimes answer the phone, “Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, Duffy speaking.” The phrase would be lost on young folks today, but it was once a common variation on the opening line to a popular radio comedy, Duffy’s Tavern, which aired from 1941 to 1951.
In the actual opening, an old piano would be playing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, only to be interrupted by the ring of a telephone. A thick New York accent would then be heard answering, “Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat. Archie the manager speakin’. Duffy ain’t here. Oh hello, Duffy.”
My great grandfather Amos Mitchell and great grandmother Mary Jane Mitchell née Guiher with their children (from left): Lansing, Lulu, Miles Lecki (my grandfather), and Amy. Photographer’s studio portrait, 1892.
For most of my youth, my great aunt Amy lived with my family. Born in 1872, aunt Amy grew up in an area of Pennsylvania where Pennsylvania Dutch (a dialect of German) was spoken. She and I were close, and when I was a little boy, she’d often address me as “schnickelfritz.”
I knew she was teasing me in a friendly fashion, but I didn’t learn until years later what “schnickelfritz” actually means. As it turns out, in some dialects of German, it’s an affectionate way to say “you little imp.” The “fritz” part is a way of saying “guy” while “schnickel” suggests impulsive behavior or chattering.
It’s an old expression, and I wonder if anyone today still uses it.
It means “a very long time ago,” and refers to the boyhood of Hector, Troy’s hero who was slain in the Trojan War 3,200 years ago.
Hector was the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Following the fall of the city to the Greeks, one of their other sons, Polydorus, was killed by a treacherous son-in-law, King Polymestor of Thrace.
Hecuba retaliated by blinding Polymestor. By one account, she was to be punished for this by being given to the Greek hero Odysseus as a slave, but when she snarled at him, the gods turned her into a dog, allowing her to escape.
Thus Hector would not only be a “pup” when he was in his youth, he would remain a “pup” because he was the son of a dog. Apparently as a result of American education’s renewed interest in Greek mythology during the early 20th century, “when Hector was a pup” was a popular expression all during the years my father was in school.
I can recall my mother sometimes exclaiming, “My eye and Betty Martin,” when something didn’t make sense. “Who’s Betty Martin?” I asked her more than once, but she didn’t know. It was just an expression meaning “humbug” she had learned from her mother.
The expression, which is sometimes phrased as “all my eye and Betty Martin,” is often believed to be a case of folk etymology — common people altering foreign phrases they don’t understand into something that at least sounds intelligible.
By that theory, which first circulated in the 1820s, the expression was originally “O mihi, beate Martine.” The words were supposedly taken from a Latin prayer to St. Martin and mean, “Oh grant me, blessed Martin…” Supposedly the Latin words were reinterpreted as English words in nautical slang and were spread in that fashion.
Another theory is that it’s a lyric from an 18th century song addressed to a Miss Betty Martin, who has spurned the singer’s overtures. The supposed lyric is, “That’s my eye, Betty Martin.” However, I’m skeptical of this explanation.
On the other hand, the origin of “all hell broke loose” is known to literary scholars although most people using the expression have no idea where it comes from.
The phrase, in fact, comes from John Milton’s 1667 epic Paradise Lost. To me that origin seems rather formal and pious, given that “all hell broke loose” has become slang.
In Milton’s poem, the angel Gabriel asks Satan — just before kicking him out of the Garden of Eden — why all the other inhabitants of hell hadn’t broken out of the underworld and accompanied him to the garden: “Wherefore with thee came not all hell broke loose?”
Although there has been a marked change during the last 344 years in the way “all hell broke loose” is used, Milton’s exact words have endured.
Satan (above) as depicted by the French engraver Gustave Dore (1832-1883).
Finally, let’s consider “at one fell swoop,” which we use to mean “all at once.” Although many people regularly quote the expression, most folks have no idea what the words mean. The “swoop” part is straightforward enough and is used in the sense of a hawk swooping down on a mouse. The “fell” part, however, is a surprise.
In this expression, “fell” is an archaic word for “savage.” As such, it is related to the modern word “felon,” says The Oxford English Dictionary.
All this raises the question: how many other expressions do we quote every day without knowing what we’re quoting? I’d ask Duffy his opinion, but “Duffy ain’t here.”