Now You’re Cooking with Gas

blue-gas-mdWaywordradio attributes the origin to a commercial use that sounds plausible to me:

In the 1930’s, the catch phrase Now you’re cooking with gas, meaning “you’re on the right track,” was heard on popular radio shows at the behest of the natural gas industry, as part of a quiet marketing push for gas-powered stoves.

Stackexchange is more specific. They say:

The phrase has been attributed to Deke Houlgate [by his son], who after working in the gas industry, wrote the line for Bob Hope or maybe for Jerry Calonna.

It was used on a radio program “around” December 1939 and then promoted by gas companies. I can understand putting the phrase in the more-famous mouth of Bob Hope, and he apparently did say it in the 1941 movie The Road to Zanzibar.

Other citations include Lou Holtz and Fanny Brice on Good News of 1940, the 1942 movie The Big Street, and Daffy Duck in 1943’s The Wise Quacking Duck.

The phrase seems to have become popular quickly – a tribute to radio, movies, and the demise of wood-burning stoves. I recall a great-aunt of mine who finally allowed her old wood-burning stove to be hauled away when it was replaced by a combination wood and electric appliance. Only propane would have been available to her but I don’t know if she ever tried that. Perhaps if she’d been cooking with gas she’d have given up the wood-burning oven altogether. She would have made great bread no matter what.

Bury the Hatchet

Where bury-the-hatchet comes from

Meeting of Hiawatha and Deganawidah by Sanford Plummer

I grew up in New York State and local history was the theme for 7th Grade Social Studies. This included the Iroquois Nations, as I was recently reminded by today’s phrase – to bury the hatchet is to cease and forgive previous hostilities. The phrase gives me a chance to return to a favorite site, The Straight Dope.

According to tradition–no doubt based largely on fact–the Iroquois leaders Deganawidah and Hiawatha convinced the Five Nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) to stop fighting amongst themselves and form a confederacy. This probably happened before Columbus sailed, but how much before is a matter of dispute. To celebrate the new peace, the Iroquois buried their weapons under the roots of a white pine. An underground river then miraculously washed the weapons away so the tribes could never use them against each other again.

French records from 1644 mentioned the tradition, but the first English citation of a literal hatchet-burying came from 1680 and Samuel Sewall (later of Salem Witch Trials fame.)

Major Pynchon’s goeing to Albany, where meeting with the Sachem the[y] came to an agreemt and buried two Axes in the Ground; one for English another for themselves…

In 1705 Beverly wrote of “very ceremonious ways to concluding of Peace, such as burying a Tomahawk.” Tomahawk variations remained popular for over a century, but eventually “hatchet” buried “tomahawk.”

The exact phrase comes from September 18, 1753.

Lord Commissioners of Trade and the Plantations in London wrote a letter to the Governor of Maryland that reads, “His Majesty having been pleased to order a Sum of Money to be Issued for Presents to the Six Nations of Indians [the Iroquois] and to direct his Governour of New York to hold an Interview with them for Delivering those presents [and] for Burying the Hatchet …”

I love Cecil Adams and his Science Advisory Board – such a nicely assembled article.

Wrapped Around the Axel

To be wrapped around the axel is to be in a difficult situation from which it’s hard to extract oneself. It seems that anything with an axel, from a horse-drawn wagon to a wheelbarrow, has been considered a possible source.

Phrase Finder had some hypotheses but no citation. But here’s a citation I found in wikipedia:

As The New York Times noted in its obituary of the dancer on 15 September 1927, ‘The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street. Medical aid was summoned, but it was stated that she had been strangled and killed instantly.’

Ug! Certainly dramatic enough to stick in the public mind and perhaps become this phrase.

Third and Final [?] Phase of America’s Civil War

Phase 1 of America’s Civil War was a horror – the number of soldiers who died from a combination of battle and illness was over 750,000, “far greater than the number of men who perished in all other U.S. wars put together.” Ecstatic Nation

Human beings are complex creatures and many things drove the war, but slavery was at its core – in the new states of the west as well as the old south.

After such a terrible war, the North was willing to turn towards commerce and away from black citizens. Today, we might call the Klu Klux Klan and Jim Crow an insurgency – it certainly was violent enough to qualify.

There was a huge riot in New Orleans, which really turned into a massacre against the black community in 1866, and then there were acts of mob violence against black voters. And in broader Louisiana, you had some of the worst political terror and mob violence committed in all the Reconstruction years, most famously the Colfax massacre of 1873, which was the largest mass killing in American history until 9/11. Isaac Chotiner

Gradually the violence decreased (though it never disappeared) and a new normalcy settled on the backs of black Americans. Many whites in the defeated South began to “write magnolia-scented history” where Lee was nobler than Grant and Confederates were finer men than Unionists. In an exception to the common view that the victors write history, the South was fairly successful in their efforts. Ecstatic Nation

Phase 2 launched a hundred years later with the Civil Rights Movement– there was more violence but also more progress towards a fair and democratic America. In the mid 1970s, society settled down again – another new normal.

Perhaps we are entering Phase 3 after only forty more years. Continue reading

Sold a Bill of Goods – Not Good at All

The phrase means to be cheated, though I didn’t understand why – “goods” is a general term for merchandise so surely buying goods is, well, good. And a bill of goods must be some sort of receipt – which also sounds good.

Word Detective says

“Bill of goods” was used in the non-pejorative “list of stuff” sense for many years until the 1920s, when it suddenly took on a negative spin… (“Selling a big bill of goods hereabouts, I’ll wager, you old rascals?” Eugene O’Neill, Marco Millions, 1927). “Bill of goods” very quickly almost entirely lost its simple, honest mercantile sense and became a synonym for “scam.” Just how this transformation happened is something of a mystery.

The site speculates that the phrase means the list was given to the purchaser but the goods never delivered. I’ll add my own observation that the switch to meaning a swindle occurred during America’s Prohibition era which makes me think of rum-running and accompanying swindles. I assume the phrase must have been known before O’Neill used it in a book.

A wordoriginsorg forum agrees with the O’Neill citation and includes several uses of “bill of goods” as a simple listing rather than a swindle before the 1920s, including by Mark Twain  in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889.

Preaching to the Choir – a much safer audience

This phrase refers to attempts to convert someone who is already a believer – that is, a waste of time. According to Phrase Finder, this is a fairly recent phrasing, originating in the United States, based on an older version.

The first reference is from The Lima News, Ohio, January 1973:
“He said he felt like the minister who was preaching to the choir. That is, to the people who always come to church, but not the ones who need it most.”

An earlier English version dates back around a century further and is first cited in a letter to The Times in November 1857:
It is an old saying that to preach to the converted is a useless office, and I may add that to preach to the unconvertible is a thankless office.

It was subsequently made popular by John Stuart Mill.

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading