Raining Cats and Dogs (Phrase History)

When we look out of the window and it is Raining Cats and Dogs, don’t go out there. There are several suggestions for the origin of this phrase, one alluding to a famous occasion when it actually rained frogs. Apparently many were lifted into the air during a howling gale and then dropped to the ground around startled pedestrians. Cockney rhyming slang then substituted ‘cats and dogs’ for ‘frogs’. But I don’t believe that. I prefer the ancient nautical myth, which led sailors to believe that cats had some sort of influence over storms. According to the Vikings dogs were also a symbol of storms and they always appear in illustrations and descriptions of their own Norse god of storms. Odin, Father of Thor was the god of thunder and is described as an old bearded man with one eye who wore a cloak and wide brimmed hat. Many claim he was the inspiration for J.R.Tolkien’s character Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.

Because of this connection, ancient mariners believed that when it rained it was the cats who caused it, and when the gales appeared it was brought along by the dogs, leading to the phrase ‘raining cats and dogs. The phrase first appeared in literature when Jonathan Swift wrote in his 1738 book,  ‘A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation’; ‘I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs’.  In 1653 Richard Broome wrote in his play City Wit, ‘It shall rain dogs and polecats’ suggesting he too alluded to the old nautical tales. Frogs indeed!

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here

Murphy’s Law (Phrase Origins)

Murphy’s Law is the theory that if anything can go wrong, then it probably will. This phrase started being used in 1949 at the Edwards Air Force Base in North Base, USA. Captain Edward A. Murphy was an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981, which was a series of experiments devised to find out how much deceleration the human body can stand in a plane crash. One morning Murphy found a transducer had been wired up in the wrong manner and wasn’t working. The young engineer fixed the problem and claimed of the technician responsible ‘If there is ever a wrong way to do something, he will find it’.

During the tests the project manager kept a list of theories, or ‘laws’ as he called them, and added Murphy’s comment to the book under the title Murphy’s Law. A little later Dr John Paul Stapp, an Air Force Doctor, was involved in similar deceleration experiments and later gave a press conference to reveal his team’s results. During the press session Dr Stapp recorded that the project’s excellent safety record was due to a firm belief in ‘Murphy’s Law’, which was to try and foresee anything that could go wrong and avoid it happening in by advanced planning. Over the following years Aerospace manufacturers picked upon the phrase and used it widely in their advertising schedules, leading to the phrase ‘Murphy’s Law’ becoming used all over the English speaking world.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here


The Rule of Thumb (Phrase History)

The Rule of Thumb is a rough estimate based on experience rather than formal calculation. The expression has been in wide use since the late 1600’s and there are several suggestions for its origin. One of them emanates from the ale makers where, in the days before accurate thermometers were available, the brewer would test the temperature of fermenting beers by dipping his thumb in. I like it, but can find no connection between a brewer and his thumb. If this was the phrase’s origin I would expect to at least find a pub called The Brewers Thumb, but I can’t.  There is a beer called ‘Millers Thumb’, but that’s not quite enough evidence is it. Another suggestion dates back to the middle ages when it was possible for a man to legally beat his wife with a cane no thicker than his thumb. Evidence of this comes to light in the ‘Biographical Dictionary of the Judges of England’ written by Edward Foss in 1864.

In the text Foss suggests that a ‘husband may beat his wife, so that the stick with which he administers the castigation is not thicker than his thumb’. Of course it should have been possible for a wife to beat the man, who put that law on the statute book, with a stick no thicker than he was. Either way, I also don’t believe that to be the origin of our phrase. Instead we again travel back to the Romans who used the tip of the thumb (from the knuckle upward) as a unit of measurement as any thumb would fit roughly twelve times into the next unit of measurement, a foot. There is definitely a connection as the French word for inches is ‘pouces’ which translates as ‘thumb’ and that remained a standard unit of measurement until we all turned metric. The Roman bricklayers used their thumbs to estimate measurements and the phrase has been in standard use ever since.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here


Read The Riot Act (Phrase Origins)

To Read The Riot Act is an expression used when an individual or group of people are given a rollicking about their bad behaviour. The original Riot Act was passed by the British Government in 1715 as an attempt to increase the powers of the civil authorities when a town was threatened by riotous behaviour. The act made it a serious crime for groups of twelve or more people not to disperse within one hour of it being read out to the mob. The Act read:

Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons being assembled immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George for preventing tumultuous and riotous assemblies. God save the King.

Those failing to disperse risked penal servitude for not less than three years or imprisonment with hard labour for up to two years.  Actually reading it out took extraordinary courage and often, during serious disturbances, many didn’t hear it anyway. After the Peterloo Massacre near Manchester in 1819 many of the convicted demonstrators claimed not to have heard the act being read and the same defence was put during trials for the 1743 Gin Riots, 1768 St George’s Massacre and the 1780 Gordon Riots. A rowdy bunch weren’t they?

The Act remained on the statute book until it was repealed in the 1970’s, but little use had been made of it for over a century by then, apart from when I come home late from the pub, singing too loudly.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here


A Red Herring (Phrase Origins)

Red Herring – The phrase is used to describe something that provides a false or misleading clue, often in a detective story. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century Herring was one of the most widely caught fish in the seas around Britain. In those pre-refrigerated days Herring would be preserved by heavily salting and smoking the fish to ensure it was still edible by the time they arrived at market across English towns. This smoking process would turn the Herring a deep brownish red colour. Heavily smoked Herring would also have another notable characteristic, which was particularly strong and pungent smell.

To find out the origins of the well-known phrase we have to turn to hunting in the early 1800’s, or to me more accurate, hunt saboteurs. It’s true, there must have been an early version of the modern fox lover as on hunt days the strong smelling fish would be dragged along the hunt route and away from the foxes. This confused the hounds who followed the scent of the Red Herring rather than that of the fox, who would then scurry off to safety. So effective was this tactic that the phrase passed into common English language.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Part 1 – US Download   UK Download

Part 2 – US Download   UK Download

Albert Jack’s Other Books – US   UK

His Name Is Mud (Phrase Origins)

His Name is Mud is a derogatory phrase used to describe a person who is unpopular or out of favour. The obvious allusion is one of a person finding him or herself so low in society opinion that they are wallowing in the mud, but this is not the origin of the phrase. John Wilkes Booth assassinated the popular president, Abraham Lincoln, in Washington’s Ford Theatre on April 14 1865. As he made his escape Booth broke his leg, but still managed to reach his horse and ride away to temporary safety. When he reached the countryside he looked for Dr Samuel Mudd who treated his injury.

Mudd had no idea of the events of the evening but when he heard the following day of the assassination he immediately informed the authorities he had seen Booth. Despite his innocence the good doctor was arrested and later convicted for conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1869 Mudd was pardoned and released from jail, but the American public never forgave him for his implied involvement in the assassination plot. It would be another 100 years before Mudd was finally declared innocent and his family name was cleared during the 1970’s.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here


Behind the Brands – Selfridges

Selfridges is the high end department store dominating Oxford Street in London and for nearly one hundred years stood alone as the only department store in the world to bear that name, quite a surprise for one of the most instantly recognisable brand names in the world of retailing. Harry Gordon Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin on 11 January 1864 just months before his mother took him to live in Jackson, Michigan after his father had failed to return home from the American Civil War, despite being honourably discharged instead of dead. After a private education the young Selfridge moved to Chicago, securing employment with Field, Leiter and Company (a retailer that was later to become Macys), There he set about a twenty five year journey up the commercial ladder, amassing some considerable wealth of his own along the way. During this time it was Selfridge who coined the advertising phrases ‘Only ‘X’ More Shopping Days Until Christmas,’ and ‘the customer is always right,’ both of which are still used by just about everybody today.

In 1906 Selfridge decided to take some money, and his wife, to London were he was appalled by the existing department stores and their old fashioned sales methods and displays. Within weeks he had decided to invest four hundred thousand pounds, a considerable sum, in a piece of land at the unfashionable end of Oxford Street. There he built a brand new custom designed department store which opened under his own name on March 15th 1909. Always aware of the importance of customer services Selfridge trained is staff to assist customers and not sell to them, provided facilities for French, German, Italian and American visitors and persuaded the newly formed telephone company to give his store the privileged telephone number, London 1. He was also displayed a flair for marketing and after Louis Bleriot’s 1909 cross-channel flight Selfridge displayed the French aviator’s monoplane in his store, attracting twelve thousand visitors. And in 1925 the flamboyant retailer persuaded John Logie Baird to publicly demonstrate his new television, for the first time, at his premises.

Everything had been running smoothly for the entrepreneur and his fortune grew considerably until, in 1918, his wife Rosalie died during the influenza pandemic of that year, the brutal Spanish Flu. It was then, at the age of forty-four and rich beyond measure that Selfridge, a normally quiet and reserved man, found himself on the London society scene enjoying liaisons and affairs with the likes of Syne Barnado Wellcome and the Hungarian Dolly Sisters, a pair of teenage dancers who enjoyed particular notoriety on the Vaudeville circuit.

The Dolly Sisters made half a dozen films between 1913 and 1920 and were fabulously lucky gamblers, once winning nearly one million dollars in a single evening at a Paris casino. Soon they and H.Gordon Selfridge were lovers and their long downhill journey began. Eventually Jenny was involved in a serious car accident in 1933 and having failed to fully recover took her own life in 1941. Although her sister attempted to follow suit she failed and lived in poverty until her heart finally gave way 1970.

Meanwhile Gordon Selfridge had seen his considerable fortune dwindle away as a result of both his recklessness, during his later years, and The Great Depression that ruined many businessmen of the 1920’s. His increasingly erratic behaviour continued when he retired, in 1941, to spend his days travelling around London on a bus before dying, virtually a pauper, in a flat in Putney, south west London. But his reputation remains large, the character complex and his name will live on, possibly forever, on the busiest shopping street in the world.

Branded – The People Behind the World’s Biggest Brands

by Albert Jack

is due for release on August 12th 2015

Albert Jack books available for download here