Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 22I ask you, what do defense, typesetting, and a fox hunt have in common? Give up? All pertain to words that passed through the Wild West era and continue to make the rounds today. I found this month’s slate particularly interesting, and I suspect you will too. Enjoy!
On the FenceA person straddling a fence, undecided which way to jump, is as apt to describe an uncommitted person today as it did nearly a hundred years ago. ‘On the fence’ came into use in 1828. Fence derives from the Middle English word 'fens,' short for 'defens,' (later spelled ‘defense’). Fences define and protect ownership. The correlation seems obvious. Refusing to own an opinion can offer certain advantages. It buys additional time to assess a situation, postpones a decision until more facts emerge, and possibly allows no decision to be made at all.
Historical Reference: "A man sitting on the top of a fence, can jump down on either side with equal facility." Dictionary of Americanisms by John Russell Bartlett (1848).
Example: “Dad is on the fence about whether to go to the opera with Mom.”
Out of SortsPeople in the Wild West spoke of being ‘out of sorts,’ when they felt slightly off physically and/or emotionally. We do the same today. I find it comforting that there’s a term to validate my not being quite myself sometimes. Apparently sage minds have agreed—for centuries.
Some believe that the term originated in the 17th-century from typographers calling sets of letters ‘sorts.’ Can you imagine a set of those getting scrambled or a letter going missing? It must have been frustrating! Even so, the first citation for ‘out of sorts’ appeared more than a century earlier and doesn’t reference typesetting. The term was recorded in The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood (1562).
Since printing itself dates from around 1440, perhaps one day researchers will uncover a connection with the idiom and resolve the question.
Historical Reference: "The letters that lye in every box of the case are separately called sorts in printers and founders language; thus a is a sort, b is a sort, c is a sort, etc.” Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handy-Works by Joseph Moxon (1683).
Example: “I’m feeling out of sorts today, so I’d better stay home.”
Paint the Town RedNo one knows for certain the origin of this phrase for an unbridled night of mischievous fun. That doesn’t stop people from claiming they know how it arose. Some of the theories are as wild as a rowdy night out. Oscar Wilde claimed the phrase came from a popular missive you may recognize: "We are they who painted the world scarlet with sins,” The Inferno by Dante Alighieri (14th-Century).
Some people believe the phrase came about because a drunkard’s nose turns red. Comparisons have been drawn to bonfires on a hillside, flames fueling a steamship’s boilers, and fireworks exploding on Independence Day. Others link the term to carousing Wild West cowboys firing their guns into the air and threatening to paint the town with blood. That might sound far-fetched, but I discovered while researching the Montana Gold series that this sort of behavior actually occurred. Folks complained about it in their diaries and in letters to loved ones "back East." In Virginia City, Montana, one unfortunate fellow who got on his neighbors' nerves wound up swinging from the end of a rope.
Folks in the town of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, England, insist that ‘painting the town red’ came about due to a rather regrettable local event. In 1837, a fox hunt led by Henry Beresford, the third Marquees of Waterford (later dubbed the Mad Marquee) concluded with a raucous celebration. The town sustained vandalism, and policemen who dared to intervene were assaulted. Houses surrounding the square received an unfortunate coat of red paint. Historical evidence points to the validity of this event, but there’s no proof the Melton Mowbray incident inspired anyone else to want to ‘paint the town red.’ An association with the phrase remains unproven. Actually, most dictionaries attribute it to America, and it did crop up a lot in the West.
Historical Reference: “The boys painted the town red with firecrackers.” The Chicago Advance newspaper (1897); source: Oxford English Dictionary.
Example: “Put on your dancing shoes, and let’s paint the town red!”
Did any of the origins (or origin theories) of these words surprise you? For my part, I didn’t anticipate that painting the town red would have anything to do with cowboys in the Wild West. Psst....I've decided it would be fun to write something new about myself each month in the space below, so read on. I'd love it if you'd comment in kind.