Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Mad Marquis, Typography, and a Fox Hunt? (Wild West Sayings We Use Today)

We're back for another round of fun facts with words. If you're new, I'm novelist Janalyn Voigt, your guide on this journey into the mystery of words from the Wild West that we still use today. Fasten your seatbelts and put your chair in its full, upright position. Ready, set...

Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 22

I 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 Fence

A 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Historical Reference: "A man sitting on the top of a fence, can jump down on either side with equal facility."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 Sorts

People 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Historical Reference: "The letters that lye in every box of the case are separately called sorts in printers and founders language; thus a is a sort, b is a sort, c is a sort, etc.”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 Red

No 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.

What's New with Janalyn Voigt

I'll admit to struggling to reestablish my routine after the turn of the year. Perhaps you can relate. It helped to divide my time into four categories: sleep, household duties, writing tasks, and personal activities. I touch on each area every day but concentrate on one main focus.

Audiobook narrator, Jess Combs, is making good progress on Cheyenne Sunrise, book two in the Montana Gold series. She records several chapters, and I listen for anything I'd like her to change. My publisher reviews my requests and decides which of them to submit to the narrator. She makes the changes, and I check her work. I like that it's a careful process resulting from the meeting of several minds. Jess is quite talented, and I appreciate that she wants to read my books. I'll keep you posted on Cheyenne Sunrise, the audiobook. Meanwhile, Hills of Nevermore, book 1 is already available in audio.

New Release! 
The Promise Tree, the first novel in the brand new Montana Treasure series is set to release May 5th. If you enjoyed the Montana Gold series, you won't want to miss Montana Treasure. Based on true events in history, the books will explore the lives and loves of the Irish-American children born in the Montana Gold series. It's available in print and ebook formats at a substantial discount. If you are like me and enjoy the feel and smell of a physical book, you appreciate print preorder discounts. Here's a bit about the story. 
A preacher’s daughter shouldn’t encourage a troublemaker, no matter what her wayward heart desires. Liberty has always believed she should marry a man of God, but Jake doesn’t qualify. The promises they’d made at age twelve can’t change that. If only Jake would stop pursuing her, she might keep from falling in love with him. Jake fears he’ll lose Liberty to Beau, the new man in town. He doesn’t trust the smooth-talker—and certainly not with Liberty. Jake and Liberty must each overcome their own false beliefs. Only then can they experience the truth of God’s redeeming love. Preorder your copy of The Promise Tree.

You can step into the Montana Treasure series without having read the Montana Gold
 books. However, if you prefer to submerge yourself in a fictional world for a while, start with Hills of Nevermore, book 1. The four Montana Gold books are available in print and ebook. As mentioned, audiobook versions have also begun releasing!

Want to know more about the author? Here's my official bio: 

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers. Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary Agency. Her memberships include American Christian Fiction Writers and Northwest Christian Writers Association. When she's not writing, Janalyn loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors with her family.


  1. Thanks for the post today. I agree that the most surprising origin was for painting the town red. But I also didn't suspect that "out of sorts" had anything to do with typesetting!
    I am struggling to re-establish routines in my life as well, but for a different reason. I retired last fall. The world is so different than what we had before so my retirement has been pretty much getting way too comfortable staying home. But spring has put some gumption back in me, so I at least try to walk daily. Finding hobbies that I love and continuing to do daily Bible readings are priorities as well.

  2. Hi, Connie. Sorry I forgot to check comments yesterday. I've been a bit busy with the upcoming launch of The Promise Tree. There's a lot involved. o|O

    That surprised me too, the possibility of a connection between 'out of sorts' and typesetting.

    It takes time to adjust to a transition. I'm glad you are meeting the challenge by guiding yourself into activities that nurture you. Nature abhors a vaccuum, as the saying goes. I've heard from retirees that it didn't take long for their schedules to fill up. Enjoy the lull while you can.