September 28, 2015

“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”


One of the most famous quotes in sports history is linked to the date September 28, 1920.

On that day, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson supposedly admitted during testimony to a grand jury that he was one of eight Chicago White Sox baseball players who took bribes to let the Cincinnati Reds win the 1919 World Series.

It came to be known as the Black Sox scandaland it was devastating for baseball fans.

A crowd of fans were gathered outside the Cook County Courthouse where Jackson was testifying.

Word spread among them that their hero had admitted he’d helped throw the series to the Reds.

According to legend, as Jackson left the courthouse, a heartbroken young boy went up to him and begged: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

It’s legend rather than fact because there are holes in various aspects of the story.

For one thing, there’s no court record of Jackson admitting he was involved in fixing the game – and, publicly, he always denied it.

In fact, in 1921, he was found innocent by a Chicago jury.

In addition, quotation experts have determined that the legendary quote is a misquote of a quote that was probably fabricated by a reporter in the first place.

One of the best overviews of the facts is in Ralph Keyes’ must-have quote debunking book, Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations.

As noted by Keyes, an Associated Press sportswriter named Hugh Fullerton was at the courthouse when Shoeless Joe left it that day.

In the original version of the story he filed, Fullerton wrote that a young kid approached Jackson as he emerged and said: “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?”

Fullerton wrote that Jackson replied “Yes, kid, I’m afraid it is.”

Somehow, by 1940, “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?” morphed into “Say it ain’t so, Joe” in rewritten accounts of the incident.

Then it became legend.

However, no other eyewitness accounts corroborate either version of the quote.

And, Jackson himself denied any such thing was said to him by a kid or anyone else that day.

So, basically, the quote and story were apparently made up by a reporter – and then distorted further in later press accounts.

Somehow, I am not surprised.

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September 24, 2015

Sherlock Holmes quotes that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock did and didn’t say…


Naturally, some of the best known Sherlock Holmes quotations and catchphrases come from the classic detective stories written by Sherlock’s creator, British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).

For example, there’s the famed sleuthing maxim that’s included in thousands of quotation books and websites: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

The first version of that legendary piece of Holmesian wisdom is spoken by Sherlock in Doyle’s story “The Sign of Four” (1890).

Doyle also used variations of it in two other stories: “The Beryl Coronet” (1892) and “The Blanched Soldier” (1926).

Several famous Sherlock catchphrases also come from Doyle’s Sherlock tales, most notably:

     - “a three-pipe problem” from "The Red-Headed League" (1891);

     - “The game is afoot” from “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” (1904); and

     - “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” (curious because the dog did nothing) in “Silver Blaze” (1893).

However, two of the most widely-quoted Sherlock Holmes quotations don’t actually come from the stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

For example, you might be surprised to find out that Doyle’s Sherlock never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

In Doyle’s story “The Crooked Man” (1893), Sherlock does say the word “Elementary” to his friend Doctor Watson, after Watson expresses surprise that Holmes had correctly guessed the doctor had had a busy day. But Holmes does NOT say “Elementary, my dear Watson” in that story or in any other Sherlock Holmes story written by Doyle.

That quote actually comes from Sherlock Holmes movies. It was first used in the film The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929), which starred Clive Brook as Sherlock and was released in the USA on October 26, 1929.

It was then reused in later Sherlock Holmes films, including: Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour (1931), The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case (1932), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Pursuit to Algiers (1945), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).

Another line often cited as a Sherlock Holmes quote which does not appear in Doyle’s stories is “Quick, Watson, the needle.” 

That comes from a comedic operetta titled The Red Mill (1906), which premiered on Broadway on September 24, 1906.

And, that old operetta is not even a Sherlock Holmes story. The “needle” line is a quip by a con man who is impersonating Sherlock as part of a scam.

The Sherlock Holmes film Hound of the Baskervilles, released on March 31, 1939, further confused the facts about whether it was “real” Sherlock quotation.

In that film – one of the best of a series Holmes films that starred Basil Rathbone as the great sleuth – Basil as Holmes says: “Oh, Watson, the needle.”

There’s no such quote about a needle in Doyle’s stories, though Doyle did tell us that Sherlock was a user of both cocaine and morphine.

In “A Study in Scarlet” (1887), Watson comments that he often found Sherlock in a dreamlike state and “suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic.”

Three years later, in Doyle’s “The Sign of Four,” fans of Sherlock first read about the “seven-percent-solution.”

As that story begins, Watson sees Sherlock injecting himself with a needle and notices ugly track marks on his arm.

“Which is it today,” Watson asks, “morphine or cocaine?”

“It is cocaine,” Sherlock replied, “a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”

Since then, the drug habit of the world’s greatest detective has sparked continuing controversy, articles, books and a great movie, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).

Sherlock’s use of cocaine and versions of various Sherlock quotes continue to show up in recent Sherlock Holmes movies, TV series and books. Indeed, the great detective seems to be more popular than ever. And, if you’re a fan (like me), it’s no mystery why.

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September 19, 2015

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”


In many books of quotations and on thousands of websites H.L. Mencken is credited with the famous quote “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Most sources fail to mention that this “quote” is actually the traditional paraphrase of what Mencken actually wrote — not a true quote.

It’s based on something the acerbic journalist, editor and social critic said in his column in the September 19, 1926 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

He titled that day’s column “Notes on Journalism.”

His topic was a recent trend in the American newspaper business: “tabloid newspapers” that were geared toward uneducated readers, including those Mencken described as “near-illiterates.”

Mencken noted that tabloids had several advantages over traditional newspapers like his own Chicago Daily Tribune.

They were lighter and less bulky than daily newspapers that had “two or three sections and weigh a pound or more.” In addition to making them easier to read, that meant tabloids could be “distributed much more quickly than the larger papers.”

“A boy on a motorcycle,” Mencken wrote, “can carry a hundred copies of even the bulkiest of them to a remote junction in ten or twenty minutes, but the old style papers have to go by truck, which is slower.”

In his usual dry way, Mencken also poked fun at the idea that most people wanted the content of newspapers to be more substantive and intellectual than what tabloids typically offered.

He opined that when a tabloid became successful the owner often tried to make it more respectable and “reach out for customers of a higher sophistication.”

Mencken said that was a mistake and, near the end of column, summed up why by writing the words that were later turned into the shorter famous “quote” about underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

His actual words were:

“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Over time, this longer quote came to be paraphrased and misquoted, most commonly in the form “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

In the column, Mencken continued his thoughts about the public’s choices in reading matter and politicians by adding:

“The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.”

Looking around at the media and political landscape today, Mencken’s opinion might be deemed more prescient than ever.

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September 17, 2015

“Too cheap to meter” – the infamous nuclear power misquote…


In the annals of the long, still-ongoing debate over nuclear power, the most infamous words are undoubtedly “too cheap to meter.”

The origin of this phrase is a speech given on September 16, 1954 by Lewis L. Strauss, a former Navy officer who was appointed Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ever since Strauss gave that speech, many anti-nuclear activists have assumed and claimed that he literally said electricity from nuclear plants would be too cheap to meter.

Of course, nuclear power did not turn out to be “cheap” from a cost-per-kilowatt-hour perspective. At least, not compared to traditional energy sources like coal, oil and hydropower, which have been economically “cheap” but are arguably more “costly” in terms of their long term impacts on the environment (barring incidents like the Fukushima meltdown).

Anyway, putting aside that debate, it has long been clear that electricity from fission-powered nuclear plants is not and never will be “too cheap to meter.”

Thus, for decades, the phrase has been ridiculed and held up as the prime iconic example of absurd claims made by supporters of nuclear power.

Except that Strauss didn’t actually say what opponents of nuclear power think he said.

The focus of his speech to the National Association of Science Writers in New York City on September 16th, 1954 dealt with how modern scientific research, in general, would lead to better lives for future generations. And, his meter remark was about electric energy, in general, not nuclear power in particular.

As reported in the New York Times the next day, what Strauss really said was this:

“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter...will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”

For an excellent in-depth look at the facts about Strauss’ speech and his “too cheap to meter” remark, read the page about it on the Canadian Nuclear Society website.

And, regardless of which side of the nuclear power debate you’re on, you might want to keep in mind an old saying that applies to any type of energy that is used to generate significant amounts of electricity — “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

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September 14, 2015

“Have Gun - Will Travel” lives on (as a linguistic “snowclone” and via modern digital media)


Today, the linguistic formula “Have X [some work tool] - Will Y [do something]” is firmly cemented into our language.

Prior to 1957, it wasn’t.

Then, on September 14, 1957, the great Western TV series Have Gun - Will Travel premiered on the CBS network. (The first episode was titled “Three Bells to Perdido.”)

Soon after that, variations of the show’s title became what linguists now call a “snowclone.”

This term, coined by economist Glen Whitman in 2004 in an exchange on the Language Log weblog, is applied to well-known clichés or “phrasal templates” that are recycled in multiple ways with varying words.

Examples are catchphrases like “We don’t need no stinking X,” or “I'm not an X, but I play one on TV” or advertising slogans like “Got X?”

The television show Have Gun – Will Travel starred Richard Boone as the main character, Paladin.

Yep, just Paladin. One name. Or you could call him Mister Paladin.

Paladin was what could be called a problem solving consultant, though most people thought of him as a professional gunfighter for hire.

He tried to make sure he only worked for people who were on the right side of some issue or problem. And, he tried to settle things without violence if he could.

But he could draw and fire a gun faster than, well, anyone he had to deal with in the show.

So, if you drew against Paladin, you were probably a bad guy or stupid. And, if you drew against Paladin, you’d probably end up dead.

In work mode, Paladin dressed in a black and wore a Colt .45 six-shooter in a distinctive holster embossed with a metal image of a chess knight, a piece associated with medieval knights in armor, once referred to as “paladins.”

When he wasn’t working, Paladin lived the life of a fancily-dressed dude in San Francisco.

That’s where people could contact him, as noted in his enigmatic business card, which also had the image of a chess knight, along with the memorable words:

       “Have Gun Will Travel.
              Wire Paladin
             San Francisco”

Any messages that came for Paladin would usually be delivered by the other regular character in the series, Hey Boy (played by actor Kam Tong).

Hey Boy was a Chinese bellhop at Paladin’s residence, the Carlton Hotel. He served as kind of an on-call gofer for Paladin.

Have Gun - Will Travel originally aired for six glorious seasons, from 1957 to 1963. It was so popular that it became one of the few TV shows that spawned a radio version. The radio series starred popular character actor John Dehner as Paladin and ran on the CBS Radio Network for two years, from 1958 to 1960.

I remember watching the TV series every week when I was a kid, on my family’s grainy black-and-white TV. And, I still know the words of the show’s theme song “The Ballad of Paladin,” sung by country music star Johnny Western at the end of each episode.

Nowadays, the show can be viewed streaming online on Youtube and elsewhere or on DVD. It can also sometimes be seen on some of the cable TV channels that feature “classic television” shows.

They don’t make many shows today that I like as much as Have Gun – Will Travel. But I will admit the technology for viewing is better than the TV set my family had in our living room in 1957.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to the date SEPTEMBER 14:

“Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries.” - Hit song from the stage show George White’s Scandals of 1931, which opened at the Apollo Theatre in New York City on September 14, 1931.

“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” - President Calvin Coolidge, in a famous telegram about the Boston police strike that he sent to Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, on September 14, 1919.

“Say It loud: ‘I’m Black and I'm Proud’” - Hit song by James Brown, which entered Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart on September 14, 1968.

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September 05, 2015

The Birth — and Death — of “the Hippies”


Credit for the origin of the term “hippies” is generally given to San Francisco journalist Michael Fallon.

Fallon coined the term in an article published in the San Francisco Examiner on September 5, 1965.

It was the first of a series of articles he wrote about the “new generation of beatniks” who hung out in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, at places like the Blue Unicorn Café on the corner of Ashbury and Hayes.

It’s likely that Fallon came up with hippies as variation of the jazz buffs’ term hipsters.

When he wrote his series of articles, beatnik was the common, somewhat-derogatory name applied to  counterculture types by people who weren’t themselves beatniks.

That term was coined in 1958 by journalist Herb Caen in his “Bagdad-by-the-Bay” column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The headline for Fallon’s first article about hippies actually used Caen’s more familiar term.

Some online sources give the headline as “A New Haven for Beatniks,” though more authoritative sources say it was “A New Paradise for Beatniks.”

During the next couple of years, the term hippies was picked up by other journalists, by the media in general and by many hippies themselves.

It also became an epithet in the mouths of critics of the Sixties counterculture.

For example, by 1967 — “The Summer of Love” — California Governor Ronald Reagan began using an oft-quoted joke in his speeches, comparing hippies to Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah.

“We have some hippies in California,” Reagan deadpanned. “For those of you who don’t know what a hippie is, he’s a fellow who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.” 

By the fall of 1967, many hippies were tired of the term and all the media hype about them.

In October of 1967, a group of counterculture leaders organized a mock funeral event in San Francisco, called the “The Death of the Hippie,” to try to symbolically put an end to the term and the hype.

Some of the event’s organizers thought that the term freebie should be used to replace hippie.

That didn’t quite catch on — at least not as a replacement for the name commonly used for those of us who “dressed like Tarzan” and had “hair like Jane” back in those days. (My late father called us “He-She’s,” God bless him.)

September 5th is also the anniversary of On the Road, the most famous book by the coiner of the term “Beat Generation,” the grand-daddyo of “the beats,” Jack Kerouac.

It was first published on September 5, 1957 and includes a famous quote about “the mad ones” that might seem applicable to both the Beatniks and the Hippies. (See this post for more about the Kerouac quote.)

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