Mary Wilson, Diane Ross, Florence Ballard, and Barbara Martin grew up in the poverty stricken Brewster Housing Projects of Detroit. But they were primed for success, — “made ready or prepared from the first,” thanks to the Latin prime, “first” which also helped make them into the Primettes, sister group of the Primes.
The Primes went on to become the Temptations. Mary left to get married, Diane became Diana, and with the other two created the Supremes, from the Latin super, placing them head and shoulders above the rest.
Their supreme accomplishment came in October of 1966 when they became the first female vocal group to top the LP charts. Anybody remember LPs?
The Supremes was a tough act to follow, “a performance so outstanding, no one could hope to meet or exceed it” — a standard set in the early days of vaudeville, when the best act was traditionally saved for last. The Supremes were the best, la crème de la crème — a French expression from the mid 19th century, long before our tastes became homogeneous both in milk and the arts, the cream long since having been skimmed off both.
Oh for the days when they reigned Sup.
Americans have always preferred things top-drawer (c.1900). It was, after all, where they kept their most precious objects. When it comes to describing things first rate, however, they’re at anything but their consummate best.
For awhile, they enjoyed being A1 (c.1830s), thanks to Lloyd’s of London’s Shipping Register which ranked the condition of ships by letter — A1 being the highest attainable rating.
A century later, excellence took a novel turn with the introduction of new nighttime attire. Considered both the height of fashion and somewhat risqué, it took on very special meaning during the twenties as the cat’s pajamas.
Soon all things feline came to embody excellence — everything from the cat’s meow to his whiskers, tonsils, roller skates, and galoshes. Other animals then followed suit, joined to incongruous body parts or articles of clothing, resulting in the bee’s knees, the gnu’s shoes, and the elephant’s instep, and — of course for that day when pigs will fly — the pig’s wings.
Things of the first water, however, remained “unblemished,” diamonds having been rated first, second, or third water since 1820. But only if you were the eel’s ankles or the sardine’s whiskers.
Into the stretch, coming round the bend they’re neck and neck. Wait! Out of nowhere “It’s a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a Hearty Hi-Yo Silver . . .”
It’s a Garrison finish, a spectacular come-from-behind victory at the last possible moment, against all odds! Shades of old Snapper Garrison, a 19th century American jockey, known for winning in this manner.
A real show of horsepower. That’s what it is! Thanks to one James Watt, whose name adorns our monthly electric bills as watts, kilowatts, and wattage for which we pay handsome premiums.
It’s he who also provided the standard for our cars, coining the term horsepower to indicate the output of his new steam engine — a unit of rate of work equal to the raising of 3,300 pounds one foot high in one minute.
Watt arrived at his figure by calculating that a strong dray horse averaged 2,200 foot-pounds per minute working at a gin. He then increased it by 50%, arriving at 3,300 foot-pounds which ever since has equaled one horsepower or 745.7 watts.
“Who was that Horse? Who was that masked man?”
Oh for the simpler days, when things were just large, king-size, or jumbo.
Jumbo was the name of one of the largest elephants ever— six and one half tons of pure pachyderm and the prize property of the London Zoo. Sold to P.T. Barnum, Jumbo went on to become the feature attraction of the greatest show on earth. His fame was such that when he died in a railway accident in Ontario in 1885, people the world over shed copious tears on his passing.
Jumbo also had his moments as a metaphor, but it too passed from the language, joining gargantuan — from the giant of medieval lore popularized by Rabelais; colossal ( from the Greek and Latin for a “giant statue”) — for the enormous representation at Rhodes of Helios, the sun god, striding cross the harbor, ships passing between his legs; and titanic — from Greek mythology and the twelve gigantic children of Uranus and Gaea.
Desperate to find ways of stretching hyperbole further, we adopted the love child of huge and tremendous — humongous (late 60s) and his sibling, humongo(id). Finding humongous too big to manage, some reduced him to mongo, as in “Man, this has given me a mongo headache!” Big time relief came with “Small is Beautiful,” from the title of the book by E.F. Schumacher (1978)
Consider this a slight digression into fowl territory and an effort to make things ducky.
Lord love a duck!… “Good heavens” (c. 1917). Look, at the ease with which he takes to water and how troubles just roll off his back.
In the early 19th century, he was a duck of a fellow, “a lovely or fine example,” and when ducky, a real “sweetheart .”
But as easily as he ducks into water, we’ve been ducking (late19th C.) to get away from someone, keeping out of sight by copping or doing a duck (c.1889), or by just ducking out — thus “evading responsibility.”
We finally became responsible during the 1970s, by having all our ducks in a row, lining them up — “arranging our affairs in a business-like manner.” Unfortunately, sitting ducks have long been an easy target, individually or all in a row, increasing the likelihood of their ending up as duck soup (c.1902). This makes it a “breeze,” an “easily accomplished task,” thanks to T.A. Dorgan, the noted cartoonist and wordsmith.
Have we been playing ducks and drakes (19th C.) all along — just “wasting your time foolishly?” Can a duck swim? “Emphatically yes” (c.1892).