Do you Mean What you Say?

Thanks to Usual John for sending this in, and for useful email discussion! His focus is on the bottom strip, where we get amusing literalized visions of some common idiomatic expressions. Except — we apparently no longer have an idiom to match “He had a pony on his cuff”. So, what would that mean, apart from what’s in the literal illustration?

By the way, can anyone assist my memory and give me a clue why I remembered this Origins of the Sunday Comics feature as not always in the past being a genuine historical exploration, but rather including sometimes a parodic or fictive-history take? Maybe mental contamination from reading a sometime series of posts in Working Daze, pretending to trace a century-long history of that strip, thru different writers and artists, and even titles and publishers. 


  1. Some of these are too small to read, even with the image opened in a new tab. I have no idea what Origins of the Sunday Comics is, either, nor what pony on his cuff might mean.

  2. “On the cuff” is an open tab, and a Pony is an 8 gallon beer barrel. It could be either someone who owes for quite a lot of beer, or a bartender who’s been pouring – the expression seems to go either way.

  3. I like what seems to be another now-disused idiom in the very last panel at bottom right, not in the subtitles but within the speech or thought bubble. He says he’s got something “backed off the roof” which must mean he feels he’s got the better of it, he’d gotten the better position in a contest of some sort.

    Downpuppy, I enjoyed the Cash & Carter clip. But missed it if they used any of the expressions being examined here.

  4. Powers, I share your frustration with trying to read these tiny print vintage comics. Between hand lettering, unfamiliar language, and low resolution, it can be more than hard. We did use the full resolution that GoComics made available.

  5. Thanks, Downpuppy. Usual John and I in some email discussed that “on the cuff” meaning, as well as “off the cuff” for speaking with very short notice (using notes made on your shirt cuffs), two expressions in use today still. We didn’t see either of them working for the bit in this comic; though your meaning for “pony” may help make that one work.

    BTW, now that you bring up “pony” for quantity of drink, it makes me half-recall a different one, much smaller: isn’t there a measure a bartender might pour for hard liquor, a pony being like a shot and a half or something like that?

  6. Further on “pony” as a small measure of liquor, from

    4. Shot/Pony/Jigger
    Most drink recipes these days are expressed in ounces, but once in a while we’ll come across less familiar units of measurement like jiggers and ponies and shots. So what’s what?

    A “shot” is often used informally to mean a small serving of alcohol. The drinking vessels known as “shot” glasses often range in size from 1 to 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 ounces.

    A “pony shot” (aka “pony”), on the other hand, is a little more precise. It equals 1 fluid ounce.

    And, finally, a “jigger” equals 1 1/2 fluid ounces. But the term “jigger” is also used to refer to the double-barreled measuring vessel itself, which, like a shot glass, can vary in size. A “large jigger” is 2 fluid ounces.

    So I was a bit off in saying a pony was more than a shot; according to this, it’s a little less. A jigger is closest to what I was describing.

    There is also a split in what a pony is, for beer. One is large, as Downpuppy explained. on the brewery, beers are kegged in various size containers, as follows: 1/2 barrel = 15.5 gallons = 124 pints = 165 12oz bottles - (Full Size Keg) 1/4 barrel = 7.75 gallons = 62 pints = 83 12oz bottles (Pony Keg). — Though large, note that it’s smaller than a “full keg”. I’m getting the picture that many of these “pony” expressions are for smaller versions of something, just as a pony would be smaller than a horse. And we also have a smaller size of beer glass or bottle: Pony glass · A quarter-pint glass of beer: 5 imp fl oz (142 ml), metricated to 140 ml in Australia.

  7. Googling “pony on his cuff” is a Googlewhack, to where the picture is higher-res; examining the source finds
    which is even higher-res.

    Anyway, two comments opine on what the phrase might mean:
    1) I think that a pony was $5 or Pounds in the UK, and the cuff was a tab or running bill. So he owed 5 dollars or pounds at some business.
    This is just going on a very vague memory.
    2) A pony was a cheat sheet. Before taking a test, he wrote answers on his cuff.

  8. Dana : June’s part includes:
    But they’ll laugh at you in Jackson, and I’ll be dancin’ on a Pony Keg.
    They’ll lead you ’round town like a scalded hound,
    With your tail tucked between your legs,
    Yeah, go to Jackson, you big-talkin’ man.
    And I’ll be waitin’ in Jackson, behind my Jaypan Fan

  9. It may be just a regional expression, but Maryland and Pennsylvania some brands of beer are sold in a smaller bottle, locally referred to as a “pony” (not sure of the volume, but it’s probably something betwee 6 to 8 ounces).

    P.S. I followed “Origins” for a little while after “Little Nemo” stopped. Both features offen suffered because many of the pages were just barely legible. If anyone is interested in the original “Nemo” strips are still available in the GoComics archive.

  10. I just did a Google search on the term “pony on his cuff”. I got ONE result…to this very discussion.

  11. And I also searched Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Hathi Trust, and books at Internet Archive, and couldn’t find any previous use of the expression either. Very strange.

  12. We are talking about a slang expression that is (at least) 111 years old, and might be a regionalism limited to the Chicago area, or specific to that era. There’s no reason to expect that there would be modern evidence of this expression in digital form.

  13. Yes, but Hathi Trust and the other places I checked include *millions” of books and magazine issues, mostly public domain in the US stuff (and thus the large majority of them are mid-1920s or earlier), and even if the slang expression was an obscure or regional one at the time, it seemed likely that there would have been some record of it among that plentitude — but no.

    Google Book Search (page images of 2,000,000+ fully readable public domain books, plus many more copyrighted books available via excerpts and snippets)
    HathiTrust (3,000,000+ freely readable titles, and additional search-only titles, from Google and elsewhere)
    Internet Archive Ebooks and Texts (15,000,000+ freely readable volumes; page images and some transcriptions)
    Project Gutenberg (over 50,000 items, mostly book transcriptions)

  14. I just posted a reply to Kilby, but it seems to have gone into moderation for some reason. My basic point is that the sites I searched contain searchable fulltexts of literally millions of old books and magazine issues, mostly pre-1927 (e.g. out of copyright in the US),

    so it was not unreasonable to expect an expression, even if obscure and/or regional back around 1910, to have shown up somewhere in sources published back around 1910. “Modern evidence” (if by that you mean possible recent linguistic discussions by us 21st century folks) has little or nothing to do with it.

  15. Even if the net is large, it still can’t catch something that was primarily verbal, and may not have made it into printed form more than once. Take (for example) the term “SNAFU“: the actual meaning of the acronym was simply unprintable for decades, so that virtually any reference that did make it into print replaced the F-word with “fouled“, which is (even today) thought by some people to be the “true” meaning of that acronym (and who are insistent that their “proof” must be correct, since it appeared that way in published form).
    P.S. This issue has parallels to the problem searching for a “Tumbleweeds” strip (which Boise Ed pointed out in Random Comments): it’s unlikely that anyone is going to bother trying to OCR obscure comic archives, especially when they are hidden behind a King Features’ paywall.

  16. Shrug, both your comment and one from Kilby were waiting in “Pending” – and when released take a position in the page based on the original time of the attempted post. So readers may find it hard to track what can actually be in reply to what else, unfortunately. Sorry about that.

  17. A similar point to the one Kilby is making made me throw up my hands in despair at Wikipedia — I was trying to find the derivation of a derogatory term for people of a certain faith, and all that was available was a patently wrong folk entomology, but because it was from a book written by someone who was just talking out of his ass, it had holy reference status, whereas my arguments based on evidence of words and etymologies from the base language in question held no merit, because I couldn’t quote some book saying my obvious rebuttal for the stupid story in the book. Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition, indeed.

  18. Sorry, trusted stupid spell-Czech to much, didn’t reed closely enough: etymology, not entomology….

    (Is my face red…)

  19. @lark, FTR — “etymology”. A common confusion, but it bugs me.

    Would love to see that page–give a hint?

  20. Here’s the link to Wikipedia (I hope I formatted that correctly…); the story from the non-scholarly book is still the center-piece of the article. HOWEVER, I have to retract my strong rebuttal of the story, as upon rechecking before posting this, I have now discovered sources that indicate that the etymology given actually could be true; when originally I ran afoul of Wikipedia seven or so years ago, I couldn’t find any sources backing up that etymology, and there is a much more obvious word that doesn’t sound like the word in question. This discussion based on vocabulary and word origins was rejected outright, in favor of the quote from the non-scholarly book, because it was printed, and quoting dictionaries apparently is own-research.
    The article still only references this book, and does not back it up with references to reputable (or indeed any!) dictionaries to back up the etymological assertion, which when I looked for it seven years ago, I could not find.

    So I guess the take away is that the system maybe does work, but it is frustrating and slow and often might start out with wrong turns… But the jury is still out…

  21. @larK: Fascinating. If you google “forward Aviya Kushner” plus the word in question there’s a pretty decent article that adds more possibilities. (figured including the word would increase the odds of moderation kicking in here!)

  22. SNAFU?

    Ditto FUBAR.

    True story:

    A computer company I worked for once staffed its customer technical help line with technical pre-sales people (like me) on a rotation basis. There was a full time manager and an admin assistant. To help with continuity, they had a pretty good incident reporting/tracking/activity recording system, so it worked reasonably well, as people came in and out on a rota, from the point of view of knowing what had been done to investigate/resolve a customer’s problem if it hadn’t been sorted quickly when they first called in.

    Reasonably well, that is, until a new manager came up with the brilliant idea of sending customers copies of the incident summaries from the recording system and didn’t tell any of us.

    Wasn’t long before a customer got in touch to ask what “Resolution: RTFM” meant.

  23. “Wasn’t long before a customer got in touch to ask what “Resolution: RTFM” meant.”

    Could have told the customer it meant “Resolved This; Friendly Manner.” Or, more specifically but less customer-frightening, “Referred to: Find-in-Manual”

  24. Oy. We once hired a former customer to do support–he’d been a system programmer at the customer–and someone realized we needed to look through the tickets etc. for that company and make sure we hadn’t called him an idiot. Fortunately we hadn’t (though he was), so we didn’t have to figure out what to do with the write-only system…

  25. Kilby: “Even if the net is large, it still can’t catch something that was primarily verbal, and may not have made it into printed form more than once.” Well, I’d say the net is “gigantic,” but otherwise: agreed, and in fact the strategy did not find it, as I noted. (And after some forty years as a university reference librarian — admittedly most of them pre-internet — not finding any breadcrumb with those sources was pretty much unprecedented in my experience. Primarily verbal isn’t the same thing as solely verbal.)

    But even if the slang was primarily verbal (sure) and regional (possibly), if a 1910 cartoonist felt it would be well-known enough for his readers to get the joke, it’s hard for me to accept that the reference had never made it into printed form ‘more than once’. (In the course of indexing old magazines for The Fictionmags Index, I’ve read lots of early 20th century magazine columns consisting largely of terrible jokes utilizing contemporary slang, and — search stragegies aside — this presumably instantly recogniziable to the audience of the strip reference didn’t twiddle the tiniest twitch in my no-doubt parboiled brain.)

  26. Here is an example of Working Daze giving a glimpse into what they say was their strip’s own history.

    I have some suspicions that they are inventing a fictive past, in part. However, this included cartoon at the bottom, with the 8-14 date and “(c)1973 The Montgomery Syndicate” surely must be genuinely a cartoon from that time, and not a recent fabrication — though maybe not from anything that actually became Working Daze.

    What makes this all tricky is that Working Daze actually does have a history, back into the 1990s, with changes of writer and artist, which in the days of reader comment sections gave rise to a lot of discussion of how the new artist each time was committing heresy by reimagining the appearance of the leading characters. There is some of this history recorded at the Wikipedia entry.

  27. Sonny Liew has a book about a fictional Singaporean cartoonist that similarly has very realistic looking period comics that I didn’t realize was fictional until at least half-way through, if not later. It’s called The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. There was a bit done in the style of the Amazing Fantasy #15 Spiderman, but predating it, and I was so taken by it, I was jumping out of my chair, going, wow! They stole Spiderman from this guy! The world needs to know about this!
    …And then slowly I began to get suspicious, and finally caught on what was going on, but I really had to study the artwork hard to convince myself that it was just brilliant pastiche…

    I’d recommend it, but I’ve just ruined the best part of it for y’all…

  28. Robert says that “on the cuff” means that the item is free. He looked up pony as it a glass about an ounce.)

    (I have to be careful about discussing what I am reading here with him – or he will start reading cidu also and I won’t be able to talk him about him any longer.)

  29. Today I happened on this blog entry for on the cuff:

    That article includes a link to an older one, for off the cuff:

    When we were having that discussion, I forgot to bring up a problem I had with the terminology off the air, encountered at the time of the end of analog broadcast tv and the discussions of how to set up for using digital broadcast. You could pick them up from a local station with your own small antenna and feed into a device in the chain which can process that “off the air” signal into digital wire signal ; I was bewildered by that until I realized that off the air meant on the air.

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