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Good Old Stuff

May 9, 2018

By Jim Rhodes

Words carry meanings on many levels.

Take the word old, for instance. Of course we all know what old means. Old means old – the opposite of young or new.

True enough, but wait.

What about old man, commonly used to describe one’s father (“My old man taught me how to tie a bowline”), husband (“My old man stumbled home drunk again last night”) or a military officer (“The old man runs a tight ship”)? In all of these cases, old has nothing to do with age.

In England, old boy refers to a male person who is an alumnus of one of the exclusive schools. Old boys wear the school tie, affect the same mannerisms and share a common jargon (“Cheers, old boy, drink up”).

Of course, old boy is not to be confused with good old boy, which means just the opposite – usually a Caucasian male resident in the southern United States, the backside of whose neck is sunburnt and whose language is also unique. (“Y’all think old Charlie gonna get elected mayor?” “Yup, he’s got all the good old boys in his hip pocket.”)

So why did a perfectly good English word morph into something with a totally different meaning? And when did it happen? I’ve studied all sorts of dictionaries looking for an answer to the first question with no success. As to the second question, references go back at least several hundred years.

  • Old Bailey is the name of the criminal court in London. The earliest reference in print was in 1674. The building was then only one year old, so there is no question that old had nothing to do with its age.
  • Virginia (my home state) is called the Old Dominion. It dates back to the 1660s, when King Charles II coined the phrase in gratitude for the Virginia colony’s perceived loyalty to the monarchy during the English Civil War and Interregnum.
  • Old Hundred is a melody commonly used to accompany the Doxology in church. I have been unable so far to dig up the earliest reference, but I believe it dates back to the early Reformation period.
  • Old Faithful is a geyser that was discovered in the 1800s.
  • Old Glory refers to the American flag. The name originated in the 1830s with a sea captain who proudly flew an American ensign sewn by his wife from the mast of his ship. (He later moved to Tennessee, where he made himself thoroughly unpopular with his neighbors by flying Old Glory over his house during the Yankee invasion.)
  • Old Scratch is a name for the Devil. Others are Old Nick, Old Billy or Old Serpent. There was a common superstition that if you utter the name of the Devil out loud, he will appear in person and snatch you away to the nether world. Hence the nicknames.
  • Old Ironsides was the USS Constitution, whose hull was said to be impenetrable by British cannon balls in the War of 1812. (Interestingly, Oliver Cromwell won the same sobriquet of Old Ironsides as a commander of the Puritan Army in the English Civil War of the 1640s.)

In my youth, I smoked Old Gold filter cigarettes. The brand was introduced in the 1920s by Lorillard Tobacco Company. I still remember the television commercials featuring tap-dancing Old Gold cigarette packs.

Old has often been used in nicknames for military or political leaders, connoting respect, sometimes awe, usually referring to some feature or quality of the person’s character, deeds or appearance. This usage had its greatest flowering in America during the early 1800s.

For example …

  • Old Hickory – Andrew Jackson, after his successful campaign against the British in New Orleans.
  • Old Sink or Swim – John Adams, referring to his declaration, “To sink or swim, to live or die, survive or perish with my country.” (Adams was also sometimes called “His Rotundity.”)
  • Old Kinderhook – Martin van Buren, from the name of his home place in New York. (Sometimes claimed incorrectly to be the origin of the phrase OK).
  • Old Rough and Ready – Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War, later president.
  • Old Fuss and Feathers – General Winfield Scott, from his fondness for plumed hats.

The American Civil War produced a plethora of colorful nicknames, among them:

  • Old Brains – General Halleck
  • Old Bald Head – General Ewell
  • Old Pete – General Longstreet
  • Old Pap – General Thomas
  • Old Skedad – General Price

And my personal favorite:

  • Old Blue Light – General Stonewall Jackson, apparently referring to the look in eyes as he rode into battle.

Curiously, my research has so far not turned up a single reference of this meaning for old applied to a woman (with the possible exception of the generic slang term old lady for one’s wife).

Whew. This brainwork tires me in my old age. I think it’s time to head home for a medicinal draught from a bottle bearing the label Old Crow, currently in residence on the lower shelf of my liquor cabinet.