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Slower than molasses in January

A discussion of word histories and origins.

Slower than molasses in January

Postby sardith » Sat Jan 15, 2011 4:15 pm

Hello Dr. Goodword and friends,

I hope that I am in the correct section for this question. :?

I saw that in "This Day in History," that the 'Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919' occurred today. Bummer. :cry:

Only one of the internet references I perused mentioned that this event was the genesis of the saying, "Slower than molasses in January," and though it makes sense, I was reluctant to put my confidence in them until I checked with you first.

Thanks,
Sardith :)
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Postby Slava » Sat Jan 15, 2011 5:14 pm

Good call on the reluctance, as the phrase seems to go much further back. Also, the speed estimate from the flood was 25-30 mph. Rather zippy, I'd say.

This site has a nice write up on this.
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Slower than molasses in January

Postby sardith » Sun Jan 16, 2011 8:47 pm

Thanks, Slava.

Another great site you have shared with me. :)

This event piqued my interest since I was born in Boston and one of my mother's classic sayings was the one about that sticky liquid that my Nana from Maine made baked beans with each Saturday~yum!

Anyway, I couldn't resist and have already started reading the book 'Dark Tide' on my Nook, that btw, was the first tome written on the subject in 2003, (not that I am advertising, but I'll let you know...)

Susan
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Postby Slava » Sun Jan 16, 2011 9:54 pm

Glad to have been of service.

If there's a great description of the concept of having a 30-foot wall of molasses moving toward you at 25+ miles per hour, I'd sure like to hear about it.

To steal a phrase; talk about a sticky end!
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Slower than molasses in January

Postby sardith » Mon Jan 17, 2011 11:01 am

Technology is such a great thing! 8)

I uploaded that Nook book and started reading right away; didn't even have to leave my house.

I don't have any doubt that I will be able to provide you a descriptive passage or two from this account, since this author is painting vivid pictures for me so far. What a dynamic storyteller. If only every history teacher was this interesting.

His name is Stephen Puleo and he teaches at Suffolk University in Boston. If you are interested, his bio is below.

Have a great week!
Susan :D

http://www.stephenpuleo.com/about.htm
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Postby bnjtokyo » Mon Jan 17, 2011 11:56 pm

The oldest use of the metaphor "slow as molasses" that I could find is in "Tom Swift and His Motocycle" (1910) (The first of the Tom Swift books).

Tom is cruising along on his motorcycle and, seeing an obstacle ahead, says "I hope he gets out of the way in time . . . he's moving as slow as molasses, and I'm going a bit faster than I like . . . ."

I'll spare you the crash.

I believe the books were popular at the time, so given the dates, the Boston disaster could have led to the extension of the metaphor.
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Postby Slava » Tue Jan 18, 2011 10:08 am

bnjtokyo wrote:The oldest use of the metaphor "slow as molasses" that I could find is in "Tom Swift and His Motocycle" (1910) (The first of the Tom Swift books).

Tom is cruising along on his motorcycle and, seeing an obstacle ahead, says "I hope he gets out of the way in time . . . he's moving as slow as molasses, and I'm going a bit faster than I like . . . ."

I'll spare you the crash.

I believe the books were popular at the time, so given the dates, the Boston disaster could have led to the extension of the metaphor.
Given that the earliest use cited in the site above is 1872, I'd say Tom got it from way back.

What's interesting to me is that he doesn't use January. Molasses may be thick, but it does pour rather well. No slower than honey, so why molasses in the first place?
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slower than molasses in January

Postby sardith » Tue Jan 18, 2011 2:47 pm

Slava,

Do you think that it is because of the color that molasses SEEMS to be thicker and pour slower? I mean, because honey is a lighter color, that it seems to pour faster?

(We are a visual people, and myself, when I think, let's say, of your example, of honey vs. molasses, and visualize in my mind's eye, it seems to me that honey pours faster than molasses, even though, in reality, it does not, all things being equal.)

clear~thin~glide
dark~heavy~sluggish

Just a thought... :)
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Postby bnjtokyo » Mon Jun 20, 2011 11:31 pm

I just found a new tool for looking up early uses of words and phrases. Try www.ngrams.googlelabs.com

I just used it on "molasses in January" and found 11 pages of uses between 1800 and 1918

The oldest was in "The Index -- March 6, 1879":

"There is believed to be only one thing slower than molasses in January, and that is a lady making room for another lady in a street car -- Chicago Herald"

It looks like it was used as a column filler to avoid a bit of blank white at the bottom of a column of newsprint
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