THROUGH A TIN HORN.

The indefatigable Paul has sent me a thread from Project Wombat (mentioned in this LH post) about a vulgar expression that I had somehow managed to miss until now. It started with this posting:

I used to work for a harpsichord builder who, whenever something went absolutely perfectly, would say, “like shit through a tin horn.” The only other time I have encountered this expression was in a novel by William Boyd. Both these guys have strong British connections, so I suspect the expression is British. I have my own fantasies about the meaning, mostly having to do with the plumbing arrangements on early railway cars: I can remember how the metal bowl of the toilet opened to flush right onto the track, making a pretty exact enactment of the expression. Does anybody have any ideas about the origin of this very evocative saying?

There are some fairly irrelevant responses, after which John Cowan writes:

Dorothy Parker once tried to use this expression in the form “like shot through a goose” (birdshot, I suppose), but Thurber doesn’t say (in _The Years With Ross_) whether it got printed or not.
In any case, George S. Patton’s famously profane Speech to the Third Army contained both expressions: “We are going to go through [the enemy] like crap through a goose; like shit through a tin horn!” I can hardly think of anyone less likely to be influenced by British English than Patton.
The phrase is still current, too: see http://shitthroughatinhorn.com , an epitome of all craptastic websites.

Message 14 from Garson O’Toole is very helpful indeed:

The appearance of the word “shit” in print was restricted in the past. So I think it makes sense, as a start, to gather evidence by looking for variants of the phrase in the major text databases.
Here are some variant phrases that appeared in newspapers and periodicals beginning in the 1880s:
like butter through a tin horn
like water through a tin horn
like mud through a tin-horn
Here is an example of “like butter through a tin horn” in 1887. A boat was grounded on a bar in a river. Eventually, a strategy was found to move the boat forward past the bar.
Cite: 1887 October 09, Kansas City Times, Science in Navigation,
[Acknowledgement to Mobile Register], Page 19, Column 4, Kansas City, Missouri. (GenealogyBank)
[Begin excerpt]
Then the rope was tied to a tree on the bank above and the old Carrier went over that bar like butter through a tin horn.
[End excerpt]
In the domain of sports, the phrase “water through a tin horn” was used with quotation marks in 1897. It was used to describe a runner easily penetrating the defense of the opposing team and scoring a touchdown.
Cite: 1897 December 26, Oregonian, “Fought In Deep Mud: Multnomah Wins Christmas Football Game, 10-6″, Page 8, Quote in Column 2. Portland, Oregon. (Genealogybank)
[Begin excerpt]
Wilbur was given the ball, and, with fine interference, plunged through Multnomah’s line like “water through a tin horn” and scored Portland’s only touchdown.
[End excerpt]
The phrase “like mud through a tin-horn” was used in quotes in 1906. The word “mud” was sometimes used as a euphemism for “shit” in periodicals. So the phrase “like shit through a tin-horn” may have been used by a pilot in the following excerpt.
Cite: 1906 December, The Rudder, Volume 17, Number 12, A Fast Trip Down the Hudson by Walter M. Bieling, Quote Page 735, The Rudder Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view)

http://books.google.com/books?id=CCYjAQAAMAAJ&q=tin-horn#v=snippet&

[Begin excerpt]
We got off rather suddenly; our start was most businesslike, and we went out of the Albany Y. C. basin, according to the pilot, “like mud through a tin-horn.”
[End excerpt]
The idea of a substance moving through a tin horn easily was used in similes by 1887 or earlier. The substance used in the simile varied: butter, water and mud all appeared by 1906. Other options include: huckleberries, dose of salts, grease, shit, gooseshit, molasses and more. I do not know why a tin horn was selected for this collection of similes. This is just a preliminary exploration, but I hope it is useful to you.

A follow-up from Dana Dalrymple quotes the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, Issue 3294 (1895), pg. 1230 – “J.B. Atherton then moved that the nominations be closed, which was carried, and D.B. Smith had been sent through the meeting like water through a tin horn.” Dalrymple adds: “Maybe they are referring to metal culverts running under roads? Anyway, this fits the meaning of ‘quickly and easily’ and could easily be expanded to a more sewer-related phrasing.”
I present all this for the general delectation, but of course I would welcome any further information about the history and usage of this intriguing phrase.

Comments

  1. Michael Quinion links the noun “tinhorn” to the 19th c. dice game “grand hazard.” The horn is a chute down which dice are tossed; cheap horns are made of tin.
    Perhaps the phrase is a dysphemism for the roll of the dice in the game of grand hazard.

  2. A quick google search also gives results for “tinhorn culverts,” identified specifically on one site as corrugated tin culverts (with a picture.)

  3. marie-lucie says:

    A straightened cow horn can be used for pouring something from it. A whole horn can be the temporary container from which dice are tossed, a horn with the tip cut off can act as a funnel. I think this is where the “tin horn” comes in, as a cheaper (and perhaps more standardized) metal replacement for a real cow horn.
    I think that the device used in the grand hazard game is not the original “tin horn”, and neither is the culvert. These things must be called that name because their function (of funnelling dice, water, mud, etc) is comparable to that of a tin horn.

  4. I’m surprised and amused to hear that General Patton said “like crap through a goose” and here all this time I thought it was a crazy expression made up for the English dub of “Godzilla 2000″ — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godzilla_2000#Alterations

  5. Garson O’Toole also started a thread on the topic on ADS-L.

  6. I am more familiar with the “shovel” variants. “Like shit off a shovel” (“very fast”) is expanded upon at the Urban Dictionary:

    In the days when trains had a driver and a fireman to load coal and it was necessary to answer a call of nature you would shit on the coal shovel and then throw it in the fire as quick as possible because of smell and hygiene. As the shovel had coal dust on it, the shit did not stick. Interestingly the same shovel could be cleaned with steam and could be used to cook bacon and eggs.

    Joyce ends the Cyclops episode of Ulysses with this variant:

    And there came a voice out of heaven, calling: ELIJAH! ELIJAH! And He answered with a main cry: ABBA! ADONAI! And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green street like a shot off a shovel.

    Alliteration works wonders, for mirth and memorability. I remember from many decades ago a mechanic who had tuned my car’s engine reporting that it now ran “like a shower of shit”. I was momentarily unsure of the polarity; but context came to my rescue with the celerity of a roo on Ritalin.

  7. William Boyd has strong British connections
    Only in the sense that Saul Bellow had strong US connections.

  8. Going out on a limb, here, with almost “free association”.
    I always thought (idiolect via my father) that a “tin horn” was a bit like a “greenhorn” = inexperienced person.
    And the whole conversation just keeps making me think of “like mercury through a chicken”. I’m sure you all know what happens when you feed mercury to a chicken.
    I expect the tinhorns aren’t used to the typical “experienced person” (open range cowboy? my dad cooked for these) diet…and…

  9. I’d go somewhere closer to Catanea’s last response – “tinhorn” (as one word) is pretty close to “greenhorn” – pretentious but incompetent / inexperienced according to most dictionaries.
    In challenging /scary tasks a “tinhorn” would experience “melting of the bowels” (as T E Lawrence would say).

  10. Looking at “greenhorn” etymology too – it seems clear.
    Greenhorn is young / inexperienced / ineffective because they are green or soft.
    Tinhorn looks like shiny solid metal, but flatters to deceive, pretentious, being in fact cheap and ineffective.
    A tinhorn is found out by a real challenge (by the sh*t that flows out of it).

  11. I’m sure you all know what happens when you feed mercury to a chicken.
    As my dear departed mother used to say: I never thought the subject would come up.

  12. It just occurred to me to google that expression, and I found this in a book on Dorothy Parker, who had “adopted two baby alligators without knowing quite what to do with them”:

    So she left them in her bathtub until she could decide how to proceed. The next day she was out doing errands when her maid let herself in. Dottie returned to an uncleaned apartment and a note: “Dear Madam. I am leaving, as I cannot work in a house with alligators. I would have told you this before, but I never thought the subject would come up.”

  13. I was previously familiar only with the version “like poop through a goose.”
    If you have ever seen Canada geese grazing, you understand how apt this expression is. They nibble, take a step, and then (it seems) immediately deposit a large dollop of green goop on the lawn. An amazing aliementary efficiency, with disgusting effect.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    That must be why Canadian meadows are so green, with all the free fertilizer.

  15. There’s nothing wrong with goose poop, it’s just rather big.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    To me it looks like a contamination, maybe originally a joke, of like water through a tin horn and like shit through a goose/whatever. A tin horn sounds like an old term for the spout of a kettle or a metal funnel.
    There’s nothing wrong with goose poop, it’s just rather big.

    «Hav tak, O Gud, at ikke i det Høje,
    som Svalen, Koen ogsaa flyve kan!»

  17. Hahaha.

  18. For those of us ignorant of the Scandinavian languages, I tried Google Translate. It didn’t come up with anything readable when I suggested the quote was Swedish or Norwegian, but from Danish, it said : We Thank Thee, O God, not in the hills, as the swallow, cow also can fly.
    Which I took to mean that God is thanked because cows can’t fly like swallows. I’ve heard similar in English, so the idea is (naturally enough) widespread … Quite where the hills come into it I’m not sure – cows flying over the plains would be sufficiently unpleasant.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    GT caught the essence, but not the multiple meanings of høj. Adjectival det høje is “the high”, meaning “the sky” or “Heaven(s)”. The noun høj, def. højen, pl. høje, def.pl. (I think) højene means “hill”. As in famous Scandinavian mountains like Yding Skovhøj, Møllehøy, and Ejer Bavnehøj.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    Møllehøj!

  21. dearieme says:

    My father once dismissed something (or somebody)with the army expression “showers of shit in Shropshire”. I have no precise idea what it means: there may have been a clue in the affected pronunciation he adopted – approx “shahs of shit in Shropshah”.

  22. Ballade
       Det er mangt å takke for.
    En gammel munk gik ud for at spadsere,
    thi solen sken så varmt nu ved St. Hans,
    at ei han orked sidde inde mere
    og tælle bønner på sin rosenkrans.
    Og alt var fred, hvor han så vendte øiet,
    da stille ud af klostrets port han tren,
    kun klostrets ko lå doven og fornøiet
    og tyggede og tygged om igen.
    Mod himlen hæved munken fromt sit øie,
    der seilede en svale høit mod sky.
    “Forvovne! hvem er du som i det høie
    i selve himmerige søger ly?”
    Men svalen høfleg var som ingen anden,
    gav munken på hans spørgsmål grei besked.
    Den sendte sit “visitkort” ned til manden,
    det daled på hans blanke isse ned.
    Men munken hæved atter fromt sit øie,
    og sine hænder stille folder han:
    “hav tak, O Gud, at ikke i det høie
    som svalen også koen flyve kan.”
    Leif S. Rode – Gammal tone

  23. Per Google Translate:
       It is many things å thank.
    An old monk went out to walk,
    For sun fluid so hot now at St. Michael,
    that ei he orked sit more
    and counting the beans on his rosary.
    And all was peace, which he then turned the eye,
    then quietly out of the convent gate he tren,
    only monastery cow was lazy and happy
    and chewed and tygged again.
    The sky hæved pious monk’s eye,
    who sailed a swallow loudly against the sky.
    “Audacious! Who are you as in the high
    in the body of heaven seek shelter? ”
    But swallow høfleg was like no other
    gave the monk to his question Grei message.
    It sent its “visiting card” down to the man
    it descended to his shiny pate down.
    But the monk hæved again his pious eye,
    and put his hands booklet he
    “sea thanks, O God, not in the high
    who swallow too cow can fly. ”

  24. “Tinhorn” as an adjective refers to shoddiness of some sort – a tin horn might have the look of a brass horn, but will not sound nearly as good. The context I’ve seen “tin horn” used most is in reference to petty (or not so petty) tyrants – “tin horn dictators” and such.

  25. I agree. I think first of dictators, and (this etymological part I am making up) I imagine this petty ruler tooting his own low-grade horn.

  26. I like the idea of the monk counting the *beans* on his rosary…
    How many beans make five (Hail Marys) ?

  27. Now I remember that Trond told this once before; I remember the English version.
    ved St. Hans is “at midsummer”.

  28. Trond Engen says:

    Now I remember that Trond told this once before
    You’re probably right. It’s one of those lines I throw out whenever there’s an occasion. I’m probably running out of new places.
    I didn’t translate it too, did I? For I liked that “Audacious!” so much I had to give it a try now.

    The Ballad of the Monk
    A pious monk was looking from the abbey
    and saw the summer breeze play in the weeds.
    The more he looked, the more his mind turned flabby,
    he could not count another round of beads.
    He went outside, upon God’s wonders gazing,
    a world at peace outside the convent’s door,
    the convent’s cow alone was calmly grazing,
    it chewed the grass and chewed the grass once more.
    And soon again the monk felt pious, lifting
    his eye, to see a swallow in the sky.
    “Audacious! Who are you so lightly drifting
    anear the home of angels in the high?”
    The swallow, though, was such a courteous creature,
    it could not let a monk’s request pass by,
    and promptly, at the monk’s most shining feature,
    it left a very personal reply.
    And now the monk, with reinvigoration,
    devoted was the master of his vows.
    “Thee thank, O Lord, that thou in thy creation
    gave swallows wings, and grazing to the cows.”

    I hoped to hit some of that half-Biblical, half-broadside-ballad, style of the original. Fat chance in a foreign language.

  29. I like it very much indeed. Full marks.

  30. Trond Engen says:

    Full marks.
    With “thou” and “thy” rather than “Thou” and “Thy”? That wouldn’t have been accepted in 1912!

  31. “Thee thank” is pretty strained for either Bible or ballad. I’d go with just “Thanks”. Overall, though, superb!

  32. “tin horn dictators”
    This all had me puzzled; but finally a Gestalt appears through the haze. We are reminded of “chickenshit colonels” and the like. From there it’s a short step to poop through a goose, and Scandinavian doggerel – then a slippery slope to the convent cow and all that it untails.
    See also “tin horn rodeo“, and “Quadaffi” (sic) as a “tinhorn colonel”.
    Carry on.

  33. Trond Engen says:

    JC: “Thee thank” is pretty strained for either Bible or ballad. I’d go with just “Thanks”. Overall, though, superb!
    Thanks. And, yeah, I had “Have thanks, O Lord,” until right before posting. I felt there was something lacking with the line — because the pronouns aren’t capitalized, I think now — but ended up changing the wrong part. OTOH, I understand that capital T in thou and thy isn’t necessarily standard in Biblical English.
    Paul: I like the idea of the monk counting the *beans* on his rosary…
    That’s the classic homonym bønner/bønner “beans”/”prayers”, so there’s a dual meaning in the original. I’m not quite sure if it’s intended as a pun. I think it is, but it might have been made more explicit by using bønnekrans “prayer wreath” instead of rosenkrans for “rosary”.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Trond: I understand that capital T in thou and thy isn’t necessarily standard in Biblical English.
    Capitalization is traditional with not just these two pronouns, but any pronoun referring to the deity, so He, Him and His, as well as Thou, Thee and Thine. Not just in the Bible, but in any religious texts in the Christian tradition.

  35. CuConnacht says:

    You all are making this much too complicated. Unlike a trumpet or trombone, etc, a child’s tin horn has no loops, valves, or other obstacles. Shit or anything else dropped into it passes right through. “Like water through a tin horn” might get the idea across better but it would lack the emphasis that comes with using the taboo word.

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    Capitalizing Divine-referent pronouns in English is a tradition of fairly recent vintage – it’s not in the King James Version or other normative ecclesiastical texts from the first century or two after the Reformation. I personally think of it as a vulgar innovation mixed up with Victorian sentimentality and ostentation, which has the side effect of making Old Testament translation more challenging (because of the number of passages that are not necessarily literally about Christ but are traditionally understood to refer to him/Him typologically — if you have to pick a pronoun that takes sides on the divinity-or-not of the referent you obscure the polyvalent/polysemous nature of the text).

  37. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks JW, that seems to explain the discrepancies I found when googling “Holy be thy name”. For my use, though, I think I’ll commit the capital crime, since “Victorian sentimentality” is perfect for broadsheet ballads.

  38. “Tin pot dictator” is what I’m used to, and Google seems to think it’s more common that the “tin horn” version.

  39. j. del col says:

    There’s plenty wrong with goose poop when it makes it impossible to walk through a park without caking one’s shoes with it.
    A former professor of mine attended one of Patton’s addresses to the troops. (He made several) He said the movie version was fairly mild.

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