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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.”
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.