Slang City Mail

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May 22, 2008

Slang of the Week: give someone the mitten (verb phrase)
to reject a man’s romantic advances (archaic)

Alonzo had hoped for a honeymoon in the Swiss Alps, but Margie gave him the mitten.

Celebrity quote
"It was three or four years after Miss Jennie give him the mitten and went off with the other chap. Miss Polly knew about it, of course, and was sorry for him."
-Old Tom in Eleanor Porter’s classic 1913 novel, Pollyanna

"Talk to the hand, 'cuz the ears ain't listenin'!"

Many of my US readers probably remember this famous Fran Drescher line from Beautician and the Beast, even if they never saw the 1997 movie. Drescher didn’t create the expression, but her dramatic delivery (in endless advertisements for the film) brought it into common use, to the dismay of millions of parents with difficult teenagers.

Talk to the hand was always accompanied by a gesture reminiscent of the Supremes dancing to "Stop in the name of love!" An arm outstretched with the palm up, the unsympathetic remark was the equivalent of "stop talking."

Similarly, to give someone the mitten meant "stop asking me to marry you." In the nineteenth century, mittens were not just the wool coverings with one section for fingers and another for the thumb that we think of now. The word also referred to fingerless gloves (often silk) worn by proper young ladies, and it was with the second variety that men were rebuffed. However, this remark, which first appeared in the 1830s, was more of figurative slap in the face.

Still, some women were unsatisfied to leave it at the figurative level. On the website for the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, Vermont, Jan Albers cites an amusing letter from the museum's archives. The letter was written by a woman named Betsy Jane Ward, just after the Civil War. From the tenor of the note, it was not the first time Ward had turned down her correspondent.

"No, Sir!" she wrote, "I am not hasty in sending you a negative answer to your marriage proposal. It don't take me six years to decide whether I will marry a man or not." Apparently feeling that words were insufficient to thwart further attempts on his part, she accompanied the letter with a tiny mitten she had knit for the purpose, adding, "Hope this mitten will satisfy your anxious heart, as you term it, and incline you to urge your suit no further."

As for The Beautician and the Beast, though it tried to please, film critics gave it the mitten. As Susan Wloszcyna said in USA Today, "Listening to Fran Drescher's nasal squawk for an entire movie is the price you'll pay to see The Beautician and the Beast. Imagine having your ear canal scoured with Brillo. Only more abrasive"

What’s new?
Our slang to Standard English translation of Lil Wayne’s new song Lollipop. (Warning: contains adult themes and bad language.)


Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Civil War Era Etiquette: Martine's Handbook & Vulgarisms in Conversation. If you’re curious about social relations from the "give him the mitten" era, this reprint of an 1866 book on manners also contains an anti-etiquette glossary of bad words from the period.

Looking for the perfect graduation present? Give the gift of practical anti-etiquette advice with The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion: Lady Snark’s Guide to Common Discourtesy. $9.95 from Adams Media.