"slippery slope"

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Jun 27 23:16:25 UTC 2003

It struck me that "slippery slope" does a lot of the work that
"letting the camel's nose into the tent" used to do. The earliest
cite for that one in Making of America is from 1860 (but surely it
goes back much further) -- this is delightful enough to quote in its

Sigourney, L. H. (Lydia Howard), 1791-1865, Gleanings,1860.

Once in his shop a workman wrought
With languid hand, and listless thought,
When through the open window's space
Behold!-a Camel thrust his face.
"My nose is cold," he meekly cried,
"Oh, let me warm it by thy side."
Since no denial word was said,
In came the nose,- in came the head,
As sure as sermon follows text
The long, excursive neck came next,
And then, as falls the threatening storm
In leap'd the whole ungainly form

Aghast the owner gazed around,
And on the rude invader frown'd,
Convinc'd as closer still he prest,
There was no room for such a guest,
Yet more astonish'd, heard him say,
"If incommoded, go your way,
For in this place I choose to stay."
Oh, youthful hearts, to gladness born,
Treat not this Arab lore with scorn.
To evil habit's earliest wile
Lend neither ear, nor glance, nor smile,
Choke the dark fountain ere it flows,
Nor even admit the Camel's Nose.*

* To illustrate the danger of the first approach of evil habit, the
Arabs have a
proverb, "Beware of the Camel's nose."

A more straightforward use, also not without its charms, is found in
Spurgeon, C. H. (Charles Haddon), 1834-1892,  Feathers for arrows;
or, Illustrations from my note book. [1870]

WHEN a sin is let in as a suppliant, it remains in as a
tyrant. The Arabs have a fable of a miller who one day was
startled by a camel's nose thrust in the window of the room
where he was sleeping. " It is very cold outside," said the
camel, " I only want to get my nose in." The nose was let
in, then the neck, and finally the whole body. Presently the
miller began to be extremely inconvenienced at the ungainly
companion he had obtained in a room certainly not big enough
for both. "If you are inconvenienced you may leave," said
the camel; " as for myself, I shall stay where I am." There
are many such camels knocking at the human heart. Take,
for instance, compliance with a single worldly custom-dancing.
First, the custom creeps humbly to the door of the heart,
and says, "Let me in; what am I but putting one foot
before another? certainly you do not object to music, and I
would not for the world have a full band." So in comes the
nose of the camel, and it is not long before the entire body
follows. The Christian then finds his heart occupied in full
figure by the very vice which a little while before peeped in
so meekly. " Being up," it says to him, " all night at a ball,
with the eyes dazzled by lights, and the ears stunned with a f
ull band, interferes, you say, with your private devotions.
So it does. But your private devotions will have to go, for I
will not."

>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       Beverly Flanigan <flanigan at OHIOU.EDU>
>Subject:      Re: "slippery slope"
>At 04:39 PM 6/27/2003 -0400, you wrote:
>>At 4:09 PM -0400 6/27/03, Baker, John wrote:
>>>          I note that the 1857 usage is different from the usual one,
>>>where "slippery slope" refers to an initial step that, it is argued,
>>>must lead inexorably to a drastic outcome.
>>>John Baker
>>Right.  More like "the greased flagpole of fortune".
>Or the mountain slope Sisyphus rolls the rock up to no avail.
>>>-----Original Message-----
>>>From: Kathleen E. Miller [mailto:millerk at NYTIMES.COM]
>>>Sent: Friday, June 27, 2003 2:58 PM
>>>Subject: Re: "slippery slope"
>>>Researched this for Safire 2002.
>>>Found 1857, "Chamber's Journal," When the educated person of the middle
>>>class is reduced to pennilessness ...what but gives him the desire to
>  >>struggle again up the slippery slope of fortune?"
>>>You can find it on Cornell's Making of America.
>  >>
>  >>
>  >>Kathleen E. Miller
>  >>Research Assistant to William Safire
>  >>The New York Times

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