[Ads-l] metaphorical "litmus test" (1912)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 24 12:22:04 EDT 2017

My latest Wall St. Journal column is on the phrase "litmus test" and
how it has become a political metaphor.


If paywalled, you can Google the headline or follow a social media
link like this one:


OED2 has the figurative sense from 1957, folded into the cites for
"litmus." Here are some examples starting in 1912.

"Still Palming Off Platitudes," Times Dispatch (Richmond, Va.), Feb.
22, 1912, p. 4, col. 1
The tenure of a judge and the life of the people affected by his
decision is infinitesimal when subjected to the litmus test of time.

"National Politics," Des Moines Register, Feb. 12, 1913, p. 6, col. 6
"Conservation is the litmus test of progressivism. Where do you stand
on conservation?" was my next question [of Pennsylvania Senator Boies

"A Penrose-Dimmick Mixture," Chester (Pa.) Times, Feb. 28, 1914, p. 12, col. 3
A special dispatch from Scranton to the North American shows the J.
Benj. Dimmick's candidacy is being put to the litmus test and reveals
the presence of Penrose alkalies... The litmus test applied to the
Dimmick regime shows alcohol.

Elbert Hubbard, "Negative Advertising," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May
31, 1914, p. 10, col. 5
Any man who thinks that he is necessary to the perpetuity of an
industry would do well to take a look at himself in a mirror and make
sure that his purity of purpose will stand the litmus test.

"Publicity," Women's Wear, Apr 9, 1915, p. 24, col. 4
Ad Club's Vice of Being Too Virtuous. -- In an article on the
editorial page of the New York American, Elbert Hubbard said in part
[...] "Advertise as you wish, but do not get dogmatic and apply the
litmus test to your neighbor."

similar quote in "The Vices of Virtue," The Philistine, June 1915, pp. 5-6

"Little Theater Called Hope of Dramatic Art," Christian Science
Monitor, June 6, 1916, p. 10, col. 1
[Prof. Albert Hatton Gilmer of Tufts College, in an address before the
Drama League of America at its recent national convention in St.
Louis:] "The drama must stand the litmus test of actor and audience."


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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