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

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 24 22:21:21 EDT 2017


My working theory (as I suggested in the WSJ column) is that "litmus test"
only took off as a metaphor when actual litmus tests became widely used by
farmers checking their soil for acidity. That apparently happened around
the turn of the 20th century.


On Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 9:26 PM, Joel Berson <berson at att.net> wrote:

> Since "litmus paper" goes back to 1803, there's more work to be done.
>
> Joel
>
>
>       From: ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
>  To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU
>  Sent: Friday, March 24, 2017 4:47 PM
>  Subject: Re: [ADS-L] metaphorical "litmus test" (1912)
>
> Excellent column, Ben. Great citations Ben and Bill. Here is a
> metaphorical "litmus paper test" in 1896.
>
> Date: March 16, 1896
> Newspaper: The Pittsburgh Press
> Newspaper Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
>
> https://www.newspapers.com/image/141573137/?terms=litmus
>
> [Begin excerpt]
> The alleged investigation will not stand
> the litmus paper test of public opinion.
> [End excerpt]
>
> Garson
>
> On Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 4:05 PM, MULLINS, WILLIAM D (Bill) CIV USARMY
> RDECOM AMRDEC (US) <william.d.mullins18.civ at mail.mil> wrote:
> > Slightly earlier:
> > _Cleveland [OH] Leader_ 4 Sep 1904, p 11 col 4
> >
> > "The people ring true; the incidents stand the litmus test of our own
> experiences."
> > [from a book review]
> >
> >
> >
> >> -----Original Message-----
> >> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On
> Behalf Of Ben Zimmer
> >> Sent: Friday, March 24, 2017 11:22 AM
> >> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU
> >> Subject: metaphorical "litmus test" (1912)
> >>
> >>
> >> My latest Wall St. Journal column is on the phrase "litmus test" and
> how it has become a political metaphor.
> >>
> >> https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-litmus-became-a-test-for-
> court-nominee-gorsuch-1490365660
> >>
> >> If paywalled, you can Google the headline or follow a social media link
> like this one:
> >>
> >> https://twitter.com/bgzimmer/status/845289601451413504
> >>
> >> 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.
> >> https://www.newspapers.com/image/146645259/
> >> http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038615/1912-02-
> 22/ed-1/seq-4/
> >>
> >> "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
> Penrose].
> >> https://www.newspapers.com/image/128838776/
> >>
> >> "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.
> >> https://www.newspapers.com/image/5325232/
> >>
> >> 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.
> >> https://www.newspapers.com/image/85469771/
> >>
> >> "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
> >> https://books.google.com/books?id=yrs0AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA6
> >>
> >> "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."
> >>
> >>
>

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