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'I Am Down On Quacks', 1860: The Phrase 'I Am Down On' In Popular 19th C. Usage

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  • 'I Am Down On Quacks', 1860: The Phrase 'I Am Down On' In Popular 19th C. Usage

    We all the know the memorable phrase from the Dear Boss letter "I am down on whores and I shan't quit ripping them till I do get buckled."

    It sounds like a distinctive and unusual choice of words to the modern ear, but in the course of reading through some Victorian-era journals I came across some other examples of the "I am down on" phrase which were not presented in a 'slang' context like the Dear Boss letter, and I thought they might be of interest to others.

    The first one rather startled me.
    I was looking for c.1860 mentions of Dr Tumblety, and came across the phrase "I am down on quacks" in an 1860 medical journal!

    It was written by a doctor who was complaining about the dangerous errors which occurred when a physician wrote a prescription that was misread by the druggist or his assistant. Doctors wrote their Rx's in Latin, which many druggists had difficulty reading- sometimes with tragic consequences.

    Apparently non-licensed "doctors" and quacks were trying to get all Rx's written in English, presumably so that they themselves could easily read the legitimate medical prescriptions and then prescribe the same ingredients to their own patients, or so they could add some of those legitimate ingredients to their 'patent remedies'.

    Licensed physicians frequently expressed outrage at the dangerous fraud being perpetrated by quacks peddling phony cures, because for a quack to get away with calling himself a 'doctor' in public put legitimate doctors in a bad light.

    I found this same article published in two different 1860 medical journals, The Richmond Medical Journal and The Pacific Medical & Surgical Journal, so I would assume it was published in other contemporary American journals as well.

    (Disclaimer: I do not personally think Tumblety was the Ripper or even a Ripper Letter-hoaxer who deliberately used this "I am down on phrase" in the 1888 'Dear Boss' letter as revenge against the 1860 "I Am Down On Quacks" article; I just thought it was an interesting coincidence.)

    I found many more such examples. Even ministers preaching from the pulpit used this phrase to condemn what they regarded as evil practices; example #2 condemning theaters is from an 1886 publication called 'Sermons', by Small & Jones. Politicians used the phrase too.

    Example #3 is from an 1877 children's magazine, Golden Hours, so the phrase itself doesn't seem to have had rude connotations.

    My conclusion is that in the 19th C. the phrase "I am down on" was considered a socially acceptable way to indicate strong personal dislike and condemnation, though of course it assumes a rude tone exhibiting very rude intent when coupled with the term "whore"
    and read in the context of the Dear Boss letter.

    Best regards, Archaic
    Attached Files
    Last edited by Archaic; 01-03-2010, 12:21 AM.

  • #2

    Hello Archaic. Nice find! Kudos!

    The best.


    • #3

      Originally posted by lynn cates View Post
      Hello Archaic. Nice find! Kudos!

      The best.
      Splendid job Archaic! Today our communications tend to be consoderably more utilitarian than our Victorian ancestors. Even before the advent of computers, internet and the dreaded textspeak Victorian prose was seen as florid to modern readers. I believe it was a common and socially acceptable term both in Britain and in the United States but I would have to do some research on that. Again a splendid job! Kudos!
      Neil "Those who forget History are doomed to repeat it." - Santayana


      • #4
        Hi YankeeSergeant. Thank you for your kind comments; I'm very glad you enjoyed the articles.

        I love exploring the history of the English language. It seems to me that people used to express themselves much more colorfully than they do today.

        Funny that "I am down on" was a once way to express strong disapproval, but in hep-cat lingo "I'm down with that!" came to mean the exact opposite, strong approval!

        By the way, Upstate New York is one of my favorite places in the world. I have many fond memories of spending my summers there as a child.

        Best regards,