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the right stuff - 1882
Posted: 25 May 2016 06:17 PM   [ Ignore ]
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William Safire http://www.nytimes.com/1983/02/27/magazine/on-language-right-stuff-in-the-bully-pulpit.html?pagewanted=all traces “the right stuff” to 1927 in a Somerset Maughn novel.  I offer here for your consideration:

Much inquiry has been made as tot he merits of Burns, the change pitcher engaged for the Detroit team of 1883.  A Massachusetts correspondent, who has personal knowledge whereof he speaks, informs the Free Press that Burns is a young man of excellent habits and gentlemanly deportment; is a strong, swift pitcher, who is well posted in the tricks of the “box,” fields his position sharply and well,a nd is a fair batter.  Bancroft wrights:  “Eastern players who have faced your new pitcher, Burns, say he is made of the right stuff, and bids fair to prove a puzzler to visiting clubs.” Cincinnati Enquirer November 19, 1882

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Posted: 25 May 2016 08:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The Safire column is long out of date. There’s a much earlier cite in OED for the specific American sense of the term:

1845 J. F. Cooper in Graham’s Mag. May 206/2 It seems the old general decided that the boy had the ‘right stuff’ in him, and overlooked the gross impropriety of the assault, on account of its justice and spirit.

[ Edited: 25 May 2016 08:49 PM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 26 May 2016 12:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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seems probable that the phrase goes back a long, long way—to a time before the metaphor, when “stuff” meant “woollen cloth”.

For me, the phrase invariably conjures up Tom Wolfe’s book about the US space program --- in particular, the incredible Chuck Yeager and his fellow-pilots.

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Posted: 26 May 2016 02:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Indeed it does, lionello. The phrase itself has an OED cite from 1748 and I’m sure earlier will turn up, but this is in a different sense. Here’s OED with early cites given. It’s the Fennimore Cooper cite which I considered the first showing sense b.

P2. the right stuff:  (a) slang something that is just what is required; spec. alcoholic drink; money; (b) colloq. (chiefly U.S.) the necessary qualities for a given job or task.

1748 J. Walcot New Pilgrim’s Progr. 209 Come, there is a little Hut hard by, where I will shew you a Cup of your right Stuff.
1775 S. Foote Trip to Calais i. 25 Yes, yes, they look of that cut; not of the right stuff, as the French say, to make bucks desprits on.
1825 J. Neal Brother Jonathan 159, I ins with my hand arter that; and I outs with a handfull o’ the right stuff.
1845 J. F. Cooper in Graham’s Mag. May 206/2 It seems the old general decided that the boy had the ‘right stuff’ in him, and overlooked the gross impropriety of the assault, on account of its justice and spirit.

[ Edited: 26 May 2016 02:36 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 26 May 2016 05:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I’ve made a Big List entry for the phrase.

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Posted: 26 May 2016 05:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Like Lionello, the phrase has a military aviation connection for me.  In my squadron there was a journal called “The Wrong Stuff Log”, wherein the pilots humorously busted each other out for their mistakes.  It was pretty entertaining reading.

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Posted: 26 May 2016 08:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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It seems to me that the 1775 quote from the OED that Aldi posted might also be sense b (Chuck Yeager sense).

That passage from Trip to Calais is about the relative qualities of city(presumably London) tailors as compared to country tailors. The They in they look of that cut seems to refer to tailors of less than stellar quality.

But, since I can’t figure out what is meant by desprits on, this idea might be completely off base.

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Posted: 26 May 2016 08:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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1775 S. Foote Trip to Calais i. 25 Yes, yes, they look of that cut; not of the right stuff, as the French say, to make bucks desprits on.

This OED cite caught my eye. the sentence “they look of that cut” suggests the possible original connection with cloth, which I mentioned in an earlier post; however, the rest of the citation is incomprehensible.  What does “the right stuff to make bucks desprits on” mean? Can anybody explain it (aldi, you’re my white hope)? A Trip to Calais is not available at Project Gutenberg, and I can’t find a (free) download elsewhere on the Internet. And in any case, I doubt if a fuller context would make the meaning of the phrase any clearer

Pipped by Bayaker.  Over to you, aldi

[ Edited: 26 May 2016 09:00 AM by lionello ]
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Posted: 26 May 2016 09:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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My take on the Samuel Foote cite is that a couple of fellows are being described as not the sort to make spirited bucks, ie roistering lads, men of high spirits. I don’t think this is quite sense b, although it’s certainly arguable.

Here’s the full play.

Anoyingly I copied the link to the play but when pasted it links to the complete plays and you have to click on the cover and search for it in the book. Easier to google ‘samuel foote trip to calais’ and click on the 4th link down. That gets you to the right play.

Found the passage on p.25 and the line before describes them as “mere cits, quite ignorant of what is going on in the world!”

[ Edited: 26 May 2016 09:41 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 26 May 2016 12:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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in the play (not in the citation), the words bucks desprits are italicized, implying that the person saying them is trying to show off in what he thinks is French. A lot of the play is about class disparities: English tradesmen who come to France, and are quite pleased to be mistaken for people of loftier station. aldi’s interpretation looks right to me, and it looks to me as though “the right stuff” is indeed intended here in sense b.. In modern English, the phrase would be “not the right stuff from which to make bucks d’esprit”. A nice juicy kudo to you, aldi.

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Posted: 27 May 2016 03:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Given the earlier, and perhaps more common in the day, sense meaning “alcoholic drink,” Foote’s line may be implying that that the men are not drunk enough. But I’ve amended the Big List entry to include it. Despite any alcoholic implication, it clearly is referring to human qualities, although not the ones captured in Wolfe’s sense of the word.

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Posted: 30 March 2018 04:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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OK, I want to revive this thread because I suspect, but have failed to find, that this is a characteristic saying either in the RAF or the US Air Force or Navy, or another Air Force, or among pilots in general. I suspect this for one reason only--Robert Calvert’s beyond-classic song “The Right Stuff,” from his 1974 album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters. It is a sort of “concept album” that has to do with some lemony airplanes sold to the Germans by Lockheed, which had an abysmal safety record. I’m not sure why Calvert, a frustrated pilot due to poor eyesight or flat feet or something, was so fascinated by this incident. But in any case, here are the lyrics, which you can see resonate with Wolfe’s depiction of test pilots:

I don’t feel fear or panic
Nothing brings me down
I’m an aerospaceage warrior
I fly sideways through sound
My reflexes and reactions
Are as fast as a machine
I’m the right stuff, baby
The right stuff
I’m the right stuff, baby
The right stuff
The right stuff, baby
The right stuff
Watch my trail
When the dial needle flickers
Around mach 1 or 2
And something happens suddenly
I know exactly what to do
My hands move without thinking
And my feet like lightning too
I’m the right stuff baby
The right stuff
I’m the right stuff baby
The right stuff
I’m the right stuff baby
The right stuff
Watch my trail
Watch my trail
Watch my trail
My nerves are made of steel
My nerves are made of steel

So it’s an album with an aviation theme, and a song with an aviation theme. In descending order of likelihood, this seems to indicate:

1. “The Right Stuff” is a common phrase either among pilots in general or among certain specific pilots;

2. Calvert and Wolfe seized upon the same phrase in the context of aviation by coincidence;

3. Wolfe was influenced by Calvert.

Wolfe does not strike me as a guy who would be into Hawkwind, which is why 3. is last. 2. at first blush seemed much less likely to me than 1., but I have not found any evidence after an admittedly cursory search that this is indeed a specifically aviation-related phrase, so 2. is looking to be in better shape than it was this morning.

In Sonic Assassins, his biography of Hawkwind, Ian Abrahams suggests that Calvert got the phrase from Wolfe’s book, but the song is five years older than the book. This suggests another possibility, though, which I would rank at either 2. or 3. (Wolfe as Hawkwind fan remains last), which is that Wolfe was writing the book and already had the title 5 years prior to publication, or is it possible the book was expanded from an article of the same title? According to Jello Biafra, Calvert told him he knew about the Lockheed incidents before they became common knowledge because he regularly read Flight magazine. In my research--which consists of reading the Wikipedia article for the book--I have not encountered any record of such an article.

Does anyone have any insight into all of this? Is it all just a coincidence?

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Posted: 31 March 2018 05:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Wolfe wrote a four-part series of articles on the space program in Rolling Stone in 1973 titled “Post-Orbital Remorse.” That began his interest in the space program which led to the publication of the book in 1979. I don’t know if the phrase the right stuff is used in that series, but if it is then it’s likely that Calvert read it. (I haven’t read it and don’t have access to it. The archives of Rolling Stone that I have access to only go back to 1990.)

I don’t think the phrase was a common one among pilots before 1979. There is no evidence for it, and people have looked high and low.

I also wouldn’t discount both Calvert and Wolfe coming up with the phrase independently. As the thread shows, the phrase was a rather common one--just not specifically associated with pilots.

Nor would I completely discount Wolfe coming across Calvert’s song. He is a pretty thorough researcher.

But thanks for this. It’s definitely another piece in the puzzle.

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Posted: 31 March 2018 09:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Going a bit far afield from “the right stuff” to stuff in the same general sense,

there is an old college football fight song—

Not the earliest by a long shot, but this has been in use since at least the 1950s, and perhaps much earlier.

“GLORY TO DARTMOUTH

Glory to Dartmouth,
Loyal, we sing.
Now, all together,
MAKE THE ECHOES RING FOR DARTMOUTH!

Our team’s a winner,
We’ve got the stuff!
We wear the Dartmouth Green
And that’s enough!
DARTMOUTH, DARTMOUTH, GO GREEN, GO! “l

I haven’t been able to identify the author, but some of its companion pieces, collectively known as the Dartmouth Tunes, were penned by poet Richard Hovey in the 1890s.  I’ve sent a note to the college marching band asking for the name of the author and date of original publication.  I’ll share their reply, if any. 
PS-remembering what college bands were like half a century ago, I decided to go belts and braces, and also sent a query to the college librarians.

Edited to add:  Searching for “We’ve got the stuff” from the above fight song, I stumbled across the exact same expression at a Texas A. & M. site.

“In the same year, 1941, Lil Munnerlyn, wife of Ford Munnerlyn (26), a professor of poultry husbandry at A&M, wrote the words and music to “The Twelfth Man,” which the Corps of Cadets accepted as one of their fight songs.” source:  https://texags.com/forums/5/topics/701842

lyrics-

“The Twelfth Man”
(Written by Lil Munnerlyn)

Texas Aggies down in Aggieland,
We’ve got Aggie Spirit to a man.
“Stand united!” That’s the Aggie theme,
We’re the 12th Man on the team.
When we’re down, the goin’s rough and tough,
We just grin and yell: “We’ve got the stuff
To fight together for the Aggie dream.”
We’re the 12th Man on that FIGHTIN’ AGGIE TEAM!

[ Edited: 31 March 2018 09:52 AM by cuchuflete ]
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Posted: 31 March 2018 09:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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This OED cite caught my eye. the sentence “they look of that cut” suggests the possible original connection with cloth

Possibly, but it could just be coincidence. The OED citations for the noun cut in the sense “The shape to which, or style in which a thing is cut; fashion, shape (of clothes, hair, etc.)” show that it had been applied to styles in hair as well as clothing at least since 1616, and that it was commonplace in a wider sense “fashion, style, make” even before that:

1602–3 Manningham in Eng. Illustr. Mag. Mar. (1884) 368/2 A young gallant, but of a short cutt.
1628 W. Prynne Vnlouelinesse of Louelockes 25 Others of the common ranke and cut.
1740 S. Richardson Pamela II. 208 My good Mother was one of this old-fashion’d Cut.
1856 J. W. Carlyle Lett. II. 307 These Londoners are all of the cut of this woman.

So there might be an intentional pun in using the words cut and stuff when describing some tailors, but it’s just as possible - especially since neither word ever referred exclusively to textiles - that there wasn’t.

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Posted: 01 April 2018 10:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Dave Wilton - 31 March 2018 05:20 AM

Wolfe wrote a four-part series of articles on the space program in Rolling Stone in 1973 titled “Post-Orbital Remorse.” That began his interest in the space program which led to the publication of the book in 1979. I don’t know if the phrase the right stuff is used in that series, but if it is then it’s likely that Calvert read it. (I haven’t read it and don’t have access to it. The archives of Rolling Stone that I have access to only go back to 1990.)

I don’t think the phrase was a common one among pilots before 1979. There is no evidence for it, and people have looked high and low.

I also wouldn’t discount both Calvert and Wolfe coming up with the phrase independently. As the thread shows, the phrase was a rather common one--just not specifically associated with pilots.

Nor would I completely discount Wolfe coming across Calvert’s song. He is a pretty thorough researcher.

But thanks for this. It’s definitely another piece in the puzzle.

Hmm...even if Wolfe used the phrase in the article, it seems slightly odd Calvert would seize on it like that, unless it were foregrounded or emphasized...note also the lyric is “I’m the right stuff” rather than the more (I would think) expected “I’ve got the right stuff,” which also led me to suspect it was some sort of aviation-related saying....thanks for that.

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