No less than scratchy records and faded photographs, antique slang can powerfully and palpably evoke an era. Of course, the longer ago the era, the less intelligible the slang. Last week, for my blog, Not One-Off Britishisms, I was looking into the history of the verb pip (“to defeat or beat narrowly”) and found this 1838 citation from the journal Hood’s Own, or Laughter From Year to Year: “With your face inconsistently playing at longs and your hand at shorts,—getting hypped as well as pipped,—‘talking of Hoyle … but looking like winegar.’” I have no idea what any of it means—least of all the presumably hilarious misspelling of vinegar—and that’s a big part of why I love it.
For a recent Lingua Franca post, I spent some time rereading the work of Joseph Mitchell and was reminded of a piece of American slang that has long intrigued me. In Mitchell’s 1942 New Yorker profile of the Greenwich Village bohemian Joe Gould (whom he also wrote about in his 1965 masterwork, Joe Gould’s Secret,) he notes that one of Gould’s essays is entitled “Why I Am Unable to Adjust Myself to Civilization, Such As It Is, or Do, Don’t Do, Don’t, a Hell of a Note.” The last five words reverberated—a hell of a note. I seem to recall that it was a favorite expression of Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, and sure enough, it shows up four times in Ross’s collected letters, edited by Thomas Kunkel. The one I remembered was a note Ross had written to his valued contributor E.B. White, in August 1935:
Was very sorry to hear about your father, and send my sympathy, which is about all I have to say, except that after you get to be thirty people you know keep dropping off all the time and it’s a hell of a note.
From context, it’s clear that the phrase means “something amazing, disgusting, surprising, etc.,” in the words of American Slang (2008), by Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert Chapman. But where does it come from? That book dates it to the 1940s, and other reference books I’ve seen are equally vague. The first citation in the Corpus of American Historical English is from Rex Beach’s 1922 novel, Flowing Gold: “‘Hell of a note,’ the old fellow grumbled.”
But the expression predates Beach’s book. The New York Times reports that in 1921, Charles Dawes—previously a general in the U.S. Army, later the vice president of the United States—gave some famously profane testimony to Congress. Among other things, he said:
If General Pershing and Foch and Joffe and the other great fighters of the World War should go to Chicago tomorrow for a public reception on the north side, and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks should be on the south side at the same time, every damned man would flock to the south side. That’s true, but it’s a hell of a note.
Investigation in the Google Books database indicates that the phrase was indeed a feature of World War I soldiers’ argot. John Dos Passos’ 1921 novel, Three Soldiers, has this: ”‘I got sick,’ said Fuselli grinning. ‘I guess I am yet. It’s a hell of a note the way they treat a feller … like he was lower than the dirt.” Ray N. Johnson exploits some of the phrase’s ironic capacity in his 1919 Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken (which he describes as an account of “the War from the enlisted man’s point of view”). “A few hours after we went over the top,” he writes, “our kitchen was blown full of holes by shrapnel and all the boilers were ruined. Now ain’t that a hell of a note?”
But, Google Books makes clear, hell of a note preceded the war, by a good piece. O. Henry used it in 1916 and John Reed in 1914. The earliest use in the database comes from testimony in the 1879 Congressional hearing in the matter of Curtin v. Yocum, investigating a contested seat in the House of Representatives. A witness named John Q. Dice reports telling a local official that he, Dice, had not paid taxes on behalf of another person because he had no money. The official “said that was a ‘hell of a note,’ and left.”
A piece of slang’s death is as interesting as its birth. The Google Ngrams chart below shows the relative frequency of hell of a note in 20th-century books.
There’s a peak in the World War II years followed by a sharp decline and then a continuing trickle of hell of a notes, almost all of them from codgers, in reprints of older texts, or from smart writers who use it to evoke a bygone era. In his 1979 book about the Mercury astronauts of the 60s, The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe writes: “Just two nights before the flight it dawned on one of the doctors that they had never made provisions for a urine receptacle for Gus [Grissom], to avoid the sort of thing [Alan] Shepard had experienced. That was a hell of a note.”
The Times‘ most recent use of the phrase came in 1999, in an article about Bruce Fleisher, a golfer on the senior tour who had won his debut tournament the week before and now, with a three-stroke lead going into the final round of the American Express Invitational, stood stood poised to become the first golfer to win his first two events on the tour.
With his victory last week, Fleisher matched Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and George Archer as players to win their first senior event.
“Guys I grew up dreaming about,” he said. “That would be a hell of a note. Me replacing four of the greatest golfers in the world.”
Sure enough, he won. Hell of a note.