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Not on your tintype

Q From Lucie Singh: The other day I was reading a book to a young neighbour and came across Not on your tintype! The book was The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in 1867. Do you know anything about the origin of this oddity, which seems to mean “Not on your life!” or in contemporary terms, “No way!”?

A It’s certainly an odd saying. It was common around the end of the nineteenth century but is now almost as rarely encountered as the photographic process to which it refers. The author you quote, famous for the children’s classic The Little House on the Prairie and other works in the series of which The Long Winter is a later member, was born just as the process was becoming widespread.

Tintypes were positive photographs taken on a thin light-sensitive collodion layer on a black japanned metal base, which wasn’t tin but iron, thus giving rise to its early alternative name of ferrotype. By the standards of the time they were quick and cheap to produce. Tintype photographers were frequently itinerant, setting up in busy places such as beaches or fairs or travelling from town to town in search of business. They came to be called tintypes in part as a disparaging reference to their ubiquity, cheapness and often indifferent quality, on the model of tinny terms like tinpot and tinhorn. Tintype begins to appear around 1864; the American Civil War created a opportunity for photographers in military camps to take tintypes of soldiers to be sent home to family.

An example from the heyday of the idiom:

“Git into some Overhauls an’ come an’ he’p me this afternoon,” said Lyford. “Oh, rats! Not on your Tintype! I’m too strong to work,” replied Jethro, who had learned oodles of slang up in Chicago, don’t you forget it.

Fables in Slang, by George Ade, 1899.

The standard authorities don’t mention not on your tintype! or express bafflement. Nobody seems to have any notion why tintype should have replaced life. Lacking evidence, people speculate wildly. Did anyone really swear an oath on a tintype? Not likely on such a cheap and disposable thing. Was it a comedian’s catchphrase which became popular? Possible, except that we know of no such source. Did it refer to the low repute of the tintype, so a speaker valued a suggestion or proposition about as much as he did a cheap photo? That’s a bit more probable. However, it seems likely that it’s based on not on your life!, which dates from the eighteenth century

I wonder if this might be a pointer to its origin:

“By the way, Brown, did I ever show you this?” said Jinks, as he fumbled in the inner breast-pocket of his coat for something or other. “I don’t know,” replied Brown, turning a shade paler; “but if it’s your tintype, taken at Bar Harbor, with a tennis racquet in your hand, please don’t! Nine fellows have shown me theirs already this morning, and I can’t stand seeing another!”

Daily Los Angeles Herald, 9 Nov. 1883. Disliking other people’s holiday snaps goes back a long way.

But perhaps we seek meaning where none exists. William and Mary Morris wrote in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, “Just remember that every generation has its widely popular but utterly nonsensical catch phrases. The 1920s had ‘So’s your old man’; the 1930s, ‘Wanna buy a duck?’ and so on.”

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Page created 23 Feb 2013