Q: As my retired physician father was perusing the ancient black bag he used to take on house calls, a doctor friend stopped by and said he hadn’t seen such medicines and paraphernalia “since Christ left Chicago.” I was wondering if you know the origin of that vivid expression.
A: The expression “since Christ left Chicago” is a variation on a theme. Other—and much more popular—versions include “since Christ was a corporal” and “since “Christ was a cowboy.”
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the phrase “since Christ was a corporal” means “since time immemorial.”
We don’t see an entry for “since Christ left Chicago” in Random House or any of our other reference works, but we can safely assume from reading a few dozen examples online that it also means for a very long time or since ages ago.
The earliest published example of the “Chicago” version, as far as we can tell, appeared in Life magazine in June 1959.
An article on labor unrest quoted a dissident New York Teamster as calling the attorney Edward Bennett Williams “the biggest liar the world has ever seen. He ain’t told the truth since Christ left Chicago!”
More recently, the writer Nick Tosches has used the expression a couple of times.
He wrote in Spin magazine in 1988: “My brother asks me if Island is one of the dumb-ass companies that still sends me free records even though I haven’t reviewed a record since Christ left Chicago.”
And Tosches used it in his first novel, Cut Numbers (1988): “Someday, if they’re lucky, they’ll look up and see that co-op roof cavin’ in and they’ll realize they been carryin’ thirty-year paper to live in some shit-hole that’s been fallin’ apart since Christ left Chicago.”
The older version, “since Christ was a corporal,” was a favorite of John Dos Passos. Though many people have used the phrase since World War II, most of the earliest examples we’ve found, from 1921 to 1944, are from his works.
Dos Passos used it twice in his World War I novel Three Soldiers (1921), even putting it in the mouths of different characters.
In one section, a character remarks: “Ain’t had any pay since Christ was a corporal. I’ve forgotten what it looks like.” And later a soldier asks, “How long have you been here?” The reply: “Since Christ was a corporal.”
Dos Passos used the same expression in his play The Garbage Man (1926) and in his novel Adventures of a Young Man (1939).
It also turned up in State of the Nation, a book of reportage by Dos Passos that was excerpted in a 1944 issue of Life magazine.
In the book, he quotes an anonymous returning soldier as saying, “Ain’t seen a woman since Christ was a corporal.” (We can’t help wondering whether the reporter enlivened some of the quotes with words of his own.)
As Random House points out, variations on the “corporal” version exist too: “since George Washington was a ‘lance
jack’ ” (from Ira L. Reeves’s Bamboo Tales, 1900), and “since ‘Christ was a lance corporal,’ as the men said” (from Charles L. Clifford’s novel Too Many Boats, 1933).
As for the Wild West version, “since Christ was a cowboy,” the earliest example we’ve found is from a bit of dialogue in Leila Hadley’s travel book Give Me the World (1958), about a trip aboard a cargo ship:
“I haven’t felt such a wind since Christ was a cowboy. Must have been hitting fifty knots for a while back there.”
This “cowboy” version—sometimes the protagonist is “Jesus” instead of “Christ”—has appeared many times since then.
The word sleuth Barry Popik has found several examples in books and newspapers from 1973 to 2007, and notes on his Big Apple website that the phrase is especially popular in Texas.
But phrases like this have been around since Shakespeare’s time. Random House quotes Twelfth Night (circa 1595): “They haue beene grand Iury men, since before Noah was a Saylor.”
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