Q: In his 1955 recording of “Can’t We Be Friends?” Frank Sinatra sings “Why should I care though she gave me the air.” Am I right that to “give someone the air” comes from the telephone technology of the day? I picture a guy holding an old fashioned phone in one hand and asking “Where did she go?”
A: We doubt that the telephone has anything to do with giving (or getting) the air. The use of “air” to mean a rejection, a curt snub, or a jilting dates back to the turn of the century, when phones were not common household equipment.
In its earliest appearances, to “give (or get) the fresh air” meant to be fired from a job, and soon afterward to “give (or get) the air” meant to dump (or be dumped by) a love interest.
The usage first appeared in a collection of short sketches entitled More Fables in Slang (1900), by George Ade.
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and the Oxford English Dictionary cite the title of one sketch: “The Fable of Why Essie’s Tall Friend Got the Fresh Air.”
We located the piece, which is only a page long, and it’s about a young man who’s fired from his job. There’s no mention of telephones.
George Ade, who was known for eccentric capitalization, used the term again in another collection of his short sketches, True Bills (1904):
“A man who had been given the Fresh Air by a Soulless Corporation was out rustling for another Job.” (This citation comes from Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Vol. 1.)
Why “fresh air”? Perhaps because in its original sense of firing someone, “give him the fresh air” is somewhat like “show him the street”—in other words, boot him outdoors.
In fact, the boss who fires the inattentive young man in Ade’s 1900 collection hints at this. He “told him he needed more Outdoor Life and Exercise, and he had better find it by moving around Town and looking for another Job.”
By the early 1920s, according to slang dictionaries, the “fresh” was dropped from the expression, though to “give (or get) the air” was still used in reference to firing or being fired.
But soon the expression came to be used for rejections of a more personal nature—romantic breakups.
Random House has a 1922 citation, but we like this later example, which the OED cites from P. G. Wodehouse’s novel Thank You, Jeeves (1934): “Surely you don’t intend to give the poor blighter the permanent air on account of a trifling lovers’ tiff?”
This use of “air” makes a certain amount of sense, given the many meanings of the word.
The original “air,” as in the atmosphere we breathe, came into English in the 1200s from Anglo-Norman and Old French. It ultimately goes back to classical times—aer in Latin and Greek.
However, the word has been used since Shakespeare’s day to mean a person’s attitude, manner, demeanor, or appearance.
This meaning of the word, the OED says, was probably a borrowing from Middle French, in which aire was used to mean things like nature or character (as in de bon aire, the source of our word “debonair,” literally “of good disposition”).
Here’s an English example from The Winter’s Tale, which Shakespeare probably wrote around 1611: “Your Fathers Image is so hit in you (His very ayre) that I should call you Brother.”
Beginning in the late 1600s, “air” took on haughty overtones in the phrase “airs and graces,” meaning affectations or pretensions.
The OED’s earliest use of the phrase is from the playwright John Vanbrugh’s Æsop (1697): “He made a thousand ugly Faces, / Which (as sometimes in Ladies cases) / Were all design’d for Airs and Graces.”
Similar phrases from the early 1700s were “to give oneself airs” and “to put on airs,” which the OED defines as “to assume an unnatural or affected manner, esp. an unjustified air of superiority.”
These can be traced to the late 17th-century French phrases se donner des airs and prendre des airs, the OED says.
So all in all, the 20th-century use of “give (or get) the air” doesn’t seem so odd.
Since we still use the old expressions “give oneself airs” and “put on airs,” it seems natural that “the air” (whether you’re giving it or getting it) could mean a snub or rejection by a haughty or superior-acting person.