Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Episode 134: Up My Alley Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 134: Up My Alley

Record Date: November 7, 2021

Air Date: December 1, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take a group of words and try to tell the story from their entry into the English language, to how they are used today.

This week we’re going to look at “right up my alley”, a phrase that was suggested by Dustin from Sandman Stories Presents, which you can find at any purveyor of fine podcasts. On Sandman Stories Presents, Dustin explores folk stories from across the World. I save them up if I will be traveling soon because it’s my go-to for listening to while I fall asleep in a hotel or in a cot at a disaster site. But it’s also great for any other time. When I have no travel plans coming up I listen to the episodes as soon as they are released! But enough about other people’s podcasts, no matter how much I love them. On to Bunny Trails!


Up one's alley or less commonly down one's alley, according to Merriam Webster’s means...


suited to one's own tastes or abilities

End Quote

This one is often used synonymously with “cup of tea”. As in this example phrase that I wrote because I could not find anything good to quote...

The winner gets a free camping trip, which is not my cup of tea. I’m allergic to the outdoors. If I win, I’ll probably give it to my sister. That’d be right up her alley. She loves camping.

We’re just going to talk about ‘right up my alley’ for this episode, though. Let’s start with how the word ‘alley’ has been used throughout the years.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, alley comes to us from the French, alee, which itself comes from an Old French word that would have meant something like the action of walking, which then came to mean a narrow street or lane - a place where you might do the action of walking.

Some of the definitions they have for ‘alley’ are:


1. A narrow lane or passage, a passage between buildings; a narrow street or lane, especially one wide enough only for pedestrians, ; a back lane

2. A private corridor, hallway, or covered walkway. Now obsolete.

3. A walk or passage in a garden, park, wood, etc, usually bordered with trees or bushes. Also: a narrow space between beds or rows of flowers or plants.

4. Figurative and in extended use: A notional way or course; something resembling a narrow passage, lane, or street.

End Quote

The order of the various definitions almost tells the story of how ‘alley’ has taken on broader meaning over the years. 

We can see it go from a literal narrow lane or passage, to a figurative lane or passage, to a figurative thing you are good at or enjoy, maybe since you are good at it or you enjoy it, it must be your path in life. Hence how something you are good at, or something you enjoy is ‘right up your alley’, or sometimes ‘right down your alley’. The up and down are interchangeable.

I generally like to search for the prevailing internet stories about the origins of a phrase, but there just aren’t that many out there for this one. Which means there aren’t many myths to dispel about it. The only thing I did find was the prevailing thought that this originated in the 1930s. At one point, the Oxford English Dictionary had a 1931 book as the earliest known attestation, so it was likely an honest mistake by a few original posters, then the rest just copied what the others were saying as fact without doing their own research into the subject. As more written works are preserved through digitization projects, we are able to build a more complete picture of the history of phrases. The OED lists a 1922 work now as their first attestation. But even that doesn’t go back far enough. 

The first we found was in the September 3, 1910 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, in the story Gasoline Graft, Tales of the Taxi Driver by Maximilian Foster

(Quote below image)


Of course I omitted to tell him this was right up my alley, inasmuch as I got the usual ten per cent on all sorts of supplies. However, when he said he’d been looking over the bills it gave me quite a little start, though I wasn’t going to let even that faze me.

End Quote

Here’s another example from the Oct/Nov/Dec edition the quarterly publication The Living Age 1925

Here’s one using ‘down my alley’ from Jack Dempsey, the American professional boxer and former heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926, who was quoted near the end of his career in several newspapers of the day. Here’s one such example from February 23, 1929 in the Bismarck Tribune out of Bismarck, North Dakota. 

Another example of “down my alley” is from Humorist Joe Williams, writing for the Indianapolis Times and published in the August 16, 1929 edition...

In 1930, a piece by Will Rogers was syndicated in the newspapers called A Visit to Mark Twain’s Country. Here’s an example from:


Here’s that 1931 book the OED had listed, Sob Sister by Mildred Evans Gilman. This is set in 1930 and is about a female investigative reporter named Jane Ray who falls in love with a rival and then drama ensues. 


It's about time a good murder broke, and this one is right up your alley.

End Quote

I need to Bunny Trail for a moment here, as the title of that book, Sob Sister, piqued my interest. It appears to refer to women reporters. 

Here’s part of an article from 22 November 1931 out of the Daily Illini, the Student Newspaper of the University of Illinois.


The term Sob Sister as applied to newspaper women originated as a humorous, perhaps derisive, label . Years of common usage wore away its uncomplimentary edge , and today it has found its way into accepted speech.

End Quote

It goes on to note two possible origins for the term, with Frank Vizetelly who they call “an authority on American slang” crediting Thomas “Tad” Dorgan, and his cartoon, Indoor Sports . 

The other possible origin comes from Ada Patterson , herself an early and famous sob sister. From the article again…


She believes the term was first used during the trial of Harry Thaw for the murder of Stanford White . At a smaller table apart from the main body of reporters at the trial sat several women reporters, and several literary lights. “The Royal Pew”, as the table was called, devoted itself to the sympathetic side of the case, especially to the part played by Evelyn Nesbit Thaw. This led them to be known as The Sympathy Squad . Then one day there appeared anonymously in the New York Sun a scoffing mention of them as Sob Sisters.

End Quote

A quick search shows of the two, Ada Patterson’s account may be the earlier one. Thaw’s trial was a huge event in 1907, which resulted in a hung jury, and again in 1908 where he was found not guilty by reason of insanity - despite having murdered White in front of hundreds of witnesses at Madison Square Garden. 

Tad Dorgan was writing comics starting in 1905, but his single panel hit, Indoor Sports, looks like it ran from 1914 until his death in 1929. Which, assuming both of these possible stories as true, would place Patterson’s account at least 6 years earlier than any Indoor Sports comic. I did about an hour's worth of looking here, though, so it’s entirely possible there is more to the story.

One more note from the article, because I think it’s important to give credit to this unnamed student report for what at the time was not the normal view…


Women reporters today have almost succeeded in living down the derision. They are a capable, respectable branch of the newspaper craft, and compete on even terms with men reporters. Their work is just as colorful, though not as lachrymose, as that of the pioneers in their field.

End Quote

Lachrymose means “tearful or given to weeping”. I think this was meant to be a play on the phrase ‘Sob Sister’ and Patterson’s origin story with the woman reporters who pioneered the field. I don’t think it was meant to be a dig at women. A few lines later they give a shout out to Mildred Gilman, former sob sister, for her book that started this Bunny Trail, and noted the “novel was recently transferred to film”.

Okay, back to the alley-way. I’ve got one more, and it’s important to include because it’s from a British newspaper. This one is from the Daily Herald out of London, England, 10 March 1933 in an ad for Afrikander brand tobacco.

(Quote below image)


If your palate knows fine flavour and your tongue real coolness - then the joy-smoke’s right down your alley!

End Quote

As I mentioned, this one is out of England. But right up or down one’s alley isn’t the most often used version in British English. So I’d like to stop there to give a little time to the phrase, “up my street”. Also down my street, or in my street, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary means exactly the same as up my alley. 


to be well suited to one's tastes, interests, or abilities

End Quote

This seems to pre-date up my alley, though it’s difficult to say that for certain as I’ve only spent the last few days researching this. If I had a month or more I might find more examples.

Like this 1903 entry from John S. Farmer and William Ernest Henley in their work Slang and its analogues past and present 1890–1904.


Street.., a capacity, a method; a line: e.g. ‘That's not in my street’ = ‘I am not concerned’ or ‘That's not my way of doing,’ etc.

End Quote

Or this one from the newspaper Clarion out of London, England, 

Another out of London, this time from the newspaper...

One more from this side of the pond, out of the

So it appears right up my street was the first usage, and right up my alley came just a smidge later. But it is also possible that both started around the same time and we just haven’t found the right documents to prove it. Either way, they both enjoyed concurrent fame, with ‘street’ being used more in British English and ‘alley’ being used more in American English. Though there is certainly crossover in both places. 

Before we thank our sponsors, I have one more thing to point out. It’s just an oddity of the phrase that I ran across that I thought was interesting. It seemed to be a one-off, just the way this person used it. From:

Despite the misogynistic tone, I do find it interesting the way they use down my alley in the bowling since, but still clearly metaphorically. It’s the only such use I found between 1900 and 1930, though I’m sure there may have been a few others since some form of bowling has been around since 3000 to 5000 BCE and what we would think of as the modern bowling alley has been around since at least 1895. More on that and how a woman beat the reigning National champion in bowling a full 60 years before women were even allowed to compete against men in the behind the scenes bonus materials on Patreon.

Anyway, to our sponsors!

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons.

And speaking of our patreon, we’ve added a new tier! They start with our Exclusive Access at $3 a month, which gets you access to our polls and community only discussions, early access to the podcasts, and access to the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. The next tier is the new one, which is $10 a month and gets you original digital artwork from me! Once a month you’ll get exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. And as always, all the perks from previous tiers. Special shout out to Jan for being the first to join the new tier!


At the $15 tier, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig-Lopez do every episode. Because they are awesome! 

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Modern Uses

We’ll pick back up a little earlier than usual, since we left off with our phrases in the 1930s. 

Here’s an advertisement from 1942 for Life magazine…

Talking about looking at images from the magazine and how crisp, clear, and high quality they are…


I get a kick out of stuff like that… it’s right up my alley.

End Quote

To 1962 now, out of the…

Moving forward to 1989, we come to Up Your Alley, a romantic comedy movie starring Linda Blair and Murray Langston. Here’s an anonymous synopsis that was posted on IMDb, but isn’t their synopsis…


Vickie Adderly is an enterprising young newspaper reporter looking for that big story to boost her career. A chance encounter with an adventurous drifter leads her into a world she never imagined... on the streets of L.A. Suddenly, her days are filled with a cast of colorful characters, including… an eccentric femme fatale, and a bewildered Russian. Add the attention of a handsome admirer and it's easy to see how Vickie gets her story and a whole lot more in this charming romantic fable.

End Quote

1992 by MC Ren - Right Up My Alley

MC Ren has been described as the most underrated member of the NWA

I wasn’t able to pull enough lyrics together to meet the rating of our show, but suffice it to say it’s original gangsta rap at its finest. It plays off the concept of what the singer knows, and how that socially affects his community and his neighborhood. 

Content warning for language, violence, and probably more 

This brings us to 2015 with the release of Gucci Mane’s hip hop song Up My Alley


White lambos and rallys

Sippin' on top Sun Valley

Robin Jean, Tru's and Ballys

That's right up my alley

Just came back from Dallas

Now I'm going back to Cali

Pretty girls, expensive furs that's right up my alley

End Quote

I also found a clever 2019 paperback journal called Bowling is Right Up My Alley: Bowlers Journal to track progress, games, thoughts or leagues from Magic Design Journals

And I did see a 2021 visual artwork from Rally Studios called Right Up Our Alley. You may have seen the Bryant-Lake Bowl video as it went viral in early 2021. During the 97 second video, a drone flies through a bowling alley giving a unique, visually stunning look at various patrons going about their evening. It is well worth the less than two minutes to check it out!


I jumped on Twitter to see how folks were using the phrase, both as ‘right up my alley’ and ‘right up my street’ recently and it was just the same as we’ve been describing. There were hundreds of posts in the last week using these two versions of the phrase. 

Here’s one from James Jordan, reacting to the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing on October 30, 2021

Here’s one from Manny Schewitz on November 5, 2021 

Wrap up...

Thanks to Dustin for suggesting we take a look at ‘right up your alley’. And check out his podcast, Sandman Stories Presents wherever you get your podcast. If you like folk tales and smooth voices, you’ll probably love it.

Right up my alley is not a phrase I use as frequently as some others, so I wasn’t sure how prevalent it may still be. And until I started researching this, I’d never heard of ‘right up my street’. But through this research I’ve learned this phrase is alive and well in both British and American English. 

And it led me to the term Sob Sister, which I’d also never heard of and still want to do more digging into it. Which is a fun bit of serendipity* that happens far more frequently when researching these episodes than I would have expected. So thank *you* for listening and supporting us, because you give us a reason to keep researching these fun phrases and sharing them with you. 

*Serendipity: Luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for   ~Merriam Webster



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page! 


Poll time! 

In a recent poll, we asked Patrons, If you could pick one of these superpowers, which one would you take? The options were Flight, Invisibility, Super Strength, and Speak to animals. 

75% said they would fly, while 25% said they would speak to animals. None of the participants seemed interested in being invisible or having super strength, at least not when being able to fly or talking to animals was an option.

While my response was speaking to animals, which didn’t win, our favorite comment was from Jan. He said, 


Fly. It’s vacation time once that happens.

End Quote

I feel you Jan. I feel you.

If you want to join our polls, head over to where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about in the thread!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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