Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Episode 190: Know Him From Adam Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 190: Know Them From Adam

Record Date: April 14, 2023

Air Date: April 19, 2023



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 an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever been in a public place, like a grocery store, and had someone start chatting you up. They are definitely talking to you like they know who you are, but you cannot for the life of you figure out why you should know this person. You might even say, you don’t know them from Adam. 


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to not know someone from Adam means:


not to know or recognize a person; to be unacquainted with.

End Quote 

My interest in doing this episode comes from some recent teaching I was doing. I was in Michigan doing a class and my co-instructor, whose name is Adam, made a little joke saying, “that person doesn’t know me from Adam”. He then giggled just a bit about it, which made me laugh. I wrote down the phrase in my little list. The next week, I was teaching the same class in Washington but with a different co-instructor. She used the phrase, “this guy didn’t know me from Eve”. And I thought it was an interesting turn on the phrase. So then I made a little note that this one was going to move to the top of my list because I found it very interesting. 

While I couldn’t find any evidence to suggest where this phrase comes from, most linguists suggest it likely comes from the christian mythos, specifically the Earth creation story of Adam, the first man, and Eve, the first woman.

Myth: A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon. -Oxford English Dictionary 

Our friends at the A Way With Words radio show and podcast had this to say about it:


The phrase “I don’t know him from Adam” suggests that if the person were standing next to the person in Western tradition thought to be earliest human being, the two would be indistinguishable. The phrase “I don’t know her from Adam” can be used to refer to a woman who is similarly unrecognizable, but it’s less common.

End Quote 

As we will see, saying I don’t know her from Adam isn’t as rare as you might think. I found hundreds of examples in the newspapers through the Chronicling America site. Though as my fellow instructor modeled for me, one could also say, “I don’t know her from Eve”, referencing the first woman in that same creation story. And I found far more examples of that version than I expected. 

The first time I could find it in print was in 1750 in London’s Central Criminal Court documents for the trial of William Tidd and Anthony Bourne. One of their gang, William Hatton, testified against the men in their trial. These come to us from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 5 December 1750. 

The court documents show the two men, along with a few others who were not captured yet, robbed an old widow in her home in the middle of the night. 

In Mr. Hatton’s testimony, you’ll hear the word, prosecutrix, which in this case means a female victim of a crime on whose behalf the authorities are prosecuting the defendants. Here is Mr. Hatton:


Anthony Bourne , William Tidd , Randolph Branch , Dick Pitt , James Webster , and myself, were going along Ailoff street on the 25th of July, betwixt six and seven in the evening, we saw a basket of linen in the prosecutrix's window; we made an attempt to take it by shoving the sash up, but could not get it; the woman came and took it away, so we concluded to go again between twelve and one at night, which we did, and Anthony Bourne wrenched the window shutter off, and got in; he had a tinder box and dark lanthorn and a pistol; Tidd went in also; the rest of us were at the door and the window…

End Quote

When asked about Hatton’s testimony, the defendants acted as if they had no idea what this guy was talking about. 

Tidd’s defense was:

I know nothing of it.

Bourne, speaking about Hatton, said:

I don't know that boy from Adam.

Both were found guilty and sentenced to death. 

But in any case, it is clear this phrase was in use by a certain slang culture in 1750. Which means it was probably in use among many of the commoners of the day. 

Here’s another example from 1783 in The Dead Alive: A Comic Opera by John O’Keeffee, Esq. I will refrain from my normal pining to be an esquire as I know I’ve done it on the show before. Anyway, this is from a scene in Sir Walter Weathercock’s House. 

Motley: Take me! for as Jacques, the huntsman, says—"Motley's your only man."

Comfit: Who says so?

Motley: Jacques, in the play of "How d'ye like it."—There, where Harlequin Touchstone is—"Motley," says he, "is your only man," and he did not know me from Adam, only it came so apropos.;view=fulltext 

Here’s an example from  Charles Dickens in his work The old curiosity shop. The OED cites this phrase as being used in the 1841 first edition of this book. And I have no reason to disbelieve them. But I could not find an 1841 first edition to verify that from. So I’ll be reading the quote from the oldest I could find, an 1871 edition. And I’ll be trusting the OED that it was also in the 1841 edition, which again, I have no reason to doubt.


End Quote