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What is the origin of the phrase a slow day?

The 24-hour span of a day does not naturally class as either slow or fast, nor does one 24-hour span wheel by at a rate any greater than another. The construction therefore, though in perfectly common use, is fundamentally an artful one and, as such, likely derives from a literary source or, if you will, first occasion of use by a writer of some repute. It may be that one or more Stack Exchange users has been exposed to the term in its original context. I should be pleased to know as well.

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closed as too localized by FumbleFingers, Will Hunting, Brendon, Mitch, Daniel Jan 24 '12 at 1:58

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This question shows no research. –  Matt Эллен Jan 23 '12 at 19:10
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It was certainly a question when I posted it, but I cannot account for someone's inclination to edit it. The 24-hour span of a day does not naturally class as either slow or fast, nor does one 24-hour span wheel by at a rate any greater than another. The construction therefore, though in perfectly common use, is fundamentally an artful one and, as such, likely derives from a literary source or, if you will, first occasion of use by a writer of some repute. It may be that one or more Stack Exchange users has been exposed to the term in its original context. I should be pleased to know as well. –  Tom Raywood Jan 23 '12 at 20:08
    
Do you mean it doesn't seem to make sense that 'slow day' refers to 'not much happened that day'? –  Mitch Jan 23 '12 at 20:38
    
There's no ambiguity in what I do or do not mean. The fact that the phrase has a widely established and universally accepted meaning is a fundamental given. Nor does anything I said imply in any way that said meaning fails of any value. Emphasis remains on, again, the origins of the phrase. Please see the Etymology tag to acknowledge its application to either words or phrases. Your question is on no way pertinent to the question I asked. –  Tom Raywood Jan 23 '12 at 21:13
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Oh please! Is someone else going to ask for the origin of "a sad day" now? –  FumbleFingers Jan 23 '12 at 21:29

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The earliest use "a slow day" I can find in Google Books is from an 1847 story in Fraser's Magazine called The Keeping-Room of an Inn; Or, A Long Night and a Long Story, written by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a Canadian judge and author.:

... a- working as hard as you can turning one thumb over the other, is dull music. It makes a slow day of it, and this has been about the longest I ever passed ; though, after all, it ain't to be named with an endless night I once spent. It was longer than you, Broadeloth, who are only five feet nothin', ...

A similar phrase may have appeared in an 1841 American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine:

... now I've drinked good — we'll have a bite and rest a while, and smoke a pipe, and then we'll use them quail, and we'll have time to pick up twenty cock in Hell-hole arterwards, and that won't be a slow day's work, I reckon. ...

It's become a more common term since then, but then again, the same concept may have just as commonly been expressed earlier using other words and spellings.

a slow day ngram

For example, King John from Shakespeare's King John says:

Good friend, thou hast no cause to say so yet,
But thou shalt have; and creep time ne'er so slow,
Yet it shall come from me to do thee good.

The Player King from Hamlet says:

My spirits grow dull, and fain I would beguile
The tedious day with sleep.

And Juliet in Romeo and Juliet:

O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess'd it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy'd: so tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them. O, here comes my nurse,
And she brings news; and every tongue that speaks
But Romeo's name speaks heavenly eloquence.

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Very nice, especially since both examples so fully demonstrate what was to be expected of, again, artful origins. The latter sounds very much like Twain. –  Tom Raywood Jan 23 '12 at 21:17
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+1 Good answer. I think it will be impossible to satisfy the OP's desire to know whether these examples confirm a literary origin of the phrase. The phrase may equally have passed from informal spoken English into the literature. –  MετάEd Jan 24 '12 at 0:15
    
@MetaEd Highly nuanced and appreciable point! Fascinating to think that, indeed, the notion of a slow day could have origins which precede even the use of clocks, in which case, quite possibly, the concept may have been associated with [what would be] a classic misconception. People may really have believed that different days had different lengths or even differing rates of passage. Fabulous! Definitely brightened a slow day for me. –  Tom Raywood Jan 24 '12 at 0:52

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