the old college try

Today’s Calvin and Hobbes:

As on other occasions, Calvin asks his father an information question and gets a less than useful response. In this case, the meaning of the old college try is clear, but its history is not quite so clear.

Merriam-Webster Online gives the brief definition ‘a zealous all-out effort’ for the old college try in the slang idiom give it the old college try, which might have satisfied Calvin (assuming that he understands zealous). Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests a rationale for the idiom and gets it back to 1918; the entry, with the first three cites:

college try (n.) [the myth of ‘college spirit’] (US) a plucky effort, esp. against heavy odds; usu. in phr. (let’s) give it the old college try.

1918 Elyria (OH) Eve. Telegram. 19 Oct. 4/4: [headline] The Old College Try.

1939 W. Winchell ‘On Broadway’ 3 Oct. [synd. col.] The best they could give Rudy [Vallee] was cheers for a college try.

1946 Mezzrow & Wolfe Really the Blues 199: They figured to clean up some money fast with this good old college try.

(I’ve included the Mezzrow & Wolfe quote because, by happy accident, Mezz Mezzrow figures prominently in another posting I’m working on, on white people assuming black identities.)

More detail on that 1918 cite: the full headline was

“The Old College Try.”
By BILLY SUNDAY
(Famous Evangelist)

which suggests that the old college try was already a familiar formula to Sunday. A Stack Exchange discussion supplies further detail:

Actually, the evangelist puts the expression on the lips of the great Giants manager John McGraw who after watching an rookie outfielder just out of college miss a heroic catch which resulted in a homer. While the “sapient birds of the Giants gave the kid the cackle” McGraw is quoted as saying, “That’s the eye, young fellow. The old college try.”

So maybe it was an invention of McGraw’s.

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