meaning and origin of the phrase ‘a bad quarter of an hour’

A loan translation from French un mauvais quart d’heure, the phrase a bad quarter of an hour denotes a brief but very unpleasant experience.

The earlier form of the French phrase was un méchant quart d’heure—here, the adjective méchant means unpleasant. This is first recorded in La Fille Capitaine (The Girl CaptainParis, 1672), a comedy by the French actor and playwright Antoine Jacob (1639-85), known as Montfleury. In this comedy, a married man, Monsieur Le Blanc, courts Lucinde; in order to frighten him off, Angélique, Lucinde’s cousin, passes herself off as a fearsome Captain; in the following passage, the Captain evokes the fate that he has in store for any man wooing Lucinde—Monsieur Le Blanc is hiding within earshot:

Par la mort si quelqu’un s’y frottoit,
Je luy ferois passer un fort méchant quart d’heure.
     translation:
By death if anybody approached her,
I would make him spend a most unpleasant quarter of an hour.

The French phrase un mauvais quart d’heure is first recorded in L’Art de plumer la poulle sans crier (The Art of plucking the chicken without screaming – Cologne, 1710) [see footnote]; the following passage is about four young men whose fathers are misers:

Jamais on ne leur donnoit le sol dans leurs poches, ce qui les rendoit miserables & leur faisoit souvent passer de mauvais quarts d’heures.
     translation:
They were never given a penny in their pockets, which made them miserable and often made them spend bad quarters of an hour.

The French phrase has been used in English; the earliest instance that I have found is from the account of a dinner at the Château de Boulogne, the villa of Monsieur de Rothschild near Paris, published in France in 1829—30 (volume 2 – New York, 1830), by the Irish author Sydney, Lady Morgan (née Sydney Owenson – 1783-1859):

A large society of distinguished persons of all nations, induced a very desultory and amusing conversation, during that mauvais quarte [sic] d’heur [sic] (generally so dull) which precedes the dinner.

The earliest instance of a bad quarter of an hour that I have found is from Extract of a private Letter from Valence in Dauphiny, dated May 25, published in The Derby Mercury (Derby, Derbyshire) of Friday 13th June 1755—this letter is about the trial of the French highwayman Louis Mandrin (1725-55) and of the members of his gang:

Yesterday Sentence was passed on him to be broke upon the Wheel, but to be previously put to the Torture; which, it is tho’t, will make him change his Tone.
[…] We expect that his Swaggering, and pretended Greatness of Soul, will be followed by a perfect Resignation (which is to be wished) or else by a horrible Despair; for as they were bringing him here [i.e. to the goal], on seeing the Major’s Brother, who was taken with him, much afflicted at the Thoughts of being dragged to a Goal, and afterwards suffering an ignominious Death, he told him it was not worth being grieved at, a bad Quarter of an Hour would be soon over.

 

Note: The French phrase is l’art de plumer la poule sans la faire crier, the art of plucking the chicken without making it scream; it describes dispossessing somebody of something without violence.

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