Cold Case: Uncle Sam

800px-Uncle_Sam_(pointing_finger)Every week from 2003 to 2010, on the television program Cold Case, detective Lily Rush found ways to solve (find an explanation for) crimes that no one else had been able to solve. A cold case is a crime or accident that has not been solved, often for many years (for more about cold cases, listen to Podcast 974).

Sometimes new information surfaces (becomes known) that makes it possible to solve a cold case. Sometimes, however, the new information adds to the mystery (what we don’t know or aren’t sure about). And that’s what seems to have happened in the case of Uncle Sam – a symbol (something that represents or stands for) of the United States. That’s him in the photo.

Some of you may remember the story of Uncle Sam from English Cafe 309. At that time, most people believed that the name came from Samuel Wilson, who, in 1813, received a contract (written agreement) to supply meat for the U.S. Army during the war with England. The letters “U.S.” – for United States – were printed on every container of meat, but someone – as a joke – suggested that U.S. meant Uncle Sam. People began to use Uncle Sam to refer to the United States, and this use became very popular about 100 years later, during World War I.

I recently discovered that the use of Uncle Sam to refer to the U.S. may not have come from Samuel Wilson. A couple of years ago, Barry Popik, a kind of “word detective,” found Uncle Sam used to refer to the U.S. in a newspaper that was printed in 1812, about one year before Samuel Wilson received his contract from the government.

And since then, other researchers have found new evidence (facts, information) that suggests that Uncle Sam was used even earlier, in 1810.

Isaac Mayo was a young U.S. Navy sailor (someone who works on a ship). Here’s what he wrote in his journal (personal record of things that happen) on March 10, 1810:

[We] passed Sandy Hook (town in New Jersey), where there are two light-houses, and put to sea, first and second day out most deadly seasick, oh could I have got on shore in the [height] (worst) of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor (In other words, the storm was so bad that he would have quit the Navy if he could.).

So, where did Uncle Sam come from? We thought we knew. But now we’re not so sure. And until new evidence surfaces, we may have to think of Uncle Sam’s origins (where something began) as a national cold case.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English web site.

This post includes information from “New Light on ‘Uncle Sam’” by Ben Zimmer.
Photo of Uncle Sam from Wikipedia Commons.


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31 Responses to Cold Case: Uncle Sam

  1. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    I don’t care about Uncle Sam but about Uncle Jeff and Aunt Lucy.

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks Warren.

    Interesting. Reading on the subject, I have found out there was even a female symbol representing the US called Columbia, later replaced by the statue of liberty as an American symbol.

    Again, thanks

  3. Luiz carlos says:

    We have lots of cold case here in Brazil, unfortunately we have had hundreds of thieves stolen milions of money from Brasilian people during Dilma and Lula government. Each week judge arrest people involved with bribery, but nobody untill now touched in Dilma or Lula.

  4. Tania says:

    Hi Dan,
    Maybe you are right with Columbia.
    I remember how nice she is when I see the Columbia Pictures at the beginning of an American movie.
    I don’t know if she is the same woman.

  5. Tania says:

    Today is officially the first day of Autumn.
    People living at the South Pole will be experiencing the first sighting of sunlight in six months,
    as the autumn equinox marks the first day of spring for them.
    But residents at the North Pole will marking the beginning of six months of darkness.

  6. Tania says:

    Autumnal Equinox Day… the sun shines directly on the equator and
    the length of day and night is nearly equal.
    We can say that Jeff was born in an equilibrium period, in the Balance.
    So he is a well-balanced man.
    I wish you well, Jeff.

  7. Tania says:

    And Jeff and Warren love the painting.
    A very nice present for us talking to us about the famous American painter Jackson Pollock,
    reciting from Shakespeare, and admiring the painting “Full Fathom Five”.
    Thank you.
    I have to recognize that I have never heard of this famous painter in abstract art.
    I have found on Wikipedia an album with famous paintings by Jackson Pollock.
    For me, all paintings seem to be the same. Those painted with black, red and yellow are nicer.
    I have admired Blue (Mobby Dick), Convergence, The Flame, Self Portrait, and of course
    Full Fathom Five.

  8. fernando says:

    Very interesting and funny. So, at the time, Uncle Sam was kind of a joke.
    Good to know that there was some kind of humor back then, even in the middle of a war.

  9. fernando says:

    Here in São Paulo there was a similar case. Palmeiras, a soccer team, received the nickname of “pig” by its rivals. But, instead of being mad, the fans embrace the nickname and began to use it by themselves.
    I cheer for Palmeiras, so I found this story very interesting.

  10. peter says:

    Delightful trivia ,
    Well ,my understanding was cold cases only refer to serious crimes. I didn’t know that includes trivias as well.
    So to that end ,I want to add the ambiguity about the origins of the abbriviation ” O.K.” As a cold case.
    There are a handful of clod cases in recent history that are very interesting!!!
    I remember ,a few years back , There was this documentary about cold cases on TV that explained in detail the nature of the cold cases happened in the past 20 /30 years and the treason why the trail went cold.
    I used to watch it every week. Some of them would crawl my skin; they were very creepy in nature. They discussed one cold case at a time. I mean each episode was allocated to one cold case. If my memory serves me right, the runtime was an hour: one hour of thrill.
    I ,like Jeff,have always been a true enthusiast of myrder crimes tv shows ,books and movies.
    The oldest ,the better
    Nowadays ,myrder crime tv shows lack character and originality. What they mostly show is love-hate relationships between a bunch of pretty people running a forensic lab equipped by futuristic high tech gizmos that do the work for them. They just collect the evidence in the crime scenes and run through the devices.
    I want to see a true detective piece the puzzle one by one and solve the crime like those story of Sherlock or aghata Christi ( wrong spelling)
    U know what I m saying.
    The cold case documentary was like that
    I always made time for it. I ,in fact, work my schedule around it not the other way around.
    But the trail of the show went cold as the cases it was trying to reveal:))
    The show was discontinued.
    Well ,u know what they say :
    Good things never last.
    Warren’s post remind me of the documentary show.

    Thanks Warren , it was a light reading but fun reading

    Well I m all tapped out
    I better punch out

  11. Tania says:

    I have just read “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, English Cafe 519.
    For a long time I have not read such a good and interesting book.
    It’s just my style of books that I like to read .

  12. Tania says:

    To Jeff, the most beautiful Tom Wolfe quotes, for his birthday.

    Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live.

    The surest cure for vanity is loneliness.

    Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going . Don’t freeze up.

    All the best for you,


  13. Tania says:

    And a Franklin D. Roosevelt quote.

    “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.”

    I think this is Jeff’s identity.


  14. Lyu Shichang says:

    “I don’t care about Uncle Sam but about Uncle Jeff and Aunt Lucy.
    can not agree more…

  15. emiliano says:



  16. lili:) says:

    Happy Birthday to you Jeff!
    I found out yesterday that today is the birthday of the daughter of one of my good friends as well.
    She is 16 today. Are you 18 today? Or 19? You are forever young in our cyber classroom. Full of hair and no beard.

    I join many of our friends above to wish you a very special day, spend it with people closest to your heart, share a yummy birthday cake with them.

    I must go now. I am having food coma recently and I must take a nap before waking up and go to join some bargain hunters in the supermarket later.

    Best Wishes


  17. Nermin Eminova says:


  18. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Thank you Lyu Shichang for the quote. I feel so flattered.

  19. Jeff says:

    Thanks to all of you for your kind birthday wishes! I am now 52, but most people think I look only 51.

  20. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    You’re kidding me, Jeff, aren’t you? If you want to know how to get old enough and not to show the age, just ask me the receipt.

  21. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Jeff, I’m 74 but everyone says I’m 19.

  22. peter says:

    Hey chief :)))
    52 , and u are already at the top of your game.

    Congrats chief.
    U r one accomplished man.
    And a house hold name I must say.
    Around here all my friends knows you. Even my dad is familiar with your work 🙂
    Funny enough,every time I use highfalutin words,my friends say jokingly: ” stop pulling a Jeff, will you .” :)))

    I m serious. The expression has become a thing around here.
    It caught on ,I mean

    You Sound younger


  23. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Great, Pete. Good one.

  24. lili:) says:

    Thank you Dear Jeff for trusting us enough to tell us your real age and your look age. 🙂

    If my father is alive, he would be very angry that I played a joke on my teacher’s age. Chinese parents condemn their children playing jokes, especially on teachers. 🙁

    I tried to understand my childish behaviour. Have I become rejuvenated by learning a second language?

    Google “What happens in the brain when you learn a language?” then you know. Our brain changes and we become younger when we learn a second language in older age.

    Sorry Jeff, I was very naughty when I was little. Now I’m very young and naughty again.

    Not my fault!

    Best Regards


  25. peter says:

    My good fired Aecio ,
    U r too kind my friend.

  26. peter says:

    Hey Lili ,
    Get out of here!
    U r yanking my chain.
    It can’t be true
    Does acquiring a new language really do that to our brains?

    No friging way

    Stop messing with my head sis


  27. emiliano says:

    It is said that the greatest effort men’s do it is just to lear how to speak and understand our language
    when we are children.
    So yes, I and other people agree with what Lili said, learning another different laguage it is the best
    exercise an old person may do to have our brain in good health.

    I know that by my self as learning English, reading books in English, talking and listening to other
    people speak in this different language has made my mind more young and brilliant.

    Thank you Jeff, dear professor and friend.


  28. emiliano says:

    It would be nice if I read what I write before posting it, but it is something like impossible.

    it just to learn how to speak………………


  29. Dan says:

    Hi everyone.

    Since Earth orbital speed is 67.000 mph, Jeff has traveled 3.484.000 miles on Earth so far.


  30. Dan says:

    Our solar system is traveling at 515,000 mph.
    That makes 26,780,000 miles.


  31. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Peter, in my last comment I spelled your name wrong, (Pete instead of Peter), and it is because the letters e and r at the keybord are so close that sometimes something goes wrong. I am sorry about that.

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