Watch out for Grandma’s left hook.
Dear Word Detective: My grandmother, likely born in the late 1800′s or early 1900′s, used to say, “Well, pardon my six ounce gloves.” She was a cultured Bostonian. I can make some assumptions about what that means (not lady-like dress gloves as a wardrobe faux pas). But do you know exactly what it means, where it derives from, or even anywhere the expression has been used? — Tim Jackson.
Ding ding ding! We have a winner! Congratulations, you’ve won the Weirdest Question of the Month Award. Your prize, an adorable free cat, is being dispatched to your door at this very moment; please listen for a scratching noise.
I’m going to hazard a guess that you have already searched online and discovered, as I have, that there is a rock band (they describe their genre as “Metal/Hard Rock/Power Groove”) named “Six Ounce Gloves” in Fresno, California. I think we can assume that your grandmother was not a fan. But it does indicate that the phrase “six ounce gloves” was not simply her idiosyncratic invention.
I have been unable to find an instance of the phrase “pardon my six ounce gloves” in any reference work or online archive, but if your grandmother used it routinely, it may have been a catch phrase current in the early 20th century, perhaps one only briefly popular (e.g., “No way!” “Way!”). It’s also possible, of course, that your grandmother simply invented it herself on the spur of the moment and then continued to use it.
So far, I realize, all of this is quite vague, but now the story gets very specific in a very weird way. I’m fairly certain that the “six ounce gloves” to which your grandmother referred were not sub-par dress gloves. They were boxing gloves. Boxing gloves, it turns out, come in different weights. Most boxing matches today are fought with gloves weighing between 10 and 14 ounces, although “bantamweight” fights and youth boxing matches often use lighter-weight gloves as light as six ounces. The weight of a glove is proportional to its padding, so boxing with heavier gloves, where the force of a blow is dispersed over a larger area, is usually considered safer than with lighter gloves, which deliver a more focused, sharper blow. (I suspect that the band picked “Six Ounce Gloves” as a name because of its somewhat menacing connotations of “nearly bare knuckle” fighting.)
Assuming that your grandmother was not a boxing fan, the question is, of course, why she would be using a boxing metaphor. The answer may be that during the early years of the 20th century there was apparently a fad of fashionable young women taking up recreational boxing. An article from the New York Times of September 25, 1904 was titled “And now it’s the boxing girl: Six ounce gloves the thing, and she knows all about feints, clinches and side-stepping; Woman’s latest fad and its advantages.” What follows is a “how-to” guide for young women “tired of golf and handball and basketball and tennis” who want to go a few rounds in the ring to lose weight and stay in shape. Early on, the author addresses the question of gloves: “The boxing girl uses a six-ounce glove. It is heavy enough to keep her from hurting anybody, and not so heavy as to tire out her arms before she begins.”
As a young, female and cultured Bostonian of the day, it seems pretty likely that your grandmother was at least aware of this boxing fad, and even just reading such press accounts would probably have acquainted her with the “six-ounce gloves” used in the sport. I think that in using “Pardon my six ounce gloves” as a catchphrase, your grandmother probably meant “Pardon my bluntness” while delivering a possibly impolitic statement or perhaps “Pardon my rudeness” when committing an unintentional social gaffe. If so, it was actually a charmingly self-deprecatory device.