LINGUIST List 6.1069

Thu Aug 10 1995

Sum: Idiomatic Expressions

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Wim Koole, Sum: 501-Beaver revisited

Message 1: Sum: 501-Beaver revisited

Date: Tue, 08 Aug 1995 09:50:47 Sum: 501-Beaver revisited
From: Wim Koole <>
Subject: Sum: 501-Beaver revisited

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On July 8 I posted the following two sentences,

1. The beaver got a Christmas card because she didn't notice the brown paper
 bag at her back door.

2. One day, in the parking lot of the concert hall, I witnessed a major
 used-501 deal.

in order to find out their (hidden) meaning.

These sentences were part of a set of isolated idiomatic sentences,
without any given context whatsoever, which my wife and I were trying to
The meaning of the majority of these sentences could be found rather easily
by means of the usual resources, like common sense, (slang-)dictionaries
and encyclopedia's.
However, 501-beaver remained a mystery.
So we decided to consult Internet, to see if a native speaker could help
us out.
About 50 reactions came from all over the world!
With your help the 501 mystery has been solved. Thanks a lot!

However, unfortunately 'the beaver has not landed'.
Sorry to have bothered you with this weird sentence.
We simply expected this sentence to be a common idiomatic expression...

Most of you mentioned the sexual connotations of 'beaver', 'bag'
and 'back door'. The 'Christmas card', however, does not fit into this
It might be a reference to something unpleasant, but then the sentence
as a whole still remains highly cryptic; the parts just don't match!

Some of you came up with the possibility, that 'the brown paper bag' might
refer to (hiding) a bottle of liquor.
In this context 'to get a Christmas card' might be a euphemism for a
hang-over or an alcohol problem.
But still the sentence as a whole does not make much sense...

Another possible solution might be found in Cockney Rhyming Slang,
in which 'Christmas card' refers to 'guard', but then again:
the other parts of the sentence just refuse to cooperate...

Or maybe the sentence refers to a childrens book or a fairy tale?

Fortunately the '501 deal' was more common and so it was a lot easier
to figure out the meaning of the second sentence.

A few people thought the 501 might be a car. This possibility had crossed
our minds too. After having looked it up in a car encycopedia and having
consulted a local Peugeot dealer, indeed a 301, a 401, and a 601, and even
a 504, turned out to exist; a Peugeot 501, however, just does n o t exist!
So this solution had to be ruled out.

The great majority of the respondents told us, that 501 refers
to the popular button-fly Levi's blue jeans with straight legs.
In Holland this type of jeans is familiar also,
but we didn't understand the "major used-501 deal" in this context:
"What's the big deal in selling worn blue jeans?"

However, most respondents from the U.S., but also from European countries,
told us, that it is very popular to buy and sell used 501's in the US.
Apparently young people are willing to pay much money for used jeans,
because they are more comfortable (less stiff) and because they look
more 'hip' than the new ones.
Many companies buy used 501's and after that they are sold from stores
(e.g., on Melrose Ave. in L.A. there are at least half a dozen of
these stores).
Besides that, there's a huge (black) market, in which case people sell 501's
out of the back of cars or vans in parking lots or other public places.
There might also be a foreign market for used 501's, as rumour has it
that used 501's are also shipped off to Paris, London, the Far East (Japan)
and Eastern Europe.

Because so many people reacted, we cannot quote them all.
So we have made a selection.
As some of the respondents preferred not to be mentioned by name,
we decided to not mention anyone by name.
At the end of this recital we will give a short conclusion.

. 501's, what's it all about

"501's are a style of blue jeans made by Levi Strauss and Co. 501's are,
 I believe, the best-selling style of Levi's. They are button-fly (as
 opposed to the kind you zip up), and have 5 pockets. They are the kind
 of jeans people think of when they think of jeans. Here in the US, used
 501's are worth more than other kinds of used jeans--in college towns,
 you'll often see signs in vintage clothing stores specifically saying
 something like "Cash for used 501's." Before Perestroika, there was a
 big black market demand in Russia for jeans of any kind. Levi's were the
 prestige brand; I don't know the location in time and space of your
 narrative, but perhaps the deal is shady. A major deal involving used
 jeans (which here can be bought new on sale for $20, and used, might
 fetch the original owner $10 in a vintage store) must then be a
 negotiation about a truck full of jeans or so. Many pairs would be
 needed to make the cash involved a major deal.

. used-501 sale vs. used-501 deal

"Used 501's are becoming in
 recent years more and more popular among the youth of this country,
 hence the rise in shops and vendors that deal exclusively in these
 used products. _a used-501 deal_ is most likely an informal street
 sale (not through a well-established shop, in which case it would be
 called a _sale_) of used jeans, especially Levi brand jeans'

. Witnessing a 501 deal

"So the sentence could mean either the
 speaker witnessed someone purchase used (previously owned) 501's, with
 'deal' meaning '(business) transaction', or 'deal' could mean 'bargain',
 that the jeans were being sold for less than usual. The fact that the
 speaker uses the verb 'witness' would seem to remove him from the action,
 so perhaps the first interpretation is best.

. Cowboys like their 501's blue and stiff

"I recently read an article about a company who buys
 used blue jeans from real cowboys and sells them at a very high price to
 people in places like New York City. (Cowboys, of which my
 brother-in-law is one, don't wear their jeans when they start to fade,
 they like them blue and stiff.)

. A used-501 deal

"I'm inspired to write
 by a sign I saw a few minutes ago, while driving home from the office. It
 announced that a merchant would pay up to $17US for "used 501s." "501" refers
 to a style of blue jeans - what my grandmother used to call dungarees -
 manufactured by the Levi Strauss Co. All their style numbers are numbers
 between 500 and 600. 501 is a popular style among young persons, featuring a
 button-fly and straight legs. I'm no longer young enough for 501s; I must
 wear 512s, which have a fuller leg and seat. Tomorrow, I'm going to take all
 my old, unwearable 501s and trade them for $17US each.

 I'd say that a "major used-501 deal" is either a transaction such as the one
 I'm proposing for tomorrow or, because "deal" is sometimes used more
 generically, somewhat like "thing", a place of business where such
 transactions take place.

. Major 501 price, major 501 place or major 501 transaction

""A major used-501 deal" no doubt refers to one of those temporary locations
 where people offer to buy used Levi 501 jeans for around $8, with the
 intention of re-selling them elsewhere.

 "Deal" is so inarticulate a word that it's not possible to tell you
 definitively what is meant, apart from more context.

 (1) My best guess is that it relates to "getting a good deal" for your used
 501 jeans, that is, getting a good PRICE for them. The scenario I have
 constructed is that someone wants to point out a place where you can get
 good money by selling your used 501 jeans.

 (2) If it doesn't have to do with getting a price for used jeans, it might
 refer to the physical characteristics of the business PLACE itself.
 This particular temporary storefront may be larger or more conspicuous
 than usual. In that scenario, someone wants to point out a larger-than-usual
 501 jeans stand.
 ("a major used-501 whatchamacallit: stand, storefront, business")

 (3) Last scenario: Someone witnessed a major jeans-selling TRANSACTION.
 He wants to describe someone's having brought in and sold a large quantity
 of 501 jeans to the jeans buyer.

 To be brief here are three possible paraphrases for "a major used-501 deal".

 1. "a place where they give you a much better-than-average price for your
 used 501 jeans"

 2. "a large or impressive used-501 jeans stand"

 3. "a single business transaction involving the buying and selling of a
 large lot of 501 jeans"

. Conclusion

In reference to the last respondent, somehow we felt most comfortable
with the third paraphrase, mainly because according to most of the other
respondents a business t r a n s a c t i o n was involved here and
because according to our own intuition 'to witness'--at least when it
means 'to see sth.'--always goes with an object, expressing an a c t i o n
rather than a s t a t e.
In the case of the '501 deal' this means that the one who uttered the
sentence, s a w that a 501 actually w a s b e i n g sold and because
he speaks of a major deal, he saw a lot of 501s being sold at once.

So, in our opinion:
"one day, in the parking lot of the concert hall, I witnessed a major
 used-501 deal."

can best be paraphrased into:

"one day, in the parking lot of the concert hall, I witnessed a
 business transaction involving a large stock of used Levi's 501."

If someone still feels uncomfortable with this transcription,
please don't hesitate to send your reaction to

Thanks again for all your contributions.

Many regards,
Wim Koole, also on behalf of Janny Koole-Loonstra
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