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What did Victorians eat?

Victorian dessert image from https://thegraphicsfairy.com

Haves and Have Nots

Similar to the Victorian era, we live in an age of great social inequality, of haves and have nots. Fortunately these days, the State has certain obligations to its citizens to provide social welfare, although in England it has been cut back, reduced and generally made less available to the needy over recent years.

Going back in time

A slum in Market Court, Kensington,London,1860s.

The Victorian era, in a similar way to the present, was a period of great change. By the end of the era, there had been significant advances in industrialisation, communications, and great innovations in science and technology. All of this brought great wealth to the country and the moneyed classes increased their fortunes.

But the poor often paid the price of these changes. The wealth generated in cities hastened an agricultural depression, with people flocking to increasingly urbanised areas where large houses were converted into overcrowded tenements, neglected by the landlords, and ending up as slums. In an age where there was little sanitisation, and long hours of manual and child labour were the norm, the poor were trapped and vulnerable to exploitation.

Victorian food

The needy

Frontispiece from First edition Oliver Twist, 1838.
Richard Bentley – Heritage Auction Galleries, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Unsurprisingly, what and how you ate in Victorian times depended on your financial status. At the bottom of the scale were the people in workhouses, who had no means of supporting themselves. In return for long hours of labour, the workhouses provided very basic food and shelter.

However, the conditions were often rough and undignified, and the workhouses often resembled prisons more than anything else. Charles Dickens’ harsh depiction of the workhouse and the brutal treatment of the inmates in Oliver Twist was in fact, a pretty realistic representation, intended to raise awareness of the unacceptable cruelties within the workhouse system.

Boys at Crumpsall Workhouse, circa 1895-1897, source Wikimedia Commons

Gruel – a cereal such as wheat or oats, boiled in water or milk- was a common breakfast in the workhouses . A version existed using only flour and water, so gruel could vary in consistency from porridge to……basically, slop. And Oliver Twist had the temerity to ask for more.

Lunch, known as dinner, varied from cooked or pickled meat with potatoes and vegetables in the best of cases to a watery broth in the worst scenario, The evening meal, called supper, was generally around 6pm and consisted of bread and broth, and maybe a small piece of cheese if you were lucky. The workhouse was not a solution for anything. Towards the end of the 19th century, the idea began to take root that the State should take some responsibility for the more vulnerable members of society.

The working class

The Victorians had a strict class system and even the working class was divided into three tiers – firstly manual labourers, followed by artisans, and the top level, the “educated working man”. Manual labourers, at the bottom of the hierarchy , were paid very low wages and could only afford very basic foodstuffs, let alone kitchen utensils.

One of the cheaper items on offer at the butchers’ was broxy, which referred to spoiled meat from animals which had died from disease. If you didn’t fancy food posioning or death from broxy, boiled or fried sheeps’ trotters were also a popular dish. Yes, I’m feeling queasy at this point as well….

Slum residents generally existed on a diet of bread, dripping, tea and broth. The worst off also ate potato peelings and rotten vegetables. Inevitably, this dreadful diet had effects on people’s health and harmed the healthy development of growing children.

The moneyed classes

With the invention of railways and better transport systems during the Victorian period, food produce could be transported more easily across the country, providing a better choice of fresh food for those who could afford it.

Although the middle classes could not afford to be as extravagant as the wealthy, the financially stable also had a variety of foods available to them. Meat, fish, cheese, eggs and bacon were staples along with porridge, and the traditional Sunday roast dinner. Meat was an expensive commodity so was generally out of reach for the less well off, although it could be substituted with offal, or a nice sheep or calf head. Eurgh. Please note I have spared you (and myself) the images.

Beyond Britain, Victorian cuisine had a reputation for being tasteless and unappetising , with all foodstuffs basically being boiled to death. This is justified to a certain extent, but there was also a trend towards culinary creativity. It goes without saying of course, that you would need to be wealthy in order to indulge this creative vein.

For the well-off, it became fashionable to host elaborate dinner parties, showing off expensive china and silverware and with highly decorated tables. The menus would generally consist of soup and fish as a starter, followed by meat or stew, game or poultry and conclude with dessert, cheese and liquor. Certainly there were no poisoned meats or rotten vegetables on offer in these fine displays of prosperity.

The table is set in the centre of an elegant Victorian dining room. The illustration is from Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, by Thos. E. Hill, 1886.

Large Victorian properties would possess huge kitchens including a scullery for cleaning and storing crockery and kitchen utensils, a pantry for food storage prior to use, and a larder for meat preparation as well as ample kitchen space for the actual cooking. . Not to mention the the members of staff employed to deal with all the culinary preparation of the menu.

It has been noted that upper and middle class women did sometimes join in with the menu preparation. Elizabeth Robins Pennell was an art-turned-food critic who considered that food could be a high form of art, and encouraged women to use their creative gifts rather than consider cooking to be a household chore.

Illustration of creative dishes from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1907

Although we would be familiar with many of the foodstuffs that Victorians ate, there are several dishes that would definitely not appeal to modern tastes. An example of this is the Brown Windsor Soup, which sounds pretty sinister to me already. It was a concoction of meat in its gravy, vegetables, vinegar, dried fruit, and for those who could afford it, a dash of Madeira wine. Still not liking it? Me neither. But it was “reputed to have built the British Empire.” Yikes.

Although it was orginally a chef’s gourmet recipe, by the 1920’s poor old Windsor soup had became a synonym for the worst of English cuisine.

Other delights included bone marrow on toast, heron pudding, haggis, and a popular breakfast was kedgeree – an Anglo-Indian dish consisting of smoked haddock, rice, milk, hard-boiled eggs and seasoned with coriander, curry and/or turmeric. Those who could afford it believed in hearty breakfasts, but I think I’ll stick to my cup of coffee and piece of toast, thanks very much.

A modern take on kedgeree
Photo By User:Justinc – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Victorian Food and Health

It is obvious that the abysmal quality of diet was detrimental to the poor and could even kill them. The rich however, did not suffer from the same diet-related problems as we do today.

For a start, convenience foods high in fat or sugar content were yet to be invented. The population was, on the whole, much more active than we are today. The Victorians ate plenty of seasonal vegetables and fruit due to the development of new transport systems. Their intake of nuts, whole grains and omega rich foods all meant that the chronic and degenerative diseases which are common in today’s society hardly existed. Diabetes type 2, for example, which is rife in our modern world, was practically non-existent.

What can we learn ?

Our modern society is generally aware, that with the rise of largely sedentary jobs, people who have access to plenty of food need to exercise and eat healthily to help ward off disease. And secondly, maybe we (and especially the 331 Members of Parliament that voted against a food supply for kids in need) should be a little more inclined to believe that poorer people may not have money to feed their children through no fault of their own. We may no longer suffer some of the barbaric incidents of the Victorian era, but the financial gap between the well-heeled and the less fortunate seems to be, very sadly, on the increase.

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Things that native English speakers don’t know that they know

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I teach English as a second language. I see the learners’ struggles and triumphs with the vagaries of the English language. And when I started in this profession, I sometimes had to research the reason why we say certain phrases in the way that we do – in other words, grammar. There are many things that, as a native speaker, you have assimilated into your speech patterns without even thinking about it.

Our brains are amazing

A child’s brain is like a sponge. Think about the fact that any child learns their own language simply by imitating the other members of their family. But not only do children copy words, there are any number of grammatical formats automatically incorporated into their language patterns without ever having to learn the “rules” in a way that a non-native speaker does. And they assimilate these things with very little effort on their part.

This is also why being a native speaker of any language is not necessarily enough to be able to teach it. You may know the correct answer but often your students will ask you the reason why. I cannot deny that there are some things in the English language that are not terribly logical. I do apologise for my unruly language. However, there are many logical grammar rules which can be explained clearly to learners, and which reassure them that the English language is not just a crazy hodge-podge of madness,

Pesky irregular verbs

You may or may not know that English as a second language learners are often given long lists of irregular verbs to learn which is the most horrifically boring task. English teachers have invented a myriad of activities to make the task more palatable. Think be-was/were, drink- drank, eat-ate, go-went. Absolutely all over the place, right ? But as a native speaker you just learnt these terms as you heard them, started including them in your speech, and carried on.

Countables and Uncountables

Another thing you may not know if English is your first language is why we have two different ways to ask about quantity, using “How many?” or How much?”. The basic grammar rule is that “many” is used with things we can count – people, chairs, turnips, shoes. And “much” is used for things we can’t count – happiness, incompetence, wine, petrol, noodles ( ok, you can, in fact, count noodles, or spaghetti, or cereal but surely no-one in their right mind would want to ).

But as often happens, there is an exception. Any noun which is composed of a mixture of things such as traffic, fruit, furniture is classed as uncountable and therefore uses the word much. But not vegetables. We say There aren’t many vegetables. Why and who decided this, no-one knows. Most languages completely ignore whether something can actually be counted or not and have one word or phrase for all cases. This grammar rule for non-native speakers is pretty mind-blowing the first time they encounter it. Don’t you feel sorry for them trying to figure this out?

Order of adjectives

Another issue was explained in my post of 10th Sept 2019, “Order of Adjectives in English”. Check it out if you want to see why we say “lucky black cat” and “black lucky cat” sounds so horribly wrong….. http://order-of-adjectives-in-english

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A calorie-laden trip through English food

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A  completely personalised and random list

There’s a lot of negative news out there and coronavirus lockdown restrictions haven’t been exactly a bundle of fun.  Some of us have had to develop our culinary skills a little further than usual in these trying times. Some of us may have turned to the comfort food we crave. It got me thinking about the food of my childhood. I was born and grew up in the north of England. In the 80’s, when globalisation was beginning to take place, and people began to travel further afield on holiday, the range of foodstuffs on offer gradually began to increase. Nowadays any reasonably sized supermarket has a huge variety of goods, much of it imported from abroad, as our culinary tastes have broadened. But what about food we consider to be quintessentially English ?

In no particular order, here are some of my favourite typically English foodstuffs from my childhood.  Maybe I should warn you first that this post is not for anyone strictly controlling their calorie intake. But it makes for divine comfort food.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fish_and_chips_blackpool.jpg
  • I know it’s a cliché but I have the best memories of steaming hot battered  fish and chips with lashings of malt vinegar, brought home by Mum or Dad as a treat . The first takeaway I ever sampled  –  before takeaway was even a thing. Or as an adult, buying this tasty comforting fare, best eaten out of the wrapping paper on the way home after a few drinks in the pub. Pure bliss.

Selection of English Cheese
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  • Cheese – my personal favoutite is tangy, crumbly Cheshire cheese. But there’s an immense range of around 700 English cheeses you can sample …..it’s not all about Cheddar. And there are some great names ….Cornish Yarg, Dorset Drum, Fine Fettle Yorkshire and the marvellously named Stinking Bishop, whose name orginates from Stinking Bishop pears, which are used to make an alcoholic drink known as perry, in which the cheese is steeped while it matures. In turn,  Stinking Bishop Pears are named after Mr. Frederick Bishop, who first cultivated them. Mr Bishop is said to have once shot at his kettle when it did not heat water quickly enough for his liking. Interesting guy.
A 99 ice-cream
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  • Ok, English weather in general can be pretty dismal but when conditions are right and it’s sunny, the sky is blue, it’s around 24 degrees and there is no more than a gentle breeze, an English summer’s day is not far from perfect. And top it off with a 99 from the ice-cream van. A 99, for those of you not in the know, is a soft ice-cream cone with a Cadbury’s chocolate flake. Heaven.
The fry-up
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  • The full English breakfast. Typically consists of bacon, sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, fried tomatoes, hash browns, fried bread, black pudding and any thing else you care to throw in. Yes, it involves a lot of frying. That’s why it’s also known as a fry-up. It also contains a huge amount of calories. But it is a tried and tested hangover cure, possibly because you are unable to move anyway if you scoff the lot. Variations include the Full Scottish, Full Irish and Full Welsh breakfast.

Plate of delicious freshly baked Xmas mince pies with one broken open to reveal the rich fruity filling. (Stockarch Free Stock Photos )
  • Mince pies. These are a Christmas delicacy and if you are unfamiliar with them, you would probably assume they are savoury….but no, they are made with sweet mincemeat consisting of dried fruit with spices. Orginally, however, in the 13th century mince pies were much bigger, generally rectangular in shape and surprise, surprise, they did contain meat well as fruit and spice. By the time of Queen Victoria, the mince pie had evolved into the the sweet- flavoured individually sized pie that we know and love today…. the mouthwatering taste of a traditional English Christmas.

So there you have some of my favourite food treats from my country of birth.

Anything else you would add to the list ? Tell me your thoughts ….

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And here is the weather forecast ….. from Saint Swithin

Who was Saint Swithin ?

It is truly amazing how snippets of information, no matter whether they are based on fact or fiction, can filter through hundreds of generations and become part of our traditions and culture. Such is the case of Saint Swithin (or Swithun, if you prefer), who was the bishop of Winchester in the 9th century. Despite the fact that not much has been recorded about his life, it is the events after his death that have earned him a place in history.

What we do know for sure is that Swithin was the bishop of Winchester from October 852 until July 853, and that on his deathbed, he requested to be buried in the cathedral grounds where the rain could fall on his grave.

But after a church reform, on 15th July in the 970’s, Swithin’s remains were transferred from his burial place in the grounds to a new shrine in the Old Minster in Winchester. The removal of the remains were carried out in heavy rain storms, which were said to last 40 days and 40 nights. Swithin was evidently not amused.

As we do not have access to weather records from the 10th century, the 40 day downpour has never been confirmed. But the legacy of Swithin has endured. He is the patron saint of Winchester. He is the saint we should address if we are in need of water in the event of a drought. He is also remembered in this verse:

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair. 

And translated into contemporary English – if it rains on 15th July, now known as Saint Swithin’s day, you are going to see a lot more rain. 40 days and nights’ worth, to be exact. But should the opposite be true, that is, the sun deigns to make an appearance, then you will enjoy 40 days of fine weather.

Sadly , I am obliged to admit that there are no years on record when this prediction actually came true. A meterologist would tell you that the weather can often change mid-summer in England and this is a phenomenon dependent on jet streams. But I would stake a guess that numerous people in England will look at the sky on 15th July 2020 and remember Saint Swithin.

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Quirky place names in England

Where are we ?   Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

Bizarre names

There are many locations in England with outlandish names. Some are rude, some are funny and some are just, well, really silly.

Here are are some of my favourites :

Beer

Beer is a picturesque little village on the coast of Devon. I am sure you can have a beer in Beer, but its name isn’t related to the drink. It is from the Old English bearu which meant grove, and this referred to the vegetation that originally surrounded the village.

Bell End 

This village in Worcerstershire shares its name with the British slang for part of the male genitalia, and has a secondary meaning, also slang,  which applies to someone who is annoying. Not to be used in polite company, unless you are referring to the location, of course.  Bell End won a competition in 2016 when it was voted the most hilarious place name in Britain.

Crackpot

Crackpot, a perjorative word for someone with irrational ideas, is also the name of a village in Yorkshire. It is believed to be the amalgation of an old English word, kranka, meaning crow,  and the word pot from Viking, which referred to a rift or a cavity. As is the case with many other place names, it describes what the settlers first spotted when they arrived at the location.

Giggleswick

Well, first of all, the name Giggleswick just makes me want to giggle. This town in the Yorkshire dales has the classic Anglo-Saxon ending – wick, (also appearing as –wich and -wyke in other place names) which meant dwelling or settlement.  The giggles bit  doesn’t have anything to do with laughing though. It’s because the particular site  in question belonged to Gichel, according to A Dictionary of British Place Names.

Pant

There are three places called Pant in Wales and one in England, namely in Shropshire, near the Welsh border. In the Welsh language, a pant is a valley, a dip or a hollow.  Pant in Shropshire is , unsurprisingly, located in a dip directly below Llanymynech Rocks Nature Reserve. In the same way I would like to have a beer in Beer, I would also like to pant in Pant. Obvious I know, but having a beer in Pant or panting in Beer just wouldn’t be the same.

Sandy Balls

Sandy Balls, close to the River Avon and the New Forest in Hampshire, is comprised of woods and parklands which are now managed as a holiday centre. It was originally called Sandyballas, which referred to the sand dunes, and the name Sandyballas appears on documents from  Henry VII’s time. By 1939, the name Sandy Balls was in use for the promotion of the location as a holiday spot, with a possibly unintentional play on words.

Ugley and Nasty

Ugley is located in the Essex countryside and was registered in the Domesday Book as Ugghelea.  The theory is that someone called something like Ugga owned the original land which was a leah (Old English for a meadow or open field). Nothing to do with Ugley being ugly  – in fact it is said to be very pretty.  Ugley is not that far away from Nasty, in Hertfordshire. According to Wikipedia, the name Nasty is derived from Anglo-Saxon, æt þǽm éastan hæge, meaning “at the eastern hedged enclosure” or similar. And no, I don’t understand how the name evolved into Nasty, either.

Westward Ho!

The only place in the British Isles that includes an exclamation mark in its name, Westward Ho! can be found on the North Devon coast. Its attention grabbing name comes from the novel of the same name, by Charles Kingsley, published in 1855. His novel would not fare well in contemporary times due to its imperialist bias, but in its day, it was a bestseller. Ten years after publication,  some local businessmen from Bideford (where the storyline begins) set up a holiday village in close proximity, christening it  Westward Ho! and cashing in on the novel’s success and the Victorians’ love for seaside breaks.

And finally ….. all the Bottoms

Forgive my puerile sense of humour, but I just love all those place names that include the word bottom (which, incidentally is derived from Old English botm , meaning the lowest part of something). Too many to mention here but thank you to Bottom’s Fold in Lancashire, Broadbottom in Greater Manchester, Clay Bottom in Bristol, and the marvellously named Scratchy Bottom in Dorset, for making us laugh.

Feel free to tell me about any other place names that make you laugh – in England or anywhere else…..hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I have in creating it.

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Here comes the bride

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A white bridal gown

Why are wedding dresses white?

One of the first images that springs to mind when we think about weddings is the white bridal dress. Although our society is no longer son strictly bound by cultural norms, the traditional white wedding dress is still overwhelmingly chosen by many Western brides. But where and when did brides start wearing white ?

Before the white wedding dress

Before the white wedding dress, that is, prior to the 1840’s, there was no predominant colour for a wedding dress. Brides wore coloured dresses, or even black, as the dress would probably have been used afterwards for social gatherings, and white would not have been a practical choice. Even royal brides wore coloured wedding gowns, although with the addition of luxurious furs and expensive jewellery.

Until Queen Victoria’s wedding.

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert on 10th February, 1840. She made an unusual choice to get married in a white silk-satin dress, trimmed with lace. She chose British fabric in order to boost the ailing lace industry and the fabric manufacturing trade. The silk was from Spitalfields and the lace from Honiton and Beer, in Devon. Instead of a donning the heavy robes of a monarch, she attached a white satin train to her dress and held an orange blossom and myrtle wreath , along with orange blossom in her hair instead of a crown. The image below shows Victoria and Albert’s wedding ceremony , in a part of a painting by George Hayter.

A section of George Hayter’s portrait of Victoria and Albert’s wedding.

Victoria’s choice of attire was groundbreaking. The fashionable colour for wedding dresses at the time was actually red and a royal bride was expected to be decked out in a heavy, brocaded robes of state that showed status and wealth. A comparable event today would be a royal bride walking down the aisle in a blue or red wedding dress, for example. Some members of the court criticised Victoria’s sartorial choice as insipid and excessively simple, expecting to see much more lavish jewelley and expensive materials. However, Victoria had her reasons. It is thought that the lack of pomp and circumstance served to show her reign would not be flamboyant but based on simplicity and good sense, along with the promotion of national craftsmanship in the dress itself.

Of course, reports and pictures of Victoria’s wedding and her dress were widespread for several months after the event. Before long, wealthy brides were getting married in white dresses with orange blossom additions. In 1849, Godey’s Lady Book, a forerunner of a modern fashion magazine, declared that white was the best colour for a bride, “as an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood.” In addition, the publication incorrectly claimed that a white wedding dress was an ancient tradition that represented virginity, something that resonated with the public, even though it was not true.

And so began the association of the colour white with the virginal bride, although the choice of white also denoted that the bride’s family had the financial means to afford a dress in an impractical colour which could not be easily cleaned. The same went for the fabrics used in the bridal gown – the more luxurious the fabric, the wealthier the family. By the end of the 19th century white wedding dresses were the norm for brides who had money, whereas the less financially well-off would simply wear their best dress or suit in whatever colour they had. During the Second World War some brides actually wore wedding dresses made from parachute silk. But when better times arrived after the war and with white weddings portrayed on the silver screen, the whole concept of a white wedding became part and parcel of Western culture.

April 2011

Catherine Middleton on her wedding day in April, 2011

When Kate Middleton married Prince William on April 29th, 2011, there were several nods to the precedents set by Queen Victoria. Kate’s dress in itself had a Victorian line, with a tight bodice and long, full skirt. The lacework on the silk was created by needlewomen, not machines. The dress was made completely from British fabric, with only one exception which was French Chantilly lace. Myrtle was used in Kate’s bouquet, just like Victoria’s.

Victoria’s legacy

The Royal Family have access to great wealth and privilege, but a white wedding is something that many of us are familiar with. Nowadays we have access to a huge variety of options for wedding ceremonies – under the sea, in a hot air balloon – where a flowing wedding dress is not exactly practical. We can dress in any way or any colour we like. But a huge majority of women still opt for the white wedding dress – or ivory or cream or ecru or eggshell. Although other royals may have worn white for their wedding ceremonies before Victoria, it is her influence that has given us the modern white wedding dress. I wonder what she would make of the backless, strapless and off the shoulder versions ?

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Oxymorons are oxymorons

Wordpower
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What is an oxymoron?

An oxymoron is a figure of speech where there appears to be a contradiction. For example, “accidentally on purpose”, where we know that an action was intentionally carried out but devised to look as though it was purely by chance – or what about a “deafening silence”, or an “honest crook” or a “definite maybe” ?

Etymology

The term oxymoron itself can be traced back to a Latinized Greek word, oxymōrum, meaning “sharp-foolish”, so the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron. It can comprise two words or it can be a longer phrase. However, an oxymoron is not just two words which contrast each other, such as light and dark or good and evil, because the two ideas do not overlap. In an oxymoron there needs to be a clash of two seemingly different meanings in one phrase, which make the reader stop and think. The Merriam -Webster dictionary broad definition is ” something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements.” For example, an “open secret” or “friendly fire”.

Literary Oxymorons

Oxymorons have been used in English literature for centuries, generally for dramatic effect, and to show that two opposing ideas can often paint the picture of a deeper truth. Shakespeare used a whole string of 13 oxymorons to great effect in Romeo and Juliet, to express the complicated nature of love , amongst which are ” brawling love”, “loving hate” and “heavy lightness. And remember the famous line ” parting is such sweet sorrow ” from the same play? John Milton wrote about “darkness visible” in Book 1 of Paradise Lost. The idea of ” warm, scalding coolness” was used by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Still used today

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that oxymorons are a dusty relic of the past. Moving on into the twentieth century, remember Simon and Garfunkel’s number one hit The Sound of Silence? Or the Verves’ Bitter Sweet Symphony, from 1997?

Oxymorons are also used to introduce new concepts such as virtual reality and working holiday. They can be used ironically to gain laughs, for example, happily married, affordable caviar, corporate responsibility. And sometimes they can be produced by accident ; see if you can spot the unintended example in the expressions below….

And finally…

Let’s look at at some funny phrases usisng oxymorons which have gained their place in history.

” I can resist anything, except temptation. ” Oscar Wilde

” It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap.” Dolly Parton

” A joke is a very serious thing.” Winston Churchill

” If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive.” Samuel Goldwyn

” The budget was unlimited, but I exceeded it.” Donald Trump

Which one do you like the most ?

Do you know any others ?

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The Dukes of Windsor, a Royal Scandal

King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson on holiday in Yugoslavia, 1936.
By National Media Museum from UK . No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org

I have always been fascinated by the the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the king who abdicated with these famous words : “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

It goes without saying that times were very different in the 1930’s, and people held ideas that are difficult for modern sensibilities to comprehend. Divorce was not widespread and carried a significant social stigma, many of the British upper class were immersed in snobbery, and the British press protected the Royal Family from scandal. How times have changed.

Edward, the heir to the throne did as he pleased. He was originally a golden boy who enjoyed popularity in the press, he partied, he had affairs with married women and lived a hedonsitic life. But then he fell in love with his twice divorced American mistress, Wallis Simpson. In those times of harsh social judgement Wallis was never going to make the cut as a member of the British Royals. She was openly ambitious and relished power, she was outspoken and did not show deference, and furthermore. she was a twice-divorced American…….

I believe that Edward and Wallis were spurred on by the idea of rebelling against their detractors. Tied up in their relationship were their own desires and expectations of life. Edward did not have much time for court protocol and Wallis gave him escape from the constraints of the less exciting and intellectual royal duties, tasks where he fell considerably short. Wallis was charismatic with an irreverent wit. She was also a social climber who was undoubtedly attracted to the wealth, status and glamour afforded by being Edward’s love interest. Edward was determined to marry Wallis despite the fact that she had two ex-husbands and would be deemed both socially and politically unacceptable as a royal consort.

We already know how this ended, don’t we ? On 10 December 1936 Edward abdicated, and he and Wallis married in France and lived a life in exile. Edward may well have imagined he would be able to return to Britain and still retain some influence within the royal family, but he was finally told he would be cut off financially if they returned. Meanwhile, George VI and the late Queen Mother gained the public’s respect and affection during World War II in a way that may well have been impossible for Edward and Wallis. Furthermore, it was discovered that Edward had lied about his personal finances in order to gain a more profitable financial settlement from the royal family, who paid his post- abdication allowance as he was no longer on the Civil List. He further disgraced himself by his association with the Nazi regime. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as they were now known, were sent to Bermuda in 1940 where they could do less damage to the British war effort.

After the war, the couple lived in Paris as socialites. Edward had finally understood that his role as a functioning royal was over. There was still a lot of bitterness over his actions. And what of Wallis? She had gained an affluent lifestyle but would be permanently denied her royal title, despite the fact her husband was still a styled as a royal highness. She remained at Edward’s side and was always ready to publicly support the Duke. But were they really happy behind the scenes ? After the war ended, the Windsors shuttled between Paris and New York as minor celebrities, forced to stick with their fairytale ending. Wallis is reported to have said “You you have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.”

Edward died in 1972. He is buried in Frognore, near Windsor. Wallis died fourteen years later. She had dementia and was living as a recluse. She was given a simple funeral on 29th April 1986 at Saint George’s Chapel in Windsor and buried next to Edward. Despite her husband’s persistence in the matter, she was prevented by exceptional legal measures from using the title of royal highness although Edward insisted that she was addressed as such in their household. The late Queen Mother is known to have had a strong dislike for Wallis, and considered that she was to blame for George VI’s untimely death due to the stress of a of royal role for which he had not been prepared.

Nobody comes out well in this story. But what we know is that Edward declined to accept his royal destiny at the cost of his adored Wallis. The acrimony that arose from his abdication and his subsequent actions would prevent Edward and Wallis from ever returning permanently to Britain until their deaths.

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Words with no opposite

Negatives and positives
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Wordpower

Everyone knows that in English we often add a prefix to the beginning of a word to make it negative, right? A tidy room can become untidy, an honest person can be tempted to act dishonestly.

But do you know there are several words in the English language which only exist in negative form?

Let’s start with this example.

She showed her disdain for the dishevelled and disconsolate boy.

So how about she showed her dain for the shevelled and consolate boy? Nope, that’s incorrect.

Dain, shevelled and consolate simply do not exist in contemporary English vocabulary.

We can, however, trace their usage back to the Latin and old French used in the Middle Ages. The etymology of disdain, for example, is rooted in the Latin dignari , meaning “worthy”. The dis was added to convey the opposite and the word disdain came to mean a feeling of aversion and contempt. Dishevelled comes from the amalgamation of dis and the French word for hair – cheval – and later extended its meaning to clothing. The Latin verb consolari – to comfort – provided the linguistic basis for the word disconsolate.

The English language has plenty of negative words without a positive counterpart – probably more than you would think. A few more examples : inertia, ineptitude, immacculate, impeccable, nonchalant, nonplussed, unkempt, uncouth.

I could write a story here about a macculate and peccable guy who tried to radiate a sense of ertia and eptitude by being chalant and plussed despite the fact that he was neither kempt nor couth.

But sadly, all these antonyms either never existed or are no longer in use in my language.

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April Fool’s Day

April is here….
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A tale of calendars and fish

On the first of April both in the U.K. and several other countries, we celebrate April Fool’s Day. It is a day of practical jokes which are played on unsuspecting victims and the prankster often shouts “April Fool!” at the victim at the end of the joke. This horseplay generally lasts until midday and is frowned upon after this this point.

A battle of calendars

The origins of this day are not entirely clear. However, this story begins in the Middle Ages in Europe, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582. This was a change from the old Roman calendar imposed by Julius Caesar. The Julian calendar had an extra day in February every 4 years, and was also, in a nutshell, 11 minutes too long. Over a long period of time, this had caused Easter to fall further away from the third week of March, when it was traditionally celebrated. The calendar was also out of sync with astronomical events such as solstices and equinoxes, of great importance in a world where electricity was yet to be invented. To solve these issues, the Gregorian calendar slightly modified the leap year schedule, explained by the U.S. Naval Observatory below:

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are.”

And in addition to this, there was more than one date designated as New Year. The Julian calendar had in fact originally designated January 1st as the beginning of the New Year, but during the Middle Ages European countries had placed more emphasis on days of religious significance, which in turn, had been superimposed on earlier pagan rites. Crazy as it may seem to us now, there were New Year celebrations beginning on March 25th, which was the feast of the Annunciation, (also known as Lady Day, referring to the Virgin Mary) and ending on April 1st. These dates coincided with the vernal equinox, when the length of day and night have equal duration. Ancient cultures such as the Persians/Iranians, still recognise this event around March 21st.

The papal bull which reformed the calendar had no jurisdiction outside the Catholic Church so it was first applied in Catholic nations such as France, Spain, Italy and Portugal amongst others. Protestant countries were much slower to use the Gregorian calendar, as they rejected its papal influence. Germany finally adopted it in 1700 and England followed in 1752. Changing the calendar meant that in 1752 England and the British Dominions went to bed on Wednesday September 2nd and woke up on Thursday September 14th, losing 11 days in the process. But from this point they were at least in line timewise with most of Continental Europe. Greece only began to adhere to the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Orthodox churches have never accepted it, although it is now the civic global standard.

Poisson d’avril
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So back in the European Middle Ages, people who considered that January 1st was the beginning of the New Year made fun of those who still followed the older calendar and finished their New Year festivities at the beginning of April. The earliest reference to these shenanigans dates back to 1508 when the French poet Eloy d’Amerval made reference to a “poisson d’avril”, literally an “April fish.” But why fish? And did you notice that 1508 just happens to predate the Gregorian calendar by 74 years? A possible theory is that it was forbidden to fish in April so jokes were played by throwing dried fish into the river and pretending they were freshly caught. Somehow these pranks got caught up in the battle of the calendars and have endured to date. In today’s France, the translation of April Fool is still poisson d’avril.

April’s Fool’s Day has become an annual custom in many countries around the world. In the Ukraine, for example, it includes a parade through the city, an international clowns’ festival and the city itself is festooned with disguises. Spain is an interesting exception where although the practice of pranking other people is alive and well, it is scheduled on December 28th , el día de los innocentes (Holy Innocents Day) and not on the first day of April.

The media have played some well-known April Fool hoaxes. In England, a famous April Fool’s joke took place in 1957, when the BBC showed a spoof documentary showing spaghetti supposedly being harvested from a tree in Switzerland. The voiceover was provided by Richard Dimbleby, a well-known and respected reporter, which lent gravitas to the spot. Hundred of people rang the BBC afterwards with questions about the “spaghetti tree”. It is only fair to point out that out that in 1957 pasta was not easily available to English people and spaghetti was a fairly unknown foodstuff. And maybe they were just more innocent times. In today’s world, where we have access to information at the touch of a button, it is very doubtful that this type of mass hoax would have the same effect.

Or is it?

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Ta (or in other words, thanks)

Thank you
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Yes, ta is a word.

An informal word, but all the same ta is used in many areas in England instead of the more conventional thank you. In turn, thank you (or if you prefer it, ta) to Ellen Hawley, author of Notes from the U.K., for asking why we say ta, and therefore providing the inspiration for this post.

Thinking about expressions of gratitude also takes me to my previous post of 25th March, Why do we say cheers ? which looked at the origins of the word cheers as a drinking toast. But in the U.K. we also use cheers as another friendly way of saying thank you. The use of cheers as a synonym of thanks started in the 1970’s. In 1976 P. Howard wrote an article in The Times pointing out ‘By a remarkable transition from the pub to the sober world at large outside cheers has become the colloquial synonym in British English for “thanks.” ‘

But anyway, back to the humble ta. Toddlers learning how to speak often use ta as a subsititute for thank you – basically it’s just much easier for a young child to pronounce. This childish form of thank you, first documented in the 18th century, has slowly become absorbed into our adult vocabulary.

Ta is also part of Northern English dialect, and is widely used in the North. An interesting theory is that it could have originated from the Scots Gaelic expression for thank you, tapadh leibh. Or possibly from a Scandinavian language in the times of Viking invasions. As is the case with these things, we will never be entirely certain.

And we might as well look at the origins of thank you while we’re here. In Old English the word thank was a noun, meaning thought. Its meaning shifted so that by the Middle Ages it defined thinking favourably of someone in return for their services. And so it evolved into our modern day expression thank you.

There’s only one way I can end this post today. Ta, cheers and thank you for reading.

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Why do we say cheers ?

Cheers everybody !
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Why cheers ?

We raise our glasses, clink them together and say “Cheers.” But do you know why this custom began ?

Across the world, people generally accompany the clinking of glasses with a toast, be it “salud” (Spain), “proost” (the Netherlands), “skál” (Scandinavia) or many others we could add to the list. All these expressions refer to health or happiness or both.

The custom of toasting your companions is thought to originate from the Ancient Greeks and Romans who would toast the gods when feasting and celebrating at their banquets. Bound up with the celebratory toast would be the desire for a long, happy life and since then, humans have expressed the same idea with by raising their glasses upwards and wishing each other well, even if we do this almost without thinking about it today.

The word “cheer” is derived from the Latin “cara” which meant face, but by the Middle Ages, the meaning had evolved and it signified mood or expression. By the late 1500’s, the word began to be linked to positive sentiments, and from there it became a toast to health and happiness.

I’m off for a drink. Cheers, everyone.

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The dark side of nursery rhymes

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Not so innocent songs

You might think that English nursery rhymes are just childish songs which have survived from generation to generation. You would be right on the last count – most of our nursery rhymes are hundreds of years old, but not only do they refer to long-forgotten historical facts, they can also hold satire or political messages of the times. Here are a few examples.

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Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

The Humpty Dumpy rhyme is old. So old that in its earlier versions, it could have been a reference to Richard III who was both allegedly humpbacked, and humiliatingly defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485. It also was once a riddle about an egg and nowadays HD is generally characterised as a type of personified egg in children’s books.

In the fifteenth century, the expression “Humpty Dumpty” referred to a heavy, corpulent person. But maybe HD was not a person at all. The rhyme also appears to have been used in the story of an enormous cannon that was used by the Royalist forces against the Roundheads at the Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War of 1642-1651. During the siege, when the wall beneath the cannon was damaged, the cannon fell to to the ground and could not be repaired by the Royalists a.k.a the King’s men. The rhyme may have existed previously, but this adaptation is the one we are familiar with today.

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.

The elder daughter of Henry VIII is known as “Bloody Mary” due to the severe religious persecution practiced under her reign from 1553-1558. The only surviving child of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Mary was a devout Catholic who rejected the annulment of her father’s marriage to Catherine, and on becoming queen, she attempted to reverse the English Reformation and restore Catholicism, burning over 280 religious dissenters at the stake.

The opening line does not need much explanation, as obviously the author held opposing views to Mary. How does your garden grow? is allegedly a reference to Mary’s infertility, although it is also said to refer to Stephen Gardiner, a bishop who was also Mary’s Lord Chancellor. There is a chilling consensus that silver bells and cockle shells could be nicknames for instruments of torture used to make Protestants recant their faith. There are a couple of nterpretations of pretty maids all in a row. It could allude to lines of Protestant matryrs, or refer to yet another type of torture device. Wow.

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Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

This one is about money. To be more specific, tax on wool, which was an important commodity in the Middle Ages. Although the song was not published until the 1700s, it refers back to wool tax, first imposed in 1275, by Edward I, a tax which lasted until the fifteenth century. Tellingly, the original last two lines were But none for the little boy who cries down the lane. In other words, the authorities took their cut, leaving the farmer with next to nothing. Presumably when it was published as a children’s song, the ending was altered to make it more suitable.

Nursery rhymes – not quite as sweet as they sound.

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March hares and hatters

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A hare with a look of insanity ?

Why do we say these expressions ?

The expression “as mad as a March hare” alludes to the excited behaviour of hares during their mating season. The phrase was first coined around 1500, and has been in continuous use since then. It was employed by eminent writers such as John Skelton, Thomas More and notably, by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures of Wonderland in 1865.

Another lighthearted phrase we use to describe deranged antics is “as mad as a hatter.” This expression is thought to have its origins in the hat-making profession of the 18th and 19th century where the use of mercury ultimately poisoned the workers, giving them slurred speech, memory loss and tremors, and sometimes even hallucinations. Again, Lewis Carroll used this idea in his character the Hatter, who interacted with Alice in a nonsensical manner. We generally refer to to this character nowadays as the Mad Hatter, although Lewis Carroll only ever called him the Hatter.

Do you know any other expressions to refer to crazy behaviour?

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It’s Pancake Tuesday !

Pancakes served with fruit
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Why do we celebrate Pancake Tuesday ?

Many English-speaking countries celebrate Pancake Tuesday (also known as Shrove Tuesday). This custom has its roots in Christian liturgical tradition. Shrove Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent – a 40 day stretch when religious followers would fast, or avoid rich and fatty food, and refrain from other vices, as a symbol of penance. The verb “to shrive” meant “to confess” and Christian followers were expected to be “shriven” before the solemn Lenten period.

In other countries this day is usually known as Mardi Gras (which means Fat Tuesday) and is very often a carnival day. Over time, what was once just a day of festivities gradually extended to the previous Sunday up to Shrove Tuesday and this was known as Shrovetide in England. In Medieval England, pancakes were a convenient way of using up rich food such as milk, eggs and butter before embarking on a period of food austerity.

Shrovetide was a half-holiday in England and was announced by church bells at 11 a.m. There were games of mob football, a local football match where many people joined in, using an inflated pig’s bladder as the ball. This custom declined during the 19th century, probably due to fears for public safety. Pancake races were another common sight and they are still organised on Pancake Tuesday in present times. The runners have to cover a specified route, while flipping pancakes in their frying pans. London still holds pancake races – in Leadenhall and Greenwich markets, for example. In recent years there has also been a Parliamentary Pancake Race where teams from the House of Commons and the House of Lords held a relay pancake race in Victoria Tower Gardens in order to raise money for charity. Sadly, this was cancelled in 2019 due to hostile protests related to Brexit, which made the race untenable around the Westminster area.

Will you be eating pancakes today ? Whichever way you are celebrating Pancake Day, enjoy it !

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Why do we call it the “loo”?

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A typical sign for the “loo”.

History of the word “loo”

We have lots of words we can use as a substitute for toilet – loo, lavatory, w.c., restroom, bathroom, the ladies’/ the gents’ and I am sure that many people can probably add a few more informal or slang words to this list. But why do the British use the word loo?

There are several theories about how this word became part of the English language ……

Gardyloo

The most popular suggestion is based on the idea that before plumbing was invented, servants would empty the contents of a chamber pot into the street with a cry of “gardyloo” – which was a corrupted form of the French “gardez l’eau” meaning “mind the water”. However, the stumbling block to this idea is that the word “loo” first appeared in a dictionary in 1940 and began to be commonly used long after the “gardyloo” warning had disappeared from the streets.

The French term “lieux

Lieux” (with a similar pronunciation to “loo”) referred to “lieux d’aisance “, which translates as “places of comfort ” and was a French euphemism for the toilets. During World War 1, English soldiers serving in France would have been aware of this expression. Maybe they brought the term back with them to Britain where it became mainstream ?

Leeward/Looward

Leeward, signifying the side of the ship travelling in the opposite direction to the wind, was often pronounced “looward”, and would be the logical choice for sailors to relieve themselves. But it has to be pointed out that there were places onboard specifically designed for this purpose, and therefore it seems unlikely that the word “loo” originated from here.

Lady Louisa

There is a story that in 1847, Lady Louisa, the Earl of Lichfield’s unpopular wife, was staying with relatives, when the name card on her bedroom door was removed and placed on the bathroom door instead as a joke. The guests then used the phrase “going to Lady Louisa” which later became shortened to “going to the loo”.

Room 100

Yet another theory is that the toilet was often supposedly situated in Room 100 of buildings, and that 100 was misread as the word “loo.”

Waterloo

Waterloo was a trade name which appeared on cast iron cisterns at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1922, James Joyce in his book Ulysees, appears to make a reference to this : “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.” Waterloo was very much in public awareness due to Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the name lends itself easily to this play on words.

In short, not only are there are several possibilities, but the etymology of the word “loo” is a minefield with little conclusive evidence. It seems that its origins will remain obscure for the time being. Which explanation do you think is the most likely?

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Silent letters in English

Silent letters

It is certainly not impossible to learn English, but our language has certain quirks that often pose problems for learners ; this is true for native speakers when they begin to speak English, as well as those studying it as a foreign language. A young native speaker of English may well mispronounce a word the first time they see it written form, and often this is a result of a silent letter i.e. the letter appears in the written word, but it should not be voiced.

What are common silent letters in English?

How many silent letters are there in the English language ? The letters b, c, g, h, k, l, p,t, and w all make an unvoiced appearance in English vocabulary. Let’s take a quick look at where they appear and the reasons why.

B – is not pronounced at the end of these words : bomb, climb, comb, crumb, lamb, limb. In fact, it is even quite difficult to include the “b” sound. So why is it there ? Well, the word “bomb” came from the Italian “bomba“, where we can clearly hear the b sound. As the word began to be adapted into English , the letter b survived in the written form of the word “bomb”, whilst in the spoken form, we have eliminated its sound. This is the often the reason for those silent b’s at the end of a word.The lexeme originated from a different language and was shortened in its spoken form, although the written form conserved an extra unspoken letter.

B and C– That rogue letter b also appears in debt, doubt and subtle, but we do not include the b sound when we say these words. However, the reason for this is that they were, in fact, added to the original spelling in the Middle Ages. At this time, scholars began to examine Latin texts and the etymology of language. The three words in question are rooted in Old French, without a letter b in sight, but these academics realised that the origin of these words were debitum , dubitare and subtilis, respectively, and therefore thought that the Latin root should be recognised within the spelling. This is also the case with the letter c in the words indict and scissors.

G – There are words such as gnash, gnat, gnome, where the letter g is never pronounced. These are often archaic spellings from the time when the letter g was actually pronounced at the beginning of the word. What is more, if an English word ends in a combination of gn, then the letter g is silent. This includes sign, design, foreign, reign, sovereign. Silent g also occurs in words like bought, light, night, right, thought. There is an explanation for this, as in Old English, the letter h was pronounced even when it was placed halfway through a word. In Middle English, this h was spelt as a gh when it came before a vowel, and although the h sound is no longer voiced, the spelling with its redundant unvoiced letters has survived.

Kknee. knickers, knife, knowledge and more. Why is the letter k there ? Similar to silent g at the beginning of a word, the letter k was actually pronounced in Old and Middle English but has evolved into a silent letter in the English we speak nowadays.

L – for example, could, should, would, half, salmon, talk, yolk . Non-native English language students, particularly those whose maternal language is phonetic, often mispronounce these words by including an l sound. However, in English the letter l can be silent after the vowels a, o and u. But definitely not a rule you can apply across the board.

P – When the letter p is silent, it is what we call a dummy letter. Similar to silent g and k at the beginning of a word, vocabulary items with a silent p at the start are generally cognates, that is to say, words that have been borrowed from other languages and often reflect the original spelling in the other language, even though we do not actually pronounce the English version of the word in exactly the same way. The p sometimes can be towards the end of the word .Examples include corps, coup, phlebitis, psychotic – the first two from French , the third from Latin and the fourth from Greek. And to complicate matters further, the word receipt has a silent p due to those literary scholars of the past who added the p back into the spelling to show its Latin roots.

T – some spellings consistently produce a silent T in English. The endings – ften , sten, stle generally have a silent t – think about soften, soften, listen , moisten, castle, whistle. And words borrowed from French ending in t imitate French pronunciation – ballet. gourmet, ricochet – and thus the letter t does not sound at the end.

W – why is the w not pronounced in answer or sword and why is it there at all in words like write, wrong, or wrinkle ? Answer and sword are another case of spellings not keeping up with pronunciation. The w was originally vocalised in Old English but was dropped over time, whilst persisting in the written word. The family of words begining with wr has its roots in Old German, and the w stopped being pronounced from 1450 onwards.

This is just a brief look at some of the issues with silent letters in English. It is by no means comprehensive and unfortunately the rule is that there are no rules when it comes to English pronunciation. Modern English is basically a hotch-potch of words from all those different regions who invaded the British Isles in the past, plus lexicology from the now defunct Anglo-Saxon language. This wide range of influences has without doubt, supplied the English language with a rich and immense vocabulary, and a fair sprinkling of silent letters from archaic spellings, which often mislead those learning to speak English.

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Christmas – love it or hate it ?

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Christmas decorations

A short Christmas story with your chosen ending

They were in love and they lived together. She adored Christmas and all its trappings. He really wouldn’t have cared if Christmas never happened again. For this reason, their first Christmas together was proving difficult. One of them was continually wrapped up in Christmas euphoria whilst the other wallowed in disgust at the commercial frenzy around them.

” Let’s go and see the Christmas lights in the city centre” she suggested one December evening. ” I’m tired, it’s cold and I am really not interested in any of this palaver” he replied. “But whyever not?” she pleaded. “It’s such a wonderful time of the year, and it’s soooo pretty……”. He left the room before he had to listen to any more to his love who was becoming more of a deluded Christmas maniac every minute….

She sighed. He would never understand that Christmas for her was an expression of life, that she wanted to enjoy rituals like this with the love of her life. But she understood that Christmas was a difficut time for him, and remembered his harrowed face when he told her about his mother’s fatal accident on Christmas Eve when he was only a teenager…..

He sat down heavily. Why was she so obsessed with all this Christmas crap ? But then he thought about her tragic childhood, the poverty surrounding her as she had grown up, and the way, even now, the smallest things could fill her with delight as there had been so little joy at the beginning of her life.

So what do you think ? Did they go to the Christmas lights? Did they spend many more Christmases together?

Love it or hate it or somewhere inbetween, Christmas. The choice is yours.

Feel free to write your ending to the story in the comments box.

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Christmas crackers

Christmas crackers
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A decoration …. and more

Christmas crackers are a must at any Christmas dinner in the U.K., Ireland and other English speaking countries. These festive decorations are placed on the table, one for each person, and resemble oversized sweets, made from a cardboard tube overlaid with coloured paper.

Origin

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Old fashioned sweets

It is no coincidence that a cracker resembles a giant sweet wrapper. Crackers were invented in London in 1847 by Tom Smith, as a promotion to sell his bon-bon sweets. He added the novelty of a tiny explosive sound when the cracker was broken apart, and eventually the sweet came to be replaced by a trinket.

Today

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Waiting for the cracker ……

No self-respecting Christmas dinner in the U.K can be without crackers. One is placed next to each table setting, and two people pull them apart from either end. When the cracker breaks, there is a small bang produced by the snapping of the friction slip inside. Inside contemporary crackers, there is a paper crown to be worn throughout the meal, a slip of paper with a riddle or joke to make everyone groan, and a small (usually plastic) gift – typical objects are rings and puzzles, for example. However, the British Royal Family have their Christmas crackers specially made, and luxury versions of crackers also exist, with jewellery and more expensive paraphernalia in their interior.

From humble beginnings as a marketing gimmick, Christmas crackers are now part and parcel of the Yuletide festivities.

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“Nothing is certain except death and taxes”

A brief history of tax troubles for monarchs and the people

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Calculating taxes

The title of this article is a quotation that has become part of our culture, and is generally used to convey the idea that paying taxes is unavoidable. The quote is generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin in 1789 , although in 1716 Christopher Bullock, an English actor, is on record as having said” “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.”

Anglo-Saxon England

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A medieval sword and helmet

Not much is known about the financial systems in place in Roman Britain. But a document from 7th or 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, The Tribal Hidage, shows the government used land taxes in order to raise money for their expenses. Land was divided into hides, and this measurement was used in order to evaluate tax payments from the populace. It is unclear exactly how this method was calculated, but we do know that the tax obligations were already in force, and the revenue obtained was officially destined to military service, fortress work and bridge repair. By 1202, a customs tax payment, amounting to 15 % of the the total value, had been introduced to be paid on all imports and exports.

In 1381 the imposition of a third poll tax in the space of 5 years brought years of economic discontent to a head, resulting in the Peasant’s Revolt led by Wat Tyler. Despite its name, this uprising was a widespread revolution throughout England involving not only rural workers, but the urban working class and wealthier artisans. The rebels stormed the Tower of London and beheaded the Lord Chancellor and other instigators of the poll tax. The revolt was eventually neutralised and some 1,500 rebels were killed. Nonetheless, this event did serve as a deterrent for Parliament against further taxes on the people.

Tudor taxation

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Tudor England

Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, stablised the economy and increased the revenue received by the Crown. He did not, however, collect heavy land taxes in times of peace, and concentrated his efforts on obtaining funds from the nobility. Henry VII also encouraged trade as this meant an increase in revenue from customs tax. During the reign of Henry VIII, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, raised heavy taxes through Parliament to fund the English troops fighting against France, which contributed to his unpopularity and caused widespread discontent. Nevertheless, on the whole, Henry VIII was astute enough to suspend or abandon extra tax collection if it seemed likely to be troublesome. His daughter, Elizabeth I, followed this example during her reign and was loathe to tax the public harshly as she feared this would cause public resentment and alienate supporters.

The Petition of Right

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The Houses of Parliament

Fast forwarding to the Stuart period, in 1628, one of England’s most important constitutional bills was passed through Parliament, the Petition of Right. Charles I was demanding huge sums of money to continue with what became known as the Thirty Years War in Europe. The Petition of Right placed limitations on non-parliamentary taxes, amonst other restrictions aimed at the king, and this parliamentary bill played a significant role in the constitutional events leading up to the English Civil War and the subsequent beheading of Charles I. Once England was under Oliver Cromwell’s rule, public taxes were gradually decreased, although if he deemed it necessary, Cromwell saw fit to raise taxes without consent, overriding the Petition of Right which he had helped to create. In 1655 he also introduced Decimation Tax . This tax payment was aimed at his enemies, Royalists or suspected Royalists, and the income received from these charges, although not in force for a long period of time, was used to fund divisions of reserve armies, tasked with keeping order.

Introduction of income tax

At the end of 1798, the incumbent Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger introduced a progressive income tax, whereby an individual’s wealth was assessed to pay the necessary proportion,the proceeds of which were destined for expenditure on the French Revolutionary War. This is commonly regarded as the beginning of the British income tax system today. Although it was abolished and restored more than once, the Income Tax Act of 1842 firmly re-established the model and it has remained part of British fiscal procedures ever since.

Anglo-Saxon economy

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A piggy bank

An Anglo-Saxon economy is so-called as it is generally practised in English speaking countries, where governments use low level taxation and few restrictions in order to stimulate economic growth, following a free market model with its orgins in the 1700s. There are supporters and critics of this financial system but, to come full circle, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

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Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving dinner

Be grateful

When I was growing up in England, Thanksgiving day was an entirely alien concept to me, a festivity that I had seen only in American films and looked a lot like a British Christmas, but without Santa Claus and gifts. And as a Brit, I don’t feel particularly qualified to write about Thanksgiving in depth.

But what I do know is that Thanksgiving is an event that is cherished by my American friends. And the message of Thanksgiving is simple ; be grateful for what you have. Just stop for a moment and think about all the good things in your life today.

Happy Thanksgiving Day everyone !

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Scratchiti

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An example of “scratchiti”

Words for our time

As discussed earler in this blog, ( see “English is Alive”, posted Sep 2nd 2019 ) new words come about because a need arises for humans to be able to label a new object or concept. Earlier this month, on a trip to New York, a sign on the subway from the MTA (New York’s public transport company) caught my eye. It prohibited graffiti and scratchiti. To date, scratchiti is not officially a word, meaning that it cannot be found in the recognised leading dictionaries of the English language. But do you instantly understand the meaning of scratchiti ? Of course you do.

Scratchiti and graffiti

This got me thinking about why people feel the need to make their mark by the use of scratchiti. After all, scratchiti is not limited to the twenty-first century. In both schools and jails, scratchiti has always been commonplace. Why ? Undoubtedly, boredom plays a huge role, and possibly the need to reassert a sense of personal identity in institutions where individuality is generally repressed, for example. prisons and schools. Vandalism can never be condoned, but understanding the reasons behind it can be useful .

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An example of graffiti

And what about graffiti ?

There are multiple motivations for graffiti, scratchiti’s etymological big brother. Again, boredom is obviously one of the causes, although it has been suggested that some graffiti artists are addicted to the adrenalin rush from running the risk of being caught in an illegal activity. Graffiti can also be motivated by anger, or the wish to promote awareness, especially in the case of social and political issues. Sadly, graffiti is sometimes the product of bullying and harassment. And on other occasions, it can be the outlet to showcase artistic ability in a public location, sometimes, (but not always) providing beauty and colour where there was none before. And graffiti is no longer anonymous, as it generally was in the past. Contemporary graffiti artists often tag their works, in other words, their artwork has a type of graffiti signature attached in the same way that traditional artists would sign their artwork. There are even a handful of famous graffiti artists whose works have fetched enormous sums of money.

In conclusion, this post is not an encouragement to damage property or any other type of illegal activity. But it is fascinating how human beings are drawn to express themselves in these ways, within or outside of the law, don’t you agree ?

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Remember, remember the 5th of November

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Fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Guy Fawkes was born in Yorkshire in 1570, during a time of great sectarian turbulence between Protestants and Catholics both in England and in Europe. Fawkes became infamous when he was arrested as part of a conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate the Protestant King James 1 on 5th November, 1605. The failure of the plot is still celebrated on 5th November and known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night.

Who was Guy Fawkes ?

Although Guy Fawkes was born as a Protestant, at the age of eight, his mother remarried a recusant Catholic after Fawkes’ father had died.  Recusant Catholics were religious dissenters, who refused to attend Anglican Church services, remaining loyal to their religion and the pope.  Protestant England feared that the pope was looking for secular power over England in alliance with France and Spain, and consequently, anyone who was suspected of supporting the Catholic religion was penalised with fines, confiscation of property and even imprisonment. Guy Fawkes converted to Catholicism after his mothers’ remarriage and as an adult, his Catholic beliefs led him to enlist in the Spanish army in 1593 to fight in Flanders against the Dutch Protestant Army. Also known as Guido Fawkes by now, he fought for Spain again in Calais, northern France, in 1595, and these military assignments taught him how to use explosives.

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Houses of Parliament, London

The Gunpowder Plot

On Fawkes’ return to England, he became involved in a plot with Robert Catesby and a small group of fellow Catholics. They planned to overturn the Protestant monarchy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament and placing Princess Elizabeth, James’ daughter, as a Catholic monarch on the throne.  The group of conspirators rented an undercroft, a type of cellar, under the House of Lords and began to store barrels of gunpowder there. Their plot was dashed when, in the early hours of 5th November 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered with the stockpiled explosives in the cellar. There were actually thirteen conspirators in all who were charged with the conspiracy, but Guy Fawkes is the only one whose name is instantly recognizable in regard to the Gunpowder plot. Persecution of religious dissension was already the norm during this period but along with high treason, the plotters could only expect the worst punishment from the state. Guy Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, a horrific death.  At the last minute he jumped from the gallows, effectively breaking his neck, and as a result, avoided the excruciating agony of the rest of the process.

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Bonfires are lit on Guy Fawkes Night

Celebration of Guy Fawkes Night

On the night of November 5th, 1605, the people of London held bonfires to celebrate the failure of the plot and the King’s escape. Within a context of religious persecution, these celebrations also promoted anti- Catholic feeling.  From 1650 fireworks were added to the festivities. In the 1670’s an effigy, usually of the pope, was placed on the bonfire to burn, but in time other unpopular figures were also used.  By the end of the 18th century, Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night had finally lost most of its anti-Catholic overtones and children would make effigies of Guy Fawkes and beg for money, typically with the phrase  “ a penny for the guy”.  During the Victorian period, the festivities began to be held away from small communities and bonfires were lit on their outskirts, resembling the modern day events held today in parks. Victorians were familiar with much older songs that usually started with the words:  “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”. The celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, sometimes known as Gunpowder Treason Day, also extended to parts of the British Commonwealth.  Early settlers to North America took the tradition with them, where it was sometimes called Pope Day. As the American Revolution drew near and anti-British sentiment increased, the commemoration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot went into decline.

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A comtemporary Guy Fawkes mask worn by a protestor

Guy Fawkes’ legacy

Bonfire Night in England in the twenty-first century has long been a non-sectarian occasion, generally held in a park or suitably large venue with bonfires and a firework display. Effigies of Guy Fawkes can still be spotted although other unpopular celebrities of the moment are sometimes placed on the bonfire instead. Today there are concerns about public safely and the environmental risk posed by the toxins in the air from the bonfires.  From the 1980’s onwards, when an Americanised version of Halloween began to increase in popularity, the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot has been somewhat overshadowed. Even so, in 2005, when the film V for Vendetta was released, its main character was an anarchist who wore a Guy Fawkes mask. This mask has been adopted by anti-establishment groups, is commonly seen during their protests and is to date the best-selling mask on Amazon. And did you know the Yeoman of the Guard, the famous Beefeaters, still perform a ceremony to this day, when they check the cellars under Westminster before the Opening of Parliament every year?

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What are contranyms ?

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Contradictions

Words or expressions that have two contradictory meanings are known as contranyms, or contronyms, antagonyms,  autoantonyms  or Janus words (Janus being a Roman god who is depicted with two faces). Generally the context provides us with the intended meaning of the word ; however, these contradictions  give us plenty of opportunities for word play.

Examples

A selection of contranym verbs :

To bolt: to secure /to flee

 She bolted the door and then she bolted.

To buckle: to fasten/to bend and break

He buckled his belt, even though it was buckling under the strain.

To clip: to connect /to separate

She clipped the papers together and then went to the garden to clip the overgrown plants.

To dust : to remove dust/ to add dust

He dusted the kitchen while his sister dusted the cake with icing sugar.

To execute: to begin/to kill

He had executed a plan which would result in his being executed.

To hold up: to support/ to delay

The nurse had to physically hold up the patient while the doctor was held up in traffic.

To trim: to decorate/ to remove any excess

After trimming the Christmas tree, he trimmed his beard.

To wind up : to start/to finish

She wound up the old clock and decided to wind up her business.

How do contranyms come about?

These contradictory meanings can happen for various reasons. Sometimes they are literally two different words with a separate etymology, which purely by chance, are spelt in the same way. Or a contranym could owe its double meaning to polysemy, that is, when a word actually does have different meanings. The verb “to bolt” originates from a crossbow bolt (i.e.  an arrow) which can both move quickly and immobilize someone. As a result, we use it for both ideas of running away speedily and securing an object, such as a door. Nouns such as dust can become verbs for either adding or removing the said noun.  There are probably other reasons for contranyms due to the ongoing evolution of language – for example, the difference between British and American English. All in all, there are many strands to the complexity of the English language.

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The history of Halloween

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Flames and fire were once an integral part of Halloween

The beginnings

Hallowe’en or Halloween is a contraction of the Scottish expression All Saints’ Eve, which falls on 31st October before All Saints’ Day on November 1st.  Our modern Halloween celebrations stem from a variety of much older customs, from Celtic rituals and medieval traditions.

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Bonfires were lit during Samhain

Samhain

Celtic occupation of the British Isles can be traced back to the 13th century B.C. In Celtic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, an important festival called Samhain was celebrated on 31st October/1st November, which was the beginning of a new year in the Celtic calendar. It was believed that on this first day of winter, the dead returned to Earth.  The Celts in England, Wales and Brittany had a similar tradition, known as Calan Gaeaf in Welsh, also involving the belief that the ghosts of the dead were roaming amongst the living. On this day, sacred bonfires were lit, crops were burnt and animals were sacrificed. The Celts wore costumes, generally animal skins and heads, in order to ward off evil spirits, and they also told fortunes and made predictions for the coming year. Bowls of food were left out to gain goodwill from malevolent ghosts. These festivals not only marked the beginning of winter when it was thought it would be easier for spirits to enter the world, they also were a means of asking for protection from the evils of a long, dark winter period. 

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Apples are a longstanding element of Halloween

Some historians believe that with the advent of the Roman Empire, a Roman festival was added to the Halloween mix. Pomona was the goddess of fruit trees and orchards and was associated with the blossoming of fruit.  Her symbol was an apple and as a result, this fruit became incorporated into Halloween activities, still around today in the guise of toffee apples and games such as apple bobbing. However, as Samhain and Calan Gaeaf marked the end of harvest time, it is likely that apples were already used in these festivities during the Celtic period.

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The Church created Holy Days to take precedence over pagan rites

Church intervention

During his reign from 731-741, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in Rome to all saints on November 1st.  In Medieval England this day became known as All Hallows and the previous day became Hallowe’en.   Around the year 1000, the Church created All Souls’ Day on Nov 2nd and the period from 31st Oct to Nov 2nd was called Allhallowtide or Hallowmass.   It is generally thought nowadays that the Church was trying to impose holy days over the pagan Celtic festival which was still being celebrated, but in fact, these designated holy days would begin to include some of the elements of Samhain and Calan Gaeaf.

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Church bells were tolled for the dead

The Middle Ages

Early traditions from Allhallowtide included the ringing of church bells for the souls in purgatory along with town criers dressed in black. By the 15th century the tradition of souling had begun, which appears to be the starting point for our modern custom of trick or treating.  Families with the economic means would provide soul cakes to poor people, who in turn would pray for the souls of the dearly departed from the family. Soul cakes were small fruit-filled pastries, and, similar to the hot cross buns we eat at Easter, they were marked with a cross to show that they were given in alms, that is, with a charitable purpose. This practice was encouraged by the Church in order to replace the pagan habit of leaving food and drink to appease the evil spirits afoot at Halloween.

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A souler

Souling

From the 16th century onwards souling had evolved into a practice whereby people dressed up to personify the dead spirits and received food and offerings on their behalf in return for protection. These people were guisers, or at Allhallowtide they were also known as soulers. It was also believed that by impersonating a dead soul, the soulers themselves were safe from evil spirits in the same way that the Celts had used animal skin disguises at Samhain to ward off unearthly enemies. However as time went on, in England Halloween waned in popularity, although there is evidence that it was still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and rural areas. The emigrants from these areas to the United States, particularly the Irish, implanted their Halloween traditions in their new country. From the areas mainly inhabited by immigrants, Halloween festivities began to spread into mainstream culture.

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Today Halloween is vey much about children

Halloween in the 20th century

At the turn of the 20th century, Halloween games for young women included using apple peel to predict the name of their future husbands – just like the Celts had told fortunes many centuries ago. People dressed up in Halloween costumes, and went from house to house asking for food or money, a latter day version of soulers.  For a time, vandalism and Halloween pranks  threatened to become the main part of the festivities, but in the 1920’s and 30’s there was a concerted effort in America to make Halloween more community-centred and remove references to its more grisly and/or uneasy aspects.  By the 1950’s, this aim had generally been achieved and Halloween was both a secular and family–based celebration. Particularly after the baby boom of the 1950’s, Halloween became a mainstream event for children and trick or treating at Halloween was a perfectly normal activity for younger members of the family.

To date

Nowadays, Halloween is a hugely commercial event in the United States, generating billions of dollars from sales of costumes and sweets, along with parades and other activities. Although some people dismiss this new version of Halloween as an American import, it has, in fact, also increased in popularity in recent years in the United Kingdom and Ireland. What would our Celtic ancestors make of it, I wonder?

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What are the oldest words in English?

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Earliest known words

The earliest words in English cover the same concepts as old words in other languages and logically, relate to basic needs of communication. The University of Reading conducted a study in 2013 that came up with words that have remained unchanged for at least 900 and possibly up to 15,000 years. It is, of course, practically impossible to pinpoint the first word in English with 100% accuracy, but here are are some of the contenders that are deeply rooted in the origins of the English language.

I, we and this

It is clear that humans need pronouns to refer to themselves and objects when communicating. Therefore, hardly surprising that these words are on the list.

Mother

A little bit of girl power here, as the word “mother” is quite a bit older than “father”, and was clearly recognised as the vital starting point of the life cycle.

Black

In prehistoric times, it was necessary to have a word that indicated “no light at all.” Interestingly, the word “white” took a significantly longer time to appear in our vocabulary.

Fire and ashes

Fire was a basic element of prehistoric daily life, not only because it provided warmth. light and security but was also a cooking tool. It is a no-brainer then, for both “fire” and “ashes” to be on the list.

Old

So funnily enough, “old” is an old word. Older people in these times were generally revered for their wisdom and experience. Not always the case today…..

Hear

The word “hear” has been around for longer than the verb ” speak”. Of course, being able to hear was another basic survival skill, necessary for hunting or fleeing from wild animals, along with listening for sounds of danger or cries for help. Speaking was not as highly-rated as the ability to hear….maybe there is a lesson to learn here ?

Hand

A vital body part which may have been in constant danger in a prehistoric world, with predators, fire and other dangers from the natural world.

Spit

At first sight, this may look like a surprising entry, but spitting was another survival technique – someone had to taste those foul tasting or poisonous plants first, so we know not to eat them, right ?

Worm

Very possibly related to the need for a word to spit. And evidence that these creatures have been around for a long, long time.

Love and give

Satisying human interaction involves loving and giving, together with the fact that cooperation and teamwork were also key in the struggle for survival.

Conclusion

A common theme in this blog is that our vocabulary relates to our human circumstances. This fact is evident once more, in the words used by our prehistoric ancestors. Whilst fire, ashes, worm and spit are concepts that may have lost urgency in the modern world due to our more comfortable surroundings , several of the words in this list are still considered as basic human necessities of life itself.

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British icons – the red phone box

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The great British phone box

A famous icon

Practically everyone in the Western world can probably identify a red British phone box which is undoubtedly a cultural icon. Despite the fact that mobile phones are now commonplace, the instantly recognisable red phone cabins can still be found in the U.K. and in former or present colonies.

The beginning

The very first British phone kiosk, now known as K1, was made in 1921, using concrete. In 1924 a competition was held to design a new phone box, and the winner was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He suggested that the exterior be painted silver with a green/blue interior. The Post Office used his prototype but decided to paint the cast iron phone boxes in red so they could easily be identified in case of an emergency.. This K2 model is generally what people have in mind when they imagine a British phone kiosk, although in fact there have been several later versions.  As the K2’s were also relatively expensive to manufacture and transport, this particular model was mainly installed in London, and of course, is where you will find most of the remaining K2’s today. The K3 was also the work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, due to the need for a cheaper alternative to its predecessor. The next model in the series, K4, was produced by the Post Office Engineering Department in 1927 and comprised a post box and a machine for buying stamps in addition to the phone, although only 50 of these kiosks were manufactured.

Yellow phone boxes

Some 50 years later, there was a public outcry in 1980 when British Telecom announced they were going to paint public phone boxes yellow. In the end, only a tiny percentage of the boxes were painted a different colour “as an experiment”, but the plan to repaint all phone boxes yellow never came to fruition. In 1982 British Telecom introduced the KX100, an open-sided booth that was easier to maintain and could be used by people in wheelchairs. At this point, B.T. also eliminated many of the older red phone boxes, although the British people were in uproar again over the loss of their beloved British symbol.

Reinvention

In spite of the digital era in which we now live, the old-fashioned red phone box is far from obsolete. Apart from the booths which still operate with their original intention, you can find red phone boxes being used in a variety of imaginative ways. They are used to house libraries, defibrillators, and art galleries. One is a colour therapy box and another provides hot dogs, ice-cream, tea and coffee. In the Virgin Isles, a red phone kiosk acts as a beach shower. The red phone box is a British icon which intends to remain as part of our lansdcape and lives.

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Origins of the word “hipster”

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A twenty-first century hipster

1920-1940’s

The term “hipster” was first heard in the 1920’s and according to the Merriam- Webster dictionary defines “a person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns (as in jazz or fashion)”. In the early days of jazz music, there were two prefixies -“hep” and “hip” which meant non-mainstream and/or “in-the-know”. However , the use of “hep” declined whilst “hip” survived.

The 50’s until present day

Towards, the end of the 50’s the word “hipster” may have drifted to become the word “hippie”, the famous youth movement that began in San Francisco and which became popular as an alternative lifestyle at the end of the 60’s. But the word “hipster” never really went away and in the 21st century has become a word for a young trendsetter, often with creative facial hair. Its meaning still focuses very much on a way of dressing, although a typical facet of a “hipster” nowadays is also being a fan of indie music. So there you have it – the word “hipster” is actually much older than you might think.

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The origin of the expression “red tape”

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Graduate holding their official cerificate

    I currently live in Spain, an incredibly diverse country with a great quality of life. But one of the downfalls of living here is the amount of red tape you need to deal with at times. What does this mean? Dealing with red tape means going through a lot of (often perceived as unnecessary and finicky) bureaucracy. Everyone who lives in Spain knows how much time you can spend in a government office with regards to a bureaucratic procedure, such as applying for residency, or completing a tax return, or ……the list is long.

Why do we call it red tape? Well, if you think about historical films that depict, say, the Middle Ages, important official documents are either sealed with red wax, or yes, you guessed it, tied with a red ribbon or tape. And from this idea, administrative paperwork in the 21st century has come to be known as red tape. We still sometimes use the tradition of red tape when handing out certificates ( see photo above.).

For me, the benefits of living in Spain definitely outweigh the drawbacks, but that frustrating red tape is definitely part of the price you need to pay.

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Great British traditions – a cup of tea

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A short history of the British love for tea

How did the British fall in love with tea?

According to historians, tea first came to Europe in the 16th century, via Dutch and Portuguese traders. The habit of tea drinking gradually spread throughout Europe and the first person to sell tea in Britain was Thomas Garway in London in 1657. Around fifty years later, in 1701, Thomas Twining opened London’s first teashop.

At first tea drinking was an expensive habit that only the rich could afford. Tea was classed as a luxury item with high taxes, and at one point tea tax was at the ridiculous amount of 119%. This gave rise to tea smuggling, which often involved tea adulterated with herbs, other leaves and even previously used tea leaves. Tea smuggling was generally halted in 1784 when the tax on tea dropped to 12.5%.

The East India Company was given a monopoly for selling tea in Britain in 1832. They soon began to use “clippers” – sailing ships prized for their speed. The tea market was highly competitive and the faster the ship, the more the owner could charge for the mission. The Cutty Sark is a British tea clipper built in those times, and can still be visited today in the Greenwich Maritime Museum.

Tea in Britain was originally drunk on its own, but the additions of milk and sugar increased its popularity. Sugar was becoming widely available to due to the boom in sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Originally considered as a drink only for the rich and the aristocracy, during the 19th century tea gradually became more available to the middle classes and tea shops soared in popularity. Drinking tea became the norm in middle class households.

By the 19th century, the working classes were also fans of tea drinking. It was seen as a warm, energy giving drink which was extremely useful in Britain’s cold and damp climate. The working classes probably began drinking tea as a source of energy at work before it became a ritual at home.

Although there has been a slight decline in “normal” tea drinkers in recent years, and fruit and herbal teas are becoming more widespread, tea is still very much a longstanding and essential part of British culture. Twinings is thought to be the world’s oldest commercial logo which is still in use today. Not only is tea still incredibly popular in Britain, it is estimated that the Brits drink around 60 billion cups of tea per year.

Anyone for a cuppa?

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Origins of the expressions “flying colours” and “show true colours”

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Ship flying colourful flags

To pass with flying colours

We usually use “to pass with flying colours” in conjunction with some type of test or exam to express the idea that the candidate has achieved high marks.  

“ My son passed his exam with flying colours”. “ Oh really, that’s wonderful!”

But where does this phrase come from? Like other expressions still in common use today, this has its origins in nautical history and refers to the colourful flags flying from a masthead of a ship. In the past, before the use of the widespread communication channels of today, a ship’s appearance was the key to how they had fared on their voyage.  If a ship had been defeated in battle, flags were not flown. But when a ship returned to port victorious from a mission, all their flags would be on display to show their achievement and to communicate this from afar, before the ship docked.

And….

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A ship destroyed by pirates

To show your true colours

In a similar way, “to show your true colours” also has its roots in naval history. Sometimes pirate ships would use the tactic of a friendly flag in order to deceive their prey and gain proximity. Once they had secured access to the ship, the pirate flag would be shown and they would attack in search of treasure. Of course, nowadays we use this expression to denote that someone has shown their real (usually unpleasant) feelings or personality after a period of initial friendliness.

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Origins of the word “geek”

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Where does the word geek come from ?

A word with a story

 This word originates from the German word “geck” and was used in the 16th century to describe someone who participated in the activities offered at funfairs or carnivals, knowing full well they would lose their money – in other words, a fool. But somehow by the 16th century it had become the word to describe the people who played a part in the carnival itself. This process of gradual change in meaning is known as semantic drift.  A 16th century funfair was pretty off-putting by today’s standards, as many of these geeks entertained people by biting the heads off dead animals…. pretty disgusting and definitely not today’s standards of fun. But by the early 20th century, a “geek” was also the definition of someone who played a dangerous role in the funfair – for example, the strongman or the fire eater, but it was still used as a word to describe people who performed freaky and sensational circus acts.

Modern geeks

In the second half of the 20th century, with the emergence of computers and new technologies, the word “geek” semantically drifted again.  Society needed a word to describe people who were devoted to and often obsessed with technology, and along with their passion for technical wizardry, were often socially awkward.  During the 1980’s these people began to be known as “geeks”. It was and still is, sometimes, used as a derogatory term, but geeks are finally beginning to have the last laugh. The increasingly significant role of technology in today’s world means that people with geeky skills are more and more in demand. In addition, if you call yourself a geek, it is generally in order to validate your knowledge and passion for technology, and not in the least offensive. An interesting journey then, for the word “geek”, which over time has changed its meaning from fool to expert.

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British icons – the red pillar box

A famous British icon – the red post box
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A burst of colour in the streets

Modern technology may have diminished the longstanding tradition of sending letters, but the red pillar box remains a well-known and much loved British emblem in the same way as the iconic red phone box. (see post of 4th October, 2019 British icons – the red phone box).

But how did red letter boxes come about ?

A brief history

Sir Rowland Hill was a teacher and social reformer who campaigned for changes in the postal system in the 1830’s. At that time, the postal service was poorly managed, costly, and slow. There was a complicated system of postal rates, and it was the recipient who paid for the letter and not the sender, so letters could be refused. Despite some fierce opposition, Hill revolutionised the postal system to create affordable standard rates by the use of postage stamps, to be paid by the sender.

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Postage stamps have long been collectable items
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However, in order to post a letter, it still needed to be taken to a receiving office, which were not always located near to the letter writer. These offices were usually coach inns or places where road tolls were collected, very different from the Royal Mail Post Offices we use today. As the country became more urbanised and industrialised, people needed more convenient places to deposit their correspondence. In 1852, Rowland Hill sent Anthony Trollope, a civil servant and a novelist, to trial the use of a “letter-receiving pillar” in the Channel Islands, a location which was further hindered by its dependence on a boat to and from the mainland for its postal service.

The use of pillar boxes along with scheduled collection times was a success. Letter boxes were introduced in Jersey in 1852, and later extended to the rest of Britain, where the first pillar box was inaugurated in Carlisle in 1853. The first post boxes were hexagonal but there have been more than 800 different types of post box over the years. One thing they generally have in common is that a post box displays the insignia of the incumbent monarch at the time of its installation.

Up to 1859, there was no standard colour for the pillar box. From 1859 to 1874 the standard colour was green, which was eventually deemed too inconspicious. Using the same logic as in the case of the phone box, the colour was changed to red to make post boxes easily identifiable. By 1900, the number of pillar boxes amounted to 33,500 in Britain, plus those throughout the British colonies.

A George V post box
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There are numerous types of pillar box which have survived until the present day. They are referred to by designated letters, type A, B, C and so on. John Penfold designed some of the first letter boxes and his nine different designs are now simply known as Penfolds. British post boxes have been copied and replicated in other countries in colours such as blue, green and yellow. And did you know that every time a British athlete won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics, a pillar box from their home town was painted gold to commemorate the occasion?

So not only do pillar boxes still serve their original purpose, they brighten our streets and add a little bit of history.