English life Wordpower

Why do we say cheesy?


We say that something is cheesy in English to mean that it is inferior, cheap or possibly embarrassing due to its lack of quality. (Obviously, this does not apply to its other definition, i.e. a large amount of cheese on our food, as above!)


He bought some cheesy (tacky) souvenirs from the local shop.

We didn’t like the show, the actors were really cheesy. (phoney)

But this was not always the case. In the 1850s, when the word was first used, if something was cheesy it was considered to be of top quality. Cheesy as the idea of something pleasant and important crossed the Atlantic where the concept of cheese meant celebrity or big money and gave us the expression ” the big cheese” to signify a person of importance. Over time, the word cheesy began to be used ironically, and this is the meaning that we have been left with today.

Small Potatoes/Chickenfeed

Small potatoes are the opposite of important, something, not very imposing and insignificant. First recorded in the 19th century, it came from the idea of small potatoes not being worth the bother if they were being picked or sold.

Chickenfeed, another U.S. expression, is along the same lines. Chickens were readily available in the 18th and 19th centuries whereas cattle and horses were more expensive and needed a bigger supply of food.

Chickens, being lower down the pecking order (see what I did just there?) were fed on leftovers and grain, hence chickenfeed coming to mean something trivial, often a small amount of money.


I’m not interested in their money – it’s small potatoes/chickenfeed.

Sour grapes

If you suffer from sour grapes, it means you speak badly of something you cannot have. This is an expression from one of Aesop’s Fables.

Aesop was a slave who lived in Greece around 600 B.C.E. He was a storyteller who told fables – short stories with a moral at the end. These fables were not recorded until 300 years after his death, so Aesop’s Fables, the collection of his stories, may or may not be all his own work, as the stories have been recorded, translated and rewritten over hundreds of years.

However, one of the best-known tales is “The Fox and The Grapes”, in which a fox is unable to reach a juicy bunch of grapes. Disappointed by failure, she salvages her pride by saying that they must have been sour.

I’m sure you can all think of someone who disparages something they once wanted. This is a case of sour grapes.

Salad Days

This saying refers to a carefree time with no worries, generally when we are young, and it was first recorded in William Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra.

Cleopatra calls her salad days the time when she was “green in judgement“, in other words, she was naive with not much knowledge of the world.

For a time this was also what people meant when they referred to salad days but the meaning has now shifted to mean the prime of youth, a time of happiness and optimism.


He did lots of crazy things in his salad days, but now he’s turned into a typical family man.

Thanks for reading the post! Can you think of any more foodstuffs used in English expressions? Write them in the comments below!

Life in Lanzarote

Lanzarote, winds and calima

Photo courtesy of PIxabay

Lanzarote winters

Yes, the Canary Islands are famous for their sub-tropical climate, with mild winters and pleasant, not boiling, summers. They are an all-year-round holiday destination for tourists looking to enjoy the sun. So we were looking forward to mild temperatures and some warmth on our arrival.

But 2023 has brought us winter in February. Unprecedented hailstones with rainy days and lower temperatures than the norm. And winds. Lanzarote is windy at the best of times, although a breeze in summer can be a welcome addition that creates a comfortable temperature of around 25 degrees centigrade. But recently the wind in Lanzarote has made its presence known in no small measure. You would probably guess this right now by the windswept look of both locals and tourists.

The surfing scene

The winds are part of life on the island. The North East Trade winds blow consistently throughout the year and create the types of waves much loved by surfers. I’m told that Lanzarote is also known as the Hawaii of Europe in surfing circles, with plenty of opportunities for surfers of all levels.

Surfer in action, courtesy of Openverse.


Another facet of these strong winds is the calima effect. Calima translates as haze, produced when particles of dust and/or smoke are suspended in the air, obscuring the sky and turning it a deathly shade of white. If it rains during the hazy period, then those layers of red dust appear everywhere, and this does mean in every nook and cranny far and wide…

Damp cloths and elbow grease must be out in force to clean it away. As the Canary Islands are so near to Africa, dust clouds from the Sahara are a common phenomenon, but it has been known for the calima to travel as far as the Caribbean.

The neighbouring island of Gran Canaria, during a period of calima. Photo courtesy of El Independiente.

Yet despite the lower-than-usual temperatures, the wind and the calima, we still cannot complain too much. Much of Europe is still in the grip of a cold weather front and it is still winter.

Yet today, 27th February, the sun is back and spring seems to be in the air. Will it last, I wonder?


A new life

Photo by SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS on

Like all new adventures, these past few weeks have brought me stress and pleasant surprises. I have island-hopped. From 30 years of living in the bustling capital city of Mallorca to the volcanic landscapes and cacti of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

Palma will always have a piece of my heart, but it has changed immensely over the period I lived there. Mallorca is indeed a stunning island – please don’t write it off if you have seen the rowdy streets of Magalluf in the media, there is so much more to the island; a wide variety of picturesque coves and magnificent beaches, quaint fishing ports, beautiful scenery throughout the rural interior which is incredibly green and fertile, not to mention the bustling capital city of Palma with its famous cathedral facing out to the sea. The iconic cathedral, a magnificent piece of architecture, was one of my first glimpses of Palma when I first fell in love with this place.

But Palma has moved on with the times. It is still, of course, an attractive city for visitors and I hope, always will be. But for residents, there is constant traffic congestion and cruise ship arrivals on various days of the week in the summer, with their humongous outpourings of tourists adding to the crowds. The climate is becoming progressively hotter and more humid. So my other half and I have taken the plunge and moved to a cooler (and definitely windier) climate where the population is smaller.

Will we stay here forever? I don’t know. But I hope that we will be happy here. More updates soon…

English history The Victorians

A Victorian education

Photo by Pixabay on

Schooldays….the best days of your life?

Why and when was school invented?

Throughout the 1800’s there was a push towards literacy and education for everyone, leading to the Elementary Education Act of 1870. Times were changing, with industrialisation and scientific innovation leading the way. People were leaving the old, rural lifestyle behind them, flocking to the cities in droves, in search of better lives. This upheaval also meant that people needed more education or training in order to find better paid jobs.

Prior to the 1870’s, education had always been at best, patchy and certainly not widely available to all and sundry. There were some independent voluntary schools, usually managed by the Church or a charity, with the emphasis on religious education. The first of these was set up in 597 and known as the King’s School, Canterbury, and still exists today. Part of the impressive modern school campus is shown below.

Sdnegel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Public schools – not open to the public

The official educational establishments that existed were known as public schools, as opposed to private tuition, both systems only available to the wealthy. In time these schools would evolve into institutions that were and still are exclusive to the public at large – for example, today, public schools for the very wealthy include Eton, Westminster or Rugby. So confusingly, a public school in England is not for the public at all, in fact it is a highly expensive private school.

Of course, it should be noted that before the mid 1800’s education at school was for boys only. If girls received any type of academic education at all, it would be at home via a nanny or a governess. Today, of course, the vast majority of British boys and girls go to state schools, that is, those funded by the government.

Ragged Schools

The type of education a child would receive (or not) depended, of course, on their family’s place in society.

In the 1840’s voluntary schools which came to be known as Ragged Schools began to appear in the poorest areas of the country, and provided food, shelter and the rudiments of an education. These were for children at the opposite extreme from the public school students, minors who were extremely poor or destitute and often excluded from Sunday or voluntary schools because of their behaviour and/or appearance.

A drawing of a ragged school in London, courtesy of

These schools were maintained by philanthropists, notably Charles Dickens amongst others, and staffed by volunteers, and newspapers spread the word about their existence. Not everyone liked the idea – common opinions were the schools were a waste of time, the children were too stupid or lazy to learn, or they would just learn how to become better criminals. Take your pick.

But there was a genuine feeling in Victorian society that the poor should be helped and the ragged schools established themselves, proving that the not only the well-heeled had a desire for education. In poor inner city ragged schools there could be between 50 to 70 children in a class. It is estimated there were about 350 schools of this type by the time the Elementary Education Act was passed in 1870.

The beginnings of education for all

Even so, many of the working class were unable to read and write. Child labour was also normal, with kids of school age working in factories for a pittance.

With the implementation of the Education Act in 1870 school boards were created and could use ratepayers’ funds to improve or set up schools, universal education finally becoming a government concern. The boards also laid down the priorities of education. By 1876 it became mandatory for all children between 5 and 10 years of age to attend school, considerably lower than the leaving age nowadays.

Yet again there was opposition; some of the upper classes opposed the idea of educating the working classes for fear it would cause a revolution, while a section of the lower classes feared their children would be indoctrinated by propaganda. The Church, who still provided voluntary schooling and Sunday schools, also did not want to lose its influence on young people. Sometimes the parents needed the small amount of money that their children earned at work and therefore prevented them from going to school.

However, it was also clear that an educated workforce would enhance Britain’s competitive status at large. By 1902, school boards were abolished in favour of local education authorities, which were responsible for education within their designated area, and the basis for our modern education system was created.

Let’s look at the mainstream schools during this time.

Miss Bowls’s class in an unidentified girls’ school Date: circa 1905 Source: postcard

What was taught?

Lessons were fairly basic and monotonous, with a huge focus on reading, writing and arithmetic. The pupils would copy what the teacher had written on the blackboard and a lot of attention was given to copperplate handwriting and learning by heart. Numeracy was also essential and usually involved the children chanting times tables until they all did it perfectly. There was no creativity and teaching through fun activities and games were an alien concept far off in the future.

Photo by Pixabay on

However, depending on the school and the teacher, other things were taught. Religion was almost always included and sometimes history and geography. There were object lessons where a picture, model or artefact would be observed by the pupils.

If it was a mixed gender school, sometimes pupils were separated by gender into different classes – the boys might do woodwork or gardening, and the girls cooking or embroidery.

The classrooms

The classroom was generally called the schoolroom. The windows were situated high up to avoid distractions and as a result, it was often airless and stuffy. If there were more than one classroom, they were divided only by a curtain. As you can see in the photo below, the desks were bolted to the floor and the classroom often had tiers so all the children could see the blackboard, and the teacher, in turn, could see them.

The children wrote on slates which were rubbed out and re-used. The older students might have used ink pens that dipped into ink wells to produce their written work.

A Victorian classroom with high windows and tiered desks.
Photo courtesy of

The teachers

There were far more female teachers than males – the pay was low and therefore the profession did not attract many men. Schoolmistresses tended to be unmarried females, who gave up the job when they gained a husband.

The better establishments had teachers who had received certification in various subjects. The poorer schools could not afford to be so choosy. These teachers probably learnt their profession from day one at school.

Boy in dunce cap sitting on dunce stool. Origin unknown (but probably not Victorian.)

The teachers were generally very strict and expected all the children, even the youngest, to pay attention at all times. Poor work, speaking out of turn, answering back or any misdeeds from the pupils meant they could receive blows from either the teacher or a cane.

There was practically no understanding of slow learners, and pupils who did not keep up with the class could be made to sit or stand on a dunce’s stool wearing a dunce’s hat for up to an hour, Conformity was the name of the game, and the left-handed were forced to use their right hand for writing tasks.

With time, society has gained more knowledge about the learning process and our schools today have moved on in several aspects. New technology and not least, the recent coronavirus pandemic have introduced different ways of teaching – online, or encouraging more self-study for example. Nevertheless, the Victorians were responsible for the foundation of our modern educational system.

Some questions for you:

Do you think schooling helped children in Victorian times?

Do you think our contemporary schools help students to face the working world today ?

Are/Were schooldays the best days of your life?

English life

Our daily bread

Bread HD wallpaper – courtesy of HD Wallpapers

A quick history of bread

Bread is one of the oldest human-made foods in our world and remains one of our most highly consumed foodstuffs today. There is evidence that bread has been around for a staggering 30,000 years.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians ate leavened bread, which is generally what we tend to eat in England today. Leavened bread means that yeast has been added to the dough mixture, making the bread airy with a lighter texture.

Bread. is, of course, a basic food product in the U.K. Nowadays we consume bread as toast, in sandwiches, or to accompany a meal, but in the Middle Ages, the bread itself was the plate for the meal, and known as a “trencher”.

The word “trencher” is derived from Old French “tranchier”, meaning to cut. The heavy coarse bread was cut into slices and became edible tableware. As time passed, the trencher was no longer made of bread but evolved into a circular wooden plate, similar to, say, a cheeseboard.

Cheeseboard courtesy of

After the meal was over, the usually stale and hard bread was generally used as livestock feed although it was sometimes eaten as well, or sadly, donated to the poor. No waste, unlike today. And obviously we are not talking sliced white bread with fluffy air pockets here. This no doubt, would have significantly decreased the enjoyment of your food as well as the state of your attire…..

Sliced bread was still far away in the future at this point. Everyday bread for the peasants was rough, grainy, hard and not always easily digested. It was, however, considered to be a step above the wholegrain “trencher” bread used as plates, which was commonly given to animals after the meal was finished.

The financially better off consumed bread which was made from milled wheat, or oats, or both. The ingredients were either processed at home or a local miller would grind them in return for a small portion of the goods. Breadmakers and millers prospered as few people had ovens and it was difficult to conserve flour. By the 16th century, the terminology of bread reflected not only the ingredients, but was linked to social class. The whiter the bread, the finer it was considered, reflecting on your place in the social hierarchy.

Brown bread was handed out to the Irish during the Great Famine of the 18th century. Fibrous, rough brown bread was strictly for the lower classes and the poor.

When England became more industrialised in the 18th century, more factories started to manufacture white bread and the working classes, after being denied this item for so long, were more than willing customers. It made sense – people could afford it, it was easier to chew and digest than its wholegrain counterpart, particularly important at a time where teeth were often sadly neglected.

White bread was filling and therefore value for money. It was often suspected that brown bread had been adulterated but it was thought that as white bread was …well, white … additives would be easily detected. Not actually so, as bread manufacturers in the 1930’s actually used chlorine and peroxide to make their bread even whiter. Don’t worry, these additives are banned today in the U.K………at least for the moment….

The Aerated Bread Company (also known as A.B.C.) was established in London in 1862 by John Dauglish, who used his medical studies to replace yeast with carbon dioxide, removing the requirement to knead the bread. This, together with mechanical processes, made the procedure more hygenic and quicker as there was no longer a yeast fermentation period.

The kneading process was no longer necessary at the A.B.C.
Bread Company
Photo by Ron Lach on

In 1967 the Chorleywood bread process, developed in, yes, you guessed it, Chorleywood in Buckinghamshire, reduced breadmaking time even further, and according to Wikipedia, “As of 2009, 80% of bread made in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and India, used the process.”

And in 1928, across the Atlantic, the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri sold the very first sliced loaf. In England, the delights of the sliced loaf arrived in 1937, courtesy of the Wonderloaf Bakery in Tottenham, London. By the 1950’s, the majority of bread sales were both pre-sliced and pre-packaged.

Sliced white bread in Chilliclothe

The tide had certainly turned for the working classes with widely available and affordable sliced white bread in all its sandwichy glory and convenience.

But even as white bread began its journey into everyone’s homes, slowly but surely a section of educated people in England were beginning to turn their backs on white bread and recognise the nutritional value of brown bread.

As early as 1800, George III ate brown bread in an attempt to convert people to its value, but the crowds responded to his iniative by simply nicknaming him ” Brown George”.

But in 1865 the discovery of the advantages of bran on health meant that brown bread had commenced its comeback. From its lowly beginnings, brown bread slowly shrugged off its negative image and rose again in popularity as the public gained more knowledge and information on food and nutrition. Food could be questioned once people did not have to worry where it was coming from and had options, unlike previous eras.

We all have our preferences for types of bread but today it is generally held that brown bread is indeed of a higher nutritional value than white, and certainly more so than pre-packaged sliced white bread. The wheel has come full circle.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

“English” words

Photo by Skitterphoto on

The English Language

Many different languages have influenced modern English, due to overseas trade and a number of invasions in the British Isles prior to and including the Norman invasion of 1066. The Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons were Germanic tribes who settled in Britain alongside Celtic language speakers and laid the basis for the Anglo-Saxon language. However, the great majority of English speakers would struggle to understand Anglo-Saxon today.

There are also innumerable words we use in the English language which have arrived via a different language. Unlike nations such as France, for example, which does not encourage the borrowing of Anglicisms, (even though this certainly happens and will no doubt continue to do so) the English language seems to have happily stolen or accomodated any word or grammar pattern that took its fancy at the time.


The Roman conquest of Britain meant that Latin was now fair game for absortion into the English language. Whilst the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon poulation at large still retained their native languages, little by little words used in Roman administration worked their way into our language and some are still used today.

A few examples : agenda, etcetera, interim, item, memorandum, P.S.,(postscript) a.m. p.m., (ante and post meridian)and the symbol &.

In the 1600’s, there was a tendency to reflect the Latin origin of words by introducing silent letters to the common spelling – for instance, anchor, debt, doubt, island, scissors, receipt. Students of the English language take note! (more about silent letters here if you are interested):

Silent letters in English

Danish and other Scandinavian languages

Norsemen and Vikings raided England several times during the early Middle Ages. In 866 they captured the city of York and during this period various areas in the the east and the north capitulated to Viking rule. Danelaw overrode Anglo-Saxon administration in these areas and a language now known as Anglo-Norse began to be spoken. Modern English inherited a lot of vocabulary from the Vikings, not only words of war such as ransack, slaughter, berserk, but also a great deal of everyday vocabulary, such as bag, ball, call, cake, crawl, egg, get, give, happy, husband, kid, lad, leg, loan, take, seem, skill, ugly, want, weak ….

Apart from vocabulary, the Vikings also influenced English grammar. The way we construct sentences grammatically in modern English is much more similar to Scandinavian languages than old English. Some experts say that English has more in common with Swedish, Danish and Norwegian than German, even though we have long considered English to have Germanic roots.


The Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Jutes and Saxons invaded British shores around the 5th century and their dialects forged the Anglo-Saxon language. But German has also left us left us with these lovely words in modern English : delicatessen, hamster, iceberg, lager, poodle, rucksack and spiel. And let’s not forget hamburger.


Here’s a tiny selection of words we have inherited from French : café, paté, cliché, fiancé(e), bouquet, ballet, brusque, chef, garage, gourmet, souvenir, vintage… there are many, many more. Interestingly, words borrowed from French pre- 17th century have modified pronunciation. Ch- words such as chimney and change begin with a harder -tch sound. But later borrowings conserve the same ch-sound as in French…champagne and chivalrous, for example.

Numerous words which came specifically from the Normans – justice, jury, felon, traitor, damage, sovereign, parliament, government give us an insight of William the Conqueror’s iron fist and the stringent Norman administration of England.

Various countries

Here are ten random examples, in no particular order.

Chocolate – Originally xocolatl, this word was translated from Spanish via Nahuatl, the language spoken in central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. A welcome addition for most people, I would say.

Sofa – from Turkish via Arabic. The Arabic word suffah signified bench.

Glitch – although the jury is still out on this one, some experts believe that this word comes from the Yiddish word glitsh , a slippery place.

Yacht – derived from the Dutch word jacht, which originally signified a hunting ship.

Shampoo – originates from Hindi and Urdu. The word cā̃po means to massage, precisely what we do with shampoo in our hair.

Ketchup – from the Hokkien Chinese word kê-tsiap, a word for a sauce made from fermented fish. Hmm, not what we bargain for with today’s ketchup.

-ology – Anything ending in -ology comes from Greek, where -ology means the branch of study. Physiology, physcology, biology, pharmacology, zoology…. the list goes on.

Sabbatical – from the Hebrew word shabbat , meaning day of rest.

Robot – the word robot as we know it, to describe a humanoid machine, was first used in 1920 in a Czech play called R.U.R ((Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek.

Vendetta – concluding the list is vendetta , the Italian word for revenge.

The second image in this blog jokingly depicts the English language as some type of criminal, stealing words from here and there. I prefer to think of the English language as a welcoming home for any words which care to stick around. These not-so-foreign words should be received with joy for enchriching our language.

This is a very brief summary of words we use in English with their roots in foreign languages. You probably know others and can easily find hundreds more. If you know any more, feel free to write them in the comments below.

Happy word searching!

The Victorians

A Victorian Christmas dinner

Victorian Christmas Dinner. Photo by

Christmas origins

Christmas as an event has been around for a long long time, admittedly in various guises. There is a consensus that the pagan midwinter festivals such as Yule, or the Winter Solstice, were amalgamated with Christmas as the Church imposed liturgical days in the calendar. The word Christmas comes directly from Christ’s mass, and actually existed as Christenmass in Middle English, until the “en” syllable was lost.

Victorian era

There is little doubt that Christmas as we know it today is largely down to the Victorians, who began to treat Christmas as a family celebration feast with time off work. Increased prosperity allowed the middle classes to include special cuisine, present giving and decorations in their homes during the holiday period. You can find more info on how the Victorians influenced our modern day Christmas festivities here.

Christmas dinner

Christmas is synoymous with food. Abundant food, and the possibility of indigestion, to say the least. The pagan celebrations were indulgent feasts to brighten the darkest days of winter. Renamed Christmas, it became an amalgamation of the old customs and a religious event – although days off work and Christmas cards and trees were still to become a part of the holiday.

Rowdy behaviour has always been a part of Christmas too. In the 1600’s, Oliver Cromwell, as head of the Puritan government, banned the celebration of Christmas in England as a frivolous event which produced frowned-upon excesses. Although the ban was policed, it was not entirely successful and Christmas not only survived, but was reinstated in 1660 at the end of the Puritan reign. If we fast forward to the end of the Victorian period, Christmas had become a family and culinary event which has highly influenced the way we celebrate it today.

Menu card from Queen Victoria, Christmas Day 1899. Courtesy of The Royal Archives.

Royal influence

As you would expect, Queen Victoria and her family had a sumptuous Christmas menu, seen above in the example from 1899, with a wide variety of culinary offerings.

Starters and Appetisers

Consommé, sole fillets á la Vassant (answers on a postcard if anyone knows what à la Vassant means) fried whitebait, chicken cutlets

Main Dishes

Turkey with chipolatas, roast beef, spare pork ribs


Asparagus, Hollandaise sauce (interestingly, the Victorians sometimes ate salad ingredients after the main course ) mince pies, plum pudding, orange jelly


Beef joint, boar’s head, game pie, Woodcock pie, roast fowl, brawn and tongue. The Victorians were of course, much less squeamish than we are nowadays about animal heads and offal.

So the rich lacked for nothing, no surprise there.

The Middle Classes

The middle class grew enormously in the Victorian era due to an array of new industries, improved transport and better wages. The domestic goddess of the age was Mrs Beeton, who with her Book of Household Management guided middle class housewives towards success in culinary delights and entertaininment of visitors at home.

Roast turkey was first documented in 1541 in Britain (as a meal for the clergy, no less) but it was not until Queen Victoria’s reign that turkey became the meat of choice at Christmas dinner. Traditionally, before this point, roast meat for those who could afford it at Christmas would have been roast goose, beef or pheasant. But Mrs Beeton famously commented:

A noble dish is a turkey, roast or boiled. A Christmas dinner with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey “

Poultry: Roast Fowls, Roast Goose, Roast Turkey with Savoury Balls, Roast Duck, and Boiled Chicken from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Digitally enhanced from our own 1923 edition. Image by

Turkey also had the advantage of being a large bird, meaning more people could be invited to the Christmas dinner. In the illustration above we can see other poultry dishes which may have been offered in place of, or as well as turkey or beef in line with household income.

The less well-off

Of course, there were many families who were struggling financially, just like today. The poor may have celebrated Christmas but in a much more frugal fashion. They might have been able to save something from their meagre wages for a festive treat, such as rabbit, but for those on the lowest pay scale, for example, agricultural workers, it generally would have been impossible to save anything.

With this in mind, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol , published in 1843. It told the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who reformed his miserly behaviour and became a kind, generous soul, giving presents and treating other people well at Christmas. Dickens’ tale was popular and did in fact encourage the richer Victorians to donate money and gifts to servants, workers and the needy at Christmas.

This tradition of helping those less well off had always existed at Christmas, but was popularised and cemented during this time. These gifts were usually money and were given in boxes on, yes, you guessed it, Boxing Day, which was a day on which people were not required to work. The newly invented railways also offered cheap fares during Christmas, which allowed workers to see their families more easily during this family- oriented season.

Those in the workhouse, who were desperately poor, were generally given some type of Christmas dinner, despite the fact that the Poor Laws had ruled against this. It would seem that the guardians of the workhouse were more humane than the government (parallels with today anyone ?)

These Christmas dinners contained contain some type of meat, which was a treat in itself for the inmates, and some of the workhouses even managed to provide Christmas pudding, (known then as plum pudding) as a dessert.

Vintage Christmas Plum Pudding, courtesy of

So many of the elements of our modern day Christmas celebrations have been handed down to us from the Victorian generation – the idea that is a family gathering, the turkey, the lavish food on offer, Boxing Day….

Sadly, there are also plenty of reminders that others are not so fortunate.

The Victorians

Victorian pets and animals

From work to home Courtesy of the Library of Virginia

It was in the Victorian era that the idea of domestic animals as pets, purely for companionship and/or entertainment, began to take root. In the past, animals such as horses and dogs were considered as working animals, with their skills used as a contribution to the family household. The animals were destined, amongst other things, as hunting dogs, sheepdogs, and guard dogs, cats caught mice and other vermin, and horses were a means of transport. In the 1880’s dogs were also used to collect money for charitable organisations, and were licensed to move around trains and railway stations.

This does not mean that people did not love or look after their animals, but these creatures were expected to earn their keep.

Photo by David Jakab on
Horses are still used today in ceremonial parades, and for crowd control by the police.

Queen Victoria’s pets

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, relationships between animals and humans began to change. A great example of this was Queen Victoria and her family, who were closely monitored and copied by the British public who could afford to do so.

Victoria appears to have been a great animal lover with various species of dogs, a donkey, goats and a number of pet parrots forming part of the royal household throughout her reign. It would seem that the queen was not enamoured of cats, although she was gifted a kitten shortly before her coronation.Not only did she accept the feline, but also sent two five pound notes to its previous owner as a way of thanks. Victoria’s love for these creatures and their status as family members to be cossetted and petted undoubtedly influenced the fate of many other animals owned by well-heeled families.

Her Majesty’s Favourite Pets, painted by Landseer in 1838, shows the spaniel Dash, Lory the parrot, the greyhound Nero and deerhound Hector.[1]

Cats and dogs

During Victoria’s reign, dogs were by far the most popular animals, and Victoria herself had several canine pets during her monarchy.

Both the aristocracy and the newly wealthy middle class were eager to emulate the Royal Household and dogs were placed into the heart of a family with no strings attached, as opposed to having a function within the house. In addition, dogs were seen as a status symbol and there were were many sentimental stories and anecdotes about canine feats.

Every dog has its day

Dogs also became a fashion item.

Young lady with a King Charles spaniel Image: Library of Congress #LC-DIG-ggbain-06537

Any Victorian lady who aspired to be fashionable and show off their status would have their lapdog in tow and these dogs would accompany their mistresses everywhere. Lapdogs, as the name indicates, were small enough to sit in a lady’s lap and were the only type of dogs to be allowed in a parlour at visiting time. The poor dogs were often deprived of exercise, and sometimes even dressed in miniature gowns and bonnets to be caressed and tickled. Many veterinarians of the era were concerned that this was no way to treat a dog.

Photographs were costly at the time. However, many dog owners were photographed with their furry friends, confirmimg the high importance of their dogs in their lives.

The first modern dog show was held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1859. It was a low key event which focused on working country dogs. But the world of dog shows was to grow rapidly, focusing on all types of breeds and competitions began to be held throughout the country. Although Mr Cruft had always been involved in the dog trading business, it was in 1891 that the Cruft`s Dog Show as we know it today was born.

Dogs were now being bred purely for aesthetic reasons and these shows developed a public preference for pedigree dogs over mongrels although all types of dogs were included ; a reflection of Victorian hierarchy in society. . There were still dogs for every taste and budget, and these exhibitions contributed to dog ownership becoming widespread as people’s lot improved economically and the expense of a dog became more affordable.

Two small Maltese dogs and trophy cups. Image: Library of Congress #LC-USZ62-55845

Care for dogs

The RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals) was founded in 1824, the first animal welfare organisation in the world, and still active today. The NSPCC ( National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children ) was established in 1895. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that.

But back to the matter in hand, it was recognised that animals should be treated with care and kindness.

Dash with Princess Victoria, by Sir George Hayter, 1833

When Queen Victoria’s beloved dog Dash died in 1840, she had a marble image of the dog placed over his grave.

The first pet cemetary in Western Europe appeared in Hyde Park in 1881, where about 1,000 animas were buried. It was closed in the 1910’s and is no longer open to the public. The epitaphs on the gravestones reflected fidelity and obedience – both highly valued traits by the Victorians. The pet cemetary was controversial – at the time society was not too comfortable with the religious connotations of giving animals a Christian burial, also bearing in mind that a lot of people were still destined for a pauper’s grave.

Wild animals

The Victorian age was a time of travel, discovery and exploration. This meant there were opportunities in Victorian Britain to see exotic animals too. Regent’s Park Zoo opened in 1828 and there was another short-lived zoo, the Surrey Zoological Gardens, in today’s Southwark, which opened in 1832 to around 1856, housing the menagerie of Edward Cross.

This collection of animals included lions, tigers, a rhinoceros, giraffes, monkeys, elephants, camels, zebras, llamas and an aviary with exotic birds such as ostriches and pelicans. Queen Victoria and her family were also frequent visitors to the St. Regent’s Park Zoo which has survived until the present day – now known as London Zoo.

Group of Animals lately received at the Gardens of the Zoological Society, Regent’s Park. Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 6 July 1861. (Public Domain)

The Victorians may not have shared contemporary thinking on zoos and over-cosseted lapdogs, but they did set us firmly on the road to keeping house pets and enjoying their companionship for its own sake. Dogs and cats and whatever other pets you may have) were, are and will continue to be man’s best friend.


Where did the word okay come from?

Okay word font typography vector from Rawpixels

The word okay, or O.K. or ok or simply just ‘k is used in several languages apart from English and is said to be one of the most used words in the world.

Where did the word okay come from? There are several theories on when and where this word became part of our vocabulary. Get yourself comfortable and read on…..


The Choctaw language was used by Native Americans and is still in use today, although it is an endangered language with approx only 9,500 speakers in 2015, according to Wikipedia. It is mainly spoken in an American Indian territory in Oklahoma, known as the Choctaw Nation. Their language comes from the Muskogean family of languages (more about this in the next section).”It is so” is expressed in Choctaw as oke or okeh.


Would it surprise you to learn that Greek is also a Muskogean language? Muskogean is a type of proto language from which other languages are descended. And όλα καλά (óla kalá) is translated as “it is good“.


There were great numbers of Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants into North America. There is a theory that the words och aye, meaning oh yes and pronounced oc eye, could have been the origin of our okay.


Another idea is that the word okay has its roots in the French speaking cotton growers of Louisiana calling “au quai” when the cotton was ready to be transported from the docks. In this context, au quai could be translated as everything is fine or good to go.


There are even more possibilities. Some people have claimed okay was descended from one Obadiah Kelly, who stamped his initials on documents for railway cargo. Or it came from Orrin Kendall biscuits in the Civil War. Talking of the Civil War, did the word okay come from an abbreviation that meant nobody was killed, in other words, 0 k ?

It has also been said is that it was invented by Martin Van Buren, whose nickname was Old Kinderhook, and who used the word ok in the presidential election of 1840, with the slogan “Vote for OK“. Sadly it wasn’t okay for Old Kinderhook as he failed to secure the presidency.

Or is okay a phrase from the past used by West Africans in slavery, to signify “everything’s okay“? Although if you were a human slave, then it’s highly probable everything was very much not okay.

Photo by cottonbro on


Theories abound and you can pretty much well choose whichever one you like. But nowadays most experts tend to believe that the word okay was born in Boston, in the nineteenth century.

Up to the early 1960’s, there was quite a strong preference for the Choctaw origin of okay. However in 1963 and 64, a guy called Allen Walker Read investigated the source of the word.

What he found was there was a trend in the U.S. in the mid nineteenth century for acronyms along with deliberate, jokey misspellings – such as NG for no go, SP for small potatoes, OW for orl wright and you guessed it, all correct being spelt as orl korrekt…. otherwise OK.

This type of language was probably used in verbal language about ten years or so before it hit the press and written documents. It is now generally agreed that the first recorded instance of okay in writing was in 1839, when Charles Gordon Greene wrote in the Boston Morning Post:

The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

And Allen Read Walker discovered that there were further occurences of the word okay or o.k., sometimes without a definition, which implies that the population at large knew perfectly well what it meant.

The A-OK sign
Photo by cottonbro CGI on


In the 1960’s the expression A-Okay came into circulation. It was heard in the 50’s but became popular as it was used by NASA in astronaut missions and the moon landing in the 60’s. Apparently it came about as the sound of A was easier to understand through the static than an O sound.

So there you have it, the various stories behind a highly popular word. Do you know any more? If you do, post them in the comments, okay ?

English history

Big Ben !

Photo by Pixabay on

British icon

Did you know that the name Big Ben, strictly speaking, only designates the bell that strikes the hour from inside the tower? The tower itself was named the Clock Tower, and then renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. That said, most of us refer to the whole structure as Big Ben, probably because it trips off the tongue much more easily.

How old is Big Ben ?

The Palace of Westminster (a.k.a The Houses of Parliament) was badly damaged by a fire in 1834. The following year a Royal Commission was established to find an architect who could design a new palace in line with the surviving buildings of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall. Yes, you may remember that a time existed when projects were not just given to government cronies……

Anyway, the committee appointed a guy called Charles Barry and his collaborator, Augustus Pugin. Barry had included a clock tower in his plans, but it did not yet resemble the Big Ben we know and love today. Augustus Pugin was a Gothic revivalist and already had plans to redesign Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire, including a 100 foot tower.

Scarisbrick Hall. Remodelled by A.W. N. Pugin. c. 1837-45; altered by Edward Pugin, 1860 onwards. Near Southport, Lancashire. Photo by Rob Scarisbrick.

Pugin’s influence

Although Charles Barry was the chief architect, it was Augustin Pugin who was mainly responsible for the design of the clock tower in London. Wikipedia quotes Pugin as saying “”I never worked so hard in my life [as] for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole machinery of the clock.”[ 

Mr Barry, however, did not deign to give any credit to Augustus for his undoubted contribution to both Big Ben and the interior design of The Houses of Parliament. Pugin’s son, Edward, (who incidentally would carry out his father’s project for Scarisbrick Hall) issued a statement in 1867 after both men had died , affirming that the “true” architect had in fact been his father, and not Charles Barry.

Augustus had re-designed the clock tower to be taller and more imposing, dominating the Parliamentary skyline. He added the symbols of the four nations of the British Isles – the rose, the leek, the thistle and the shamrock, as well as the portcullis which is the symbol of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. seen below.

Sadly, Augustus died at the age of 40, and never saw the clock tower completed. Public domain Wikipedia Commons

Did you know…?

Big Ben is known to be an extremely accurate clock and its mechanisms have been copied in many high tower clocks. It is reliable to within a few seconds a week.

Since 1859, the pendulum was controlled by a pile of pre-decimal penny coins which were added or removed as necessary to keep time-keeping punctual. In 2009 some of the pennies were replaced by 5 pound coins, specially produced for the London Olympics in 2012, and depicting, you guessed it, Big Ben.

Big Ben has stopped at various times due to heavy snow, including at New Year of 1962/3 when the New Year was chimed in nine minutes late.

The clock faces were not illuminated during some periods of World War I and the whole of World War II in order not to guide German bomber pilots. A German bomber did actually damage two of the clock dials in 1941.

Big Ben leans around 0.26 degrees to the north-west, but experts say this will not be a problem for thousands of years. ( 0.26 degrees is around one sixteenth of the tilt of the Tower of Pisa. )

A flock of starlings decided to sit on a clock hand in 1949, making it slow down by four and a half minutes. I would make a joke about a bird on the hand, but then again, maybe not…

In 2005 one of Big Ben’s clock faces stopped for a short period of time, possibly due to the high temperatures of 31.5 degrees C ( 90 degrees F). Global warming is real, people.

The London Olympics in 2012 were celebrated Big Ben chiming 30 times – it was the 30th Olympìc event.

Big Ben is currently undergoing a long period of maintenance which began in 2017 and is scheduled to finish in March 2022, athough this date currently appears to be in question. The original designs for the clock face have been sourced and the details on the clock face will be repainted to their orginal Prussian blue, replacing the black that we have always seen before, which was actually used to disguise pollution. The heraldic shields of each nation will be restored to their original colours, along with the roof and stonework.

A vindication of Augustus Pugin? I like to think so.