April Fool’s Day

A tale of calendars and fish

April is here….
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What is April Fool’s Day?

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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 !

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?