Categories
The Victorians

Victorian pets and animals

From work to home

https://i.pinimg.com/564x/1e/59/1e/1e591e02d4d58dff188565eb3d92e940.jpg 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 Pexels.com
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.

Categories
Wordpower

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…..

Choctaw

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.

Greek

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“.

Scots

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.

French

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.

Or….

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 Pexels.com

Boston

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 Pexels.com

A-Okay

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 ?

Categories
English history

Big Ben !

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

https://www.parliament.uk/contentassets/beacbf5d8ec14cdfa75c28d28cd8f463/dsc_4938_jt-min.jpg 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.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a6/Big_Ben_Clock_Face.jpg/1024px-Big_Ben_Clock_Face.jpg

Categories
English life

A ploughman’s lunch

Photo by Glammmur, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ploughman’s lunch, shown above, has been around for hundreds of years in England. It typically consists of crusty bread and a couple of hunks of cheese and a variety of items may or may not be added : pickles, chutneys, pies, salad, sliced meat, hard-boiled eggs or even an apple or grapes. It is often presented on a wooden platter, as in the photo above.

Probably no two ploughman’s lunches are ever quite exactly the same. And of course, it needs to be washed down with an ice-cold beer or cider.

Origins

Bread, cheese and beer have existed in England since its beginning, and the phrase “a ploughman’s lunch” was first recorded around the end of the 14th century in a medieval poem called Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede. It is not difficult to imagine that these three items would be easy to pack for a farm labourer who needed an economical but hearty packed lunch after a morning working in the fields. Cheese was a good source of protein in this midday sustenance.

This type of cold, easily prepared meal has also been on offer in inns or other establishments for centuries. At times it may have been all they had to offer, especially throughout rationing at the time of the second world war, and afterwards. But it remained a popular combination.

Bread and cheese
Photo by NastyaSensei on Pexels.com

Ploughman’s lunch hits the big time

There is some argument over whether “a ploughman’s lunch” always referred to the bread and cheese combo, or if it meant whatever the ploughman had in his lunch box for his midday meal that particular day.

But by the 1950’s it definitely had the meaning of the meal pictured above. The Cheese Board began promoting the sale of cheese when rationing ended and in the 60’s and 70’s the Milk Marketing Board began a campaign to promote the ploughman’s lunch itself. It was also a dream for caterers as the ingredients were flexible and the meal was so easy and quick to prepare. So understandably, it was always on the menu for the pubgrub of this period, and maybe brought with it the nostalgia of a less complicated, rural England.

New versions

A modern take on ploughman’s lunch
With thanks to https://communitykitchenatl.com/recipe/ploughmans-platter/

Nowadays chefs and gastropubs have added their own twists to the ploughman – and it has become a lunch that can stand up to most occasions. Scotch eggs, olives, paté, fancy meats and even fish can all adorn a contemporary ploughman’s lunch – but the cheese, unlike the substantial slices of bread, remains a staple ingredient, whatever variety it may be.

A relatively simple, timeless dish. Arrange the foodstuffs of your choice on a plate or platter or in a tray or a bowl. And off you go. Bon appetit!

Categories
The Victorians

How safe were Victorian homes?

Victorian style room, early 1900’s – source wikipedia/commons (family member of JGKlein)

The Victorian era

The Victorian period ushered in a period of great change and upheaval. The Industrial Revolution meant there was a great population shift to cities, and it was a time of great innovation and prosperity for those who had opportunities.

Nonetheless, it hardly needs to be said that the poor were never far from danger – malnutriton, filthy surroundings, and dangerous jobs just for a start. But it is also fair to say that some level of danger hovered in several areas of life, not just for the poor (who undoubtedly suffered the most), but for all members of society. These dangers also contributed to the high level of infant mortality during this period.

Dangerous additives

It’s difficult to imagine a kitchen without all our contemporary domestic appliances – but that’s exactly what a Victorian kitchen was like. Fridges would not be in common use for the wealthy until the following Edwardian era, and despite the Victorian claim of prizing cleanliness, there were no health and safety regulations or standards. As you might imagine, food poisoning was quite common, and was usually referred to as a bilious attack.

A substance known as boracic acid, which today is a component of insectides, was used by Victorian milk sellers to “purify” milk that had gone off, removing the sour taste and smell. As you may well imagine, consuming boracic acid is not the best of ideas. Not only can it cause vomiting and diarrhoea, but even worse, it masked the presence of bovine tuberculosis, an infectious disease that thrived in unpasteurised milk – remember mass produced pasteurised milk was still in the future – and this caused deformity and death. The estimation of deaths of Victorian children from this disease stands at approximately half a million.

Health and safety standards were sadly lacking in Victorian times.
Photo by Los Muertos Crew on Pexels.com

Another food staple, bread, was also adulterated with alum, an aluminium based compund, used today in detergent. It’s already not sounding like a great idea, is it ? Alum was a bulking agent used to make bread whiter and heavier, and therefore more appealing. However, it led to health deficiencies and more importantly, caused bowel issues such as constipation or diarrhoea, the latter frequently fatal for children.

Feeding bottles

A boy with a Victorian feeding bottle.
Source http://www.babybottle-museum.co.uk/murder-bottles/

Feeding bottles for young children have been around for thousands of years, made from animal horns or pewter or even leather. The Victorian version was made of glass or earthenware, with a rubber tube inside fitted with a teat. The bottles were cleverly marketed with names such as “Little Cherub” or “Princess” and were a great hit with mothers.

Nevertheless, the bottle was highly dangerous. The tubing was difficult to clean and the general thinking was that it only needed cleaning once in a while. The tube, in conjunction with warm milk, created a very effective place to breed bacteria. Doctors condemned the feeding bottles, which began to be known as killers or murder bottles in medical circles, but sadly, many women were unaware of this and still bought them. Little wonder that infant mortality was so high.

Wallpaper

A modern reproduction of Victorian wallpaper https://cdn.wallpapersafari.com/51/56/dQ87cG.jpg

Much as it may surprise us today, the Victorians were happy for arsenic to be used in small doses in their medicine, their clothing, their face powder, their wallpaper and even their food…..and poisonous stuffs such as caustic soda or carbolic acid were often sold in the same packaging as other harmless foodstuffs, paving the way for fatal errors.

But back to wallpaper. Home design having recently become a thing for the Victorian middle classes, one of the most popular colours to be used in the home was Scheele’s Green (named after Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who invented green arsenic pigment in 1775.) You can guess where this is heading, can’t you?

And indeed, people were affected by the arsenic in the green dye that flaked off the wallpaper. Heat and/or moisture could provoke a toxic atmosphere making the whole family ill, or worse. Around the 1860’s doctors began to realise that these so-called mystery illnesses were due to the toxic fumes from the arsenic in wallpaper, although health experts were ridiculed for suggesting such a thing, not least by the companies who actually manufactured wallpaper. Eventually the use of arsenic began to be regulated by the government around the 1880’s.

The use of lead

Victorian toy blocks
https://cdn.imgbin.com/11/22/6/imgbin-victorian-era-wood-block-toy-block-wood-E2EeRdp8HzQzBs9dX4AWqF1ir.jpg

Lead piping was used to transport water so drinking water could be tainted by lead it had picked up from the piping. As if that wasn’t enough, lead was used in paint to stop it from flaking. Furniture, cots and children’s toys would all be painted using this deadly substance. We all know young children tend to put their toys in their mouths, and in this way, they could poison themselves simply by playing.

Gas lights

Abstract smoke background – image by Brigitte, free Pixabay photos

If you had only ever known light sourced from fire and candles, the introduction of gas lights during the Victorian era must have been unbelievable. Being able to control the number of hours of light in a day was a whole new ball game. The Victorian passion for ornate decoration meant that a huge range of stunning lamps were manufactured, and many of these have survived to date.

But the drawbacks existed. There were two types of gas available – gas from coal which was highly flammable and which ran the risk of intoxication from carbon monoxide fumes. Natural gas could give off large flames, which was extremely hazardous next to the flowing drapes and curtains in favour at the time. Furthermore, due to the lack of regulations, workmanship could be shoddy with pipes fracturing, flames. fires and explosions. The impure gas could give off sulphuric acid, not only causing foul smells but also causing suffocation.

Most of these dangers within the home were present for all the members of the family, but it was children who suffered the most. Infant mortality was extremely high in Victorian England, reaching as much as 33% in some areas of London in 1849. Not only was this due to the toxic quality of the air in industrialised areas. lack of medical knowledge and health and safety regulations, but also the hidden dangers within the home itself.

The pandemic may have taught us that we can’t take life for granted- still, how lucky we are today to live in an age with both safety regulations and greater medical knowledge.

Categories
Wordpower

It’s a dog’s life

Photo by Bruno Cervera on Pexels.com

In my last post, we looked at expressions that refer to our feline friends – see https://english-stuff.com/2021/07/18/cats/ But today it’s time to focus on our other four-legged friends, in other words, dogs.

The dog-human connection has been around for a long time. Initially dogs hunted food for humans, and in return they received food and shelter. When people began to move into cities in the Victorian age, there was less of a demand for working dogs. However, dogs have remained in our households with the status of family members, due to the intense emotional connection between dog owners and their pets. Man’s best friend, indeed.

Dogs in idiomatic expressions

“All bark and no bite “

You know those dogs that wouldn’t harm a flea but they bark excitedly when they see something is going on? That’s exactly the type of dog that inspired this expression.

When we use this phrase to refer to humans, we mean they may sound threatening, but in fact they are pretty harmless. Their so-called aggression is only an act, as they are not actually going to do you any harm at all.

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

“Puppy love”

Adorable little pups aren’t they ? But as they get older, they will grow into independent adult dogs and their relationship will not be quite as close as the intense bond they feel for each other now.

We use this idiom to refer to adolescent couples who are infatuated with each other, and whose feelings will generally cool after a while.

” You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”

This is considered to be one of the oldest idioms in the English language, first documented in 1523 in John Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry, where it used literally to describe the behaviour of an aged dog.

Nowadays this is used to describe a situation where an older person is unwilling or unable to learn new skills, or to change their longstanding habits.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

“Every dog has its day “

This is another idiom that has been around for thousands of years, albeit with slightly different wordings. Queen Elizabeth I wrote it in a letter, Shakespeare used it in Hamlet, and Erasmus traced the idea back to a Macedonian proverb in 406B.C. when Euripedes was attacked and killed by dogs.

It means that everyone will get their chance, no matter how lowly their status in life.

“Gone to the dogs”

If something has gone to the dogs, then it is in a very bad way. One theory is that any food that had rotted or gone off was given to the dogs, as it was no longer fit for human consumption, giving rise to our idiom.

Another variation on this is “gone to pot“, also still used today, and with the same meaning, not in the best of situations. The Phrase Finder suggests that this expression came about because anything that was placed in a pot to be cooked was never going to come back.

Photo by Christian Domingues on Pexels.com

“Let sleeping dogs lie”

This one comes from the idea that watchdogs can behave aggressively and unpredictably if they are suddenly woken from a deep sleep (and a lot of humans too, I dare say). This idea has been with us since at least medieval times – in 1380 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “”It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.

The idea has morphed into ” Don’t mess around with something if it isn’t necessary” or ” If it ain’t broken, then don’t fix it .”

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

“The tail is wagging the dog”

Let’s finish with an expression that orginated in the States, but is used and understood on both sides of the Atlantic. Let’s not bark up the wrong tree here – a dog communicates by wagging its tail, not the tail controlling the dog, right ?

Seen in print since the late 1800’s, this idiom means that a more powerful person or organisation is being controlled by someone or something less important.

As dogs are part of our lives, they are inevitably part of our language.

Bye all. I’m off to see a man about a dog.

Categories
Wordpower

Catty language

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Our furry friends

Cats and dogs are our treasured companions, generally regarded as family members not only in England, but in many countries across the world. They have been of service and company to humans since the world began. Hardly surprising then, that cats and dogs appear so many times in idioms in the English language.

Photo by  Pexels.com

Cats

Let’s start with furry felines and how their behaviour is reflected in English expressions.

” Like the cat who ate the cream” ( or the canary, in another version).

Anyone who knows cats has seen that satisfied expression after they have enjoyed a good meal, especially when it consisted of something they weren’t supposed to eat……humans have been known to wear rhis expression too.

“Look what the cat dragged in”

And to the chagrin of their owners, cats are wont to bring them little “gifts” that they have hunted – generally small creatures in a not very salubrious condition. And the expression is used to denote someone who is not welcome, and/or in a pitiful state.

Reynold Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Like a cat on hot bricks” (or a hot tin roof)

A cat on walking on bricks or a hot tin roof would be agitated and jumpy. This expression is said to date back to the 14th century, when the expression had the cat walking on a bakestone, a large stone which was heated to cook bread. And some of you will immediately think of the Tennessee Williams play pictured above,  which was made into a film in 1958 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman who played. yes you guessed it, agitated and jumpy characters.

Photo by Kirsten Bu00fchne on Pexels.com

More Catty expressions

According to the Merriam -Webster dictionary, the word catty was first used in 1598 and has come to mean spiteful or malicious.  But I can understand why a cat might be upset if it found itself in the followng situation

Not enough room to swing a cat “

This is used to talk about a small confined space, so why would anyone in their right mind swing a cat in it?? One theory is that it actually refers to a cat o’nine tails whip, which was used to punish sailors in the Royal Navy in the 1600’s. There was no room to swing the nine-tailed whip in the tiny cabins so the flogging would take place on deck.

“Cat got your tongue?”

This is a popular  expression from the 1960’s and 70’s, usually addressed to someone who is inexplicably silent. But why are cats blamed for someone’s loss of speech? The first theory goes back to the cat o’ nine tails in the 17th century, on the premise that someone who had been whipped with this nasty instrument would not be much inclined to speak. Hmmm.  Or you could choose to believe that witches’ cats had the power of removing someone’s powers of speech, so that they could not report the offending witch to the authorities. And yet another theory harks back to the Ancient Egyptians who are said to have fed the tongues of delinquents to cats.

As “cat got your tongue?” was first seen in print around the beginning of the 20th century,  all of these theories are pretty unlikely. Don’t believe everything I tell you.

These are just a handful of phrases that involve our feline friends- there are more. But my personal favourite is the the cat’s pyjamas.

Copyright Joann Bondi – ‘https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-cats-pajamas-joann-biondi.html’>

This expression dates back to the Roaring Twenties when there was a trend for inventing nonsense expressions using animals and anatomy – the bee’s knees, the fleas’s eyebrows, the pig’s wings, the elephant’s  instep……. Only a few of these expressions have survived until today, and all of them are used to mean something outstanding.  The “bee’s knees” is used more in the U.K., whereas “the cat’s whiskers,” “the cat’s meow” and the marvellous idea of the cat’s pyjamas became more popular in the States.

I categorically wish you all a good day.

Coming up  next ….. dogs !

Categories
The Victorians

Mrs Beeton – domestic genius or plagiarist?

Title page of ‘Household Management’ Wellcome L0042710.jpg (Source – Wikimedia Commons)

Victorian household management

In previous posts we’ve seen some of the immense industrial and social changes that took place during the Victorian era , and the effect on what people ate. (https://english-stuff.com/2020/11/07/what-did-victorians-eat/.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management  was a respected source of authority on culinary and domestic matters and a hugely influential force on shaping the burgeoning middle class. The book is still on sale today– check it out on Amazon or in other bookstores. You can even download it to your Kindle.

Maull & Polyblank – National Portrait Gallery; cropped from w:File:Isabella Mary Beeton.jpg Source –  Wikimedia Commons

Isabella Beeton

So here she is, the lady herself. You may have imagined the writer of a the Victorian domestic bible to be a middle aged or older lady, rigourously dressed in black. But Isabella was only 25 years old when Household Mangement was published in 1861. And shockingly, 3 years later, she was dead.

Isabella packed a lot into her short but intense life. Born in London in 1836, she was sent to live with relatives in Cumberland in north west England after her father died, at just four years old. When Isabella’s mother married again a few years later, the family moved to Surrey including Isabella, her two sisters and a further thirteen half siblings. As one of the elder children, Isabella was called upon to take care of the rest and this undoubtedly gave her valuable lessons in how to run a large household.

Portrait of Samuel Orchart Beeton by Julian Portch – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

At the age of 20, Isabella married Samuel Beeton, a publisher, who encouraged her to contribute to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine –  a publication focused on cuisine, fashion and fiction, to keep nice middle class ladies occupied at home. Isabella began work at the publication as a translator of French short stories (having learnt both French and German at a boarding school in Germany) but soon became the editor of a supplement which was, in effect, the cookery and household section.

The collation of these 24 supplements were to become the renowned Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management . Isabella copied recipes from other books or requested that readers write in with their favourite recipes, which were copied and/or edited by the Beetons without naming any of their sources. Unthinkable by contemporary standards, but these were different times. Isabella did test runs with the recipes at home to ensure their reliability before they were printed. The only contribution actually from Isabella herself was a recipe for soup that she distributed to the needy in 1858 and 1859.

Page 547 of Household Management   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mrs_Beeton_(547).jpg

The culinary delights you can see here on page 547 of Household Mangement shows a selection of starters – namely :

1. Toulouse Pastry  2. Fillets of Beef  3. Beef Galantine 4. Zéphires of Duck 5. Mutton Cutlets in Aspic 6. Sauté of  Veal 7. Chartreuese of Pheasant 8. Curried Veal 9. Chicken Médaillons 10.Veal Stew

These meals may  sound strange to us now, but all in all the recipes in the book are a pretty clear reflection of a what a well-heeled Victorian family generally ate. And in case you were wondering (because I did too), galantine is a French word for de-boned stuffed meat, a zéphire is a mousse, and a chartreuse is a dish that includes vegetables such as carrots and cabbage and sometimes meat, wrapped in salad or leaves and presented in a dome. Let’s move on before you ask me anything I can’t answer….

Title Page of Sept 1861 Issue of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine
Source ;https://ciaffi.wordpress.com/Wikimedia Commons

Household Mangement

Isabella’s book was not just a cookery book. Managing a wealthy middlle class Victorian household was practically the same as running a small business, albeit a non-profitable one. The recipes were the main part of the book although other domestic issues such as finance management, supervising servants, entertaining visitors, child care, fashion and decoration were also included. The Domestic Magazine was compiled into her famous book, which was a major publishing event when it was launched on 1st October 1861.

Popularity

Sixty thousand copies of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management  were sold in just the first twelve months after its publication. The Oxford English Dictionary stated that the words Mrs Beeton were “a term for an authority on all things domestic and culinary”.  By 1868, almost two million copies had been sold. But why was it so popular ?

In Victorian England, crowds of people were flocking to the cities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, in search of a more financially stable lifestyle. As the middle class increased in size, women were often left to deal with the business of managing the household affairs while their husbands were out all day at work. The book was aimed at giving women control over domestic matters and keeping them centred on the home. It is only fair to say that up to this point in history, women had had very little say in anything. This was probably the next best thing to a career, owing to the fact that female presence in the workplace was still an event waiting to happen.

Household management was undoubtedly a book that could guide its readers through the pitfalls of being left in charge of their staff, children and homes. It also struck a note with those who wished to be thrifty and cut costs. We should also remember that in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, the differing lifestyle imposed by the flow of people from rural areas to the cities meant that many young women had received little or no training in how to run a household. And that families often had numerous children.

A later addition to Isabella’s work. Note the publisher is Ward, Lock & Co, who bought the rights to Household Management after Isabella’s death.  Photo in public domain.

Isabella was atypical of her generation. Despite writing a book that focused on what was considered to be women’s work in the home, she went to the publisher’s office every day. It was also very unusual for a book to be published with a female writer’s name – it is highly likely this was due to her connections in the publishing world. She even edited her husband’s magazine for two years.

But sadly, in 1865, at the age of just 28, she died a day after giving birth to her third child, probably from puerperal fever, a bacterial infection contracted after giving birth. Antibiotics had yet to be invented and the level of hygiene during the delivery of a baby in the 1800’s was certainly not up to our modern standards. How lucky we are today. How ironic that Isabella should die giving birth, when she was dedicated to improving family life.

Her legacy

A few editions of Household Management after Isabellas’s death included an obituary, but the publishing house – no longer Samuel Beeton as he had sold the rights to the book to cover his debts – preferred to omit any reference to Isabella’s death, and the bestselling book continued to be revised and extended, giving the impression that Mrs Beeton was personally writing every word. The first edition had 44 chapters, by 1906 it had 74 chapters and over 2,000 pages.

Some critics of Household Management say that it reinforced the gender stereotypes that women have fought against for so long, plus many of the recipes were little more than plagiarism. But we have to understand the Beeton phenomenon within its historical context. Her book allowed women to feel that they had some authority over what happened in their homes in an era when they had practically no control over anything else.

The book also empowered women with a wealth of information on domestic matters, and Isabella herself never claimed that the recipes were her own. Besides, she tested out the recipes and developed an easy-to-read format with the ingredients listed first and the method step by step, along with the cost and the estimated cooking time, similar to what we expect to see in a cookery book today. In contrast to earlier, more highbrow cookbooks, it made the art of cuisine accessible, at a time when people had turned their backs on a rural way of life and the culinary skills they might have acquired in the countryside.

Household management  is a clear reflection of Victorian values such as thrift, tidiness and cleanliness.  Whilst many of the recipes would not appeal to us today, and some of her domestic advice would be out of step with the times,  thanks to Isabella’s book we have a vivid insight into the way the Victorian middle classes lived at home, providing valuable information for sociologists and historians. Isabella was a key figure in shaping this middle-class identity and was without a doubt, a strong woman who gave other women both aspirations and empowerment in their lives, the Victorian forerunner of a life coach. The first ever domestic goddess.

Beeton recipes on video

I can’t help but feel that Isabella would love the fact that recipes from her book are still used today and she surely would have embraced our communications technology as a means to reach her audience. On youtube you can find quite a few dishes from Household Management still being cooked and shown today. As a finale to this post I have chosen this scone recipe.

Hope you enjoy the video and let me know your comments!  https://youtu.be/mPiW1unz1_g

Categories
Wordpower

It’s all gone pear-shaped

A pile of pears
Photo by Stella Schafer on Pexels.com

Pears, Croppers and Lead Balloons

When something goes wrong, we have some interesting idioms in English to describe the situation. Let’s look at three of my favourites and the stories behind them.

It ‘s all gone pear-shaped

We say this when a situation has not lived up to our expectations. And a pear is the embodiment of a bottom heavy, unbalanced shape, unlike the spherical form of say, an orange. But where did this expression come from?

A plane looping the loop
Photo by Alex Powell on Pexels.com

As usual with these things, there is more than one story about its origin. Some sources say it came from the art of glass blowing when, if the glass is overheated, the end result is pear-shaped object rather than round.

There is another school of thought that this expression dates back to the the 1940’s and was first heard in in the British airforce. It may have been used to describe a disaster such as a plane crash, but I prefer the other idea in circulation – that it was used to talk about pilots in training who didn’t manage to fly their planes in a perfect loop, a notoriously difficult task. Without the relevant practice, a trainee would produce a pear-shaped effort, rather than an oval or circle. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to this expression as Royal Airforce slang but does not venture any further explanation. If anyone has further evidence, then please let us know….

To come a cropper

We say that someone has come a cropper when they fall, or have failed at something. But what on earth is a cropper?

A dangerous fall from a horse
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This British expression derives from the word kropp, an Old Norse word which meant a swollen lump or bump. The logic seems to have been that you had a bump and therefore developed a lump on your injured person. A common cause of falls and subsequent injuries when people actually spoke Old Norse would have been falling from your horse.

By the 16th century, a serious fall from a horse was described as falling neck and crop. Hunting and riding were popular pastimes so the expression came to be used amongst the general poulation, having morphed into “to come a cropper”, to signify someone who had fallen headlong from their steed. The hindquarters of a horse are still known as the croup today.

Over time, the meaning was extended to include suffering a misfortune or failing in some way.

For example, ” The prime minister came a cropper when his lies were dicovered.” (No-one in mind here, honestly).

To go down like a lead balloon

The first two idioms are used in British English, but this one is also used in the States, although the expression is slightly different – ” to go over like a lead balloon.”

Balloons!
Photo by Padli Pradana on Pexels.com

Of course, a balloon made of lead is totally impossible as it would not be able to fly. So this phrase is used to describe something that has gone down very badly with its audience.

When this expression first appeared in the States in the 1920’s. it actually went down like a lead balloon itself ….. until it was revived in the 40’s, when it became part of our everyday langauge on both sides of the Atlantic, and is still in use today.

An interesting anecdote about this idiom is that in the 60’s, Keith Moon and John Entwhiste left their band, The Who, to join Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and called themselves Led Zeppelin. The story goes that Keith Moon said, with reference to their departure from The Who, “This is gonna go down like a Lead Zeppelin“. The spelling was changed from Lead to Led to avoid misunderstandings with the pronunciation. They didn’t aspire to be the chief leader, it was just heavy material…..

One thing we can be sure of that Led Zeppellin certainly did not go down like a lead balloon with their intended audience.

So, wishing you all a happy weekend. Hope nothing goes pear-shaped, nobody comes a cropper and nothing goes down like a lead balloon for you.

Categories
Wordpower

As sure as eggs is eggs

A carton of eggs
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Eggs in English idioms

A lot of English idioms – that is, expressions that have a culturally different meaning from their direct translation – have withstood the test of time and are hundreds of years old. Language reflects our way of life, and many of our older idioms link back to a rural way of life, before the urbanisation of Britain.

Chickens

Chicken and egg
Photo by Alison Burrell on Pexels.com

Chickens have long been domesticated and used as a food source as well as their eggs. It is thought they have existed in Britain since the Iron Age, although archeologists affirm that in this period chickens were worshipped rather than eaten, due to the fact chickens were buried undamaged and with great delicacy during this period.

When the Romans arrived in England it was a whole different kettle of fish ( or should I say chickens?) The Romans bred chickens for food, and so the chicken’s fate was sealed. They became part of our diet and remain a popular ingredient today.

Not only are chickens a source of white meat, but they also supply us with the protein packed and versatile egg, which you can boil, fry, scramble, poach and pickle and use in hundreds of different recipes.

A fried egg by Matthew Murdoch https://www.flickr.com/photos/54423233@N05/13916201522/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Eggs

So the humble egg has been a familiar object for a long, long time. Little wonder it appears in many English idioms. Here are a just a few that I have chosen:

A good egg /a rotten egg

Meaning : used to describe people’s character.

Example : He was a rotten egg, stealing and cheating wherever he could.

I think this one is pretty straightforward, don’t you?

Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs

Meaning : you don’t need to offer advice to people who are older and more experienced than yourself.

Example : Your grandma knows how to play bridge perfectly well, so she doesn’t need your help. Don’t teach her to suck eggs.

Where did this rather bizarre expression originate? Well, in past times, the dental care industry was yet to appear. It was common for elderly people to have lost some or most of their teeth so eating meat could be difficult for them. So by making a pinprick in an eggshell, they could easily suck out the rich, protein-high contents of the egg itself. So yes, grandmothers (and grandfathers) really did suck eggs.

To have egg on your face

Meaning : to be embarrassed by making a mistake in front of other people.

Example : After his disastrous presentation, the mayor certainly had egg on his face.

Let’s face it, no-one wants egg on their face, literally or figuratively.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Meaning : don’t limit yourself to a single option; if it fails you will lose everything.

Example : He put all his eggs in one basket so when his business failed, he was left with nothing.

So take note. Keep your options open.

To walk on eggshells

Meaning : walking on eggshells without breaking them would be nearly impossible and you would need to tread very carefully, right?

Example : She was very sensitive that day and her friend felt she was walking on eggshells when she raised the subject.

Walking on eggshells is probably something we all have to do at some point in our lives i.e. choose our words with great care.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs

Meaning : you can have problems or unpleasant things to do in order to fulfill a bigger task.

Example : Even though the staff won’t like it, we need to get rid of all the out-dated equipment, to create a more modern office space.

That’s life, people.

To egg someone on

Meaning : to urge someone to do something that breaks convention or the rules.

Example : Don’t egg him on any more, he has already received a warning this morning.

Interestingly, despite being an “egg” idiom, this one really isn´t anything to do with eggs. The word egg here is derived from the old Norse eddja meaning edge. so you push someone nearer the edge, in other words. It usually means that the person who is egged on will fall foul of somebody.

A tough egg to crack

Meaning : a difficult problem or situation to solve. Also a person who is not communicative.

Example : The suspect hasn’t said much. He’ll be a tough egg to crack.

Tough eggs can be hard work.

As sure as eggs is eggs

Meaning : it’s definitely going to happen.

Example : It’s going to rain tomorrow, as sure as eggs is eggs.

It is also said that this expression could be a corruption of ” as sure as x is x “. It would certainly explain why we say eggs is eggs instead of the more gramatically correct eggs are eggs. But I like to think that eggs have been providing us with sustenance for centuries and will remain with us for a long time into the future. Sure as eggs is eggs.

And by the way, if anyone knows if the chicken or the egg came first, can you let me know?