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?
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 cropperwhen they fall, or have failed at something. But what on earth is a cropper?
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 likealead balloon.”
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 isgonna 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.
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 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.
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?
How did people buy and sell in the Medieval England?
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages are often depicted as a dark period in time with few amenitites for ordinary people. No mobile phones !! No cars !! No supermarkets !! But despite the fact there was none of the technology that keeps business running today, the wheels of medieval society were kept turning as people relied on each other to provide their services.
A medieval community was generally split into three groups : fighters such as knights and soldiers, thosewho provided spiritual welfare namely, monks and nuns, and workerswho provided goods and services. Let’s look at the thitd group, the tradesmen and find out what was on offer in medieval shops……
Medieval shops and guilds
Medieval tradesmen worked from their houses. Downstairs their workshops were open to the public, and their residence was situated separately on the higher floor. As the great majority of people were illiterate, the shop sign would be a model or an object that indicated their trade.
Within a town, neighbours would trade with each other. Skilled tradesmen would pay a fee to become a member of a guild, and in turn the guild provided a guarantee that all products were of the required quality, standardised prices to avoid unfair competetion and provided assistance if one of their tradesmen were ill or died. Of course I say tradesmen as opposed to tradespeople, because predictably, it was generally always men, not women. There were a minuscule amount of cases where a widow was allowed to continue with her deceased husband’s business.
There were two type of guilds – merchants’ guilds for those who traded and travelled with their goods, and from which the financially stable middle classes would begin to emerge. But the workers in local trade belonged to crafts guilds. which encompassed many more professions that you might imagine – for example, brewers, butchers, bakers and fishmongers. Baking, for example, was a well-established industry where you would find both master bakers and apprentices, and was held in high regard as a skilled profession.
Apart from those who provided food, there were locksmiths, blacksmiths, saddlers, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers…..and for sartorial needs, weavers, dyers, drapers, knitters, embroiderers, jewellers, glovers, and cordwainers, (who made new shoes, as opposed to cobblers who repaired old ones).
Medieval people didn’t have much of a life ? There were undoubtedly hard times for the poorest members of society, the same as in any era, but it doesn’t sound like everyone was dressed in sackckloth only eating plants and rotten vegetables, does it ?
The Medieval Market
Market activity had been in place in England since the time of the Romans; Colchester is generally ecognised as the oldest market town in England. Many of the names of market towns reflect the fact that trade played a important role in their origins : Market Drayton and Market Harborough, for example. The word “chipping” came from an old Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to buy and is preserved in town names like Chipping Ongar and Chipping Sodbury.
From the 12th century, towns and villages could pay a yearly fee to the monarch who would then grant them a charter to hold markets and trade fairs. Market day was once or twice a week in smaller towns and villages, and in some of the largest cities, it could even take place every day. It was held in the town square, and there were market stalls for the customer to buy fresh food, dairy produce, cereals, and items of necessity such as candlesticks, cloth or kitechen utensils.
There were regulations in place to avoid short measure, overpricing and quality control, to attract buyers and provide them with peace of mind that they would not be shortchanged in some way. The Statute of Winchester from 1285 enforced collective responsibility from market traders if one of them was found guilty of improper behaviour. After all, the town was dependent on its good reputation to attract shoppers.
The stocks and the pillories were two devices that were in use for both sellers who violated the rules of fair play, and for petty thieves, drunkards and other wrongdoers. The stocks restrained offenders by their feet whilst the pillory restrained a person’s head and hands, and therefore was much more uncomfortable than the stocks, (which were also probably not a lot of fun after a while). The townsfolk would humiliate the trapped delinquents with verbal abuse and/or by throwing rotten food and other delights at them. Not a pretty sight. But probably effective as a deterrent.
The pillory, although thankfully no longer in use, left its mark on the English language by becoming a verb meaning to pour scorn on and ridicule in public.
And you know what ? A medieval market was probably noisy and smelly but a great source of entertainment to all those involved. It was a social event as well as a trading place. Town cryers would make their announcements in the market place as it was a central point for the community. Information was exchanged in addition to the products. It was a day that the citizens of the town probably looked forward to and enjoyed.
So markets would be held on designated days but a chartered fair was a special event generally held annually and lasted for days or weeks.. Whereas markets sold the stuff of daily life, in a fair the trade was based on items that were of higher value such as furniture or farm equipment or cattle, or more expensive items from afar, such as spices or furs. And the fair usually included entertainment such as tournaments or singing and dancing to attract the crowds.
One of most famous of these was Scarborough Fair – yes, the one in the song. Scarborough was given a charter in 1253 and the annual fair was celebrated until 1788. The fair started on 15th Ausgust and lasted 45 days, attracting vendors, tradesmen, merchants, entertainers and visitors from all over the country, and providing plenty of business for local suppliers.
Like many other fairs, over time it lost importance for various reasons and by the 19th century, the location of the old chartered trade fairs had often became the site for a funfair – still providing entertainment for the masses.
We may have more technology these days, but our need to socialise and be entertained is still a basic human necessity. And to go to the shops of course !
It may come as a surprise to you that gin, which we think of as a quintessentially British product, was first documented as a medicinal drink in the Netherlands, Flanders, Italy and the south of France in medieval times, But it probably existed even before then, although we have no record of it.
In the Middle Ages, alcohol was not intended for pleasure or partying; it was generally distilled in monasteries for health purposes. The forerunner of what we call gin was a fiery concoction made from malt wine or spirit and flavoured with juniper berries, well-known for their diuretic properties. It seems highly improbable that nowadays we would find this beverage very palatable.
The importance of juniper
Gin’s name comes from jenever (Dutch) or genièvre (French) which mean juniper. Juinperis Communis is still a popular flavour in gin nowadays. You need to make sure you have the right junipers though, as there are a few poisonous strains of this berry…….and that ‘s definitely not the type of intoxication you are looking for.
It is claimed that the expression dutch courage comes from gin-drinking British soldiers fighting in Antwerp against the Spanish Empire. The fighters would fuel their courage with a shot of jenever before a battle. Dutch courage is still in use and refers to the (often false) confidence that drinking alcohol can provide.
But why were the British soldiers fighting ? They were embroiled in what became known as the Eighty Years War (1568–1648), also known as the Dutch War of Independence. This was a political and religious conflict, where the British soldiers were a Protestant ally fighting alongside Protestant Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg set against the huge and powerful Catholic Spanish Empire.
Gin takes over
So why is this relevant to gin? To cut a long story short, the Dutch William of Orange eventually became King William III of England (also known as William II in Scotland, don’t ask.) The Catholic King James II had antagonised his subjects so much that he was deposed in 1688 and the Protestant William of Orange was invited to take the throne.
And William brought us gin. In a big way.
In the 17th century a precursor of our modern gin was already being sold in Dutch and Flemish chemists. For medicinal purposes only, generally aimed at gout, or kidney and stomach problems.
But gin had other connotations. It was promoted as a “Protestant” drink, not only for fuelling soldiers in battle, but as an alternative to “Catholic” French wine and cognac, which were heavily taxed to dissuade consumption. Furthermore, the goverment encouraged gin drinking as no licence was required for its production. Basically, anyone with access to the ingredients and the know-how was able to produce and sell it. Gin drinking became hugely popular, especially in London, leading to what is now known as the Gin Craze.
We need to remember that what is referred to as “gin” in the eighteenth century was really a blanket term for any type of alcohol distilled from grain. Royalty and the aristrocracy drank high quality gin as a fashion statement; the poor drank the cheapest “gin” on offer because it was a cheap means of release from their squalid surroundings. It also has to be said that a pint of this type of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer, and even potentially safer than water, as the drinking water supply, especially in cities, could be polluted.
But as often happens with these things, it all got out of hand. Gin shops appeared all over England, and gin was also often sold by street vendors. London in particular had a gin drinking problem of epic proportions, resulting in drunken chaos on the streets. In deprived areas, gin was a cheap and readily available drug that would help someone forget their hardship. Unsurprisingly, the number of alcoholics soared and shockingly, large numbers of children died of alcoholic poisoning.
The government found themselves obliged to pass five different Gin Acts in the space of twenty years in order to control the gin drinking they had actively promoted earlier. As the measures got tighter, the illegal distillation of gin proliferated, often with toxic ingredients such as turpentine added to the mix. Lovely.
To warn against the consequence of uncontrolled gin drinking in 1751 William Hogarth created the prints Gin Lane and BeerStreet – see above. Beer Street shows happy, prosperous people. Gin Lane shows madness, violence, drunkenness, starvation and infanticide. There was, in fact, a real life case of a mother who killed her infant daughter in order to sell the child’s clothing for money to buy gin. This gave rise to the expression mother’s ruin in relation to gin, an expression still with us today.
However, if you think about it, it was actually the elite of Beer Street who had set the gin drinking in motion in the first place.
In conjunction with the last Gin Act of 1751 and the increasing cost of grain, the Gin Craze was finally over by the late 1700’s.
In 1830 Aeneas Coffey revolutionised the distillation of spririts with the invention of the column, continuous or Coffey still. This allowed for a much cleaner, purer tasting alcohol to be produced. It became popular in Scotland for making whisky, and England used the still for manufacturing gin. This created a dry style of gin, known as London gin, still popular today. During this time, gin became gentrified, and the madness of the Gin Craze was practically forgotten.
In the nineteenth century, when British army officers were stationed in India to defend the now defunct British Empire. Malaria was a constant threat and the officers were issued with quinine to prevent them from it. The only problem was, the quinine tasted bitter and unpleasant when the powder was mixed with their carbonated water.
Some bright spark (to whom, if you are a gin and tonic drinker like me, we should be immensely grateful) had the idea of mixing the quinine and tonic water along with his gin ration and sugar and lime. And so the gin and tonic was finally born.
Today gin is a multi-million pound industry with an immense range of different brands and styles. A wide variety of flavours can be added to both the gin and the accompanying tonic.
The history of gin may have had its ups and downs, but it has never had a dull moment.
Experienced writers know that they need to keep their readers hooked. And one of these ways is using a wide range of interesting vocabulary.
Even if you are just writing an email, an essay, a report or anything else at all in English, chances are that you will use the word goodsooner or later. Now, there is nothing wrong with the word good in itself. But it’s boring, very, very boring. And over-used. And there is a huge variety of more attractive substitutes. If you are an English language student, getting away from basic vocabulary and using more unusual words is a step towards a high mark in a writing or speaking exam.
Good is multi-functional
Think about the way we use good as an adjective. Part of the reason it is so commonplace is because we use it to describe such a wide range of different scenarios – a book, a hotel, the weather, our state of health or mind, a behaviour, a skill, and several zillion other situations. If you look in any English dictionary, there will be a good long entry devoted to this word. (See what I did just now ?)
Please note that these are only a tiny fraction of possible replacement words or phrases for good. I have chosen them mainly because they have a some history attached, and even then it may not be 100% exact…….who knows when it comes to the often long-forgotten history of language? But a story which comes attached to that piece of vocabulary will help that word or expression stick in your memory. So here goes.
How are you?
In answer to this you might say – well, good, great, fine, okay, thanks.
As fit as a fiddle
Fiddle is a colloquial term for a violin and fit originally meant fit for purpose, in that the violin was a very suitable instrument for making music. Its meaning has shifted along with the word fit so that it now describes someone in very good health. The expression is at least 400 years old, first documented in 1616.
“Is your grandad ok after his bout of flu ?” “Yes, he’s as fit as a fiddle.”
In fine fettle
Another option is in fine fettle. To be in fine fettle means you are in great spirits and /or health. Fettle is a fossil word, that is, a word still used in a certain expression, but otherwise it has fallen out of use. It derives from Old English and was used as a verb to prepare a horse for riding.
“Are you in fine fettle today ?”
This one comes from American English, specifically from New York. Hunky dory appears to have evolved from the Middle Dutch word hunkey, meaning satisfactory and secure. Nowadays we use it to say something or someone is doing well.
“How’s your latest project coming along ?” “Everything’s hunky dory, thanks.”
As right as rain
We say this after someone has been ill, to say they are now back in good health. It is tempting to think that rain in England is the usual state of the weather, and that’s why we say as right as rain. However, there were many different versions of this expression, which have now, sadly, fallen into disuse. As right as a book, as right as nails, as right as ninepence, as right as a trivet, as right as a gun and as right as my leg have all been documented in the past. Theories, anyone ?
“Are you feeling better now ?” “Yes, as right as rain, thanks.”
Ship shape and Bristol fashion
This phrase is used to affirm that something is well-organised. Like many other idioms in English, it has a nautical origin, referring as you may have guessed, to the early 19th century port of Bristol, a city which was not only prosperous, but had developed a Floating Harbour in order to prevent ships from running aground due to extreme variations in water levels.
The expression ship shape is about 200 years older, originally ship shapen. It meant securing all the cargo on a ship correctly to stop it from being spoilt, something which could occur if the ship was beached, for example. Eventually the two expressions were joined together to signify that an operation was working efficiently and in perfect order.
“The warehouse is well organised with everything stored ship shape andBristol fashion.”
Not only in the past, but still to date people tend to keep their essential items in their top drawer so they can find them easily. So therefore the top drawer is a container for our useful and therefore valuable objects. So if something is top drawer, it is indeed something worth having.
“My smartphone is top drawer, with all the functions I could ever need.”
It’s the best thing since sliced bread
I imagine, that like me, you can think of approximately a million things that are better than sliced bread, but pre-packed and sliced bread was a pretty revolutionary idea at the beginning of the 20th century. This phrase is used to describe an excellent and/or innovative idea that makes our lives easier.
“That new addition to the computer programme is the best thing since sliced bread.”
A dab hand
If you are a dab hand at something, it means you are an expert or highly skilled. The phrase – a dab hand – was first recorded in the early 17th century but nobody really knows the origin of this expression for sure. To add to the confusion, to dab actually had two meanings in the 16th century – it meant both to strike heavily or to touch lightly. If you are a dab hand at unravelling mysteries, the origin of this phrase is something you could investigate …….
“My cousin is a dab hand at making lasagne.”
So there you have a tiny fraction of some words and expressions to replace good. If you would like to improve your English, start using an online dictionary and with practice, you’ll become a dab hand.
Christmas has been celebrated in many guises during history, melded from a pagan rite and a liturgical feast to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. So how did it morph into the activities and festivities that we associate with a contemporary Christmas?
In short, we owe a lot of our modern day secular Yuletide traditions to the Victorians. At the start of the Victorian period, Christmas was not a recognised event as such, but by the end of the nineteenth century, it had evolved into a significant occasion with a strong resemblance to the way we celebrate it today.
Tree worship goes as far back as the pagan era, and bringing greenery into the house for decoration seems logical when faced with a long, dark winter. But it was Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who made Christmas trees popular when he installed one in Windsor Castle for the royal family’s festivities in the 1841. Once the royal household were pictured in the press with a decorated Christmas tree, the tradition quickly spread throughout Britain.
Thr old custom of giving gifts on New Year’s Day gradually moved to 25th December as Christmas grew in importance during the Victorian age. Due to the industrial revolution, the wealth of the middle classes increased and they were allowed time off work to make the most of Christmas and Boxing Day holidays. Gifts which were originally small items hung from the branches of the Christmas tree – nuts, fruit or handicrafts- became bigger, more costly presents, which had to be left under the Christmas tree, due to their size. Needless to say, children from poorer families would still receive a stocking with fruit and/or nuts, whilst rich families could afford expensive handmade toys for their offspring.
Boxing Day was the day when the working class would open their boxes of donations or presents from their employers and for servants in large houses in particular, it would be their chance to relax a little from their household duties.
The Father Chrismas we know these days is very much an invention of the Victorian age. The concept of Christmas personified has been around since the Middle Ages, in various incarnations as Old Christmas, Captain Christmas or Prince Christmas. But Captain Christmas et al were more concerned with feasting, drinking and partying than sliding down chimneys with toys for the kids. As the Victorian Christmas gradually became more child focused, and with the arrival of the Santa Claus story from the United States in the 1880’s, the idea of Father Christmas morphed with Santa and they became synonymous with each other, benevolent bringers of gifts for well-behaved children.
And this new Father Christmas was not always portrayed in his typically red outfit at first. His outfit could be green -see illustration above – blue, white or brown. In 1931 a Coca-Cola marketing campaign firmly established the tradition that Father Christmas/Santa Claus unequivocally dresses in red. The oldest letter that exists from a child writing to Father Christmas with requests for presents dates back to 1895.
The very first English Christmas card was actually a decorated manuscript sent to James I of England in 1611. Ornate scripts being beyond the reach of most people, the tradition of sending Christmas cards did not resurface until 1843. Henry Cole was a savvy guy who was involved in the creation of the Penny Post, the newly reformed postal service in 1840. Together with John Callcott Horsley, he invented the first series of commercially produced Christmas cards. This first Christmas card, pictured above, caused some controversy as the youngest member of the family is shown drinking wine, but the seeds of a new industry had been planted and Christmas cards became a profitable business.
Christmas, of course, was no different. Monied families could look forward to a lavish meal of several courses, the main course consisting generally of roasted meat, maybe beef, goose or turkey. Other delights included quail, oysters and truffles, Those who were not so lucky either ate something more humble, such as rabbit, or simply did not partipate in Christmas festivities. Many families lived in poverty, and Charles Dickens’s tale of Scrooge, “A Christmas Carol”, encouraged the wealthy to give gifts or donations to the poor at Christmas – a tradition which already existed but was made popular to a certain extent during Victorian times. Newspapers printed appeals for the poor and charitable organisations arranged Christmas dinners for some of those in need.
So what we can see is that a typical twenty- first century Christmas is basically a product of the Victorian era, brought about by industrialisation and greater buying power for the middle classes. Yet in 2020, the year of COVID-19, many of us are going to have a different Chistmas experience.
Will it change the way we live Christmas in the future, I wonder ?
Similar to the Victorian era, we live in an age of great social inequality, of haves and have nots. Fortunately these days, the State has certain obligations to its citizens to provide social welfare, although in England it has been cut back, reduced and generally made less available to the needy over recent years.
Going back in time
The Victorian era, in a similar way to the present, was a period of great change. By the end of the era, there had been significant advances in industrialisation, communications, and great innovations in science and technology. All of this brought great wealth to the country and the moneyed classes increased their fortunes.
But the poor often paid the price of these changes. The wealth generated in cities hastened an agricultural depression, with people flocking to increasingly urbanised areas where large houses were converted into overcrowded tenements, neglected by the landlords, and ending up as slums. In an age where there was little sanitisation, and long hours of manual and child labour were the norm, the poor were trapped and vulnerable to exploitation.
Unsurprisingly, what and how you ate in Victorian times depended on your financial status. At the bottom of the scale were the people in workhouses, who had no means of supporting themselves. In return for long hours of labour, the workhouses provided very basic food and shelter.
However, the conditions were often rough and undignified, and the workhouses often resembled prisons more than anything else. Charles Dickens’ harsh depiction of the workhouse and the brutal treatment of the inmates in Oliver Twist was in fact, a pretty realistic representation, intended to raise awareness of the unacceptable cruelties within the workhouse system.
Gruel – a cereal such as wheat or oats, boiled in water or milk- was a common breakfast in the workhouses . A version existed using only flour and water, so gruel could vary in consistency from porridge to……basically, slop. And Oliver Twist had the temerity to ask for more.
Lunch, known as dinner, varied from cooked or pickled meat with potatoes and vegetables in the best of cases to a watery broth in the worst scenario, The evening meal, called supper, was generally around 6pm and consisted of bread and broth, and maybe a small piece of cheese if you were lucky. The workhouse was not a solution for anything. Towards the end of the 19th century, the idea began to take root that the State should take some responsibility for the more vulnerable members of society.
The working class
The Victorians had a strict class system and even the working class was divided into three tiers – firstly manual labourers, followed by artisans, and the top level, the “educated working man”. Manual labourers, at the bottom of the hierarchy , were paid very low wages and could only afford very basic foodstuffs, let alone kitchen utensils.
One of the cheaper items on offer at the butchers’ was broxy, which referred to spoiled meat from animals which had died from disease. If you didn’t fancy food posioning or death from broxy, boiled or fried sheeps’ trotters were also a popular dish. Yes, I’m feeling queasy at this point as well….
Slum residents generally existed on a diet of bread, dripping, tea and broth. The worst off also ate potato peelings and rotten vegetables. Inevitably, this dreadful diet had effects on people’s health and harmed the healthy development of growing children.
The moneyed classes
With the invention of railways and better transport systems during the Victorian period, food produce could be transported more easily across the country, providing a better choice of fresh food for those who could afford it.
Although the middle classes could not afford to be as extravagant as the wealthy, the financially stable also had a variety of foods available to them. Meat, fish, cheese, eggs and bacon were staples along with porridge, and the traditional Sunday roast dinner. Meat was an expensive commodity so was generally out of reach for the less well off, although it could be substituted with offal, or a nice sheep or calf head. Eurgh. Please note I have spared you (and myself) the images.
Beyond Britain, Victorian cuisine had a reputation for being tasteless and unappetising , with all foodstuffs basically being boiled to death. This is justified to a certain extent, but there was also a trend towards culinary creativity. It goes without saying of course, that you would need to be wealthy in order to indulge this creative vein.
For the well-off, it became fashionable to host elaborate dinner parties, showing off expensive china and silverware and with highly decorated tables. The menus would generally consist of soup and fish as a starter, followed by meat or stew, game or poultry and conclude with dessert, cheese and liquor. Certainly there were no poisoned meats or rotten vegetables on offer in these fine displays of prosperity.
Large Victorian properties would possess huge kitchens including a scullery for cleaning and storing crockery and kitchen utensils, a pantry for food storage prior to use, and a larder for meat preparation as well as ample kitchen space for the actual cooking. . Not to mention the the members of staff employed to deal with all the culinary preparation of the menu.
It has been noted that upper and middle class women did sometimes join in with the menu preparation. Elizabeth Robins Pennell was an art-turned-food critic who considered that food could be a high form of art, and encouraged women to use their creative gifts rather than consider cooking to be a household chore.
Although we would be familiar with many of the foodstuffs that Victorians ate, there are several dishes that would definitely not appeal to modern tastes. An example of this is the Brown Windsor Soup, which sounds pretty sinister to me already. It was a concoction of meat in its gravy, vegetables, vinegar, dried fruit, and for those who could afford it, a dash of Madeira wine. Still not liking it? Me neither. But it was “reputed to have built the British Empire.” Yikes.
Although it was orginally a chef’s gourmet recipe, by the 1920’s poor old Windsor soup had became a synonym for the worst of English cuisine.
Other delights included bone marrow on toast, heron pudding, haggis, and a popular breakfast was kedgeree – an Anglo-Indian dish consisting of smoked haddock, rice, milk, hard-boiled eggs and seasoned with coriander, curry and/or turmeric. Those who could afford it believed in hearty breakfasts, but I think I’ll stick to my cup of coffee and piece of toast, thanks very much.
Victorian Food and Health
It is obvious that the abysmal quality of diet was detrimental to the poor and could even kill them. The rich however, did not suffer from the same diet-related problems as we do today.
For a start, convenience foods high in fat or sugar content were yet to be invented. The population was, on the whole, much more active than we are today. The Victorians ate plenty of seasonal vegetables and fruit due to the development of new transport systems. Their intake of nuts, whole grains and omega rich foods all meant that the chronic and degenerative diseases which are common in today’s society hardly existed. Diabetes type 2, for example, which is rife in our modern world, was practically non-existent.
What can we learn ?
Our modern society is generally aware, that with the rise of largely sedentary jobs, people who have access to plenty of food need to exercise and eat healthily to help ward off disease. And secondly, maybe we (and especially the 331 Members of Parliament that voted against a food supply for kids in need) should be a little more inclined to believe that poorer people may not have money to feed their children through no fault of their own. We may no longer suffer some of the barbaric incidents of the Victorian era, but the financial gap between the well-heeled and the less fortunate seems to be, very sadly, on the increase.
I teach English as a second language. I see the learners’ struggles and triumphs with the vagaries of the English language. And when I started in this profession, I sometimes had to research the reason why we say certain phrases in the way that we do – in other words, grammar. There are many things that, as a native speaker, you have assimilated into your speech patterns without even thinking about it.
Our brains are amazing
A child’s brain is like a sponge. Think about the fact that any child learns their own language simply by imitating the other members of their family. But not only do children copy words, there are any number of grammatical formats automatically incorporated into their language patterns without ever having to learn the “rules” in a way that a non-native speaker does. And they assimilate these things with very little effort on their part.
This is also why being a native speaker of any language is not necessarily enough to be able to teach it. You may know the correct answer but often your students will ask youthe reason why. I cannot deny that there are some things in the English language that are not terribly logical. I do apologise for my unruly language. However, there are many logical grammar rules which can be explained clearly to learners, and which reassure them that the English language is not just a crazy hodge-podge of madness,
Pesky irregular verbs
You may or may not know that English as a second language learners are often given long lists of irregular verbs to learn which is the most horrifically boring task. English teachers have invented a myriad of activities to make the task more palatable. Think be-was/were, drink- drank, eat-ate, go-went. Absolutely all over the place, right ? But as a native speaker you just learnt these terms as you heard them, started including them in your speech, and carried on.
Countables and Uncountables
Another thing you may not know if English is your first language is why we have two different ways to ask about quantity, using “How many?” or How much?”. The basic grammar rule is that “many” is used with things we can count – people, chairs, turnips, shoes. And “much” is used for things we can’t count – happiness, incompetence, wine, petrol, noodles ( ok, you can, in fact, count noodles, or spaghetti, or cereal but surely no-one in their right mind would want to ).
But as often happens, there is an exception. Any noun which is composed of a mixture of things such as traffic, fruit, furniture is classed as uncountable and therefore uses the word much. But not vegetables. We say There aren’t many vegetables. Why and who decided this, no-one knows. Most languages completely ignore whether something can actually be counted or not and have one word or phrase for all cases. This grammar rule for non-native speakers is pretty mind-blowing the first time they encounter it. Don’t you feel sorry for them trying to figure this out?
Order of adjectives
Another issue was explained in my post of 10th Sept 2019, “Order of Adjectives in English”. Check it out if you want to see why we say “lucky black cat” and “black lucky cat” sounds so horribly wrong….. http://order-of-adjectives-in-english
There’s a lot of negative news out there and coronavirus lockdown restrictions haven’t been exactly a bundle of fun. Some of us have had to develop our culinary skills a little further than usual in these trying times. Some of us may have turned to the comfort food we crave. It got me thinking about the food of my childhood. I was born and grew up in the north of England. In the 80’s, when globalisation was beginning to take place, and people began to travel further afield on holiday, the range of foodstuffs on offer gradually began to increase. Nowadays any reasonably sized supermarket has a huge variety of goods, much of it imported from abroad, as our culinary tastes have broadened. But what about food we consider to be quintessentially English ?
In no particular order, here are some of my favourite typically English foodstuffs from my childhood. Maybe I should warn you first that this post is not for anyone strictly controlling their calorie intake. But it makes for divine comfort food.
I know it’s a cliché but I have the best memories of steaming hot battered fish and chips with lashings of malt vinegar, brought home by Mum or Dad as a treat . The first takeaway I ever sampled – before takeaway was even a thing. Or as an adult, buying this tasty comforting fare, best eaten out of the wrapping paper on the way home after a few drinks in the pub. Pure bliss.
Cheese – my personal favoutite is tangy, crumbly Cheshire cheese. But there’s an immense range of around 700 English cheeses you can sample …..it’s not all about Cheddar. And there are some great names ….CornishYarg, Dorset Drum, Fine Fettle Yorkshire and the marvellously named Stinking Bishop, whose name orginates from Stinking Bishop pears, which are used to make an alcoholic drink known as perry, in which the cheese is steeped while it matures. In turn, Stinking Bishop Pears are named after Mr. Frederick Bishop, who first cultivated them. Mr Bishop is said to have once shot at his kettle when it did not heat water quickly enough for his liking. Interesting guy.
Ok, English weather in general can be pretty dismal but when conditions are right and it’s sunny, the sky is blue, it’s around 24 degrees and there is no more than a gentle breeze, an Englishsummer’s dayis not far from perfect. And top it off with a 99 from the ice-cream van. A 99, for those of you not in the know, is a soft ice-cream cone with a Cadbury’s chocolate flake. Heaven.
The full English breakfast. Typically consists of bacon, sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, fried tomatoes, hash browns, fried bread, black pudding and any thing else you care to throw in. Yes, it involves a lot of frying. That’s why it’s also known as a fry-up. It also contains a huge amount of calories. But it is a tried and tested hangover cure, possibly because you are unable to move anyway if you scoff the lot. Variations include the Full Scottish, Full Irish and Full Welsh breakfast.
Mince pies. These are a Christmas delicacy and if you are unfamiliar with them, you would probably assume they are savoury….but no, they are made with sweet mincemeat consisting of dried fruit with spices. Orginally, however, in the 13th century mince pies were much bigger, generally rectangular in shape and surprise, surprise, they did contain meat well as fruit and spice. By the time of Queen Victoria, the mince pie had evolved into the the sweet- flavoured individually sized pie that we know and love today…. the mouthwatering taste of a traditional English Christmas.
So there you have some of my favourite food treats from my country of birth.
Anything else you would add to the list ? Tell me your thoughts ….
It is truly amazing how snippets of information, no matter whether they are based on fact or fiction, can filter through hundreds of generations and become part of our traditions and culture. Such is the case of Saint Swithin (or Swithun, if you prefer), who was the bishop of Winchester in the 9th century. Despite the fact that not much has been recorded about his life, it is the events after his death that have earned him a place in history.
What we do know for sure is that Swithin was the bishop of Winchester from October 852 until July 853, and that on his deathbed, he requested to be buried in the cathedral grounds where the rain could fall on his grave.
But after a church reform, on 15th July in the 970’s, Swithin’s remains were transferred from his burial place in the grounds to a new shrine in the Old Minster in Winchester. The removal of the remains were carried out in heavy rain storms, which were said to last 40 days and 40 nights. Swithin was evidently not amused.
As we do not have access to weather records from the 10th century, the 40 day downpour has never been confirmed. But the legacy of Swithin has endured. He is the patron saint of Winchester. He is the saint we should address if we are in need of water in the event of a drought. He is also remembered in this verse:
St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain For forty days it will remain St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.
And translated into contemporary English – if it rains on 15th July, now known as Saint Swithin’s day, you are going to see a lot more rain. 40 days and nights’ worth, to be exact. But should the opposite be true, that is, the sun deigns to make an appearance, then you will enjoy 40 days of fine weather.
Sadly , I am obliged to admit that there are no years on record when this prediction actually came true. A meterologist would tell you that the weather can often change mid-summer in England and this is a phenomenon dependent on jet streams. But I would stake a guess that numerous people in England will look at the sky on 15th July 2020 and remember Saint Swithin.