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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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 “LittleCherub” 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 murderbottles in medical circles, but sadly, many women were unaware of this and still bought them. Little wonder that infant mortality was so high.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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 .”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 gotyour 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.
This expression dates back to the Roaring Twenties when there was a trend for inventing nonsense expressions using animals and anatomy – the bee’sknees, 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.
Mrs Beeton’sBook 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.
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.
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’sBook 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.
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 familygenerally 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….
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.
Sixty thousand copies of Mrs Beeton’sBook of Household Management were sold in just the first twelve months after its publication. The Oxford English Dictionary stated that the wordsMrs Beeton were “a term for an authority on all thingsdomestic 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.
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.
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.
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.