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.
There are many locations in England with outlandish names. Some are rude, some are funny and some are just, well, really silly.
Here are are some of my favourites :
Beer is a picturesque little village on the coast of Devon. I am sure you can have a beer in Beer, but its name isn’t related to the drink. It is from the Old English bearu which meant grove, and this referred to the vegetation that originally surrounded the village.
This village in Worcerstershire shares its name with the British slang for part of the male genitalia, and has a secondary meaning, also slang, which applies to someone who is annoying. Not to be used in polite company, unless you are referring to the location, of course. Bell End won a competition in 2016 when it was voted the most hilarious place name in Britain.
Crackpot, a perjorative word for someone with irrational ideas, is also the name of a village in Yorkshire. It is believed to be the amalgation of an old English word, kranka, meaning crow, and the word pot from Viking, which referred to a rift or a cavity. As is the case with many other place names, it describes what the settlers first spotted when they arrived at the location.
Well, first of all, the name Giggleswick just makes me want to giggle. This town in the Yorkshire dales has the classic Anglo-Saxon ending – wick, (also appearing as –wich and -wyke in other place names) which meant dwelling or settlement. The giggles bit doesn’t have anything to do with laughing though. It’s because the particular site in question belonged to Gichel, according to A Dictionary of British Place Names.
There are three places called Pant in Wales and one in England, namely in Shropshire, near the Welsh border. In the Welsh language, a pant is a valley, a dip or a hollow. Pant in Shropshire is , unsurprisingly, located in a dip directly below Llanymynech Rocks Nature Reserve. In the same way I would like to have a beer in Beer, I would also like to pant in Pant. Obvious I know, but having a beer in Pant or panting in Beer just wouldn’t be the same.
Sandy Balls, close to the River Avon and the New Forest in Hampshire, is comprised of woods and parklands which are now managed as a holiday centre. It was originally called Sandyballas, which referred to the sand dunes, and the name Sandyballas appears on documents from Henry VII’s time. By 1939, the name Sandy Balls was in use for the promotion of the location as a holiday spot, with a possibly unintentional play on words.
Ugley and Nasty
Ugley is located in the Essex countryside and was registered in the Domesday Book as Ugghelea. The theory is that someone called something like Ugga owned the original land which was a leah (Old English for a meadow or open field). Nothing to do with Ugley being ugly – in fact it is said to be very pretty. Ugley is not that far away from Nasty, in Hertfordshire. According to Wikipedia, the name Nasty is derived from Anglo-Saxon,æt þǽm éastan hæge, meaning “at the eastern hedged enclosure” or similar. And no, I don’t understand how the name evolved into Nasty, either.
The only place in the British Isles that includes an exclamation mark in its name, Westward Ho! can be found on the North Devon coast. Its attention grabbing name comes from the novel of the same name, by Charles Kingsley, published in 1855. His novel would not fare well in contemporary times due to its imperialist bias, but in its day, it was a bestseller. Ten years after publication, some local businessmen from Bideford (where the storyline begins) set up a holiday village in close proximity, christening it Westward Ho! and cashing in on the novel’s success and the Victorians’ love for seaside breaks.
And finally ….. all the Bottoms
Forgive my puerile sense of humour, but I just love all those place names that include the word bottom (which, incidentally is derived from Old English botm , meaning the lowest part of something). Too many to mention here but thank you to Bottom’s Fold in Lancashire, Broadbottom in Greater Manchester, Clay Bottom in Bristol, and the marvellously named Scratchy Bottom in Dorset, for making us laugh.
Feel free to tell me about any other place names that make you laugh – in England or anywhere else…..hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I have in creating it.
One of the first images that springs to mind when we think about weddings is the white bridal dress. Although our society is no longer son strictly bound by cultural norms, the traditional white wedding dress is still overwhelmingly chosen by many Western brides. But where and when did brides start wearing white ?
Before the white wedding dress
Before the white wedding dress, that is, prior to the 1840’s, there was no predominant colour for a wedding dress. Brides wore coloured dresses, or even black, as the dress would probably have been used afterwards for social gatherings, and white would not have been a practical choice. Even royal brides wore coloured wedding gowns, although with the addition of luxurious furs and expensive jewellery.
Until Queen Victoria’s wedding.
Queen Victoria married Prince Albert on 10th February, 1840. She made an unusual choice to get married in a white silk-satin dress, trimmed with lace. She chose British fabric in order to boost the ailing lace industry and the fabric manufacturing trade. The silk was from Spitalfields and the lace from Honiton and Beer, in Devon. Instead of a donning the heavy robes of a monarch, she attached a white satin train to her dress and held an orange blossom and myrtle wreath , along with orange blossom in her hair instead of a crown. The image below shows Victoria and Albert’s wedding ceremony , in a part of a painting by George Hayter.
Victoria’s choice of attire was groundbreaking. The fashionable colour for wedding dresses at the time was actually red and a royal bride was expected to be decked out in a heavy, brocaded robes of state that showed status and wealth. A comparable event today would be a royal bride walking down the aisle in a blue or red wedding dress, for example. Some members of the court criticised Victoria’s sartorial choice as insipid and excessively simple, expecting to see much more lavish jewelley and expensive materials. However, Victoria had her reasons. It is thought that the lack of pomp and circumstance served to show her reign would not be flamboyant but based on simplicity and good sense, along with the promotion of national craftsmanship in the dress itself.
Of course, reports and pictures of Victoria’s wedding and her dress were widespread for several months after the event. Before long, wealthy brides were getting married in white dresses with orange blossom additions. In 1849, Godey’s Lady Book, a forerunner of a modern fashion magazine, declared that white was the best colour for a bride, “as an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood.” In addition, the publication incorrectly claimed that a white wedding dress was an ancient tradition that represented virginity, something that resonated with the public, even though it was not true.
And so began the association of the colour white with the virginal bride, although the choice of white also denoted that the bride’s family had the financial means to afford a dress in an impractical colour which could not be easily cleaned. The same went for the fabrics used in the bridal gown – the more luxurious the fabric, the wealthier the family. By the end of the 19th century white wedding dresses were the norm for brides who had money, whereas the less financially well-off would simply wear their best dress or suit in whatever colour they had. During the Second World War some brides actually wore wedding dresses made from parachute silk. But when better times arrived after the war and with white weddings portrayed on the silver screen, the whole concept of a white wedding became part and parcel of Western culture.
The Royal Family have access to great wealth and privilege, but a white wedding is something that many of us are familiar with. Nowadays we have access to a huge variety of options for wedding ceremonies – under the sea, in a hot air balloon – where a flowing wedding dress is not exactly practical. We can dress in any way or any colour we like. But a huge majority of women still opt for the white wedding dress – or ivory or cream or ecru or eggshell. Although other royals may have worn white for their wedding ceremonies before Victoria, it is her influence that has given us the modern white wedding dress. I wonder what she would make of the backless, strapless and off the shoulder versions ?
An oxymoron is a figure of speech where there appears to be a contradiction. For example, “accidentally on purpose”, where we know that an action was intentionally carried out but devised to look as though it was purely by chance – or what about a “deafening silence”, or an “honest crook” or a “definite maybe” ?
The term oxymoron itself can be traced back to a Latinized Greek word, oxymōrum, meaning “sharp-foolish”, so the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron. It can comprise two words or it can be a longer phrase. However, an oxymoron is not just two words which contrast each other, such as light and dark or good and evil, because the two ideas do not overlap. In an oxymoron there needs to be a clash of two seemingly different meanings in one phrase, which make the reader stop and think. The Merriam -Webster dictionary broad definition is ” something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements.” For example, an “open secret” or “friendly fire”.
Oxymorons have been used in English literature for centuries, generally for dramatic effect, and to show that two opposing ideas can often paint the picture of a deeper truth. Shakespeare used a whole string of 13 oxymorons to great effect in Romeo and Juliet, to express the complicated nature of love , amongst which are ” brawling love”, “loving hate” and “heavy lightness“. And remember the famous line ” parting is such sweet sorrow ” from the same play? John Milton wrote about “darkness visible” in Book 1 of Paradise Lost. The idea of ” warm, scalding coolness” was used by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Still used today
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that oxymorons are a dusty relic of the past. Moving on into the twentieth century, remember Simon and Garfunkel’s number one hit The Sound of Silence? Or the Verves’ Bitter Sweet Symphony, from 1997?
Oxymorons are also used to introduce new concepts such as virtual reality and working holiday. They can be used ironically to gain laughs, for example, happily married,affordable caviar, corporate responsibility. And sometimes they can be produced by accident ; see if you can spot the unintended example in the expressions below….
Let’s look at at some funny phrases usisng oxymorons which have gained their place in history.
” I can resist anything, except temptation. ” Oscar Wilde
” It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap.” Dolly Parton
” A joke is a very serious thing.” Winston Churchill
” If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive.” Samuel Goldwyn
” The budget was unlimited, but I exceeded it.” Donald Trump
I have always been fascinated by the the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the king who abdicated with these famous words : “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
It goes without saying that times were very different in the 1930’s, and people held ideas that are difficult for modern sensibilities to comprehend. Divorce was not widespread and carried a significant social stigma, many of the British upper class were immersed in snobbery, and the British press protected the Royal Family from scandal. How times have changed.
Edward, the heir to the throne did as he pleased. He was originally a golden boy who enjoyed popularity in the press, he partied, he had affairs with married women and lived a hedonsitic life. But then he fell in love with his twice divorced American mistress, Wallis Simpson. In those times of harsh social judgement Wallis was never going to make the cut as a member of the British Royals. She was openly ambitious and relished power, she was outspoken and did not show deference, and furthermore. she was a twice-divorced American…….
I believe that Edward and Wallis were spurred on by the idea of rebelling against their detractors. Tied up in their relationship were their own desires and expectations of life. Edward did not have much time for court protocol and Wallis gave him escape from the constraints of the less exciting and intellectual royal duties, tasks where he fell considerably short. Wallis was charismatic with an irreverent wit. She was also a social climber who was undoubtedly attracted to the wealth, status and glamour afforded by being Edward’s love interest. Edward was determined to marry Wallis despite the fact that she had two ex-husbands and would be deemed both socially and politically unacceptable as a royal consort.
We already know how this ended, don’t we ? On 10 December 1936 Edward abdicated, and he and Wallis married in France and lived a life in exile. Edward may well have imagined he would be able to return to Britain and still retain some influence within the royal family, but he was finally told he would be cut off financially if they returned. Meanwhile, George VI and the late Queen Mother gained the public’s respect and affection during World War II in a way that may well have been impossible for Edward and Wallis. Furthermore, it was discovered that Edward had lied about his personal finances in order to gain a more profitable financial settlement from the royal family, who paid his post- abdication allowance as he was no longer on the Civil List. He further disgraced himself by his association with the Nazi regime. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as they were now known, were sent to Bermuda in 1940 where they could do less damage to the British war effort.
After the war, the couple lived in Paris as socialites. Edward had finally understood that his role as a functioning royal was over. There was still a lot of bitterness over his actions. And what of Wallis? She had gained an affluent lifestyle but would be permanently denied her royal title, despite the fact her husband was still a styled as a royal highness. She remained at Edward’s side and was always ready to publicly support the Duke. But were they really happy behind the scenes ? After the war ended, the Windsors shuttled between Paris and New York as minor celebrities, forced to stick with their fairytale ending. Wallis is reported to have said “You you have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.”
Edward died in 1972. He is buried in Frognore, near Windsor. Wallis died fourteen years later. She had dementia and was living as a recluse. She was given a simple funeral on 29th April 1986 at Saint George’s Chapel in Windsor and buried next to Edward. Despite her husband’s persistence in the matter, she was prevented by exceptional legal measures from using the title of royal highness although Edward insisted that she was addressed as such in their household. The late Queen Mother is known to have had a strong dislike for Wallis, and considered that she was to blame for George VI’s untimely death due to the stress of a of royal role for which he had not been prepared.
Nobody comes out well in this story. But what we know is that Edward declined to accept his royal destiny at the cost of his adored Wallis. The acrimony that arose from his abdication and his subsequent actions would prevent Edward and Wallis from ever returning permanently to Britain until their deaths.
Everyone knows that in English we often add a prefix to the beginning of a word to make it negative, right? A tidy room can become untidy, an honest person can be tempted to act dishonestly.
But do you know there are several words in the English language which only exist in negative form?
Let’s start with this example.
She showed her disdain for the dishevelled and disconsolate boy.
So how about she showed her dain for the shevelled and consolate boy? Nope, that’s incorrect.
Dain, shevelled and consolate simply do not exist in contemporary English vocabulary.
We can, however, trace their usage back to the Latin and old French used in the Middle Ages. The etymology of disdain, for example, is rooted in the Latin dignari , meaning “worthy”. The dis was added to convey the opposite and the word disdain came to mean a feeling of aversion and contempt. Dishevelled comes from the amalgamation of dis and the French word for hair – cheval – and later extended its meaning to clothing. The Latin verb consolari – to comfort – provided the linguistic basis for the word disconsolate.
The English language has plenty of negative words without a positive counterpart – probably more than you would think. A few more examples : inertia, ineptitude, immacculate, impeccable, nonchalant, nonplussed, unkempt, uncouth.
I could write a story here about a macculate and peccable guy who tried to radiate a sense of ertia and eptitude by being chalant and plussed despite the fact that he was neither kempt nor couth.
But sadly, all these antonyms either never existed or are no longer in use in my language.
Modern technology may have diminished the longstanding tradition of sending letters, but the red pillar box remains a well-known and much loved British emblem in the same way as the iconic red phone box. (see post of 4th October, 2019 British icons – the red phone box).
But how did red letter boxes come about ?
A brief history
Sir Rowland Hill was a teacher and social reformer who campaigned for changes in the postal system in the 1830’s. At that time, the postal service was poorly managed, costly, and slow. There was a complicated system of postal rates, and it was the recipient who paid for the letter and not the sender, so letters could be refused. Despite some fierce opposition, Hill revolutionised the postal system to create affordable standard rates by the use of postage stamps, to be paid by the sender.
However, in order to post a letter, it still needed to be taken to a receiving office, which were not always located near to the letter writer. These offices were usually coach inns or places where road tolls were collected, very different from the Royal Mail Post Offices we use today. As the country became more urbanised and industrialised, people needed more convenient places to deposit their correspondence. In 1852, Rowland Hill sent Anthony Trollope, a civil servant and a novelist, to trial the use of a “letter-receiving pillar” in the Channel Islands, a location which was further hindered by its dependence on a boat to and from the mainland for its postal service.
The use of pillar boxes along with scheduled collection times was a success. Letter boxes were introduced in Jersey in 1852, and later extended to the rest of Britain, where the first pillar box was inaugurated in Carlisle in 1853. The first post boxes were hexagonal but there have been more than 800 different types of post box over the years. One thing they generally have in common is that a post box displays the insignia of the incumbent monarch at the time of its installation.
Up to 1859, there was no standard colour for the pillar box. From 1859 to 1874 the standard colour was green, which was eventually deemed too inconspicious. Using the same logic as in the case of the phone box, the colour was changed to red to make post boxes easily identifiable. By 1900, the number of pillar boxes amounted to 33,500 in Britain, plus those throughout the British colonies.
There are numerous types of pillar box which have survived until the present day. They are referred to by designated letters, type A, B, C and so on. John Penfold designed some of the first letter boxes and his nine different designs are now simply known as Penfolds. British post boxes have been copied and replicated in other countries in colours such as blue, green and yellow. And did you know that every time a British athlete won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics, a pillar box from their home town was painted gold to commemorate the occasion?
So not only do pillar boxes still serve their original purpose, they brighten our streets and add a little bit of history.
On the first of April both in the U.K. and several other countries, we celebrate April Fool’s Day. It is a day of practical jokes which are played on unsuspecting victims and the prankster often shouts “April Fool!” at the victim at the end of the joke. This horseplay generally lasts until midday and is frowned upon after this this point.
A battle of calendars
The origins of this day are not entirely clear. However, this story begins in the Middle Ages in Europe, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582. This was a change from the old Roman calendar imposed by Julius Caesar. The Julian calendar had an extra day in February every 4 years, and was also, in a nutshell, 11 minutes too long. Over a long period of time, this had caused Easter to fall further away from the third week of March, when it was traditionally celebrated. The calendar was also out of sync with astronomical events such as solstices and equinoxes, of great importance in a world where electricity was yet to be invented. To solve these issues, the Gregorian calendar slightly modified the leap year schedule, explained by the U.S. Naval Observatory below:
“Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are.”
And in addition to this, there was more than one date designated as New Year. The Julian calendar had in fact originally designated January 1st as the beginning of the New Year, but during the Middle Ages European countries had placed more emphasis on days of religious significance, which in turn, had been superimposed on earlier pagan rites. Crazy as it may seem to us now, there were New Year celebrations beginning on March 25th, which was the feast of the Annunciation, (also known as Lady Day, referring to the Virgin Mary) and ending on April 1st. These dates coincided with the vernal equinox, when the length of day and night have equal duration. Ancient cultures such as the Persians/Iranians, still recognise this event around March 21st.
The papal bull which reformed the calendar had no jurisdiction outside the Catholic Church so it was first applied in Catholic nations such as France, Spain, Italy and Portugal amongst others. Protestant countries were much slower to use the Gregorian calendar, as they rejected its papal influence. Germany finally adopted it in 1700 and England followed in 1752. Changing the calendar meant that in 1752 England and the British Dominions went to bed on Wednesday September 2nd and woke up on Thursday September 14th, losing 11 days in the process. But from this point they were at least in line timewise with most of Continental Europe. Greece only began to adhere to the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Orthodox churches have never accepted it, although it is now the civic global standard.
So back in the European Middle Ages, people who considered that January 1st was the beginning of the New Year made fun of those who still followed the older calendar and finished their New Year festivities at the beginning of April. The earliest reference to these shenanigans dates back to 1508 when the French poet Eloy d’Amerval made reference to a “poisson d’avril”, literally an “April fish.” But why fish? And did you notice that 1508 just happens to predate the Gregorian calendar by 74 years? A possible theory is that it was forbidden to fish in April so jokes were played by throwing dried fish into the river and pretending they were freshly caught. Somehow these pranks got caught up in the battle of the calendars and have endured to date. In today’s France, the translation of April Fool is still poisson d’avril.
April’s Fool’s Day has become an annual custom in many countries around the world. In the Ukraine, for example, it includes a parade through the city, an international clowns’ festival and the city itself is festooned with disguises. Spain is an interesting exception where although the practice of pranking other people is alive and well, it is scheduled on December 28th , el día de los innocentes (Holy Innocents Day) and not on the first day of April.
The media have played some well-known April Fool hoaxes. In England, a famous April Fool’s joke took place in 1957, when the BBC showed a spoof documentary showing spaghetti supposedly being harvested from a tree in Switzerland. The voiceover was provided by Richard Dimbleby, a well-known and respected reporter, which lent gravitas to the spot. Hundred of people rang the BBC afterwards with questions about the “spaghetti tree”. It is only fair to point out that out that in 1957 pasta was not easily available to English people and spaghetti was a fairly unknown foodstuff. And maybe they were just more innocent times. In today’s world, where we have access to information at the touch of a button, it is very doubtful that this type of mass hoax would have the same effect.
An informal word, but all the same ta is used in many areas in England instead of the more conventional thank you. In turn, thank you (or if you prefer it, ta) to Ellen Hawley, author of Notes from the U.K., for asking why we say ta, and therefore providing the inspiration for this post.
Thinking about expressions of gratitude also takes me to my previous post of 25th March, Why do we say cheers ? which looked at the origins of the word cheers as a drinking toast. But in the U.K. we also use cheers as another friendly way of saying thank you. The use of cheers as a synonym of thanks started in the 1970’s. In 1976 P. Howard wrote an article in The Times pointing out ‘By a remarkable transition from the pub to the sober world at large outside cheers has become the colloquialsynonym in British English for “thanks.” ‘
But anyway, back to the humble ta. Toddlers learning how to speak often use ta as a subsititute for thank you – basically it’s just much easier for a young child to pronounce. This childish form of thank you, first documented in the 18th century, has slowly become absorbed into our adult vocabulary.
Ta is also part of Northern English dialect, and is widely used in the North. An interesting theory is that it could have originated from the Scots Gaelic expression for thank you, tapadh leibh. Or possibly from a Scandinavian language in the times of Viking invasions. As is the case with these things, we will never be entirely certain.
And we might as well look at the origins of thank you while we’re here. In Old English the word thank was a noun, meaning thought. Its meaning shifted so that by the Middle Ages it defined thinking favourably of someone in return for their services. And so it evolved into our modern day expression thank you.
There’s only one way I can end this post today. Ta, cheers and thank you for reading.
We raise our glasses, clink them together and say “Cheers.” But do you know why this custom began ?
Across the world, people generally accompany the clinking of glasses with a toast, be it “salud” (Spain), “proost” (the Netherlands), “skál” (Scandinavia) or many others we could add to the list. All these expressions refer to health or happiness or both.
The custom of toasting your companions is thought to originate from the Ancient Greeks and Romans who would toast the gods when feasting and celebrating at their banquets. Bound up with the celebratory toast would be the desire for a long, happy life and since then, humans have expressed the same idea with by raising their glasses upwards and wishing each other well, even if we do this almost without thinking about it today.
The word “cheer” is derived from the Latin “cara” which meant face, but by the Middle Ages, the meaning had evolved and it signified mood or expression. By the late 1500’s, the word began to be linked to positive sentiments, and from there it became a toast to health and happiness.