The dark side of nursery rhymes

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Not so innocent songs

You might think that English nursery rhymes are just childish songs which have survived from generation to generation. You would be right on the last count – most of our nursery rhymes are hundreds of years old, but not only do they refer to long-forgotten historical facts, they can also hold satire or political messages of the times. Here are a few examples.

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Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

The Humpty Dumpy rhyme is old. So old that in its earlier versions, it could have been a reference to Richard III who was both allegedly humpbacked, and humiliatingly defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485. It also was once a riddle about an egg and nowadays HD is generally characterised as a type of personified egg in children’s books.

In the fifteenth century, the expression “Humpty Dumpty” referred to a heavy, corpulent person. But maybe HD was not a person at all. The rhyme also appears to have been used in the story of an enormous cannon that was used by the Royalist forces against the Roundheads at the Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War of 1642-1651. During the siege, when the wall beneath the cannon was damaged, the cannon fell to to the ground and could not be repaired by the Royalists a.k.a the King’s men. The rhyme may have existed previously, but this adaptation is the one we are familiar with today.

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.

The elder daughter of Henry VIII is known as “Bloody Mary” due to the severe religious persecution practiced under her reign from 1553-1558. The only surviving child of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Mary was a devout Catholic who rejected the annulment of her father’s marriage to Catherine, and on becoming queen, she attempted to reverse the English Reformation and restore Catholicism, burning over 280 religious dissenters at the stake.

The opening line does not need much explanation, as obviously the author held opposing views to Mary. How does your garden grow? is allegedly a reference to Mary’s infertility, although it is also said to refer to Stephen Gardiner, a bishop who was also Mary’s Lord Chancellor. There is a chilling consensus that silver bells and cockle shells could be nicknames for instruments of torture used to make Protestants recant their faith. There are a couple of nterpretations of pretty maids all in a row. It could allude to lines of Protestant matryrs, or refer to yet another type of torture device. Wow.

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Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

This one is about money. To be more specific, tax on wool, which was an important commodity in the Middle Ages. Although the song was not published until the 1700s, it refers back to wool tax, first imposed in 1275, by Edward I, a tax which lasted until the fifteenth century. Tellingly, the original last two lines were But none for the little boy who cries down the lane. In other words, the authorities took their cut, leaving the farmer with next to nothing. Presumably when it was published as a children’s song, the ending was altered to make it more suitable.

Nursery rhymes – not quite as sweet as they sound.

March hares and hatters

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A hare with a look of insanity ?

Why do we say these expressions ?

The expression “as mad as a March hare” alludes to the excited behaviour of hares during their mating season. The phrase was first coined around 1500, and has been in continuous use since then. It was employed by eminent writers such as John Skelton, Thomas More and notably, by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures of Wonderland in 1865.

Another lighthearted phrase we use to describe deranged antics is “as mad as a hatter.” This expression is thought to have its origins in the hat-making profession of the 18th and 19th century where the use of mercury ultimately poisoned the workers, giving them slurred speech, memory loss and tremors, and sometimes even hallucinations. Again, Lewis Carroll used this idea in his character the Hatter, who interacted with Alice in a nonsensical manner. We generally refer to to this character nowadays as the Mad Hatter, although Lewis Carroll only ever called him the Hatter.

Do you know any other expressions to refer to crazy behaviour?

It’s Pancake Tuesday !

Pancakes served with fruit
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Why do we celebrate Pancake Tuesday ?

Many English-speaking countries celebrate Pancake Tuesday (also known as Shrove Tuesday). This custom has its roots in Christian liturgical tradition. Shrove Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent – a 40 day stretch when religious followers would fast, or avoid rich and fatty food, and refrain from other vices, as a symbol of penance. The verb “to shrive” meant “to confess” and Christian followers were expected to be “shriven” before the solemn Lenten period.

In other countries this day is usually known as Mardi Gras (which means Fat Tuesday) and is very often a carnival day. Over time, what was once just a day of festivities gradually extended to the previous Sunday up to Shrove Tuesday and this was known as Shrovetide in England. In Medieval England, pancakes were a convenient way of using up rich food such as milk, eggs and butter before embarking on a period of food austerity.

Shrovetide was a half-holiday in England and was announced by church bells at 11 a.m. There were games of mob football, a local football match where many people joined in, using an inflated pig’s bladder as the ball. This custom declined during the 19th century, probably due to fears for public safety. Pancake races were another common sight and they are still organised on Pancake Tuesday in present times. The runners have to cover a specified route, while flipping pancakes in their frying pans. London still holds pancake races – in Leadenhall and Greenwich markets, for example. In recent years there has also been a Parliamentary Pancake Race where teams from the House of Commons and the House of Lords held a relay pancake race in Victoria Tower Gardens in order to raise money for charity. Sadly, this was cancelled in 2019 due to hostile protests related to Brexit, which made the race untenable around the Westminster area.

Will you be eating pancakes today ? Whichever way you are celebrating Pancake Day, enjoy it !

Why do we call it the “loo”?

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A typical sign for the “loo”.

History of the word “loo”

We have lots of words we can use as a substitute for toilet – loo, lavatory, w.c., restroom, bathroom, the ladies’/ the gents’ and I am sure that many people can probably add a few more informal or slang words to this list. But why do the British use the word loo?

There are several theories about how this word became part of the English language ……

Gardyloo

The most popular suggestion is based on the idea that before plumbing was invented, servants would empty the contents of a chamber pot into the street with a cry of “gardyloo” – which was a corrupted form of the French “gardez l’eau” meaning “mind the water”. However, the stumbling block to this idea is that the word “loo” first appeared in a dictionary in 1940 and began to be commonly used long after the “gardyloo” warning had disappeared from the streets.

The French term “lieux

Lieux” (with a similar pronunciation to “loo”) referred to “lieux d’aisance “, which translates as “places of comfort ” and was a French euphemism for the toilets. During World War 1, English soldiers serving in France would have been aware of this expression. Maybe they brought the term back with them to Britain where it became mainstream ?

Leeward/Looward

Leeward, signifying the side of the ship travelling in the opposite direction to the wind, was often pronounced “looward”, and would be the logical choice for sailors to relieve themselves. But it has to be pointed out that there were places onboard specifically designed for this purpose, and therefore it seems unlikely that the word “loo” originated from here.

Lady Louisa

There is a story that in 1847, Lady Louisa, the Earl of Lichfield’s unpopular wife, was staying with relatives, when the name card on her bedroom door was removed and placed on the bathroom door instead as a joke. The guests then used the phrase “going to Lady Louisa” which later became shortened to “going to the loo”.

Room 100

Yet another theory is that the toilet was often supposedly situated in Room 100 of buildings, and that 100 was misread as the word “loo.”

Waterloo

Waterloo was a trade name which appeared on cast iron cisterns at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1922, James Joyce in his book Ulysees, appears to make a reference to this : “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.” Waterloo was very much in public awareness due to Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the name lends itself easily to this play on words.

In short, not only are there are several possibilities, but the etymology of the word “loo” is a minefield with little conclusive evidence. It seems that its origins will remain obscure for the time being. Which explanation do you think is the most likely?

Silent letters in English

Silent letters

It is certainly not impossible to learn English, but our language has certain quirks that often pose problems for learners ; this is true for native speakers when they begin to speak English, as well as those studying it as a foreign language. A young native speaker of English may well mispronounce a word the first time they see it written form, and often this is a result of a silent letter i.e. the letter appears in the written word, but it should not be voiced.

What are common silent letters in English?

How many silent letters are there in the English language ? The letters b, c, g, h, k, l, p,t, and w all make an unvoiced appearance in English vocabulary. Let’s take a quick look at where they appear and the reasons why.

B – is not pronounced at the end of these words : bomb, climb, comb, crumb, lamb, limb. In fact, it is even quite difficult to include the “b” sound. So why is it there ? Well, the word “bomb” came from the Italian “bomba“, where we can clearly hear the b sound. As the word began to be adapted into English , the letter b survived in the written form of the word “bomb”, whilst in the spoken form, we have eliminated its sound. This is the often the reason for those silent b’s at the end of a word.The lexeme originated from a different language and was shortened in its spoken form, although the written form conserved an extra unspoken letter.

B and C– That rogue letter b also appears in debt, doubt and subtle, but we do not include the b sound when we say these words. However, the reason for this is that they were, in fact, added to the original spelling in the Middle Ages. At this time, scholars began to examine Latin texts and the etymology of language. The three words in question are rooted in Old French, without a letter b in sight, but these academics realised that the origin of these words were debitum , dubitare and subtilis, respectively, and therefore thought that the Latin root should be recognised within the spelling. This is also the case with the letter c in the words indict and scissors.

G – There are words such as gnash, gnat, gnome, where the letter g is never pronounced. These are often archaic spellings from the time when the letter g was actually pronounced at the beginning of the word. What is more, if an English word ends in a combination of gn, then the letter g is silent. This includes sign, design, foreign, reign, sovereign. Silent g also occurs in words like bought, light, night, right, thought. There is an explanation for this, as in Old English, the letter h was pronounced even when it was placed halfway through a word. In Middle English, this h was spelt as a gh when it came before a vowel, and although the h sound is no longer voiced, the spelling with its redundant unvoiced letters has survived.

Kknee. knickers, knife, knowledge and more. Why is the letter k there ? Similar to silent g at the beginning of a word, the letter k was actually pronounced in Old and Middle English but has evolved into a silent letter in the English we speak nowadays.

L – for example, could, should, would, half, salmon, talk, yolk . Non-native English language students, particularly those whose maternal language is phonetic, often mispronounce these words by including an l sound. However, in English the letter l can be silent after the vowels a, o and u. But definitely not a rule you can apply across the board.

P – When the letter p is silent, it is what we call a dummy letter. Similar to silent g and k at the beginning of a word, vocabulary items with a silent p at the start are generally cognates, that is to say, words that have been borrowed from other languages and often reflect the original spelling in the other language, even though we do not actually pronounce the English version of the word in exactly the same way. The p sometimes can be towards the end of the word .Examples include corps, coup, phlebitis, psychotic – the first two from French , the third from Latin and the fourth from Greek. And to complicate matters further, the word receipt has a silent p due to those literary scholars of the past who added the p back into the spelling to show its Latin roots.

T – some spellings consistently produce a silent T in English. The endings – ften , sten, stle generally have a silent t – think about soften, soften, listen , moisten, castle, whistle. And words borrowed from French ending in t imitate French pronunciation – ballet. gourmet, ricochet – and thus the letter t does not sound at the end.

W – why is the w not pronounced in answer or sword and why is it there at all in words like write, wrong, or wrinkle ? Answer and sword are another case of spellings not keeping up with pronunciation. The w was originally vocalised in Old English but was dropped over time, whilst persisting in the written word. The family of words begining with wr has its roots in Old German, and the w stopped being pronounced from 1450 onwards.

This is just a brief look at some of the issues with silent letters in English. It is by no means comprehensive and unfortunately the rule is that there are no rules when it comes to English pronunciation. Modern English is basically a hotch-potch of words from all those different regions who invaded the British Isles in the past, plus lexicology from the now defunct Anglo-Saxon language. This wide range of influences has without doubt, supplied the English language with a rich and immense vocabulary, and a fair sprinkling of silent letters from archaic spellings, which often mislead those learning to speak English.

Christmas – love it or hate it ?

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Christmas decorations

A short Christmas story with your chosen ending

They were in love and they lived together. She adored Christmas and all its trappings. He really wouldn’t have cared if Christmas never happened again. For this reason, their first Christmas together was proving difficult. One of them was continually wrapped up in Christmas euphoria whilst the other wallowed in disgust at the commercial frenzy around them.

” Let’s go and see the Christmas lights in the city centre” she suggested one December evening. ” I’m tired, it’s cold and I am really not interested in any of this palaver” he replied. “But whyever not?” she pleaded. “It’s such a wonderful time of the year, and it’s soooo pretty……”. He left the room before he had to listen to any more to his love who was becoming more of a deluded Christmas maniac every minute….

She sighed. He would never understand that Christmas for her was an expression of life, that she wanted to enjoy rituals like this with the love of her life. But she understood that Christmas was a difficut time for him, and remembered his harrowed face when he told her about his mother’s fatal accident on Christmas Eve when he was only a teenager…..

He sat down heavily. Why was she so obsessed with all this Christmas crap ? But then he thought about her tragic childhood, the poverty surrounding her as she had grown up, and the way, even now, the smallest things could fill her with delight as there had been so little joy at the beginning of her life.

So what do you think ? Did they go to the Christmas lights? Did they spend many more Christmases together?

Love it or hate it or somewhere inbetween, Christmas. The choice is yours.

Feel free to write your ending to the story in the comments box.

Christmas crackers

Christmas crackers
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A decoration …. and more

Christmas crackers are a must at any Christmas dinner in the U.K., Ireland and other English speaking countries. These festive decorations are placed on the table, one for each person, and resemble oversized sweets, made from a cardboard tube overlaid with coloured paper.

Origin

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Old fashioned sweets

It is no coincidence that a cracker resembles a giant sweet wrapper. Crackers were invented in London in 1847 by Tom Smith, as a promotion to sell his bon-bon sweets. He added the novelty of a tiny explosive sound when the cracker was broken apart, and eventually the sweet came to be replaced by a trinket.

Today

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Waiting for the cracker ……

No self-respecting Christmas dinner in the U.K can be without crackers. One is placed next to each table setting, and two people pull them apart from either end. When the cracker breaks, there is a small bang produced by the snapping of the friction slip inside. Inside contemporary crackers, there is a paper crown to be worn throughout the meal, a slip of paper with a riddle or joke to make everyone groan, and a small (usually plastic) gift – typical objects are rings and puzzles, for example. However, the British Royal Family have their Christmas crackers specially made, and luxury versions of crackers also exist, with jewellery and more expensive paraphernalia in their interior.

From humble beginnings as a marketing gimmick, Christmas crackers are now part and parcel of the Yuletide festivities.

“Nothing is certain except death and taxes”

A brief history of tax troubles for monarchs and the people

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Calculating taxes

The title of this article is a quotation that has become part of our culture, and is generally used to convey the idea that paying taxes is unavoidable. The quote is generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin in 1789 , although in 1716 Christopher Bullock, an English actor, is on record as having said” “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.”

Anglo-Saxon England

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A medieval sword and helmet

Not much is known about the financial systems in place in Roman Britain. But a document from 7th or 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, The Tribal Hidage, shows the government used land taxes in order to raise money for their expenses. Land was divided into hides, and this measurement was used in order to evaluate tax payments from the populace. It is unclear exactly how this method was calculated, but we do know that the tax obligations were already in force, and the revenue obtained was officially destined to military service, fortress work and bridge repair. By 1202, a customs tax payment, amounting to 15 % of the the total value, had been introduced to be paid on all imports and exports.

In 1381 the imposition of a third poll tax in the space of 5 years brought years of economic discontent to a head, resulting in the Peasant’s Revolt led by Wat Tyler. Despite its name, this uprising was a widespread revolution throughout England involving not only rural workers, but the urban working class and wealthier artisans. The rebels stormed the Tower of London and beheaded the Lord Chancellor and other instigators of the poll tax. The revolt was eventually neutralised and some 1,500 rebels were killed. Nonetheless, this event did serve as a deterrent for Parliament against further taxes on the people.

Tudor taxation

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Tudor England

Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, stablised the economy and increased the revenue received by the Crown. He did not, however, collect heavy land taxes in times of peace, and concentrated his efforts on obtaining funds from the nobility. Henry VII also encouraged trade as this meant an increase in revenue from customs tax. During the reign of Henry VIII, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, raised heavy taxes through Parliament to fund the English troops fighting against France, which contributed to his unpopularity and caused widespread discontent. Nevertheless, on the whole, Henry VIII was astute enough to suspend or abandon extra tax collection if it seemed likely to be troublesome. His daughter, Elizabeth I, followed this example during her reign and was loathe to tax the public harshly as she feared this would cause public resentment and alienate supporters.

The Petition of Right

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The Houses of Parliament

Fast forwarding to the Stuart period, in 1628, one of England’s most important constitutional bills was passed through Parliament, the Petition of Right. Charles I was demanding huge sums of money to continue with what became known as the Thirty Years War in Europe. The Petition of Right placed limitations on non-parliamentary taxes, amonst other restrictions aimed at the king, and this parliamentary bill played a significant role in the constitutional events leading up to the English Civil War and the subsequent beheading of Charles I. Once England was under Oliver Cromwell’s rule, public taxes were gradually decreased, although if he deemed it necessary, Cromwell saw fit to raise taxes without consent, overriding the Petition of Right which he had helped to create. In 1655 he also introduced Decimation Tax . This tax payment was aimed at his enemies, Royalists or suspected Royalists, and the income received from these charges, although not in force for a long period of time, was used to fund divisions of reserve armies, tasked with keeping order.

Introduction of income tax

At the end of 1798, the incumbent Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger introduced a progressive income tax, whereby an individual’s wealth was assessed to pay the necessary proportion,the proceeds of which were destined for expenditure on the French Revolutionary War. This is commonly regarded as the beginning of the British income tax system today. Although it was abolished and restored more than once, the Income Tax Act of 1842 firmly re-established the model and it has remained part of British fiscal procedures ever since.

Anglo-Saxon economy

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A piggy bank

An Anglo-Saxon economy is so-called as it is generally practised in English speaking countries, where governments use low level taxation and few restrictions in order to stimulate economic growth, following a free market model with its orgins in the 1700s. There are supporters and critics of this financial system but, to come full circle, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving dinner

Be grateful

When I was growing up in England, Thanksgiving day was an entirely alien concept to me, a festivity that I had seen only in American films and looked a lot like a British Christmas, but without Santa Claus and gifts. And as a Brit, I don’t feel particularly qualified to write about Thanksgiving in depth.

But what I do know is that Thanksgiving is an event that is cherished by my American friends. And the message of Thanksgiving is simple ; be grateful for what you have. Just stop for a moment and think about all the good things in your life today.

Happy Thanksgiving Day everyone !

Scratchiti

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An example of “scratchiti”

Words for our time

As discussed earler in this blog, ( see “English is Alive”, posted Sep 2nd 2019 ) new words come about because a need arises for humans to be able to label a new object or concept. Earlier this month, on a trip to New York, a sign on the subway from the MTA (New York’s public transport company) caught my eye. It prohibited graffiti and scratchiti. To date, scratchiti is not officially a word, meaning that it cannot be found in the recognised leading dictionaries of the English language. But do you instantly understand the meaning of scratchiti ? Of course you do.

Scratchiti and graffiti

This got me thinking about why people feel the need to make their mark by the use of scratchiti. After all, scratchiti is not limited to the twenty-first century. In both schools and jails, scratchiti has always been commonplace. Why ? Undoubtedly, boredom plays a huge role, and possibly the need to reassert a sense of personal identity in institutions where individuality is generally repressed, for example. prisons and schools. Vandalism can never be condoned, but understanding the reasons behind it can be useful .

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An example of graffiti

And what about graffiti ?

There are multiple motivations for graffiti, scratchiti’s etymological big brother. Again, boredom is obviously one of the causes, although it has been suggested that some graffiti artists are addicted to the adrenalin rush from running the risk of being caught in an illegal activity. Graffiti can also be motivated by anger, or the wish to promote awareness, especially in the case of social and political issues. Sadly, graffiti is sometimes the product of bullying and harassment. And on other occasions, it can be the outlet to showcase artistic ability in a public location, sometimes, (but not always) providing beauty and colour where there was none before. And graffiti is no longer anonymous, as it generally was in the past. Contemporary graffiti artists often tag their works, in other words, their artwork has a type of graffiti signature attached in the same way that traditional artists would sign their artwork. There are even a handful of famous graffiti artists whose works have fetched enormous sums of money.

In conclusion, this post is not an encouragement to damage property or any other type of illegal activity. But it is fascinating how human beings are drawn to express themselves in these ways, within or outside of the law, don’t you agree ?