Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Going Berserk

When we hear the expression that an individual has “gone berserk” we instinctively know what that term means and therefore can visualize a man or woman losing control of their emotions. The name Berserker (ber for “bear” and serkr for “coat”) was given to an ancient Norse warrior who, rather than wear the standard chain mail attire into combat, instead wore a bear skin coat and therefore became known as Berserkr. And, as this particular warrior was renowned for his rage and fury during battle, the term berserk quickly became identified with anyone who behaved in a frenzied or crazy manner.

During the 7th and 8th centuries Vikings often invaded England because there was little resistance from the villagers and the island was easy to reach across the North Sea. Their prime targets were churches because the Vikings knew this was where they would find gold or silver candlesticks and other valuables. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a contemporaneous account written by monks, and includes 1000 years of English history, describes in detail when and how the Vikings invaded England. The monks describe how the beautiful monasteries were burned to the ground by the Vikings and that, “… they made that which was very great such that it became nothing.”

The Vikings were soldier-sailors and highly skilled oarsmen. Their callused hands allowed them to row for long periods of time. The rhythmic pull of 16 or more professional warriors on each side of the boat allowed them to stealthily approach a village and then, attack, loot and withdraw without loss of life. While traveling, their wooden shields hung on the outside of the boat like badges of victory. When they attacked, they wore a kind of chain mail, conical steel helmets and wielded terrifying iron axes that were capable of inflicting mortal wounds.

The church of St. Botolph’s nestled in the quiet countryside of Essex, England, was perfect a target for Vikings attacks, but it seems that it played a part in the tragic end of at least one Viking. The centuries-old legend of St. Botolph describes the capture of a Danish pirate by the men of the village. The pirate blasphemed and ridiculed the village folk and the monks for their belief in Christianity. Legend has it that the pirate was flayed alive, and his skin was nailed to the church door. A few years ago, the church door at St. Botolph’s had to be removed for repairs. To the amazement of the workmen, they discovered a substance under the hinges of the door. It was collected and sent for analysis, and was found to be of human origin. Was there some truth to the ancient legend? Was this the skin that of the Danish pirate who was accused of heresy? The skin is now displayed at the museum at Saffron Walden, Essex.

St. Botolph’s Church in Hadstock, Essex, England is mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records and holds the record as being the oldest constantly used church door in England (circa 1020).

Extraordinary Places...Close to London. ISBN 0-8038-2031-3

Friday, August 15, 2008

Word Mavens

Some years ago, I appeared as part of a panel on the Walt Bodine radio show in Kansas City, Missouri. The concept for this particular show was an original idea from yours truly. For some time, I had been fascinated by the expressions and terms we use in everyday language, expressions that we instinctively know the meaning of -- but not necessarily the origin. Sayings such as, "Back to square one" and, "Chip off the old block." I contacted the producer of the show who thought it was a wonderful idea for a one time program. I appeared with two professors from the University of Missouri, and our first show aired in 1998. According to the producer "the lines lit up like the 4th of July" and there was so much interest in the topic, we were given a monthly slot, and were given the title of Word Mavens. The show required extensive research on my part (not wanting to be asked a question I couldn't answer on live radio!) and so I plan on using that research as posts over the next few weeks. I hope you will enjoy them. I will choose my own favorites, but also some that appear in common, everyday usage.

Note: The origin of the terms and expressions are often lost to obscurity, and many have multiple source origins.

Back to Square One

From the late 1920s into the late 1950s, the radio or the “wireless” as it was affectionately called in England became a very popular form of entertainment. The most popular shows were music, weekly lifestyle serials and sport. The sporting events such as rugby and football (soccer) were the most difficult for the sports commentators to describe in real-time to their listeners. So, the BBC came up with a concept that helped the audience visualize where a particular player was at the very moment the ball was played, in essence to “see” the game. The idea was simple and effective. They drew a diagram of a field and sectioned it into eight numbered squares -- plus one square (numbered "one") for each goalkeeper. This diagram was first published it the Radio Times (BBC’s weekly listing guide) in their January 1927 edition. Listeners could refer to the diagram while the game was in progress. The commentators were able to give the name of the player and which square he was in, then who received the ball and where he was on the pitch. The listeners, by looking at the diagram in the Radio Times, would know exactly where the player was on the field, and where he had passed the ball. The commentators use of this technique helped the listening audience follow the game in real-time. This origin is controversial because the available BBC recordings of early games do not include mention of the term "Back to Square One".