Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween and other origins

Halloween or Allhallows Eve – A boundary between the living and the dead.
The custom of celebrating the end of summer and harvest time and the beginning of winter has been in effect for over 2000 years. It began with the Celts who lived in the United Kingdom, Ireland and some parts of northern France. They believed that on one particular night, October 31, the relationship between the living and dead was thinly defined, and therefore on that night, the dead could visit the earth. This belief was not feared by the Celts who instead celebrated the occasion with a festival called “Samhain” which literally means summer’s end. During this time, there were feasts and much rejoicing around huge bonfires. At the end of the evening, participants took home a lighted ember from the sacred bonfire to rekindle their home fire as a symbol of the continuity of life and the beginning of the winter.

To get up on the wrong side of the bed - To be in a grumpy mood.
This expression seems to be more associated with folklore than origins, but it was believed by the ancient peoples that all the good forces of a man were on the right side of his body whilst the bad (or evil) were associated on his left. So, to get out of bed on the wrong side (on the left) it would mean the day had already started off poorly. To avoid this happening, many innkeepers would actually push the beds against the wall on the left hand side so that their guests had to get out of bed on the right side.

Gremlin – A scapegoat for when things go wrong.
A fanciful name given to those mischievous little creatures with long ears and sharp teeth we’ve seen in the movies. In WW2, British pilots blamed their poor performance on gremlins that behaved like poltergeists and turned their well-planned operations into complete FUBAR – meaning “fouled up beyond all recognition.”

Knock on Wood –A good luck wish.
The origin is not known and there are several claims to the authenticity. One possibility is the ancient people (pre Christian) used to believe that spirits lived in trees, notably the willow, oak, ash and holly. If one knocked on the tree, the spirit would awaken and come to the aid of the individual needing help.

Hanky-Panky – Sinister dealings.
This term originated in the fairgrounds and carnivals more than a hundred years ago. Hanky-panky is a variation of the much older hocus-pocus used by magicians while performing tricks. Hanky-panky is used to mean double-dealing, sly, and crafty behavior.

Baker’s Dozen – Short change.
It seems that the bakers of the medieval period had such a bad name that the words baker and devil were sometimes used interchangeably. The term baker’s dozen may have evolved from devil’s dozen, which was a common folk phrase meaning thirteen - thirteen being the number of witches usually present at a coven.

Another theory, and my favorite, goes back to fifteenth-century England. Bakers had a reputation for short weighting their bread. Because of this, very strict laws were passed, regulating the weight of the loaves. The bakers had difficulty with this so, to comply with the laws, they gave an extra loaf as a guaranty.

The devil’s strip - Not as ominous as it sounds.
Although it is believed this term originated in England, I have been unable to substantiate the claim. However, it is used in many parts of the United States to describe that strip of land that separates a sidewalk from a curb. Sometimes, the strip is narrow giving the pedestrian barely a couple of feet from the speeding traffic – hence the term “Devil’s Strip.”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Food for Thought

We can’t live without it and too much will send us to the gym or worse. Food and drink, a necessary requirement for our very existence has some wonderful and interesting origins that I’ve included in this post.

TeaThe Brits have a special time for it - 4 PM with cakes and tiny sandwiches.
The first pot of tea was believed to have originated with the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung who in 2737 BC was boiling some water when some leaves fell into his pot from a nearby tree. He drank the liquid and enjoyed it so much that he made a note in his diary saying, “It quenches the thirst. It lessens the desire to sleep. It gladdens and cheers the heart.”

CoffeeSometimes needed to jump-start us in the morning.
Many legends surround the origin of the coffee bean but probably the most famous is the story about Kaldi a 9th-century Arab goat-herder. Kaldi noticed his goats became frisky after eating the red berries of a nearby bush. He took a handful himself and ate them experiencing the same friskiness. For the next few hundred years the berries were chewed to obtain the stimulating affect of the berry until in the 13th century, Arabs brewed the first roasted beans, which is the forerunner of coffee as we know it today.

Salt – The origin of the word "salary"
So important was salt to ancient people that it was often kept under lock and key. Salt pans were found all over the world and archeologists know that by 6500 BC people were panning salt to provide a meager living. When William the Conqueror landed in England in 1066, he had his scribes note in the Domesday Book (an inventory of England’s wealth) the amount of salt pans used by the Saxons. William levied a tax against the collection of salt by the Saxons. There was also a tax levied against their houses, livestock, and other possessions.

The Roman writer Petronius gave us the expression “not worth his salt.” Roman soldiers were often given special allowances for salt rations called salarium, from which the word salary is derived.

Chicken Tetrazzini An opera singer’s delight
The famous opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini loved this dish so much, it still bears her name to this day. Comprised of chicken, mushrooms and spaghetti in a creamy sauce, it is said that Luisa loved the dish with a passion that was equal only to her love of the opera.

Peach MelbaA dessert sweet enough for a Soprano
This dish was a favorite of the Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba. Nellie adored this dessert that still bears her name to this day. A combination of halved peaches, vanilla ice cream topped with a sauce of raspberries and currants make this a delicious dessert.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

How Did They Get Their Names?

From Wellington boots to bikinis, blue jeans to galoshes, the origins of these words are rich and interesting. Sometimes there is more than one theory to the source of these sayings or phrases; here are some favorites of mine… more to follow in the months to come.

Bandanna – The Hindu word for dyeing
The Hindus called this kind of dyeing Bandnu but over the years the word, coming through the Portuguese, has given us the English Bandanna. The term originated in Indian, as did the technique. The method of providing such colorful design is obtained by tightly knotting the cloth and dipping it in dye; thus some of the cloth retains the original color giving an attractive star burst effect to the finished product.

Petticoat – Not an undergarment but a small coat
Men wore the early petticoat or “little coat”. Men continued to wear petticoats until the eighteenth century, although the garments were later called waistcoats.

Soccus – Loose leather slippers
Comedians of Rome wore masks to depict the characters they impersonated. It is said they also wore loose, leather, slippers called soccus. These slippers were usually worn by women or effeminate men and loosely covered the toes more than the heels.

Wellington Boot – A solution to prevent foot rot
So many soldiers were affected with foot rot which was caused by marching in water logged trenches that the Duke of Wellington designed and commissioned a waterproof boot, hence the name Wellington boot

Blue Jeans – Centuries old usage then and now
This early sixteenth century word, which originally described the cotton material rather than the garment it made, was not named after a person but a city. Jean is a derivation of Genoa, Italy. Denim is similarly derived from the city of Nimes, France. The material was originally called Serge de Nimes. By the way, there really was a gentleman called Levi-Strauss. He lived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush days. It was he who added rivets to the corners of the pockets, making Levis a handy as well as durable pair of pants.

Pea Jacket – Originally a sailor’s garb
It’s believed the origin came from Dutch sailors in the fifteenth century. The coats were made of a coarse cloth suitable for use in rough weather. So where does the word pea come from? The Dutch word for coarse cloth is pijjekker, but as usual, the English had to shorten the name to make it more manageable, hence the term Pea Jacket.

Zipper – Faster than a speeding bullet!
Zip was used as a noun and verb in English as early as 1850. Zip was probably first used to describe the hissing sound of a speeding bullet. It’s believe that zipper was similarly taken from the sound it made by fastening. B.F. Goodrich trademarked the word in 1925. Zippers helped make Goodrich’s overshoes waterproof.

Bikini - Tweeny weenie swimming suit
The bikini takes its name from an atoll in the Marshall Islands where the United States held the atomic bomb tests. We may assume the name came from the scantily dressed inhabitants of Bikini Atoll.

Dungaree – No farmer would be without with these
About 250 years ago, traders brought from India to England a coarsely woven cotton cloth, which was known, in Hindustrani as – dungri. It was first used for sails and tents but seaman started using it for clothing. As time passed, dungi picked up another syllable becoming...dungaree.