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.”