Friday, November 22, 2013

Popular Sayings and Expressions

Back in the 90s, I suggested an idea to the producer of the Walt Bodine Show, a daily radio show on KCUR, PBS's affiliate in Kansas City, Mo. The producer loved the idea of discussing the origins of everyday sayings, and agreed to go ahead. Evidently during the first show, the telephone lines lit up “like the 4th of July” and so it turned into a monthly slot. I appeared with a professor of law, and a professor of English. Since the show was live, I did extensive research because so many callers wanted an answer from “that English woman.” Even so, I was stumped many times, and looked to the professors for help. We were known as the Word Mavens. I heard some of following expressions over the last few weeks and thought readers might enjoy reading their origins.

Paying Through the Nose - To pay exorbitantly
During the 9th century, when the Vikings imposed a poll tax on the Irish known as a ‘nose tax’ because people who failed to pay had their noses slit as punishment.

Back to Square One - Starting at the beginning
This expression was often used during board games and hopscotch, but nowadays it’s used in common language to describe anything that needs a ‘do over.’ The saying appears to have originated in England during the early days of radio (before television.) Obviously, it's very difficult to describe what's going on during football (soccer) matches if a person can't actually see the pitch (field), so a diagram of the pitch was published in the Radio Times each week wherein the pitch was divided into numbered squares. Then, as the match progressed, the commentator would continually refer to the square that each player was in, and to whom the ball was passed. Should a defender pass the ball back to his goalkeeper, the commentator would say the ball was passed back to 'square one.' Even today, most goalies wear the jersey #1. 
Dead as a Doornail - No sign of life
This goes back to ancient times when a doors had a heavy metal knocker which was swung and struck a heavy knob or doornail. Since the doornail was regularly rapped, after some time there was no life in it, hence "dead as a doornail".  Dickens used the expression - Old Marley “was as dead as a doornail.”

Down in the Dumps - Unhappy, miserable
Dump is thought to be derived from a Dutch work domp (meaning haze or dullness). During the Elizabethan period a domp was also any kind of a slow, mournful song or dance.

Face the Music - Accept Punishment
In most Western armies, any officer being cashiered from his regiment is required to stand on the parade ground and face the drum squad who tap slowly while the reasons for the man's dismissal are read out and his uniform defaced and stripped of insignia.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bubble and Squeak

Many of my American friends have asked, "What exactly is bubble and squeak..." Well, it's a vegetable dish mostly prepared from leftovers, often served the day after Christmas, with slices of cold turkey. I have no idea where the recipe came from...only know that it's always been part of Christmas in most families throughout England. I include my recipe.


Mashed potatoes
Chopped cabbage or Brussel sprouts (cooked)
Salt and Pepper
Oil for frying

Combine mashed potatoes with the cooked cabbage or Brussel sprouts, and season to taste. Fry in the oil until crispy. Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Medieval Superstitions and Folklore

Photo of re-enactment -- The Tower of London

During medieval times, gemstones were believed to hold magical and even medicinal powers. The men and women who could afford such luxuries adorned themselves with brooches, rings, clasps and badges as a kind of talisman to ward off bad omens and spirits. At the top of the list are rubies which were believed to protect the wearer from poison, emeralds helped ward off madness and illness, and diamonds helped to make a person wise and protect against nightmares.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guy Fawkes - Remember, Remember - the Fifth of November



An excerpt from Extraordinary Places...Close to London
Photo: The Leather Bottle Inn, Cobham, Kent.

“Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” This ancient rhyme is one that was sung by English children as they prepared an effigy of Guy Fawkes and place him atop a bonfire before setting the fire ablaze. An heir of the de Cobham family was tried for treason because of his supposed involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 - an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament and destroy the monarchy.

The village and much of the surrounding countryside were home to the de Cobham family who dominated the village for nearly 400 years. The name of Cobham is considered to be of Anglo-Saxon origin and possibly derived from a personal name such as Cobba. During the period from 1360-70, the village grew in size under the direction of Sir John de Cobham, who rebuilt the parish church of St. Mary and built the College that stands in the rear of the church in the village.

The Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament and destroy King James I was thought by some to be a wicked scheme organized by Jesuit priests in retaliation for the government’s anti-Catholic ruling. To this day, there are suspicions about Robert Cecil’s part in the plan. Some believe it was a plot instigated by Cecil himself to gain appreciation from the king and further secure his political ambitions. In all, thirteen men were accused of treason after torture and a written confession by Guy Fawkes, who was caught red-handed in the cellars of Westminster trying to ignite barrels of gunpowder. The close relationship with William Parker, Lord Monteagle, who was later identified as a prime conspirator in the plot, did not help the clouds of suspicion hanging over Cecil. Cecil’s brother-in-law, Lord Cobham, as well as Cobham’s younger brother George Brooke was implicated in the conspiracy. Cecil and Lord Cobham escaped execution but George did not.