Now You Know -- the Big Books Bundle : Now You Know Big Book of Answers / Now You Know Big Book of Answers 2 [1 ed.] 9781459724808

Presenting two books in the popular and exhaustive trivia series. They are a treasure trove of his favourite trivia cull

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Now You Know -- the Big Books Bundle : Now You Know Big Book of Answers / Now You Know Big Book of Answers 2 [1 ed.]

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Now You Know Big Book of Answers


preface My interest in why we say and do things comes from my fascination and research into human history as entertainment for earlier projects. My interest in statistics runs parallel with this, because the observation of both these subjects, as diverse as they are, always seems to initiate the same kind of surprise — which must indicate that we are functioning without a clear understanding of what we are saying or doing. It was Mark Twain who said, “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.” The lies, however, are not within the statistics but rather within their application by those seeking to advance their own causes, and so it is with language. We often hear expressions and words used in dramatic ways that, when examined closely, lose their logic. For example, some people say “street smarts” are an advantage in business, which is absurd. “Street smarts” (1972) means a basic cunning that is only useful on the street; to believe otherwise is delusional. “Business smarts” may have the same survivalist intent as “street smarts,” but they require far more sophistication. All languages reveal the history of those who speak them, and none more so than English. As the “global language,” English is spoken as a first or second language by a third of the world’s population, approximately 1.9 billion people. Only Chinese and Hindi, through the sheer numbers of their populations, have more speakers. (If all the people in China began walking past a single point, the line would never end.)


During and after the Second World War, because they share the same language, the American and British governments took active measures to ensure that through conquest and occupation, their language would become the predominant means of communication on the planet. Their opponents were the Germans and the French. Spanish had diminished as a contender after Spain lost its empire. Today English is the official language of the United Nations and the European Union and by treaty is the international language for air traffic control and maritime communications. It is the principal language of the Internet, business, sports, and science. Knowing the proper use of the language is empowerment. The English language is a fascinating conglomeration of words and expressions, from those begun by the invaders (Romans, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Celts, and Vikings) who conquered and assimilated the native population of early Britain to the backwoods creations of North Americans (both enslaved and free) whose isolation and close proximity to the Native peoples gave the language a unique new richness. Other living everyday expressions and phrases were brought back from adventures, military and otherwise, from distant lands and the high seas to be assimilated into the English-speaking world’s common language. For three hundred years after the 1066 conquest by William the Conqueror, French was the official language in Britain, with common English existing as a lower language of the people, and to this day French makes up 28.3 percent of the language we all speak and call English. Although all entries in this book have been thoroughly researched, it is not an academic study. It is an entertaining 6

and concise collection of the origins of our everyday language, customs, and rituals as well as some intriguing statistics and odds and ends to encourage a fun read. A way of passing time while picking up knowledge through what some might call trivia. It explores the DNA of our society and reveals how the things we say and do every day tie us to one rich heritage … Enjoy! Doug Lennox


common superstitions Why is a horseshoe thought to bring good luck? A horseshoe’s charm comes from the legend of Saint Dunstan, who, because of his talent as a blacksmith, was asked by the Devil to shoe his cloven hoof. Saint Dunstan agreed, but in carrying out the task he caused the Devil such pain that he was able to make him promise never to enter a house that has a horseshoe hanging above the doorway. Thus, from the Middle Ages on, the horseshoe has been considered good luck. Why does breaking a wishbone ensure good luck? Twenty-four hundred years ago, because roosters heralded the sunrise and hens squawked before laying an egg, the Etruscans thought they were soothsayers. Because the sacred fowl’s collarbone resembled a human groin, it was believed to have special powers and was called a wishbone. The Romans introduced the custom of two people pulling on the wishbone


to see whom luck favoured. The winner was said to have gotten “a lucky break.”

Why is the ladybug a sign of good luck? Called either “ladybird” or “ladybug,” the little red beetle with the black spots is the well-known and beloved subject of a nursery rhyme. It is called a “lady” after the Virgin Mary because it emerges around March 25, the time of the Feast of the Annunciation, which is also known as Lady Day. Called the Mary bug in German, the ladybug brings good luck to a garden by eating unwanted pests. Why is it bad luck to walk under a ladder? This superstition comes from the fact that many early cultures considered a triangle to be a sacred symbol of life. For Christians, a triangle represents the Holy Trinity. A ladder against a wall forms a triangle with the ground, and so to walk beneath it would be to disrupt a sanctified space and risk 9

divine wrath. Early Christians considered the ladder resting against a wall to represent crucifixion, and therefore evil. For this reason condemned criminals were forced to walk under the gallows ladder — the entranceway to eternal darkness. The executioner always walked around it to position the noose. Why is Friday the thirteenth considered to be bad luck? The number thirteen represents Judas, the thirteenth to arrive at the Last Supper. Friday by itself is unlucky because it was the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Years ago, the British set out to disprove these superstitions. They named a new vessel HMS Friday, laid her keel on a Friday, and then sent her to sea on a Friday that fell on the thirteenth. The plan backfired: neither ship nor crew was ever heard from again. Then, of course, there’s Apollo 13… Did the near tragedy of Apollo 13 cause the NASA scientists to become superstitious? Apollo 13 was launched on the eleventh of the fourth month in the seventieth year of that century. One plus one plus four plus seven plus zero totals thirteen. Liftoff was at 1313 central military time, and the explosion took place on the thirteenth day of April. NASA claims no superstition — but has never again used the number thirteen on a manned space flight. Do people really fear Friday the thirteenth? On Friday, October 13, 1307, the Grand Master and sixty of the Knights Templar were arrested, tortured, and then 10

murdered by King Philip IV of France. Each year, thousands who fear the date fall ill or are injured in accidents. In North America, over $900 million is lost in business on Friday the thirteenth because some workers and consumers are afraid to leave the house. Over any given four-hundred-year cycle the thirteenth day of the month occurs 4,800 times. The distribution of thirteenth day of the month is as follows: • • • • • • •

Monday, 685 or 14.27 percent Tuesday, 685 or 14.27 percent Wednesday, 687 or 14.31 percent Thursday, 684 or 14.25 percent Friday, 688 or 14.34 percent Saturday, 684 or 14.25 percent Sunday, 687 or 14.31 percent

This means the thirteenth day of the month is only slightly more likely to occur on a Friday! Where else, other than on a Friday, is the number thirteen considered unlucky? Friday the thirteenth is considered unlucky, but the superstition also applies to apartments, 80 percent of which don’t have a thirteenth floor. Airplanes have no thirteenth aisle, and hospitals and hotels have no room number thirteen. The most bizarre superstition is called the Devil’s luck, for those with thirteen letters in their names, including Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy, Albert De Salvo — and Douglas Lennox. How did spilling salt become bad luck?


As man’s first food seasoning, and later a food preservative and a medicine, salt has been a precious commodity for ten thousand years, so spilling it was costly as well as bad luck. This superstition was enhanced by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, within which Judas has spilled the table salt as a foreboding of tragedy. Because good spirits sat on the right shoulder and evil on the left, tossing spilled salt over the left shoulder became an antidote. Why do we cross our fingers for good luck? Crossing our fingers for luck predates Christianity and originally involved two people. In the pagan ritual, a close friend placed his or her index finger over the index finger of the person making the wish in order to help trap the wish at the centre of a perfect cross, which is where benevolent spirits lived. To ensure the wish stayed in place and on the wisher’s mind, it was often tied to the finger with string, a practice that eventually evolved into a memory aid. What is the curse on the Hope diamond? The Hope diamond is a steel blue, forty-four-and-a-half-carat, walnut-sized diamond that is supposedly cursed, since it was stolen from the statue of a Hindu god in 1642. Since then, its owners, including Marie Antoinette, have all had brushes with madness and violent death. It’s named after a British banking family who were financially ruined. It’s now at the Smithsonian Institute and is owned by the government of the United States of America. Why is lighting three on a match considered bad luck?


Lighting three cigarettes in a row with one match was common practice among smokers until the advent of lighters and was especially practical to outdoorsmen or soldiers who needed to ration their matches. “Three on a match” became bad luck during the Boer War (1899–1902) when Commonwealth soldiers discovered the hard way that an enemy sniper would train his sights on a match when it was struck and then focus and fire by the time the third man lit his cigarette. Why do we say “Bless you” after a sneeze? The ancient Greeks believed a blessing might prevent evil from entering your body during its unguarded state while you sneeze. Our tradition comes from the black plague of 1665, when sneezing was believed to be one of the first symptoms of the disease. Infection meant certain death, and so the symptom was greeted with the prayer “God bless you,” which through time has been shortened to “Bless you!” Why does knocking on wood protect us from harm? When children play tag and hold a tree for safety, they are acting out a four-thousand-year-old custom of the North American Natives who believed that because the oak was most frequently struck by lightning, it was the home of the sky god. The Greeks came to this same conclusion two thousand years later and because both cultures believed that bragging or boasting offended that god, they knocked on the tree either to divert him from their bragging or to seek forgiveness. What is the origin of the Tooth Fairy? 13

The ritual of placing a baby tooth under the pillow to be replaced overnight with money from the Tooth Fairy is a compilation of several European customs. In Venice an old witch did the job, while in France the Virgin Mary traded money and sometimes candy for children’s teeth. Other cultures buried the tooth, or threw it at the sun for favours from the gods. The Fairy was of course an Irish innovation and took hold in North America during the middle of the nineteenth century. Why do some people believe black cats are bad luck? If you believe that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, you believe in witchcraft. Legend has it that in the 1560s in England, a father and son threw stones at a cat that had startled them on a moonless night. The wounded cat ran into the nearby home of a suspected witch. The next day the old woman was seen in public limping and bruised, and a superstition was born which caused the burning alive of innocent women in the seventeenth century. Why is a rabbit’s foot a symbol of good luck? If you realize that primitive societies couldn’t tell the difference between a rabbit and a hare, then you’ll understand the ancient logic as to why the rabbit’s foot is a symbol of good luck. Hares are born with their eyes open, giving them knowledge of prenatal life. Rabbits burrow underground and share secrets with the underworld. Finally, both animals’ incredible fertility could be shared by carrying the rabbit’s foot as a phallus of good luck.


Why does breaking a mirror bring seven years of bad luck? Before glass was introduced in 1300, manufactured mirrors were simply polished metal. Around 6 B.C., in much the same manner one would now use as a crystal ball, the Greeks began practising fortune-telling from a subject’s reflected image in a bowl of water. If the bowl with the image fell and broke during a reading, it meant disaster. The Romans limited the curse to seven years because they believed that’s how long it took for human life to renew itself.

Why do we say during a bad day that you “got up on the wrong side of the bed”? For centuries, to be left-handed was considered evil. In drawings, the Ancient Egyptians depict all the good armies as


being right-handed, while their enemies are lefties. Until only recently left-handed children were forced to learn to use their right hands in school. The word ambidextrous means two right hands. “Getting up on the wrong side of the bed” means your left foot touched the floor first, signalling to the Devil that you were open to dark influences. Why is it bad luck to open an umbrella indoors? The umbrella is an ancient African innovation and was intended as a portable shade against the sun. After entering Europe through Spain in the twelfth century it became more valuable as a protection from the rain. The superstition of bad luck if opened indoors came from the African belief that to open an umbrella in the shade was an insult to the sun god and would cause him to bring down his wrath on the offender. Why do people throw coins into a fountain? There are thousands of fountains around the world inviting passersby to toss in coins for good luck, but they have all been inspired by the romance of the legend behind Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi). Built over a thirty-year period in the mid-eighteenth century, the Trevi became the focus of a legend that said throwing a coin over one’s shoulder and into the fountain meant one would visit Rome again. Pitching two coins ensured that the thrower would fall in love with someone from Rome, while tossing three coins signified the thrower would marry that someone. Rome has 289 fountains. The Trevi Fountain was built from money raised by taxes on wine. It is located in Piazza di


Trevi, which was erected to commemorate the completion of the Aqua Vergine in 19 B.C.


rock and roll trivia What was the original meaning of “rock and roll”? American slaves communicated secret codes past their white masters with music, and in 1951, when Alan Freed coined the phrase “rock and roll,” he was doing the same thing. In blues and jazz, the words mean “having great sex” (“Good Rockin’ Tonight,” 1948, and “My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll,” 1922). These coded lyrics were unfamiliar to the white broadcasters and gave Freed a way to cross the colour barrier and introduce white kids to rhythm and blues, where they soon learned how to “Rock Around the Clock.” Quickies Did you know … • that Nickelback got its name from the bass player’s experience as a Starbucks employee? He spent endless frustrating days telling customers, “Here’s your nickel back.”


• that Red Hot Chili Peppers started out as Tony Flow and the Miraculous Majestic Masters of Mayhem? The name was changed after Anthony Kiedis saw a psychedelic bush with the band’s new name on it. He may have subconsciously known that legendary piano player Jelly Roll Morton’s 1920s band was called The Red Hot Peppers. • that Pink Floyd was known as Megadeth before the band adopted the names of Georgia blues artists Pink Anderson and Floyd Council? • that ABBA is an acronym from the first letters of the group’s Christian names: Agnethe, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid? • that B.B. King was born Riley B. King? When he became popular on the Sonny Boy Williamson radio show during the early 1950s he came up with the stage name Beal Street Blues Boy before shortening it to Blues Boy King, which led to another and final abbreviation, B.B. King. He named his guitar Lucille early in his career. After a kerosene lamp was knocked over during a fight between two men over a woman in a club where he was playing, a fire broke out, during which rescuing his guitar nearly cost him his life. Lucille was the name of the woman the men were fighting over. • that Foo Fighters were named from an expression used by U.S. fighter pilots to describe UFOs in the shape of fireballs over Germany during the Second World War? “Foo” is an Americanization of the French word for fire, feu. • that Black Sabbath was known as Earth until they were inspired by a 1963 horror movie starring Boris Karloff? The 19

film was titled Black Sabbath. The movie gave the band not only a new name but also the title of its first original song. Who first said, “Elvis has left the building”? Today, “Elvis has left the building” is a catchphrase meaning “that’s all she wrote” or “that’s all there is.” It was first spoken on December 15, 1956, by Horace Logan, the producer of a show called Louisiana Hayride. Elvis Presley had drawn a crowd of ten thousand kids to the Fairgrounds in Shreveport, Louisana. He was on the brink of superstardom, and after his forty-five-minute show, when the audience stormed the stage and exits, Logan took the microphone and pleaded: “Please, young people … Elvis has left the building. He has gotten in his car and driven away.… Please take your seats.” From that point on, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building” became the closing announcement for each of the King’s concerts. The last time was at Elvis’s final performance on June 26, 1977, after he had closed with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the last song he would ever sing in public.


military innovations and traditions What are the origins of the merry-go-round? When medieval noblemen were looking for a sport to replace their brutal jousting tournaments, they turned to a training exercise of catching rings with their lances from horseback, known in Spanish as carossela, meaning “little war.” Carossela gave us carousel. In time, live horses were replaced with hanging revolving seats, which in turn gave way to painted wooden horses, and from this evolved the merry-go-round.


Why is the bugle call at day’s end and at military funerals called “Taps”? In the seventeenth century, the British borrowed a Dutch army custom of sounding a drum and bugle to signal soldiers that it was time to stop socializing and return to their barracks for the night. The Dutch called it taptoe, meaning, “shut off the taps,” and the abbreviated “taps” became a signal for tavern owners to turn off the spigots on their beer and wine casks. After lights out, Taps signals that the soldiers are safely home, which is why it’s played at funerals. Why is there a saddled, riderless horse in a military funeral procession? The riderless horse in a military funeral was an ancient custom practised by the Romans. A soldier and his horse trained to fight as one unit in battle, making it almost impossible for the animal to have another master. If a soldier retired, so did his horse. For the same reason, if the soldier died in combat, the horse followed his coffin to the cemetery


to be put down and buried with his companion. The two would ride together into the afterlife. The empty boots in the stirrups is a later tradition and signifies that no one else can ride that horse. Today it’s simply a ceremony, and the animal isn’t harmed. Why do they fire a rifle volley of three shots over the grave of a fallen soldier? Military funerals are filled with traditions, but none as ancient as firing a volley over the deceased. During the Napoleonic Wars, hostilities were ceased to clear the dead from the battlefield. When finished, the detail would fire three shots into the air as a signal that they were ready to resume the fight. The tradition mirrors the ancient tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off evil spirits hovering over the fallen. The caisson was the wagon used to carry the dead soldiers from the battlefield. Why are funeral flags flown at half-staff? In the sixteenth century, ships would lower their flag halfway as a sign of submission during battle, and it was said they were flying at “half-mast.” On reaching port, the flag remained half-lowered in honour of those who had sacrificed their lives. In the seventeenth century the ritual moved to land, where it was said the flags were at “half-staff” as a sign of respect for any individual who had died after serving his country beyond the call of duty. 23

Why do we say it’s a “siege” when an army surrounds a fort or town? The word siege conjures up visions of intense combat, with one force attacking a surrounded enemy with total and absolute ferocity. So it’s interesting to note that siege means “sit.” This origin is illustrated in the Arthurian legends, where the “siege perilous” was a vacant seat at the Round Table. The seat was supposed to be fatal to any except the knight destined to find the Holy Grail. Since the thirteenth century, the military sense of siege has meant an army sitting down around a fortress to wait for those inside to surrender. Siege came to English through Old French as sege, meaning “seat” or “throne,” and originated with sedere, the Latin word for “sit.” Siege is also related to sedentary. Why is a lightning-quick military attack called a “raid”? A sudden raid is usually over quickly, with the attackers strategically withdrawing as soon as their mission is completed. It’s always a surprise attack. Consider that the words road and rode both come from ride, as in horseback riding, and then consider that lightning-quick surprise attacks resulted from horsemen charging down a road. Rade, “a riding, journey,” is the Old English and Scottish word for raid. When a hostile incursion came galloping down the road, the cry of “Rade!” went up, which easily became “Raid!” when retold in literature. Why do we say someone has “dodged a bullet” after a close call?


You can’t get much closer to danger than dodging a bullet. At close range nobody dodges a bullet, or so it would seem. The expression derives from soldiers in the First World War who talked about artillery shells that could be avoided because they arced through the air slowly enough to be seen. The odds of getting out of the way of rifle fire improved as the distance increased, because if you saw the muzzle flash, you had a second or two to move before the bullet got to you. Light travels faster than a bullet! Why do we tell someone who with a bad attitude to “shape up or ship out”? During the Second World War, if an American soldier’s behaviour or deportment wasn’t as disciplined as it should be, he was told by his sergeant to “shape up or ship out,” meaning improve or be shipped overseas to a combat zone — “either get it together or start packin’.” How close do you have to be before seeing the “whites of their eyes”? “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes” has echoed through history as an order for soldiers to hold their fire and their nerve until the last minute. At the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 during the American Revolution, a U.S. colonel named William Prescott said it to his men. Before then, Prince Charles of Prussia issued the order at the Battle of Jägerndorf in 1757, and Frederick the Great (1712–1786) said it at the Battle of Prague the same year. At the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in 1759, General James Wolfe (1727–1759) told his men not to fire until they saw the whites


of their eyes, which meant hold until the enemy was fifteen or twenty paces away, a distance of thirty to forty feet. What do the words hunky-dory and honcho have in common? If everything is great then it’s hunky-dory, while a honcho is a big shot, and both words come from Japan. During the First World War, American sailors on leave discovered a Yokohama street named Huncho-dori that provided all the facilities for carnal pleasure. They brought home the name and the good feeling as hunky-dory. Honcho came out of the Second World War and is Japanese for “squad leader.” Why are the stalwart defenders of a status quo referred to as “the Old Guard”? “The Old Guard” suggests an outdated group defending something whose time has passed, but the expression began in glory at the battle of Waterloo. Known for their fierce loyalty to Napoleon, the Imperial Guard was composed of the Young Guard, the Middle Guard, and the Old Guard. It was the Old Guard from this group who mounted the final brave but hopeless French charge at the Battle of Waterloo. When did the United States draw up modern-day plans for the invasion of Canada? In 1974 it became public that in 1930 the United States had drawn up a strategic plan that included a successful invasion of Canada. The scheme was called “Plan — Red.” It involved attacks on Montreal and Quebec, Winnipeg’s railway centre, 26

Ontario’s nickel mines and power generators, and the Great Lakes. Naval blockades were to be set up on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and Halifax was to be captured and occupied. This proposal was one of several contingencies that could be used if the United States went to war with Britain, Japan, Germany, or Mexico. The “Red” in the plan’s title actually refers to Britain (Canada, as part of the British Commonwealth, was usually scarlet on maps) and was part of a global strategy for war with that nation. Plots for war with Japan were coded “Orange,” war with Germany was “Black,” and Mexico was “Green.” A “White” plan was drawn up for a domestic insurrection, and a “Purple” proposal existed for war with a Central American country. The idea that war was possible with Britain may have stemmed from a treaty between Britain and Japan that ended in 1924. The treaty prompted the United States to come up with a “Red-Orange” strategy that considered the threat of a British-Japanese alliance. Of course, contingency plans are necessary, and as history from the time of the First and Second World Wars records, the Americans were very reluctant to go to war with anyone. When did Canada plan to invade the United States? It seems more than mildly absurd, but during the 1920s, while serving as the director of Canadian Military Operations and Intelligence, a man named James Sutherland Brown drew up “Defense Scheme Number One.” He had heard that the Americans had drafted a similar plan for Canada’s invasion, 27

and as a descendant of United Empire Loyalists and because the United States had made several sorties into Canada during the nineteenth century, he didn’t trust his southern neighbours. The proposal would have mobilized Canadian forces to capture and establish bases in Seattle and Minneapolis, stalling the U.S. Army long enough for the British to come to Canada’s rescue. Quickies Did you know… • approximately one out of every ten people ever born is alive today? • there are 1,006.7 men for every 1,000 women in the world? • there are 6 million more North American women than men? • the average North American makes 2,571.8 phone calls per year?


wedding traditions What is the origin of the engagement ring? The diamond engagement ring was introduced by the Venetians, who discovered the diamond’s value in the sixteenth century, but betrothal gifts hadn’t included rings until A.D. 860, when Pope Nicholas I decreed that a ring of value must be given as a statement of nuptial intent and that if the man called off the wedding, the jilted bride kept the ring. If the woman ended the engagement, she was to return the ring and be sent to a nunnery. What is the origin of the wedding ring? A school of thought persists that the first wedding rings were used by barbarians to tether the bride to her captor’s home. This may or may not be true, but we do know that around 2800 B.C., because the Egyptians considered a circle to signify eternity, rings were used in marriage ceremonies. The Romans often added a miniature key welded to one side of


the bride’s ring to signify that she now owned half of her husband’s wealth. Why do bridegrooms have a best man? In ancient times, most marriages were arranged, and so the groom wasn’t always the bride’s first choice. The man she favoured would often swear to carry her off before or during the wedding. To avoid this, the groom stood on the bride’s right to keep his sword arm free and would enlist a warrior companion to fight off the rival if he showed up. This companion was, in fact, the “best man.” Why do brides wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” to their weddings? According to wedding tradition, the bride wears something old to remind the couple of the happiness of the courting period. She wears something new to represent the hopeful success of the couple’s new life together, something borrowed to symbolize the support of friends, and something blue because it’s the colour of fidelity. If a bride wears a single girlfriend’s garter, it will improve that girl’s prospects of marriage. The final line of the rhyme, “a silver sixpence in her shoe,” which is rarely used today, symbolizes financial security. Why is June the most popular month for weddings? The ancient Greeks and Romans both suggested marriage during a full moon because of its positive influence on fertility. The Romans favoured June, a month they named 30

after Juno, the goddess of marriage, because if the bride conceived right away, she wouldn’t be too pregnant to help with the harvest. She also would probably have recovered from giving birth in time to help in the fields with the next year’s harvest. Why do brides wear wedding veils? Although veils for women are today associated with Muslims, their origin goes back at least three thousand years before Mohammed was even born. Outside of the Middle East, this symbol of modesty had all but disappeared by 400 B.C., when the Romans introduced sheer translucent veils into the wedding ceremony to remind the woman that she was entering a new life of submission to her husband. Veils predate the wedding dress by several centuries. Why is it bad luck for the groom to see his bride before the ceremony on their wedding day? It’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride within twenty-four hours of the wedding ceremony for the same reason that brides wear veils. When marriages were arranged by two families, the groom wasn’t allowed to see or even meet his bride until he lifted her veil after they were married. This way, he couldn’t refuse to marry her if he didn’t like her looks. The twenty-four-hour ban descends from that ritual. How did wedding cakes become so elaborate? Most wedding rituals are to encourage fertility, and so it is with the wedding cake, which began with the Romans breaking small cakes of wheat and barley over the bride’s 31

head. During the reign of Charles II, the three-tier cake with white icing we use today was introduced. The cake takes its shape from the spire of Saint Bride’s Church in London. The couple cuts the first piece together as a gesture of their shared future, whatever it might bring. How did throwing confetti become a wedding custom? Because the main purpose of marriage was to produce children, ancient peoples showered the new bride with fertility symbols such as wheat grain. The Romans baked this wheat into small cakes for the couple, to be eaten in a tradition known as conferriatio, or “eating together.” The guests then threw handfuls of a mixture of honeyed nuts and dried fruits called confetto at the bride, which we copy by throwing confetti. Why does a groom carry his bride over the threshold? The custom of carrying a bride over the threshold comes from the kidnapping practices of the Germanic Goths around A.D. 200. Generally, these men only married women from within their own communities, but when the supply ran short, they would raid neighbouring villages and seize young girls to carry home as their wives. From this practice of abduction sprang the now symbolic act of carrying the bride over the threshold. Why is marriage called “wedlock”? Wedd is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to gamble,” and there is no greater gamble than marriage. In the days when brides were bartered by their fathers, and a deal was reached 32

with a prospective groom through an exchange of either property or cash, a young woman would have been bought and sold for breeding purposes to be finalized in a wedlock ritual called a wedding. This marriage led to matrimony, which in Latin means “the state of motherhood.” Why is a husband-to-be called a “groom”? Bride comes from the Old English word bryd, while the word guma simply meant “a young man.” The two together, brydguma, referred to a suitor looking for a wife. This compound changed in the sixteenth century when groom evolved within folk language to take over from guma as a description of a young man, boy, or lad who was commonly hired to work the stables and groom horses, among other chores, but who was still seeking a wife.


Why do we say that a married couple has “tied the knot”? In Western culture, “tying the knot” suggests the pledge of inseparable unity made by a married couple. The expression comes from ancient India, when during the wedding ceremony the Hindu groom would put a brightly coloured ribbon around the bride’s neck. During the time it took to tie the ribbon into a knot, the bride’s father could demand a better price for his daughter, but once the knot was completed the bride became the groom’s forever. Why are wedding-related items referred to as “bridal”? The expressions “bridal feast,” “bridal bed,” and “bridal cake,” among other bridal references, all date back to around 1200, when a wedding was a rather boisterous and bawdy affair. The word bridal comes from “bride-ale,” which was the special beer brewed for the wedding and then sold to the guests to raise money for the newlyweds. Because of the bride-ale, weddings were quite rowdy until around the seventeenth century, when the church managed to get a grip on the whole thing. Why does the groom crush a glass with his foot at a Jewish wedding? Near the end of a Jewish wedding ceremony, after the vows have been made, wine is poured into a new glass over which a blessing is recited by the rabbi. After the couple drinks from the glass, it is placed on the ground and crushed by the groom’s foot. This symbolizes the destruction of the Holy Temple in Israel and reminds guests that love is fragile. Those gathered shout “mazel tov,” and the couple kisses. 34

Why do we call the first weeks of marriage a “honeymoon”? The custom of a honeymoon began over four thousand years ago in Babylon, when for a full lunar month after the wedding, the bride’s father would supply his son-in-law with all the honey-beer he could drink. It was called the “honey month.” The word honeymoon didn’t enter our language until 1546, and because few people could afford a vacation, a honeymoon didn’t mean a trip away from home until the middle of the nineteenth century. Why do women cry at weddings? Men might cry at weddings, but they have been socially conditioned that as protectors and warriors signs of weakness such as tears invite an attack. There is no such thing as “happy” crying. Psychologists suggest that when people cry at happy endings, they are reacting to the moment when the critical outcome was in doubt. A woman crying at a wedding is most likely expressing subconscious disappointment in the outcome of her own romantic dreams. Quickies Did you know… • that a ton of ore must be mined to find enough gold for one wedding ring? • today the average marriage lasts 9.3 years?


• couples who marry in January, February, and March tend to have the highest divorce rates? • two out of three couples stay together through ten years of marriage? Less than half make it through twenty-five years together.


everyday expressions Why is someone lost if he “doesn’t have a clue”? The original spelling of clue was C-L-E-W, and its forgotten meaning is a “ball of yarn or string.” A clew of string was unravelled as a guide out after entering an unfamiliar maze or a cave. If you became lost, all you had to do was follow the string back to the point of origin. In the modern cliché, if someone “doesn’t have a clue,” he is in the dark with no idea how to get out of his dilemma. How did the expression “barefaced lie” originate? A “barefaced lie” is one that is obvious and told straight out without flinching by someone who is either very stupid or very brave. The phrase is interchangeable with a “bald-faced lie,” in reference to the sixteenth century when most men wore beards, sideburns, and moustaches. Only the rebellious ones who shaved their faces bare were considered bold enough to tell an obvious lie.


Why when suggesting an exhaustive search do we say, “Leave no stone unturned”? The advice to “leave no stone unturned” comes from Greek mythology, wherein the Oracle of Delphi, through her communication with the gods, had acquired great wisdom. Euripides wrote that when the oracle was consulted about how to find a defeated general’s hidden treasure, she advised that the only way was “to leave no stone unturned.” The expression and the advice have been with us ever since. Why do we say that something happened so quickly that it was over “before you could say Jack Robinson”? Jack Robinson was a London social climber during the early eighteenth century. He made it his business to appear at as many gatherings as possible, where he would often present his card and have his name announced, then leave for the next function before meeting his hosts. This scandalous behaviour made its way into a popular song, and eventually “Before you could say Jack Robinson” meant any act of extreme haste. Why do we say, “Put a sock in it” when we want someone to shut up? The admonition “Put a sock in it,” meaning “keep quiet,” comes from the time of the earliest wind-up phonographs in which the sound emerged from a horn. These early acoustic record players didn’t have electronic controls or any muting device to raise or lower the volume, so the only way to soften its sound was to stuff something into the horn. A sock was the perfect size, and so to lower the volume they would “put a sock in it.” 38

When something valuable is destroyed while eliminating waste, why do we say they’ve “thrown the baby out with the bathwater”? During the time when the entire family, beginning with the eldest, used the same bathwater, you had to be careful that a child wasn’t still inside when it came time to throw out the dirty water. But the phrase was introduced in 1909 by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote, “Like all reactionaries, he usually empties the baby out with the bathwater.”

Why do we call someone too smart for his or her own good a “smart aleck”? The expression “smart aleck” for someone too cocky dates back to the 1840s, when New York scam artist Aleck Hoag paid off police to look the other way while he had his wife pose as a prostitute to attract men before breaking in on them, revealing that he was the woman’s husband, and demanding money from the frightened


man. When Aleck Hoag stopped paying the police, they arrested the couple and coined “smart aleck” as meaning too clever for your own good. Where did the expression “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” originate? “Don’t count your chickens” is a commonly used saying, similar to New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra’s warning that “it ain’t over till it’s over.” First written in the sixth century B.C., it is a quotation from one of Aesop’s fables, called “The Milkmaid and Her Pail.” It means that you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself, because life is full of uncertainties. Aesop began life as a slave but was freed because of his wit and wisdom. “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” was first recorded in English in the late sixteenth century. Why do we say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? If you wish to gain esteem and avoid grief, then it’s wise to respect the customs of the majority within any culture you may find yourself. When St. Ambrose was sent on a mission to Rome by St. Augustine, he was concerned about which holy day to observe since the Romans fasted on a different day than was his custom. St. Augustine’s wise advice is still with us: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” What is the origin of the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs”? The general legend about “raining cats and dogs” relates to the thatched roofs of the Middle Ages and would have you 40

believe that when it rained, all sorts of creatures, including cats and dogs, slipped and fell in such abundance that it gave rise to the expression — but it is wrong! The truth is that the saying predates even the Dark Ages and goes back to a time when people believed that ghosts and goblins were around every corner. Cats and dogs had magical, mystical powers. Sailors believed that cats brought on storms and that witches rode those storms with their cats. To the early Norsemen, dogs and wolves symbolized the wind, and the Viking storm god Odin was always shown surrounded by dogs. So during a violent rainstorm, an angry Odin’s dogs were set loose, and the cats, symbolizing the rain, caused people to say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” The word cat is derived from the ancient Greek word catadupe and means “waterfall.” In Latin cata doxas means “contrary to experience” or “an unusual fall of rain.” Who coined the phrase “a New York minute”? The push for urgency in our day-to-day existence is often expressed as a “New York minute” because that’s how long it takes an impatient New Yorker to let you know you’re a problem. It was discovered in 1967 as a response to a survey for a Dictionary of American English. One question asked was to fill in the blank after, “I’ll be ready in …” to which a Jasper, Texas, policeman wrote “a New York minute.” Where did the expression “neck of the woods” come from?


Today, “this neck of the woods” would mean this specific neighbourhood. The phrase comes from the very beginning of European settlement in North America. It’s from the Anglo adaptation of the Algonquin word naiak, meaning a narrow strip or corner of wooded land, usually protruding into water. Naiak was interpreted by white settlers as neck, and became “neck of the woods.” Why do the English use “by George” as an oath of surprise? “By George” is always used as an exclamation, usually of surprise but often of determination. It’s a reference to St George, the patron saint of England. “By George” began as a battle cry during the sixteenth century and a variation is used as such in Shakespeare’s Henry V when the king shouts: “for Harry, England, and St. George” A vision of St. George, who died in A.D. 303, inspired the first Crusade. His legendary slaying of the dragon was written during the thirteenth century, and his feast day, April 23, was first made a holiday in 1222. Why do we say that someone speaking their mind is “blowing off steam”? If someone is “blowing off steam” they are saying things in anger that have been previously suppressed by formality and circumstance. They are revealing their true feelings before they explode and cause even more damage. When boilers or engines containing water are heated the water turns to steam, which operates devices such as radiator systems or steam locomotives. The steam can build up considerable pressure, 42

which, if not controlled, will cause an explosion. A system of valves is in place to prevent an explosion by releasing or “blowing off” steam. What does it mean to “get your dander up”? If you’ve “got your dander up” you’re very upset. It means someone has caused you to burst into a sudden rage. The expression is from the Dutch op donderen. Donder is the Dutch word for thunder, so having someone get your dander up means they have caused you to lose your temper as violently and noisily as the arrival of a summer thunderstorm. Why do we say, “Take a powder” when we want someone to leave? “Take a powder” is a tough way of telling someone to get lost or get out of here and began as a rude dismissal of women. It was popularized in the gangster movies of the 1930s; when a tough guy was having a private conversation that he didn’t want a woman to overhear, he would use the phrase that the girls used when they excused themselves to use the washroom or refresh their makeup. They’d say they were “taking a powder.” When adding a bonus why do we say, “I’ll give you that to boot”? If you’re thinking of buying something, the salesman might offer to throw in an incentive, something “to boot.” It’s an add-on. This use of boot is from the very old Anglo-Saxon word bot, which survives in our modern language only in the phrase “to boot.” Its use and meaning was generally replaced 43

by better or best as in, “I’ll throw this in as something extra to make it better for you.” When choices are meagre why do we say we’re “scraping the bottom of the barrel”? When all candidates are unqualified and the only choice we have isn’t good enough, our only option is to “scrape the bottom of the barrel.” This means the good wine has all been used and all that’s left are the dregs. The phrase was introduced by Cicero (106–43 B.C.) as a reference to sediment left in an empty wine barrel, which he used to describe the lowest members of Roman society. Cicero also said: “If you aspire to the highest place, it is no disgrace to stop at the second, or even the third place.” Why is someone in a hopeless situation said to be “over a barrel”? It you’re “over a barrel” you’re in big trouble. The expression became popular after it was used euphemistically by Raymond Chandler in his 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. During the nineteenth century difficult prisoners were stripped then strapped over a barrel and flogged. This form of corporal punishment was sometimes used to strap difficult schoolchildren. I’d like to be a school-marm, And with the school-marms stand, With a bad boy over a barrel


And with a spanker in my hand — Brick Pomeroy, Nonsense, 1869 Why do we use the expression “Close, but no cigar”? “Close, but no cigar” is an expression we should be hearing less of as time goes on, as smokers are driven further to the fringes of society. The phrase originated at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was customary to give out cigars as prizes at carnivals. As these games of chance and skill were usually fixed in the carny’s favour, you were most likely to come close but to win a cigar. The phrase has come to mean “nice try” in sports, business, and life in general. Why might we say a father and son are “cut from the same cloth”? If a son or daughter has characteristics similar to their father or mother, we say they are “cut from the same cloth.” The expression originates with tailors, who try to make a suit by using only cloth from one dye batch in order to make sure colouring is consistent throughout. To make a second suit from that same batch or bolt would make it identical to the first. Telling someone they’re “cut from the same cloth” can be good or bad depending upon how you regard the person with whom you’re making the comparison What’s the origin of the expression “My bad”? The slang expression “My bad” popped up in the 1970s as an acknowledgement of personal responsibility for making a mistake. The first written reference is in C. Wielgus and A.


Wolff’s 1986 book, “Back-in-your-face”: A Guide to Pickup Basketball. The phrase became popularized through the 1995 film Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone. Why do we say, “Every dog has his day”? In ancient times, just as today in third-world societies, dogs lived miserable lives with little or no human care, which led to the hard-times expressions “It’s a dog’s life,” “sick as a dog,” and “dog-tired.” As for the proverb “Every dog has his day,” it was first recorded as an epilogue after the famed Greek playwright Euripides was killed by a pack of dogs in 405 B.C. Why do we say, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”? “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” most often comes to mind while listening to a loud-mouthed narrow-minded radio or television talk show host. It simply means that anyone with a modicum of knowledge and limited intelligence who believes they are more aware than in fact they truly are can harmfully influence the understanding of a great many others. The phrase comes from the 1709 “Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope (1688–1744): “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” Pieria was a region of ancient Macedonia, which included Mount Pierus where Orpheus and the muses were


worshipped. The muses, of course, were the inspiration of creative thought. Why is being meek or inoffensive called taking the “middle of the road”? Someone who stays in the middle of the road is avoiding controversy or confrontation. Radio stations who brand themselves middle-of-the-road are trying not to offend anyone. In medieval times highwaymen ambushed travellers from the bushes on either side of the road so by walking the centre or middle of the road a person had a few extra seconds to prepare to defend themselves from an attack. They could also reveal to potential bandits that they were unarmed and had nothing worth stealing. What is the origin of “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”? This proverb means that it’s wise to hold onto a small advantage rather than take a chance on losing everything while greedily grasping for more. The expression is ancient and has come down through the centuries in many forms. Although it is found in Latin texts from the thirteenth century, the earliest English version is from Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible in 1382, in which Ecclesiastes IX read: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.” In 1539, the first bird reference was used by Hugh Rhodes in a book on good manners: “A byrd in hand is worth ten flye at large.” In 1546, John Heywood recorded it in a book of English proverbs as: “Better one byrde in hand than ten in the wood.” The current form first appeared in print in an American newspaper, The Huron Reflector, in January of 1833: “…bear in mind the 47

good old adage, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’” What is the origin of “What am I, chopped liver?” “What am I, chopped liver?” means “What am I, insignificant?” Chopped liver is a Jewish culinary tradition. Cooked chicken livers are sometimes ground or chopped then seasoned and made into sandwiches. Chopped liver is also served as a side dish to a main course, but never makes the grade as a main dish, and from this “chopped liver” grew into a metaphor for “unimportant.” What is a “bone of contention”? The subject or focal point of an ongoing dispute or controversy is often referred to as “a bone of contention.” In this case, contention means a competition or quarrel over a prize. Being contentious involves presenting an argument within a rivalry. The “bone” in question alludes to two dogs fighting or contending over a single bone. Both this figure of speech and the expression “bone of dissention” entered our language in the sixteenth century. Why do we define the rat race as “keeping up with the Joneses”? “Keeping up with the Joneses” has come to mean trying to keep up with your neighbours, in terms of material possessions, at any cost. The expression comes from the title of a comic strip that ran in newspapers between 1913 and 1931 and chronicled the experiences of a newly married man in Cedarhurst, New York. Originally titled “Keeping Up With 48

the Smiths,” the cartoon was changed to the “Keeping Up With the Joneses” because it sounded better. What’s the origin of the phrase “busting your chops”? “Busting your chops” means “in your face”! It’s an intention to call a bluff or challenge your integrity. It comes from the end of the nineteenth century when it was fashionable for men to wear long sideburns called mutton chops. A “bust in the chops” was literally a punch in the face. The fashion has changed, but the figurative expression lives on after resurfacing during the 1960s when long hair and sideburns made a comeback. What are the “cockles of your heart”? A feeling of pleasure or affection is often said to “warm the cockles of your heart.” The heart was long considered the centre of these warm emotions. A cockle is a marine mollusk, and during the seventeenth century the shape of the heart ventricles was likened to the shape of the little sea creature’s shell. What do I mean by saying, “If I had my druthers”? “If had my druthers” means, of course, “If I had my way.” Druthers is always plural and indicates that there are a number of options other than what is offered. It’s rural American slang; it began as “I’d rather,” which, when shortened by dropping the “I,” becomes “drather.” With a country accent, “drather” becomes “druther,” which when pluralized and extended becomes “druthers,” meaning “choices.” 49

Where did the expression “I’ve got to see a man about a dog” originate? It’s the room we most often frequent, but good manners dictate that we avoid direct references to the toilet at all costs. It’s a restroom, a powder room, a washroom, and a loo, which is derived from the French word l’eau, or water, as in water closet. “Seeing a man about a dog” comes from the 1866 play Flying Scud, where a character says, “Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog” meaning he needs to leave the room — and fast. Flying Scud was written by Irish-born playwright Dion Boucicault.

• Gravity doesn’t exist. Earth sucks. • I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met. • Hire a teenager now — while they still know everything. • I child-proofed my house but they still get in.


• If a mute child swears, does his mother wash his hands with soap? • I need someone really bad … Are you really bad? • Individualists — unite! • Jesus is coming — look busy. • Keep honking … I’m reloading • If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen. • How can I miss you if you won’t go away? • I am only horny on the days that end in y. • Sex on television can’t hurt you unless you fall off. • Never hit a man with glasses. Use your fist. • Beer — helping white people dance since 1837. • Our drinking team has a hockey problem. • The rich get richer. The poor get babies. • The problem with the gene pool is that there is no lifeguard. • Suicidal twin kills sister by mistake! • To err is human. To moo is bovine. • Women who seek equality with men lack ambition. 51

• You’re just jealous because the voices are talking to me!


from the bar to the morning after Why is taking the “hair of the dog” a hangover cure? In the Middle Ages, people treated a dog bite with the ashes of the canine culprit’s hair. The medical logic came from the Romans, who believed that the cure of any ailment, including a hangover, could be found in its cause. It’s a principle applied in modern medicine with the use of vaccines for immunization. The “hair of the dog” treatment for hangovers advises that to feel better, you should take another drink of the same thing that made you feel so bad. Why is the final drink before a journey called “one for the road”? “One for the road” can be dangerous if you intend to drive, but the expression was coined long before the automobile. It comes from the ancient English tradition of offering condemned felons a final drink at all the pubs on the route to


the Tyburn Tree where they were about to be publicly executed by hanging Why is cheap whiskey called “hooch”? Hooch is a short form of Hoochinoo, a liquor distilled by the natives of Alaska and discovered by American soldiers when they were stationed there in 1867. It became a favourite among the miners during the 1898 Klondike gold rush. The name Hoochinoo was taken from the Alaskan tribe’s name, tlingit Hutsnuwu, which means “Grizzly Bear Fort.” Who invented the cocktail? No one knows the origin of the word cocktail, but we accept the definition as being any one of a number of mixtures of alcoholic drinks, each with a different recipe. Archaeological evidence of the first known cocktail dates back to 3000 B.C. Terracotta vases have been uncovered under the banks of the Tigris River between Iraq and Iran with traces of tartaric acid (indicating wine) along with fermented barley (beer), honey, and apples — proof that the ancients enjoyed mixed drinks. Today the city with the largest number of bars per capita in the world is Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Why is a long drinking spree called a “bender”? A “bender” is a prolonged, irresponsible, and dangerous bout of drinking, which took its name from the patrons of London, England, alehouses during the 1850s. To promote drinking, it was common for a tavern to offer patrons all they could drink


for a tuppence a day, so sixpence was good for three days. The sixpence coin, which was worth about a quarter, was nicknamed a “bender” because if it wasn’t phony it could be easily bent. Since this bendable coin guaranteed three days of libation, the subsequent binge became known as a bender. Why is a type of beer called “India pale ale”? India pale ale dates from the late eighteenth century and was developed by the Hodgson’s Company to solve the problem of getting fresh-tasting beer to soldiers and sailors in India and other British colonies in sailing ships that had to navigate hot, tropical waters. Unlike most British beers of the time, India pale ale had a very high hop and alcohol content, which countered bacteria that made beer taste sour. The original India pale ale was copper-coloured. It was called pale because it was lighter than brown, porter, or stout ales. The servicemen appreciated no longer having to drink “skunky” beer. What does the phrase “Eat, drink, and be merry” tell us? Today we use “Eat, drink, and be merry” as an invitation to party, but to be merry originally meant to be content or self-satisfied. The phrase is from a parable in the Bible that tells the tale of Epicurious, a man who worked hard all his life to accumulate goods and money and believed that he should take time to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” When Epicurious died he was remembered as a fool because he did not live for anything but the material.


The phrase also appears in Luke 12:19: “Soul, you have so many goods laid up for years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” Why does “XXX” warn us about both alcohol and sexually explicit material? The first use of the X brand was on casks of English beer and indicated that the contents had been properly aged and had passed government approval after paying a ten-shilling duty, illustrated by the Roman numeral X. Some brewers added extra Xs to suggest a more potent content, and smut peddlers followed suit. When something is X-rated by the censors, its naughtiness is enhanced if more Xs are added. Why do we call someone who sells illegal alcohol a “bootlegger”? During the prohibition period of the 1920s, those who sold illegal booze became very wealthy, but the term bootlegger came out of the nineteenth century, when it was the fashion for horsemen to wear very high boots. These boots were commonly used to conceal pints of illegal bottled moonshine by both the purveyor and the customer and gave us the term bootleg, which now means anything sold outside the law. Why is a bootleg joint called a “blind pig”? In 1838, Massachusetts outlawed the sale of hard liquor, causing drinkers to find creative ways to buy and sell booze. One entrepreneur set up a booth with a sign offering, for a small fee, a glimpse of an amazing striped pig. Those who paid to enter found a glass of rum standing next to a painted 56

clay pig. The pig saw nothing, so the transaction was safe, and the expression “blind pig” was born. Why do we say that someone intoxicated is “three sheets to the wind”? Sailing ships are controlled with an intricate system of ropes, called “halyards,” “lines,” and “sheets,” whose function it is to move or hold things in place. Sheets are the ropes that control the sails. If one is loose, the sails will flap in the wind. Two loose sheets will affect the ship’s steadiness. Three sheets to the wind and the vessel will reel off course like a drunken sailor.

What people make the best tippers?


A recent survey of North American service workers rated the best tippers in this order: (1) Other restaurant workers (2) Regular customers, especially cigarette smokers (3) Young male wannabes (4) Small business owners (5) Tavern owners (6) Hairdressers (7) Liquor salesmen (8) Taxi drivers (9) Salesmen (10) Musicians. The same survey identified these categories as the worst tippers: (1) Senior citizens (2) People between twenty-one and twenty-four years old (3) Tourists (4) Teachers (5) Women (6) Lawyers (7) Doctors (8) Computer nerds (9) Bankers (10) Pipe smokers. Waiters, waitresses, and bartenders identify good tippers from best to worst by what they drink in the following order: (1) Vodka (2) Rum (3) Beer (4) Tequila (5) Bourbon (6) Scotch (7) Wine (8) Gin (9) Whiskey (10) Non-alcoholic and creamy or fancy drinks with umbrellas, or frozen, layered, or flaming drinks. Why is a party bowl of mixed drinks called “punch”? Punch is usually a mixture of fruit and soda drinks combined with alcohol and served at large gatherings. It originated from the British colonization of northern India after the colonizers discovered a refreshing native drink made from five ingredients: rice alcohol blended with tea, sugar, and lemon, then diluted with water. The Hindi word for five (the number of ingredients) is punch. Where did the drinking expression “Bottoms up” originate?


“Bottoms up” means more than “lift your drink.” When press gangs cruised dockside English taverns preying on drunks for naval duty, one of their tricks was to drop a shilling into an unsuspecting target’s pewter ale jug. When the drink was empty, the gang would tell him that he had accepted the king’s shilling and then drag him off to sea. Wary drinkers began using glass-bottom tankards, and “bottoms up” meant to check for the shilling. Why were dancers in the thirties and forties called “jitterbugs”? Bandleader Cab Calloway coined the word jitterbug as a description of both the music and the dancers during the big band era. It came from a time when drinking alcohol was prohibited by law, giving rise to the popularity of illegal booze. Because of its hangover effect, moonshine had long been called “jitter sauce,” and Calloway, while watching the intoxicated dancers, labelled them “jitterbugs.” Why is alcohol called “spirits” and empty beer bottles “dead soldiers”? After a bachelor party there are a lot of “dead soldiers,” or empty beer bottles, lying around. They are dead because the alcohol, or spirit, has left their bodies. The spirit, like the soul, was considered the independent and invisible essence of everything physical and is quite separate from the material fact. A beer bottle without its alcohol has lost its spirit and, just like any other creation human or otherwise, is dearly departed


Why is someone with a drinking problem called a “lush”? In eighteenth-century London there was an actors’ drinking club called the City of Lushington, which may have taken its name from Dr. Thomas Lushington, a prominent drinker from the seventeenth century whose descendants became brewers of fine ale. Lush, the abbreviation of Lushington, became a common slang reference for beer in early England. It later crossed the ocean, where in America the term lush became a reference to a heavy drinker. Where did the expression as “drunk as blazes” come from? To be drunk as blazes comes from a feast day created by the Orthodox church to honour a sainted Armenian bishop named Blais who was beheaded by the Roman Emperor Licinius for refusing to deny his faith in A.D. 316. The excessive drinking on St. Blais’s day caused the revellers to be referred to as “drunken Blaisers,” and soon anyone anywhere who was overly intoxicated was said to be as drunk as blazes. Who were the first people to establish a legal drinking age and why? In eleventh-century Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, thirteen was the age a person could hold property, drink legally, and, of course, serve in the military. It was the Normans who changed the age to nineteen after realizing that thirteen-year-olds were simply not strong enough for warfare. Today’s drinking ages vary from no minimum in China to twenty-one in the United States, but all agree that eighteen is old enough for the military. 60

Why is an altered alcoholic drink called a “mickey”? A mickey is an alcoholic drink that’s been altered to incapacitate the person who drinks it. It’s become a very dangerous idea, especially for young women, but it started out innocently enough in a Chicago bar owned by a man named Mickey Finn. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Finn discovered that he could get rid of an obnoxious customer by slipping a diarrheic into his drink. Within minutes the troublesome drinker would have urgently left the bar. Why do we say a corrupt or drunken person has “gone to the Devil”? In Victorian times, to “go to the Devil” was to visit a bar on Flat Street near the London Civil Courts. The Devil was a favourite pub for lawyers, who seemed to spend more time in that bar than in their offices. If a client thought his money had gone to the Devil to pay for his lawyer’s drinks, he might visit the legal offices to ask for an explanation, where he would be told that the absent lawyer had indeed gone to the Devil. Why is someone who is dazed or confused (or drunk) said to be “groggy”? If you’re in a haze you might be groggy, but you’re more likely to be drunk because of the grog. Back in 1740, British Admiral E. Vernon changed the drinking habits of his sailors by issuing their rum ration diluted with water and lime juice to prevent scurvy (which is the origin of the label limey for an Englishman). The admiral always wore a grogram coat and was known to the men as “Old Grog,” which is why the word grog is used to describe rum. 61

A grogram coat is made from a weave of a coarse waterproof fabric (from the French gros-grain) made from silk, mohair, and wool and stiffened by gum. Why should heavy drinkers wear an amethyst? An amethyst is a pale blue to dark purple crystallized quartz and is a precious stone found in modern-day Iran, Iraq, India, and some parts of Europe. It was worn on the breastplates of high priests because the ancients believed that wearing or even touching an amethyst kept people from getting intoxicated no matter how much they drank. In Greek the word amethyst literally means “not intoxicating.” Quickies Did you know… • that Daiquiri is the name of a village in eastern Cuba? • that tequila is a liquor named after a town in west-central Mexico? • that the word rum is an abbreviation of rumbullion? • that the word whiskey comes from Gaelic and literally means “water of life”? • that the word aquavit is derived from the Latin aqua vitae and also means “water of life”? • that the word vodka in Russian literally means “little water”?


• that the word gin is a shortened form of the Swiss city Geneva, which in Middle Dutch is Geniver, which is also a name for the juniper tree that grows the berries that give gin its flavour? • that the word lager in German means “storehouse,” therefore lager beer means “beer brewed for keeping”? What is the difference between brandy and cognac? There is no difference in formula. Brandy is an abbreviation of brandywine and is any spirit distilled from either wine or fermented fruit juice. The word brandywine comes from the Dutch brandewijn, which means “burnt wine,” because the drink is distilled. All brandywine or brandy is burnt or distilled wine. Cognac is also a brandy but is so called because it is exclusive to the Cognac region of France. Some types of brandies include ouzo, flavoured with anise and originating in Greece; grappa, distilled from the crushed residue from wine-making and originating in Italy; kirsch, distilled from cherries and originating in Germany; slivovitz, produced from crushed plums and originating in the Balkans; and calvados, created from fermented apple cider and originating in France.


• Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. — Lord Acton, 1887 • It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph. — Edmund Burke • The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft a-gley [go awry]. — Robert Burns, 1796 • Music hath charms to sooth a savage breast. — William Congreve, 1697 • Mad dogs and Englishmen Go out in the midday sun. — Noël Coward, 1931 • Variety’s the very spice of life. — William Cowper, 1785 • Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration — Thomas Alva Edison, c.1903 • A thing of beauty is a joy for ever. — John Keats, 1818 • Hope springs eternal (in the human breast). — Alexander Pope, 1733 • Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes [I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts]. — Virgil, first century B.C. • I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. — Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire, 1906


• O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. — Sir Walter Scott, 1808 • “…but when we’ve practised quite a while, how vastly we improve our style.” — anonymous


work and career What is the difference between a job and a career? The noun job, meaning “a piece of work,” was first recorded in the mid-sixteenth century. By the mid-seventeenth century, the word had also come to mean “continuous labour for pay.” The term began as jobbe, which is a variant of gob or lump and means specific work for money. Career, on the other hand, started out as the Latin noun carrus, or “chariot,” and evolved into several meanings, including “to speed.” Generally, during the Middle Ages, career was employed to describe a running course such as the sun’s transit across the sky or even a racecourse. In the sixteenth century, a track on a jousting field was called a career. In the early twentieth century, career began to mean the progression of a life’s work, while job remained a particular piece of work or a paid position of employment. Career can still mean a racecourse, only today it is run by rats. Why is a self-employed professional called a “freelancer”?


The word freelance came out of the period between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, when mercenary knights with no particular allegiance would take their lances into battle for the prince or state that paid them the most money. They were referred to as freelancers by authors in the nineteenth century and operated much like the gunfighters in the American West. Now, a freelancer is anyone who works independently. Why are skilled computer fanatics called “geeks”? Since the fifteenth century, geek or geck has described a low-life fool. For example, a geek is, in carnival slang, someone who bites off the heads of chickens or snakes. At the beginning of the computer age, the word geek took on the meaning of a socially awkward intellectual. But through accepting and celebrating their geek status, skilled computer operators have managed to change the meaning of the word, so that a geek is someone to be admired. Why do we say someone has been “fired” when he or she is forced out of a job? Being fired is usually unpleasant, and even though it’s sometimes a disguised blessing, it never reaches the cruelty of its medieval Celtic origins. If a clan leader wanted to get rid of a petty criminal without killing him, or if someone was found guilty of stealing from his employer, especially from the mines, he was taken to his home along with all his tools and placed inside, after which the house was “fired” or set on fire. If he escaped, he was banished from the clan.


When someone loses his job, why do we say he “got the sack”? “Getting the sack” has come to mean getting fired or dismissed from anything, including a love affair. The expression entered the language long before the industrial era, at a time when workers carried their tools from job to job in a sack. When the job was done, or the labourer was discharged, the boss or employer would simply hand the worker his tool sack. He was literally “given the sack.” Why is the night shift called “the graveyard shift”? During the Victorian era — before embalming — there was a great fear of being buried alive. Wealthy men and women arranged to have a string tied to their hands that ran from the buried coffins to bells on the surface, so that if they awoke they could sound the alarm. The cemetery was busy during the day, but someone was needed to wander the grounds and listen for the bells during the night. This was called the graveyard shift. Why if someone isn’t up to the job do we say he isn’t “worth his salt”? Thousands of years ago, before money was introduced, workers and soldiers were often paid with a negotiated quantity of salt. More than as a seasoning, salt’s value was in its use as a preservative or cure for meat, as well as a medicine. The early Romans called this payment a salarium, which gave us the word salary. If a man wasn’t “worth his salt,” he wasn’t worth his salary. 68

Why is the head office called the “flagship” of a corporation? We often use the word flagship to indicate the most important or largest component or unit within an industrial complex. This derives from the navy where a flagship carried the admiral and flew his flag. The admiral’s ship was the largest in the fleet, and just like today’s CEO, the admiral required larger quarters and rooms to conduct strategy meetings. Why do we say that someone has “knocked off work” for the day? To “knock off work” might be for any length of time, but it usually means for the day. The expression certainly had significance to those who first used it, because they were the oarsmen of a slave galley. To keep the ship on course, the slaves were kept rowing in unison by a drumbeat pounded out rhythmically on a block of wood. Different beats had different meanings — the left or right side only, or both together. These beats also signalled rest breaks and the end of a shift, when the slaves were “knocked off” for the day.


Why do we call leisure work a “hobby”? Hobby is a word used to describe an avocation done for diversion or self-pleasure. Few people find fulfillment working for someone else, and so many express their individuality within a hobby. The word comes from a toy made from a stick with a horse’s head that children used to ride. It was called a hobby horse, and, like the child at play, anyone pursuing a hobby was doing it for escapism and pleasure, not money. Why is the person who fixes your pipes called a “plumber”? A plumb or plumb bob is the lead weight at the end of a line used to determine the depth of water. It was sailing ships’ precursor to sonar. In the fourteenth century, when indoor plumbing was introduced, the pipes were made of lead, and the artisans who installed the pipe systems to buildings took


their professional name from what had previously been the metal’s main nautical function: they were “plumbers.” Why are men who “longshoremen”?






The title longshoreman goes back to a time when there was very little mechanical help to unload a great sailing vessel, and often there were no port or docking facilities either. Everything was done by hand. Unloading the big ship into smaller rowing boats, then unloading these onto the shore, was hard work and needed a lot of strong men. Because these men would line up on the water’s edge, they were called “along the shore men” which in time became simply “longshoremen.” Where did the words steward and stewardess originate? A steward or stewardess is usually employed as a caretaker in a variety of circumstances, including at sea and in the air. Although the position carries great responsibility, working conditions are often unpleasant. The title of steward was originally given to someone who took care of the cattle and pigs. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon word stig-weard, meaning “sty-keeper.” No wonder they want to be called flight attendants. Why is a cowboy called a “cowpoke”? The word cowboy is from England and entered the language in 1725 as a simple description of a young boy who tended to the cows. It was also a reference to terrorists on both sides of the American Revolutionary War, because they stole and 71

killed the enemy’s cattle. When cowboy became a western U.S. reference to a ranch hand in 1849, its meaning by association was someone reckless or irresponsible. By 1881 the word cowpoke was restricted to those young cowboys who poked and prodded cattle into railway cars using long poles. What kind of a job is created by “featherbedding”? About sixty years ago, when a group of railroad men complained about being unable to sleep on their hard bunks, the boss asked, “What do you want … feather beds?” At the time a feather bed was the warmest and coziest place to curl up and sleep, and so companies began calling the union practice of creating unnecessary soft jobs requiring little or no work, for members who would otherwise be laid off, “featherbedding.” Why is a lazy, irresponsible person called “shiftless”? The word shift means to change or rearrange, which is why we call those who work during differing blocks of time “shift workers.” This use of the word shift also applies to an individual’s ability to change or adapt. Therefore, if you’re “shiftless” you lack the initiative or resources to change with the circumstances. On the other hand, someone who is “shifty” is too adept at change and isn’t to be trusted. Why is something of little value called “fluff” and poor workmanship called “shoddy”? The word shoddy is used to describe both poor workmanship and poor character, while fluff means of little value. Shoddy is 72

derived from shode, meaning “shed” or “thrown off,” and refers to the excess tossed from the good cloth during the process of weaving. This fluff is re-spun and used to make similar but cheaper wool products, which, although they look good, through time reveal their poor quality. Why are construction cranes and the mechanisms used for drilling oil called “derricks”? A derrick, an instrument used for heavy lifting, got its name from a famous London hangman. In the early 1600s, Godfrey Derrick built a sturdy gallows from which he executed some three thousand souls by hanging. Because items hung and swayed from the cranes used to load ships, longshoremen called them “derricks” after the executioner’s infamous device. Why is a practice session called a “dry run”? A “dry run” is firefighter jargon. It was once common for firemen, especially volunteers, to hold public exhibitions of their skills and to compete with other companies at fairs and carnivals. This dry run gave the firemen practice and was so called because no water was used. A “fire run” or “wet run” is a call to an actual blaze. Why do we use the word glitch to define an unknown computer problem? Along with space exploration came new expressions that are now everyday language. Astronauts said “affirmative” for yes, “check” to confirm a completed task, and “copy” to indicate that an instruction was understood. “Glitch,” an 73

unexplained computer malfunction, was first used to describe the Mercury space capsule’s frustrating tendency to signal an emergency when none existed. Where did the insult “couldn’t hold a candle” come from? The derogatory expression “couldn’t hold a candle” is from the sixteenth century. Before electricity, experienced workers needing light to work by would have a young apprentice hold a candle so that they could see to complete a complex job. Holding a candle for a skilled tradesman gave the apprentice a chance to watch and learn, but if he couldn’t even do that properly, it was said disparagingly that “he couldn’t hold a candle” to the tradesman. Why is buttering up a boss said to be “currying favour”? If you are trying to get on someone’s good side with insincere behaviour, your actions are “currying favour” from that person. Curry is a horse-grooming term for cleaning and rubbing down an animal. Favour in this expression was originally Fauvel, the name of the centaur in the fourteenth-century satire Le Roman de Fauvel. Fauvel was very evil and cunning, and it was a good idea to get on the centaur’s good side. You could do this by pampering or grooming or “currying Fauvel.”


place names and nicknames Why are citizens of the United States the only North Americans called “Americans”? After discarding dozens of suggestions, Canada took its name from the Native American word kanata, meaning “a collection of huts.” The most popular of the names considered by the United States was Columbia, which is why the nation’s capital is located in the District of Columbia. But because they couldn’t make a final decision, the people of the United States have accepted the unofficial name given to them by the British during the Revolutionary War. They are, simply, Americans. Odds & Oddities • Brazil was named after the nut, not the other way around.


• Damascus, Syria, was flourishing a couple of thousand years before Rome was founded in 753 B.C., making it the oldest continuously inhabited city in existence. • Los Angeles’s full name is El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula — its abbreviation (L.A.) is 3.63 percent of its name’s length Why are the southern United States called “Dixieland”? The nickname “Dixieland” didn’t come from the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary between the free and the slave states. Rather it’s from the word dixie, which was what southerners called a French ten-dollar bank note of New Orleans that was already in use in 1859 when Daniel Emmet, a northern black man, wrote and introduced his song “Dixie,” which spread the South’s nickname and somehow became a battle song for the Confederacy. Buffalo, New York The buffalo is associated more with the western plains, so it seems an odd name for New York State’s second largest urban area until you realize that it came not from the prairie bison but instead from a French missionary’s description of the Niagara River. He called the region Beau Fleuve, which in French is “beautiful running water.” In time, the English-speaking locals simply mispronounced Beau Fleuve until it became as it sounded to them — “Buffalo.” Buffalo is known as “the City of Good Neighbours.” Detroit, Michigan


During the seventeenth century, France established a number of strategic trading posts in defence of the advancing British. One of these, Fort Ponchartrain, was built in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in an area where the river narrowed, which had become known in French as le detroit, “the straits.” Of course the founder of Detroit, the motor city, or “Motown,” Antoine Cadillac, has his name on a luxury car, so it seems only logical that to keep the automotive theme alive, Detroit’s sister city is Toyota City, Japan. Michigan is derived from Meicigama, an Algonquian word for the Great Lakes. Why do we call New York “the Big Apple”? During the 1940s, Robert Emmerich, who played piano in the Tommy Dorsey Band, wrote an obscure song called “The Big Apple.” It was soon forgotten by everyone except the legendary reporter Walter Winchell, who liked the song so much that in his daily column and on the air he began referring to his beat, New York City, as “the Big Apple,” and soon, even though Emmerich’s song was long forgotten, its title became the great city’s nickname. Why is the city of New Orleans called “the Big Easy”? It was the jockeys of New Orleans who first began referring to the big-time racetrack in New York as the Big Apple, a phrase popularized as the city’s nickname by gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Possibly in response to this, during the 1970s New Orleans gossip columnist Betty Guillaud began referring to her city as the Big Easy —


originally the name of a long-forgotten jazz club called the Big Easy Hall. How did the city of Calgary, Alberta, get its name? In 1875, during trouble with the First Nations, the local North-West Mounted Police sent E Troop under Inspector E.A. Brisebois to erect a barracks on the Bow River. When Brisebois wanted to name the new structure after himself, his commander, Lieutenant-Colonel James Macleod, overruled him and named the settlement Fort Calgary, after the ancestral estate of his cousins, the MacKenzies, in Scotland. The Gaelic translation of Calgary is “clear running water,” which certainly describes the Bow River. The translation of the Blackfoot name for the area was “elbow many houses.” The translated Cree name for the area was “elbow house.” Both Native references are to the Elbow River. Why is Chicago called the “Windy City”? Most people believe that Chicago got its nickname from its prevailing winds, but that isn’t the case. In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of America’s discovery. The city’s aggressive promotional campaign offended the people of New York, whose press nicknamed it the Windy City to mock its bragging ways. The moniker stuck, but, fortunately for Chicago, its original meaning has been forgotten by most. Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario In 1641, the first reference to the mighty falls was written down as Onguiaahra, which is how it sounded in the local 78

dialect, and because the natives had no written reference it was soon after abbreviated to Ongiara. Both words were interpreted as meaning “thunder of waters.” Word of the amazing natural wonder was spread orally, and through telling rather than writing, Ongiara became Niagara. Who was the first Niagara Falls daredevil? In October of 1829, “the Yankee Leaper,” Sam Patch, became the first of the Niagara daredevils by surviving a jump off the main 110-foot Canadian Falls. The twenty-two-year-old Patch then went to Rochester the following month and jumped from the 99-foot Upper Falls. Disappointed in the small crowd, he chose to repeat the stunt a week later on Friday, November 13. After a pre-jump celebration at several local taverns and in front of ten thousand spectators, Sam Patch climbed a tower he had built at the brink of the falls, but as he jumped he slipped, causing his feet to miss his planned vertical entry. The crowd heard a very loud noise as he hit the water. His body was found four months later frozen in the ice of the Genessee River. His grave is marked by a simple wooden board with the inscription: “Sam Patch — Such is Fame.” Who was the first person to go over Niagara in a barrel? The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was a woman. Bored with teaching school, and desperate for money, Annie Edison Taylor, a sixty-three-year-old widow (she claimed to be in her forties) chose her birthday, October 24, 1901, to challenge the Canadian Falls, and she did it in a wooden pickle barrel made from oak and iron and padded inside with a mattress. When she emerged from her plunge battered and bruised with only a minor cut on her forehead 79

she exclaimed, “No one ought ever to do that again.” Unfortunately, her dreams of fame and fortune never materialized. A speaking tour didn’t work out, and in 1921, the now eighty-three-year-old Annie Nelson (she had since remarried) died a pauper at the Niagara County Infirmary in Lockport, New York. She’s buried in the Stunters Section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York. Of the sixteen known attempts to go over the falls in a barrel or enclosed device, six have died and ten have survived. Quickies Did you know… • 25 percent of the territorial United States once belonged to Mexico? • twenty-four American states have Native American names, and six have Spanish origins? • when Spain sold Florida to the United States in 1821 for $5 million it was known in Spanish as Pascua Florida, which was a tribute to Easter and means “feast of flowers”? • that in 1867 the United States bought Alaska from the Russians for 2 cents an acre? (Alaska is from the Aleut word for “Great Land.”)


animals How did the Australian kangaroo get its name? Captain James Cook introduced kangaroo into the English language when he entered it in the ship’s log on June 24, 1770. The explorer got the name from a local Aboriginal who didn’t understand English. A myth grew that in the local language, kangaroo meant, “I don’t know,” but that legend has recently been dismissed by the discovery through linguistic research that in the Aboriginal language from the region of Australia where Cook first made his sighting, the word for what we call a kangaroo is, in fact, gangurru. Why is one breed of dog called a “Boxer”? The Belgian breed of dog known as the Brabanter Bullenbeiser was a cattle dog and an enthusiastic family pet even though it was used by the gentry for hunting wild boar. Around 1830 it was crossbred with an English bulldog (bred for bull fighting), and the Boxer breed was initiated. The dog


flourished during the nineteenth century under the guidance of the German Boxer Klub, who gave it the English name Boxer because of its fighting tenacity and its unique use of its front paws while in combat or playing. When we want a dog to attack, why do we say, “Sic ’em”? Dogs are descended from wolves and interact with humans the same as they would with other dogs within a pack. They are protective of their family or pack and instinctively attack only when hunting or frightened. This behaviour can be altered in some dogs through aggressive training. Guard dogs have to learn to attack on command from the human alpha dog, their trainer. “Sic ’em,” a very old command, is an abbreviation of “seek him.” Why do the Chinese name each year for an animal? The Chinese have tied animal names to calendar years for centuries. According to the myth, Buddha invited all the animals on Earth to visit him on New Year’s Day, but only twelve arrived. They were the rat, the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. As a reward, Buddha honoured each of these twelve with a year of its own. What’s the story behind the expression “It’s a dog-eat-dog world”? In the year 43 B.C., Roman scholar Marcus Tarentius Varro observed humanity and remarked that even “a dog will not eat dog.” His point was that humans are less principled in the matter of destroying their own kind than other animals. By 82

the sixteenth century, the phrase became a metaphor for ruthless competition, and during the Industrial Revolution the expression “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” became commonplace.

Why does shedding crocodile tears mean that you’re faking sadness? Crocodiles have a nasty habit of sounding like a baby crying, which can attract naive human prey. While lying motionless in the sun, often hidden by tall grass, a crocodile waiting for lunch might leave its mouth open, which puts pressure on its tear glands, causing the illusion of crying. Like their phony human counterparts, they shed tears without any sense of contrition or sadness.


Where did we get the saying “Not enough room to swing a cat”? This colourful phrase evokes strange images of feline cruelty. In fact, it has nothing to do with cats, but the real story is at least as cruel. The “cat” is a cat-o’-nine-tails, a type of whip used to discipline sailors on old sailing ships. The cat-o’-nine-tails has one handle attached to nine thin strips of leather, each perhaps three feet long. The cat-o’-nine-tails would be used to administer lashings that would sting and leave welts on the recipient. The whippings would take place on the deck, because below deck there was not enough ceiling height to swing a cat (o’-nine-tails). Why does “letting the cat out of the bag” prevent you from buying “a pig in a poke”? A poke has the same origins as pocket and pouch and is a small bag within which a young pig could be packaged after being sold at a farmers’ market. In 1540, it was recorded that unscrupulous farmers would sometimes replace the pig with a cat and advise the purchaser not to open the bag until they reached home or the pig might escape. If the poke was opened, then the cat was out of the bag and the seller had been caught cheating. Why is a leader of a trend called a “bellwether”? The metaphorical use of bellwether to mean a human leader dates back to the fifteenth century; its modern use usually means a company that sets an industry standard. A wether is in fact a castrated ram or male sheep, and a bellwether is the leader of the flock. He knows the routine, and he wears a bell 84

so that the shepherd knows where his sheep are, because all the others will follow the bellwether anywhere without hesitation. Why are Dalmatians used as mascots by firefighters? Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs show Dalmatians running with chariots. In Britain, they were used to escort carriages over hundreds of miles before standing guard while travellers stopped to eat or rest. Throughout the centuries the breed developed an affinity with horses, which is why they were a natural for early firefighters. The Dalmatians ran with the fire wagon and then kept the horses in line while the firefighters fought the blaze. Dalmatians are from Dalmatia in a region of what is now Croatia. They were spread across Europe by the Roma people. Endurance, strength, and loyalty are their greatest characteristics. Why do we call male felines “tomcats”? A 1760 book titled The Life and Adventures of a Cat became so popular that from then on, all un-neutered male cats were called “Tom” after the book’s feline hero. A female cat that has procreated is called a “queen,” a title easily understood by any cat lover. Legend has it that one such cat lover, the great prophet Mohammed, once cut off the sleeve of his shirt before standing rather than disturb a sleeping kitten. Why do we say that something worthless is “for the birds”?


In the days before automobiles, the streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages, and these animals quite naturally left behind deposits from their digestive systems. These emissions contained half-digested oats that attracted swarms of birds, which took nourishment from the deposits. The people of the time coined the expression “for the birds” as meaning anything of the same value as these horse-droppings. Why is something useless and expensive called a “white elephant”? The term white elephant comes from ancient Siam, where no one but the king could own a rare and sacred albino elephant without royal consent. The cost of keeping any elephant, white or otherwise, was tremendous, and so when the king found displeasure with someone he would make him a gift of a white elephant, and because the animal was sacred and couldn’t be put to work, the cost of its upkeep would ruin its new owner. Why is the height of a horse measured in hands? For five thousand years, the height of a horse has been measured in hands. Body parts were our first points of reference for measurement. For example, a foot was exactly that: the length of a Roman foot. A hand was measured with the thumb curled into the palm, a distance now standardized as four inches. A horse’s height is measured in a straight line from the ground to the withers (the top of the shoulders between the neck and the back). A horse of 15.2 hands measures 15 times 4 inches, plus 2 inches, or 62 inches. It’s important to keep in mind that you 86

can have 15.3 hands, but after the next full inch the height is taken as 16 hands, not 15.4. The hand is a tradition of British measurement. In the rest of Europe a horse’s height is measured in metres and centimetres. In some places, like Europe and South Africa, they measure in both hands and centimetres. Why do geese fly in a V formation? When geese fly in either a V formation or a single line, they are drafting off the one in front in the same way that racecar drivers use each other to pick up speed. The lead, or dominant, bird, which is always a female, begins a turbulence wave that helps lift the birds behind her. The farther back in the flock, the less energy they need to fly. The lead bird rotates position to fight exhaustion. The Wright brothers were inspired by the same principle of flight! What is the difference between a “flock” and a “gaggle” of geese? Any group of birds, goats, or sheep can be referred to as a flock, but each feathered breed has its own proper title. Hawks travel in casts, while it’s a bevy of quail, a host of sparrows, and a covey of partridges. Swans move in herds and peacocks in musters, while a flock of herons is called a siege. A group of geese is properly called a gaggle, but only when they’re on the ground. In the air they are a skein. Why is an innocent person who takes the blame for others called a “scapegoat”?


The term scapegoat or escape goat entered the English language with William Tyndale’s translation of the Hebrew Bible in 1525. Under the Law of Moses, the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement involved two goats. One was sacrificed to the Lord, while all the sins of the people were transferred to the other. The scapegoat was then led into the wilderness, taking all the sins of the Israelites with it. Why are long, rambling, and unfunny stories called “shaggy dog stories”? A shaggy dog story usually takes forever to tell and has a clever (if not funny) ending. The joy is found within the skill and craft of the narrator. During the 1930s and ’40s a series of such jokes involving shaggy dogs circulated as a fad. A collection of these stories was published in 1946. Today, any rambling story ending in a pun is called a “shaggy dog story.” Here’s one of the original shaggy dog stories: A grand householder in Park Lane, London, lost his very valuable and rather shaggy dog. The owner advertised repeatedly in the Times, but without luck, and finally he gave up hope. When an American in New York saw the advertisement, he was moved by the man’s devotion and took great trouble to seek out another dog that matched the one in the advertisement. He found a perfect match. During his next business trip to London, he sought out the grieving owner’s impressive house, where he was received in the householder’s absence by a very English butler, who glanced at the dog, bowed, and exclaimed, in a horror-stricken voice, “But not so shaggy as that, sir!”


How did an American bird get named after the distant country of Turkey? In 1519, conquistador Hernando Cortez returned to Spain with a bird introduced to him by the Native Americans of Mexico. The peculiar bird confused all of Europe. The French thought it was from India and so named it dindon (from pouletes d’Inde). Although the Germans, Dutch, and Swedes agreed that the bird was Indian they named it kilcon after Calcutta. By the time the trend reached England, rumour had it that the bird was from Turkey, and so that became its name. How many native wild jackrabbits are born each year in North America? This North American animal is properly classified as a hare, not a rabbit, so the answer to the above question is really zero. Early North American settlers dropped the word hare from their vocabulary. The American term jackrabbit is an abbreviation of the original name jackass-rabbit, so named because of its long ears. A “rabbit punch,” describing an illegal action in boxing, comes from a gamekeeper’s method of dispatching an injured rabbit by chopping it on the back of its neck with the side of the hand. Why are some schemes called “hare-brained”? The adjective hare-brained usually refers to a plan or action that is unexplainably preposterous. If there is any confusion about this word’s meaning, it lies in the sixteenth-century dual spelling as both hare-brained and hair-brained. In any 89

case, the word is a reference to the wildly odd mating season practices of hares, which are so bizarre that they are the origins of the expression “mad as a march hare.” Why do we say that a different subject is “a horse of a different colour”? “A horse of a different colour” is a separate issue from the business at hand and comes from horse trading. When horses are born, their official registration includes a record of their colour. To make sure they were buying the horse pedigree as advertised, traders learned to check this registration to ensure that the colt’s colour was the same as the one for sale, otherwise they were being cheated with a “horse of a different colour.” How did the beaver get its name? A beaver is an industrious little rodent whose fur was the foundation of an industry that helped create Canada. The furry little creature got its name from the Welsh befer, meaning “bear.” Another definition of the word came at a time in history when knights wore armour. The hinged bottom portion of the helmet was called the “beaver,” although in this sense the word is derived from the Latin bevere, meaning “to drink.” Why do dogs circle so much before lying down? Dogs turn around several times before lying down. They appear to be trying to make themselves comfortable, though it has been facetiously suggested that they are looking for the head of the bed. The fact is that dogs have maintained this 90

habit from their origins in the wild. Like their ancestors and cousins, such as wolves, coyotes, and foxes, domesticated dogs still turn circles to beat down a bed of tall grass. What does the “grey” mean in “greyhound”? Greyhound dogs have been bred for hunting and racing and have extremely keen eyesight. They are one of the fastest land mammals and can reach speeds up to forty-five miles per hour. They were introduced to England from mainland Europe in the sixth century B.C. The dogs come in a wide variety of colours, which indicates that the “grey” in their name has nothing to do with their hue. Hound is from the Old English word hund, and grey derives from the Old Norse grig, which was used generically for any fair or light-coloured dog. Greyhounds make wonderful pets and have been nicknamed “forty-five-mile-an-hour couch potatoes.” All ancient variations of the word grey, as in greyhound, have the common meaning of “shine” or “bright.” Why is a species of whales called “sperm whales”? The sperm in sperm whale is an 1830 abbreviation of spermaceti, which means “sperm of a whale.” It was once believed that the waxy, gel-like substance in the snouts of these aquatic mammals was the seed of the male whale. Spermaceti was prized for its medicinal properties and was also used for candle oil. The material is, in fact, used by the whale to cushion its sensitive snout as it dives and has nothing to do with the animal’s reproductive functions.


In 1471 the English alchemist Sir George Ripley (c. 1415–1490) suggested in “The Compound of Alchemy” that drinking a mixture of “whale sperm” and red wine would fight the chronic ills of growing old. When and why do cats purr? One of the great and endearing mysteries about cats is their use of purring to show affection; but they also purr when in danger or while giving birth or dying. Feral cats will even purr during a standoff with another cat. Cats only purr in the presence of humans or other cats. Because they are born blind and deaf, kittens depend on feeling the purring of their mothers to find comfort and a place to nurse. The kittens themselves start purring at one week. The purring of all adult cats derives from this mother-kitten experience, a form of communication often accompanied by kneading the paws as they did while nursing. Purring is by choice and is exclusive to domestic cats in that it occurs uninterrupted both during inhaling and exhaling. Big cats make a similar noise, but only while exhaling. Raccoons also produce a purring sound, but again only while exhaling. Cats choose to purr, but how is another question still a mystery to science. How did “hightailing it” come to mean a rushed exit? When people leave in a frantic hurry, they are “hightailing it.” The expression grew out of America’s Old West after cowboys noticed that both wild horses and deer would jerk their tails up high when frightened as they dashed to safety. The lifting of the tail by both animals was a signal to the rest


of the herd that humans, and therefore danger, were near and that the creatures needed to run for their lives. Quickies Did you know… • there have been no new animals domesticated in over four thousand years? • the NFL use the skin of roughly three thousand head of cattle to supply enough leather for a one-year supply of footballs? • dogs communicate with roughly ten different vocal sounds, while cats use over one hundred? • Border Collies are the most intelligent dog breed, while Afghan Hounds are the least? • a bee’s honey is the only natural food that doesn’t spoil? • a snail can sleep for three years? • all polar bears are left-handed (left-pawed)? • butterflies taste with their feet? • elephants are the only land animals that can’t jump? • rats multiply so quickly that in eighteen months, two rats could have over a million descendants?


• 85 percent of all Earth’s plants and animals live in the sea?


baseball Why is the Cleveland baseball team called the Indians? Controversy generally surrounds the choice of Native American names for sports teams, but not in Cleveland. That city’s baseball team is named in honour of one of their star players from the 1890s. He was Alex Sophalexis, a Penobscot Indian so respected that in 1914, one year after his death, Cleveland took the name “Indians” to commemorate Alex and what he had meant to their team. Who is featured on the world’s most valuable baseball card? The most valuable baseball card in history was issued in 1909 and features Honus Wagner. One in mint condition sold for $110,000 in 1988. The reason it became so valuable is its scarcity — it was issued by the Sweet Caporal Cigarette Company, but Wagner, an eight-time National League batting


champion, had it discontinued because he didn’t want to promote smoking among children. What number has been retired by every Major League baseball team and why? In 1997, fifty years after he broke the colour barrier, every Major League baseball team retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42. Active players who had the number before 1997 were allowed to wear it until they retired, but after that the number will never be worn again. Two who kept wearing number 42 are Mo Vaughn and Butch Huskey, both of whom chose the number as a tribute to Robinson. Why do we say that someone in control has “the upper hand”? Someone with the “upper hand” has the final say over a situation. When a group of youngsters gather to pick sides at a game of sandlot baseball, the two captains decide who chooses first when one of them grasps the bat at the bottom of the handle. The captains take turns gripping the bat one fist over the other until there is no more room. The last one to fully grip the bat handle has first choice. He has the upper hand. Why do we say that someone who is sharp is “on the ball”? To be “on the ball” means to be at the top of your game. We have all heard a pitcher’s excuse of not having his “stuff” after a bad outing and wondered how that excuse would work with our bosses if we had a bad day. From the early days of 96

baseball, when a pitcher couldn’t find the spin and lost control, it’s been said he had “nothing on the ball,” which gave us “on the ball,” meaning “he’s in control.” What does the sign “No Pepper” mean at a baseball park? The sign “No Pepper” is seen in many baseball dugouts and refers to a game played to warm up the players. During pepper, one player bunts grounders and hits line drives to a group of infielders standing about twenty feet away. The fielders play the ball then throw it back to the batter as quickly as possible, and he then attempts to hit those return throws. Pepper is banned when spectators are in the park for fear of injury. Why is the L.A. baseball team called the Dodgers? Before moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers were based in Brooklyn, New York. The team originated in the nineteenth century when, because of the dangers of horse-drawn trolleys and carriages, the pedestrians of Brooklyn called themselves “trolley dodgers.” Because most of their working-class fans had to dodge traffic on their walk to the games, the Brooklyn baseball team named themselves the Dodgers in their honour. When the team moved to L.A. in the 1950s, they took the name with them. What are the seven different ways a baseball batter can reach first base? In baseball, a batter can reach first base with a hit, or by being walked with four balls. He also goes to first if he is struck by a pitch, if the catcher interferes with his at bat, if the catcher 97

drops the ball on strike three, or if the pitcher throws the ball out of the playing area. Finally, the seventh way a batter can get on base is if the baseball becomes stuck in the umpire’s mask or equipment. Why do the New York Yankees wear pinstripe baseball uniforms? In 1925, thirty-year-old Babe Ruth was suffering from an intestinal disorder, and his weight ballooned to over 260 pounds. This embarrassed Yankees owner Jacob Rupert so much that he ordered the team to wear pinstripe uniforms in order to make the Bambino look thinner. Limited to 98 games that season because of surgery and suspensions, Babe Ruth still managed to hit .290 with 25 home runs. Why is the warm-up area for baseball pitchers called a “bullpen”? As early as 1809, the term bullpen referred to a stockade for holding criminals. In the 1870s, a roped-off area in the outfield for standing room was nicknamed the bullpen by the Cincinnati Enquirer. When relief pitchers were introduced into the game they took over that area to warm up, and in a stroke of brilliance the Bull Durham Tobacco Company erected a sign overhead to confirm it as the bullpen. Why do we call a leg injury a “charley horse”? The phrase charley horse has its roots in baseball. At the beginning of the twentieth century, groundskeepers often used old and lame horses to pull the equipment used to keep the playing field in top condition. The Baltimore Orioles had a 98

player named Charley Esper, who, after years of injuries, walked with pain. Because his limp reminded his teammates of the groundskeeper’s lame horse, they called Esper “Charley Horse.” Why is an erratic person called a “screwball”? In baseball, when a pitcher throws a curveball, it breaks to a right-hander’s left and a left-hander’s right. Early in the twentieth century, the great Christy Mathewson came up with a pitch that broke in the opposite direction and completely baffled opposing batters, who called it a “screwball.” It became a word used to describe anything eccentric or totally surprising — including the behaviour of human “screwballs.” Why is there a seventh-inning stretch during a baseball game? While attending a baseball game in 1910, American President William Howard Taft stood up to stretch his legs between the top and bottom of the seventh inning. The crowd stood out of respect because they thought the president was leaving, then as he sat back down so did the crowd, and a tradition was born. The stretch became popular with vendors because it became a last chance to sell off their hot dogs and french fries before fans started drifting home. Why is the position between second base and third base called “shortstop”? Baseball began with four outfielders and only three infielders to guard the bases. In 1849, D.L. Adams (1814–1899) realized that three men could cover fly balls in the outfield 99

and that by moving one of these outfield players to the infield he could keep a lot of ground balls from getting through by stopping them short, thus giving the new position its name: shortstop. Technically, this position is still an outfielder.

Why is an easily caught pop fly in baseball called a “can of corn”? The legend is that in the days before supermarkets, small grocery store owners placed their tins of canned corn on the top shelves because they stored well and didn’t sell as quickly as fresh corn. For most customers this system put the cans out of reach. The store owner or clerk needed a broomstick to reach up and topple the can of corn from the shelf and easily catch it by hand or in an apron. Why are the pitcher and catcher collectively called “the battery”? A battery is a military term for artillery and its use in baseball to describe a pitcher and a catcher alludes to the fact that the battery is the principal attack force for the small army of nine


players on a baseball diamond. There is also an earlier theory that the baseball term derives from telegraphy where the word battery (also borrowed from artillery) defines the sender (pitcher) and the receiver (catcher). How did the World Series get its name? There is a myth that the World Series was named after the New York World newspaper, which was established in 1860 and was sold in 1930 after merging with the Evening Telegram, becoming the New York World Telegram. However, the World had nothing to do with naming baseball’s annual classic. In 1884 a series of games between the National League and American Association champions was reported by the press as a contest to decide baseball’s “World Champions.” When the modern series began in 1903, the reference evolved (within all newspapers) into the “World Series” simply to hype the contest. Who introduced the first catcher’s mask? The first baseball catcher’s mask was a fencer’s mask introduced by Harvard University’s Fred Thayer in 1877. It wasn’t until 1890 that the major leagues adopted the idea that all catchers should wear protective masks. Who invented baseball’s hand signals? Baseball’s hand signals evolved from the earliest days of the game. Consequently, there are many moments and persons involved in their development. For instance, in 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings began utilizing a system of hand signals based on military flag signals that soldiers had used 101

while playing baseball during the Civil War. However, no one was more important to the development of these signals than a five-foot-four-inch, 148-pound centre fielder named William “Dummy” Hoy (1862–1961). Hoy was the first deaf baseball player to make the major leagues. One afternoon in 1889, as a centre fielder with the Washington Senators, Hoy set a major-league record by throwing out three base runners at home plate. His is a fascinating story, although not recognized in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Hoy and his coaches and teammates developed an advanced system of hand gestures to overcome Hoy’s deafness, which was a key impetus in the evolution of hand signals. Even umpires started physically indicating the batting count to communicate with Hoy. He couldn’t hear the crowd, but Hoy’s legacy is a major part of each and every ball game played to this day. William Hoy played fourteen years in the majors, retiring in 1902 with a .288 lifetime batting average, 2,054 hits, and 726 runs batted in. His 597 career stolen bases still rank seventeenth in history. During a regular nine-inning baseball game, more than a thousand silent instructions are given — from catcher to pitcher, coach to batter or fielder, fielder to fielder, and umpire to umpire. What is a corked bat? Some baseball players, like Sammy Sosa, believe that the spring from a corked bat adds distance to a struck ball. Even though physicists say this notion is nonsense, occasionally someone will try to use one. The basic method of corking a bat is to drill a straight hole into the top about one inch wide 102

and ten inches deep. Then, after filling the cavity with cork, the player plugs the hole with a piece of wood and sands it smooth. A corked bat is illegal only if used in play. Why does the letter K signify a strikeout on a baseball score sheet? Early in baseball history, a man named Henry Chadwick designed the system we still use for keeping score. Because his system already had an overabundance of Ss scattered throughout his score sheet — safe, slide, shortstop, sacrifice, second base, etc. — he decided to use the last letter of struck, as in, “he struck out,” rather than the first. And that’s why K signifies a strikeout in baseball. Why do we call someone who is left-handed a “southpaw”? When the first baseball diamonds were laid out there were no night games. To keep the afternoon or setting sun out of the batters’ eyes, home plate was positioned so that the hitter was facing east, which meant the pitcher was facing west. Most pitchers threw with their right arm, but the rare and dreaded left-hander’s pitching arm was on the more unfamiliar south side, and he was referred to, with respect, as a southpaw. What is the origin of the term grand slam? Although in North America and Japan a grand slam is best known as a baseball homerun with the bases loaded, the term originated in the game of bridge, where it means winning all thirteen tricks in one hand. It’s also used today when you win all four major tennis tournaments (Australian Open, French 103

Open, U.S. Open, and Wimbledon) in one year. This application of “grand slam” was first used by sports journalist Allison Danzig in 1938 when he referred to the achievement of Australian Donald Budge, who had won all that season’s major tennis tournaments. How did rhubarb become baseball slang for a fight or argument? Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber first used rhubarb on air to describe a baseball altercation in 1943. He said he heard it from reporter Garry Shumacher, who picked it up from another reporter, Tom Meany, who learned it from an unnamed Brooklyn bartender. The anonymous bartender used it to describe an incident in his establishment when a Brooklyn fan shot a Giants fan. Why don’t baseball coaches wear civilian clothes like those in every other sport? In the 1800s, baseball managers looked after travel and logistics, while a uniformed playing captain guided the team on the field. Captains who had retired from playing kept their uniforms on in case they were needed as a player. Eventually the manager’s job expanded to include coaching, but tradition and a 1957 rule insisted that no one without a uniform could enter the playing area, including base coaches and the managers. During the early twentieth century, the legendary Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics while wearing a suit and tie and never left the dugout.


Why is someone out of touch said to be “out in left field”? “Out in left field” can mean to be misguided or lost, but it generally means to be out of touch with the action. In baseball, left field is generally no more remote then centre or right field, but in Yankee Stadium, when right fielder Babe Ruth was an active player, the choice outfield seats were near the Bambino. Fans in the right field stands derided those “losers” far from the action as being out in left field. Why are extra seats in a gymnasium or open-air benches in a stadium called “bleachers”? Bleachers were used in a pinch as uncovered overflow seating from the grandstand before they became common at baseball and football games. The first recorded printed reference was in the Chicago Tribune on May 6,1889. They were called “bleachers” because of their exposure to the sun. The folding seating at an inside gymnasium simply took its name from the open seating outside. Quickies Did you know … • that the Detroit Tigers baseball team acquired its name in 1901 when the club’s ball players wore yellow-and-black socks? Sports editor Philip Reid thought the socks were similar to those worn by the Princeton University Tigers football team. • the odds of becoming a professional athlete are 22,000 to 1?


• the odds of catching a ball at a major-league baseball game are 563 to 1? What is the advantage of “sitting in the catbird seat”? “Sitting in the catbird seat” means you have an advantage over the opposition. The catbird is a thrush and, like its cousin, the mockingbird, perches among the highest branches of a tree and has a warning cry that resembles that of a cat. “Sitting in the catbird seat” originated in the American South in the nineteenth century and was regularly used on radio by Red Barber (1908–1992), the Brooklyn Dodgers’ baseball announcer. Amused by the expression, Dodgers fan and humorist James Thurber (1894–1961) popularized the expression in a 1942 New Yorker story entitled “The Catbird Seat.” As Thurber wrote, “‘Sitting in the catbird seat’ meant sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.” Quickies Did you know … • the first humans to fly were the Marquis d’Arlandes and Pilatre de Rozier, who on November 21, 1783, flew over Paris in a hot-air balloon for 20 minutes? • on July 4, 2002, Steve Fossett became the first solo balloonist to circumvent the globe when he landed in Australia?


the human condition Why are the derelicts of “skid row” said to be “on the skids”? To be “on the skids” means to be down on your luck and still falling. In the early twentieth century, skids were greased wooden runways used on dirt roads by the forest industry to make it easier to move logs from the bush to the river or the sawmill. The depressed street these skid roads passed through in a lumber town were lined by bars and flophouses where the transients looking for work lived, and so it was called “skid row.” If you’re being driven to “rack and ruin” where are you going? Being driven to rack and ruin is sometimes expressed as “wreck and ruin,” but either way you’re in big trouble. Rack was the original reference and first appeared in the fifteenth century as a torture machine that encouraged victims to “rack


their brains” to come up with the answers the inquisitors desired — otherwise they would be torn apart. So whether you’re being driven to rack and ruin or wreck and ruin, unless you come up with the right answers, you’re on your way to total destruction. Why does the word bully have both good and bad meanings? Today a bully is generally a description of a brute who intimidates someone weaker or more vulnerable, but in the United States the positive power of the presidency is often referred to as the “bully pulpit.” In the 1500s, the word in its positive sense entered English from the Dutch boel, meaning “sweetheart” or “brother,” but by the 1700s, the word’s meaning deteriorated when it became the popular description of a pimp who protected his prostitutes with violence. In North America, separated by the ocean, the word stayed closer to its positive origins and gave rise to the expression “bully for you,” meaning “admirable or worthy of praise.” Why is a sleazy area of town known as the “red-light district”? In the early days of the railroad, steam trains made quick stops in small towns for water or to pick up passengers and cargo. The crew would use this time to dash to the saloon or to make a quick visit to the local brothel. While doing their business, the trainmen would hang their lit red kerosene lanterns outside, so that the train wouldn’t leave without them, and this is how areas practising prostitution became known as red-light districts. 108

Why are men and boys called “guys”? Every November 5, the British celebrate the 1605 foiling of a plot to blow up the Parliament buildings by Guy Fawkes. As part of the festivities, an effigy of Fawkes dressed in rags and old mismatched clothes was paraded through the streets and then burned on a bonfire. By 1830, any man who was badly dressed was being referred to as a “guy,” meaning he looked as dishevelled as the effigy of Guy Fawkes. Why were young women from the Roaring Twenties called “flappers”? The 1920s was a breakout decade for young women who’d just won the right to vote. The era evokes images of young flappers like the cartoon character Betty Boop, who was only sixteen, wildly dancing to the Charleston. They were called “flappers” because of the way they resembled a baby duck flapping its wings before being able to fly. Flapper is also a very old word meaning a girl too young to conceive. Why is suddenly stopping a bad habit called “cold turkey”? “Cold turkey” had the folk symbolism of stark circumstances without the trimmings (such as an unadorned sandwich made from the leftovers of a feast as a symbol of having seen better times) before it first appeared in print as a reference to drug withdrawal in 1921. The expression gained credence from withdrawing addicts’ desperate appearance — cold, pale, pimply skin, making them resemble a cold, uncooked turkey. Why are slaves to substance abuse called “addicts”? 109

After the Romans conquered most of Slavonia, the word Slav became synonymous with subjugated people. Slav gave us the word slave. Slavs were given as rewards to Roman warriors and were known by the Latin word for slaves — addicts. If your life is controlled by anything other than your own will, you are a slave to those circumstances. Eventually a person who was a slave to anything was called an addict. Why do we say that something deteriorating is either “going” or “gone to pot”? If a relationship or a career is going to pot, it means its glory days are over. The expression originated in 1542, long before refrigeration, and came from the urgency to save leftovers from a substantial meal before they went bad. As a metaphor, “going to pot” means that like the leftovers from a great meal, circumstances now assign the subject to something more humble, like a stew. What does it mean to be “footloose and fancy-free”? To be “footloose and fancy-free” means to be free from any responsibilities, or in other words, to be single. The expression started appearing in print around 1700 with footloose simply meaning your ankles were unshackled so you could go anywhere you wanted. Fancy was a sixteenth-century word for being attracted to someone of the opposite sex. If you weren’t in love, you were fancy-free. Why do we say that someone grieving is “pining”? If a person is “pining away,” he or she is tormented by longing or grief, because pine, in this case, has the same 110

meaning as pain. In the early English language, Christians referred to the consequence of the tortures and punishment of hell as pinian. Pinian became both pine and pain. As time went on, pine acquired a softer meaning, more associated with Purgatory, that suggested languishing or wasting away, while pain retained its “hellish” origins. Today pine usually has a romantic context, such as pining for a lost love. Why are young women and girlfriends sometimes referred to as “birds”? Referring to young women as birds dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, who used the endearment brid, meaning “baby animal.” Brid is the derivative of bride, and over time, the term created a number of similar words, all of them having to do with young women. During the 1920s, the flapper look was named after a baby duck. The cancan, popular in France in the 1890s, took its name from canard, which is French for “duck.” When they danced, the girls displayed their tail feathers. The original dancers wore no underwear. Why did Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack call women “broads”? In the eighteenth century, poker cards were called broads because they were wider than those used for other card games. Around 1912, because they resembled poker cards, tickets of admission, meal tickets, and transit tickets were being called “broads.” By 1914, because they were a different kind of meal ticket, pimps began calling their prostitutes “broads.” Soon the term entered the underworld and was eventually picked up by entertainers.


How did the word gay come to mean “homosexual”? The word gay is from the Old French gai, meaning “merry.” It came to mean reckless self-indulgence in the seventeenth century, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that its homosexual connotation came out of the prison system, where the expression “gay-cat” meant a younger, inexperienced man who, in order to survive, traded his virtue for the protection and experience of an older convict. Why are homosexual men sometimes called “fags”? “Faggot,” the cruel label for homosexuals, actually began as a contemptuous slang word for a woman, especially one who was old and unpleasant. The reference was to a burden that had to be carried in the same manner as baggage and harks back to the word’s original meaning. In the thirteenth century, a faggot was a bundle of wood or twigs bound together


(derived from the Latin fasces via the French fagot, meaning “a bundle of wood”), such as the ones carried by heretics to feed the fires that would burn them at the stake. Heretics who recanted were required to wear an embroidered figure of a faggot on their sleeves. It wasn’t until 1914 that the slang word faggot first appeared in the United States as a reference to a male homosexual, probably derived from the earlier reference to an annoying woman. The abbreviation fag surfaced in 1921. There is a misconception that male homosexuals were called faggots because they were burned at the stake, but this notion is an urban legend. Homosexuals were sometimes burned alive in Europe, but by the time England made homosexuality a capital offence in 1533, hanging was the prescribed punishment. The Yiddish word for male homosexual is faygele, which literally means “little bird.” Why do we say we have a “yen” for something that we crave? Although a yen is also a type of Japanese currency, that meaning has nothing to do with an overwhelming urge; instead, the yen in question is from the Cantonese Chinese yin-yan. Yin means opium, and yan means craving. Brought to America in the mid-nineteenth century, the phrase entered English slang as “yen yen” and eventually just “yen,” which early in the twentieth century took the meaning of a craving for anything. Why are unrealistic fantasies called “pipe dreams”? 113

Pipe dreams are often schemes that just won’t work. Like daydreams, pipe dreams dissolve like smoke rising into the air — which is appropriate, because the metaphor comes from smoking opium. It can be traced to print in the late nineteenth century, when it was fashionable for hedonists and the upper classes to escape reality through an opium pipe. Those “on the pipe” were experiencing opium-induced “pipe dreams.” How did teenagers become a separate culture? The word teenager first appeared in 1941, but the emancipation of that age group began forty years earlier when new laws freed children from hard labour and kept them in school. Until then, there was only childhood and adulthood. At the age of thirteen, a girl became a woman and could marry or enter the workforce and a boy became a man. Today, a young adult or teenager is treated as a child with suppressed adult urges. Why do we call tearful, overly sentimental people “maudlin”? A lot of drinkers are referred to as “maudlin” when they become weak and overemotional and “cry in their beer.” The word is a common British alteration of Magdalene, the surname of Mary, the woman who repented and was forgiven by Jesus Christ in Luke 7:37. In medieval paintings, as a sign of repentance, Mary Magdalene is most often shown with eyes swollen from weeping. The use of her name in terms of being maudlin, meaning “tearful sentimentality,” was first recorded in 1631.


Why is someone susceptible to deception called a “sucker”? A “sucker” is someone who is easily tricked or deceived, and the use of the word for this purpose dates from 1753 when settlers in the New World discovered a large-lipped tasty fish that was so easy to catch during their annual migrations that all you had to do was throw a hook into the water. This led to similarly easily “caught” naive humans being called “suckers.” What was the original “fate worse than death”? Although today a “fate worse than death” could have many meanings, it began as a euphemism for rape or at least the loss of virginity. In 1781 Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “The matrons and virgins of Rome were exposed to injuries more dreadful, in the apprehension of chastity, than death itself.” This suggests that the culture of the time considered that a victim of such a sexual crime had been dishonoured and was better off dead. The word rapture, meaning “ecstatic joy” is related to the word rape through the Latin raptus, meaning “carrying off” or “kidnapping.” Why do we call prostitutes “hookers”? It’s a myth that the camp followers of Union General Joseph Hooker gave us the popular euphemism for a prostitute. It’s true they were called “Hooker’s division,” or “Hooker’s reserves,” but the word predates the American Civil War, as, of course, does the profession. It first appeared in 1845 as a


reference to an area of New York known as “the Hook,” where ladies of the night could be found in abundance. What is the original meaning of the word sex? The word sex is used in many different ways, and it seems somehow appropriate that it was introduced into English by the French as sexe during the fourteenth century. The Latin origin is sexus and was derived from the verb secare, meaning “to cut.” The reason is that the Romans simply saw the world as cut or divided into two genders. Why is a homeless women called a “bag lady”? The homeless women who pick through garbage cans or roam the streets and subway stations searching for useful items have become a curious symbol of fierce independence within the urban areas of North America. Although they sleep in doorways or in makeshift shelters they are almost never beggars. The term bag lady is an abbreviation of “shopping bag lady,” because that’s where she carries most of her worldly possessions. Why is a frightening or dishevelled old woman called a “hag”? It would be simple to say that hag is just an abbreviation of haggard, which surfaced in 1567 as meaning “wild or unruly,” but it’s more interesting than that. Witches, who were usually homeless and gaunt and sometimes crippled, were said to be hedge-riders; they roamed the darkened roads by the edge of town and were reputed to live in two realities by straddling the hedges between the civilized safety of a 116

small village and the real and imagined dangers from ghosts and demons who dwelled beyond. Haga is the original pronunciation of the “haw” in hawthorn, which is a major ingredient for pagan rituals and so was associated with witches or “hags,” who often slept under the hedges. Why are strangers who plead for help called “beggars”? The name of a twelfth-century monk, Lambert de Begue, whose followers wandered the French countryside depending on handouts, gave us the verb to beg. When in A.D. 555 the Roman General Belisarius was stripped of his rank and wealth, he became one of history’s most notable beggars, and his frequent cry, “Don’t kick a man when he’s down,” gave us a maxim for all who are on very hard times. Why do we say, “Beggars can’t be choosers”? The meaning of “Beggars can’t be choosers” is clear: “Take it or leave it”! The proverb is ancient and first appeared in writing in 1546 in a book compiled by John Heyword as, “Folk always say beggars should be no choosers.” Another related proverb in Heyword’s book was “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” Why are inhabitants of the Appalachian and Ozark mountains called “hillbillies”? The term hillbilly generally describes an uneducated or rough-hewn inhabitant of the Ozark and Appalachian mountains of the United States. Hillbillies are a proud culture unto themselves with amazing music that reflects their harsh,


isolated existence and the origins of their forefathers. The first hillbillies were the Scottish-Irish followers of Britain’s King William III (1650–1702) whose Protestant Orangemen defeated the Roman Catholic allies of the former British king James II (1633–1701) at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland in 1690. William III’s followers were known as Billy Boys, and many of them immigrated to the hills of Appalachia before the American Revolution. It was during this time that British soldiers gave these people the name hillbillies, an informal reference to their previous history as supporters of King William of Orange. In 1900 an article in the New York Journal described a hillbilly as a “free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama who lives in the hills, has no means … drinks whiskey … and fires off his revolver.” In many remote Ozark areas, it is still possible to find people who speak English with a dialect that can be traced back to pre–American Revolution days. Who were the first “rednecks”? The concept of a redneck being a poor white farmer or labourer from the American South dates back to the late 1800s, but two hundred years earlier Scottish and Northern Irish Presbyterians were also known as rednecks. To show their rejection of the Church of England, they wore red cloths around their necks. The South African Boers called British soldiers rednecks for the same reason Southerners got the title. Only the fair skin of their necks was exposed to the burning sun.


How valid is the theory of six degrees of separation? Six degrees of separation is the theory that anyone on Earth can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of five acquaintances. The phrase was inspired by an article in Psychology Today that reported a 1967 study by Stanley Milgram (1933–1984), an American social psychologist who tested the theory by having strangers randomly send packages to people several thousand miles away with only the intended recipient’s name and occupation as an address. They were instructed to pass the package on to someone they knew on a first-name basis who was most likely personally familiar with the target. That person would do the same and so on until the package was delivered to the intended recipient. The result was that it took between five and seven intermediaries to get a package delivered. The theory was first proposed by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy (1887–1938) in a 1929 short story called “Chains.” 119

After a twenty-year study begun in 1950, mathematicians from IBM and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were unable to confirm the theory to their own satisfaction. In 2001, Duncan Watts of Columbia University researched the six-degree theory using email as the package. When he reviewed the data collected by 48,000 senders and 19 targets in 157 countries, Professor Watts found that the average number of intermediaries was six. In 1990, American playwright John Guare had his play Six Degrees of Separation produced on Broadway. Starring Swoozie Kurtz and Courtenay B. Vance, it dramatized the true-life story of a young black man who conned upper-middle-class couples in Manhattan into believing he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. The story was later turned into a movie starring Donald Sutherland and Will Smith. Around the same time a trio of college buddies, inspired by the six-degree theory, dreamed up Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the vastly popular trivia game. Why is an effeminate man called a “sissy” or a “priss”? Since 1887, when a male is unwilling or fails to meet the challenges of being a robust young man, he has sometimes been called a sissy. The word sis is an abbreviation of sister. Sissy was often used as an endearment for a female sibling. On the other hand, priss is an 1895 merger of the words precise or prim and sis. Odds & Oddities • The chance of giving birth to a genius is 1 in 250. 120

• The odds of dating a supermodel are 88,000 to 1. • The odds of dating a millionaire are 215 to 1. • The odds of becoming a saint are 20,000,000 to 1. • The odds that a first marriage will survive without separation or divorce for fifteen years are 1.3 to 1. • The chance of being audited by the tax department is 1 in 100.


lovers and loving How did Valentine become the patron saint of lovers? In A.D. 270, the mad Roman emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage because he believed married men made for bad soldiers. Ignoring the emperor, Bishop Valentine continued to marry young lovers in secret until his disobedience was discovered and he was sentenced to death. As legend has it, he fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter, and through a miracle he restored her sight. On his way to execution, he left her a farewell note ending, “From Your Valentine.” Why is a small personal case for mementos called a “locket”? Lockets are usually worn on chains around the neck and carry small personal items, photos, or memories of a loved one. They are the reason a small clipping or tress of hair is called a “lock of hair.” The word locket probably arrived in England in 1066 with the invasion of William the Conqueror (c.


1028–1087), who would have used the Old French word loquet to describe a small lock or latch. The small ornamental case with a hinged cover and latch, as we know it today, surfaced in 1679. Why do some women wear beauty marks? Beauty marks highlight facial features, but they began as beauty patches to cover the scars left by a seventeenth-century smallpox epidemic. As the epidemic subsided, women continued using beauty marks as a silent language aimed at potential suitors. One near the mouth signalled a willingness to flirt, one on the right cheek meant she was married, one on the left cheek meant she was engaged, while a beauty mark near the corner of the eye meant “Let’s do it.” What does a handkerchief have to do with “wearing your heart on your sleeve”? When fifteenth-century French sailors brought back linen head coverings worn by Chinese field workers as protection from the sun, they called them couvrechef, or “head covering,” which when Anglicized became kerchief. Because they were carried in the hand, they became hand kerchiefs. Women began giving scented handkerchiefs to suitors, which the suitors then tucked under their sleeves in a ritual known as “wearing his heart on his sleeve.” Why is the word cuckold used to describe the husband of an unfaithful wife? Cuckold is a centuries-old metaphor for a deceived husband and is taken from the habits of the European cuckoo bird, 123

which, in the spring, lays a single egg in the nest of some other unsuspecting bird to be hatched and then fed among its own chicks. When a husband has been cuckolded, his nest has been violated by another, who might well have left behind his own offspring. Why do we say that someone special is “the apple of your eye”? For centuries it was believed that the pupil of the eye was solid and spherical like an apple, so that’s what they called it. Therefore, anything or anyone compared to it would indeed be very special. In the Bible, the expression is part of this song spoken by Moses: “He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, and kept him as the apple of His eye.” Why do we say that someone seeking favour has put his or her “best foot forward”? If you’re trying to impress someone it’s wise to put your “best foot forward.” This means you are on your best behaviour and your manners, charm, and deportment have been arranged and calculated to win favour. When European men wore short pantaloons with tight stockings conforming to the muscular shape of their legs they would vainly stand with their most attractive leg in a forward position to interest women and impress other men with their strength. They would place their best foot forward. Why do we use Xs as kisses at the bottom of a letter?


During medieval times, most people could neither read nor write, and even those who could sign their names were required to follow it with an X, symbolizing the cross of St. Andrew, or the contract would be invalid. Those who couldn’t write their names still had to end the contract with the X to make it legal. To prove their intention, all were required to kiss the cross, which through time is how the X became associated with a lover’s kiss. Why is embracing and kissing called “spooning”? Spooning may be an old-fashioned word, but it still means “cuddling.” This use of the word comes from Wales, where in order to ensure that a young suitor kept his hands off their daughter, her parents required that he carve a wooden spoon while courting. Some of these spoons were quite creative and elaborate, which gave evidence of the young couple’s continuing virtue. The Scots might have considered this custom after an 1868 study revealed that 90 percent of Scottish brides were pregnant the day of their weddings. Why do humans kiss? The average person spends two weeks kissing during his or her lifetime. The romantic or erotic kiss is a sensual genetic memory search for compatibility, whether on the lips or elsewhere, and is revealed to the brain through smell and taste. Kissing originated from prehistoric mothers breast-feeding, then chewing and pushing food into their infants’ mouths with their tongues. Sigmund Freud


(1856–1939) described the kiss as “an unconscious repetition of infantile delight in feeding.” Smell is the primary ingredient of the kissing ritual for some cultures, such as the Inuit, who believe that exhaled breath reveals a person’s soul. Exchanging breath in this sense is a spiritual union. This concept has a parallel in Christian dogma (Genesis 2:7), which reveals that God infused the spirit of life into his creatures by breathing into them. Hygiene has a lot to do with the success of a romantic kiss. In medieval England, it was common during a town fair for a young woman to pick an apple and fill it with cloves. She would then approach a man she had chosen for romance and offer him the apple. After he ate it, the man would have his breath sweetened by the cloves, making a kiss from him at least palatable. Of the many different kinds of kisses (for lovers, friends, family, or babies), one of the most interesting is the ceremonial kiss. This type is common in European countries or high society, where dignitaries offer each other a quick kiss on each side of the face. This custom isn’t simply good manners; it’s an ancient political gesture symbolizing goodwill between different peoples or tribes. Finally, there is the Mafia kiss of death, which was inspired by the New Testament and is related to the kiss Judas gave to Jesus Christ when he betrayed him to the authorities. Why do we say someone is “head over heels” when in love? 126

When people fall “head over heels” in love, their world has been turned upside down by romance. The word fallen suggests helplessness, and the metaphorical “head over heels” is intended to expand the illusion. However, consider that having your head over your heels is, in fact, the normal standing position! You can blame American frontiersman, congressman, and Alamo martyr Davy Crockett (1786–1836), among others, for turning the phrase around. When the expression first appeared around 1350, it was “heels over head.” In his 1834 autobiography, Crockett wrote: “I soon found myself ‘head over heels’ in love with this girl.” So the phrase has been “head over heels” ever since. Why is unconsummated love called “platonic”? Greek philosopher Plato observed his teacher Socrates’ great but non-sexual love for young men, and concluded that the purest form of love exists only within the mind. Ideal love’s perfection is spiritual, and that perfection is often destroyed by a sexual act. Eventually, Plato’s philosophy on love was expanded to include women. “Platonic love” entered popular use in English around 1630. Why do we shake our heads for “no” and nod for “yes”? According to Charles Darwin, the nodding of our heads forward for “yes” and shaking for “no” comes from our infant nursing habits. When the baby nods forward it’s seeking its mother’s breast, while turning its head away or to the side says it’s not hungry or in need of comfort. Support for this theory comes from the fact that a baby born deaf and blind will follow this same pattern of nodding and shaking the head into adulthood. 127

How did the terms of divorce evolve? Divorce to the Athenians and Romans was allowed whenever a man’s like turned to dislike. In the seventh century it was recorded that Anglo-Saxon men could divorce a wife who was barren, rude, oversexed, silly, habitually drunk, overweight, or quarrelsome. Throughout history, in societies where men were paid dowries, divorce favoured the husband; however, in matrilineal societies where the woman was esteemed, mutual consent was required. The word alimony means “nourishment.” Quickies Did you know … • the longest kiss on record lasted 130 hours and 2 minutes? • married men tip better than unmarried men?


flowers How did the Dutch flower the tulip get its name? Holland is their cultivated home, but tulips originated in Iran. In the sixteenth century tulips were introduced to Europe by the Turks, who gave them their name because the fully opened flower resembles a turban. The Turks called them tulbent, a reference to the gauze used to wrap a turban. That word came to English through the French interpretation tulipe, which when anglicized became tulip. How did the dandelion and the daisy get their names? The dandelion and the daisy are both named for a particular physical characteristic. The English daisy, with its small yellow centre and white- or rose-coloured rays, closes at night and reopens with daylight like the human eye, and so it was named the “day’s eye.” The dandelion, because of its sharp, edible leaves, was named by the French dent de lion, the “tooth of a lion.”


Who started the custom of giving a dozen roses to a lover? It was the Persians who initiated the idea of communicating through flowers, and the custom was introduced to Europe courtesy of Sweden’s King Charles XII (1682–1718), who lived as an exile in Turkey in the early eighteenth century. In Persia every flower had a meaning. This notion captured the hearts of Europeans, who began carrying out complete conversations by exchanging different kinds of flowers. In the language of flowers, roses are said to communicate love and passion, so a dozen is like shouting out loud! As important as roses are to Valentine’s Day, the real flower of the day ought to be the violet. Legend says that violets grew outside the window area of the prison cell occupied by St. Valentine prior to his martyrdom in A.D. 269. It was said that he crushed up the petals of the violets to make ink for writing letters. How important is the colour in a gift of flowers? Throughout time flowers sent as gifts have had unspoken meanings that are steeped in centuries of tradition. For example, red flowers represent love, respect, passion, or courage. Pink flowers express perfect happiness, grace, thankfulness, or admiration and are an appeal for trust. Yellow flowers mean friendship, joy, jealousy, or an appeal for affection. White flowers signify innocence, purity, secrecy, or silence, while those that are peach or coral send a message of enthusiasm, desire, joyful modesty, or shyness. Purple is a declaration of passionate hope and fidelity.


Different kinds of flowers also send the recipient a personal message. Roses say, “Know that I love you.” Carnations affirm, “You are beautiful and I am proud of you.” Daffodils insist, “You are a brave and good person.” Chrysanthemums proclaim, “I am faithful to you.” Gladioli admit, “I admire your character.” Irises inform, “I send my compliments and congratulations.” Orchids declare, “You are in my heart.” Snapdragons reveal, “I desire you.” Sunflowers broadcast, “My thoughts are pure.” Tulips announce, “I am declaring that I love you.” Quickies Did you know … • the most common name in the world is Mohammed? • that the name of every continent on Earth ends with the same letter it began with? • the strongest muscle in the body is the tongue? • it is impossible to lick your elbow? • that Easter Island is so called because it was discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday, 1722? • that “housewarming parties” have their origin in Scotland, where embers from the fireplace of an old home were carried to start the fire in a new house?


home, hearth, and family What exactly is a family circle? When the early Normans brought fire indoors they built semicircular open fireplaces. To keep warm at night or when the air was cool, the family would sit in a semicircle opposite the one formed by the hearth, creating a complete circle where they would spend time telling stories or singing songs within what they called the “family circle.” When neighbours were included, it became “a circle of friends.” Why do we say, “Goodnight, sleep tight”? Sometime during the sixteenth century, British farmers moved from sleeping on the ground to sleeping in beds. These beds were little more than straw-filled mattress tied to wooden frames with ropes. To secure the mattress before sleeping, you pulled on the ropes to tighten them, and that’s when they began saying, “Goodnight, sleep tight.”


What is the difference between a settee, a divan, and a couch? A settee, a divan, and a couch are all parlour furniture designed for sitting. Settee entered the language from the German setlaz, which means simply “seat.” Divan is from the Persian word for “council of rulers” and was given as a name to an armless couch. The word couch originally referred to a bed and comes from the French word coucher, meaning “to lie in place” … like “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi.” Why is socializing called “hobnobbing”? When the Normans conquered England, they introduced the open hearth for cooking and heating. At each corner of the hearth was a large container for heating liquids. It was called a “hob.” Near the fire was a table where the hob was placed for convenient serving. They called this table a “nob.” When friends gathered by the warmth of the fire, they drank warm beer from the hob, which was served on the nob, and so they called it “hobnobbing.” Why is going to bed called “hitting the hay”? When going to sea, early sailors had to provide their own bedding. This need was catered to by merchants on the docks, who, for a shilling, sold the seamen crude canvas sacks stuffed with hay. When heading off to sleep, a sailor would announce that he was going to “hit the hay.” Although less crude than those coarse canvases, early North American settlers also used hay to stuff mattresses and pillows, so when going to bed, they too would “hit the hay.”


Why are nightclothes called “pyjamas”? In the sixteenth century, the first nightgowns appeared as loose-fitting, full-length unisex garments for warmth in bed. In the eighteenth century the negligee became a lounging garment for women, while a nightshirt with loose-fitting pants called pyjamas replaced the long gown for men. Pyjamas were modelled after harem pants and were imported from Iran, using the Persian words pae, “leg garment,” and jama, “clothing.” Why is the entrance to a house called a “threshold”? Today, crossing the threshold signifies a figurative beginning, but a thousand years ago, a threshold was just the floorboard in the doorway of a country cottage. Threshing is the process of separating wheat from the straw. While the wheat was stored, straw, among other things, was used to cover both slate and dirt floors. The board in the doorway that held the straw inside was called the threshold — holder of the straw. How did the expression “dead as a doornail” originate? When metal nails were introduced to construction, they were hand tooled, which made them very rare and very expensive. When an aging house or barn with metal nails was torn down it was important to collect and reuse the nails. Because previous carpenters had bent the sharp end of the doornails for safety and to stabilize them against constant opening and closing, they were useless for recycling, which made them “dead.” Why is the shelf above a fireplace called a “mantelpiece”? 134

In the seventeenth century it was both fashionable and practical for men and women to wear sleeveless cloaks for protection from the elements. These cloaks were called mantles from the Latin mantellum, meaning “cloak.” Fireplaces were designed with a shelf and hooks so that these mantels or cloaks, as well as other wet clothes, could be hung and dried by the heat of the flames. First called a manteltree, the frame and shelf began being referred to as a mantelpiece in 1686 and have kept that name down through the centuries. Why is a surplus of anything called a “backlog”? While a backlog of work might be a burden, it’s better than no work at all, and in business it guarantees survival. Before stoves, or even matches, the kitchen fireplace was kept burning around the clock. This was done by placing a huge log, or back log, behind the fire that would keep smoldering once the flames had died down during the night. The embers from the back log could then ignite a new fire in the morning. How did the word curfew come to mean “stay in your homes”? The word curfew comes from the French couvre-feu, which means “cover-fire,” and was brought to England by William the Conqueror. The original Curfew Law minimized the tremendous risk of fire by ordaining that a bell be rung at eight o’clock each evening, signalling everyone to either extinguish or cover their home fires. During political unrest, the same curfew bell signalled the public to clear the streets and stay in their homes for the night.


What’s the origin of the word window? Early Norse homes were simply designed and often included a stable area for livestock under the same roof as the humans. In the winter, because the tightly shut doors trapped stale air and smoke from the indoor fires, they built holes high on the walls and in the roof for ventilation. They called these openings vindr auga, which means “the wind’s eye.” When the British copied this practice they modified wind’s eye to window. How did the toilet get its name? Toilet seems an odd name for the bathroom’s chief plumbing fixture, but it makes sense when you consider that since the seventeenth century, toilette meant a lady’s dressing room. The chief purpose of the room was for cleaning up or changing clothes. The other business was done in an “outhouse.” When a lavatory became attached during the early nineteenth century and the room changed its main purpose, it not only kept its name, toilette, but applied it to the regal new sitting device. The beauty care and implements or “toiletries” assembled there were so named because they were placed on a fabric table cover called a toile. A toile, like a doily, is a decorative netted cloth. Why do wives call money from their husbands “pin money”? “Pin money” is an English phrase used to describe extra cash set aside for wives to run the household. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, pins were rare enough to be sold on just two days of the year, January 1 and 2. Although 136

through time pins became more commonplace and far less expensive, the British courts still enforce any prenuptial agreement or property lien demanded by the wife as the “pin money charge.” Why is listening in on a private conversation called “eavesdropping”? In medieval times, houses didn’t have roof gutters to carry off rainwater; instead they had “eaves,” which are the lower wide projecting edges of a sloping roof. These eaves protected the mud walls from damage from the rain dropping from the roof. If, during a sudden shower, someone sought cover by standing under an eave, they could hear everything that the people inside were saying. They were “eavesdropping.” Why does a man refer to his wife as his “better half”? Most men call their wives their “better halves” because they believe it, but the expression comes from an ancient Middle Eastern legend. A Bedouin man had been sentenced to death, so his wife pleaded with the tribal leader that because they were married, she and her husband had become one, and that to punish one half of the union would also punish the other half who was innocent. The court agreed, and the man’s life was saved by his “better half.” Why are women referred to as the “distaff” side of a family? In medieval times, the marriage bargain held men responsible for the physical labour outside of the home, while the women provided nourishment and comfort inside. A distaff was a rod 137

used to hold wool during weaving and became a symbol of honour and respect to the value of a woman’s work toward the family’s well-being. The equal to the female “distaff-side” is the male “spear-side.” Why is the family non-achiever called a “black sheep”? Most families have at least one embarrassing loafer who is referred to by the others, and sometimes by himself, as the “black sheep.” A black sheep is considered worthless because, unlike the majority of sheep, its dark wool cannot be dyed. Although it takes as much time and nurturing to raise a black sheep as it does any other, its wool has very little market value, making raising it almost a waste of time to the shepherd. Why is a vulgar woman called a “fishwife” while a respectable married woman is a “housewife”? From its Anglo-Saxon root wif, wife simply means “woman.” A woman’s profession, such as a policewoman or chairwoman, often acknowledges her gender in her job title. Housewife and midwife are among the few titles like this to have survived from medieval times, but at one time, an alewife owned a pub, an oysterwife sold oysters, and a fishwife sold fish. She picked up her vulgarity from the men on the waterfront. What is the difference between a parlour and a drawing room? If you are invited to a stately home for dinner, you are first directed into the parlour, where, through introductions and 138

conversation, you mingle and become acquainted with your host and other guests. It’s called a parlour after the French word parler, meaning “to talk.” After the meal, you retire to the drawing room for liqueurs and cigars. The name “drawing room” is an abbreviation of “withdrawing room” and was originally for men only.

Why do we call money saved for a rainy day a “nest egg”? The term nest egg usually refers to savings that compounds or grows with interest or through investments. The expression is an old one and comes from a trick poultry farmers use to increase a hen’s egg-laying ability. By placing a false egg in her nest, the farmer fools the chicken into laying more eggs than she otherwise would, meaning more money for the farmer, which he credits to his nest egg. What is the origin of the thimble?


A thimble is more than a token in a game of Monopoly. Its true name is thumb-bell, and before the seventeenth century, when it was invented in Holland, pushing a sewing needle through skins or fabric often required the use of a small block of wood or bone. Thimbles have a romantic history, and during the Victorian era thimbles were often love tokens. They were even used to measure drinks, which gave us the expression, “Just a thimbleful.” A person who collects thimbles is a digitabulist. Quickies Did you know … • the word bungalow is from the Hindi word bangla, meaning “Bengalese,” and refers to a low, thatched house in the Bengal style? • Igloo is a Canadian English word derived from the Inuit word igdlo, meaning “house”? • that in Calcutta, 79 percent of the population live in one-room houses?


everyday customs and convention Why do we say “Hello” when we answer the telephone? The first word used to answer the phone was the nautical greeting “Ahoy” because the first regular phone system was in the maritime state of Connecticut. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor, answered with the Gaelic “Hoy,” but it was Thomas Edison’s greeting of “Hello,” an exclamation of surprise dating back to the Middle Ages, that caught on, and so we answer today with, “Hello?” Why do we say “Goodbye” or “So long” when leaving someone? The word goodbye is a derivative of the early English greeting “God be with you,” or, as it was said then, “God be with ye.” Over the years its abbreviated written form and pronunciation became “goodbye.” As for “so long,” it came to Britain with soldiers who had spent time in Arabic-speaking countries, where the perfect expression of


goodwill is salaam. The unfamiliar word to the English men sounded like, and then became, “so long.” What’s the origin of the parting wish “Godspeed”? The word Godspeed has nothing to do with haste. The archaic meaning of the word speed, as used in this case, meant “succeed” or “prosper.” Just as goodbye came from “God be with you,” Godspeed is an abbreviation of “May God speed you” and was first heard in the late fifteenth century. A modern translation might be “May God grant you success.” Why are men’s buttons on the right and women’s on the left? Decorative buttons first appeared around 2000 B.C., but they weren’t commonly used as fasteners until the sixteenth century. Because most men are right-handed and generally dressed themselves, they found it easier to fasten their buttons from right to left. However, wealthy women were dressed by servants, who found it easier to fasten their mistresses’ clothes if the buttons were on her left. It became convention and has never changed. Why do baby boys wear blue and girls wear pink? The custom of dressing baby boys in blue clothes began in around 1400. Blue was the colour of the sky and therefore heaven, so it was believed that the colour warded off evil spirits. Male children were considered a greater blessing than females, so it was assumed that demons had no interest in girls. It took another hundred years before girls were given red as a colour, which was later softened to pink. 142

Why is a handshake considered to be a gesture of friendship? The Egyptian hieroglyph for “to give” is an extended hand. That symbol was the inspiration for Michelangelo’s famous fresco “The Creation of Adam,” which is found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Babylonian kings confirmed their authority by annually grasping the hand of a statue of their chief god, Marduk. The handshake as we know it today evolved from a custom of Roman soldiers, who carried daggers in their right wristbands. They would extend and then grasp each other’s weapon hand as a non-threatening sign of goodwill. Where did the two-fingered peace sign come from? The gesture of two fingers spread and raised in peace, popularized in the 1960s, is a physical interpretation of the peace symbol, an inverted or upside-down Y within a circle, which was designed in 1958 by members of the anti-nuclear Direct Action Committee. The inverted Y is a combination of the maritime semaphore signals for N and D, which stood for “nuclear disarmament.” Where did the rude Anglo-Saxon one-fingered salute come from? When the outnumbered English faced the French at the Battle of Agincourt, they were armed with a relatively new weapon, the longbow. The French were so amused that they vowed to cut off the middle finger of each British archer. When the longbows won the day, the English jeered the retreating


French by raising that middle finger in a gesture that still means, among other things, “in your face.” When is it incorrect to formally address a person as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms.? Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. are courtesy titles for people without legitimate social titles or letters of accomplishment or any other individual means of identification such as a doctorate or other letters of scholastic achievement within their official recognition. These include military and governmental honours or any other circumstance where letters are legally attached to the name. Included in these are “Jr.” or a numerical identification such as “III” or “the third.” When these are included in the introduction or address, it is improper to also use the less significant Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms.


boxing Why do we say a person isn’t “up to scratch”? During the early days of bare-knuckle boxing, a line was scratched across the centre of the ring, dividing it into two halves. This is where the fighters met to start the contest, or where they “toed the line” to begin each round. If, as the fight progressed, one of the boxers was unable to toe the line without help from his seconds, it was said he had failed to come “up to scratch.” Why is a boxing ring square? In the days of bare-knuckle boxing, before modern rules, a circle was drawn in the dirt and prizefighters were ringed by the fans. When one of the men was knocked out of that circle, he was simply pushed back into the ring by the crowd. In 1867, the Marquess of Queensbury introduced a number of rules to boxing, including three-minute rounds and a


roped-off square, which fans continued to call the “boxing ring.” Why do we call the genuine article “the real McCoy”? In the 1890s, a great boxer known as Kid McCoy couldn’t get the champion to fight him, and so to seem beatable, he began to throw the odd bout, and fans never knew if they’d see the “real McCoy.” The plan worked, and he became the welterweight champion of the world. Once, while in a bar, McCoy was challenged by a drunken patron who didn’t believe that he was the great boxer, and McCoy flattened him. When the man came around, he declared that the man who had knocked him out was indeed the “real McCoy.” Why is a fistfight called “duking it out”? “Duking it out” and “Put up your dukes” are both expressions from the early 1800s when bare-knuckle boxing was considered a lower-class activity. When Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York, took up the sport, English high society was shocked. The Duke gained so much admiration from the other boxers, however, that they began referring to their fists as their “dukes of York” and eventually as their “dukes.” What’s the origin of the expressions “rough and ready” and “rough and tumble”? Both “rough and ready” and “rough and tumble” came from the sport of boxing. Rough still means “crude,” so “rough and ready” meant a semi-pro or amateur who, although unpolished and perhaps not as well trained as he should be, was still considered good enough to enter the ring. If a contest 146

was “rough and tumble,” both fighters had agreed to throw away the rules, which led to a lot of tumbling. Why when asking for a loan might you say you need a “stake” to carry you over? Asking for a stake means you need to see money to continue with a project. The expression comes from the early days of bare-knuckle boxing, when promoters often stiffed the fighters by absconding with the gate money before the count of ten. To ensure that they’d be paid, boxers insisted that their share of the money be placed in a pouch on a stake near the ring, where they could see it during the bout. This was known as “stake money.” Poetic Origins of Classic Movie Titles Chariots of Fire is from the hymn “Jerusalem,” which uses William Blake’s poem “And did those feet in ancient time,” in turn inspired by the Bible, II Kings 6:17: Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrow of desire! Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold! Bring me my Chariot of Fire! Music to the hymn was written by Hubert Parry. Inherit the Wind is from the Bible, Proverbs 11:29:


He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind; And the fool shall be servant to the wise heart. Gone With the Wind is taken from the third stanza of the poem “Cynara” by Ernest Dowson: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind.” From Here To Eternity is a line from Yale’s drinking chorus, “The Whiffenpoof Song”: “Doomed from here to eternity …” One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is from a nursery rhyme: Wire, briar, limber, lock, Three Geese in a flock, One flew East, one flew West, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.


show business Why do actors say, “Break a leg” when wishing each other good luck? “Break a leg” comes from the First World War, when, before flying, German airmen wished each other a “broken neck and a broken leg.” Considering the dangers of combat with primitive aircraft, this was preferable to losing your life, which was all too common. After the war, the phrase was picked up by actors in the German theatre and eventually adopted by the British and American stages, where it was abbreviated to “break a leg.” Why are a vocal restraint and a joke both called a “gag”? The original meaning of gag was to prevent someone from speaking, either by covering the mouth or through a legal restraint such as a gag order. The jocular use of gag originated in the theatre to describe times when an actor inserted an unscripted, and often humorous, line into a play. It


was called a gag because the ad lib often caused fellow actors to lose their focus and become speechless. Why is natural ability called “talent”? In the ancient world a talent was a unit of weight used to value gold and silver. Today’s use of the word comes from the Book of Matthew, wherein three servants are given equal amounts of money, or talent, by their master. Two invest wisely and profit while the third buries his and doesn’t. That parable is how talent came to refer to the natural gifts we are all born with. The moral of the tale is that we must use our talents wisely or we will fail. What’s the purpose of a catchword? Catchword is from the world of print. Two hundred years ago, the last word on a page to be turned began being routinely repeated at the top of the next page to smooth the transition. Newspapers followed by repeating the last word of an article when it was picked up deeper into the paper. In the theatre, a catchword is the cue for the next actor to start his lines. A catchphrase is a political or commercial slogan. The first use of catchwords in a printed book was Tacitus, by John de Spira (1469). Why when we memorize something do we say, “I know it by heart”? Saying that we have learned something “by heart” means, of course, that we have committed it to memory, which more


than likely involved a process of repetition, called learning by rote. Rote is from rota, the Latin word for wheel, meaning that to memorize something we turn it over in our minds many times before knowing it by heart. The ancient Greeks believed that it was the heart, and not the brain, where thoughts were held. Why do we call a bad actor a “ham” and silly comedy “slapstick”? In the late nineteenth century, second-rate actors couldn’t afford cold cream to remove their stage makeup, so they used ham fat and were called “hamfatters” until early in the twentieth century, when these bad actors were simply called “hams.” Physical comedy became known as “slapstick” because of its regular use of crude sound effects: two sticks were slapped together offstage to accentuate a comic’s onstage pratfall (prat being an Old English term for “buttocks”). Why does deadpan mean an expressionless human face? The word deadpan was first used in print by the New York Times in 1928 as a description of the great silent film comic Buster Keaton, who was also known as “The Great Stone Face.” The theatrical slang use of pan for face dates to the fourteenth century. Dead, of course, means it’s not moving, or it’s expressionless. Pancake makeup for an actor’s pan was introduced in 1937 by Max Factor. Why is a theatre ticket booth called a “box office”?


In early Elizabethan times, theatres admitted the general public into the ground-level “pit” without charge. Before the play began, a plate was passed through the mostly standing pit audience and, like a church collection, an established amount was expected for different seats and rows. For the wealthy patrons who bought private balcony boxes for the season, tickets were conveniently held near the entrance in what was called the box office. Why is making it up as you go called “winging it”? “Winging it” usually implies the same thing as having your first swimming lesson by being thrown into the deep end of a pool. It takes courage and sometimes ability you didn’t know you had. It’s an exercise familiar to good salespeople. The expression derives from an unprepared stage actor standing in the wings and cramming desperately before hearing a cue that will force him onstage. Why is it bad luck to whistle backstage in a theatre? Whistling backstage became bad luck during a time in England when stagehands were most often sailors without a ship. The curtain, flies, and props were moved manually by a system of ropes, so the sailors communicated as they did at sea: by whistling. If someone not involved in the intricate backstage manoeuvres were to whistle, a stagehand might take it as a cue, which could be disastrous for the production. Why doesn’t an “ovation” signify a “triumph”? A triumph was a Roman celebration of a military victory over an enemy of the state. The victorious commander rode a 152

chariot in a grand parade with his entire army and the booty and slaves he had won. An ovation was a less elaborate honour for a general who had won victory without bloodshed, perhaps by treaty or reason. He was denied a chariot and either walked or rode a horse during a less imposing ceremony. Why does a good punchline make a comedian “pleased as punch”? Radio comedian Fred Allen once said that a good joke should have the same impact as a punch in the belly. The punchline is the twist that makes a joke funny, and the term was in use long before Fred Allen. It first appeared in Variety in 1921, but its use as the end of a skit goes back to the medieval husband and wife puppets Punch and Judy. Each skit ended with Punch getting the best of Judy, which gave us the expression “pleased as Punch.” Why are coming attractions called “movie trailers”? Movies used to be shown continuously without a break between features. If someone arrived late for a show they would simply sit and watch for where they came in before leaving. To catch this crowd, and to signify an end to the film as well as chase as many people as possible from their seats for a new audience, coming attractions were spliced onto the end of the first showing as a “trailer,” even though it preceded the next screening. Why do we say we’ve been “upstaged” when someone else grabs all the attention?


To be upstaged now means to lose due credit to a lesser person. In the theatre, “upstage” refers to the back of the stage, which at one time was built higher than the front. This was because the theatre floor was flat, and a slanted stage gave a better view of all the actors. Plays were crafted placing noble characters at the rear (where they appeared higher and more regal) even though they might have fewer lines than the others. Why is a misleading sales pitch called a “song and dance”? During the days of travelling vaudeville shows, there were featured stars and there were fillers. The fillers were the comics who were hired to keep the audience amused by telling jokes within a song and dance routine until the next headliner was ready to come on stage. Since then, any well-rehearsed routine that is intended to divert your attention from what you came to see has been called a “song and dance.” Why is someone deceptive said to be “blowing smoke”? If someone’s “blowing smoke,” they’re bragging or lying without anything tangible to back it up. The expression comes from magicians, who often use smoke to cover their slight of hand. Their trickery, like that of a dishonest tradesman, is concealed. “Smoke and mirrors” has the same origin. What were the origins of vaudeville? Tony Pastor introduced vaudeville in New York in 1861. The word vaudeville is an Americanization of Vau de Vire, the 154

valley of the Vau River in Normandy, which became famous in the fifteenth century for the comedic songs of Olivier Basselin. An 1883 vaudeville bill from Boston’s Gaiety Museum featured a midget named Baby Alice, a stuffed mermaid, two comedians, and a chicken with a human face. From these humble beginnings would emerge the great American theatre. Why do we refer to a bad joke as being “corny”? The reason a cheap joke is called “corny” comes from mail-order seed catalogues from the early twentieth century. In an effort to make reading about seeds interesting, the publishers mixed in cartoons, jokes, and riddles throughout the crop and garden book. These inserts were of desperately low quality and were known as corn catalogue jokes, and were eventually simply called corny, which came to mean any failed attempt at entertainment.


Why do we say we’re “in stitches” when we laugh hard? Like the stitches in sewing, those in the side from both running and laughing all come from the verb stick. The expression “to stick someone” is over a thousand years old and means “to stab” or “to prod.” The stabbing or sticking of a needle through cloth in sewing is thus called a stitch, and because both the pain in the side from running and that from laughing feels like you’ve been stabbed or stuck with something, these too are called stitches. Why is a theatrical flop called a “turkey”? A “turkey” can describe any person or endeavour that doesn’t live up to its promise, but is most commonly used to describe a bad play. In the late nineteenth century, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas was the busiest season for the opening of new plays, just as it is now for movies. This hurried effort to catch the tourist trade served up disappointments with the same tedium as the turkey served for dinner between the two holidays, and so they were called turkeys.


Why do we say something perfect is right “on the nose”? “On the nose” didn’t come from horse racing; it came from radio. Several common hand gestures came from the early days of radio broadcasting, when elaborate productions required the director in the studio to be able to communicate without speech. Instead, they used hand signals. For “cut” a forefinger was slashed across the throat. Holding up the forefinger touching the thumb meant “good performance,” and touching the nose signalled “perfect timing.” It was right on the nose. How did the Wizard Of Oz get that name? The classic tale of Dorothy in the land of Oz came from the imagination of L. Frank Baum, who made up the story for his son and a group of children one evening in 1899. When a little girl asked him the name of this magical land with the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion, he looked around


the room for inspiration. He happened to be sitting next to a filing cabinet with the drawers labelled “A-G,” “H-N,” and finally “O-Z,” which gave him a quick answer: “Oz.” Why is the evil adversary in a film or play called a “villain”? The idea of a villain being the bad guy comes from feudal times when a class of serfs held the legal status of freemen in their affairs with everyone except their lords. These peasants were called “villeins” or “villains” from the word villa, the central dwelling of the landlord, who literally owned his tenants. Because they often stole to stay alive, the word villain came to mean someone who couldn’t be trusted. The use of the word villain as the evil antagonist in a play or novel surfaced in 1822. Why are celebrity photographers called “paparazzi”? The word paparazzi as a tag for pushy celebrity photographers comes from Frederico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita and first appeared in its current use around 1968. In the movie, the character Signor Paparazzo (the singular of paparazzi) was an obnoxious, creepy little man who was despised by the stars. Before Fellini used it, paparazzo was a word in an Italian dialect for “buzzing insect.” Why is harassing a performer called “heckling”? Heckling is an effort by a member of an audience to embarrass someone who is speaking publicly. This can be done with rude remarks or impertinent questions. Dealing with these is an art that politicians and public performers 158

(especially comedians) had better become familiar with. The word heckle and its relationship to making someone uncomfortable dates back to the fifteenth century when a “heckle” was a steel brush with metal teeth used to comb flax or hemp to prepare its fibres for the manufacture of workable cloth. The use of a heckle on a human would have been (and still is) very uncomfortable. Why do we say that something “fills” or “fits the bill”? If something “fills” or “fits the bill,” it’s satisfying, whether it’s a good meal or a job well done. The expression comes from the days when theatrical advertising was done through handbills or posters. “Filling the bill” meant adding acts to pad a weak program, but if a single star could pull in an audience through his or her individual fame and talent, their name was all that was needed, so it was enlarged to fit the bill. Why are vain people said to be “looking for the limelight”? In the early days of theatre, the players were lit by gas lamps hidden across the front of the stage. Early in the twentieth century, it was discovered that if a stick of lime was added to the gas, the light became more intense, and so they began to use the “limelight” to illuminate the spot on stage where the most important part of the play took place. Later called the “spotlight,” the “limelight” was where all actors fought to be. What exactly is an icon?


We often hear the word icon used to describe some outstanding character who is the subject of tremendous respect and even devotion, such as a pop star. An icon can also be a sacred picture of someone sanctified within the Eastern Orthodox Church. The reason that both are correct is that the word icon came from the Greek eikon, which means a likeness, an image, or a representation of the big picture, such as a generation or a religion. An icon is both an image and a copy. The pop icon is an important symbol or reflection of his or her own time, just as the religious icon mirrors the sanctity of its subject. The computer icon was created in 1982 to symbolically represent a file, window option, or program.


music What is the origin of the word jazz? Jazz may be an American art form, but the word predates any application to music or sex. It first appeared in print in 1831 as jazzing, meaning the telling of fun stories. The first American use of jazz was in baseball as slang for enthusiasm in 1913. Its first musical use was a year later, to describe the vigor of West Coast bandleader Art Hickman. The word jazz wasn’t used to describe black music until 1918. Why do jazz musicians call a spontaneous collaboration a “jam”? All musicians refer to an informal and exhilarating musical session as “jamming,” but it first surfaced in the jazz world during the 1920s. Jam in jazz is a short, free, improvised passage performed by the whole band. It means pushing or jamming all the players and notes into a defined free-flowing session.


Preserved fruit was first called jam during the 1730s because it was crushed then “jammed” into a jar. To be “in a jam” has the same origin and means to be pressed into a tight or confining predicament. Jamming radio signals is a term from the First World War and means to force so much extra sound through a defined enemy channel that the original intended message is incoherent. All this is from jam, a little seventeenth-century word of unknown origin that meant to press tightly. Why is anything pleasing said to be “cool”? Cool, like groovy, was a very popular expression of satisfaction during the 1960s and early ’70s, but only the former lives on. Cool surfaced in the early nineteenth century, and, like groovy, which meant “in the groove,” as in a smoothly played vinyl record, it was popularized by bebop jazz musicians in the 1940s. Cool means unfazed and under control, like being on ice, which is real cool. Why did Yankee Doodle stick a feather in his cap and call it macaroni? The famous American patriotic song “Yankee Doodle” actually began as an English song of derision against the colonists. At the time, there was a Macaroni Club in London that catered to foppish, wealthy young men who copied everything Italian, including sticking a feather in their caps, which to many became the sign of a sissy. When the Americans began winning the war they took possession of the song “Yankee Doodle” as revenge.


Why was George M. Cohan forced to rewrite “It’s a Grand Old Flag”? In 1906, George M. Cohan was forced to change one word in his anthem to the American flag, which begins, “It’s a grand old flag / it’s a high flying flag …” Though today it’s sung as a tribute to Old Glory, if Cohan hadn’t made the change, the song probably would never be sung. Cohan’s original lyrics started with, “It’s a grand old rag …” In the Scottish song “Loch Lomond,” what’s the difference between the high and the low roads? In the song “Loch Lomond,” two wounded Scottish soldiers are in a foreign prison. One will be set free, but the one speaking is to be executed. When he says, “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road,” he’s referring to the Celtic belief that if a man dies in a foreign land, the fairies will guide his spirit home along the “low road,” while the living man will travel an earthly or “high road” that will take longer. Where did the Do, Re, Mi vocal music scale come from? In the tenth century, Guido d’ Arezzo was having trouble teaching monks their Gregorian chants, so he replaced the A, B, C music scale with sound symbols, which we now know as Do, Re, Mi. He could point to a spot where he had written them on his hand and the monks would know exactly which note to sing. These hand symbols evolved into the phonetic music scale and gave Maria a song to sing in The Sound of Music. How old is the first known musical instrument? 163

In 1996, an excavation in northwest Slovenia uncovered a transverse flute made from the femur of a bear cub. It was perforated with four round holes, and its shape and structure strongly suggested a wind instrument. The amazing discovery was made in a Neanderthal cave, and the flute was dated to between 43,000 and 82,000 years old, making it the oldest musical instrument ever found. Why is the entire range of a circumstance called “the full gamut”? If you pass through the entire spectrum of emotional of other circumstances you’ve run “the full gamut.” Since 1626, it has figuratively meant that you’ve run the full range of possibilities of anything; however, gamut literally means “the entire range of recognized notes on a musical scale.” Al Jolson sang about it and Stephen Foster and Ira Gershwin wrote popular songs about it … so where is the Swanee River? In the first draft of his 1851 song “The Old Folks at Home,” Stephen Foster’s river was the Pedee, but that didn’t work so he searched an atlas and found the Suwannee River, which he shortened to Swanee. In 1919, Gershwin and Irving Caesar reused the name in the Jolson classic and made the Swanee the most famous river that never existed. Who owns the song “Happy Birthday”? “Happy Birthday” began as “Good Morning Dear Children” and was written by educators Mildred and Patty Hill in 1893. In 1924, a publisher changed the opening line to “Happy 164

Birthday to You,” and it became a ritual to sing the song to anyone celebrating his or her birthday. In 1934, after hearing the song in a Broadway musical, a third Hill sister, Jessica, sued the show and won. The Hill family was thereafter entitled to royalties whenever the melody was performed commercially. Who was Matilda in the song “Waltzing Matilda”? In the Australian song “Waltzing Matilda,” a billabong is a pool of stagnant water. A swagman was someone who carried around everything he owned in a knapsack. Waltzing meant hiking, and Matilda wasn’t a woman but rather an Australian word for a knapsack. So “Waltzing Matilda” means “walking with my knapsack.” Quickies Did you know … • the average North American knows about 10,000 words? • during one day, women on average speak 25,000 words; men average 12,000? • the average four-year-old asks more than four hundred questions a day? • that diamond, silver, purple, month, skeleton, limited, ninth, and poem do not rhyme with any other English word?


• that although there are more than 160 English words ending with the three letters “int,” such as point and faint, “pint” doesn’t rhyme with any of them? • that tremendous, stupendous, horrendous, and hazardous are the only four English words to end in “dous”?


the world of literature and language Why is an individual book from a set called a “volume”? The word volume was first used in English to describe a manuscript or a large number of written words in the fourteenth century. At the time writing was done on parchments, which were then rolled up for storage. The Latin word for “a roll of writing” is volumen, from volvere, meaning “to roll.” Volume took the meaning “one book from a set” in 1523. Voluminous, meaning a large mass of writing, first appeared in 1647. During the electronic age of the twentieth century, voluminous gave us the alternate meaning for volume as the degree of amplitude or loudness of a sound. Why is a complete list of letters named the “alphabet,” and why is a river mouth called a “delta”?


One of the first things we learn in school is our ABCs, a list of all letters used in the English language. The name comes from the first two letters in the original Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. The triangular mouth of the Nile River was called a “delta” because, like all rivers leading into the sea, it’s shaped like the fourth Greek letter. Every delta in the world took its name from the Nile. What are the most common words in the English language? The most common word used in written English is the, followed in order of use by of, and, to, a, in, that, is, I, it, for, and as. The most common spoken English word is I. The most common word in the King James Bible is the. Why do we say we’re “boning up” when studying or preparing for an examination? The phrase “boning up” comes from a British teacher of Greek and Latin who wanted to make life easier for his students. With that goal in mind he translated the Greek and Latin classics into English and then had them published and distributed within his classroom. His name was Mr. Bohn, and his grateful students called this new, speedier method of studying the classics “Bohning up.” Why is a spelling competition called a “bee”? Entire communities used to gather in a festive mood to build churches or to help neighbours build a barn or a home. These events were called “bees” because the number of people swarming around the task was similar to a busy hive of bees. 168

The spelling bee is the lone survivor from this era and was the name used in 1925 by a Louisville newspaper for a national competition that is still going strong. Why is spring both a season and fresh water from the ground? Spring is a season, but it’s also part of a mattress, an underground water supply, and a surprise attack. Spring derives from sprengh, an ancient Indo-European word for “rapid movement.” It was around A.D. 816 when spring was first used to mean “rising up,” or the beginning of something. By the fourteenth century the first of the four seasons became the spring of the year. What is the shortest English sentence ever created using all the letters of the alphabet? Western Union developed the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” as a test for their telex operators, and it’s thirty-five letters long. However, it isn’t the shortest English sentence ever created using all the letters of the alphabet. That honour belongs to the sentence “Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz,” which was authored by an anonymous scholar and is just thirty-one letters long. Why do we call a critical instant the “moment of truth”? The “moment of truth” is what the Spanish call that instant when a bullfighter chooses to make the final thrust of his sword and was introduced into English in Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 novel Death In the Afternoon. The timing 169

of that final move by the bullfighter is critical for both the matador and the animal, and so el momento de la verdad, or “the moment of truth,” became synonymous with any critical decision.

What does it mean to say that you wouldn’t give “one iota” for something? If someone doesn’t care “one iota,” they don’t care very much. Like the letter I in English, an iota is the ninth and smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, and because the English letters I and J were often confused, iota became jot, with both words meaning something very small. That’s why to “jot something down” means to condense information, while an iota is just a little bit more than a tittle, which is the dot over the lower-case i. What’s the origin of the expression “Put on your thinking cap”?


Teachers will often tell students to “put on their thinking caps” when they want them to take time to think things over. Caps have been associated with academics, jurists, scholars, and clerics for centuries. One of the most familiar of these caps is the mortarboard worn at graduation, so called for its similarity to the instrument used by bricklayers. In the seventeenth century, English judges wore a “considering cap” while pondering a sentence. Why do we say, “Every cloud has a silver lining”? “Every cloud has a silver lining” originated in a poem written in 1634 by John Milton. Milton tells of a young woman who becomes lost and alone in the woods after being separated from her two brothers. As night falls, her terror is lifted and her prayers answered when she sees a dark cloud turn its bright side down to guide her; the poem says, “There does a sable cloud turn forth her Silver Lining on the night.” What does the title refer to in the book The Lord of the Flies? When William Golding published his classic novel in 1954, he chose a title suggesting a powerful, malevolent supernatural presence, which he called the Lord of the Flies. Translated into Hebrew, “Lord of the Flies” is Ba’al zebhubh, which since the twelfth century in English has been rendered as “Beelzebub,” a Catholic reference to the Devil. Therefore, the Lord of the Flies is the Devil. Why when abbreviating something do we say, “In a nutshell”?


“In a nutshell” indicates a drastically reduced summary. Long before modern electronics, a few scholars made attempts at condensing massive literary works so they could be more easily stored. It became an obsession to some to see just how small they could write. For example, a copy of the Koran was reduced on a parchment measuring four inches by half an inch. These copies were so small it was said they could be stored in a nutshell. Why do the Scots refer to girls as “lassies” and boys as “laddies”? Both lassie and laddie are reminders of the Viking raids and temporary conquest of parts of Britain in the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages. Lass began as the Scandinavian word loskr and meant someone light or slight. Around 1725 the word evolved into lassie, Scottish for an unmarried woman or girl. To the Vikings, lad was ladde and meant a boy or young man who was led, such as a foot soldier or a male servant. The word became laddie around 1546. Extensions to pet and proper names, such as the ie in laddie or lassie, or the y in names like Robby or Donny, surfaced in Scotland around 1400 and became popularized as endearments by the poems of Robert Burns (1759–1796). What are the longest words in the English language? According to The Guinness Book of Records, the true longest English word is floccinaucinihilipilification (29 letters). It’s defined as “the act of estimating [something] as worthless,” and first appeared circa 1741. Antidisestablishmentarianism (28 letters) describes a nineteenth-century British movement 172

opposed to the separation of church and state and is one of the longest English words. The longest word ever used by William Shakespeare appears in Love’s Labour’s Lost and is honorificabilitudinitatibus (27 letters). The longest word found in any major English language dictionary is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis (45 letters). It was used as a reference to a lung disease but has since been discovered to have been created as a hoax.

Lengthy words created by authors that never catch on outside of their transcripts are not considered a legitimate part of the English language. These include the nine lengthy words used by James Joyce in his novel Finnegan’s Wake. The most famous appears only once on the first page as the symbolic thunderclap sounding the fall from Eden of Adam and Eve: Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarr Another long word that never made it into the real world because it has no defined meaning is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (34 letters), the song title from the movie Mary Poppins. Almost is the longest English word with all the letters in alphabetical order. The longest words with the vowels in order (a, e, i, o, u) are facetiously and abstemiously. Squirrelled (11 letters) is the longest one-syllable word in the English language. The longest English word with a single vowel is strengths.


A popular joke among English schoolchildren is to ask, “What is the longest word”? The answer is smiles, because there is a mile between each s. Why didn’t Shakespeare ever use the word penis? The word penis means “tail” in Latin and didn’t enter English until fifty-two years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616. However, the Bard of Avon used other references to the appendage several times; for example, in Henry IV parts one and two he named Prince Hal’s sidekick “Falstaff” because he was rather portly and not attractive to women. Shakespeare was playing to his audience with the words false and staff, suggesting the character had a nonfunctional male appendage. How did “one fell swoop” come to mean a single decisive action? The expression “one fell swoop” was introduced by Shakespeare in Macbeth. When Macduff learns that his wife and children have been murdered he exclaims: “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop?” Metaphorically, Macduff compares his wife and children to chickens and their murderer to a bird of prey. During Shakespeare’s time, fell meant “fierce,” and survives today in the word felon. What’s the origin of the expression “Less is more”? “Less is more” means “keep it simple, stupid”! It’s the credo of every film actor and most other artists. Architects Mies van der Rohe and Buckminster Fuller considered it their personal motto, and they and everyone else who follows 174

that advice got it from an 1855 Robert Browning poem titled “Andrea del Sarto.” Del Sarto was a Florentine painter (1486–1531) who was considered a perfectionist. Browning introduced “less is more” within that poem, which ends the subject stanza with, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what is heaven for?” Quickies Did you know … • varsity is a short form of university? • valedictorian simply means “farewell sayer” in Latin? • alumnus in Latin means a male graduate or former student of a school? The plural is alumni. • alumna in Latin is a female graduate or former student, with the plural being alumnae? • thesaurus is from the Greek thesauros, meaning “storehouse” or “treasure”? • dictionary is from the Latin dictionarium, a “collection of words and phrases”? • inaugurate, or inaugurere in Latin, means to take office only when a flight of birds presents a favourable omen?


the language of golf Where do the golf terms par and bogey come from? Until the introduction of the modern golf ball in 1898, an average score for any given hole was called a bogey, the Scottish word for ghost, meaning that the challenge was within the individual player against an unseen opponent. The modern ball took one less stroke to reach the hole, so the new standard was called par, a short form of parity, meaning “equal.” Bogey was kept as meaning the original average with the old cloth-covered ball, or one shot over the new ball average of par. How is par determined for each hole on a golf course? Par is the number of strokes a good golfer should make on a particular hole, and it’s based on distance. A par 3 hole is up to 250 yards for men and 210 yards for women. A par 4 is 250 to 470 yards for men and between 210 and 400 yards for


women. Par 5 is for holes over 470 yards for men and over 400 for women. Why does a golf “duffer” need a “handicap”? The word duffer was once used to describe a counterfeit coin and was expanded to include a worthless person, who, like the counterfeit coin, was only taking up space — such as a duffer on a golf course. Because they are inferior, duffers need a handicap, or help, which is really a penalty against the superior players. The word handicap came from drawing of lots for positions in a horse race, which literally required putting a hand in a cap. Why do golf courses have eighteen holes? Golf courses might have had a dozen, sixteen, or even twenty holes if it hadn’t been for a meeting of the club’s membership board to standardize the number at St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1858. Those assembled at the game’s birthplace decided that because it takes exactly eighteen shots to polish off a fifth of Scotch, and because players generally limited themselves to just one shot of Scotch per hole, they shouldn’t have to play any further than when the whiskey ran out. So eighteen holes it is! Why do golf balls have dimples? Original golf balls were made of wood, and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that they evolved through a number of stages. They went from wet feathers stuffed into wet leather for shrinking to “gutties,” balls made from a Malaysian form of rubber. At this point someone noticed that the new ball 177

flew further when scuffed up after being hit a few times, and so dimples were added to encourage distance by imitating a well-used ball. Why do golfers shout “Fore” as a warning to those ahead of them? When early cannons fired a barrage into enemy lines, over the heads of their own charging infantry, the shots were often imprecise. British artillery officers would shout “Beware before” as a warning for their advancing troops to watch out for a misfired cannon ball. Over time, “beware before” was abbreviated to “before,” then eventually shortened to “fore,” which found its way into golf as a warning that a volley was on its way. In golf, I know about eagles and birdies, but what is an albatross? Albatross is the Spanish word for “pelican,” and although to a mariner it may be bad luck, to a golfer it’s an amazing accomplishment. More commonly known today as a double eagle, a three under par for an individual hole was originally called an albatross. Only one has ever been scored in the U.S. Open because the odds of making an albatross are 1 in 5.85 million. Gene Sarazen set the record in 1935. Why are golfers’ shortened pants called “plus fours”? Knickerbockers or knee breeches are pants that only go down to the knee and were quite popular in the first half of the twentieth century. Bobby Jones, among other golfers, found knickerbockers and breeches too restrictive for a full swing. 178

Tailors solved this by designing special golf knickers with an additional four inches below the knee seam, calling them “plus fours.” The extra length allowed just enough slack to free up the golfer’s swing. Some players wear them to this day. Where did we get the phrase “Down to the short strokes”? When a golfer begins at the tee, he hits the ball towards the green by driving, or using a long stroke. When the ball is on the green, he must get the ball in the hole by putting, or taking short strokes. Similarly, a painter (canvases, not houses) begins on a clean canvas using large and broad strokes of the brush. As the painting progresses the brush strokes become shorter and finer as detail is filled into the painting. Why do we refer to golf courses as “links”? The word links is a Scottish reference to the coastal strips of semi-barren land between the ocean beach and the inland farming areas. Links land was too sandy for crops so it was where the Scots put their first golf courses. There were no trees close to the beach and the sand traps were natural with tall, reedy grass as the only vegetation. Otherwise worthless, these narrow links of land became valuable as golf courses.


Why do we say we’ve been “stymied” when we are facing a difficult situation? Stymied comes from the Scottish word styme, which means “unable to see,” and its usage came from golf. A stymie was when a player’s golf ball landed on the green directly between his opponent’s ball and the hole, forcing the stymied player to either spin his ball around the other or hop over it with an iron. In 1951, a new rule allowed a golfer to mark the position and remove the obstructing ball for a putt. Why are golf assistants called “caddies”? In medieval France the first-born sons of nobility were known as the caput, or “head,” of the family, while the younger, less valuable boys were called capdets, or “little heads,” and were often sent to the military to train as officers. In English, 180

capdets became cadets, which the Scots abbreviated to cads or caddies, meaning any useless street kid who could be hired for the day to carry around a bag of golf clubs. Odds & Oddities • The chance of hitting a hole in one in golf is 1 in 15,000.


between the lines of nursery rhymes Who was Little Jack Horner? At a time when Henry VIII was confiscating church property, one monk appeased the king with the gift of a special Christmas pie. Inside the crust were deeds to twelve manor houses secretly offered in exchange for his monastery. The steward who carried the pie to London was Jack Horner, who along the way extracted a plum deed for himself. It was for Mells Manor, where Horner’s descendants still live to this day. What is the origin of the children’s rhyme “Eeney, meeney, miney, moe”? “Eeney, meeney, miney, moe” is a children’s rhyme where, with each word, the person counting or reciting points at one of a group of players to establish who will be “it.” The ritual was handed down from the Druids, who used the same counting formula to choose human sacrifices. The precise


meanings and origins of the words eeney, meeney, miney and moe are unknown. The theory that the rhyme is from an ancient Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, or Welsh numbering system can’t be proven. The rhyme was first written down in 1855 along with several other versions, for example, “Hanna, mana, mona, mike.” Have you ever wondered how Cinderella could have walked in a glass slipper? The story of Cinderella was passed along orally for centuries before it was written down by Charles Perrault in 1697. While doing so he mistook the word vair, meaning ermine, for the word verre, meaning glass. By the time he realized his mistake, the story had become too popular to change, and so instead of an ermine slipper, Cinderella wore glass. How did the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” become so famous? “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was written in 1830 by Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey’s Ladies Magazine. She was inspired after watching young Mary Tyler’s pet lamb follow the girl to school, which, of course, was against the rules. The poem became immortal more than fifty years later when Thomas Edison used it as the first words ever spoken and then recorded on his new invention, the phonograph. Who was Humpty Dumpty? The nursery rhyme in which “Humpty Dumpty has a great fall” dates back to 1493 and refers to King Richard III of


England. Richard had a hump on his back and had been dumped by his mount in the thick of battle, where he cried, “My kingdom for a horse” before being slain. The last line, “Couldn’t put Humpty together again,” was originally “Couldn’t put Humpty up again,” meaning back on his horse. Why is rolling head over heels called a “somersault”? A somersault is a stunt in which a person tumbles head over heels; it can be very difficult, as when performed by a circus acrobat, or very simple, as when performed by a child on a front lawn. The word has two Latin derivatives, supra, meaning “above,” and saltus, meaning “leap.” It entered England from France as sombresault. One of the word’s alternate spellings was used to name the English county of Somerset. The word somersault first appeared in English around 1530 as sobersault, and by the nineteenth century it was sumersault. Who is Mary in the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”? The children’s nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is about Mary, Queen of Scots, and emerged during her struggle for power with Queen Elizabeth I. The “pretty maids all in a row” were her ladies in waiting (the Marys: Seaton, Fleming, Livingston, and Beaton). The cockleshells were decorations on an elaborate gown given to her by the French Dauphin. The rhyme was popular when Mary was beheaded in 1587.


“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” shares a melody with three other nursery rhymes, but which two classical composers also used the melody? In 1806, Jane Taylor published “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as simply “The Star.” The tune was already in use for “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and the “Alphabet Song.” The melody for all three came from a French rhyme called “Ah! Vous dirais-je Maman” (1765). Both Mozart and Haydn have incorporated the melody into two of their classical compositions: Haydn in “Surprise” Symphony No. 94 and Mozart in Theme and Variations K265. Where did the game of hopscotch come from? Hopscotch was brought to Britain by the Romans, who used it as a military training exercise. The courts were one hundred feet long, and the soldiers ran them in full battle gear to improve their footwork. Children copied the soldiers by scratching out small courses of their own and creating rules and a scoring system. The scotch in hopscotch refers to the markings scored onto the ground. As in butterscotch toffee, scotch means scored or notched into squares. What is the origin of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes? Most nursery rhymes were never intended for children. For centuries, these ballads came from bawdy folk songs or spoofs on social issues of the day, often sung or recited as limericks in local taverns. Nursery wasn’t used to describe them until efforts were made in the nineteenth century to clean them up as children’s lullabies. In 1697, a French writer, Charles Perrault, published Tales of My Mother 185

Goose, a collection of fairy tales (including “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Puss in Boots”). Why when lifting a young child might you say, “Ups-a-daisy”? Whether it’s “Ups-a-daisy,” “Whoops-a-daisy,” or “Oops-a-daisy,” you are speaking loving nonsense, usually to a child. “Up-a-dazy” dates back to 1711, and by 1862 it had mutated into “Up-a-daisy,” spelled the same as the flower. The original meaning was an encouragement for a child to get up, and dazy was an endearing reference to lazy, an or lackadaisical. What’s the hidden meaning within “Pop Goes the Weasel”? The old song, with every verse ending in “Pop goes the weasel,” is a tale of Victorian London working-class poverty. The Eagle of the lyrics was a famous pub. The City Road still exists. Pop means to pawn something for cash, while a weasel in cockney rhyming slang is a coat. After spending his money on rice and treacle, followed by a visit to the pub, the man in the song is forced to visit the pawnshop for more money — thus selling his belongings, or “Pop goes the weasel.” Where does the Sandman come from? The Sandman is an elf who sprinkles sand in children’s eyes to make them sleepy. The character is derived from the remarkable mind of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875), the Danish writer famous for his fairy tales. Andersen’s Sandman was a device to explain to children the reason for 186

the grit or “sleep” in their eyes when they woke up in the morning. The Sandman is found in Andersen’s 1850 story “Ole Lukoie,” which means “Olaf Shuteye.” Olaf carried two umbrellas. Over good children he held an umbrella with pictures that inspired beautiful dreams. Over bad children he held the other umbrella, which had no pictures and caused frightful dreams. Andersen was born in the slums of Odense, Denmark, and his incredible life story is well worth reading for inspiration. Why are the Sesame Street characters called Muppets? The Muppets, who’ve had their own television show as well as a series of movies, are best known for their roles on Sesame Street, which first appeared in 1969. After 4,100 episodes, Sesame Street is the longest running television show in history and has received more Emmy Awards than any other show. The Muppets were Jim Henson’s idea, and he named them by combining the words marionette and puppet. Who or what were the inspirations for naming the Baby Ruth chocolate bar, the Tootsie Roll, and Hershey’s Kisses? Confectioner Leo Hirschfield created the Tootsie Roll. He named his chewy chocolate treat after his daughter Clara, whose nickname was Tootsie. The Baby Ruth chocolate bar was named in honour of President Grover Cleveland’s baby daughter, Ruth. Hershey’s named their chocolate treats Kisses because in the factory the machine that dispenses them kisses the conveyor belt.


Quickies Did you know … • 90 percent of all the scientists in history are alive today? • only 13 percent of all scientists are women? • bulletproof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers, and laser printers were all invented by women? • women blink nearly twice as much as men? • 90 percent of women who walk into a department store immediately turn to the right? • by a statistic of four to one, women shoplift more than men?


money, gold, and finance What is the origin of the dollar sign? Thomas Jefferson used the letter S with two lines through it to symbolize a dollar in a 1784 document in which he suggested the dollar as the primary unit of American currency. Prior to this the symbol was in use for the peso throughout Latin America. Consequently, the most widely accepted explanation is that the dollar sign ($) is a depiction of the twin pillars of Hercules wrapped with a scroll, as found on early Spanish pieces of eight. Where did the word dollar come from? In 1516, a silver mine opened in the German town of Sankt Joachimsthal in what today is the Czech Republic (St. Joachim was the husband of St. Anne and the father of the Virgin Mary). The German word thal means “valley,” and the town soon became known simply as Thaler. The silver coins minted from the silver mine were called thalers, which by


1600 had translated to English as “dollars” to describe the German coin or any foreign currency. The Spanish peso was the first foreign currency to be known as a dollar. Thomas Jefferson resolved that “the money unit of the United States be one dollar” in 1785. The first American dollar was minted in Philadelphia in 1792. Why do we call a dollar a “buck”? The Indians taught the first European settlers the value of a buck. Like gold, deerskin or buckskin was used in trading as a unit of value against which everything else was assessed. “The buck stops here” is a different matter. That expression came from frontier poker, in which the buck was a knife made of buckhorn that was passed around the table to indicate who was dealing. When a hand was finished, the dealer “passed the buck” to the next player. Why is a ten-dollar bill called a “sawbuck”? Among the many slang expressions for denominations of money are deuce, originally a mild curse referring to the Devil when the number two showed up in dice or cards, and the Yiddish fin for a five. Sawbuck for a ten comes from the frame of a sawbuck, or sawhorse, on which farmers held logs to be cut into firewood. This frame rested on two X-shaped supports that resembled the two roman numerals for ten found on the early American ten-dollar bill.


Why is a British pound sterling called a “quid”? When the people of Great Britain exchange money for goods or services, they will often refer to a pound note as a quid, even though centuries earlier a quid referred to a sovereign, the most important gold coin in history. One pound is equal to one hundred pence. When exchanged for something of equal value the deal in Latin is quid pro quo — something for something — which when abbreviated becomes simply quid. Why do we call a quarter “two bits”? European settlers brought their money with them to America, and coins made of precious metal were accepted everywhere at face value. The Spanish peso was divided into eight silver coins, which the English called bits, or pieces of eight. Two bits was one-quarter of a Spanish dollar. When money was printed and minted in the new world, although a dollar’s coinage was divided by ten, the expression “two bits” continued to mean one-quarter of a dollar. Why is money called “cash”? The history of money is fascinating. The word money is from the Latin moneta, which derives from the Hebrew word mone, meaning “weight” or “coins”; it is referred to in the Bible as maneh. The word cash entered English in the late sixteenth century. It’s from the French words casse, meaning “money box,” and cassier, meaning “treasurer,” which have given us the word cashier and its abbreviation cash. The surname Cash is a variant of Case, and is an occupational name given to persons who made boxes or chests. 191

Why do we have piggy banks instead of bunny banks or kitty banks? In medieval England, pots and dishes were made from a clay known as “pygg,” and it was common practice to save spare change in a kitchen pot. Around 1600, an English potter who was unfamiliar with this custom was asked to make a pygg bank, which he misunderstood to be a clay vessel in the shape of the animal; so the end result was a clay pig with a slot in its back. The piggy bank had arrived. Why is a differing opinion called “your two cents’ worth”? If someone speaks up out of turn or forcefully inserts their unsolicited opinion, we say he gave his “two cents’ worth.” The expression dates back to the late nineteenth century, when if you wanted to write an opinion to the editor of a newspaper or complain to a member of the legislature, the cost of mailing the letter was the price of a two-cent stamp. “Two cents’ worth” became an Americanism for “of little value.” Why is a copper penny called a “red cent”? In 1859, the United States Mint introduced a new one-cent coin. On its face was an Indian head, and because of its copper-nickel alloy, in time, the penny turned red. Combine this with the slang reference to Native Americans as “redskins” and the expression “red cent” was born. In 1864, the copper-nickel alloy was replaced by bronze, but the expression lived on.


Why were Native Americans called “red”? The Beothuks (Bee-o-thucks) were the original natives of Newfoundland, Canada. They were outstanding to the first Europeans because they painted their entire bodies with red ochre, which they considered a sacred ritual. Neighbouring tribes called the Beothuks “Red People,” while the Europeans tagged them “Red Indians” or “redskins.” Other tribes occasionally used red ochre on their bodies as a seasonal insect repellant, but the Beothucks wore it year-round. Although it was considered a racial slur among most of the Native peoples on the mainland, the reference persists. It’s believed that Beothuk meant “good people.” The arrival of the white settlers caused the extinction of the entire people through a terrible combination of brutal violence, starvation, forced isolation, and disease. The last member of the tribe was a childless woman named Shawnadithit. She died in 1829.


Why do we say that someone who inherited wealth was “born with a silver spoon in his mouth”? If someone is “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” it means that he was born into wealth rather than having had to earn it. The expression comes from an old custom of godparents giving a spoon to a child at its christening to signify their responsibility for its nourishment and well-being. If they were wealthy, the spoon was usually silver, and if not, it would be pewter or tin. Why is money called “dough”? Dough is a mixture of dry ingredients kneaded in water then shaped and baked into such things as bread or pastry. Around 1851, while on their way home from classes, British schoolboys would very often spend their pocket money on sweets or baked dough from the pastry shop. When their allowance ran out, they would ask their parents for more “dough-money.” Soon the two words became interchangeable and money became “dough.” Citizen soldiers were called “dough-boys” during the First World War because they were raw recruits requiring a lot of kneading and shaping to end up as fighting men. If gold is so rare, why does there seem to be so much of it in circulation? Gold is very rare, but it’s also very malleable. If, since the beginning of time, all the gold ever mined were to be lumped together, it would make a cube about the size of a tennis court. A cube the size of a matchbox can be flattened into a 194

sheet that would cover that same tennis court, and one tiny ounce of gold can be stretched into a wire fifty miles long. A little gold goes a long way. What’s the difference between yellow and white gold? Pure or 24-karat gold is yellow and relatively soft. White gold includes an alloy of nickel and palladium. Zinc is added to harden the gold for gem settings. White gold can be more expensive than pure gold because it’s harder to fabricate. 18-karat yellow gold is the most popular in Europe and is 75 percent pure gold. 18-karat white gold is 25 percent nickel. 24-karat gold is 99.9 percent pure gold, 22-karat gold is 91.67 percent, and 20-karat gold is 83.33 percent. 20-karat and above is yellow in colour. In America 14-karat yellow gold is the most popular. 14-karat white gold is harder and yellowish and used in prong settings. It’s often plated with rhodium (a form of platinum) to enhance the whiteness. 12-karat gold is 50 percent gold; it is commonly used in class rings and can be a number of colours depending on the added alloy. 10k gold is 41.67 percent gold and is the lowest alloy to be called gold.


Why is the discovery of riches called “the motherlode”? The expression “finding the motherlode” is usually used figuratively for the discovery of an abundance of almost anything, but it comes from the mining camps of the late nineteenth century. A lode is a mining term for a vein of metal ore, the discovery of which would be exciting enough, but add mother and you’ve come across the origin of all the veins in the region. The motherlode is, literally, an abundant source of supply. Why is a charge on imports and exports called a “tariff”? When the Arab Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century they brought with them profound cultural and creative concepts that influence that country to this day. For example, when the matador skirts the bull in their life and death ballet, the Spanish crowd cries, “Ole,” which evolved from the Arabic word Allah. Twenty miles from Gibraltar is the


seaport of Tarifa, where the Moors introduced bounties on ships entering the Mediterranean, leaving us the word tariff. Why do we “well-heeled”?







Before cockfighting was banned in 1849, individual birds were often fitted with sharp steel spurs, giving them an advantage in mortal combat. They were “well-heeled.” In the nineteenth century, the expression became slang for anyone armed with a weapon. Then, around 1880, the term began to mean anyone who was well off financially and who could overcome any obstacle with money instead of a weapon. If you’re short of cash why might you ask for a loan to “tide you over”? If you ask for money to “tide you over,” you are using a nautical term to reassure the lender that repayment is inevitable. When a boat or ship wants to enter a river from the ocean at low tide, its way will be blocked by the accumulation of mud or sand that has been swept downstream and collected at the mouth of the river. When the predictable tide rises and the obstacle is “tided over” the boat, like a borrower, can continue its progress. Why was a prospector’s credit line called a “grub stake”? The first thing most poor gold prospectors needed to keep going was food and supplies. They would make a deal to share their future success with a general store or a wealthy acquaintance in exchange for credit to buy food, shovels, picks, and a pan to sift the gravel of a stream for nuggets. 197

This credit was called a “grub stake.” Grub, in this case, is a reference to shallow digging, as in “grubbing around.” Grub can also mean “food.” Stake was the money. Who issued the first credit cards? There once was a time when people only used cash. Credit was a personal issue between the dealer and individual customers. In the 1920s, gas companies and hotel chains started issuing cards for credit exclusively for use in their own establishments. By the late 1930s, some of these firms began recognizing each other’s cards, but it wasn’t until 1950 that the Diners Club came out with a fee-based card to use with a large number of unrelated businesses. Soon after, American Express took a similar approach. BankAmericard, which became Visa, issued the first bank credit card in 1959. MasterCard appeared in 1966. Why are shares in a company called “stock”? The modern concept of sharing capital ownership was initiated by the Dutch East India Company in 1612, which raised money by selling pieces of the business to the public. This process gave the Dutch East India Company the ability to grow and share its profits with its “shareholders.” The original meaning of the word stock was the trunk of a tree. Like that trunk, stock in a corporation supplies the necessities of life to the branches. This nourishment to any size company is cash. Stocks and shares are the same thing. Stock refers to an overall ownership in one or more companies within a


portfolio. Shares signify ownership of one specific individual company. Today a “stock market” is a place where securities are bought and sold, but the first one in London, England, was a fourteenth-century fish-and-meat market and was so called because it had been built on a site formerly occupied by the stocks used for corporal punishment. Why is a middleman called a “broker”? There are real estate brokers, wedding brokers, pawnbrokers, and, of course, stockbrokers. A broker is someone who arranges or negotiates things. It comes to English from the French wine industry, where brocour described the person who bought wine in bulk from the winery and then sold it from the tap. The accepted meaning became anyone who bought something in order to sell it again. In English, the word brocour became broker, meaning “the middleman.” Brocour first appeared in English in 1377 in Piers Plowman: “I haue lent lordes and ladyes my chaffare And ben her brocour after, and boughte it myself.” How did the centre of world commerce, Wall Street, get its name? In September 1653, the settlers in what is now New York City felt threatened by the local Natives and by the possibility of an invasion by Oliver Cromwell’s army from England. For protection, they built a large protective wall that stretched a half-mile across Manhattan Island. That wall was situated on


the exact spot that we now know as the financial centre of the world: Wall Street. Why are there “bulls” and “bears” in the stock market? An eighteenth-century proverb mocks the man who “sells the bearskin before catching the bear.” A “bearskin speculator,” like the man in the proverb, sold what he didn’t yet own, hoping that the price would drop by the time he had to pay for it. “Bulls” speculate, hoping the price will rise, and the struggle between the two comes from staged fights in which a bear needed to pull the bull down while the bull fought by lifting the bear with its horns. If someone lacks confidence, why do we say that he’s “selling himself short”? If someone “sells himself short,” he’s probably nervous about the future, and for good reason. The expression comes from the stock market. “Selling short” means that you’re selling shares you don’t yet own. If an investor believes a stock is on the decline, he might gamble by selling it before purchasing it in the future at a lower price. The difference is his profit; unless the stock goes down, he pays the consequences of selling short. Why is it said that something with proven quality has passed the “acid test”? If someone has passed the “acid test,” it usually means that he has proven his value through experience or trial. When gold was in wide circulation, jewellers and assayers needed a method of testing golden objects and nuggets that were 200

brought to them for cash. Because nitric acid dissolves base metals but not gold, a drop was applied to the suspect object, and if the metal didn’t dissolve, it had passed the acid text and was confirmed to be gold. What is the “grey market”? Grey market goods are legally sold through channels other than those authorized by the manufacturer. Unlike black market products, which may be counterfeits, grey market goods are the real thing. Entrepreneurs simply buy a product in one country where the item is significantly cheaper than another, then import it to the target market and legally sell the merchandise at a higher price. This situation commonly occurs with cigarettes and electronics, though importing legally restricted items leaves the grey and enters the black market. By avoiding the normal distribution fees or licences, consumers usually share in the profits of grey marketers through lower prices but are likely to discover that products acquired this way aren’t supported or warranted by the manufacturer. The existence of the grey market is an example of the economic practice called arbitrage. Grey market has a different meaning on securities markets. where the term refers to the buying and selling of securities to be issued in the future and, therefore, not yet circulating. Quickies Did you know …


• that the speed of light is 186,272 miles per second? Sound travels at 1,088 feet per second, or roughly 742 miles per hour. This means that sound is about 900,000 times slower than light. • that sound travels faster through water than air? • a radio listener hears an announcer’s voice before a person standing in the back of the average broadcast studio? • if you have to slam on the brakes while driving at 55 miles per hour, your car will continue 56 feet between the time you decide to put on the brakes and the time you get your foot on the brake pedal?


transportation and automobiles Why do the British drive on the left side of the road while North Americans use the right? The British custom of driving on the left was passed down from the Romans. The chariot driver stayed to the left in order to meet an approaching enemy with his right sword hand. Americans switched to driving on the right because on covered wagons, the brakes were built on the left, forcing the driver to sit on that same side and, consequently, to drive on the right so they could have a clear view of the road. Why is a car’s instrument panel called a “dashboard”? The word dashboard came to the automobile directly from the horse and buggy. In the mid-nineteenth century, an apron, or board, was placed on the front of the vehicle to keep mud from the horses’ hooves from splashing onto the passengers, especially when they were moving fast, or “dashing.” Another carry-over term to cars from horse-drawn carriages is axel.


The first wooden carriages used slender tree trunks to run under the wagon to hold the wheels in place. Axel is an early Scandinavian word for “tree.” Why is the energy from a car’s engine referred to as “horsepower”? When Scottish inventor James Watt received a patent on his steam engine in 1755, horses were being used to draw coal to a mine’s surface. After calculating that one horse had the power to haul 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute, he proved that one steam engine could replace an entire herd of horses. This made Watt wealthy and gave us a formula to interpret engine capacity in horsepower. Why do we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway? The words parkway and driveway come from the days when only the well off could afford an automobile. The long, winding roads from the highway to the manor were, and still are, called “driveways.” On the other hand, to ensure the pleasure of driving, highways were built carefully, with planted trees and groomed medians to imitate the natural beauty of a park, so they were called “parkways,” meaning left in an enhanced natural state. How did the Mercedes automobile get its name? In 1900, the Daimler Corporation was commissioned to design and build a special racing car to add to the fleet of a wealthy Austrian named Emil Jellinek. Jellinek gave the special car the nickname “Mercedes,” which was his daughter’s name. Jellinek was so impressed with the car that 204

he bought into Daimler, and when the company merged with Benz in 1926, company officials decided to keep the name and market a commercial car as the Mercedes Benz. Why when wanting full speed and power do we say, “Gun it” or “Pull out all the stops”? “Gun it” comes from early aviation and auto mechanics, who coined the phrase as an instruction to get more speed by pulling out the full throttle. This sudden injection of fuel caused a minor explosion in the combustible engine, which sounded like the firing of a gun. Stops on a pipe organ control volume, so to “pull out all the stops” refers to accessing the organ’s maximum power. Why are traffic lights red, green, and yellow? Red, green, and yellow traffic lights developed directly from the trial and error of controlling railways during the nineteenth century. Trains needed advance warning to prevent fatal accidents and collisions. The first choice was red for stop, which was logical because red had symbolized danger for thousands of years. During the 1830s, engineers tried using green for caution and clear for go, but sunlight reflecting off clear lights gave false signals. So engineers solved the problem by introducing yellow for caution and making green stand for go. The very first traffic light using this system was introduced in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914. Where in the world were highways designed to be emergency landing strips during war?


Some highway systems are designed for use as landing strips, but they aren’t in North America. There is a legend that the Eisenhower Interstate System in the United States requires one mile in every five to be straight so that it can be used as an airstrip during wartime, but no such law exists either in the United States or Canada. However, the highway systems of South Korea and Sweden have been designed with air war in mind. Why do we say someone diverted from a goal has been “sidetracked”? Early railroads had only a single track between destinations. Problems arose when a train was met by another going in the opposite direction or was overtaken by a faster one. This dilemma was solved with the creation of sidings, short lengths of track built parallel to the main line where one train could pull over while the other went by. The train had been “sidetracked,” meaning that, for a time at least, it wasn’t going anywhere. Quickies Did you know … • you will spend about two weeks of your lifetime waiting for traffic lights to change? • you will walk roughly 65,000 miles in your lifetime? • that Carl C. Magee, of the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, chamber of commerce, received a patent for the first “coin controlled parking meter” on May 24, 1938?


Why is the last car on a freight rain called a “caboose”? Up until the 1980s, laws required freight trains to have a caboose. It was a little shack on wheels and served as an office, a kitchen, and a bedroom for the crew. The caboose was also an observation deck from which brakemen could watch the train for shifting loads, overheating wheels, and other problems. The first such shanties were set up as tents on flatcars as early as 1830. Caboose is from the ancient German sailing term kabhuse, a temporary kitchen set up on the deck of a ship. Some of the nicknames used by rail crews for the caboose were “clown wagon,” “hack,” “brain-box,” and “palace.” Why is top speed referred to as “full tilt”? “Full tilt” means full speed. The word tilt began as tealt, an early English word for being unsteady. It was used as a reference to medieval jousting (also called tilting), where men on horseback leaned or tilted forward in their saddles and charged each other at top speed with lances, causing the contestant knocked from his horse to be more than a little unsteady. A letter written in 1511 makes reference to jousting as tilting: “Knightes shall present themselves … in harneys for the Tylte.” “The History of Tom Thumb,” circa 1600, contains the first written reference to “full tilt”: “The cook was running on full tilt, when Tom fell from the air.” Why is “thumbing a ride” called “hitchhiking”? Hitchhiking is a combination of two words. The term has two origins that collided in 1923 to describe an inexpensive way of travelling. Hiking means “to walk vigorously” and has 207

been around forever. In 1578, the word hitch surfaced as a nautical description meaning “fastening with a hook,” but it eventually gained broader use and was used in terms like “hitching a team of horses to a wagon” or “hitching a trailer to a car.” Hitchhike was first employed in 1880 to describe hitching a sled to a moving car. The use of the thumb by someone looking for a ride is a symbolic hook to signal the hitchhiker’s wish to become attached to a passing car. What happened to the station wagon? A station wagon was originally a horse-drawn carriage. The name transferred to cars in 1904, and in 1929 the first modern station wagon was manufactured. It referred to a car big enough to haul people and luggage to and from railway stations. Prior to the 1930s, most automobile makers used hardwoods to frame the passenger compartments of their vehicles, but when steel took over, designers extended a wood-panel finish to the exterior of multipurpose passenger-and-cargo cars. These became the classic station wagons that grew in popularity with suburban families after the Second World War. Station wagons were replaced by minivans or sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) during the 1980s and 1990s and have all but disappeared from the world’s roads. Where did the term drag racing originate? Drag racing is a quarter-mile race between two cars starting side by side from a standing start. It began in the 1950s and was usually held on the main street of a small town. In the nineteenth century, because they were being dragged down the street by a horse, wagons and buggies were called 208

“drags,” and in the 1850s the name transferred to the main street; it became known as the “main drag,” which gave drag racing a venue — and its name. Why is something incredibly impressive called a “real doozy”? A “real doozy” may be an old-fashioned expression, but it still means something remarkable. It was used to describe one of the most impressive cars ever made. Built between 1920 and 1937, the Duesenberg was the best and most expensive American car ever built. During the Great Depression, and at a time when a Ford sold for $500, a top-of-the-line Doozy retailed for $25,000. With a custom-built body and a high-horsepower engine, the Duesenberg quickly became a favourite vehicle of the rich and famous. It still is! As one of the most collectible cars in the world, Duesenbergs in mint condition have sold for millions of dollars. Now that’s a doozy! Why do we say we’re “stumped” if we can’t proceed? We have all been stumped at one time or another, whether by a private or professional circumstance or perhaps by a mathematical or legal problem. Stumped, as in unable to proceed, comes from the first crude highways built by the early settlers in North America. It was the law that when trees were felled the stumps had to be at least fifteen inches high. That was fine until it rained and the ground turned muddy. The wheels on the wagons using the road would often sink until the axles got caught on tree stumps. The wagons couldn’t move forward because they had been “stumped.” 209

Why is a dead-end street called a “cul-de-sac”? A cul-de-sac is any lane or street closed at one end so that the only way out is the same as the way in. The compound word cul-de-sac began as an anatomical term in 1738 for a very sensitive area behind the female cervix. It refers to a sack-like cavity or tube, open only at one end, and literally means “bottom of the sack.” Cul is from the Latin word culus, meaning “bottom,” while sac simply means “a bag.” Although derived from French, the word cul-de-sac originated in England during a time when French was spoken by the ruling classes. It began meaning a dead-end street around 1800. Cul is also a French vulgarity meaning “ass.” Why is a road called a “highway” and the ocean the “high seas”? When the Romans built public roads between towns, they were raised higher and built better than other local private roads, and so they were called “highways.” The implied sense of “for public use” also applies to the “high seas,” which defines that part of the ocean beyond any countries’ three-mile limit of sovereignty. In both cases the high means “for general or public use.” Odds & Oddities • The odds of being killed during the course of a year in any sort of transportation accident are 77 to 1.


• The chance that one’s next car ride will be one’s last is 1 in 4,000,000, while the odds of being killed on a five-mile bus trip are 500,000,000 to 1. The odds of being killed while riding a horse are six times greater than the odds of meeting one’s demise on a bus trip. • The chance of dying from a car accident during one’s lifetime is 1 in 18,585. Walking is safer. The one-year chance of dying while a pedestrian is about 1 in 50,000. • The chance of dying in an airplane accident is 1 in 354,319. • The odds of being killed in any sort of non-transportation accident are 69 to 1. • The chance of being killed in a terrorist attack while visiting a foreign country is 1 in 650,000. • The chance of dying from parts falling off an airplane is 1 in 10,000,000.


sailing on the high seas Why when abandoning ship do we say, “Women and children first”? In 1852, the HMS Birkenhead was off to war in South Africa when she ran aground and sank off the coast of the Cape. The only useable lifeboats were quickly filled by the 20 women and children on board, while the 476 soldiers lined up on deck to go down with the ship. This is where the tradition of “women and children first” was born, and in naval circles is still called “the Birkenhead Drill.” What do the distress letters SOS stand for? Morse code is a series of electrical impulses that signify the letters of a structured message. SOS doesn’t stand for “save our ship” or “save our souls,” as has been commonly believed. In fact, it stands for nothing. It was chosen as a distress signal at an international conference in 1906 because,


at nine keystrokes — three dots, three dashes, three dots — it was thought to be the easiest combination to transmit. Why are new ships christened with champagne? Beginning around the tenth century with the idea that the departed spirits would guide seamen on the ocean, ships throughout the world were christened, or blessed, with the blood of sacrificial victims, which was splashed throughout the vessel. Eventually those who thought this too barbaric began using red wine, but the Christian church complained that this was an affront to its sacraments, and so ships were christened with white wine, the best of which is champagne. Why are the sides of a boat called “starboard” and “port”? In the primitive days of navigation, the helmsman stood at the stern of the ship, controlling the vessel’s direction by hand with a rudder, which was on the right side and called a steer board, or, as the Anglo-Saxons called it, a “starboard.” The left side of the ship is called “port” because with the steering mechanism on the right it was the only side that could be brought to rest against a harbour or port. Why when we want someone to hurry do we say, “On the double”? In civilian life, “on the double” means to do something in a hurry. In the military, where the expression originated, it is usually a clear command most commonly barked by a drill sergeant ordering his men to do a task “on the double,” meaning to stop walking and start running. Just as bugles 213

were used to relay drills to soldiers in the field, drums were utilized on ships to summon sailors to their battle stations. Double was an early reference to increase the drumbeat appropriately to convey urgency to all hands. Why when someone we trusted turns against us do we say he’s “shown his true colours”? Sailing under false colours means to sail under an enemy flag, and it was once a legitimate naval manoeuvre used to get close enough to the enemy for a surprise attack. At the last moment, just before opening fire, the false colours were lowered and replaced by the ship’s true colours. Although such deception is now considered dishonourable, we still say when someone we trusted reveals himself as the enemy that he is showing his “true colours.” Why is a quick exit described as “cut and run”? If you make a rapid departure, especially under challenging circumstances, it could be said you’ve “cut and run.” The reason is that the anchors of large sailing ships used to be attached to rope cables, so if the crew came under a sudden or surprise attack and there was no time to haul in the anchor, they would simply cut the rope, raise their sails, and run with the wind. They would “cut and run.” Who first said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”? A torpedo can be a number of things, but it’s best known as a self-propelled armed tube fired from a submarine. The word was first recorded as an explosive device for blowing up ships 214

in 1776 and was referred to as a “floating mine.” The word torpedo means “to numb.” During the American Civil War, while he was attacking the Confederates at Mobile Bay, Alabama, in 1864, Admiral David G. Farragut (1801–1879) had his lead ship sunk by a mine. During the ensuing confusion, he uttered the famous words: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Why when someone ignores the rules do we say he “turned a blind eye”? In 1801, while second-in-command of a British fleet near Copenhagen, Horatio Nelson was told that his commander had sent up flags ordering a retreat. Nelson lifted his spyglass to his previously blinded eye and said he couldn’t see the order, and then he ordered and led a successful attack. Nelson’s insubordination became legend and gave us the expression “to turn a blind eye.” What was the original meaning of “stem the tide”? The general (yet incorrect) use of “stem the tide” is to deflect a serious problem, but tides can’t be deflected. A stem is the upright beam at the fore of the ship where the hull timbers form the prow. The nautical manoeuvre against a surging tide is the same as against an angry sea. The ship is turned to stem the onslaught. To “stem the tide” means that to overcome serious problems, you must face them head-on. When someone is facing disaster, why do we say he or she is “between the Devil and the deep blue sea”?


To be “between the Devil and the deep blue sea” has largely been replaced by being “between a rock and a hard place,” which came out of Arizona and originally meant to be bankrupt. The “devil” is the seam of a sailing ship’s hull, which was reinforced to support cannons and which was where a board was fastened for those forced to walk the plank. The condemned sailor couldn’t turn back, so his only option was the deep blue sea. If you’re abandoned and alone, why do we say you’ve been “stranded”? If you’ve been stranded, you’re abandoned and powerless. Strand came to English from the Scandinavians as meaning “beach” or “shore,” and it now refers specifically to the beach area between the high and low tide. In the seventeenth century, a stranded ship had been beached or left aground on the strand after the tide went out. The general use of the word to describe helplessness dates to 1837. If you want someone to stop “harping” on something, why might you say, “Pipe down”? The use of harping, as in repeating the same annoying statement or sound, comes from the repetitive and irritating noise made from tuning each string of a harp. If you tell the person harping on one string to “pipe down,” you are using a naval term. On early naval vessels, the boatswain’s final function for the day was to whistle or pipe down a signal for the crew to settle in and be quiet for the night. Where do we get the expression “batten down the hatches”? 216

“Batten down the hatches” is a traditional naval order to securely cover the openings or hatches to the hold on the deck of a sailing ship. Batten is the key word and comes from the same root as the French word baton, like the one used by an orchestra conductor or in a relay race. A batten is a strip of wood, which in this case was used to nail down a tarpaulin over the ship’s hatches during a storm. Why is gossip called “scuttlebutt”? The word scuttlebutt comes from sailors of the British Navy. Nineteenth-century warships had large wooden casks with holes cut in the lid for drinking water. The word scuttle means a hole, like the one created to scuttle a ship, or in this case, the one in the cask. The water cask itself was called a butt. And just as is done by the water coolers of today’s offices, sailors exchanged the latest gossip while getting a drink at the scuttlebutt. Why is a pirate ship’s flag called a “Jolly Roger”? The purpose of a pirate ship’s flag was to signal a merchant vessel that if it didn’t surrender, it would be boarded and plundered by force. Pirates used a variety of flags. One was an hourglass that signalled time was running out. The skull and crossbones is of course the most famous flag, and it got its name, Jolly Roger, from the English pronunciation of “Ali Rajah,” which is Arabic for “king of the sea.” Why did pirates wear earrings?


Earrings were used by seamen, especially warriors such as pirates, for very practical reasons and not for decoration. They were given to young sailors as a symbol of their first crossing of the equator, and their purpose was to protect the eardrums during battle. The pirates, especially those who fired the ships’ cannons during close combat with the enemy, dangled wads of wax from their earrings to use as earplugs. Why would you give a “swashbuckler” a “wide berth”? Swashbuckler, a word we use for a pirate, was created from the archaic words swash, meaning “to make noise by striking,” and buckler, meaning “shield.” A swaggering brute yelling and banging his sword on his shield was called a swashbuckler. These bullies were given a “wide berth,” which in nautical lingo means to anchor or berth a ship a safe distance away from another that might cause trouble. Where does the disciplinary order “toe the line” come from? “Toe the line” is the same as “toe the mark” and means “follow the rules or pay the consequences.” In many sports, such as foot racing, the athletes were required to stand with their toes against a scratched line to ensure a fair start. As punishment in the navy, no matter what the weather, nineteenth-century trainees were forced to stand for hours with their toes touching a seam on the ship’s deck, and this too was toeing the line. Why when waking up do we say, “Rise and shine” or “Shake a leg”?


“Rise and shine” comes from a 1916 United States Marine Corps manual that instructed noncommissioned officers to enter the privates’ barracks in the early morning and use the phrase to wake the men. While rise means “get up,” shine means “make sure your boots and brass are ready for inspection.” The Royal Navy used “shake a leg” to warn any women who might be sleeping in a hammock to show a leg or suffer the embarrassment of being rousted with the men. What’s the origin of the expression “son of a gun”? Early in the eighteenth century, wives and girlfriends (as well as the occasional prostitute) were allowed to go to sea with the sailors during long voyages. When one of them became pregnant and was about to give birth at sea, a canvas curtain was placed near the midship gun where the birth would take place. If the newborn’s father was in doubt, and it often was, the birth was registered in the log as the “son of a gun.” Why do we call the conclusion of anything unpleasant “the bitter end”? “The bitter end” has been used to describe the conclusion of something distasteful since the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a play on the word bitter, as in “sour,” and the nautical bitters, the posts on a ships deck where cables and ropes are wound and tied. When securing the ship to the dock, or while at anchor, the very end of the rope or cable holding the vessel secure is called the bitter end. Why is the telling of a tall tale said to be “spinning a yarn”?


If someone is “spinning a yarn” they are exaggerating the truth. First printed about 1812, the expression is nautical and has nothing to do with domestic spinning. Sailors were required to spend long tedious shifts working in pairs, spinning fibers into the endless miles of rope needed to keep their sailing ship sound. To pass the time, they entertained themselves by telling tall tales, or “spinning yarns.” Why is the speed of a ship measured in knots? In the 1600s, sailors measured the speed of their sailing ships by tying knots in a rope at sixty-foot intervals, then further dividing and marking the space between the knots into ten equal parts that would each be one fathom in length. Then a heavy floating log was tied to the rope’s end and thrown into the ocean. The rope was let out through a reel, and speed was measured by the number of knots that passed through the reel in thirty seconds of an hourglass. Why is a limited space called “close quarters”? Being at “close quarters,” meaning to be overwhelmed within a small space, is a naval term from the 1700s. Merchant sailing ships laden with valuable cargo had their decks outfitted with four strong wooden barriers with musket holes to which they could retreat and continue to fight if they were boarded by pirates or privateers. They referred to these desperate circumstances as fighting at “close quarters.” Why when it appears that we can proceed with no danger do we say, “The coast is clear”?


The person who says, “The coast is clear” sounds as though he or she is being cautious about avoiding legal detection, and so it should be. It originated as the standard cry from the man in the crow’s nest of every pirate ship before it chanced a landing. When the captain verified with his telescope that there was no danger in going ashore, he would repeat the cry, “The coast is clear!” And so it became an order for his fellow smugglers to prepare to land. Why does “jury-rigged” mean a temporary repair with whatever is at hand? In the seventeenth century, when a ship’s mast was damaged at sea, a “jury mast” was rigged to hold the sail until the replacement could be found. Because this was a critical situation the repairs had to be done within a day, or in French un jour, which in this case is the origin of jury. Jury-rigged is a temporary repair and has nothing to do with “jerry-built,” which means permanent bad work. Why do we say that someone arrogant needs to be “taken down a peg”? A ship’s colours are raised or lowered to signal the ship’s status. “All flags flying” signals great pride, but flags could also indicate degrees between failure and conquest. These flags were once held in place by a system of pegs, so lowering them was done by taking down a peg. This was a shame to the ship and its crew and gave us the expression for humiliation “to be taken down a peg.” Why do we say that someone who has overcome an obstacle with ease has passed with “flying colours”? 221

Since the eighteenth century, ships of the navy have used flags to communicate their status or well-being. The most prominent flag, of course, is that of the ship’s country, but there are dozens of other banners, which are called “colours.” The most elaborate use of this bunting is after a victory at sea, when a triumphant ship returns to its home port with a proud and full display of flying colours. Why do we describe something approximate as “by and large”? In early sailing jargon, by was “by the wind,” and when a helmsman was ordered to fill the sails he was told to steer “full and by.” This required great skill and was called steering small. A less experienced helmsman might have been told to steer large with the order “by and large,” which meant use the wind but don’t fill the sails. This is how “by and large” came to mean not quite, but close enough. Why do we say that something lost has “gone by the board”? During the time of wooden ships, sailors often referred to their sailing vessel as “the boards.” We still use their language when we board a ship or are on board as part of a crew. Outboard is outside the boat, while inboard is inside. When a sailing ship’s mast was broken by enemy cannon or in a storm and couldn’t be salvaged, the captain would order the ropes holding it to be cut, letting it drift away or “go by the board.” Why is a severe labour dispute called a “strike”?


Conditions on board commercial sailing ships were miserable. On long voyages, food and water went bad and hygienic conditions were lower than for animals in a stable. If they suspected that a ship was poorly prepared, it wasn’t uncommon for the crew to strike the main sail, making it impossible to go to sea until conditions improved. This gave us the word strike to describe any extreme action by labour against management. Why is someone standing apart said to be “aloof”? If someone is emotionally or physically reserved, we say they are “aloof.” This remoteness is sometimes interpreted as being regally snobbish or simply shy. Aloof is derived from the nautical word loof, which in early sixteenth-century English meant “windward direction” or “the weather side of the ship.” The helmsman directed the ship into the wind to keep from being blown onto coastal rocks. He was ordered to keep his distance from the shore with the order “Hold a-loof,” which is how aloof took on the general meaning of “keeping clear.” Why are windows in ships and planes called “portholes”? Openings on the sides of a ship have been called “portholes” since 1243. The word port comes from the Latin porta, which means “door” or “gate.” Because steering apparatus or the “steerboard” was on the right, ships of the time docked on their left, which was originally known as the “larboard” side because it was the loading side. In the sixteenth century, “larboard” gave way to “portside” to avoid confusion with the similar-sounding “starboard” or right side. The term porthole is most commonly used to describe windows on both sides of 223

airplanes and ships, but the it comes from the openings on the portside to load cargo onto ancient ships. What does it mean when someone suffers a “sea change”? Sea change is a term often used in politics that refers to a surprising and significant change from a previous position. Because early sailors were familiar with the sudden and unpredictable temperament of the sea, one minute calm and the next minute life-threatening and dangerous, they introduced the expression “sea change” into everyday English as meaning any sudden transformation. Why do we say that somebody who is being treated badly has been “hung out to dry”? Discipline on early British sailing ships was necessary but often extreme. The lash or cat-o’-nine-tails left sailors scarred for life, but the act of keelhauling — tying a victim with rope and pulling him under the ship, sometimes more than once — was the discipline feared most. If the prisoner survived drowning, he was suspended from the yardarm, where he was left hanging or “hung out to dry” for a predetermined period of time, then cut down to contemplate his misdemeanours. Why do we say that something likely to happen soon is “in the offing”? Something “in the offing” isn’t about to happen in the present, or even soon, but it will certainly happen before too long. Offing (originally offen or offin) is an early nautical term that describes the part of the ocean most distant from the shore but still visible. So someone who 224

was watching for a ship would first see it in the “offing” and realize that its arrival was imminent. The phrase “in the offing” was first used during the sixteenth century. What is the origin of the word squeegee? A squeegee brings to mind either spring cleaning or an annoying panhandler at a traffic light. The word probably had an equally unpleasant effect on the sailors who gave the scraping instrument its name. Squeege was an eighteenth-century alteration of squeeze or press and was the inspiration for the name of a tool used for scraping the decks of ships. In Moby Dick, American author Herman Melville (1819–1891) called the tool a squilgee, but other sources indicate that squeegee was a nautical term for the instrument as early as 1844. Why is a person facing serious trouble said to be in “dire straits”? Strait is a Middle English word that was used by sailors to describe a narrow or tight and difficult-to-manoeuvre channel of water such as the Straits of Gibraltar or the Bering Strait. The word comes from the Latin strictus, meaning “to bind tightly.” Dire also has a Latin root and means “terrible” or “fearsome.” Although “dire straits” now signifies any serious day-to-day problem, it originally meant facing an obstacle so difficult to overcome that the odds against navigating through it successfully were overwhelming. Why is the residue of a shipwreck called “flotsam and jetsam”?


“Flotsam and jetsam” is sometimes used broadly as “odds and ends,” but its origin dates back to the late sixteenth century as a description of debris left after a shipwreck. Flotsam is whatever is left of the cargo or ship that is found floating on water. Jetsam is cargo or parts of the ship thrown overboard to lighten the ship in an emergency, and which subsequently sinks or is washed ashore. Today the expression might also be used to describe debris from a plane wreck. Flotsam came to English through the Old French verb floter, meaning “to float.” Jetsam is an alteration of jettison. Valuable items thrown into the sea but attached to a buoy so they can be recovered after the ship goes down are called lagan. Why do sailors call the bottom of the sea “Davy Jones’s locker”? “Davy Jones” seems like such a nice normal name, but this mythical creature struck terror into the hearts of ancient mariners. Going to his locker meant you were a man overboard and destined to die, because the locker was at the bottom of the sea where Biblical images of Jonah and the whale came into play. Davy Jones presided over all evil spirits in the sea and could shape-shift into hideous forms, often perching on the riggings during hurricanes or shipwrecks. Davy Jones first appeared in literature in 1751 in The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by British novelist Tobias Smollett.


There is a colourful legend that Davy Jones was a pub owner who would get young men drunk and then confine them in the locker where he stored his beer until he could sell them to a ship short of hands. Why did sailors sing “shanties”? Sea shanties are the songs sung by sailors working on the great sailing ships of a more romantic time. A shanty man leads the songs. He chants a line, and the sailors respond within the rhythm of their work. Shanties take different forms, depending on the labour being done. There are short-haul shanties and long-haul shanties for operating the sails. There are shanties used to raise and lower the anchor, and there are shanties whalers used to sing. Sea songs became known as chanties or shanties, from the French chantez, meaning “to sing,” in around 1867. The word shanty, “a small, crude cabin,” is French-Canadian and has a different root. The term shanty town was first recorded in Canada in 1876. The designation “Shanty Irish” was inspired by the title of a 1928 book by hard-boiled American writer Jim Tully (1886–1947). Why did sailors begin wearing bell-bottom trousers? British sailors started wearing bell-bottom trousers near the end of the eighteenth century. Before then they wore “slops,” a loose-fitting mid-calf-length pant. “Bells” were only worn by “swabs,” or regular seamen, and not by officers. Regulation dictated that the bells be made of wide cuffs large enough to roll up to the thigh during wading or deck swabbing. Although most eighteenth-century 227

sailors couldn’t swim, they were taught to pull up and tie the bells of their pants, creating air-filled life preservers, if they fell overboard. American sailors stopped wearing bell-bottoms in around 1998 when they became part of the dress uniform only. However, when the supply ran out in 2000, bell-bottoms in the U.S. Navy disappeared altogether. Why is someone lost in boredom said to be at “loose ends”? The origin of this phrase is nautical and refers to the ends of the countless number of ropes on early sailing ships. These ends needed to be bound tightly to prevent unravelling, which could cause disaster at sea. Whenever a captain noticed that his men had too much time on their hands, which could lead to trouble, he would order them to check the ropes and repair any “loose ends.” Quickies Did you know … • that blue blazers originated as military jackets worn by British sailors on the nineteenth-century ship HMS Blazer? Is a flag flown upside down a signal of distress? The use of flags to signal distress is a very old naval tradition, but flying the national flag upside down isn’t one of them. From a distance it’s hard to read whether a flag is or isn’t upside down. The rule was that when you needed help, you


drew attention to your ship by doing something unusual, such as arranging the sails in an un-seaman-like manner or by flying the ensign upright but in an unusual place. The most commonly agreed-upon distress signal in Britain’s Royal Navy was to tie an ensign into a “wheft” or a “knot” and fly it from the foretop-gallant masthead. The word wheft is a variant of waif, which literally means “unclaimed property.” An ensign is a national flag displayed on ships and aircraft, while an insignia is a badge or emblem indicating rank, unit membership, or nationality. A flag is a cloth ensign and derives from flagstone because it is square and flat. On land an ensign tied in a wheft and flown upside down over a fort was sometimes a signal of distress, but the knot was still the key. Today there are sixteen standardized international naval distress signals.

• “Where there’s life there’s hope.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C.–43 B.C.) • “Time is more valuable than money.” — Theophrastus (c. 372–c. 287)


• “A man’s home is his castle.” — Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634) • “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November …” — Richard Grafton (d. c. 1572) • “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” — Charles Wesley (1707–1788) • “The good die young.” — William Wordsworth (1770–1850) • “Hell is paved with good intentions.” — Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)


the dope on horse racing What designates a colt, a filly, a mare, and a gelding in the world of Thoroughbred horses? The official birth date of all Thoroughbred racehorses is January 1 of the year they were born, regardless of the actual birth date. All horses are foals until they are a year old. Between the ages of two and five, males are called colts while females are fillies. Beyond the age of five, male horses are simply called horses while females are mares. A male horse that has been neutered is referred to as a gelding, while one preserved for breeding purposes is a stallion. These designations are important because Thoroughbred racing uses age to determine equitable divisions for competition. Gelding is from the Viking word geldr, which means “barren.” Why is the ancestry of a Thoroughbred called its “pedigree”?


A pedigree for any animal is a lineage of heredity. For instance, pedigree must be traced to determine if a horse is a Thoroughbred, which is a breed of horse descended from three Arabian stallions brought to Britain and Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and bred with local mares. Pedigree came from the French pie de grue, meaning “the foot of a crane,” which the forked lines of a family tree resemble. Why do we ask for “the real dope” when we want the truth? Dope is from the Dutch word doop, meaning “a thick sauce,” and became a drug term from the semi-liquid form of opium smoked by drug addicts. The use of dope meaning “stupid” came from the ridiculous behaviour of someone under the influence of the drug. The use of “the real dope” as meaning information arrived in around 1900 when gamblers checking on racehorses needed to know whether or not any of the horses were drugged or doped. Why is a sure winner called a “shoo-in”? The confusion around a “shoo-in” is in the spelling, which is often written “shoe-in.” The shoe isn’t footwear. Instead, it’s spelled as in shooing something to make it move quickly. The term comes from dishonest horse racing when, after conspiring to bet on a probable loser, the jockeys hold back their mounts and urge or “shoo in” a chosen horse through the pack, where it will cross the finish line first and pay off at great odds.


Why when someone has won without question do we say that he did it “hands down”? To win hands down has nothing to do with placing a winning hand of cards face down. Instead, the expression comes from the earliest days of horse racing. If a horse had proven its superiority and was approaching the finish line well ahead of the pack, the jockey would release the reins, giving the animal free rein to the finish. He therefore would win the race “hands down.” Why is a horse race sometimes called a “derby”? In England it’s properly pronounced “darby,” but everywhere else, including here, it’s known as a “derby.” In 1780, the twelfth Earl of Derby was having dinner with his friend Sir Charles Bunbury when they decided to sponsor a horse race for three-year-olds in Surrey, England. They tossed a coin to decide after which of them the race would be named and Derby won — otherwise the most exciting two minutes in sports would be the Kentucky Bunbury. Why is an obstacle-filled “steeplechase”?





In early England, the church was the centre of a town’s existence and was usually the largest and most prominent structure. For travellers on horseback, the first sign of their destination was the lofty church steeple rising above the trees. To the tired traveller, the sight was exhilarating and inspired the horsemen to quicken their paces, very often racing to see who could arrive at the steeple first. From this, a horse race became known as a “steeplechase.” 233

Why is an underdog victory called an “upset”? The word upset means to be unhappy or tipped over. It had nothing to do with sports until August 13, 1919, when, in his seventh race, the great horse Man o’ War, who had defeated all of the other greats of his day by fifteen lengths or more, fell victim to an inexperienced starter and lost the race to an unknown competitor named Upset. From then on, upset became synonymous with a victorious underdog. Man o’ War retired with a record of twenty wins and only that one loss to Upset. He retired as a three-year-old, lived to be thirty, and became one of the greatest sires in the history of horse racing. How long is a furlong? The furlong is an ancient British unit of measurement, literally meaning the length of a furrow. It’s the distance a horse can pull a plow without resting, which was calculated at exactly 220 yards, or 201.168 metres. When the Romans introduced the mile to Britain, it was changed in length to accommodate a tidy eight furlongs. This was done because all property and other precise distances such as that of a horse race were measured locally in furlongs. When a person is upset, why do we say someone’s “got his goat”? When someone “gets your goat,” it usually means you’ve lost your temper or become angry enough to be distracted. It’s a term that came from a horse trainer’s practice of putting a goat in a stall with a skittish racehorse to keep him calm 234

before a big race. An opponent or gambler might arrange for the goat to be removed by a stable boy, which would upset the horse and its owner and so reduce their chances of winning. Why do we say that someone who has an advantage has “a leg up”? If you have “a leg up” on your competition then you’re ahead of the game because you’ve received a boost. The expression comes from the equestrian world. When a rider needs help mounting a large horse, he might ask someone for a leg up. That someone will then create a foothold by cupping both hands so that the rider can use this to step up and get into a position to get his leg up and over the horse’s back. Why does coming in “under the wire” mean you’ve just made it? To make it “under the wire” means another instant and you’d have been too late. Before modern electronics, stewards posted at the finish line determined the winners of horse races. A reference wire was strung across the track above the finish line to help them see the order of finish — or which nose crossed the line first. The result of a horse race was determined by the order in which the horses passed under the wire.


Why do we call a person who competes on horseback an “equestrian”? Equestrian is a word used to describe a competitive horseback rider and entered English in 1656 as meaning a “knight on horseback.” The horse has evolved over 50 million years to become the majestic animal exhibited at various competitions today. Equestrian is from the Latin word for horse, which is equus. Why are candies on sticks called “lollypops”? At the end of the nineteenth century, most candies were too large and dangerous for a child’s mouth, and because they were sold unwrapped, they inevitably caused a sticky mess on clothes, faces, and fingers. That was enough to make many parents keep their children from buying them. In a stroke of marketing genius, George Smith of Connecticut solved the problem by putting the candy on a stick. He named his invention after a famous racehorse of the time, Lolly Pop. 236

Why is an unknown contestant called a “dark horse”? Sam Flynn, a travelling Tennessee horse trader, often found a horse race planned in the same town as an auction. So he mixed a coal black racing stallion named Dusky Pete in with his work horses, then quietly entered him in the local races and wagered heavily on Dusky Pete, who would invariably win. As word spread of Sam’s deception, so did the caution: “Beware the dark horse.” Why is a determined person said to be “hell bent for leather”? It is a good idea to stay out of the way of anyone “hell bent for leather.” The word bent has meant a mental inclination other than straight since 1586 and resurfaced as “bent out of shape,” meaning “extremely upset or weird,” during the 1960s. “Hell bent” means the disturbed subject is in a big hurry and extremely determined to achieve a goal. The “for leather” part derives from an 1889 reference to horseback riding, with the leather being the bridal and saddle. The expression then meant “riding very fast” and began as “hell for leather.” Hell is often used in association with speed, for example “go like hell” or “run like hell.”


holidays and special occasions How was the date of Christmas established? Early scholars believed that prophets died on an anniversary of their birth. Once they established Good Friday as either March 25 or April 6, they reasoned that Christ’s incarnation was nine months later, which would be either December 25 or January 6. The choice was not solely to comply with pagan superstitions; in A.D. 386, when the date was established, any date would have collided with pagan rituals because they filled the calendar year. Neither the date of Christ’s birthday nor that of his crucifixion is given in the Gospels. How did holly become associated with Christmas? No one knows the exact date of Christ’s birth, although May 30 is the most popular scholastic guess. December 25 was chosen early in the fourth century partly in an effort to


convert those of other religions who celebrated the winter solstice. Holly was a prominent part of pre-Christian winter celebrations and was used to bring these others into the fold by having its leaves symbolize a crown of thorns and its red berries symbolize Christ’s blood at the crucifixion. Why are Christmas songs called “carols”? A Christmas carol is a song of religious joy, but the musical form of a carol doesn’t have to include Christmas. Its main feature is the repetition, either musically or chorally, of a theme, as in a circle. The word carole entered English from the French at the end of the thirteenth century, but it’s much older than that. Originally, a carole was a ring dance where men and women held hands while dancing and singing in a circle. How did the poinsettia, a Mexican weed, become associated with Christmas? One hundred years ago, Dr. Joel Poinsett, the American ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant to the rest of North America. A Mexican legend has it that two poor children had nothing to offer the baby Jesus during the Christmas festival, so on their way to church they picked some green weeds from the road side. When they placed them at the nativity the green petals turned a bright red in the shape of a star. Is Xmas a disrespectful commercial abbreviation of Christmas?


Xmas has its roots legitimately grounded in the Greek word for “Christ,” which is Xristos. In the sixteenth century, Europeans adopted the first letter from Xristos as an initial for Christ’s name, and even though the practice had been common among the early Christians, some North Americans, not understanding the Greek language, mistakenly took the X as a commercial insult. How did Christmas cake become a tradition? A dish of porridge that once ended the fast on Christmas Eve evolved into a pudding with dried fruits and spices as a tribute to the Wise Men. By the sixteenth century, the pudding had become a fruitcake, served during the parish priest’s home blessings on Twelfth Night. In 1870, after the Protestant Queen Victoria banned Twelfth Night celebrations because they were “unchristian,” clever confectioners began selling their fruitcakes as “Christmas cake.” When exactly are the twelve days of Christmas? The twelve days of Christmas are the days separating December 25 and the Epiphany, or the date of Christ’s baptism, which is January 6 — the legendary date that the three Wise Men visited the stable with their gifts. It was once the custom to pile up gifts on December 25 and then distribute them over the days leading to January 6. In North America, the tradition is now only a memory through the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” What is the meaning of the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”?


Between 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics were restricted in practising their faith openly in England. During this time a Christmas song was written as a catechism for teaching young Catholics the scriptures. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality, which the children could remember. The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ. Two turtledoves were the Old and New Testaments. Three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love. The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament. The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation. Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy. The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.


The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples. The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed. At the end of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” your true love will have delivered 364 gifts. Why are fruits and nuts offered over Christmas? December 21 is the day of the winter solstice: the year’s shortest day and longest night. It’s known as St. Thomas Day, commemorating the last apostle to be convinced of Christ’s resurrection. On this day a bowl of nuts and fruits is put on display to ensure prosperity in the new year, and by sharing these, the wish is extended to friends and neighbours. Failure to share this providence could mean a lean crop in the following seasons. Why do we hang stockings at Christmas? According to legend, the very first gifts St. Nicholas gave were to three very poor girls who needed money for their wedding dowries. On Christmas Eve they hung their stockings to dry by the fireplace. St. Nicholas slipped in at night and left gold coins in each of their stockings so they could marry the men they loved. Until recently, Christmas stockings were filled with nuts and fruit. The Italians introduced giving a lump of coal to naughty children. What’s the story behind “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?


In 1865, inspired by a horseback trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Reverend Philip Brooks of Philadelphia composed a poem, which he eventually showed to Lewis Redner, the organist at the Church of the Holy Trinity, wondering if he could put the words to music. Redner was stumped — that is, until Christmas Eve, when it came to him in a dream. The next morning, the carol we know as “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was born. What’s the story behind “Silent Night”? On Christmas Eve in 1817, when Father Joseph Mohr of St. Nicholas Church in Arnsdorf, Austria, found that a mouse had chewed through the bellows of his church pipe organ, he rushed to the home of music teacher Franz Gruber. The two men quickly wrote a musical piece, hoping it would save the Christmas Mass. With Father Mohr playing guitar, they sang their song in harmony to a small Austrian congregation who became the first to hear the most beloved carol of them all — “Silent Night.” “Silent Night” was performed by troupes of Tyrolean Folk Singers, but by 1848, when Father Mohr died penniless at fifty-five, “Silent Night” had fallen into obscurity. In 1854, King Frederick William IV of Prussia heard the song and was so moved, he became responsible for its revival. How did “Greensleeves” become a Christmas song? The ballad “Greensleeves” was first published in 1580, but no doubt had been known long before that. One early lyric (“Lady Greensleeves”) was a love song to a well-dressed woman, possibly a prostitute. The music’s first application to 243

Christmas appeared in New Christmas Carols of 1642 and was entitled “The Old Year Now Is Fled.” William Dix, a British insurance agent, wrote a poem in 1865 entitled “The Manger Throne.” In 1872 a publisher took three of the poem’s many verses, set them to the “Greensleeves” melody, and published the resulting song as “What Child Is This?” Contrary to a popular legend, England’s King Henry VIII (1491–1547) did not write the music for “Greensleeves.” What are we saying when we sing, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”? The Middle Dutch word decken meant “to cover or adorn” and came from dec, which originally meant any cover, such as a tarpaulin or a roof, and was borrowed into English as a nautical term in the fifteenth century. Although today a backyard deck might mean a wooden patio, a ship’s deck was not a floor but a roof to cover cannons. The Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” is saying simply “cover the walls” with boughs of holly. Why is Christmas referred to as “the Yuletide”? The ancient Germanic peoples celebrated the winter solstice with a feast day for the pagan sun god Jul, which is still the preferred Scandinavian reference to Christmas and survives in our Yule log. Fearing the sun god had disappeared during the year’s longest night, a vigil was held from dusk to dawn and the Yule log was lit to encourage the sun’s return and to discourage evil spirits returning to the Earth’s surface.


It was Pope Gregory I who suggested that missionaries not challenge the Northern pagan practices and traditions, but rather transfer their meaning to Christianity. The Yuletide covers all December feast days, including Chanukah. Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Two centuries before Christ’s birth, the Druids celebrated the winter solstice with mistletoe because it enhanced fertility and was a favourite of the gods. The Romans hung it prominently during orgies, which is how it became associated with kissing and also why the church banned it in the fourth century. The name mistletoe is from the Germanic word mista, meaning “manure” or “dung,” because the plant grows out of oak trees well-fertilized by bird droppings. Why do we light the Christmas tree? In the sixteenth century, Germans began decorating fir trees with ribbons, flowers, apples, and coloured paper. Inspired by the reflection of stars off branches in the forest, Martin Luther placed lit candles on his indoor tree. After three hundred years of candles, Edward Johnson introduced electric Christmas lights outside his Fifth Avenue home in New York in 1882. Johnson also worked on the invention of the light bulb with Thomas Edison. Considering his workload, how much time does Santa spend at each child’s home?


Travelling at about a thousand miles a second, or 3.6 million miles an hour, Santa covers 111 million miles in 31 hours. Within one second he must visit 500,000 homes, which is why we seldom see him. Of course he does have help, and in some cases he delivers presents before Christmas or even works on Boxing Day, but it’s still very hard work. When is the proper time to take down the Christmas tree? From the very beginning of Christmas traditions, January 6 — the day of the Epiphany — was the official end of gift giving, and the most popular day of the celebration. Some people still celebrate the Epiphany as being more important than Christmas Day. Regardless, January 6 is the last day of the festival, and that is the day to take down the tree and decorations. To do otherwise is bad luck. Which Jewish celebrations?





The celebration of Christmas begins with Midnight Mass, and the calendar date is December 25, but every Christian knows that the reverence begins on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve comes directly from the Jewish custom of beginning religious rituals with ceremonies starting at sundown the evening before the holy day with candles and prayers lasting until the following sundown — in this case, Christmas Day. What’s the story behind Chanukah? The word Chanukah means “rededication.” Over 2,300 years ago, the Syrians occupying Judea were overthrown after years of fighting by a Jewish army led by Judas Maccabaeus and 246

his four brothers. The Syrians, led by King Antiochus, had ordered the Jewish people to reject their God and customs and replace them with Greek symbols and deities. The Syrians had desecrated the Jerusalem Temple with their own gods; while cleaning and reclaiming the temple, the Israelites found enough oil to light the eternal lamp for only one day, but incredibly the flame flickered for eight days, a miracle celebrated to this day as the “Festival of Lights.” The rededication of the temple was on the twenty-fifth day of the ancient month of Kislev (scholars are uncertain whether this was in the new calendar months of November or December). Maccabaeus means “hammer.” Judea was, in part, what is now Israel. Which culture began celebrating the new year with a feast of food and alcohol? The earliest recorded New Year’s festival was in ancient Babylon in what is now Iraq. Before the introduction of a calendar year, the celebration took place in spring during the planting season. The Babylonian feast was elaborate, lasting eleven days, and included copious drinking and eating in a tribute to the gods of fertility and agriculture. Celebrating the new year was both a thanksgiving and a plea for a successful new harvest. Why is New Year’s Eve celebrated with noisemakers and kissing strangers?


New Year’s Eve is the night of Holy Sylvester, the Pope who converted the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity. With the Emperor’s conversion, pagan gods fell from favour but fought back through the souls of the living. To combat their return, during the darkness of New Year’s Eve, people wandered the streets shouting to strangers, frolicking with noisemakers, and generally acting foolish — a custom that resurfaces every New Year’s Eve. Pope Sylvester I (A.D. 314–335) cured the Emperor Constantine of leprosy. Some New Year’s Eve revellers disguised themselves as mummers so that the demoted gods couldn’t identify and punish them as they wandered the streets. What is the origin of New Year’s resolutions? In medieval times, during the last feast of the Christmas week, knights of the realm were required to place their hands on a peacock and vow to continue living up to their pledge of chivalry. This was known as the knight’s “peacock vow.” The New Year’s custom of resolving to live a better life originated with the Babylonians, who promised the gods that they would return all borrowed farm and cooking tools and pay off personal debts. What is the origin of the New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne”? The tone and lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne” seem to capture perfectly the emotions involved in the passing of the fleeting accomplishments and losses of one calendar year coinciding 248

with the rise of hope in a new one. Auld lang syne is Scottish and literally means “old long since,” or, in modern language, simply “long ago.” The song was written down by the poet Robert Burns, but he wasn’t the composer. Burns heard the folk song being sung by an anonymous old man and copied it down before passing it on to become a ceremonial fixture of New Year’s Eve. What is the religious significance of Groundhog Day? February 2 is an ancient Christian holiday celebrating Mary’s purification and is known as Candlemas Day. Christians believed that if the day dawned sunny, crop planting would have to wait because winter would last six more weeks. During the 1880s, a few friends in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, went groundhog hunting every Candlemas Day. They became known as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, with a mascot named Phil. Who receives the most Valentine’s cards? Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas as the largest annual card-sending holiday. One billion cards are sent each year! Women purchase 85 percent of all Valentine’s cards, so men receive more, but then 15 percent of women send themselves flowers on February 14. In order of popularity, the cards are sent to teachers, children, mothers, wives, and sweethearts. As well, 3 percent of all Valentine’s cards are sent to pets.


How did March 17 become St. Patrick’s Day? When the time came to honour the patron saint of Ireland’s birthday, church officials gathered solemnly to choose a day, then realized that most of St. Patrick’s life was a mystery. They finally narrowed his birthdate down to either March 8 or 9, but because they couldn’t agree which was correct, they decided to add the two together and declared March 17 to be St. Patrick’s Day. How did the shamrock become a symbol of St. Patrick? In the fifth century, Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, transformed that country from its pagan roots to Christianity. During an outdoor sermon, Patrick was struggling to explain the Holy Trinity when he spotted a shamrock. He used its three leaves to illustrate how the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost grew from a single stem, symbolizing one God sustaining the trinity, and ever since, the shamrock reminds the faithful of that lesson. 250

Did St. Patrick rid Ireland of snakes? There were never any snakes in Ireland. The story of St. Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland is a metaphor for the eradication of paganism during the fifth century. St. Patrick did, however, superimpose a circle representing the sun, a powerful pagan symbol, on what is known as the Celtic cross. Why is the season of pre-Easter fasting called “Lent”? Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and is the forty-day fast that precedes Easter. The forty days are an imitation of Christ’s preparation for his ministry, which reached its climax with the crucifixion and resurrection. The word Lent has no religious significance whatsoever. It comes from the Old English word Lencten, which was the Anglo-Saxon name for the season we now call spring, within which Easter is celebrated. In all languages other than English, the season of Easter fasting has a name derived from the Latin term Quadragesima, or “the forty days.” What are the origins of Ash Wednesday? At the beginning of Lent, which always falls on a Wednesday, Catholics mark their foreheads with a cross made of ashes to symbolize their commitment to Christ. The ashes are from burned palm fronds used in the previous year’s celebration of Palm Sunday. In ancient times, when someone died, it was a mourning custom to sit inside and cover one’s head and body with dust and ashes as a mortal reminder that we are all “from ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” 251

How did the rabbit and eggs become symbols of Easter? The word Easter comes from the ancient Norse word Ostara, which is what the Vikings called the festival of spring. The legend of a rabbit bringing Easter eggs is from German folklore, which tells of a poor woman who, during a famine, dyed some eggs then hid them in a chicken’s nest as an Easter surprise for her children. Just as the children discovered the nest, a big rabbit leaped away, and the story spread that it had brought the eggs. How did the white trumpet lily become the Easter lily? During the 1880s, while in Bermuda, Mrs. Thomas Sargent became enamoured of the beautiful white Bermuda trumpet lily. She took its bulbs back to Philadelphia, where it caught on among local florists. Since it blooms in spring, the flower soon became known as the “Easter lily,” and its popularity spread. The lily had been introduced to Bermuda from its native Japan and is now grown primarily on North America’s Pacific coast. What are the origins of April Fool’s Day? Up until 1564, the French celebrated New Year’s between March 25 and April 1, but with the introduction of the new Gregorian Calendar the festival was moved to January 1. Those who resisted became the victims of pranks including invitations to nonexistent New Year’s parties on April 1. Soon the April 1 celebration of a non-occasion became an annual festival of hoaxes. How did we start celebrating Mother’s Day? 252

In 1907, Miss Anna Jarvis of West Virginia gave the congregation a white carnation to wear at the church service on the second anniversary of her mother’s death. But Mother’s Day became increasingly commercial, and Miss Jarvis spent the rest of her life trying to restore its simplicity. The strain of her efforts to stop Mother’s Day and what it had become led her to the Marshall Square Sanitarium, where she died alone and penniless in 1948. How did Father’s Day get started? During a Spokane, Washington, Mother’s Day service in 1910, a Mrs. Sonora Dodd thought of how she and her five brothers had been raised on a small farm by her single father. She proposed a Father’s Day celebration, and although it caught on locally, it was a political hot potato and didn’t receive permanent recognition until an edict by President Richard Nixon in 1972. Father’s Day is now the fifth-largest card-sending occasion in North America. Where did the customs of Halloween come from? The ancient Celts celebrated October 31 as New Year’s Eve. They called it “All Hallows Eve.” They believed that on that night, all those who had died in the previous twelve months gathered to choose the body of a living person or animal to inhabit for the next year before they could pass into the afterlife. The original Halloween festival included human sacrifices and scary costumes and was designed to protect the living from the dead. Why do children ask us to shell out treats on Halloween? 253

As a challenge to Halloween, the Roman Catholic Church placed All Saints Day on November 1. On that day, Christians went from village to village begging for soul cakes, a mixture of bread and currants. One cake bought one prayer for the souls of the donor’s departed relatives. The phrase “shell out” as a demand for payment comes from the shelling of dried peas or corn, once a currency of commercial exchange among the poor. Why do children demand, “Trick or treat” during Halloween? When the Irish introduced Halloween to America, children celebrated with a night of mild vandalism. Their bag of “tricks” included breaking or soaping windows or overturning outdoor toilets. Soon they realized that adults would offer candy or other “treats” to stop these tricks. They then offered the homeowner a choice of giving them goodies or suffering the consequences. This mild blackmail demand came as “Trick or treat?” Why do we carve jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween? In Irish folklore, a supreme con man named Jack, or Jack-o, once tricked the Devil himself. Upon his death, his sins barred him from heaven, and because he had once fooled the Devil he couldn’t enter hell. After a lot of begging he finally persuaded Satan to give him one burning ember. Placed in a hollowed-out turnip it served as a lantern to light his way through the afterlife. Later in North America, the plentiful pumpkin replaced turnips for use as “Jack-o’s lanterns.”


How did bobbing for apples become a Halloween tradition? Halloween was the Celts’ most significant annual holiday. After the Romans invaded Britain, they respected and adopted a few of the Celtic practices, and during the first century A.D., the two cultures began integrating their late autumn rituals. In October, the Romans celebrated Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was an apple, which is how that fruit, whether bobbing for it or otherwise, became symbolic of Halloween.


religion and beyond Why is a morality lecture called a “sermon”? A sermon is generally thought of as a religious discourse delivered by a preacher from a pulpit, but it can also be any tedious lecture or exhortation on right and wrong from a pompous or self-righteous person. Its chief requirement is that it must be long, because the word sermon is from the Latin sermonem, meaning “the stringing together of words” within a speech or talk. It entered English from French in around 1200 as sermun. A sermonette is simply a short sermon and dates from 1814. There is no mention of the word sermon in the Bible. Why do Christians place their hands together in prayer? The original gesture of Christian prayer was spreading the arms and hands heavenward. There is no mention anywhere in the Bible of joining hands in prayer, and that custom didn’t surface in the church until the ninth century. In Roman times,


a man would place his hands together as an offer of submission that meant “I surrender, here are my hands ready to be bound or shackled.” Christianity accepted the gesture as a symbol of offering total obedience, or submission, to God. Why do we refer to the celebrants of the first Thanksgiving as “Pilgrims”? The New World settlers from the Mayflower weren’t called Pilgrims until two hundred years after their 1620 arrival at Plymouth Rock. It was Daniel Webster, in a bicentennial celebration of their landing, who first described them as “Our Pilgrim Fathers.” The word comes from the Latin for “traveller.” Perager became pelegrin, then pilegrim in English, evolving into pilgrim. The term was first used to describe Christians who made a journey of religious devotion to the Holy Land. How did the word halo come to mean divinity? The word halo is Greek and literally means “threshing floor,” because it described the circular track followed by a team of oxen while threshing golden-coloured grain. The idea of the halo has pagan roots and wasn’t accepted by the Christian church until the seventh century. Its symbolism of heavenly authority is the reason monarchs wear crowns and Native chiefs wear bonnets of feathers. In religious paintings a halo suggests a sacred aura. Why is happiness referred to as “seventh heaven” or “cloud nine”?


The ancient Jews believed that the highest heaven, or “heaven of heavens,” the home of God and his chosen angels, was the seventh heaven. The Muslims agreed that the seventh heaven was the pinnacle of ecstasy. “Cloud nine” was coined by the American weather bureau and means “as high as clouds can get,” or between thirty and forty thousand feet. Its meaning as a euphoric state came about in the 1950s. How did astrology connect the lives of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Charlie Chaplin with that of Adolf Hitler? Chaplin and Hitler were associated astrologically from birth, because both men were born within the same hour in the same week of the same year. The date connecting Churchill and FDR with the German dictator is January 30. It’s the date of President Roosevelt’s birth, Winston Churchill’s death, and Hitler’s ascension to power in Germany. Why is the head of the Roman Catholic Church called the “Pontiff” or “Pope,” and where is the “Holy See”? In Italian, the word Pope is an endearment meaning “father” or “papa.” The responsibility of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church is to build bridges between God and mankind, and the title Pontiff is from the original Roman reference pontifex, meaning “bridge builder.” “Holy See” is a corruption of “Holy seat,” and refers to the place where this seat or throne is housed. Why do we describe someone with deeply held beliefs as “dyed in the wool”?


“Dyed in the wool” describes someone whose thoughts on politics or religion just can’t be changed. The original meaning of the phrase was applied to the dying of raw wool, which, if done in bulk before being combed or woven, allows the wool to hold its colour much longer than wool dyed after processing. Today, “dyed in the wool” means that like the colour in the unprocessed yarn, convictions ingrained early, during childhood, will last the longest. Why do we say that a bad deal will only “rob Peter to pay Paul”? In the mid-1700s the ancient Cathedral of St. Paul’s in London was falling apart, and the strain on the treasury was so great that it was decided that it would merge with the diocese of the newer St. Peter’s Cathedral in order to absorb and use their funds to repair the crumbling St. Paul’s. The parishioners of St. Peter’s resented this and came up with the rallying cry, they’re “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Why is something tasteless said to be “tawdry”? In A.D. 672, the eventual St. Audrey entered a convent for a life of penance and prayer. As a young woman she had worn fine necklaces, a habit she now considered the cause of her terminal neck tumour, which she covered with a scarf. After her death, women honoured her by wearing fine silk St. Audrey scarves, which through time were followed by cheap imitations for the English lower classes, who pronounced “St. Audrey” as “tawdry.” When someone we are discussing shows up, why do we say, “Speak of the Devil”? 259

When someone recently mentioned in a conversation suddenly turns up we might say, “Speak of the Devil,” as though our conversation has brought the subject into our midst. This is precisely what the expression means, because in the Middle Ages it was believed that any mention of the Devil would be an invitation for the evil one to appear either in spirit or in action, and so other than within ecclesiastical circles, his name was avoided at all costs. Why do we describe an upset person as being “beside himself”? If someone is “beside himself,” he is extremely distraught. You might even say he is out of his mind, because the ancients believed that under extreme distress the soul left a man’s body and stood beside the human form, which left the subject literally beside himself. This absence of the soul gave the Devil an opportunity to fill the void. Extreme pleasure could also cause this condition. The Greek word ecstasy means “to stand out of the body.” Why do we say that something dwindling is “petering out”? Supplies that are gradually diminishing are said to be “petering out,” and someone exhausted is “all petered out.” The expression was used by both Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and is derived from a very old mining term used to describe a vein of ore that splits into branches and then gradually runs out, leaving the miners and investors high and dry. The image is of Saint Peter, who left Jesus when he was needed most. 260

Why is something we consider untrue called a “cock and bull” story? In the sixteenth century a papal bull or bulla was a decree from the Roman Catholic Pope and was sealed with a stamp bearing the likeness of St. Peter accompanied by the cock that crowed three times before the crucifixion. After the reformation, Martin Luther issued bulls of his own that contradicted the Vatican. His followers considered papal decrees as lies and referred to them from their seals as “cock and bull.” Why was grace originally a prayer said after a meal? Today, we say grace before a meal in thanksgiving for an abundance of food, but in ancient times, food spoiled quickly, often causing illness or even death. Nomadic tribes experimenting with unfamiliar plants were very often poisoned. Before a meal, these people made a plea to the gods to deliver them from poisoning, but it wasn’t until after the meal, if everyone was still standing, that they offered a prayer of thanksgiving, or “grace.” Why do most flags of Islamic countries have the same basic colours, and what is the symbolism of the crescent moon and star? The Turkish city of Byzantium was dedicated to the goddess Diana, whose symbol was the crescent moon. In A.D. 330, Constantine rededicated the city to the Virgin Mary and added her symbol, the star. The symbol was common on the arm of Christian soldiers, including Richard I. When Muslims 261

captured the city in 1453, they reconfigured the two symbols and added their own religious significance — the crescent moon and star of Islam represent a conjunction of the moon and Venus during the dawn of July 23, 610, when the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) received his first revelation from God. Mohammed carried two flags into battle: one was green, while the other was black with a white outline, the same basic colours of Islam to this day. Byzantium became modern-day Istanbul.




The Star and Crescent was first hoisted as a Muslim symbol by Mohammed II in 1453. Christians dropped the symbol when it became prominent among Muslims. Who gets to be a martyr? Martyrs are people who choose torture or death rather than renouncing their beliefs or principles. The English word derives through Latin from the Greek martur, meaning “witness.” The first Christian martyr is said to have been St. Stephen, who was stoned to death after being convicted of blasphemy by a Jewish court around A.D. 33. Jewish martyrs include a group of forty who died during the Crusades when they refused to renounce their faith and accept Christianity. In Islam the first martyr is said to be an old female slave named Sumayyah bint Khabbab, who was tortured and killed in front of Mecca by polytheists, people who believed in many gods.


Why is a religious woman who lives in a convent and vows poverty, chastity, and obedience called a “nun”? Women who are sisters within a strict religious order today are called nuns, a word that has evolved through time to mean compassion and kindness. In Sanskrit, nana meant “mother,” and it is often still used today as an endearment for grandmothers. In Latin, nonna means “child’s nurse,” again still used in the form nanny. In Greek, nane simply meant “good.” All of these gave us the word nun to describe the strength and good intentions of the religious vocation. Why is an intolerant person called a “bigot”? A bigot is someone who is intolerant of any religion, race, group, or politics other than his or her own. The word began as a curse and was first recorded in English in 1598 as meaning “a superstitious hypocrite.” Bigot originated as bi got from a common Old French slur against the Normans that today would be translated as “By God!” with the intended meaning of “God damn it!” Legend has it that when the first Duke of Normandy, Rollo, was ordered to kiss the foot of the French King Charles III (879–929), he refused by uttering the curse “Bi got!” Why is someone who challenges what appears to be an obvious truth called a “Devil’s advocate”? During Roman Catholic proceedings leading to the assignment of sainthood, a specific individual is given the job of investigating the candidate and the validity of any associated miracles. He then argues vehemently against the 263

canonization by denigrating the potential saint on behalf of the Devil. His official Vatican title is the “Devil’s Advocate.” Why at the end of a profound statement do Christians, Muslims, and Jews all say “amen?” The word amen appears 13 times in the Hebrew Bible and 119 times in the New Testament as well as in the earliest Muslim writings. The word originated in Egypt around 2500 B.C. as Amun, and meant the “Hidden One,” the name of their highest deity. Hebrew scholars adopted the word as meaning “so it is” and passed it on to the Christians and Muslims. What Biblical curiosities are within a deck of cards? Some people have found religious significance in a deck of cards. To them, the thirteen cards in each suit represent Jesus and the twelve Apostles or Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel. The jack, king, and queen suggest the Holy Trinity, and when these court cards are removed the remaining forty cards remind them of the numerous references to the number forty in the Bible, including the number of days Jesus fasted and the years the Israelites wandered in the desert. Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days, Jesus preached for forty months and was in the tomb for forty hours, Jerusalem was destroyed forty years after the Ascension, Elijah traveled forty days before he reached the cave where he had his vision (1 Kings 19:8), and Nineveh was given forty days to repent (Jonah 3:4). Why shouldn’t you say, “Holy mackerel,” “Holy smokes,” or “Holy cow”? 264

As innocent as it seems today, “holy mackerel” began as a blasphemous Protestant oath against the Friday fish-eating habit of Catholics. The fish was an early symbol of Christianity. Likewise, “holy smokes” is a snide reference to religious incense burning, while “holy cow” is a shot at Hindus who consider cows sacred. “Holy moley” is an abbreviation of “holy Moses.” Euphemisms are used as curses without direct reference to a religious icon. Even though it is clear what they mean, it is a way of swearing without offending the pious. How did Pat Robertson’s television show The 700 Club get its name? Today, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network is a multi-million-dollar conglomerate, but when they first went on the air in 1961, Robertson’s refusal to seek commercial revenue meant that only prayer and telethons kept them going. At the time, Robertson told his audience that a club of seven hundred viewers contributing ten dollars each per month would pay expenses. The success of Robertson’s effort gave The 700 Club its name. Why do we say that someone who’s finished or fired has “had the biscuit”? If someone has “had the biscuit,” they’re definitely done, regardless of the circumstances. The expression has its origins in a Protestant allusion to the Roman Catholic sacrament of Extreme Unction. Biscuit is a contemptuous reference to the host (the sacramental wafer used by Catholics during the 265

issuing of the last rites to a dying person). If he’s “had the biscuit,” it’s all over. What are “guardian angels”? A guardian angel is a heavenly spirit assigned by God to watch over each person during his or her individual life. The angel is part of the dogma of the Roman Catholic faith and is there to help guide people and keep them from evil or danger. The feast to honour guardian angels is on October 2. Like unidentified flying objects (UFOs), angels come in a variety of forms, depending on whose vision is believed. Moses was visited by an angel in the guise of a burning bush, while Jacob said that he saw wingless angels climbing a ladder to heaven. Witnesses swore they saw angels in human form beside the tomb of Jesus. Ezekiel (of the wheel fame) boasted that he saw cherubim with four wings, while Isaiah outdid him by claiming to witness seraphim angels with six wings. After that the common image of an angel with two wings, as depicted by most artists to this day, was settled on. The English word angel is from the Greek angelos, meaning “messenger.” The Hebrew word for angel is malak, which also means “messenger.” In the Koran, angels are said to have two, three, or four pairs of wings or forelimbs, depending on how the Arabic word ajnihah is interpreted. What is a “patron saint”? Patron saints are chosen as guardians or protectors over specific areas of life. These can be chosen by people or groups without papal consent simply because the saint’s 266

interest or life experience relates to a group or individual. The church has, however, chosen many patron saints such as the writer Francis de Sales, who was picked to be the patron saint of writers and journalists. Angels can also be named as patron saints. What does the H in “Jesus H. Christ” stand for? The exclamation “Jesus H. Christ!” is often used as an attempt to avoid a blasphemous curse. Of course, even though it still takes the Christian Lord’s name in vain, it is usually accepted as a joke. The epithet is based on “HIS” or “IHC,” which is an abbreviation of Jesus’ name in ancient Greek and is common in the earliest versions of the New Testament. It is still found on Catholic and Anglican vestments. The exclamation came from the misconception that these were Jesus’ initials. Why is the book of Christian scriptures called a “Bible”? The Christian book of scriptures was first called the “Bible” by the Greeks. The ancient Phoenicians had found a way to make a form of paper from the papyrus plant, which gave us the word paper. They had done this in the city of Byblos, which is why the Greeks called the new paper biblios, and a collection of related writings or a book was soon called a biblion. By A.D. 400, the word Bible emerged to exclusively describe the Christian collection of scriptures. Byblos is now called Jubayl in modern Lebanon. The lowercase word bible now means any book of authority.


Why is someone displaying absolute loyalty said to be “true blue”? With the slogan “a true covenantor wears true blue,” the Scottish Presbyterians adopted blue as their colour in the seventeenth century during their defence of their faith against Charles I. The instruction came from Numbers 15:38 in the scriptures, which tells the children of Israel to fringe the borders of their garments in ribbons of blue. Blue is a powerful symbol of Judaism and the national colour of Israel. Why when someone receives an unfair judgment do we say they’ve been given a “short shrift”? Shrift is an ancient word and comes from the act of shriving, which is the confessional process conducted by a priest. In his pursuit of forgiveness, a confessor seeks absolution for the sins of his soul through a process of penance administered by the priest. A short shrift refers to the brief time allowed with a priest to a condemned convict just before his execution. Why do witches fear the expression “By bell, book, and candle”? The expression “By bell, book, and candle” is often associated with witchcraft because those who practice the dark arts are in danger of being excommunicated by the Catholic Church. After pronouncing a sentence of excommunication, a bell is rung, a book (the Bible) is closed, and a candle is extinguished. Why do we say that someone going nowhere is “in limbo”? 268

To be in limbo means nothing is happening, neither good nor bad. Because the Christian Church believed that only those “born again” could enter heaven they needed an afterlife destination for the other good souls. Limbo is the rim of hell and the destination for the righteous who died before the coming of Christ as well as infants, unbelievers, and the unbaptized. Limbo is a place without glory or pain. Why are ministers of the gospel called “Reverend,” “Pastor,” or “Parson”? Reverend first appeared in seventeenth-century England and is derived from the Latin reverendus, meaning “worthy of respect.” Pastor is from the Latin word for shepherd, which is how Christ referred to himself. On the other hand, parson comes from New England, where because the minister was one of the few who could read or write they called him “the town person,” which in the local accent became “the town parson.” What is a “sphinx? Although the statue at Giza in Egypt is the most famous sphinx, there is another. According to Greek mythology, the original Sphinx was a female winged creature with the body of a lion that attacked travellers near Thebes and then strangled and devoured those who couldn’t answer her riddle: “What creature has one voice yet becomes four-footed, then two-footed, then three-footed?” Eventually, Oedipus defeated the Sphinx with the answer to the riddle: “A human crawls on all fours when a baby, walks on two feet when grown, and uses a staff when old.”


In Egyptian mythology, the Sphinx is just as nasty but is wingless and male with the body of a lion. Sphinx is the Greek word for “strangler.” Quickies Did you know … • jeepers (1929), jeez (1923), gee (1895), and gee whiz (1885) are all euphemistic alterations of Jesus? • heck (1865) is an alteration of hell? • dickens, as in “It hurt like the dickens,” is a euphemism for the Devil (from devilkins)? • the fish is a powerful symbol of Christianity and was once a required meal on holy days? Halibut is from the Nordic word hali, meaning “holy,” and butte, meaning “flat.”


the many faces of politics Why do we call someone seeking political office a “candidate”? In ancient Rome, someone seeking election would appear in public wearing a white robe to symbolize his pure character. Candidate comes from candidatus, meaning a man wearing pure white. Not fooled by the white toga, the Romans said that politicians needed to make three fortunes while in office: the first to pay back the money borrowed to buy votes, the second to bribe officials when eventually tried for misconduct, and the third for retirement. Why when someone tells a secret do we say they’ve “spilled the beans”? As a system of voting, the ancient Greeks placed beans in a jar. They called these small beans or balls were called ballota, which gives us the word ballot. A white bean was a “yes” and a brown bean was a “no.” The beans were then counted in


secret so the candidates wouldn’t know who voted for or against them. If the container was knocked over, and the beans were spilled, the secret was out of the jar. Why are governmental and legal delays called “red tape”? English monarchs used to write legal decrees on rolls of parchment and then bind them up with red silk ribbons. To give their work an important appearance, government bureaucrats copied the “red tape” practice. Not to be outdone, lawyers followed with ribbons of their own. The expression took hold after Charles Dickens described the frustration of dealing with governmental and legal bungling as “cutting through red tape.” Where did the sarcastic phrase “Bob’s your uncle” come from? “Bob’s your uncle” is a common British phrase and now means that you’ve accomplished something without much effort. It originated in 1887 when Prime Minister Robert Cecil appointed his nephew, Arthur Balfour, chief secretary for Ireland. The public was outraged at this blatant act of nepotism and began using “Bob’s your uncle” to describe any situation where favouritism influenced the outcome. Why is the use of behind the scenes influence called “pulling strings”? Marionettes are puppets controlled by strings and were popular at the courts of the French monarchy. The puppet shows satirized gossip and could be embarrassing to anyone involved in scandal. When money was slipped to the 272

puppeteer to keep him quiet or to influence him to embarrass someone else, it was said that the person offering the bribe — and not the puppeteer — was the one pulling the strings of the marionette. Why is political favouritism called “pork barrel politics”? Long before refrigeration, North American farmers kept supplies of salt pork stored in barrels, and the amount of meat on hand indicated the family’s prosperity. If the barrel was low on pork, it meant the possibility of disaster through starvation. When a politician sought and gained favouritism for his constituents, he was said to have filled the pork barrels of those who had elected him, thereby assuring his re-election. Why are political positions referred to as “left” and “right”? Over two hundred years ago, King Louis XVI of France was forced to convene a form of parliament for the first time in more than a century. At the assembly, the more radical delegates took up seats on the left of the King, while their conservative counterparts sat on his right. Ever since, liberal views have been referred to as from the left, and conservative ideas as from the right. How are the two Presidents Bush related to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? George Herbert Walker Bush became the second descendant of passengers on the Mayflower to become president; his son George W. Bush was the third. In 1620, Jane De La Noye was 273

a small girl who arrived in America with her parents aboard the Mayflower. She was the first president Bush’s grandmother eleven times removed. Her cousin, Phillip De La Noye, had his name become Americanized to Delano, and his grandson eleven times removed was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, making Roosevelt and the two George Bushes cousins. Why do Conservatives call Liberals “bleeding hearts”? The ultra-conservative view of those who propose extending the welfare state is that they are “bleeding hearts.” That expression entered politics in the 1930s, and by the 1990s “my heart bleeds for you” had become a general put-down. It comes from the Middle Ages, when a socially conscious group known as the Order of the Bleeding Heart was formed to honour the Virgin Mary, whose “heart was pierced with many sorrows.” Why is a false promise called “pie in the sky”? In the early 1900s, a radical workers union used a song called “The Preacher and the Slave” to blame the church for suppressing the poor with promises of rewards in heaven. The song included these lines (and from them, “pie in the sky” took the meaning of a false promise): You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky. Work and pray, live on hay,


You’ll get pie in the sky when you die, bye and bye. Why is someone you don’t want to hear from told to “take a back seat”? “To take a back seat” means that you have little or no influence in the decisions required to fulfill an objective, and has nothing to do with “back-seat driving.” It comes from the parliamentary system of government, where the leaders of all parties — those who make and debate the critical decisions — are seated on the front benches of the House, while those who follow the party line with no input in these matters, other than a vote, take a back seat. Why is something useless called a “boondoggle”? The word boondoggle was first used in 1935 to describe “make-work” projects during the New Deal of American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882– 1945). It meant any useless task created simply to give men employment during the Great Depression. Surprisingly, the word comes from the Boy Scouts whose braided leather lanyard is simply cosmetic with no real purpose. It was named a “boondoggle” by R.H. Link after the leather frills worn by American frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734–1820). The word survives with the contemptuous political meaning of money wasted on unimportant or meaningless projects. Why when we know the outcome do we say, “It’s all over but the shouting”?


If the outcome of a circumstance is known before a procedure is ended, we say, “It’s all over but the shouting.” The expression comes from a widespread practice in early England. For centuries, when a straightforward public issue was to be decided, an assembly of townspeople was called for an informal election that was settled by shouting out a verbal vote rather than handing in a ballot. These assemblies were called “shoutings.” When there was no doubt about the result even before the vocal vote was called, it was considered to be “all over but the shouting.” Why does “Hail to the Chief” introduce the American president? When the American president enters a room “Hail to the Chief” is preceded by a fanfare of four drum and bugle ruffles and flourishes. The number of ruffles and flourishes indicates the importance of the person being introduced — not “Hail to the Chief,” which is from the English dramatization of Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake” and which became a popular band number for introducing any important person around 1812. As a fanfare, four ruffles and flourishes is the highest American honour. President Carter did away with “Hail to the Chief” for a time during his term. Because it was a popular melody commonly used for dignitaries, there is no record of when “Hail to the Chief” made the transition into a signature for the president. It just evolved.


In 1810, James Sanderson wrote to a friend that Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake” was being made into a play in London. Soon after, Scott received a note from an army officer friend including the music for the Boat Song, now known as “Hail to the Chief.” Why are those seeking political favour from elected officials said to be “lobbying”? The term lobbying originated from the earliest days of the British Parliament, where an extensive corridor runs between the Chamber of Lords and the House of Commons. Because the general public was allowed into this corridor, or lobby, it was where constituents waited to meet with their representatives in order to influence their votes on current legislation. This practice was called “lobbying” because it took place in the lobby. Where did the bearded figure Uncle Sam come from? Sam Wilson was a meat packer who supplied preserved beef to the U.S. Army in the nineteenth century. The barrels of meat were stamped “U.S.” to indicate they were property of the United States, but the soldiers joked that the initials stood for “Uncle Sam” Wilson and that the supplies were from that man. The bearded figure of “Uncle Sam” was drawn and introduced by Thomas Nast, the same cartoonist who created the Republicans’ elephant and the Democrats’ donkey. Why do we say that a political candidate on a speaking tour is “on the stump”?


When early European settlers were moving west and clearing the land, every farm had an abundance of tree stumps in their fields. “Barnstorming” politicians who looked for a place of prominence to be seen and heard by the gathered electorate would invariably find a large tree stump to stand on from which he would make his pitch. This gave us the expression “on the stump,” which is still used to describe a politician seeking election. Why do we say that healing a relationship is “mending fences”? In 1880, the strong-willed senator John Sherman was testing the water for a presidential nomination. He slipped out of Washington but was followed to his Ohio farm by a reporter who found the senator talking with a high-ranking party official while standing near a fence. When the reporter asked what they were doing, the response, “We’re mending fences,” gave him his headline, and it became a new phrase for healing relationships. Why are unelected advisers to government leaders called a “kitchen cabinet”? Most government leaders have unofficial non-elected advisers outside their legitimate cabinet, and these people have been labelled a “kitchen cabinet.” The expression was coined in 1832 when Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) was president of the United States. He used to hold frequent unofficial private meetings with three close friends, and in order to avoid scrutiny or criticism, they entered through the back door of the White House and then through the kitchen. From that time


on the press referred to the president’s inner circle as the “kitchen cabinet.”

What’s unusual about the music to the American national anthem? In 1814, after a night in a pub, Francis Scott Key was taken prisoner during the war between Canada and the United States. When he saw the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry he was inspired to write his famous lyrics with one particular barroom song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” still in his mind. And so “The Star Spangled Banner” was written to the tune of a traditional old English drinking song. Why are British, Australian, and Canadian heads of government, cabinet chiefs, and church leaders called “ministers”? The notion of the “prime” or first minister as the leader of government was introduced to Great Britain in 1646. Cabinet members or departmental ministers have been selected from elected representatives within that parliamentary system since 1625, but the reference to those holders of high office of the


state as “ministers” began in 1916. In this case, the word minister means “servant.” They are servants to the crown, not their constituents. In the religious world, minister means a servant of the church hierarchy, not the congregation, and dates back to 1315. Robert Walpole (1676–1745) is usually considered to be the first “prime minister” of Britain. However, he was not actually called that. In Britain the term did not become official until 1905. When addressing a “prime” or “cabinet” minister, it is inappropriate to prefix the greeting with “mister” as in “Mister Prime Minister” or “Mister Minister,” which is a common mistake in the American media and sometimes in Canada when used by uninformed reporters. The word minister is correct in itself, and adding mister is redundant. The prefix mister, as in “Mister President,” is correct when greeting the American president or his cabinet because they head a republic and not a crown state. Why is the organized obstruction of legislation called a “filibuster”? When an American legislator delays or prevents the passage of a bill through tactics including long speeches his action is called a “filibuster.” The word is from the Spanish filibustero, which is what they called the pirates of the West Indies. Filibuster was first used to describe obstructionist tactics in the U.S.


Senate in 1851 because those in the minority who were holding up the passage of a bill until their demands were met were likened to pirates. Within a democracy, what are the fourth and fifth estates? Within British history, the first three estates with influence over legislation were the Church, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The term fourth estate has meant different forces of influence over Parliament at different times, including the army. It was first used to describe the press during a debate in the House of Commons in 1828 and has retained that meaning ever since. The fifth estate was added to include radio and television. What was the cost to our human heritage of the American invasion of Iraq? After conquering Saddam Hussein’s army, the American authorities had incredibly overlooked appropriate civil security in Iraq. This amazing flaw in their plans created a legal vacuum within which 170,000 priceless artifacts from Baghdad’s National Museum of Antiquities were either stolen or destroyed. These included five-thousand-year-old clay tablets inscribed with history’s first written words. These were recognized as the origin of all mankind’s written communications. Other tablets now lost included some of the world’s first examples of mathematics including calculations based on the number 6, which led directly to our modern system of time-keeping using hours, minutes, and seconds. Quickies 281

Did you know … • that caucus, a closed meeting of a political party to decide on policy, comes from the Algonquin word caucauasu, which means “counsellor”? • that toboggan is from the French Canadian tabagane, which is a translation of the Algonquin tobakun, meaning “sled”? • that winnebago has the same aboriginal meaning as Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, and that both mean “dirty water?” • that “down the hatch” is a sailor’s expression and refers to freight disappearing in volume through the hatch leading to the storage area below a ship’s deck? • that queue is the only English word that is pronounced the same with or without its last four letters?


all about numbers If you have a myriad of choices, exactly how many choices do you have? Since the sixteenth century, writers have used the adjective myriad to describe a large, unspecified, or overwhelming number, such as, “The student had a myriad of excuses for not turning in his assignment” or “Steve had myriad reasons for his wrong decision.” Neither of these uses is literally incorrect, but based on its Greek root, one myriad is exactly ten thousand. Why do they count down backwards to a rocket launch? After NASA rolls out a rocket they start the countdown at T – 43 (said as “T minus 43 hours”), and with critical holds, it takes three days before liftoff. The countdown was introduced by German film director Fritz Lang in his 1928 movie By Rocket to the Moon and then, much later, copied by real life


rocket scientists. Lang introduced the backward count of 5-4-3-2-1 to increase suspense. Understanding 1 million To understand a million, visualize driving 189 miles. The trip will take about three hours. Now measure the 189 miles in feet, which is 1 million. How did the numbers eleven, twelve, and thirteen get their names? The reason the nine numbers after ten are known as eleven, twelve, and the teens is clarified by looking at Roman numerals and considering that they are all plus or minus units of ten and were interpreted into archaic English with this in mind. Eleven (XI) or “leave one” means ten is one less than eleven. Twelve (XII) means ten is two less than twelve. Thirteen is three plus ten (or “teen”), four plus ten is fourteen, and so on. Why is the furthest we can go called the “Nth degree”? To take something to the “Nth degree” means we have exhausted all possibilities. N is the mathematical symbol meaning “any number.” If you say “Nth plus 1” you mean “to the utmost.” The expression derives from the mathematical formula N plus 1 meaning “one more than any number,” which of course is beyond the outer limits. The “Nth degree” originated as university slang in the nineteenth century. Be a mentalist


Secretly write down the number 1089 and then turn it over in front of but out of sight of any number of friends. Ask each one to privately write down any three-digit number with the largest digit first, then the second largest, then the third. For example, 765. Then ask them to reverse that number (567) and subtract it from the original. Take the difference; (765 – 567 = 198) and then reverse this (891) and add these two together (198 + 891). No matter what numbers chosen by those participating, they will always end up with the number you hid in the beginning (1089). Quickies Did you know … • a trillion has twelve zeros (1,000,000,000,000) but a zillion has none? A zillion is a non-specific reference to a huge amount. • $1.19 consisting of three quarters, four dimes, and four pennies is the greatest amount of money in coins you can have without being able to make change for a dollar?


royalty and heraldry Why do monarchs refer to themselves using the royal “we”? When Roman consuls spoke of public issues they did so on behalf of all those with whom they shared power and so they used the plural pronoun (in English, we) instead of the singular (I). The first king to use the royal “we” was Richard I of England, implying that he was speaking for his subjects as well as himself. It’s improper for non-royals to use the plural self-reference, so when Margaret Thatcher did it in 1989, we were not amused. How did Edward VII make it fashionable to leave the bottom button of a man’s vest undone? King Edward VII had a large appetite and an even larger tummy. He began leaving the bottom button of his vest undone because after a meal he simply couldn’t do it up. Those who didn’t want to make the king uncomfortable did


the same, and so it became the fashion of the day. Edward’s bulging belly may in part have been a consequence of his favourite dish, which was, of course, chicken à la king. Why are aristocrats of the ruling classes called “bluebloods”? The name bluebloods refers to the pallor of the Spanish ruling classes after the conquest of the darker skinned Moors. After the blood in them loses oxygen while flowing back to the heart, the veins of fair or untanned people whose skin is never exposed to the sun appear blue, while the veins of those with darker complexions, like the Moors, are less obvious. Their blue blood distinguished true Spanish aristocracy from the conquering Moors. Does every family have a coat of arms? There is no such thing as a family coat of arms. They were granted only to individuals, and those individuals were exclusively men. A coat of arms can only be used by the uninterrupted line of male descendants of the person to whom it was granted and is a privilege of nobility. The heraldic symbol was emblazoned on a warrior’s shield and was also added to the fabric coat worn on the outside of his armor, which is why it’s known as a coat of arms. Heraldry is the language of symbols or emblems and is the lone surviving custom from the romance and barbarism of feudal times. Blazoning is the heraldic term to describe a coat of arms.


The unique colour, shape, and design emblazoned on the warrior’s shield all distinguished him as friend or foe on the battlefield. Why do we say, “Buckle down” when it’s time to get serious? If a teacher or a foreman tells someone it’s “time to buckle down,” they mean “Quit fooling around, this is serious business,” and they’re using an expression from the days of knighthood. When preparing for combat, knights required their squires to attend to their armour by oiling it, laying it out, and then buckling it onto their masters’ bodies. How well this was done could be the difference between life and death for the knight, so buckling down was very serious business. What does the title esquire mean? The British title esquire, like the magazine, has very masculine roots. An esquire was a young man who was a manservant to an armoured knight and whose job included holding his master’s shield. With the passing of the knights, esquire was applied to any young man of noble birth who hadn’t yet earned a proper title. Eventually the word became a term of respect for any promising young man. Why do we call someone who continually takes the fall for someone else a “whipping boy”? In the mid-seventeenth century, young princes and aristocrats were sent off to school with a young servant who would attend classes and receive an education while also attending to his master’s needs. If the master found himself in trouble, 288

the servant would take the punishment for him, even if it were a whipping. He was his master’s “whipping boy.” Why do you wish a pompous person would “get off his high horse”? A person on a high horse is probably presuming to be more important than they truly are. In medieval times the height of your horse told of your rank in society and on the battlefield. Knights rode high on horses bred large and strong enough to bear the weight of the man and his armour. In ceremonial processions, kings and noblemen always rode the tallest horses, and anyone overstating his importance would be taken off his high horse. What does it mean to be at someone’s “beck and call”? To be at someone’s “beck and call” means to be standing by prepared to immediately respond to that person’s needs. The expression comes from the rules of servitude, when a beck was a silent signal, such as a nod of the head or a hand gesture, used to summon a servant. If this subtlety didn’t work, then the master or mistress would resort to a call. This meant they had used a beck and a call to get the domestic’s attention. Why do most spiral staircases ascend in a clockwise direction? Spiral staircases originated as a defence mechanism in medieval castles because all knights were right-handed. Southpaws were considered under the Devil’s influence and were automatically disqualified for knighthood. While 289

ascending a clockwise spiral staircase with a sword in his right hand, the defending knight could freely swing his sword arm, while the attacker was neutralized by the wall blocking his own right arm. What does the “post” mean in “post office,” and what is the “mail”? In medieval Europe, a system of roads was built to speed messages from the heads of state to all corners of the realm. These were called post roads because riders on horseback were “posted” at intervals in a relay system copied by the Pony Express to speed the delivery of the mail. Mail is what they called the pouch that carried the letters. Urgent messages were marked “post-haste.” Why does the audience stand during the Hallelujah Chorus? In 1741, after Handel introduced his majestic Messiah, demand was so great that in order to increase seating gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home and women were asked to not wear hoops. When England’s King George II first heard the Hallelujah Chorus he rose to his feet in awe, and the entire audience followed. From that day on, it’s been tradition to stand during the final movement of the Messiah. George Frideric Handel was inspired to compose the entire Messiah in just twenty-three days. Why are prestigious hotels and apartment buildings know as “Arms”? 290

Some buildings are titled manors or halls and some call themselves arms, like the Windsor Arms in Toronto. The use of the word arms is a practice dating back to old English inns, which proudly displayed the coat of arms or heraldic insignia of the local lord above the front entrance. In America, there were no dukes or earls. Instead, they used the word arms to convey prestige. Why is the word late used to describe the recently deceased? To prefix a person’s name with “the late” certainly signifies that he or she is dead, although you would be correct in using it only with the name of someone who had died within the past twenty years. Its use began with medieval rulers, whose first name often had been passed down through generations of males. To avoid confusion with the living monarch, i.e., James II, his deceased father would be referred to as “the late King James.” Why is a blue ribbon a symbol of champions? Blue was the favourite colour of King Edward III, who in 1348 created the Royal Order of the Knights of the Garter, the highest honour in Britain. Its membership was and is limited to the king and princes of England as well as a very few knights of distinguished service. The insignia of the Royal Order is a blue garter, and because of this, blue ribbons have come to be a reward for any supreme achievement. What is the origin of the twenty-one-gun salute?


All salutes are a signal of voluntary submission. Early warriors simply placed their weapons on the ground, but when guns came along, the ritual of firing off or emptying their canons was done to illustrate to approaching foreign dignitaries that they had nothing to fear. In 1688, the Royal Navy regulated the number of guns to be used in saluting different ranks. For a prime minister, nineteen guns should be used, but for royalty or heads of state, the salute should be done with twenty-one guns. Quickies Did you know … • there are ten states named after British royalty and one, Louisiana, named after King Louis XIV of France? • Georgia was named in honour of George II of England? • Maine took its name from the province of Mayne in France, which was a compliment to Queen Henrietta Maria who owned the property while she was the wife of England’s Charles I? • Maryland was also named after Queen Henrietta Maria? • New Hampshire took its name from the English county of Hampshire? • New Jersey is named after the Channel Isle of Jersey? • New York honours the Duke of York?


• North Carolina and South Caroline are named after England’s Charles I? • Virginia took its name from the “Virgin Queen,” England’s Elizabeth I? • West Virginia also honours Elizabeth I?


art and science Why is an artist’s inspiration called a “muse”? Many great artists have been influenced by a muse, a person whose very existence inspires them to reach beyond themselves. It literally means the inspiration a man receives from a special woman. The word muse, as it is used in this case, comes from any of the nine beautiful daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, each of whom in Greek mythology presided over a different art or science. Muse is the origin of such words as music, museum, and mosaic. What orbital advantage did Cape Canaveral have to cause NASA to choose the Florida location for its first space launches? Cape Canaveral was chosen as a launch site not only because NASA needed the booster rockets to fall harmlessly into the ocean but also, and more importantly, because the Earth moves from west to east at 910 miles an hour. This Florida


location allowed them to fire a rocket to the east with an added velocity push of 17,300 miles an hour from the spinning of the Earth.

How much space junk is orbiting Earth? The U.S. Air Force estimates that 9,000 pieces of space junk larger than ten centimetres across are currently orbiting the Earth along with thousands of smaller pieces. Space junk has only scored one confirmed hit on an active spacecraft. In 1996 a French military satellite was hit and knocked into a new orbit. The international space station has been forced to take evasive action on three occasions. Vanguard 1, an American satellite launched in 1958, is the oldest piece of space junk still up there. Who is the Thinker in Auguste Rodin’s famous statue? The French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s statue commonly called The Thinker (Le penseur) is one of the best-known pieces of 295

art in the world. Yet when Rodin (1840–1917) first cast a small plaster version in 1880, he meant it as a depiction of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (circa 1265–1321) pondering his great allegorical epic The Divine Comedy in front of the Gates of Hell. In fact, Rodin named the sculpture The Poet. It was an obscure critic, unfamiliar with Dante, who misnamed the masterpiece with the title we use today — The Thinker. Rodin’s statue is naked because the sculptor wanted a heroic classical figure to represent thought as poetry. Why is aluminum also spelled aluminium? Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust where it is principally found in combination with bauxite. In 1808 when the English scientist Sir Humphry Davy (1778–1829) was figuring out how to isolate aluminum, he first called it alumium. In 1812, though, he renamed the metal aluminum, which is how it is still known in North America. That same year, however, the British decided the metal should be called aluminium to conform to the ending of most other related elements that end in ium such as sodium, potassium, et cetera. In 1812, Britain’s Quarterly Review stated: “Aluminium, for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.” What caused synthetic fibres to replace silk? Silk is a fine, lustrous natural fibre made from secretions by very small silkworms to produce cocoons. The cultivation of silk began more than five thousand years ago in China, and the process is very labour-intensive and expensive. In 1935, 296

while China and Japan were at war and the silk supply to Western countries was interrupted, scientists at the chemical giant DuPont came up with the synthetic fibre nylon as a replacement. The first commercial nylon products were toothbrush bristles in 1938 and women’s stockings in 1940. Uses for the material expanded dramatically during the Second World War when it was substituted for silk in parachutes and replaced organic fibres in ropes, tents, ponchos, and many other products. The synthetic textile fibres Orlon and Dacron were introduced by DuPont in 1948 and 1951 respectively. The registered proprietary names of DuPont’s synthetic fibres begin with a random generic sound (such as nyl in nylon) and end in on from cotton. It took three years to come up with the name nylon. An early front-runner was “no-run,” which was abandoned because it wasn’t true. Some people think that the word nylon is a combination of the abbreviation for New York City (NY) and the first three letters in London, but DuPont denies that. What was the original purpose of Rubik’s Cube? In 1980, Rubik’s Cube became a worldwide craze. Its Hungarian inventor, Professor Erno Rubick, had created the cube as a math aid for his students. After realizing the cube’s potential as a toy, he sold 2 million in Hungary alone before introducing it to the West, making him the Communist world’s first self-made millionaire. The Rubik’s Cube has more than 43 quintillion configurations (43,252,003,274,489,856,000).


Why is a black hole black? Black holes in space seem to be a recent phenomenon, yet Albert Einstein (1879–1955) predicted them in his theory of relativity in 1915. They are the incredibly dense centres of dead stars. Black holes appear black because their gravitational fields are so huge that even light can’t escape. We find and measure black holes by calculating the orbits and other behaviours of nearby stars or gas clouds. Black holes capture our imagination because we believe that should we fly a spacecraft anywhere near them they will capture us. The Hubble Space Telescope has taken pictures of many suspected black holes. One is the core of Galaxy NGC 4261. Why can’t you escape a black hole? There is no known escape from a black hole. To escape Earth, we have to travel at 25,000 miles per hour. If we go any slower, we won’t break the planet’s gravitational pull. When we run out of fuel, we will fall back to the ground. Black holes are even harder to escape. To get out of a black hole, you must go faster than the speed of light, and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity says that is impossible. Why are the instruments used for sending and receiving sound called “radios”? The device we call a radio took its name from radio telegraphy and was commonly referred to as the wireless up until the Second World War, when the military preference for the term radio caused that name to catch on to describe the revolutionary receptacle of sound. The word radio is derived 298

from radius, Latin for “spoke of a wheel” or “ray of light,” because transmitted sounds travel out in all directions from a centre hub like the spokes of a wheel. Radio was first used to describe the sound-broadcasting medium as an industry in 1922. Why are weather forecasters called “meteorologists”? Meteorology became the science of forecasting weather during the fourth century B.C., when it was believed that dramatic heavenly events were the cause of everything, especially weather — and there was nothing more dramatic than the arrival of a meteor. In Greek, meteorology means “a discourse from high in the air.” Studying meteors to predict weather ended in the late seventeenth century, but weather forecasters are still known as meteorologists. Exactly what is a proverb? A proverb is an ancient expression of practical truth or wisdom. Proverbs existed before books; they were the unwritten language of morality and are treasures of the oral tradition of all mankind. They offer a deep insight into the everyday domestic life of the culture of their origin and resonate as truth through all time. Japan: “Learning without wisdom is a load of books on the back of a jackass.” Japan: “Unpolished pearls never shine.”


England: “The difference is wide that the sheets cannot decide.” Italy: “Better alone than in bad company.”


billiards and pool Why are billiards played on a pool table? During the nineteenth century, off-track gamblers would often play billiards while waiting to hear the results of a horse race. Sometimes, if they agreed on the merits of a particular horse, the gamblers would pool their money in an effort to win a greater amount on one bet or to soften the blow of a loss. The “pooled” money, both bet and won, was counted out on the playing surface of the billiard table, which the gamblers came to call their “pool table.” Why do we say that the person in charge “calls the shots”? “Calling the shots” means being in control or taking responsibility for critical decisions. The expression comes from a form of billiards. In the game of straight pool the person shooting is required to specify both the ball he or she intends to strike and the specific pocket he or she plans to


sink it into. In the mid-twentieth century, “calling the shots” moved out of the smoky pool hall and into everyday usage. Why is spinning a ball called “putting English on it”? The expression “putting English” on a ball is used in tennis, golf, soccer, and baseball and means you’ve spun and curved the ball to overcome a problem. The expression comes from English snooker, a pool game where one of the main strategies is to block an opponent from having a straight line shot at a ball he must hit. To do this, the shooter will create a spin on his shot to circumvent the obstruction. This spin is called “putting English on it.” “Body English” refers to the contortions made by a player as he physically transmits his intention for the ball while it’s in motion. What is a “masse” pool shot? A “masse shot” in pool is required when a ball is between the cue ball and the one a player is required to hit. To strike the target ball, a spin on the cue ball is necessary to curve around the obstruction. This procedure is accomplished by hitting the cue ball with the cue stick held nearly vertically. The word masse derives from a description of a club used in medieval jousting tournaments. Odds & Oddities • Some Native Americans used this simple method to measure the height of a tree or other tall object: Walk away from the object, stopping periodically to view the object behind you by


putting your head down between your legs. When you are at a distance that you can just barely see the top of the object, make a mark on the ground. Measure the distance from the mark to the base of the object and you will have a surprisingly accurate measurement of the object’s height.


fashion and clothing Why do we refer to a single item of clothing as a “pair of pants”? Pants is short for pantaloons, and the item only became a single garment late in its history. Up until the seventeenth century, the legs were covered with two separate sleeves of fabric called “hose,” which were tied to a belt with braces. The open crotch was covered with breeches and a long tunic. The plural reference to a single unit as a pair is extended to trousers, slacks, and shorts. Pantaloons came from the comic wardrobe of a stock character in the Commedia dell’Arte. Why do we say that someone well dressed wore his or her best “bib and tucker”? In the seventeenth century, bibs were introduced to protect men’s clothing from the consequences of their own bad table


manners. Women did the same, but their bibs were fancier and were made of lace or muslin with frills to frame their faces. Because these bibs were tucked into the tops of low-cut dresses, they were called tuckers. On special occasions both men and women brought their own bibs and tuckers to the banquet and, just like their clothing, these made a fashion statement. Why is something or someone of superior quality called “a cut above”? “A cut above” dates from the eighteenth century and literally means the quality of the cutting or fashioning of a person’s clothing. The superior appearance or station in life of someone with a good tailor or milliner is obvious when compared with a common man or woman, making them a “cut above” the ordinary. The phrase is related to the nautical phrase “the cut of her jib,” meaning the style or cut of a ship’s sails. You can also be a “cut below,” as in “The girl herself is a cut below par” (A.B. Walford, 1891). Why do we “bloomers”?





In the mid-nineteenth century, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith Miller (1822–1911) revolutionized women’s wear by designing and wearing a clothing style that did away with voluminous dresses and tightly laced corsets. She suggested that women wear a jacket and knee-length skirt over a pair of trousers tucked into boots. The cause was taken up by magazine editor Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818–1894) and was given a boost by the new pastime of bicycling. There was a lot of resistance


before the new dress became acceptable and took the name of its most visible advocate, Amelia Bloomer. The term bloomers soon became applied to just the trousers and eventually to any sort of long underwear.

Why is a formal suit for men called a “tuxedo”? Up until an evening in 1886, the accepted formal dress for men was a suit with long swallowtails. But on that evening, young Griswald Lorillard, the heir to a tobacco fortune, shocked his country club by arriving in a dinner jacket without tails. This fashion statement caught on, and the suit took on the name the place Lorillard introduced it: Tuxedo Park, New Jersey. What is the inspiration for argyle socks? Argyle socks resemble a Scottish Tartan because that’s what inspired them. In the eighteenth century, Archibald Campbell, 306

the influential Scottish Duke of Argyle, created the pattern by having his socks woven to resemble his Campbell clan tartan, a style that’s been with us ever since. What is the origin of the polka dot? The polka dot is a leftover from the polka dance craze that was introduced to America in 1835. Polka is the Polish word for “Polish woman,” but the dance came from Czechoslovakia — just like the song “American Woman” came from Canada. The dance was in vogue up until the end of the nineteenth century, during which time dozens of by-products capitalized on its popularity, including one that still lingers: wearing apparel with the polka dot pattern. Why does “lace” describe both an ornamental fabric and a string for tying shoes? The word lace began its route into thirteenth-century English as the Latin word lacere, which means “to entice.” On its way through Spanish and French, lace became a hunting term meaning “rope net,” “snare,” or “noose.” In 1555, because fancy lace reminded someone of a hunting net, the word lace was employed to describe an ornamental netted fabric pattern and, shortly after, a cord for tying, such as a shoelace. As its use in hunting diminished, lace or netting took on the primary meaning of “ornamental trim.” The expression “to lace a drink” by adding a dash of liquor derived from the new habit of adding sugar to coffee or tea during the seventeenth century, and also meant “ornamental trim.”


The Spanish word for a hunting lace or a rope was lazo, which gave cowboys the lasso. “Laced mutton” was an old expression for a prostitute. Quickies Did you know … • Ellis Island is named after tavern owner Sam Ellis? • between 1892 and 1954, more than 16 million people passed through Ellis Island, hoping to become Americans? • in 1892 Annie Moore, a fifteen-year-old Irish girl, was the first person to be processed at Ellis Island? • the last person processed through Ellis Island was a Norwegian named Arne Peterssen in 1954? Why do men wear neckties? Roman soldiers wore a strip of cloth around their necks to keep them warm in winter and to absorb sweat in the summer. Other armies followed suit, and during the French Revolution the Royalists and the Rebels used ties to display the colours of their allegiance. They borrowed the design and the name, cravat, from the Croatian Army. Later, ties became a French fashion statement, offering a splash of colour to an otherwise drab wardrobe. How did the bobby pin get its name?


The bobby pin got its name in the 1930s, but the inexpensive little wire gadget had become popular with flappers during the Roaring Twenties. A short haircut for young women came in vogue for the first time in history, and the bobby pin helped keep its shape. The bob in “bobby pins,” like the one in “bobby socks,” means “to cut short,” and was previously used to describe the cropped or bobbed tail of a horse.

Who qualifies as a “metrosexual,” and where did the term originate? The word metrosexual was coined in 1994 by writer Mark Simpson. However, it was Simpson’s 2002 article in Salon concerning soccer star David Beckham that introduced metrosexual to everyday use. A metrosexual is a straight but fastidious and style-conscious urban male whose


self-indulgence never keeps him far from his true love — himself. Why is a light, short overcoat called a “jacket”? A short coat is called a “jacket” for the same reason that Jack is used generically to mean any male stranger (“hit the road, Jack”). It was the French who began using Jacque this way as a reference to any common or unsophisticated male. The word took on the meaning of a peasant or ordinary man’s outerwear in France and spread throughout Europe, arriving in England as jacket during the thirteenth century. A nickname for John, Jack is also used as an endearment like “buddy” or “mate” and has been since the days of Middle English. During this same time, Dicken became popular as the original nickname for Richard until it evolved into Dick, while Robin was a nickname for Robert before it became Rob.


language of the warriors Why is a newcomer called a “rookie”? A rookie is anyone new to an organization requiring teamwork, whose lack of experience may cause errors. The word originated in the American military during the Civil War when massive numbers of young and untrained soldiers were rushed into battle, causing major problems with discipline. The veterans called these incompetent recruits “reckies,” which through time became “rookies.” Why when someone dies do we say, “He bought the farm”? During the Second World War, airmen introduced the expression “He bought the farm” after a pilot was shot down. It caught on with all the armed services and meant that if you gave your life for your country, your impoverished family would receive insurance money for your death, which would


help pay off the mortgage on the family farm. Death for your country meant you were buying the farm for your parents. Why is someone who has been defeated forced to say “Uncle”? Being forced to say “uncle” after losing a fight is a man thing and dates back to the late nineteenth century in the United States. In today’s terms picture a chauvinistic Republican defeating a Libertarian in some form of physical combat. To the chauvinist, the highest order of submitting to decency is believing in the state, and so to stop the beating the defeated man must cry, “Uncle Sam,” which in time became “uncle.” Why do we call a cowardly person “yellow”? Yellow, meaning cowardly, is actually an abbreviation of “yellow dog,” an American insult that first appeared in the nineteenth century to describe a cowardly or worthless person. In the early twentieth century, when employers were fighting trade unions, they insisted that new employees sign a pledge never to join a union. This pledge was called a “yellow dog” contract by union members, with the implication that anyone signing it was yellow. Why are armoured battle vehicles called “tanks”? In ancient India, large pits were dug to collect the monsoon rains and were called tanken. In the seventeenth century the concept was brought home to Britain and was introduced in English as “tank,” a place to store water. In 1915, when the British designed a heavily armoured combat vehicle, they built them under the cover of building water tanks and 312

shipped them to the front in crates marked “Tanks.” They were introduced at the Battle of the Somme. Why is a perfectionist called a “stickler”? Stickler is from the Middle English word stightlen and means “to arrange.” A stickler is a person who does everything by the book. Historically, the stickler was the title of a judge at a duel. Within life and death circumstances he was entrusted to see that the laws of gentlemanly combat were followed to the letter and that the outcome was fair. What is the difference between bravery and courage? Both bravery and courage are acts of valour and imply a certain strength and fearlessness. There is, however, a subtle difference in meaning between the two words. Courage comes from the French word coeur, meaning “heart.” It is a quality of character that allows someone to carry through with a difficult premeditated plan of action. Bravery, on the other hand, comes from the Spanish word bravado, meaning a single or spontaneous act of valour. It is not planned, but rather a knee-jerk reaction that often occurs within a crisis. Why do we describe a close contest as “nip and tuck”? A closely fought contest where the outcome is in doubt is said to be “nip and tuck.” It equates to the expression “blow for blow,” when the advantage keeps changing from one competitor to another. The answer is in the original aggressive meanings of the two words. A nip was (and still is) a bite, while a tuck was a small, narrow dagger used by artillerymen when overrun and forced into hand-to-hand 313

combat. “Nip and tuck” literally life-and-death struggle.

means a vicious,

Why is an all-out fight called a “pitched battle”? One of the meanings of the word pitch is “to set things in order.” For example, when you pitch a tent, you are using a military expression for lining up the tents in rows. Unlike a skirmish or a surprise attack, a pitched battle was one in which the two sides lined up in formation facing each other until the order was given for the carnage to begin. The two disciplined sides held their ranks as they approached and then met each other in what was called a pitched battle. Why is malicious destruction called “vandalism”? A vandal mindlessly defaces public property. During the fifth and sixth centuries the Vandals, a Germanic warrior race, expanded south from their Baltic base. They would go beyond defeating their enemies by desecrating their cultural symbols in an effort to humiliate as well as conquer. When in 455 they overwhelmed and then sacked Rome, the Vandals continued to deliberately mutilate public and religious monuments, an act that to this day bears the name “vandalism.” Why were women warriors called “Amazons”? Homer created the ancient Greek myth of fierce women warriors known as Amazons. Amazon is made up from A, meaning “without,” and mazos, meaning “breast,” because legend has it that they removed one breast to better throw a spear or use a bow and arrow. Amazons only visited men to become pregnant, 314

and at birth only girl children were allowed to live to be raised by the Amazon warrior mothers. Why were all Roman soldiers required to have a “vagina”? The modern anatomical use of the word vagina didn’t appear in a medical sense until 1908. Its original Latin meaning was a “sheath” or “scabbard”, so in classical times Roman soldiers were required to carry their swords in a vagina, often made from a split piece of wood. Vanilla is also derived from the Latin word vagina and got its name through Spanish soldiers’ discovery of the plant in Mexico in 1521. The Spanish adopted the word as vaina, with vainilla as a diminutive, which meant “little sheath.” It was because the shape of the plant’s pods resembled a sheath or scabbard that Hernando Cortes’ soldiers called it a vainilla plant. How do statues of men on horses tell how the rider died? Statues of horse and rider are exclusively of monarchs or great warriors and are usually found in places of honour. The tradition is that if the horse is depicted with all four hooves on the ground, the rider died of natural causes. If one hoof is raised, the rider’s death came later from wounds incurred during battle, and if two hooves are in the air, the rider portrayed in the statue died on the battlefield.


Why are the contorted faces and heads around roofs called “gargoyles”? Ancient Celtic warriors used to place the severed heads of their enemies around the top of their fortresses as a warning. In time these inspired architects to add the twisted faces of gargoyles to prominent buildings. Gargoyles had the practical purpose of collecting rainwater and dropping it clear of the walls through their throats. In ancient French, gargouille means “throat.” Why do we call an unstable person a “basket case”? A “basket case” is a derogatory reference to someone considered unstable and has a very sad origin. During the First World War, because some soldiers were so badly maimed or shell-shocked that a stretcher wouldn’t hold them, they were carried off the field in wicker baskets. In 1919, after the war, the dark expression “basket case” began being


cruelly applied to anyone with an impairment, either physical or mental. What’s the origin of the panic button? The first panic buttons were installed in bombers during the Second World War. If his plane was hit by enemy fire, a pilot could push a button that set off an alarm throughout the aircraft. The crew responded with a drill, which, in severe cases and if a crash was imminent, could lead to the entire crew bailing out. When too many chose to parachute when hearing the alarm even though the situation wasn’t critical, pilots were advised to think twice before “pushing the panic button.” What’s the origin of the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger”? “Don’t kill the messenger” was first expressed as long ago as 442 B.C. by Sophocles. Kill became shoot in the American West during the nineteenth century. The expression arose during a time when messages between opposing armies, such as terms for surrender, were delivered by hand. The angry reply was often the symbolic return to his own side of the murdered messenger. Why is a notable achievement said to be a “feather in your cap”? Among tribal warriors, including those native to North America, a feather was awarded for each enemy killed in combat. These were worn as a headdress and eventually on armoured helmets; like wearers of today’s campaign medals, 317

the most decorated stood out as heroes. Women began wearing feathers in their caps as a signal of betrothal after it became customary for a warrior to give one of his hard-earned feathers to the woman he loved. Why are foot soldiers called “infantry”? The word soldier is from the Latin word solidus, meaning a gold coin, because it cost money to raise an army of mercenaries. The word infantry is from the Latin infant, meaning “non speaking,” because, like children, well-disciplined soldiers never talk back or challenge orders. Curiously, another use of the word soldier is in reference to an army ant, due to the fact that other than humans, ants are the only creatures on Earth to go into battle in formation. Why do we say that a guilty person must “face the music”? To “face the music” comes from the military “drumming out” ceremony for disgraced soldiers. This ritual called for only drums to accompany the dishonoured as he was stripped of his rank and colours in front of his assembled unit. For cavalrymen, this humiliation was enhanced by having the offender sit backwards on his horse so that while leaving he could still see, as well as hear, the drums and the band. He was forced to face the music. Why does “sally forth” mean to go forward with a new venture? Today it implies less danger, but “to sally forth” was originally a military term meaning to suddenly rush forward. 318

The Latin derivation of sally is salire, meaning “to leap.” Castles and fortresses had closely guarded openings in the walls designed for mounting a quick counterattack against a siege. These were called sally ports, from which the defenders would vigorously rush, or sally forth, into battle. What is the meaning of the battle cry “give no quarter”? In battle, to give no quarter means to take no prisoners. In this case, the word quarter has no numerical value but rather refers to the antiquated use of the word for a dwelling place or area, such as the Latin Quarter or a soldier’s living quarters or barracks. To grant or give quarter would mean to show mercy and provide prisoners with shelter. “No quarter asked and no quarter given” means this is a fight to the death. During the American War of Independence, which country contributed the most soldiers to fight alongside the British? The country that contributed the most soldiers to fight with the British against Washington was America itself. By 1779, there were more Americans fighting alongside the British than with the colonists. Washington had about thirty-five hundred troops, but because one-third of the American population opposed the revolution, up to eight thousand loyalists had joined the British Army. Why when someone’s humiliated do we say they were forced to “eat crow”? The expression “to eat crow” came from an incident during the War of 1812 when the Americans invaded Canada. A 319

hungry New England soldier who strayed across enemy lines had shot a crow for food when he was discovered by an unarmed British officer who managed to get hold of the American’s rifle by pretending to admire it. He then turned the weapon on the young man and forced him to eat part of the crow raw before letting him go. What are you doing when you “pillage and plunder” while “ransacking” a village? The Vikings were good at ransacking during raids on Britain and other countries, so they gave us the word ransack, which started out meaning to search a house, legally or otherwise, for goods, stolen or otherwise. Pillage and plunder are almost interchangeable, with pillage strictly referring to searching a home for booty, while plunder denotes removing what you find. Whether your home has been searched by the police or a burglar — or a Viking — it’s bound to be a mess because it’s been ransacked. Why do we say, “Lock and load” when preparing for the inevitable? The expression “lock and load” comes from American G.I.s during the Second World War and refers to loading the M1 rifle for imminent combat. The phrase means to insert a full ammunition clip into the rifle, then lock the bolt forward, forcing a round into the chamber ready to fire. The original order was “load and lock,” but after John Wayne reversed the order to “lock and load” in The Sands of Iwo Jima, the expression stuck. 320

Why is someone who doesn’t live up to expectations called a “flash in the pan”? On a pioneer flintlock rifle the hammer struck a flint to create a spark that ignited a small amount of priming powder in what was called the pan. This ignition then set off the main charge of gunpowder, causing a small explosion that fired the bullet through the barrel. When the powder in the pan didn’t ignite properly it created a flash, but the rifle wouldn’t fire. It looked good, but it was only a “flash in the pan.” Why are military guards, some garden fences, and people on strike all called “pickets”? A picket line, of course, is a group of union people exercising their right to protest, while a military picket is a guard on duty to protect the perimeter of an encampment. The word picket comes from the early French settlers, who made fortified stockades from sharpened tree trunks, which they called piquet, meaning “pointed sticks.” It lives on in the pointed slats of picket fences and in the actions of union strikers. Why is the control area of an aircraft called a “cockpit”? When the hideous sport of cockfighting was legal, the birds were taken to a pit in the ground where they fought to the death. These fights were quick and bloody, and for this reason, the “cockpit” became the designated name of the room on a warship were surgeons attended the wounded and dying. During the First World War, pilots, like the roosters, were inserted into a confined space to do battle, and so they named that space the cockpit.


Why did First World War fighter pilots wear long silk scarves? The dashing image of First World War fighter pilots wearing long silk scarves had nothing to do with fashion. The open-cockpit biplanes were very primitive with no rear-view mirror, so the pilot depended entirely on his own vision to avoid or mount an attack. The scarf was used to wipe grease from his goggles and to keep his neck from chafing against his collar as he constantly turned his head while watching for the enemy. How did “die hard” come to mean resilient? “Die hard” was coined on May 16, 1811, by a British man, Colonel Inglis, who had gathered the men of his 57th Foot Regiment just before the Battle of Albuera, against Napoleon. The colonel ended his address with, “Die hard my lads, die hard” — and that they did. They were victorious, but only 1 of the 24 officers and 168 of the 584 men survived. What is a “Mexican standoff”? The classical Mexican standoff occurs when three people level guns at one another in such a way that if one gunman shoots a member of the trio the person not being shot at will in all likelihood kill the first shooter. In other words, a stalemate ensues. It’s a no-win situation. The expression’s roots are in the American West where conflicts with the original Mexican settlers were often resolved with guns and even war, which is how Texas, New Mexico, and California became part of the United States. The term Mexican standoff came 322

out of these struggles as an ethnic slur, just as gringo arose as an epithet for the other side. Where did the expression “bite the dust” come from? We probably all heard “bite the dust” for the first time while watching an old Western B movie when a cowboy hero does away with a pesky varmint to impress the schoolmarm. The phrase was first used in English literature in 1750 to imply wounding or killing by satirical novelist Tobias Smollett (1721–1771) in Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, his translation of the original French novel by Alain-René Lesage: “We made two of them bite the dust and the others betake themselves to flight.” The inspiration for the expression can be traced back to the Bible in Psalm 72: “They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust.”

What is the meaning of “cut to the quick”?


“Cut to the quick” is employed in two ways. Sometimes it means (a) “get to the point” or “cut to the chase,” but more often it implies (b) “causing deep emotional pain.” The quick in both cases is the flesh of the finger beneath the nail. Either way, the expression means cutting through the inconsequential to the meaningful. An example of (a) would be a combatant cutting through an opponent’s armour or clothing to get to the flesh (or point of consequence), while the meaning when used as (b) would be to cut deeply or stab through the superficial exterior to a vulnerable part. “Cut to the quick” is related to the phrase “the quick and the dead.” Quick here comes from an old English word, cwicu, which meant “living.” Why is some extreme behaviour called “beyond the pale”? The expression dates back to the English Crown’s first efforts to control the Irish by outlawing their language and customs. But the unruly Irish were just that, and by the fifteenth century the English still controlled only a small area around Dublin, protected by a fortification called “the Pale,” meaning sharp sticks (i.e., impaled). To the British, to go “beyond the Pale” meant that you were entering the uncivilized realm of the wild Irish. Why does “getting the drop on someone” mean you’ve taken the advantage? When two men face each other in a duel or a gunfight, they used to lift the older heavy pistol toward the sky before dropping it level to take aim. The first one to lower his forearm and lock his elbow in place was said to have the drop 324

on the other. Since then, anyone having an advantage over the other under any circumstance is said to “have the drop on” his opponent. Where did we get the expression “down in the boondocks”? “The boondocks” refers to an isolated, unsophisticated rural region. Although it’s been used in England since 1909, American Marines stationed in the Philippines during the Second World War popularized the term. A bundok, in the primary language of the Philippines, is a mountain. The word became entrenched in our language when rediscovered during the 1960s by American soldiers in Vietnam. Why is someone of little importance called a “pipsqueak”? The Allied soldiers came up with the perfect synonym for “non-threatening” during the First World War. The Germans had brutal artillery, but they also had a smaller gun that stood out from the other incoming rounds by its unimpressive squeaking noise. It struck with a sound more like “pip” than “boom.” The boys in the trenches called them “pipsqueaks,” and after the war, they transferred the meaning as a description of someone of little significance. What is the difference between the words bickering and dickering? Even though they both involve a disagreement, there is a dramatic difference between bickering and dickering. Bickering now means to quarrel, but the word began as bicken, Dutch for “an attack involving a misunderstanding by 325

slashing or stabbing.” Dickering came from the Roman habit of packaging units of ten hides for bartering or haggling with barbarians. These packets were called decuria from decem, meaning “ten,” and gave English the word dicker. Why are deadly hidden devices called “booby traps”? The English word boob, meaning “stupid” or “dunce,” first appeared in 1599 and comes from the Spanish word bobo, also meaning “stupid,” which came from the Latin balbus. While a booby prize is awarded to the supreme loser, it was during the First World War that the nineteenth-century booby trap changed from being a harmless practical joke to its deadly modern wartime meaning of laying explosive traps for enemy soldiers. Why is a dismissive final remark called “a parting shot”? In 247 B.C., the warriors of the Parthian Empire were such skilled archers on horseback that even Rome couldn’t conquer them. They had developed a saddle with a stirrup, which enabled them to turn and fire arrows while riding away at full gallop. This incredible manoeuvre during a strategic retreat was known as the Parthian shot, which gave us the expression “a parting shot.” The Parthian Empire included, in part, what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and most of Iraq and Iran. They took over the region after conquering the Scythians, who had developed the magnificent breed of horse that was the key to the Parthians’ success.


While firing arrows, a rider could steady himself with the newly invented stirrups and then guide his mount with his legs. When something is over why do we say, “That’s all she wrote”? “That’s all she wrote,” meaning “that’s the end of it,” has a heartbreaking history. During the Second World War, it wasn’t uncommon for an overseas serviceman to receive a brief, cutting letter from a girlfriend telling him that their romance was over and that she’d found someone else in his absence. When questioned by his buddies, the anguished soldier’s response would be, “That’s all she wrote,” and it became so common it entered our language as meaning “it’s over.”

Why do yellow ribbons symbolize fidelity? 327

Yellow ribbons were first used during the Vietnam War. The inspiration came from a Civil War legend about a soldier returning home from the infamous Andersonville Prison. He had written his wife to hang a yellow handkerchief on the oak tree in the town square if she still loved him; otherwise he would stay on the stagecoach and move on. A modernized version became the hit song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” and a new custom was born. L. Russell Brown was inspired to write the song one late spring morning, and he drove thirty-three miles to Irwin Levine’s house to tell him the story. Irwin changed the yellow handkerchief to a ribbon so as not to offend anyone with the reality of what makes handkerchiefs yellow. They also updated the story by changing the stagecoach to a bus. The song was released in February 1973. It was the number one hit by April 1973. The song became a hit again in 1981 when the fifty-two Iran hostages were returned after 444 days of captivity. Why is an elderly person sometimes called an “old fogey”? We use the phrase “old fogey,” perhaps cruelly, as an insult for someone whose advanced age has put them out of touch with modern fashion. The expression surfaced, however, as an honour when in 1811 it was used to describe any soldier disabled from battle wounds. Fogey is from the French word fougeux, meaning “fierce” or “feisty,” so the original fogey was a courageous veteran disabled through heroic combat. 328

Why is an exact likeness called a “spitting image”? A boy who looks like his dad is sometimes said to be a spitting image of his father. There is another similar expression — “spirit and image” — but it isn’t related. At the apex of the glory that was the British Empire, just about every man was familiar with the spit and polish discipline of military life. When a man polished his boots, he used saliva to bring them to where he could see his own reflection, and that is the origin of “spitting image.” How did crossing a line in the sand become a military challenge? The concept of a literal “line in the sand” was first created by a lone Roman senator who rode out to meet a Macedonian king at the head of an army poised to invade Egypt, a Roman protectorate. The king balked until the senator drew a circle around him in the sand and demanded that he order a withdrawal before stepping out of that circle or face the wrath of Rome. The king paused and then complied. This account has been verified by contemporary historians. The senator was Popillius Laenas. Why are some well-armed soldiers called “dragoons”? A regiment of heavily armed European cavalrymen became known as “dragoons” after they began carrying muskets. When fired, the muskets breathed fire just like their fearsome namesake, the dragon. Dragoon is simply a variable pronunciation of dragon. Today, a dragoon is usually a member of a tank regiment. 329

Why are those for and against war called “hawks” and “doves”? Those who side with war have been called “hawks” since 1798, when Thomas Jefferson coined the term war hawk. The description of those who favour peace as “doves” is from the Biblical book of Genesis. When Noah sent a dove over the water to see if it was receding, it returned with an olive leaf, indicating there was land nearby. The modern use began during the Cuban Missile Crisis and continues to the present. Why do we call a traitor a “turncoat”? Someone who changes sides during a war is called a “turncoat” because of the actions of a former duke of Saxony who found himself and his land uncomfortably situated directly in the middle of a war between the French and the Saxons. He quickly had a reversible coat made for himself, one side blue for the Saxons and the other side white for the French. Then, depending on who was occupying his land, he could wear the appropriate colour of allegiance. Why is a military dining hall called a “mess”? A mess hall is what military types call their dining halls. The term’s origins go back to the Middle Ages, when British sailors began calling their meagre, often grub-infested meals a “mess,” which they clearly were. Mess originally meant the food for one meal. It has since evolved to signify a specific area where sailors, soldiers, and aircrew gather to eat, drink, and socialize.


In order to maintain discipline, there are usually three levels of mess: officers, non-commissioned officers (sergeants), and rank-and-file soldiers. Why does to “bear the brunt” mean “to take the heat”? To “take the heat” is the literal translation of “to bear the brunt,” because brunt and burn mean the same thing. From the Anglo-Saxon word brenning, or burning, brunt was a vivid reference to the hottest point of conflict during a battle. It took on a more general meaning to describe contentious domestic and business issues, but it always means the utmost pressure within a circumstance, or the point of greatest fury. When did we begin numbering the world wars? In 1887, the first use of the term Great War was in reference to the Napoleonic Wars. The description was applied to the 1914–18 war from the start — it had even begun being used in anticipation in 1909. The 1914–18 was also labelled a world war when it began. It wasn’t called the First World War until 1931, when it became clear that it hadn’t been the “war to end all wars.” The first reference to a Second World War as a future possibility was in 1919. When it happened in September of 1939, it was immediately given the title of the Second World War. “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” — Plato Why is a glaring error called a “snafu”? During the Second World War, massive military operations were so huge they were usually fouled up by their sheer


weight and size. The frustrated servicemen called them SNAFUs, an acronym for “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up.” Some say that “fouled up” was a polite adaptation for family use, but regardless, the expression snafu lived on, and now, as it did then, means a glaring error. Why is a restricted limit called a “deadline”? A deadline is an absolute limit, usually a time limit, and was popularized by the newspaper business, in which getting stories written and printed on time is of ultimate importance. But the expression comes from American Civil War prisoners, who were kept within crude makeshift boundaries, often just a line scratched in the dirt or an easily breached rail fence. They were told, “If you cross this line, you are dead,” and soon the guards and prisoners simply called it what it was: a deadline. Why do we say, “I heard it through the grapevine”? During the American Civil War, a Colonel Bee set up a crude telegraph line between Placerville and Virginia City by stringing wires from trees. The wires hung in loops like wild grapevines, and so the system was called the “Grapevine Telegraph,” or simply “the grapevine.” By the time war news came through the wires it was often outdated, misleading, or false, and the expression “I heard it through the grapevine” soon came to describe any information obtained through gossip or rumour that was likely unreliable. What exactly is a last-ditch stand?


In the sixteenth century, when an army attacked a walled city or fortress, they would advance by digging a series of trenches for protection until they were close enough to storm the walls. If there was a successful counterattack, the invaders would retreat by attempting to hold each trench in the reverse order from which they had advanced until they might find themselves fighting from the “last ditch.” If they failed to hold that one, the battle was lost. Where did the expression “the whole nine yards” come from? During the South Pacific action of the Second World War, American fighter planes’ machine guns were armed on the ground with .50-calibre ammunition belts that measured exactly twenty-seven feet, or nine yards, in length before being loaded into the fuselage. If, during combat, a pilot gave everything he had by firing all his ammunition at a single target, it was said he’d given it “the whole nine yards.” In modern warfare, is it infantry or machines that determine the outcome? Machines win modern wars. A 1947 study found that during the Second World War, only about 15 to 25 percent of the American infantry ever fired their rifles in combat. The rest, or three-quarters of them, simply carried their weapons, doing their best not to become casualties. The infantry’s purpose is not to kill the enemy, but rather to advance on and then physically occupy his territory.


Why is an overly eager person or group said to be “gung-ho”? The adjective gung-ho comes from the Chinese word gonghe, meaning “work together.” It entered the English language through U.S. Marines who picked it up from the Communists while in China during the Second World War. Because the Marines admired the fervour of the Chinese leftists in fighting the Japanese, while the rightists under Chiang Kai-shek seldom fought, they adopted “gung-ho” as a slogan. They emulated the Communists with “gung-ho” meetings and eventually called themselves “the gung-ho battalion.” How did the poppy become a symbol of remembrance? (a) Poppies have been associated with the war dead since the Napoleonic wars in the nineteenth century when it was noted how thickly the blood-red flowers grew over the graves of soldiers buried in the previously barren fields in the region of Flanders in France. The reason was that the sterile chalk soil had become enriched by lime from the residue left after the heavy gunfire and artillery bombardments, causing an explosion of poppies. When the fighting was over and the lime was absorbed, the poppies disappeared. (b) In May 1915, a forty-three-year-old native of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, was serving as a brigade surgeon in the region of Flanders during the second battle of Ypres. The posting was a nightmare. During some of the fiercest fighting of the war he attended to the terribly wounded during wave after wave of relentless enemy attacks. It was during this time that Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae learned of the nearby death 334

of his close friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa. Overcome with emotion and during a calm in the battle, he reacted to the sights and sounds around him by taking a scrap of paper from his pocket. Staring out at the endless white wooden crosses marking makeshift Canadian graves, and amidst the mud and chaos, he heard and saw the incredible natural contradictions to the madness. There were birds in the sky and there were the wild poppies where none had been before. Within twenty minutes he had written fifteen lines of what he saw and felt before stuffing it back in his pocket and returning to the wounded and dying. What John McCrae wrote that day was eventually published on December 8 of that year. He unfortunately wouldn’t live to see the influence of his poem. McCrae died of pneumonia at Wimereux, France, on January 28, 1918. His impressions during that bleak day at Ypres would eventually inspire the use of the poppy as the symbol of remembrance of the mad human sacrifices of war. “In Flanders Fields” In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly


Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields. — John McCrae (c) In November 1918, after reading McCrae’s poem, an American schoolteacher, Moina Michael, immediately made a personal pledge to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of keeping faith with those who died. Two years later a French woman visiting New York, Madame Guerin, learned of the new custom and decided, after returning to France, to use handmade poppies to raise money for the destitute children in war-torn areas of


her own country. This inspired the Great War Veterans Association of Canada to officially adopt the poppy as the flower of remembrance for their 117,000 comrades-in-arms who had died in battle during the First World War. Today’s lapel poppies first appeared in 1922 and were assembled by disabled veterans as a small source of income. The poppy also stands internationally as a symbol of collective reminiscence, as other countries have also adopted its image to honour those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.


business and the marketplace Why are notes taken at a business meeting called “minutes”? The reason the written records of a meeting are called the minutes is because, in order to keep up, the minute-taker wrote in a shorthand or abbreviation. The word used to describe this condensed writing was minute (pronounced “mynoot”), meaning “small,” and because the spelling is the same, the minutes (mynoots) became “minutes.” The same circumstances apply to Frederick Chopin’s Minute Waltz: It’s really his small or minute waltz. Why are shopping centres called “malls”? Shopping centres mushroomed in the 1950s but weren’t called malls until 1967. Mall comes from the popular sixteenth-century Italian ball and mallet game palamaglio, which came to England as pall-mall (pronounced “pell mell”). By the eighteenth century the game had been


forgotten, except on the name of a London street where it had been played and on a parallel ritzy avenue named the Mall, where fashionable aristocrats strolled and shopped. Why do we say, “We’re just gonna hang out”? “Hanging out” usually means getting together for no particular reason other than to pass time and see what’s happening. The expression comes from a time before commercial signs, when English shopkeepers set up poles in front of their stores from which they would hang flags describing their goods. These flags were called hangouts, and they became a place where people would stop to linger and gossip with their friends. Why is the presiding officer over a committee called a “chairman”? Whether it’s a chairman or a chairwoman, that person is in the seat of authority and has been since the fourteenth century. At that time a chair was a throne (it came from the Greek word kathedra, leading to the word cathedral for the place housing the seat of the bishop). In business, the person in charge sat in a comfortable armed chair, while everyone else sat on stools, and so he took the esteemed title “chairman.” Why is something recently manufactured called “brand new”? The original meaning of the word brand was a fire burning within a furnace or forge. To say an item, whether pottery or forged metal, was “brand new” meant it was fresh from the fires of its creation. This usage dates back to the sixteenth 339

century. The verb to brand comes from the same source and means to mark ownership on something, from wine casks to livestock, using a hot iron from a fire. Why is something unused sometimes said to be “brand spanking new”? To exaggerate that a purchase is straight from the manufacturer without any previous owner, an item such as a new car might be called “brand spanking new.” Spanking refers to the traditional slapping of a newborn baby to start them crying to ensure that they are breathing without obstruction. Why is an honest conversation referred to as “talking turkey”? “Talking turkey” comes from an encounter between a white settler and a Native American in 1848. After they had bagged a turkey and a buzzard, the fast-talking white man suggested, “You can have the buzzard and I will take the turkey, or I will take the turkey and you can have the buzzard” — or, in modern language, “Heads I win, tails you lose.” The Native’s response, “Why don’t you talk turkey with me?” was passed on so often by those overhearing the argument that talking turkey became part of the language. Why is a gullible shopper called a “mark”? A “mark” is someone who can easily be taken advantage of and came to us from midway carnival operators (or “carnies”) who run games of chance. The word midway was first used to describe the outdoor amusements at the 1893 World’s 340

Exposition in Chicago. After a carnie found a victim, and before sending him on his way with a cheap prize, the rogue would slap the rube on the back with a dust-covered hand, marking him as a sucker for operators down the line. Why is a miserly person called a “cheapskate”? The word cheapskate, meaning tight with money, surfaced in America during the 1890s as a reference to loan sharks. In this case, the word skate began as skyte, a Scottish slur for a low-life. “A skyte” (eventually “a skate”) was also Scottish slang for a worn-out horse. With the evolving new lingo of the multicultural Americas, and exclusive to this expression, the pronunciation of skyte became “skate” (not the kind used on ice). Ice skates were introduced to England from Holland in 1662 as skeates, from the Dutch word schaats from the Frank skakkja, meaning “stilts.” What is the chief difference between a limited company (Ltd.) and one that’s incorporated (Inc.)? A company name ending in “Ltd.” means that the amount of risk or liability for its shareholders for any corporate failure or debt is limited to the amount of their personal investment in that company. In an incorporated company or corporation (“Inc.”), the business is recognized as a single entity, and the personal assets of its principals are protected from creditors if the business fails. Only stockholders risk losing the amount of their investment.


Why is a “touchstone” the standard against which things are measured? A “touchstone” is a figurative standard of value or quality against which something is measured. The word comes from ancient times when a special stone was used to guard against counterfeit money. The gold or silver content of coins wasn’t well governed, so phony money was often mixed with other metals and passed off as authentic. Merchants tested the purity of coins by rubbing them on a hard black stone. The colour of the streak left on the touchstone disclosed the coins’ true value. Ultraviolet scanners provide a kind of touchstone for today’s paper money. Passing a bill under the scanner gives an instant indication of its authenticity based on a number of security features built into the bill. If something sounds honest, why do we say it “rings true”? In the nineteenth century, before the mint started issuing coins with reeding or grooves on the edges to prevent it, some dishonest people would shave the precious metal just enough to go visually undetected. They would then have full value for the coin as well as that of the shavings. If suspicious, a merchant would bounce the coin on a hard surface to hear if it “rang true,” thereby proving its authenticity. The word ring is from the Anglo-Saxon hringan. What does monger mean in words like hate-monger or gossipmonger?


There are gossipmongers, warmongers, scandal-mongers, hate-mongers, and many others to whom we show extreme disrespect by adding the perceived curse monger to their action; yet when the word stands alone it isn’t that severe. From the Old English word mangian, mong simply means “to peddle, sell, or barter,” so a fishmonger sells fish, while a hate-monger peddles hate. Why is a stash of surplus money called a “slush fund”? The term slush began as a sailor’s reference to the grease from the cook’s galley, which was used to lubricate the ships masts. When the voyage was over, the surplus grease was sold, and the money was put into a “slush fund” to be shared by the enlisted men. By 1839, when a ship returned to port, any battle-damaged equipment or surplus supplies were also sold and the money added to the profits from the grease in the slush fund. What ends are we talking about when we say we are trying to “make ends meet”? “Making ends meet” means to balance what you make with what is required to live, especially in difficult times, and comes to us from the sixteenth-century farmers of England. The saying refers to the beginning and the end of a year — or from the end of one year to the end of the next. If someone could overcome the unpredictable and seasonal problems throughout the year without losing money, they had survived by making ends meet. Why are we warned not to take any wooden nickels?


During the nineteenth century, it was common practice at commercial exhibitions to promote the event through wooden coins that could be redeemed at face value only by exhibitors or participating merchants at and during the run of the fair. When the exhibition closed and moved on, patrons were often left with wooden nickels or other coins that were useless unless they could be pawned off to an unsuspecting local retailer. Where did the expression “paying through the nose” come from? In Northern Ireland during the ninth century, the British introduced a harsh poll tax of one ounce of gold per year on all Irish households. The tax was nicknamed the “Nose Tax” because if a person didn’t or couldn’t pay, he had his nose slit. This cruel but effective procedure gave rise to the expression “paying through the nose,” meaning if unreasonable payments aren’t made, there will be dire consequences. Why do we say someone without money is both “broke” and “bankrupt”? Bank comes from the Italian word banca, meaning “bench,” over which medieval moneylenders did business in the streets of Venice. If he became insolvent, the law intervened and broke the lender’s bench, which in Italian is banca rotta. Rotta referred to the broken bench, but another figurative word in use for a broken man was the Latin ruptus. With his bench broken, the banker’s spirit was banca ruptus.


Odds & Oddities • The odds of a person dying from smoking a pack of cigarettes a day are 1 in 3. • dying from obesity — 1 in 4. • dying from working twenty years in a coal mine — 1 in 23. • dying from urban air pollution — 1 in 70. • dying from living with a smoker — 1 in 4,200 (you have a greater lifetime chance of being struck by lightning — 1 in 3,000). • dying from something — 100 percent.


medical complications Why do we say we are “under the weather” when we get sick? When the weather turned bad at sea, the constant rolling of the rough water caused a rocking motion that brought on seasickness. Those passengers affected were taken below deck, because the sway diminishes the lower you get on the ship (especially down near the keel). Those taken below deck because of seasickness were brought “under the weather.” How did we start the ritual of kissing a wound to make it better? Everyone with children has kissed a small bruise or cut to make it better. This comes from one of our earliest medical procedures for the treatment of snakebite. Noticing that a victim could be saved if the venom was sucked out through the point of entry, early doctors soon began treating all infectious abrasions by putting their lips to the wound and


sucking out the poison. Medicine moved on, but the belief that a kiss can make it all better still lingers. Why when we hurt our elbow do we say we’ve hit our “funny bone”? When we strike our elbow, although it’s no laughing matter we say that the tingling sensation is from our funny bone. In fact, the prickling discomfort comes from striking the ulnar nerve, and the word funny comes from some scholar with a sense of humour who turned the whole thing into a pun during the nineteenth century. The ulnar nerve passes over the end of the humerus, which inspired the term funny bone. Why do we say that a timid person has “cold feet”? To have “cold feet” means to lose your nerve when facing danger; it began meaning “cowardly” more than a hundred years ago. This is a bit harsh, because everyone’s bodily extremities (including the hands and feet) become cold when terrified because under the circumstances, the body draws blood away from these areas to fuel vital organs for combat or flight. So cold feet don’t make the coward … it’s the running away. Why are frenzied women referred to as “hysterical” but not equally frenetic men? The physicians of ancient Greece considered hysteria to be an exclusively female problem caused by a disorder within the woman’s distinctive internal organs. Hystera is the Greek word for womb and survives today in the medical procedure hysterectomy. Men suffer the anti-social symptoms of hysteria 347

less frequently than women, but when they do, they are called sociopaths. Why are subjects of human experiments called “guinea pigs”? Experimental human guinea pigs are not named after the animal associated with medical testing. Human volunteers selected for observation under trial were usually desperate for money and would receive the nominal daily fee of one guinea for their trouble. A guinea was a forty-shilling piece first minted in 1664, so called because it was minted from West African (Guinea) gold. The guinea pig animals are misnamed, because they are from Guyana in South America and not Guinea in West Africa. What was the initial purpose of the chainsaw? In unskilled hands, a chainsaw can be dangerous. It might even cut through an arm or a leg. Ironically, that was what the first chainsaw was invented for. A German named Bernard Heine (1800–1846) invented an early type of chainsaw in 1830. He called it an osteotome. In those days, before general anaesthetics, surgeons depended on speed to shorten the suffering of patients. The chainsaw was designed to speed up amputations by cutting through bone more quickly than was possible with conventional methods. The device was operated by turning a crank manually, much like you would if you were using a hand mixer. A Swiss German, Andreas Stihl (1896–1973), patented and developed an electric


chainsaw for cutting wood in 1926. Three years later he patented a gas-powered model. Stihl is generally regarded as the father of the modern chainsaw. Why after a routine medical checkup do we say we’ve received a “clean bill of health”? If you say a doctor has given you a “clean bill of health,” you’re using a nautical expression from the days when sailing ships were required to obtain a document from local officials at every port of call declaring that they had not been exposed to any epidemic or infectious disease. If they didn’t have this bill of health, the next port would quarantine the ship, crew, and cargo for forty days. What are the differences between a “pandemic,” an “epidemic,” and an “endemic”? In 1666, the year after Britain had been struck by the bubonic plague, Gideon Harvey used the words endemic and pandemic in “The Anatomy of Consumptions.” Demic is in all cases from the Greek word demos, meaning “people.” Some diseases are specific to a certain people or place and are called “endemic,” with the Greek prefix “en” from endemos, meaning “in” or “native to” a defined district. Other diseases spread outside their original boundaries and are “epidemic.” The Greek prefix “epi” is an abbreviation of epimemia, meaning “among,” and suggests a disease or plague has jumped its original boundaries.


A “pandemic” uses the prefix “pan” from the Greek word pandemos, meaning “all people.” The word is used to describe a disease spreading throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world. Where did the pharmacist’s symbol of “Rx” come from? To the Romans, the pursuit of the healing arts and the distribution of medicine was the highest professional calling possible and therefore could only be ordained by Jupiter. The R in “Rx” is from the Latin word recipere, meaning “to have been prescribed” or “to take,” while the small x was the god king’s symbol of approval. To the Romans, the “Rx” meant that the great god Jupiter himself had a hand in the prescription. Why is the common winter viral infection called “the flu”? In 1743, an outbreak of a deadly cold-like fever originated in Italy and swept through Europe. Because doctors believed that diseases and epidemics were ordained or influenced by the stars they called it (as the press reported it from Italy) an influenza. The English word for influenza is influence, which although abbreviated to flu still means the disease flows from the influence of the heavens. Why is reconstructive surgery called “plastic”? Plastic surgery was first practised in India around 600 B.C. when noses that had been amputated as punishment for criminals were reconstructed with skin from the forehead. The word plastic is from the ancient Greek word plastikos, 350

which means “to mold into shape.” The plastic arts include sculpting and ceramics. The modern term plastic surgery came from a surgical handbook published in 1838. The word plastique for reconstructive surgery was introduced in 1798 by a French surgeon named Desault. Why are the bundles of tissue fibres that move our bones called “muscles”? In the average adult male body, there are forty-five pounds of bone compared to sixty-five pounds of muscle. The average female has 15 percent less. We call them muscles because when a Roman physician saw how they rippled under the skin when flexed, it reminded him of the skittering of a small mouse, or musculus, and so that’s what he called them. En route to English, musculus became muscle. Why is the lump in a man’s throat called an “Adam’s apple”? The Adam’s apple is found only in men, and it got its name from an ancient embellishment of the story of Adam and Eve. Folklore had it that when Adam swallowed the forbidden fruit, one large piece of the apple got stuck in his throat and remained there, forming a lump. This lump in every man’s throat, his Adam’s apple, is an eternal reminder of his humility in the eyes of God. Why is a terrible or fake doctor called a “quack”? The first reference to a healer as a quack goes back into the sixteenth century, when it was common for dubious medicine


men to travel from town to town dispensing their miracle cures from the back of a horse-drawn wagon. The quack refers to the meaningless sound of a duck, which had the same validity as the claims made by the medicine men that their salves or ointments had healing powers. Today’s quacks still dispense bad medicine.

Why is the word quarantine used to describe enforced isolation of contagious diseases? Before the age of modern epidemiology, attempts to control the outbreak of a contagious disease included an arbitrary forty days of enforced confinement. New and strange diseases were often carried from abroad by ships, so a quarantine of crew and cargo helped discourage epidemics. Forty days was chosen because of its prominence in the Bible. Quarante is 352

the French for forty, and quarantine literally translates to “forty-ish.” What are “patent medicines”? All new inventions, including medicines, require a patent; that is, their components must be revealed. The word patent means an “open letter” and is a grant made by a government that confers upon the creator of an invention the sole right to make, use, and sell that invention for a set period of time. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, travelling medicine shows sold what they called “patent” concoctions, claiming cures for all manner of illnesses. They got around the open-letter concept of a patent and kept their ingredients secret by taking a patent out on the shape of the bottle or its label instead of the formula inside. The patent medicine industry began a slow decline in 1906 after years of critical newspaper articles led to the passage of the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act, which required ingredients to be listed on labels. Patent is from the Latin patentum, meaning “lying open.” Many brand names that started as patent medicines are still with us, including Absorbine Jr., Bromo-Seltzer, Pepsi-Cola, and Coca-Cola. Why do we say a nervous person waits with “bated breath”? The body has instinctive reactions to emotional circumstances, and one of these is how we breathe during times of apprehension. Our breathing becomes short and controlled when we are in crisis. Bated is a variation of the 353

word abated, both meaning “restricted.” Therefore, when someone is in a state of fear or suspense and his breathing becomes restricted, he is said to be waiting with “bated breath.” How are burn degrees assessed? The seriousness of a burn is assessed in degrees depending on the number of layers of skin involved. A sunburn or a red mark on a finger touched to an iron is a first-degree burn. A second-degree burn blisters. Third-degree burns mean that all skin is destroyed right down to the layer of tissue under the skin. Burns on faces, hands, and feet can be more serious than a wound on the thigh, for example, because of the importance of these body parts. Burns to the genital area are also more dangerous because they are vulnerable to infection. Why is rabies sometimes called “hydrophobia”? It was once believed that dogs with rabies were afraid of water, which isn’t the case, but in Greek, phobia means “fear” and hydro means “water,” which is why the disease was called hydrophobia. To be made raving mad from rabies surfaced in 1804 as rabid. It’s from the Latin word rabere, meaning “to be raving mad.” In the Welsh and Breton languages, the belief in the relationship between dogs and the rage of rabies and hydrophobia was so strong that their words for hydrophobia are compounds based on their words for dog (which in Welsh is cynddaredd and in Breton, kounnar). Enrage, on the other hand, is Old French for “to be made rabid.”


Why is the vehicle that takes people to the hospital called an “ambulance”? The French began treating wounded soldiers in the field in 1809 by bringing the hospital to the injured. Those who could walk or be carried on a stretcher were taken to a tent or field hospital and treated immediately. The French verb for “to walk” is ambulare, which gave us the English word amble. In 1242 the word hospital, like hospitality, first took the meaning of “a shelter for the needy.” It began referring to an institution for sick people in 1549. So the literal translation of ambulance is “a place to which the needy can walk or be carried.” During the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century, the word ambulance was transferred to horse-drawn vehicles that for the first time conveyed the wounded from the field to the hospital. Canada’s first hospital was a “sick bay” at Port Royal in Acadia between 1606 and 1613. It was run by two male attendants from the Order of St. Jean de Dieu. Canadian doctor Norman Bethune (1890–1939) introduced delivering blood to the battlefield using a battered old station wagon during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and then later improved his battlefield ambulance service while in China, where he died himself from septicemia contracted during the course of his work as a surgeon. Why is dwelling on an error called “rubbing it in”? If you continually remind someone of a shortcoming or mistake making them


feel worse, they might complain that you’re “rubbing it in.” The expression refers to the pain or discomfort of having salt rubbed into their wounds, which in earlier times was both a torture and a means of killing bacteria in an open wound. What causes “goosebumps” on our skin when we are frightened? Fear not only causes goosebumps but also makes our hair stand on end, and both reactions are related. When we are frightened, our bodies draw blood away from our extremities (like skin) and redirect it to support our vital organs. As a defence against this tendency, our very hairy primitive ancestors developed an evolutionary response to keep the body warm. When blood is drawn away from the skin, it triggers tiny muscles that tighten the skin and force body hair to stand up to trap heat. This reaction causes stiffening where we once had a lot more body hair, and because the raised flesh looks like the skin of a plucked goose, we call the result goosebumps. How do we avoid trouble by “keeping danger at bay”? “Keeping danger at bay” obviously means taking action to protect your interests, but how does bay figure into it? The ancients believed the bay tree had mystical powers because it seemed never to be struck by lightning. The Greeks and Romans wore its leaves during thunderstorms as protection, and wreaths were made from bay leaves to symbolize invincibility for athletes and victory for warriors. During epidemics and plagues such as the bubonic horror in London, many people carried bay leaves, hoping to keep the sickness “at bay.” 356

What is the history of Aspirin? Aspirin is the most successful pharmaceutical drug ever produced. Its main ingredient is found in the bark of the willow tree and was known as a pain reliever in 1500 B.C. In 1828, the ingredient salicin was isolated. In 1897 chemist Felix Hoffman developed a synthetic form, known as acetylsalicylic acid, at the Bayer factory in Germany; it was referred to as “Aspirin” for the first time in 1899. The word salicin, the compound in the willow bark that relieves pain, is derived from salix, the Latin for “willow tree.” North American Indians used birch bark to make salicylate pain remedies. 137 million Aspirin tablets are taken every day. In 1915, Aspirin became available without prescription. Bayer produces 50,000 tons of acetylsalicylic acid each year — enough to produce 100 billion tablets. If these tablets were laid side by side they would form a line stretching to the moon and back. What are the statistical odds of getting AIDS? Sexual practices vary on different continents and within different cultures, which affects the risk factor. These figures were reported by a major American medical association and relate only to North America. They should be used for general information only and not as a guide for sexual safety. The odds of becoming infected with AIDS during a single episode of penilevaginal intercourse with a non-risk straight


partner without a condom are 1 in 5 million, while with a condom the odds are 1 in 50 million. Having sexual intercourse or sharing needles with a gay or bisexual male, a hemophiliac, or an IV drug user from a major urban area is high-risk. The odds of becoming infected with AIDS during a single straight encounter with a high-risk partner using a condom are as minimal as 1 in 10,000, and they are 1 in 1,000 without protection. Even if a person from the high-risk group has tested negative for the HIV virus, there is still a 1 in 50,000 chance of becoming infected with AIDS during straight sexual intercourse if no condom is used because there is a window between 45 and 180 days during which a newly infected person can infect others but still test negative. If you have a one-night stand with an HIV-positive person without using a condom your risk of getting infected is 1 in 500; with a condom 1 in 5,000. Having sex five hundred times with an HIV-positive partner even with a condom will increase your chances of becoming infected to 1 in 11. Without a condom your risk of getting AIDS increases to 2 out of 3. Odds & Oddities • The chance of having a stroke is 1 in 6. The chance of dying from heart disease is 1 in 3. • The chance of getting arthritis is 1 in 7.


• The chance of getting the flu in the course of a year is 1 in 10. • The chance of contracting the human version of mad cow disease is 1 in 40,000,000. • The chance of dying from any kind of fall is 1 in 20,666.


the modern and ancient olympics What do the five Olympic rings and their colours represent? The five Olympic rings were formally introduced in 1920 and represent the union of the five continents or regions of the world that are linked by the Olympic spirit and credo during the Games. The six colours of the Olympic flag, including the rings and white background, are taken from all of the nations’ flags. At least one Olympic colour appears on every flag in the world. Why is a marathon exactly 26 miles, 385 yards long? In 1908, the first modern Olympic marathon was designed to start at Windsor Castle and end in front of the royal box in the London stadium, and that became the official distance. The race honoured Pheidippedes, who in 490 B.C. had run 22 miles, 1,470 yards to carry news to Athens that the Greeks had defeated the Persians on the plain of Marathon.


Would ancient Greek athletes have had any chance against our well-trained modern Olympians? At least two ancient Greek athletes would have done well in the modern games; their Olympic records stood until the twentieth century. Twenty-six hundred years ago, an athlete named Protiselaus threw a cumbersome primitive discus 152 feet from a standing position. No one exceeded that distance until Clarence Houser, an American, threw the discus 155 feet in 1928. In 656 B.C., a Greek Olympian named Chionis leapt 23 feet, 1.5 inches, a long jump record that stood until 1900, when an American named Alvis Kraenzlein surpassed it by 4.5 inches. Why is a small sporting facility called a “gymnasium” while a larger one is a “stadium”? The word gymnasium is from the Greek word gymnos, which means “nude.” Thus, gymnasium literally means “a school for naked exercise.” The first Olympic event for the nude male athletes, or gymnasts, was a foot race known as a stade, which was a Greek unit of measurement for the distance of the race (which was six hundred feet), and that is why the facility was called a stadium. What does it mean to “rest on your laurels”? The practice of using laurels to symbolize victory came from the ancient Greeks. After winning on the battlefield, great warriors were crowned with a wreath of laurels, or bay leaves, to signify their supreme status during a victory parade. 361

Because the first Olympics consisted largely of war games, the champions were honoured in the same manner, with a laurel: a crown of leaves. To “rest on your laurels” means to quit while you’re ahead. Why do we say that someone well conditioned has been “whipped into shape”? During the ancient Olympics, athletes were expected to go into training ten months before the start of the games. The last month was spent at the site, where — regardless of the weather or bodily injuries, while on a strictly limited diet, and without shoes, shorts, or the right to complain — whenever they faltered, they were whipped by their trainers. These Olympians were literally whipped into shape. What is the origin of the phrase, “It matters not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game”? The noble expression about how you play the game is a Greek historian’s fifth-century B.C. reference to the Olympians. He wrote, “Tis not for Money they contend, but for Glory.” It resurfaced in 1927 when the great sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, “For when the great scorer comes to write against your name, He marks not that you won or lost but how you played the game.”


funeral traditions Why do people in mourning wear black? Today, mourners wear black as a symbol of sadness and respect for their lost loved ones, but it didn’t start out that way. Many years ago it was believed that the spirit of the departed, fearing harsh judgment, would try to remain on Earth by inhabiting a familiar body. The mourners wore black and stayed indoors or in shadows to hide from the departed spirit who sought to possess them. Why are cemeteries filled with tombstones? Today, a tombstone is a tribute marking someone’s final resting place, but the custom began within ancient fears that the departed spirit might rise from the grave to search out and inhabit the body of a living person. To prevent this, the coffin was nailed shut, a heavy stone was placed on its lid, and it was buried deep in the ground. For even greater security,


another, heavier stone was placed over the grave, giving us the tombstone. How did wakes become part of the funeral tradition? The Irish are the most famous for their wakes, holding elaborate and festive celebrations with testimonials and toasts to the recently deceased. The custom began long before the advances of scientific undertaking and was a way of passing enough time to ensure that the subject wasn’t about to be buried alive. The ritual was held to see if the subject would wake up, which sometimes happened, and so it was called a “wake.” Why do Jews place stones on a grave when they visit a cemetery? At the end of the movie Schindler’s List, the cast and some of the survivors visit the graves of those whom Schindler worked with and place a stone on the headstones, where Christians customarily place flowers. This ancient Jewish custom dates back to Biblical times, when stones adorned graves as markers. Today the stones reflect the importance of each soul and are a permanent record of all the people who come to pay their respects. Why do funeral processions move so slowly? The Romans introduced the lighting of candles and torches at funeral services to ward off evil spirits and guide the deceased to paradise. The word funeral itself is derived from the Latin word for “torch.” By the fifteenth century, people were placing huge candelabras on the coffin even as it was carried 364

to the burial ground. The funeral procession moved at a very slow pace so that the candles wouldn’t blow out. Why when challenging the unknown do we say, “Let her rip”? “Let her rip” is an expression we use when we are apprehensive about the outcome of a new venture but determined to see what happens. Its origin is the tombstone inscription R.I.P for “rest in peace,” and the phrase came into use as a pun for embarking on a new and unknown adventure, because to the religious people who coined it, although whatever comes after death isn’t a certainty, we have no choice but to just do it. Why are those who carry the coffin at a funeral called “pallbearers”? The ancient Sumarians buried their dead in woven baskets that the Greeks called kophinos, giving us the word coffin. Because people feared that the departed soul was looking to posses a new body, or re-enter his own, the coffin bearers wore hoods and black clothes, then hid the coffin under a black cloth that the Romans called a pallium, which gave us the prefix “pall,” as in pallbearer. Why when someone’s been dispatched do we say they’ve been “snuffed out”? Snuff, of course, is a pulverized tobacco that is inhaled through the nostrils. During the eighteenth century in Ireland, it was a common custom to place a dish of snuff inside the coffin so that those at the wake could enjoy a pinch while 365

they said their final farewell. One woman loved the tobacco smell so much that she had her coffin filled with snuff and two bushels distributed among the guests. This custom gave us the expression “snuffed out.” Quickies Did you know … • the most hazardous season is summer? • the safest age of life is ten years old? • the most risky age is forty-five? • people over seventy-five are twice as likely to be in fatal accidents as the rest of us? • you are more likely to get attacked by a cow than a shark? • you will die sooner if deprived of sleep than if deprived of food? • you can’t kill yourself by holding your breath? • most people die of natural causes between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m., “the hour of the wolf”?


food and dining Why are places we go to order food called “restaurants”? Up until 1765, diners were offered only what innkeepers chose to serve. But then a Paris chef named Boulanger began offering a choice of nourishing soups to passersby, and on a board hanging over the door he painted the word Restaurant, meaning “to restore.” Boulanger was so successful that throughout the world dining rooms still display his original sign, “Restaurant,” a promise to restore energy. Why do we drink a toast on special occasions? By the sixth century B.C., Greeks had discovered that poisoning wine was an excellent way to get rid of their enemies, and so to reassure guests at a social function, it became necessary for the host to take the first drink. The Romans added a piece of burnt bread, or tostus, to the custom because it absorbed acid, making the wine more pleasant to


drink. Flattering words were spoken during the toasting ceremony to reassure the guests of their safety. Why does everyone touch wine glasses before drinking at a dinner party? The custom of touching wine glasses comes from a medieval host’s precaution against being poisoned by a guest, or vice versa. The original ritual was that while touching glasses, a little wine was exchanged, poured from one goblet into the other, around the table. Then everyone took their first drink at the same time. By mixing drinks this way, the host and everyone else could be assured that no assassin was in their midst. What is the difference between “flavour” and “taste”? “Taste” is the immediate sensation experienced when you insert something into your mouth. It’s triggered by the taste buds on the tongue. “Flavour” is the mixed sensation of taste and smell. Each taste bud responds to the four sensations of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty before the aroma completes the flavour sensation. The senses of smell and taste can change the flavour as a person matures. What do we mean by “the proof is in the pudding”? “The proof is in the pudding” means that the outcome is uncertain until the task is completed. The expression began as, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Pudding wasn’t always exclusively a dessert. When the expression was coined, a pudding was any food presented in a solid mass and was often a main course, such as Yorkshire pudding. 368

Popularized in 1605 by Cervantes in Don Quixote, the saying has been traced back to 1300. Today, “the proof is in the pudding” means that you can’t tell the value of something simply by its appearance. Why do you “wet your whistle” to “whet your appetite”? Although they aren’t related, there is some confusion between the words wet and whet. For example, you wet your whistle by simply having a drink, because in the fourteenth century a whistle was a euphemistic reference to your voice or throat. “Whet your appetite” arrived two centuries later when whetstones (grindstones) were used to sharpen knives and farm implements. Water was used on the whetstones to prevent overheating. Whet is from the Old English word hwettan, meaning “to sharpen.” Therefore, whetting your appetite means to sharpen your appetite, which can be done with certain aperitifs customarily drunk before a meal. Why when two people share the cost of a date do we say they’re “going Dutch”? War has influenced the slurs in our language more than anything else. For example, when a soldier runs from battle the French say he’s gone travelling “English style,” while the English say he’s on “French leave.” During the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century, British insults were that “Dutch courage” came from a bottle, while a “Dutch treat” meant that everyone paid their own way, which of course was no treat at all. Why do we say they’ll “foot the bill” when someone’s paying all the costs? 369

To “foot the bill” dates back to a period when women had no means of financial support, so families offered dowries to entice eligible men to marry their daughters. The cost of the wedding and the dowry were “footed up,” meaning itemized, then totalled at the bottom of the ledger. In the fifteenth century, the “foot” was the bottom line, so to foot the bill meant to pay the full amount at the bottom of the invoice Why are sausages and mashed potatoes called “bangers and mash”? “Bangers and mash”’ is a traditional English meal of sausages, mashed potatoes, gravy, and very often pork and beans. Nothing could be more working-class or middle-class comforting than this dish. Banger, as slang for “sausage,” dates from 1919 and refers to the noise made when the skin of a frying sausage explodes in the pan. It literally “bangs.” Why do we call wealthy members of society “the upper crust”? In the days of feudalism, when noblemen gathered for a meal in the castle, those of higher rank sat at the head of a T-shaped table, and the rest sat in order of diminishing importance away from them. For such occasions a yard-long loaf of bread was baked, and the honour of cutting the upper crust belonged to the highest-ranking person at the head table, who would then pass the bread down in order of rank, but always keeping for himself the “upper crust.” Why is enhancing a food’s taste called “seasoning”?


When the Gauls found that some food tastes could be improved through aging or the passing of the seasons, they called it saisonner. After being conquered by the Normans in 1066, the British called the new aging process “seasoning.” With the introduction of Middle Eastern spices from returning Crusaders in the thirteenth century, seasoning took on the meaning of anything that embellishes the taste of food Why do the Chinese use chopsticks instead of cutlery? While Europeans were still cutting up carcasses on the dinner table, the Chinese had for centuries considered the practice barbaric. A Chinese proverb, “We sit at the dinner table to eat, not cut up carcasses,” dictated that eating should be simplified, and so food was cut into bite-sized pieces in the kitchen before serving. The chopstick (from kwai-tsze, which means “quick ones”) was the perfect instrument to convey this pre-cut food to the mouth. How did the eggplant get that name? An eggplant is actually a fruit, but it is eaten like a vegetable. Originally from Southeast Asia, the eggplant was taken to Africa by the Persians. In the eighth century A.D., the eggplant was introduced to Europe through Spain by the Arabs. It was given its name by Europeans in the middle of the eighteenth century because the plant they knew had white or yellowish fruit the same shape and size as goose eggs. Why do we call a good meal a “square meal”? In the eighteenth century, a British sailor’s sparse diet consisted of a breakfast and lunch of little more than mouldy 371

bread and water. If he were lucky, the third meal of the day included meat and was served on a square tin platter. Because of the shape of that platter, they called it their “square” meal: the only substantial meal of the day. “Three squares” now means three good meals a day. Why do we say that someone well off is living “high on the hog”? “High on the hog” is a recent expression that dates back only to the mid-1940s. It means you can afford to eat well. The best pork cuts (chops, hams, roasts, et cetera) are found higher on the pig than those traditionally prepared and eaten by the less affluent. Of course, being poor doesn’t mean you can’t eat well. Delicious meals have been made from those areas “low on the hog” (feet, belly, knuckles, and jowls). These meals were eaten by fieldhands and hard labourers who had worked up a hearty appetite, so being hungry might have made these dishes even more enjoyable to them than those eaten by the overfed upper classes. Why when someone is snubbed do we say they’re getting “the cold shoulder”? In Europe during the Middle Ages, the “cold shoulder” had two purposes. If guests overstayed their welcome they were often served cooked but cold beef shoulder at every meal until they tired of the bland diet and left. The other “cold shoulder” was leftover mutton that was saved to give to the poor to discourage them from begging at the pantry. How did marmalade get its name?


Legend has it that whenever the French-speaking Mary, Queen of Scots, wasn’t feeling well, she would insist on a medicinal concoction made with boiled oranges. The orders the kitchen received were that Marie was malade, which is French for “sick,” leading to “Marie malade,” or marmalade. This, of course, is untrue. Marmalade is from the Portuguese word for the orange jam, which is marmelada, and it was popular long before the Scottish queen was born. If it wasn’t the French, then who invented french fries? The Belgians are crazy about french fries; as a matter of fact, fries are their national dish, and they’ve been eating them with buckets of mussels since the mid-1800s. The French also claim inventing fries, because to “french” any food means to cut it very thin. The problem is that the Belgian claim predates the French technique by about fifty years. Usually this discussion ignores the fact that 40 percent of Belgians speak French, so they can take the credit. The largest producer of french fries in the world is McCain Foods Limited, a Canadian company in Florenceville, New Brunswick. McCain has thirty potato processing plants on six continents around the world. Why do we describe warm food as “piping hot”? Today, piping hot usually means comfortably warm food straight from your own oven to the table, but it took a few centuries to evolve into that meaning. There was a time when everyone bought freshly baked bread every day from a neighbourhood or village baker. When the bread was ready, the baker would signal from his front door by blowing on a 373

pipe or horn, which caused people to hurry to get bread before it ran out and gave us the expression “piping hot.” Why is cornbread sometimes called “Johnny cake”? Cornbread, or “Johnny cake,” is a country comfort food that was given to the first North American settlers by the Natives. The cake was and is made principally of maize or corn and was baked on a heated flat stone from an open fire. The white trappers who first tasted cornbread were guests of the Shawnee tribe and so they called it Shawnee cake, which soon became a staple with the settlers as the mispronounced Johnny cake. Was the tomato ever considered poisonous? The tomato is native to Mexico and Central America, where it was known in an Aztec (Nahuatl) dialect as tomatl. The Spanish introduced it to Europe in 1604 as tomate, which gave way to tomato in England in deference to the earlier New World native plant, the potato (1565). Because the tomato is a member of the nightshade family, which all contain poisonous alkaloids, and even though the Spanish and Italians found the fruit edible, the English considered it potentially poisonous and grew the plant only for ornamentation. It was only after its acceptance by the Americans, once tomatoes had been introduced through New Orleans by French chefs, that the English took to the tomato as an important element of their own everyday cuisine.


The tomato was also called a “love apple” and was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Its Aztec name, tomatl, literally means “the swelling plant.” Even though the tomato is botanically categorized as a fruit or a berry, for trade purposes the U.S. Supreme Court declared it to be a vegetable in 1893. The term vegetable is exclusively culinary and has no botanical meaning. What’s the origin of ketchup? In the 1690s the Chinese mixed together a tasty concoction of pickled fish and spices and called it ke-tsiap. By the early 1700s, the table sauce had made it to Malaysia, where it was discovered by British explorers, and by 1740, it had become an English staple. Fifty years later, North Americans added tomatoes to the Chinese recipe, and ketchup as we now know it had arrived. Tomatoes were considered poisonous for most of the eighteenth century because they’re a close relative to the toxic belladonna and nightshade plants. Why do we call those tasty sweet treats “candy”? The sweetness in candy and sugar was called saccharon by the Greeks and saccharum by the Romans, so it’s clear where we get the word saccharine. After conquering most of the southern Mediterranean around 1000 A.D., the Arabs built the first sugar refinery on the Isle of Crete, which they had renamed quandi, meaning “crystallized sugar.” In English, quandi became candy. Caramel was also invented by the Arabs. They called it kurat al milh, meaning, “ball of sweet salt.”


Why is the word straw in strawberry? The Germans call them erdbeeren (“earth berries”) because they grow on the ground. The Romans called them fragaria (“fragrant berries”) because of their sweet smell. So how did these delicious treats become known in English as strawberries? It’s because the climate of both Britain and Ireland is very damp, and so to grow them, farmers needed to protect emerging berries from the muddy soil. They did this by spreading a layer of straw around each new plant. Why are those tasty round pastries with holes in the centre called “doughnuts”? In 1809, Washington Irving’s Knickerbockers History of New York described small, tasty balls of fried dough that, because they resembled walnuts, were called Dough Nuts. The Dutch had introduced them as oil cakes and usually baked them as treats for holidays. After the introduction of baking powder and tin doughnut cutters, the hole was manufactured commercially around 1845. How did the caramel-covered popcorn Crackerjack get its name? Today a “cracker” is someone who breaks into your computer, but among other things, it also once meant something excellent or special. The jack in “Crackerjack” is the sailor, and the little dog on the package is named Bingo. Trademarked in 1896, Crackerjack got lucky when Jack Norworth included it in his 1908 song “Take Me out to the Ball Game,” after which it became part of American culture. 376

Jack and Bingo didn’t appear on the box until 1918, when returning First World War servicemen were very popular. “Jack” was a nickname for all sailors. Why do we call outdoor cooking a “barbeque”? Barbeque is one of the first Native American words to enter our language. The Spanish borrowed barbacoa from the Arawak people of the Caribbean. The word described the large wooden frame that the Arawak used either to dry meat or to sleep on. Around 1661, this same framework was found to be excellent for supporting whole animals for cooking over a fire, and the barbecue was born. How did an ice cream dish become known as a “sundae,” and why is it spelled that way? In pious New England during the 1880s, the church convinced local councils to ban ice cream sodas on Sunday, because enjoyment of the flavoured treat overshadowed the reverence of the day. The soda fountains’ response was to simply hold back the carbonated soda from the syrup, fruit, nuts, and ice cream and change the name to sundae. The spelling was a clever way to legally promote the dish without referring to the Lord’s day. Why is a cup of coffee sometimes called a “cup of joe”? Up until 1913, the United States Navy practised the British tradition of each sailor receiving a daily ration of rum. But that year, Secretary Joseph (or Joe) Daniels, a non-drinker, prohibited any alcohol on board any American vessel. This


made coffee the strongest drink available to the disgruntled sailors, who began referring to their mugs of coffee as a “cup of Joe.” Who invented the Caesar salad? In the beginning, a Caesar salad was made with whole leaves of romaine lettuce, tossed at the table and eaten with the fingers. It was intended as an entrée. Today, served at restaurants of every type, it is a salad of convenience and often includes chicken or beef. When the salad was first introduced, though, the non-vegetable ingredients were strictly seafood such as anchovies and shrimp. The salad was created in 1924 by Caesar Cardini (1896–1956) at his Italian restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. How did allspice get its name? Allspice is not a combination of spices; it is one spice with a flavour that hints at several others. Europeans discovered allspice in Jamaica, where, because its berry looks like a peppercorn, it is called Jamaica pepper. The other spices its flavour emulates are cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Why is mealtime sometimes called “chow time”? Chow is a Mandarin Chinese word meaning “to cook” or “to fry,” while in Cantonese, chow means “food.” The chow chow is a breed of dog that was in fact originally bred by the Chinese to be eaten. In the early days of North American settlement, Chinese immigrants, because of their culinary talents, were often put to work cooking for the labour gangs


who then picked up the phrase “chow time” as meaning “it’s time to eat.” Why is chocolate-flavoured coffee called “mocha”? Mocha coffee got its name around 1773 when Ethiopian beans shipped from the Yemeni port city of Mocha became the most popular coffee in Europe. In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans began adding chocolate to mocha coffee as a flavouring, but it wasn’t until recently, when boutique coffee shops began using the term, that mocha coffee took on the meaning of “chocolate-flavoured.” Mocha coffee’s primary definition is still officially “a pungent, rich Arabian coffee.” What is the origin of beef jerky? Beef jerky is dried beef cut into long, thick edible strips. It was a mainstay during the settlement of the Old West. The beef was dried in the sun and carried without need of preservatives in a saddlebag or backpack. Jerky is from the Spanish word charqui, meaning “dried meat.” Where did the expression “have your cake and eat it too” come from? “Having your cake and eating it too” is an idiom meaning that you want to do the impossible by disposing of or consuming something that you want to enjoy, while at the same time keeping it intact. It’s an attempt to overcome an either/ or situation. It was first written down in 1562 as “Would you both eat your cake and have your cake?” and somewhere along the line it became, “Have your cake and eat it too.” 379

“Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?” — A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes of 1562 by John Heywood. “Eat your cake and have it” — 1816 poem “On Fame” by John Keats. Why are dishes served with spinach called “Florentine”? When cooked with spinach, eggs Benedict become eggs Florentine. When Catherine de Medici of Florence married Henry II of France, she brought with her several master cooks. Soon they were introducing France to new foods such as artichoke hearts, truffles, sweetbreads, and ice cream. When Catherine’s cooks served up dishes with the unfamiliar spinach, they were referred to as à la Florentine, after the queen’s birthplace. What is the origin of mayonnaise? Mayonnaise is a creamy thick sauce made from oil, egg yolks, lemon juice or vinegar, and a chef ’s selected seasonings. In 1756, after the Duc de Richelieu defeated the British at Port Mahon on the island of Minorca, his chef created a victory feast that was supposed to include a sauce made of cream and eggs, but because there was no cream available the creative chef substituted olive oil, and since then tomato and club sandwiches have never been the same. Mayonnaise is a mixture of liquids that normally can’t be combined. This is called an emulsion. What is hollandaise sauce?


Hollandaise sauce is another emulsion and is different from mayonnaise only in that butter is used instead of oil and lemon juice cannot be interchanged with vinegar. It’s usually seasoned with salt and black or cayenne pepper. Although it’s a French creation, it was believed to have been copied from an existing Dutch sauce and so was named “hollandaise.” It’s the principal ingredient of eggs Benedict. What is the origin of eggs Benedict? During the late 1880s, financier Le Grand Benedick complained to the chef of New York’s Delmonico restaurant that the restaurant breakfast menu was stale. The chef, Charles Ranhofer, claimed that he was then inspired to create what he called “Eggs à la Benedick.” A second claim to the dishes origin comes from stockbroker Lemuel Benedict, who wandered into the Waldorf Restaurant with a hangover in 1894 and claims to have ordered dry toast, crisp bacon, poached eggs, and a side of hollandaise sauce. The chef, Oscar Tschirky, eventually substituted English muffins and Canadian bacon and added truffles and came up with eggs Benedict in honour of the hung-over stockbroker. Eggs Benedict is not named after Benedict Arnold, even though he was “English [like the muffin] underneath.” What is the origin of the word tip, as in “tipping a waiter”? Tip is not an acronym for “To Insure Promptness.” In the 1800s a tip was understood to be a bribe. As insider information, tip first appeared in the seventeenth century and 381

derives from the Low German word tippen, which means “to touch discreetly.” A tip is something confidential, whether given or received — either from a stockbroker or to a waiter. Eggs Benedict variations • Eggs Florentine replaces bacon with spinach. • Eggs Pacifica replaces bacon with smoked salmon. • Eggs Blackstone uses back bacon, while adding a tomato slice. • Artichokes Benedict uses cooked fresh artichokes instead of muffins. • Eggs Benedict XVI honours the German background of the current pope. Sauerbraten or sausage and rye bread are served with eggs and sauce. • American Southern-style substitutes gravy for hollandaise sauce, and is served with biscuits instead of English muffins. Any kind of bacon is used along with eggs fried sunny side up. Eggs Benedict trivia • The American actor Dirk Benedict adopted the stage name after searching for something more suitable for Hollywood than his family name, “Niewoehner.” Why is not eating called “fasting”?


The original meaning of fast was “hold firmly,” as in “she held fast to her principles.” As a practice of not eating, fasting is all about maintaining firm self-control. Today fasting can take many forms and is practised by both the religious and non-religious. As a protest, prisoners use it to demonstrate that their captors don’t control their will or bodies. As a religious exercise, it is a demonstration of a person’s steadfast allegiance to God. Some people fast simply to purge their bodies of toxins. The word fast began in Old English as faest, meaning “firmly steadfast” or “mentally strong,” and has the same sense when referring to swiftness (e.g. while running a long-distance race. Quickies Did you know … • the original purpose for a tablecloth was for wiping the diner’s fingers and hands after eating? • the word chowder derives from the French-Canadian settler’s word chaudière, a catch-all cooking pot for stews and soups made from whatever was at hand? • in Chinese, the assortment of dumplings, steamed dishes, and tarts known as dim sum literally means “to touch your heart”? • won ton in Chinese means “swallowing a cloud,” referring to the floating dumplings in the popular soup?


• potato comes from the Haitian aboriginal word batata through the Spanish patata, for “sweet potato”?


sports in general Why is a sporting event called a “tournament”? A tournament is a series of games played by contestants to decide a winner, and the process takes its name from twelfth-century martial arts contests between knights on horseback. The Anglo-Norman knights called these medieval jousting or tilting events torneier or torneiement, which literally means “turn around.” The word became tournament or tourney in English, but still means that contestants must compete in a series of events to decide the winner. What is the origin of the Ivy League? The term Ivy League has nothing to do with the ivy-covered walls of the prestigious schools to which it refers. Several Eastern U.S. schools — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia — became known collectively as the “Interscholastic IV League.” The “IV” was the Roman numeral for four and was pronounced “eye-vee.” After the


Second World War, the league expanded to include Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania. Although there were then eight schools included in the league, the name didn’t change; instead, “IV” was spelled the way it had long been pronounced, and so it became the “Ivy League.” Who was the first cheerleader? Cheerleaders have become a major attraction at football and basketball games thanks to the enthusiasm of University of Minnesota student Johnny Campbell, who stood during a football game in November 1898 and started leading the crowd in “rah, rah, rah” cheers. Since then the culture of cheerleading has often become larger than the game. Today cheerleaders don’t just wave pompoms and lead cheers. They also perform difficult individual and synchronized gymnastic exercises. Although the first cheerleader was a man, the vast majority since have been women. President George W. Bush (1946–) was a college cheerleader. Why is a football field called a “gridiron”? The word football first described a game involving two teams and an inflated animal bladder in 1486. The game evolved several times before North Americans introduced new rules, such as three chances to advance the ball five, then ten, yards, which led to the white lines being painted on the field. From the stands, these lines gave the field the appearance of broiled meat from the metal grating of a griddle or gridiron, and so that’s what they called it. What is the “taxi squad” on a football team? 386

A “taxi squad” is made up of those professional football players who are under contract but not dressed for a game. They are four extra players beyond the roster limit who are only eligible to play on short notice as a substitute for an injured player if the team is shorthanded. The name “taxi squad” originated with the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns, who at one time, because the team couldn’t put all its players on the forty-man roster, found these extra players work as part-time taxi drivers. Why does the winner of the Indianapolis 500 drink milk in victory lane? After winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1936, Louis Meyer was photographed drinking his favourite beverage, buttermilk. An executive from what is now the American Dairy Association saw the picture in the paper and, realizing it was a good example for children, ensured that from that point on every winner of the Indy 500 would receive a bottle of milk to drink. How did a trophy become a symbol of victory? After a victory on a battlefield, the ancient Greeks would build a monument dedicated to a chosen god, which they called a “trophy.” These trophies were made of limbs stripped from the dead enemy soldiers and then hung on a tree or pillar, a ritual that is kept alive by modern “trophy hunters,” who celebrate their victory over an unarmed animal by hanging its head on the wall. Be grateful for the Stanley Cup. Why is an exercising weight called a “dumbbell”?


A dumbbell is a silent bell devised to strengthen the men who rang very large church bells. At Canterbury in the Middle Ages, it took twenty-four men to ring one bell. To build up strength (and develop their skills) novices used a silent or “dumb” bell: a heavy weight suspended by a rope from a pulley on a scaffold. People wanting to build up their physiques soon copied with dumbbells of their own. Why are the victors in a competition called “champions”? A boxing champion is, of course, the best in his class, but the word has a more honourable history than its use in sports. Derived from the Latin word campus, which refers to an open field where battles were fought, the word champion passed into French before being adopted into English in the thirteenth century. Its meaning was “one who fights on behalf of another” or “one who defends a person or a cause.”

Why are both the manager of an athletic team and a large passenger vehicle called a “coach”?


The word coach comes from the Hungarian village of Kocs (pronounced “kotch”), made famous for its large, horse-drawn carriages in the sixteenth century. In Britain, the word became coach, and by the nineteenth century took on the second meaning of a sports trainer or private tutor. The implication is that, through his experience and knowledge, the coach, like a bus or a train car, carries the younger trainees to their destinations. What is the origin of the sporting term round robin? A round robin tournament is one in which everyone is treated equally. Each player must face every other player. This democratic process originated in the British Navy in the sixteenth century as a way of petitioning against grievances without being charged with mutiny. The names on the petition were all signed in a circle so that the captain couldn’t tell who was the first to sign and thus who initiated the complaint. The sailors named this document a “round robin.” Why is the outcome of a game known as the “score”? Scores are tallied to decide the winner of a game. Tally is from talea, the Latin for “stick.” Scoring is the act of cutting notches or nicks onto that stick. A stick was sometimes split down the middle so a creditor and debtor could keep an honest tally by notching transactions at the same time. In sport, the side with the most scores or notches cut into a tally stick was the winner. Why is an athletic supporter called a “jock strap”?


It is difficult to imagine men competing in today’s high-contact sports without that essential piece of equipment informally referred to as a “jock.” Officially known as an athletic supporter, the device was introduced in 1874 to protect bicycle riders from hurting themselves on the crossbar after slipping off the pedals while riding cobblestone streets. Why are legal issues, basketball games, and tennis tournaments all settled on a “court”? Like courtesy, the word court evolved from the Latin words cum, meaning “together,” and hortus, from which we derive horticulture — so a court was an enclosed garden where young boys of noble birth learned proper social conduct. In both the judicial and sporting sense a court is a specified area within which you are expected to practise courtesy while respecting authority. Why are basketball players called “cagers”? When Canadian James Naismith introduced basketball, the game was played with a soccer ball and the baskets were peach buckets nailed to the balcony at each end of the gym. The early games were rough and crude before Naismith introduced his thirteen rules in 1892 — so rough that the Trenton basketball team, playing in the first YMCA League, built a fence around the court to keep the ball in play. This fence was like a cage, and so the players were called cagers. What is the origin of the mascot? A mascot brings good luck, and the name comes from masco, Latin for “witch.” Primitive peoples believed that every tribe 390

descended from a separate species of animal, which they recognized as their ancestors from what they hoped were their own characteristics of bravery and ferocity. It’s the same reason most sporting teams name themselves after something they respect, hoping to attain the qualities of the Tigers, Indians, or even Mighty Ducks. How did the stadium phenomenon called “the wave” get started? “The wave,” when crowds at sporting events rise up and down in a continuous pattern, gained its popularity among college crowds during the 1970s and ’80s after it was first seen in North America during live telecasts from the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Known in Europe as “the Mexican wave,” the move was practised en masse and on television by fans at the 1986 World Cup of Soccer.

How did tennis get its name? In the eleventh century, French monks started playing a game by batting a crude handball around the monastery. It was a kind of handball with 391

a rope strung across a courtyard. The game progressed and became popular with royalty before catching on in England in the thirteenth century. When returning a ball over the net, the French players shouted, “Tenez,” meaning “Here it comes” or “Take it.” How did tennis get the terms seeded and love? Tennis was popularized by the French nobility, and because a zero looked like an egg, that’s what they called it. Egg in French is l’oeuf, which became love in English. The seeding or placing of the best players within favourable tournament positions required other players to graciously cede — yield or give up — the spots. In time, the word mutated to the spelling of its homonym, seed, and so players were said to be seeded. Why isn’t it over till the fat lady sings? In the 1970s, Washington sports columnist Dan Cook wrote, “The opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings.” Later, basketball coach Dick Motta, referring to the Bulls’ slim playoff chances, misquoted Cook when he said, “It isn’t over till the fat lady sings,” and it stuck. The inspiration might have been the old American proverb, “Church ain’t out till the fat lady sings,” but regardless, it’s now accepted in sports as meaning that where there’s life, there’s hope. Quickies Did you know … • the All England Croquet Club at Wimbledon added tennis to its menu of activities in 1875?


• the grass on the tennis courts at Wimbledon is cut to exactly eight millimetres in height? • in a two-and-a-half-hour match, the tennis ball is in play for about twenty minutes?


archery Why is a non-relevant statement during a debate or argument said to be “beside the point”? The expression “beside the point” is from ancient archery and literally means your shot is wide of the target. Its figurative meaning, that your argument is irrelevant, entered the language about 1352, as did “You’ve missed the mark.” Both suggest that regardless of your intentions, your invalid statement is outside the subject under discussion. Where did we get the expression “second string”? In sports jargon, the “second string” is the second-best group of players on a given team. The term has also found its way into business, where it is used in much the same way. In fact, it comes from medieval archers, who always carried an extra string in case the one on their bow broke. Therefore the second string had to be as good as the first, as did the third and fourth strings.


Why is someone ridiculed by humour said to be the “butt of a joke”? A cleverly crafted joke can sometimes be used cruelly, and the victim of this kind of barb is often referred to as the “butt” of that joke. The expression is quite old and comes from seventeenth-century archery, where the area used to place a target for shooting practice was surrounded by a protective mound of dirt known as a “butt.” Today, the area used for military target practice using bullets is still called a butt. Why is a sudden surprise called a “bolt from the blue”? The word bolt has many uses, but all suggest surprising quickness and all originated as a reference to an arrow from a crossbow. The word thunderbolt for lightning first appeared in the sixteenth century, while blue as a description of a clear sky appeared about a hundred years later. Since nothing could be more surprising than lightning from a cloudless sky, a “bolt from the blue” entered the language as a description of a sudden and unexpected event. What medieval profession would you have if you heard the “highly strung Mr. Stringer tell Mr. Archer point-blank to brace himself for a quarrel”? If you heard Stringer tell Archer point-blank to brace himself for a quarrel, you were probably an archer. Surnames taken from archery include Stringer, Bower, Fletcher, Abbott (meaning “at the butts”), and of course Archer. Point-blank is the bull’s eye on a French target. “Brace yourself” meant prepare to shoot, while a quarrel is an arrow shot from a crossbow. 395

Archery was taken so seriously that Henry I of England passed a law that dismissed any punishment for anyone who killed someone while practising. Quickies Did you know … • Japan is composed of 3,000 islands with a population of nearly 129 million people living within 377,873 square miles? • that since the end of the seventh century, the Japanese have called their country either Nihon or Nippon? (Both are correct and mean “sun’s origin.”) • it was the Chinese who first called Japan “the Land of the Rising Sun,” which in middle Mandarin was Japang? • the name Japan came to the West through sixteenth-century Portuguese traders who picked up the name from the Malaysians, who called the country Jepang (from the Chinese)? In 1577, the first written record of Japan in English used the spelling “Giapan.” • the word tsunami is Japanese in origin, coming from tsu, meaning “harbour,” and nami, meaning “waves”? • the average Japanese woman has a life expectancy of 85.2 years while men live an average of 78.3 years? It’s the highest life expectancy in the world. • that sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport and was introduced in the eighth century A.D. by Emperor Shomu


(724–749), who held lavish tournaments for the best wrestlers in the country? • that karate was developed in Okinawa because the Chinese conquerors of the island prohibited the possession of weapons by the natives? • Japan is the only country in the world with an emperor? He is the direct descendant of the original empire’s founder, Jimmu (660 B.C.), who was believed to be the offspring of the sun goddess.


geography What are the Seven Seas? “The Seven Seas” is a figurative reference to all the waters of the world. Rudyard Kipling popularized the phrase for modern times as the title of an 1896 volume of poems. He acknowledged that some would interpret the meaning as the seven oceans — the Arctic, the Antarctic, the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian — but the expression circulated long before these oceans even had names. In the ancient world, the seven seas were the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the China Sea, and the East and West African seas. What’s the difference between the United Kingdom and Great Britain? The United Kingdom includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; Southern Ireland is a separate nation. The nations on the large island as well as Northern Ireland share a


common government and passport. Great Britain includes the main island of Scotland, Wales, and England and excludes all of Ireland, including the north. It’s called Great Britain to distinguish it from Brittany or Little Britain — a province across the Channel in France. Why do the countries Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and others all end in “stan”? The Middle Eastern suffix stan is an ancient Farsi word for “homeland.” Kazakhstan is from the word kazakh, meaning “free,” while Kyrgyzstan means “home of forty tribes.” Pakistan is an exception. This modern republic took its name from the first letters of Punjab, Afghanistan, and Kashmir, with the suffix istan taken from the province of Balochistan. The name Afghanistan can be traced to the ninth-century Iranian Emperor Apakan. What part did the Big Dipper play in naming the frozen north “the Arctic”? As part of the constellation of Ursa Major, the Big Dipper can be seen the entire year throughout Europe and most of North America, and it becomes brighter as you travel north. The Romans followed the Greeks in naming the seven-star constellation containing the Big Dipper “the Bear,” which in Latin is ursa. In Greek the word for bear is arktos, which gave us the name Arctic for the northern land beneath the Bear. Why do we call a perfect world “Utopia”?


The word Utopia was created by the English philosopher Sir Thomas More in 1516 and was the title of his book that compared the state of life in Europe at the time with an imaginary ideal society. Utopia is from Greek meaning “nowhere.” The thrust of More’s message was that an ideal world, or Utopia, will never exist, and that our only choice is to improve the standards of our existing society. Quickies Did you know … • that the eastern coast of Canada is closer to London, England, than it is to Canada’s own West Coast? • that in England the farthest one can get from the sea is sixty-five miles, while in Greece it is eighty-five miles? • that the summit of Mount Irazú in Costa Rica is the only place on Earth where one can see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean? • that at 64 million square miles the Pacific Ocean is twice as large as the Atlantic Ocean and covers a greater area than all the land mass on Earth combined?


crime and punishment Why do we say that someone caught in a dishonest or criminal act “got nailed?” In the early days of criminal justice, punishment was often barbaric. Public hangings and floggings were commonplace, and for lesser crimes, the infliction of public humiliation and pain on the criminal was considered necessary to deter others from committing similar crimes. One such deterrent was to nail the convicted person’s ears to the hangman’s scaffold, where he or she would spend the day as a public spectacle. They had been “nailed.” Why were executions held at sunrise? In prehistoric times, executions of condemned prisoners were carried out as sacrificial ceremonies to the rising sun. In the Middle Ages, because executions were public, they continued to be held early in the day so as not to attract huge crowds. It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that more enlightened societies brought capital punishment indoors, not


because executions were shocking, but because they were too popular. What is the origin of the phrase “I’ll be hanged if I do and hanged if I don’t”? When America was fighting for its independence, the British poet Thelwall was arrested after enraging King George with his liberal, seditious support for the colonies. In prison he wrote to his lawyer, “I shall be hanged of I don’t plead my own case,” to which his lawyer replied, “You’ll be hanged if you do!” His lawyer got him off, and the phrase became a slogan that contributed to the demise of the royal cause in America. Why when embarking on a difficult project does a group say they must “all hang together”? The meaning of “all hanging together” is that our only hope is to combine our resources because we are already doomed as individuals. It’s a quote from John Hancock, who was the first to step forward and sign the American Declaration of Independence. He said to those gathered, “We must all hang together; else we shall all hang separately,” and the hanging he was referring to was death on the gallows for treason. Why is an informer called a “stool pigeon”? A “stool pigeon” is someone who betrays a group or cause to which he or she belongs. In their efforts to attract passenger pigeons, hunters would tie or nail a single pigeon to a stool and wait for a flock to be drawn to the cries of the desperate bird. Then, as they approached, the birds would be shot by the 402

thousands. This practice continued until the species became totally extinct. The poor bird that unwillingly played the traitor was called a stool pigeon. Why are prison informers referred to as “finks”? A fink, whether in prison or not, is a derogatory reference to someone who seeks favour from the authorities for information that they have learned in confidence. It’s said that a fink is someone who sings to the police or the boss like a canary, which all becomes logical when you realize that fink is the Yiddish word for “finch.” Finches, or finks, are a family of songbirds, of which the canary is one of the most vocal. Why do we refer to an important issue as “the burning question” of the day? During a time when the church and the state were equal in government, anyone failing to follow the state religion was burned at the stake. Those who demanded the separation of church and state were considered heretics, and thousands who were caught discussing the issue were burned at the stake. Because of this, whenever there was a secret debate on religious freedom, the subject was referred to as “the burning question.” What does it mean to be decimated? Around 1663, the word decimate began to mean being destroyed through a catastrophe or severe loss, but the word originated as a disciplinary practice of the Roman army. Soldiers convicted of cowardice or mutiny were gathered into


units of ten. Lots were drawn, and the loser was decimated (clubbed and stoned to death) by the remaining nine. Morale increased significantly after a Roman decimation. After a decimation, the remaining nine convicted soldiers were given rations of barley instead of wheat and forced to sleep outside of the army encampment. Although decimation inspired discipline and resolve, it was used sparingly because it significantly reduced troop strength. If someone’s running from punishment, why do we say he’s “on the lam”? Being “on the lam” means to be on the run and became popular in the American underworld near the end of the nineteenth century. Lam is from the Viking word lamja, meaning “to make lame,” and was used in England during the sixteenth century to refer to a sound beating. The words lame and lambaste are related. If someone hit the road because staying would result in severe punishment, they were “on the lam,” or on the list for a beating (or worse). Baste is from a Nordic word meaning “thrash” or “flog,” so lambaste is an even more severe beating. If someone fails to perform under pressure, why do we say he “choked”? To choke is to restrict airflow, whether to human lungs or the carburetor of a car. In ancient times, the guilt or innocence of an accused robber was established by making him swallow a piece of barley bread over which a Mass had been said. He


had to do this while repeating words from that Mass. If he swallowed without choking, he was innocent, but if he choked he was pronounced guilty. This gave us the expression “choking under pressure.” Legend has it that the Earl of Godwin died while choking on a piece of bread during this legal process. Why when there is no doubt of someone’s guilt do we say they were caught “red-handed”? Redhand goes back to the fifteenth century Scottish people and became “red-handed” within judicial circles in Britain during the eighteenth century. It means that someone has been caught in the act of committing a crime or that there is an irrefutable body of evidence to establish the criminal’s guilt. Its original reference was to murder, and the red on the hands of the accused was the blood of his victim. If someone’s caught red-handed why do we say, “The jig is up”? If “the jig is up,” then the dance is over. It was first used as “the jig is over” by lawmen in the eighteenth century when interrupting or solving a crime in progress. They took the word jig from the French gigue or Middle French giguer, which meant any lively dance in triple time. So whether it was a dance or a criminal caper, whenever it was over “the jig was up.” The French gigue came from the German word geige, meaning “violin.”


Why is abduction called “kidnapping”? The word kidnap was first recorded in 1666 and referred to the criminal practice of enticing children or apprentices to come away and be sold to sea captains who took them to British colonies to be sold as slaves, labourers, or indentured servants. Kid was an underworld reference to a child, while nap, a variation of nab, means “to seize” or “to steal.” Today, kidnap means to abduct either a child or an adult. A kid is a young goat, and that is the origin of the word’s slang use for a child. “Kidding around” is acting childish. Why is extortion money called “blackmail”? If there is blackmail, then there must be whitemail. Mail was a Scottish word for rent or tax, and during the reign of James I, taxes were paid in silver, which, because of its colour, was called “white mail.” During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bandits along the Scottish border demanded protection money from the farmers. Because black signified evil, this cruel extortion was called a black tax, or “blackmail.” Why is misleading evidence called a “red herring”? A “red herring” is a false clue leading detectives off the track during a criminal investigation. The term comes from a practice once used to train police dogs. When herring is smoked it becomes red, and when the young dogs were being trained to follow a scent, the trainers tossed smoked fish


around to test their ability to follow a trail. Escaping prisoners learned of the practice and often took red herring along to distract the dogs sent after them. Why is a criminal record called a “rap sheet”? Rap surfaced as a word imitating sound in the fourteenth century. Among other things, it perfectly describes the noise made by someone knocking, or rapping, at the door. In the criminal sense it’s the rap of a judge’s gavel sounding the end of a trial that gave us such phrases as “a bad rap” and “a bum rap.” A rap sheet is a record of criminal charges wherein the suspect couldn’t prove his innocence before the rap of the gavel. How many people are in prison? There are over 9 million people imprisoned worldwide. As of 2002, the United States led developed countries with 724 out of every 100,000 of its citizens in prison (most for drug offenses). New Zealand was a surprising second with a prison population of 169 prisoners per 100,000, followed by Great Britain and Northern Ireland at 124, Canada at 102, Germany at 98, Italy at 92, France at 80, Sweden at 64, Denmark at 61, and Iceland at 29. There are no statistics for North Korea, but of all the other countries in the world, only Rwanda leads the United States as having the largest prison population per capita with more than 100,000 of around 8 million in custody. Both China and Russia had prison populations of over 2 and 3 million respectively in the year 2002. 407

“No man who has not sat in prison knows what the state is like.” — Leo Tolstoy Why is a prison sometimes called “the clink”? There was a rigid English prison built within a London borough in the district of Southwark known as “the Liberty of Clink.” This prison was outside the jurisdiction of the City of London and was not a nice place to serve a sentence. Why is a prison sometimes called “the hoosegow”? Today we call a prison a house of correction, but around 1911 in the western United States, they were sometimes called hoosegows, which is an American mispronunciation of the Mexican word juzgao, meaning a “court of judgment.” Why is a prison sometimes referred to as “the brig”? Brig is an eighteenth-century abbreviation of brigantine, a type of prison ship. Why is a prison sometimes called a “calaboose”? Calaboose entered American English through Louisiana French as calabouse, which is from the Spanish word calabozo, meaning “dungeon.” Why do we say a convicted prisoner has been “sent up the river”? Being sent up the river means to be sentenced to Sing Sing Prison, thirty miles up the Hudson River from New York


City. First called Mount Pleasant Prison, the name Sing Sing Prison comes from the original name of the village of Ossinig, where the penitentiary was built. Why is a prison sometimes referred to as “the slammer”? The verb slam, meaning to “shut with force,” is Nordic in origin. It entered English around 1672 as meaning “a severe blow.” In 1952, prisons began being referred to as “the slammer” by inmates who heard the heavy doors slamming behind them. Why is a prison sometimes called “the stir”? “Stir crazy” comes from long confinement, such as being in prison. Stir is an English slang reference to Start Newgate, a prison built in London in 1757. Who invented the electric chair? The electric chair was invented by a dentist. In 1881, Dr. Albert Southwick witnessed an elderly drunkard accidentally touch the terminals of an electric generator in Buffalo, New York. Amazed at how quickly the man was killed, the dentist began to sell the idea of replacing the hangman by using electrocution as a means of capital punishment. Thomas Edison became interested and conducted experiments by luring large numbers of cats and dogs onto a metal plate wired to a 1,000-volt AC generator. On June 4, 1888, the New York State Legislature passed a law that officially introduced electrocution as that state’s means of execution.


In December 1888, the state authorized further tests involving the electrocution of two calves and a horse. In May 1889, a man named William Kemmler was sentenced to death for having killed his lover Matilda Ziegler with an axe. On August 6, 1890, at Auburn State Prison, Kemmler became the first person ever to be executed by electrocution. After being strapped into a chair, he was first jolted by a seventeen-second alternating current, but because he continued to struggle, a second jolt was administered lasting more than a minute, causing smoke to rise from his writhing body. The New York Times reported it as “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging,” but the state commissioner on humane executions saw it differently. He declared the execution to be “the grandest success of the age.” Why when something is stopped cold do we say somebody “put the kibosh” on it? To “put the kibosh” on something is an Irish expression meaning to put an end to it. The word kibosh is Gaelic and means “cap of death.” It was, in fact, the black skullcap donned by a judge before he sentenced a prisoner to death. In modern usage it means, as it did to the condemned, “Your path of destruction has ended.”. Odds & Oddities • The odds of being the victim of a serious crime in one’s lifetime are 20 to 1.


• The odds of being murdered are 18,000 to 1, with the chance of being the victim of a sharp or blunt instrument being six times greater than being the victim of a gun (for which the odds are 325 to 1). • The chance of dying from an assault of any kind is 1 in 16,421. • The odds of getting away with murder are 2 to 1.


games and gambling What is the earliest known board game? Archaeologists recently found a five-thousand-year-old twenty-slot hand-carved ebony backgammon board in southeastern Iraq. It was found along with sixty playing pieces, including the dice. Modern backgammon uses only thirty pieces. The ebony isn’t native to the region and must have been imported from India, but the playing pieces were made from locally quarried stone, suggesting that the game might have been invented in the region. Why do we use the word checkmate to end a game of chess? The game of chess, played by two players, each trying to capture the other’s king with a sixteen-piece army of horses, foot soldiers, chariots, and elephants, surfaced in India in around 500 B.C. The game was adopted first by the Persians and then by the Arabs, who introduced it to Europe during


their conquest of Spain. The Persian word for king is shah. Checkmate is from the Arabic shah mat, which literally means “the king is dead.” Why when someone losing begins to win do we say he’s “turned the tables”? “To turn the tables” is a chess term dating from 1634 that describes a sudden recovery by losing player. The switch in position of the each side’s pieces makes it look as though the losing player had physically turned the table on their opponent to take over the winning side of the board. Incidentally, it’s impossible to successively double the number of coins on each square of a chessboard. By the time you’ve finished you would need 18 quintillion coins, more than all that have ever been minted. Why is a dicey situation considered a “hazard”? A potentially dangerous situation was first called a hazard by the Western European Crusaders after returning from the Holy Land, where they encountered and were fleeced by unscrupulous local gamblers using loaded or doctored dice. “Hazard” is how they pronounced al zahr, which is the Arabic word for dice. In time hazardous, like dicey, became a reference to anything associated with risk. Why is a lottery winning called a “jackpot”? A jackpot is any large amount of money won through gambling. The word comes from a game of draw poker in which only a player who is dealt a pair of jacks or better can


open. Several hands are usually dealt before this happens, and with each deal the players must add to the ante, which can grow to a considerable amount of money — the “jack pot.” When two jacks are finally dealt and a player opens the betting, the winner will take the jackpot. Why is communal gambling called a “lottery”? It takes a lot of people to play a lottery or there won’t be enough money to make the prize worthwhile. The word lottery refers to a very ancient practice from a time when people cast marked pebbles into a pot and then selected a winner through a draw. The word lot comes from lottery; to “throw in your lot” with others meant you had joined them in the gamble. “A lot,” meaning a large quantity, took its meaning from the many balls or entrants in the lottery pool. What are the odds of winning on a Lotto 6/49 ticket? The odds of winning on a Lotto 6/49 are 1 in 13,983,816, because that’s how many different groups of six numbers can possibly be drawn. This means the odds of winning are about the same as flipping a coin and landing on heads twenty-four times in succession. The odds of winning second place are 1 in 2,330,635. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 57 percent of North Americans have bought a lottery ticket in the last twelve months. The odds against hitting the jackpot on a slot machine are 889 to 1. If you add together all the numbers on a roulette wheel (1 to 36), the total is the mystical number 666, often associated with the Devil. If a coin is tossed and lands tails ten times in a row, what are the odds that it will be heads on the eleventh try? 414

After a coin has been tossed and landed tails ten times in a row, many amateur gamblers would be inclined to bet that the law of averages would favour the coin landing heads on the eleventh try. The problem is, the law of averages doesn’t exist. The coin’s probability of landing heads is still fifty-fifty — the same as on each previous toss. Why is the mystical board game called a “Ouija board”? The Ouija board has been around since the fourth century, but the first patent was obtained by a German professor of music in 1854. Parker Brothers purchased the rights in 1966 and published the Ouija board game in 1967. The game begins by asking if any spirits are present, and the desired answer is in the name: Ouija is a compound of oui, which is “yes” in French, and ja, which is “yes” in German, so Ouija means “yes, yes.” Why is a disappointing purchase or investment called a “lemon”? In 1910, the rotating slot machine appeared as a device for dispensing chewing gum and gave us the symbols still used on slot machines today. The spinning flavours were cherry, orange, and plum. Each wheel had a bar reading “1910 Fruit Gum,” and three of those in a row paid off in a jackpot of gum. But, also like today, if any row came up a lemon there was no payout at all, which gave us the disappointed expression “It’s a lemon.” Why is a swindle called a “double-cross”?


If you cross someone, you’re cheating him. A double-cross means you are cheating both your employer and the one you’ve been hired to deceive. In the 1800s, Thackeray described a fixed horse race in Vanity Fair where the jockey who was prearranged to lose was instead allowed to win, costing the gamblers a fortune. Because the fixer had crossed or cheated both parties for a huge profit, the win was called a “double-cross.” How did “betting your shirt” come mean to gambling everything you own? In 1823, the bitterness that led to the Civil War surfaced during a match race between the Northern horse American Eclipse and a Southern colt named Sir Henry. The grudge match inspired fortunes to be wagered, including that of Southern congressman John Randolph, who put up $10,000 and his entire wardrobe, which gave a newspaper the observation that he was “betting his shirt” on the race. (Incidentally, the race was won by the Northern horse American Eclipse.) Where did the expression “according to Hoyle” come from? An Englishman named Edmond Hoyle wrote a rulebook for the card game whist, the ancestor of bridge, in 1742. Hoyle’s rules were used to settle arguments during that one game until Robert Foster published Foster’s Hoyle in 1897, which included the rules for many other card games. Since then, “according to Hoyle” has meant according to the rules of any game, including those played in business and personal relationships. 416

How is “the full monty” related to “three-card monte”? “The full monty,” popularized as a movie title, is a British expression meaning “the whole thing.” It came from illegal gambling, where the huge pot of a high stakes game was called the monty, from the Spanish word for mountain, which is monte. To win the monty meant you had won a mountain of money. Three-card monte, an illegal con game, has the same Spanish origin and refers to the same thing. Why is the word trump used in card games, and what else in the deck, other than the cards, adds up to fifty-two? A trump card or suit has been designated a higher rank than usual for the purposes of the game being played and will triumph over others of normally equal value. Trump is a distortion of the word triumph. If you add up the number of letters in the names of the cards, the total is fifty-two, the same as the number of cards in the deck (acetwothreefourfivesixseveneightninetenjackqueenking). Why is a particular game of gambling with cards called “poker”? A card game called poque was introduced to America by French gamblers in New Orleans. Both the name and the game came from the German word pochspiel, which literally means “boast game,” while the derivative pochen means “to knock.” This knock on the table is still part of the many forms of poker and indicates that a player is passing on a bet. In a Southern drawl, poque was pronounced “pok-uh,” which, when spread to the rest of the country, became “poker.” 417

Why do we say that a poker player, or anyone putting up a false front, is “bluffing”? The word bluff is from the Dutch word bluffen, meaning “to deceive,” and entered English as a nautical reference to the imposing front of a warship. For the same reason, the term bluff was applied to a bold coastline that rose straight and high out of the water. By the 1830s, bluffing had taken on the meaning of anything less intimidating than it appears and had entered the game of poker as a reference to the art of deception. Why is a shifty person called a “four flusher”? In poker, five cards from the same suit is called a flush and is very valuable. The highest possible poker hand is a royal flush, or five cards from ten to ace all from the same suit. However, four cards from the same suit, or a four flush, is nearly worthless. If a person continues to play with such a hand they are bluffing, or hiding the truth, which gave us the expression “four flusher” for someone not to be trusted or believed. Why is a dishonest poker player called a “card shark”? Scoundrels who avoid work or duty are said to shirk their responsibilities. The word shirk is from the German word shurke, meaning “a rogue” or “a villain who preys on others.” Shark is an English variant of shirk and was given as the slang name for the predatory fish during the sixteenth century. The first cheaters or criminals to be called sharks were pickpockets. Soon it applied to other dishonest low-life


predators who practised fraud and trickery, such as loan sharks and card sharks. How did flipping a coin become a decision-maker? The Lydians minted the first coins in 10 B.C., but it wasn’t until nine hundred years later that the coin toss became a decision-maker. Julius Caesar’s head appeared on one side of every Roman coin of his time, and such was the reverence for the emperor that in his absence often-serious litigation was decided by the flip of a coin. If Caesar’s head landed upright, it meant that through the guidance of the gods, he agreed in absentia with the decision in question. What are the chances of winning one thousand dollars at a casino game of craps? If a gambler bets one dollar at a time at a craps table, the odds of winning a thousand dollars before losing a thousand dollars are one in 2 trillion (that’s a two with twelve zeros!). If everyone on Earth played this way, betting a dollar at a time until they won or lost one thousand dollars, and then did it over again three hundred times, only one person would ever win, and then only once in all three hundred times. Why do we judge someone by how they act when “the chips are down”? Chips are used as a substitute for money in gambling. When things aren’t going well a player’s pile of chips dwindles until he loses everything or makes a recovery. How he acts under this pressure, “when the chips are down,” is an indication of 419

his character. That’s how secure, relatively high-yielding stocks came to be called blue chips, because in poker, blue chips are more valuable than white or red ones. How many five-card hands are possible in a deck of fifty-two, and what is a “dead man’s hand”? There are 2,598,960 five-card hand possibilities in a fifty-two-card deck, which makes the odds of drawing a flush 500 to 1. But in poker there is always fate. Wild Bill Hickok looked like a winner until he was shot in the back while holding two pairs, aces and eights, which is still known as “the dead man’s hand.” If its symbol is in the shape of a black clover, why do we call the suit of cards “clubs”? Playing cards are as old as history, but the suits we use today were introduced to Britain by soldiers returning from the wars of Italy and Spain in the fourteenth century. The Italian and Spanish cards included a suit picturing real clubs, which the French later changed to a trefoil leaf and the English to a clover — but because they had learned the game from the Spanish and Italians, English players continued calling them “clubs.” Card symbols are called “pips.” Card suits in Spain and Italy are coins, cups, swords, and cudgels (clubs). In Germany they are hearts, leaves, bells, and acorns.


In Switzerland they are shields, roses, bells, and acorns. What are the names from history of the jacks and queens in a deck of cards? In a deck of cards the jacks are Hector, prince of Troy; La Hire, comrade-in-arms of Joan of Arc; Ogier, a knight of Charlemagne; and Judas Maccabaeus, who led the Jewish rebellion against the Syrians. The queens are Pallas, a warrior goddess; Rachel, Biblical mother of Joseph; Judith, from the book of Judith; and Argine, which is an anagram for regina, the Latin for “queen.” Parisian card names by suit: Spades: (queen) Pallas, (jack) Ogier Hearts: (queen) Judith, (jack) La Hire Diamonds: (queen) Rachel, (jack) Hector Clubs: (queen) Argine, (jack) Judas. The kings in a deck of playing cards represent which real leaders from history? The four kings in a deck of cards were designed in fifteenth-century France, and they represent great leaders from history, while the suits signify the cultures they led. Spades honour the Biblical Middle East, and the king is David. Clubs are for Greece, with the king being Alexander the Great. Julius Caesar represents the pre-Christian Roman


Empire as the king of diamonds. Finally, hearts recall the Holy Roman Empire, and the king is Charlemagne. Why are there jokers in a deck of cards? The joker was introduced to a deck of cards by American sailors and was added to euchre as the best bower in around 1870. Euchre is an Alsatian card game, and was spelled “juker,” with the J pronounced “you.” In English it was spelled as it sounded: “euchre.” Eventually, the sailors’ translation hardened the J, and “you-ker” became “joo-ker” before marrying with “poker,” where it became “joker.” The joker isn’t included in the Canadian or British forms of euchre. The word bower in “best bower” is related to boor, or “fool,” which lends itself well to the joker. Jokers are sometimes a wild card in poker. The coloured joker outranks the black and white one. The court jester on the joker card was added in the 1880s, and the backs of the cards were used for advertising. Why do we say, “Make no bones about it” when stating an absolute fact? “Make no bones about it” means nothing has been left to chance. The “bones” of the expression refer to gambling dice, which for thousands of years were made of animal bone. The oldest known dice were found in Iraq and date from 3000


B.C. Today, to make no bones about their honesty, the dice used in Las Vegas crap games are precisely calibrated and are manufactured to a tolerance of 0.0002 inches (less than one-seventeenth the width of a human hair). How many ways can you win on a ninety-number bingo card? In 1919, Edwin Lowe saw people playing Bean-O at a carnival in Florida, where they put beans on numbered cards for small prizes. He developed this into a game of chance that became a craze. During its development, a friend who shouted “Bingo!” after winning gave Lowe’s game its name. On any given ninety-number bingo card, there are approximately 44 million ways to make B-I-N-G-O. According to suppliers, purple is by far the favourite ink colour in dabbers used by bingo players. Why does “pony up” mean “show us your money”? Gamblers understand that “to pony up” means to put your money into the ante to start a poker game or to make good on your losses. Pone (pronounced like pony) is from the Latin verb ponere, meaning “to seize,” and its current use came from a legal writ of common law instructing a bailiff to seize a defendant’s goods or obtain security to ensure his appearance at trial. This writ of pone is more commonly known as bail. How did the letters in Scrabble get assigned their quantities and numerical values?


In 1931, an unemployed American architect named Alfred Butts invented the game we now call Scrabble. Turned down by every manufacturer he approached, he sold homemade sets out of his garage until 1946, when a company bought the rights and began mass production. Butts determined the scoring value and quantity of each letter by counting the number of times it was used on a single page of one particular edition of the New York Times. Odds & Oddities • The odds of being killed by a dog are 1 in 700,000. • The odds of being killed by a tornado are 1 in 2,000,000. • The odds of being in a fatal elevator fall are 1 in 77,000. • The odds of freezing to death are 1 in 10,000. (Five hundred North Americans freeze to death every year).


the law Why do we say, “Justice is blind”? The Egyptian pharaohs, concerned that courtroom theatrics might influence the administration of justice, established the practice of holding trials in darkened chambers with absolutely no light. That way, the accused, the lawyers, and the judge couldn’t see each other, and the judge wouldn’t be moved by anything but the facts. It’s this principle that inspired Lady Justice, the well-known statue of a woman in a blindfold holding the scales of justice that is often found outside contemporary courtrooms. How did an English police force become known as Scotland Yard? In the tenth century, in an effort to stop hostilities between their two countries, the English gave a Scottish king land in London with the provision that he build a castle on it and live there for a few months every year. Seven centuries later, with


the two nations united under one king, the land returned to English ownership. In 1829, the London police took up residence on the land, which by then was known as Scotland Yard. Why is a monetary deposit for freedom from prison called “bail”? A bailiff is a sheriff’s deputy, a subordinate magistrate with jurisdiction over a strictly defined area. He or she has responsibility over the custody and administration of prisoners. To the early English, bailiff meant “village” and derived from bail, which described the palisade or wall around a community or castle. Bailey came to mean any wall enclosing an outer court, and because the Central Criminal Court in London stood within the ancient bailey of the city wall, it took the name Old Bailey. Monetary bail for restricted freedom is simply a reference to the bailiff’s office. Bail, the root for bailiff, originally meant a “horizontal piece of wood affixed to two stakes,” as in the case of the wicket in the game of cricket. Why is private property called our “bailiwick,” and how does it concern the sheriff? Bailiwick is an old English legal term and is a compound of baile, which is now bailiff, and wic, meaning “a farm” or “a dwelling.” From the mid-fifteenth century it’s meant “under a bailiff’s jurisdiction” — which leads us to the sheriff. During monarchial rule, each English shire had a reeve who acted as chief magistrate for the district. When the title “shire reeve” crossed the Atlantic it became “sheriff.” 426

Why do we say that someone who’s been through hard times has been “through the mill”? The expression “through the mill” has nothing to do with a grist or paper mill. It came from legal circles, and in the commercial world it means to have been through bankruptcy. The phrase comes from the original English court, where petitions for discharge of debt due to insolvency were first heard. This special court was called the Mill. To have been through the mill now means to have gone through any hard time, including bankruptcy. Why do we say that someone lost is going from “pillar to post”? Going from “pillar to post” means moving from one bad situation to another. The expression comes from the Puritans of New England, who punished those who strayed from their strict moral code by taking them to the pillory where, in public view, their hands and feet were tied until they repented. If they refused to repent, they were taken to a whipping post and flogged until they acknowledged their sins. Thus, they had gone from pillar to post. Why are pedestrians “jaywalkers”?






When cars were introduced, crossing city streets became a lot more hazardous than when horse-drawn carriages were the only traffic. New safety laws were introduced, and anyone ignoring them was considered a country bumpkin.


In the early part of the twentieth century, unsophisticated rural people were often referred to as “jays,” as in just another bird from the country, and so their ignorance about how to properly cross a street became known as jaywalking. Why do we say that someone who avoids a punishment or obligation got off “scot-free”? The scot in “scot-free” has nothing to do with Scottish people; as a matter of fact, the archaic word scot was borrowed from the Norse and meant a contribution of tax or treasure. Used in its present sense, scot first appeared in English in the thirteenth century, and its use with free became common in the sixteenth century. To be scot-free meant then, as it does now, “to be free from payment or obligation as well as punishment.” Why do we call a way out of a legal obligation a “loophole”? Loops were originally holes in the thick stone walls of a medieval fortress. Some of these holes were small and used for observation. Others were slits that widened on the inside, enabling an archer to safely shoot out arrows during a siege. Finally, these walls had larger, hidden loops or openings through which it was possible to escape during a losing battle. These escape “loopholes” gave us the modern meaning. If “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” what are the points it outweighs? The expression “possession is nine-tenths of the law” is from the eighteenth century and means that in the pursuit of justice 428

possession in a dispute over property outweighs these nine other essential elements of a good court case: a lot of money, a lot of patience, a good cause, a good lawyer, good counsel, good witnesses, a good jury, a good judge, and good luck. How did a broken straw come to stipulate the end of a contract? Stipulate is from stipula, the Latin word meaning “straw,” and refers to the specification of an essential part or condition of an agreement. When a landowner in feudal England wanted to remove a serf from his property, he would present the unfortunate tenant with a broken straw symbolizing the termination of their contract. During this time, men of questionable character would loiter around the courthouse offering to testify for money. They stipulated this by wearing a piece of straw in their shoes and were called “straw men.” Why are police vans called “paddy wagons”? A paddy wagon sounds like a logical reference to the great number of Irish policemen in uniform during the late nineteenth century, but not so. “Paddy” is a slur against the common Irish name Patrick, and because the Irish were considered the lowest in the social order, whenever it was politically expedient to appear to crack down on crime, all of the Paddies were profiled and rounded up in police wagons. What is a “grand jury”? A grand jury is convened to determine if the prosecution has a case against a criminal suspect. Although still used in the United States, the grand jury has been dropped by Canada and 429

Great Britain because they believe that it subverts the presumption of innocence and due process. Two-thirds of all the lawyers in the world live in the United States. Los Angeles has more judges than all of France, while in Washington, D.C., there is one lawyer for every twenty-five men, women, and children. What is the rule of thumb? In 1976, a National Organization of Women report incorrectly linked the expression “rule of thumb” with a 1782 public statement by an English judge that in his opinion, a man should have the right to beat his wife as long as the stick used was no thicker than his thumb. In fact, the real “rule of thumb” is a reference to building or baking something through the knowledge of experience rather than precise science, with the thumb being an instrument for a rough and improvised measurement. Why is a meaningless conclusion to an argument called “moot”? If, after an argument, it is concluded that the point made is irrelevant, it’s called “a moot point.” Moot is an Old English word that means “an assembly of the people for making judicial or political decisions.” That’s how the word took on the meaning of a discussion or a debate. By the sixteenth century, moot had developed the specific meaning within the legal profession of a hypothetical discussion on a legal point as an intellectual exercise. Just as arguments at an original moot or town meeting were of little consequence, the


conclusion of an academic exercise among lawyers carries no weight in the real world and so it, too, is irrelevant or moot. Why is land called “real estate”? Real estate is a piece of land that includes the air above it, the ground below it, and any buildings or structures on it. The term was first used in England in 1666. In 1670 the word realty surfaced to mean the same thing. Real means “actual” or “genuine,” and estate, of course, means “property.” Real estate became a legal term to identify a royal grant of estate land from the king of England. In England a real-estate broker or realtor is called a land agent. What is trial by combat? Today, the phrase “trial by combat” is generally used as a reference to lessons learned through experience, such as a soldier who has seen action, but the term was, in fact, from a legitimate legal process also known as judicial combat. In medieval Christian cultures it was agreed that God decided the outcome of trials, a belief that rooted such proceedings in the legal theory of ordeals: torture tests that God would see you through if you were innocent. Trial by combat was practised by the nobility and by military courts under the guise of chivalry, while commoners were tried by ordeal. The court determined a just outcome by sentencing the plaintiff and defendant to a trial by combat, often to the death, with the survivor or victor to be chosen by God. Trial by 431

combat, or judicial combat, was usually the settlement of one man’s word against another’s. Most of these duels were fought over a question of honour and were most frequently performed in France up until the late sixteenth century. Why is a meeting within a judge’s chambers said to be “in camera”? Camera is the Latin word for “room” and was used to describe a vaulted or upper chamber before it became an apparatus for taking photographs in the nineteenth century. “In camera” means “in the secure privacy of the judge’s chambers.” The photographic device began as a camera obscura, or “dark chamber,” which was an invention used to project images externally before it became a camera lucida, or “light chamber,” used to produce images within the instrument. In 1840, with the advent of modern photography, it was shortened to camera. Why do we say a graduating lawyer has “passed the bar”? In the sixteenth century, to control rowdiness, a wooden bar was built across courtrooms to separate the judge, lawyers, and other principal players from the riff-raff seated in the public area. That bar also underlies the English word barrister, the lawyer who argues the case in court. When someone has “passed the bar” or has been “called to the bar,” it means he or she is now allowed into the closed-off area. Why do we say someone who’s been fooled has had “the wool pulled over his eyes”?


In British courts, both judges and attorneys wear wool wigs, a custom that originated in the eighteenth century. The judge’s wig is larger than the lawyer’s, so he’s often called the “bigwig.” When a crafty lawyer wins at trial against all odds, it’s as though the lawyer had blinded the judge with his own wig. It’s said he just had “the wool pulled over his eyes.” Why is support paid by one former spouse to another called “alimony”? The court often orders the chief provider of a divorcing couple to pay an allowance to the other. This sum of money is called alimony because it literally keeps the recipient alive. In Latin alimony means “nourishment” or “sustenance.” The term palimony was coined in 1979 to apply to the separation of film star Lee Marvin (1924–1987) from a long-time live-in lover. Palimony applies the same rules to an unmarried couple who have co-existed equally and contributed to the couple’s success. Why is the letter X used to signify the legally unknown? A contract in draft form will often use the letter X within areas were monetary conclusions are still being negotiated. The reason X is used in this and other manners of ambiguity comes from the original similar use of the Arabic word shei, meaning “something,” which was interpreted by the Greeks as xei, which in time became abbreviated to the X we use today. Why is a private detective called a “private eye”?


In 1850, the Pinkerton Detective Agency opened in Chicago with the slogan “We never sleep,” and its symbol was a large, wide-open eye. Pinkerton was very effective, and criminals began calling the feared operation “the eye.” Raymond Chandler and other fiction writers of the 1930s and 1940s simply embellished the underworld expression by introducing “private eye” as a description for any private investigator. Quickies Did you know … • that the cigarette lighter was invented before the match? • that Lucky Strike cigarettes were given that name to promote sales to gold miners during the 1856 California gold rush?


measurements and time Why do we call midday “the noon hour”? The meaning of “noon hour” has shifted several times throughout history, and at one time, when Christians prayed twice a day, it meant both midday and midnight. In the original Old English the noon hour was the hour for prayers, which at the time was the ninth hour of daylight, or three o’clock in the afternoon. The singular prayer time changed to midday, or twelve o’clock, during the Middle Ages in Britain, and so twelve o’clock became known as the noon hour. Why do we call the end of the day “evening,” and why is it divided into “twilight” and “dusk”? Twilight is defined by the ancient word twi, which means “half” or “between,” so twilight is the time between light and darkness. Dusk is the final stage of twilight and is from the lost English word dox, which meant “dark” or “darker.” Evening comes from the ancient word aefen, meaning “late,”


and came to mean the general time between sunset and when you went to sleep. How long is “in the meantime”? “In the meantime” is often used as a general reference to the undefined time between two events, but its precise interpretation is “in the middle.” The Latin origin of mean in this case is medianus, which is the same root as the word median, the centre strip between lanes on a highway. How long is a moment and what is the precise time of a jiffy? When we use moment or jiffy, as in “I’ll be back in a moment” or “She’ll be with you in a jiffy,” we usually mean an undefined but brief period of time — but in fact, both have a precise length. Although lost through time, a moment was originally an English reference for ninety seconds, while a jiffy is from science and is one one-hundredth of a second, the time it takes light in a vacuum to travel one centimetre. When we arrive at the last minute, why do we say we got there just in “the nick of time”? A nick refers to a cut or notch made on a piece of wood. During medieval times, long before punch-in time clocks or other methods of modern tabulation, attendance, especially at schools and church services, was registered with a nick on a personalized stick of wood. If someone failed to show up on time, no nick was recorded, for which there would be suitable punishment. 436

Why do Orthodox and Catholic churches celebrate holy days on different dates? By the mid-sixteenth century the Julian calendar was out of whack with the lunar calendar by eleven full days. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII made an eleven-day adjustment so that October 4 was followed by October 15. A system of leap years was designed to keep the calendar in line. Catholics adopted the Gregorian calendar, while the Orthodox Church continued using the ancient Julian calendar for celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Eastern Orthodox churches continue to use the Julian calendar today. It is currently thirteen days later than the Gregorian calendar. Since 1923, the Romanian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches have adopted the Gregorian calendar. However, they continue to use the Julian calendar for Christmas and Easter calculations. The gap between the two calendars continues to grow. Most Greek Orthodox churches currently celebrate Christmas on January 7 and New Year’s Day on January 14 (according to the Gregorian calendar). This gap generally places Easter celebrations on the same Sunday in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches only once every three to four years. During non-leap years, Orthodox Easter is delayed by one, four, or five weeks. Why is every fourth year called a “leap year”?


A leap year has 366 days, with an extra day added to February. Every year divisible by four is a leap year except those completing a century, which must be divisible by four hundred. It’s called a leap year because normally the date that falls on a Monday this year will fall on Tuesday next year and then Wednesday the year after that. In the fourth year it will “leap” over Thursday and fall on Friday. Why are the abbreviations of pound and ounce lb. and oz.? The lb. abbreviation for pound comes from ancient Rome and is lifted from the Latin libra pondo, or “pound of weight.” The oz. for ounce came from medieval Italy and is from onza, meaning a twelfth part, because at the time the English ounce was one-twelfth of the Roman pound (330 grams). Although an ounce is now one-sixteenth of a pound, it’s still abbreviated as oz. Why does long mean length, distance, and an emotion? Longing for someone evolved from long, as in length, around A.D. 1000. Around A.D. 1300, long began to define a period of time because it seemed forever for someone to travel a great distance when a donkey cart was rapid transit. In this day of jet travel, yearning or longing for someone who is far away isn’t the same, because you can always call long distance. Why is the last minute before a deadline called “the eleventh hour”?


The reference is to the eleventh hour on the original clock devised by the Babylonians for use with their sundial. The period from dawn to sundown — when a sundial was usable — was divided into twelve hours, so the eleventh hour came just before sunset. In other words, if you did something at the eleventh hour, it was just before you ran out of daylight. You’ll find this notion used metaphorically in Matthew 20:1-16, in which we learn that even a sinner can find salvation at the last minute, even someone who procrastinates and doesn’t do what he has to do until, well, the eleventh hour. How did the seven days of the week get their names? Although originating in Roman mythology, many of our names for days of the week came from the Vikings. “Sunday” is a tribute to the sun. “Monday” is a tribute to the moon. “Tuesday” is from the Germanic war god Tiu. “Wednesday” takes its name from the god Woden. “Thursday” is from the thunder god Thor. “Friday” is from the Norse love goddess Frigg. “Saturday” is named after the Roman god Saturn. How do they calculate shoe sizes?


Roman shoemakers had discovered that the length of three barleycorns equaled one inch, so they used one kernel, or a third of an inch, as a measurement for shoe size. In 1324, King Edward of England decreed that three barleycorns was indeed one inch. In the seventeenth century, children’s shoe sizes were deemed to be less than, and adult sizes more than, thirteen barleycorns. (Size zero was a baby’s size, and the shoes went up in one-barleycorn increments to a children’s thirteen, after which adult’s sizes started again at one.) That calculation is still used to determine shoe sizes to this day. Why is a manual counting board called an “abacus”? The abacus is an ancient counting device with movable counters strung on rods and is used to solve arithmetic problems. Computers and calculators have made the apparatus obsolete. The word abacus has Semitic roots and came to English through the Greek word abax, meaning “dust” or “sand.” Before the board with the beads, the ancients sprinkled a flat surface with fine sand for drawing geometric diagrams and solving mathematical problems. In 1387, written Middle English began referring to the sand-board calculator used by the Arabs by its Latin form abacus. Why is a calendar book of predictions and facts called an “almanac”? An almanac is an annual publication forecasting weather and providing other miscellaneous information relative to a calendar year. The earliest almanacs were largely preoccupied with astronomical and astrological information as well as dates for feasts and festivals. The seventeenth century saw 440

almanacs begin to broaden their scope to include stories, poems, remedies, statistics, and jokes. Well-known almanacs include the Farmer’s Almanac, which started publication in 1793, and The World Almanac and Book of Facts. Poor Richard’s Almanac, produced by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), is a fixture in English literature. The word almanac came into English from Arabic through Spain in the fourteenth century as al-manakh, meaning “calendar.” How far is a league as mentioned in The Lord of The Rings? Folk tales refer to a league as a specific distance. There were seven-league boots, and Jules Verne sent Captain Nemo twenty thousand leagues under the sea. A league is an ancient measurement; in medieval England it was simply the distance a person or a horse could walk in one hour, which is about three miles (five kilometres), the same distance as defined by the Romans. The league is no longer an official unit of measurement in any nation. Why is a country mile considered a greater distance than the average mile? To “miss by a country mile” means you weren’t even as close as if you’d only missed by a mile. A country mile is an exaggeration of the 1,760 yards in the standardized English mile. Rural roads in Britain twist and turn through the countryside, so although the distance to be travelled is a mile, the real distance travelled on a winding road will be


considerably greater than “as the crow flies,” or in a straight line. Why are yards and metres different in length? In the twelfth century, Henry I of England decreed that a yard would be the distance from his nose to the thumb of his outstretched arm. As crude as this seems, Henry was only off by one-hundredth of an inch from today’s version. The metre was introduced by the French after the French Revolution and was intended to be exactly one-ten-millionth the distance between the North Pole and the equator, which was incorrectly calculated as 39.37 inches. Why do we call a large timepiece a “clock”? Like cloche in French, clock literally means “bell.” When the large mechanical clock was invented in the fourteenth century it didn’t tell time with a face and hands, but rather by sounding bells on the hour and eventually the quarter- and half-hour. This time device was named a clock because it told time by sounding bells. O’clock, as in “twelve o’clock” or “five o’clock,” is an abbreviation for “of the clock” or “of the bells.” Why do the hands of a clock move to the right? Early mechanical timepieces didn’t have hands. They signalled time with bells. Then one hand was introduced, indicating the hour only, until eventually sophisticated mechanics introduced the more precise minute and then second hands. Because clocks were invented in the northern hemisphere, the hands followed the same direction as the 442

shadows on a sundial. If they’d been invented in the southern hemisphere, “clockwise” would be in the opposite direction. Why are there sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour? Around 2400 B.C., the ancient Sumarians, who used six as their mathematical base, divided a circle into 360 degrees, with each degree subdivided into another 60 parts, and so on. The Romans called these units minute prima, or “first small part,” and secunda minuta, or “second small part.” This system was perfect for round clock faces, and that’s why we use minutes and seconds as divisions of time. What is the world’s largest number? In order to calculate massive quantities, American Edward Kasner coined the googol, which is a one followed by one hundred zeros. But the googoplex is now the largest number and is a one followed by a billion zeros, which allows us to calculate that the number of electrons passing through a forty-watt light bulb in a minute roughly equals the number of drops of water flowing over Niagara Falls in a century. How long is a “rod”? The rod is still used as a unit of measurement for portaging in recreational canoeing, possibly because a rod is about the same length as a canoe. A rod was established to be the combined total length of the left feet of the first sixteen men to leave church on Sunday. The distance was standardized in 1607 as 5 yards, or 16.5 feet. An acre is 40 rods by 4 rods, or the area a man and an ox could work in one day. 443

A rod is the same length as a perch and a pole. Why are precious stones such as diamonds weighed in carats? The word carat comes from the carob bean, which grows on the cerantonia siliqua tree. Each bean is so remarkably near the same size and weight that the ancients used it as a universal measurement for precious stones. There are approximately 142 carob beans, or carats, to the ounce. Each carat is divided into one hundred points, individually weighing about the same as three bread crumbs. A carat used for the measurement of gems is 200 milligrams. Quickies Did you know … • there are 86,400 seconds in a day? • the only time Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures have equal readings is at -40°? • at 16° Celsius the Fahrenheit equivalent temperature is inverted to 61°? • a BTU (British Thermal Unit) is the amount of heat required to raise one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit? • a calorie is the amount of heat required to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius? • a teaspoon holds 120 drops of water?


• a mile on land is 5,280 feet long? A nautical mile is 6,080 feet.


the early african-american experience Why when someone is betrayed do we say they were “sold down the river”? After 1808 it was illegal for Deep Southerners to import slaves, and so they were brought down the Mississippi River from the North to the slave markets of Natchez and New Orleans. This gave the northerners a way of selling off their difficult or troublesome slaves to the harsher plantation owners on the southern Mississippi, and it meant that those selected or betrayed would be torn from their homes and families to be “sold down the river.” Why is a carrying bag called a “tote bag”? During the seventeenth century, American slaves did most of the heavy lifting in the American South. Most of these slaves were from West Africa and still spoke their native Bantu languages. Tota is the Bantu word for “lifting” or “carrying.” From these slaves and then through the plantation owners tota


entered English as tote. The term tote bag was derived from tote and was popularized around 1900. Why do we call sad music “the blues”? The blues were around long before African-Americans put them to music. The expression originates in the belief of early English settlers that “blue devils,” or mean spirits, had followed them to their new land. These devils were thought to be the cause of sadness, and so a bout of depression was called “the blues.” Because no one could have been sadder than the black slaves, their raw expression of the mood in a unique and brilliant musical form became known as “the blues.” Why do we say that someone indecisive is “on the fence”? During the Revolutionary War, a prominent New Jersey jurist, Judge Imlay, hadn’t yet committed to either the Revolutionaries or the Loyalists, so when Washington encountered one of Imlay’s slaves he asked him which way the judge was leaning. Washington was so amused by the response that he retold it enough times for it to become part of our language. He said, “Until my master knows which is the strongest group, he’s staying on the fence.” Why is a commercial record player called a “jukebox”? Jukeboxes first appeared in restaurants and bars in the late 1930s. Juke is an African word meaning “to make wicked mischief” and came directly from American slaves, who described the illegal brothels or bootlegger shacks where they 447

could occasionally escape their cruel lives with a jar of moonshine as “juke-joints.” Juke had an exotic and forbidden appeal, which inspired the name jukebox. What is the legal origin of the grandfather clause? The term grandfather clause means something is exempt if in practice before a new law forbids it, and comes from a legal trick used by the Southern states to keep former slaves from voting. A law was introduced requiring the passing of a literacy test before anyone, black or white, could vote. The only exemptions were people whose grandfathers had voted prior to the new law. This gave all whites the right to vote, and virtually all blacks were disqualified. Why is do we say someone who is successful is “bringing home the bacon”? This thousand-year-old expression came from a common British competition of trying to catch a greased pig at a country fair. But the first time it was recorded and entered into modern use in North America was in 1910, when, after her son won a championship fight, Jack Johnson’s mother told the press, “My boy said he’d bring home the bacon.” What does it mean to have your “mojo” working? Mojo is a word from the Creole culture of the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia and probably arrived in some form with the slaves from Africa. It means “magic,” and although it’s had minor sub-cultural use as a jazz reference to drugs and sex, a mojo is a good luck charm enhanced through


voodoo with the ability to cast a positive spell. If you’ve got your mojo working, then everything’s going your way. Why do we say, “That takes the cake” when something’s done exceptionally well? African-Americans of the Old South highlighted their social season with a dancing contest called a cakewalk. The contestants often practised for months and included couples of all ages. The prize was a huge cake which was set in the centre of the hall and around which the dancers exhibited their skills. A panel of judges would watch the innovative dancers until a winner was chosen, who would then “take the cake.” Why are racist laws called “Jim Crow”? The term “Jim Crow” as a reference to the cruel racial segregation laws in the United States from 1876 to 1967 came from a song performed by a white comedic minstrel performer named Thomas “Daddy” Rice. The song was officially titled “Jump Jim Crow” and was first performed in blackface as a mockery of African-Americans in 1828. When it was published in the 1830s by E. Riley, the song became a huge international hit. The song and dance routine was supposedly inspired by the stage act of a crippled black performer from Cincinnati named Jim Cuff, who used the stage name Jim Crow. By the early 1900s, the term Jim Crow was commonly used to define racist laws and practices that deprived African-Americans (and others) of their civil rights, especially those that segregated schools and public places 449

such as buses and trains with separate facilities for whites and blacks. Why do we call a powerful earth-moving tractor a “bulldozer”? “Bulldozer” is a metaphor that originated in the Deep South during Reconstruction. A “bull-dose” was a dose of the bullwhip and was used by American terrorist groups to inhibit freed black slaves from using their new mandate to vote. In 1925, when a machine appeared that could change everything in its path through sheer force, it took the name bulldozer from the bullwhip and changed the meaning of the word. What is the origin of the word maroon? Maroon is a dark reddish colour or a chestnut flavour. As a verb, the word means “to be put ashore on a deserted island” or “to abandon someone in isolation.” However, the obscure use of maroon as a reference to slaves who escaped or were set free in the seventeenth century is lesser known. These runaway slaves lived in the mountains of the West Indies. At times they fought guerrilla wars against the Spanish, French, and British colonists. Jamaican maroons were among the first slaves to be proclaimed free by the British in 1715. Some were brought to Canada, where they settled in Preston near Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, but the resettlement didn’t go well, so most were relocated to Sierra Leone in West Africa, near where their ancestors had originally been captured. Maroon, as it is used in reference to runaway slaves, is a corruption of the Spanish word cimmarón, which means “wild, untamed.” Over time it came to signify lost in the 450

wilderness and gained its association with desert islands from stories such as the novel Robinson Crusoe by the English writer Daniel Defoe (1660–1731). Quickies Did you know … • that “bad-mouth” came to English through African-American slaves and means to utter a curse or cast a spell on someone? • about one year of your life will be spent looking for lost items? • the average North American spends 148 hours a year waiting in lines? • the average North American makes 7 telephone calls a day or 2,571.8 phone calls per year, which means you will spend about 2 years of your life on the telephone? • because the average North American spends about twenty-seven hours a week watching television, by the time you’re eighty you will have spent about four thousand days or about eleven years in front of the TV set?


origins of everyday words Why is desperately wanting something called “jonesing”? Jonesing is a relatively new word that has surfaced from within the hip hop and rap cultures of modern youth. It means to lust, crave, or desperately desire something — and for good reason. Around 1965, the word jonesing emerged as a slang reference to craving heroin, or “crank,” and was commonly used by the grunge and punk rockers during the pre-rap era. Jonesing is taken from Jones Alley in Manhattan, where hopeless addicts went through hideous withdrawal while desperately waiting for a dealer. For the same reason, jonesing sometimes means “to vomit.” Why do some men call a special buddy a “sidekick”? The slang word sidekick describing a close male associate comes from the criminal world and first appeared in about 1905. The word referred to the criminal accomplice of a pickpocket. From the mid-nineteenth century, the slang term


for men’s pants had been kicks, and his pockets were on the side of his kicks. The term arose because one man would trip or bump the mark while the other, his “sidekick,” would reach into and withdraw cash from the unlucky victim’s pocket. When we want someone to move faster why do we say “Hurry up” instead of just “Hurry?” The expression hurry up caught on during a time when most eating establishments had a dining room on the main floor and a kitchen in the basement. “To hurry,” of course, means to increase your pace, so “hurry up” became a specific order shouted by the headwaiter to speed the food up from the basement kitchen and into the dining room, where the phrase was heard so often by the patrons that it entered our language. Why is a disaster called a “fiasco”? The word fiasco is Italian for an ordinary flask or bottle and comes from the opera, where audiences would greet a false note or a bad performance with the cry “Ola fiasco.” The logic was that they had come to hear perfection but were getting a second-rate performance, and so just as a glass blower’s flawed attempt at a beautiful piece of art was discarded or assigned to be a common flask, the opera was second rate. How did the word okay come to mean “all right”? The word okay first time in the was a comedic misspelled as

(or O.K.) is American and surfaced for the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839. It use of “All Correct” and was deliberately “Oll Korrect,” which when abbreviated 453

becomes the letters O.K. The abbreviation caught on around Boston and New York and became a slogan for President Martin Van Buren’s campaign for re-election. Why do we use the word neat, as in “that was a neat idea”? The word neat, although dated, is often used to describe something pleasing. Neat is also used to order a shot of alcohol straight from the bottle without any mix or ice, and it’s within this context that the word became popular. The original meaning of neat was to describe anything clean or undiluted, without any impurities. This gave us the extension of meaning tidy, as in a teenager keeping a neat room, which is a neat idea. How did street riff-raff get to be called “hooligans”? In 1898, a London newspaper wrote a series of articles about a gang of street toughs known as “Hooley’s Gang” or, as they called themselves, “Hooligans.” Strangely, the name also came up in San Francisco and New York about the same time, but because no one named Hooley was ever found it’s presumed to be an Irish reference for “rowdy.” Riff-raff means “common” and is from the Anglo-Saxon words rief, meaning “rags,” and raff, meaning “sweepings.” Where did the word tomboy originate? A “tomboy” has meant a bold, aggressive girl since about 1579, but before that, a “Tom” was a boisterous, rude boy. If you think of the nighttime habits of a tomcat you might


understand that a tomboy, a girl who liked the company of men, was used as late as the 1930s as a reference to a prostitute. This use of the word tom is from the Anglo-Saxon word tumbere, meaning “to dance and tumble around.” Why are planks of wood called “lumber”? Lumber as a noun means timber sawed or split into rough boards or planks. The word is derived from Italian immigrants from northern Italy’s Lombardy region, who, after settling in England in 1598, became moneylenders and pawnbrokers in a London neighbourhood that included Lombard Street, named after their homeland. Since these Italian pawnbrokers had all sorts of odds and ends lying around the shop and yard, including barrel staves and ship timbers, that kind of clutter became know as “lombard” or a “lombard yard,” which became “lumber” in the local dialect. The word then was applied to any wood storage area. The word lumberjack was coined in Canada in 1831 and referred to the hard-working, heavy-drinking migratory loggers of the time. Why is a negative perception of someone called a “stigma”? People held in low esteem are stigmatized for their actions by some outward sign or symbol of weakness. Although stigma is a Greek word meaning “puncture,” we get the word from the Romans, who called the scar branded on a slave’s forehead a stigma. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the letter A stigmatized Hester Prynne and made a public example of her adultery. 455

Why are cigars called “stogies”? Tobacco was picked up from the natives of the West Indies and introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. The English word cigar is from the Spanish cigarro, which they took from cigarrales, a Cuban word meaning “a place of leisure.” Stogie is an abbreviation of Conestoga, and because the drivers of that wagon company (based in tobacco country) always had a roll-your-own cigar stuck in their mouths, observers called them stogies. What is the origin of the phrase “tabloid journalism”? On March 4, 1884, a British drug company registered the word tabloid for a very small tablet it was marketing. About the same time, large broadsheet newspapers were challenged by small-format journals, and because tabloid had come to mean anything small, that’s what the new papers were called. These tabloids often resorted to gossip instead of hard news, which gave sloppy reporting the name “tabloid journalism.” Why is a small newspaper called a “gazette”? In 59 B.C. Julius Caesar introduced the first handwritten daily newspapers, which were posted in prominent locations around Rome. However, it wasn’t until long after Gutenberg’s printing press was invented that news became an industry. During the mid-sixteenth century, citizens of Venice paid to hear public readings of the news, and the price was a small copper Italian coin called a gazetta, which gave us the word gazette for a newspaper.


Why are both the contents of a novel and the level of a building referred to as a “story”? The Latin word historia entered English as history, meaning an account of significant events. By the sixteenth century the abbreviated story took the meaning of an imaginative narrative. In the Middle Ages, by using sculpture and stained glassed windows, architects told themes from history on the fronts of large buildings, each being the height of one of the building’s floors. Each floor told a story. Why is something small called “dinky”? Dinky is one of those words that just sounds right when it’s used to describe something insignificant. It began as a Scottish dialect word to describe anything small and dainty and ended up being used to describe a shabby little rundown locomotive used for shunting larger engines in a railway yard. Today dinky can mean anything of little consequence. Dinky Toys are indeed small, but the trademark company (Meccano Dinky Toys) is anything but inconsequential. Starting as die-cast miniature model cars and trucks, Dinky Toys first appeared in 1934 and are successfully sold around the world. Why is an alley with only one exit or entrance called a “blind alley”? Have you ever heard the Biblical quotation about how a rich man’s chances of getting to heaven are about the same as a camel passing through the eye of a needle? An “eye” is an ancient reference to an opening in a wall or a gate, because 457

you could see through it. If there is an obstruction (or in the case of the alley, a wall), then there is no eye to see or escape through — it is a blind alley. Why is someone who is always late called a “slowpoke”? A slowpoke is someone who fusses around, and this preoccupation with nosiness or detail makes them habitually late. Poke is from the old German word poken and means “to jab” or “to thrust with a stick or other device,” so a slowpoke wastes time by dawdling or poking into meaningless matters, making him or her less than punctual. A punch is sometimes called a poke because it’s the thrust of a clenched fist. Why do we call an enthusiastic amateur a “buff”? A buff (i.e., a film or sports buff), is someone with a keen interest in a subject that is not related to his or her profession. The term was coined by New York firefighters, who were often hindered by crowds who gathered at fires either to help or stand around and criticize. At the time, around 1900, most winter coats worn by the spectators were made of buffalo hide, and from those the firemen came up with the derogatory term buffs to describe those pesky amateur critics. Why are rental accommodations called “digs”? Digs comes from Australian gold prospectors who used the word diggings to describe their mining claims, which usually included makeshift lodgings. In 1893 digs first appeared as a slang term for rooms and small apartments in boarding houses that were strictly supervised by landladies who usually 458

forbade visits by the opposite sex. Students have since adopted the word to describe the humble places they temporarily call home. Why do we call someone who does things differently a “maverick”? In the nineteenth century, Samuel A. Maverick was a stubborn Texas rancher who, because he said it was cruel, refused to brand his cattle even though it was the only way to identify who owned free-range livestock. Instead he would round up all the unbranded cattle he could find, even those not from his own herd. At first any stray unbranded cow was called a “maverick,” but the word has grown to mean anyone who doesn’t play by the rules. Why are women temporarily separated from their husbands called “grass widows”? The expression grass widow originated hundreds of years ago in Europe where summers were unbearably hot. Because grass was scarce in the lowlands, husbands would send their wives and children, along with their resting workhorses, up into the cooler grassy uplands while they stayed in the heat to till the land. It was said that both the wives and horses had been “sent to grass,” which gave us the expression grass widows. Why do we say someone charming has “personality”? In the Greek and Roman theatres, actors wore masks to indicate the different characters they were playing. The Latin word for mask, persona, came to mean a personality other 459

than that of the actor. Today, persona, or personality, still refers to the mask a person wears to hide his or her true character while playing a role for the outside world. Why do Mexicans call Americans “gringos”? Some say that during the Mexican-American war at the end of the nineteenth century, locals heard the invaders singing “Green Grow the Lilacs” and simply picked up gringo from “green grow.” Others say that because the American uniforms were green, the expression came from a rallying cry: “Green, go!” But, in fact, gringo is a Spanish word on its own and is a slang insult for anyone who is fair-skinned and looks foreign. Why do Americans call Canadians “Canucks”? The word canuck first appeared in 1835 as a derogatory American reference to French Canadians working in the lumber camps of Maine. Today it means any Canadian and is no longer an insult unless used by non-Canadians to describe our French brothers. It’s most likely an alteration of the French word for “canoeman,” canaque, with the “uk” exaggerated from a very common ending to Native American nouns like Tuktoyuktuk. But the word could also be from Canada/Kanata (the name derived from a First Nations word meaning “a collection of huts”), abbreviated with “uk” as a suffix. Over a million French Canadians migrated to New England during the second half of the nineteenth century. Jack Kerouac’s family was among them.


Johnny Canuck, the cartoon character, dates from 1869 and was used for propaganda during the Second World War. Why are Americans called “Yankees”? It’s said that Yankee comes from an English pirate reference to the Dutch, who were known for their diet of cheese, which in their own language is kaas. The Christian name Jan tied to the word kaas, or Jan-kaas (pronounced “yankas”), was a derogatory English reference to the Dutch who settled New York. However, it’s more likely that Yankees evolved from yengees, an early Native American pronunciation of Anglais, the French word for the English who had settled the northeast. Why is the word mayday used as an aviation distress call? The distress call mayday comes from the French, who were leading pioneers in flight. In 1911 there were 433 licensed aviators in France, compared to just 171 in Britain and even fewer in the United States. Flying was a risky business, and it wasn’t until parachutes and radios were introduced that the French call “M’aidez,” or “help me,” became Anglicized to the modern international distress call, “Mayday!” Why is a large, controlled fire called a “bonfire”? On June 24, or St. John’s Day, early Britons lit chains of huge fires to support the diminishing sun. These fires were fed with the clean bones of dead farm animals and were called “bone fires,” which evolved into bonfires. There were bone fires and wood fires, and a mixture of both wood and bones was called a “St. John’s fire,” a name given, naturally, to the fires that burned heretics at the stake. 461

Why after a foolish error do we call someone a “laughingstock”? In early English, a stock was a tree trunk, and by the fourteenth century it figuratively meant the family tree or the consequences of breeding. For example someone might be from “farming stock” or “good stock,” while an animal’s breeding line was traced through “livestock.” If someone calls you a laughingstock, they are insulting your family tree as being one filled with fools, from which you are the current crop. Why is noisy chaos referred to as “bedlam”? The word bedlam is a medieval slang pronunciation of “Bethlehem,” and its use to describe a mad uproar dates back to a London hospital for the insane. St. Mary in Bethlehem was incorporated in 1547 as the Royal Foundation for Lunatics. Because people could hear but only imagine the chaos inside, they began referring to any noisy, out-of-control situation as like that in Bedlam — Bethlehem hospital. Why do we call a bad dream a “nightmare”? There are different degrees of frightening dreams, but the most terrifying cause sensations of suffocation and paralysis. Literature best describes the sleeper’s sensation in the stories of Dracula, but there was also a common female demon known as “the night hag.” Mare is an Old English term for demon and comes from the same root as murder; therefore the demon, or mare, who visits at night was called a “nightmare.” Why does criss-cross mean “back and forth”? 462

Schoolchildren in the sixteenth century worked lessons on a thin wooden board that hung from their belts. On it were printed the alphabet, the numbers, and the Lord’s Prayer. Because it was preceded by a Maltese cross, the alphabet was called the Christ-cross-row. Students reciting from the board always began with the prayer, “Christ’s cross be my speed.” Two centuries later, Christ’s cross had become “criss-cross.” Why are the secondary consequences of a greater event called the “aftermath”? The chain of events set in motion by a major occurrence is often called an “aftermath.” Math is from an old English word meaning “to mow.” The second, smaller crop of hay that sometimes springs up after a field has been mowed is called the aftermath, or “after mowing,” and although it is next to useless, it is a problem that has to be dealt with for the good of the fields. Why is a concise commercial promotion called a “blurb”? The word blurb, meaning an inspired recommendation, comes from an evening in 1907 during an annual trade dinner of New York publishers where it was customary to distribute copies of new books with special promotional jackets. For his book, humourist Gelett Burgess caused a sensation with a cover drawing of a very attractive and buxom young woman whom he named “Miss Belinda Blurb.” From then on, any flamboyant endorsement would be known as a blurb. Quickies Did you know … 463

• the sound of thunder is caused by air rushing into the vacuum created by a bolt of lightning? • thunderstorms can approach as fast as 50 miles per hour? • thunder travels at around 1,120 feet per second, or approximately 1 mile every 5 seconds (760 miles per hour), depending on the temperature and air density? This is why when you see lightning, if you count the seconds until you hear the corresponding thunder, the lightning bolt will have been one mile away for every five seconds you count. • at any given moment there are there are approximately two thousand thunderstorms happening on Earth?


trivia Why do we call gossip or unimportant information “trivia”? The Romans were well-known for their road building, and from their Latin noun trivium, meaning “a place where three roads meet,” there derived a word for insignificant information. At a three-road intersection, traffic would slow and congest, offering a great chance for light gossip and meaningless conversation. So from tri, meaning “three,” and via, meaning “roadway,” the Romans gave us trivia, a word for useless information. Why do so many Scottish and Irish surnames begin with “Mac” as in MacDonald, and “O” as in O’Connor? One of the ancient Celtic traditions of Scotland and Ireland was (in much the same manner as for American slaves) that all the serfs who worked his land used the name of the clan chieftain. In Gaelic, the prefix Mac means “son,” while O


means “grandson” or “descendant of.” Both were used to keep track of the true bloodline. MacDonald means “the son of Donald,” while O’Connor means “the grandson [or descendant] of Connor.” Is there a difference between a penknife and a jackknife? The original difference between a jackknife and a penknife was size. Both had blades that folded into the handle for safety. The small penknife came first and was carried in a pocket in a sheath and was used for making or repairing quill pens. Pen is derived from penna, the Latin word meaning “feather.” The jackknife was simply a large, all-purpose penknife, so called because it was a handy tool for sailors, who, at the time, were called “Jacks.” Why are inappropriate actions called “taboo”? If something is unacceptable, it’s considered “taboo.” When Captain James Cook visited the Friendly Islands in 1777, he noted in his diary that the Polynesians used the word taboo to signify that a thing was forbidden. Cook and his men carried the word to the rest of the English-speaking world, not realizing that it also means “go away,” which is what the Islanders were telling him when he landed. Why do doors generally open inward on houses and outward on public buildings? Doors generally open outward on public buildings as a precaution against fire. If dozens of people have to rush for the exit, they won’t have to fight to pull the door inward against the crush. The exceptions are those institutions fearing 466

robbery, which have doors opening inward to delay the getaway and, like the doors of your home, to keep the hinges on the inside so that burglars can’t simply remove the door. What dates define Generation X, Generation Y, and the Echo Boomers? For those people born after the post–Second World War baby boomers, advertisers have created labels to define their targets. Those born between 1964 and 1983 are known as Generation X. Echo boomers, or the children of the baby boomers, were born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Generation Y’s members are the children of Generation X and were born after 1983. The confusion lies in the use of the word generation by advertisers and the media. For marketing purposes, an echo boomer can also be part of both Generations X and Y. Historically, a generation of humans was defined as the average interval of time between the birth of parents and their offspring — in other words, about twenty-five years. We all know what a “YUPPIE” is, but what are a “TAFFIE,” a “DINK,” and a “DROPPIE”? YUPPIES are Young Urban Professional People. The U.S. Census Bureau has created many other acronyms to identify other social groups. TAFFIES are Technologically Advanced Families who are wired to the Internet. DINK stands for Dual Income No Kids, while DROPPIES is from the first letters of Disillusioned, Relatively Ordinary Professionals Preferring Independent Employment Situations.


Why is a couched compliment”?





A compliment intended as an insult is termed a “backhanded compliment” and is directly tied to the ancient belief that the left side of the body was under the influence of the Devil. A backhanded slap would generally come from the right hand of the majority of people. It is similar to the backhand stroke of tennis players who must reach across their bodies to deliver blows from the left (or evil) side. Anything delivered from the left, including a compliment, was considered sinister or devious. The word sinister comes from sinestra, Latin for left. Seven percent of the world’s population is left-handed. Among the forty-three American presidents, the percentage of lefties is higher (12 percent). Bill Clinton (1946–), George H.W. Bush (1924–), Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), Gerald Ford (1913–), and Harry Truman (1884–1972) are or were left-handed. James Garfield (1831– 1881) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) were reportedly ambidextrous. Where did the motorcycle gang Hells Angels get their name? The outlaw motorcycle gang known as Hells Angels grew from a small group of post–Second World War servicemen who longed for the danger, excitement, and comradeship they had experienced in the wartime military. In Fontana, California, on May 17, 1948, two small biker gangs joined to form the first Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. The initial membership was twenty-five. Fuelled by 1950s movies, media hype, and their own sense of rebellion and outrageous 468

behaviour, the Hells Angels have gone off track and grown into an international underworld organization. The motorcycle gang took its name from a famous American B-17F bomber whose heroic crew of six named themselves and their Flying Fortress the Hell’s Angels. The aircrew, in turn, was inspired by the title of the 1930 Howard Hughes film that introduced and starred the legendary Jean Harlow. The bomber crew known as Hell’s Angels became famous when after flying forty-eight missions its members toured the United States, pointing out the combat scars and patches that covered their “fort.” While flying a bombing run, the famous B-17’s Captain Baldwin first suggested over the interphone that his men name the plane and themselves after the Hughes film. One of Baldwin’s crew, remarking on the mission being flown, replied, “Why not? This is the closest to hell that angels will ever get!” What’s the difference between a “spider’s web” and a “cobweb”? All spiders create their webs through a liquid secretion that hardens in the air. These webs are nearly invisible, especially to the insects they trap. In modern language, the spider’s web becomes a cobweb only after it collects dust and becomes visible, so the webs are different in name only. The word cob came from writings as early as the thirteenth century and had evolved from coppe, an early word meaning “spider.” What is a “Catch-22”?


A Catch-22 is an impossible situation. In Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22, the protagonist tries every means possible to avoid flying dangerous missions in order to survive the war. The problem was Catch-22, a regulation that specified that if a man was afraid to fly then he was sane and had to, but if he flew he was crazy and didn’t have to. Either way, he had to fly.


question and feature list Common Superstitions Why is a horseshoe thought to bring good luck? Why does breaking a wishbone ensure good luck? Why is the ladybug a sign of good luck? Why is it bad luck to walk under a ladder? Why is Friday the thirteenth considered to be bad luck? Did the near tragedy of Apollo 13 cause the NASA scientists to become superstitious? Do people really fear Friday the thirteenth? Where else, other than on a Friday, is the number thirteen considered unlucky? How did spilling salt become bad luck? Why do we cross our fingers for good luck? What is the curse on the Hope diamond? Why is lighting three on a match considered bad luck? Why do we say “Bless you” after a sneeze?


Why does knocking on wood protect us from harm? What is the origin of the Tooth Fairy? Why do some people believe black cats are bad luck? Why is a rabbit’s foot a symbol of good luck? Why does breaking a mirror bring seven years of bad luck? Why do we say during a bad day that you “got up on the wrong side of the bed”? Why is it bad luck to open an umbrella indoors? Why do people throw coins into a fountain? Rock and Roll Trivia What was the original meaning of “rock and roll”? Quickies Who first said, “Elvis has left the building”? Military Innovations and Traditions What are the origins of the merry-go-round? Why is the bugle call at day’s end and at military funerals called “Taps”? Why is there a saddled, riderless horse in a military funeral procession? 472

Why do they fire a rifle volley of three shots over the grave of a fallen soldier? Why are funeral flags flown at half-staff? Why do we say it’s a “siege” when an army surrounds a fort or town? Why is a lightning-quick military attack called a “raid”? Why do we say someone has “dodged a bullet” after a close call? Why do we tell someone who with a bad attitude to “shape up or ship out”? How close do you have to be before seeing the “whites of their eyes”? What do the words hunky-dory and honcho have in common? Why are the stalwart defenders of a status quo referred to as “the Old Guard”? When did the United States draw up modern-day plans for the invasion of Canada? When did Canada plan to invade the United States? Quickies Wedding Traditions


What is the origin of the engagement ring? What is the origin of the wedding ring? Why do bridegrooms have a best man? Why do brides wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” to their weddings? Why is June the most popular month for weddings? Why do brides wear wedding veils? Why is it bad luck for the groom to see his bride before the ceremony on their wedding day? How did wedding cakes become so elaborate? How did throwing confetti become a wedding custom? Why does a groom carry his bride over the threshold? Why is marriage called “wedlock”? Why is a husband-to-be called a “groom”? Why do we say that a married couple has “tied the knot”? Why are wedding-related items referred to as “bridal”? Why does the groom crush a glass with his foot at a Jewish wedding? Why do we call the first weeks of marriage a “honeymoon”? 474

Why do women cry at weddings? Quickies Everyday Expressions Why is someone lost if he “doesn’t have a clue”? How did the expression “barefaced lie” originate? Why when suggesting an exhaustive search do we say, “Leave no stone unturned”? Why do we say that something happened so quickly that it was over “before you could say Jack Robinson”? Why do we say, “Put a sock in it” when we want someone to shut up? When something valuable is destroyed while eliminating waste, why do we say they’ve “thrown the baby out with the bathwater”? Why do we call someone too smart for his or her own good a “smart aleck”? Where did the expression “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” originate? Why do we say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? What is the origin of the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs”?


Who coined the phrase “a New York minute”? Where did the expression “neck of the woods” come from? Why do the English use “by George” as an oath of surprise? Why do we say that someone speaking their mind is “blowing off steam”? What does it mean to “get your dander up”? Why do we say, “Take a powder” when we want someone to leave? When adding a bonus why do we say, “I’ll give you that to boot”? When choices are meager why do we say we’re “scraping the bottom of the barrel”? Why is someone in a hopeless situation said to be “over a barrel”? Why do we use the expression “Close, but no cigar”? Why might we say a father and son are “cut from the same cloth”? What’s the origin of the expression “My bad”? Why do we say, “Every dog has his day”? Why do we say, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”?


Why is being meek or inoffensive called taking the “middle of the road”? What is the origin of “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”? What is the origin of “What am I, chopped liver?” What is a “bone of contention”? Why do we define the rat race as “keeping up with the Joneses”? What’s the origin of the phrase “busting your chops”? What are the “cockles of your heart”? What do I mean by saying, “If I had my druthers”? Where did the expression “I’ve got to see a man about a dog” originate? Modern-Day Bumper Stickers, From the Bar to the Morning After Why is taking the “hair of the dog” a hangover cure? Why is the final drink before a journey called “one for the road”? Why is cheap whiskey called “hooch”?


Who invented the cocktail? Why is a long drinking spree called a “bender”? Why is a type of beer called “India pale ale”? What does the phrase “Eat, drink, and be merry” tell us? Why does “XXX” warn us about both alcohol and sexually explicit material? Why do we call someone who sells illegal alcohol a “bootlegger”? Why is a bootleg joint called a “blind pig”? Why do we say that someone intoxicated is “three sheets to the wind”? What people make the best tippers? Why is a party bowl of mixed drinks called “punch”? Where did the drinking expression “Bottoms up” originate? Why were dancers in the thirties and forties called “jitterbugs”? Why is alcohol called “spirits” and empty beer bottles “dead soldiers”? Why is someone with a drinking problem called a “lush”?


Where did the expression as “drunk as blazes” come from? Who were the first people to establish a legal drinking age and why? Why is an altered alcoholic drink called a “mickey”? Why do we say a corrupt or drunken person has “gone to the Devil”? Why is someone who is dazed or confused (or drunk) said to be “groggy”? Why should heavy drinkers wear an amethyst? What is the difference between brandy and cognac? Quickies Lofty Origins of Overused Phrases, Work and Career What is the difference between a job and a career? Why is a self-employed professional called a “freelancer”? Why are skilled computer fanatics called “geeks”? Why do we say someone has been “fired” when he or she is forced out of a job?


When someone loses his job, why do we say he “got the sack”? Why is the night shift called “the graveyard shift”? Why if someone isn’t up to the job do we say he isn’t “worth his salt”? Why is the head office called the “flagship” of a corporation? Why do we say that someone has “knocked off work” for the day? Why do we call leisure work a “hobby”? Why is the person who fixes your pipes called a “plumber”? Why are men who work on the docks called “longshoremen”? Where did the words steward and stewardess originate? Why is a cowboy called a “cowpoke”? What kind of a job is created by “featherbedding”? Why is a lazy, irresponsible person called “shiftless”? Why is something of little value called “fluff” and poor workmanship called “shoddy”? Why are construction cranes and the mechanisms used for drilling oil called “derricks”?


Why is a practice session called a “dry run”? Why do we use the word glitch to define an unknown computer problem? Where did the insult “couldn’t hold a candle” come from? Why is buttering up a boss said to be “currying favour”? Place Names and Nicknames Why are citizens of the United States the only North Americans called “Americans”? Odds and Oddities Why are the southern United States called “Dixieland”? Buffalo, New York Detroit, Michigan Why do we call New York “the Big Apple”? Why is the city of New Orleans called “the Big Easy”? How did the city of Calgary, Alberta, get its name? Why is Chicago called the “Windy City”? Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario Who was the first Niagara Falls daredevil?


Who was the first person to go over Niagara in a barrel? Quickies Animals How did the Australian kangaroo get its name? Why is one breed of dog called a “Boxer”? When we want a dog to attack, why do we say, “Sic ’em”? Why do the Chinese name each year for an animal? What’s the story behind the expression “It’s a dog-eat-dog world”? Why does shedding crocodile tears mean that you’re faking sadness? Where did we get the saying “Not enough room to swing a cat”? Why does “letting the cat out of the bag” prevent you from buying “a pig in a poke”? Why is a leader of a trend called a “bellwether”? Why are Dalmatians used as mascots by firefighters? Why do we call male felines “tomcats”? Why do we say that something worthless is “for the birds”?


Why is something useless and expensive called a “white elephant”? Why is the height of a horse measured in hands? Why do geese fly in a V formation? What is the difference between a “flock” and a “gaggle” of geese? Why is an innocent person who takes the blame for others called a “scapegoat”? Why are long, rambling, and unfunny stories called “shaggy dog stories”? How did an American bird get named after the distant country of Turkey? How many native wild jackrabbits are born each year in North America? Why are some schemes called “hare-brained”? Why do we say that a different subject is “a horse of a different colour”? How did the beaver get its name? Why do dogs circle so much before lying down? What does the “grey” mean in “greyhound”?


Why is a species of whales called “sperm whales”? When and why do cats purr? How did “hightailing it” come to mean a rushed exit? Quickies Baseball Why is the Cleveland baseball team called the Indians? Who is featured on the world’s most valuable baseball card? What number has been retired by every Major League baseball team and why? Why do we say that someone in control has “the upper hand”? Why do we say that someone who is sharp is “on the ball”? What does the sign “No Pepper” mean at a baseball park? Why is the L.A. baseball team called the Dodgers? What are the seven different ways a baseball batter can reach first base? Why do the New York Yankees wear pinstripe baseball uniforms?


Why is the warm-up area for baseball pitchers called a “bullpen”? Why do we call a leg injury a “charley horse”? Why is an erratic person called a “screwball”? Why is there a seventh-inning stretch during a baseball game? Why is the position between second base and third base called “shortstop”? Why is an easily caught pop fly in baseball called a “can of corn”? Why are the pitcher and catcher collectively called “the battery”? How did the World Series get its name? Who introduced the first catcher’s mask? Who invented baseball’s hand signals? What is a corked bat? Why does the letter K signify a strikeout on a baseball score sheet? Why do we call someone who is left-handed a “southpaw”? What is the origin of the term grand slam?


How did rhubarb become baseball slang for a fight or argument? Quickies Why don’t baseball coaches wear civilian clothes like those in every other sport? Why is someone out of touch said to be “out in left field”? Why are extra seats in a gymnasium or open-air benches in a stadium called “bleachers”? What is the advantage of “sitting in the catbird seat”? Quickies The Human Condition Why are the derelicts of “skid row” said to be “on the skids”? If you’re being driven to “rack and ruin” where are you going? Why does the word bully have both good and bad meanings? Why is a sleazy area of town known as the “red-light district”? Why are men and boys called “guys”? Why were young women from the Roaring Twenties called “flappers”?


Why is suddenly stopping a bad habit called “cold turkey”? Why are slaves to substance abuse called “addicts”? Why do we say that something deteriorating is either “going” or “gone to pot”? What does it mean to be footloose and fancy-free? Why do we say that someone grieving is “pining”? Why are young women and girlfriends sometimes referred to as “birds”? Why did Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack call women “broads”? How did the word gay come to mean “homosexual”? Why are homosexual men sometimes called “fags”? Why do we say we have a “yen” for something that we crave? Why are unrealistic fantasies called “pipe dreams”? How did teenagers become a separate culture? Why do we call tearful, overly sentimental people “maudlin”? Why is someone susceptible to deception called a “sucker”? What was the original “fate worse than death”? Why do we call prostitutes “hookers”? 487

What is the original meaning of the word sex? Why is a homeless women called a “bag lady”? Why is a frightening or dishevelled old woman called a “hag”? Why are strangers who plead for help called “beggars”? Why do we say, “Beggars can’t be choosers”? Why are inhabitants of the Appalachian and Ozark mountains called “hillbillies”? Who were the first “rednecks”? How valid is the theory of six degrees of separation? Why is an effeminate man called a “sissy” or a “priss”? Odds & Oddities Lovers and Loving How did Valentine become the patron saint of lovers? Why is a small personal case for mementos called a “locket”? Why do some women wear beauty marks? What does a handkerchief have to do with “wearing your heart on your sleeve”?


Why is the word cuckold used to describe the husband of an unfaithful wife? Why do we say that someone special is “the apple of your eye”? Why do we say that someone seeking favour has put his or her “best foot forward”? Why do we use Xs as kisses at the bottom of a letter? Why is embracing and kissing called “spooning”? Why do humans kiss? Why do we say someone is “head over heels” when in love? Why is unconsummated love called “platonic”? Why do we shake our heads for “no” and nod for “yes”? How did the terms of divorce evolve? Quickies Flowers How did the Dutch flower the tulip get its name? How did the dandelion and the daisy get their names? Who started the custom of giving a dozen roses to a lover? How important is the colour in a gift of flowers? 489

Quickies Home, Hearth, and Family What exactly is a family circle? Why do we say, “Goodnight, sleep tight”? What is the difference between a settee, a divan, and a couch? Why is socializing called “hobnobbing”? Why is going to bed called “hitting the hay”? Why are nightclothes called “pyjamas”? Why is the entrance to a house called a “threshold”? How did the expression “dead as a doornail” originate? Why is the shelf above a fireplace called a “mantelpiece”? Why is a surplus of anything called a “backlog”? How did the word curfew come to mean “stay in your homes”? What’s the origin of the word window? How did the toilet get its name? Why do wives call money from their husbands “pin money”?


Why is listening in on a private conversation called “eavesdropping”? Why does a man refer to his wife as his “better half “? Why are women referred to as the “distaff” side of a family? Why is the family non-achiever called a “black sheep”? Why is a vulgar woman called a “fishwife” while a respectable married woman is a “housewife”? What is the difference between a parlour and a drawing room? Why do we call money saved for a rainy day a “nest egg”? What is the origin of the thimble? Quickies Everyday Customs and Convention Why do we say “Hello” when we answer the telephone? Why do we say “Goodbye” or “So long” when leaving someone? What’s the origin of the parting wish “Godspeed”? Why are men’s buttons on the right and women’s on the left? Why do baby boys wear blue and girls wear pink?


Why is a handshake considered to be a gesture of friendship? Where did the two-fingered peace sign come from? Where did the rude Anglo-Saxon one-fingered salute come from? When is it incorrect to formally address a person as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms.? Boxing Why do we say a person isn’t “up to scratch”? Why is a boxing ring square? Why do we call the genuine article “the real McCoy”? Why is a fistfight called “duking it out”? What’s the origin of the expressions “rough and ready” and “rough and tumble”? Why when asking for a loan might you say you need a “stake” to carry you over? Poetic Origins of Classic Movie Titles, Show Business Why do actors say, “Break a leg” when wishing each other good luck?


Why are a vocal restraint and a joke both called a “gag”? Why is natural ability called “talent”? What’s the purpose of a catchword? Why when we memorize something do we say, “I know it by heart”? Why do we call a bad actor a “ham” and silly comedy “slapstick”? Why does deadpan mean an expressionless human face? Why is a theatre ticket booth called a “box office”? Why is making it up as you go called “winging it”? Why is it bad luck to whistle backstage in a theatre? Why doesn’t an “ovation” signify a “triumph”? Why does a good punchline make a comedian “pleased as punch”? Why are coming attractions called “movie trailers”? Why do we say we’ve been “upstaged” when someone else grabs all the attention? Why is a misleading sales pitch called a “song and dance”? Why is someone deceptive said to be “blowing smoke”?


What were the origins of vaudeville? Why do we refer to a bad joke as being “corny”? Why do we say we’re “in stitches” when we laugh hard? Why is a theatrical flop called a “turkey”? Why do we say something perfect is right “on the nose”? How did the Wizard Of Oz get that name? Why is the evil adversary in a film or play called a “villain”? Why are celebrity photographers called “paparazzi”? Why is harassing a performer called “heckling”? Why do we say that something “fills” or “fits the bill”? Why are vain people said to be “looking for the limelight”? What exactly is an icon? Music What is the origin of the word jazz? Why do jazz musicians call a spontaneous collaboration a “jam”? Why is anything pleasing said to be “cool”?


Why did Yankee Doodle stick a feather in his cap and call it macaroni? Why was George M. Cohan forced to rewrite “It’s a Grand Old Flag”? In the Scottish song “Loch Lomond,” what’s the difference between the high and the low roads? Where did the Do, Re, Mi vocal music scale come from? How old is the first known musical instrument? Why is the entire range of a circumstance called “the full gamut”? Al Jolson sang about it and Stephen Foster and Ira Gershwin wrote popular songs about it … so where is the Swanee River? Who owns the song “Happy Birthday”? Who was Matilda in the song “Waltzing Matilda”? Quickies The World of Literature and Language Why is an individual book from a set called a “volume”? Why is a complete list of letters named the “alphabet,” and why is a river mouth called a “delta”?


What are the most common words in the English language? Why do we say we’re “boning up” when studying or preparing for an examination? Why is a spelling competition called a “bee”? Why is spring both a season and fresh water from the ground? What is the shortest English sentence ever created using all the letters of the alphabet? Why do we call a critical instant the “moment of truth”? What does it mean to say that you wouldn’t give “one iota” for something? What’s the origin of the expression “Put on your thinking cap”? Why do we say, “Every cloud has a silver lining”? What does the title refer to in the book The Lord of the Flies? Why when abbreviating something do we say, “In a nutshell”? Why do the Scots refer to girls as “lassies” and boys as “laddies”? What are the longest words in the English language? Why didn’t Shakespeare ever use the word penis?


How did “one fell swoop” come to mean a single decisive action? What’s the origin of the expression “Less is more”? The Language of Golf Where do the golf terms par and bogey come from? How is par determined for each hole on a golf course? Why does a golf “duffer” need a “handicap”? Why do golf courses have eighteen holes? Why do golf balls have dimples? Why do golfers shout “Fore” as a warning to those ahead of them? In golf, I know about eagles and birdies, but what is an albatross? Why are golfers’ shortened pants called “plus fours”? Where did we get the phrase “Down to the short strokes”? Why do we refer to golf courses as “links”? Why do we say we’ve been “stymied” when we are facing a difficult situation? Why are golf assistants called “caddies”?


Odds & Oddities Between the Lines of Nursery Rhymes Who was Little Jack Horner? What is the origin of the children’s rhyme “Eeney, meeney, miney, moe”? Have you ever wondered how Cinderella could have walked in a glass slipper? How did the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” become so famous? Who was Humpty Dumpty? Why is rolling head over heels called a “somersault”? Who is Mary in the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”? “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” shares a melody with three other nursery rhymes, but which two classical composers also used the melody? Where did the game of hopscotch come from? What is the origin of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes? Why when lifting “Ups-a-daisy”?








What’s the hidden meaning within “Pop Goes the Weasel”? Where does the Sandman come from? Why are the Sesame Street characters called Muppets? Who or what were the inspirations for naming the Baby Ruth chocolate bar, the Tootsie Roll, and Hershey’s Kisses? Quickies Money, Gold, and Finance What is the origin of the dollar sign? Where did the word dollar come from? Why do we call a dollar a “buck”? Why is a ten-dollar bill called a “sawbuck”? Why is a British pound sterling called a “quid”? Why do we call a quarter “two bits”? Why is money called “cash”? Why do we have piggy banks instead of bunny banks or kitty banks? Why is a differing opinion called “your two cents’ worth”? Why is a copper penny called a “red cent”?


Why were Native Americans called “red”? Why do we say that someone who inherited wealth was “born with a silver spoon in his mouth”? Why is money called “dough”? If gold is so rare, why does there seem to be so much of it in circulation? What’s the difference between yellow and white gold? Why is the discovery of riches called “the motherlode”? Why is a charge on imports and exports called a “tariff”? Why do we say that someone with money is “well-heeled”? If you’re short of cash why might you ask for a loan to “tide you over”? Why was a prospector’s credit line called a “grub stake”? Who issued the first credit cards? Why are shares in a company called “stock”? Why is a middleman called a “broker”? How did the centre of world commerce, Wall Street, get its name? Why are there “bulls” and “bears” in the stock market?


If someone lacks confidence, why do we say that he’s “selling himself short”? Why is it said that something with proven quality has passed the “acid test”? What is the “grey market”? Quickies Transportation and Automobiles Why do the British drive on the left side of the road while North Americans use the right? Why is a car’s instrument panel called a “dashboard”? Why is the energy from a car’s engine referred to as “horsepower”? Why do we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway? How did the Mercedes automobile get its name? Why when wanting full speed and power do we say, “Gun it” or “Pull out all the stops”? Why are traffic lights red, green, and yellow? Where in the world were highways designed to be emergency landing strips during war?


Why do we say someone diverted from a goal has been “sidetracked”? Quickies Why is the last car on a freight rain called a “caboose”? Why is top speed referred to as “full tilt”? Why is “thumbing a ride” called “hitchhiking”? What happened to the station wagon? Where did the term drag racing originate? Why is something incredibly impressive called a “real doozy”? Why do we say we’re “stumped” if we can’t proceed? Why is a dead-end street called a “cul-de-sac”? Why is a road called a “highway” and the ocean the “high seas”? Odds & Oddities Sailing on the High Seas Why when abandoning ship do we say, “Women and children first”? What do the distress letters SOS stand for?


Why are new ships christened with champagne? Why are the sides of a boat called “starboard” and “port”? Why when we want someone to hurry do we say, “On the double”? Why when someone we trusted turns against us do we say he’s “shown his true colours”? Why is a quick exit described as “cut and run”? Who first said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”? Why when someone ignores the rules do we say he “turned a blind eye”? What was the original meaning of “stem the tide”? When someone is facing disaster, why do we say he or she is “between the Devil and the deep blue sea”? If you’re abandoned and alone, why do we say you’ve been “stranded”? If you want someone to stop “harping” on something, why might you say, “Pipe down”? Where do we get the expression “batten down the hatches”? Why is gossip called “scuttlebutt”? Why is a pirate ship’s flag called a “Jolly Roger”?


Why did pirates wear earrings? Why would you give a “swashbuckler” a “wide berth”? Where does the disciplinary order “toe the line” come from? Why when waking up do we say, “Rise and shine” or “Shake a leg”? What’s the origin of the expression “son of a gun”? Why do we call the conclusion of anything unpleasant “the bitter end”? Why is the telling of a tall tale said to be “spinning a yarn”? Why is the speed of a ship measured in knots? Why is a limited space called “close quarters”? Why when it appears that we can proceed with no danger do we say, “The coast is clear”? Why does “jury-rigged” mean a temporary repair with whatever is at hand? Why do we say that someone arrogant needs to be “taken down a peg”? Why do we say that someone who has overcome an obstacle with ease has passed with “flying colours”?


Why do we describe something approximate as “by and large”? Why do we say that something lost has “gone by the board”? Why is a severe labour dispute called a “strike”? Why is someone standing apart said to be “aloof “? Why are windows in ships and planes called “portholes”? What does it mean when someone suffers a “sea change”? Why do we say that somebody who is being treated badly has been “hung out to dry”? Why do we say that something likely to happen soon is “in the offing”? What is the origin of the word squeegee? Why is a person facing serious trouble said to be in “dire straits”? Why is the residue of a shipwreck called “flotsam and jetsam”? Why do sailors call the bottom of the sea “Davy Jones’s locker”? Why did sailors sing “shanties”? Why did sailors begin wearing bell-bottom trousers?


Why is someone lost in boredom said to be at “loose ends”? Quickies Is a flag flown upside down a signal of distress? More Lofty Origins of Overused Phrases, The Dope on Horse Racing What designates a colt, a filly, a mare, and a gelding in the world of Thoroughbred horses? Why is the ancestry of a Thoroughbred called its “pedigree”? Why do we ask for “the real dope” when we want the truth? Why is a sure winner called a “shoo-in”? Why when someone has won without question do we say that he did it “hands down”? Why is a horse race sometimes called a “derby”? Why is an obstacle-filled horse race called a “steeplechase”? Why is an underdog victory called an “upset”? How long is a furlong? When a person is upset, why do we say someone’s “got his goat”?


Why do we say that someone who has an advantage has “a leg up”? Why does coming in “under the wire” mean you’ve just made it? Why do we call a person who competes on horseback an “equestrian”? Why are candies on sticks called lollypops? Why is an unknown contestant called a “dark horse”? Why is a determined person said to be “hell bent for leather”? Holidays and Special Occasions How was the date of Christmas established? How did holly become associated with Christmas? Why are Christmas songs called “carols”? How did the poinsettia, a Mexican weed, become associated with Christmas? Is Xmas a disrespectful commercial abbreviation of Christmas? How did Christmas cake become a tradition? When exactly are the twelve days of Christmas?


What is the meaning of the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Why are fruits and nuts offered over Christmas? Why do we hang stockings at Christmas? What’s the story behind “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? What’s the story behind “Silent Night”? How did “Greensleeves” become a Christmas song? What are we saying when we sing, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”? Why is Christmas referred to as “the Yuletide”? Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Why do we light the Christmas tree? Considering his workload, how much time does Santa spend at each child’s home? When is the proper time to take down the Christmas tree? Which Jewish celebrations?



What’s the story behind Chanukah?




Which culture began celebrating the new year with a feast of food and alcohol? Why is New Year’s Eve celebrated with noisemakers and kissing strangers? What is the origin of New Year’s resolutions? What is the origin of the New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne”? What is the religious significance of Groundhog Day? Who receives the most Valentine’s cards? How did March 17 become St. Patrick’s Day? How did the shamrock become a symbol of St. Patrick? Did St. Patrick rid Ireland of snakes? Why is the season of pre-Easter fasting called “Lent”? What are the origins of Ash Wednesday? How did the rabbit and eggs become symbols of Easter? How did the white trumpet lily become the Easter lily? What are the origins of April Fool’s Day? How did we start celebrating Mother’s Day? How did Father’s Day get started? 509

Where did the customs of Halloween come from? Why do children ask us to shell out treats on Halloween? Why do children demand, “Trick or treat” during Halloween? Why do we carve jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween? How did bobbing for apples become a Halloween tradition? Religion and Beyond Why is a morality lecture called a “sermon”? Why do Christians place their hands together in prayer? Why do we refer to the celebrants of the first Thanksgiving as “Pilgrims”? How did the word halo come to mean divinity? Why is happiness referred to as “seventh heaven” or “cloud nine”? How did astrology connect the lives of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Charlie Chaplin with that of Adolf Hitler? Why is the head of the Roman Catholic Church called the “Pontiff” or “Pope,” and where is the “Holy See”? Why do we describe someone with deeply held beliefs as “dyed in the wool”?


Why do we say that a bad deal will only “rob Peter to pay Paul”? Why is something tasteless said to be “tawdry”? When someone we are discussing shows up, why do we say, “Speak of the Devil”? Why do we describe an upset person as being “beside himself “? Why do we say that something dwindling is “petering out”? Why is something we consider untrue called a “cock and bull” story? Why was grace originally a prayer said after a meal? Why do most flags of Islamic countries have the same basic colours, and what is the symbolism of the crescent moon and star? Who gets to be a martyr? Why is a religious woman who lives in a convent and vows poverty, chastity, and obedience called a “nun”? Why is an intolerant person called a “bigot”? Why is someone who challenges what appears to be an obvious truth called a “Devil’s advocate”?


Why at the end of a profound statement do Christians, Muslims, and Jews all say “amen?,” What Biblical curiosities are within a deck of cards? Why shouldn’t you say, “Holy mackerel,” “Holy smokes,” or “Holy cow”? How did Pat Robertson’s television show The 700 Club get its name? Why do we say that someone who’s finished or fired has “had the biscuit”? What are “guardian angels”? What is a “patron saint”? What does the H in “Jesus H. Christ” stand for? Why is the book of Christian scriptures called a “Bible”? Why is someone displaying absolute loyalty said to be “true blue”? Why when someone receives an unfair judgment do we say they’ve been given a “short shrift”? Why do witches fear the expression “By bell, book, and candle”? Why do we say that someone going nowhere is “in limbo”?


Why are ministers of the gospel called “Reverend,” “Pastor,” or “Parson”? What is a “sphinx? Quickies The Many Faces of Politics Why do we call someone seeking political office a “candidate”? Why when someone tells a secret do we say they’ve “spilled the beans”? Why are governmental and legal delays called “red tape”? Where did the sarcastic phrase “Bob’s your uncle” come from? Why is the use of behind the scenes influence called “pulling strings”? Why is political favouritism called “pork barrel politics”? Why are political positions referred to as “left” and “right”? How are the two Presidents Bush related to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Why do Conservatives call Liberals “bleeding hearts”? Why is a false promise called “pie in the sky”?


Why is someone you don’t want to hear from told to “take a back seat”? Why is something useless called a “boondoggle”? Why when we know the outcome do we say, “It’s all over but the shouting”? Why does “Hail to the Chief” introduce the American president? Why are those seeking political favour from elected officials said to be “lobbying”? Where did the bearded figure Uncle Sam come from? Why do we say that a political candidate on a speaking tour is “on the stump”? Why do we say that healing a relationship is “mending fences”? Why are unelected advisers to government leaders called a “kitchen cabinet”? What’s unusual about the music to the American national anthem? Why are British, Australian, and Canadian heads of government, cabinet chiefs, and church leaders called “ministers”?


Why is the organized obstruction of legislation called a “filibuster”? Within a democracy, what are the fourth and fifth estates? What was the cost to our human heritage of the American invasion of Iraq? Quickies All About Numbers If you have a myriad of choices, exactly how many choices do you have? Why do they count down backwards to a rocket launch? Understanding 1 million How did the numbers eleven, twelve, and thirteen get their names? Why is the furthest we can go called the “Nth degree”? Be a mentalist Quickies Royalty and Heraldry Why do monarchs refer to themselves using the royal “we”?


How did Edward VII make it fashionable to leave the bottom button of a man’s vest undone? Why are aristocrats of the ruling classes called “bluebloods”? Does every family have a coat of arms? Why do we say, “Buckle down” when it’s time to get serious? What does the title esquire mean? Why do we call someone who continually takes the fall for someone else a “whipping boy”? Why do you wish a pompous person would “get off his high horse”? What does it mean to be at someone’s “beck and call”? Why do most spiral staircases ascend in a clockwise direction? What does the “post” mean in “post office,” and what is the “mail”? Why does the audience stand during the Hallelujah Chorus? Why are prestigious hotels and apartment buildings know as “Arms”? Why is the word late used to describe the recently deceased? Why is a blue ribbon a symbol of champions?


What is the origin of the twenty-one-gun salute? Quickies Art and Science Why is an artist’s inspiration called a “muse”? What orbital advantage did Cape Canaveral have to cause NASA to choose the Florida location for its first space launches? How much space junk is orbiting Earth? Who is the Thinker in Auguste Rodin’s famous statue? Why is aluminum also spelled aluminium? What caused synthetic fibres to replace silk? What was the original purpose of Rubik’s Cube? Why is a black hole black? Why can’t you escape a black hole? Why are the instruments used for sending and receiving sound called “radios”? Why are weather forecasters called “meteorologists”? Exactly what is a proverb? Billiards and Pool 517

Why are billiards played on a pool table? Why do we say that the person in charge “calls the shots”? Why is spinning a ball called “putting English on it”? What is a “masse” pool shot? Odds & Oddities Fashion and Clothing Why do we refer to a single item of clothing as a “pair of pants”? Why do we say that someone well dressed wore his or her best “bib and tucker”? Why is something or someone of superior quality called “a cut above”? Why do we sometimes call women’s underwear “bloomers”? Why is a formal suit for men called a “tuxedo”? What is the inspiration for argyle socks? What is the origin of the polka dot? Why does “lace” describe both an ornamental fabric and a string for tying shoes? Why do men wear neckties?


Quickies How did the bobby pin get its name? Who qualifies as a “metrosexual,” and where did the term originate? Why is a light, short overcoat called a “jacket”? Language of the Warriors Why is a newcomer called a “rookie”? Why when someone dies do we say, “He bought the farm”? Why is someone who has been defeated forced to say “Uncle”? Why do we call a cowardly person “yellow”? Why are armoured battle vehicles called “tanks”? Why is a perfectionist called a “stickler”? What is the difference between bravery and courage? Why do we describe a close contest as “nip and tuck”? Why is an all-out fight called a “pitched battle”? Why is malicious destruction called “vandalism”? Why were women warriors called “Amazons”?


Why were all Roman soldiers required to have a “vagina”? How do statues of men on horses tell how the rider died? Why are the contorted faces and heads around roofs called “gargoyles”? Why do we call an unstable person a “basket case”? What’s the origin of the panic button? What’s the origin of the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger”? Why is a notable achievement said to be a “feather in your cap”? Why are foot soldiers called “infantry”? Why do we say that a guilty person must “face the music”? Why does “sally forth” mean to go forward with a new venture? What is the meaning of the battle cry “give no quarter”? During the American War of Independence, which country contributed the most soldiers to fight alongside the British? Why when someone’s humiliated do we say they were forced to “eat crow”? What are you doing when you “pillage and plunder” while “ransacking” a village?


Why do we say, “Lock and load” when preparing for the inevitable? Why is someone who doesn’t live up to expectations called a “flash in the pan”? Why are military guards, some garden fences, and people on strike all called “pickets”? Why is the control area of an aircraft called a “cockpit”? Why did First World War fighter pilots wear long silk scarves? How did “die hard” come to mean resilient? What is a “Mexican standoff”? Where did the expression “bite the dust” come from? What is the meaning of “cut to the quick”? Why is some extreme behaviour called “beyond the pale”? Why does “getting the drop on someone” mean you’ve taken the advantage? Where did we get the expression “down in the boondocks”? Why is someone of little importance called a “pipsqueak”? What is the difference between the words bickering and dickering?


Why are deadly hidden devices called “booby traps”? Why is a dismissive final remark called “a parting shot”? When something is over why do we say, “That’s all she wrote”? Why do yellow ribbons symbolize fidelity? Why is an elderly person sometimes called an “old fogey”? Why is an exact likeness called a “spitting image”? How did crossing a line in the sand become a military challenge? Why are some well-armed soldiers called “dragoons”? Why are those for and against war called “hawks” and “doves”? Why do we call a traitor a “turncoat”? Why is a military dining hall called a “mess”? Why does to “bear the brunt” mean “to take the heat”? When did we begin numbering the world wars? Why is a glaring error called a “snafu”? Why is a restricted limit called a “deadline”? Why do we say, “I heard it through the grapevine”? 522

What exactly is a last-ditch stand? Where did the expression “the whole nine yards” come from? In modern warfare, is it infantry or machines that determine the outcome? Why is an overly eager person or group said to be “gung-ho”? How did the poppy become a symbol of remembrance? Business and the Marketplace Why are notes taken at a business meeting called “minutes”? Why are shopping centres called “malls”? Why do we say, “We’re just gonna hang out”? Why is the presiding officer over a committee called a “chairman”? Why is something recently manufactured called “brand new”? Why is something unused sometimes said to be “brand spanking new”? Why is an honest conversation referred to as “talking turkey”? Why is a gullible shopper called a “mark”? Why is a miserly person called a “cheapskate”?


What is the chief difference between a limited company (Ltd.) and one that’s incorporated (Inc.)? Why is a “touchstone” the standard against which things are measured? If something sounds honest, why do we say it “rings true”? What does monger mean in words like hate-monger or gossipmonger? Why is a stash of surplus money called a “slush fund”? What ends are we talking about when we say we are trying to “make ends meet”? Why are we warned not to take any wooden nickels? Where did the expression “paying through the nose” come from? Why do we say someone without money is both “broke” and “bankrupt”? Odds & Oddities Medical Complications Why do we say we are “under the weather” when we get sick? How did we start the ritual of kissing a wound to make it better?


Why when we hurt our elbow do we say we’ve hit our “funny bone”? Why do we say that a timid person has “cold feet”? Why are frenzied women referred to as “hysterical” but not equally frenetic men? Why are subjects of human experiments called “guinea pigs”? What was the initial purpose of the chainsaw? Why after a routine medical checkup do we say we’ve received a “clean bill of health”? What are the differences between a “pandemic,” an “epidemic,” and an “endemic”? Where did the pharmacist’s symbol of “Rx” come from? Why is the common winter viral infection called “the flu”? Why is reconstructive surgery called “plastic”? Why are the bundles of tissue fibres that move our bones called “muscles”? Why is the lump in a man’s throat called an “Adam’s apple”? Why is a terrible or fake doctor called a “quack”? Why is the word quarantine used to describe enforced isolation of contagious diseases?


What are “patent medicines”? Why do we say a nervous person waits with “bated breath”? How are burn degrees assessed? Why is rabies sometimes called “hydrophobia”? Why is the vehicle that takes people to the hospital called an “ambulance”? Why is dwelling on an error called “rubbing it in”? What causes “goosebumps” on our skin when we are frightened? How do we avoid trouble by “keeping danger at bay”? What is the history of Aspirin? What are the statistical odds of getting AIDS? Odds & Oddities The Modern and Ancient Olympics What do the five Olympic rings and their colours represent? Why is a marathon exactly 26 miles, 385 yards long? Would ancient Greek athletes have had any chance against our well-trained modern Olympians?


Why is a small sporting facility called a “gymnasium” while a larger one is a “stadium”? What does it mean to “rest on your laurels”? Why do we say that someone well conditioned has been “whipped into shape”? What is the origin of the phrase, “It matters not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game”? Funeral Traditions Why do people in mourning wear black? Why are cemeteries filled with tombstones? How did wakes become part of the funeral tradition? Why do Jews place stones on a grave when they visit a cemetery? Why do funeral processions move so slowly? Why when challenging the unknown do we say, “Let her rip”? Why are those who carry the coffin at a funeral called “pallbearers”? Why when someone’s been dispatched do we say they’ve been “snuffed out”?


Quickies Food and Dining Why are places we go to order food called “restaurants”? Why do we drink a toast on special occasions? Why does everyone touch wine glasses before drinking at a dinner party? What is the difference between “flavour” and “taste”? What do we mean by “the proof is in the pudding”? Why do you “wet your whistle” to “whet your appetite”? Why when two people share the cost of a date do we say they’re “going Dutch”? Why do we say they’ll “foot the bill” when someone’s paying all the costs? Why are sausages and mashed potatoes called “bangers and mash”? Why do we call wealthy members of society “the upper crust”? Why is enhancing a food’s taste called “seasoning”? Why do the Chinese use chopsticks instead of cutlery?


How did the eggplant get that name? Why do we call a good meal a “square meal”? Why do we say that someone well off is living “high on the hog”? Why when someone is snubbed do we say they’re getting “the cold shoulder”? How did marmalade get its name? If it wasn’t the French, then who invented french fries? Why do we describe warm food as “piping hot”? Why is cornbread sometimes called “Johnny cake”? Was the tomato ever considered poisonous? What’s the origin of ketchup? Why do we call those tasty sweet treats “candy”? Why is the word straw in strawberry? Why are those tasty round pastries with holes in the centre called “doughnuts”? How did the caramel-covered popcorn Crackerjack get its name? Why do we call outdoor cooking a “barbeque”?


How did an ice cream dish become known as a “sundae,” and why is it spelled that way? Why is a cup of coffee sometimes called a “cup of joe”? Who invented the Caesar salad? How did allspice get its name? Why is mealtime sometimes called “chow time”? Why is chocolate-flavoured coffee called “mocha”? What is the origin of beef jerky? Where did the expression “have your cake and eat it too” come from? Why are dishes served with spinach called “Florentine”? What is the origin of mayonnaise? What is hollandaise sauce? What is the origin of eggs Benedict? Eggs Benedict variations Eggs Benedict trivia What is the origin of the word tip, as in “tipping a waiter”? Why is not eating called “fasting”?


Quickies Sports in General Why is a sporting event called a “tournament”? What is the origin of the Ivy League? Who was the first cheerleader? Why is a football field called a “gridiron”? What is the “taxi squad” on a football team? Why does the winner of the Indianapolis 500 drink milk in victory lane? How did a trophy become a symbol of victory? Why is an exercising weight called a “dumbbell”? Why are the victors in a competition called “champions”? Why are both the manager of an athletic team and a large passenger vehicle called a “coach”? What is the origin of the sporting term round robin? Why is the outcome of a game known as the “score”? Why is an athletic supporter called a “jock strap”? Why are legal issues, basketball games, and tennis tournaments all settled on a “court”? 531

Why are basketball players called “cagers”? What is the origin of the mascot? How did the stadium phenomenon called “the Wave” get started? How did tennis get its name? How did tennis get the terms seeded and love? Why isn’t it over till the fat lady sings? Quickies Archery Why is a non-relevant statement during a debate or argument said to be “beside the point”? Where did we get the expression “second string”? Why is someone ridiculed by humour said to be the “butt of a joke”? Why is a sudden surprise called a “bolt from the blue”? What medieval profession would you have if you heard the “highly strung Mr. Stringer tell Mr. Archer point-blank to brace himself for a quarrel”? Quickies


Geography What are the Seven Seas? What’s the difference between the United Kingdom and Great Britain? Why do the countries Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and others all end in “stan”? What part did the Big Dipper play in naming the frozen north “the Arctic”? Why do we call a perfect world “Utopia”? Quickies Crime and Punishment Why do we say that someone caught in a dishonest or criminal act “got nailed”? Why were executions held at sunrise? What is the origin of the phrase “I’ll be hanged if I do and hanged if I don’t”? Why when embarking on a difficult project does a group say they must “all hang together”? Why is an informer called a “stool pigeon”? Why are prison informers referred to as “finks”?


Why do we refer to an important issue as “the burning question” of the day? What does it mean to be decimated? If someone’s running from punishment, why do we say he’s “on the lam”? If someone fails to perform under pressure, why do we say he “choked”? Why when there is no doubt of someone’s guilt do we say they were caught “red-handed”? If someone’s caught red-handed why do we say, “The jig is up “? Why is abduction called “kidnapping”? Why is extortion money called “blackmail”? Why is misleading evidence called a “red herring”? Why is a criminal record called a “rap sheet”? How many people are in prison? Why is a prison sometimes called “the clink”? Why is a prison sometimes called “the hoosegow”? Why is a prison sometimes referred to as “the brig”?


Why is a prison sometimes called a “calaboose”? Why do we say a convicted prisoner has been “sent up the river”? Why is a prison sometimes referred to as “the slammer”? Why is a prison sometimes called “the stir”? Who invented the electric chair? Why when something is stopped cold do we say somebody “put the kibosh” on it? Odds & Oddities Games and Gambling What is the earliest known board game? Why do we use the word checkmate to end a game of chess? Why when someone losing begins to win do we say he’s “turned the tables”? Why is a dicey situation considered a “hazard”? Why is a lottery winning called a “jackpot”? Why is communal gambling called a “lottery”? What are the odds of winning on a Lotto 6/49 ticket?


If a coin is tossed and lands tails ten times in a row, what are the odds that it will be heads on the eleventh try? Why is the mystical board game called a “Ouija board”? Why is a disappointing purchase or investment called a “lemon”? Why is a swindle called a “double-cross”? How did “betting your shirt” come mean to gambling everything you own? Where did the expression “according to Hoyle” come from? How is “the full monty” related to “three-card monte”? Why is the word trump used in card games, and what else in the deck, other than the cards, adds up to fifty-two? Why is a particular game of gambling with cards called “poker”? Why do we say that a poker player, or anyone putting up a false front, is “bluffing”? Why is a shifty person called a “four flusher”? Why is a dishonest poker player called a “card shark”? How did flipping a coin become a decision-maker?


What are the chances of winning one thousand dollars at a casino game of craps? Why do we judge someone by how they act when “the chips are down”? How many five-card hands are possible in a deck of fifty-two, and what is a “dead man’s hand”? If its symbol is in the shape of a black clover, why do we call the suit of cards “clubs”? What are the names from history of the jacks and queens in a deck of cards? The kings in a deck of playing cards represent which real leaders from history? Why are there jokers in a deck of cards? Why do we say, “Make no bones about it” when stating an absolute fact? How many ways can you win on a ninety-number bingo card? Why does “pony up” mean “show us your money”? How did the letters in Scrabble get assigned their quantities and numerical values? Odds & Oddities The Law


Why do we say, “Justice is blind”? How did an English police force become known as Scotland Yard? Why is a monetary deposit for freedom from prison called “bail”? Why is private property called our “bailiwick,” and how does it concern the sheriff? Why do we say that someone who’s been through hard times has been “through the mill”? Why do we say that someone lost is going from “pillar to post”? Why are pedestrians who break the law called “jaywalkers”? Why do we say that someone who avoids a punishment or obligation got off “scot-free”? Why do we call a way out of a legal obligation a “loophole”? If “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” what are the points it outweighs? How did a broken straw come to stipulate the end of a contract? Why are police vans called “paddy wagons”? What is a “grand jury”?


What is the rule of thumb? Why is a meaningless conclusion to an argument called “moot”? Why is land called “real estate”? What is trial by combat? Why is a meeting within a judge’s chambers said to be “in camera”? Why do we say a graduating lawyer has “passed the bar”? Why do we say someone who’s been fooled has had “the wool pulled over his eyes”? Why is support paid by one former spouse to another called “alimony”? Why is the letter X used to signify the legally unknown? Why is a private detective called a “private eye”? Quickies Measurements and Time Why do we call midday “the noon hour”? Why do we call the end of the day “evening,” and why is it divided into “twilight” and “dusk”?


How long is “in the meantime”? How long is a moment and what is the precise time of a jiffy? When we arrive at the last minute, why do we say we got there just in “the nick of time”? Why do Orthodox and Catholic churches celebrate holy days on different dates? Why is every fourth year called a “leap year”? Why are the abbreviations of pound and ounce lb. and oz.? Why does long mean length, distance, and an emotion? Why is the last minute before a deadline called “the eleventh hour”? How did the seven days of the week get their names? How do they calculate shoe sizes? Why is a manual counting board called an “abacus”? Why is a calendar book of predictions and facts called an “almanac”? How far is a league as mentioned in The Lord of The Rings? Why is a country mile considered a greater distance than the average mile?


Why are yards and metres different in length? Why do we call a large timepiece a “clock”? Why do the hands of a clock move to the right? Why are there sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour? What is the world’s largest number? How long is a “rod”? Why are precious stones such as diamonds weighed in carats? Quickies The Early African-American Experience Why when someone is betrayed do we say they were “sold down the river”? Why is a carrying bag called a “tote bag”? Why do we call sad music “the blues”? Why do we say that someone indecisive is “on the fence”? Why is a commercial record player called a “jukebox”? What is the legal origin of the grandfather clause? Why is do we say someone who is successful is “bringing home the bacon”? 541

What does it mean to have your “mojo” working? Why do we say, “That takes the cake” when something’s done exceptionally well? Why are racist laws called “Jim Crow”? Why do we call a powerful earth-moving tractor a “bulldozer”? What is the origin of the word maroon? Quickies Origins of Everyday Words Why is desperately wanting something called “jonesing”? Why do some men call a special buddy a “sidekick”?, When we want someone to move faster why do we say, “Hurry up” instead of just “Hurry?,” Why is a disaster called a “fiasco”? How did the word okay come to mean “all right”? Why do we use the word neat, as in “that was a neat idea”? How did street riff-raff get to be called “hooligans”? Where did the word tomboy originate? Why are planks of wood called “lumber”?


Why is a negative perception of someone called a “stigma”? Why are cigars called “stogies”? What is the origin of the phrase “tabloid journalism”? Why is a small newspaper called a “gazette”? Why are both the contents of a novel and the level of a building referred to as a “story”? Why is something small called “dinky”? Why is an alley with only one exit or entrance called a “blind alley”? Why is someone who is always late called a “slowpoke”? Why do we call an enthusiastic amateur a “buff”? Why are rental accommodations called “digs”? Why do we call someone who does things differently a “maverick”? Why are women temporarily separated from their husbands called “grass widows”? Why do we say someone charming has “personality”? Why do Mexicans call Americans “gringos”? Why do Americans call Canadians “Canucks”?


Why are Americans called “Yankees”? Why is the word mayday used as an aviation distress call? Why is a large, controlled fire called a “bonfire”? Why after a foolish error do we call someone a “laughingstock”? Why is noisy chaos referred to as “bedlam”? Why do we call a bad dream a “nightmare”? Why does criss-cross mean “back and forth”? Why are the secondary consequences of a greater event called the “aftermath”? Why is a concise commercial promotion called a “blurb”? Quickies Trivia Why do we call gossip or unimportant information “trivia”? Why do so many Scottish and Irish surnames begin with “Mac” as in MacDonald, and “O” as in O’Connor? Is there a difference between a penknife and a jackknife? Why are inappropriate actions called “taboo”?


Why do doors generally open inward on houses and outward on public buildings? What dates define Generation X, Generation Y, and the Echo Boomers? We all know what a “YUPPIE” is, but what are a “TAFFIE,” a “DINK,” and a “DROPPIE”? Why is a couched insult called a “backhanded compliment”? Where did the motorcycle gang Hells Angels get their name? What’s the difference between a “spider’s web” and a “cobweb”? What is a “Catch-22”?



Now You Know Big Book of Answers 2


proverbs What was the original meaning of “variety is the spice of life”? When William Cowper wrote, “Variety’s the very spice of life,” in 1785 he was reflecting on the ever-changing fashion of clothes. The idea had been first expressed by ancient writers in different ways, but it was the genius of Cowper that


caused “variety is the spice of life” to become an English proverb. Other common Cowper idioms include “The worse for wear” and “God moves in mysterious ways.”

Why do we say a hypocrite is “the pot calling the kettle black”? “The pot calling the kettle black” first entered a dictionary in 1699 with the explanation, “When one accuses another of what he is as deep in himself.” When kitchen stoves were fired by wood and coal, both the kettle and the pot would become black through time, so both were equally tarnished. Another explanation is that because both were made of copper, the more prized kettle might have been polished, which would offer the grungy pot a reflection of himself.

What is the real meaning of the proverb “a friend in need is a friend indeed”? A friend in need could be someone in trouble who needs your help and indeed becomes your friend in order to get it, but it’s usually interpreted as meaning a friend who stands with you during a difficult time. But if you accept that “in deed” is two words instead of one, it extends the definition of a good friend from one who stands with you to one who actually helps solve the problem.


music and musicians What is the most popular rock and roll song in history? Because the Kingsmen’s 1963 recording of the song “Louie, Louie” was inaudible, people thought the lyrics were dirty, and although they weren’t, a United States congressional investigation assured the song’s enduring success. Since


being sold by its author, Richard Berry, for $750 in 1957, “Louie, Louie” has been recorded by nearly 1,000 different performers and sold an estimated quarter-billion copies.

What is unique “Yesterday”?





“Yesterday” has had more airtime than any other song in history. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney (1942–) said the song came to him in a dream. While writing it he used the working title “Scrambled Eggs.” When McCartney recorded the song in 1965, none of the other Beatles were in the studio. He was alone with his guitar and a group of string musicians. Since the release of “Yesterday,” more than 3,000 versions of it have been recorded. Quickies Did you know… • that the Beatles is a combination of Beetles and Beat? Heavily influenced by Buddy Holly and The Crickets, the Liverpool boys were known as the Beetles in 1960 then became the Quarrymen and The Silver Beetles before John Lennon suggested a combination of Beetles and Beat. • that Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Zimmerman? He considered Zimmerman too long so he adopted the stage name from his favourite poet, Dylan Thomas. • that the Barenaked Ladies is an expression of the innocence a boy child experiences when seeing a nude woman for the


first time? The band thought of the name during a Bob Dylan concert.

Which much-married star sang “Stand by Your Man”? Country and western music icon Tammy Wynette wrote and recorded the 1968 smash hit, “Stand by Your Man.” She was married five times. Four of the marriages ended in divorce; the fifth (which lasted 20 years) with her death in 1998. Tammy Wynette also recorded the 1967 hit “D-i-v-o-r-c-e.” Quickies Did you know… • that feminists severely criticized Tammy Wynette for “Stand by Your Man”? She replied that the song was an expression of triumph over adversity. She once said, “I spent 15 minutes writing [“Stand by Your Man”] and a lifetime defending it.”

Why is Johnny Cash known as the “Man in Black”? Johnny Cash, the gravelly-voiced singer of country classics like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “A Boy Named Sue” began wearing black onstage in 1957 when he started playing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1971, he recorded a song called “The Man in Black” that explained why black clothing had become his signature with lines like, “I wear the black for the poor and


the beaten down, Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town….” Another reason that Cash may have worn black was that his childhood hero, cowboy actor Al “Lash” LaRue, was known both for his skill with a bullwhip and his black outfits. Cash got into the music business in 1954 in Memphis, Tennessee, after auditioning for Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis Presley.

Who coined the term heavy metal? Lead, cadmium, gold, and mercury are all classified as heavy metals. The term was also used by the military to describe tanks and heavy artillery. But that was before the May 1971 issue of Creem magazine hit the newsstands. It contained a review of an album by hard-rocking band Sir Lord Baltimore, which made reference to the bands MC5 (Motor City 5) and Led Zeppelin. In this review, Mike Saunders introduced the definition of the term heavy metal as we know it today — as a musical genre. Quickies Did you know… • that Ray Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson? He dropped the last name to avoid continual confusion with the great boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. • that The Grateful Dead first called themselves the Warlocks without realizing that there was another band using that 553

name? A dictionary search found a reference to a series of folk legends wherein the spirit of a dead man mysteriously helps a benefactor. These spirits where known as The Grateful Dead. • that The Mothers of Invention were originally the Mothers, but because this suggested a crude curse their label convinced them to add “of Invention” to their name? • that The Doobie Brothers began as The Pud but changed to Doobie, which is slang for a marijuana joint? • that Dire Straits named themselves after their financial situation at the time they came together? • that in the beginning, The Who were known as The High Numbers but whenever they took the stage the audience always asked, “The who?” so the band went with it?

Why is extemporaneous jazz called “vamping”? Improvised music is called “vamping” because it is music being added onto the original score. In the eighteenth century, vamp started out meaning the part of a stocking that covered the foot and ankle. It came from the French word avant or “in front” and with the addition of “pie” or “foot” it became avantpie. The Anglo version became vampe. If an old pair of stockings needed mending or boots needed repairing or patching up, they were “revamped.” That’s how any adlib added to an established piece (musical or otherwise) came to be known as “vamping.”


Who invented sheet music? Sheet music is another miracle of the printing press, which was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450. Before machine printing became possible, music was written painstakingly by hand on manuscripts, which took a long time to produce. Sheet music made music available to a much larger audience, and amateur musicians soon became commonplace, providing a good source of income for professional composers like Beethoven and Mozart. By the nineteenth century, sheet music had come to serve the same purpose for music lovers of those days that CDs and MP3 players serve today.

What is the difference between an anthem and a hymn? Technically, an anthem is sung in response to a religious liturgy, but by the end of the sixteenth century this musical form began to be used secularly as a song of praise outside of the church. By the mid-nineteenth century, the term anthem began to be incorrectly applied to “God Save the King,” even though it had been named the national hymn of Great Britain. A hymn (from the Greek humnos) is a song of praise that the Greeks used to honour their gods or national heroes. Over the years, through its use by the Christian church, a hymn gradually became a song of praise to God, a hero, or a country — so a national anthem is, in fact, a national hymn.


Quickies Did you know… • that the British national anthem “God Save the Queen (King)” was introduced in 1745 as a reaction to a threat of invasion from Scotland by the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Stuart) following the English defeat at the battle of Prestonpans? On a September evening, after the curtain had fallen on a performance of Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist, the curtain was suddenly raised again to reveal the entire cast onstage singing this new patriotic hymn “God Save Great George Our King” (George II). This vocal prayer was repeated after every stage show in London until the army of Prince Charles was defeated and the “Bonnie One” was sent into exile. After this the music began to be used regularly as a patriotic symbol of Britain at royal and state functions. This repeated use became custom, and so the hymn was accepted as the national anthem of the United Kingdom near the end of the eighteenth century, not through any royal proclamation or act of parliament but simply through tradition.

Why is earthy-sounding music referred to as “funky”? “Funky” music is rooted in “the blues” and is a soulful rendition of folk music interpreted with a syncopated and repetitive bass line. It was first used as a musical definition in a 1954 edition of Time magazine, though the jazz world had been using funky as a slang reference to the earthy, deeply felt


music handed down from oppression (slavery) since the early twentieth century. The word funky entered the English language in 1623, meaning “a bad smell.” It was derived from the French word funkiere, meaning “smoke.” It had been used through the centuries as a reference to the smell of strong cheese, bad body odour, and anything else repulsive until that reference in Time after which it took on the current meaning of “cool.” A funk (1743), meaning a foul mood or a state of panic, comes through the Scots from the Old French word funicle, meaning mad or crazy.

Who coined the phrase “a good man is hard to find”? The phrase “a good man is hard to find” has probably been around as long as the English language but it became an adage from the title of a song written by Eddie Green and offered for sale as a player piano roll at the Christmas bargain price of 90 cents through the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette on December 12, 1918. “A good man is hard to find You always get the other kind Just when you think that he is your pal You look for him and find him fooling ‘round some other gal Then you rave, you even crave 557

To see him laying in his grave So if your man is nice, take my advice and hug him in the morning, kiss him ev’ry night Give him plenty lovin’, and treat him right For a good man nowadays is hard to find, a good man nowadays is hard to find.” Eddie Green — 1918


everyday expressions What is correct, “just deserts” or “just desserts”? If someone gets justice or a consequence they deserve, whether good or bad, they get their “just deserts.” The word is pronounced “desserts” (the sweet last course of a meal) but spelled with only one s. The reason is unique to this word. It comes from the thirteenth century and is derived from the


word deserved as in, “he got what he deserved.” The confusion arises because of the spelling of desert, implying a large arid region — the current common use of the word. The phrase “just deserts” is the only surviving use of the word as a derivative form of deserves.

Why do we call a timid person “mealy-mouthed”? If someone is afraid to speak plainly, they are called “mealy-mouthed.” The expression suggests cowardice or fear of saying what someone really thinks. In his writings, Martin Luther mentions “to carry meal in the mouth, that is, not to be direct in speech.” Meal was sweet ground flour — a mouthful of which would make it difficult or at least a good excuse not to speak to anyone.

Why do we say that a victim of his own scheming has been “hoisted on his own petard”? The phrase “hoisted with his own petard” is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It has come to mean that someone has been or will be hurt by the very device he’s created to injure someone else. Hoist means to raise something into the air, while petard is an antiquated word for “bomb.” Therefore, if you were “hoisted on your own petard,” it means you were blown up by your own bomb.

Where do we get the saying “think outside the box”? The phrase is an allusion to a well-known puzzle where one has to connect nine dots, arranged in a square grid, with four 560

straight lines drawn continuously without pen leaving paper. The only solution to this puzzle is one where some of the lines extend beyond the border of the grid (or box). This puzzle was a popular gimmick among management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s as a demonstration of the need to discard unwarranted assumptions (like the assumption that the lines must remain within the grid).

How old is the epithet “son of a bitch”? Shakespeare drew on the common man’s language when in 1605 he inserted, “son and heir of a mongrel bitch” within the manuscript of King Lear (act 2, scene 2). As a reference to a female dog, bitch (bicce) has been used since at least the tenth century and by the fifteenth century it was being generally


used to describe an immoral woman. In its current form, “son of a bitch” first turned up in 1712 and quickly became one of the most offensive and commonly used insults in the English language.

Why is a warm spell in autumn called “Indian Summer”? “Indian Summer” (1778) is a brief warm period following the first autumn frost. Early settlers looked forward to relief from Indian raids during the cold weather so a reprise of summer-like conditions in the fall meant that they were again vulnerable to war parties that were usually only conducted during the summer months.

Why has someone half-mad been “driven around the bend”? In Victorian England it was the custom to screen those confined to mental institutions and to prevent them from seeing beyond their asylum by designing a bend in the driveway. Anyone driven to such an institution followed the curved road through the trees to the entrance which was “around the bend.”

Why is a talent for speaking called “the gift of gab”? The word gab had a long and colourful journey before becoming a slang expression for being able to speak well. Gab came from Scotland in the fourteenth century as gabben, meaning to speak foolishly. The word had been borrowed 562

from the Viking word gabba, which meant to mock or scoff. By 1719, as gabby, it had taken the meaning of one who engaged in idle chatter. As a prolonged conversation, gabfest appeared in America in 1897. Today, “the gift of gab” is considered an admirable quality for politicians, paramours, and businessmen.

What is the origin of “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole”? “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole” means the subject is trouble. Ten-foot poles were commonly used to push recreational barges along shallow rivers during the nineteenth century in an exercise called punting. They were known as barge poles and were generally replaced by oars and engines. Use of the phrase “I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole” was first recorded in the United States in 1846. Referring to an act that came before parliament, “they wouldn’t touch that again with a barge pole” is the earliest British mention and was recorded in Lady Monkswell’s diary from 1893.

Why is a serious response to a situation called “fighting fire with fire”? “Fighting fire with fire” means to meet a challenge with measures at least equal to the problem being confronted. The expression originates from a method still used to fight forest fires and serious grass fires. Settlers in the New World learned quickly to set fire to a strip of land in the wind path of an advancing prairie fire. By the time the wild fire reached the


now-barren burned-off strip, it was stopped when it had nothing to feed on. This procedure is very dangerous when not practised by an expert. American writer Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), better known as Mark Twain, reported hearing the phrase during the 1850s.

If we want the truth, why do we say “read between the lines”? Sometimes the truth is obscured within the written text of a letter, and so we must “read between the lines.” Centuries ago it was discovered that by writing a secret message between the lines of a normal letter with lemon juice, the real message would stay transparent until the document was heated over a flame, which causes the juice to become discoloured, revealing the intended message written between the lines of the ruse.

If your reputation is ruined, why is your name “mud”? After John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theatre, he broke his leg while leaping from the balcony and onto the stage. During his escape, Booth stopped in at the home of a country doctor for treatment. That doctor’s name was Mudd. Although he claimed no knowledge of Booth’s crime, Dr. Mudd was sent to prison, and in America, his name became unfairly synonymous with disrepute.


Why, under urgent circumstances, do we say we have to “strike while the iron is hot”? To strike while the iron is hot means to act quickly before an opportunity is gone. In medieval Europe, blacksmiths worked red-hot iron by hand from a forge. They shaped the heated metal with a hammer before it cooled, so they needed to work quickly, because as the iron cools it becomes brittle and impossible to work with. If the moment is missed, the metal has to be reheated and the process started over.

Why do we say that something flawed “isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”? If something “isn’t all it was cracked up to be,” then it’s less than advertised, a disappointment. Crack began as the verb “to praise or boast” in the fifteenth century and today is often used as a noun. For example, you might be cracked up by a good wisecrack. In the U.S. South, a cracker is a feeble-minded braggart. And if you’ve lost it, you’ve gone crackers. No matter how you look at it, if it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you’ve been had.

Why do we say that something very obvious is “as clear as a bell”? In a simpler time when birds could be heard above traffic or construction noise, a single clear note sounded by a church bell could be heard over a wide area and was used to communicate time, to announce a celebration or important event, or even to warn of an impending attack. When the bell sounded, everyone heard the message as clear as a bell. 565

Why is something in great shape said to be in “A1 condition”? In their early days, Lloyd’s of London used an “A list” to classify sailing ships for insurance purposes. Only vessels meeting strict specifications would go to the top of that list, where they were said to be in A1 condition. When, as a general insurer, the company began covering everything from Mary Hart’s legs to Jennifer Lopez’s derrière, Lloyd’s continued to classify anything firstrate as “A1.”

Why do we say “I’ll be there with bells on”? During the frontier days, peddlers travelling between settlements had to move as silently as possible through the hostile forest, but when they approached a homestead or town they would take out their muffled bells and hang them on their horses’ necks to announce their arrival. The peddlers’ arrival “with bells on” brought news, letters, and goods from the outside world, and was an exciting event for the isolated settlers.

Why, when getting serious, do we say “let’s get down to brass tacks”? In the days of the general store, cloth came in bulk and was sold by the yard. The storekeeper, who quickly became expert at measuring, often used the length of his arm as a measure of each yard being purchased. If the measurement was challenged, the seller would re-measure the cloth against two brass tacks embedded in the counter that were precisely a


yard apart. The issue was therefore settled by getting down to those two brass tacks.

Why do we tell someone to “get off his keister” when we mean stand up and do something? The word keister is derived from kiste, the German Yiddish word for strongbox or suitcase. Early Jewish immigrants who arrived with all their belongings in a kiste would often sit on them while waiting to be processed through customs. The English-speaking agents didn’t realize that it was the suitcase and not their bottoms they were referring to when they told the immigrants to “get off their keisters.”

What do we mean when we say someone’s from the “wrong side of the tracks”? In the nineteenth century, railway tracks usually ran right through the centre of town, and it was the prevailing winds that determined which was the right or wrong side to live on. As the town developed, the wealthy built homes on the cleaner, windward side of the tracks, while industrial development and the working class were confined to the other, dirtier side. To be from the “wrong side of the tracks” meant you were from a poor or working-class family.

Why do we say “either fish or cut bait” when we mean “make up your mind”? There are two main jobs on a fishing boat. One is to “cut bait,” which means to prepare or cut “junk” fish for a hook, or for “chum,” which is dumped in the water to attract other fish. 567

The second job is to do the actual fishing. So the admonition “Either fish or cut bait” doesn’t mean either fish or cut your line; it means make up your mind and decide which job you’re going to do, and just do it.

What do we mean by the “sixth sense”? Humans are credited with five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. So someone with a “sixth sense” is gifted with an unexplained perception outside of the common five. The expression “sixth sense” comes from a study of blind people reported in 1903 in which it was found that, although deprived of sight, some of the subjects could perceive or sense certain objects in a room in a way that defied scientific understanding.

Why is someone with a lot of nerve referred to as being “full of moxie”? “Moxie” has come to mean fortitude and determination, mainly as a result of successful branding by a patent medicine manufacturer in the 1870s. Dr. Augustin Thompson invented a “cure all” tonic that he called “Moxie Nerve Food.” He said he named the drink in honour of a Lieutenant Moxie, who he credited with discovering the active ingredient while exploring near the equator. There are some who dispute the existence of Lieutenant Moxie, and argue that the name really derived from the moxie-berry plant that grows in Thompson’s native state of Maine. In the 1920s, the Moxie name was acquired by a soft drink company that produced a carbonated pop that was marketed


for its energizing qualities. The drink caught on as did the modern sense of the word, often used in the phrase “full of Moxie.” Although it has been overshadowed by the likes of Pepsi and Coca-Cola, Moxie continues to be popular in New England, and was recently named the official soft drink of the state of Maine.

Why do we call a working vacation a “busman’s holiday”? Bus is an abbreviation of omnibus, which is what they called the original horse-drawn vehicles used for public transportation. The busman, of course, was the driver, and because the bus was drawn by the driver’s own horses, he was very concerned about their well-being. It wasn’t uncommon for busmen to frequently come down to the barn during their vacation time to ensure that their horses were being well treated, which gave us the expression “busman’s holiday.”

Why is a superficial vacation known as a “Cook’s tour”? When Thomas Cook founded the world’s first travel agency in 1841 he organized a railway trip for a group of non-drinkers into the British midlands. Soon the safety and security of travelling in groups encouraged the less adventurous to see the world. The more seasoned travellers, enamoured of their ideas of individual adventure, scoffed at these disciplined tours and referred to them sarcastically as “Cook’s tours.”


Can a person be “on the level” if he’s going “against the grain”? Both “going against the grain” and being “on the level” are expressions from carpentry. When a bladed instrument is used to smooth a wooden surface it only works when applied with, or in the same direction as, the grain, otherwise it’s a mess. A level ensures the precision of a frame alignment. Someone going against the grain is doing things wrong, and so is probably not as trustworthy as someone on the level.

Why wouldn’t you give a “tinker’s dam” if you consider something useless? A tinker travelled from town to town repairing tin pots, kettles, and pans and got his name from the noise he made while working. His equipment included clay from which he made a mould to hold melted solder for refastening handles and joints. He called this mould a “dam,” and because it was only good for one pot, the tinker tossed it when the job was done. That’s how a tinker’s dam became synonymous with worthless.

Why do we say that a bad idea “won’t hold water”? The expression “won’t hold water” comes from the legend of Tutia, a Roman Vestal Virgin who was accused of having lost her innocence. To prove herself not guilty she had to carry a sieve full of water from the Tiber River to the Temple of Vesta. If the sieve held the water she was innocent, but if not


she would be buried alive. She passed the test and gave us the expression for failure, “It won’t hold water.”

What’s the difference between “having your back to the wall” and “going to the wall”? “Having your back to the wall” comes from street fighting and means you’re in a desperate situation, and although there is no room to retreat you might still win if you fight off the attack with renewed energy. On the other hand, “going to the wall” means that although you are in an equally desperate situation, you are there willingly, even though there is no chance of winning. Going to the wall comes from the condemned facing a firing squad.

Why is unexpected trouble called “getting into a scrape”? “Getting into a scrape” means to be in a difficult situation and is as old as England itself. When that country was a primeval forest, it was overrun with wild deer. To avoid hunters, these deer would use their sharp hooves to scrape deep gullies into the ground, where they would huddle for cover. In time these would become overgrown and difficult to detect, so while out in the forest it wasn’t uncommon to fall into a scrape.

Why is something ordinary said to be “run of the mill”? Since the dawn of the industrial age, anything that is unspectacular yet functional has been called “run of the mill.” When a raw product is to be mechanically processed, whether 571

through a gristmill or the mill of a mine, it emerges in bulk before the different sizes and qualities have been separated by value. Worth can’t be determined until further refining and so everything looks the same — and that’s why anything ordinary is called run of the mill.

Why do we say that someone who has overcome the odds has “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps”? In the sixteenth century, bootstraps were leather loops sewn into the top, sides, or back of high-fitting boots. These were so difficult to put on that it required the help of a device with a handle and a hook and required so much energy that the vivid image of someone lifting themselves up during the process — although impossible — became a figure of speech for accomplishing what appeared to be unachievable.

Why might you say that someone irrational is “mad as a hatter”? Years ago, manufacturers of felt hats used mercury to treat the wool, which made it easier to pound the fibres into felt. Mercury poisoning attacks the nervous system, which caused many hatters to develop tremors and then madness. In Alice’s Wonderland tea party, she met not only a Mad Hatter but also another descriptive expression, “mad as a March hare.” The hare breeds during March, so he might be excused for his absurd antics.


Why does “back to square one” mean starting over? During the 1930s, the BBC broadcast soccer or football games on the radio. As an aid to listeners they published a map of the playing field, which was divided into numbered squares. The commentators would mention the square number of the action after each description of the play. Square one was near the goal-tender, so that to score you needed to carry the play the full length of the field.

What’s the difference between “marking time” and “killing time”? “Marking time” is a military command for soldiers in close-order drill to stop their forward progress but to keep their feet moving in precision so they can quickly resume marching on command. Marking time means that although your progress has been temporarily stopped you are fully prepared to continue when the time is right. On the other hand, “killing time” means that you’re doing absolutely nothing, or, as the proverb says, “You don’t kill time, time kills you.”

Why do we say a simple procedure is “cut and dried” unless we “hit a snag”? “Cut and dried” means it’s a finished job and comes from the lumber industry. The two processes for preparing wood for sale are to cut it and then dry it. The same industry gave us the expression “hit a snag,” meaning we’ve got a problem. A snag is a tree trunk stuck on the river bottom with one end 573

protruding just enough to slow or stop the log drive, which can’t continue until the snag is removed.

Why is a dirty story said to be “off colour”? In Britain, “off colour” has always indicated that someone might feel under the weather because the colour of their skin has changed from its normal hue to pale. In America the expression “off colour” has a related but different meaning. When someone says something that is considered sexually shocking or impolite, it will often cause those listening to blush from a rush of blood that changes their skin colour to red, so the story that caused the skin colour change is referred to as being off colour.

Could an Irishman go to a “shindig” and take on the whole “shebang” with his “shillelagh”? A shindig, a shebang, and a shillelagh are all from Irish expressions. Shindig comes from the fighting Irishman’s habit of digging the steel toe of his boot into his opponent’s shins. Shebang is from shebeen, an Irish reference to an illegal bootlegger. His wooden club took its name from the famous oak trees near the Irish town of Shillelagh — so yes, he could go to a shindig and wipe out the whole shebang with his shillelagh.


words and language Why do Americans pronounce the last letter of the alphabet “zee” while Canadians say “zed”? The last letter of our alphabet is from the Greek word zeta, which in standard English became zed. There were, however, parts of Britain that shortened zed to zee, and it was from these regions that many people immigrated to the United


States. Canada’s first immigrants (including the French) were all from regions that used the “zed” pronunciation. In 1828, Webster’s first dictionary favoured “zee” as a distinct American sound.

What English words have a q without a u? Only one common English word uses q without an accompanying u and that is qwerty, the acronym for the standard keyboard layout. The rest of the words are Arabic, the most familiar being faqir; Jewish, sheqel (also shekel), the main unit of Israeli money, or Chinese, like the musical instrument called a qin. France provides cinq, which is used in the game of dice.

Why do we pronounce colonel as an r and spell it with an l? It’s a messy story, the result of confusion between two forms of the word that came into English at different times. Its source is the Italian colonna. This (along with the English word column, with the same meaning) derives from the Latin columna, because a column of men was reminiscent of the shape of a pillar. The Italian compagna colonnella (literally, “little-column company”) referred to the small company of soldiers that marched at the head of a regiment and was commanded directly by the officer in charge. That officer became known as the colonnello. This shifted into French as coronel, but later changed back nearer the Italian original as colonel. Much the same thing happened in English, where coronel was the more common form up to about 1630. For a while after this date both forms were in use


until colonel eventually won. At first the word was pronounced as three syllables, but the middle became swallowed, and under the continuing influence of the r spelling the l in the first syllable vanished.

Why do Canadians and Americans pronounce the military rank “lieutenant” differently? Canadians follow British military customs and consequently pronounce the word lieutenant as lef-tenant. It’s believed that this comes from an Old French spelling and pronunciation of leuf-tenant (live–tenant). The Americans took the French prefix lieu as it’s now spelled and properly interpreted it as “in place of” because in both cases no matter how it’s pronounced, the rank of lieutenant literally means “one who is holding or representing the power of another” — (a superior officer). The word began as a description of someone from wealth who had rented the rank and occupied it for a period of time as a “tenant.”

Why do some people say orientated, while others say oriented? It depends which side of the pond you’re on, the “pond” being British slang for the Atlantic Ocean. Both words come from the French verb orienteer, and both are correct. In North America, oriented is most frequently used; in Britain orientated seems to be the current standard. Naughty Anglo-Saxon Words


When the French-speaking Normans conquered England in 1066 and became the ruling caste, they considered the language of the Anglo-Saxon natives to be crude and inferior. It was 300 years before the two languages blended into the new language we call Middle English but even in this time of Modern English, many Anglo-Saxon words are still considered impolite or vulgar in proper circles while the Norman words with the exact same meaning are acceptable. You be the judge! Norman



















What do razor and raze have in common? When a man shaves, he uses a razor, so why when soldiers destroy a town do we say they “razed” it to the ground? Raze is often employed to describe the results of a fire, not because it has anything to do with flames but simply because there’s nothing left. The term’s origins began in the fourteenth century when the French word raser entered English to describe the morning ritual of shaving. The word meant to scrape, slash, or erase the hair from one’s face, just as when an army razes a town it knocks down all of the buildings and levels the settlement to the ground. An anonymous quotation from the Vietnam War puts raze into context: “It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a B-52 to raze a village.”

Is Celt properly pronounced “Kelt” or “Selt”? The Irish people are descendants of the Celts with a hard C (Kelts). The word began as the Greek word Keltoi, which is what they (and the Romans) called the peoples of Europe who once lived in parts of Gaul, Spain, and Britain. The Celts were to Europe what the Native American Indians are to North America. They were tribal and nomadic without a central capital. As the Romans conquered these nations, the people moved north concentrating mainly in Brittany, the Isle of Man, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and Ireland. The soft C (Selts) pronunciation is from the French who called these people Celtique (selteek) and through their political liaisons with France against England, the Scots began using this French pronunciation to describe themselves.


So the Scots are “Selts” while the Irish and the rest are “Kelts”. This explains the Scottish Glasgow Celtics (seltics) football club but not the Boston Celtics (seltics) basketball team. When that team was formed in 1949, the owner, Walter Brown decided to pander to the huge Irish population of his city by naming his team the Celtics but apparently no one picked up that using the soft C (S) wasn’t Irish and so the name remains with a Scottish pronunciation. Quickies Did you know… • that the letter e is the most commonly used letter from the English alphabet? • that one of every eight letters written in English is the letter e? • that in his 1939 novel, Gadsby, Ernest Vincent wrote 50,000 words without once using the letter e?

How did written punctuation originate? It wasn’t until the end of the fifteenth century that the Italian printer Aldus Manutius introduced the system of markings we call punctuation. The proper use of punctuation marks is a learned skill that has eluded even great writers ever since. Mark Twain once filled the last page of a manuscript with all the various symbols of punctuation and instructed his editor to disperse them within the story as he saw fit.


What does whelm mean in overwhelmed? An author facing writer’s block is overwhelmed by indecision. The word started out in the 1300s as whelm, meaning to overturn or cover. For example, food was preserved by whelming it with another dish, or a capsized ship had been whelmed by the ocean. In the 1600s, over was added to intensify the meaning. Overwhelm then became figurative for being drowned by circumstances. Odds & Oddities The passage of the word pass: Pass started out in Latin as passus meaning “step” or “pace” but by the thirteenth century in England it took the meaning “to go by” or “cross over.” These are some of the dates and transitions in meaning of the word pass: “Passing time”— 1390 “Pass an exam”— 1429 “Pass the hat”— 1762 “Passing yourself off as something you’re not”— 1809 “Pass as in declining to participate”— 1869 “Pass as in transfer a puck or ball during a game”— 1865 “Pass the buck”— 1865 “Pass as in making an amorous move”— 1928


What English words rhyme with orange, purple, and silver? In the English language, there are only two words that end in gry: angry and hungry. There are only three that end in ceed: exceed, proceed, and succeed, while liquefy, putrefy, rarefy, and stupefy are the only four words ending in efy. As for orange, purple, and silver, poets and songwriters should stay away from them, because there are no words in the entire English language that rhyme with them — absolutely none!

Why do we say that somebody who speaks nonsense is “babbling”? To babble means to speak foolishness. It is a verb rooted in the French and Scandinavian languages and was used to describe baby talk in the months leading up to a child’s first words. Babble has many different forms and circumstances, for example, squabble, blather, and charlatan, all of which, to some degree, mean “chattering and prattling nonsense.” The Latin for babble is blatire. Blatire is the word that blatant is derived from. It was coined by English poet Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) in The Faerie Queene in 1596 to describe a thousand-tongued beast representing slander.

If right means correct, does left mean incorrect? The word right surfaced in English as riht and meant “straight.” To put things right is to straighten them out. Right took the metaphorical meaning of


“good” or “just,” as in the Bill of Rights, because most people were right-handed. The suggestion that left is incorrect was understood, like in a “left-handed compliment,” which is an insult. Right became a synonym for correct, but left was evil and so was left alone. Quickies Did you know… • that the word for left in Italian is sinistra or sinistro? In English, definitions of sinister include; “suggesting or threatening evil,” “presaging trouble/ominous,” and “on the left side.” • that the word gauche is French for “awkward,” “lacking social polish,” and “left-handed”?

Why are a barrier and a form of fighting with swords both called “fencing”? If you fence in or enclose your yard, you are protecting it from outside forces and if you learned how to fence during the Middle Ages you were learning how to fight or protect yourself with a sword. In both cases the word fence is an abbreviation of defence. The use of the word fence meaning a criminal dealing in stolen goods is from the sixteenth century and implies the defence of the transactions through silence.


Why is a painfully difficult experience called an “ordeal”? The word ordeal for a trial of character began as an ordel, which is derived from the old Germanic word urteil, meaning “divine judgment” or “that which the gods deal out.” It was used to describe an ancient Teutonic mode of trial that involved what we would call torture. If the person accused was innocent, then God would intervene, otherwise the cruel test would continue even on to death. Ordeal has become a metaphor for any test of character or endurance. Once common in Old English, the prefix or, meaning “out,” only survives today in the word ordeal.

Why do we say that a subordinate person is “kowtowing” to another when they are “knuckling under” to their wishes? We call the finger joints knuckles, but the word used to mean any joint in the body, including the elbows and knees. To “knuckle under” is left over from those days and refers to bending your knees or bowing, signalling submission. Kowtow is Chinese and means “to kneel and press your forehead to the ground,” which was expected in the presence of the emperor or anyone else you feared.


Why when someone has been banished or ostracized by a group do we say they’ve been “blackballed”? Ostracize comes from a Greek word meaning “voting tablet,” and the ritual of “blackballing” someone was a democratic process of elimination. A group decided if a suspect member would be banished or allowed to stay by dropping black and white balls into a ballot box. The word ballot means “little ball.” If the majority were black, the candidate lost and was said to have been blackballed.

Why is a crowning achievement called a “masterpiece”? Masterpiece suggests great art, but when the word first appeared in German as meisterstuck, it referred to a medieval standard of excellence expected from an apprentice before being allowed to join a guild of master craftsmen. After many years under the guidance of a master, the apprentice submitted a piece of work for assessment. If his work or masterpiece passed the test, he would be allowed into the trade as a master craftsman.

Why is “benchmark” used as a reference point for quality and precision? A benchmark is a surveyor’s term and, beginning in the nineteenth century, meant a mark cut into a stone or a wall that established the exact level of altitude for a tract of land they were measuring. Today a benchmark is a high standard


to strive for, but the surveyors took their meaning from the word bench as it relates to a long tract of level elevated land along a shoreline or a sloping hill.

Why is a pretentious person called a “snob”? A snob is someone who pretends wealth and demands respect he doesn’t deserve. Universities only educated children of the nobility until Cambridge opened its doors to commoners in the seventeenth century. These new students were required to register in Latin as Sine Nobilitate, which means “without nobility.” Abbreviated, this Latin phrase is S.Nob, pronounced “snob,” and it took on the meaning of anyone above his station.

Why is a wise counsellor called a “mentor” or a “guru”? The original Mentor was the name of a wise and trusted counsellor in Greek mythology who was Odysseus’s friend and a trusted teacher of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son. Mentor was often the goddess Athena in disguise. The word guru has the same meaning as mentor because it is the Hindi word for “honoured teacher.” Guru was first used this way in 1966 by Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980). The derivative men in mentor is the same as that in mental and means “to think.”


Why is someone we consider slow called a “dunce”? A dunce still means someone we consider out of step, and it derives unfairly from Duns Scotus, the name of a brilliant thirteenth-century Scottish philosopher who, along with his followers (who were called “Duns men”), resisted the thinking within the Renaissance that swept the Middle Ages. As unfair as the sight of a child in a conical dunce cap, Scotus was ridiculed for being different and for daring to express his own thoughts.

Why when things go wrong do we say they’ve gone “haywire”? Haywire is used on farms to hold together bales of hay. It’s tightly bound and when cut will sometimes whip around in a dangerous erratic manner. But more than this, because haywire is often used as a temporary repair on machinery that has broken down, or to hold together any equipment that’s falling apart, it became a rural expression for things or people that aren’t functioning properly … they’ve gone haywire.

Why does the term barbarian refer to a rough or wild person? The early Greek and Roman term for foreigner was barbaroi, meaning that they babbled in a strange language (by which root we also have the word babble itself). Another possible contributory origin is the Latin word barba meaning “beard.” A Roman would visit the tonsor to have his beard shaved, and


the non-Romans, who frequently wore beards, or barbas, were thereby labelled barbarians.

Why are some university graduates and most unmarried men called “bachelors”? In the eleventh century, a bachelor was a low-ranking knight without the means to raise an army. To indicate this he flew a pointed banner, whereas a full knight had a flag without a tip. The bachelor was a junior, which is why a bachelor’s degree refers to the lowest rank from a university. Because most young men were unmarried, they began being referred to as bachelors in the fourteenth century.

Why, when we don’t understand someone, do we say they’re talking “gibberish”? An eleventh-century alchemist translated into Latin the original eighth-century writings of an Arabian alchemist named Jabir. If his work had been discovered he would have been put to death, and so he wrote Jabir’s formulas in a mystical jargon of his own creation. To anyone other than the author, the Jabir translations didn’t make sense. And so anything like it was “Jabirish,” which eventually became gibberish.

What are the meanings of common Yiddish words? Some familiar Yiddish words are: chutzpah, “audacity or boldness”; schmuck, “a jerk or a foolish idiot” (literally meaning schmok, “penis,” or “family jewels”); klutz, “a 588

clumsy person”; putz, “an unclean, stupid person”; mensch, “a good and decent human being”; l’chaim, “joyful toast to life”; schlemiel, “an inept or incompetent person”; goy, “a Gentile, a person who is not Jewish”; tochis, “rear end,” “butt”; pisher, “a male infant, a little squirt, someone of little significance” (yes, the word comes from what it sounds like); shiksa, “a Gentile woman” (originally this word meant “an abomination”); and schmooze, “small talk,” usually meaning “sucking up.” Yiddish is a Germanic language and is spoken by about three million people throughout the world. Although the word Yiddish is, in fact, Yiddish for “Jewish,” it is most likely from the German word jiddisch, an abbreviated form of yidish-taytsh or “Jewish German.” The word came to North America and entered English with immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Mazel tov is well-known for its use at the end of a Jewish wedding ceremony. Often it is thought to be Yiddish, but actually it comes from mazzāl, which means “star” in Hebrew. Mazel tov is used as “congratulations,” but literally means “may you be born under a good star.” After telling someone mazel tov, it is customary to shake hands.

How did the word moron come to mean stupid? We have all been called a moron at one time or another and understood it to mean we’ve done something foolish. The reason is that in 1910 Dr. Henry H. Goddard (1866–1957) proposed the word to the American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded to describe an adult with the mental 589

capacity (IQ below 75) of a normal child between eight and 12 years of age. A moron was, in fact, the highest proposed rating of a mentally challenged person. The two lowest ratings suggested were imbecile and idiot. These categories have been dropped by the scientific community and are no longer in use — except as an insult! Moron is from the Greek moros, meaning “stupid” or “foolish.”

Why is a person who takes punishment for someone else called a “fall guy”? Since the 1880s, “taking a fall” has meant to be arrested or imprisoned. To take a fall now figuratively means to be taken down for something you may or may not have done; but a fall guy, like a professional wrestler, has been paid or framed to take punishment. On a movie set, a fall guy is a stuntman who again is paid to literally take the fall, sometimes from high buildings, for another actor.

What is the difference between a “bum,” a “tramp,” and a “hobo”? During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Godfrey Irwin published American Tramp and Underworld Slang, within which he explained the difference. Bums loaf and sit; tramps loaf and walk; but a hobo moves and works. Hobo is derived from hoeboy, because many of the young men travelling the rails were from farms and carried a hoe with them so that they could work the gardens of those households that might employ them.


Why is a spineless coward called a “wimp”? Someone who is weak and indecisive is often called a wimp, which is a short form of the word whimpering. The origin of wimp is a series of children’s books written in the 1890s by Evelyn Sharp, which featured characters called Wymps with a y, who loved playing practical jokes on others but who would cry when jokes were played on them. In the 1930s, a corpulent Popeye cartoon character named J. Wellington “Wimpy” kept the word alive.

Why is a small-time player called a “piker”? Many early highways had entrances that were blocked by a pike, or long pole, which was “turned,” or opened, after a toll was paid. These highways were called “turnpikes.” Those who walked these roads were sometimes vagrants and very often unsophisticated farm boys on their way to seek their fortunes in the city. If you just “came down the pike” you were naive and often admonished as a “piker.”

Why are the names of those out of favour said to be kept in a “black book” or on a “black list”? The “blacklisting” of artists by the American Congress during the 1950s was a shameful and well-documented reign of terror, but black lists and little black books are still quietly with us, especially among those who see enemies everywhere. It began with King Henry VIII of England, whose infamous black book recorded so-called abuses in monasteries to justify his purge against the Catholic Church.


Why is a speaker’s platform known as a “rostrum”? After a victory at sea the Romans customarily removed the decorative prow or rostrum from defeated enemy ships to be returned to Rome as symbols of their supremacy on the high seas. These rostra were displayed on the speaker’s platform in the Roman Forum until there were so many that the stage from which a speaker addressed the assembly became known as the rostrum, or the ship’s prow.

Why do we call a reaction of coercion and punishment a “boycott”? The word boycott, meaning to ostracize an oppressor, originated in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. As punishment for falling behind in rent, poor tenant farmers in County Mayo were being tossed from their homes by Captain Charles Boycott, who was acting as the agent of an absentee English landlord. The tenants eventually forced Boycott’s downfall by refusing to take in the harvest, making the repossessed land useless to its English owner.

Why is the Irish gift of the gab called “blarney”? Kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle near Cork, Ireland, is supposed to transfer the gift of gab to the kisser, but the idea that the word blarney meant a smooth talker came from the mouth of Elizabeth I of England in 1602. She had insisted that Dermot McCarthy surrender Blarney Castle as proof of his loyalty, but he kept coming up with excuses —


so many excuses, in fact, that the Queen once exclaimed in exasperation, “Odds Bodkins, more Blarney talk!”

Why are BC, AD, BCE, and CE all used to give calendar dates to historic events? In 525 AD the Christian church introduced a calendar using the year of Christ’s birth, 1 AD, or “Anno Domini,” as the starting point. Earlier events were BC, or “Before Christ.” Uncomfortable with these references, non-Christians replaced BC with BCE for “Before the Common Era” and AD with CE, the “Common Era.”

What do the words algebra, sofa, sash, and sequin have in common? Algebra, sofa, sash, and sequin are among the hundreds of common English words that originated within the Arabic languages. A few others are: magazine, alcohol, jar, cotton, and mattress. Racquet comes from an Arabic word for hand, which is how tennis was originally played. The words alcove, chemist, coffee, and chess are also included among the everyday Arabic words that enrich our language.


war and the military Why is a victory gained at too great a cost described as “pyrrhic”? In 279 BC, at the battle of Asculum in Apulia, King Pyrrhus of Epirus commanded an army that defeated the Romans commanded by Publius Decius Mus. Both sides had fought savagely all day and were unwillingly separated at nightfall.


King Pyrrhus had been wounded in the arm by a javelin, and 15,000 men from both sides had died on the battlefield when an officer approached and congratulated the King on his victory. Pyrrhus, who had lost most of his army and almost all of his friends and generals, replied that another victory such as this would utterly undo him. This incident is the origin of the phrase “a pyrrhic victory.”

What is the origin of the “Rough Riders”? Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, future president of the United States, raised a regiment of cavalry in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War. Shortly after they were formed, the public and media dubbed them “Rough Riders” for reasons Roosevelt was never able to explain. At the battle of San Juan Heights (Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill), near Santiago, Cuba, they participated in a famous charge that overwhelmed the Spanish troops. Another group that distinguished themselves in the charge was the 2,000 Buffalo soldiers, who were African-American. One of the officers for the Buffalo soldiers was General “Black Jack” Pershing, who later led the American Expeditionary Force in France during the First World War.

What does a soldier mean when he says there’s “fire in the hole”? “Fire in the hole” showed up in the film Saving Private Ryan during a scene on Omaha Beach when soldiers set off an explosive device called a Bangalore torpedo. The phrase is also the title of a quarterly magazine produced by the U. S.


Navy Seals Museum. There’s some dispute as to its origins. Some suggest that the term comes from naval gunnery in the days when you touched a match to priming powder or a fuse to discharge a ship’s cannon. The more widely accepted explanation is that the phrase is uttered when a controlled explosion is imminent at a mine or a construction site.

Who first used the expression “thousand-yard stare”? The “thousand-yard stare” actually started out as a “two-thousand-yard stare.” That was the title an artist named Tom Lea gave to a 1944 painting of a Marine on a Pacific island of Beliliou, site of the brutal Battle of Peleliu. The painting depicts a soldier with an unfocused gaze that reveals he’s been exposed to more horror and stress than he can handle.

Who was the civilian general who led Canada’s troops at Vimy Ridge? Lt. General Sir Arthur Currie is one of Canada’s greatest war heroes. A real estate developer, he entered the military reserve after his business failed, and went to France at the start of the First World War. In 1917, he led the planning for an assault on Vimy Ridge, which allied armies had failed to capture on several previous occasions. Although the loss of life was terrible — 3,598 Canadians killed and 10,602 wounded — by standards of the First War, the operation was a huge success. Currie went on to become the first Canadian-born commander of the Canadian Corps.


Why does “wreaking havoc” mean causing chaos? The word havoc is used several times by Shakespeare to describe brutal confusion. During the fourteenth century, the vocal cry of “Havoc!” was a common practice of soldiers sacking an occupied enemy town or settlement. It meant that a full blown riot of pillaging was in progress and the cry was one of encouragement. The word was initiated by the French who cried “Havot!” meaning “plunder at will.” Richard II outlawed the cry and the practice of “havoc” with the death penalty for offenders in the British military.

Why are some soldiers called “guerrillas”? Guerrilla warfare is conducted by small unofficial paramilitary groups of indigenous men usually fighting oppressors in occupied territory. They use surprise to sabotage and harass the enemy. The word grew out of Spanish resistance to Napoleon in 1809. The word guerra is the Spanish word for “war” and guerrilla literally means “little war.” A guerrilla is a citizen soldier in such a war.

Why is willful destruction called “sabotage”? During the Nazi occupation of France, the underground guerrilla freedom fighters often used sabotage as a means of disrupting the enemy. The word sabotage means to deliberately destroy property and is derived from sabot — a wooden shoe. The legend is that during a labour dispute, the workers brought the factory to a halt by tossing their shoes into the machinery. Whether or not this is true, the word sabot


became the source of the word sabotage for the actions of those who created havoc for the occupying Germans.

Why, when there’s no turning back, do we say, “The die is cast”? When you say, “The die is cast,” you are quoting Julius Caesar. In 49 BC, the Roman general stood and thought long before crossing the Rubicon River into Italy with his army, a move that would break Roman law and start a civil war. When he made his decision and moved forward, he said, Alea jacta est (the die is cast), meaning, as when throwing dice, that the outcome is in the hands of fate, and there is no turning back from the consequences. Another phrase with a similar meaning came out of this same event: Crossing the Rubicon means taking a step or action that sets you on an irrevocable path.

Who were the Minutemen? Minutemen were the elite militia soldiers in the British colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. From 1645 on, towns throughout the colonies were required to maintain militias, which are often drawn on to fight campaigns against the French or aboriginals. Approximately a quarter of the men of these militias, the most enthusiastic and able, were chosen and trained as Minutemen, to be ready to fight on short notice. At the start of the American Revolution, a Minuteman named Paul Revere set out on his famous ride to warn militias in Massachusetts that the British were coming.


Where did we get the expression “Over the top”? During the First World War, a charge over the protective battery that ran alongside a trench was called “going over the top.” Such a charge usually resulted in many casualties, as did most operations during that tragic conflict. Since the casualty rate was very high, it took remarkable bravery to go over the top. Some considered it excessively brave, and the phrase has come to be associated with excess. .

Where did the word assassin come from? While mounting a jihad against the invading Christian Crusaders in the 1300s, Hassan ben Sabah controlled his command of radical killers with a potion that gave them dreams of an eternity in a garden where young women pleased them to their heart’s content. The potion was from hashish, and these young killers became known as hashish eaters, which in Arabic is hashashin, or as the Crusaders pronounced it, “assassin.”

Why do the military say “Roger” then “Wilco” to confirm a radio message? During the Second World War, the United States Navy used a phonetic alphabet to clarify radio messages. It began, Alpha, Baker, Charlie, Dog, and went on to include Roger for “R.” Because “R,” or “Roger,” is the first letter in received, it confirmed that the message was understood. On the other hand, “Wilco” is a standard military abbreviation for “will comply.”


Why is a secret enemy amongst us referred to as a “fifth column”? Any secret force within an enemy’s midst during wartime is called a fifth column. The phrase comes from the Spanish Civil War, when the general leading the 1936 siege of Madrid with four columns of infantry was asked if four were enough. He replied that he had a fifth column hiding inside the city. Since then a fifth column has meant a secret organized force amongst the enemy or ourselves.

What does the D stand for in D-Day? Although D-Day has become synonymous with the Allied landing on June 6, 1944, in Normandy, it was used many times before and since. The D in D-Day simply stands for “day,” just as the H in H-Hour stands for “hour.” Both are commonly used codes for the fixed time when a military operation is scheduled to begin. “D minus thirty” means 30 days before a target date while “D plus fifteen” means 15 days after.

How did a crushing public humiliation become known as a “Roman holiday”? The Etruscans of ancient Italy ritually honoured their dead war heroes by sacrificing the lives of all prisoners seized in battle. After conquering the Etruscans, the Romans borrowed and embellished the ritual by having the prisoners kill each other. They turned the slaughter into public gladiatorial games and declared the spectacle a Roman holiday, which


became an expression synonymous with any cruel and crushing public destruction.

Why do we say, “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”? Early warships fired iron cannonballs from a stack piled next to the cannon. To keep them in place, they used a square piece of rust-proof brass with indentations to secure the bottom layer of balls. This plate was nicknamed “the monkey.” When it got cold enough, the mischievous brass monkey would shrink, causing the balls to fall out and roll all over the deck. It was “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”

Why is someone who doesn’t live up to expectations called a “flash in the pan”? On a pioneer flintlock rifle the hammer struck a flint to create a spark that ignited a small amount of priming powder in what was called the pan. This ignition then set off the main charge of gunpowder, causing a small explosion that fired the bullet through the barrel. When the powder in the pan didn’t ignite properly it created a flash, but the rifle wouldn’t fire. It looked good, but it was only a “flash in the pan.”

Why is a single-minded person said to be “zeroed in”? Before the modern era, rifle gun sights were aligned to hit a target at a known distance. Therefore, with the guesswork 601

removed, any adjustment from a set position would be zero. The same principle applies to artillery batteries, which adjust their fire to a fixed point or “ground zero,” a term still used with satellite-and laser-guided bombs and missiles. Like the single-minded person, they’re zeroed in.

How did a telegram bring the United States into the First World War? In 1917, the British intercepted a cable from the German foreign minister to their Mexican ambassador proposing an alliance whereby the Mexicans would reacquire Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if that country would join Germany in an attack from the south on the neutral Americans. The British made the telegram public on March 1, and the outcry forced the United States into the war a month later.

What was the cost in human life to liberate each Kuwaiti citizen during Operation Desert Storm? After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, an American-led military force liberated the tiny country in 1991 — but at what cost? There were 491,000 Kuwaiti citizens, who made up only 28 percent of the country’s population. The rest, or 72 percent, were immigrant labourers. Estimates are that 150,000 Iraqis were killed during the war, while 141 American, 18 British, 2 French, and 44 Arab soldiers gave their lives. This means it cost one life to liberate every three Kuwaitis.


What are the origins and military significance of the phrase “Go for broke”? “Go for broke” came from the world of professional gambling and is over 100 years old. It means to risk everything, no matter what the outcome. “Go for broke” was the motto for the segregated Japanese-American volunteers of the 442nd Battalion during the Second World War. At first considered enemy aliens, these soldiers fought so well that they became the most decorated unit in American military history.

What is the unique story behind the Victoria Cross? The United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria created the Victoria Cross in 1856 to recognize individual acts of gallantry by soldiers and sailors of the British Empire. The new medal came on the heels of, and was inspired by, the heroics of the Crimean War fought by Britain, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia between 1854 and 1856. To this day each Victoria Cross is forged from the melted-down metal of Russian cannon captured during the Crimean War. Unlike some other British medals, the Victoria Cross can be awarded to any member of the military regardless of rank. To date, at the time of this writing, 1,355 people have received the medal.


Who were the first and last Canadian recipients of the Victoria Cross? On August 9, 1945, navy pilot Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray became the ninety-fourth, and last, Canadian to win the Victoria Cross. He was awarded the medal posthumously for bravery during an attack on a Japanese destroyer on the final day of the Second World War. The first Canadian to receive the medal was Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn, who won his for bravery during the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. Canada’s last living Victoria Cross recipient was Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, who died at his home in Vancouver in August 2005. Smith, who won his medal in Italy in October 1944, single-handedly saved his company from a German counterattack by three tanks, two self-propelled guns, and 30 infantrymen.

Why is someone of key importance to a team leader called a “right-hand man”? The term right-hand man refers to someone indispensable to the person in charge and derives from the military. Today, when soldiers line up on a parade square, they are copying the alignment employed when armies used to face, then approach, each other in lines for mortal or pitched combat. The tallest or “right-marker” is the first called into position, and all others line up in a sequence of diminishing height to his left. The right-marker is the anchor and reference for all verbal


commands off whom the other soldiers react both on the parade square and during battle. A line of soldiers is called a “pitch.”

Why do we say that someone is too old to “cut the mustard”? The phrase “too old to cut the mustard” was popularized by a hit song during the 1940s when military expressions were uppermost in the minds of returning servicemen. Simply put, it means that one’s “salad days” are in the past. Mustard is a mispronunciation of the military word muster, which means “inspection.” If a soldier doesn’t “cut or pass muster,” he or she doesn’t make the grade. In effect, the soldier fails to pass inspection.

Why is the truth referred to as “the real skinny”? The word skinny came to mean “emaciated” around 1605, and during the Second World War, it began to suggest something that was true. The expression means “let’s cut to the bare bones of a situation without any embellishment.” In combat there is no time for anything except the “naked truth,” so eventually a creative and expedient new slang, “the real skinny,” arose. “Skinny-dip” has the same derivative as “the real skinny” and first appeared in the 1950s.


Where do we get the expression “bang for the buck”? “Bang for the buck” means getting the most for the amount you have paid. The phrase is a Cold War military expression with sinister suggestions of atomic and other explosive devices. Before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the United States and its allies in the West were engaged in a series of confrontations and skirmishes with the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. “Bang for the buck” described how efficiently the American defence (and offence) budgets were being spent. As poet and playwright T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) wrote in “The Hollow Men” in 1925, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”

What is Tecumseh’s Curse? The great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who died fighting with Canada against the United States in the War of 1812, placed a curse on the American presidency. He proclaimed that every president elected in a year that ends in a zero would die during his term. Since then, every president elected in such a year has died in office, with the exceptions of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died of natural causes in his fourth term, and Ronald Reagan, who was shot, but survived. Here is a complete list of presidents affected by the curse: • William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died of pneumonia one month into his presidency.


• Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, was assassinated in 1865 at the beginning of his second term. • James A. Garfield, elected in 1880, was assassinated in 1881. • William McKinley, elected for his second term in 1900, was assassinated in 1901. • Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, died of Ptomaine poisoning in 1923. • Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected for his third term in 1940, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945 at the beginning of his fourth term. • John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was assassinated in 1963. • Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, survived an assassination attempt while in office.


animals How are things going if you’re living “high on the hog”? Living high on the hog meant originally that you ate what were regarded as the superior cuts of meat, the ones on the higher parts of the animal — pork chops, hams, etc. — as against the belly, feet, knuckles, jowls, and the like. Someone


who lives high on the hog is therefore, in the extended sense, pretty well off.

Why is someone worn out “at the end of his rope”? This expression evolved from the phrase “at the end of his tether.” Such a phrase would have been used to describe a dog or a horse being tied or tethered. The old phrase was meant to convey a sense of self-restraint, while the new suggests that one has reached or exceeded one’s defined boundaries.

What happened when rabbits were introduced into Australia? Rabbits were introduced to Australia with the country’s first colonists in 1788. By 1907 they had spread so widely that the government of the state of Western Australia constructed a rabbit-proof fence that stretched for 1,833 km to contain them. The fence was too late, however, as some rabbits had already crossed to the other side. In 1950, control was attempted by introducing a virus called myxoma, but survivors developed a resistance and populations were soon back to plague levels. Rabbit fleas were also tried to weaken the rabbits and give the virus chance to take hold again, but that failed as well. In recent years, immunocontraceptives are being tested in the hope that reproduction rates will fall and the population will shrink.


How any animals are killed on roads each year? Roads and highways are killing and injuring millions of animals around the world. And people get killed and injured too. The Alberta government documented over 11,000 collisions in 2002, injuring 422 people and killing nine. In the same year, Michigan reported 63,000 deer collisions. These statistics only hint at the problem: Many collisions go unreported, animals crawl off the road to die and many never get counted because they are too small or scavengers like ravens clean them up before someone counts them.

Why do we say when someone has a raspy voice that he has a “frog in his throat”? The expression “frog in your throat” doesn’t come from sounding like a frog because you have a cold or sore throat. It originates from an actual Middle Ages medical treatment for a throat infection. Doctors believed that if a live frog was placed head-first into a patient’s mouth the animal would inhale the cause of the hoarseness into its own body. Thankfully, the practice is long gone, but the expression “frog in your throat” lives on.


Why does March come “in like a lion and out like a lamb”? When March weather roars “in like a lion,” the adage suggests that the end of the month will leave like a lamb. This is because during early March, the constellation Leo is rising in the east, crossing the meridian on March 20. Therefore, the lion is associated with spring. At the same time the constellation Aries the ram (or the lamb) is setting in the west. So every March is “in like a lion and out like a lamb.”

If you’re wrong, why do we say you’re “barking up the wrong tree”? “Barking up the wrong tree” comes from hunting raccoons. Hunters use dogs to track down the little masked bandits, who will run into underbrush and, if cornered, climb a tree. When the dogs find that tree, they park under it barking and baying until the brave human arrives with the gun, only to often find


that the raccoon has outsmarted the dogs by crossing the branches to another tree … and freedom.

Why when either humans or animals are on a rampage do we say they’ve “run amok”? Running amok metaphorically means that someone is in some way dangerously out of control. An elephant that breaks free at a circus might also be described as running amok. Amok is a Malaysian word meaning “a state of murderous frenzy.” Sixteenth-century explorers said that it was terrifying to see someone running amok, a condition brought on by drug use among some of the Malay.

When creating or correcting something, why do we say we’re “licking it into shape”? When bear cubs are born, like many other newborn animals, they are covered by an amniotic membrane. To ancient people who observed the birth from a considerably safe distance, these cubs looked shapeless until their mothers would lick away the membrane to reveal the perfectly shaped body of the baby bear. Dating from Roman times, this belief gave us the expression for making something right by licking it into shape.

Why are hot summer days called “the dog days”? Sirius, the “dog star,” is within the constellation Canis Major and is the brightest in the heavens. The ancient Egyptians noted that the Dog Star’s arrival in July coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile, which was important for a good 612

harvest. The Romans believed that, because of its brightness, the Dog Star Sirius added to the heat of the summer sun, and so they called July and August “the dog days.” Quickies Did you know… • that the popular dog name Fido is from fidus, the Latin word for faithful?


Why is “until the cows come home” considered a long time? If left to their own devices, cows in pasture will regularly show up at the barn for milking twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. The expression “’til the cows come home” first appeared in the sixteenth century when most people were familiar with the cycles of farm life.


It was often used when a party went on long into the night — it would have to end in the morning when the cows came home and needed milking.

Why do we say that someone who has wasted his life has “gone to the dogs”? In prehistoric China, for hygiene and safety reasons dogs weren’t allowed inside the city walls. It was also forbidden to dispose of garbage within the city, and so the designated dump outside the walls was where the stray dogs found food. When undesirables and criminals were banished from the city and forced to compete with the dogs for food at the garbage dump, it was said they had “gone to the dogs.”

Why do we say a hysterical woman is acting like she’s “having kittens”? In medieval times and during the American era of witch trials in Salem, whenever an unfortunate pregnant woman began to have premature pains or extreme discomfort, the authorities suspected that she had been bewitched. Because witchcraft and cats were synonymous, they feared that she was about to have a litter of kittens and that the creatures were scratching to get out from the inside. They would say her hysteria was because she was “having kittens.”

Why do we use the word wildcat to describe a risky venture? Whether it’s a strike or an oil well, the word wildcat describes anything that is considered risky and has a good chance of 615

failing. It comes from a time before regulations when state banks like the Bank of Michigan issued their own money. That bank’s notes had a panther on the face and were called “wildcats.” When the bank went down, so did a lot of fortunes. From then on, all high-risk ventures were described as wildcats.

Why do we call a computer problem a “bug”? According to Grace Hopper, who led the team that developed the first large-scale computer for the American Navy in 1945, the word was coined when, after tracing an unexplained problem for days, they finally found the cause to be a two-inch bug — a moth — that had gotten stuck in the relay system. From then on, all unexplained computer problems were called bugs.

Why when astonished would someone say, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle”? During the famous Scopes trial in 1925, a Tennessee schoolteacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of breaking that state’s law by teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution rather than the Biblical origins of mankind. The trial was a sensation and astonished many who had never heard that humans might be related to the apes, and from this came the expression, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”

Why is there a tool called a monkey wrench? The word wrench began in Old English as wrencan and means “to twist or wring” and was applied to implements of


torture. In 1794 it was recorded as “a tool with jaws for turning.” The first hand device for tightening and loosening nuts and bolts was called a “spanner” in England and was patented in 1835 by Solymon Merrick. The monkey wrench was invented in the United States in 1858 and was adjustable and designed for reaching confined areas. The tool is properly called a “Monky” wrench after its inventor Charles Monky who sold the patent for $2,000 which he used to buy a house in Williamsburg, Kings County, New York. Today, the monky wrench has generally been replaced by the adjustable-end wrench.

What makes a monarch butterfly unique? The monarch is the only North American butterfly known to migrate. Scientists believed monarchs migrated for quite a long time, but it wasn’t until 1975 that Cathy and Ken Brugger found the butterfly’s wintering grounds in Mexico’s Sierra Madre. There they discovered that the aboriginal peoples who lived in the area thought the butterflies represented spirits of dead children or the souls of lost warriors. Logging and other kinds of human interference are threatening the survival of the Mexican monarch butterfly colonies. Climate change may be imperilling them, as well.


What is the difference between reindeer and caribou? There are many who consider reindeer and caribou the same animal. And in fact they share the same genus and species name: Rangifer tarandus. The distinction that is usually made is that reindeer are domesticated deer, while caribou are not. But those looking to make further distinctions point to a number of different traits; for example, reindeer are shorter and stouter than caribou. Also, reindeer have thicker fur than their caribou cousins. The naysayers attribute such differences to the domestication of reindeer and insist that while there are some differences, the two deer are virtually the same.

Why do we say a “leopard can’t change his spots”? Much like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” we sometimes say “a leopard can’t change his spots” to underline that mature people can’t alter who or what they are. Such a person’s character is too indelible. The phrase about the leopard’s spots comes from Jeremiah 13:23 in the Bible: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?”


Why are Siamese cats so fussy? If you have ever wondered why Siamese cats are always “talking” or bossing you around, it may be because they are descendants of royalty. Cats were revered in Siam where they were often selected to become receptacles of the souls of departed royals and senior government officials. When such a regal person died, a chosen cat would be taken to a temple where priests and monks would attend to their every need. The first Siamese cats came to Europe and North America in the late nineteenth century from the Kingdom of Siam, which became Thailand in 1939. There are three popular lines of Siamese cats: seal points, chocolate points, and blue points.

Why do we say someone is “happy as a clam”? “Happy as a clam” seems to assume that the mollusk is indeed happy. This notion was probably inspired by the observation that if a clam is held sideways and looked at 619

straight on it appears to be smiling. However, the expression is incomplete. It began as “happy as a clam at high tide.” High tide is, of course, the time when clams can feed. High tide is also a time when clams are safe from clam diggers which, obviously, would make them very happy. The word clam is derived from the same Scottish word that means “vise” or “clamp.”

Why is an untamed animal referred to as “feral”? Anything living in a natural wild state (plants and animals) can be called feral including those that revert from domestication such as a pack of dogs. In this savage state animals are considered dangerous. The words fierce and feral are from the same Latin root ferus meaning “wild and untamed.” Feral once meant “brave and proud” in reference to an outstanding individual but that use died out in the sixteenth century and evolved into the animal reference a century later.

How did we get the expression “loaded for bear”? “Loaded for bear” means you are well armed to meet any problem. In the days of muskets, the gunpowder charge could be adjusted depending on the size of the animals you expected to encounter in the wilderness. So if you were hunting bear, or simply entering their territory, you went into the bush well armed with an extra charge loaded into your musket. This expression originated in Canada.


Anyone familiar with Canadian wildlife knows that a simple walk in the bush can become a life-and-death confrontation with a dangerous animal. The bear is very territorial, viciously protective of its cubs, and extremely difficult to take down. Today “loaded for bear” means carrying a powerful rifle as well as a sidearm and a knife.


a horse is a horse … What is the difference between a mule, a donkey, a burro, and an ass? The mule is the result of crossing a female horse and a male donkey. If the crossbreeding is of a male horse with a female donkey the result is called a hinny. All mules are born sterile.


An ass is a wild animal related to the horse but smaller. A donkey is simply a domesticated ass. A male donkey is called a jack while the female is a jenny. A jackass is simply a male ass. A burro is a small donkey introduced to America by the Spanish. Its size makes it well suited as a pack animal. Asses originated in Africa and were first domesticated over 3,000 years ago.

Why are horses always mounted from the left side? All riding horses are trained to be mounted on the left side. The animal adjusts for the weight and can be spooked and resistant if an attempt is made to change this. This left-side mounting is centuries old and dates back to a time when men wore swords on their left side to be easily drawn for combat by the right hand. Stepping in a stirrup with the left foot and raising the sword-less right leg over the horse was more practical than the reverse where the sword could cause a problem being lifted across the animal.

Why when we have no choice at all do we say it’s a “Hobson’s choice”? Thomas Hobson lived between 1544 and 1631 and was the owner of a livery stable in Cambridge, England. He was a very stubborn man whom Seinfeld might have called the “Livery Nazi” because, regardless of a customer’s rank, he would rent only the horse nearest the stable door. Hobson became famous for never renting horses out of order, so “Hobson’s choice” came to mean, “Take it or leave it.”


Why do we say, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth”? It’s considered rude to examine a gift for value, and the expression “Never look a gift horse in the mouth” means just that. The proverb has been traced to St. Jerome, who in 400 AD wrote a letter advising a disgruntled recipient to accept the gift in the spirit given without looking for flaws. It was then, and is still, common practice to look into a newly acquired horse’s mouth, where you can tell its age by the condition of its teeth.

Why when someone has done something crudely do we say they “rode roughshod” over the situation? To ride roughshod over something means to have done something without regard or consideration for finesse or good manners. Roughshod refers to the once common practice of leaving the nails stuck out of a horse’ shoes to keep the animal from slipping if it were going across country or through the bush. If roughshod horses passed over a garden or manicured lawn, the area would be torn up and completely destroyed.

Why is sloppy work called “slipshod”? If a horse’s hoof is protected by a shoe, it’s said to be shod. So it is when a human foot is protected or covered by a shoe. The slip in slipshod is an abbreviation of slipper, so the word slipshod means “wearing slippers.” The image of a person in


a bathrobe wearing slippers isn’t one that promotes confidence in their attitude towards work. That’s why, since 1815, slipshod has been used to describe the work of a careless or slovenly person.

Why what does it mean to be “long in the tooth”? Horses get “long in the tooth” as they age because their gums recede. Horse buyers use this fact to help them determine if the horse they want to buy is the age the seller says it is. The phrase was first noted in print in an 1852 work called the The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray. However, Thackeray was not commenting on a horse, he was describing Thomas Esmond’s cousin, who was a middle-aged lady.

Why are wild horses called “mustangs”? A mustang is a half-wild horse descended from the Arabian horses brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. The word mustang comes from the Mexican-Spanish word mestengo, meaning “stray animals that are ownerless.” Today’s mustangs are the offspring of generations of runaways and those horses stolen or recaptured by aboriginals. By 1800 there were millions of mustangs on the North American prairies, but as European settlers moved west, they killed and stole from the aboriginal stock until today, because they are still hunted, there are fewer than 1,000 of these magnificent living symbols of independence still running free.


It is bitterly ironic that after four decades the Mustang car has more respect than its living namesake.

How fast could you mail a letter using the pony express? The pony express was 18 months of high adventure for as many as 183 daring riders. On over 300, seven to 16 day journeys, riders would travel over 1,864 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri — the easternmost extent of the American railways in 1860 — to Sacramento, California, or back again. The youngest pony express rider was only 11 years old. His nickname was “Bronco Billy.” One who was destined for fame was William F. Buffalo Bill Cody. Several riders died during their runs, including one who simply disappeared — his horse turned up, but he wasn’t on it — and another who froze to death.


the human condition Why is a receding hairline said to reveal a “widow’s peak”? A widow’s peak is hair that comes to a point at the top of the forehead. Today the term generally applies to men with receding hair, but it began as a reference to women with just such a pointed hairline. The reason it is called a widow’s peak


is because it resembles the pointed crest of a sixteenth-century mourning hood worn by widows when their husbands passed away. It was believed that if a woman developed a hairline resembling the front of that mourning hood, her husband would soon die. For a time, similar hair growth on a man was called a widower’s peak and was equally bad news for the wife. The mourning hood was called a biquoquet.

Where do we get the word stereotype? Stereotype was coined by a famous French printer named Firmin Didot at the end of the 1700s. His word described the process of duplication that involved making a papier-mache, plaster, or clay mold from a tray of lead type characters (a newspaper page, for example) and using it to cast metal plates for use on a printing press. The word began to be used by one group to paint simplistic, distorted, and often offensive characterizations of individuals in another group during the 1920s.

How did feminists come up with the expression “male chauvinist pig”? The word chauvinism originally meant excessive patriotism and came from the name of Nicolas Chauvin, a French general who was known for his extreme devotion to Napoleon Bonaparte. “Male chauvinism” became a description of a man preoccupied with masculine pursuits during the 1950s, and the word pig, borrowed from a slur on policemen, was added by the women’s movement in the 1970s.


Why is a sophisticated person called “highbrow”? While English was evolving through foreign influences, the meaning of brow changed many times. First it was a reference to what we now call the eyelids, then shifted into the area that we call the eyelashes. Next, because the Anglo Saxons didn’t have a word for the ridges above the eyes they called them eye brows. By the sixteenth century the brow was accepted as the lower part of the forehead which shows emotion. By the late nineteenth


century “highbrow” started meaning a person with superior intellect or taste while a “lowbrow” was the opposite. It was believed that intelligent people had higher foreheads than those more challenged. To “browbeat” means to bully, but originally meant to look down your nose with a stern arrogance.

Why is “sowing wild oats” a reference to irresponsible youth? “Feeling his oats” (1831) is the American variation with the same meaning of being young and wild as the English derivative “sowing wild oats” (1564). The seed reference to sexual promiscuousness is obvious but the domesticated oat grain is different from the wild, which when discovered by range horses will cause them to become giddy and erratic. Sowing wild oats instead of domestic is a mistake which the farmer will regret.

Why do we use the phrase “Keep your eyes peeled” as a warning? “Keeping your eyes peeled” means stay awake! Your lids are the skin or covering of your eyes and just as fruit and vegetables are peeled for usefulness, your eyes need to be wide open to avoid trouble. The earliest known use of the expression was in the newspaper, The Political Examiner in 1833. “Young man! Keep your eye peeled when after women.”


What is the difference between misogyny and misogamy? There is a great deal of difference between misogyny and misogamy. Misogyny is the hatred of women while misogamy is the hatred of marriage. On the other hand, misandry is the word used to describe a woman who hates men. If someone decides that they hate everybody they are a misanthrope. Quickies Did you know… • that being “on the dole” means “unemployed” and comes from the “doling out” of government benefits? • that fortnight is an abbreviation of “fourteen nights”? • that the lining of the clam is called mother-of-pearl because it gives rise (or birth) to a malformation called a pearl? • that the word automobile is a combination of the Greek word autos meaning “self” and the Latin word mobile meaning “moving” … and therefore means “self-moving”?

Why is idle, speculative conversation called “gossip”? Gossip is usually made up of groundless rumour and innuendo and is generally a conversation based upon the private lives of others, especially celebrities. Gossip is from


the Old English word for godparent which was godsibb. Godsibb is a combination of God plus the word sib, which at the time, meant any relative. Sibb is the derivative of the current word sibling. By 1362, sibb had expanded to include any close acquaintance and Godsibb began meaning any of the women invited to attend and assist in childbirth. These women spent much of the time waiting for the birth by engaging in idle chit chat which gave rise to the use of Godsibbs as a reference to women exchanging trifling rumours. By 1566, Godsibb had begun to mean anyone involved in spreading rumours through trite or casual conversation about the affairs of others and the word itself subsequently morphed into the word gossip by the early nineteenth century.

How did “420” become a code for marijuana? “Four-twenty” is a code name for users of marijuana. There are several myths why this is and these include; (1) there are 420 active chemicals in the drug; (2) April 20 is National Pot Smokers Day; (3) April 20 is Hitler’s birthday; (4) 4:20 p.m. is tea time for pot-smokers in Holland; (5) April 20 is the anniversary of the Columbine school shootings; (6) The California State Police dispatch code for marijuana is 420. But none of these is correct! In 1971, a group of about a dozen pot-smoking students of San Rafael High School created 420 as a discreet reference to marijuana so that they could talk about getting high in front of their teachers and parents without them knowing. 4:20 was the time of day the students would meet by the campus statue of Louis Pasteur to light up. This small group called themselves the Waldos and their 420 code spread through an entire generation who are


now in their fifties. It should be mentioned that today, 4:20 p.m. every April 20, has become an international “burn time” or moment of rebellion for hardened pot smokers. Quickies Did you know… • that one out of every five Americans between 20 and 49 years old have tried cocaine? One in 150 use it regularly. • that the odds are one in 428 that you were arrested for a marijuana related crime in 2006? • that 75 percent of North American homes forbid the smoking of cigarettes?


divorce How old is divorce? Divorce is quite likely almost as old as marriage. European observers of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere recorded that in some cultures people “married” just by moving in together and “divorced” simply by going their own separate ways. Common causes for these


separations seemed to be: the wife had borne no children, was bad-tempered, or neglected her domestic duties, or the husband was abusive, was a poor provider, or stayed away from home too long.

What were legal grounds for divorce in ancient Egypt? An Egyptian could divorce a spouse for adultery, infertility or strong personal dislike. The wife could take with her any property she had taken to the marriage, but she could legally challenge her ex-husband for some of the goods that had come into their possession during the marriage. The Egyptians took a seriously dim view of adultery. A person found guilty of adultery, in addition to being divorced, could also be publicly flogged. Women were more likely to receive this punishment, but men could also be subjected to it. Generally, the Egyptians tried to discourage divorce.

Why was divorce considered a serious matter in ancient societies? If a husband divorced his wife and her natural family would not or could not take her in, then the responsibility of providing for her — and possibly her children — fell upon the community. Some societies took better care than others of women and children who had no form of support, but all expected a man to live up to his responsibilities as a husband. If he did not, he’d better have a very good reason. Quickies


Did you know… • that an ancient Mesopotamian king named Hammurabi wrote a code of laws that is the oldest on record? It decreed that when a marriage failed, any bride price or dowry that had been exchanged between the bridegroom and the bride’s father had to be returned.

What was the ancient Greek method of divorce? If an Athenian husband wanted to divorce his wife, he simply expelled her from his house. However, he had to have just cause. A husband who divorced a wife who had fulfilled her obligation to bear legitimate children, especially sons, and whose conduct was irreproachable, was considered immoral. Theoretically, a wife who wished to divorce her husband simply had to leave his house and go back to her family. However, if the husband wanted, he could use force to prevent her from leaving.

How did the ancient Romans view divorce? In Rome’s early days the people took a very dim view of divorce. There were strict laws, supposedly written by Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, forbidding divorce except for three reasons. A husband could divorce his wife if she: poisoned their children, committed adultery, made duplicates of his keys.


Why did Roman attitudes about divorce change? As Rome became richer, more powerful, and more decadent, many of the old ideals of morality were lost. Many Roman husbands and wives engaged in numerous affairs and divorced each other for the most trivial reasons. One husband divorced his wife because she had gone to the arena without his permission. Men could climb the social ladder or advance themselves politically through a series of strategic marriages and divorces. The ambitious general Gaius Marius, for example, greatly enhanced his career by divorcing his wife of many years so he could marry into the aristocratic Caesar family. To divorce a spouse, a Roman simply had to give the person a letter stating that they were now divorced. Seven Reasons a Husband Could Divorce His Wife in Ancient China • She didn’t obey his parents. • She committed adultery. • She had borne no children. • She had a jealous disposition. • She had an obnoxious disease. • She talked too much. • She had been caught stealing.


Three Ways a Wife Could Avoid Divorce in Ancient China • She had mourned his deceased parents for three years. • The family had prospered financially during the marriage. • The husband couldn’t find a family to take her in. Quickies Did you know… • that in China if a married man’s parents didn’t like his wife or thought she was a lazy worker, they could order him to divorce her and find someone they considered satisfactory?

What were grounds for divorce among the Aztecs? The very advanced Aztec civilization in what is now Mexico had a highly developed code of law that included rules for marriage and divorce. A man could divorce his wife if she were childless, bad-tempered, or lazy. A wife could divorce her husband if he physically abused her, didn’t provide for the children’s education, or generally neglected his family. Quickies Did you know… • that the Incas of Peru were the only people not known to have any form of divorce? 638

Why could getting married during the Middle Ages take a long time? Many young people married in the church but without parental consent. The church thus found itself in the awkward position of having to defend a marriage that was sacred in the eyes of the church, while at the same time trying to placate parents who wanted marriages annulled. By spreading the process out over a period of time, church officials could investigate the backgrounds of the prospective bride and groom, families could come to terms, and messy separations, annulments, and divorces could be avoided.

Whose divorce in 32 BC plunged the Roman world into civil war? Octavian, nephew of the late Julius Caesar, ruled the western part of the Roman Empire, while Marc Antony ruled in the east. Antony was married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia. In 32 BC Antony divorced Octavia so he could marry Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. This insult to his family’s honour was all the excuse Octavian needed to declare war on Marc Antony. Octavian’s forces defeated those of Antony and Cleopatra, who subsequently committed suicide. Octavian, as Augustus Caesar, became sole master of the Roman Empire. Quickies Did you know… • that after the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, Octavia took care of all of Antony’s children, including those he had had


by Cleopatra? However, Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, Caesarian (Octavian’s cousin), was murdered on Octavian’s order. “Two Caesars,” he said, “is one Caesar too many.”

Why did Napoleon divorce Josephine? Josephine was six years older than Napoleon, and had children from a previous marriage. But she had no children with Napoleon, and he wanted an heir. At first they thought the problem lay with Napoleon, because Josephine had already had children. Then Napoleon’s mistress became pregnant. Napoleon decided that Josephine was too old to conceive. He told her France needed an heir, and then divorced her in a solemn ceremony. This, incidentally, made the ruling families of Europe very nervous as they knew Napoleon would now be searching for a new wife and none of them wanted the common-born Bonaparte for a son-in-law.

Whom did Napoleon choose for his new bride? Napoleon married Marie Louisa, 19-year-old daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria, whose army Napoleon had humiliated on the battlefield several years earlier. Maria gave birth to a son, Napoleon Francois-Joseph Charles, whom Napoleon gave the title King of Rome. After Napoleon’s fall and exile, the boy lived with his mother. He died at the age of 21, probably from tuberculosis.


How do Gypsies perform a divorce? Gypsy customs vary considerably from place to place and are often shrouded in secrecy. In the past, divorce was allegedly quite rare among them. However, one nineteenth-century non-Gypsy writer claimed to have witnessed what he described as divorce over the sacrifice of a horse. A wife who had been accused of adultery laid her head on an “unblemished” horse. The horse was then turned loose to roam free. It was watched carefully, and its behaviour determined the degree of the woman’s guilt. One person in the Gypsy band was appointed priest, and the horse was brought forward to be charged with the crime and put on trial. Upon being found guilty, the horse was stabbed in the heart and allowed to bleed to death. The husband and wife stood on either side of the dying horse, held hands, and said words to repudiate each other. They walked around the dead horse three times, making the sign of the cross each time. Then they stood at the horse’s tail, shook hands, and turned to go their separate ways. The woman had to wear an iron token as a symbol of her divorced state and wasn’t allowed to marry again. If she did, she could be put to death.

Why did the divorce rate rise in the 1970s? There were great economic and social shifts in the 1970s. The husband could often no longer be the sole “bread winner” in the family, unless he was willing and able to work ever longer hours. The wife had to go to work at an outside-the-home job, in addition to keeping her traditional role as housekeeper. This caused severe strains on relationships in many households, especially those in which the husband considered


it unmanly if he could not financially support his family alone.

What contributed to a decline in the divorce rate in the 1990s? By the 1990s the idea of a husband and wife as dual breadwinners was much more acceptable than it had been a generation earlier. A husband did not have to feel ashamed because his wife had a job, and more husbands were willing to share in domestic duties. There were also more socially acceptable alternatives to traditional marriage. Many couples simply moved in together.

How did a greater acceptance of unwed mothers affect the divorce rate? At one time an unwed young woman who became pregnant was a centre of intense shame for her family. This often resulted in the mother-to-be and the child’s father getting married because they “had to”. Such couples were prime candidates for divorce. As the twentieth century neared its end, changes in the general perception of single mothers, thanks largely to the feminist movement, made alternatives to a “shotgun wedding” available to these women. Many opted to remain single, rather than enter into a marriage that had poor prospects of success.

How has living longer affected the divorce rate? Centuries ago, when a bride and groom made their wedding vows and promised to love, honour, and obey each other, “till 642

death do us part”, they were looking ahead at what would probably be a relatively short period of time. A few people lived to ripe old ages, but the average person wasn’t likely to live past the mid-forties, and many died in their 30s. Today many people live into their seventies and eighties and beyond. This is long past the time when their children have moved out of the home. Many older couples who, in spite of marital difficulties, have stuck it out “for the sake of the kids,” split up after the last chick has left the nest.

When was the first divorce in what is now the United States? The first recorded divorce was on January 5, 1643, when the Quarter Court of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony granted a divorce to Anne Clarke. The court found that her husband, Dennis Clarke, was guilty of abandoning Anne, with whom he’d had two children, and of being involved in an adulterous relationship with another woman, with whom he’d also had two children. Clarke refused to return home to his wife, so the Puritan court’s final decision read: “Anne Clarke, beeing deserted by Denis Clarke hir husband, and hee refusing to accompany with hir, she is graunted to bee divorced.”

What American state’s divorce rate rose suddenly in the nineteenth century? It was the state of Utah, largely settled by Mormons who at that time were polygamous. One of the conditions for Utah being granted statehood in the American Union was the abandonment of polygamy. That meant a lot of


ex-wives-to-be! In the 1870s, one Utah law firm was so overwhelmed with divorce cases that it built a type of pioneer dispensing-machine that produced the required legal documents for $2.50 a set. The spouses involved had only to sign the papers to make them fully legal.

What was a “Wife Sale”? A wife sale was a pre-1857 form of illegal divorce in England. The husband would put a halter around his wife’s neck and lead her to a prearranged location where she would supposedly be sold by auction, and would go to live as the wife of the man who was the highest bidder. As cruel and degrading as this appears, it was done with the wife’s consent, and the highest bidder was rarely a complete stranger. He was usually a man whom the woman preferred to her husband.

Who described a wife sale in one of his classic novels? In The Mayor of Casterbridge, written in 1866, English novelist Thomas Hardy described a wife sale. Unlike most real wife sales, this one was a drunken, spontaneous action initiated by the husband.

What was “advertising a wife”? When a couple divorced, or if the wife “deserted” the husband, the husband might still be held responsible for any debts she might have. To free himself of this responsibility he would “advertise” her. He would place an ad in the local newspaper, stating that he would no longer be financially


responsible for her. Such ads often had such statements as “My wife has left my bed and board without just cause”, and were considered extremely humiliating to the woman. In small communities a woman who had been advertised was quite likely to be shunned, and would often have to move to another town.

What was meant by “denial of wifely services”? For many people the first thought that comes to mind is the wife refusing to have sex with the husband. That was a legitimate cause for divorce, but not one that most husbands would admit to. There were, however, other “wifely services” that were just as important. These included cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry and caring for the children. A wife accused of negligence in providing these services could be divorced, and was generally considered an object of shame. There were even instances of husbands who tolerated their wives infidelity rather than lose their housekeeping services.

How does divorce affect global warming? Some scientists claim that the high rate of divorce increases energy consumption. When there is a divorce, people who were living in one household are now living in two. That means two refrigerators, two TV sets, two dwelling places to light, heat and air condition, etc. A study of one American community showed that because of the many divorces there the town had 11,000 housing units that would not have been required if the couples had stayed together.


customs Why do we cover our mouths and apologize when we yawn? The yawn is now known to be the body’s way of infusing oxygen into a tired body, but suggestion is the only explanation for its contagiousness. To ancient man, who had witnessed many lives leave bodies in a final breath, a yawn


signalled that the soul was about to escape through the mouth and death might be prevented by covering it. Because a yawn is contagious, the apology was for passing on the mortal danger to others.

Why are Christian men required to remove their hats in church? Removing clothing as an act of subjugation began when the Assyrians routinely humiliated their captives by making them strip naked. The Greeks amended this by requiring their new servants to strip only from the waist up. By the Middle Ages, a serf had to remove only his hat in the presence of his superiors. Following these gestures of respect for the master is the reason Christian men remove their hats in church and why Muslims leave their shoes by the mosque door.

Why do the British excuse bad language with “pardon my French”? To the English, “pardon my French” usually means “you can put it where the sun doesn’t shine.” It’s a non-apologetic apology. The expression is as old as the historic wars waged between France and Britain, and we can be certain the French have similar expressions about the English. Hatred aroused during war frequently leads to bigotry that instills a necessary passion within those who do the killing. There are dozens of English expression defaming the Dutch and Scots for the same reason. To say “pardon my French” means “I’m about to say something vulgar … like something you would expect from a Frenchman.”


Examples of French customs that the British found revolting are: French kissing (kissing with the tongue) and French lessons (a euphemism for prostitution — oral sex).

If most people use a fork in their right hands, why is it set on the left at the table? When the fork surfaced in the eleventh century, the only eating utensil was a knife, which was used by the right hand to cut and deliver food to the mouth. The left hand was assigned the new fork, which is why it’s set on the left. In the mid-nineteeth century, forks finally reached the backwoods of America but without any European rules of etiquette, so settlers used the right hand for both utensils.

When did men start shaving every morning? In many cultures shaving is forbidden. The reason we in the West lather up every morning can be traced directly back to Alexander the Great. Before he seized power, all European men grew beards. But because young Alexander wasn’t able to muster much facial hair, he scraped off his peach fuzz every day with a dagger. Not wanting to offend the great warrior, those close to him did likewise, and soon shaving became the custom.

Why does being “turned down” mean rejection? To be “turned down” comes from an antiquated courting custom followed by our very proper ancestors. When all meetings between young men and


women required chaperones, and because aggressive romantic suggestions were forbidden, a man carried a courting mirror, which, at a discreet moment, he would place face up on a table between them. If the woman favoured his advances, the mirror went untouched, but if she had no interest she would turn down the mirror and the suitor.

Why do we roll out a red carpet for special guests? The red carpet treatment dates back to the 1930s, when a carpet of that colour led passengers to a luxurious train, the Twentieth Century Limited, which ran between New York and Chicago. The Twentieth Century was the most famous in America and was totally first class with accommodation and dining car menus that were considered the height of luxury. Walking the red carpet to the train meant you were about to be treated like royalty.

Why is a bride’s marital “hope chest” called a “trousseau”? The personal possession such as jewellery, linens, and household items collected as parental gifts and brought to a marriage by a bride is called a trousseau. It was intended to enhance her dowry. The word has a French root, trousse meaning “bundle.” The word does have other applications. For example, it is used to describe a container for a variety of small items as in a doctor’s portable handbag.


What are the rules of etiquette regarding divorced people remarrying? If both the bride and groom have been married before, they usually pay most of the cost of a simple wedding themselves. If only the groom has been previously married, the bride’s family can host a traditional first wedding celebration. If only the bride had been married before, the couple can have a larger-than-usual second wedding celebration for the benefit of the groom’s family, but the bride’s father does not give her away, as that is done only at a bride’s first wedding. The bride’s parents are not obliged to pay for her second wedding. Second weddings are usually less formal than first weddings. The bride can wear a suit or dress of any colour, and no veil. The groom wears a suit and tie. Children from previous marriages may attend. Five points of etiquette concerning divorce • A divorced woman does not wear her diamond engagement ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. Unless she wishes to save the ring for her children’s use later, she may have the stone reset into a bracelet or necklace. • A divorced couple does not return wedding gifts. • Friends of the divorced couple should not pry or take sides, but should try to be supportive of both individuals. • If children are involved, the families of both spouses should be respectful of the other family’s right to spend time with them. 650

• One parent should not be critical of the other parent in front of the children.

Why do we put candles on a birthday cake? The Greeks borrowed celebrating birthdays from the Egyptian pharaohs and the cake idea from the Persians. Then early Christians did away with birthday parties for a while until the custom re-emerged with candles in Germany in the twelfth century. Awakened with the arrival of a birthday cake topped with lighted candles, which were changed and kept lit until after the family meal, the honoured child would make a wish that, it was said, would come true only if the candles were blown out in a single breath.

What subtleties are hidden in the Japanese custom of bowing? A Westerner probably won’t notice the sophisticated use of the bow in Japanese culture. There are four bows, each with a different meaning. The simplest, at an angle of five degrees, means “good day.” A bow of 15 degrees is more formal and means “good morning.” As an appreciation of a kind gesture the angle is 30 degrees, while the most extreme, a bow of 45 degrees, conveys deep respect or an apology. During a recent five-year period, 24 residents of Tokyo died while bowing to each other.


What is the origin and meaning of the Latin male gesture of kissing the fingertips? Latinos and Europeans use hand gestures differently than North Americans. Kissing one’s fingertips before directing them toward the object of esteem can be an appreciation of anything from a good wine to a good soccer play. It simply means something is beautiful. The custom comes from the Romans, who kissed their fingertips and then directed them to the gods when entering or leaving a temple.


show business How many movies are made annually in Hollywood? There hasn’t been a movie made in Hollywood since 1911, when, because of its ramshackle sets and the chaotic influence of hordes of actors and crews, the town tossed out the Nestor Film Company and wrote an ordinance forbidding the


building of any future studios. Even so, the magic of the name was already established, and so the industry we call Hollywood grew up around that little town in such places as Burbank, Santa Monica, and Culver City — but not in Hollywood.

Why do we call Academy Awards “Oscars”? Since 1928, the Academy Awards have been issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for excellence in filmmaking. The statuettes were nicknamed “Oscar” in 1931 by Margaret Herrick, a secretary at the academy who, upon seeing one for the first time, exclaimed, “Why it looks just like my uncle Oscar.” Her uncle was Oscar Pierce, a wheat farmer.

How did Hollywood get its name? “Hollywood” is a synonym for fantasy for some and decadence for others, yet the dream capital acquired its name from strangers on a train and became a gesture of love between a husband and a wife. In 1887, Mrs. Harvey Wilcox, whose husband owned the California land, overheard the woman next to her on a train refer to her summer home as “Hollywood.” Mrs. Wilcox liked the name Hollywood so much that her husband gave it to their California property.

In movie credits, what are the actual jobs of the gaffer, the key grip, and the best boy? Filmmaking requires precision teamwork, and each credit is well earned. In movie language, a gaffer is the chief


electrician; it evolved from the German word granfer, meaning “grandfather.” A grip requires strength, because he or she builds and dismantles scenery and handles other physical chores that require a strong grip. A best boy is the gaffer’s or grip’s assistant.

What are the origins of the Tony and the Emmy awards? The Tony Awards are named in honour of the prominent Broadway personality Antoinette Perry, whose nickname was Tony. The Tony Awards began in 1947, the year after her death. When the Emmy Awards were introduced in the 1940s they were called Immies, after the word image in “Image Orthocon Tube,” an important part of a television camera. Over time the Immy became an Emmy.

Why is the “straight man” in a comedy team called a “foil”? To most of us the noun foil is a thin sheet of aluminum food wrap which was introduced in 1946, but the word has a number of other meanings derived from the Latin folia meaning “leaf.” The straight man as a foil or “one who enhances another by contrast,” entered the language in 1581 and comes from the jeweller’s practice of backing a gem with a metal foil to make it shine brighter.


How did the Romans use “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” in the Coliseum? Ancient Roman spectators in the Coliseum did use their thumbs to show their decisions on whether a losing gladiator should live or die, but not in the manner we see expressed today. It was the movies that gave us the simple “thumbs up or thumbs down.” The thumb symbolized the weapon of the victor. “Up” meant “lift your sword and let him live.” But if the verdict was death, then the thumb was thrust forward and downward in a stabbing motion.

What is the weight of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ prized Oscar? Recipients of the Academy Award, commonly known as the Oscar, always seem to be surprised at its weight. The Oscar was designed in 1928 by Cedric Gibbons (1893–1960), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s chief art director. The statuette depicts a knight standing on a reel of film and holding a crusader sword. Originally, Oscar was made of gold-plated bronze. Today the base of the 24-karat gold-plated britannium statuette is black marble. Oscar is 13.5 inches tall and weighs 8.5 pounds.

Why would a movie director use the pseudonym Alan Smithee? When a film director doesn’t want his name on a bad film, the credit will be given to Alan Smithee, a fictitious name created specifically for this purpose. It began during the shooting of the 1967 film Death of a Gunfighter starring Richard 656

Widmark and Lena Horne. The director, Robert Totten was fired by the studio and replaced with Don Siegel. When the disastrous film was released two years later neither director wanted to be associated with the final print. Both demanded to be removed from the credits. Because of this, the Directors Guild decided to establish a fake name to hide unhappy directors from being embarrassed, especially when the final cut had been taken from them by the studio. They settled on Smith before realizing that there might be a real director with that name someday and so they added the two e’s with the first name Alan and came up with “Smithee.” It then became the name to appear in the credits if any director did not want his own name associated with a film.

Why is a sexy, seductive woman called a “Vamp”? You can thank Theodosia Burr Goodman for sexually exploitive women being called “Vamps”. As a great silent film star she used the name Theda Bara, which is an anagram for “Arab Death.” She starred in over 40 films with titles like; The Unchastened Woman, When Men Desire, The She Devil, When a Woman Sins, Cleopatra, The Vixen, Sin, The Devil’s Daughter, and Siren of Hell but it was from her 1915 performance in A Fool There Was, in which she played a seductive vampire that the abbreviation “Vamp” emerged; not only as a nickname for the beautiful Miss Bara, but as a continuing reference to any unscrupulous seductress.


When a man gifted with charm seizes an opportunity, why do we say, “He’s in like Flynn”? The Australian actor Errol Flynn had an amazing prowess with the ladies, and of course the tabloids built this into a legend. During the Second World War, servicemen coined the phrase “in like Flynn” either to brag about their own conquests or to describe someone they envied. Flynn said he hated the expression, but his own boast that he had spent between 12 and 14 thousand intimate nights ensured its survival. Quickies Did you know… • that Errol Flynn was the great-great-great-great-grandson on his mother’s side of a crewman of the HMS Bounty? Flynn portrayed that ship’s captain, Fletcher Christian, in the film In the Wake of the Bounty (1933).

Why is a glitzy sales presentation called a “dog and pony show”? In the late 1800s, shows featuring small animals began touring little North American farming towns that weren’t on the larger circuses’ itineraries. These travelling shows were made up of dogs and ponies that did tricks. Some, like the Gentry Brothers Circus, were very successful, using up to 80 dogs and 40 ponies in a single show. Over time the expression “dog and pony show” became a negative description for


anything small-time and sleazy, like a low-budget sales presentation that’s heavy on glitz and light on substance.


he said, she said: celebrity split-ups How long did the marriage of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman last? Broadway star Ethel Merman married movie tough guy and Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine in 1964. After 32 days, Merman filed for divorce. The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson joked, “And they said it wouldn’t last.” While


writing her memoirs, Merman said, “The chapter on my marriage to Ernest Borgnine consists of one blank page.” How many times has Elizabeth Taylor been married and divorced? The legendary Hollywood actress has been married eight times to seven husbands: • Conrad Hilton — May 6, 1950, to January 29, 1951 — divorced • Michael Wilding — February 21, 1952, to January 26, 1957 — divorced • Michael Todd — February 2, 1957, to March 22, 1958 — widowed • Eddie Fisher — May 12, 1959, to March 6, 1964 — divorced • Richard Burton — March 15, 1964, to June 26, 1974 — divorced • Richard Burton (again) — October 10, 1975, to July 29, 1976 — divorced • John Warner — December 4, 1976, to November 7, 1982 — divorced • Larry Fortensky — October 6, 1991, to October 31, 1996 — divorced


Why did Elizabeth Taylor’s two marriages to Richard Burton end? Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were two of the most popular and talented movie stars of their day. Their marriage crowned what appeared to be a classic Hollywood romance that began on the set of Cleopatra in which Taylor played the Queen of Egypt, and Burton played Marc Antony. But both had serious problems with drugs and alcohol, and Burton was a notorious womanizer. At the time of their first divorce, Taylor told a friend, “I love Richard Burton with every fiber of my soul. But we can’t be together. We’re too mutually self-destructive. Their second marriage ended when Burton told Taylor he wanted a divorce so he could marry Suzy Hunt, an ex-model who was half his age. 12 Hollywood Celebrities Married Five Times or More • Zsa Zsa Gabor — 9 husbands • Elizabeth Taylor — 8 husbands (one of them twice) • Lana Turner — 8 husbands (one of them twice) • Mickey Rooney — 8 wives • Robert Evans — 7 wives • Hedy Lamarr — 6 husbands • Tony Curtis — 6 wives • Boris Karloff — 6 wives 662

• Gloria Swanson — 6 husbands • Martin Scorsese — 5 wives • David Carradine — 5 wives • Kenny Rogers — 5 wives

He Said, She Said: Celebrity Relationships Gone Bad Who? Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hungarian actress; and George Sanders, British actor. Where and When? Married, April 2, 1949, Las Vegas. Divorced, April 2, 1954. Why? Sanders was jealous of his wife’s numerous affairs, including flings with John F. Kennedy and Porfirio Rubirosa, a notorious playboy from the Dominican Republic. Yet when Sanders had to travel abroad to make films, he refused to take Zsa Zsa with him. It was he who finally filed for divorce. What did they say? Zsa Zsa Gabor: “Getting divorced just because you don’t love a man is almost as silly as getting married just because you do.” 663

George Sanders: “Married life with Zsa Zsa was one of the great humiliations of my life. I suffered severe mental anguish and countless embarrassments.” Who? Mike Tyson, boxer; and Robin Givens, Actress Where and When? Married, February 7, 1988, Chicago. Divorced, February 14, 1989, Dominican Republic. Why? Givens accused Tyson of being abusive and manic depressive. Tyson accused Givens and her mother, Ruth Roper, of being gold diggers who were after his money and were trying to seize control of his life and career. What did they say? Robin Givens: “(Mike) has, throughout our marriage, been violent and physically abusive and prone to unprovoked rages of violence and destruction.” Mike Tyson: “It was like a sting game. They worked on my emotions because they knew I was in love.” Who? Joan Collins, British actress; and Peter Holm, Swedish pop star.


Where and When? Married, November 6, 1985, Las Vegas. Divorced, August 25, 1987, Los Angeles. Why? Collins accused Holm of being unfaithful, of being violent and of being a parasite on her. Holm said Collins owed much of her success to him, and was trying to get out of a substantial pre-nuptial agreement. What did they say? Joan Collins: “(Holm) demonstrated a capacity for violence and irrational behaviour … (Holm is) the most combative person I’ve ever met.” She added that he threatened to shoot her. Peter Holm: “Joan is consumed by Alexis (her sleazy character on Dynasty), that’s why she’s doing this. She really loves me and I love her and we’ll get back together, I know it.” They didn’t. Who? Sonny Bono, singer, songwriter; and Cher (Cherilyn Sarkisian), singer, actress. Where and When? Married (? The time and place of Sonny and Cher’s wedding has always been a mystery. At different times they claimed to


have been married in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1964, and in Los Angeles in 1966, ’67 and ’69). Divorced, June 27, 1975, Santa Monica. Why? Cher complained that Sonny tried to control every aspect of her life, even telling her what movies she could see and forbidding her to play tennis with her friends. Sonny said that he had made Cher a star, and she was ungrateful for what he had done for her. What did they say? Cher “(Sonny) is a Sicilian dictator husband.” Sonny: “Forget it. I’ve worked for ten years and if you think I’m going to let you go, just to walk off now, you are crazy.” Famous Quotes “A wife lasts only for the length of the marriage, but an ex-wife is there for the rest of your life.” — Woody Allen “Ah, yes, divorce … from the Latin word meaning to rip out a man’s genitals through his wallet.” — Robin Williams “I’m an excellent housekeeper. Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house.”


— Zsa Zsa Gabor “A lot of people have asked me how short I am. Since my last divorce, I think about $100,000 short.” — Mickey Rooney Who? Ann Landers (Esther Friedman), newspaper advice columnist; and Jules Lederer, founder of Budget Rent-a-Car. Where and When? Married, Sioux City, Iowa, July 2, 1938. Divorced, Chicago, October 9, 1975. Why? Jules said he was tired of being “Mr. Ann Landers”. He told his wife over dinner in a restaurant that he was having an affair. She accused him of infidelity and mental cruelty. What did they say? Ann Landers: “That was quite a bomb for him to drop between the soup and the salad.” Jules Lederer: “(She) hadn’t always conducted herself as a true, kind and affectionate wife.” Who?


Halle Berry, actress; and Eric Benet, musician. When and Where? Married at a secluded California beach January 24, 2001. Divorced, January 2005. Why? While Berry’s career was soaring and his own career was sputtering, Benet became involved with another woman. At first Berry would not believe the rumours, but finally accepted them as true. What did they say? Halle Berry: “At first I didn’t believe the stories. I felt like they’d either been made up or exaggerated. There’s so much inaccurate reporting that I didn’t take them seriously enough. So I defended him. I stood by my man. I thought what we had together was beyond cheating or lying. I refused to believe the stories then and I was in denial for a long time. I didn’t think anything had gone wrong. I felt it was all in the imagination of the other women.” Eric Benet: “Ultimately what was the end of us was she just couldn’t trust me anymore. You can’t blame her for that.” Who? Rita Hayworth, actress and Orson Welles, actor and producer.


When and Where? Married, September 7, 1943, Santa Monica, California. Divorced, Los Angeles, November 10, 1947. Why? The couple had a child, and Welles did not adapt well to fatherhood. He embarked on a series of affairs, and kept away from his family as much as he could. By the time Rita filed for divorce, the two were not speaking to each other. What did they say? Rita Hayworth: “Goddamn it! I’m not Mrs. Orson Welles. I’m Rita Hay-worth!” Orson Welles: “I could have patched it up in a day, but I had reached the end of my capacity to feel such a total failure with her. I had done everything I could think of, and I didn’t seem able to bring her anything but agony.” Ten Divorce Movies • The Gay Divorcee (1934, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) • The Parent Trap (1961, starring Hayley Mills and Maureen O’Hara) • A Man for All Seasons (1966, starring Paul Scofield)


• Divorce American Style (1967, starring Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds) • Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) • Shoot the Moon (1982, starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton) • Irreconcilable Differences (1984, starring Ryan O’Neal and Shelley Long) • The War of the Roses (1989, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner) • Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, starring Robin Williams and Sally Field) • The First Wives Club (1996, starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton) Who? Debbie Reynolds, actress; and Eddie Fisher, singer. When and Where? Married, September 26, 1955 at Grossinger’s Catskills Resort, New York. Divorced, February 19, 1959. Why?


The couple had been romantically involved for months and because of Reynolds’ squeaky clean image there was considerable pressure on them to get married. As husband and wife, they soon realized it was a bad match. Both devoted much time to their careers and little to each other. When Reynolds recording of the song “Tammy”, made for the movie Tammy and the Bachelor, became a big hit, Fisher had a bout of professional jealousy. Reynolds filed for divorce when Fisher told her he was in love with Elizabeth Taylor. What did they say? Debbie Reynolds: “He’s a needy, dependent person. I don’t know what to compare him to — he’s like an elevator that can’t find the floor.” Eddie Fisher: “As I later discovered, Debbie Reynolds was indeed the girl next door … But only if you lived next door to a self-centered, totally driven, insecure, untruthful phony.” Who? Mary Tyler Moore, actress, and Grant Tinker, advertising executive. When and Where? Married Las Vegas, June 1, 1962. Divorced December 30, 1980. Why?


Both cited irreconcilable differences. Mary was edgy and restless after her long-running TV show went off the air — at her own decision. She was smoking and drinking heavily. Then came two severe blows; her sister died in a medication mishap, and then Ritchie, Moore’s son from an early marriage, was killed in a shooting accident. Moore and Tinker mutually believed their time together had come to an end. They separated for awhile, and then agreed to a divorce. It was one of the most civilized divorces in the entertainment world’s history. What did they say? Mary Tyler Moore: “Grant wasn’t just my best friend, he was my only friend.” Grant Tinker: “Relationships wear out and come to an end, just like shows.” Quickies Did you know… • that early in her career Mary Tyler Moore was the Hotpoint Pixie in TV ads on the Ozzie and Harriet Show? At the time she was married to Richard Meeker. She became pregnant and lost the Pixie job. She gave birth to Richie, but soon divorced Meeker. Who? Anita Bryant, singer; Bob Green, former disc jockey turned evangelist. When and Where?


Married June 25, 1960. Divorced Miami, Florida, August 15, 1980. Why? A life-long Christian fundamentalist, Bryant had become a controversial figure in a right-wing crusade against the “anti-American evils” of homosexuality, atheism and divorce. A backlash against her stance made her an object of ridicule. She later claimed that husband Bob had pressured her into the campaign, and that she really had little understanding of gay people or things like gay rights. For years she had believed it was her Christian duty to obey her husband. Green insisted that she, as his wife, owed him unquestioning obedience. After a long period of being manipulated and controlled, Anita filed for divorce, to the horror of her former fundamentalist colleagues. What did they say? Anita Bryant: “Bob gave me no respect, no trust, no affection, no love life, no recognition as a worthwhile human being.” Bob Green: “Blame gay people? I do. Their stated goal was to put (Bryant) out of business and destroy her career. And that’s what they did. It’s unfair.” Who? Brad Pitt, actor; Jennifer Aniston, Actress. Where and When?


Married, Malibu, California, July 29, 2000. Divorced, March 2005. Why? Both were so busy with their careers that they had little time for each other. There were rumours that Pitt was involved with co-star Angelina Jolie on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, though both stars denied it. What did they say? Brad Pitt: “There is so much pressure from day one to be with someone forever — and I’m not sure that it really is in our nature to be with something for the rest of our lives. Jen and myself don’t cage each other with this pressure of happily ever after. We work it out as we go along.” Jennifer Aniston: “Everybody always asks if we’re happy. Give me a break. We’re married two years. In Hollywood years, that’s forever.” Who? Johnny Carson, TV talk show host; Joanna (Holland) Carson, model. Where and When? Married, Los Angeles, September 30, 1972. Divorced, March 8, 1983, Los Angeles.


Why? Joanna claimed that Johnny put more time and energy into The Tonight Show than he put into their marriage. What did they say? Joanna Carson: “I want you to get the hell out of my life.” Johnny Carson: “You got it.”

What did Joanna Carson demand in the divorce settlement from Johnny Carson? She demanded $220,000 a month temporary alimony, until the court could decide on a permanent sum. This included: $107,000 a month for household bills; $4,945 in salaries for her servants; $1,400 for groceries for herself; $690 for household supplies; $800 for the monthly telephone bill; $220 to put gas in her cars; $2,695 a month for travel and vacations; $1,085 for limousine bills; $12,365 a month to buy presents for her friends; $3,955 a month for clothing; $37,065 a month for jewelry and furs; $120 a month for stationery; $5915 a month for security; and $270 a month to feed her cat. In addition she wanted $500,000 to pay her lawyers and $176,000 for her accountants and appraisers. She added another $2,500 a month in support for her grown-up son from a previous marriage. On top of that she wanted half of all of Carson’s money and assets.


What was Joanna Carson awarded by the court? A Bel Air mansion, a condominium and two apartments in New York City, a 1976 Rolls Royce and a 1976 Mercedes Benz, all the clothing, jewelry, and furs purchased during the marriage, 75 solid gold Krugerrands, 50 percent ownership of several of Carson’s companies, large numbers of stocks and bonds, $216,000 cash from a tax refund, $388,000 cash from accounts receivable, $337,000 from Carson’s salary for doing the annual Tonight Show anniversary specials, portions of Carson’s pensions from AFTRA and the Screen Actors’ Guild, 50 percent of the money Carson would receive for re-runs of Tonight Show episodes in which he starred during the marriage, plus $35,000 a month alimony for five years. If Carson died before the five years were up, the alimony would continue to be paid by his estate. Quickies Did you know… • that the document drawn up to settle the Carson divorce case was longer and more detailed than the document for the First World War Armistice with Germany, the Second World War Japanese and German Instruments of Surrender, the 1782 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War, the 1814 Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812, and the United Nations Charter combined?


theatre and the arts Who was Mona Lisa in da Vinci’s famous masterpiece? Although it’s known as the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting was originally titled La Giaconda. Painted on wood, it’s a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant. X-rays reveal that Leonardo sketched


three different poses before settling on the final design. The painting of Lisa has no eyebrows because it was the fashion of the time for women to shave them off.

How did classical ballet get on its toes? Dancers have been performing classical stories set to music since the fifteenth century. However it wasn’t until 1872 when the graceful Italian dancer Maria Taglioni introduced toe dancing that modern ballet was born. It took nearly another quarter century and the development of sturdier shoes before other dancers could learn and dance pointe and follow Taglioni’s innovation. Quickies Did you know… • That the short revealing dress worn by ballerinas was called a tutu from a French reference to a baby’s backside? • That in Russia, where ballet is a supreme art form, Bolshoi ballet means “grand” ballet?

Why do we refer to a tired story or joke as an “old chestnut”? If a joke or expression works, especially for a comic or a public speaker, it is usually overused and is consequently called “an old chestnut.” The expression comes from a British play, The Broken Sword, or the Torrent of the Valley, written by William Dimond (1780–1837) and first produced in 1816


at London’s Royal Covent Garden Theatre. Within that play a principal character continually repeats the same joke about a cork tree, each time with a subtle variation, including changing the tree from cork to chestnut. Finally; tiring of the joke, another character, Pablo, says: “A chestnut! I’ve heard you tell that joke 27 times and I’m sure it was a chestnut!” The impact moment when the phrase likely entered the English language was during a dinner party somewhat later in the nineteenth century. At the dinner the American actor William Warren the Younger (1812–1888), who at the time was playing the part of Pablo, used the “chestnut line” from the play to interrupt a guest who had begun to repeat an old familiar joke. Coincidentally perhaps, the younger Warren’s father, also named William, was an actor, too, who for a time was associated with Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theater.

What is a “curtain call”? A “curtain call” happens at the end of a play, when actors appear together to take a bow, thank the audience and receive applause. These days, curtain calls are an expected part of any theatrical performance, but the practice has relatively recent origins. The first play to receive a curtain call was performed in 1884.


Why when someone takes credit for another person’s achievement do we say she “stole his thunder”? In the early 1700s, English playwright John Dennis introduced a metallic device that imitated the sound of thunder. The production it was created for failed, and the thunder device was forgotten until months later, when, while attending another play at the same theatre, Dennis heard the unmistakable sound of his invention. He made such a public fuss that all of London picked up the phrase, “they’ve stolen my thunder.”


literary language What is the difference between a “ghost writer” and a “hack writer”? A ghost writer is a craftsman who writes speeches or books for another person who gets the credit as author. Although well paid, they’re called “ghosts” because they’re invisible. In the fourteenth century, while there were warhorses and draft


or workhorses, an ordinary rented riding horse was known as a “hackney” or a “hack.” The word hack came to mean anything for hire, including writers who did commercial work of any kind to support their efforts at art.

Why are some books called “potboilers”? The term “potboiler” was coined in 1864 in reference to a formula book which is written and published simply for the money. In order to eat it was necessary to keep the pot of food boiling and to do this the stove needed fuel. A formula book was like adding a log to the fire that ensured the survival of the author and his family.

Who was Pansy O’Hara in Gone with the Wind? Margaret Mitchell was a first-time writer when in 1936 she submitted a manuscript of Civil War stories told to her by her grandfather under the title Tomorrow Is Another Day, featuring a Southern belle named Pansy O’Hara. The publisher convinced her to change the book’s name to Gone with the Wind, a line from a nineteenth-century poem by Ernest Dowson, and, after a bitter argument, to change “Pansy” to “Scarlett.” Quickies Did you know… • that North Americans purchase about five million books every day? That’s about 57 books each second. 127 new titles are published every day.


• that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the first book ever written on a typewriter? The year was 1875 and the typewriter was a Remington. • that it took Leo Tolstoy four years (1865–1869) to write War and Peace? His wife hand-copied the massive manuscript seven times. • that using candlelight and quill pens, it took Noah Webster 36 years to complete his first American dictionary? • throughout history, there have been more than two and a half billion Bibles made? If placed together they would fill the New York public library 468 times. The Bible has 810,697 words containing 3,566,480 letters.

Why is relaxing a tense situation called “breaking the ice”? Overcoming an awkward moment in either business or social circles sometimes requires a little levity to “break the ice” in order to make progress. The expression originally meant to smash the melting ice that hindered commerce during the long winter freeze. It was first used literally in its figurative modern way in 1823 when, in Don Juan, Lord Byron (1788–1824) wrote in reference to the stiff British upper class: “And your cold people are beyond all price, when once you’ve broken their confounded ice.”


Who were detective Sherrinford Holmes and Ormand Sacker? When Arthur Conan Doyle began writing mystery novels, he chose one of his medical school instructors, Dr. Joseph Bell, as his sleuth’s model and named him Sherrinford Holmes. His assistant, Watson, took his name from one of Bell’s assistants, but not before being briefly named Ormand Sacker. Incidentally, in none of the stories does Holmes ever say, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” That was used only in the movies.

Who said, “It is better to live rich than to die rich”? James Boswell, a famous English diarist of the eighteenth century, attributed this quote to Samuel Johnson, whose daily life he recorded for ten years in a series of books called The Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson is said to have provided more quotable quotes to the English language than anyone else besides William Shakespeare. He is also credited with producing the first dictionary of the English language. He achieved all this and much more even though he was deaf in the left ear, almost blind in the left eye, and dim of vision in the right eye. He also survived smallpox.

What is the origin of “It’s all Greek to me”? Once again we have a phrase introduced by Shakespeare. “It’s all Greek to me” comes from dialogue within Julius Caesar when, during the conspiracy leading to the assassination, Casca recounts to Brutus and Cassius how Caesar had 684

rejected the crown. When asked if the senior senator Cicero had said anything, Casca relates that he did but Cicero spoke in Greek and although those understanding smiled and nodded, he (Casca) couldn’t interpret what was said because “it was Greek to me!”

What is “the be-all and end-all”? Shakespeare introduced the expression, meaning “the ultimate or most important solution,” as dialogue for Macbeth, who thinks about killing Duncan and wonders “that this blow might be the be-all and the end-all” (MacBeth Act I Scene vii). Macbeth then says he would risk his status in the afterlife if it were true. Today, Shakespeare’s second “the” is usually dropped but “the be-all and end-all” still means “the ultimate.”

What does it mean to “gild the lily”? To gild something is to cover it with a thin layer of gold. Because a lily is already in a state of natural perfection, gilding it would only be excessive. The expression is a misquote of Shakespeare’s King John, during which the king’s barons describe his second redundant coronation, “As throwing perfume on the violet or to gild refined gold to paint on the Lily.”


Why, when something doesn’t make sense, do we say “it’s neither rhyme nor reason”? When you say that something is “neither rhyme nor reason,” you are quoting Sir Thomas More. After reading something a friend had written, Sir Thomas told him that he would have to rewrite it in order to make his point clear. After his friend reworked the manuscript, More read it again, and this time he approved, commenting: “That’s better, it’s rhyme now anyway. Before it was neither rhyme nor reason.”


between the lines of nursery rhymes & fairy tales Who was Mother Goose? The image of a kindly old woman fascinating children with rhymes has been with us for so long that the exact origins are unknown. The term Mother Goose first surfaced in print during the seventeenth century and referred to any fanciful 687

rhyme or collection of rhymes that amused children. It wasn’t until about 1765 that a collection of traditional stories was published by John Newbery under the title Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle that the kindly woman’s name became associated with a collection of stories by an assortment of authors and fables from folklore.

What’s the two-shoes”?






A “goody two-shoes” is an unbearably self-centred little girl and comes from a nursery rhyme, “The History of Little Goody Two-shoes.” “Goody” was a common nickname for married women and came from the word goodwife. In the nursery rhyme, Goody owned only one shoe. When given a pair, she ran around showing them to everyone, even those less fortunate than she, smugly announcing, “Look! Two shoes.” The phrase came to mean a self-centred brat. “The History of Little Goody Two-shoes,” inspired by an actual person, was written by Oliver Goldsmith and published in 1765 by John Newbery. The real Goody’s full name was Margery Meanwell, and she lived in Mouldwell.

What is the hidden meaning in the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep”? “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was a Middle Ages protest song against heavy taxes. The common man was required to give one third of his income to the Crown, a third to his local nobility, and the final third was all he could keep.


“Baa Baa, Black Sheep, Have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full: One for my master, [The King], one for my dame, [Local nobility] And one for the little boy [Himself], that lives in the lane!”

How is the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” connected to the Black Death? Many of the verses now called nursery rhymes weren’t always meant for children, but were popular commentaries on what were then current events. “Ring Around the Rosie” has more than one version. “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies” refers to the flowers people carried or even wore around their necks for protection from the Black Death and to cover the foul odour that came from the dead and from the sick. “Hush-a, hush-a, we all fall down” simply means “we all drop dead.” There were also versions in which “hush-a, hush-a” was replaced with “ashes, ashes” or “achoo, achoo.”

Why do we say people have “skeletons in their closets” if they hide their past? The expression about skeletons in a closet comes from a fairy tale about Bluebeard the pirate, who, legend has it, murdered all his many wives. When he gave his new wife the keys to the house, he forbade her to open a specific closet at the end of a long hall — which, of course, she did the moment he left


on business. When she unlocked the door and looked inside, she was horrified to find all the skeletons of Bluebeard’s previous wives.

What was the inspiration for Hush a Bye Baby? This playful lullaby started as a nursery rhyme after European settlers took notice of how Native American mothers placed their babies to be rocked gently by the wind in the lower branches of trees. The words were first published in 1765 and immediately began being sung to babies as they rocked in their mothers’ arms just like those in the trees. Hush a bye baby, on the tree top When the wind blows the cradle will rock; When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall, And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Was Pussycat, Pussycat a real cat? During the reign of Elizabeth I of England, an old cat owned by one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, was allowed to roam Windsor Castle at will. Once during a formal moment with Elizabeth settled regally on her throne, the cat dashed underneath where she was sitting and its tail brushed the monarch’s leg startling her and interrupting the proceedings. After a tense moment, the Queen expressed her amusement by decreeing that the cat could continue visiting the throne room so long as it kept the mice away.


When word of the incident became gossip among the people, someone came up with the rhyme: “Pussycat pussycat, where have you been?” “I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen.” Pussycat pussycat, what did you dare?” I frightened a little mouse under her chair … meow!”

Who was Georgie Porgie? It is thought that during the seventeenth century, George — or in this case Georgie — was the English Duke of Buckingham. He was known as a voracious womanizer but because he was a close friend of the King, Charles II, he was always protected from the wrath of jealous husbands. When the men in parliament stepped in and prevented the King from intervening on Georgie’s behalf, the frightened Duke went into hiding … “Georgie Porgie ran away.” “Georgie Porgie pudding and pie Kissed the girls and made them cry When the boys came out to play Georgie Porgie ran away.”


Why is Old Mother Hubbard associated with King Henry VIII? This nursery rhyme is from the sixteenth-century reign of Henry VIII and was a way of making fun of the political buffoonery of the monarch and his court without being treasonous. Old Mother Hubbard is Cardinal Wolsey who angered the King when he failed to arrange for his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Ann Boleyn. The doggie is the King and the bone is his divorce. The cupboard is the Catholic Church. “Old Mother Hubbard Went to the cupboard To get poor doggie a bone The cupboard was bare So the poor little doggie had none.”


house and home Why is a reclining chair called a chaise lounge? When the French produced a long reclining chair for casual comfort, they simply called it a “long chair” or chaise longue. When imported to the United States, the Americans misunderstood longue as meaning “lounge” and that’s how the chair became incorrectly known as a chaise lounge.


Why do dinner knives have rounded tips? Up until 1669, dinner knives had sharp points just like steak knives but that year, French Cardinal Richelieu impulsively had them removed from the court. He claimed that his motive was disgust with people picking their teeth with the points, but there were many who believed he had acted to cut the odds of assassination. Other European Royal Courts saw the wisdom in this and had their pointed dinner knives rounded at the tip … just in case.

Why is a large cup called a “mug”? A mug is a large drinking cup with a handle and is most commonly used to drink coffee, although it’s not unknown to beer drinkers. A “mug” is also slang for the face. In the eighteenth century, drinking vessels were shaped and painted to look like the heads of pirates or local drunks or even despised public officials or politicians. Now called “Toby jugs,” these cups with faces became known simply as mugs.

Why are drinking glasses sometimes called “tumblers”? In 1945, Earl Tupper produced his first polyethylene plastic seven-ounce bathroom tumbler, so called because it could fall or tumble without breaking. But a “tumbler” drinking glass had already been around for centuries before Tupperware. It was specially designed with a round or pointed bottom so that it couldn’t stand upright and had to be drunk dry before it could be laid on its side — otherwise it would tumble and spill.


Quickies Did you know… • the word table came from the Latin word tabula which means “board”? • that the words plate and platter are from the Old French word plat, meaning “flat”? • that bowl is from the Anglo-Saxon word bolla meaning “‘round”? • that a dish was so-called by the Romans because, like a discus, it’s round? • the word cup is from the Sanskrit word kupa which means “water well”? • that a saucer was originally used exclusively for serving sauces before it became a cup stabilizer? • that glass is from the Celtic word glas meaning “green” because the first impure glass was coloured green? • that a “doily” was devised as a circular linen napkin to protect the tablecloth and is named after its English inventor?

Why is a woman’s private room called a “boudoir”? A tastefully decorated bed chamber is often called a boudoir. The reason is that Louis IV of France needed to accommodate 695

his many jealous mistresses and so he had several lavish intimate rooms designed for these women so that when upset, they could retire and be alone. He called such a room a boudoir from the French word bouder, meaning to “sulk” or “pout”.

Why did people start growing grass lawns around their homes? Lawns became the fashion in Britain during the early nineteenth century due to the popularity of games played on grass. These games, such as croquet, lawn bowling, badminton and golf weren’t the exclusive interest of the rich and so the common people began replacing rock gardens and shrubbery with grass lawns of their own to play and practice these games.


wealth, money, gold, and finance How did “hard up” come to mean short of cash? If you’re “hard up” you are in need of financial help. You’re facing a stormy future unless immediate, urgent problems are dealt with. “Hard up” began as an urgent cry to all hands during the seventeenth century to turn a sailing ships bow away from the wind when faced with a sudden and powerful


head on gale. Putting the helm “hard up” could prevent disaster. The expression started being used to describe one who was in need of money around 1821.

Why is a person who spends money recklessly called a “spendthrift”? Combining thrift with spend seem incongruous to describe an extravagant spender until you realize that it was originally applied to a prodigal who wasted his inheritance. He/she lavishly and foolishly was spending the estate or fortune left to him/her by a parent who had accumulated the wealth through thrift. They were spending the consequences of their parents’ thrift.

Why do we call luxurious living a “posh” existence? In the days of their empire, British tourists travelled by ship from England to the warmer climates of India and the Mediterranean. Wealthy passengers on these voyages demanded cabins shaded from the sun, which meant being on the port side on the way out and the starboard side on the way home. Tickets for these cabins were marked “POSH,” which stood for Portside Out, Starboard Home, and posh stuck as a word that signified luxury.

Why is sneaking money away from an individual or a business called “embezzlement”? “Embezzlement” is a violation of trust. It comes from an old French word that means torment, destroy, and gouge. People 698

who embezzle tend to be professionals who manage the property and funds of others, such as accountants, lawyers, and stockbrokers, or family members and close friends. Quickies Did you know… • that James Marshall’s 1848 gold strike at Sutter’s Mill started the California gold rush, but his claim dried up and he died a penniless alcoholic? • that Lucky Strike cigarettes were named in 1856 after the California Gold Rush? • that the name California means “hot furnace” in Spanish?

If both the United States and England were $1 billion in debt, which country would owe the most money? The United States and England calculate both one billion and one trillion differently. One billion in the United States is one thousand million, while in England it is one million million. One trillion in the United States is one million million, while one trillion in England is one billion million. In both cases the British quantity is larger, so if both countries owed $1 billion, England would have the greater debt.


Why are American counterfeiters?




Counterfeiters like currencies that people are not too familiar with but will accept anyway. American dollars are used all over the world, and people outside the United States may not know what to look for to ensure they are genuine. Credit cards are popular targets for fraud for the same reason. Thousands of companies offer credit cards, making it impossible for anyone to be sure that a card is real by appearance alone.


on the road: transportation Why is a tough, all-terrain vehicle called a “Jeep”? In 1937, the Army introduced a general purpose four-wheel drive vehicle which, when abbreviated, became G.P. At the same time the very popular Popeye cartoon had introduced Eugene the Jeep as a weird little pet for Olive Oil; it


communicated by calling “jeep.” The young men in the service put the little G.P. and the cartoon character together and called the vehicle a Jeep.

What is the meaning of the word Humvee? Humvee is a trademark for a durable wide-bodied military vehicle with four-wheel drive that was developed by American Motors in 1983 to replace the Jeep. The name Humvee is a rough military acronym that came out of the 1991 Gulf War. It means high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle. Substantially larger than the Jeep, the Humvee was able to replace several other vehicles, as well. Since 2000, General Motors has been selling civilian versions of the vehicle.

How did a driver check the gas tank in the Model T? To check the gas with the optional gas gauge offered for the 1922 Ford Model T, a driver had to find a place to pull over and stop the car. He then had to step out and lift up the front seat cushion to so he could see the gas tank. The gauge was a wooden ruler marked off in gallons. The driver opened the gas tank, stuck the ruler in and took a reading, just like we check oil today. Then he packed everything up and got back in the car to begin looking for a gas station. Windshield wipers were another extra on the Model T. Studebaker offered the auto industry’s first gas gauge with its 1914 product line. The company closed its doors in 1966.


What’s the difference between a truck, a tractor semi-trailer, and a full tractor-trailer? Those huge vehicles overwhelming the highways are called tractor semi-trailers because the back portion sits on wheels while the front end supports the tractor. A full trailer rides on its own wheels with axles on the front and back and is connected to the tractor by a drawbar. Sometimes a full trailer is attached to a semi, which is attached to the tractor. A truck doesn’t have any attachments.

How did the famous Italian automobile brands FIAT and the ALFA get their names? FIAT, or Fabbrica Itailana Automobili Torino, was formed in a 1903 takeover of Ceirano, which had been founded in 1901 to make cars under Renault licence using a deDion engine. Ceirano’s assets included a racecar driver named Vincenzo Lancia. In a similar 1910 move, a group of Milanese businessmen took over a factory set up to produce Darracq 4-cylinder taxicabs. This group was called Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or ALFA.

What city first used stop signs? Stop signs first showed up in Detroit, Michigan, in 1915. They were black on white and smaller than modern signs. Until then traffic-control devices were generally manual, using such devices as semaphores (flags), policemen in traffic towers, and hand-turned stop-and-go signs. In the 1920s, black-on-yellow signs were introduced, while white-on-red signs appeared in 1954. 703

Mounting height has also evolved. Early signs were about three feet off the ground. Modern signs are more than six feet high.

What does “MG” stand for on the classic British sports car? The MGB is the best-known classic British sports car and was introduced in 1962 as an update of the original MGA, which first appeared in 1955. There were approximately 375,000 MGBs built before the company went out of business in 1981. The MG stands for Morris Garages, a retail outlet that was established in 1911 and that began selling MG-badged Morris Specials in the 1920s.

Where did the Rolls-Royce automobile get its name? Charles Rolls (1877–1910), a salesman, and Henry Royce (1863–1933), an electrical engineer, got together in 1906 to produce a car that would be sold exclusively by Rolls. They agreed the car would be called a Rolls-Royce. The first model was the Silver Ghost, which they produced until 1925. The company continued in private ownership until 1971 when financial problems in its aircraft division led to a takeover by the British government. Today, Rolls-Royce is owned by the German automobile maker Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW). Rolls-Royce is highly regarded for its engines. They powered many of the Spitfires and Hurricanes used in the Battle of Britain during the Second World War.


Why is the rubber covering of a car wheel called a “tire”? The word tire is taken from the word attire, because, like clothing, it was introduced as a dressing or covering on a wheel. First used to describe the iron rim of a wooden carriage wheel during the thirteenth century, it was spelled tyre. This shifted to tire during the seventeenth century and although this became the standard spelling for North America it shifted back again to tyre in England with the introduction of a ring of rubber, either inflated or otherwise, that came with the bicycle wheel during the 1870s. The rubber tire (tyre) was invented in 1845 by Scotsman Robert W. Thomson.

Why do we say “right away” when solving an urgent problem? If something requires immediate attention we assure a prompt response with the adverb, “right away.” This comes directly from the cries of railroad engineers who, when fast approaching an obstacle such as a cart or farmers cow on the train track, would shout, “right of way!” meaning “I can’t stop, so if you don’t move at once, we’ll collide.”


sailing on the high seas Why are ships referred to as feminine? Most vehicles, including boats, cars, and airplanes are referred to as “she” by the owners or crew. One explanation is that in ancient times, ships were protected by guardian goddesses with the appropriate female figurehead on the prow. Although some feminists believe that this custom


signifies the masculine domination and possession of all things feminine, most men or women who own or work onboard a ship consider the expression as one of affection and protection such as in a nurturing mother. The sea can be cruel and the ship protects you like a mother.

What is the name of the world’s biggest cruise ship? Cunard’s $800 million Queen Mary 2 began taking passengers in January of 2004. Currently, she is the largest cruise ship in the world, at 151,000 tons, but it does not look like she will hold that record for very long. Royal Caribbean International has already placed an order for a $1.24 billion ship that will weigh 220,000 tons when it is delivered in the fall of 2009. The Queen Mary 2 has a capacity for about 2,600 passengers. Royal Caribbean’s new ship will carry about 6,400.

Where is the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”? More than one stretch of deadly water has been called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Cape Hatteras has laid claim to the title. Indeed, it has been said that the whole North Carolina coast is a maritime graveyard. But the granddaddy of them all is Sable Island. This 26-mile strip of sand 100 miles off the coast of mainland Nova Scotia had its first documented wreck in 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s ship, Delight, ran aground there. Between that time and 1947, when the freighter Manhasset became Sable Island’s last major victim (not including the yacht Merrimac, in 1999),


350 vessels came to grief in the waters around Sable — and those are only the recorded wrecks. No doubt many a ship written off as “lost” met its fate in these notorious waters.

Why was the Titanic said to be unsinkable? The Titanic was the most majestic ship of its time; 11 storeys tall and as long as four city blocks. Her interior was divided into 16 watertight compartments that could be separated by emergency doors activated by the flick of an electrical switch in the bridge. The Titanic’s owners and officers knew that if more than five of the watertight compartments were breached, the ship would sink. But the odds against such an occurrence were astronomical.

What happened to the Titanic at 11:40 p.m.? At that time Seaman Frederick Fleet, on lookout duty in the crow’s nest, signalled to the bridge that an iceberg was dead ahead. First Officer William Murdock ordered a hard turn to starboard, pulled the engine room telegraph to full-speed-astern, and hit the switch to close all the watertight doors. But it was too late. Thirty-seven seconds after Fleet gave his signal the Titanic brushed against a submerged protrusion of the iceberg. Steel plates on the liner’s starboard side buckled like cardboard as the ice slashed a gash below the waterline, long enough to flood six of the vessel’s compartments, including the number five and number six boiler rooms. The Titanic was doomed. Five Reasons for the Great Loss of Life on the Titanic


• There were 1,028 too few spaces available in the Titanic’s lifeboats to accommodate all of the people onboard. • The launching of the available lifeboats was badly handled, with none of the boats being assigned a full capacity of people. There had been no lifeboat or life jacket drill. • Few of the people in lifeboats did anything to help people struggling in the water. • The nearest ship, the Californian, only 20 miles away, was unaware of the Titanic’s situation. People on the Californian thought the Titanic’s distress flares were celebratory fireworks. • The North Atlantic water was freezing cold and even people wearing life jackets could survive in it for only a few minutes. When the ship Carpathia arrived to search for survivors, its crew picked up 705 people in lifeboats. No survivors were plucked from the sea. There is some doubt about the exact number of people who perished. The Americans peg the death toll at 1,517; the British estimate it to be 1,490.

Why are sailors’ carvings on whalebone called “scrimshaw”? “Scrimshaw” is a slang term thought to have originated among New England whalers in the early 1800s. It describes the art works sailors created while carving whalebone and teeth during the many hours of spare time they had during whaling voyages that lasted for years. The hobby created a class of craftsman called scrimshanders. Their creations


included umbrella handles, knives, and various fittings like hinges, with images of ships, wives and girlfriends, and whaling scenes scratched onto their surfaces. President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, collected scrimshaw and helped bring it back into the public eye. Quickies Did you know… • that the most popular christened name of private boats in North America is Obsession? • that the top 10 most popular boat names for 2007 were: Black Pearl, Liberty, Second Wind, Amazing Grace, Aquaholic, Knot on Call, Second Chance, Wanderlust, The Dog House, and Carpe Diem or Seas the Day?

Why is a rigid, immovable position said to be “hard and fast”? If a person can’t be moved through any debate or argument, they are said to be holding “hard and fast.” This is another nautical term and simply means that a ship is firmly stranded on shore, making it very difficult to move. The figurative use of the expression with its application to anything immovable was well known before the nineteenth century.


Why do sailors fear “deadheads”? “Deadhead” has a surprising number of meanings. The one most likely heard today describes the followers of a 1960s band called the Grateful Dead. Many of these fans have devoted years of their lives to following the band from one show to the next. The dangerous deadhead is feared by sailors at sea. It is a log, or perhaps the remains of a wrecked wooden ship, that floats just below the surface of the water ready to collide with an unwary vessel.

How can you tell a person’s character by the “cut of their jib”? A person’s general character can be quickly determined by their overall appearance and manner or by “‘the cut of their jib.” You can tell whether or not you would deal with a person by this first impression. The jib of a sailing ship is a triangular sail between the fore topmast and the jib boom. A sailor could determine the nationality and seaworthiness of a ship and crew and quickly form an opinion of it by the shape and style or “cut of its jib.” The use of the idiomatic expression to describe a person began in the early nineteenth century.

Why is the British national flag called a “jack” as in Union Jack? Any national flag which incorporates a union within its design is a jack. Therefore, the American Stars and Stripes is also a jack. In 1634, the union flag symbolizing the crowns of England and Scotland was introduced by combining the 711

crosses of St. George and St. Andrew. The cross saltire of St. Patrick was added in 1801 after the union of the parliaments of Ireland and Great Britain. The term jack was first used to name the small union flag on a ship. (Sailors have long been called “jacks” or “Jack Tars.”)

When challenging the truth, why do we say “tell it to the marines”? The expression, “tell it to the marines” means “that doesn’t sound true” and began in the longer form, “He may tell that to the marines, but the sailors won’t believe him.” The first marines were foot soldiers assigned to serve on board ships during the reign of England’s King Charles II in 1664. The hardened sailors had little respect for the young marines. They were more gullible than the worldly sailors, so if a tall tale was suspect, you might get a marine to believe it but never a sailor. Legend has it that the expression came from the King himself.

Why does “working out the kinks” mean getting into shape? After a period of inactivity, or not paying attention to a problem, we may need to “work the kinks out” before becoming ship-shape or up to speed. In baseball, spring training’s purpose is to “work out the kinks” so the team can function at its best. Kink is a Dutch word for twists or knots and was picked up in the seventeenth century by the British navy as meaning unravelling the multitude of ropes necessary for making a sailing ship seaworthy.


Why are sailors called “Tars”? There was a lot of canvas on the old sailing ships and this canvas was water and weather proofed with coats of tar turning it into tarpaulin. Sailors of the time often wore coats of this tarpaulin and the nickname “tar,” first recorded in 1647, became a natural extension of this practice. Another more imposing use of tar at sea was the punishment of being “tarred and feathered” which was imposed by Richard I in 1189 for sailors caught stealing.

What is the difference between a boat and a ship? The United States Navy defines a boat as “any vessel that can be hoisted aboard a ship.” Generally a boat is smaller because it’s built to sail inland waters whether by sail, oar, or motor power; a ship is built larger for open seas. Any floating vessel under 100 feet in length is considered a boat while anything longer is a ship. Exceptions: Submarines are called boats because the first ones were so small; ore carriers and ferryboats, no matter how large, are labelled boats because they follow specific routes. Ships majestically sail the high seas! Ten High Seas Movies • Mutiny on the Bounty (1935 starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable) • Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 starring Johnny Depp) • Das Boot (“The Boat” Russian, 1981) 713

• The Hunt for Red October (1990 starring Sean Connery) • Titanic (1997 starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) • The Poseidon Adventure (1972 starring Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine) • A Perfect Storm (2000 starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg) • Dead Calm (1989 starring Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill) • The Caine Mutiny (1954 starring Humphrey Bogart) • Captain Blood (1935 starring Errol Flynn)

Why is a ship’s bathroom called the “head”? There was no space on early sailing ships for such luxuries as bathrooms, urinals or toilets. When a crew member wanted to relieve himself, he went to the front or “head” of the ship and did his business while sitting in the rigging over the water. Eventually, holes were built into the sides of the ship’s bow (head) for this purpose with a pail of water nearby for flushing into the sea.

Why do we say that someone is “on the spot” when they’re facing big trouble? To be “on the spot” means you’re in serious difficulty, and it comes from the pirates of the Caribbean. The spot is the ace of spades, a card that pirates ceremoniously showed to a condemned person indicating that they were about to be 714

executed as a traitor. To be put on the spot has become much less dire, and instead of being a signal that you’re being put to death, it has evolved into meaning, “Explain yourself or you’re out of here.”

How did “spick and span” come to mean very clean? Today, Spik and Span is a trade name for a well-known cleanser, but the expression began in the fourteenth century as the nautical term “spick and span new,” to describe a freshly built or refurbished ship. A spick was a spike, while span was a Viking reference to new wood, but also means any distance between two extremities (such as the bow and stern of a ship). The wooden ship was so clean that even the spikes looked new.

Why does “chewing the fat” mean gossip or casual conversation? During the twentieth century, “chewing the fat” came to mean passing time with informal small talk. The phrase originated with the grumbling of nineteenth-century British sailors whose lean diet was often nothing more than the fat from barrels of salt pork. Their whining while chewing the tough meat would expand to include complaints about every other hardship at sea and became known as “chewing the fat.”


Why when dreaming of better times do we say, “When my ship comes in”? During the nineteenth century, Bristol, England, was the busiest seaport in the world, and while local sailors were at sea, tradesmen would extend credit to their wives until the very day their husband’s ship returned to port. Because the ship meant her family’s livelihood, women referred to their husband’s vessel as “my ship,” and when asking for credit would promise to pay the tab “when my ship comes in.”

Why do we say that someone burdened by guilt has an “albatross” around his or her neck? An “albatross” is a figurative stigma for shame. It refers to a guilt that never leaves you and becomes the defining characteristic of a moral burden. The albatross is a bird that symbolized good luck to sailing ships because it signalled that land was nearby. The bird’s change in fortune resulted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner that tells of a captain who killed an albatross after which there was a prolonged calm that stranded his ship. As a consequence, the captain was forced by the crew to wear the dead bird around his neck. Coleridge (1772–1834) himself had his share of dire straits, battling drug addiction, marital difficulties, and personal setbacks through much of his middle years.


What did the Kon Tiki expedition seek to prove? One of the boldest ocean voyages of the twentieth century was led by a Norwegian named Thor Heyerdahl in a balsa wood raft called the Kon Tiki. He built the raft to specifications set out by ancient South American craftsmen. A radio was the only modern convenience he allowed himself. His goal was to prove that people living in western South America could have colonized the Polynesian islands on the other side of the Pacific Ocean thousands of years ago. The voyage lasted 101 days and covered 4,287 miles, ending when the Kon Tiki was wrecked on a coral reef short of its ultimate destination of Tahiti. A 1951 book about the voyage paints wonderful images of life lived so near to the ocean surface.

What is the meaning of the nautical phrase “before the mast”? In his book Two Years Before the Mast, the American lawyer and author Richard Henry Dana (1815–1882) reveals his experiences as a young man at sea aboard the brig Pilgrim in 1834. The mast of a sailing ship was the boundary between the quarters of officers and crew. Dana kept a diary of the wretched treatment and conditions experienced by a common seaman living “before the mast,” and from his notes he compiled his book, published in 1840.


Why were sailors so superstitious? Life-and-death situations always give rise to superstitions, so early sailors took no chances and followed many good-luck rituals beyond prayer. One such ritual was to “step a mast,” or place a silver coin from the year a ship was built under its main mast to keep the wind “happy.” As a backup, horseshoes were nailed to the mast to keep storms at bay. Sighting a dolphin brought good luck, but killing them could be disastrous. Killing a gull was unforgivable, since it was believed that these birds carried the souls of sailors lost at sea.

What makes a ship a “tramp steamer”? Today a “tramp steamer” is more accurately described as a “tramp freighter,” since steam engines have long been replaced by diesels. In either case, just like human “tramps” who wander the streets, these ships navigate the oceans of the world without a fixed schedule, looking for ports of call that will offer the best price for their cargoes. Tramp steamers were often the way adventurous people got to exotic places during the first half of the twentieth century. A number of famous writers, American playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953) and British novelist Malcolm Lowry (1909–1957) to name two, shipped aboard tramp freighters when they were young and later wrote about their experiences.


How do large ships anchor in deep water? Because of the oceans great depth, a harbour anchor is of no use to a ship at sea. In its simplest form, a sea anchor is a canvas sack attached to a metal ring. Tying it to the stern of a boat and dragging it through the water creates resistance, which slows the boat down. In a strong gale, sea anchors can make the difference between life and death.

Why does the word careen describe dangerous driving? We describe a “careening” car as one that lurches or swerves from side to side in a dangerous manner, because the word careen is the nautical term for keel. Sailing ships leaning precariously while sailing into the wind must careen or steer from side to side. These ships needed to have their bottoms repaired regularly and scraped to rid them of barnacles. When no dry dock was available, the captain would find a suitable beach, and then run his ship aground at low tide. The vessel was then “careened” or tipped over, exposing the keel and allowing sailors to clean and restore one side of the hull. Once both sides were finished, and the tide returned, the ship would float off the beach and sail back to sea.

Why is a gentle wind called a “breeze”? In 1626 in a guide for young seamen, the English captain and explorer John Smith (1580–1631) recorded the first use of the word breeze in a list of winds in order of their severity. These included a calm, a breeze, a gale, a gust, a storm, a spout, a tornado, a monsoon, and a hurricane. Captain Smith spelled


breeze as brese and had taken it from the Spanish word briza, meaning “a light wind.”

Where is the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes”? Each of the Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario — has one or more “graveyards.” The most notorious of them is Long Point. This slim peninsula jutting 20 miles from the Canadian shore of Lake Erie is surrounded by treacherous shoals. The deep channel between Long Point’s shoals and the American shore is very narrow, which in the nineteenth century made collisions a major danger. One such accident in August, 1852, resulted in the sinking of the passenger steamer Atlantic, with a loss of 350 lives.


holidays and celebrations Why is a special day called a “red letter day”? In the Middle Ages, simple survival meant working long and hard from sunrise to sunset, so any break, such as for a religious festival, was a very special day. Called “holy days,” these feasts were marked on the calendar in red, giving us the expression “red letter day.” Around the fifteenth century,


“holy days” became “holidays,” meaning simply a day off work, still marked on the calendar in red.

Why do we say “let’s have a ball” when looking for a good time? A “ball” was a medieval religious celebration held on special occasions such as the Feast of Fools at Easter. It was called a ball because the choirboys danced and sang in a ring while catching and returning a ball that was lobbed at them by a church leader (called the ring leader). Although tossing balls during large circular dances became a common folk custom, the only ball at a dance today is the name.

Why do Canadians celebrate Victoria Day? To most Canadians, May 24 signals the start of gardening season, but it’s also a memory of what was once called Empire Day, when the people living on 20 percent of the Earth’s land surface owed allegiance to the British Crown. For 64 of its 300 years, the Empire was presided over by Queen Victoria. Canada has celebrated Victoria Day on May 24 since 1845. Nowadays, the May 24 holiday celebrates the birthday of the current monarch.

What’s the story behind Kwanza? Kwanza is a seven-day celebration beginning the day after Christmas. It was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, chairman of African studies at California State University, and is based on an African winter harvest. Kwanza means “first fruits” in Swahili and celebrates African heritage. On


each night of Kwanza, one of several candles is lit and gifts reflecting creativity and community are exchanged. Kwanza is based on seven principles: umoja means unity, kujichagulla means self-determination, ujima means collective work and responsibility, ujamaa means cooperative economics, nia means purpose, kuumba means creativity, and imani means faith.

Why is Easter a higher Christian holiday than Christmas? With the rise of Christianity, the church decided that death days were the real birthdays because the deceased was being reborn in paradise, and so the date of a person’s demise was recorded as their birth, or rebirth, day. The birthdays of saints are celebrated on their death days. It was through this logic that Christ’s death day, or Easter, became more important than Christmas.

Why is Thanksgiving celebrated six and a half weeks earlier in Canada than in the United States? It took 200 years after the pilgrims first celebrated Thanksgiving in 1621 before it became an annual holiday in the United States. It was Sarah Hale, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” who convinced Abraham Lincoln to create the annual celebration in 1863. Canada went along in 1879, but because of a shorter growing season changed the date in 1957 from the end of November to the second Monday in October.


How did pumpkin pie become associated with Thanksgiving? There was no pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving, but because the plant’s season coincides with the celebration and because it was Native Americans who taught the Pilgrims the pumpkin’s value, the melon has become a traditional Thanksgiving dish. At first pumpkin was customarily served stewed as a custard or sweet pudding and was presented in a hollowed-out pumpkin shell. The first reference to pumpkin pie appeared in a book entitled The History of New England written by Edward Johnson in 1654.

How accurate is the Groundhog Day forecast? In German folklore, if it’s sunny when he emerges from hibernation, a groundhog will be frightened by his own shadow and return to his lair; therefore crops shouldn’t be planted because there will be another six weeks of winter. In fact the groundhog comes out hungry and ready to mate, but if he’s still dozy and his senses are dulled, he goes back to sleep. As a forecaster, the groundhog is only accurate 28 percent of the time — about the same as the weatherman.


What is the origin of Boxing Day? Beginning in the Middle Ages, Boxing Day was known as St. Stephen’s Day in honour of the first Christian martyr. Although unknown in the United States, Boxing Day is still observed in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. It’s called “Boxing Day” because on the day after Christmas, the well-off boxed up gifts to give to their servants and trades people, while the churches opened their charity boxes to the poor.

Why is a major celebration called a “jubilee”? A jubilee is “a season of rejoicing” and comes from the ancient Hebrews. Fifty years after the Jews were freed from


Egyptian bondage, they created a semi-centennial festival that lasted a full year within which all land would be left fallow and returned to its original owners. All debts were paid off and all slaves were emancipated. Declared a year of rest, the jubilee’s arrival every 50 years was announced by the trumpeting of rams’ horns throughout the land. A ram’s horn in Hebrew is yobhel, which led to the English word jubil or jubilee. Today there are silver jubilees (25 years), golden jubilees (50 years), diamond jubilees (60 years), and platinum jubilees (75 years). In 1897, Britain’s Queen Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee throughout the British Empire.

When is Mother-in-Laws’ Day? According to a resolution passed by the United States House of Representatives in 1981, the fourth Sunday in October is set aside to honour mothers by marriage. Although the United States Senate hasn’t adopted the resolution making the occasion official, the greeting-card industry continues to lobby for Mother-in-Laws’ Day and each year about 800,000 cards are sent to spouses’ mothers.

When is Grandparents’ Day? In 1969 a 65-year-old Atlanta man named Michael Goldgar returned home from visiting an aunt confined to a nursing home and realized that most of the elderly were treated as burdens by their children and grandchildren. He thought of earlier times when the elderly were a source of wisdom and the nucleus of a family. Goldgar began a seven-year


campaign, including 17 trips to Washington, D.C., at his own expense before President Jimmy Carter (1924–) signed legislation making Grandparents’ Day the Sunday after Labor Day. As a result, more than four million cards are sent each year to grandparents.

How did the word carnival come to mean a self-indulgent celebration? In the Christian calendar, Lent, a reverent and disciplined observance of Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday. In the Middle Ages the faithful were forbidden to eat meat during Lent, and so the day before Ash Wednesday became known as Fat Tuesday, when everyone would overindulge in a Mardi Gras of what was about to be forbidden. In Church Latin, carne vale literally means “farewell to meat.”

Why is a decorated parade vehicle called a “float”? The more elaborate the parade; the more elaborate the floats. Certainly, because the wheels are generally covered by the trappings on the parade vehicle they appear to float like a boat but this isn’t how they got the name. The tradition began with decorated flat bottom floating barges which were pulled along a canal by horses during elaborate festivals.

Who invented the pre-Christmas anti-holiday, Festivus? A 1997 episode of Seinfeld introduced the world to the pseudo-holiday of Festivus, and since then, the day has 727

enjoyed a surprising and growing popularity. Celebrated on December 23, Festivus features an aluminum pole (in place of a Christmas tree) and such Festivus dinner activities as “the Airing of Grievances” and “the Feats of Strength.” (The latter tradition requires that a celebrant wrestle the head of the household to the floor and pin him or her.) Although it was Seinfeld that first brought Festivus to the masses, the holiday had been an annual tradition of the O’Keefe family for years. Reader’s Digest columnist Dan O’Keefe created Festivus in 1966. His son, Daniel, would grow up to become a writer on Seinfeld, and worked Festivus into a storyline.


christmas What’s the story behind “Silent Night”? On Christmas Eve in 1817, when Father Joseph Mohr of St. Nicholas Church in Arnsdorf, Austria, found that a mouse had chewed through the bellows of his church pipe organ, he rushed to the home of music teacher Franz Gruber. The two men quickly wrote a musical piece, hoping it would save the


Christmas Mass. With Father Mohr playing guitar, they sang their song in harmony to a small Austrian congregation who became the first to hear the most beloved carol of them all —“Silent Night.” “Silent Night” was performed by troupes of Tyrolean Folk Singers, but by 1848, when Father Mohr died penniless at the age of 55, “Silent Night” had fallen into obscurity. In 1854, King Frederick William IV of Prussia heard the song and was so moved, he became responsible for its revival.

What does “Auld Lang Syne” mean? Much of the planet sings “Auld Lang Syne” at Christmas and New Year’s without having a clue what the words auld lang syne actually mean. The lyrics for the song were written by Scots poet Robbie Burns, who wrote much of his work in Gaelic. The phrase auld lang syne directly translates to “old long since,” which can more accurately be read as “times gone by.”

How did turkey become the traditional Christmas dinner? Up until the nineteenth century, mincemeat pie was the common Christmas feast in both North America and Europe, with preferred birds being pigeon, peacock, guinea hen, and goose. Turkey was introduced from America to Europe by the Spanish in the sixteenth century and caught on big time in 1843 after Ebenezer Scrooge sent a


turkey to Bob Cratchet in the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol.

What happened to the man who outlawed Christmas? In 1643, the English Puritan parliament frowned on the pagan rituals of Christmas and banned its celebration after William Prynne published his anti-Christmas manifesto. Clergymen were imprisoned for so much as preaching on December 25. After several years of rioting against the ban, King Charles II arrested Prynne and had him pilloried then had both his ears cut off while the manifesto was burned in front of him. The king re-established Christmas celebrations, but not before having Prynne expelled from Oxford and the legal profession.



What was the original meaning of merry in “Merry Christmas”? Today, merry, as in “Merry Christmas,” suggests gaiety, a mood for celebration, but its original meaning was quite different. For example, the carol we sing as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” should read “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” The word was at least 400 years old when it was first written down in 1827, and at that time merry didn’t mean joyous, but rather, peaceful or pleasant.

Was Rudolph the only name of the red-nosed reindeer? In 1939, when Robert May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward, wrote a promotional Christmas poem for that Chicago department store, its principal character was “Rollo” the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but the corporate executives didn’t like that name, nor did they approve of May’s second suggestion, “Reginald.” It was May’s four-year-old daughter who came up with “Rudolph,” and the title for a Christmas classic.

What is the oldest Santa Claus parade in the world? In 1905, the world’s first Santa Claus Parade was held in Toronto. It was a small affair that year, amounting to a solitary Santa walking from the city’s Union Station up Yonge Street to the Eaton’s department store. The parade quickly grew and, despite financial difficulties that nearly derailed the event in the 1980s, the Toronto Santa Claus


Parade is still a popular annual tradition that is broadcast around the world. Ten Christmas Movies • A Christmas Carol (1951 starring Alastair Sim) • Miracle on 34th Street (1947 starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood) • It`s A Wonderful Life (1946 starring James Stewart and Donna Reed) • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989 starring Chevy Chase) • A Christmas Story (1983 starring Peter Billingsley) • The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 Tim Burton animated) • Holiday Inn (1942 starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire) • Home Alone (1990 starring Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci) • White Christmas (1954 starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) • The Polar Express (2004 animated with Tom Hanks)


Does Mrs. Claus have a first name? Yes. In fact, she seems to go by different names depending on where you live. In Switzerland, she is known as “Lucy,” in Austria, “Nikolofrau,” and in the Netherlands, “Molly Grietja.” Movies and stories have often given her a name. Angela Lansbury played her as “Anna” in the 1996 TV movie Mrs. Santa Claus, while Katherine Lee Bates (better known as the lyricist responsible for “America the Beautiful”) named her “Goody” in the story “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.” In the Rankin and Bass TV special Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Mrs. Claus answers to the name “Jessica.” Despite the many names she goes by, there appears to be only one Mrs. Claus, so there’s no need to worry about any indiscretions on the part of Santa.

How many letters to Santa does the post office process each year? Canada Post, claiming that Santa Claus lives near the magnetic North Pole, which lies within Canadian territory, has a special postal code for Santa’s home: H0H 0H0. Approximately one million letters come to this postal code each year from Canada and around the world, and Canada Post claims that they answer each letter in the language in which it was written. Meanwhile, the post office in North Pole, Alaska, processes roughly 120,000 letters to Santa each year. Numbers are more difficult to track in the United States, since post offices in different communities have their own letters-to-Santa programs. But Santa isn’t the only gift-bringer with a lot of reading to do in December. In the United


Kingdom, the Royal Mail receives 750,000 letters to Father Christmas each year.

How much would all the gifts cost in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Because the golden rings are pheasants and not jewellery, the most expensive item in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” would be seven swans a-swimming, at US$7,000, followed by ten lords a-leaping and nine ladies dancing. The current price of a partridge in a pear tree is $34, which is the hourly rate for eight maids a-milking. So when everything is added up, the tab is $15,944.20.


What is “wassailing”? Most of us only know the term wassailing from the song, “Here We Come a-Wassailing.” The tradition of wassailing has vanished over the years, leaving many to wonder what the song is referring to. The word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase waes hael, meaning “good health”— a phrase offered as a toast when drinking. At Christmastime, wassailers would journey from door to door singing carols in exchange for drinks from a punch bowl. Another tradition had things working the other way around: the wassailers would carry a punch bowl from door to door, offering drinks in exchange for a monetary expression of appreciation. Either way, there was a great deal of drinking to “good health.” Quickies Did you know… • that in Poland in the Middle Ages it was believed that a child born on Christmas Day was likely to become a werewolf? • that Marquette, Michigan, is more likely to experience a white Christmas than Anchorage, Alaska, or Saskatoon, Saskatchewan? • that it’s considered bad luck to throw out the ashes from your Yule log on Christmas Day?


What were the bizarre ingredients of history’s most exotic Christmas pies? An early English saying was, “The devil himself dare not appear in Cornwall during Christmas for fear of being baked in a pie.” Records show that living creatures from blackbirds to pheasants, from foxes to rabbits, and in one case even a dwarf, were cooked into Christmas pies at temperatures not hot enough to kill them. Then, as a festival highlight, the crust was broken, and the enclosed creatures would fly, hop, or run among the guests.


How much weight does the average person gain over Christmas? In the Middle Ages, Christmas banquets started at three in the afternoon, with appetizers and fortified mulled wine followed by ten main courses, and lasted until midnight. Today, over the holidays, North Americans consume 24 million turkeys and 112 million cans of cranberries. We drink 108 million quarts of eggnog and 89 million gallons of liquor. The average weight gain over the Christmas holidays is four to six pounds.


religion and superstition Why do we say that someone who falls asleep quickly is “out like a light”? “Out like a light” originated in the early 1900s. It reminds us that electricity is a fairly recent invention. People used to marvel on how quickly light came and went with nothing more than the flick of a switch, just as many people marvel at


those who fall asleep without any tossing and turning. The phrase also describes fighters who drop like a stone after a knockout punch in the boxing ring and drunkards who pass out on the floor.

What is a “dead ringer”? Ringer comes from horseracing in the nineteenth century. Sometimes an unscrupulous owner would run a poor horse in a number of races to develop long odds against it winning. When a major race came around, the poor horse would be replaced by a good horse that looked exactly the same, called a “dead ringer,” and people in the know would gamble a lot of money on it and enjoy a big win. A more ghoulish, but firmly discounted, explanation of dead ringer is that it refers to someone who was been accidentally buried alive, which wasn’t all that uncommon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but was fortunate enough to have a string tied to his wrist that was attached to a bell. If he pulled on the string, the bell would ring, and a grave digger would come to dig him up.

What is the “Evil Eye”? Virtually every culture throughout history has believed in the danger of falling under the spell of a withering glance or the “evil eye.” Folklorists believe that the ancients became fearful of losing possession of their souls after seeing their own reflection in another person’s eyes. The word pupil is from pupilla, the Latin for “little doll.” In Roman times,


professional sorcerers with the evil eye where hired to cast spells on a person’s enemy. The Egyptian use of mascara by both men and women was devised to absorb sunlight which minimized the reflection of another into the eye and not for cosmetic purposes. During the Middle Ages those with unsettling looks even when caused by medical problems like cataracts were often put to death. An evil eye is sometimes called the “hairy eyeball” because the eyebrows and eyelashes are scrunched together during an angry glance or stare.

Where did we get the expression, “For the love of Pete”? This phrase and others like it (for example “For Pete’s sake”) are euphemisms for the phrases “For the love of God/Christ” or “For God’s/ Christ’s sake” and hail from a time when those phases were considered blasphemous. Nowadays phrases like “For the love of God” are commonly used, but the euphemisms are still used as well. Why Pete? Most likely it is a reference to the Catholic Saint Peter. Other phrases with similar origins are “Zounds” (archaic British slang), a contraction of “Christ’s wounds”; “Oh my goodness” and “Oh my gosh” for “Oh my God; and “Gosh darn it” for “God damn it.”


What is the Holy Grail? Today we often refer to anything elusive and sought-after as a “Holy Grail” because from the Crusaders to the present the search for the original Holy Grail has consumed Christendom. The “grail,” or bowl, in question was used by Christ at the last supper and disappeared after his crucifixion. Legend has it that the Holy Grail surfaced in England during medieval times and finding it became an obsession of King Arthur. Part of the legend is that Joseph of Arimathaea used the grail to catch the blood of Christ at the crucifixion. The Old English greal is from the Latin word crater, meaning “bowl.”

What’s the difference between a “priest” and a “monk”? In the Roman Catholic Church, a priest is ordained to represent Christ in performing the sacraments. Priests usually work from a church under the direction of Bishop. They minister or attend to the needs of believers. Monks take vows of obedience. If they are ordained as well, they are called Fathers, if not, they are Brothers. A monk’s principal duty is to pray. Depending on the religious order that a monk belongs to, he may or may not be active in the world outside of the monastery. Monks who work in the community are often called friars.


Why is someone living a good life said to be on the “straight and narrow”? Someone on the “straight and narrow” is living a legal, moral, and disciplined life and was referred to in The Pilgrim’s Progress by English writer John Bunyan (1628–1688). In that inspirational book, Pilgrim, the representative of everyman, must follow the “straight and narrow.” The phrase has a biblical origin in Matthew 7:14: “Broad is the way that is the path of destruction but narrow is the gate and straight is the way that leadeth to the house of God.”

How did the “Quakers” get their name? One of the founders of The Religious Society of Friends, a movement begun in Britain during the seventeenth century, was George Fox. Fox was a “firebrand” and was imprisoned many times for following his beliefs; chiefly that no one should take any oath of allegiance other than to God. During one of his trials Fox chastised the magistrates telling them that they should “quake” at the word of God. From that point on the Society of Friends became known as “Quakers.” Refusing to swear oaths was one reason for their persecution but Quakers championed such noble causes as the abolition of slavery, the equality of women, the humane treatment of the mentally ill and prisoners, and the end to all war. The state of Pennsylvania was established as a haven for Quakers in the New World by William Penn.


In 1689, the British Toleration Act of Parliament was passed and made life tolerable for the Quakers. It ensured freedom of conscience and made it illegal for anyone to disturb another’s form of worship.

How many saints are there? The first official canonization took place in 993 AD when Pope John XV (died 996 AD) declared Bishop Ulrich of Augsburg a saint. Butler’s Lives of the Saints, published in 1759, had 1,486 entries. The revised edition in 1956 listed 2,565. Currently, an up-to-date version of the book is in the works, so the exact number of saints is unknown. Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) canonized 12 people, which brought the total number of saints named during his pontification to more than 300, which is about half the number of saints named in the past 400 years. During the first 800 to 900 years of Christianity, there was no formal recognition of sainthood. The number of martyrs and others of exceptional faith from that time are the main reason for the Feast of All Saints or All Saints Day held on November 1 and the vigil of which is called All Hollows Day or Halloween.

Who is Canada’s patron saint? Canada has two patron saints. Since French Catholics were the first Europeans to settle Canada, they brought their religion and customs with them, including the assignment of patron saints. St. Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother, shares


patronage of Canada with Mary’s husband, St. Joseph. St. Anne is also the patron saint of housewives, cabinet makers, and all women in labour. Her Roman Catholic feast day is July 26. St. Joseph shares his patronage of Canada with Mexico, China, Belgium, and carpenters. In 1870, Pope Pius IX (1792–1878) declared St. Joseph the universal patron of the church. St. Joseph’s feast day is March 19.

Why do Muslims pray five times a day? Muslims pray five times a day in response to an order from God. Prayers must be said just before sunrise, after the sun peaks at noon, in the late afternoon, just after sunset, and between sunset and midnight. The ritual of prayer involves a series of actions that go with the words of a prayer. Everyday thoughts must be put aside before praying; otherwise no benefit will be realized. Everyone from the age of seven is encouraged to take part in prayer. In the beginning, before life became too busy, Christians also prayed five times a day!

Why do people pray with a string of beads? The rosary, or “wreath of roses,” first appeared in fifteenth-century Europe, but the practice of reciting prayers with a string of beads or knots goes back about 500 years before the dawn of Christianity. The word bead comes from the Anglo-Saxon word bidden, meaning “to ask.” The principle for both Christians and Muslims is that the more you ask or repeat a prayer the more effective it is, and so the rosary is an aid in keeping count.


Why is an excessive enthusiast called a “zealot”? A zealot is a supreme fanatic, often a bigot, and perhaps unfairly is best known in history as a radical Jewish political movement called the Zealots. This sect joined with several other Jewish groups to launch a rebellion in Palestine against the Roman Empire in the first century AD. Known for being aggressive, intolerant, and violent, the Zealots captured Jerusalem in 66 AD and held it for four years. When Rome finally recaptured the city, it was destroyed. The sect also captured the fortress of Masada and held it for several years against thousands of troops until the Romans set it on fire in 73 AD, leaving a handful of survivors to tell the tale. The word zealot comes from the Greek zēlōtēs, which means “a fervent follower.” It is a synonym of the Hebrew word kanai, which means “one who is jealous on behalf of God.”

Where do we get the expression “earn brownie points”? The original “brownies” are little Scottish elves (wee brown men) who are believed to fix things and help out around farms when everyone is asleep. They were the inspiration for the name Lord Baden-Powell’s sister, Agnes, gave to the branch of Scouts that serves younger girls from six through eight years of age. Brownie points are those accumulated by the girls for good deeds. Enough Brownie points earns a reward or significant badge of honour. The first modern use of “brownie points” was in 1951 when scoring them was offered as a strategy of good deeds for men to stay out of trouble with their wives.


When someone survives disaster, why do we say he’s “cheated the devil”? The first recorded instance of “cheating the devil” can be found in the Hebrew Talmud. The devil offered a farmer two years of a flourishing harvest with the condition that the devil would get the crops grown underground for the first year, and those grown above the ground the following year. During the devil’s below-the-soil year, the farmer grew wheat and barley. In the above-the-soil year he grew carrots and turnips, and thereby cheated the devil.

Where were tarot cards first made? The first tarot cards were hand-painted for Italian nobility in the fourteenth century. They were used for games and fortune telling, and were called carte du trionfi or triumph cards. They were renamed tarocchi cards in the 1500s to distinguish them from a popular game being played with regular playing cards. They became known as tarot cards in sixteenth-century France. A tarot deck consists of 22 face cards and 56 suits.

What does a husband have to say to divorce his wife under Islamic law? According to Sharia law, a husband has only to tell his wife “I dismiss you” three times and they are divorced. This, however, is an oversimplification. There are differences in Islamic divorces depending on whether one is Shiite or Sunni, and depending on which Islamic nation the couple resides in. In some Islamic nations women have more rights in matters of marriage and divorce than in others. For Muslims living in 748

secular nations, Sharia law has no legal application, and divorce must be in accordance with local legislation.

How did divorce?





In the earliest writings a wife is a piece of property, like a dog or a donkey. The husband could divorce her for something as trivial as burning his supper. As time passed, it became necessary for the husband to justify the divorce and obtain a “bill of divorcement.” This quite likely gave him time to reconsider what might have been a rash act. Eventually, Judaism regarded divorce as something tragic. One ancient author wrote: “the very altar shed tears when a man divorced the wife of his youth.”

Where in the New Testament does Jesus speak about divorce? In Mark 10:2–12, Jesus flatly denounces divorce: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” However, in Matthew 19:1–9, Jesus makes an allowance for “unchastity.” As with so much else in the Bible, over the centuries these passages have been the subject of much controversy and interpretation.

What does the Old Testament say about divorce? In Deuteronomy 24:1–2 it says that “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in 749

her: then let him write her a letter of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.”

How did the Council of Trent affect divorce in the Roman Catholic countries of Europe? In the seventeenth century, the Council of Trent forbade divorce for Catholics. A couple could get a judicial separation, known as “divorce a mensa et thoro”, but the marriage itself could not be dissolved. This helped turn some nations toward Protestantism. However, countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy remained staunchly Catholic. For people in those countries divorce was next to impossible.


politics Why do we say “deep six” when we mean to eliminate or destroy something? During the Watergate scandals, John Dean said that John Erlichman told him to shred some sensitive documents and then deep six the briefcase by throwing it into the river. “By the deep six” is a nautical term referring to sounding the


water’s depth and means six fathoms (36 feet). In the navy, to deep six something meant to dispose of an item by tossing it overboard into deep water where it couldn’t be found.

What is an Orwellian situation? George Orwell’s great gift to the world was the image he painted of government out of control, in his novel 1984. Since its publication, the excesses of “Big Brother” have been recalled innumerable times by people fearful that their governments are going down similar paths. Situations these critics call Orwellian include illegal wiretapping and other invasions of privacy, detention without trial, bureaucratic language that masks truth, and news management.

What Canadian resource do Americans need more — oil or water? The Alberta tar sands have attracted the interest of the United States, and though Canada already accounts for 16 percent of U.S. oil consumption, new technology may someday diminish the Americans’ need for carbon-based fossil fuels. Water is another matter. Each day 4,755 billion gallons of water are funnelled through water pipes, turbines, and irrigation systems in the United States. This massive activity represents about 12 times the average daily flow of the Mississippi River. The average per person need in the United States is 2,700 gallons, or 370 billion gallons in total each and every day. With American thirst for water increasing by 19 percent per year, Canada’s water will become more than a mirage, it will be a necessity.



Why are Conservatives called “Tories”? By definition, Liberals want to change things while Conservatives want to maintain the status quo, so it should be no surprise that the word Tory is from the Celtic words for “the king’s party” and “partisans of the king,” both of which were derived from the Irish word toruigh, meaning “to ambush.” Formed in 1679, the Tory Party became the Conservative Party in 1832, but their opponents continue to call them Tories. Taob-righ is Celtic for “king’s party”— Tuath-righ for “partisans of the king” — Tar-a-ri for “come o king.”

What is an “incumbent”? “Incumbents” are politicians who have been representing your community and want to do more. Incumbents usually start with an edge because their party can often time the election, they are more well-known than their opponents, and they probably have more campaign money. These advantages mean incumbents tend to win unless they’ve done something to really upset their constituents.

Where did the phrase “spin doctor” come from? The term “spin doctor” first appeared in the New York Times during Ronald Reagan’s campaign for re-election in 1984. Spin is the twist given a baseball by a pitcher throwing a curveball to deceive the batter, while a doctor is someone who fixes a problem. Therefore, a “spin doctor” is someone who, faced with a political problem, solves it by putting a


twist on the information to bend the story to his or her own advantage.

Why did Abraham Lincoln’s son withdraw from politics? In 1865, Robert Lincoln rushed to his father’s deathbed. Sixteen years later, as Garfield’s secretary of war, he was with that president when he was shot by an assassin. In 1901, Robert arrived in Buffalo for the American Exposition just in time to see President McKinley murdered. After that, Robert Lincoln vowed never again to be in the presence of an American president.

How many former American presidents are not buried in the United States? As of 2008, there are four former American presidents not buried in the United States. Ulysses S. Grant is not buried but is entombed in New York (a body is only buried when it’s placed in the ground and covered with dirt). The others are Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the current president’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, who are all still alive. Quickies Did you know… • that Ronald Reagan was the only president of the United States who had ever been divorced?


What colour is “Alice Blue”? President Teddy Roosevelt’s 16-year-old daughter popularized “Alice Blue.” It’s a light blue with a hint of gray to match her eyes. During a time of cartwheel hats and the Gibson Girl look, the press nicknamed the pretty young woman’s dress the “Alice Blue Gown,” which became the title of a very popular song written by J. MacCarthy and H. Tierney for their 1919 musical Irene. During the 1980s the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt had many of its prominent areas painted “Alice Blue.”

Why are some politicians called “lame ducks”? A lame duck is a powerless American politician. After an election in a parliamentary system, such as that found in Britain or Canada, the House reconvenes and the winners immediately form the new government. In the American system, however, the newly elected congress doesn’t take control for months, leaving those who have lost still in charge. During this time, because they can’t pass anything meaningful, the powerless politicians are as useless as lame ducks.


What were Winston Churchill’s “black dogs”? Winston Churchill had a gift for coming up with just the right words to describe situations, for instance he was honest about his bouts of depression, which he called “black dogs.” Although he is often credited with inventing the expression, he may have learned it from one of his favourite writers, Samuel Johnson, who lived in the 1700s. Today, it is one of the slang terms the British use to describe the disease. 757

Other Churchillian turns of phrase include, “I have always felt that a politician is to be judged by the animosities he excites among his opponents,” and “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Why was the Japanese Emperor called the “Mikado”? Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado (1885) is a reference to the emperor but the word literally means “the honourable gate” and refers to the door to the palace. It was unthinkable for the Japanese to mention their rulers name so references were directed to the august entrance that concealed his existence. Poo-Bah is also from the Mikado and was the title given to “The Lord High Everything Else” and now means (as it did in the play) a pompous buffoon with unearned authority. The indirect reference to authority wasn’t unique to the Japanese. Pharaoh in Egyptian means “Great House” while the former Ottoman Empire’s seat of government was called “The High Gate” (la sublime porte).


science and technology Why is Earth the only planet not named from Greek or Roman mythology? Earth got its name long before the sixteenth century (the time of Copernicus, when humans started considering that we are on just another planet). Earth comes from the ancient Germanic languages and originally meant “the soil that was


the source of all life.” Earth is the English name, but hundreds of languages all refer to our fertile soil, our Planet Earth, as a nursing mother. Terra Mater means “Mother Earth.” In Roman mythology, the goddess of the Earth was Tellus, the fertile soil. Seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. Earth is the third planet from the sun and the fifth largest.

Why do we call our nearest terrestrial neighbour the “moon”? Because the ancients used the moon to help measure time and predict recurring monthly events such as tides it was known in Sanskrit as me which means “measurement.” Before that, the beautiful white orb was known in the Indo-European language as menes, which was also the word for month. By the Middle Ages, this reliable forecaster of earthly events had linguistically evolved to mona and eventually moon.

How far can we travel with current spacecraft propulsion technology? With current methods of powering spacecraft, we are trapped in our solar system. The farthest distance flown by any man-made craft is the 12 light hours travelled by Voyager 1 between 1977, and the present. The closest solar system to ours is Alpha Centauri, which is 4.35 light years from Earth. If Voyager 1 heads in that direction, it will need about 100,000 years to get there. Even using the most advanced propulsion systems


available today, we would only reduce the time to about 40,000 years.

Was there ever a planet named Vulcan, as in the Star Trek series? In 1845, scientists believed that the only explanation for Mercury’s confusing and erratic orbit of the sun would be the presence of gravitational pull from an unseen nearby planet, which they named “Vulcan.” Eventually Albert Einstein, through his theory of relativity, explained Mercury’s behaviour, thus eliminating the hypothetical planet Vulcan — until it was resurrected by Gene Rodenberry in Star Trek.

How frequent are total solar eclipses? Total solar eclipses are rare events, happening only once every few years, because the sun, moon, and earth must line up precisely, so the sun is completely blocked out by the moon. The most recent one was best viewed in the African country of Ghana, and took place on March 29, 2006. The previous one was in 2003 and was best viewed from Antarctica. The last one visible in Canada took place on February 26, 1979. The next one is due in August of 2008, and Canadians in the northern territory of Nunavut will have the best view.

Where does red rain come from? Strong winds at high altitudes can carry pollutants, organisms, and other materials for great distances. Huge sandstorms in the Sahara Desert lift massive


quantities of sand into the air, where it is carried on Sirocco winds to fall as red rain on many countries in Europe, including Spain, Portugal, France, and Britain, and across the Atlantic where it sometimes falls on Caribbean islands and on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Black rains from soot and yellow or green rains from concentrations of pollen have also been reported in many parts of the world. Quickies Did you know… • that, famous as the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel (Nobel Prizes) also invented plywood? • that the speed of sound changes at different altitudes? At sea level its 760 miles per hour while above 36,000 feet it’s reached at 660 miles per hour. • that the speed of light is 186,282.3959 miles per second? • that the word astronaut is from two Greek words — astron meaning “star,” and nautes meaning “sailor”? • that the name of the first Russian space station, Mir, means “peace” or “world” in Russian?

Why do local telephone numbers never start with the number one? The original dial telephone sent out a signal “click” for each number dialled. One click for 1, two “clicks” for 2, et cetera. The zero was reserved for the operator. “One” was never used 762

because early switching systems read every signal as beginning with one click, regardless of the number you were dialling, and so technically, no phone number could start with 1. It continues today simply as tradition.

Why is an alias or electronic nickname called a “handle”? An alias intended to conceal a user’s real name or identity within an electronic message is called a “handle.” Consider that handle is an extension of the word hand and is used to describe something you can get your hands on. Clearly, though an alias can be used to avoid revealing personal data, a figurative “handle” offers a way of getting hold of someone without disturbing that anonymity. The term was popular with ham radio operators and resurfaced during the CB radio craze of the 1970s and is now used on the Internet. In the jargon of the 1870s, titles such as “sir” or “Madame” were introduced to common English as “handles.” Shortwave radio operators are called “hams” from the call letters of an amateur wireless station set up by three members of the Harvard Radio Club whose last names began with the letters H, A, and M.

What was a “computer” before the electronic age? The word computer first appeared in the seventeenth century as the job title of a person who did calculations as an occupation. Although slide rules were sometimes called


computers, it wasn’t until the 1940s, with the development of massive electronic data machines, that the human occupation of computing became obsolete. These mechanical devices became known as computers.

What hand controls the most keys on a standard keyboard? When a typists hands take the standard position taught around the world, the left hand controls 15 letters, including the most frequently used, E, A, T, R, and S, while the right hand controls only 11, although it also controls the comma and the period. The left hand makes about 56 percent of the strokes leaving 44 percent for the right. Reverberates, effervesce, and stewardess can be typed entirely with the left hand. Monopoly, homonym, and lollipop can be typed using only the right hand. The delete/backspace keys come under the right, which equalizes the workload between the two hands for an average typist.

The computer terms byte, pixel, and modem are abbreviations of what combinations of words? Each word is a contraction of two words. Byte is a contraction of the words by eight and means eight bits. Half a byte is four bits (or a nibble, depending how you look at it). The word pixel is an abbreviation of picture cell, while modem is a combination of the first letters in the words modulate and demodulate.


What’s the difference between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD? For the average videophile there are two differences between these DVD technologies. Blu-Ray uses a blue laser and can store 25 GB of data on a single-layer disk or 50 GB on a dual-layer disk. HD-DVD uses a red laser, like the original DVDs, and stores 30 GB of data. Sony began using Blu-Ray in its PlayStation3 while Microsoft went with HD-DVD in its X-Box 360 videogame console. Both technologies offer much sharper pictures than standard DVDs, which are themselves much better than VHS tapes. But the death of HD-DVD has come about faster than I expected. Blu-ray is now your one and only choice because of Toshiba’s decision, announced on February 19, 2008, to discontinue the development, manufacturing, and marketing of HD-DVD players and recorders.

How were microwave ovens discovered? Masters of the culinary arts may have disdain for the microwave oven, but for most modern kitchens they are essential. The cooking use for microwaves was discovered by accident in 1945 when an American scientist named Percy Spencer (1894–1970) noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted while he was testing a magnetron, a tube that generates microwaves for use in radar systems. After experimenting with popcorn and a famous boiled egg, Spencer proved that microwaves could cook things.


Percy Spencer worked for the Raytheon Company, and it was that firm that manufactured the first microwave ovens in 1947. They were mainly sold to restaurants because they were the size of small refrigerators and were too expensive for the general public.

Do only the most intelligent graduate from university? A proper education is an advantage to any mind, but intelligence doesn’t guarantee a formal education. Albert Einstein left school at 15 after his teacher described him as “retarded”; Thomas Edison dropped out at eight. Up to 50 percent of North Americans born with a genius IQ never graduate high school. They can take comfort in these words from Emerson: “I pay the school master, but it’s the schoolboys who educate my son.”

How many people live on Earth? On February 25, 2005, the United Nations Population Division issued revised estimates and projected that the world’s population will reach 7 billion by 2013 and swell to 9.1 billion in 2050. Most of the growth is expected to take place in developing nations. Nearly all humans currently reside on Earth: 6,411,000,000 inhabitants as of January 2005. Two humans are presently in orbit around Earth on board the International Space Station. The station crew is replaced with new personnel every six months. During the exchange there


are more, and sometimes others are also travelling briefly above the atmosphere. In total, about 400 people have been in space as of 2004. Most of them have reported a heightened understanding of the world’s value and importance, reverence for human life, and amazement at the Earth’s beauty not usually achieved by those living on the surface. Quickies Did you know… • that there are 7,000 species of grass? As our most important plant it constitutes one quarter of the earth’s vegetation. • that rice fields are flooded to control weeds and have nothing to do with plant nutrition?


fashion and clothing How did the bowler hat become an English icon? The caricature of an Englishman used to include an umbrella, a briefcase, and a bowler hat. Although this is an outdated image, it still recalls a class system that defines the British character. The first bowler was designed in the mid-1800s by London hatters James and George Lock as a protective riding


hat for Thomas William Coke. The headgear became synonymous with property owners and consequently the gentry or well-to-do. The hat got its name from Thomas and William Bowler, the hat-makers who produced Coke’s prototype. Americans call this hat a derby, probably because it was so prevalent within the wealthy compound at major horse races. Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was one of the last of his generation to make the bowler high fashion. London’s trademark black high-roofed taxicabs were designed so that gentlemen wouldn’t have to remove their bowlers.

Is there a reason why the zipper on a man’s trousers is called a fly? The zipper or metal clasp on a man’s jeans isn’t the fly. This use of the word fly for the opening on trousers came from the flapping wing of an insect (fly) and was used to describe such things as a tent flap (1810) and so, in 1844, the cloth covering for the buttons was also called a fly but not the zipper!

Why are Levi denims called “jeans”? In the 1850s, when Levi Strauss ran out of tent canvas for the pants he was selling to California gold miners, he imported a tough material from Nimes in France called serge de Nim. Americanized, de Nim became denim. The word jeans is from the French word for Genoa, where the tough cloth was


invented. Jeans became popular with teenagers after James Dean wore them in the movie Rebel Without a Cause.

Why is a school jacket called a “blazer”? One theory, asserted in the “Freshman’s Handbook” for St. John’s College, Cambridge University in England, says blazer originated in 1880 as a nickname for the “blazing” scarlet flannel jackets worn by its student rowing team called the Lady Margaret Boating Club. Another theory, also widely held, says the first blazers were brass buttoned, double-breasted navy blue serge jackets ordered for the crew of HMS Blazer by its captain in anticipation of an inspection by Queen Victoria in 1837. A third theory suggests that it comes from emblazon, and refers to the crests that are often sewn onto the breast pockets.

Why is a skin-tight garment called a “leotard”? Jules Leotard was the inspiration for the song “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” He made his first public appearance in 1859 with the Cirque Napoleon and began a career of trapeze stunts that made him the toast of Europe. Leotard invented a one-piece, skin-tight garment to free his movement and display his physique. The garment made its way into the ballet studios of Paris and was known in English by 1859 as a leotard.


Leotard called his garment a maillot, which now means “bathing suit” in French. Born in Toulouse, France, Jules Leotard died from smallpox at the age of 30.

Why is a person neatly dressed said to be all “spruced up”? If someone is “spruced up,” they’ve gone to some trouble to look smart. Spruce is an unexplained alteration of the old French word for Prussia — Pruce. During the 1400s, a very stylish sleeveless and expensive form-fitting jacket known as a jerkin, was made of spruce (or pruce) leather and was imported throughout Europe from Prussia. To wear such a garment made such a profound fashion statement that to this day, being “spruced up” means dressed to kill. The spruce tree is a Prussian fir.

Why do the phrases “dressed to the nines” and “putting on the dog” mean very well dressed? The expression “putting on the dog,” meaning showing off, comes from the habit of leisurely wealthy women to carry lapdogs to afternoon social functions. “Dressed to the nines” comes from Shakespeare’s time, when the seats furthest from the stage cost one pence, and the closest, nine pence. Sitting in the expensive seats required dressing up to fit in with the well-off. It was called “dressing to the nines.”


Why is something conspicuous or weird called “outlandish”? Outlandish is usually a reference to something bizarre or unconventional, like many teen styles. The word began in Old English as utlendisc, literally meaning “out of land” or “unfamiliar” such as the customs, habits, and dress of a foreigner. Its current meaning of grossly eccentric is from 1596. Old English was the language spoken in Britain before the Norman Conquest. Exotic has the same meaning as outlandish but has a Greek derivative, exoticos meaning “from outside” or “belonging to another country.” Its reference to sexy dancers and strip-teasers (exotic dancers) surfaced in America in 1954.

Why are foot “stockings”?





In the mid-sixteenth century, men wore one solid under garment (hose) that extended from the waist and covered the legs. Around 1520 it became fashionable to cut the garment at the knees so that it became two items. At the time, a form of corporal punishment was the humiliation of being locked in public stockades. These stockades or “stocks” were made of timber with holes through which the confined legs of the convict protruded from just above the ankle; the same length of leg covered by the new garment. This is how they became humorously referred to as stockings.


Why are ankle and foot coverings called “socks”? The word sox or socks, is not an abbreviation of stockings. Sock was spelled socc in Old English and is derived from the Latin word soccus meaning a light shoe or slipper. The word began in ancient Greece as sykchos, a light shoe worn on the stage by comic actors. From this, the short woven foot covering became socks. Even shorter socks were the style in 1943 when they became known as “bobby sox.” To bob something is to shorten it.

Why is a type of woman’s underwear called a “G-string”? Although our prehistoric ancestors wore leather loincloths that have been excavated from more than 7,000 years ago, underwear as we know it didn’t become “normal” until the thirteenth century when it was tied at the waist and knees. The ancient Greeks didn’t wear underwear, though their slaves sported a kind of loincloth. The G in G-string stands for “groin” and was first used to describe the loincloths worn by North American Natives. As women’s wear, G-strings first appeared in the 1930s when they were the exclusive attire of strippers. Quickies Did you know… • that shoe laces were invented to replace buckles in 1790?


Who started the “hippie” craze? “Hippie” was first used to describe young, wannabe hipsters in the late 1930s. In the mid-1960s, it became associated with a bohemian community living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Haight-Ashbury’s hippies believed in universal peace, free love, drugs (especially LSD), and rock ’n roll music. Many sought to go back to the land to enjoy simple lives and renounce materialism. Both men and women wore their hair long and wore bright, inexpensive, or handmade clothing.

Who invented the miniskirt? Fashion designer Andre Courreges is credited with designing the first miniskirt, which was modelled at a Paris fashion show in 1964. A year later, Mary Quant, who ran a fashion boutique off Carnaby Street in London, began making mini dresses and miniskirts that were six to seven inches above the knee. They caught on and the hemlines continue to rise for the rest of the decade. Courreges also introduced some small white boots at the show in 1964. These caught on as well, helping to create the go-go dancer look.


medicine and health Why is a hospital’s emergency selection process called “triage”? Triage is from the French trier, meaning “to compare and select,” and was used in reference to sorting livestock for culling or slaughter. Triage entered medicine during the First World War, when battlefield physicians were overwhelmed


with the wounded and dying. The least likely to live were treated last. In modern hospitals the order of triage is reversed, with priority given to the most seriously in need.

What is the origin of the red-and-white barber pole? The Roman word for beard was barba, which gave us the term barber. Early barbers cut hair and trimmed beards, but they also pulled teeth and practised medicinal bloodletting. This last procedure required the patient to expose his veins by squeezing a pole painted red to hide the bloodstains. When not in use the red pole was displayed outside wrapped in the white gauze used as bandages, and it eventually became the official trademark of the barber.


Why do doctors on television use the word stat in an emergency? It was the Romans who gave the practice of medicine its prestige, and consequently, other than the Church, no other profession is still as influenced by Latin. When a doctor says, “Stat!” he is abbreviating statim, meaning “immediately.” The use of the word stands out from “Quickly!” or “Hurry!” and conveys urgency; and yes, it’s still used by real doctors outside of television. 777

Why do we get sweaty palms when we’re nervous? If your palms sweat when you’re nervous, you can blame evolution. The inside of your hands has more sweat glands than any other part of your body. This is because tens of thousands of years ago, when our primal ancestors were threatened by savage carnivores, the quickest exit was the nearest tree. Stress caused their palms to sweat, and the moisture gave them a better grip on the branches and vines they were climbing.

Why do we say that someone in good physical condition is as “fit as a fiddle”? If you are “fit as a fiddle,” you are in great shape. When the early North American settlers gathered for a barn dance, it was often an all-night session of dancing and romancing for the hard-working and socially starved farmers. The local band of amateurs was led by the fiddler who needed great endurance and stamina to play until the cows came home. This gave us the expression “fit as a fiddler,” which evolved into “fit as a fiddle.”

Why do “guts” and “pluck” mean courage? Having “guts” or “pluck” means having courage or backbone, while having neither means lily-livered cowardice, and they are all references to intestinal fortitude. Guts, of course, are internal organs while pluck is collectively the heart, liver, and lungs. Lily-livered comes from the belief that fear drains blood from 778

the liver, making it white. It was once believed that these internal organs, specifically the heart, were the source of a person’s character. In the eighteenth century, the “pluck” contained the heart, liver, lights, melt, and skirt (lights were lungs, melt was the collected blood, and the skirt was the diaphragm).

What is the difference between nauseous and nauseated? Today, the words nauseous and nauseated are often used to mean the same thing, and nauseous seems to be more popular with the public at large. But that was not the case when I was growing up. In fact, I rarely heard nauseous used, because it was just a weird way of saying nauseating. The change has created a rift in linguistic circles, as purists are offended by the poor grammar, but others believe that language should just evolve in response to common usage. Quickies Did you know… • that Noxzema was invented in 1899 by George Bunting and was named for its ability to cure eczema — “No eczema”? • that Ex-lax is an abbreviation of “Excellent Laxative”?


Why does nobody talk about the disease called “consumption” anymore? There are many names for diseases that we rarely hear anymore. For some of them that’s because the diseases are rare today thanks to vaccines. For others, however, it simply signals a better understanding of the disease. One of these diseases is consumption, which continues to ravage the world, but is now better known as tuberculosis. Other names that have fallen by the wayside include apoplexy, the paralysis caused by a stroke; corruption, which we call infection, and grippe, now called influenza.

What diseases were part of the Columbian Exchange? Columbian Exchange was the name given to the transfer of animals, plants, artifacts, ideas, et cetera, between the Old World and the New World after Christopher Columbus’s voyage of 1492. Among the worst things the Europeans carried to the Americas were diseases to which the Native populations had never before been exposed and against which they had no immunity. Smallpox was probably the most lethal. In return, the Natives passed on to the white men a disease that eventually reached epidemic proportions in Europe — syphilis.

Who was Typhoid Mary? Mary Mallon (1869–1938) was an Irish immigrant who worked as a cook in the New York area from 1900 to 1907. She was the first known “healthy carrier” of typhoid fever in 780

the United States, that is, a person who carries typhoid without suffering from the symptoms. Mallon infected 47 people in homes and institutions where she worked as a cook. Three of them died. Even after health officials identified her as the source of the infections, Mallon refused to believe she was a carrier and even worked under a false name so she could continue cooking. She was finally sent into forced quarantine at a hospital on North Brother Island, where she died at the age of 69 from pneumonia, not typhoid.

Why was the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 called the “Spanish flu”? The First World War was raging when the influenza epidemic hit Europe in 1918. Governments of belligerent nations wouldn’t allow newspapers to report on the silent killer that was ravaging their populations. In neutral Spain, however, the government saw no need to censor the press. Because Spanish newspapers reported on the epidemic, the Royal College of Physicians in London found it convenient to label the disease the Spanish flu. The pandemic actually began in China and was carried along trade and military routes to the rest of Asia and to Europe. Infected soldiers returning from France unwittingly took the disease to North America.

What causes influenza? Flu is caused by a virus. Over a period of time, virus strains can mutate, changing their chemical makeup. This can alter their behaviour and make their effect on the human body unpredictable.


How did the Spanish flu pandemic differ from other influenza epidemics? In the early twentieth century, nobody knew anything about viruses, but people were familiar with the symptoms of the flu: fever, sore throat, cough, headache, muscular pain, and general weakness. Most victims were bedridden for a few days and then recovered. Usually, only the elderly and very young children were at risk of dying from the common flu. The Spanish flu was a particularly vicious strain of the virus that struck hardest at healthy adults in their late twenties and early thirties. In a three-generational family, children and grandparents stood a better chance of survival than young parents. Doctors often didn’t know what they were dealing with and blamed deaths on cholera and pneumonia. Many victims often did develop pneumonia in the later stages of the disease. Estimates of the global death toll range from 22 million to 100 million. In Canada about 50,000 people perished (out of a population of around 8 million), while it is estimated that as many as 675,000 died in the United States and about 28 percent of the American population of just over 103 million was affected by the virus. Quickies Did you know… • that before the name Spanish flu was applied, the British called the disease Flanders grippe because of the soldiers who fell ill in Belgium and France? Other nations had their own names for the contagion: Germany — Blitz Katarrh (Lightning Cold); Japan — Wrestler’s Fever; China — Too


Much Inside Sickness; Sri Lanka — Bombay Fever; Iran — Disease of the Wind; Hungary — Black Whip; Poland — Bolshevik Disease.

What did people do to fight the Spanish flu? Doctors who believed that the sickness was caused by bacteria developed a vaccine that had to be painfully injected into deep muscle tissue. The treatment wasn’t effective. Other remedies and treatments included powdered aspirin, onion and mustard poultices, goose grease and garlic, skunk oil, camphor, salt herring, sulphur (placed in shoes), coffee mixed with mustard, cinnamon, tobacco smoke, and alcohol.

Where is an Englishman going when he’s going to “spend a penny”? Why, he’s going to the “loo” of course! A sanitary engineer named George Jennings debuted a flushing lavatory called a “Monkey Closet” at London’s famous Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, and over 800,000 visitors “spent a penny” to use it. For more than a century afterwards, that was the price the British paid to use public restrooms. In 1971, a currency called New Pence was introduced. The penny soon disappeared, and the price to use a British pay toilet increased.

What are the origins of the word melancholy? In ancient Greece, Hippocrates thought melancholy originated from an excess of black bile from the liver. He accused “melancholy” of causing dejection, seizures, lung diseases,


dysentery, ulcers, rashes, and even hemorrhoids. In the fifteenth century it became fashionable to be melancholy, and melancholic characters, the most notable being William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, became fixtures in plays. Today, you’re more likely to hear that someone is depressed or down in the dumps, than that they are melancholy.

Who was the first person to undergo electroshock therapy? Electric shock has been a tool in a doctor’s medical bag since ancient times when electric eels were used with the aim of providing relief for headache sufferers and the mentally ill. The first machines were developed in the 1930s, inspired by the use of electricity to incapacitate pigs in a slaughterhouse in Rome. Bitter debate swirls around the practice. Some say the electroshock confuses patients, erases memory, and even causes death. Others argue it is the best treatment for severe depression and mania when drugs don’t work, and much safer than it used to be.

Why do we say someone is “in the doldrums” when they’re feeling depressed? The word doldrums originated in the early 1800s to describe a mood where the mind is dull, dol from old English, and the body, lethargic. The ending, drum may find its origins in the word tantrum, a fit of bad temper, which was first noted as a colloquialism, about 100 years earlier.


The belt of calm ocean north of the equator that sailors call the Doldrums do not appear to have had that name until the few decades after the mood was identified.

Where do we get the term “agoraphobia” for the fear of open spaces? Agoraphobia is a complex condition, which is often defined as an abnormal fear of open or public spaces. More recently the psychiatric community has realized that it may be the public nature of open places, not their openness, which triggers anxious responses. The name derives from the Greek word agora, which translates into “where the people gather” or marketplace. For this reason, agoraphobics are often also claustrophobic, or fearful of being confined. Agoraphobia can be very disabling, as sufferers may go so far as to imprison themselves in their own houses, or even in a few rooms within the house, in order to avoid panic attacks.

Why is an unstable person called a “crackpot”? A crackpot is an irrational person. Crackpots have always been with us, but the word only came into use in the late 1800s. The term plays on the obsolete use of the word pot to describe a skull. It suggests that the person in question has a cracked skull, which is causing him or her to behave in a mad, foolish, or eccentric manner.


What’s involved in a sneeze? If you sneeze hard enough you can fracture a rib or rupture a blood vessel in your brain and die! When something foreign enters the inside of your nose and it starts to tickle, it sends a message to the brain. This is then relayed through a very complex system of nerves and is received by the muscles of your diaphragm, vocal chords, abdomen, throat, chest, and eyelids. You always close your eyes when you sneeze! The particles are then expunged from the nose at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. Sneezing seems simple, but like most of the body’s defensive reactions, it is very complicated. Quickies Did you know… • that the Japanese say that sneezing twice in a row means that someone is talking about you? • that during the great plague, sneezing was a sign of infection which meant almost certain death? People began saying “God bless you” as a prayer for the doomed infected sneezer. Today we still say “bless you” as a holdover from those terrible times.

Who was the first person to document the effects of an epidemic? Plagues have long figured largely in myths, legends, and Biblical stories — in the latter often as the wrath of God. The first ancient writer to leave a factual account of an epidemic,


from the symptoms shown by individual sufferers, to the demoralizing effects on the population, was the Athenian historian Thucydides. He chronicled the strange plague that devastated Athens in 430 BC while the city was under siege by the Spartans.

What was the Black Death? From 1348 to 1666 “Black Death” was the name given to bubonic plague, so called because the first symptoms were swelling of the lymph glands — which were then called buboes — in the groin and armpits. The cause of the disease was a bacterium called Pasteurella pestis, which was carried by rats and other rodents. It was spread to humans by fleas. The disease was then passed from person to person by droplets of moisture. A sneeze, a cough, or a kiss was all it took. It has been estimated that over 25 million people, about a third of the population of Europe, died.

Why didn’t people carry out large-scale rat extermination campaigns to fight the Black Death? At the time people knew nothing about germs and bacteria. They thought diseases were caused by “evil vapours” that came from the ground, or “ill humours” in the body, caused by an imbalance of fluids; hence the practice of doctors “bleeding” patients to try to get the blood back to a “correct” level. Many people believed the Black Death was sent by an angry God to punish the world for its sinful ways. Sanitation and hygiene were extremely primitive. All houses had rats.


Everybody had fleas. Nobody made the connection between the vermin and the disease. Ten Prescriptions to Prevent or Cure Bubonic Plague • Wear human feces in a bag around the neck. • Bathe in and drink human urine. • Take long, deep breaths of the air in a public privy. • Apply dried toads or lizards to the boils to draw out the poison. • Pierce the testicles with sharp needles. • Smear fevered foreheads with the blood of freshly killed puppies and pigeons. • Slice open the boils and insert red-hot pokers. • Put down bowls of fresh milk to absorb the poisons in the air in rooms where patients have died from the plague. This can also be done with large, peeled onions. Be sure the onions are buried in a deep hole later. • Self-flagellate to atone for sins. • Search the community for any persons guilty of licentious and voluptuous behaviour and put them to death.


How did Queen Victoria revolutionize childbirth? Britain’s Queen Victoria (1819–1901) was very familiar with the discomforts of childbirth. During delivery of the first seven of her nine children, Her Majesty suffered a lot of pain. This agony made her very interested in the discovery of chloroform, which became available as an anesthetic early in her reign. Despite protests against the practice from the Church of England and the medical establishment, she allowed her doctor to administer chloroform during the delivery of her eighth child, Prince Leopold, in 1853. The success of that delivery led to anesthetics quickly gaining popularity among England’s influential upper classes. The queen was so impressed with the benefits of chloroform that she knighted one of her physicians, Dr. James Simpson (1811–1870), who was the first to use it as an anesthetic in 1847.

Does sucking out blood really help to treat a snake bite? Sucking blood out of a snake bite is not a good idea. Apart from the fact that very little venom is likely to be removed, there is also a chance that the person administering the treatment may take some of it into an open sore in their mouth. Also, cutting the wound open to make it easier to suck the blood increases the chance of infection for the victim, because snake saliva is full of toxic bacteria.


general sports Why does the home team wear white while the visitors wear dark coloured uniforms? Early television was in black and white and the definitions weren’t nearly as precise as they are today. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was testing for live hockey broadcasts in 1952, the company found that if


both teams wore their traditional colours, it was impossible to tell them apart. The CBC solved the problem by having the home team wear white, while the visitors stayed in their darker uniforms.

How many coloured flags are used in auto racing, and what do they mean? Seven flags are used as signals to drivers in car races: a green flag starts the race; a yellow flag means “don’t pass”; a red flag means “stop for an emergency”; a black flag signals a rule infraction; a white flag indicates that the leaders are starting the last lap; a blue flag with a diagonal stripe tells slower cars to move aside; and finally the checkered flag means the race is over.

What do baseball, bowling, darts, and billiards all have in common? Unlike most sports, baseball, bowling, darts, and snooker offer top-quality players the opportunity to achieve a perfect game. If a baseball pitcher throws for nine innings without giving up any hits, walks, or errors, he will have pitched a perfect game. Twelve successive strikes, or 300 points, are a perfect score in 10-pin bowling. Several combinations of nine darts can lead to a perfect game in 501. A perfect game in snooker can be achieved with 36 consecutive shots that yield a score of 147.


Why is Canada’s national sport called “lacrosse”? Lacrosse, “the little brother of war” was considered good training for Native American warriors. Teams consisting of hundreds of players often involved entire villages in brutal contests that could last as long as three days. To the French explorers who were the first Europeans to see the game, the stick resembled a bishop’s ceremonial staff, called a “crozier”, surmounted by a cross, or la crosse — and the sport had a new name.

Why did it take 48 years for a particular Canadian woman to win an Olympic race? The winner of the women’s 100-metre race at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics was a Polish athlete named Stanislawa Walasiewicz. The silver medallist was Canadian Hilde Strike. In 1980, when the Polish gold medallist was tragically killed as an innocent bystander during a bank robbery, the ensuing autopsy discovered that she was a he, and Strike was ultimately declared the winner.

How many teams in the four major North American professional sports leagues have names not ending in the letter “s”? There are eight major North American sports franchises whose team names do not end in “s”, and none of them are in football. They are: in basketball, the Miami Heat, the Utah Jazz, and the Orlando Magic; in baseball, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox; and in hockey, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Minnesota Wild, and the Colorado Avalanche. 792

Why do North Americans call the international game of football soccer? Football goes so far back in history that one form or another has been played by every known civilization. In the 1800s, British football split into rugby and soccer, two games with very different rules. Soccer started out as socca, a slang abbreviation of association as in “association football,” and just like rugby became rugger through slang, socca became soccer.

How did the Anaheim Angels, the Indiana Pacers, and the Los Angeles Lakers get their names? The Anaheim Angels took their name from Los Angeles, the city where the franchise began. Los Angeles is Spanish for “the angels.” The Indiana Pacers represent the home of the Indianapolis 500, where the pace car leads the field. Although lakes are scarce near Los Angeles, they have a team known as the Lakers because they brought their name with them when they moved from Minneapolis, the land of ten thousand lakes.

Who originated the “high five” hand salute? The celebratory gesture of raising hands to slap palms was first referred to in print as a “High 5” in 1980 because it was introduced by the University of Louisville basketball team during their 1979/80 NCAA championship season. Derek Smith claims to have invented the gesture and named it a “High 5” after he and two other Louisville players, Wiley Brown and Daryl Cleveland, created and practiced the hand


gesture during the preseason (1979) and then introduced it during regular league play.

Why is a fighter’s sweeping blow called a “haymaker”? A haymaker is a powerful blow from a fist that, if it connects, will flatten a boxer’s opponent. Farmers used to cut hay by hand with a scythe which is a long handled instrument with an extended very sharp blade. (It’s the instrument carried by the “grim reaper.”) To use a scythe properly, the farmer used long sweeping motions leaving a flattened swath of hay in his path. This sweeping motion resembled the trajectory of the fighters arm when delivering a punch or a haymaker from left field and the recipient of that punch was flattened like the hay.

Why is fist fighting called “fisticuffs? Boxing is often referred to as the art of fisticuffs. The word began as fisty cuffs. It was first recorded as fisticuffs in the early seventeenth century. Cuff is from the Scandinavian word kuffa, meaning “to push or shove,” while fist in Old English was spelled fyst and meant “a clenched hand.” Fisticuffs means “to strike with a clenched hand.” Odds & Oddities • The odds against winning an Olympic medal: 662,000 to 1. • The odds against becoming a professional athlete: 22,000 to 1.


• The chances of a fan catching a baseball during a major league game: 563 to 1. • The odds of bowling a 300 game: 11,500 to 1. • The odds of drawing a royal flush in poker on the first deal: 649,740 to 1.

Why is the game with rocks on ice called “curling”? The first reference to the game we call curling was recorded in Scotland in 1541 and has nothing to do with the curling path of some stones. The game was, and in many places still is called, “the roaring game” because of the rumbling sound the rocks make while sliding over pebbled ice. This rumbling sound was called a curr in the Scots language and is how the game became known as curling. (In the Scots language, a curr is among other things, the sound a dove makes when cooing — related to purr) The word curling surfaced in 1620 as the name of the roaring game which would be brought to Canada by Scottish immigrants in the early nineteenth century.

Why is a curling tournament called a “brier”? In 1927, the first Canadian men’s curling championship was sponsored by the MacDonald Tobacco Company. The tournament trophy was called the MacDonald Brier Tankard after the name of MacDonald’s most popular pipe tobacco. Brier is the name of a plant from which the roots are used to make tobacco smoking pipes. That first Dominion Curling


Championship led to the establishment of the Canadian Curling Association in 1935.

What are the origins of the names for figure skating jumps? The unfamiliar names for figure skating jumps are from the athletes who introduced them: Axel — The only jump initiated while skating forward, it was named after Norwegian Axel Paulsen who introduced the move in 1883. Salchow — A jump performed with a backward inside edge takeoff. Ulrich Salchow of Sweden was the first Olympic gold medalist in men’s figure skating and World Champion 10 times between 1900 and 1911. A triple Sachow is three complete airborne revolutions. Lutz — Performed from a backward outside edge. Alois Lutz of Vienna introduced this move in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Why is it so difficult for women to join prestigious British golf clubs? Exclusive men’s country clubs were called golf clubs long before the game was invented. According to an old wives’ tale, “GOLF” is an acronym derived from the phrase “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.” The fact is, the word golf has its origin in Medieval Dutch and Scots. The Dutch word kolf or kolve meant “club.” Scots dialect


transformed it into golve or gouf and by the sixteenth century it had become golf.

Why would a golfer pull a “niblick” out of his bag? Like every language, the language of golf sees words come and go. For instance, 100 years ago, achieving par might’ve been described this way: The “duffer” stepped up to the tee, took a good swing with his “brassie,” and sent the ball halfway down the fairway. A “mashie” was chosen to make an approach to the green, but he flubbed the shot, winding up in a sand trap to the left. His trusty “niblick” helped him chip from the sand to the fringe of the green. There he decided a “Texas wedge” was the best choice, and miracle of miracles, the ball went right into the cup. Other clubs in his bag would have included his reliable old “baffie,” what we would call a 5-wood; his “jigger,” a 4-iron; a “spade-mashie,” or 6-iron; a “mashie-niblick,” his 7-iron; and a “pitching-niblick,” which was his 8-iron.



What were the most medals ever won by a Canadian at the Olympics? At the Torino Winter Olympics in 2006, Cindy Klassen became the first Canadian Olympian to win five medals in a single Olympic Games. In doing so she broke a record shared by swimmers Elaine Tanner and Anne Ottenbrite. A short and long distance speed skater, Klassen won gold in the 1,500 metre, silver in the women’s team pursuit, silver in the 1,000 metre, bronze in the 3,000 metre, and bronze in the 5,000 metre. When a bronze won at Salt Lake City in 2002 is added to the total, she is the biggest overall medal winner in Canadian Olympic history.

How much faster can a man run the 100-metre event since the first Olympics? An American named Thomas Burke won the first gold medal in the 100-metre race at the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece in 1896 with a time of exactly 12 seconds. Another American, Justin Gatlin, won with a time of 9.85 seconds in 2004 in Barcelona, Spain. The best time ever recorded in the Olympic 100-metre event was in Seoul Korea in 1988 by Canadian Ben Johnson, who posted a time of 9.79 seconds. He was later disqualified after testing positive for steroid use. Ben Johnson has recently been seen on Canadian television, in advertisements for an energy drink called … “Cheetah.” Though not an Olympic record, in May of 2008, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt set a new 100-metre world record — with


a time of 9.72 seconds — while competing in the Reebok Grand Prix in New York.

Where is the world’s oldest tennis court? Falkland Palace in Fife, Scotland is the site of the oldest tennis court still in use. The court was built in 1539, and is used to play ‘real’ tennis, a racquet sport played inside a closed room. Unlike most real tennis courts, the Falkland Court is not fully enclosed as it does not have a roof. Another real tennis court was built by Henry VIII in Hampton Court Palace, near London, England. The original court, built in 1532, was demolished. The one in use today dates from 1625. There are approximately 45 real tennis courts still in existence around the world. The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace is the hub of real tennis activity.

Who invented the game of squash? Squash is a racquet sport played off the four walls of a room. It started in 1830 at an exclusive boarding school in England called Harrow, when students noticed that a punctured racquetball offered a greater variety of shots and lots of exercise. Two schools of the game developed, the English one using a softball, and a North America version that used a smaller hardball. Both games called for a 32-foot-deep court, but the English court was wider at 21 feet, than the 18 1/2 foot courts of the North American game. The game is now played in almost 150 countries. Championships are held for men and women in many age


groups, and the development of glass-walled courts has led to regular television coverage.


football facts Why was the Cleveland football team named the Browns? Football franchises move around, and it was the Rams who represented Cleveland before moving to L.A. and then to St. Louis. In 1946, when the city was given a franchise in the AAFC, they held a contest to name the new team, and the


winner was the Brown Bombers, after the great champion Joe Louis. However, the name was colour sensitive for the time, and so they compromised by naming the team the Browns after coach Paul Brown.

What does carte blanche have to do with the name of the San Diego Chargers? The naming of the San Diego football team had nothing to do with a military or an electrical charge. The team was named by the original owner, Barron Hilton, who called them the Chargers after a credit card. Hilton also owned the Carte Blanche credit card. Although to us carte blanche might be “white card,” to the French it means “blank sheet,” to be used like a blank cheque … preferably to include a ticket to watch the San Diego Chargers.

What does a football player’s number tell you about his position? American football introduced numbers in 1915 and names in 1961, but in 1967, numbers began indicating a player’s position and eligibility. Quarterbacks and kickers wear 1 to 19, running and defensive backs, 20 to 49, centres and linebackers, 50 to 59, guards, 60 to 69, tackles, 70 to 79, and finally ends and defensive linemen wear between 60 and 89.

Why are the rules so different in American and Canadian football? In 1874, Montreal’s McGill University was invited to play football against Harvard. Harvard was used to playing with a 803

round soccer ball, with different rules than the Canadians, who played rugby using an oblong ball. The game ended in a tie, but the Americans were so impressed with the Canadian game that they adopted the rules. Football as we know it evolved differently on both sides of the border from that game — which ended in a tie.

How does attendance at the top American college football games compare to NFL games? Literally hundreds of college teams play football in the United States, and a huge number of fans put good money on the table to watch their games. In 2005, the top 32 National College Athletic Association (NCAA) teams averaged over 78,000 fans per game. That’s 10,000 fans more than the average attendance at games played by the 32 professional National Football League (NFL) teams. What’s more, their stadiums were filled to near bursting, with attendance at over 97 percent of capacity. Overall, the 118 college teams in the 1A division drew 45,000 a game. The 21 Bowl games drew about 52,000 fans each. Talk about big business!

How did the NFL’s Ravens, Bears, and Packers get their names? The Baltimore Ravens took their name from the classic poem “The Raven” by Baltimore native Edgar Allen Poe. When a football team moved into Wrigley Field in 1921, they took the name Bears to relate themselves to the stadium owner, the Chicago Cubs. The Green Bay Packers are named after the


Indian Packing Company, which, in 1919, gave the team $500 for their first uniforms.


baseball How was the distance between home plate and the pitching mound established in baseball? Baseball has gone through dozens of changes since 1845 when 25 year old Alexander Cartwright set the ideal distance between bases at 90 feet. Back then, the pitchers threw underhanded from a distance of only 45 feet but because this


seemed to give an advantage to the pitcher it was increased to 50 feet in 1881 which opened the argument that then the batter had the advantage. To address this, overhand pitching was introduced in 1884 which totally overwhelmed the batters and so in 1893 a distinguished committee settled on placing the pitching rubber on a mound 60 feet from home plate. But, like most committee decisions, there was a slight misreading between conception and inception and the rubber was mistakenly placed 60 feet and six inches from the batter where it remains to this day. “The pitcher’s plate shall be 10 inches above the level of home plate. The degree of slope from a point six inches in front of the pitcher’s plate to a point six feet toward home plate shall be one inch to one foot, and such degrees of slope shall be uniform.”

Who invented baseball? The New World Settlers from Britain brought with them a game called “rounders.” It was a common mans variation of cricket and was recorded as being widely played in the mid-eighteenth century. In rounders, a batter tried to hit a pitched ball and then run ‘round from one to five bases in an attempt to reach home without being “plugged” or hit by a ball thrown by the fielders. A plugged runner was out. The bases were posts in the ground. There is a reference to the game as “base-ball” in a children’s book dated 1744. In 1907 an American Commission decided that baseball was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown New York but it was Alexander Cartwright who established the modern field and drafted the first rules of the new game 807

which included plugging for an out as was a ball caught on first bounce. The winner of the game was the first team to score 21 runs. It’s interesting to note that the first form of baseball played in Canada was in Beachville, Ontario on June 4, 1838, the year before Doubleday played at Cooperstown and seven years before Cartwright and his New York Knickerbockers established his new rules. A game similar to rounders that was played by British Soldiers was called “bat” and is recorded as being played in places as diverse as Red River, Manitoba, and Huntington, Quebec, during the 1830s.

What’s in a baseball? The baseball got its present size and weight as a result of a rule change in 1872, but the ball’s rubber core made home runs difficult to hit. A lively bounce came from the introduction of a cork centre in 1910, and homerun hitters began to be commonplace. In 1931, the stitching that held the cover on the ball was raised, allowing pitchers to throw a greater variety of pitches. The last major change occurred in 1974, when the horsehide cover was replaced by cowhide. The weight of a baseball must be between five and five and a quarter ounces and its circumference from nine to nine and a quarter inches. The formation of the ball begins with a 1/2 ounce, 2.9 inch diameter cork core. A layer of black rubber is then applied followed by a layer of red rubber each weighing 7/8 of an ounce. Afterwards, 121 yards of blue-gray wool followed by 808

45 yards of white wool yarn are added to the outside. The ball is then wrapped in cowhide covering held together by 216 stitches and some rubber cement. Red stitches are placed on the ball to allow pitchers to throw curve balls. Curve balls curve since the air resistance on the stitches is non-uniform.

Why were spitballs outlawed? Spitball pitches used to be very common in the early days of baseball, when the lack of raised stitching on the ball made putting a spin on it very difficult. When the ball is moistened by saliva or some other lubricant like petroleum jelly, the pitcher can release it more smoothly. From the batter’s point of view, the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand looking like a fastball, when it is, in fact, travelling much slower. In 1920, a series of rule changes designed to help hitters resulted in spitballs being outlawed in major-league baseball. Some pitchers continued to use the spitball after the rule change. Perhaps the most famous was a Hall of Fame pitcher, Gaylord Perry, who won 314 games. At 43, he was thrown out of the game for wetting the ball. Today, a pitch called the split fingered fastball is in the arsenal of several leading major-league pitchers. It is legal, but its behaviour is said to closely resemble a spitball.

Who first called the baseball field a “ballpark”? “Ballpark” was first used to refer to a baseball stadium back in 1899. With the dawn of the space age in the 1960s, “ballpark” was used in an article in the San Francisco


Examiner to refer to the safe zone for the splashdown of a space capsule. “Ballpark figure” is first recorded in print in the late 1960s, in the Wall Street Journal to indicate a sum of money that is roughly correct.

Why do baseball socks just have a strap on the foot? Stirrup stockings are holdover from baseball’s early days when fabric dyes were not colourfast, and spike wounds were commonplace. Spike wounds happened, because runners often used their cleats to intimidate infielders when sliding into bases. In order to reduce the chance that dyes would get into a wound and infect it, stirrup stockings were developed, and a plain white sock, called a sanitary because it prevented infection, was worn underneath.

What did the Florida Marlins do that no other baseball team in history has done? In April, 1993, the Florida Marlins began to play baseball in the National League’s Central Division. In October, 1997, they became the first team to win a World Series from the wild-card position, beating the Cleveland Indians in seven games. They also achieved the feat faster than any other expansion team. During the postseason, the team was dismantled to cut costs. The next year, they set a record for ineptitude posting a record of 54–108, making them the first team to lose over 100 games the year after winning a World Series.


How many pitchers for Canadian baseball teams have thrown a perfect game? Dennis Martínez is the only pitcher for a Canadian team to throw perfect game. He threw to 27 batters in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 28, 1991, which the Expos won, 2–0. Dave Stieb was pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1988, when he became one of only two pitchers to give up a hit to the 27th batter after retiring the first 26. He went on to lose the game.

What does a batting “roundhouse swing”?





Roundhouses used to be common in railway yards as places to store, switch, and maintain locomotives. They featured a round turntable used to put locomotives on new tracks. The turntable’s motion gave rise to the expression “roundhouse swing” used in boxing to describe a punch that starts at the side of the body and is delivered in a wide arc. Roundhouse swing is also often used to describe an inefficient power swing in baseball. Baseball also has a “roundhouse curve,” which was the bread and butter pitch of early Hall of Famer Christy Matheson.

When was softball invented? Softball was invented by George Hancock. In November of 1887, George was among a group of young Harvard and Yale alumni who were fooling around inside the Farragut Boat Club Gymnasium in Chicago awaiting the outcome of a 811

Harvard–Yale football game. When word came that Yale had won, an enthusiastic supporter picked up a discarded boxing glove and tossed it at the Harvard group who then tried to send it back by hitting the glove in the air with a stick. Hancock took the boxing glove and tied it into a ball with the laces, then chalked off an indoor baseball diamond consisting of a home plate, three bases, and a pitcher’s box. The group divided into two teams and softball had begun! It was moved outside in the spring and was played on fields that were too small for baseball. The game, at that time, was alternately referred to as “indoor-outdoor,” “kitten ball,” or “mush ball.” Eventually the rules and equipment evolved into the softball we know today, which is played by millions of people in over 100 countries.

Why does “balk” mean to stop short? Those who know baseball understand that when a pitcher makes a deceptive move by interrupting what appears to be an intention to throw to a batter, it’s called a balk, an infraction of the rules, and base runners all advance. A balk is much more than a baseball term. A horse can balk, or stop short when spooked by an obstacle or a person might balk at continuing with a commitment when a problem becomes clear. Balk is from the ancient Anglo Saxon word balca, meaning “ridge” and was commonly used as a reference to the mounds of dirt between plowed furrows. This concept of being a ridge or obstacle, allowed the word to evolve into a description of a wooden beam, especially one used to bar a door before the common use of locks and keys. It became an obstruction to thieves. In baseball, when the pitcher toes the


rubber, it limits his options to move and it was originally a small wooden plank or beam on the mound or ridge which is how the word balk entered the game in 1845.


hockey What is the origin of the word puck? The origin of the word puck is the Celtic game of hurley, where it means “striking the ball with the stick.” A “puck-in” after a foul is the act of sending the ball back into play from the sidelines. Since a ball is unmanageable on ice, Nova Scotians and Quebeckers started using a flat wooden puck


instead. Their solution was replaced in 1886 in Ontario by a field hockey rubber ball with the top and bottom cut off. Today, a hockey puck is a vulcanized hard-rubber disc, one inch thick, three inches in diameter, and weighing between 5.5 and six ounces. In Ireland, to “puck” someone means to strike him. A puck bird is a robinsized bird that dives down on goats and strikes them on the back with its beak.

When was the first curved stick used in hockey? Three NHL Hall of Famers are credited with bringing curved sticks into professional hockey. Andy Bathgate, a star right-winger for the New York Rangers, began curving the blade of his stick in the late 1950s. Chicago Blackhawk greats Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull popularized the idea in the early 1960s. Soon many players were curving sticks to add speed and unpredictable movement to their shots. Gradually the curves became more and more extreme, prompting the league to set a limit of one and a half inches in 1968. The following year, the maximum curvature was reduced to one inch, and a year later it became half an inch, which is still the rule today.

Why is Toronto’s hockey team called the Maple Leafs? In 1927, after having just been fired by the Rangers, Conn Smythe took the winnings from a horse race and bought the Toronto St. Pats hockey team, renaming them the Maple Leafs. Impressed with how brilliantly Canadians had fought in the First World War, Smythe named his new team after the


soldiers’ maple leaf insignia. Smythe is the man who said of hockey, “If you can’t beat them in the alley, you can’t beat them on the ice.”

Why is the Montreal hockey club called the “Habs,” and what does their C.H. logo stand for? The Montreal Canadiens began as an all-French-Canadian hockey team that would be an honest representation of the Province of Quebec. Their nickname, the Habs, is an abbreviation of les habitants, meaning “those who live here.” The C.H. logo on their sweaters stands for “Club de Hockey Canadien.” The Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup in 1916, the year before the NHL was formed.

What is the legend of the New Jersey Devil? The New Jersey Devils began their NHL life as the Kansas City Scouts. Their tenure there lasted only till 1978, when the NHL approved the team’s move to Denver as the Colorado Rockies. In 1982 the Rockies relocated once again, this time to New Jersey. After a fan vote, the new team was christened the New Jersey Devils. Most tellers of the legend of the Jersey Devil trace the tale back to Deborah Leeds, a New Jersey woman who was about to give birth to her thirteenth child. The story goes that Mrs. Leeds invoked the Devil during a very difficult and painful labour, and when the baby was born, it grew into a full-grown devil and escaped from the house. People in the 1700s still believed in witchcraft, and many felt a deformed child was a child of the Devil or that the deformity was


a sign that the child had been cursed by God. It may be that Mrs. Leeds gave birth to a child with a birth defect and, given the superstitions of the period, the legend of the Jersey Devil was born.

How did the Boston hockey team get the name “Bruins”? In the 1920s, Charles Adams held a city-wide contest to name his new Boston hockey team. Because the colours of his Brookside Department Stores were brown and yellow, he insisted that the team wear those same colours. He also wanted the team to be named after an animal known for its strength, agility, ferocity, and cunning. The public contest came up with the Bruins, meaning a large, ferocious bear.

Why is Calgary’s hockey team called the Flames? The Flames have not always been a Calgary hockey team. They started out in Atlanta during the second wave of NHL expansion in 1972, where the name “Flames” was chosen to remember the torching of the city in 1864 by Union troops led by General William Tecumseh Sherman, during their long march through the South near the end of the Civil War. When the team moved to Calgary in 1980, the name was kept in honour of Calgary’s ties to oil.

Why is street hockey called “shinny”? Although shins take a beating during a game of shinny, the name comes from the Celtic game of shinty. A pick-up game of hockey, either on the street or on ice, shinny has no formal


rules, and the goals are marked by whatever is handy. The puck can be anything from a ball to a tin can. There’s no hoisting, bodychecking, or lifting the puck because no one wears pads. “Shinny” is a uniquely Canadian expression. The first professional shin pads were hand-stitched leather-covered strips of bamboo, wrapped around the lower leg outside knee-high stockings. For many Canadian kids during the 1930s and 1940s, copies of the Eaton’s catalogue shoved into their socks were their first shin pads.

Why is three of anything called a “hat trick”? While in Canada it refers to three goals by a single player in a hockey game, a “hat trick” means any accomplishment of three and comes from the English game of cricket. When a bowler retired three consecutive batsmen with three consecutive balls, he was rewarded with a hat. It became hockey jargon during a time when most spectators wore hats, which they tossed onto the rink as a celebration of three goals by one player. During the 1930s and 1940s a local Toronto haberdasher gave any Maple Leaf hockey player a custom-made hat if he scored three consecutive goals.

How did the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers get their names? In 1932 James Norris purchased the Detroit Falcons hockey team and renamed them the Red Wings. Norris had played for a Montreal team named the Winged Wheelers, which inspired


the name and the winged wheel logo on the NHL’s motor city franchise. After Madison Square Garden president “Tex” Rickard bought the New York team in 1926, people began calling them after their owner — Tex’s Rangers.


alcoholic beverages Does Canadian beer taste better than American beer because it has more alcohol? Canadian beer might feel better than American beer but its fuller taste comes from its ingredients. Canadian beer is brewed with 50 percent more malt barley than its watery American cousin, which relies more on corn. Regular


Canadian beer has an alcohol-by-volume content of five percent, while American beer is 4.5 percent. A standard European beer is fuller still, with 5.2 percent alcohol content. Canadian light beer is four percent, while American light is 3.8 percent.

Why is a pint of American beer smaller than a Canadian one? Since the adoption of the metric system, pints have become rare in Canada. Liquids are usually measured in litres, but the American pint is smaller than the one in Canada because in 1824, when the British introduced the imperial gallon to the world (including Canada), American pride refused to go along with the change. Instead, they kept the outdated original and smaller English gallon from colonial times.

Where did the expression “mind your Ps and Qs” come from? “Mind your Ps and Qs” means “watch the details,” and there are two popular explanations. The first is that because a lower case p and q are mirror images of each other, printing presses had to pay close attention to which one they used. The other, and more likely, explanation is that English pubs marked Ps and Qs on a blackboard to record each customer’s consumption of pints and quarts. “Mind your Ps and Qs” meant “keep an eye on your tab.”


Why is a glass of tapped beer called a draft? The many interpretations of the word draft (draught) are all derived from the word’s thirteenth century meaning of “to draw or drag.” This gave us draught horses bred for heavy pulling. It also explains the words use as in a “military draft” because this is a group drawn for service from the greater population. It soon became a word to describe a current of air drawn through an opening such as a chimney or window (or a mouth), which led to its use to describe inhaling or drinking. Draft became a reference to beer drawn through the tap of a keg rather than a sealed bottle because like the military draft it’s drawn (or drafted) from the greater mass. The word draft for a pint of keg beer was reinforced by the act of pouring it into your mouth. Quickies Did you know… • that many types of mouthwash have a greater alcohol content than wine? • that 20 million people could be fed on the grain used for making alcoholic beverages? • that one out of every 13 North Americans drinks alcohol every day?


Why is someone who doesn’t drink alcohol called a “teetotaller”? An 1846 tombstone in Preston, England, has the inscription, “Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Richard Turner, author of the word ‘TeeTotal.’” Turner emphasized the “T” to stress the first letter in total. Another group filled out pledges with a letter after their signature to reflect their positions: “M” for moderation, “A” for abstinence, and “T” for total abstinence.

Why is a reformed alcoholic, said to be “on the wagon”? “On the wagon” originates from two phrases that offer more context, “on the water cart” and “on the water wagon.” These phrases refer to horse-drawn vehicles that used to spray water on the roads to keep the dust down. They became associated with drinkers giving up alcohol during the early years of the temperance movement in the late nineteenth century. Men who swore off alcohol said they would climb on the water wagon for a drink, rather than break their vow.

Where do we get the expression “toast of the town”? By the eighteenth century, wealthy young men had turned feasting into an art, and at the core of the elaborate ritual was the drinking of wine. It was the custom to offer a toast to someone present with every new glass during dinner. When they tired of toasting themselves they would lift a glass in 823

celebration of someone they might not even know, particularly a beautiful woman — who, if frequently admired this way, became known as the toast of the town.

What is the origin of the toast, “Here’s mud in your eye”? During the First World War, soldiers on both sides lived in trenches full of unbelievable amounts of mud. They spent a lot of time pressing their faces into that mud while ducking to avoid being shot. “Here’s mud in your eye” is a wishful expression that came out of those circumstances and it simply meant “better to have mud in your face than being shot.” If you had mud in your eye, you’d survived!

Where does the expression “bumper crop” come from? A “bumper crop” is a result of extraordinary abundance. You can have a bumper business, bumper crowds, or bumper crops. This ancient use of bumper comes from a drinking goblet called a “bumper,” which was filled to the brim when used for toasts. While quaffing a bumper of ale, drinkers touched (or bumped) these goblets against one another during a festive or celebratory occasion such as an excellent harvest, business growth, or full houses at theatrical performances.


games and gambling Why is being called a “lucky stiff” an insult? If someone wins a lot of money in the lottery and is called a “lucky stiff,” it means we think of him as a hard-working, average person who got lucky, but the original meaning of stiff described a failure — someone with as much chance of earning that much money on his or her own as a dead person,


also called a stiff. A lucky stiff then means that a person (the lottery winner, in this case) is unworthy and undeserving of monetary gain.

What card game do we get the expression “left in the lurch” from? To be left in the lurch means to have been put in an embarrassing or difficult position; it is most commonly used when either a bride or groom fails to show up for a wedding. Lurch was originally spelled lurche and was the name of a card game now known as cribbage. The first player to score 61 won the round, and if this was accomplished before an opponent scored 30, the loser was said to have been “lurched,” or left so far behind they had no chance of winning.

Why is challenging the odds called playing “fast and loose”? “Fast and loose” was a medieval street game played by tricksters in much the same way as a shell game is played today. A coiled belt was laid out on a table with what appeared to be a knotted loop in the centre. Then a mark was invited to stab a knife in the loop, sticking it “fast” to the table. When the huckster easily lifted the belt the sucker lost his money for falling for the illusion that he had made the belt fast instead of leaving it loose.


Why do we say we’ve “drawn a blank” when things don’t click? Whether it’s our mental prowess or our business ventures, when favorable circumstances don’t line up we often say we’ve “drawn a blank.” The expression was born after Queen Elizabeth I introduced a national lottery to raise revenue for the Crown in 1567. At the time a lottery required two pots. The names of those participating where written on tickets which were placed in pot one. An equal number of tickets with prizes written on them as well as enough left blank to balance the number with the ticket buyers were placed in pot number two. At the same time that an individual name was drawn from pot one, another to decide the prize was drawn from pot two. Winners won silverware and tapestries; losers drew a blank.

How did the card game “bridge” get its name? Bridge evolved from a legion of trick taking card games, the most enduring being whist, which got its name from an old English word for “shush,” because it’s played in silence. Whist has many variations, including a game called Russian whist. Like bridge, this game allows the dealer to choose the trump suit or pass the choice to his partner. Also, during play, the partner’s cards are placed face up on the table, and the dealer plays both hands. An alternate name for Russian whist is Biritch. Biritch, it seems, was gradually Anglicized to become bridge.


What is a “tell” in poker? “Tells” are nervous habits that players repeat under pressure. Experienced poker players watch their opponents constantly for tells, because identifying them can make the difference between winning and losing a big jackpot. A sigh, brushing back the hair, or a grimace can be tells, if they always happen when the player has a good hand, or when he or she is bluffing. Good players learn to disguise their tells or use them to their advantage when bluffing.

Why do we use the expression “close but no cigar”? “Close but no cigar” is an expression we should be hearing less of as time goes on, as smokers are driven further to the fringes of society. The phrase appears to have originated at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was customary to give out cigars as prizes at carnivals. It’s since been used to describe a “nice try” in sports, business, and life in general.

How did the squares on the original Monopoly board get their names? The first version of Charles Darrow’s game of Monopoly was published by Parker Brothers in 1935. Most of the squares on the original Monopoly board got their names from streets, areas, and services in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A few including the “B&O Railroad” and the “Waterworks” came from elsewhere. One of the yellow squares, “Marvin Gardens,” is a misspelling of a housing development south of Atlantic City, properly spelled Marven with an e Gardens. 828

A second version of the game, introduced in England in 1936 by Waddington Games uses London place names to populate its board.

How old is the game of checkers? The game we call checkers is played between two contestants, each using 12 small round black or red discs as playing pieces on a flat surface containing 32 squares. The game comes in dozens of other forms, including several computer formats. It is known as “draughts” in most of Europe, where its most common form reached an apex of popularity during the time of Shakespeare. We know from 2000 BC tomb inscriptions that the game was played by the Egyptians as a spiritual way of predicting the outcome of war. As recreation, it was modified and played in ancient India and then by the Greeks and Romans and is a forerunner of chess. The word checkers is from the French word echec for a playing piece or man. The extended Old French word eschkier meant “chessboard.” There is a remote academic belief that the game was created by a magician (Shamoon) to keep King Ramses II (1279–1213 BC) distracted from the consequences of his many war crimes.


police and thieves What does “terminate with extreme prejudice” mean? Kill or assassinate are words that can be overused in spy novels. Consequently, authors have found other ways of expressing these absolute endings. One phrase that grabbed the attention of the public at large is “terminate with extreme


prejudice.” It really made the big time in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now in which it described Martin Sheen’s mission. Subsequently, “extreme prejudice” was used as the title of a Nick Nolte film about a Texas Ranger, made in 1987. Both screenplays were written by John Milius.

Why is a rough interrogation called “the third degree”? The third degree is a very difficult and sometimes brutal questioning, especially by police. In fact, without its sinister connotation, the expression comes from the Masonic Lodge and its three degrees of membership, each requiring an increasingly difficult examination. The first is Entered Apprentice, the second is Fellowcraft, and the third degree, the one most difficult to pass, is Master Mason.

Why is a worthless bully called a “thug”? In India, the British encountered a sinister sect that worshipped the Hindu goddess of death. Known as thags in Hindi, they robbed their victims then strangled them with a silk scarf. Indian authorities wouldn’t suppress them, and so in the 1830s, the British wiped them out by hanging 400 and imprisoning thousands. The American press picked up the story, and thags became thugs, a generic term for “hoods.”


Why do we say “by hook or by crook” when determined to accomplish something by any means? “By hook or by crook” means by fair means or foul. Today a crook is a thief who uses deception, and to hook something means to steal it. That particular definition comes from the thirteenth century, when hooks used for shepherding were also used by peasants to bend branches when stealing firewood or fruit from the royal forest, and since their deceit was called “crooked” after the shape of their hooks, these thieves became known as crooks.

What is the difference between a mass murderer and a serial killer? A mass murderer commits multiple murders in a single outburst of violence in a relatively short period of time. Marc Lépine, who slaughtered 14 women at the École Polytechnique of the Université de Montréal on December 6, 1989, was a mass murderer. A serial killer commits multiple murders over a prolonged period of time. John Wayne Gacy, who murdered 33 boys and young men in Chicago between 1972 and 1978, was a serial killer.

What notorious American bandit was divorced while in prison? In 1929, not-yet-legendary desperado John Dillinger was serving time in prison on a robbery charge, when his wife Beryl divorced him. Dillinger was paroled in 1933 and


embarked on a spectacular but short career as a bank robber before being killed by police in 1934.

Who was the “Kissing Bandit”? Edna “The Kissing Bandit” Murray was a much married and divorced woman who had a penchant for outlaw-types. She had already been married and divorced twice when she married Fred “Diamond Joe” Sullivan before he was executed for murder in 1924. Then she married hold-up man Jack Murray, and got her nickname for allegedly kissing one of Murray’s robbery victims. During a colourful career Edna had an affair with notorious gangster Volney Davis, served a term in prison, and had three escapes — as well as two more marriages and another divorce before her death in 1966. Five Other Infamous American Criminals who were Divorced • Big Jim Colosimo, Chicago gangster. He divorced his wife Victoria, who happened to be a cousin of gangster Johnny Torrio, Big Jim’s right hand man. Colosimo was subsequently killed on Torrio’s orders, but it was “just business.” • George “Bugs” Moran, Chicago gangster. Moran narrowly escaped being a victim of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. When he continued to be involved in bootlegging and gang wars, his wife Lucille decided she’d had enough and filed for divorce. • Joe Saltis, Chicago gangster. Saltis tried to protect his multi-million-dollar bootlegging profits from the federal government by putting the money in his wife’s name. Then, 833

during an argument, Joe took a shot at Mrs. Saltis, and missed. She divorced him and took the money. • Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, bank robber. The Oklahoma bandit’s wife Ruby divorced him while he was serving a prison term for robbery. They got back together briefly while Floyd was making a name for himself as a Depression Era Public Enemy, but they did not remarry. Floyd was killed by police in 1934. • Ivan “Buck” Barrow, bank robber. Brother of the notorious Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, Buck had been married and divorced twice by the time he married Blanche Caldwell, who was also a divorcee. Bonnie Parker, by the way, was separated from her husband Roy Thornton, but not divorced. Buck was killed in a shootout with police in 1933. Bonnie and Clyde were killed in a police ambush in 1934. Blanche served a term in prison.

Why is an unidentified person referred to as “John Doe”? “John Doe” is the name used to describe someone within legal circumstances when the true name is either unknown or indiscreet to reveal. The practice dates back to British courts in the early nineteenth century, when John and Jane Doe were used as names for unknown or unclear defendants in real estate eviction disputes. “Doe” was an extremely rare name, and there is nothing to suggest that any real John Doe ever existed. Quickies


Did you know… • that robberies are called “hold-ups” because those being robbed are almost always told to hold up their hands? • that 50 percent of bank robberies take place on Fridays? • that scram is an abbreviation of scramble?

Who cleans a crime site after the removal of a body? Perhaps the most emotionally taxing job at the crime scene is that of the trauma cleanup crews, sometimes called “death cleaners.” When someone dies, bodily fluids escape, and depending on the circumstances, other human remains may be left behind. After the body is taken to the morgue, private companies are called to clean up the mess. These specialists are often former medical staff and often know something about construction as well. They enter the premises in haz-mat biohazard suits and collect the remains and anything touched by the victim, which can include walls, carpets, furniture, and more.

Why are British police officers known as “bobbies”? In 1828 Sir Robert Peel, then home secretary (and later prime minister), reorganized the London police force into a modern law enforcement agency. Officers in the new department were known at first as “peelers,” after their Irish counterparts in a similar reorganization when Peel was secretary for Ireland


some years earlier. Bobby is the shortened, familiar form of the proper name Robert. Peeler was gradually replaced in the public vernacular by bobby, and members of the London force are still known as bobbies today.

What does a “rubber bullet” do when it hits somebody? “Rubber bullets,” or baton rounds, were designed in Britain for riot control in Northern Ireland. First used in 1970, they were designed to incapacitate like a truncheon or Billy club hit. They were not designed to kill or seriously injure, but deaths and serious injuries have resulted. In 1973, Britain replaced them with PVC “plastic bullets,” which have also been criticized for being too dangerous.

How do lie detectors work? Lie detectors do not detect lies; they detect symptoms of lies. Their other name, polygraph, came about because their many (poly) sensors record their findings on graph paper. Lie detectors monitor breathing, pulse, blood pressure, and perspiration. John Larson, a medical student at the University of California, built the first one, which received widespread use, in 1921.

Why is a lie or a deception called a “falsehood”? A falsehood is a lie or a distortion of the truth and derives from a time before men wore hats. They used hoods to cover their heads from the elements, and these hoods were designed with fur or something else to indicate an individual’s rank


within the community. If a con man wished to deceive you, he put on a hood designed to be worn by a person of substance such as a doctor or a lawyer. This tactic enabled him to gain enough trust to set up an illegal scam. The con man did this by wearing a “false hood.”

Why do we sometimes say “fork it over” in place of “hand it over”? The expression “fork it over” has a connotation of urgency to it and is often used dramatically during a criminal holdup. In fact, the expression does have origins in a long-forgotten underworld. Of course, the phrase can also be employed with humour when asking for a financial payment for goods or services rendered or for the repayment of a loan. The “fork” in question is a reference to “fingers,” which were the original dinner forks, especially for thieves and other lowlifes.

Why are private detectives called “gumshoes”? Around the beginning of the twentieth century a popular casual shoe was manufactured with a sole made of gum rubber. They were very quiet and were favoured by thieves who used them during burglaries and other crimes and consequently became required footwear for the detectives hunting them down. The term gumshoe stuck with private detectives as it aptly described the stealthy and secretive nature of their work.


Why are informers called “whistle-blowers”? A “whistle-blower” is an insider who secretly reveals nefarious or scandalous wrongdoing by an organization or a government. The reference is, of course, to a referee or umpire who calls a foul during a sporting event. It was introduced to our vernacular in 1953 by the American writer Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) in his Philip Marlowe detective novel The Long Goodbye. The most famous whistle-blower of the twentieth century was Deep Throat, who revealed the criminal inner workings of the administration of President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) during the Watergate break-in affair. In 2005 the identity of Deep Throat was finally made public. He was W. Mark Felt (1913–), the former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during Nixon’s presidency.

Why do we threaten to read the “riot act” to discipline children? In law, a riot is “a violent disturbance of the public peace by 12 or more persons assembled for a common purpose” and may be committed in private as well as public places. The Riot Act, which carried real weight and is the one we still refer to in the expression, became law in England in 1714. It authorized the death penalty for those who failed to disperse after the act had been formally read to those assembled. Thankfully, there have been modern revisions to that act, though the consequences to those who disobey the order to disband can still be severe. Children beware!


murder most foul Who was the most notorious mass murderer ever convicted? A man named Pedro Alonso Lopez claimed to have murdered more than 300 girls (he showed Ecuadorian police the bodies of 53 of them) in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru between his release from prison in 1978 and his recapture in 1980. Dubbed the “Monster of the Andes,” he received a life


sentence in Ecuador. By various accounts, he is thought to have died, been released at the border to Colombia, or escaped around 1998. As bad a Pedro was, a sixteenth-century Hungarian noblewoman in Transylvania named Erzebet Bathory, “The Blood Countess,” may have been worse. In 1611, she went to prison for torturing and murdering 80 girls, but a book she kept listed the names of more than 600. Ten Serial Killer Movies • Se7en (1995, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) • Helter Skelter (1976 starring Steve Railsback) • Monster (2004 starring Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci) • Silence of the Lambs (1991 starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins) • Psycho (1960 starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh) • No Country for Old Men (2007 starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem) • Dirty Harry (1971 starring Clint Eastwood) • Natural Born Killers (1994 starring Juliet Lewis and Woody Harrelson) • M (1931 starring Peter Lorre)


• Night of the Hunter (1955 starring Robert Mitchum)

Why is poison so rarely used as a murder weapon today? Poisoning has been around as long as kings, queens, and rivals in love have been plotting against each other. In the nineteenth century, the practice enjoyed a surge in popularity as motive and opportunity collided when insurance policies appeared and household poisons for use in the garden or for controlling vermin became widely available. That prompted new laws designed to make poison more difficult to get, and better science to detect it so police could make arrests. Poisoning is not often chosen as a means of murder today because common poisons are easily detected during an autopsy. However, some poisoners are more inventive, using stimulants and muscle relaxants, or chemicals like ricin and polonium, to ensure that detection remains a challenge.

Where were fingerprints first used to identify a murderer? The first person convicted of a crime by fingerprint evidence was Francesca Rojas, an Argentine woman who murdered her two children in 1892. She left a thumbprint in blood on a door that matched perfectly with the one taken from her by a police researcher, Juan Vucetich. When confronted with the evidence, Rojas confessed and received a life sentence.


Who invented criminal profiling? London police doctors Thomas Bond and George Phillips are credited with developing a psychological profile of a serial killer, based on a determination that the person responsible for the Jack the Ripper murders had to have had medical training. In another step forward, a psychoanalyst named Walter Langer developed a profile of Adolf Hitler in 1943. His profile rightly pointed out that Hitler would commit suicide if he was defeated. A further milestone in profiling was achieved by James Brussels, who correctly predicted the personality of “The Mad Bomber of New York” in 1947. A profiler must: • study the criminal’s actions; • look for patterns; • analyze behaviour for insights into the criminal’s character; and • provide a description of the suspect.


order in the court Why do we call a predictable trial a “kangaroo court”? The expression “kangaroo court” came out of Texas in the 1850s. It meant that the accused’s guilt was predetermined and that the trial was a mere formality before punishment. Kangaroo was a Texas reference to Australia, a former British


penal colony where everyone had been guilty of something, and so if a convict were accused of a new crime, there would be no doubt of his guilt.

Why is a change described as “a whole new ball of wax”? Seventeenth-century English law used a unique way to settle the contested division of an estate. The executor divided the estate into the number of heirs, and then wrote down each parcel of land in the estate on an individual scroll. To keep it secret, each scroll was then covered by wax and made into a ball, which was then placed into a hat. Beginning with the eldest, the heirs then drew the balls at random, with the estate settled by the contents of each ball of wax.

How did the legal process called “discovery” originate? Legal “discovery” is rooted in an uncommon sense of the word, meaning “reveal,” which dates from the eighteenth century. It calls upon both sides of a civil or criminal case to share (reveal) information that they plan to use as evidence during the trial. Because trials can result in a huge amount of information being gathered by both sides, examination for discovery can be very complex and time-consuming. 12 Courtroom Movies • 12 Angry Men (1957 starring Henry Fonda and Jack Klugman)


• To Kill a Mockingbird (1962 starring Gregory Peck) • Witness for the Prosecution (1957 starring Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich) • The Verdict (1982 starring Paul Newman) • Inherit the Wind (1960 starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March) • A Few Good Men (1992 starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise) • Anatomy of a Murder (1959 starring James Stewart) • Primal Fear (1996 starring Richard Gere) • The Accused (1988 starring Jodie Foster) • Adam’s Rib (1949 starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961 starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster) • Philadelphia (1993 starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington)

Who started the jury system of justice? The gathering of laymen under the guidance of a judge to establish the truth during legal proceedings is considered to be one of England’s greatest achievements. Yet, even though


it is the foundation of our current legal procedure, it wasn’t simply an English innovation. The raiding, conquering and native peoples of Britain, including the Germanic tribes, the Anglo Saxons, Vikings, Celts, and Romans all used some form of communal gathering to conduct a trial. However, the 12-man foundation of the current system, most agree, was founded in the Frankish inquest and brought to England by the Norman Kings and established specifically by Henry II who set the number of jurors at 12 during the twelfth century. The Normans realized that they needed a jury of native-born Englishmen to appear to administer fair justice within the conquered land. The number 12 was set to have a formidable local opinion of the trial’s outcome. The verdict had to be unanimous to be legal and in the beginning, dealt mostly with land claim disputes. Most scholars discount the idea that the number 12 was chosen from the scriptures, but consider the influence of the church during that time and the fact that there were 12 apostles and 12 tribes of Israel before dismissing this romantic notion.

What are the major differences between civil trials and criminal trials? Civil trials, or lawsuits, are a method of solving private disputes between two groups of one or more people or organizations. Criminal trials are always between the government and the accused. Civil trials are easier to win than criminal trials, because the case does not have to be proven “beyond reasonable doubt.” Instead, the judge or jury at the civil trial need only consider the


“preponderance of evidence.” In practice this can mean failure to defend a lawsuit may result in the judgment going against you, even if you are in the right.

How did the terms of divorce evolve? Divorce to the Athenians and Romans was allowed whenever a man’s like turned to dislike. In the seventh century it was recorded that Anglo-Saxon men could divorce a wife who was barren, rude, oversexed, silly, habitually drunk, overweight, or quarrelsome. Throughout history, in societies where men were paid dowries, divorce favoured the husband; however, in matrilineal societies where the woman was esteemed, mutual consent was required. The word alimony means “nourishment.”

What is the difference between fault and no-fault divorce? At one time the spouse seeking a divorce had to prove that the other spouse had been “at fault”; that he or she had committed adultery or in some way violated the rules of marriage. Legislators believed that many individuals gave false testimony in court concerning their spouses’ behaviour because there was no other way out of marriages that had gone bad. No-fault divorce allows couples to break up without one having to accuse the other of misconduct, and without even having to go to court. They can request a divorce simply because they are no longer in love.


When was the first no-fault divorce law enacted? In 1918, in Russia, the newly established Bolshevik government, in setting up an officially atheist state, stripped all religious institutions of power. Previously the churches, mosques, and synagogues had controlled everything to do with marriage and divorce. Under their authority, divorce was rare and when it was granted, it was strictly on a “fault” basis. Under the new Marxist regime a person seeking a divorce simply had to file a document with the Russian Registry Office. It was not necessary for either spouse to be guilty of any misbehaviour.

When did the United States and Canada get no-fault divorce? In 1969 the state of California passed the Family Law Act, pioneering no-fault divorce in the USA. By 1985 every other American state had adopted some form of no-fault divorce. In Canada, the Divorce Act of 1968 stated that any married couple who had been separated for a year could be divorced without either party raising accusations of misbehaviour.

What does it mean to give someone power of attorney? If you give somebody “power of attorney,” that doesn’t mean they suddenly become a lawyer; it simply means they can legally sign papers and make decisions for you in the area in which you’ve given them that power. In many, perhaps most, cases, lawyers are given power of attorney — but it doesn’t have to be that way. 848

The British have several additional terms for people who practice law. Lawyer is a general term describing all of them. Solicitors do most of the office work, draft documents, talk to clients, and may only appear as advocates in the lower courts. Barristers do most of the trial work, especially in the higher courts, where they are the only ones who may act as advocates. Attorney has pretty much the same meaning in Britain as in America — one who acts on behalf of another.

What is the difference between a divorce and a separation? A separation is a trial “parting of the ways.” The husband and wife live apart but are still legally married. Sometimes this is a “trial” period to give the couple time and breathing room to see if they can sort out their problems. More often it is a practical measure to keep the husband and wife apart while the process for the more permanent divorce takes place. Quickies Did you know… • that the oldest couple on record to get divorced were Simon and Ida Stern of Milwaukee, Wisconsin? When they became divorced in February 1984, she was 91 and he was 97.

What is the difference between a divorce and an annulment? A divorce is the termination according to law of a legal marriage. An annulment is the cancellation of a marriage


which, for any one of a variety of reasons, wasn’t legal to begin with. Sometimes the lines between “divorce” and “annulment” can be rather blurred. For example, in the Middle Ages a wife could seek an annulment if the man to whom she was legally married proved to be impotent. In more recent times, Lee Bouvier Radziwiłł, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s sister, who has been married three times, secured two annulments from the Roman Catholic Church. The first was from husband number one, Michael Canfield, while the second was from husband number two, Polish prince Stanisław Radziwiłł. With the second husband, Lee had two children. Normally, at the time, an annulment could be obtained if the marriage hadn’t been consummated. That was clearly not the case here. As an added twist, Stanisław was granted an annulment from his previous wife so he could marry Lee.

How could the court prove if a husband was impotent? According to one church legal expert, “The man and woman are to be placed together in one bed and wise women are to be summoned around the bed for many nights. And if the man’s member is always found useless and as if dead, the couple are well able to be separated.” There is a recorded case from 1433 in York, England, in which — as the “wise women” looked on — the unhappy wife did everything possible to arouse her even more unhappy husband, but: “the said penis was scarcely three inches long … remaining without any increase or decrease.” 14 Reasons to Annul a Marriage in the Middle Ages


• One or both of the parties were already married to someone else. • Bride and groom were too closely related by blood, marriage, or some other relationship (i.e., godchild and godparent). • Either the bride or the groom was too young to be legally married. • Either the bride or the groom was a heretic. • The bride wasn’t a virgin. • The marriage wasn’t consummated. • One of the parties didn’t consent to the marriage. • One of the parties was an imposter. • The dowry wasn’t paid. • The parents of either the bride or groom hadn’t consented. • The clergyman who conducted the marriage was an imposter. • The wife proved to be infertile. • The husband proved to be impotent. • Either the bride or groom had previously consented to marry someone else.


How did the terms of divorce evolve? Divorce to the Athenians and Romans was allowed whenever a man’s like turned to dislike. In the seventh century it was recorded that Anglo-Saxon men could divorce a wife that was barren, rude, oversexed, silly, habitually drunk, overweight, or quarrelsome. Throughout history, in societies where men were paid dowries, divorce favoured the husband; however, in matrilineal societies where the woman was esteemed, mutual consent was required. The word alimony means nourishment.

How could you get a divorce in England in the first half of the nineteenth century? Until the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which established divorce courts, the only way an English couple could get a legal divorce was through an act of Parliament. This was not a realistic option for most people. Therefore, many unhappy couples simply parted ways without a formal divorce, and sometimes married other people illegally. This could result in charges of bigamy, with resulting fines and jail sentences. Quickies Did you know… • that in the Middle Ages, when divorce was next to impossible for common people, a husband had an alternative way to relieve himself from the nagging of a wife who was known as a “scold”? He could have her tied to the village


ducking stool, and dunked in a river or pool until she almost drowned.

How did the Matrimonial Clauses Act of 1937 improve the 1857 law? The Matrimonial Clauses Act passed by Britain’s Parliament in 1937 recognized desertion, cruelty, and “incurable unsoundness of mind” as legitimate causes of divorce. Either the husband or the wife could seek a divorce based these causes, as well as the traditional reason of adultery. Moreover, a wife could divorce her husband if he were guilty of rape, sodomy or bestiality. The waiting time for “desertion” was placed at three years, and this was later reduced to two years.

What was considered “desertion” early-nineteenth-century North America?


In nineteenth-century Canada and the United States there were vast frontier territories in which a man could lose himself, cutting off all family ties. Many husbands who had lost interest in their marriages simply moved on. A wife could divorce a husband who had gone away and not returned for a specified length of time. A husband could divorce a wife if he, as head of the household, decided to move the family to a frontier region, and she refused to go. This was considered “desertion” on the wife’s part. Five Steps to Obtain a Legal Divorce in England Before 1857:


• Hire an attorney to take legal action against the spouse. • Prepare evidence, instruct counsel, prove the case in court. • Employ a proctor. • Institute a suit in the Ecclesiastical Courts for a divorce a mensa et thoro. • Obtain a private act of Parliament to dissolve the marriage. All this would have cost about 1,000 pounds, at a time when a working man earned less than 100 pounds a year.

Where did a beauty parlour become a factor in a divorce case? In London, Ontario, about the turn of the twentieth century, the wife of a local businessman opened her own beauty parlour. Many people in the community took a dim view of a woman who was married to a successful man operating a business of her own. They asked the husband if he was trying to “corral all the money in London”, and withdrew their patronage from his business. The divorce that soon followed was officially due to adultery, but the wife’s operation of the beauty parlour placed a strain on the marriage, and was a factor in the divorce trial.


Who gets the better settlement following a split-up? The survey showed that in 30 percent of the cases the husband and wife shared the assets equally. In 60 percent of the cases the wife walked away with a greater share of the assets than the husband. In the remaining 10 percent of the cases the husband achieved a better settlement than the wife.

Who is more likely to file for divorce, the husband or the wife? The survey carried out in 2004 indicated that 93 percent of the divorce cases were the result of the wife wanting to end the marriage. Only a small number of the husbands involved contested the divorce. Quickies Did you know… • that in Malaysia, which is ruled by Islamic law, it is now legal for a husband to divorce his wife by mobile phone text message, as long as the message is clear and unambiguous?

What is alimony? Alimony is allowance for support that a person pays to his or her former spouse. It is usually part of a divorce settlement. Alimony is generally awarded in cases where a spouse is unable to support him- or herself. At one time alimony was paid only by ex-husbands to ex-wives, but now, if the wife is


wealthier, it may be she who must pay alimony. A court can order alimony to be paid temporarily while a divorce is in the process of being settled. Alimony is not automatic. It must be applied for. The need for alimony must be proven in court, as well as the ability of the former spouse to pay. Alimony payments stop with the death of the person who has to pay them. They cannot be taken from the deceased’s estate. Today almost 90% of divorce cases are alimony-free.

How old is alimony? Alimony dates back to ancient times. The Code of Hammurabi stated that if a couple divorced, the wife had custody of the children, and the husband was obliged to pay for their sustenance until they were grown. If there were no children, the husband had to return the dowry. However, if the wife had violated the rules of marriage; i.e., committed adultery, the husband could keep the children, was free of financial obligations, and could even sell his wife into slavery. Alimony laws existed in the Roman Empire and in the Byzantine Empire. Alimony as we know it today grew from old English Common Law.

What is child support? Child support and alimony are not the same. Child support is an ongoing financial obligation that must be met by both parents when minors are involved. The parent who is not actually residing in the same home as the children is nonetheless required to contribute to their support. If an ex-spouse fails to make alimony payments, the other spouse must go through the collection procedures that are available


to all creditors; i.e., a collection agency. If a parent fails to make child support payments, the other parent can take legal action that could (in some places) lead to a jail term.

How did divorcing couples divide their property under the old common law? Before the twentieth century, formal divorce among ordinary people was rare. However, when couples did break up, the ideal arrangement was for them to divide everything evenly, either by deciding who should take which piece of property, or by selling off the property and dividing the money. Sometimes there were special considerations. If the couple owned livestock, the husband got the pigs and the wife got the sheep. This was because the husband had greater freedom of movement, and would be able to herd the pigs, which foraged in the woods. The sheep tended to graze in fields near the house, which is where the wife would most likely be, especially if there were children. Quickies Did you know… • that at one time a woman could seek financial support from a man if she could prove he had promised to marry her, and then reneged on the promise? This is no longer possible today.


What is palimony? The term palimony is a combination of pal and alimony. It is not a legal term, and is not even officially Standard English. (The legal term is “non-marital relationship contract.”) Palimony became part of the jargon in 1977 when divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson used it in a lawsuit that actress Michelle Triola had brought against her former live-in lover, actor Lee Marvin.

What was the story behind the Triola/Marvin case? Lee Marvin, a very successful Hollywood actor, and Michelle Triola, a wannabe, had lived together for six years but had never been legally married. When they split up, Triola (who was calling herself Michelle Marvin) attempted to sue Lee Marvin for half of the $3.6 million he had earned during the time they’d been together. Marvin Mitchelson said his client had been Lee Marvin’s wife in all but name, and therefore was entitled to the money. The case was widely covered by the media. Triola said, “I gave Lee the best years of my life.” Marvin responded, “Yeah? Well, I also gave her the best years of her life.” Initially a judge denied Triola the full 50 percent of Marvin’s earnings, but ordered the star to pay her $104,000 for rehabilitation purposes. Later the California Court of Appeal ruled that there had been no contract of any sort between Marvin and Triola, and he was not obliged to pay her anything. At the time of the trial, many other male celebrities in non-marital relationships worried about being “Marvinized.”


How does palimony differ from alimony? A palimony lawsuit is more like a lawsuit for breach of contract than a divorce suit. Unlike marriage, which is regulated by law, there are no set laws for unmarried co-habitation. Each palimony case must be decided upon individually, and they are generally difficult for the plaintiff to win, unless there is a signed contract. Unlike alimony, which involves ongoing payments of money, a palimony settlement is a lump sum. Famous Palimony Cases • In 1982 entertainer Liberace was sued for $113 million by former lover Scott Thorson. The court awarded Thorson $95,000. • In 1989 Marc Christian successfully sued the estate of his former lover, the late Rock Hudson, for $14.5 million on the grounds that Hudson had concealed having AIDS. • In 1991 author Judy Nelson sued her former lover, tennis star Martina Navratilova, for $15 million. They settled out of court. • In 1996 pianist Van Cliburn was sued by former lover Thomas Zaremba. The case was dismissed. • In 2004 comedian Bill Maher was sued for $9 million by ex-girlfriend Nancy “Coco” Johnson. The case was dismissed.


What was the largest divorce settlement to be made public in Canada? In the year 2000 mining magnate Charles (Chuck) Fipke had to pay $120 million to his wife of 34 years, Marlene. Fipke struck it rich when he discovered diamonds in Canada’s Far North. Marlene had been with him from the beginning, prospecting all over the world. 12 Factors for Deciding How Much a Spouse Will have to Pay: • The length of the marriage. • The financial needs of each spouse and the ability to pay. • The physical and emotional health and age of each spouse. • The standard of living established during the marriage, and each spouse’s ability to maintain a standard of living reasonably close to that standard. • Each spouse’s ability to hold a job or in some manner earn a living. • The length of time it has been since the party seeking alimony has held a job. • The child care responsibilities of the spouse seeking alimony. • Each party’s financial and other contributions to the marriage. 860

• Other income available to either spouse. • The possible tax-related effects of any alimony awarded. • The division of marital property. • Any other considerations the court feels relevant.

What was the world’s largest divorce settlement? In the year 2000 Australian-American media tycoon Rupert Murdoch had to pay $1.7 billion to Anna (nee Torv), to whom he’d been married for 32 years. Anna had once been a journalism student working for one of Murdoch’s papers, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and was author of two novels.

Who gets the cat (or any other pet) in a divorce settlement? As far as the courts are concerned, family pets are personal property and therefore must be dealt with through the process of equitable distribution rather than through orders for custody and visitation rights. However, court officials also take into consideration the fact that the affection people feel for pets is real and palpable. They generally feel that decisions on who gets possession of the pet should be based on what is in the best interests of the pet.

How did “condonation” affect divorce? If a person learned that his or her spouse had been unfaithful, the person was expected to cease cohabiting with the


offending spouse immediately. To remain under the same roof was seen as “condonation” of the immoral behaviour. This would seriously hamper an attempt to divorce the spouse on the grounds of adultery. The idea of condonation could make things especially difficult for a wife whose husband was guilty of adultery. In many instances the wife was financially dependent on the husband, and had nowhere to go if she left his house.

What are “connivance,” “provocation,” and “collusion”? Connivance means setting up a situation so that another person commits, or appears to commit, a wrongdoing; i.e., one spouse arranges for the other to be in the same house as a third party, and then accuses them of having an affair. Provocation is inciting another person to do a certain act; i.e., one spouse purposely behaves in such a manner that the other spouse moves out, allowing the first spouse to plead abandonment. In a jurisdiction that does not allow no-fault divorce, or the separation time is longer than a couple wants to wait, they might pretend that one of them is at fault in order to obtain a speedier divorce. This cooperative effort to deceive the judge is called collusion. The Largest Celebrity Divorce Settlements • Basketball star Michael Jordan to wife of 17 years Juanita Vanoy — $150 million+ • Singer Neil Diamond to wife of 25 years Marcia Murphy — $150 million


• Director Steven Spielberg to wife of four years Amy Irving — $100 million • Actor Harrison Ford to wife of 17 years Melisisa Matheson — $85 million • Actor Kevin Costner to wife of six years Cindy Silva — $80 million • Director James Cameron to wife of 18 months Linda Hamilton — $50 million • Pop star Sir Paul McCartney to wife of 4 years Heather Mills — $48.6 million • Actor Michael Douglas to wife of 23 years Diandra Luker — $45 million • Singer Lionel Richie to wife of 12 years Diane Alexander — $20 million • Pop star Mick Jagger to wife of nine years Jerry Hall — $15 million+


food and dining Why is a select roast of beef called a “sirloin”? Legend has it that in 1617, during dinner and after a few goblets of wine, King James I of England suddenly stood and drew his sword and, laying it across the entrée, declared: “Gentlemen, as fond as I am of all of you, yet I have a still greater favourite — the loin of a good beef. Therefore, good


beef roast, I knight thee Sir Loin and proclaim that a double loin be known as a baron.”

Where did croissants, or crescent rolls, originate? In 1683, during a time when all the nations of Europe were at war with each other, the Turkish army laid siege to the city of Vienna. The following year Poland joined Vienna against the Turks, who were ultimately forced to lift the siege in 1689. As a celebration of victory, a Viennese baker introduced crescent-shaped rolls, or “croissants,” copying the shape of the crescent Islamic symbol on the Turkish flag.

Why is a certain kind of bread roll called a “bagel”? Many North Americans associate bagels with breakfast, but few people realize they were originally made to pay homage to a Polish king who saved Vienna, Austria, from a Turkish invasion in 1683. A local Jewish baker thanked the king by creating a special hard roll in the shape of a stirrup to commemorate the Polish cavalry. One word used to describe a stirrup in Austria is beugel. In Yiddish, bagel means a “ring,” often a bracelet. Sprinkled with onions, a bagel is called a bialy, for the Polish city Bialystock.

How did pumpernickel bread get its name? During the winter of 1812, while Napoleon’s army was retreating from Russia, the only available food was stale, dark


bread. Although his men were dying from hunger, Napoleon ensured that his great white horse, Nicholl, always had enough to eat, which caused the soldiers to grumble that although they were starving there was always enough pain pour Nicholl, or “bread for Nicholl.” When anglicized, pain pour Nicholl became the word pumpernickel.

How long can you keep a fruitcake? The polarizing fruitcake — loved by some and reviled by others — has some serious staying power! According to The Joy of Cooking, a fruitcake soaked in alcohol, buried in powdered sugar, and stored in an airtight tin can last up to 25 years. Quickies Did you know… • that both Adolph Hitler and Charles Manson were vegetarians? • that a teaspoon of dry sugar will stop the hiccups? • that it requires two tons of water to grow enough wheat for a single loaf of bread? • that the average North American is about 10 lbs overweight? If they lost this weight the savings in energy used to transport them would be approximately one million gallons of gasoline a year.


• that North Americans spend over $400.00 per family each year on pizza? • that Americans and Canadians throw out about 10 percent of the food they buy?

Why when humiliated are we forced to “eat humble pie”? “Humble pie” is an Americanization of the original English expression “umble pie,” a staple in the diet of very poor people during the eleventh century. After bringing down a deer, only the men could eat the choice meat from the kill; women and children were fed the innards, or the umbles, which they seasoned and baked into a pie. To be forced to eat umble pie was to be placed among the lowest in the social order.

Why are potatoes called both “spuds” and “taters”? Back in the fifteenth century a “spud” was a short-handled spade that had a general use but was best known for digging up potatoes. People who sold potatoes were called “spuddies.” In Britain, “taters” means cold, and — as is suggested in the rhyme “potatoes in the mould equals cold” — potatoes when grown in the mould, which is topsoil, are colder than if they’d grown deeper in the ground; therefore, cold spuds are taters. Quickies


Did you know… • that aside from their own species, humans consume milk from a wide variety of domestic animals? The vast majority is from cows but goats, sheep, and buffalo combine to supply about 55 percent. Other sources include camels, llamas, reindeer, yaks, and horses. • cows average a milk production of 38 quarts per day? • goats produce between six and 10 quarts per day? • ewes (sheep) deliver about one quart per day? • buffalo produce about five quarts per day? • camels average around nine quarts per day? • lactating human women produce about three cups of milk per day?

What is the difference between maize and corn? There is no difference between maize and corn in North America. However, there could be a lot of difference between the two in Europe. Maize is a Spanish word that probably came from a word that Tahino Indians used to describe their staple crop to Columbus. In Europe, corn is synonymous with grain, and it is used to describe the seed of any grain-producing plant. The fact that corn was more narrowly defined in North America may trace back to early Protestant settlers who were


forbidden from eating any food that was not mentioned in the Bible.

Where did the coffee habit come from? Muslims were the first to develop coffee. As early as 1524 they were using it as a replacement for the wine they were forbidden to drink. According to legend, an astute Arab herder noticed that his goats became skittish after chewing on the berries of a certain bush, so he sampled a few himself and found them to be invigorating. The region of Abyssinia where this took place is named Kaffa, which gave us the name for the drink we call coffee.

Why is a wiener on a bun called a “hot dog”? The evolution of the sausage began in Babylon, and modern incarnations include the Viennese wiener and the frankfurter,


which was shaped in the form of a Frankfurt German butcher’s pet dachshund. The Dachshund Sausage Dog became very popular in America, where the bun was added in 1904. In 1906, cartoonist Ted Dorgan couldn’t spell dachshund, so he simply named his drawing of a dog on a bun covered in mustard a hot dog, and it’s been called that ever since.

Why is lemon served with fish? Although lemon enhances the taste of fish, that isn’t the original reason the two were served together. Six hundred years ago, lemon was introduced with fish as a safety precaution. People believed that if someone swallowed a bone, a mouthful of lemon juice would dissolve it. We now know that this isn’t the case, but we also understand why they believed it. Sucking on a lemon causes the throat muscles to contort, helping to dislodge any stuck bone.

Where are the breeding waters of the species of fish known as “sardines”? The name “sardines” is used in reference to over 20 species of fish, and so they breed everywhere. A can of sardines is filled with one of dozens of species of immature ocean fish that happen to get caught in a trawler’s net, including pilchard and herring. The same is true of freshwater smelts, which are scooped up by the thousands along inland waterways after hatching in the spring and then fried as a delicacy in butter.


Why is a group of 13 called “a baker’s dozen”? In 1266, the English passed a law regulating the weight and price of beer and bread sold in the marketplace. Bakers depended on middlemen to sell their excess, especially during a good harvest year, but the new law forbade them to offer a discount or a wholesale price. They found a way to skirt the law by adding one extra loaf to each dozen. This thirteenth loaf provided the profit for the middlemen. The practice of adding the thirteenth loaf is older than the phrase; “a baker’s dozen” only dates from 1599.

Why did diners name the best bargain of the day a “blue plate special”? The first fast food restaurants were mobile wagons, and they appeared during the late 1800s. They were called diners because they resembled railroad dining cars. These special cars introduced the blue plate special during the Great Depression of the 1930s after a manufacturer invented a dish with separate, sunken compartments for potatoes, meat, and greens. Disposable and available only in blue, these delicious, quick meals were promoted as the blue plate special.

What is North America’s favourite snack food? North Americans devour 1.2 billion pounds of potato chips each year, making chips our favourite snack food. In 1852 at a resort in Saratoga, New York, Cornelius Vanderbilt sent his French fries back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick. Chef George Blum retaliated by cutting new


potatoes ridiculously thin, frying them, and sending them back to Vanderbilt — who loved them. Today, a pound of potato chips costs 500 times more than a pound of potatoes. Ninety-three percent of Americans snack: 50 percent do so two or three times a day, 40 percent four times a day, and three percent five or more times a day. Almost 90 percent of North American households buy potato chips about every three weeks; 76 percent buy tortilla chips once a month. 86 percent of American teenagers eat candy at least once a week.

Why is there a chocolate bar named Sweet Marie? The Sweet Marie chocolate bar was inspired by a love affair. In 1893, after an evening stroll through the streets of London, Ontario, with his girlfriend Marie, author Cy Warman was so smitten that he sat down in a park and wrote a poem called “Sweet Marie.” When musician Raymond Moore read the poem he put it to music, and the song became a hit that inspired a chocolate company to create the Sweet Marie chocolate bar. Cy married his sweet Marie, and together they raised four children in London.

How were “licorice allsorts” invented? Licorice has been popular in Britain since the Middle Ages when the Crusaders returned with the plant it is made from. Many different candies have evolved that contain licorice, including varieties that surround or layer the licorice with coconut paste. In 1899 a sales representative named Charlie Thompson for the Bassett Company accidentally dropped a


tray holding samples of licorice candies in front of a customer. As Thompson picked them up off the floor, the customer asked if he could order them all as a mixture, and “licorice allsorts” were born.

Why is an easy task called a “piece of cake”? Nothing could be more immediately rewarding than a piece of cake, and to indicate delight, we sometimes say a chore was a “piece of cake.” The expression first appears in English literature in a 1936 Ogden Nash (1902–1971) poem called “Primrose Path.” During the Second World War, the phrase was adopted by British pilots to describe a target that was easy and fun to attack or destroy, and from there the expression graduated into everyday English.



Why do we say that someone we consider stupid “doesn’t know which side his bread is buttered on”? To not know which side your bread is buttered on comes from a Yiddish folk tale describing the stupidity of the men of Chelm in Poland. The story goes that one day, when someone dropped a piece of bread, the wisest men in town gathered to ponder why it landed butter side up. After weeks of deliberation they concluded that the bread had been buttered on the wrong side.

What is the origin of the expression “done like dinner”? “Done like dinner” is a Canadian invention that means something like your goose is cooked. It stands proudly alongside a host of other excellent Canadian words and expressions like canucklehead, grocery police, pogey (as in UI), Newfie screech, snowbirds, toonie, “have the biscuit,” and “Take off, eh!”

Why do we call that delicious crustacean a “lobster”? The average lobster weighs about two pounds, and even though Shediac, New Brunswick, promotes itself as the Lobster Capital of the World, the largest lobster caught was in Nova Scotia and weighed 44.4 pounds. Before the twentieth century, eating lobster was a mark of poverty because to many people they resemble an insect, which is why their


Latin name is locusta, meaning “locust,” which became lobster.

When did lobster become popular? Lobsters have always been popular in Europe, especially in coastal regions, but not so in North America. Early pilgrims found lobsters were so plentiful — covering the beaches at low tide up to two feet deep — that they ground them up and spread them on corn fields as fertilizer. In Massachusetts, servants sometimes protested against having to eat them too frequently.

Why do we say we will take someone’s opinion with a “grain of salt”? This is an expression that goes back to ancient times and probably originated from the observation that salt can spice up a meal that is otherwise indigestible by mind or body. Another theory suggests that it comes from the Roman General Pompey’s belief that adding a bit of salt to a poison antidote will help it counter poison more effectively. We take salt for granted today but it used to be very difficult for many people to come by, and was therefore considered valuable and special.

Why is a small restaurant called a “bistro”? Legend has it that when the Russian Cossacks occupied Paris in 1815, they were notoriously rude and demanded quick service from local restaurants and bars by shouting what the


French understood to be “Bistro!” which sounds very much like a Russian word for “quickly.” The word bistro has no French root, and so the legend is plausible. Regardless, whether French or otherwise, a bistro promises intimate and rapid service.

Which restaurant meals do North Americans like best? North Americans eat about half of their meals away from home. Fifty-five percent of the average diet is fast food or junk food, but at a sit-down restaurant, fried chicken is the most popular meal, followed by roast beef, spaghetti, turkey, ham, and fried shrimp. On the other hand, Kentucky Fried Chicken sells approximately 11 pieces of chicken annually for every man, woman, and child in both Canada and the United States.

Why is an important person called the “big cheese”? The “big cheese” is the person with the authority and responsibility for everything within an organization. In this case, cheese is an Anglicization of chiz, the Urdu word for “thing.” In colonial India, the natives picked up the pre-existing English idiom “the real thing” and made it “the real chiz,” which in turn was carried home by the British where to homeland ears chiz sounded like cheese. In the United States, the “real cheese” was converted to the “big cheese” to describe the most important person in a group.


What is “Yorkshire pudding”? The eating customs of the poor from all over the world were intended to fill stomachs with little cost. Yorkshire pudding is one of England’s answers to this culinary problem. Although we think of pudding as a dessert, Yorkshire pudding is quite different. It can be eaten as a dessert with the addition of toppings, but it is a savoury dish that really shines when it is eaten with meat. The recipe is similar to pancakes, but the batter is cooked in an oven. Traditionally, the batter would be showered with the drippings of a leg of mutton. Today it is more often cooked with the fat from roast beef. Cooked properly, it rises in airy majesty out of its pan and spills over the sides. A popular variation on Yorkshire pudding is toad in the hole, which is made by roasting sausages in the Yorkshire pudding batter. Known as “drippings pudding” since the Middle Ages, Yorkshire pudding got its current name from Hannah Glasse, an eighteenth-century cook from northern England who included the formula in a popular book of recipes.

Why do we look wistfully back upon our “salad days”? Salad days are the “green” days of our youth. William Shakespeare refers to “salad days” negatively when he has Cleopatra mention them in his play Antony and Cleopatra, where she claims that her youthful naïveté led to her love affair


with Julius Caesar. Since then the phrase has come to mean “youthful good times that are fondly remembered.” Curiously, the word salad comes from a Latin word meaning “salted vegetables.”

Why is a dried grape called a “raisin”? A raisin is, of course, a dried grape, and like two-thirds of the English language, the word raisin comes from Old French, where it means “grape,” shrivelled or otherwise. The word grape also comes from Old French and means “bunch of grapes.” Sultanas and Thompson seedless grapes are the two varieties commonly enlisted to make raisins. Sultanas are used to create golden raisins, while Thompsons fashion dark ones, or they are lightened with sulfur dioxide to turn them golden. A raisin is a “worried” grape.

Why is a leisurely outdoor lunch called a picnic? The word picnic began as a reference to a fashionable, potluck social gathering held either in or outdoors in England during the eighteenth century. The word picnic is from the French piquenique which is derived from piquer meaning “to peck or pick.” The evolution into the common language as picnic took place as ordinary people accepted its meaning as “something simple.”


Who was the originator of the Graham Cracker? In the nineteenth century, a New England minister, Sylvester Graham, created the Graham Cracker to fight alcoholism and promiscuity which he believed were caused by eating red meat. A diet of his crackers made with unsifted flour, along with fruits and vegetables was intended to make a person healthier. Now they’re popular simply because they taste good and for this reason make up 15 percent of the cracker market. Graham’s was the first of a series of dietary health products that would become the breakfast cereal industry. His cracker encouraged Dr. John Harvey Kellogg who followed with Corn Flakes and Charles W. Post who developed Grape Nut Flakes.

Who was the first to preserve food through canning? Before canning, food on board long ocean voyages and military campaigns was terrible. Scurvy and hunger as well as related diseases brought down more men than combat. In 1795 the French government offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could find an effective means to preserve food for long periods of time. The challenge was taken up by a Parisian chef named Nicholas Appert who figured that if wine could be bottled and preserved, then why not food? It took 15 years of trying before successfully sealing partially cooked food in bottles, then immersing the corked bottles into boiling water before concluding with the theory that properly prepared food sealed in airtight containers wouldn’t spoil. He sent samples to Napoleon’s army and navy where the supply of 18 different foods, including fresh vegetables and poultry with gravy


stayed fresh for more than four months. The Emperor Napoleon personally presented the 12,000-franc reward to Appert. When the British learned that through preserved food, the French could extend their military campaigns King George III gave Peter Durand a patent in 1810 for his idea of extending the process by using unbreakable sealed tin cans coated in iron instead of glass to preserve food.

Why are members of the Queens Guard called “Beefeaters”? There are 12 colourfully dressed guards of the Tower of London. Officially known as Yeoman Warders, they were established in 1485 as Henry VIII’s body guards. Their chief duty since has been to safeguard the Crown jewels and to look after any Tower prisoners. Today they act as tour guides. The remaini