Saturday, May 19, 2018

More Bits of Historical Trivia—Where Did Those Expressions Come From (part 2 of 3)


Last week I gave you a list of 10 bits of historical trivia dealing with those expressions everyone uses, but whose origins have been obscured by time.  This week in part 2 of 3, I'm presenting a list of an additional 13 such expressions, alphabetically A through M.

Annie Oakley: Why do we call a free pass to an event an 'Annie Oakley'?
Free passes were once punched full of holes. Annie Oakley was a famous rifle shot who, as part of her act, would shoot holes in a playing card held by an assistant.

Blurb: What is the origin of the word 'blurb'?
When Gellette Burgess' book, Are You A Bromide, was published, he devised a special dust jacket for 500 presentation copies to be given away at a booksellers' banquet. It was the custom at that time to have the picture of some woman on the jacket of every novel. He featured a sickly-sweet portrait of a young woman and in the accompanying text described her as a Miss Belinda Blurb. From this the usual dust cover jacket 'blow up' of an author and his book came to be called a blurb.

Clerk: How did an office assistant get the name 'clerk'?
At one time only the clergy could read or write so any person with this ability was assumed to be a cleric. From this, the words clerical and cleric were soon shortened to clerk and came to mean written work or one who performed such work.

Dirt Cheap: Why do we say something inexpensive is 'dirt cheap'?
Nothing is of less value. If you gather a big pile of dirt you would not increase your wealth. In fact, you would most likely have to pay someone to haul it away.

Exception Proves The Rule: What is the origin of the expression 'the exception proves the rule'?
Originally the word 'prove' meant 'test.' The phrase merely means that the exception tests the rule, which makes sense and is logical.

Fall Guy: Why do we call a dupe a 'fall guy'?
The word fall not only means to stumble but also to be lured or entrapped. We call a person a fall guy who is entrapped and left to suffer the punishment while the one who did the actual misdeed escapes.

Geronimo: Why do American paratroopers shout 'Geronimo' as they jump?
Several members of the first unit of parachute troops formed at Fort Benning, Georgia, went to see the movie Geronimo. Afterwords, in reference to the mock heroics of their practice jumps, they started calling each other by this name. From this came the paratroopers practice of shouting 'Geronimo' as he leaps from the plane.

Hair Of The Dog: Why is taking a morning-after drink as a hangover cure called taking a 'hair of the dog that bit you'?
The ancients believed one of the best cures for hydrophobia (rabies), or any other disease you might get from a dog bite, consisted of taking a hair of the dog that bit you and putting it in the wound.

Inside Track: Where did we get the expression 'he's got the inside track'?
It came from horse racing. The best position for a horse, the shortest distance around the race track to the finish line, is the one nearest the rail—the inside track.

Jog The Memory: What is the reason we say we 'jog the memory'?
Jog really means shake and when we jog a person's memory, we shake it up.

Killed With Kindness: Where did we get the expression killed with kindness?
This came from the story of Draco, the Athenian legislator, who died because of his popularity. The Greeks used to wave their caps and coats as a sign of approval and when they were extremely enthusiastic they tossed their hats and coats at the object of their enthusiasm. In the 6th century B.C., Draco aroused the enthusiasm of the audience in the theatre of Aegina to such an extent that the entire gathering showered him with caps and coats—and smothered him to death.

Lock, Stock, And Barrel: How did lock, stock and barrel come to mean all or everything?
There are 3 parts to a gun—the barrel, the stock, and the firing mechanism called the lock. By listing all 3, the totality of the rifle is reaffirmed—all of it.

Make The Bed: Why do we say we make the bed when we spread the sheets and blankets?
We speak of making the bed rather than fixing it or doing it because beds were once created anew each night from straw thrown on the floor.

Next week I'll share part 3 of this blog series, another 13 historical trivia phrases about everyday expressions (alphabetically N through Z).

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Where Did Those Expressions Come From (part 1 of 3)


Ever wonder about those interesting expressions that have been handed down through the centuries?  Phrases that we all use without giving any thought to where they came from or their original meaning?  Let's take a look at the historical origin of some of these expressions.  Here's a list of ten such expressions, part 1 of a 3 part blog series.

1)  God willing and the Creeks don't rise
This expression was originally in reference to the Native American Creek tribe and not a body of water and is attributable to Benjamin Hawkins, a late 18th century politician.  While in the south, he was requested by the President to return to Washington.  In his response, he wrote, God willing and the Creeks don't rise.  Since he capitalized the word Creeks, it was assumed he was referring to a hostile uprising of the Indian tribe rather than water.

2)  It cost an arm and a leg
Since there weren't any cameras in George Washington's day, the only way to portray someone's image was either through sculpture or painting.  Some paintings of Washington show him standing behind his desk with one arm behind his back while others show both arms and legs.  Prices charged by artists were often calculated according to how many arms and legs were being painted rather than the number of people in the painting.  Therefore, if the subject wanted both arms and legs in the painting, they were told, "Okay, but it will cost an arm and a leg."

3)  Here comes the big wig
As ludicrous as it sounds today, back then men and women took baths only twice a year (usually May after the cold winter and October after a hot summer). Women covered their hair and men shaved their heads and wore wigs. The wealthy could afford good wigs made of wool. Since the wool wigs couldn't be washed, they would hollow out a loaf of bread and put the wig in the shell, then bake it for half an hour.  The heat made the wigs big and fluffy, thus the term big wig.  Today we use the expression when someone appears to be powerful and wealthy.

4)  Chairman of the Board
Many houses in the late 1700s consisted of a large room with only one chair.  A long wide board folded down from the wall and was used for dining.  The head of the household always sat in the chair while everyone else sat on the floor while eating.  To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge and that person was referred to as the chair man.  Today in business, we use the expression Chairman of the Board.

5)  Crack a smile and other related phrases
One result of the lack of personal hygiene back then was that many men and women developed acne scars by adulthood.  Women would spread bee's wax over their faces to smooth out their complexions. If a woman began to stare at another woman's face, she was told to mind your own bee's wax.  If a woman smiled, the wax would crack, hence the term crack a smile.  And when a woman sat too close to the fire the wax would melt, giving us the expression losing face.

6)  Straight laced
Ladies wore corsets which laced up the front.  A proper and dignified woman wore a tightly tied corset and was said to be straight laced.

7)  Not playing with a full deck
Back in the day, a common form of entertainment was playing cards.  When a tax was levied on the cards, it was applicable only to the ace of spades.  To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards and ignore the ace of spades.  Since most card games require all 52 cards, those people were thought to be stupid because they were not playing with a full deck.

8)  Gossip
Long ago, before the creation of mass communication such as phones, radio, and television (and certainly the internet and various social media), politicians sent their assistants to local taverns to get feedback from the public and determine which issues people considered important.  They were told to go sip some ale and listen to people's conversations.  The two words go sip were eventually combined into one word, gossip, when referring to the local opinion.

9)  Minding your P's and Q's
In the local taverns, people drank from pint and quart sized containers.  One of the bar maid's jobs was to keep track of which customers were drinking from pints and which from quarts, hence the phrase minding your P's and Q's.

And finally an expression that has often been misinterpreted…

10)  Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
Back in the day when sailing ships ruled the waves, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons that fired iron cannon balls.  It was necessary to keep a supply of cannon balls near the cannon while at the same time preventing them from rolling around the deck.  The best storage method was a square-based pyramid with one ball perched on four balls resting on nine which sat on sixteen providing a supply of thirty cannon balls stacked in a small area next to the cannon.  There was a problem, though—how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding out from under the others.  The solution was a metal plate called a monkey with sixteen round indentations.  But again, there was a problem.  If the plate was made from iron, the iron cannon balls would quickly rust to it, especially in the damp ocean air.  The solution to the rusting problem was to make brass monkeys.  But still a problem…brass contracts much more and much quicker than iron when it's chilled.  So, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey which means it was literally cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.  Not what you were expecting?  :)

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Mother's Day—A Brief History


Mother's Day is a holiday honoring motherhood. It's observed in different forms in many countries, the date traditionally falling on the second Sunday in May in the United States (Sunday, May 13th this year). The American version of the holiday was created by Anna Jarvis in 1908 and became an official holiday in 1914. Some time later, Anna Jarvis denounced the holiday for being too commercial and spent the latter years of her life trying to get it removed.

The celebration of mothers and motherhood goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who held festivals honoring the mother goddesses. However, the clearest precedent for Mother's Day is the early Christian festival known as Mothering Sunday. This was once a major tradition in the UK and parts of Europe, falling on the fourth Sunday in Lent. It was a time when the faithful would return to their mother church (the main church in the vicinity of their home) for a special service. Over time the tradition shifted into a secular holiday with children bringing flowers to their mothers as tokens of appreciation. The roots of the modern American Mother's Day go back to the years prior to the U.S. Civil Way (1861-1865)

Even though versions of Mother's Day are celebrated throughout the world, traditions vary from country to country. For example, in Thailand Mother's Day is always celebrated in August on the birthday of the current queen. And in Ethiopia families gather each fall to sing songs and eat a large feast as part of a multi-day celebration honoring motherhood.

In the US, Mother's Day has become one of the biggest holidays for consumer spending…definitely a biggie for greeting cards and florists.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Cinco de Mayo—What and Why?


Cinco de Mayo literally translates to fifth of May and commemorates the Mexican army's 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War of 1861-1867. Although a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, in the United States Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations. Cinco de Mayo traditions include parades, mariachi music performances, and street festivals in cities and towns across Mexico and the United States. As s longtime resident of Southern California, I've definitely seen many Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Here's a brief history of Mexico's Cinco de Mayo holiday:

Mexico, formerly known as New Spain, declared their independence from Spain on September 16, 1810.  After fighting an 11 year war, they finally achieved their independence in 1821.

In 1861 [at the time of the U.S. Civil War], Benito Juarez became president of Mexico, a country in financial ruin.  He was forced to default on Mexico's debts to several European governments. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand payment of the loans. Britain and Spain negotiated a settlement with Mexico and withdrew.  France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to create a dependent French holding in Mexican territory. Late in 1861, a large well-armed French fleet landed at Veracruz and drove President Juarez and his government into retreat.

Certain of a swift French victory, 6000 French troops set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles [not to be confused with Los Angeles, California, as California had been a state in the U.S. for eleven years at that time]. From his new headquarters in northern Mexico, Juarez rounded up a rag-tag force of loyal men and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Zaragoza, the 2000 Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On the fifth of May, 1862, the French commander moved his well-provisioned army, supported by heavy artillery, into position at the city of Puebla and began their assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, and when the French finally retreated they had lost nearly 500 soldiers to the fewer than 100 Mexicans killed.

Although not a major strategic victory in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza's victory at Puebla reinforced Mexican resistance, and six years later France withdrew from Mexico. The same year, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who had been installed as emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III in 1864, was captured and executed by Juarez' forces. Puebla de Los Angeles, the site of Zaragoza's historic victory, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general. Today, the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is celebrated in Mexico as Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

10 AWESOME MUSEUMS NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC


Museum of Natural History in London, England (yes, it IS open to the public)

Museums…those public and private repositories of anything and everything that might be of interest to someone, collections open to the public to enjoy and that educate.  They encompass a wide variety of interests such as fine art, items showing the natural history of a region, or something as specific as a hair collection.

I recently found a list of 10 very specific museums/collections with a common thread—they are not open to the public.
CIA Museum
Needless to say, one of the most secretive agencies in the entire United States government (and the world) wouldn’t just throw the doors of their archives open for everyone. The Central Intelligence Agency’s internal museum is one of the most thorough collections of intelligence memorabilia on Earth with over 3,500 items. The collection includes documents from the OSS [Office of Strategic Services created in WW II, the forerunner of the CIA], spy weapons and equipment, and even an AK-47 rifle that belonged to Osama Bin Laden. The only public aspects of the Museum are three showcases at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. And that building isn't easy to get into, either.

International Museum And Library Of The Conjuring Arts
If you’re looking for a community of people who like to keep secrets, the CIA isn't the only place to look.  Professional magicians are right up there, too. Considering that their careers hinge on being able to fool people, magicians aren’t crazy about opening up to the public. David Copperfield has used his vast fortune to amass a collection of over 150,000 pieces of magic history from practitioners like Harry Houdini and hundreds of others.  It’s located in a 40,000 square foot Las Vegas warehouse that has a fake hat shop in the front. [I saw a television special about Houdini including an auction of items from his career with David Copperfield being one of the major successful bidders on several items]

MIT Museum Of Espionage [in Turkey, not the Massachusetts Institute of Technology :) ]
The United States isn’t the only nation that keeps its intelligence archives in a private museum. Turkey’s MIT spy group has been amassing an impressive collection of memorabilia from top-secret operations for years. Stored at the group’s headquarters in Ankara, the museum’s glass display cases contain such spy craft relics as a shoe wedge designed to store a hidden microphone, hollowed-out objects for secreting code books, and bugging devices discovered in Turkish embassies abroad during the Cold War. A Turkish newspaper requested access to the museum and was allowed in for one day, but that’s the only time the Museum of Espionage has ever been seen by the public.

Canadian Museum Of Making
It is possible to get inside the doors of the Canadian Museum of Making, which is located on a private ranch near Cochrane, Alberta, but it’s not easy. The museum’s owner, Ian MacGregor, is very picky about who he allows through the doors. From the outside, you’d never know that the 20,000 square foot museum is even there, because he constructed the complex entirely underground. Inside is one of the world’s most extensive collections of mechanical objects from between 1750 and 1920. Every once in a while, MacGregor will open the doors to select people, but it's a rare occasion.

El Museo del Enervantes
Intended for use in the training of military staff waging Mexico’s seemingly endless war against the drug cartels, El Museo del Enervantes, located in Mexico City, is a private museum that chronicles every aspect of the world of narcoterrorism. In-depth exhibits illustrate the manufacturing process involved in making cocaine, heroin and other drugs. A huge display case shows off dozens of handguns confiscated from drug lords, many encrusted with gold and jewels. There is also a plaque commemorating all the Mexican soldiers who died on duty since 1976.

The Honda Secret Museum
Many automakers rent out space to spotlight important moments in their history, but Honda defies the trend by making their history museum closed to the public. Assembled by company veteran Lou Staller, it’s a collection of almost 50 cars and motorcycles that commemorate Honda’s successes and failures. Included in the collection is a Honda N-600 from 1970—the first passenger car the company sold in the States—and the 1997 EV Plus, the very first electric vehicle to be marketed here. The museum is only accessible to Honda employees, and the vast majority of them have never been there, making it a treasure trove for car enthusiasts.

Musée d'Anatomie Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière
The Musée d'Anatomie Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière permanently closed its door to everyone—public and invited only—in 2005. Prior to that time, it was the largest and most complete anatomy museum in France. The Museum’s collection began in 1794 and expanded steadily over the years to include upwards of 5,800 anatomic items from humans and other animals. Some of the coolest stuff on display includes casts of the heads of executed 19th century criminals, comparative anatomy displays of reptiles and birds, and skulls of deceased mental patients. It occupied the eighth floor of the Descartes University’s school of medicine, and access was granted only to the medical elite.

The Black Museum
Scotland Yard, one of the most famous crime-fighting institutions in history, has amassed some serious items. If you want to see them, they’re kept in the Black Museum. Located at police headquarters in London, this collection of evidence from some of Scotland Yard’s most notorious crimes includes the pots serial killer Dennis Nilsen used to cook his victims and a taunting letter from Jack the Ripper. Also on display is a vast array of weapons used in the commission of crimes, including some cleverly disguised tools of mayhem. There is a current discussion about finally making the museum open to the public, but as of now it’s still police only.

The U.S. Secret Service Museum
It appears that taxpayer money is supporting a disproportionate number of museums that aren’t open to the public. Located in the nondescript office building that houses the Secret Service headquarters is a small private museum that’s only open to invited guests. Inside the one-room museum are artifacts from some of the most shocking crimes in American history—assassination attempts on Presidents. Among these artifacts is the bullet-scarred window from Ronald Reagan’s limousine on the day that John Hinckley attacked and the assault rifle that Francisco Duran used to spray bullets into the White House in 1994.
The Zymoglyphic Museum
The Zymoglyphic Museum in San Mateo, California, is open to the public—but only for two days out of every year. The museum's creator houses his collection in a small outbuilding off of his garage, down a nondescript suburban cul-de-sac. Inside is the world’s largest assemblage of animals and artifacts from the Zymoglyphic Era…a period in Earth’s past that never existed. The dioramas, housed in aquarium tanks, are well thought out and executed with incredible attention to detail.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

EIGHT SURPRISING HISTORICAL FACTS

This list puts historical moments into a time-line context that will surprise you when you discover which one of two happenings is older.  At least most of them surprised me. :)

1)  Harvard University was founded before calculus was invented
Originally called the New College, 1636 is the date for the founding of Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher education in what is now America.  It should also be noted that physicist, mathematician and astronomer Galileo was still alive during Harvard's early years.  He died in 1642.  The invention of calculus didn't come about until 1684 with Gottfried Leibniz's publication of Nova Methodus.
2)  The Pyramids of Giza were built before wooly mammoths became extinct
It's believed that the last wooly mammoths died out approximately 1700B.C. on Russia's Wrangel Island.  The Pyramids of Giza, in Egypt, were built approximately 300 years earlier (about 4,000 years ago).  There are some claims that the pyramids might be even older than that.

3)  The fax machine is the same age as the Oregon Trail
1843 is the year Alexander Bain, a Scottish mechanic, invented the first fax machine.  The same year the Great Migration on the Oregon Trail began when a wagon train of approximately 1000 migrants attempted to travel west but probably died of dysentery along the way.

4)  Jewelry store Tiffany & Co. was founded before Italy was a country
1837 is the year Charles Tiffany and John Young founded Tiffany & Young which became Tiffany & Co. in 1853.  1861 is when General Giuseppe Garibaldi led a successful campaign to bring the various city-states together as one nation, although Rome held out for a number of years after that.  Macy's was founded in 1858, also prior to Italy becoming the nation we know today.

5)  France was still using the guillotine when the first Star Wars movie was released
1977 is the release date of the first of the Star Wars movies.  A few months later is when France conducted its last execution by guillotine.  The guillotine had been used in France for approximately 200 years.  And another French time line fact to boggle the mind:  1889 is the year of the Eiffel Tower, the same year Nintendo was founded (the company originally made playing cards) and Van Gogh painted The Starry Night.

6)  Betty White Is Older Than Sliced Bread
1928 is the date when bread was first sold commercially as sliced rather than the traditional whole loaves.  Prior to that, bakers didn't believe that sliced bread could stay fresh.  Betty White was born in 1922, six years before the invention that became the benchmark for greatness with future inventions being heralded as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

7)  Two of President John Tyler's grandsons are still alive
1841 to 1845, John Tyler was America's tenth president.  And, surprisingly, two of his grandsons are still alive.  As of March 2018, both Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born in 1924, 94 years old this year), and Harrison Tyler (born in 1928, 90 years old this year), are still alive. President Tyler was born in 1790 which means just three generations of his family covers almost the entire history of the United States of America starting with the winning of our independence at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783.

8)  Oxford University is older than the Aztecs
Teaching began in Oxford as early as 1096. The University was officially founded by 1249. The Aztec civilization as we know it began with the founding of Tenochtitlán in 1325.

And there you have it…a few surprising dates from history.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Friday the 13th —Does it make you stop and think?


Triskaidekaphobia:  Fear of the number thirteen.

Paraskevidekatriaphobia:  Fear of Friday the 13th.

An obviously irrational concept that a mere number can bring bad luck to someone.  Or that a specific day of the week can be unlucky.  But that doesn't stop us from dwelling on the possibility.

This week gives us Friday the 13th.  The tradition of Friday being a day of bad luck dates back centuries with some of the more common theories linking it to significant events in the Bible believed to have taken place on Friday such as the Crucifixion of Christ, Eve offering Adam the apple in the Garden of Eden, the beginning of the great flood.

Many sources for the superstition surrounding the number thirteen and its association with bad luck also derive from Christianity with the Last Supper being cited as the origin.  Judas was the thirteenth person to be seated at the table.

And when you put the two bad luck symbols together you get Friday the 13th…the day associated with misfortune.

One legend of the origin of Friday the 13th as unlucky comes from the persecution of the Knights Templar. Philip IV of France borrowed enormous sums of money from the very wealthy Templars to finance a war with England. An ineffectual king and an even worse military commander, Philip was easily defeated. He saw a way of both currying favor with the Pope and eliminating his huge debt. On that fateful day of Friday, October 13, 1307 he ordered all Templars arrested and their property seized. The Grandmaster of the order, Jacques DeMolay was thrown in prison along with several other high-ranking members of the order. The Knights Templar, which had dominated medieval life for two centuries, was no more. Unfortunately for Philip, the Templars had learned of his planned treachery before hand. Many of them escaped and their vast stores of treasure were hidden from the King’s soldiers. Jacques DeMolay was burned alive after being tortured when he refused to admit to any wrongdoing. Another legend that has also persisted is that Jacques DeMolay cursed both Philip IV and Pope Clement V, as he died. Philip and Clement died within months of DeMolay’s death.

Superstition is a belief or notion not based on reason or knowledge.  An irrational belief.  Lots of superstitions came into being during the Dark Ages, a time when living conditions were so severe that people reached out to anything that might bring them help and solace with the results being explanations for what seemed unexplainable at the time.  Religious beliefs and lack of scientific knowledge helped to spawn many superstitions.

Superstitions differ from culture to culture, but we all have them even if it's only paying surface homage to the concept.  We don't believe in the good luck vs. bad luck of chain letters, yet it often comes down to saying what's the harm, then sending the letter on to avoid breaking the chain.

We often follow the tradition of the superstition without really knowing why it's the traditional thing to do.  If we blow out all the candles on our birthday cake with one breath while making a silent wish, then the wish will come true.  When expressing a desire for good luck (we'll be able to go on the picnic if it doesn't rain), we grin, then we knock on wood as we emit an embarrassed chuckle.

In Western folklore, many superstitions are associated with bad luck.  In addition to Friday the 13th there's walking under a ladder, having a black cat cross your path, spilling salt, stepping on a crack, and breaking a mirror among others.

In addition to cultural superstitions, there's also certain occupations that evoke various rituals to bring on good luck.  It seems to me that gamblers and sports figures have the most superstitions and rituals to insure good luck.

Do you have any superstitions that you hold dear?  Are they more of a traditional situation handed down through your family or are they superstitions that have come down through history?

And I'm sure there won't be any unpleasantries or bizarre accidents this Friday (knock on wood).