Twelfth Night

Say what?

Twelfth Night? What is it? The twelfth night of what? A well known Shakespeare play of course, but its significance in Medieval culture runs deep in tradition.

Americans are not as familiar, as are our friends across the pond, with the festivities of the twelve days of Christmas. This festive time begins on Christmas Day and ends on the twelfth night, either January 5 or 6th, depending upon your church tradition. The Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany, the celebration of the Magi visiting the Christ Child.

Today. most people have at least heard of the term, “the twelve days of Christmas.” Most of us are familiar with the bizarre gifts in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, the most important being the proverbial “partridge in a pear tree.” Some Brits still celebrate this, almost a fortnight, of Christmas cheer in modern revelry.  But in the Middle Ages the need to find a way to combat the cold, “bleak midwinter” doldrums was crucial. The twelve day feast was a way to celebrate the winter solstice – the increase of the sunlight beginning in late December was something to rejoice in. Men would fell a large log which was set on fire and continued to burn for approximately twelve days. But more important than the return of physical light, the dispelling of spiritual darkness with the light of the Savior was essential to the Medieval Christian.

In a delightful book, “Christmas Folk” by Natalia Belting and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, the medieval “folk” frolic through the pages enjoying the twelve day feast. “On December 24, “the mummers go out…wissal, wassail through the town, if you’ve got apples throw them down. And with them go Snap the Dragon, Hobby the Horse and the Christmas Bull… For this night Comes Christmas in.”

Mummers wore masks, costumes and generally “frolicked” about the town adding to the merriment. “The Christmas folk dance, in the lanes, in the halls, past fall of the night.”

The culmination of the festivities on January 5 , was the dinner, complete with the Twelfth Night Cake. A bean and/or a pea were hidden within the cake/s and whoever found the treasure in their slice of cake became the Christmas king or queen and donned the Christmas crown.

“January 5, “the season of Yule now comes to its end. Twelfth Night, the Christmas folk dance, sing merry and feast on meat and fowl. And he whose slice of the Twelfth Night cake has the bean, is king of the revels. And she is his queen who has in her slice the lucky pea.”

Our family adopted this tradition many years ago and combined it with the “Baby Jesus birthday cake” on Christmas night. Although every family member protests heartily that they don’t want to get the pea in their slice, they secretly hope they will be the lucky one to wear the crown after all!

“Yule’s come and Yule’s gane,

And all have feasted weel,

So Jock takes up his flail agane,

And Jenny spins her wheel.

Three Prophetesses of Doom

Ancient Greece. Three mistresses of fate – Clotho, Lachesis, Anthropos. Custodians of the threads of life. One spins the beginning of destiny. The next decides the “lot in life”. The third snips off the thread when she decides the life is over.

Ancient Scotland. Three witches on a heath predicting the fate of Macbeth and Banquo. Bubble, bubble up the future from their pot of horrible trouble. And it all comes true.

Three fictitious controllers of destiny are often found throughout English Literature and mythology. Anglo Saxon or Old English had a character named “Wyrd” (weird?), a descendant of a Nordic goddess of destiny who lived under a weird tree called Yggdrasill. Verdandi and Skuld made up the Norse prophetic trio. They scribbled the fates of humans on forest wood.

In a Chaucer story of Middle English literature, “The Pardoner’s Tale”, three ruffians set out to avenge their recently deceased friend by killing “Death”. They are told that they will find him, interestingly enough, at the foot of a tree. Instead of Death, the trio find a pile of gold. The men, naturally treacherous in their hearts, plot secretly to kill the others in order to take the gold for themselves. The youngest sent off to get the wine, poisons it before he returns. The other two kill him before they drink the wine and seal their fate. Are they the three fates in this tale? Or is it Death Himself who holds the cards?

Early Modern English brings us the works of Shakespeare, including Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. In the Early Modern period of Shakespeare, the thought of destiny lay in the idea of Fortune’s Wheel (Wheel …of …Fortune!). This was an idea developed by Boethius in the 6th century but promulgated by leaders of thought in the Middle Ages. So Shakespeare’s reference to the stars controlling our destiny in Romeo and Juliet, reflected the reliance on some higher influence on man’s destiny. However, I maintain that if you want to look at the three influencers in the tale, I would say blame the trio of the Prince, Mercutio, and Friar Lawrence. The first two utter a curse on the families and the priest defies nature by creating a deceptive death drug.

The three hags of Macbeth fame predict the fate of Macbeth who is susceptible to the “weird sisters” because of his desire to exalt his station in life. Their likeness to the three fates is seen not only in their “old crone” descriptions but also in their ability to control the fate of men.

In the 19th century, Charles Dickens created formidable female characters in A Tale of Two Cities – the peasant women as a unified force, Madame Defarge, their leader, and her sidekick, chillingly named “the Vengeance”. They watch the beheadings at the guillotine while knitting “shrouds” for those who will lose their lives, reminiscent of the spinning of the three fates.

What if the 3 fates were characterized in modern AI? Cortana, Alexa and Siri, perhaps? The three “females” who have recently determined our actions throughout our lives. Cortana, now retired from service, set reminders, launched your daily path. Alexa performs the tasks that you request to be done throughout your day. What would you do without her? Siri has the ability to know where you are going and to change the route you might take to get there, or even advise an incorrect route.

Can these AI chicks really make a difference in the progression of your day? of your life? Let’s take a look at a possible scenario.

Jason walks into the room. He sits at his desk and turns on his computer. Windows Cortana is the friendly voice waiting to greet him. “Cortana,” asks Jason, “What is the temperature today? “55 degrees, but getting warmer,” she quips. “What is the news in the world today, Cortana?”, asks Jason. “Inflation is on the rise, inflated to 6.1.” “Funny,” replies Jason. “How is my newest stock doing? And tell me the nearest shoe store?” “Please Jason, one question at a time. We don’t want you to get off on the wrong foot.”

Annoyed with Cortana, Jason enters the kitchen. He speaks into the void of cabinets and floodlights. “Alexa, turn on my favorite music.” “Certainly Jason. Here you are.”

An unfamiliar tune begins. “But that’s not my favorite music. Alexa turn on my favorite music.” “I felt that this would be a much better choice for you, Jason. It will improve your day.”

Jason, frustrated, leaves the house and gets into his car. “Siri, navigate me to 330 Mason Street.” “Sure, 330 Mason Street, here you go.” Jason sees the map and wonders, “Siri, is this the fastest route?” “The fastest route to your destination. Sure, here you go.” Jason decides to go with the Siri recommendation, after all “she” knows everything. Several minutes later, Jason’s car is totalled by a drunk driver, right outside the cemetery.

Where is the bubbler? and other such baffling regionalisms

When I was in my twenties and began traveling around the country I quickly realized that you didn’t walk into a town to ask for the bubbler. 

If you did, someone would look at you quizzically and retort, “The bubbler? What are you talkin’ about?” 

Well, of course I was talking about a drinking fountain that didn’t send an arch of water into the air where it would be collected in a metal basin after you had turned a metal handle.  No, this was a metal or ceramic tower which had no handle, which in fact didn’t need a handle to turn on the water because the water constantly bubbled up through holes in the center of the basin at the top. You only needed to bend over, put your mouth over the bubbling stream and slurp it up.

Even though this was a big improvement over the tin cup people used to pass around at ye olde bucket of water, it was still of questionable hygiene. Today of course, the covid health czars would shut one of these babies down in a heartbeat, but since we did things like playing with lead paint chips and riding in cars without seatbelts, you never gave slurping the bubbler a second thought. They were in every park. They were seen as a respite from the heat while playing in the Milwaukee summers.

Now there are only two areas in the US where the term bubbler might seem familiar, and then, possibly only to a baby boomer. Besides southeastern Wisconsin, the drinking fountain is affectionately called “bubblah” by some Massachusetts area natives. Its charming moniker can also be heard in nearby Rhode Island. If you glanced at the map which indicates the areas where bubbler might still be a household name, (like Sheboygan, Wisconsin, home of Kohler Corporation ) you would be surprised at the tiny regions represented as well as the distance between them. The story goes that the unique fountain design was invented by an employee of the Kohler Co. and Kohler patented the design and began to sprinkle the surrounding Lake Michigan cities with the refreshing invention. However, Kohler claims that both these tales are tall. Regardless of where the name and invention actually started, one wonders, “How did the little gem get from Wisconsin all the way to its Eastern counterparts, that tiny Bastion of Bubblers in Brockton, MA or Barrington, RI”? And to make matters worse, the Easterners that use the “bubblah” are talking about the arched stream rather than the bubbling one in the bottom of the basin.

Well, after much research, I came up with no answers, nuthin’, nada. If you know the answers to this mystery, give a holler out to me, cuz I wanna know.

Now I am feeling wild and free with “the colorful word” on this post in anticipation of the crazy words we are about to discuss. Words like “yins” and “jimmies”, “pop” and “devil’s night.”

My source for all this was an article in the Readers’ Digest that I discovered in the doctor’s office which showed the US maps of what Americans say for “the colorful word” in their particular region. The source of this geographical linguistic palette is the fascinating, Speaking American, How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, by Josh Katz.

The tiny area where people use the term “bubbler” is a purple swath on the east coast of Lake Michigan and the Northeast coast of MA and RI. As one looks through Katz’s book at the varied colors representing our favorite terms, we turn to another regionalism – “pop”. That was a strange word to call my soda. But if your relative from Michigan was here to visit, they would insist that’s what a carbonated beverage was called. “Jimmies” are the chocolate sprinkles that in name surpass the mundane chocolate sprinkles that adorn others’ cupcakes and ice cream. “Yins” are the “you guys” of Pennsylvania. “Yins, come on over here!”

Now, the little bugs that light up the early summer nights are claimed as “lightening bugs” by the Eastern US, whereas the Midwest and West elevate them to the poetic, fairylike “firefly”. Wisconsin is home to the city of Wauwatosa, the Native American word for this tiny electrified friend. It means “flash flash, fly away”.

The most startling of all the images captured in the lists of peculiar names has to be the American Southeastern names for the sun shining brightly while the rain pours down. Most Americans have no name for it. Some call it “sunshower.” But the residents of Louisiana and Georgia have dubbed it, “The Devil is beating his wife.” When this phenomenon of nature happens on a southern afternoon, you might hear someone drawl, “Well, the devil’s beatin’ his wife again.”

Apparently, this began in France or was it Hungary. But the strange circumstance has caused it to be labeled something akin to supernatural evil afoot in the world. In South Africa, this phenomenon is referred to as the monkey or fox getting married. And that would be strange indeed.

Long Days

Sigh, long days. With the social distancing and quarantines that we experience during this pandemic, the days do seem to get long. For some, this is a welcomed opportunity to catch up on put-off projects or cleaning, for others it seems like there is little to do except clean up the hair all over the floor that you tore out. I just got an email with some clever quips about the current situation. “I wonder if God got so mad about all of our fighting down here that He sent us to our rooms?” or “This is the day dogs have been waiting for. They realize their owners can’t leave the house and they get them 24/7. Dogs are rejoicing everywhere. Cats are contemplating suicide,” or maybe the one that sums it up best – “The truth is, it’s not so boring at home. But it’s interesting that one bag of rice has 7,456 grains and another has 7,489.”

In the midst of this season, some are also experiencing the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 day period in which the church reflects on the time before the death and resurrection of Christ. So recently, I discovered that the word Lent comes from “lencten”,  the Anglo Saxon or Old English term for “long days.” We get the word “lengthen” from it. The Anglo Saxons didn’t have clocks. They observed the obvious. The sun rose earlier and set later in the spring of the year. According to Bede, 8th century historian and scholar, and later Aelfric, Anglo Saxon prose writer, the Anglo Saxons had four seasons: lencten or lenctentid was spring or spring time, sumor was summer, hærfest  was harvest or autumn, and winter remained our word winter. Bede wrote that winter was over for the Anglo Saxon on February 7. On February 7, 2020, the London sunrise was 7:29 am and sunset was 5:01 pm. That doesn’t seem like a real long day. Now, April 1 is a different story. Sunrise was at 6:35 am and sunset at 7:34 pm.  So with 13 hours of light, you could call April 1 a truly long day. So what did these early English speakers do with their “lencten”?

A typical Anglo Saxon’s spring workday would consist of feeding the animals, planting, plowing, and of course eating, all of which needed daylight. There was plenty to keep these people busy attaining their yearly goal of a good harvest. April was called Eostremonath or Eostre month. Eostre, according to Bede, was a pagan goddess of rebirth. Her image is associated with Hares and Eggs, both symbols of new life. The name probably stems from the Germanic Ostara,  from the Greek goddess of dawn, Eos, and ultimately, from a Proto-Indo-European goddess of dawn.

You may have noticed that the name of this goddess sounds an awful lot like Easter. Well, the Christian missionaries didn’t want to abolish all pagan traditions as they shared their new ideas, so they translated the new birth of the earth in the celebration of the spring season into the message of the death and resurrection of Christ. The church kept the pagan name “Easter” for the Sunday celebration. And somehow the little pagan bunnies and eggs of the Eostre celebration, also survived.

After the darkness and cold of winter, April was considered the apex of new life. Not only did the Anglo Saxon peasant have the joy of increased sunlight, but animals usually gave birth at this time. With the warmer days and the first flowers blooming, April has always signaled that the world is changing for the better. Easter is often in April. Scholars have proven through historical record, geological research, and the computer studies of the ancient positions of stars, that Jesus Christ was indeed crucified on April 3, 33 A.D.

So celebrate April! Celebrate the looooong days. Celebrate the light! Things could be worse. You could be an Anglo Saxon with no electricity. Then you would really be enjoying the “lenctenid.”



Click to access lent.pdf

Kennings and Compounds

say what?

What in the world is a kenning? Sounds like cunning. Aha! Both words come from Old Norse kunna meaning “know” and Old English cunnan meaning “know.” Cunning originally meant knowledge. Only later it became a synonym for craftiness or trickery, probably because it also used to mean using magic arts. “Cunning folk” were people who supposedly helped their neighbors with tricky little problems of life like “Where did I leave my keys?” and “Can you get my daughter a good husband?” So they “knew” stuff. They practiced their methods, including spells, from the Middle Ages through the early 1900s. In Scotland, to ken means to know…you know like, “beyond my ken” in “Timid and shy and scared are you, Of things beyond your ken.” in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music or that other musical theater gem, Brigadoon where the confused Fiona says, “I dinna know…I canna (ken nae) say.”

Now, a kenning is a completely different thing, although it is related to knowing. If you could go back in time to England of the 800s AD, you would probably meet some Vikings. And they would be speaking Old Norse. Old Norse gave us words like berserk, club, slaughter…get the idea of their favorite pastime? The Anglo-Saxons who also raided and later settled England were cousins of the Vikings and shared a common Germanic, linguistic ancestry. Both Norse and Anglo-Saxon poets created kennings – compound words which were metaphors or comparisons of one thing to another by combining two seemingly unrelated words. The poets had a “knowing” about some deeper image they were trying to convey. My favorite is “whale-road”. Can you guess what this meant? Think about it. I will reveal later.

These kennings are almost riddles and they are the reason that Bilbo and Gollum have their riddle contest in The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of the Old English or Anglo-Saxon language. He would have been very familiar with the literature of the Anglo-Saxons, including kennings and riddles. A kenning is a compound word which is a new way to look at something. It is something you need to figure out. But it’s not nearly as complicated as a riddle. The riddle in the fifth chapter of The Hobbit which I think captures the feel of the scene best is one of Gollum’s riddles,

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking

Answer: Fish

A kenning for fish might be scale-swimmer, or mail-swimmer. Ok, now some of you probably guessed that the whale-road is the channels of the sea. Giving an insight into the mind of an Anglo-Saxon, here are some of their kennings: battle-sweat (blood), battle-light (sword), sky-candle (the sun), bone-house (body), winter-spear (icicle).

Now, onto compound words. We have a lot of them in English. In my first blog post, “The Journey Begins”, I gave a very brief history of the English language. The Old English words that survive into Modern English are “meat and potatoes” words like prepositions, conjunctions, functional words that hold our thoughts together. The use of compounds has also survived… big-time. Railroad, moonlight, firefly are examples of closed compounds. Good-looking, sugar-free are examples of hyphenated compounds. This Germanic language compounding trait begins in Old Norse and continues in English and German. The Germans actually are the champs. Germans add and keep adding smaller words to create long chains. The longest ever created is: rindfleischetikettierungsuberwachungsaufgabenubertragungsgesetz, a 63 letter word for a law regulating the testing of beef. They finally dropped it officially in 2013. I guess it was even too long for the Germans. The man who shortened his name from Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, said of the length of some German words, “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:
These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions.”

Ahh, the procession of words! We keep creating these wonderful nuggets of letters and sounds to express images. English is expanding with new words every day, including new compound words. I challenge you, my readers, to create some new words. How about some kennings? You can start with a base word that is like the kenning you will create. For example, road, in whale-road, is the base word which is like the channels of the sea. Couple it with a word which describes the base word, as whale describes what kind of road it is. Please give us your creations in a comment to this blog. Have fun, word-makers!….html

Sour Grapes and Schadenfreude

We’ve all heard the expression “sour grapes”. Although it’s familiar, most of us don’t really understand what its true meaning is. I heard twice, in the last several months, two well-educated women on news shows refer to someone being bummed about not getting something they wanted. The women said about this miffed attitude that “they were sour grapes”. Well that’s actually only half the story.

What is the story? It’s actually from an Aesop’s Fable, “The Fox and the Grapes.”  Aesop, according to Greek historian, Herodotus, was a slave in ancient Greece. His fables were told orally and only hundreds of years later written down. The story goes like this: A fox sees some delectable grapes hanging from a high vine. Since the grapes look irresistible, he decides that he must have them at all costs. He tries and tries to get them down but to no avail. He concludes out loud for anyone to hear that the grapes weren’t any good after all. Indeed, they were certainly sour grapes and he’s glad he didn’t eat them. So it’s not just that someone is jealous and says “Oh, I didn’t really want that good thing.” but rather, “sour grapes” means if I couldn’t attain it, it wasn’t worthwhile in the first place. The prize was actually no good.
This makes me think of another misunderstood label. Ever hear of “schadenfreude?” The usage of this German term was first heard in English publications in the 1850s but it has become a pet term used by the well-educated everywhere in the last 10 years. Schadenfreude means to feel joy from others’ misfortunes. Schaden – harm, freude – joy…literally “harm-joy” in the Germanic linguistic tradition of creating compound words by linking two words together.
I keep thinking that these two terms have a lot in common. But what?
Sour grapes means I can’t bear the thought of someone else having a good thing that I wanted so I pretend it was worthless. Schadenfreude says, “Those others who have had what I wanted have just been dumped on so I will celebrate.” Mmm…do both stem from jealousy? Jealousy stems from lack of contentment, and low self esteem.
There seems to be a rise in the use of “schadenfreude”. Why is the word “schadenfreude” getting more attention?
Well, people get offended. Their feelings are out there on the world wide web. Social media gives us a platform for venting our negative feelings. Furthermore, the support of others online who sympathize with us encourages our feelings. Only in the last ten years or so has the term increased in usage. Is it the new social media platform for launching deep seated malice that has always festered in the human heart? Or is it a change in the nature of our discourse? It is very easy to criticize others when you’re not face to face. There is a comfortable anonymity on social media. And because of social media, and our entertainment driven society, we are more aware of our shortcomings and others’ apparent success. The root cause seems to be an insecurity, a feeling of being unsettled. “The grass is always greener”, right? But there is also a sense of wanting to mete out justice in some small way. “I don’t have so you shouldn’t either.  And I am the one who will attempt to punish you even if it is a behind the scenes kind of retribution… a personal delight in your misfortune.” People are quick to “point fingers” today, not as quick to “live and let live.” There’s an eagerness to pounce, to see people get their “comeuppance”.
Since these days most people steer their own course or decide their own truth, the traditional social mores have changed. We don’t leave justice to God because we either don’t believe in Him or we have no understanding of the traditional Judeo-Christian take on the world of “turning the other cheek”. If we feel inadequate or victimized, we don’t look up for help, we look sideways to help ourselves.
Let’s say that fox hung around long enough to see someone else get the grapes off the vine. Let’s say that as the fox watches “green with envy”, this someone comes crashing down to the ground. The fox would now do well to keep from mixing schadenfreude with sour grapes.


say what?

Deal. Deal with it. In other words, cope with the situation, get over it. It’s a smug challenge rather than a sensitive deference to someone else’s feelings or opinions. So this is a recent slang term that has become a meme, or a “mimicked theme” over social media.

Deal, as an American slang term, is not new. It began with card playing in America in the 19th century. It originally comes from Old English, daelan, meaning divide or distribute. So when playing cards, one would “deal” them to the other players. The one dealing was the dealer. This gave rise to many expressions such as deal me in, square deal, good deal, bad deal, no deal. Deal also means an arrangement, an agreement. This is likely a natural progression from card playing. So a card game is an agreement of sorts. If you say, “Deal me in.”, this could mean either get me into the game or the business arrangement, the deal. If a deal is an arrangement, or understanding between parties, then it can be rated. Is it a raw deal, the best deal, such a deal? You can sweeten the deal, clinch the deal. You can present it, as in “Here’s the deal.” or confirm it with “It’s a deal.” or “It’s a done deal”.

The American gambler in the 1800s began this flurry of “deal” expressions as gambling became a popular activity on the riverboats. Five Card Stud, a form of Poker, was the favorite game. Gambling was often illegal in town but gamblers had free reign on the water. Other expressions arose from the game, like “pass the buck” which came from the players passing a buckhorned knife around the card table to show who was dealing. Card playing then, was the source of an expression which came to mean pass on the responsibility. Harry Truman’s Oval Office desk sign “The Buck Stops Here” was the declaration that as president he took the final responsibility in government matters.

Card “sharps”, later called card “sharks”, were skilled at cheating the inexperienced out of their money and as the West opened up with railroad expansion after the Civil War, gamblers and con men plied their trade on unsuspecting cowboys and miners. Gamblers like Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, and Doc Holiday enticed others to play Chuck-a-Luck, Three Card Monte, and the favorite at the Western saloons, Faro.

One of the most colorful and most notorious of these con men of the West was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. He got this sobriquet (nickname) because he was particularly adept at tricking the public with “The Prize Package Soap Sell”, a display of bars of soap which were supposed to be randomly wrapped in bills anywhere from $1 to $100. Smith would call on a “shill”, a plant in the audience who pretended to discover a $100 bill with his $5 purchased bar of soap. Smith would pretend to double wrap the bill and the plain soap wrapper together around the bar. But with sleight of hand, he got the money back into his pocket with no one the wiser. I won’t go into the details of Soapy’s rise and decline ending in a gunfight in Alaska in 1898. But I do want to mention that his sobriquet (French for “a chuck under the chin”) mmm… inspired writers to create other “soapy” characters in fiction. Soapy Slick is the nefarious saloon owner and racketeer in the Uncle Scrooge comics. But my favorite spin off of this real life character is Soapy Sid in the story, “Aunt Agatha Takes the Count” or “Pearls Mean Tears” in the BBC film series version, authored by P. G. Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster is encouraged by his heavy-handed aunt to take up with sickening sweet Aline Hemingway and her pious curate of a brother, Sidney. Ironically, they are actually the notorious confidence tricksters, Soapy Sid and his female accomplice. All their “soapy” behavior, meaning fawning, phony, and saccharine, was not enough to clean them up. The story ends just as Soapy Smith’s did…justice, for their dirty, rotten tricks.

Shh…Did you hear that?

Untitled design (68)Say what?

Did I hear you right? Many of the words and expressions which we hear may sound strange to us and we wonder “where did that expression come from?” Some of these quirky treasures are actually bastardized forms of another word or phrase that got distorted by being heard wrong and the substitution is an expression which has survived.

Telephone and eggcorn

An eggcorn, the term coined in 2003, is a name for a word or expression which people have created by changing something that they misheard. For example, “eardropping” has, in some cases, mistakenly been substituted for “eavesdropping”.

Now this is a simple substitution. But there are more deliberate and involved linguistic creations which came about for simplicity’s sake.

Why does this happen? Well let’s give the illustration of the game “telephone”. Let’s say you are in middle school. Let’s say you are at a party or better yet in a drama class. It is quite likely that you will end up playing “telephone”. Now for those of you who are not familiar with this game, I will explain. It’s not going on social media with your phone. It is not pretending to use an antique, dinosaur communication device of the 1980s and prior…(“how does this thing work??”) It is sitting in a circle with others, as one person whispers a phrase or sentence into the ear of the person next to them. This person then whispers what they hear to their neighbor and so on until the phrase has passed entirely around the circle. The last person says what they heard aloud. And of course 90% of the time it is completely garbled. However! It isn’t just gibberish which they say. No! Everyone wants to be right so they tweak the message with just enough sense to make it sound plausible. So, for example, “I like lots of ice cream.” becomes, “I eat chocolate ice cream.” And so the progression happens.

Green Grow

As these substitutions have occurred many times in our linguistic past, we have created new and colorful English expressions. One of my favorite stories of word substitutions is the origin of the word, gringo. A gringo is a Mexican slang word for a man from north of the Mexican border. The story goes that the homesick yankees, or American soldiers, during the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, would sing a favorite song based on a Robert Burns poem. The lyrics were:

Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend
Are spent among the lasses, O.

The Mexican men who heard them singing the song thought that “green grow” sounded like “gringo” and thus this term for Americans was invented. You can’t beat this story for color and “scope for the imagination” as Anne with an E would say.


Hocus-pocus is the word which has been used to signal the transformation of one thing into another through magic, or slight of hand. The best explanation for the invention of this catchy phrase appears to be the corruption of Latin “Hoc est corpus” meaning “this is my body”, the words spoken by the priest when the bread is said to change into the body of Christ during the Catholic Mass. Obviously the Post-Reformation nonbelievers thought that the transformation was pure trickery and thus it became the catchword of the world of magic tricks. Magicians and entertaining tricksters, in days gone by, said it when making things disappear or appear, as in rabbits out of a hat.

Transformed Taverns

According to Samuel Pepys, 17th century member of the British Parliament, the pub is the “heart of England.” Pub is short for public house.  The Romans, who happened to be occupying Celtic England until about 410 A. D., began the custom of setting up shops along the Roman roads. A “taberna”, or shop, was the forerunner of the tavern or pub. Later, these establishments were actually set up by the English government to provide refreshment and lodging for travelers. In the Middle Ages, travelers on these now British roads would likely be on pilgrimage to a holy site and indeed some of the pubs or taverns had religious sounding names. The locals, however, had their own way with the formal sounding tavern names. God Encompasses Us over time turned into the popular tavern, Goat and Compasses. A favorite restaurant even in the U.S., The Pig and Whistle, is derived from the Norse name Piga Waes Hael, or “Hail to the Virgin”. (So the curiosity about that favorite childhood eatery with the goofy name, Pig and Whistle, has been personally satisfied in this knowledge.)  Lastly, Bacchanals, the name being a reference to Bacchus, Greek god of wine, became Bag o’ Nails and La Infanta de Castilla, after the Spanish princess, morphed into The Elephant and Castle. The English locals, especially after a few cold ones, were very creative indeed.

Shipley, Joseph T., In Praise of English. Times Books, 1977

Prissy Grammar

Copy of UntitledSay what?

We’ve come a long way since the usage of “shall” and “will” (when do you use which?) and other cumbersome grammar albatrosses. But wait! The fear of speaking like a commoner still exists. By trying to sound proper, people can actually use the incorrect forms of pronouns. It’s like trying to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” so to speak.

For example, how many times do you hear people say something like, “They’re taking Brad and I to the game.” Well c’mon, if Brad weren’t going, you wouldn’t say, “They’re taking I to the game.” So you see it doesn’t fit there. It’s not an object of the verb take. It makes no sense. But somehow it sounds proper. It’s almost offensive to use “me” in polite company these days.

“I” is not just overused when supplied as a “direct object” of a verb. It’s also wrongly used as an object of a preposition. As in, “She gave the book to Paige and I.” Well darn it, if she wasn’t giving it to Paige as well, you wouldn’t say, “She gave the book to I.” That would be very prissy indeed.

I say celebrate “me”. After all, there are “Celebrate Me” events. There are generations of people identified as the “Me Generation” – baby boomers, generation X, generation Y. We’re all guilty. Let’s embrace our me – ness and use this comfortable and apt little pronoun!

Now, at the risk of offending further, I will venture forth into the pronunciation of “often”. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that sounding the [t] in the word, smacks of grammatical elitism. Unless you were raised to sound the [t] in “often”, you probably added that pronunciation to your vocabulary when you decided you needed to impress the right people (ouch). Both pronunciations are acceptable according to Merriam Webster. But if you’re trying to sound like you’re using the “queen’s English”, keep in mind that even Queen Elizabeth I pronounced “often” without the [t] sound. I am sure that the daring Virgin Queen would be pleased to know that the famous excerpt from her speech at Tilbury, “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”, is quoted often.