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Subject: ‘Interesting Words’

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The terrifying punishment of King Tantalus gave a new word to the world

Posted in Ancient History, Interesting Words, Language, Legend, Myth on Saturday, 21 December 2013

This edited article about Greek mythology first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Tantalus, picture, image, illustration
The punishment of King Tantalus

Everyone has been tantalised in their time, including the man who was first to suffer – Tantalus! He was a king who had been invited to dinner with the gods on Mount Olympus, where he rashly stole their nectar and ambrosia. For this and other tactless crimes, including serving up his own son as a dish for the gods to test their divinity – he was put waist-deep in a lake with delicious fruit above him that he could never reach. And when he wanted to drink, the water always receded. Meanwhile, his son was returned to life by the gods and was exactly as before except for a portion of a shoulder that an absent-minded god had nibbled. It was replaced by ivory! Meanwhile his father went on being tantalised.

Navvies spoke in rhyming slang very similar to the famous Cockney lingo

Posted in Historical articles, History, Industry, Interesting Words, Language on Thursday, 28 November 2013

This edited article about navvies first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 467 published on 26 December 1970.

Railway navvies on Birmingham line, picture, image, illustration
Railway navvies on the London to Birmingham line by Harry Green

Nicknames had their drawbacks. A scripture reader called Dennis, at Worsthorne, appealed to navvies in June 1887, asking those who gave wrong names at the office to carry their proper names and addresses on a piece of paper in their pockets. Mr. Dennis had had a lot of trouble with a man who had been killed on the works. He had given his name as Charles Fisher, and was also known as Reed. He had in his pocket a ticket for a pair of trousers pawned at Skipton, made out to J. Wilson. Eventually his real name was found to be Peter Lendall, from Askham.

Then there was another navvy, the son of a widow, who left home and found work on a line only 12 miles off. He took a new name, was unknown by his old one, and when he fell ill with fever was nursed and then buried by strangers. After he had been away for some time the widow became alarmed and asked a clergyman to help find her son, and they eventually traced the man. But it was too late, and the only consolation the priest could offer the mother was to show her the grave to which her son had been carried six weeks before. Another navvy lost his inheritance because of his nickname. An old man died leaving a considerable sum to be divided among his nephews and nieces. But one nephew had not been heard of for many years – he had become a navvy and adopted an alias, and so could not be traced. When the man did hear of his uncle’s death many years had gone by, he had been presumed dead, his share had been apportioned among the others, and he had lost a thousand pounds.

But the strangest story is that of a navvy called Warren, who had taken the harmless alias of George Brown. In the autumn of 1882 he was working on the Midland Railway, widening the line near Irchester. On 29th August, he was injured by a fall of earth and taken back to his lodgings, opposite the Dog and Duck at Wellingborough, where he died a few days later. An inquest was held, a verdict of accidental death returned, and two days later the man was buried. Then, as the Northampton Herald put it, “an event took place which proved that truth was stranger than fiction.” Under the headline, “A Strange Occurrence,” the newspaper report read:

“Soon after the funeral a man named George Warren, from Kislingbury, presented himself, and said he believed that, from what he had heard, the deceased was his son. He said he had not seen his son for a number of years, but he should know him by a peculiar scar on the breast, received from a scald during childhood, and he expressed a strong desire to see the body. An application was made to the Coroner, but he said he could not interfere. Other officials were applied to with the same result, and at last the grave-digger at the cemetery re-opened the newly-closed grave between 11 and 12 o’clock on Saturday night. The carpenter who made the coffin took off the lid, and the father by means of a ladder descended into the grave, removed the clothes, and there saw the scar which proclaimed the dead man to be his long-lost son.”

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Garderobe became a Norman euphemism for cold and draughty privy

Posted in Architecture, Castles, Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Royalty on Friday, 15 November 2013

This edited article about personal hygiene first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 460 published on 7 November 1970.

Norman garderobe, picture, image, illustration
The smallest room in a medieval castle was called the "Garderobe"; this was a shaft built into a turret or other thick wall and was often on the draughty side, by Pat Nicolle

The Romans, we know, were the Grand Masters of the Bath and the Water Closet. They almost soaked themselves out of existence. We in Britain took centuries to learn that “Cleanliness was next to Godliness,” and when we did catch on to the idea a pretty fair mess we made of it.

In Medieval London the only sign of anything like the great Public Baths of Rome was the establishment of some stinking bath-houses called bluntly “The Stews.” It had been returning Crusaders who, having noticed the cleanliness of the “Turkish Infidels,” started up the idea. No “Turkish Infidel,” of course, would dream of anything so disgusting as a man soaking in his own body-dirt. The shower was the cleanest idea, and, later on, the “Turkish” or steam-bath. Even modern India is not so keen on “wallowing.”

But let us return briefly to “The Stews” which existed in Medieval London, and on the Continent as well. So far as records show these were communal bath-houses, generally equipped with wooden tubs and smaller wooden tubs from which attendants poured water over the naked and upstanding occupants. In fact:

Three men in a tub.”

“The Stews” were generally situated near the hot ovens of bakeries which provided the warm water. “Let him stew in his own juice” is possibly a phrase condemning such persons who were loutish enough to sit, or lie down, in the tubs. Around the bathers there fussed barbers, shavers and blood-letters. Mixed “stewing” seems to have gone on, and by and by “The Stews” became such smelly spreaders of disease and meeting places of persons up to no good of one kind or another that in the reign of Henry VIII they were nearly all closed. “The Stews” may have had many faults, but at least they started with the idea of cleanliness – a notion which was not to reappear for over another century.

London continued to discharge its domestic refuse into open drains and rivers such as the Fleet. “Guardez l’eau” they shouted in Edinburgh. Latrines in the average private dwelling existed no more than bath-tubs. In fact the nation stank. It was not surprising that plague and cholera broke out, rats were rampant and pure drinking water a rarity.

The rich Elizabethans were proud as peacocks in their silks, jewels and velvets, but they undoubtedly smelled high like over-ripe cheese.

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Acknowledging fault and making amends used to require sack-cloth and ashes

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 3 September 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 392 published on 19 July 1969.

Mordecai, picture, image, illustration
Mordecai wearing sack-cloth with ashes cries out bitterly among his threatened people, the Jews

We aren’t happy when we have made a mistake, and if we dislike admitting it to ourselves, we dislike admitting it to others even more.

Sometimes, however, we may be able to make things easier by a phrase which may bring a faint smile to the face of the person we have to confess to. “I really am sorry,” we may say. “It was a stupid thing to do. Here I am in sack-cloth and ashes.”

This is an odd thing to say, and it would be an even odder sight if it were literally true! What we mean, of course, is that we are pretending to have dressed ourselves in the clothing which represented a penitent person in Biblical times.

There are several references to this custom in the Bible. Sometimes sackcloth was used to mark a great misfortune, as when a decree was issued by a certain Persian King ordering a great persecution of the Jews. One of their leaders, Mordecai, “rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther, Chapter 4 verse 1).

But the custom was usually a way of expressing deep sorrow for something that had displeased God. When Jonah preached to the people in the wicked city of Nineveh, we are told that the people there “put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them,” and that even the King removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah, Chapter 3, verses 5 and 6).

A famous instance of a King wearing sackcloth as a mark of his own repentance is that of the wicked King Ahab. With the help of his evil wife, Jezebel, Ahab had arranged for an innocent man named Naboth to be stoned to death on a false charge. This had been contrived so that the King could seize a little vineyard which Naboth had owned, next door to the palace grounds. Ahab badly wanted this vineyard for himself, to turn into a herb garden.

The prophet Elijah learned of the cruel plot by which Naboth had been got out of the way, and, confronting the King boldly, warned him that a terrible fate would overtake not only Ahab and Jezebel but their whole household, in punishment for their crime. Frightened by the prophet’s words, Ahab “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth,” and went about dejectedly (1 Kings 21, verse 27).

In their writings, the prophets often advised their hearers to “gird themselves with sackcloth” as a mark of sorrow for their sins. And Jesus himself used the words. Rebuking the people of certain villages, he said, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

In view of the widespread use of this phrase, it is not surprising that it has passed into our everyday speech as an expression of regret and a desire to make amends.

Piccadilly Circus owes its worldwide fame to its peculiar name

Posted in Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, London on Tuesday, 3 September 2013

This edited article about London originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 391 published on 12 July 1969.

Drunks in Piccadilly, picture, image, illustration
Piccadilly Circus as seen by a few intoxicated fellows from the smart set

For generations Piccadilly has been the heart of London’s teeming West End. But how many people know how it got its name?

Actually it immortalises a man who is now forgotten. This man was a tailor named Higgins, whose fortune had been made largely by the sale of collars known as “pickadelles” – or sometimes “piccadillies.” When he retired, Higgins built himself a grand house which he called Pickadilla Hall, and the name, slightly altered, has lived on.

A gambling haunt nearby became known as Piccadilly Hall and through the centuries the word has been spelled in numerous ways – Piccadilly, Piccadill, Piccadille, Pick a Dillie, Peccadillo, Peccadille, and even Piquidillo. But it was the maker of those fashionable neckbands who started it all.

Nowadays Piccadilly Circus is such a focal point that on special occasions, such as a Coronation or on New Year’s Eve, as many as 50,000 people congregate there. Every day over 50,000 cars, coaches and buses, carrying 200,000 people, pass the famous central fountain, on the top of which stands a statue of Eros, the Greek god of love. He is holding a bow and arrow, as though to bury his shaft in the avenue opposite, which is named Shaftesbury Avenue. This aspect of the statue is a “visual pun” on the words shaft and bury, which make up the name of Lord Shaftesbury, a notable nineteenth century reformer who fought to improve the lot of poor children.

The Underground station at Piccadilly Circus, with its shops and news-stands, is used by over 150,000 people a day, while roughly as many traverse the Circus itself. Altogether, about half a million people pass through Piccadilly Circus daily making it one of the busiest thoroughfares in the world.

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Job’s comforters probably needed the patience of Job

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Monday, 2 September 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 391 published on 12 July 1969.

Job and friends, picture, image, illustration
Job and his friends by Gustave Dore

“You need the patience of Job to sort out a mess like this!”

This is a remark which is sometimes heard when a complicated problem has to be faced. It may be the sorting out of a firm’s orders, the tidying of a cupboard, or it could be only untangling a badly-knotted fishing line. All these are situations demanding “the patience of Job.”

Many of us know that the Book of Job is one of the books in the Bible. It comes just before the Psalms in the Old Testament. But in addition to being the chief character in the Hebrew Book which bears his name, Job figures in the proverbs of all the Arab nations, to whom he is always known as “Job the patient one.”

Why was Job noted for his patience? It is because, as the Book of Job reveals, he suffered a great many misfortunes without ever losing his sense of God’s goodness and care.

In actual fact, Job was not always very patient, and had to be calmed down by various people who tried to reassure him that he had not been abandoned by God.

Job, once a prosperous and happy man, suffered the loss of just about everything he possessed. His flocks and herds, even the members of his family, all perished in a series of terrible disasters. He himself became ill, and sat brooding over his sufferings.

This is what the word “patience” really means here; in the language of Shakespeare’s day, when our best-known version of the Bible was translated (the Authorised Version of 1611), “to be patient” meant “to suffer,” rather than “to wait without complaining,” as it does today. So the phrase “the patience of Job” originally meant “the sufferings of Job,” but has altered its meaning in the course of four centuries.

Job, then, was patient in the sense that he suffered greatly, but he cried out bitterly against his misfortunes. Much of the Book of Job consists of his conversations with “Job’s Comforters,” as to why a good person such as he was should have to suffer so grievously. The book is written in the form of a drama, in which Job himself remains at the centre of the stage, while others come and go.

Curiously enough, another common phrase comes from one of Job’s speeches in this drama, but probably not one person in a thousand who uses the words realises that they are of Biblical origin. Look up Chapter 19, verse 20 of the Book of Job and you will find these words, with their surprisingly modern ring: “I am escaped with the skin of my teeth”!

Samson is a name forever associated with phenomenal physical strength

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Samson carrying the gates, picture, image, illustration
Samson carrying the gates of Gaza

In a garage, while my car was being repaired, I watched a young but sturdy mechanic lift a heavy machine and carry it across the workshop floor.

“That must be some weight,” I said. “You’re a regular Samson!” And then, when he looked blankly at me, I added, “You know who Samson was?”

Obviously puzzled, he replied, “Was he a great boxer?”

Samson was not, of course, a great boxer, although he was a notable fighter, and his name has become a byword for someone of great physical strength.

Samson lived at the time when the Hebrew nation had just settled in Palestine, and his exploits are recorded in the Bible, mainly in the Book of Judges (Chapters 13 to 16).

Samson was early noted for his strength. As a young man he was attacked by a lion, and is said to have killed it with his bare hands.

But it was against a rival tribe, the Philistines, that his most daring feats were carried out. He actually ventured into one of their cities, where a band of men planned to trap him. The great wooden gates of the city were bolted, and Samson seemed to be at the mercy of his enemies. In the night, however, Samson left his hiding place, made his way unseen to the city walls, lifted the great gates from off their hinges and carried them away – before his enemies even knew of his escape!

In another encounter with the Philistines, Samson, surrounded by his attackers, picked up the jaw bone of a dead donkey and, using it as a club, felled many of his enemies to the ground.

It was Samson’s misfortune to fall in love with Delilah, a woman of the Philistine tribe. He used to visit her secretly, not realising that, far from loving him, she was plotting to betray him to his enemies.

One day Delilah asked him, in what seemed to be a casual manner, where the secret of his great strength lay.

Three times Samson gave her untrue answers, and at last she reproached him for teasing her, and for not being honest with someone he claimed to love. As a result, Samson revealed to her the secret that his strength lay in his hair. Cut that off, he said, and he would only have the strength of a child.

Delilah lulled Samson off to sleep, then had his head swiftly shaved by a skilled barber, and handed him over to his enemies.

The story did not end there. Blinded and made to work as a slave, Samson was one day dragged out to entertain his enemies. By then, his hair had grown again, and with that his strength had returned.

Samson used his new-found strength to wreak a terrible revenge. He forced apart the pillars of the great hall in which his enemies had assembled. The roof crashed in, and Samson died in the ruins, together with those who had come to make fun of him.

No wonder he is remembered as the strong man of the Bible!

In religious and moral terms less is often more

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

Widow gives her mite, picture, image, illustration
The widow's mite by Clive Uptton

If you look at the list of people who have contributed money to almost any good cause, you will find that not all of them have given their names. Beside some of the amounts you may read “anon” (short for “anonymous,” from a Greek word meaning “without a name”). Other people may have used what we call pseudonyms (from another Greek word meaning “false names”) such as “A Well-Wisher.” Among these latter you may very probably see “A Widow’s Mite.”

The sum of money contributed by such a donor will always be small – perhaps not more than half-a-crown, whereas others may have given tens or hundreds of pounds. Even so, the small amount may represent a bigger sacrifice on the part of the giver than the much larger sums donated by others.

This was appreciated by Jesus, who long ago drew attention to the happening which gave rise to this familiar phrase.

He and his friends were sitting together one day in the outer court of the great Jewish temple at Jerusalem. Crowds of visitors were constantly on the move through these courts, rather as they are in English cathedrals at holiday time. Some were worshippers, while others were only sightseers, but all of them were encouraged to contribute something to the upkeep of the temple and its services.

For this purpose, large collecting boxes were placed along the wall of one of the courts. They had funnel-shaped openings down which coins could be dropped.

These coins were not ordinary money, however. This was not allowed because it had the image of the Roman Emperor stamped on it, and this, in the eyes of the priests, would defile the temple. Visitors had to change their ordinary money at the entrance of the temple for special coins issued by the temple authorities.

In the special temple coinage, there was one coin of very low value indeed. It was made of copper, and the Authorised Version of the English Bible says that two of these coins were worth only a farthing (Mark 12, verse 42).

In a more recent translation, the Revised Standard Version published in 1952, the coins are stated to be worth a penny each. Either way, it is clear that they were worth very little indeed, even in their own day.

Jesus watched intently as various people placed gifts in the collecting boxes. Some put in a handful of coins, and were careful to be noticed as they did so. But Jesus saw one poor widow woman quietly drop in two of the little copper coins, or “mites.” (A “mite” was originally the name of a Flemish copper coin of low value.)

Turning to his friends, Jesus said, “I assure you that she has put in more than all these rich people, because what they gave they will never miss, but what she gave was the only money she had to live on.”

The Biblical Medes and Persians exemplified implacable inflexibilty

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Law, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 388 published on 21 June 1969.

Traffic warden, picture, image, illustration
Traffic wardens have become stereotypes of rigid inflexibility where the law is concerned

A motorist has pulled up on the side of the road marked with a yellow band. A Traffic Warden asks him politely but firmly to move on, and points to a vacant meter space nearby. The motorist tries to stay where he is. He only wants to stop a few minutes. The Warden insists that he can’t stay there, because if he does, he will be breaking the law.

“All right, all right!” mutters the driver. “But surely it’s not the law of the Medes and Persians, is it?”

Some laws are not always rigidly enforced. This strange phrase about the “Medes and Persians” refers to ones which are, and which allow no latitude at all.

The Bible, where the phrase is found, refers to “the law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not.” Once the king’s seal had been set upon any law in the ancient Persian kingdom, no one had the right to vary it in any way, nor to make exceptions to it.

The Jewish people had good reason to remember the rigidly severe laws of the Persian Empire, because for many years they were exiles from their homeland, forming what today we call a “minority” in the land of Babylon, which the Persians conquered. (The Medes, incidentally, were a people closely associated with the Persians.)

Under Persian rule, the Jews suffered many trials, particularly when one king tried to set himself above the invisible God to whom all the Jews were accustomed to pray. It was for continuing to pray to God instead of asking favours from the Persian king that the Jewish hero Daniel was imprisoned in a den of lions (from which he, nevertheless, emerged unharmed). The phrase in fact comes from the Book of Daniel (chapter 6, verses 8 and 15).

It occurs again in the strange and little-known Book of Esther (chapter 1, verses 19). This is another story of the time of the Jewish exiles in the Persian kingdom of the 6th century B.C.

Esther, a Jewish orphan, became the Persian king’s favourite. In order to save her people from a savage law which the king had been deceived into signing, and which permitted the massacre of all the Jews in his kingdom, she had to show great courage.

Risking the king’s displeasure, and her own punishment, she caught his attention and talked him into a plan by which she hoped to convince him of the evil intentions of his advisers.

By charm, tact – and a splendid dinner-party – Esther succeeded in persuading the king that the law against her people was unjust. The man responsible for advising him was punished, and the Jews were given the right to defend themselves against anyone who dared to attack them.

This was as far as even the king could go in altering a “law of the Medes and Persians” to which he had already put his official seal!

The prophet gains most credence and honour from complete strangers

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 387 published on 14 June 1969.

Jesus preaches in Nazareth, picture, image, illustration
Jesus's teaching rejected by his own townsfolk in Nazareth by William Hole

If you are ever given this title, it simply means that you are considered to be too well-known to the people you are dealing with for them to take much notice of you. Let us imagine you are a candidate for your local Council. If people remember you as a little boy with a scooter, or a little girl with a doll, it will be hard for them to think of you as a person of importance.

But why “a prophet without honour”?

Like many other picturesque phrases, this comes from the Bible. The expression was used by Jesus himself, but from the way he spoke, it seems it must have been familiar to his hearers already.

Jesus had just done the very thing we have been talking about. He came back to the town of Nazareth, where he had spent his childhood, and began to preach in the local synagogue. What he said made quite a stir, for he claimed that the promises made by one of the ancient prophets had come true that very day. He even seemed to be suggesting that he himself was the long-awaited “messiah”, or saviour, sent by God to be the leader of the Jewish nation.

This was more than his hearers could stand. Elsewhere, the words of this earnest and persuasive speaker made a great impression. People crowded to hear him, and even followed him out into the country, hoping to hear more. They brought sick people to him and, by laying his hands on them, Jesus healed a great many. But none of these things happened in his home town of Nazareth.

As the people in the synagogue there listened to the extraordinary claims Jesus was making, they began to whisper to one another, like this:

“Who is this man anyway? Where does he get it all?”

“Don’t you know? This is Jesus, the son of Joseph.”

The whispering grew to an angry buzz, and Jesus realised that the people of Nazareth were showing none of the faith in him that he had found in other villages of Galilee. So he challenged them with words that they had probably heard before.

“A prophet,” he said, “is not without honour, except in his own country, and among his own relations, and in his own home.”

He went on to tell them of other prophets who had been neglected or despised by those who knew them best. This made his hearers very angry. They stood up in the synagogue, grabbed hold of him, and hustled him outside. Some even wanted to kill him. They dragged him up to the brow of a hill and prepared to throw him headlong down a cliff. But he made them let him go, and went into hiding until the danger was over.

It is from this incident, recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter four (verses 16 to 30) that we have gained the phrase, “a prophet without honour.”