Subject: ‘Interesting Words’

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Sack-cloth and ashes

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Friday, 1 July 2016

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.

Origins of ‘pin money’

Posted in Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Language on Sunday, 31 January 2016

This edited article about pins originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 253 published on 19 November 1966.

pin money, picture, image, illustration

Pin Money – the first of two cartoons highlighting the different worlds of the rich and the poor

Pins of one sort or another have been holding clothes together for thousands of years. We know this for certain because, amongst the finds which archaeologists have dug up, pins appear again and again.

Many of the oldest ones are fatter and more lethal than anything we know now – almost like miniature daggers! In a Bronze Age grave, two pins for securing a robe were found, and they were twelve inches or more in length.

The Romans made many pins in both metal and bone. Most of them were quite plain, for everyday use, but some had ornately carved heads. On some a glass ball was clasped on to the top, or a carved hand stretched out its fingers; even human heads were carved on some, sporting elaborate hairstyles which must themselves have been secured by pins!

Beautiful medieval pins have been found, too, several with carved heads bearing crowns. Others can be seen in illustrated manuscripts.

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King John signing Magna Carta

Posted in Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Language, Law, Literature, Politics, Religion, Royalty on Sunday, 22 November 2015

Few moments in British history are as iconic and significant as the one depicted in this grand and beautifully composed history painting, which shows the beleaguered monarch bowing to the barons’ wishes and signing the most famous document in our national story. The gilded gothic canopy above the throne draws all our attention towards King John and his momentous act.

King John, picture, image, illustration

King John signing Magna Carta by Fortunino Matania

Many more pictures of Magna Carta can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The charming beginnings of Lewis Carroll’s Alice

Posted in Absurd, Children, Education, English Literature, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Leisure, Literature, Puzzle on Saturday, 21 November 2015

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an Oxford don and mathematics lecturer at Christ Church, whose friendship with the Dean of Christ Church’s children lead him to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Our charming and unusual picture, painted as if it were an old photograph, captures the very moment one summer day on the riverbank in Oxford, when Alice Liddell asked the young academic to tell her a story.

Alice, picture, image, illustration

How Alice Began by Neville Dear

Many more pictures of Lewis Carroll can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

London Smog in 1952

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, London, Medicine, Science, Transport on Friday, 20 November 2015

This very unusual picture is a remarkable depiction of the notorious London smog which was a lethal health hazard and a phenomenon of pollution, not an example of the famously bad English weather. A pedestrian is coughing, vehicles are spewing out their fumes and visibility is poor, while the overall colour matches the famous moniker for the London smog, namely “a pea-souper”.

London, picture, image, illustration

London Smog, 1952 by Andrew Howat

Many more pictures of London can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The best pictures of illuminated Initials

Posted in Art, Best pictures, Historical articles, History, Illustrators, Interesting Words, Language, Literature, Religion on Sunday, 23 August 2015

The best pictures of illuminated initials are elaborate artistic creations taken from manuscripts dating from as early as the Twelfth century.
The first picture shows an initial based on an example from the Fourteenth century.

Illumination, picture, image, illustration

An illuminated initial letter from the Fourteenth Century

The second picture shows historiated initials from an Eighth-century manuscript.

Manuscript, picture, image, illustration

Initials from an 8th-century illuminated manuscript (initiales historiees)

The third picture shows two initials based on examples from the Fourteenth century.

Illumination, picture, image, illustration

Illuminated initial letters from the Fourteenth Century

Many more pictures of lettering can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The best pictures of Nelson’s signal before Trafalgar

Posted in Best pictures, Famous battles, Flags, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Language, Sea, Ships, War on Monday, 17 August 2015

The best pictures of Nelson’s famous signal before Trafalgar show sailors arranging the signal flags for the most famous signal in Naval history.
The first picture shows the Admiral and his signallers.

Trafalgar, picture, image, illustration

Nelson's last signal before the Battle of Trafalgar: England expects that every man will do his duty.

The second picture shows Nelson discussing his signal with Lieutenant Pasco.

Trafalgar, picture, image, illustration

Admiral Nelson and Lieutenant Pasco discuss the signal before Trafalgar

The third picture shows the signal flags being run up.

Trafalgar, picture, image, illustration

Admiral Nelson watches Lieutenant Pasco run up the famous signal before Trafalgar by Peter Jackson

Many more pictures of the Battle of Trafalgar can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

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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